Ideas Don’t Have Consequences

Ideas Don’t Have Consequences April 2, 2017

Romantic Landscape (1911) by Wassily Kandinsky. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License.
Romantic Landscape (1911) by Wassily Kandinsky. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License.

The title is patently false; let’s get that out of the way.

I’ve used it in order to riff on Richard Weaver’s famous Ideas Have Consequences, a book I read back in my days with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. It’s not a text I think about very often, but it’s one that—if Sam Rocha’s review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is to be believed—has become highly influential at the popular level.

And I’ve seen this elsewhere. We find a thinker or a body of thought (often some fusion of both) around which to organize our anger. If it weren’t for Nominalism / Descartes / Protestantism / Rousseau / Foucault, etc. we wouldn’t have the horrors we have today. For Weaver’s part, his primary historical nemesis was William of Ockham; through him, nominalism achieved a degree of scholarly popularity that eventually filtered down to the vulgus and—badda-bing—we got relativism.

My problem with this sort of thinking does not arise out of some desire to defend nominalism; it’s not that I just happen to like it—I don’t. Rather, the issue is that history is complicated; we’re always working with fragments representing an impossibly complex set of factors that, through chance, a critical mass of social necessity, or providence (take your pick) resulted in what we have today. There do, indeed, exist figures of particular historical importance, usually popularizers, activists, or profound thinkers, who come to represent specific pools of ideas, and, often, they, as free subjects, modify those ideas to some extent. Ockham is one of these.

In order for his nominalism to have had the impact with which it’s often credited one would need to prove most, if not all of the following: that Ockham’s nominalism is fairly easily abstracted from its clear and overt Christian context (difficult considering that no such context would exist for some time), that there is a substantial overlap between later notions of relativity and Ockham’s own rejection of any ontological necessity besides God, that other key figures in this movement were either reading Ockham or those influenced by his ideas, that the distribution of Ockham’s corpus was such as to make possible meaningful influence, that nominalism itself lived on as an important theological movement, at least in terms of the ideas it introduced (considering that even most early Protestant scholars were majorly scholastic-humanist in orientation, this would be difficult), that it survived in localities that came to matter in the evolution of modernity, that Ockham’s brand was especially timely, given the existence of earlier nominalisms, like that of Roscelin, etc.

For the record, I did not write this out of some desire to trash Weaver or those who especially dislike Ockham. Instead, I wish to challenge the sorts of stories we tell ourselves about history, about transparency in the past. Whether it’s Vatican II or Descartes, there always seem to be these pesky exceptions that make it impossible to squeeze everything into a simple narrative. One, of course, can justify a grand historical narrative, but that takes a magisterial work—like Augustine’s City of God or Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

In other words, ideas, of course, do have consequences, but those consequences are tied up in myriad material realities, historical contingencies, and, well, other ideas. The more we are willing to recognize that, the more complex the stories we tell ourselves, the more likely we are to discern anything like the truth.

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