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Weaver had ideas

I’ve been rereading Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, a basic text in traditionalist conservatism.

Weaver’s basic thought is that the world is intelligible, man is free, we must understand the world intelligently to choose correctly, and we’ve been growing progressively less intelligent on basic issues for the past few hundred years. Most of the book is an explanation of what’s unintelligent about modern understandings, why they lead to trouble, and what to do about it all.

The title’s an odd one. That ideas have consequences is less the theme than a background assumption of the book. Also, it’s not really ideas in general the author wants to emphasize but metaphysical ideas. It might have been clearer if he had called the book Why and How Metaphysics Matters, and What to Do About It.

In spite of the obscurity of the title, he mostly writes clearly, and makes striking observations: “The modern knower may be compared to an inebriate who, as he senses his loss of balance, endeavors to save himself by fixing tenaciously on certain details and thus affords the familiar exhibition of positiveness and arbitrariness.” (57-58) “One notes that even in everyday speech the word fact has taken the place of truth.” (58) “Thus the specialist stands ever at the borderline of psychosis.” (62) “One of the most important revelations of a period comes in its theory of language.” (150) He speaks of “people who are so frightened over the existence of prejudice that they are at war with simple predication.” (153) He observes, “If we can never succeed in getting out of the circle of definition, is it not true that all conventional definitions are but reminders of what we already, in a way, possess?” (157) Hence knowledge as reminiscence.

He rejects nominalism, so much so that he views the appearance of 14th century arch-nominalist William of Occam as a turning point of history. Since then it’s been all downhill, toward absorption in material particulars and abandonment of principle, hierarchy, form and the transcendent. He thus covers much the same ground as Traditionalist writers like Guenon and Evola. He’s an Anglo-Saxon American and not a crazed continental, though, so his theory leaves out cosmic cycles and concentrates on more practical matters, like what to do here and now.

The analysis goes deep enough to place analytical concepts used by traditionally-minded writers today in a larger setting. His comment that “Democratic leadership thus always runs into anomaly” (47) reproduces Larry Auster’s notion of the Unprincipled Exception in liberalism, and his repeated emphasis on “periphery” as today’s locus of concern (e.g., 53) put me in mind of John Rao’s semi-autobiographical novel by that name.

He comments that “The right of private property … is, in fact, the last metaphysical right remaining to us,” (131) the principles of religion, sex, and vocation having been swept away. The status of private property as the sole remaining non-utilitarian right (in the view of the people, if not John Rawls or the Kelo court) is what gives libertarian arguments plausibility in traditionalist circles. Weaver gives a better presentation of the matter than anyone else I know of. (See his chapter on “The Last Metaphysical Right.) He conceives of private property though as the distributists did (132-4), talking about “distributive ownership,” (133) and “small-scale private property,” (147) and so is hardly an anarchocapitalist.

In addition to private property, he wants to base cultural renovation on a renewed appreciation of the power of language, which he believes helps construct the world and all things in it, and “piety”—respect for man, nature and the past. He thus puts himself rather in the line of cultural traditionalists like Confucius and skeptical conservatives like Roger Scruton.

More later!



The editor came up with the title “Ideas Have Consequences”, which Weaver disliked. He wanted the book to be called “The Adverse Descent”, if I’m remembering correctly.

Both Tillich and Voegelin also point to Ockham and the introduction of nominalism as a monumental development in Western cultural and intellectual history.

Nominalism leads to phenomenalism, which leads to positivism, which leads to nihilism, which leads to a search for secular myths to consolidate and protect the nominalist worldview (although some remain in nihilism, never to be heard of again).

One could view the conflicts among ideas in the modern world as the battle for supremacy among these competing secular myths. It’s basically a battle among competing phenomenologies: economic, psychological, biological, linguistic, historical, etc.

I always liked Weaver, and hope you post more on him.

On the face of it nominalism seems like a catastrophe, but I’ve never wanted to comment too much because Occam’s actual writings always seemed so technical. They look like they would be a lot of work to discuss, so my accounts usually start with the 17th c,

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

A sentence you quote from Weaver neatly sums up, I think, the effect of nominalism on everyday thinking and speech: “One notes that even in everyday speech the word “fact” has taken the place of “truth”.”

And that’s a fact, Jack.