Nominalism contra Everything

The modern crisis all goes back to nominalism. The modern muddlings of clear definitions, confusions of really and essentially different things, and denials of essences or definitions in the first place are all outworkings of the nominalist turn. Once suppose that categories are merely conventional, that universals are merely nominal, that life is never simply black or white, but rather only shades of grey, and you find yourself on a steep and slippery slope to chaos.

We see this with marriage, lately. Once you budge from the idea that marriage is the permanently binding lifelong commitment of total loyalty between a man and a woman, you open the door to all sorts of insanity. Likewise with sex: once disagree that the only properly licit sex is the sort that married people can have with each other, and the whole social order begins to deliquesce.

Likewise also with abortion. The whole idea that abortion is not murder depends on the premise that the embryo is not a person. But this notion is wrong. Nature herself distinguishes quite clearly between a woman’s own cells and those of her children. Their chemistry, their proteins, are just different, and foreign to each other. The new and foreign person begins inside the mother when the new and foreign proteins of the child appear at conception, from the new and foreign combination of parental DNA. Immunologically, there is no confusion about this distinction on the part of nature. The cells of mother and child are cells of different animals. They apprehend each other quite clearly as foreigners, invaders, and potential threats, and elaborate mechanisms must be employed to stifle the immunological war that would otherwise pit them against each other, so that the pregnancy may proceed.

Once you decide that abortion is not murder, then other forms of murder become thinkable: infanticide, euthanasia, genocide (not so much, these days, of peoples inimical to one’s own, but certainly perhaps of the sort of “low men,” knuckle-walkers, and mouth breathers who love and honor her patrimony), eugenics, and so forth. It is but a step, then, to the thought that assassination is a proper tool of politics, business, or relations among families; to feud, vendetta, rapine, kidnapping, slavery.

Discriminations and discernments, limits and ordinations, laws and rules are the foundation and infrastructure, the skeleton and immune system of society. Without them, men have no way even to talk to each other. Society per se could be characterized as a set of agreements about what is what, and what is not. Muddle or vitiate the popular recognition of the real limits between things the least little bit, and lethal trouble must then soon follow. For, the limits are simple, clear, stark, and consequential. Depart from them, and all is muddied, and confused, and weakened. Nature abhors such weakness, and deletes it as quickly as may be; for nature herself is quite clear, and unconfused. It’s definitions, or death.

Life is complicated, to be sure, and it is often tricky to keep things sorted out properly. But they can be sorted out properly (if they couldn’t, then there would be no way that they could sort themselves into a coherent world). Things can be sorted out properly in fact, so they *must* be amenable to proper sorting in thought and deed. That being the case, it is our bounden duty to sort them out properly in our own thought and deed. This duty is not just to the truth, and to things as they truly are, but to the good of survival in this world, which if our definitions disagree with its own will tend inexorably to wipe us out.

That things can be sorted in the first place means that they must be really different from each other. You can’t sort what isn’t different. And for sorting to occur – not just in our thought, mind, but in the physical transactions of the world that proceed on their own mighty weighty paths, effecting their own gorgeous coordinations in sublime communion regardless of our interest – these differences must be not merely notional or conventional. Nominalism must be false, for if reality were nominalist, and the distinctions between things that we discover in nature were not real – if, that is, nature herself, in all her instances, had not first noticed and implemented them in fact – then we could never notice anything in the first place. Everything would look the same. It would all look grey, no matter how closely or carefully we looked.

But nature is not like that. Things do sometimes seem all grey from afar. But when we examine them closely and carefully – properly, and duly, so that our mensurations and evaluations are truly meet to their concrete quiddity – we can always discern (or, at least, see how we might in principle discern) here a bit of white, there a jot of black. How not? For, each thing must be at bottom only and peculiarly and distinctly itself, and not some mere indefinite mongrel mish mash that has no clear boundaries. In no other way could any particular thing even exist.

Each particular thing is in some relation to all others, to be sure; each atom a system of all things, no man an island, and so forth. And so, each thing is what it is in virtue of its account of all other things, so that it participates them all, and they it. All true. But relations can obtain only between real terms. An apple cannot contribute to me, cannot make a difference to me, unless it be really different from me. X can affect Y only if X and Y are disparate. So transactions of any sort – which is to say, motions of any sort, changes of any sort – are possible only if nominalism is false.

If the categories we employ in the organization of our behavior are only nominal, then they cannot be either accurate or inaccurate, correct or incorrect, right or wrong. Indeed, in that case, they must be strictly meaningless, so that they are all in fact empty, and all our thoughts, discourses and conversations just noise – not really about anything, when push comes to shove. And if none of our notions are even wrong, then clearly none of them – not one – can be really important or valuable. Human life, then – our own life, in each moment – is unimportant. It is inestimable; worthless.

If it is not murder to murder, then he who is murdered must not after all be real, or considerable.

And this is why the least little bit of befuddlement about the order of being – and so, of the proper order of human society, and of the human person – if uncorrected, leads so inexorably to social dissolution. The entropic tendency in culture is set by the nature of logic, which cannot operate except on terms. Vitiate the terms, and the algorithms – of reality, and so of its derivates in society and the human person – all either break down, or produce nonsense: garbage in, garbage out. Nature however does not ever lie, as we do, about terms. God is not mocked; cannot be mocked. When we contest with the Logos and his logic, we contest with our world, with our own nature, with our bodies and minds. We cannot but lose that contest.

14 thoughts on “Nominalism contra Everything

  1. It is highly unlikely that modernity is the result of a philosophical position trickling down to the masses. What we have is a way of life that is highly congenial to nominalism. As always, the practice comes first.

    • Who said nominalism is restricted to philosophical life? You don’t need to be a philosopher ruminating on abstruse abstract ideas in an ivory tower to be either careful or sloppy in thinking. Farmers, too, can be nominalists – although I grant of course that it is easier to be a nominalist if you are disconnected from the land, from nature and the business of getting things done in the world, than if you are not.

      I doubt there is any such thing as a merely philosophical error; these must be rather the manifestations in intellectual life of a more general sort of moral failure. The discriminations of the intellect are after all the discriminations of a living person, so that the errors of the philosopher are personal, and ergo practical, indeed *physiological.* An error of thought is a bit of madness, and insanity of mind generates insanity of act, and so of body.

      And the temptation to a relaxation of the rigor of our virtue in some nominalistic fudge or other is ever with us, as, e.g., the temptation to some sin that is “not really so bad.” Except for the wholly lost, conscious sin is achievable only by way of such a fudge.

      • From Plato’s Cratylus:

        SOCRATES: Then, Hermogenes, I should say that this giving of names can be no such light matter as you fancy, or the work of light or chance persons; and Cratylus is right in saying that things have names by nature, and that not every man is an artificer of names, but he only who looks to the name which each thing by nature has, and is able to express the true forms of things in letters and syllables. (In Reeve’s translation: 389b)

      • Dear Kristor,

        ” For, each thing must be at bottom only and peculiarly and distinctly itself, and not some mere indefinite mongrel mish mash that has no clear boundaries. In no other way could any particular thing even exist.”

        Or, the other option is that things don’t actually exist as particular things, we just make mental, verbal models of dividing things up as we see them practically fit by their various effects, uses, dangers, or just interesting observable features.

        “So transactions of any sort – which is to say, motions of any sort, changes of any sort – are possible only if nominalism is false.”

        Precisely, very clever. Or, the other option is that transactions aren’t essentially real, but again just a human tool.

        “If the categories we employ in the organization of our behavior are only nominal, then they cannot be either accurate or inaccurate, correct or incorrect, right or wrong. Indeed, in that case, they must be strictly meaningless, so that they are all in fact empty, and all our thoughts, discourses and conversations just noise – not really about anything, when push comes to shove.”

        Exactly. However, again there are both ways about this – and the other way is radical skepticism. For radical skepticism, all is noise, even this very sentence is noise, and thus not true – it is possible to say things that are not meant as truths or falsehoods but as anti-statements whose purpose is to derail the train of thoughts and let people get out of it and experience things without thinking about them either way. Because noise can cancel out other noise, and if a radical skeptic wants silence, he can still honestly utter cancelling type of noise, anti-thoughts.

        I think you are basically betting on reducing the arguments to something the reader would find intolerable, insufferable, an existential depression and nihilism, like some ultimate suicide. However, this actually is not like a black hole sucking all into annihiliation but more like a black curtain: scary, there are things on the other side of it, too. If nothing is real, not me, not my passions, not what I want, not my self-importance, not my vanity – that can be incredibly healthy, too. If even my suffering is unreal, that really makes it easier to bear.

        The practical issue with the modern nominalist / liberal – and the reason I disagree with it and frequent conservative blogs like this – is that he sees everything as unreal EXCEPT himself, his desires, his vanity, his suffering etc. lacking this introspection, which basically from this angle the most EPIC FAIL-worthy possible, because it practically results in a subjective universe filled with himself *shudder*

        But I am not trying to convince you of anything. You already are doing a good enough job of reducing every counter-argument to radical skepticism, maybe one day you will go to the other side of that curtain 🙂

        I am just trying to discuss interesting things, really. Such as, imagine a parallel universe that is REALLY one mish-mash blob, without any natural categories and meanings. People in that universe give names to things on a pragmatic basis: things edible are called food etc. and the transititions they observe are similarly pragmatic. How does that universe, ultimately, differ from ours? How could you tell you are in which one?

        (I have heard so far only one really clever answer to this: those people would not actually be human, but clever animals. Fine. But how would the world, as such, differ?)

    • Wrong. This is the old Marxist superstructure myth that has been exploded by history. Ideas do have consequences. That is why the Logos preceded and ordered creation. Before economics comes politics, before politics comes culture, before culture comes cult.

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  3. This is all true IF and only IF people have really strong desires and passions. All this nominalism work quite well if everybody was a dispassionate sage sitting around sipping tea and making comments about how complicated the universe is.

    The meain reason this is a problem is because in the history of Western Civ 1) almost everybody was driven by really strong passions 2) saw their passions and desires as real 3) expected that the fulfillment of their desires will make them happy 4) the only thing that would stop them from pursuing their passions with a lot of zeal if this could be demonstrated that something is objectively wrong 5) and even still they would see to bend the rules, and make backdoors like OK we don’t kill children but in the first trimester yes, or something.

    Where does this strong passion come from? Ancient Greece had it already… everything Western, from Greek philosophy to Christianity, is largely meant to control these passions, to control the strong drive of people who think if you feel you want something, then getting it will make you happy.

    How comes Europe has always been a much more passion-driven place than, say, China or India?

    • For example, instead of some people wanting to kill their children adn some other people telling them it is objectively wrong, why almost nobody in the history of Western Civ approached it this way: “Are you sure having an unnatural desire to kill your children is good for you, are you sure this is going to make your psyche all happy and healthy, or you should rather try to learn to not desires such things, or have a certain mental distance from these desires?” So basically focusing on psychology more than on objective rightness and wrongness. I wonder why it is so alien from the West e.g. from Greek philosophy or Christian authors.

      • First off, I doubt that your characterisation is in fact correct (“the passion driven” thing). And very general.
        I’d saying you’re simply describing uneducated (and fallen) human nature.

        Yes, your comment has a psychological bend – focusing on “surety” rather than reasonableness. But, if we’re being general, there.
        The answer is probably the Western emphasis on objective reality, truth, including moral reality/truth. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the West leaning exoteric and the East esoteric. What you’re describing is a kind of psychological skepticism, a presumption against one’s intuitions on what’s to be desired. But again, to learn that important epistemological lesson (as a lesson, a conclusion) – that the devices our animality has for pointing to our good
        can go bad and need to be ordered – you need reason. So the West realises its priority.

        I don’t think you’re being very consequent there, for you appeal to nature being good (at least propose unnatural things as dubiously desirable, hence “unnatural desire”), treat happiness and health as good objectively (to be pursued), for you do invoke “shoulds”…. Again, how psychologically sure one happens to be is only practically relevant. Perhaps there is such a thing as an Eastern tendency to focus on practice.

        Again, I don’t find your characterisation convincing. What makes you say that India and China are less passion-driven? And, come to think of it, what do you mean by that?

        Especially since the West, I’d say, is growing esoteric in it’s own way…

  4. @Georgy (sorry, the template does not allow more nested comments)

    But, this view presupposes that “animality” is generally good and “spoils” only as a special exception. Yes, I am aware that is the Aristotelean view, but I see Aristotle as a common-sense philosopher, not as much an inventor as a summarizer of what people thougth anyway, his arguments often go “the wise people praise such and such”. If he and later on Christianity does not do this, then the Western culture would be largely convinced that animal desires are good, period. Do we agree so far?

    And THAT is what I am trying to figure out – namely where did the original validation or acceptance of “animal” desires came from in the West? If you look eastwards, not only in the relatively “young”, only 2500 years old Buddhism it is not so but not even in the oldest kinds of Vedic Hinduism, that is really, really old. If anything, there is a bit of a Gnostic, ascetic hatred for the body and the desire to live as a pure spirit at the Vedic roots of all this. A certain Gnostic-style repudation of the world. This is the basic starting point in the east and it actually came back from there, it became more accepting of the body and normal lives later on.

    So that is precisely what I am asking, what made the “origo”, the starting point of Western development a kind of animalistic desire-orientedness or passion, and then basically the whole history is philosophy and religion trying to set up limits to this? And, with the advent of modern liberalism, not succeeding in it anymore? How comes the original starting point was not some kind hate-the-body, hate-the-world Gnosticism or something similar?

    It could be something like an extroversion vs. introversion, observe the world vs. observe your soul difference?

    Interesting that the West developed a useful psychology quickly, I think even Plato’s tripartite model of the soul is a useful, if crude, model. What it says about education is, albeit simple, basically still better than what a typical modern teacher thinks… Later on it got worked out better.

    But interesting how little it was actually used. Similarly I find Augustine’s three kinds of libidos quite practical, yet surprisingly rarely discussed. Or, I have seen a million Christians condemn homosexuality as a moral sin, and I have only seen it once that a priest (I think Bishop Newman, not sure) came up with a good psychological explanation, namely that love for someone similar to the self is a form of self-love, narcissisism. To me this makes a whole lot sense than just saying sin. I just wonder why these things draw less of an interest.

    • @Shenpen

      It doesn’t presuppose this, I think. It follows from Aristotle’s teleological account of reality and ethics. “Passions” clearly point us towards something, and upon analysis of, say, sexual drive, one discovers that it in fact points towards a genuine good, purpose as grasped by the intellect – procreation.
      And given that the object of this study is human nature, one would be concerned with the universal. It becomes easier to isolate “spoils” within this paradigm.

      Perhaps it’s just me being a Westerner who agrees with Aristotle on this (I adhere to “old” natural law school), but I think the “old” natural law is in fact correct, and rather intuitive (it might seem wrong and counterintuitive to us moderns, but…). By the way, if you were to ask me about why homosexuality is immoral, I would reply with an account of how it violates the telos of the reproductive system and so forth. 🙂

      So I’d be asking what happened in the East instead. I agree with your description of it, and I think the genesis of “Gnosticism” is much more interesting, for it, prima facie, looks less plausible, intuitive, not common-sensical at all.

      Interesting observation about psychologies. Haven’t given it much thought. But if we accept the premise that the West is relatively more exoteric, it makes sense: for psychology is a study of structure, “external”, in a way. Applying it, though, would be involve introversion.. I need to think about this. 🙂

      I’d say liberalism is more than a failure to contain the passions: in this aspect, it is “animality” divorced from teleology and normativity. To achieve this a somewhat Gnostic mechanist revolution in philosophy had to occur (and if we are to trace to the Renaissance, with its preoccupation with mechanism, then it did come from the East, in a sense), with its general animus against the “manifest image”. So we have talk of natural/human rights but no human nature. Then the destruction of teleological views ensured there was no way to perceive passions/pleasures as pointers rather than goals, and mechanism became an approach towards society (hence utilitarianism).
      What’s sort of comic (though tragic) about the West now is that people seem to be only concerned with mathematical abstractions when it comes knowledge (people go on to declare this to be the only reality), whereas in terms of ethics and actual living cynicism and sentimentalism seem to be the two poles. So it would seem that now the West actually has both extremes – “Gnosticism” (incarnated in materialism/scientism) and exaltation of the passions, though they are functionally separated.

    • @ shenpen

      Hinduism as starting point seems somewhat arbitrary. What was before? Do we know how did they arrive at that point? Was Hinduism or religions before it always hostile to body and carnal pleasure? And given Hinduism is quite huge, was the hostility a matter of Hinduism as a whole or just certain ascetic currents? Kamasutra comes to my mind as counter-example but maybe that’s much younger practice and maybe a sort of distortion of original teachings. If that’s true then the picture might be quite different.

      Fustel de Coulanges in his Ancient City suggests that eastern and western religions come from the same source and points out similarities in the early religions of Greeks and Romans and Hindus (Laws of Manu) which were all anti-hedonistic. Then there was a discussion about virtues among Greek philosophers: Plato, Aristotle suggested that one should seek virtues for themselves (in general), good life is something objective, pleasure is less important while others like Epicurus claimed that pain is the only evil and one should seek virtues the state of pleasure they bring to our soul. I believe this debate is later development, long after the early religion was abandoned and forgotten.

      Perhaps Christian society went through similar stages as Hinduism and pagan religions of Antiquity and ended up with liberalism as sort of abandonment of realism in favor of hedonism. Maybe every society repeats this pattern. In this light it’s interesting that classical liberals like Mill or Mises were Epicureans. Moderate liberals, moderate hedonists.

      On the other hand, you are probably right that the East developed psychology much earlier than the West and has been much more “psychological”. I don’t think it’s because of its hatred towards body but rather because of its peculiar philosophy. When the world is mere illusion and subjective then the mind and how it works becomes more important. Moreover, when there is no “I” and “you”, if all is just “one” then there is no relationship. There can’t be. Again there is just mind, hence psychology emphasized. But if there is objective outer world, if there is God of Christianity you’ve got something/someone to relate. You got activity, will, passion turned outwards. Perhaps oversimplification but I find it convincing.

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  6. Without them, men have no way even to talk to each other.

    And thus the inflation of words. We are inundated in a tsunami of verbiage, because men cannot speak what is true. There is one truth, but bazillions of lies. It’s the triumph of quantity over quality.


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