The “Catastrophe of Nominalism”

The “Catastrophe of Nominalism”

Long-time readers of this blog will already know that I agree with Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) that the rise of nominalism in especially Western cultures has been a “catastrophe.” (See several of his many massive volumes but also his brief manifesto entitled The God Question and Modern Man [1967].) According to Balthasar, nominalism led to secularism which in term led to “forgetfulness of beauty” and ultimately the de-humanizing of “man.” In my own The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (IVP) I begin the story of modern theology with William of Ockham (1285-1387) who was both a theologian and a philosopher. (In his time they were virtually inseparable roles at least in Europe.) Ockham may or may not have been a nominalist; scholars debate that endlessly. But, if he was not a nominalist, he was at least a conceptualist. He is traditionally credited with promoting a nominalistic vision of reality even if others were more guilty of sheer nominalism than he.

So what is nominalism and what’s so “catastrophic” about it? Defining it is one of philosophers’ favorite pastimes. But here is how one scholar, Meyrick H. Carré, defined it: “General ideas, universals, are merely names, nomina, and even noises, flatus vocis. The common nature which they assert is wholly subjective.” (Realists and Nominalists [Oxford University Press, 1946], p. 41.) For realism, on the other hand, “The universal resides in the nature governing the individual.” (p. 41) For nominalism, “This unity resides only in the common term.” (p. 41)

Philosophers will rightly point out that these are fairly extreme versions of nominalism and realism and that there are numerous “points” along the spectrum of ideas about universals, “conceptualism” being one of them. But my point here, like Balthasar’s, is that a certain, perhaps philosophically unsophisticated, idea of universals that can be labeled “nominalism” lies at the beginning and center of the decline of Western civilization and even robust Christianity—even if it would better be labeled “conceptualism.”

What’s at stake? What are the issues? Balthasar claims, throughout his writings, that lying at the heart of Western culture, from the most influential Greek and Roman philosophers through the church fathers, including especially Augustine, through the leading medieval Christian thinkers such as Anselm, is a kind of “perennial philosophy” (my term borrowed from Aldous Huxley, not Balthasar’s) that believes in what Balthasar labeled “transcendental ideals”—especially truth, beauty and goodness. That perennial philosophy, and I would say also the implicit biblical metaphysic, views these transcendental ideals as in some sense ontologically-metaphysically real and not just names or concepts created by human beings.

Of course Balthasar was not the only critic of nominalism; C. S. Lewis opposed it especially in his classic The Abolition of Man (1943). Some Catholics, for whom nominalism is heresy, accuse all Protestants of being nominalists because Luther was and they detect nominalism at the core of Protestantism. But many Protestants, like Lewis, have rejected nominalism just as vehemently as Catholics have.

Lest this essay become too long, let me sum up Balthasar’s and Lewis’s claim about “the catastrophe of nominalism.” One way of putting it is that, because of nominalism and its influence (“trickled down” into the fabric of Western culture) there is widespread belief that “beauty is only in the eye of the beholder,” “truth is what works (to solve problems),” and “goodness is culture-dependent.” In other words, there are no real transcendental ideals; truth, beauty and goodness are only cultural creations and ultimately labels for individual perceptions.

To someone who has learned to think in terms of nominalism and realism (or the spectrum of thought about universals at the ends of which they lie), almost everything in culture and philosophy (broadly defined to include informal ways of thinking about reality) comes back to them. As someone who has taught American university students for thirty-six years (including my days teaching undergraduates religion while working on my Ph.D. in religious studies at a major American research university) in four universities, I can testify that most of them have been conditioned, I’m tempted to say brainwashed, by culture, especially public education, to think about reality nominalistically. For them, by-and-large, the world (universe) is not “charged with the grandeur of God,” beauty is only in the eye of the beholder, truth is, at most, what God says, and goodness is, at most, whatever God commands—even if there is no particular reason for it.

I have always been interested in detecting, figuring out, what pattern of thought, what world-perspective, what vision of reality, deeply underlies culture. Having lived in Germany and America I have concluded that, for example, a basic cultural difference has to do with the unity or lack of unity between thought and being. German intellectuals, especially, perhaps due to German idealism’s “trickle down” effect, tend to think of thought and being as united. Americans, including intellectuals, rarely think of them that way. We tend to insist, for example, on the difference between the orders of knowing and the order of being. That’s a big “subterranean” difference that impacts many more “surface” level ways of living, thinking and acting.

Once I really “saw” (not only intellectually “learned about”) nominalism and its effects in culture, including on my students, including even on me, I began to realize how deleterious its consequences can be and are—on culture, society and the churches.

I agree with Balthasar and Lewis that we can trace secularity, relativism, individualism, ultimately the loss of human dignity, back to the influences of nominalism on culture and Christianity. In other words, from where I sit and think, observing culture, nominalism is the ultimate poison of Western civilization that corrodes and erodes it. It lies at the top of the slippery slope down which we have slid into modern and now, increasingly, postmodern oblivion.

Because of its built in, inbred, resistance to nominalism, I can understand why some Protestants join the Catholic Church. On the other and, I find too many problems with that to be lured in that direction. Nevertheless, I applaud the Catholic Church for standing strong against nominalism. Increasingly I find Hans Urs von Balthasar a friend, mentor and ally. My proposed solution is that Protestants wake up to the poison of nominalism and begin to purge it from ourselves, our churches, our families, and our schools. This, I find, is one of the great contributions of C. S. Lewis and why I advocate reading him. He wasn’t a great theologian, but he was a perceptive opponent and critic of nominalism. If I could, I would make several of his books required reading for all Christian students at appropriate age levels—including The Abolition of Man.

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