greengang asked: I'm confused by certain parts of your "Modern Isolation" piece: "Basically, nominalism relocates meaning and logic to the human mind, which gives Ockham’s God the power to change reality at will". In particular, I don't understand what part of it, as opposed to the voluntaristic approach, is responsible for this effect. I'm also a little confused on what the will -is- and how it is defined in this context. What are some articles/readings I could do on these?

Thanks for your interest in our post.

With that comment about nominalism, our writer was referring to the differences between Ockhamist and Aristotelian understandings of universals. Aristotle is a “moderate realist”: he believes that universals are within nature, independent of any mind. Humans merely discover them. Even if there were no humans, universals and their logical connections would still exist. Scotus’s voluntarism alone was not enough to break these connections, because they were considered to be necessary: they were truths that could not be otherwise, even if God willed it. In order to make universals pliable, Ockham, as a nominalist, tells us that universals do not exist in nature. Rather, they are part of language—beginning with mental language. If humans and their languages went out of existence, then so too would universals. 

In conclusion: Aristotle believes that universals begin in nature; Ockham believes that they begin in the human mind, which projects them on to nature. (It should be reiterated, though, that humans for Ockham must experience particular beings before their minds can fabricate universal concepts.) More information on Aristotle’s moderate realism may be found in our past articles “Notes on will" and "The why-how distinction”. The best contemporary technical text on the system and its rivals is David S. Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.

As for the will, it was also discussed in “Notes on will”. In brief, philosophers from Aristotle through Descartes considered it to be an immaterial force that exerted control over the body. However, even contemporary materialists and determinists hold views that were influenced by voluntarism. For more detailed looks at voluntarism and its importance, we recommend Michael Allen Gillespie’s Nihilism Before Nietzsche and The Theological Origins of Modernity. Both books analyze Ockham’s ideas and trace their movement in the centuries after his death.

We hope that this was helpful.


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