Tag Archives: Essentialism

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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