The history of philosophy shows us why modern Western people think the way we do. Ideas now regarded as common sense can be traced back to philosophers in ivory towers 400 or even 700 years ago. Unfortunately the most influential philosophical ideas have been the bad ones. To find out more, read on.
Realism vs nominalism
800 years ago, all Western philosophers were monks who had just rediscovered Ancient Greek philosophy. From Aristotle, they believed that we could understand the world because things have essences. For example, it is the essence of a cat to have four legs, to meow and catch birds. Let’s call this ‘catness’. Whatever cats do under normal circumstances tells us what ‘catness’ is, which then applies to all cats. If we see a cat with three legs, this is a bad thing because it contradicts ‘catness’ and is therefore bad for that cat. We can have true knowledge about the world and not even God can say that a cat is really a dog or should have three legs because that wouldn’t make sense. This view was called ‘realism’.
But after the realists another group of medieval philosophers appeared. They said that there were a lot of edge cases in nature and who could say where the boundaries were. Therefore it is impossible for us to say what a cat is, there is no such thing as ‘catness’, there are only individual cats, and a cat with three legs might not even be a cat. Only God can truly tell what a cat is and what a dog is, and if He told us that cats are really dogs or that they should have three legs, that’s fine because we can trust Him. This view was called ‘nominalism’.
Somehow the nominalists won the argument, but this backfired spectacularly, because if I can’t even look at a cat and know it’s not a dog, how can I know whether God exists? Indeed, how can I do science or philosophy or have any knowledge at all? So it led to radical skepticism about everything. But ultimately without God as an anchor nominalism becomes a free-for-all, as wherever we draw the lines becomes just a matter of convention. So not only could cats really be dogs, in principle cats could be chairs and chairs could be cats and we should call them ‘chaircats’, (as in ‘the chaircat meowed and sat down on the wooden chaircat’) which would make things weird in pet shops. Nominalists have a number of strategies to avoid such absurd outcomes. But if we can’t even know for sure that cats are really cats, how can we ever have true knowledge about the world?
If you think this is an esoteric philosophical debate with no connection to real life, you’re wrong.
We’re all nominalists now
Here’s the thing: because nominalism won that debate 700 years ago, most people today are nominalists. You can see this clearly in the never-ending gay marriage debate.
A realist way to argue in favour of gay marriage would be like this: marriage is such-and-such and exists for such-and-such reasons, and gay marriage is compatible with that, so gay marriage isn’t about redefining marriage but instead about updating our legal definition to reflect reality.
A realist way to argue the traditionalist position would be like this: marriage is such-and-such and it exists for such-and-such reasons, and gay marriage is not compatible with that and we can’t just rewrite reality whenever it suits us.
But no one ever argues this way. Instead, what we get from traditionalists is ‘God defines marriage and He has said such-and-such’, which is Christian nominalism. The other side treats marriage as though it’s a government-created fiction that we can change whenever we like. This is secular nominalism.
Now, think about this: during over 15+ years of interminable, spiteful debate about gay marriage, almost no one has stopped to consider what marriage is.
The Western mindset has become an ideas cage that distorts our thinking. Bad philosophy such as nominalism has infiltrated our culture, making it almost impossible to think straight about most important issues. Unfortunately the only way to defeat bad philosophy is with good philosophy. That is why I think philosophy is so important and why I write about it on this blog.