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.


* 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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34 responses to “Exploring Intellectual Conservatism: Essentialism v. Nominalism

    • I assume you believe this critique of positivism does not apply to you? Isn’t your blog devoted to articulating the framework through which you view the world?

      • I assume you believe this critique of positivism does not apply to you?

        I am a metaphysical realist, not a positivist. (Positivism and nominalism are closely related kinds of metaphysical anti-realism, and your OP is basically an expression of metaphysical anti-realism when it comes to authority).

        Isn’t your blog devoted to articulating the framework through which you view the world?

        My blog is devoted to saying things that I find interesting, which often includes makeing definite statements. It is typical of positivism to see postmodernism as the only alternative to positivism, because they are really both facets of the same basic error.

        If you want a gentle introduction to problems with modern anti-realism, you might find Incompleteness by Rebecca Goldstein and Beyond the Postmodern Mind by Huston Smith interesting reads. If you want to torture yourself there is After Writing by Catherine Pickstock.

      • You say my OP is an expression of metaphysical anti-realism because we differ on the definition of authority. Why can I not say the same of you?

      • In the OP you expressly embrace nominalism — a kind of anti-realism — in your understanding of authority, specifically. That isn’t just a “different definition” — although for nominalists all categories and essences are just definitions of words (names) adopted for the sake of convenience, so seeing it as just a “different definition” is what is to be expected of someone who has adopted the nominalist view.

        Whether you do or don’t grasp the implications of that embrace is distinct from the objective implications. Ideas have consequences, and all that.

      • So you are somehow keyed in to the essence of authority whereas I and the dictionary are not?

      • A dictionary definition is merely a pointer to reality, designed for people who already share metaphysical common ground. A dictionary definition of a rabbit can help prod one towards an understand what rabbits are, but “a burrowing, gregarious, plant-eating mammal with long ears, long hind legs, and a short tail” just gives a general idea — and that assuming one already mutually understands with the definition-author the realities behind the terms being used — of what a rabbit is like.

        The dictionary definition of authority, likewise, can help you get a basic idea of what authority is like.

        But obsession with definitions and conflation of them with essences is a nominalist thing. Words are fragile objects which are useful for communicating, but they don’t capture reality in the way that positivists think they do. That’s why in these discussions nobody ever “wins”. There is just more (or less) success at communicating. And where pre-verbal and metaphysical priors are greatly mismatched, failure tends to be the norm.


      • So why is it you feel you are more keyed in to the essence of authority than I am?

      • By expressly embracing the nominalist view you have denied that there is anything essential to authority at all. You haven’t disputed my understanding of authority with a counter-understanding: you’ve expressly denied that authority is real at all.

      • In the OP, for example:

        This argument [contra nominalism] 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.

        The OP reads like you have adopted an anti-essentialist position on the reality of authority. (If that isn’t what you mean, then I can’t make sense of what you wrote.)

      • We can both be essentialist in belief and yet has ever different beliefs, no? You disagree with me as to the exact nature of authority and then presume the reason for this is that you are an essentialist and I am a nominalistic. What’s to stop me from saying the opposite is true?

      • I didn’t have to assume that you were asserting antiessentialism with respect to authority. You said as much explicitly in the OP.

  1. I find it noteworthy that Zippy excludes the secondary definition of authority “freedom granted by one authority.”

    I don’t exclude that view. I just recognize that every freedom granted to one person or class of persons is itself, necessarily and always, an act of discrimination which implies a multitude of constraints for every single putative “freedom” that it grants:


  2. You could look at it this way:

    If authority is real, then liberalism is incoherent.

    If authority is not real then all government is simply tyranny, because nobody has a legitimate right to tell anyone else what to do or not do.

    • Why can’t I look at this way? Authority is real and it can choose to restrict freedom or not to restrict freedom. A liberal government is one that chooses to restrict freedom to a lesser extent than a non liberal government. That does not seem incoherent to me.

  3. Authority is real and it can choose to restrict freedom or not to restrict freedom.

    You haven’t examined what “choose not to restrict freedom” means as a real exercise of authority in addressing real, concrete, controvertible cases. By keeping it in the realm of airy abstraction you obscure that “choose not to restrict freedom” is just begging the question in favor of whatever set of rules – discriminatory restrictions on freedom – you find amenable.

    Suppose Bob and Fred approach the sovereign. Bob claims to own the house at 345 Elm, and Fred says that Bob doesn’t own it and he wants to stay there himself. This is a concrete controvertible case, not an airy abstraction disconnected from reality.

    The sovereign can uphold Bob’s ownership claim and restrict Fred’s (and everyone else’s) freedom to enter the house at will. He can rule that Fred actually owns the house and that Bob has to beat it. He can rule that someone else entirely owns the house, and that both Bob and Fred have to beat it. Or he can “choose not to restrict freedom” and refrain from acting entirely, thereby abolishing private property rights – or at least their enforcement in this particular case.

    The notion that one of these discriminatory, authoritative choices by the sovereign represents “not restricting freedom” is incoherent. None of the authoritative dispositions of the controvertible case (including the putative ‘refrain from acting’ one) favors freedom per se, in some abstract sense. To label any of them “choosing freedom” is simply to beg the question in favor of the authoritative, discriminatory set of rules you prefer. “Freedom” the slogan just means, de facto, that in your view the right sort of people are being put into prison for the right reasons and the right sort of people and actions are sanctioned by those exercising discriminating authority.


    • Except that (as I have previously stated) in the Western liberal tradition there is a pretty good consensus as to what freedoms the a government protects or refuses to restrict (see the bill of rights). Your example of a property law is not all that convincing as protecting a person’s property rights is also a cornerstone of the western legal tradition that goes hand in hand with the freedoms protected in the bill of rights.

      • What you are saying then, de facto, is that “freedom” is just a slogan for putting the right sort of people in prison for the right reasons, as established by the western legal tradition — a tradition which is authoritative over any abstract idea of people being free to do what they choose. In other words “freedom” doesn’t really refer to freedom at all. It just refers to having the right (by your lights) sorts of laws and to those in authority exercising that authority the way you think they should.


      • It’s not as arbitrary as you make out. The western concept of freedom is based on arguably 3,000 years of prescient if one goes back to the Conflict of the Orders in early Roman times.

      • It isn’t that the rules for who goes to prisons and why are arbitrary. It is that labeling those rules and the discriminating authority behind them “freedom” is self deception.

      • Would you deny that the USA is not in its essence more free than North Korea?

      • As modern regimes the political philosophies of USA and North Korea have far more in common with each other than either do with my understanding. North Korea’s Juche political philosophy is just a variant of socialism, which is a variant of liberalism.

        I reject the category “free society” outright and unequivocally:


        … so you shouldn’t expect me to agree with characterizing some as “more free” than others in some abstract and general sense.

      • Now who is denying rabbits are real? You strike me as a positivist / nominalist is an essentialist’s clothing.

      • The position that certain things don’t
        exist isn’t antiessentialism. Unicorns and other fictional creatures don’t exist, for example. Or, if you prefer, they have strictly fictional existence, as far as we know.

        Authority does exist. If it didn’t then children would never be morally obligated to obey their parents, subjects would never be morally obligated to obey the sovereign, etc.

        So maybe we’ve reached the point where we both agree that authority is real, and I suppose that might count as some sort of progress.

        For example, a philosophy of rabbits which asserts that rabbits are incorporeal and have no form is an incoherent philosophy of rabbits. And a philosophy of authority which asserts that the purpose of exercising authority is freedom is an incoherent philosophy of authority. In both cases the incoherent philosophy attempts to construct a concept of a (real) thing which is contrary to the essence of that real thing.

      • The assertion that North Korea is no less free a society than the USA is equally absurd as the assertion that rabbits do not exist.

      • How “free” (a.k.a. empowered) you feel always depends on who you are and what you want to do. If you are a child in the womb in the USA, for example, you are free to die at your mother’s whim. If you are married, you are free to be dumped by your spouse despite mutual promises. You are not free to stop women from mass murdering their children, or hold your spouse to his or her promises, etc etc.

        Really this is very basic.

        You see your own coin as shiny:


      • Those arguments are irrelevant to the fact that one society is demonstrably more free than the other. It’s silly to argue otherwise.

      • Incredulity doesn’t constitute an argument. There are certainly better and worse societies, and it is easy to lazily equate “better” to “more free” by begging the question.

      • It’s the same argument you make with the rabbits and the counter is the same argument you make about the essence of authority.

      • As long as by “the same” we mean “not at all alike”.

        Anyway, thanks for the discussion and good luck.

      • Same to you my friend.😊 (BTW – Sounds like someone has their positivist blinders on).

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