Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Triumph of Nominalism

A convergence of articles and ideas that came to my attention last week together convinced me that what we are witnessing in the mushy world of contemporary liberalism is nothing less than the triumph of nominalism. This - nominalism - is the antithesis of Platonic realism and states that there are no "realities", per se, and hence no "nature" but merely names or labels that we habitually dress up as realities or natures, usually for the purposes of obtaining or exercising power. The nominalist/realist debate was all the rage in the Middle Ages. Since then, the realist position has been in decline and the nominalists have gone from strength to strength. To explain: nominalists claim that God has no attributes. The attributes we claim for God are merely labels that we hang on Him for our own purposes. This has huge implications. Finally, it means that there is no such thing as human nature either, and, more directly, there are no such things as fixed identities. Whatever identities we claim for ourselves are not intrinsic but are merely conventions (names).

Here is an interesting example. Professional stirrer Andrew Bolt - Australian conservative commentator - was taken to court, and lost, when he wrote against certain Australians who claimed to be indigenous (aborigines). They were, in fact, whiter than white to all appearances, but they claimed that on the basis of a 1/100th ancestral lineage they were aborigines and therefore entitled to various government support schemes to assist aborigines. Bolt claimed they had no right to claim to be aborigines and were in fact rorting the system. The court, however, ruled that the white guys in question did have a legitimate claim to aboriginality and, moreover, had no choice in the matter - they had been born into aboriginality, regardless of how Anglo-saxon they may appear to the eye.

You see, this is a debate about identities. What are realities and what are merely labels? Are these people *really* aborigines or have they merely adopted that label?

Last week, I read an account of this case that put it in a different perspective. Against the judge, and against Bolt, a liberal academic argued that - as he put it - the "bedrock of contemporary ethics" is that all identities are matters of personal choice. He agreed that Bolt was out of line, but he also disagreed that the "victims" had no choice in their aboriginality. The judge said they were born that way, but this academic argued that the bedrock of contemporary ethics is that no one is prisoner to how they were born. Identity is a matter of choice. And it is always so. As he wrote, a person might identify as something a thousand times, but they must always be free to change their mind and call themselves something else. This is the essence of "freedom". Thus, the "victims" in the Bolt case should always be free to deny aboriginality, and the judge, no less than Bolt, had denied them their freedom. Again: identity is a matter of choice. It is never a matter of birth.

Thus, for example, gender - in so-called "contemporary ethics"- is a matter of choice and not a reality. You and I might think that being a man or a woman is a matter determined by birth, but not so. It is merely a choice we make. Thus the realism/nominalism divide. Gender is not a reality, it is merely a label, a name. And no matter how many times I identify as a man, I remain free to change my label and identify as a woman. This is the philosophical basis of transgenderism. It is a form of nominalism. It denies there is any such thing as human nature. A free being is free to make of itself what it will. It is the whole basis of contemporary liberalism. Liberals hate and despise any category that supposedly traps someone into the circumstances of their birth. Freedom, by definition, belongs to the self-creating, self-determining being.

It is an ideal philosophy for a consumerist/industrial society. It espouses mobility as an inherent good. Platonic realism supposes that we have a distinct, intrinsic nature and that the richness of life consists in developing that nature to its fullest potential. It supposes, for example, that some people are born to be carpenters, and they find fulfilment through being carpenters. Liberals find this idea repugnant. Instead, liberals champion as heroes those individuals who, though born into a family of carpenters, defy their parents and their heritage in order to become ballet dancers instead. Or, better still, who decide not to be anything, but are carpenters one day, ballet dancers another, and dabble in a bit of plumbing as well, as their mood takes them. They have no fixed identity. This suits industrial labour markets perfectly, whereas the Platonic idea that we have inherent vocations is utterly medieval. Similarly, free agents who can call themselves and be whatever they like whenever they like are the best sort of consumers. Old fashioned realists are not easily convinced to take up new fads and new identities at the whims of advertising.

At the core of the nominalist outlook, then, is the abstract individual just as the core of nominalist theology is the abstract God. In nominalism, God has no attributes, and therefore, neither do I. This sense of "I" is perfectly empty.

At this point, it all starts to smell a bit like Buddhism, doesn't it? And you'd be right to suppose so, for Buddhism is precisely a hyper-nominalist approach to religion. The Supreme Reality is not a reality at all, but merely an empty convention. The thing that we hang identities upon is, in fact, a Void. It has no attributes whatsoever. We can only say what it is not.

Applied to sociology, though, it leads to odd conclusions. So, apparently, I can call myself an aboriginal if I so choose, and apply for government support schemes on that basis. It doesn't matter if I don't look like an aborigine, or even if I have a single drop of aboriginal blood - if I say I'm an aborigine then I bloody-well am, and if you say otherwise you are oppressing me. It gets very Monty Python. You'll remember the sketch where Stan wants to be called Loretta. He wants to be a woman and he wants to have babies. John Cleese objects on the basis that "He hasn't got a womb. Where are they going to gestate? Are you gonna keep them in a cardboard box?" To which Stan says: "Don't you oppress me." They agree in the end to support Stan's struggle to have babies, which Cleese characterizes as Stan's struggle against reality. Note the word "reality". Cleese, in this sketch, thinks there is a reality to which we must conform. The others, however, see this reality (namely Stan's lack of a womb) as an obstacle to be overcome. We fulfil ourselves by overcoming the obstacles of reality.

The Monty Python sketch goes back a way now. Today, the Cleese view is politically incorrect, or worse. Indeed, transgenderism is the new cause-of-the-day. It soon becomes illegal to label children boys or girls. This is to deny them the choice of free abstract individuals. Gender is not a reality but a label - devised purely for nefarious reasons of power and privilege - and to impose gender upon children is to do violence to them. This world-view is well advanced in ultra-liberal societies such as the Scandanavian democracies, but it has taken root throughout the Western world.

It is even rearing its head in the Vatican. The latest stir there is the philosophy of a certain Cardinal Kasper, hence Kasperism. The Kasperists hope to apply a nominalist theology to the question of divorce. At present, divorcees are very often denied the Eucharist in Catholicism because their subsequent marriages are officially deemed improper and therefore sinful. The contemporary Church wants to get around this impasse and to open the Church to this expanding demographic. Kasper proposes doing in this way: he deems the married state to be a mere label that is not, in fact, a reality. It is just a name. The only reality is phenomenonlogical; that is, the subjective experience of the individual concerned. It doesn't matter how often the Church says I am still married to my first wife, the fact is that emotionally and otherwise I have moved on and so has she. That marriage only exists on paper. It is not a reality. The reality is what I identity as my reality, namely my new marriage and my new post-divorce life. Nominalism. Kasperism is nominalism by another name.

So we see nominalism advancing at every turn. Some people want to take it as far nationalities. These are the multiculturalists and open-border advocates. Just because you were born in Vietnam should not lock you into being Vietnamese. Why shouldn't you just decide to become a Canadian instead? Open-border advocates resent the restrictions imposed by birth. Why shouldn't gypsy Romanians migrate en masse to southern England, or west Africans make their way to Italy by boat? Why should someone be geographically constrained by where they were born? Why not open the borders - dissolve the borders - and make the whole thing open slather? If I want to live in China, I go and live in China. The existing restrictions of nation states are artificial constructs posing as realities purely in order to keep some people rich and others poor. So the argument goes. The only fair system is the melting pot. Be whatever you want, wherever you want. That's freedom.

Conservatives, as I say, subscribe to the opposite view, namely that there are realities and that nominalist ideas of freedom are spurious and finally reduce human beings to undifferentiated sludge. Instead, by birth and circumstance, we are given certain resources which are realities and we find fulfilment through actualizing them, not through denying them. Rather than seeing my gender as a curse or a straight-jacket imposed by odious oppressors, I can see it as a beautiful thing, a gift, and take delight in it and strive to make the best of it. Thus too my racial and ethnic identity. Instead of spending my life cringing and apologizing for being a white guy, I can accept the reality of my genetics and ancestry and be proud of it and find fulfilment through it, as far as it might be relevant to fulfilment. I can lead a rich life enjoying being an Australian rather than pretending to be an Arab.

These are the markers of this endless debate. The nominalists are winning, no doubt. The drift of our times is towards a triumphant nominalism. I would point out, though, that the debate is intractable and there will be reactions.

Finally, in my view, it is a corrosive debate built upon a false dichotomy. Surely, both points of view are true, and it remains to be debated as to where we draw the distinctions. The nominalist/realist divide tends to be all-or-nothing. It is really a matter of both. I remember discussing this with my friend, the late Lithuanian scholar Algis Uzdavinys, who pointed out to me that the nominalist/realist issue is treated by Plotinus as a continuum, a sliding scale, and not as an either-or duality. Indeed. That is how I see it. I think the pinkos are nuts. They can't grasp realities because their brains are made of spineless jello. Of course you can't call yourself an African American just because you feel like it! There has to be some basis to the claim - a basis in reality.

On the other hand, there are those (the so-called far right) who over-state the claim. Not content to be white guys - as born - they want to suppose that being white is better than being anything else (i.e. white supremacy). They claim inherent attributes of superiority just as they suppose that non-whites are inferior and no amount of education or welfare will lift them out of their inherently subordinate state. That type of philosophical realism, as we know, ends in Nazism and monstrous consequences.

As with other issues, therefore, the truth lies between two exaggerations, both of them evil. As social creatures we are always in a process of negotiating positions between these two extremes. This is true of the Catholic Church too, if it comes to that. It is a forum for these big debates that swing one way and then another. At present, under Pope Francis, a liberal nominalism is asserting itself. It is surely true that defunct marriages are defunct and that the new lives of divorcees are real - but at the same time surely a marriage has to make claims upon people if it is to be a serious thing and not just an empty convention that people can trash and walk away from at a whim? Regardless of what the "bedrock of contemporary ethics" might be, surely the fact you don't have a womb is a relevant reality pertaining to your desire to give birth to children, isn't it? And surely you can't just call yourself an aborigine in order to get preferential accommodation at a University campus or a $3000 higher education bonus, can you?

- Harper McAlpine Black


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  3. A sterling analysis of the relationship between nominalism as a philosophical thought and its incarnation in the society as liberalism. Bravo.