Difference Between Realism and Nominalism

When we speak of epistemology or the study of knowledge, we cannot fail to mention realism and nominalism. These philosophies were exposed by thinkers such as Plato, Hume, Heraclitus, Aristotle, Kant; among others, and even today they remain a subject of philosophical debate.

As philosophical doctrines, these positions sought to explain how human beings perceive reality and if what we call reality can really be perceived. These questions are very relevant to understand issues associated with perception, language and the existence or not of universals.

Although it is true that realism, it was not because of his proposal that was most opposed to nominalism; since universalism was , it cannot be denied that these two doctrines had a great impact on and influenced great philosophers . For this reason, it is important to understand their differences.

Here we explain what is the difference between nominalism and realism.

NOMINALISM  Difference Between Realism and Nominalism

For nominalists, the names we give to things are just general words that do not represent existing objects; that is, there are no universals (concepts or general mental representations by means of which we represent the particular things of reality) and what we believe to be reality is nothing more than a result of language.

There are two main versions of nominalism, one that denies the certainty of universal things that can be explained with examples of particular things (for example , force, humanity ) and another version that denies the existence of abstract objects , which do not exist. in space – time .

According to nominalists, only physical particulars in space – time are real and universals are posterior to particulars. Therefore, they deny the existence of universals and affirm that the things we perceive exist as particular forms.

Universal:  they refer to the way in which we conceptualize and group things according to qualities they share. For example, if we say that candy, fruit juice, and ice cream are sweet; It is because these elements (which are different) share the universal sweet.

For nominalists, there are no concepts that underlie reality, there are simply the phenomena in front of us. In other versions or aspects of nominalism, certain terms are accepted as abstract entities (for example, numbers) and others as concrete entities, because they exist in space-time (for example, tables, chairs).


Realists follow the tendency to see and represent things “as they really are.” Generally, they state that universals exist outside of the mind, that is, they are not purely abstract.

The representatives of this philosophical doctrine argue that all things that share the same property are classified in the same universal way. For example, the red of traffic lights, apples and roses would be a universal; since we are all supposed to have the red concept in our mind.

Also, the realists affirm that human beings have the capacity to generalize things; so we have the idea of ​​a cow without imagining a cow and they consider that there is an underlying concept for this.

They affirm that for something to exist in language there must be some universality in the phenomenon.

Ultimately, nominalists focus on what is perceived to exist in reality; while realists see perceived objects as the manifestation of a universal concept.

Difference between realism and nominalism

  • For nominalists there are general and abstract terms and predicates, but there are no universals or abstract objects; while realism affirms that objects exist independently of how they are perceived.
  • Nominalists believe that general and abstract terms are real, while realists believe that objects are real.
  • Realists accept the existence of universals, while nominalists deny it.
  • For nominalists, concrete and abstract entities exist in space-time; whereas for the realists the universal entities exist in the space-time where they are manifested.
  • For nominalists there is no concept of reality, while realists do believe in an independent reality.

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