Woke Fanatics? Essentialists vs. Nominalists

Image result for woke feminism

What’s a fanatic, exactly? The well-known Catholic essentialist philosopher Edward Feser, in a recent post at his blog, points to feminist philosophers like Kathleen Stock, Holly Lawford-Smith, and Julie Bindel as “woke fanatics,” but what is a fanatic, exactly, but someone extreme and monomaniacal–and what is prone to be more extreme and monomaniacal than, well, essentialism itself?

In other words, the essentialist locks-in on the self-same nature of a thing, and walls it up into the category of a singular species, holding it in prison there, fixating upon it as that thing.

But if one is a nominalist–a “name only” sort of person–one can unlock the prison door. To echo the poet William Blake from his The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the gates of perception can be cleansed:

If the doors of perception were cleansed then everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.

In other words, if one is a nominalist one can relax into complexity, multiplicity, and change. One is not urgent to reduce something to one thing–one definition–but can be open to experiencing the world as what the physicist Carlo Rovelli calls “events in relation.” A nominalist disperses a thing’s “powers” into the play of systems, macro and micro.

The world is let out for play and air.

Nominalism challenges fanaticism. The nominalist’s plurality of perspective functions to tamp down fanaticism. A nominalist names to pragmatic taste, not getting too hung up as to what a thing is “really.” By exercising imagination and emphasizing the particular, a nominalist can even observe things as sui generis. In other words, something can be seen as one of a kind; an alcove with its own inner logic within the cosmic cathedral, subject to no final reduction to a singular species category.

So relaxation in definition loosens the doors of the heart and the grip of essentialist, monomaniacal fanaticisms, such as antisemitism.

G. K. Chesterton, antisemitism, and woke feminism. It’s not widely talked about, but G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the novelist and biographer of the great medieval essentialist, St. Thomas, was an antisemite. He argued that the essential nature of Jews is to be alien, and thus Jews could never really be British. Not essentially. According to Adam Gopnik in his recent book, Chesterton actually proposed different clothing for British Jews, so that they could be readily identified by others, as to their essential nature.

So the controversy over the woke women philosophers that a self-described postliberal essentialist like Feser links to and calls “woke fanatics” raises the question of what makes them fanatics in the first place. Insofar as the particular philosophers in question–Kathleen Stock, Holly Lawford-Smith, and Julie Bindel–are fanatics–and I think it’s fair to say that they may well be–then they are fanatics because their own definition of feminism is too essentialized and narrow (not imaginative enough). They appear to be, if Daniel Kaufman is to be believed, locked-in on treating opposing articles by feminists as essentially alien to their own articles and feminism, not really belonging alongside them in the play of signifiers, exactly like Chesterton perceived British Jews in relation to British Gentiles.

So if there are some female philosophers associated with woke feminism that are indeed fanatics, and essentialist philosophers like Feser don’t like what they’re doing to the discipline of philosophy, the irony is that the very source of their fanaticism might well be associated with the degree to which they lapse into essentialist modes of discourse in the first place.

So maybe the otherwise nominalist “woke” are not quite so “woke” after all, and maybe the otherwise essentialist “unwoke” should be hoping for a more consistent revival of nominalism.


For those who think I’m being a bit harsh in calling Chesterton an antisemite, cute as he is with his doggy, I refer you to Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece on Chesterton, which rehearses his antisemitism pretty thoroughly: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/07/07/the-back-of-the-world.

Image result for gk chesterton

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, critical thinking, Darwin, edward feser, feminism, philosophy, poetry, reason, rhetoric, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Woke Fanatics? Essentialists vs. Nominalists

  1. notabilia says:

    You make excellent points, of course, regarding Feser and the dead Chesterton.
    But, unless you are contractually obligated to debate against them, this is like LeBron dunking against a seventh grader and a dead parrot.
    Who would have to care what “Catholic” non-entity Feser has to say about anything other than the papal bull? And Chesterton is exactly where he should be: long-dead and never coming back to life. You are leagues beyond these two.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Thanks for the nice observation, and just as soon as Trump withdraws like a crab back into dragon seas, I’ll heed your advice. But so long as we’re having a revival of theocratic thinking among postliberal, Trump-backing intellectuals, I think attention should be paid–and claims answered. : )

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