In an article I wrote for the Colson Center earlier in the year, I pointed out that vision of the medieval realists was one in which everything in the cosmos portended ultimate significance and in which our images of things were posterior to how things really were in actuality. Thomas Howard summed this vision up in his Chance or the Dance? The medieval vision, he suggests,
“read vast significance into everything. Nature and politics and animals and sex — these were all exhibitions in their own way of the way things are. This mind fancied that everything meant everything, and that it all rushed up finally to heaven. We have an idea of royalty, this mind said, which we observe in our politics and which we attribute to lions and eagles, and we have this idea because there is a great King at the top of things, and he has set things thus so that our fancies will be drawn toward his royal Person, and we will recognize the hard realities of which the stuff of our world has been a poor shadow when we stumble into his royal court…. This mind saw things as images because it saw correspondences running in all directions among things. That is, the world was not a random tumble of things all appearing separately, jostling one another and struggling helter-skelter for a place in the sun. On the contrary, one thing signaled another.”
By contrast, William of Ockham and his fellow nominalists challenged this ecosystem of symbols and denied the existence of universals. For them the world essentially became a random tumble of particulars, all appearing separately. Though we can look back and see in nominalism the roots of modern materialism, the original nominalists saw themselves as magnifying God.
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