Thursday, 21 January 2016

The metaphysics of everyday life - changing names and definitions changes existential reality

Metaphysics is everywhere, including the apparently small scale matter of names, and changing them.

Back in 1974 when I was a teenager, the English counties were 'reorganized'; boundaries were changed - and also names. This affected me since I was living in the northern part of Somerset, which was re-named Avon.

'Somerset' is from an Old English (Anglo Saxon) word which derives from the settlement Somerton probably meaning summer town - Somerset therefore perhaps refers to 'summer lands' - pasture used and inhabited during the dry season. Somerton was an important administrative centre, although now more like a village.

For local people the name was a link with Alfred the Great, who hid in the marshes of Somerset (leading to the legend of 'King Alfred and the cakes') before mounting his campaign against the Danish invaders, which eventually led to his rule as the greatest of English monarchs. The new boundary also also separated my part of the county from the ancient Christian centre of Glastonbury.

Local people were never happy with the Avon neologism, and eventually the name was changed back to North Somerset.

I can remember at the time that I was strongly against the name change, but those who made or accepted the change (which was, of course, unneccessary - as its later reversal made clear) would shrug and say 'It's just a name...' and I would be made to feel as if I was 'making a fuss about nothing...'

(It is strange, is it not, that objecting to the name changes and re-definitions proposed and implemented by managers and officials is said to be petty and trivial, yet changing and re-changing names is regarded as important and necessary? Surely it can't simultaneously be both? Yet funds are always made available to change names, while restoring them is seen as too expensive, 'a waste of money'.) 

But I was right, and they were wrong, because changing the name was a metaphysical redefinition on a small scale - it changed the structure of reality, and was therefore an act of existential aggression.

The Somerset name change altered reality in two main ways:

First, and most obviously, it erased the historical link represented by the name.

But the second was more profound - which was the implicit redefinition of reality by proceeding on the basis that Names Do Not Matter - that names are arbitrarily, contingently attached to things - and that therefore the world of language, discourse, communication is un-rooted and can be reshaped at will.

(It was therefore, in effect, taking the Nominalist side in the medieval Nominalist versus Realist metaphysical dispute.)

In a nutshell, the name change was - in its local, microcosmic, yet effective way - the imposition of a new set of metaphysical assumptions on the people in my area by the state bureaucracy.  It was, indeed, part of the same process going-on in many areas of life and continuing - because since then there have been multiple such changes in British life both driven by the state bureaucracy and by innumerable private and charity managerial bureaucracies throughout national and local life.

It happens all the time; changes of name, logo, mission statements, and the steady Leftward driving of all major institutions from their traditional self-understandings and functions (often rooted in Christianity) towards secular socio-politics. Indeed, in our managerial culture, this is what managers do - they rename, reorganise: redefine - and in doing so they assert the metaphysics that none of this matters, it is all superficial, and 'means nothing', and the people who disagree are being petty and trivial.

Metaphysics is everywhere - and metaphysical disputes are characterised by being about assumptions, not evidence. Name changes are about changing people's assumptions; and assumptions structure reality so that a name change of this kind will change (in some small or large way) what counts as evidence and how evidence is interpreted.

At the very least, to live in a society where a name of more than a thousand years is discarded by a group of 'modernising' officials, is to live in a society where people behave on the basis that they are - in fact - adrift from history and the common language: it is an act of rebellion against the past and a rejection of tradition: it is a change in self-conception.

The redefinition of Somerset was part of the exact same process and a step towards the recent metaphysical revolution - by which the redefinition and renaming process has been extended to sexual identity (being a man or woman), and marriage.

Again, this is metaphysics, because it is a two-fold restructuring of reality - entailing the assertion that names and definitions are in fact arbitrary, and disconnected from reality - and the process is, again, dishonest becauseit is simultaneousy said to be vitally necessary and yet somehow trivial and a mere matter of 'administrative convenience'.

So, we in the West have implemented perhaps the most profound metaphysical restructuring of existential reality in centuries - and yet the pretence is that this is a trivial matter: a mere tidying-up of a messy situation; and that those who object to the changes are (as usual) petty, vindictive, mindless reactionaries who are (yet again) 'making a fuss about nothing'...

1 comment:

Nicholas Fulford said...

This reminds me of the scene in Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen", where a soldier who has done a tremendous act of bravery is brought before the petty town bureaucrat who after hearing about all the brave deeds of the soldier orders him to be taken out and shot because his example would upset the morale of the average soldier by setting a discouragingly high standard.

Bureaucratic idiocy is amongst the very worst, but it does have one redeeming feature; it has been the basis for some outstanding comedy.

I do take your point though Bruce. Renaming, recasting and recreating historical places and events is a way for the propagandist to assert his authority and inject a new narrative that, "surprise, surprise", dovetails with the interests of the prevailing political powers.