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[fawr-muh-liz-uh m] /ˈfɔr məˌlɪz əm/
strict adherence to, or observance of, prescribed or traditional forms, as in music, poetry, and art.
Religion. strong attachment to external forms and observances.
Ethics. a doctrine that acts are in themselves right or wrong regardless of consequences.
Logic, Mathematics. a doctrine, which evolved from a proposal of David Hilbert, that mathematics, including the logic used in proofs, can be based on the formal manipulation of symbols without regard to their meaning.
Origin of formalism
First recorded in 1830-40; formal1 + -ism
Related forms
formalist, noun, adjective
formalistic, adjective
formalistically, adverb
antiformalist, noun, adjective
nonformalism, noun
nonformalistic, adjective
unformalistic, adjective Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2017.
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Examples from the Web for formalism
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • No one should be a slave to such a formalism, but should follow the plan when convenient.

    The Teaching of Geometry David Eugene Smith
  • He could never get over the idea that formalism was the soul of function.

    The Music Master Charles Klein
  • They called it 'a tossing of tennis balls,' and set it down as one of the points of formalism.

    The English Church in the Eighteenth Century Charles J. Abbey and John H. Overton
  • The outstanding feature of Kiyomitsu's work is its formalism.

    Chats on Japanese Prints Arthur Davison Ficke
  • It is safe to say that formalism is no longer a characteristic feature of the typical American school.

    Craftsmanship in Teaching William Chandler Bagley
  • It was the coldest piece of formalism it has been our lot to witness in an English church.

    The Church Index William Pepperell
  • But they were free from pedantry, from formalism, they left the dying art of the ancient world and made their own way.

  • There was a formalism to it, there was pomp and circumstance.

    Ladies and Gentlemen
    Irvin S. (Irvin Shrewsbury) Cobb
British Dictionary definitions for formalism


scrupulous or excessive adherence to outward form at the expense of inner reality or content
  1. the mathematical or logical structure of a scientific argument as distinguished from its subject matter
  2. the notation, and its structure, in which information is expressed
(theatre) a stylized mode of production
(in Marxist criticism) excessive concern with artistic technique at the expense of social values, etc
the philosophical theory that a mathematical statement has no meaning but that its symbols, regarded as physical objects, exhibit a structure that has useful applications Compare logicism, intuitionism
Derived Forms
formalist, noun
formalistic, adjective
formalistically, adverb
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for formalism

1840, "strict adherence to prescribed forms," from formal + -ism. Attested from 1943 in reference to the Russian literary movement (1916-30). Related: Formalist; formalistic.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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