[4.18.6] William Ockham on Universals

William Ockham (1285-1349 AD), in the treatise Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard presents an extremely nominalist standpoint in the medieval controversy about universals, namely: universals are in the mind and are ony concepts. 

Here are Ockham’s responses to Porphyry’s questions (see [2.5]):

Porphyry’s questionsUniversals according to Ockham
(a) whether genera and species [universals] are real or are situated in bare thoughts aloneare situated in thoughts alone
(b) whether as real they are bodies or incorporealsare incorporeals
(c) whether they are separated or in sensibles (individuals) and have their reality in connection with themthey are separated

The following OntoUML diagram presents Ockhams’s model of universals:

Ockham on universals
TermIn the sentence ‘Socrates is a man’Socrates‘ is the subject and ‘is a man’ the predicate.
“Ockham thinks that, on the contrary […], what is predicated is not any real universal at all, but simply a common term. For Ockham, there is a sharp distinction between ontology and language. For him, there is none of this real predication stuff that we saw discussed (and rejected, at least for universals) by Abelard, and saw accepted by both Avicenna and Scotus.
For Ockham, what is predicated is simply a term, a piece of language.
A term is individual just like anything else, metaphysically speaking. But it is ‘common’ or ‘universal’ in the sense that it stands for many things, or as Ockham says, ‘supposits’ for many things.”
Terms can be mental (concepts), spoken or written.
DefinitionTerms have definition: “Ockham has a theory of definition, developed in his Summa logicae and elsewhere, according to which terms are defined, not things.”characterizes Term
Concept“Ockham holds that it is indeed true, as Aristotle had said, that science deals with universals. But the only universals there are for Ockham are universal terms, and primarily terms in mental language or thought — which is to say, primarily concepts.”subkind of Term
UniversalUniversals (genus, species) are concepts. subkind of Concept

Related posts in theory of Universals: [1.2.2][1.3.1][1.3.2][2.5][2.7.3][4.3.1][4.3.2][4.4.1][4.5.2][4.9.8][4.11], [4.15.6], [4.18.8]


  • All citations from: Spade, Paul Vincent, “History of the Problem of Universals in the Middle Ages”, Indiana University 2009

First published: 2/12/2021

3 thoughts on “[4.18.6] William Ockham on Universals

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