The Cruelty of Nominalism (1)

Dollar BillRecently there has been considerable controversy generated in a university classroom where the prof required students to create a sign with the word “Jesus” on it and then to step on the same. One student, a Mormon, refused and was disciplined for his refusal. The governor of Florida became involved but apparently the teacher has not been sanctioned in any way.

Now it emerges that, in the instructor’s guide apparently used by college professors (really? When did university professors and graduate students begin using instructor’s guides? But I digress), the author asserts

This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.

This claim begins to explain, ahem, what is afoot. Why on earth would a university professor ask his class to do something so provocative and moreover why is it that, apparently, only one person objected to the exercise? The prof was catechising his pupils in the dominant religion of our late modern age and most of the students were either afraid of the academic consequences of disobedience or already agreed with the premise: nominalism, i.e., the relation between a sign (signum) and the thing signified (res signata) is actually arbitrary. The corollary to this now widely accepted premise says that anyone who asserts a stable relation between sign and thing signified is only covering up a will to power.

You know about this debate and you’ll recognize it when we consider it in more familiar terms. First the secular then, in the next post, the sacred. When you hand a dollar bill (if anyone still does that any more) to a clerk, she accepts that bill as a symbol of 100 pennies. Considered on its own, not as a symbol, the materials that make the dollar are not worth 100 pennies, especially if those are older pennies with copper (they are now made of zinc). Why, then, does the clerk accept the dollar as if it were worth 100 pennies? Because the government says it is worth 100 pennies. From the 1930s through the early 1970s there was some relation between the dollar and an actual valuable commodity, gold but that relationship ended and now the dollar is backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.” What that is worth is the subject of another post and perhaps another blog altogether.

Thus, in our current economy, when we hand a dollar bill to a clerk and he accepts it, we are practical nominalists. In that instance both clerk and customer assume the relation between the sign (the dollar bill) and the thing signified (100 pennies) is the result of a convention or agreement. We agree that the dollar is worth 100 pennies even though the dollar bill, considered as a commodity, is not actually worth 100 pennies.  Theoretically, the dollar bill could be worth 50 pennies or 1000 pennies. The relation between them is arbitrary.

In the pre-modern era, we exchanged commodities. If one wanted something of value, one had to exchange something of equal or greater value but trading chickens across a counter became burdensome. Thus, we “rationalized” the economy, we substituted signs for the thing signified. Typically, however, we understood that there was a stable relation between the sign (a coin) and the thing signified or the coin might actually be made of valuable commodities (e.g., gold or silver). Put in medieval theological and philosophical terms, prior to the 1930s we tended to be realists when it came to money. We understood a close relation between the coin and what the coin represents. Since the early 1970s, however, we have become nominalists. We have agreed to a more fluid or even arbitrary relation between coin and commodity.

I’m not an economist nor do I play on television nor am I a “gold bug” exactly. I understand that there were certain deficiencies with the gold standard but there were also certain advantages. The main point here is to come to a clearer understanding of what nominalism and what its consequences are. My thesis is that many of us living in the late modern world, particularly those who are 30 and under, are nominalists and we do not realize it. Those who are over thirty are more likely to assume a more stable relation between signs and things signified, i.e., they tend to more realist in the the way they relate signs and thing signified. They tend to be less suspicious of assertions that “this is true.” To those 30 and under, the assertion that one proposition is true and the other false is more likely to ring hollow and raise suspicion that the person making the claim is really hiding an ulterior agenda. They are suspicious about truth claims because they already assume that the relation between signs (e.g., words) and things signified (e.g., truth) is fluid or non-existent.

Consider how the argument is being mediated to you: a computer. What is a computer? It is a glorified adding machine fiddling with zeroes and ones. Why zeroes and ones? Some decided to do it that way. It’s arbitrary. It could be ones and twos. Why is the keyboard the way it is? It’s arbitrary. There were other keyboards. Why are stop lights red, yellow, and green? It’s arbitrary. Things could be other than they are. Growing up in a fluid world, which Zygmunt Baumann has described as “liquid modernity” has created a generation of skeptics and doubters.

Scott Jaschik, who wrote on this controversy today, points out that the instructor’s guide does not say to “stomp on Jesus” but misses the point. He begs the question (assumes what has to be proved) and accepts the reigning nominalism, that there is no relation between the sign and the thing signified or that the relation is purely arbitrary. Juan Williams at Fox News does the same from an even more emotive, subjectivist perspective. The objection, that students were required to step on a sign and not on the thing signified, misunderstands the outcry (which is probably coming mostly from those over 30 and probably mostly over 40). Everyone can see that a sign is not the thing signified but we cannot simply assume, as Jaschik does (and as Jim Neuliep, the author of the instructor’s guide does), that the relation is purely arbitrary or that there is no relation at all. Note that Juliep has been leading this exercise for 30 years. That is significant because it is in that same time span that the radical decoupling of signs from the things signified has penetrated the broader, popular culture, including evangelical and Reformed communions.

Next time: An example from the sacred.


  1. From a Psychological perspective, what I am notice is happening more and more in schools is the exercise of all-or-nothing thinking by those in authority. This might explain why students are disciplined for the most trivial of reasons because those in authority cannot distinguish the trivial action from their concern or sensitivity. Note that one student was suspended from school for chewing a pastry into the shape of a gun and yelling “bang, bang.” He was charged with threatening other students (

    Here, the reasoning by like-minded professors is that since the symbol is not the thing, it has no relation.

    So it is tough here to distinguish why the professor used this highly inappropriate exercise. Was it because of the thinking patterns that prevent him from making distinctions or because a more religious/philosophical philosophy?

  2. I’d like to see this professor try the same exercise in his class but substitute the word “Muhammed” (or “Ghandi,” or “Martin Luther King,” or the name of some popular gay celebrity) and see if that would fly. It would be interesting how many of his students would protest the exercise in such circumstances, and whether the university administration would defend the nutty professor.

  3. Oh yes, let’s see them do the exercise at a historically black college with King’s name or “Rosa Parks”; let them do it at the high schools in South L.A. I wonder if the L.A. riots, at least on a small scale, would repeat?

    If they used “Muhammad”, would we end up with the President condemning the action, the US military asking for it to be stopped, the local police visiting the college and arresting people on unrelated issues (no, the ACLU may step in), and the Secretary of State and US generals apologizing in the Middle East? A part of me would like to see many college professors left alone to demonstrate their solidarity with some in the Middle East.

  4. That’s a very educational comment thread on the First Things link. I have found out about persecution of Roman Catholics in Japan, done by “fumi-e”, which involved requiring suspected Roman Catholics to step on an icon (normally of Christ or the mother of our Lord). Those who refused would be tortured and killed; those who agreed would be left to go.

    And I learn that this persecution is referenced in Gulliver’s Travels, which carries the intriguing suggestion that Dutch merchants were very relaxed about trampling on a crucifix. I wonder if that was an accurate commentary, and if so whether it was out of anti-Romanism: I’m not sure I could bring myself to do it, even though I object to crucifixes as contrary to God’s commandment.

  5. Just finished reading this one. Excellent!

    Though, I would argue, there is one part that needs alteration. From the sixth paragraph:

    “They are suspicious about truth claims because they already assume that the relation between signs (e.g., words) and things signified (e.g., truth) is fluid or non-existent.”

    Though there is truth to this, I would say that the “suspicion” is rather more of a “paranoid skepticism” that comes more from having been duped, and/or knowing others who have been duped, by “con men (originally: confidence man)” who have utilized “signs” as misdirection in order to make a switch. So that those things that are signified are replaced with something that is in actuality, empty and meaningless. I think this can be readily seen in cultic works (ie: Mormons) the utilization of commonly accepted terms (eg: Grace, Atonement, Salvation) but with different definitions.

    In essence, what I am trying to get at (and I need to emphasize that there is truth to the original statement) and reason for bringing up what I have, is that I don’t know that I would say that this is just a mere “assumption” of a fluid or non existing relationship. Rather, it is an inherited fear that has, and is, been socialized into succeeding generations.

    In all reality, I’m just being nit-picky and nuanced; and in the end I might be just straining at a gnat with this one. However, I have the stomach flu and nothing else to do.

    Anyways, thanks for the series of articles on this topic. It’s something that I am presently reading about in Philip Rieff’s book, “My Life Among the Deathworks.”

    God bless,
    Mark II

Comments are closed.