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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: April 12, 2004
Latest Update: April 12, 2004

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Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, April 2004.
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Check out "nominal" in the Merriam-Webster dictionary online.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary Search:

Check it out in the Free Dictionary online. The Free Dictionary Notice the relationship to naming, which should ring a bell for you from statistics. Nominal data is data that can be broken into named categories only, not hierarchized. Like Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Independents. Remember?

Now read this post from a philosophy discussion group: Posted by JT Paasch on May 18, 19102 at 20:55:24:

"In Reply to: "Real" vs. "Nominal" Definitions in Ockham posted by Chad Trainer on December 15, 1999 at 10:04:28:

Ockham speaks of how "properly speaking, nothing definable by a real definition has a nominal definition." (Quodlibeta VII 5, 20). What is meant by this statement? Indeed, for Ockham, specifically, what difference could there be between a "real definition" and a "nominal definition"?

I see it's been a long time since this was posted, but I chanced across it and thought I'd add an answer, just in case this question has cost you years of precious sleep, driving you into a fit of insomniac insanity. :)

Think of a "real definition" as the meaning which is inherent in a word. Take, for example, the clic mediaeval sentence: "Man is a rational animal". The notion of "rational animal" is implicit in the definition of "man" (since mediaevals defined a human as a rational animal), so this sentence is basically redundant. This is an example of a "real definition".

A "nominal" definition is a definition that has to do with relations. For example, when try to define a "father", the definition of "father" is true and meaningful only if the particular human in question is "related" to another human filially. That is, the meaning/definition of "father" depends on a human's relation to his son or daughter. The point is that the meaning/definition of is not inherent in the essence of the thing, but rather in the relation it has to something else.

That's the simple answer. There's also an added complexity that I find quite interesting. Simply put, a "real" definition "explicitly" defines something while a "nominal" definition "implicitly" defines something(s) in addition to the explicitly defined thing (e.g. the nominal definition of "father" explicitly defines the human who is the father and implicitly defines the children). Simple enough, but the complexity lies in its linguistic implications. The "real" definition has a referring process of "denotation" while a "nominal" definition has a referring process of "connotation". This is complex because of Ockham's complex process of supposition, and in the manner in which a "definition" refers to reality at all. Anyways, it's been fun!

What's going on here? Terms of art. Dictionaries aren't much help with terms of art because the meaning is embedded in a specific context, and you must understand the context to get the meaning. This is when you apply jeanne's rule: Ask someone who uses the word what they mean by it. Avoid Black's Law Dictionary unless you have a lawyer handy.

Check out a similar terms of art definition within the measurement context: Definitions and Measurement