Question 2: Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?

The PhilPapers Survey was a survey of professional philosophers and others on their philosophical views, carried out in November 2009. The Survey was taken by 3226 respondents, including 1803 philosophy faculty members and/or PhDs and 829 philosophy graduate students.

The PhilPapers Metasurvey was a concurrent survey of professional philosophers and others concerning their predictions of the results of the Survey. The Metasurvey was taken by 727 respondents including 438 professional philosophers and PhDs and 210 philosophy graduate students. (

The PhilPapers Survey never asked me for my philosophical views, but that’s not stopping me. So here is my stab at the survey, one post at a time.

Question Two

The Question:

Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?

Accept or lean toward: Platonism 366 / 931 (39.3%)
Accept or lean toward: nominalism 351 / 931 (37.7%)
Other 214 / 931 (22.9%)

How I’d answer: Other.

I take Platonism to be the position that abstract objects are not only real, but the most real things that exist.  Particular things are less real than the forms.

I take nominalism to be the position that abstract objects are names that we give to identify similarities amongst particulars.  The abstraction doesn’t really exist in the object and it is only a useful fiction that we use in order to speak of individual things as if they belong to sets of things.

This was a hard question to answer for me.  I do think too many abstractions are reified without good reason (The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness).  At the same time, I don’t want to say that ALL abstractions are mere names that we use as linguistic shorthand to refer to particulars.

In truth, I think I lean towards Aristotelianism, as a middle road between Plato and Ockham.  As Peter Kreeft puts it:

Forms exist in the world only in individual things, by they exist in our minds as universal concepts when out minds abstract them from things.1

It seems to me that if nominalism is true, then our way of speaking is almost always false–and that just doesn’t seem right to me.  Or, to put this a bit differently, if language is able to express truth at all, nominalism must be false.  But, we cannot swing out to the other extreme of Platonism!  I am satisfied with the idea that forms really are in particular objects and that they are abstracted into universals that are real mental objects.

How would you answer this question?

1 Kreeft, P. (2005) Socratic logic: a logic text using Socratic method, platonic questions, and Aristotelian Principles. 2nd ed. Ed. T. Dougherty. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press. 43.

Posted on July 29, 2011, in PhilPaper Survey and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I take the “other” as some sort of Wittgensteinian route where one doesn’t have to go through the Platonic or nominalist views by suggesting that language gets us into the mess of realism or nominalism.

    • ::Points to finger and thumb:: Not the same.

    • So this is a problem with the survey. I would take Aristotelianism as distinct from Platonism and nominalism. I would accept Wittgenstein’s anti-essentialism as another alternative too. However, I am sure there are people who might count Wittgenstein among the nominalists or Aristotelianism among the Platonists. So the results might be a bit skewed.

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