Concepts in the mind such as society can thus have an impact on the real, sensory world but they do not have an independent, tangible or ideal existence. The one exception to Abelards nominalism is the category of “human beings, whose forms are their immaterial (and immortal) souls. Strictly speaking, since human souls are capable of existence in separation form the body, they are not forms after all, though they act as substantial forms as long as they are joined to the body” (King 2004). Through this idea, Abelard strove to reconcile Christianity with nominalism and to elevate the human being.
The other great medieval nominalist of note is William Ockham. Ockham also subscribed to the Aristotelian ontology of realist empiricism, believing that universal essences “are nothing more than concepts in the mind” and no innate ideas exist apart from the mind (Kaye 2007). “The defense of nominalism undertaken by the 14th-century English Scholastic philosopher William of Ockham prepared the way for various modern nominalistic theories such as those of instrumentalism, pragmatism, semantics, and logical positivism” (Rausch 2010). Ockham, like Abelard, defended the reality of “individual substances and qualities” not abstractions (Rausch 2010).
In his epistemology, Ockham defended direct realist empiricism, according to which human beings perceive objects through “intuitive cognition,” without the help of any innate ideas pre-existing within the structure of the mind, as asserted in Platonism. Ockhams writings suggest the blank slate of the human mind gives rise to all of our abstract concepts and provides us with knowledge of the world, not something that exists in our minds innately (Kaye 2007). Four steps existed in cognition, according to Ockham. The first, sensory cognition: receiving data through the five senses, is shared between humans and animals. The second, is an awareness and a perception of individual qualities in the world called intuitive cognition. “The third step is recordative cognition, by which we remember past perceptions. The fourth step is abstractive cognition, by which we place individuals in groups of similar individuals” (Kaye 2007).
Such a creation of abstractions, however, is the product of the human mind alone, not an awareness of preexisting categories.
Realists had always maintained that “you perceive an apple as an apple because the apples universal essence of appleness is conveyed to you through its intelligible species” and preexisting categorical notions common to all humans of the Platonic ideal of an apple (Kaye 2007). Ockham asserted that while individuals within the same society may share similar abstractions as a part of culture, these abstractions are not created because of mental, preexisting categories or the existence of some Platonic apple. Ultimately, all perceptions are located in specificity. The human mind is a powerful machine and capable of sorting data to become more efficient, but this facility is not proof of the independent existence of abstractions (Kaye 2007).
As Abelard stated that abstract words are created by humans, Ockham stressed that categories for objects, linguistic and otherwise, are human-generated, not eternal. Thus, they could be faulty and based upon incorrect sensory data. Abelards philosophy paved the way for postmodern notions of language which suggested that ideas we take for granted as real such as gender, are constructed notions, and Ockhams notions reinforced the idea that the process of empirical observation is a human one, and potentially faulty as it is not based in pre-existing Platonic ideals in the mind. Religion for Ockham was a leap of faith, while scientific and logical analysis was germane to the human world of the senses alone.
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Kaye, Sharon. “Ockham, William of.” January 3, 2007. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. May 11, 2010.
King, Peter. “Peter Abelard.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2004.
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Rausch, D .A. Elwell. “Nominalism.” Evangelical Dictionary. May 11, 2010.