The Worst Idea Ever

The Worst Idea Ever


Long-time readers of this blog may already guess what I will say is the “worst idea ever.” Or, at least they won’t be surprised when they read it here. However, I need to remind myself once in a while that many of this blog’s readers are new and convince myself it’s okay to repeat earlier arguments.

Scholars of intellectual history love to play this game—viz., about turning points in the history of ideas that may have birthed perhaps unintended consequences. In other words, we all know and acknowledge that, often, someone has what seems like a great idea that then gives rise to horrible consequences the original thinker never envisioned. I confess to have a certain love of that game.

I often “don’t feel at home in this world anymore” to quote from an old gospel song. (Did I ever?) The very first time I heard about Plato’s “allegory of the cave” (and then read it) I began to sense the reason for my not feeling at home in this world. By “this world” I mean the social world and not the world of nature.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Of course, as a “product” of a very conservative American evangelical/fundamentalist family and church I was raised to not feel at home in this world: “If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?” We were quite literally so “heavenly minded” we were little “earthly good” in terms of caring about the environments—social or natural.

Some will want to argue that that’s why I still don’t feel at home in this social world, but I will argue otherwise. I long ago shed that otherworldly spiritual disposition and the quietism it encouraged. But the feeling of not belonging in this “world” of modern culture and society has always remained but for different reasons.

When I look back over my lifetime in this world I think I can identify the source of my discomfort with it.

First, let me say, of course, that there are many exceptions to what I am about to claim as the kind of “default” perspective on reality that I believe pervades modern Western society including many people who consider themselves devoutly religious. My claim is not that everyone, without exception, is equally caught up in this perspective. My only claim is that it is a perspective so widely assumed that almost everyone is influenced by it. To use a colloquial phrase, it has “sunk deeply into the bones” of our modern, Western culture and society—including American.

So what is this generally unrecognized but profoundly influential perspective on reality that I do not share and that, I believe, makes me feel alien to the rest of my own culture and society?

It is nominalism. (Some scholars will want to quibble and say I should call it “conceptualism,” but for my purposes here I will stick with “nominalism.”) It has many definitions and its exact nature is hotly debated, but joining in with that ethereal debate among scholars of intellectual history is not my interest here. So I will simply define and describe what I mean by it. In some cases, and this is one, the best way to go about explaining an idea is by explaining its alternative. Here I will call the alternative, my own perspective on the subject, “realism.” In this case, for my purposes here, realism refers to the idea that universals such as truth, beauty and goodness have some kind of ontological reality and are not merely matters of individual preference (viz., exist “only in the eye of the beholder”) or social conventions—products of a social consensus.

“Nominalism” (or “conceptualism”) is the idea that universals such as truth, beauty and goodness have no ontological reality and are merely terms or concepts but in either case matters of individual preference or social consensus.

One of my favorite twentieth century theologians is Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) who wrote about “the catastrophe of nominalism.” He argued in his massive volumes of cultural criticism and Christian theology that nominalism is the ultimate source, intellectually, of secularism and relativism and that it leads to the loss of any real appreciation of truth, beauty and goodness (among other “transcendental ideals”).

From the view of a realist, nominalism is Plato’s cave and the denial that there is anything outside the cave. Realists like Balthasar, C. S. Lewis, and I do not claim that we are entirely outside the cave; our culture and society tends to shackle us in the cave. Nominalism has become so endemic to the world in which we live, move and have our being, that the idea of escaping the cave seems almost foolish. But some of us at least believe there is something outside the cave and it would be good if everyone thought so too and at least talked about what’s outside the cave.

Now, don’t get me wrong; one does not have to be a sheer Platonist to be a realist, a not-nominalist. Three are gradations and distinctions within realism. The church father Augustine, for example, did not believe Plato’s “forms” (universals with real being) exist in some ethereal, heavenly sphere. (It’s questionable what exactly Plato believed about their “location” or even their nature.) Augustine regarded universals as residing in God as part of God’s own nature.

All that is required to be a realist and not a nominalist is to believe that universals like truth, beauty and goodness are something more than either matters of preference or creations of social consensus. They have some kind of eternal, ontological reality and would exist even if there were no people to believe in them. Humans did not and do not create them; we discover them (or attempt to).

When and exactly how nominalism began is a matter of heated debate among scholars of intellectual history, but most agree it really arose in Europe during the Middle Ages—even if precursors of it can be found in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Modern nominalism, conceptualism, was formulated in inchoate form, anyway, by medieval Christian philosophers and theologians such as Abelard, Roscellinus, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel. Martin Luther seems to have picked it up from Biel.

Of course, Christian nominalists do not disbelieve in truth, beauty and goodness (and other universals), but they tend to believe these are rooted in God’s commands and not in God’s eternal, immutable nature or character (which God does not  have because that would be a universal).

It is impossible here to even attempt to connect all the dots in terms of this convoluted philosophy-theological debate over universals. For a relatively dispassionate description of the medieval debate see Meyrick H. Carré, Realists and Nominalists (Oxford University Press)  and for a more passionate argument that takes a side (viz., realism) see The Last Superstition by Edward Feser (St. Augustine’s Press). (C. S. Lewis does not, as I recall, name the enemy in The Abolition of Man as nominalism, but it seems to be that.)

Being a realist with regard to universals necessarily puts one at odds with modern, secular culture and society which delights in reducing universals to human creations and therefore making them endlessly flexible if not merely subjective.

Of course, all kinds of hybrids of nominalism and realism have been experimented with, but I am not convinced any hybrid is really logically possible. Some will argue that “conceptualism” is just such a hybrid, but I consider it a form of nominalism. The question that divides is whether universals such as truth, beauty and goodness transcend human invention and even God’s arbitrary will and command. Only two answers are possible: yes and no.

(I am intentionally here avoiding, merely alluding to, the secondary question about God’s nature in relation to universals because delving into it would divert attention from my main point and open a can of worms I do not have time to deal with here, now.)

I agree with Balthasar and Lewis and others who argue that all the ills of modern, Western culture and society stem from the pervasive, pernicious influence of nominalism within in.

To put it bluntly (and polemically), I live in a social world where it is taken for granted by most people and where most education, entertainment, business and politics (all used in their very broadest senses) is conducted under belief that we are all in Plato’s cave and there is nothing outside of it—at least nothing to which we have any access or of which we can have any knowledge. I, on the other hand, believe there is a reality outside the cave and that at the very least striving to know and understand it matters profoundly. This makes me feel like an alien from another planet who just happened to “drop in” here.

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