Saturday, January 1, 2011

Richard Weaver on the Nasty Practical Consequences of Nominalism

J.F. Johnston, Jr., First Principles

...Richard Weaver published his best‑known work, Ideas Have Consequences, in which he developed a theory of decline strikingly similar to [C.E.M. Joad's]. Weaver was born in North Carolina in 1910 and studied at the University of Kentucky, followed by graduate work at Vanderbilt, where he was strongly influenced by his teacher John Crowe Ransom and other “Southern Agrarians.” Weaver taught for most of his career at the University of Chicago, and wrote a number of books and essays exploring the theme of philosophical, social, and educational decline. He was an associate editor of Modern Age and a contributor to National Review and other conservative publications. After Weaver’s death, Henry Regnery wrote that Ideas Have Consequences was one of the three books which provided the intellectual basis for the modern American conservative movement...


In Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver ... starts with the premise that true knowledge is the knowledge of universals. The fourteenth-century nominalists, Weaver argues, in attacking the objective reality of universal ideas, initiated a dangerous intellectual trend. The nominalists asserted that so‑called "universals" (whiteness, justice, etc.) do not have independent existence but are merely names for a collection of individual things. If nominalism is correct, there are no objective values such as the good, the true, or the just. All of these things are merely names for kinds of conduct of which we happen to approve. The nominalist position eventually led to a philosophically empty form of radical empiricism or positivism, which replaced the reality apprehended by reason with impressions received by the senses. This philosophical error ultimately ends in subjectivism, relativism, and the denial of truth itself...

Presentism, Barbarism...

True knowledge, for Weaver is knowledge of forms, essences, and principles rather than of the sensory and the transient. Knowledge, in other words, is a product of reason; and belief in universals and principles is inseparable from the life of reason. The empirical tradition, in its concentration on the particulars of subjective experience, has ended by affirming that immediate experience is an end in itself. Again, this was precisely the conclusion reached independently by Joad. Weaver calls this attitude the "cult of presentism." The desire for immediacy is a false and dangerous idol because the present has only an infinitesimal existence, and has no meaning apart from the past and future, to which the present must be connected by the reality of history, memory, and rational expectation. The cult of presentism is, in fact, a characteristic of the barbarian, who regards forms, essences, and universals as irrelevant to his desire for immediate gratification. The barbarian rejects the cultivation of the intellect and seeks only power or physical comfort.

Ravages of immediacy

The quest for immediacy puts society on the path of cultural and moral decline, in which we can no longer recognize evil and depravity. Weaver cites as examples of the "ravages of immediacy" the failure to oppose obscenity, and the abandonment of honor and of respect for privacy. The craving for personal publicity is so extreme that it makes a virtue of public manifestations of private grief. Standards of propriety are abandoned because they might inhibit self‑expression. (Today’s television talk shows, on which the squalid details of private life are displayed for the prurient interest of viewers, provide additional evidence for the validity of Weaver’s analysis.) The world, Weaver wrote, “has been engulfed by a vast demoralization. . . . Its most permanent feature is perhaps materialism, but this has been greatly abetted by that compound of humbug, pretense, and vulgarity which can be labeled "Hollywood values."

Difference Matters

Democracy may be a workable model for political relationships, but cannot be a principle of order in social and cultural life because in those spheres men are decidedly not equal. In education, for example, there will inevitably be selection in accordance with ability and dedication. The attempt by educational progressives to deny distinction and excellence will lead to mediocrity, as evidenced by the deterioration of public education, which Weaver could perceive as early as the 1940s. For Weaver, the egalitarian dogmas of "progressive" education manifest the contemporary rebellion against fundamental and long‑held beliefs about man and the world, and, indeed, against the very structure of reality. Since Weaver’s time, his warnings about educational decline have been proven correct: lower standards, "social promotion," the "self‑esteem" movement, labor union monopoly, absence of discipline, the stupefying effect of television and parental apathy have taken America’s public schools even farther down the road toward mediocrity than Weaver could have foreseen...

Versus Jacobinism

Regard for neighbors is simply a manifestation of Christianity and chivalry. Men have real obligations toward one another, not just rights and demands. This means that the differences between people must also be recognized. All civilized societies require distinctions and differentiation. [Even the Marxist Cornel West insists on being called 'Doctor' in recognition of his academic accomplishments---SH] The attempt to force everyone into an identical mold will lead to disorder, alienation, and envy. For example, Weaver regarded the notion of equality of the sexes, in the contemporary sense of functional interchangeability, as misguided and degrading to women. It is perhaps just as well that Weaver was spared the dismal spectacle of pregnant women on combat ships, and the United States Supreme Court ordering the Virginia Military Institute to admit females...The disappearance of objective criteria of justice and civic virtue gives rise to Jacobinism, resentment, and rebellion against every kind of distinction and superiority. Mass democracies distrust genuine ability and intellectual excellence. While equality before the law is a necessary condition of a just society, Weaver deplores the tendency to press for equality of condition regardless of merit, a tendency which has gone even further since Weaver’s death.


Weaver ... urges the restoration of metaphysical right, the world of "ought." What is the foundation for such a restoration? The victory of nominalism has left little to build on, but our society has retained virtually intact at least one institution: "the right of private property, which is, in fact, the last metaphysical right remaining to us." The right of private property is metaphysical in the sense that it does not depend on social utility but rests on the identity of the owner with the owned. Property has an enduring structure that affirms transcendence; it embodies the philosophical concept of substance. It expresses the direct conjunction between man and nature: the imprint of man's spirit on material reality. At a practical level, it offers a sanctuary for the individual against the tyranny of the state. The ownership of property forces us, moreover, to go beyond the cult of presentism and take a long‑term view of things, which is part of our obligation of piety.


Weaver’s solution was the widespread ownership of independent farms, local businesses, and other small properties. This "distributist" model may seem utopian in an era of multi­billion dollar mergers and global conglomerates. Yet it is a hopeful sign that, half a century after Weaver wrote, property rights are still protected in the United States to a greater extent than elsewhere. Threats to property are apparent, however, in the form of excessive taxation and regulation.

And there are few signs of the metaphysical restoration proposed by Joad and Weaver, whether based on property rights or anything else. Western societies have moved even further toward materialism, subjectivism, and dependence on intrusive government. The constant bombardment of our senses with obscenity, noise, and vulgarity reaches a new nadir with each passing decade. Nor is there any serious and effective movement in Western universities to restore the primacy of the universal values they were created to protect. Indeed, the dominance of deconstructionism, “gender studies,” “multiculturalism,” and other intellectual perversities threatens to destroy whatever is left of the philosophia perennis that Joad and Weaver fought to preserve...

In contrast to the traditional principles of objectivity, truth and self‑discipline espoused by Joad and Weaver, the prevailing values today are egalitarianism, compassion, and hedonism. These are “soft” values that require neither discipline nor intellectual rigor. They rest upon sentiment and sensation, not reason. They reflect a society in which true excellence and distinction are regarded with suspicion, everyone seeks to shift blame to someone else, and government is expected to make people happy. We are the spoiled children of modernity who believe that luxuries are an entitlement and look for scapegoats to conceal our own defects. These attitudes are symptomatic of a society in decline, and they are likely to lead sooner or later to a diminution of freedom. As Weaver said, "An ancient axiom of politics teaches that a spoiled people invite despotic control." [---Source: First Principles]

"According to the American view, philosophy is ultimately rhetoric, and truth is simply the ability to persuade someone to buy your deed to the Brooklyn Briddge"---E. Michael Jones, Culture Wars, June 2000

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