Realism versus Nominalism

During Abe- lard’s time, there was great debate over whether universals existed—that is, whether there really are essences such as “catness,” “humanness,” or something in common. Based on the commonali- ties, we form the concept of beauty. Thus, concepts summarize individual experiences (nominalism) but, once formed, concepts, in a sense, exist apart from the individual experiences upon which they were formed (realism). Radice (1974) summarizes Abelard’s conceptualism as follows: “Universals were neither realities nor mere names but the concepts formed by the intellect when abstract- ing the similarities between perceived individual things”.


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Abelard decided to open his own school, and as a teacher he displayed “a most amazing originality, vivacity and versatility”. Soon Abelard, or “Master Peter” as his students called him, was so famous a teacher that the classrooms of the older professors were essentially empty:

His eloquence, wit and power of lumi- nous exposition, his magnificent voice, noble bearing, and beauty of face and figure, his boldness in criticising the most venerable authorities and attempting a natural solution of the mysteries of faith: all combined to make him beyond com- parison the most popular teacher of his age.

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