Nations are Ontological Reals

Wholes are real, or else they are not worth talking about at all, as not existing in the first place. On materialism, there are no wholes: no persons, no molecules, not even any Rutherfordian atoms or protons.

So then, on materialism, most human discourse is – as pertaining to entities that do not truly exist, being therefore inapposite to things as they really are – simply not worth doing; is, rather, inapt, and so likely injurious.

But if materialism is false – as, being a notion of entities that under its own account do not actually exist, it must necessarily be – then wholes are real. Some of them, anyway. The trick is to discern which apparent wholes are entities in their own right, and which are only our own heuristics.

We speak for example of a whole pile of gravel, but that is clearly a heuristic. The pile is not an entity.

Animals on the other hand do really exist as entities in their own right. Only an epistemological and empirical idiot would insist otherwise (this, granting the difficulty of scribing truly and accurately the boundary between animate organism and mechanical procedure at the viral scale). Plants are another matter, especially multicellular plants. Is a tree a thing? Much harder to say; better, perhaps, as safer, to grant it actuality, than not.

Marriages are reals. So then are families. To assert otherwise is to deny their actuality, or their influence upon the course of history. And to do that would be to blind oneself to historical, causal factors that obviously obtend; that matter. It’s a crazy notion. People care about their families, and act in the interests thereof, and so (betimes) to the great and immediate detriment of their own. We certainly *could* assert that in so doing, they were motivated by illusion.

But, NB: that would be the *less* parsimonious hypothesis, of those that are on offer.

It would be the hypothesis that found their sacrifices utterly incomprehensible.

It would be, NB, the hypothesis that asserted its own incapacity to understand sacrificial acts.

It would be the hypothesis that asserted its own inadequacy to what is; that, to put it in the simplest terms, asserted its own falsity.

As marriages and families are reals, so then are houses (e.g., the House of Abraham, of Windsor, of Kristor), clans, tribes … and nations. This, at any rate, taking nations to be related by blood, as the aetymology of “nation” forces us to do.

Nations, then, by a straightforward extension, are likewise ontological reals. They are not social fictions, or constructs; are not illusions. They supervene upon their natives, to be sure, but do not and cannot reduce thereto. They act in ways that none of their subject constituents ever would, and so doing oblige those constituents, and sway them, informing their acts and shaping their preferences. Only thus might a young man possibly decide to go to war for his nation. If nations are nothing, such decisions could not but be insane, pathological, inapposite to reality; and so they could not but lead the irreal “national” agglomerations of such sacrificial acts, dedicated to an illusion, to anything other than ruin.

Nations are ontological reals.

16 thoughts on “Nations are Ontological Reals

  1. Pingback: Nations are Ontological Reals | @the_arv

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  3. Nations, then, by a straightforward extension, are likewise ontological reals. They are not social fictions, or constructs; are not illusions.

    The Latourian position is that nations (and many if not all other entities) are real precisely because they are constructs. And are strong or weak (or more real and less real, if you like) depending on the strength of their construction.

    For nations, at least, this seems to correspond pretty closely to the way things work. They are real enough for the reasons you give (people will sacrifice their lives for them — that’s pretty real!) but they also come into being through synthetic construction processes (obviously so in cases like the US or modern Italy, arguably true in all cases) and fall apart when people stop maintaining them.

    • F W Maitland makes the point very clearly: “My organised group shall be a sovereign state. Let us call it Nusquamia. Like many other sovereign states, it owes money, and I will suppose that you are one of its creditors. You are not receiving the expected interest and there is talk of repudiation. That being so, I believe that you will be, and indeed I think that you ought to be, indignant, morally, righteously indignant. Now the question that I want to raise is this: Who is it that really owes you money? Nusquamia. Granted, but can you convert the proposition that Nusquamia owes you money into a series of propositions imposing duties on certain human beings that are now in existence? The task will not be easy.”

      Surely, the answer is that Nusquamia (the right-and-duty-bearing group) is an ultimate and unanalysable moral unit.

      • Yes. If Nusquamia could be disaggregated into its constituent members without jot of remainder, while still functioning as a disaggregate group to satisfy all the obligations of Nusquamia – while, i.e., still functioning just the way it did as aggregate – then Nusquamia would not have existed in the first place. It would not have been a true aggregate at all. It would have been nothing but a legal fiction.

        This is a key practical test of whether one is dealing with an ontological whole or not. Ontological wholes can be analyzed in thought – their properties picked out, their characteristic form specified, and so forth – but not concretely. Analyze them concretely, as at the abbatoir, and you destroy them beyond possibility of repair.

        Or, to put the question in good old Anglo Saxon: can you kill it? If so, it is an ontological whole.

    • Interesting, a.morphous. The more you tell us about Latour, the more he seems like a down to earth fellow. For example, the notion that constructs are more or less real as a function of the strength of their constructive relations sounds almost Aristotelian.

      I note however that in the passage you quote I think I was using “construct” in a different sense than Latour. Most of the time, I interpret a statement that something is a social construct as a statement that it is not in fact real; often, those who deploy the term connote thereby a tone of pejoration, as if to deplore whatever it is that they deem a social construct. E.g.: “marriage is a social construct; race is a social construct; sex is a social construct.” Such statements are only ever uttered unironically by those who have set themselves in contravention to social constructs – the social constructs they want to replace with other social constructs more to their personal liking.

      Latour on the other hand seems to be using “construct” in the opposite way.

      All things that come into being do so by synthetic processes. The question I’m getting at with these posts is whether they are nothing but the acts of their constituents, or whether they are something else, in virtue of which their constituents are their constituents, rather than just some items nowise really related. I think only the latter notion makes sense; for, on the former, there are no wholes, but rather only their constituents – in which case, there being no wholes, there can be no such thing as constituents of such wholes.

      The case of the inception of the American nation is interesting. I doubt it took place at the Congress. I think it took place long before. The acts of the Congress, and the components of those acts (such as the Federalist papers, the acts of the Sons of Liberty, and so forth), were rather phases in the birth of a new whole that had been underway ever since the American colonists began to realize that they were not quite the same as other Englishmen – that Something was Happening in North America that could not be fully understood as nothing more than a simple extension of Britain. The acts of the Congress rather reckoned and formalized this new reality, than created it.

  4. The more you tell us about Latour, the more he seems like a down to earth fellow.

    He is in a way, despite being usually considered as one of the more radical postmodernist (or post-something-or-other) thinkers.

    Most of the time, I interpret a statement that something is a social construct as a statement that it is not in fact real

    That is a misinterpretation on your part; that is not what any social constructionist means. To say something is a social construct means it is potentially plastic, that things might be constructed differently, but it doesn՚t mean it isn՚t real.

    The case of the inception of the American nation is interesting. I doubt it took place at the Congress. I think it took place long before…. The acts of the Congress rather reckoned and formalized this new reality, than created it.

    I more or less agree…the formal process was just one particular step in the process of construction.

    • I’m not so sure from an historical perspective. There were pan-American movements among the admittedly widespread Freemasons of North America, but these movements hadn’t taken hold at least until the war and probably not even then. There were at least as many antifederalists as federalists and the civil war is evidence that at least some of the American nations had not quite dissolved into one.

      Even today,America is probably more like Yugoslavia than many care to admit.

      • Yeah, it’s a vexed question. That so many loyal Americans think she is nothing more than a set of propositions tends to indicate that there is no longer an American nation, properly so called – even if once there was.

      • Well, it’s like family, marriage, education and so forth – if anyone is paying attention enough to notice that a frozen embryo we’ll call Heather, along with her two mommies, do not constitute an actual family, then you just tweak the definition of family to include them, and voila!, Heather and her two mommies, Ursula and Shaniqua, are a “family.”

    • To say something is a social construct means it is potentially plastic, that things might be constructed differently, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

      A thing is real only insofar as it is definitely and completely what it is, and not something different. Thus what is real cannot change into something different: it is what it is. Viz., no one can change a fact. All that we can do is bring novel facts into being by our acts. And those acts are then permanent; their permanence is their facticity. No one can change the fact that I stayed home from the office yesterday because I was sick.

      So, reals are precisely *not* plastic. If a thing is plastic – if it might be this, or that, or something else – it is unreal.

      NB that we are not necessarily far apart on this question. A thing that is real is a thing that has potential to bring into being a thing that is not itself. So, plasticity is still present in the dynamic of the world. It’s just that it is a function of permanent definity.

      When a realist says that marriage is a social construct, he does not mean that marriage can be changed into something that it is not. He means only that it is a social item that is a composition of components.

  5. Came across this Twitter thread dumping on Hegel and it reminded me of this conversation. Hegel is miffed that nature doesn’t obey his clean conceptual categories, and somehow blames “nature’s impotence” for failing to live up to his philosophy. Similarly, you blame people for not conforming to the oversimplified rules for relationships you’ve invented. The platypus and gay marriage are both offensive for the same reason; they are real and outside the bounds of someone’s rigid typology. But reality is not obligated to follow anybody’s rules but its own.

    • Dollars to doughnuts you had not noticed as you wrote that comment that you were projecting.

      If any sort of person is prone to try to argue with reality because it fails to parse into the categories of its ideology, it is the Liberal sort. If any sort is prone to invent oversimplified rules for relationships, it is liberals and leftists, who because they have rejected all the traditional rules tested and refined over hundreds of millennia by humanity in concert with nature as she really is, are forced to start from scratch. It is no wonder that their inventions always fail disastrously.

      Nor have I blamed anyone in this discussion.

      The platypus is not offensive. Taxonomists love that kind of problem, because it forces them to grapple with reality more carefully.

      Gay marriage and the platypus do not challenge traditional categories in the same way. The platypus is real. “Gay marriage” is just some crazy impossible stuff that people made up who did not like the dispensations of reality – like “perpetual motion machine” or “new socialist man” or “transsexual” or “communism.”

      • Oh, snap! Hegel, Engels, platypi, Leftism, all at one page. Great find, Terry. In the story it recounts, Engel’s over simple rationalism is stymied by the platypus. Seeing a stuffed platypus, he took it as a fraud perpetrated by English taxidermists. Then, he saw a live platypus. To his credit, he then began to wonder whether he had not got things wrong.

        Platypus : Engel’s naïve rationalism :: Facts of Life (sexual, economic, &c.) : Liberalism.

        The liberals are still at the first stage of comeuppance: the one where they take the evidence that reality is not what they would like it to be as the fraudulent work of deplorable plotters.

      • That was an easy find. The reference to the platypus didn’t seem like something someone would just say off the cuff, so I thought I’d look into it a little deeper. I simply entered the search terms “sodomy and the platypus” and a link to one of site’s articles popped up. After I read the article (which confirmed I had a winner), I clicked on their “about” button, and landed at the article whose link is above-posted.

        I would call it dumb luck, except I had that sneaky suspicion something was up with the platypus reference.


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