Anti-Lookism is not extreme

For years, conservatives have regarded the notion of “anti-Lookism” as a typical example of liberalism gone batty. But is it really? Today’s New York Post has a story about the seven-year-old black girl in Philadelphia who courageously escaped from two thugs who had abducted her. “The pretty little girl,” the article says, “was kidnapped Monday and left on a rotting mattress in the basement of an abandoned North Philly rowhouse.” Now as I was reading that sentence over my morning coffee, the thought suddenly occurred to me—why should any little girl be described as “pretty”? Isn’t that to privilege her over other little girls who are not pretty? Doesn’t it amount to giving her an advantage for something that she did not earn, but which is simply an inherited characteristic? (Furthermore, isn’t it also unequal to reserve the word “pretty” only for the female sex? We don’t call boys pretty. Why should we call girls pretty?)

What I’m saying may sound crazy at first, but follow the logic. A basic axiom of liberalism is that our inherited, substantive attributes, such as our nationality, our ethnicity, our race, and our sex, should be of no importance in how other people regard us. All that matters are the choices we freely make as individuals. The “human person” (to use Pope John Paul II’s dehumanizing and de-personalizing term) should not be advantaged over other human persons simply because of his or her inherent characteristics which he or she did nothing to earn. There would seem to be no reason why the same logic should not apply to our inherited physical appearance. To give a social benefit to a human person who happens to be naturally better looking than other human persons violates human equality and solidarity. Thus, while it may be legitimate to describe a courageous and enterprising little girl as “plucky” or “brave,” since these attributes pertain to her freely chosen behavior, it is not legitimate to describe her as pretty, since that gives her a benefit for something she did not choose but was simply born with. It is to devalue all other little girls who, through no fault of their own, are not pretty.

Therefore anti-Lookism is not extreme, but is logically consistent with the fundamental commitment to equal human rights and equal human dignity that all liberal people (i.e. all modern people) share.

Now liberals may dismiss what I’ve just said as ridiculous. But it only seems so to them because they are making unprincipled exceptions to their own liberalism. If it is wrong to give a person a social advantage because of his birth or race, then it also is wrong to give a person a social advantage because of his better looks.

This leads to another question. What do we mean when we say that a particular liberal position, such as anti-Lookism, is “extreme”? Don’t we really mean that it is consistently liberal? Which suggests further that when we describe someone as a moderate liberal or non-extreme liberal, what we mean is that he is injecting non-liberal values into his thinking and behavior. However, since non-liberal values may not be openly stated in a liberal society (indeed, we barely possess a language any more in which to state them), to be a moderate liberal requires one to be hypocritical or stupid. It requires one not to apply one’s liberal beliefs in all situations, but to abandon them in all those situations (constituting almost the entirety of ordinary life) where liberal beliefs do not fit, yet where non-liberal beliefs may not be expressed.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 25, 2002 02:47 PM | Send


This is where nominalism saves the day. If categories are just plastic conveniences that we will into existence then we are emancipated from the tyranny of the discourse of traditional rationality. We get to pick and choose our personal instance of liberalism based on pure acts of will. There are no crisp categories, only shades of grey, and we get to choose where we stand among them. Stodgy traditionalists don’t get to define us with their silly adherence to the long-discredited notion of independently existent universals; we define ourselves as we want to, as individuals, and you can’t tell me what my liberalism means — I define it for myself.

A requirement not to discriminate in general is ultimately a requirement not to think, since thinking inherently discriminates. Liberalism asserts its own death. One can only wish it would get down to business, take itself seriously, and get on with the job.

Posted by: Matt on July 25, 2002 3:52 PM

“Liberalism asserts its own death. One can only wish it would get down to business, take itself seriously, and get on with the job.”

Great comment. It reminds me of something that one of the Islamist leaders said last fall, that the Muslims’ advantage over Americans in any military confrontation was that the Muslims believed in death, the Americans believed in life. In reply to which, a correspondent wrote to me: “This is a win-win situation!”

Also, I think I’m beginning to understand what Matt means by nominalism, but I would still appreciate a comprehensible definition of it with examples. Also, is it the original, medieval definition of nominalism that he is using, or an updated definition?

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on July 25, 2002 5:29 PM

As with just about everything of importance, I’ve come to my personal understanding of nominalism mostly by committing the sin myself and having it kicked out from under me by my betters. I suppose it is likely that this results in a different sheen on a topic from the one normally imparted by actual scholarship, although hopefully there is still substantive accuracy; and in my own defense I have attempted after-the-fact to use more scholarly methods to flesh out my initial understanding.

I understand nominalism to be the denial that universals (or categories) have an independent existence. Categories are merely names that we assign to similar things, as a way of conveniently thinking or communicating about commonalities. All statements that pretend to be categorical are really just analogies or degrees of similarity; for example something can be said to be “bad”, but to say it is “categorically bad” is just to say that it is “really bad”. So a venial sin, rather than being something that is categorically bad but not of mortal consequence, becomes an act that just has a wee bit of badness in it.

There are a number of important abservations about, and consequences of having, nominalist commitments.

One is that like liberalism, nominalism is itself fundamentally self-contradictory: it asserts categorically that categorical assertions are invalid. So just as no liberal can possibly take his own liberal commitments completely seriously, no nominalist can possibly take his nominalist commitments completely seriously. When confronted with its actual consequences he dismisses this as “silly” or a “straw man”; in Mr. Auster’s parlance above he makes unprincipled exceptions to his own intellectual commitments.

Another is that nominalism takes the authority of truth and transfers it to the human will. If categories are just analogies that we create for our own convenience, they are our servants and we are their masters. We get to make up what our ideology is and implies in plenary acts of will; nobody else can tell us what we are. This is in stark contrast to treating categories (like “nominalist” and “liberal”) as independent things to which we do or do not pledge our alliegence. Nominalism persists despite the clear evidence of history which shows that ideologues from Mohammed to Jefferson to Marx themselves had no notion of precisely what it was, comprehensively, to which they were pledging their alliegence. Alliegence to the Reich is not comprehensive possession of it, clearly, but somehow the nominalist commitment remains: I decide to which categories I belong (the nominalist view), as opposed to I conform my will and alliegence to what is true.

Immanuel Kant was the last modern, to my knowledge, to attempt a serious counterrevolution against nominalism. I think that great thinker’s basic mistake was in looking for a comprehensive account of things that did not entail deference to tradition, testimony, revelation, etc; but he did try to save categoricity as such, if in a limited form. He ends up making irrational claims about things-in-themselves (‘noumena’) to the effect that we can’t know anything about them but that they nonetheless have implications on our philosophy (trying to parse that is futile — the point is that it does not parse). David Hume famously debunked, given modern premeses, the last holdout category against nominalist critique: “cause and effect”. To Hume cause-and-effect was just an after-the-fact observation of temporal succession that made it easier to talk about things, but cause-and-effect revealed no actual truth about any actual independently existent connection between events. He was also famously athiestic when he died, although I can say with certainty that he is not now. Once you throw in Wittgenstein’s “its only-about-what-we-can-SAYism” you immediately drop into postmodernism, it seems to me.

Now it is true that both nominalism and liberalism ultimately boil down to a positive assertion of the nonexistence of truth. It is true that they boil down to a positive alliegence with the Lie. That is not what someone wills himself to be doing when he pledges his allegence to the Lie; but that doesn’t change the fact of the Lie nor of his actual alliegence to it. It also explains the “but I’m a moderate not an extremist” effect: a slipshod and half-commited soldier of the Reich is still a soldier of the Reich. I was just following orders, and all that.

Has this been helpful?

Posted by: Matt on July 25, 2002 6:45 PM

Another nominalism-relevant observation on Mr. Auster’s original article is that the distinction between what we each ARE and what we each DO may not be as easy to maintain as is normally assumed; and even if it is maintained in some reasonably rigorous fashion, the line so drawn bears no resemblence whatsoever to the discrimination battle line between liberals and “conservatives”. Even attempting to define a distinction between ARE and DO is already to set onesself against the nominalist commitments inherent in being a modern. If _I_ get to define what _I AM_ then I can’t be discriminated against for any reason; including, presumably, the propensity to kill you that is inherent in my self-definition. If you find this a “straw man” then take a look at airport security screening.

Posted by: Matt on July 25, 2002 8:37 PM

Many thanks to Matt, that’s been very helpful. He has described nominalism in a way that takes it out of a hard-to-understand medieval context and shown that it is not something entirely distinct from liberalism but a certain aspect of liberalism—and in some ways almost identical to liberalism. It helps clarify my own analysis of liberalism and the liberal denial of the transcendent. For example, here’s part of a definition I give of transcendence in a forthcoming article of mine:

“Transcendence could be defined simply as the quality of any whole which is larger than the sum of its parts, and which therefore cannot be an object of direct experience. An example of transcendence that should be understandable to most Americans is the idea of ‘man,’ as in ‘all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ While we can see individual human beings everywhere, we cannot see ‘man’ anywhere, even though ‘man’ is the essential nature of what we are, and, according to the Declaration, the very source of our rights as individuals…. When people lose … a transcendent idea of human nature, they cease to be offended by crimes against actual human beings.”

In terms of Matt’s discussion of nominalism, man (the “whole” in relation to which individual men are the parts, and which modern liberalism denies) is the universal or the category the objective reality of which nominalism denies. Nominalism, or modern liberalism, says there are just lots of human beings with their desires and preferences and needs and rights; there is no such category as man or human nature on which the rights are based. Or, as Matt said, the idea of man is just a “way of communicating about commonalities.”

By the way, this seems similar to what Fr. Seraphim Rose says about liberalism, that it denies the essence of truth while keeping its external form. It seems to me that an example of such a vestigial form of truth is to define a category as a “way of communicating about commonalities.”

I also like what Matt says about seeing categories as things we keep around for our convenience. For example, liberal Jews are fond of saying that what they like about Judaism is that it has no defining doctrine and allows them to define Judaism as they like. As Alan Dershowitz said of Judaism in his book Chutzpah:

“I do … precisely what orthodox religions say you can’t do: I pick and choose—hopefully on some principled basis—among the religious practices and select those with which I wish to comply. It’s MY religion, after all, and I don’t see why I can’t be the final arbiter when it comes to its content.”

By the same token, said Dershowitz, he can define America as he likes.

So, once again, thanks. Nominalism has now become a more “relevant” concept to me.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on July 26, 2002 2:01 AM

But if nominalism is all those things that we’ve discussed, how could medieval Christendom have tolerated it for an instant? How could the people of that time have seen nominalism as anything but a radical denial of the possibility of Christian truth?

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on July 26, 2002 2:05 AM

From what I can remember the scholastics were actually arguing against extreme realism (all there are are universals), not for nominalism.
Here’s a link to clarify things:

Posted by: John on July 26, 2002 5:46 AM

It seems the nominalists didn’t deny Christian truth but said it’s a matter of faith alone, not of reason. Here’s the [1917] Catholic Encyclopedia on William of Ockham:

Apparently William got into trouble more because of his political activities as an ally of Lewis of Bavaria and Marsiglio of Padua than because of his philosophical speculations. Marsiglio, by the way, does sound like a proto-liberal:

Posted by: Jim Kalb on July 26, 2002 9:18 AM

I think it is correct to see nominalism as an early stage in the distancing of theology from philosophy, leading to the separation of faith from reason, and from thence to the separation of church from state. At each stage the human will is further separated from the inherently theological conscience of truth that demands our obedience with its proximity. I find it particularly amusing to watch the worship of “reason alone” — the necessary yang to the yin of “faith alone” — refute itself in the form of postmodernism.

The notion that Thomism ever implied a radical separation of philosophy from theology has been soundly thrashed by the radical orthodoxy movement, and in particular _Truth in Acquinas_ by Pickstock and Milbank. But of course I have no doubt that any number of people have attempted to possess the concept “nominalism” and make it mean whatever they personally willed it to mean; what else should we expect?

Posted by: Matt on July 26, 2002 10:41 AM

Ip address traces are easily reported then banned by movable type.

Posted by: Andrew on November 11, 2004 5:46 PM
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