Today’s lecture from Patrick Allitt’s course on The Conservative Tradition included information on Richard Weaver, a conservative American writer in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Weaver believed that western thought went wrong with William of Occam’s nominalism. In realism, or what we might call idealism, taking the common example of the chair, there is an ideal of a chair that physical chairs partake of. Nominalism, on the other hand, holds that there are real items that we sit on, and we create the word chair to describe these items. Plato was an idealist; philosophy is a striving to understand the ideals which underly the world of senses. (Aristotle, on the other hand, while not a nominalist, was an empiricist, believing that knowledge is gained by studying the world around you.)
Nominalism, in Weaver’s view, leads to relativism, to each man becoming his own priest, and to moral degradation. He rejected the dehumanization that is brought by materialism, science, and technology. There must be a center, a transcendant truth around which people can structure their beliefs and their lives. If there is no transcendent center, then we are just making it all up out of thin air, and what would be the point.
Professor Allitt notes that the concept of natural law underlies much of conservative thought. Natural law comes from nature, is universal, and can be discovered by reason. This gives it a standing which is outside of human invention; it is truth. When we are in accord with natural law, we are in accord with a truth beyond ourselves.
Much of today’s political commentary sounds as if the commentators are speaking from a foundation of natural law, that is, they have discovered the truth, and they can use that to defend or rebuff ideas and information. This certainly applies to our discourse on economic subjects, and is evident in the use of terms like liberty and fairness. But it also applies even to things we would think of as empirical, or scientific; evolution and climate change being two examples.
While I am a religious person, and do have some sense of grounding in natural law, I think of myself much more as an empiricist. I do believe that we can take a moral approach to subjects like economics; but before we bandy about terms like liberty or fairness, we need to investigate the real world and come to some conclusion about which policies lead to prosperity, since that is what economics is about, in the end. We do not want a “fair” economic system if it makes everyone poor; nor do we want to prioritize economic “liberty”, if it leads to economic desolation.
Approaching scientific subjects with this same a priori sense of truth seems discordant, since science is empirical by its nature. If we have evidence that the economic policy we espouse leads to prosperity, we can apply our moral values of liberty, or fairness, to persuade others to support our policies. While it is certainly proper to challenge the veracity of scientific findings, it seems incoherent to challenge them on the basis of a sense of right and wrong.
As we continue these investigations, it will be interesting to see how closely these notions of nominalism and idealism, empiricism and natural law, play out in our understanding of the conservative and liberal mind.