How did we get here? How did we arrive at a place where an individual’s worth depends on their race, gender, or class? How did we come to believe that “equity” has moral precedent over freedom? How have we been led to accept that gender has no meaning outside that given to it by each individual, regardless of sex?
The vehicle driving us to the edge of this abyss is nominalism.
Nominalism is the philosophical assertion that identity obtains only in the words we use. In technical language, we say that nominalism rejects the existence of universals, which amounts to saying the same thing: Things have no identity outside the words we apply to them.
It contrasts with philosophical realism, which recognizes identity as existing inside our pre-verbal experiences of objects, physical and mental. The nominalist doesn’t call something X because it’s X; it’s X because he calls it X. The realist calls a thing X because X is the conventional tag we use for the concept of the real-world thing to which is being referred.
Nominalism is a game of pin-the-word on the concept. Nominalists don’t search for truth, they closet it inside a labyrinth of verbiage. A word means whatever is meant by the majority of people using it. It doesn’t even have to be a majority. “Racism is white people” is a belief in ascendancy because those in cultural power insist on it.
A word “means” whatever those in power say it means, and by “those in power” I’m referring, in this case, to the media and the academy. They’ll tell you that racism means being white, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it, so long as one capitulates to the nominalist thesis that nothing is real outside of the words we use. Most people will, because nominalism is as common as a cold.
It’s also demanded by edict of the academy, boiled down effectively to French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s blanket statement, accepted by all “respectable” university professors, that “there is nothing outside the text.” Words are everything. The real is merely what we choose to call “real.”
Words Over Nature
The most obvious current case of rampant nominalism is the transgender movement, which purports that a biological man can be a woman or the other way around. A woman is simply a person who identifies as a woman, who employs the word “woman” in reference to him or herself.
One might wonder what difference it makes to a transgendered person if society declines to call him a “woman.” Why does a transgendered person insist on outside approval? Because a world in which reality is indifferent to the progressive’s wishes and feelings is a dangerous place, where things, people, thoughts, and emotions have inherent natures that can’t be controlled. Biology means nothing to the true progressive, because the real world, as opposed to the world of words, is empty for them. Only a person’s feelings matter, and these are embodied in the application of appropriate pronouns. The concept of words over nature is nominalism on stilts.
In “A Conflict of Visions,” Thomas Sowell wrote of two ways of viewing existence: the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. In the constrained vision, humans are inherently limited by their nature, while the unconstrained vision admits no natural limits to human activity. The former leads to a conservative mode of governance, taking into account both human freedom and human flaws, while the latter unleashes the power of anyone with a utopian plan to shape a population according to his wishes.
The relationship of the unconstrained vision to nominalism is clear: The unconstrained vision can only be justified if the world consists of words, not real physical and mental objects. If “freedom” means something real in the world, one is limited to that concept. But if “freedom” can be redefined to mean “that which comes only with income equity,” then it’s possible to destroy real freedom in the name of freedom.
Left and Right
This leads us to perhaps the most deceptive of all current verbal distortions: the definitions of political left and right. It’s well known that the terms originated in the 1789 French National Assembly, when those who favored the king sat on the right side of the chamber and those who sought his elimination sat on the left. This distinction took on a life of its own and blossomed into international usage. But what do the terms actually indicate, other than a seating arrangement? Look up most dictionary definitions and you’ll see that to be on the right means to favor authority over personal freedoms, while being on the left indicates compassion and liberty.
This nominal indication of left and right is due to the association of a king with authoritarianism. Only, why did the assembly members who sat on the right favor the king? Because King Louis XVI was the first French king to take seriously the 17th-century French merchants’ cry, “Laissez-faire et laissez-passer; le monde va de lui meme” (“Let things be made and pass without assistance; the world goes by itself”). Even today, Louis XVI is referred to as “the restorer of French liberty.”
Therefore, a realist definition of the political right would match the original concept of the right-side sitters: “The position favoring individual liberty; laissez-faire.” The left-sitters, as the Terror was soon to attest, meant the opposite: The left, by realist definition, indicates “the position favoring authoritarian interference with individual decisions.” The confusion over “left” and “right” comes from the assumption that words can attach themselves to whatever concepts suit our belief system; in other words, to nominalism.
The Real World
Now we can see why George Orwell focused on the importance of language. A nominalist culture can easily distort a word to mean its opposite: “Freedom is Slavery” was a key slogan in the socialist dictatorship of Orwell’s “1984.” Allow nominalism full throttle and it will call freedom slavery, men women, and lies truth. Only philosophical realism can combat this assault on humanity. Only the understanding that words are mere tags for the concepts that underlie them, concepts which in turn correspond to mental and physical objects of the real (non-verbal) world, can restore sanity. The world is real, and we’re free to engage with it, but only on its own terms.
Orwell pointed out that “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.” Freedom isn’t the freedom to say the answer to that equation is five if that suits one’s ethnic or gender identity. Freedom isn’t subjectivism—it’s individualism, which is the obligation of every human to discern the real world from his or her perspective, rather than manufacture it according to political ideology or personal feelings. Nominalism postures as “freedom,” but is in actuality ungrounded subjectivism. Realism opens the door to experiencing true freedom, and its most profound issue, beauty. This was the point made by the late U.S. poet laureate Richard Wilbur, when he wrote:
“Let dreamers dream what worlds they please,
Those Edens can’t be found.
The sweetest flow’rs, the fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.”
Former music critic for the Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star, Kenneth LaFave recently earned a doctorate in philosophy, art, and critical thought from the European Graduate School. He’s the author of three books, including “Experiencing Film Music” (2017, Rowman & Littlefield).
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.