[fawr-muh-liz-uh m]
See more synonyms for formalism on
  1. strict adherence to, or observance of, prescribed or traditional forms, as in music, poetry, and art.
  2. Religion. strong attachment to external forms and observances.
  3. Ethics. a doctrine that acts are in themselves right or wrong regardless of consequences.
  4. 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 formsfor·mal·ist, noun, adjectivefor·mal·is·tic, adjectivefor·mal·is·ti·cal·ly, adverban·ti·for·mal·ist, noun, adjectivenon·for·mal·ism, nounnon·for·mal·is·tic, adjectiveun·for·mal·is·tic, adjective Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for formalist

Contemporary Examples of formalist

  • They are usually treated with the utmost sobriety, pondered as great works of formalist – even spiritual – exploration.

    The Daily Beast logo
    Ad Reinhardt's Black (-on-Black) Humor

    Blake Gopnik

    December 2, 2013

  • The messy signature actually detracts and distracts from a formalist reading of these otherwise pristine works.

    The Daily Beast logo
    Hirst's Signature Marks the Spot

    Blake Gopnik

    February 12, 2013

Historical Examples of formalist

British Dictionary definitions for formalist


  1. 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
  2. theatre a stylized mode of production
  3. (in Marxist criticism) excessive concern with artistic technique at the expense of social values, etc
  4. the philosophical theory that a mathematical statement has no meaning but that its symbols, regarded as physical objects, exhibit a structure that has useful applicationsCompare logicism, intuitionism
Derived Formsformalist, nounformalistic, adjectiveformalistically, 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

Word Origin and History for formalist



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