The end of nominalism

I think nominalism is flaming out.

By “nominalism” I mean the view that reality is what we name it. By changing the names of things, we change the underlying realities. It’s a view opposed to realism, which says that things have their own existence outside out minds. I’m sure I don’t have the philosophy right (or the theology), but even my simple understanding of these ideas makes me think that something is going wrong with the nominalist point of view.

Naming has been one of the most urgent agendas at the modern university. In my time as a student and professor, there has been such pressure on us to use the right words and not use the wrong words. Apparently this movement has recently gone to some extremes; people are getting absolutely weird about the words we are saying. People are losing their jobs because they said the wrong thing, or said the right thing too slowly.

Meanwhile, the real conditions about which our words are used keep getting worse. We are being ever more careful about what we say, but the doings and feelings of actual people are getting awfully nasty anyway. And this seems to contradict the theory behind using the right words.

The idea was: By using the right words, we would create a better social reality. Because our words construct the world, word choices are acts of social policy. Policy involves politics, and power; and so, over the past 30 years, those in power have been called to enforce certain ways of speaking. Those enforcements have been applied; out the wazoo really. (Notice that I am not using any examples here? It’s because I’m afraid of what might happen to me if I did.) There’s been so much effort poured into the social construction of reality…With what result?

We used the right words. But that apparently didn’t change the underlying realities – the family dysfunction, the poverty, the egotism, the materialism, the loss of community. We never did anything about them. And the consequences are becoming ever more apparent. So this last burst of extreme nominalism is perhaps a final flameout, before we go back to realism.

Changing the names alone does not work. Existence is not socially constructed. Social health is not about words. It’s about love. And love is real.