Chastek Asks a Good Question

James Chastek’s Just Thomism is one of the sites I read without fail. I like it because he teaches me lots of things. He closed comments a while ago because responding to them took up too much time. So here is what I would have commented at his blog if he still allowed comments, in response to this post:

Many of the books in the “decline of the West” genre – which was already old by the time Weaver published Ideas have Consequences in 1948 but which still sells (Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed) – tell a curious narrative of decline over very large time scales. If Nominalism or Hobbesianism were as harmful as claimed, why is the diseased host still alive a half-millennium later?

Now that’s a good question. I myself have contributed a fair bit to the literature wailing and bemoaning nominalism. How do I answer the question?

I answer in this wise:

  • Unprincipled exceptions. It is impossible to live as if nominalism, Hobbesianism, skepticism, acosmism, positivism, etc., were true (because they are false). Those who try end up in trouble. So almost no one really tries. Instead, they give their principles lip service, and often try to make other people live by them; but they themselves make exceptions to their principles for practical reasons.
  • Original Sin is pretty bad, too, but it hasn’t killed the host yet, either. Nominalism, e.g., is just one variety of one of the Seven Deadlies: Pride. The Seven Deadlies have been around since the beginning. Yet here we all are.
  • Parasites that kill the host don’t do as well as those that form quasi-symbiotic relations with it. Parasites that kill the host are failures at parasitism. What do parasitical philosophical memes provide to their foolish human symbionts? Most intellectual foolishnesses make life a bit nicer in some way – cheap thrills. Most sins, likewise. Viz., “consciousness is a delusion,” or “morals are relative.” Easy!
  • It isn’t the sin itself that kills the body of the sinner, but the consequences thereof. Likewise for foolishness. Foolishness doesn’t kill fools, but the consequences of foolish acts sure can.
  • Foolishness is reproductively disadvantageous. The fools have been culling themselves and their offspring relentlessly for millennia.
  • The surviving population of diseased hosts is awfully tough. The recent let up in selection pressure due to the economic and technical success of the preponderant tough-mindedness generated by its previous intensity has opened economic room for a florescence of silliness. But the base population is still pretty tough-minded, and the school of hard knocks reliably toughens up the soft-minded, or else wounds them and their reproductive prospects.

None of this should be taken to suggest that nominalism, etc., are nothing to worry about; that they are not serious problems. Problems can still be problematic even though they have not killed us yet; even though, not yet having killed us, they’ve made us stronger. Likewise, sin and death are forever and definitively conquered. That’s a done deal. That does not mean they cannot any more do us damage.

18 thoughts on “Chastek Asks a Good Question

  1. As you say, an error can degrade performance without leading to complete failure. That is to say unless a competitor appears that is comparable in all respects except that it is not subject to the error. This may explain why liberalism is so keen to inject its virus into any rival system that it does not destroy outright.

    • Yes. Liberal hair is aflame about Russia these days because the Russians – quondam palmary exponents of liberalism – seem to be shaking off the liberal infection. Same for Hungary, Brexit, AfD, Trump, … and such Americans as we. In its preeminent hosts, the liberal infection seems to be reaching the rabid hydrophobic phase of the apoplexy. The liberal American hegemony appears to be on its last legs, geopolitically; a tottering giant. We can hope that we are able to shake off the infection ourselves before it brings us utterly down to crushing defeat as a concrete nation. The increasingly apparent insanity of the Left gives reason to think this hope is not vain.

  2. I have to question the premise, at risk of revealing my own ignorance: is the West really in decline? Chastek himself wrote that such prognostications were already old by 1948. I would hesitate to say the West is weaker today than it was in 1948, 1848, or 1748. If it *is* in decline, when was its peak?

    Its for that reason that i think your parasite analogy is inapt, but only a little. Its not a Fox/Rabbit scenario, where Realist Foxes, while few, work diligently to cull the rapidly breeding positivist rabbits; rather its a Fox/Wolf situation (predator/predator, anyway). Each predates the other in pursuit of annihilating it. War gives rise to innovation–tanks, planes, etc. Philosophical War does too. Each must answer the ideas of the other, perpetually raising the bar of philosophical insight. I have no doubt in my mind about which is “true”, but the mutual rivalry is what the West is built upon. The absence of rivalry would (and has) breed complacency to the advatage of the rival. The crucible of a Nominalist age has strengthened the mettle of Realists, few tho they may be.

    • You have a point, of course. The West is in many respects immensely stronger than she was at any time in the past. But not in all respects. The way I would put it, I suppose, is this: the basic organism is far stronger than it ever has been, *despite* the tax upon its resources constantly imposed by the parasite of nominalism and its spawn. War does force hardness and ingenuity, to be sure; and courage. But so far the war between modernity and tradition has gone since 1789 almost always to the Left. We may hope that dire worm may at last be turning to devour itself. Such at least seems to be the newly burgeoning trend of national and international politics. Viz., the Russian Renascence is of values traditional in the West – and for that matter in most civilized lands.

      The bottom line I suppose is that WWI had to end sometime. When it finally did, in the early 90’s, the West was the only hegemon standing. But at that point, the West had become the palmary exponent of Jacobinism: Liberté, Egalite, Fraternité. Jacobinism is insane. WWI ended as a titanic Cold War of Jacobin powers. One of them won: us. We won precisely because, as less besotted with the Jacobin meme than our adversaries, we were more dialed in to reality, thus richer and more resourceful. The losers responded to their loss by … departing from Jacobinism. The West has not yet quite begun to shake off its Jacobin infection, although the fever is rising. Russia seems to have done so, and so it seems have the Eastern Europeans of the quondam Warsaw Pact. China seems to be rediscovering what it means to be Chinese; I little doubt that in 20 years we’ll have begun hearing from them again about the Way of Heaven. I hope for Japan’s sake that she is able to find her way to Christian zen and Christian Shinto – which is to say, a *more intense,* a *deeper* zen and Shinto – so that she may again find her heart renewed, and with it her rut.

      Jacobinism will continue to weaken us vis-à-vis China and Russia. Having started to shake it, they are bound to get more and more powerful. So we have to get rid of it, too. That is all. There are no options. Well, there are; but even as rich and as powerful as we now are, we can’t afford them. Because why? Because our Jacobinism is insane. No matter how strong a madman might be, two sane men can take him down – particularly when the madman is under attack by an even more insane man.

      • Modernity = Technology + Enlightenment ideology

        The West is stronger than ever because technology increases wealth in a dramatic way.

        This way even the insanity of Enlightenment can be sustained (from the economic point of view) although creating lot of unhappiness, social problems and disfunction.

        For example, the destruction of the family takes a lot of money to sustain: social programs, child support, subsidies… The traditional society did not have money to make all this disfunction possible. They had the traditional family, which is not only more efficient but with better outcomes from a human point of view.

        TL; DR Michael Jackson was powerful because he was rich. This does not mean that his lifestyle (including children) was the best for himself or for other people

      • The house may be structurally sound, but is built on sand. While the Chinese and Russians have weaker houses, perhaps, they’ve begun supplanting their foundations with stone.

        I grok this. Jacobinism is a concise way of describing it which I hadn’t heard before (in that context). @imnobody00, your clarification is well received as well. Technology enables stronger and bigger houses, if you will, but the enlightenment is still foundational to Western society: The whole structure is imperiled by that weak philosophical foundation.

  3. Pingback: Chastek Asks a Good Question | Reaction Times

  4. It takes centuries for the errors to spread from the elite to the masses and, then, more time for the masses to live their lives according to the errors and, then, more time for the consequences to happen

    Rome was probably doomed starting from the end of the Second Punic War. Nominalism was not an agent of decline by itself. But its consequence was the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment reached the masses during the 60s replacing the former religion, Christianity. Some decades later we are in dire straits

  5. Scoot & Imnobody: Each in her own way, both Russia and China are more dialed into reality than is the West right now. Given the present fantastic obsessions of the Western chattering classes – our Brahmins – it doesn’t take much to do that. Both Russia and China are doing much more than that minimum. If the fantastic obsessions of our Brahmins continue much longer, the much greater sanity of Russia and China will be plenty enough to ensure their eventual preeminence, if only in virtue of our internal collapse.

  6. Nominalism makes a good fit with many trends in modern society, but there is a real question about whether or not it has a causal relationship with any of those trends.

    First of all, it is important to note that nominalism has been with us almost from the very beginning of philosophy among the ancient Greeks, and has been revived periodically since. So, it seems like a perennial strand in human thought, rather than something invented in the late Middle Ages.

    Second, even if nominalism was invented in the later Middle Ages, that doesn’t really explain why it was taken up by thinkers afterwards, especially if realism is so obviously superior (as I agree it is).

    Third, the mainstream of the Sunni Muslim tradition is nominalist and yet Sunni Muslim societies have avoided many of the noxious trends we see in the West, such as the large scale abandonment of religion. So, there doesn’t seem to be any absolutely straightforward causal relationship between nominalism and irreligion.

    This isn’t to say take away from how bad nominalist thought is, nor to say it has no relationship to noxious trends in the West. But it does throw into doubt the tale that nominalism was invented by Occam et al. and then somehow infected all of Western thought and played a major causal role in bringing us to our current position.

    • All good points. Nominalism has indeed been always with us, and shall always be, for it is the rationalization of the perennial besetting Spirit of Rebellion: of topsy turvy, of the world turned upside down, of endless permanent transgression. It is that Spirit projected onto the field of philosophy, and couched in rationalist terms. If you want to be a rebel, you generally find nominalism amenable. The two things thus help each other.

      There was something however in the zeitgeist of the late 13th and early 14th centuries that allowed nominalism to take root, flower, and propagate as it had not then ever done. The times were fitted to that doctrine somehow, just as later they were fitted to Luther, to Descartes, to Darwin. Each of those intellectual waves helped prepare the cultural ground for the next. So while nominalism has certainly not been the only factor of modernity, it has been a factor.

      What was it about the zeitgeist of the late 13th and early 14th centuries? I do not know enough of that history for an informed opinion. I do note, however, that it was in 1307 that the King of France orchestrated and then perpetrated the destruction of the Knights Templar – the most powerful military organization in the civilized world, answerable only to the Pope. If ever anyone embodied the Spirit of Rebellion, it was Philip the Fair. As with the florescence of nominalism, the destruction of the Templars could not have occurred outside a cultural milieu fitted to rebellion.

  7. Parasites are perpetuating self-annihilators. Driven to eat host out of house and home thereby leaving themselves to starve to death, parasites perpetuate nonetheless. The “unprincipled exception” is the avoidance action taken by perpetuating self-annihilators at that moment of truth? Perpetuation or annihilation? The “unprincipled exception” is the annihilationist choosing perpetuation at that most critical moment.

    If most individuals are perpetuating self-annihilators prone to “unprincipled exceptions” and thus doomed to parasitism, the explicit alternative palatable to even a fraction of this mass is what?

    How does one transcend a perpetuating self-annihilation?

  8. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 07/21/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

  9. Some questions to perhaps make the main question clearer.

    * Is the host still alive? At what point would we say that the civilization inhabiting Europe before 1700 has been killed and replaced?

    * How fast would we expect a mental disease to kill its host? What is the timescale for such things?

    * Nominalism, or at least nominalist strains of thought, have been around for a long time, but is that really the culprit? Are our enemies nominalists or do they just deny the reality of our categories in favor of their own (just as we often reject their categories as ad hoc political constructs)? It is tricky to confidently identify a man as a nominalist when he doesn’t identify himself as such and doesn’t consistently assume nominalism (this perhaps being impossible). If the problem is liberalism or democracy or egalitarianism, then we’re talking about a much shorter infection time.

    • Good questions, all. I’ll take a shot at them, in the order of their first presentation.

      • Is the host still alive? At what point would we say that the civilization inhabiting Europe before 1700 has been killed and replaced?

      Dunno. I think that’s a judgement call. I tend to think that premodern civilization suffered the coup de grace during WWI. Some bits of it still linger on, but that seems like the nails and hair continuing to grow for a few days after the death of the body.

      Either way, the question now is whether *any* sort of traditional culture is possible going forward – even a liberal culture, supposing such a thing were coherently conceivable and so could be carried into actual practice. When push comes to shove, it seems to me that some sort of traditional culture is eventually going to figure out how to thrive under the constant onslaught of the internet, because traditional societies are the only sort that can work over the long run.

      • How fast would we expect a mental disease to kill its host? What is the timescale for such things?

      Depends. It took Communism only a few decades to kill Russian culture. A preference cascade can shatter a culture in a matter of a week or two.

      • Nominalism, or at least nominalist strains of thought, have been around for a long time, but is that really the culprit? Are our enemies nominalists or do they just deny the reality of our categories in favor of their own (just as we often reject their categories as ad hoc political constructs)? It is tricky to confidently identify a man as a nominalist when he doesn’t identify himself as such and doesn’t consistently assume nominalism (this perhaps being impossible). If the problem is liberalism or democracy or egalitarianism, then we’re talking about a much shorter infection time.

      Well, liberalism, democracy and egalitarianism all presuppose nominalism (whether or not their advocates realize that this is so), so yeah, our enemies are all implicitly nominalist even if they have no idea what nominalism is.

      • This reminded me of the “Ship of Theseus” problem, asking whether the host is still alive/replaced. What if Western Civilization, as we know it, is nominalist and efforts to “halt the decline” are simply efforts to preserve a nominalist status quo? What would it take to make something new? Are we first-movers in a young, new civilization or are we the last holdouts of a dying one?

        If the Ship of Civilization was given to us by the Greeks and Romans, and gradually replaced person by person, with each person identifying 99.9% with the person they replace, then no one person would notice that the civilization is changing but over time we would look about and find it is completely different. Is it the same civilization, or is it something new? Do we long for the civilization of greeks and romans, or something new entirely?

      • A traditional culture can be like the Ship of Theseus. Traditional cultures might not be able to follow the ways of their forefathers exactly, but they *honor* their forefathers and their ways, and *try* to follow them.

        A modern culture apparently cannot be like the Ship of Theseus, because for moderns only what is modern is any good. “Modern” is from the Latin modo, “just now.” The modernity of yesterday then is for the moderns of today simply evil. So they ever want to destroy the entire ship and rebuild it from scratch – or, even, destroy the very idea of the ship and build something else entirely.

        Traditional cultures can evolve, slowly, deliberately, carefully, thoughtfully. Modern cultures can only revolt. Most innovations are of course mistaken, and more or less lethal. Revolt therefore – the radical innovation on all fronts so characteristic of modern revolutions – almost never works for long, and generally survives for no more than a generation or two.

        Modern revolutions of the sort pioneered by the French are to be distinguished from normal – i.e., traditional – revolutions, such as wars of succession. The Gothic conquest of the Western Roman Empire, for example, was a traditional revolution. The Goths did not seek to destroy Roman culture, but to join with it as the ruling class thereof.

        We are traditional, normal revolutionaries. We long for a civilization that honors and admires the ways of the Greeks and the Romans – the good ones, anyway – and wants to carry them forward, appropriately adapted to current circumstances and predicaments. Our enemies hate the West; they hate Greece and Rome – and Jerusalem, and Canterbury, and Copenhagen, and Vienna, and Paris, and Prague, and even Moscow.

        Which is to say, that they hate themselves. That’s why they are generally so miserable, and so often and so consistently engage in projection. They hate haters, and overlook the hatefulness of their own hatreds.

        As to whether the West is inherently nominalist: no. The *modern* West is nominalist. But the West properly so called is realist. That’s why the modern revolutionaries hate it. They know that GNON, the Logos who is the Angel and Prince and God of the West, is a jealous and wrathful god, who will not at the last brook their rebellions.


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