Monthly Archives: February 2017

Exploring Intellectual Conservatism: Essentialism v. Nominalism

galaxyThere is an interesting blog where intellectual (and pseudo-intellectual) conservatives congregate called the Orthosphere. Not being of that world I have learned a great deal by reading the articles and interacting with its contributors in the comment sections. Many of the memes expressed on that website have an impressive, logical consistency about them. Most of the contributors appear to have a background in academia and the quality of the writing largely reflects this. In short, I find the website valuable because it provides an insight into that mindset.

It should be noted that the Orthosphere (for the most part) reflects a highly intellectualized and theoretical conception of conservatism. I contrast this with the more commonly expressed emotional version of conservatism we experience on Fox News and from the mouths of the standard Trump voter displayed in the media. This is not to say that the emotional version of conservatism is not valid or does not have its roots in the intellectual version. I suspect, however, that most emotional conservatives would not be able to articulate their gut feeling that something is wrong with America and Western Civilization politically and morally in the manner in which the intellectual conservatives of the Orthosphere. I can certainly empathize with this perspective in many cases. The intellectual dishonesty of political correctness is probably the best example of this.

One meme or argument commonly made on the Orthosphere that I take issue with is the assertion that liberalism is an incoherent political philosophy. I have observed that many people define (or not define) liberalism in many different ways on that website. Many times liberalism seems to be a catchall term for anything someone finds distasteful. One contributor named Zippy (who is a champion of the “liberalism is incoherent” argument) offered a definition of liberalism as “the political doctrine that securing individual freedom and [the] equal rights [of its citizens] is the [or a] primary legitimate purpose of government.”

In my last blog post I described Zippy’s argument that “liberalism is incoherent” as a conflict of liberal government’s duties to enforce the law and protect the freedom and equal rights of its citizens. In the comment section of my last post Zippy took issue with this characterization of his argument stating:

The argument is not that liberal government sets two purposes in contradiction to each other. The argument is that government – authority – has an essence, and that liberal government is a contradiction in terms (like for example round square, fried ice, etc[.]).

He later clarified this assertion in the comment section in this way:

Every exercise of authority, every act of governance, authoritatively discriminates and restricts freedom, necessarily and always. It is the essence of the exercise of authority to do precisely that: to decide particular controvertible cases authoritatively. That is what governance is, no matter what word games people attempt to play in order to get a different result.

I have a problem with this line of thinking. I can certainly accept the premise that every act of governance necessarily discriminates and restricts freedom. However government can also restrain itself from acting. The best example of a liberal government restraining itself from acting is the Bill of Rights to the U. S. Constitution. The First Amendment begins with the words “Congress shall make no law.” So while to say that every act of governance is necessarily a restriction of freedom this is only half the story. Liberal government can also restrict itself from acting and I see no essential conflict in stating this.

Another aspect of my interchange with Zippy revolved around the metaphysical concepts of Essentialism and Nominalism.* I argued the only reason he saw this contradiction in terms was because he had defined the terms to be contradictory. He then suggested that I was not capable of understanding his argument because (he supposed) I happened to be viewing the world from a nominalist as opposed to essentialist perspective.

Metaphysical essentialism logically goes hand in hand with the extreme conservative perspective Zippy and many other contributors espouse. If everything in the world has an absolute essence then any act or thought in contravention to this essence is error both materially and morally (which is a natural extension of the material world). By contrast, if the definitions of things are entirely dependant on the whims of the human mind as the nominalistic perspective argues then the realm of morality becomes significantly restricted or eliminated entirely. Zippy argued:

Nominalism (and other forms of anti-realism) are self-refuting. There really are such things as trees, not merely that thing which we will arbitrarily label a tree for the sake of convenience and that other thing which we will arbitrarily label a tree for the sake of convenience. Universals, categories, and transcendentals are not merely word games: they refer to reality.

This argument makes sense when one is referring to concrete physical objects such as trees. It makes less sense when one refers to abstract concepts such as authority. This is clearly demonstrated when I compare Zippy’s definition of authority with the definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Zippy defines authority as “a moral capacity to oblige a subject to choose this thing rather than that.”

Merriam-Webster defines authority as “(a) power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior [and] (b) freedom granted by one in authority”.

I find it noteworthy that Zippy excludes the secondary definition of authority “freedom granted by one authority.” This is essentially a restatement of my point that authority includes the power to act and to not act. More broadly, the fact that these two different definitions exist (Zippy’s and Merriam-Webster’s) demonstrates that nominalistic perspective is probably a more accurate (i.e., in accordance with reality) perspective when it comes to abstract concepts such as authority. After all, Zippy either made up his definition of authority or chose it from a variety of definitions because it was in accordance with his subjective perspective.

In conclusion, at this point in my exploration I remain unconvinced that liberalism is incoherent or that liberal government is an essential contradiction in terms. As for the debate between essentialism and nominalism I have to split the baby on that one. For me essentialism makes more sense the more concrete the subject matter and decreasingly less so the more abstract the subject matter becomes.

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* According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Essentialism is a philosophical theory ascribing ultimate reality to essence embodied in a thing perceptible to the senses.

Nominalism is a [philosophical] theory [which asserts] that there are no universal essences in reality and that the mind can frame no single concept or image corresponding to any universal or general term.

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Attempting to Understand the Alt-Right Part V

In its essence the Orthospherian-conservative argument against liberalism seems to be that liberalism is a rebellion against proper authority and ultimately God. They see all authority as derived from God in a continuous hierarchy. Thus a rejection of any link in the chain is a rejection of the chain entire (i.e., a rejection of God). I assume according to this philosophy that all authority is good in their eyes and thus any attempt by an authority to apply an ethic of freedom and equality (i.e., liberalism) onto its citizens is an abrogation of its authority and in effect a self-contradictory rejection of its own goodness (which is therefore bad).

img_0827The Orthospherians assert liberal authority is self-defeating at best and self-destroying at worst. A liberal authority by definition supports those who rebel against authority (i.e., liberals). This rejection of authority takes the form of fighting for freedom and equality. Liberals, therefore, exist in a perpetual state of revolution against the injustice of inequality and because inequality is inherent to existence. Thus, although liberalism on some level purports to have an idyllic end game it is the struggle itself that is the real end game.

Liberalism as defined by the Orthospherian contributor named Zippy is the political doctrine which holds that securing individual freedom and equal rights is a primary and legitimate purpose of government. There is a standard meme on the Othosphere declaring that liberalism is “incoherent” as a political philosophy. This meme is most clearly championed by Zippy who argues that the primary purpose of securing freedom and equal rights for its citizens which defines liberalism is at odds with a government’s other primary purpose which is to maintain law and order. It is because of this supposed incoherency that any liberal government must become more and more repressive over time in order to maintain the freedom and equal rights of its citizens. This repression works against anyone who would champion conservative values which stand in opposition to freedom and equal rights. Because (as is believed by the Orthospherians) the universe is fundamentally unfree and unequal the liberal government has set itself against the universe. This is ultimately self-defeating and can only be maintained by becoming more and more repressive in its means of maintaining this system as the reality of the universe closes in on it.

In this way the Orthospherians can make the argument that Stalinism and Nazism are both liberal ideologies even though neither one respected the freedom and equal rights of its citizens. I suppose the argument goes something along the lines of, but for a liberal authority seeking to create a society of free and equal citizens there would be no need to become authoritarian so as to suppress the conservative forces opposing it. As such it is the initial aim of freedom and equality that matters when labeling a government liberal and not the ultimate unfree and unequal outcome.

In contrast to liberals, the true Orthospherian-conservatives believe in authority and obedience to authority. In this dynamic there is no contradiction of primary purposes and thus no need for the ever increasing level of authority that liberalism inevitably brings about. It would seem that authority is good but ever increasing authority is bad in the eyes of the Orthospherians. Moreover, an authority based government whose primary function is not to create a society of free and equal citizens is stable and unchanging (which is good).

I have not observed any Orthospherian make the argument that the citizens of such a state will ultimately be happier in the bargain but I assume they would naturally think this. I also assume they at least believe that the members of the elite class in this society would be happier than under liberalism. I suspect there is somewhat of a “tough shit” approach to anyone who might feel cheated by their place in society under an Orthospherian ideal government. But to complain would be to espouse liberal values after all and such is the price to pay for stability.

I must admit that the Orthospherian world view seems logically consistent on a broad theoretical level but only if the terms “freedom” and “equality” are defined absolutely and not relatively. Certainly no government can maintain law and order while at the same time leaving its citizens free to do whatever they want. But no liberal has ever defined freedom in this way. So long as there is a balance between the two there really is no incoherence in liberalism as defined by Zippy.

Another way Zippy attempts to chip away at liberalism is to argue that there really is no objective thing called freedom. Specifically he asserted in a comment,

Borrowing from liberal philosopher John Rawls, whether or not you consider a particular society ‘oppressive’ generally depends entirely on who you happen to be in that society and (adding the part that Rawls carefully avoids) what you think it is good to enforce. A ‘free society’ is – the question is begged – one which sends the right sort of people to prison.

I think this argument fails because it ignores the fact that there is a generally agreed upon view as to just what rights are respected in a free society of the West. These rights are very well articulated in the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution and can be clearly demonstrated when one compares the society of North Korea with the United States. Obviously one society is more free than the other and it is not merely a difference of opinion as to who belongs in jail.

Zippy also tries to demonize liberalism by pointing out the evils it is responsible for,

When it comes to the matter of ‘repression’ and the like, it may be worth pointing out that (e.g.) feminism (which is as American as Rosy the Riveter) has slaughtered far more innocents than the Nazis and the Stalinists combined.

Of course Zippy is alluding to legalized abortion within modern Western countries. I suppose the argument goes that a government whose primary purpose is securing individual freedom cannot deny a woman the right to have an abortion. Therefore liberalism is responsible for all the deaths abortion has caused. There may be some merit to this position but it is worth pointing out that abortion existed prior to the advent of liberalism. I honestly do not know if the number of abortions practiced since it became medically safe and legal exceeds all prior abortions in raw numbers or in frequency. But I do know it cannot logically be said that liberalism is responsible for abortion if it existed both before and after liberalism came into being.

The supposed evils of liberalism are debatable. I do not know that liberalism always and necessarily leads to more authoritarian governments. I do not know that liberalism is any more or less stable a form of government than is a monarchy. History has demonstrated that monarchies can be overthrown by liberal forces and I do not think any revolution happened simply because the citizens were acting naughty and not respecting their proper authorities. It seems obvious to me that there were more real and complex dynamics at work.

I also do not know that liberalism is a rejection of God. I believe in freedom and equal rights and I also believe in and love God. I further believe that one has to be free in order to love God authentically. Is that not the point of God endowing man with free will?

As I have said before, it is not my intention to argue against conservatism in this series of blog posts. I merely wanted to document my thought process as I took in what I learned. So any counter argument I may have made is simply what came to mind when I considered the various positions I encountered. My original intention was to better understand the Alt-Right in connection with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. It turned out that the Orthosphere was not the best place to do that as most of the contributors there identified themselves as Traditionalists. But I do feel like I have come to a better understanding of the wider conservative movement through this exploration. Even though the conservatism I encountered at the Orthosphere is probably more intellectually grounded than the conservatism espoused by the bulk of those who voted for Mr. Trump. I suspect their conservatism is more emotionally based but I do not know that for a fact.

Obviously there is more to learn but I am going to leave things here for now. Once more I thank the commenters from the Orthosphere for the information they provided me along the way.

 

 

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