Furthest Right

Why Conservatives Are Essentialists

In most choices in life of a social nature, the group thrusts upon you a choice and views it as a binary: you are either in favor of their choice or against it.

A more realistic view holds that you have several options: with it, against it, undecided, not convinced, or you want a variation of it that is not provided.

Usually, every great division produces two cheerleading sides committed to destroying each other while a third option holds the real truth, but is too complex to be implemented in the sides provided or too complicated to be widely understood.

For example, people ask whether conservatives are individualists or collectivists, essentially seeking to see if we are for the utilitarian group consensus or against it. In reality, individualism and collectivism are two parts of the same process, and we choose a third option.

Conservatives — this includes anyone not egalitarian — opt for a third path, which is transcendental goals such as excellence, identity, harmony, balance, beauty, and realism. We are not with the individual or the crowd, but with the whole of everything.

This choice of a third path makes us incoherent to the current political system which, being entirely based in egalitarianism, comfortably fights between two extremes, both “me first” with one (Democrats) demanding money given to the poor so that they spend on the products of the middle class, and the other (Republicans) demanding that money be kept in the middle class so that it does not benefit the already-wealthy.

In another area, conservatives find a third path. This concerns the question of what reality is and how we understanding it. Let us start with nominalism, or the idea of pure individualism:


1 : a theory that there are no universal essences in reality and that the mind can frame no single concept or image corresponding to any universal or general term
2 : the theory that only individuals and no abstract entities (such as essences, classes, or propositions) exist

That requires a bit of interpretation, so it makes sense to dig deeper with a philosophical definition of nominalism:

In one sense, its most traditional sense deriving from the Middle Ages, it implies the rejection of universals. In another, more modern but equally entrenched sense, it implies the rejection of abstract objects. To say that these are distinct senses of the word presupposes that universal and abstract object do not mean the same thing.

Thus Nominalism, in both senses, is a kind of anti-realism. For one kind of Nominalism denies the existence, and therefore the reality, of universals and the other denies the existence, and therefore the reality, of abstract objects.

What Nominalism finds uncongenial in entities like properties, numbers, possible worlds and propositions is that they are supposed to be universals or abstract objects. Thus the mere rejection of properties, numbers, possible worlds, propositions, etc., does not make one a nominalist – to be a nominalist one needs to reject them because they are supposed to be universals or abstract objects.

We can make short work of this: nominalism points out that we use symbols to refer to things, and that this does not imply that those groupings exist in nature, merely that we have noted similarity and imposed a category on them.

Nominalism Type I rejects the idea of universals, or any non-physical object which is the origin of all objects of a category; nominalism Type II rejects the idea that abstractions exist outside of their manifestations in physical objects.

For example, a Type I nominalist would say that there is no such thing as “chairness,” only objects which we identify as chairs; a type II nominalist would say that there is no such thing as a square, only the human visual tendency to identify an object as having square properties.

Neither of these are incorrect, if interpreted from a strict viewpoint. Maybe there is a chair in heaven from which other chairs are formed; maybe there is a square in heaven from which all squares originate. More likely, chairs and squares are “emergent,” or natural responses to a need, such as a load-bearing object for human sitting, in which a stump with a back would be the simplest possible variant and the standard four-legged chair the most likely one for humans to invent; in the same way, squares occur with a certain division using straight lines.

However, both miss the point. If a phenomenon occurs in a consistent, repeated form such that we can describe it, there is a cause in common between those events; this cause relates, however indirectly, to the structure of the universe, and thus to both universals and the abstractions we use to describe them.

Those universals may exist in some idealized heaven, as dualistic philosophies posit, but more likely they are emergent, or not found in the complete form. For instance, a chair is the effect of the cause that a certain pattern of objects makes the ideal place for sitting.

With this, we can dispense with nominalism: it is a semantic objection to a structural misunderstanding. However, most modern people are nominalists, in that they believe only in human structures and that life outside of human intentions is random and causeless.

Let us look at a false opposite to nominalism, constructivism:


1 : a movement in abstract art evolved in Russia after World War I, primarily by Naum Gabo, which explored the use of movement and machine-age materials in sculpture and had considerable influence on modern art and architecture

2: in philosophy the theory that mathematical entities do not exist independently of our construction of them

While this may seem different from nominalism, it is essentially nominalism Type II. They want us to think that just because mathematical formulas are not written on the heavens, they do not “exist” because we use human terms to describe them.

In reality, mathematical interactions can be observed and written down using a variety of methods, but exist in the same way that gravity does even if we call it “space cheese.” Like nominalism, this philosophy exists to refute dualism (sometimes called “neo-Platonism”).

Dualism means three things, depending on the discipline. It can refer to the division between mind and body, the split between “good” and “evil,” and most importantly, cosmic dualism, or the idea that a perfect heaven contains perfect versions of the archetypes manifested on Earth.

Type III dualism is the most interesting because it implies a division of worlds:

In philosophy, dualism is often identified with the doctrine of transcendence—that there is a separate realm or being above and beyond the world—as opposed to monism, which holds that the ultimate principle is inside the world (immanent).

We could see this as the flip side of nominalism: instead of claiming that everything which humans observe is arbitrary, it tells us that the objects we see are defined elsewhere but we simply inherit broken forms of them.

This often gets called “neo-Platonism” because dualists used Plato to justify their belief despite Plato having said something else.

In The Republic, Plato employs the famous cave metaphor to say that our universe has a logical cause which exists as universals, or causes, and manifests in the interaction of time, physicality, and events that we can observe.

This fits more with the transcendentalist view than nominalism or dualism, since he is saying that order exists but that we never observe it directly, so we must apprehend it from a view of everything closer to aesthetics or spiritual insight than physical measurement.

Contrast this to the idea of essentialism


1 : an educational theory that ideas and skills basic to a culture should be taught to all alike by time-tested methods — compare progressivism
2 : a philosophical theory ascribing ultimate reality to essence embodied in a thing perceptible to the senses — compare nominalism
3 : the practice of regarding something (such as a presumed human trait) as having innate existence or universal validity rather than as being a social, ideological, or intellectual construct

The second definition concerns us the most, which is the idea of reality being an “essence embodied in a thing perceptible to the senses.” This proves consistent with Plato: there is an essence to life which we never directly perceive, but we can find instances of it embodied in objects or events around us.

A monist such as myself might suggest that while all of life is comprised of something thought-like or thought itself — a concept known as idealism — in our physical world, we contact it only indirectly, simply because we are physical beings.

This fits within the conservative notion of life as a mystery in which humans struggle to understand their world and to adapt to it, through which ultimate meaning can only be understood through transcendence, or looking at the world without focusing one’s eyes and taking in the pattern of the whole through aesthetics or spiritual experience.

In contrast to what meany believe, essentialism is compatible with realism, or the doctrine that reality exists independently of our minds whether it is ultimately made of thought or not:


1 : concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary
2a : a doctrine that universals exist outside the mind specifically : the conception that an abstract term names an independent and unitary reality
b : a theory that objects of sense perception or cognition exist independently of the mind — compare nominalism
3 : the theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization

The important part here is that there may not be two worlds, but there are two minds: the individual and the all.

When the definition says that “objects of sense perception or cognition exist independently of the mind,” this means that whatever form the external world takes, it is not a product of the human mind. It exists on its own, even if an observer influences it or changes it.

Realism in a moral and political sense — these two are joined, since they deal with actions that will have future consequences for more than the self — means that the only meaningful measurement is of results in reality, not human intentions, judgments, fears, or desires.

Conservatives then could be described as essentialists and realists. We can perceive the “essence embodied in a thing perceptible to the senses” and understand the world through these indirect perceptions, but we recognize that we are perceiving and interpreting “objects of sense perception or cognition exist independently of the mind” through induction and deduction and not sensing objects directly.

In other words, the image in our mind is not the object in the world; the symbol is not more important than the results in the world; whatever we call a square, a tendency toward squareness exists in the world just like a tendency toward chairness exists at the intersection of humans, sitting, and furniture.

We reject the idea that, simply because our perception is fallible, the world does not exist in a consistent form. The symbols, tokens, and words we use for this form do not matter; its existence does, and that means that we must treat it as real.

Nominalism provides a handy disclaimer to everything but what is in our sweaty hands right now. We can look at the world, declare it an inscrutable mystery, and then focus on our property, money, power, status, pleasures, and fears because they are tangible.

Conservatism embraces the intangible through the real, and in doing so, breaks us free from the prison of the self which limits our consciousness and makes us greedy, defensive, and judgmental little animals who fear the world that they live in.

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