One of the most common attitudes I encounter with today’s college students is a kind of blasé non-judgmentalism—or, worse, a passively nihilistic relativism. They are reluctant to label any behavior or belief bad, even if, in the most extreme thought experiments, it involves killing innocents. This attitude seems to get worse every year; it’s as if an extreme version of John Stuart Mill’s thought forms the very air students breathe.
Only recently has it become clear that a reluctance to label a behavior or belief bad or even inferior comes from an unwillingness to define that thing. Students tell me that if they label someone else’s belief bad, they are depriving that person’s right to define themselves and create her own identity. Reluctance to define, then, becomes the template for social life. For example, students today do not say “She is Catholic” but rather “She identifies as Catholic.” In the first proposition there is a firm commitment to an idea: x is y, with all that entails. In the latter formulation, there is no fixed point, no core self: there is only a transient embrace of something that satisfies a need, and a corresponding hesitation to name that thing at all.
Perhaps Wittgenstein was right: problems of philosophy are fundamentally problems of language. The reluctance to define terms and ideas, or to affix ourselves to immovable and immutable points, is one of the most corrosive forces in our culture, and it is by recovering the power and willingness to define that conservatives can make headway in cultural politics. Marriage, justice, life, morality: we need fixed definitions of terms like these if we hope to have a cohesive society.
We should take our cue from Richard Weaver, the midcentury conservative philosopher and rhetorician. In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Weaver wrote that the noblest argument is the argument from definition. Such an argument focuses on “the nature of the thing… The postulate is that there exist classes which are determinate and therefore predicable.” The existence of definitive classes and definitions, which necessarily place limits on the self, is precisely what secular liberalism rebels against.
Weaver knew this well: “There are those who seem to feel that genera are imprisoning bonds which serve only to hold the mind in confinement.” Conservatives, meanwhile, know that “such genera appear the very organon of truth.” In other words, the conservative is the one willing to say that x fundamentally is y; the secular liberal believes that to finally define terms like “marriage” is to trap people in oppressive and anachronistic institutions.
The enemy of definition is emotivism: that line of thinking that prizes felt preference and the inviolable nature of conscience over fixed ideals. In emotivism, a thing is whatever I say it is, and as long as I feel a genuine preference rooted in my conscience then you cannot tell me I am wrong. Roll your eyes if you like, but this is the dominant attitude among today’s students and most of the contemporary professoriate which shapes them. And according to Weaver, this is precisely the attitude that leads to cultural breakdown.
Cultural Restoration Requires Definition
If conservatism is to remain a way of life and a negation of ideology, as Russell Kirk had it, then our primary task should be the preservation and rebuilding of culture. Such a task requires definition. Weaver wrote that coherent and cohesive cultures center around a particular “metaphysical dream”: a kind of cultural telos around which members of the culture can agree and rally.
But it’s foolish to pretend we can have such a metaphysical dream without shared terms. In the United States we might hold up “liberty” or “freedom” as universal terms, but surely such terms are more contested than ever. “Freedom as an end in itself,” wrote Weaver, “is simply vacuous.” Try telling that to some of my progressive students and colleagues, for whom unfettered autonomy without obligation is the central goal of life.
Perhaps we have crossed some kind of cultural Rubicon, and broad agreement on terms is no longer possible. Certainly the political has become personal for many millions of Americans, and political views—replacing faith in a secular society—become the only eschatological force in our private and public lives.
If we cannot agree in democratic, pluralistic life on which terms should be fixed, then we must do two things: first, we must form new and smaller communities around those terms which can be defined from their nature; second, we must turn to those institutions that can offer transcendence in definition.
Communities that form around definitions should necessarily be small: by family, by neighborhood or region, by parish or temple. We need tangibility and proximity in order to be metaphysically cohesive. The distance we feel from our leaders in Washington is partially a result of abstraction; those institutions feel distant and amorphous to us, and for good reason. By contrast, your local government or civic association is immediate and knowable. You are far more likely to find broad agreement on terms and their consequences at the local level.
Transcendent institutions are those that offer a chance to understand what came before us and what will come after us. Such places give us a sense that history is long, and that society is a communion, as Edmund Burke famously put it, between the dead, the living, and those yet to come. The Whiggish scourge of presentism—believing that today’s world is the best and the most important—can only lead us to define terms in ways convenient to that self-serving and self-flattering ideology.
This is why the Catholic Church remains a beacon of definitional hope in a time of metaphysical chaos. Because the Church offers clarity in definition, informed by centuries of canonical law and the implicit blessing of the divine, it is a safe harbor for those weary of the tumultuous seas of emotivism and self-creation.
The Church also offers what Weaver called “spaciousness”: the ability to see a given thing from a distance and thus see its true nature. “If one sees an object from too close,” Weaver wrote, “one sees only its irregularities and protuberances. To see an object rightly or to see it as a whole, one has to have a proportionate distance from it. Then the parts fall into a meaningful pattern, the dominant effect emerges, and one sees it ‘as it really is.’”
Because our individual views are by necessity personal and subjective, it is difficult for each of us to take this spacious view of things, and therefore we need transcendent institutions to take up this task. The Church can, for example, satisfactorily define “virtue” by incorporating the entire intellectual heritage, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Alasdair MacIntyre. A fixed, permanent definition of a term like virtue can offer us an anchor during a time when each person, as Weaver had it, believes he is “not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics.”
The Church and other religious institutions can also offer hope with more dangerous terms. Weaver believed that the most powerful modern term was “progress”: it is “the one term which in our day carries the greatest blessing [and] whose antonym carries the greatest rebuke.” Conservatives are right to be skeptical and wary of this term, as its proponents rarely define exactly where or to what this progress is headed. The Church, meanwhile, offers a teleological definition of human progress informed by divine teaching, the works of the saints, and the actions of billions of faithful throughout the world. It’s a definition that transcends the present and comes from roots far deeper than those offered by superficial emotivism.
The work of rebuilding culture must first be the work of defining culture. The word itself, after all, comes from the practice of cultivating a piece of land: we must plant the seeds of fixed terms and concepts if we hope to someday reap the bounty of Weaver’s metaphysical dream.
The whole enterprise of secular liberalism is based on the premise of self-creation: the modern self, unshackled from the “oppressive” bonds of religion, family, and even biology, can now make itself anew as it pleases. All that is solid does indeed melt into air in secular liberalism, and that melting begins with a reluctance to define terms with finality. Now, more than ever, we must shore up the terms of our world and be unafraid to affix ourselves to unwavering definitions.