At the end of the day, it's like water and rain, Sisi ni sawa, we are the same! Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

June 18, 2020   5 mins

Among those responsible for turning the public square into an increasingly fraught and even violent battleground of competing claim and counter-claim, an early fourteenth century Franciscan friar and philosophy from Surrey makes an unlikely candidate. But the line of thought pioneered by William of Ockham — he of the famous razor — has had an enormous influence down the centuries; and to understand why the present moment feels to many of us like a descent into a certain kind of madness, we need to unpick some very basic philosophical assumptions that he helped to establish.

Ockham’s philosophy is commonly known as nominalism. This position is a kind of suspicion that our most basic categories of things might not have as much in common as our language fools us into believing. We speak of “tables” and “cats” and “clouds”, as if all the very different things that we lump together under these names have some deep common property (or set of properties) by which they get to be counted as a table, or cat or cloud.

Plato, for instance, believed that there is a kind of essence to a thing — he called it a form — that exists independently of the various instantiations of that thing. There is a basic metaphysical form of a table, and that form is the basis for counting each individual example of a table as one.

Ockham’s razor is often regarded as a brilliant intellectual strategy to cut through unnecessary and superfluous explanations — and the universal was one such superfluous explanation. Why posit the existence of some basic link between all things that share the same name; why not just accept that they have no deeper connection with each other than simply that they share the superficial quality of having the same name?

Different tables and different cats and different clouds are all lumped together by human beings as an act of convenience. Nominalism takes its name from this act of naming. It is nothing more than the act of naming that generates the illusion of some deeper connectedness between things. In other words: language really matters. Labels are everything.

Fast forward to today’s disputes. What we are witnessing is the consequences of the collapse of the idea that “human being” represents a basic form of universal solidarity. For centuries, that was the assumption — at least, in theory — that human beings all have something very basic in common, and that on the basis of this, we owe each other a certain kind of moral respect.

Of course, this didn’t stop human beings being monstrous to each other, though it is interesting that we often describe those who treat another in a terrible way as being “inhumane”, or that they behave as animals or monsters — as if what is going on represents some sort of rupture with one’s own basic humanity. The basic category “human being” is therefore respected even in the breach.

But nominalism, especially in its current political iteration, will have absolutely none of this. There is no such deep connection between these squashy things made of flesh and blood that we have lumped together as “human beings” out of rhetorical convenience. They are all so different that it makes little sense to lump them all together under one category, which is why “Black (human) Lives Matter” is not as easy a subdivision of “All (human) Lives Matter” as one might assume.

Under nominalism, “human being” — only a name, after all — turns out to be a weaker connector between people of very different life experiences. Indeed, from the perspective of “Black Lives Matter”, the insistence upon “All Lives Matter” is itself offensive. In other words, universals are suspect categories.

The same also applies with other questions of structural oppression: of women, of gay and lesbian people, of trans people. And, of course, the issues raised here are real, important and increasingly era-defining. But for the nominalist even these categories — black, women, gay — do not speak to some basic unit of solidarity. These, too, can be deconstructed by the next generation, and shown again to be little more than names, social categorisations.

The first two waves of feminism, for example, broadly assumed that terms like “man” and “woman” were relatively unproblematic, being biologically rooted. But many in the generation that followed questioned even this, arguing that what counts as being a woman is itself simply a nominalist construction. And what has happened with a term like woman is surely bound to happen to a term like black — whether capitalised or not. (See Peter Franklin’s fascinating post today.) The basis for the solidarity of the previous generation — the slogans on its placards – gets unpicked by the next. Hence the rolling nature of the culture war.

What comedians have come to satirise as “woke” is the obsessive concentration on the minutiae of language, the creation of even more finely-grained sub-divisions of grievance. And it feels significant to me that many who complain about this are broadly from the Left — from Andrew Doyle to JK Rowling — feeling that the political causes that they once rallied to have now been ripped apart by younger activists. Woke, then, is the reductio ad absurdum of the whole nominalist programme. Woke obsesses about language because, from the nominalist perspective, language is all that there is.

Not even science is spared from this programmatic suspicion of the universal. For although Occam’s Razor is often claimed as a basic principle of scientific discovery, it can also be used to deny some very basic instincts about scientific truth: namely, that if something is true in England it must also true in Ghana and India. What if this “universal truth” is just another form of colonialism?

The problem is this: if a basic statement of truth like “1+1=2” is completely indifferent to the location in which it is uttered, if it remains true whether you like it or not, if it stays true no matter whether the majority of the population decide they like it or not, then universal truth can begin to look like the perfect expression of colonialism.

You may think this is madness, and, of course, it is. But nonetheless, the reason some say that science and maths require decolonising is not because there have been too many white people teaching it, but for the much deeper reason that the very concept of science has an inbuilt resistance to the idea that African science may be a different kind of thing, and come up with different conclusions, to European science.

There was a shocking video on YouTube of a 2016 South African university class discussing why “Science Must Fall.” One participant argues that science cannot explain the indigenous belief that you can send lightning to strike someone. “Because it’s not true” intervenes one of the participants from the back — to which there is an absolute howl of outrage.

And the chair immediately rises to make the person who referred to the truth apologise (which he does). It wasn’t that his claim was being disputed; no one was arguing that what was being said was actually true. Rather, in this context, saying something is true or not is a form of disrespect, a violation of the safety of the space, as the chair goes on explain.

From this perspective, nothing — not truth, not God, not humanity — can act as a common and universal moral currency in which we all participate. And all this creates a huge problem, because without a sense that we all participate in some basic and common category called “human being” — the membership of which comes with extensive rights and responsibilities — then the differences between us can no longer be settled with reference to the obligations we have, one human being to another.

Instead, the resolution between such categorically-different life experiences can only be achieved through the expression of force. Nominalism leads to Nietzsche. When there is nothing to bind us together, the game of life is nothing more than one big power play. Without these big binding overarching ideas like humanity and truth — and yes, perhaps even God — all we have left is the question of who is strong and who is weak.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.