Problem of Universals: Realism vs. Nominalism

03.05.2015 |

Episode #4 of the course “Brief history of Medieval philosophy”

Debated at least since the days of Plato, the question known as the “problem of universals” reached a high point of discussion during the Middle Ages. The problem posits two theories about the nature of reality that oppose each other and argue the question of whether “universal” things are in fact “real.” The question is whether or not a property of something is “real.”

A property is an inherent quality or label that describes that thing. For example, all balls share the property of being shaped like a sphere. However, for properties that are not physical, observable, or measurable, philosophers debated whether the property was real. For an abstract property such as love, justice, or beauty, philosophers have disagreed throughout history about “realness”. For example, all laws are assumed to share the property of fairness, but do they? And is fairness “real”?

Realism is the philosophical position that posits that universals are just as real as physical, measurable material. Nominalism is the philosophical position that promotes that universal or abstract concepts do not exist in the same way as physical, tangible material. A debate that heavily influenced multiple areas of study throughout the Middle Ages, it was of specific importance for theological scholars. Questions about miracles, God’s love, and salvation were central in the minds of medieval philosophers, and they often supported their opinions very sternly—it was a matter of eternal truth. One of the most important realist philosophers of the Middle Ages was Thomas Aquinas, who argued an Aristotelian theory that essence and existence were clearly distinct. About two centuries later, William of Ockham was one of the most important High Middle Ages nominalist philosophers; he argued the extreme position for his day that universals are no more than psychological labels.


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