Further thoughts on the war on reality
The nominalist revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.1 If so many people hadn’t succumbed to a fringe philosophical development in the middle ages, the world would look very different. If nominalism had not sprung up, we would not have ended up with modernism, globalism, capitalism, neoliberalism, postmodernism, wokism, leftism, posthumanism, data-ism, and so on. This philosophical position is now so widespread and so pervasive that it is nearly impossible to think in an ‘anti-nominalist’ way. We are all nominalists now, even those of us who aren’t. Every time you switch on your phone or computer or put gas into your car or watch the latest trash on Netflix, you act, perhaps against your better judgement, just like a nominalist.
When claims are made, for instance (as recently happened), that one in four parents in America would opt for genetically altering their offspring, Gattaca-style, to make sure they can get into Harvard later in life, we have nominalism to thank. When steps are taken (as has happened and is happening still) to change surrogacy laws that treat women as baby-producing factories and babies as commodities and rights, denying the delicate and vital relationship between mothers and their children, nominalism is there too. When Madonna emerged as a female-to-gorgon transitioner, it was nominalism at work. Gender-transitioning and market-driven schooling and paint-by-numbers politics and technology-to-the-rescue environmentalism and Great-Reset-ism all owe their existence to a school of thought that most people probably haven’t even heard of. The least we can do, then, is name the demon behind such things. It’s also worth noticing where we will end up if the trend continues without pushback. Here’s a clue: it’s not someplace nice.
The road to doom is paved with nominalist intentions.
There are various expressions of nominalism but here’s the gist. Nominalism was most famously articulated by a bright but manifestly unwise Franciscan named William of Ockham. He was certain that universal ideas, like Plato’s forms, were not extra-mental realities. They were just names. Note Ockham’s famous razor: Don’t multiply universals needlessly. Ockham knew that we can’t think without universals. Still, multiplying them, he held, can only lead us away from the truth. He thus set up a way to use specifics against the common. What were once real resemblances suggested by categories like species and genus became only accidental products of thought. This was a new development at the time. But eventually, it caught on. Nominalism is now mainstream.
Before it caught on, though, there was Platonism. For Plato and other realists, it is possible to speak of man as a universal idea—as a real idea in other words. The reality of any specific man rests in what transcends him. This, as you might guess, takes quite a bit of the pressure off. Man is not just this or that specific person but the deep truth behind every individual person. Tom, Dick, and Harry are all men by virtue of what they share.
Because of this deep sense of sharedness, it is possible for Platonists and others with a Platonish consciousness to claim that reason reflects nature and vice versa. They say it’s possible to find an echo of the human mind in the world and an echo of the world in the human mind. But, of course, participation goes deeper than specific forms like man into more transcendental forms like goodness, truth, unity, and beauty. These transcendentals hold together all the forms, with the good at the pinnacle, so that we can encounter them in everything and not just in specific things. They also ensure that there is such a thing as justice which transcends all specific bureaucratic legal framings and business policies.
However, nominalists can’t accept transcendentals or smaller universals as real. For them, certain family resemblances and similarities must be accidental; they must be, in other words, the result of a mental connection only and not of a capacity to perceive a reality beneath the apparent. They hold that generality is a feature of the mind and of language and not of things. There must therefore be nothing really shared by Tom, Dick, and Harry. There can only be that individual called Tom, that individual called Dick, and that individual called Harry.
As Ockham knew, however, all of this amounts to denying the very possibility of intellectual knowledge. This is why hypotheses came to replace syllogisms as the foundation of modern science; and why the ‘most recent findings’ came to replace truth. As the latter suggests, hypotheses cannot actually be surpassed since every proven hypothesis remains proven only for the time being. The follow-the-science ideologues that we have seen everywhere recently have only mistaken science for reality. They have ontologised their nominalist nominations. That said, even science doesn’t manage to fully give itself over to nominalism. If it did, we might have people doing awful things like forcing others to take vaccinations that haven’t been properly tested. Or worse. Thankfully, many scientists still are, although probably unconsciously, Platonists of a kind. Their constant appeals to universals give them away. Some doctors believe in a universal called health. Better doctors believe in the universality of wholeness.
But where universals are denied, people care not for reality but only for the hallucination in their heads that they have confused with reality. What nominalism means ultimately for the very notion of identity is rather alarming. For nominalists, there is, in an ultimate sense, no such thing as real identity. Identity, after all, is a matter of what is common. And since nominalism denies any reality to the common, this means denying the reality of not only formal causality but also of final causality. It also means, as I’ve already hinted, denying any rational link between the mind and nature.
Ockham tried to overcome this last denial, and its implied destruction of intellectual knowledge, by proposing that divine revelation makes up for a multitude of sins. But eventually, as his God was rendered ever more irrational and remote, even revelation started to look shaky as a source of info. And then, when God died as Nietzsche claimed, the wider society ended up with no ultimate authority according to which things could be what they appear to be. To cut a very long story short, helped by theological voluntarism, understanding was placed subordinate to will. It became possible to entertain the idea that if you were to call a rose by any other name, you would no longer have a rose.
Why is this? Well, simply, because nominalists believe that behind all naming is willing. Thus, the Nietzschean perspectivist idea is that people aren’t so much interpreting the world as arranging it according to their own unique, individual, specific will to power. Nietzsche, mercifully, admits that will is not such a simple thing in section 19 of Beyond Good and Evil. He refuses to render it entirely univocal. But, unfortunately, nominalists are typically not as subtle as Nietzsche was. They love to univocalise. Because of this, nominalism is more rigid than Platonism. After all, Platonism allows for myriad beautiful variations on any given form as its theme. Every face, for instance, is a unique and magnificent portal to the archetypal face by which we recognise the human. But the nominalist’s will fixes the face in the imminent realm; a face is beautiful only if it matches the rigid proportions of the Marquardt mask that plastic surgeons use. Such beauty is ultimately not in the eye of the beholder but in the will of the beholder. Only a nominalist could regard Platonism as equal to the rigidity of fascism.
What sort of consciousness is behind the acceptance of nominalism? The simplest answer, although by no means a comprehensive explanation, is: a consciousness possessed by hubris. Only hubris, although helped by a few other vices, could wish to elevate the desires of individuals so greatly—even to the point of calcifying self-deception. If there are no real universals, then a person is capable, as an individual, of clumping things together in a way that suits him and him alone. Even if he is not capable, he is required to reconstitute the world according to his own will to power. There is nothing else he can do. He would not need to understand what things are in their deepest reality, as shared and participated in by other beings. He would only need to decide which groupings of things fit his own preferences. This is what has happened in history since the dawn of modernity. Gradually, what started as a useful way to attack fairly large and abstract universals has become a way to attack more intimate universals. What started as a way to challenge and question things like shared faith is now being used to attack society and the family. Even personhood is now in serious trouble.
The general drift of history reveals the many destructive effects of nominalism. Complex dynamics have been at play but the trend is still easy to spot. We might distinguish four sometimes overlapping moments to describe these dynamics. The first moment would refer to the disintegration of Catholicity, helped by the Reformation, and the rise of capitalism, which whether subtly or overtly attacks universal bonds to drive only those commonalities that suit market forces. Neoliberalism is only the most recent version of an ancient evil. It will surprise no one that most economists nowadays adopt a strict nominalist ontology. The second moment would be the disintegration of nationhood and the consequent rise of globalisation, fueled especially by Mammonite convictions. A given sense of belonging to a nation is rejected in favour of the artificial, meaning that a sense of belonging to everyone and no one replaces the sense of belonging to a local group. The global is a mere abstraction, after all.
The third moment would be the one we are most familiar with now, namely the disintegration of personal identity and the rise of gender-bending and posthumanism. The idea that sex is a shared, universal, spiritual and biological thing is intolerable to nominalists. The idea that a man can ‘be’ a woman simply by self-identifying as one is the most obvious signal of this, although the roots of this are already evident in the first wave of feminism. In their bid for equality, the earliest feminists often forgot the ontological difference and natural asymmetry between men and women. I know there are realist forms of feminism that insist on equality based on shared participation in the universal form of personhood but that isn’t the dominant one now. The consequence of the radical constructivist forms of feminism is that instead of abolishing tyranny against women, it is abolishing womanhood and retaining the tyranny. The case of surrogacy I mentioned above is one of the most painfully alarming instances of this.
Now we are seeing that even the idea of the human is under attack in many and various ways. This posthuman phase is, to my mind, the most disturbing one. It demonstrates the extent to which nominalism, more of a devil now than a philosophical proposition, has achieved near-total acceptance in the West. Within a posthuman mindset, examples abound of how essentially inhuman society is becoming. It is a kind of madness, I think, that so-called ethicists are revisiting the question of the legitimacy of infanticide, while others are saying that, since some animals are more intelligent than some people, why are we not eating the people instead of the animals? It becomes incredibly difficult to answer people who propose such monstrous things when the generally accepted framework, well established in the modern West, has already destroyed all links to the transcendent good. Good is a mere preference, a choice, like something you go into a shop to buy. And yet I do not think that this third moment is the final one in the nominalist playbook.
The fourth and arguably final aspect of the nominalist takeover would simply be to consolidate all of the previous phases under a total system of entirely arbitrary but close to absolute control. Globalists will be the first to push this. Arguably, this is already being attempted by the World Economic Forum and its adherents, who openly announce their desire to change the world to suit the ends of only the richest and most powerful. The chief purpose of such a consolidation would be to render the entire world as malleable as possible so that it can remain under the control of a special group of elites. It sounds almost absurd to say this out loud but there it is anyway. What most people don’t realise is that the precise content of such a consolidation is hardly the issue, as long as the content is determined not by understanding but rather by will; that is, not by discovering the actual constitution of things but by forcing a specific construction onto society. Certain technological developments, from enforced medical treatments to the advent of gene-altering technologies to absolutising the role of AI in society make this eventuality more plausible. Anything that loosens natural bonds will be embraced.
A future in which families are constituted not by love or procreation but by mere nominalist impositions is not entirely impossible. A future in which algorithms determine who you should procreate with to serve the system is not unimaginable. A future in which you can be volunteered to be an organ donor to save the life of some rich WEF member, with your death sponsored by Canada’s MAiD programme, is pretty close to certain. You will be told where to live on entirely numerical/statistical grounds. You will be told what to say. You will be told whether you are worthy of medical care only if you have subscribed to the correct ideology. You will own nothing—not even your own deep-faked face or AI-replicated voice—and, contrary to the WEF’s claims, you will be irredeemably miserable. The trouble is that it will not be so easy to fight back, especially if the only world you know is a nominalist one. When the truth is determined by interests and tastes alone and not by knowledge, there is no truth; there is only power. Only the strongest or the richest will have any say in anything. There will be massive riots and protests but change won’t happen if the power is only in the hands of a select few.
Of course, I don’t believe that any of this is inevitable. I am not a declinist in any simplistic sense, as I have already attempted to articulate elsewhere. And if I hyperbolically prophesy doom, it is only because I hope—and trust—that this doom can genuinely be avoided. My exaggerations follow the logic of nominalism to its conclusions but I am fully aware that, thankfully, nominalism is not the only game in town.
And yet I do see signs in our world—in the sheer busyness of life, for instance, and in the culture of maximum distraction—that nominalism itself is not so easily noticed, and so its consequences are not so easily appreciated. I’m sometimes not convinced that dystopians have imagined a sufficiently dark and desperate future; for, if they had, we might realise just how important it is to wake up and stop this nominalist nonsense right away. If Platonism doesn’t begin to get a better grip again soon, and I mean at a significant scale, we are all in some trouble. Without a much clearer sense of what is genuinely and truly right and good that goes beyond mere direct personal preference, we cannot even begin to know how to fix what is wrong.1
A few months ago, I offered my thoughts on what I called woke epistemology. My basic argument was that when a biological female self-identifies as a man, she does so not based on knowledge but on will. The point is not that the assertion has content but rather that it is merely willed. I also suggested that the emphasis on will would not have been possible had it not been for a late-medieval philosophical development known as theological voluntarism, which became the fuel for various aspects of modernity and, later, postmodernity. With this in mind, I contended that the typical framing of the culture war as a mimetic rivalry—a war of mere desiring—is misleading. It is not merely a war of desires, as if human desire is a free-floating thing. Rather, it is a contest that persists because of two utterly irreconcilable postures towards knowledge itself. Of course, as I noted in that article, the precise kind of voluntarism evident in the culture war is a long way away from what the original theological voluntarists proposed. It was a bastardised and de-theologised version of that specific development that ended up doing the most damage, with a heavy dose of Nietzschean perspectivism thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, as I knew even when I was writing that piece, theological voluntarism is one weapon in the war on reality. The other main weapon is what I discuss here. Its name is nominalism. In truth, voluntarism and nominalism cannot be separated. In an important sense, they are one and the same thing. Still, it is worth looking at them separately, if only to see the implications of each more clearly.