Nominalism is a theological tradition that arose in the middle ages whose main tenant was a denial of universals. To reject universals had serious implications at the time. Up to this point, Greek philosophy had significantly influenced Christian theology. Form, as inherited from classical philosophy, constituted the very essence of being. Plotinus illustrates how form constituted the very cosmos: “All this universe is held fast by forms from beginning to end: matter first of all by the forms of the elements, and then other forms upon these, and then again others; so that it is difficult to find the matter hidden under so many forms. Then matter, too, is a sort of ultimate form: so this universe is all form, and all things in it are forms; for its archetype is form.” Form was understood to be universal.
The assimilation of form into Christianity was not remarkably difficult given that form was divine and divine was form. The problem that arose, however, originated in a self-sufficient God that destroyed the self-sufficiency of the Greek formal cosmos. The re-integration arose whereby nature depends on God for its being and existence. Surprisingly, within a Christianity based on God’s visible appearance, Christ as the unique appearance of God in nature was de-emphasised.
During the course of the Christian tradition, the unique human nature of the single individual Christ was brought to the front of thought. If the particularity of the person was divine, then the primary significance of individual form no longer consists in disclosing a universal reality beyond itself. The universal itself ultimately refers to the singular.
Subsequently, the assumption inherited from Greek philosophy that the cosmos was intrinsically intelligible to the mind, (although dependant on God), is lost. Again, suprisingly, a return to classical notions of a self-suffient cosmos was not to be. Instead, the absence of universals and forms is what characterises nominalism. In late medieval theology, the distance between mind and reality finds a prominent articulation. No longer are nature and mind presupposed to be united, even potentially.
Humanism can be seen to spring from the same cultural process. With the emphasis of the individual Christ, do we find it appropriate for the first time to accept human as divine and as a source of concentration.