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richard weaver

Richard Weaver

Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.

One may be accused here of oversimplifying the historical process, but I take the view that the conscious policies of men and governments are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine our course.

For this reason I turn to William of Occam as the best representative of a change which came over man’s conception of reality at this historic juncture. It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism.

It is easy to be blind to the significance of a change because it is remote in time and abstract in character. Those who have not discovered that world view is the most important thing about a man, as about the men composing a culture, should consider the train of circumstances which have with perfect logic proceeded from this. The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably—though ways are found to hedge on this—the denial of truth.

With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of “man the measure of all things.” The witches spoke with the habitual equivocation of oracles when they told man that by this easy choice he might realize himself more fully, for they were actually initiating a course which cuts one off from reality. Thus began the “abomination of desolation” appearing today as a feeling of alienation from all fixed truth.

Books by Richard M. Weaver may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This is an excerpt from Ideas Have Consequences.

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2 replies to this post
  1. In favor of universals existing is the fact that it is practically impossible to think or speak without making use of them. A real problem, though, is that we tend to create universals that probably did not previously exist.

    Take continents as an example. Continents are not defined by mere geology, like a tectonic plate; they depend also on culture and history, giving rise to serious disagreements about how many continents there are and where their boundaries are located. Why should the Ural Mountains represent a continental boundary, but not the Alps or the Pyrennees or the Rockies? Some say they do, and keep Europe and Asia separate; some say they do not, and recognize only Eurasia. Likewise, in Latin America it is apparently common to see all the New World as one continent, America, whereas I was always taught that there are two continents, North America, which extends down to Panama, and South America, which is Columbia and points south. A Peruvian colleague insisted that South America and Latin America are synonyms, so that South America starts at the Mexican border!

    Another example, this time with strong feelings behind it, can be found in the planets. At first there was no problem, because all we could see with our naked eyes were stars, planets, and comets. Modern astronomy has given us far more bodies to categorize, though, and it has become apparent that the sharp boundaries that had seemed to exist between comets and asteroids, between asteroids and planets, and between planets and stars were really figments of our collective imagination — like the canals of Mars.

  2. Is Weaver saying that one cannot believe in universals and be an empiricist both? Does he honestly believe that denying everything transcending experience is to deny truth or am I hedging?

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