Essentialism and Egotism

ESSENTIALISM AND NOMINALISM

From what I gather reading the Orthosphere and other related anti-liberal blogs, anti-liberals believe essentialism and anti-liberalism go hand in hand. To aid my loyal readers who may not be familiar with this term, Essentialism is a philosophy holding everything has a set of characteristics that define it and that this essence has an existence logically prior to the existence of the thing itself. For example, a dog has a set of characteristics that make it a dog and not a cat. In other words, there exists an essence of “dogness” that all things we call dogs possess which is why we refer to them by the same name. Put another way, the label “dog” is indicative of a pre-existing truth.

Essentialism is typically contrasted (by anti-liberals) with nominalism which is a philosophy holding that these essences are only labels or intellectual concepts without any actual corresponding reality and that only things (not the essence of things) exist prior to the labels man applies to them. For example, a dog is a thing man calls a dog because it makes it easier for man to conceptualize a grouping of similar things. In other words, the things man calls dogs exist but this label “dog” is a just a creation of man. Moreover, man could just as easily contrived some other labeling system that did not segregate dogs into a discrete category the way man is used to thinking of dogs.

I can see different appealing aspects to both philosophies. The appeal of essentialism is that it presumes a reality and truth that exists independent of the mind of man. The universe has an order to it and it becomes man’s job (if he chooses) to seek after this pre-existing truth of reality. By contrast, the appeal of nominalism is the presumption of a universe in which man is free (to a certain extent) to define and shape as he sees fit. Whether a person identifies as an essentialist or a nominalist depends upon their view of the world which is in turn determined by their culture, religion, education and psychology. I imagine most people do not consciously identify as either. Interestingly enough, I have observed that anti-liberals tend to use nominalism as a pejorative term.

THE GOOD

There also seems to be a link between what anti-liberals consider to be orthodox (small “o”) Christianity and essentialism. This link has to do with there being one true definition (i.e., the essence) of the good which is reflective of God’s will and exists independent of man’s speculation or opinion of the good. Among essentialists there does exist some degree of agreement on at least part of the definition of the good. One can certainly look to the Bible and to the magisterium of the Catholic church (if one happens to be Roman Catholic) for guidance on this subject. Of course, not everyone happens to be a Roman Catholic or even Christian and so in this general sense there does not exist a universal agreement as to the definition of the good. Essentialists believe this definition exists none the less despite the fact that even they do not possess one hundred percent clarity as to what is in fact the definition of the good.

Even Saint Paul laments, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). Based on this passage it seems to me to be extremely arrogant for a person to presume to know the mind of God which is the vault in which resides the exact definition of the good. I accept, certain aspects of the good can be discerned from various secondary sources but the entire picture remains (as Saint Paul accurately points out) inscrutable in part.

THE ESSENTIALISM / NOMINALISM DICHITOMY

I am not convinced that liberalism (defined as the political philosophy espousing that the freedom and equal rights of citizens should be a nonexclusive priority of government) has a special relationship with nominalism. Perhaps one could argue that the very notion of freedom implies a rejection of the tyranny of labels. But one could also conceive of a person being “free” within a specific set of rules or parameters. It has been my experience that most educated and reasonable people understand the notion of freedom as used in political discourse to refer to Western political structures which are relatively more free than dictatorships, police states and authoritarian polities and not the non existent, straw man society where every citizen is absolutely free. As such, the “freedom” liberalism espouses is not a total rejection of authority and labels by any means and is therefore not incompatible with essentialism as far as I can see.

I am also not convinced that the essentialism / nominalism dichotomy is an accurate reflection of how people generally look at the world. Essentialism holds that a definition of the good exists independent of man’s conception of the good. Nominalism rejects this pre-existence of the definition of the good and thus leaves it up to man to make this determination. But I can certainly conceive of a person believing in freedom and a pre-existing definition of the good at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. I can also think of a third category where there is a pre-existing definition of the good that man does not have one hundred percent clarity as to the exact nature of the good so therefore there is room for speculation. I can even think of a fourth category where essentialism is true for some things but not others. I suspect, however, that the rejection of this dichotomy would be seen by an essentialist to be a symptom of nominalism.

EGOTISM AND ESSENTIALISM

Based on my admittedly limited experience the impression I get from many essentialists is that they have convinced themselves that they have clarity as to the exact nature of the good. The process of convincing themselves may have been augmented by their tendency not to converse with or take seriously anyone who might hold a different perspective or challenge them in any way. One can see how easy it would be for a person believing himself to have clarity as to the exact nature of the good to judge and criticize those with a different perspective.

It would make sense that an essentialist who truly believed his own dogma to be true would also have to believe that anyone who disagreed with him was either dishonest or lacked the capacity to understand his particular position. He might very well view the ability to see things from different points of view as smacking of the heresy of nominalism.

It seems to me that a true essentialist would be humble because he would know there are truths greater than the self and the mind’s ability to conceptualize. As Saint Paul reminds us, God’s ways are inscrutable. But for a man to have convinced himself of his own hold on truth and goodness seems to me to be closer to nominalism than essentialism. If given temporal power who knows what cruelties he might inflict on those he would condemn from his lofty perch. This (it seems to me) is the true danger of arrogant egotism combined with essentialism.

 

 

 

15 Comments

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15 responses to “Essentialism and Egotism

  1. donnie

    Winston,

    You must have a very low opinion of your readers (of which I am one) if you do not think that folks will be able to see through the brazen hypocrisy of your final three paragraphs.

    If you can find a single forum on the internet where the subjects at hand can be discussed and debated with even half of the collective patience and civility shown by the posters and commenters at the Orthosphere and its affiliated blogs, I’ll eat my hat.

  2. donnie

    Your final three paragraphs serve only to judge and criticize a group of people you disagree with, all because we are (according to you) guilty of having judged and criticized those with whom we disagree with. You’re a hypocrite even by your own standards.

    But it’s even more brazen that that, because you accuse your interlocutors of of having convinced ourselves that we possess clarity into the exact nature of the Good. From here, you reason, stems the ease to which we (uncharitably, in your telling) call a spade a spade, a heresy a heresy, and a falsehood a falsehood. Never mind the fact that not a single one of your interlocutors would ever claim to possess clarity into the exact nature of the Good, and that such a claim is an obvious heresy on its face. No, instead let us follow your train of meandering psychoanalysis to it’s conclusion in which you ask the reader to imagine all the hideous and unnamed cruelties that (we are to assume) would inevitably be brought to bear if non-liberals were ever given any sort of temporal means to abolish liberalism. Never mind all the actual hideous cruelties that have been and continue to be inflicted on innumerable poor souls as a result of allowing only firmly committed liberals to hold the reigns of temporal power. No, we the readers are just supposed to accept that apparently Winston Scrooge possesses enough clarity into the exact nature of the Good to conclude that the Good certainly doesn’t include any non-liberals.

    Everything above your final three paragraphs was great fodder for a substantial discussion. I myself am not sure whether nominalism is a necessary precursor to liberalism, and think the question is worthy of further discussion and investigation. But as long as you insist on using these topics as an excuse to hypocritically judge and cast vicious aspersions at those with whom you disagree, scrutinizing the souls and psyches of your interlocutors from atop your lofty perch as armchair internet psychoanalyst… well, frankly pal I need that kind of hypocrisy, arrogance and condescension like I need another hole in the head.

    • “Your final three paragraphs serve only to judge and criticize a group of people you disagree with, all because we are (according to you) guilty of having judged and criticized those with whom we disagree with. You’re a hypocrite even by your own standards.”

      First of all, these final three paragraphs do not apply to all essentialists. I specifically used the words “many essentialists” to limit the scope of these three paragraphs. Second, it seems like you are saying the act of calling out a person for being rude and judgmental is worse than the original offense. How else would one point out a person is being judgmental without being a hypocrite in your estimation? Let me assure you (and I think you know) I am perfectly capable of having a civil conversation with those who choose to be civil. These three paragraphs clearly do not apply to them. But for the ones who are rude and judgmental I absolutely reserve the right to call them out on this. I make no apologies for that.

      • Second, it seems like you are saying the act of calling out a person for being rude and judgmental is worse than the original offense.

        No, calling someone rude and judgmental is not worse than actually being rude and judgmental. But following such accusations with statements like this:

        It would make sense that an essentialist who truly believed his own dogma to be true would also have to believe that anyone who disagreed with him was either dishonest or lacked the capacity to understand his particular position.

        or this:

        if given temporal power who knows what cruelties he might inflict on those he would condemn from his lofty perch

        or this:

        The process of convincing themselves may have been augmented by their tendency not to converse with or take seriously anyone who might hold a different perspective or challenge them in any way

        is rude, judgmental, and hypocritical.

      • Those three sections you quote directly apply to Zippy who has on numerous occasions made the judgment that I and others who have disagreed with him lacked the capacity to understand him.

        As to the second selection you quoted, he has also accused liberals of being responsible for mass murder because they believe in freedom and equal rights. The second selection you quoted was intended to explain my belief that any government (liberal or illiberal) is capable of mass murder if those in charge demonstrate the disdain he seems to demonstrate.

        As for the third section one simply needs to read the comment section of his blog to see that it is predominantly an echo-chamber of like minded individuals.

        If you feel meeting rudeness and judgmentalism with in kind force is hypocrisy then so be it.

  3. [Zippy] has on numerous occasions made the judgment that I and others who have disagreed with him lacked the capacity to understand him.

    He makes this judgment not about people who simply disagree with him, but about people who have also manifestly shown that they have not (as of yet) been able to accurately paraphrase his argument. But if he really, truly thought that people who disagreed with him genuinely lacked the capacity, he wouldn’t put any effort into trying to explain it.

    As for the third section one simply needs to read the comment section of his blog to see that it is predominantly an echo-chamber of like minded individuals.

    You realize that he (and many of his readers) used to be classical liberals, right? That they used to make the same arguments you make time and time again and that it is only by years of thought and help from Jim Kalb that Zippy himself was able to see the incoherence that he sees in liberalism. It is precisely because Zippy used to think this way that he tries so hard to help other people see how that way of thinking is wrong. He has successfully convinced many (but not all) of his commenters who used to seriously hold the same ideas that you currently hold, and that is why it seems many of them agree with each other.

    Assuming that someone who considers himself to be an internet clown (his words) and professes that no one should take his ideas at face value without doing their own due diligence believes that he understands the exact nature of the good and “[presumes] to know the mind of God” is rather uncharitable, and it leads to uncharitable conclusions like accusing someone of being the kind of person who would be cruel if given temporal power.

    It isn’t hypocritical to be rude and judgmental to people who are rude and judgmental. It is hypocritical to imply that being rude and judgmental is bad and makes a person capable of cruelty if given temporal power and then being rude and judgmental to others.

    • It is not the rudeness and judgmentalism per se that makes me fear the situation where temporal power is placed in his or someone similar’s hands. It is the disdain for the people who hold different views that this rudeness and judgmentalism imply. People with disdain for others tend not to treat them too kindly. So this observation was not made for the purpose of being insulting. It was a logical conclusion.

      Along the same thread, it was never my intention to defend liberalism as better than what ever undefined alternative Z is proposing. Rather it is my contention that liberalism is just as good as any other form of government. Put another way, any form of government can commit atrocities given the right circumstances.

      • T. Morris

        Winston:

        People with disdain for others tend not to treat them too kindly.

        We should always keep in mind that this principle (such that it is) applies in both directions. What you are arguing for, winston, and us against, really just boils down to tolerating/engaging in the ongoing revolution, or not. We say not. You disagree. We are enemies, then, until one or the other of us changes his position.

      • To my knowledge I am not in favor of “ongoing revolution.” But if that is your interpretation of my position and you feel we must be enemies as a result I am sorry to hear that.

      • A couple other thoughts: (1) Tolerance recognizes that this principle goes both ways. It seems to me a philosophy of “enemies” does not. (2) Who is more likely to treat another cruelly, one who is tolerant of the other or one who considers the other an enemy?

      • T. Morris

        Winston, I’m an avowed enemy of liberal “tolerance.” To “tolerate” a thing implies disagreement with the thing in question. One doesn’t “tolerate” a thing (s)he agrees with, (s)he *embraces* it. So to answer your question, I don’t accept for a second the (abjectly false on its face) idea that liberals are “more tolerant” than anti-liberals. The former might be *indifferent* to something I disagree with, but that isn’t the same thing as “tolerance.” Indifference to mortal sin is the opposite of charity.

      • T. Morris

        Winston, that’s a fine verse, and one we should, as Christians, strive to live by. But also keep in mind that the verse itself acknowledges that our enemies are, well, our enemies. Should we pray for them? Sure. Should we “tolerate” what they are doing/advocating? Hmm. Maybe we should look a little deeper in those latter cases? …

      • As long as you keep it to praying for them I suspect there won’t be a problem.

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