Nominalist Things


GRETEL: I don’t like his manner.

KURT: His attitude worries me.

LISEL: I am troubled by a general air of foreboding.

MARIA: Yes, children: my life is also, on occasion, clouded by manners, attitudes and airs of foreboding.

BRIGITA: So what do you do about it?

MARIA: Why, I simply think of nominalistically respectable things instead.

VON TRAPP CHILDREN (together): Nominalistically respectable things? What are they?

MARIA: Well, let me explain …

Properties, counterparts, tropes and relations,
Promises, lies and confused explanations,
Numbers and rhomboids, and this very list:
These are all items which do not exist.

Space-time and classes and Beethoven’s seventh,
Earthquakes and sets and July the eleventh,
Are, like the flutter of butterflies’ wings,
Nominalistically dubious things …

In my calm and
Lucid moments,
When I’m feeling fine,
I scorn the existence of all of this stuff,
I talk about all the time.

MARIA: Come on children, tell me some nominalistically respectable things.

KURT (doubtfully): Er … stones? Concrete?

LISEL (even more doubtfully): Electrons?

MARIA: Well uh yes, but there’s much more to it than that …

Raindrops and temporal slices of kittens,
Every third stitch in a pair of red mittens,
Mereological bundles of string:
These are all perfectly reasonable things.

Barmaids and walnuts and sand that’s been hosed off,
Silver and gold and the fusion composed of
Alpha Centuri and Hitler’s left knee:
All of these objects are okay by me …

Things substantial,
Made of matter:
They are better, far,
Than some abstract nonsense but one step removed
From Rorty and Derrida.

FRIDERIC: Exoskeletons!

KURT: Time-slices of undetatched heads!

LISEL (getting carried away): Statues of rottweilers! Dragons!


MARIA: It’s all right, children! One need have no quarrel with dragons, qua nominalist! The number two would be a far greater stain on the world’s ontological purity than a mere dragon!

Hobbits and wizards and weapons enchanted:
Towering trees which Galadriel planted,
Rhinemaidens, giants and Nibelung rings:
These are a few of my favourite things.

Underground kingdoms and magical potions,
Atomless matter and bottomless oceans:
Though they’re not terribly easy to find,
Nominalistically, no-one should mind.

Can you touch it?
When you hit it,
Does it make a “ping”?
If you answered “yes”, then, by golly, it’s real:
It gets to be called a THING.

copyright Henry Fitzgerald, 1996

This version is the original, from Henry’s web site. It was reprinted in Analysis, 2003;63:170—171. I think the two versions are identical … but as a nominalist Henry might not agree. e