Literary nominalism


Literary nominalism is a paradigm of thought that is interested in the interconnections between certain aspects of nominalist philosophy and theology and works of literature.

History of the termEdit

While the presence of nominalist ideas in fiction and poetry has been discussed by scholars at least since the nineteenth century, the paradigm was first consolidated in 1985 in an essay by Joseph Quack who called the German modernist writer Alfred Andersch a "literary nominalist".[1] In 1991, Richard Utz applied the paradigm to Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, claiming that the late medieval English writer might show correspondences with the wave of anti-realist/nominalist thought engendered by William of Ockham and his intellectual contemporaries and successors, and coining the paradigm "literary nominalism" in the process.[2] Since the early 1990s, various scholars have added their voices to the discussion of the paradigm, either to confirm or critique its value for literary studies. Various other terms, especially Ockhamism, have also been used especially in claims for the influence of William of Ockham on individual writers and their works.[3] Prior to Quack and Utz, Umberto Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose (1980; English translation in 1983), had rekindled interest in the conflict between late medieval nominalism and realism. Eco's playful and ironic confrontation of both movements of thought questioned the somewhat simplistic separation present in mainstream histories of philosophy and theology.[4]

Main featuresEdit

Among the specific features writers of nominalism writers have found attractive for their practices are:

  • the construction of a narrative that centers on the ontological status of universals and particulars (with a preference for the latter);
  • the focus on the radical contingency of language (confirming that there is nothing except names);
  • the challenging of allegorical (hence: Neoplatonic 'realist') forms of narrative, character, and argument;
  • the experimentation with non-conclusive, contingent, indeterminate, and fragmentary poetic structures;
  • the likening of the relationship between the God's absolute and ordinate powers on the one hand, and God and humanity, rulers, subjects, and authors on the other.[5]

Most discussions of literary nominalism center on the late medieval period and early modern periods, when many of the epistemological foundations of Neoplatonic realism were challenged. The majority of such discussions of literary nominalism have centered on the works of Geoffrey Chaucer,[6] but also included Jean Molinet,[7] the Pearl Poet,[8] François Rabelais,[9] John Skelton,[10] Julian of Norwich,[11] Chrétien de Troyes,[12] the York and Townely Plays,[13] Renaissance plays,[14] Jonathan Swift,[15] Miguel de Cervantes,[16] and John Milton.[17] A famous postmodern writer, Jose Luis Borges, took an inimical stand towards nominalism in his short story, "Funes the Memorious."[18]


  1. ^ Joseph Quack, "Alfred Andersch: Ein literarischer Nominalist,” Neue Deutsche Hefte 32.4 (1985), 717–32.
  2. ^ Richard Utz, Literarischer Nominalismus im Spätmittelalter. Eine Untersuchung zu Sprache, Charakterzeichnung und Struktur in Geoffrey Chaucers Troilus and Criseyde (Frankfurt: Lang, 1990).
  3. ^ Helen Ruth Andretta, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde: A Poet's Response to Ockhamism (New York: Lang, 1999).
  4. ^ Teresa Coletti. Naming the Rose: Eco, Medieval Signs, and Modern Theory. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.
  5. ^ Richard Utz, "Literary Nominalism," in: Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages, ed. Robert Bjork (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  6. ^ William H. Watts and Richard J. Utz, "Nominalist Influence on Chaucer's Poetry: A Bibliographical Essay," Medievalia & Humanistica 20 n.s. (1993), 147–73
  7. ^ Randall, Michael. "Reversed Analogy in Jean Molinet's Chappellet des Dames: Edgar Laird, Cosmic Law and Literary Character in Chaucer's 'Knight's Tale'," in: Literary Nominalism and the Rereading of Late Medieval Texts: A New Research Paradigm, ed. Richard Utz (Lewiston, NJ: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995), pp. 81–100. .
  8. ^ J. F. McNamara, J.F. "Responses to Ockhamist Theology in the Poetry of the Pearl Poet, Langland, and Chaucer." PhD diss., Louisiana State University, 1968).
  9. ^ Ullrich Langer, "Charity and the Singular: The Object of Love in Rabelais,” in: Nominalism and Literary Discourse, ed. Hugo Keiper, Richard J. Utz, and Christoph Bode (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1997), pp. 217–35.
  10. ^ J. Stephen Russell, "Skelton's Bowge of Court: A Nominalist Allegory," Renaissance Papers 2 (1980), 1–9.
  11. ^ Jay Ruud, "Julian of Norwich and the Nominalist Questions," in: Literary Nominalism and the Rereading of Late Medieval Texts, ed. Richard J. Utz (Lewiston, NJ: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995), 31–49.
  12. ^ Gerald Gerald. "Signs of a New Literary Paradigm: The ‘Christian’ Figures of Chrétien de Troyes,” in: Nominalism and Literary Discourse, ed. Hugo Keiper, Richard J. Utz, and Christoph Bode ( Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1997), pp. 87–109.
  13. ^ William F. Munson, "Self, Action, and Sign in the Towneley and York Plays on the Baptism of Christ and in Ockhamist Salvation Theology," in: Nominalism and Literary Discourse, ed. Hugo Keiper, Christoph Bode, and Richard Utz (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997), 191–216.
  14. ^ Susanne Fendler, “The Emancipation of the Sign: The Changing Significance of Beauty in Some English Renaissance Plays,” in: Nominalism and Literary Discourse, ed. Hugo Keiper, Richard J. Utz, and Christoph Bode (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1997), 269–82.
  15. ^ Nicholas Hudson, "'Gulliver's Travels' and Locke's Radical Nominalism." 1650–1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era 1 (1994), 247–66.
  16. ^ Andreas Mahler, "Don Quixote, Hamlet, Foucault – Language, 'Literature', and the Losses of Analogism," in: Nominalism and Literary Discourse, ed. Hugo Keiper, Richard J. Utz, and Christoph Bode, (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1997), 251–68.
  17. ^ Catherine Gimelli Martin, "'Boundless the Deep': Milton, Pascal, and the Theology of Relative Space," English Literary History 63, no.1 (1996), 45–78.
  18. ^ Jon Stewart, "Borges' Refutation of Nominalism in 'Funes el memorioso'," Variaciones-Borges 2 (1996), 68–86.

References and further readingEdit

  • Christoph Bode, “A Modern Debate over Universals? Critical Theory vs.‘Essentialism’,” The European Legacy 2.2 (1997), 229–37.
  • John D. Cox, “Nominalist Ethics and the New Historicism,” Christianity and Literature 39.2 (1990), 127–39.
  • Robert S. Dupree, “Coleridge, Peirce, and Nominalism,” in: Semiotics, ed. C.W. Spinks and John Deely (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), pp. 233–41.
  • Miguel-Angel Garrido-Gallardo, “Nominalismo y literatura,” Anthropos: Revista de Documentacion Cientifica de la Cultura 129 (1992), 55–58.
  • Jens F. Ihwe, Eric Vos, and Heleen Pott, Worlds Made from Words: Semiotics from a Nominalistic Point of View. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, Department of General Literary Studies, 2002.
  • Arild Linneberg and Geir Mork, “Antinomies of Nominalism: Postmodernism in Norwegian Fiction of the 1980s,” in: Postmodern Fiction in Europe and the Americas, ed. Theo D’haen and Hans Bertens (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988), pp. 45–62.
  • Richard Utz and Terry Barakat, "Medieval Nominalism and the Literary Questions: Selected Studies." Perspicuitas
  • Richard Utz, "Literary Nominalism," in: Oxford Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Ed. Robert E. Bjork. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Vol. III, p. 1000.