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Realism and Nominalism


The Philosophical DictionaryRealism

    . Belief that universals exist independently of the particulars that instantiate them. Realists hold that each general term signifies a real feature or quality, which is numerically the same in all the things to which that term applies. Thus, opposed to nominalism.


    . Belief that only particular things exist, as opposed to realism. Nominalists hold that a general term or name {Lat. nomine} is applied to individuals that resemble each other, without the need of any reference to an independently existing universal.

WikipediaScientific Realism

    . Scientific realism is a view in the philosophy of science about the nature of scientific success, an answer to the question "what does the success of science involve?" The debate over what the success of science involves centers primarily on the status of unobservable entities (objects, processes and events) apparently talked about by scientific theories. Roughly put, scientific realism is the thesis that the unobservable things talked about by science are little different from ordinary observable things (such as tables and chairs).


    . The American Heritage® Dictionary, Fourth Edition, defines nominalism as 'the doctrine holding that abstract concepts, general terms, or universals have no independent existence but exist only as names.' Nominalism has also been defined as a philosophical position that various objects labeled by the same term have nothing in common but their name. In this view, it is only actual physical particulars that can be said to be real and universals exist only post res, that is, subsequent to particular things. (Feibleman 1962).
    Nominalism is best understood in contrast to realism. Philosophical realism holds that when we use descriptive terms such as "green" or "tree," the Forms of those concepts really exist, independently of the world in an abstract realm. Such thought is associated with Plato, for instance. Nominalism, by contrast, holds that ideas represented by words have no real existence beyond our imaginations.


    Here, realism refers to the idea that abstract concepts are real in their consequences. Thus, although one cannot see, touch, feel, taste, or hear "family," a realist would argue that family exists because members of families hold similar attitudes and behave in similar manners. Importantly, each member feels a connection to their family and responds accordingly. Even after their parents have passed away, for example, siblings often compete for the affections of their parents. Nominalists, on the other hand, raise concerns that abstract concepts might become


    , or taken too literally without recognizing that the name applied to a collection of individuals or events is, in fact, a social construction.


Diana L. Ascher, PhD, MBA, is a principal at Stratelligence and a co-founder of the Information Ethics & Equity Institute. Her lifelong interest in knowledge and decision making has focused on the evaluation, classification, organization, communication, and interpretation of information, and motivates her work in the fields of behavioral science, finance, higher education, information studies, journalism, law, leadership, management, medicine, and policy. She brings more than two decades of experience as a writer, editor, media director, and information strategist to her work.

DianaRealism and Nominalism