Some call it pragmatism or empiricism, others may call it realism or common sense. I call it an intellectual disorder.
To be fair, the illness in question doesn’t just target English conservatives. It’s endemic throughout the West. But only in England (and her cultural offshoots) does it afflict conservatives in large numbers.
I wish I had ten pounds for each time I’ve heard one of my English friends say: “We must know the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.”
In other words, knowledge to them boils down to a compendium of empirically verifiable facts, not the destination of a teleological intellectual journey towards truth.
Yet facts are akin to bricks. They may be necessary to build a house, but without an a priori picture of the house in the architect’s mind, piles of bricks will just remain an eyesore on the landscape.
A collection of facts isn’t synonymous with knowledge. It’s strictly posterior or secondary. Facts may help to verify knowledge, but they aren’t knowledge.
Overreliance on facts will hold knowledge back, not advance it. For facts to assist knowledge, they must be evaluated in the light of a transcendental ideal, that anathema to so many of our conservatives.
They rebel against transcendental ideals because they associate them with socialism. However, if they gave this matter some thought, they’d realise that the problem only lies with wrong, rather than all, universal metaphysical premises.
It took a few centuries for Occam’s nominalism to become English empiricism, but in essence they are as close to each other as both are close to vulgar materialism (no other kind exists). They all believe in knowing reality by sensory, rather than intellectual, perception.
That makes the intellect superfluous as the pathfinder to knowledge. At best, it can function as a tool for solving the little puzzles of life, equivalents of all those Sudokus one finds in Sunday supplements.
Demoted to such a lowly status, the intellect dies out, as all superfluous things will. Seeking simple solutions to mysteries, our conservative empiricists cut their intellectual throats with Occam’s razor.
The development of thought from 14th century nominalism to modern empiricism and positivism is merely a progression, not progress. Intellectually, and therefore ultimately morally, it’s deadly.
The nominalists defined reality as a sum total of objects, insisting that metaphysical ideas were mere words with no link to anything real. That this fallacy makes mass atheism inevitable goes without saying. But it also promotes mass idiocy.
For neither objects nor facts about them mean anything by themselves. Before they begin to acquire any meaning, they have to be assessed, interpreted and slotted into some intellectual and moral structure. Otherwise, facts lose all intellectual or moral significance and in that sense paradoxically become arbitrary, which is the opposite of factual.
Reliance on observable facts as the source of knowledge is a sure recipe for obscurantism, for it obviates the need to draw intellectual and moral distinctions. Yet during the flowering of Western thought, knowledge was understood to come from the intellect activated by intuition, not from a search for facts activated by inquisitiveness.
It took intuition to realise that a transcendental reality existed, and it took intellect to understand what it was and how it related to the morality and philosophy guiding quotidian life.
That created a sturdy structure, a trellis for the plants of knowledge to climb up from the grass sewn with facts. Without such a trellis, the plants would have remained on the ground, eventually to be trampled underfoot.
Such neglect of transcendental, universal reality leaves man to fend for himself in the ever-growing thicket of facts thrown up by a compulsively inquisitive modernity. His frame of intellectual and moral reference removed, he is in danger of becoming first an intellectual and then a moral idiot.
He may, for example, look at the fact that the atom can be split and ponder the implications. There are plenty, he may conclude, for fission releases energy.
If his spirit moves him one way, he may decide to use that energy to heat a city during a cold winter. If it moves him another way, he may decide to use the energy to reduce the city to smouldering radioactive ash.
There’s no way of predicting which way he’ll go for his mind is at sea, cast adrift by morally neutral and intellectually feeble reliance on fact as the quintessence of knowledge. And, since the fallen nature of man was laid bare by the ultimate transcendental doctrine of the West, he’d be more likely to opt for destruction.
Nominalism cum empiricism usually comes packaged with the Whig view of history, wherein each historical moment is seen as an advance on its predecessor.
Since we undeniably possess more facts than even the medieval scholasticists, never mind Aristotle, the common inference is that we possess greater knowledge, which in turn deepens intellect and heightens morality.
Yet this is demonstrably not the case, unless someone thinks that today’s professors of philosophy are superior to, say, Abelard or Aquinas, today’s poets are superior to Dante or Shakespeare, or today’s pop stars are superior to Byrd or Bach.
Or, for that matter, that we, the people of a century that gave the world two world wars, genocide, Auschwitz and Kolyma, a century that murdered more people than all the previous centuries of recorded history combined, are morally superior to the contemporaries of Abelard and Aquinas.
In fact, praying at the altar of the empirically verifiable fact is the principal culprit in producing our decadent, intellectually shabby world. And the step from the decadent to the degenerate is even shorter than the one from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Disengaging thought from the supreme metaphysical reality doesn’t just produce ignorance of metaphysics. It leads to a worldwide pandemic of inanity, with people no longer able to judge what they do or say by holding it to rigorous intelligence tests.
One example, from yesterday’s Sunday Times. The review of Orlando Figes’s book Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture (I shan’t give the reviewer’s name for fear of upsetting the RSPCA) opens with this paragraph:
“It is ironic that this passionately exuberant book should be published just as we are about to leave Europe. For Orlando Figes’s subject is how writers and musicians in the 19th century created a richly diverse European culture that surmounted narrow-minded nationalism.”
My problem with this passage isn’t the author’s implied affection for the EU, but his manifest inability to think.
First, we are leaving (one hopes) not Europe as a cultural entity, but the political project aiming to create a unified European superstate.
Second, the author believes that such a superstate is a prerequisite for creating “a richly diverse European culture”, for he clearly sees Brexit as antithetical to that aspiration.
Hence, if such a culture was created in the 19th century, one has to infer that Europe was at the time blessed by the existence of such a state. Since even this author must know that wasn’t so, what he wrote is mindless drivel.
Yet clearly neither he nor his editors were capable of realising this – mainly because their minds have been rendered vacuous by the engulfing philosophical vacuum of modernity.
This is but a small example of a worrying situation: modern people, including those who affect our lives by forming opinions and formulating policies, aren’t up to the intellectual (and consequently moral) demands of the task.
Yet the self-professed conservatives among them never tire of repeating the empiricist mantra about looking at the world as it observably is. They are facing a stark choice.
They have to decide whether they want to be conservatives or empiricists. They can’t be both because, if they opt for the latter, there won’t be much left for them to conserve.