Now this criticism was rooted in the development towards individuals. This development became more and more the real power in the late medieval life. It was a change from the Greek mood and the medieval mood – the Greek feeling towards the world which starts with the negation of all individual things; the medieval which subordinated the individual to the collective. So it was not simply a logical play in which the nominalists won for the time being, but it was a change of the attitude towards reality in the whole society. You will find that nominalism and realism are discussed in books on the history of logic, and rightly so, but that does not give you the impression of what that means. This discussion was a discussion between two attitudes towards life. Today we discuss it in terms of collectivism and individualism. Of course the collectivism of the Middle Ages was only partly totalitarian; it was basically mystical. But this mystical collectivism – which is the Church as the body of Christ and as the mystical body, generally speaking – is something else from our present-day collectivism. But it is collectivism. And for this collectivism the realists fought; the nominalists dissolved it. And in the moment in which the success was on the side of the nominalists, the Middle Ages actually dissolved.
Then if this is the case if there are only individual things, what are the universals, according to Ockham? The universals are identical with the act of knowing, and as far as they are this they are natural, they rise in our minds, they must be used, otherwise we could not speak. He called them the universalia naturalia .
Beyond them are the words which are the symbols for these natural universals which we have in our mind. They are the conventional universals. Words can be changed; they are by convention. The word is universal because it can be said of different things. Therefore these people also were called “terminists” because they said the universals are merely “terms.” They were also called “conceptualists” because they said the universals are mere “concepts” but have no real power of being in themselves. The significance of a universal concept is that it indicates the similarity of different things – that’s all it can do, Now all this comes down to the point that only individual things have reality. Not man as man, but Paul and Peter and John have reality. Not treehood, but this tree here, on the corner of 116th and Riverside Drive, has reality, and the others on the other corners, too. We discover some similarity between them. Therefore we call them trees. But there is no such thing as treehood. — Now that is nominalistic thinking.
Now this was also applied to God. God is called by Ockham ens singularissimum , the most single being. I. e. , God has become an individual Himself. As such, He is separated from the other individuals, He looks at them and they look at Him. God is not in the center of everything any more, as He was in the Augustinian kind of thought, but He has been removed from this center into a special place distant from the things, just as man. I. e. , God Himself has become an individual. The individual things have become independent. The substantial presence of God in all of them doesn’t mean anything any more, because that presupposes some kind of mystical realism. Therefore God has to know the things, so to speak, empirically, from outside. He is in our situation. As man approaches the world empirically, because he is not the center any more, he doesn’t know anything immediately, he can only know empirically – so God knows everything empirically, but empirically not as before, by being in the center. God Himself has ceased to be the center in which all reality is united. He is no more center. The whole thing is a pluralistic philosophy in which there are many individual beings, of which God is one, although the most important one. In this way the unity of the things in God has come to an end. Their individual separation has the consequence that they cannot participate in each other immediately because each of them participates in a universal. The one tree does not participate in the other as it did before, when mystical realism gave them the universal treehood as the space in which they participated in each other. Community, as we had it in the Augustinian: type of thinking, is replaced by social relations, by society. We live today in the consequence of this nominalistic thinking, in a society in which we are related to each other in terms of cooperation and competition, but neither the one nor the other word means something of the type of participation. Community is a matter of participation. Society is a matter of common interests, of being separated from each other and working together with each other or against each other.