Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Summary 1: Rand's Tabula Rasa View of Human Nature

"I except a few skeptics—the decent type in the history of philosophy: the rest are simply unaware of the most basic requirements of intellectual honesty." —F. Nietzsche


In ARCHN, I sought to explain how a woman of Rand's obvious intelligence could have adopted and propagated so many notions, ideas, and principles that are at odds with the basic facts of the human condition. Rand's tabula rasa view of human nature, her sociologically naive view of history, her rationalistic metaphysics, and her essentialistic, speculative epistemology can hardly be accounted for on the basis of innocent errors. Rand was smart enough to know better. So how did she fool herself in believing that most of the problems of the modern world stem from the failure of philosophers like Descartes and Locke to solve the problem of universals or that human beings are self-creators?

She did it by using philosophy to rationalize her preconceived notions about human nature. Objectivism has special pleading written all over it. But what, specifically, was Rand pleading for? Well, Rand herself claimed that all her writing was motivated by the desire to project her view of the ideal man. It is from this romantic conception of human nature, which Rand fashioned, not from her experience of men, but merely from her own fantasies and wishful thinking, that leads her to the absurdity of the "ideal" man who, although born with no personality or character, nevertheless experiences no difficulty in creating his own self ex nihilio, merely through "rational" thinking. Philosophers down through the centuries have inflicted the human race with all kinds of absurdities, many of them as far removed from common sense and reality as one could possibly imagine. But few of these absurdities can equal the whopper that Rand bequeathed to the world. Because human beings have free will, Rand argued, this means that man can shape “his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of . . . the rational being he is born able to create.” Rand never provided even the tiniest shred of compelling empirical evidence for this view. It was true because she said it was true, and that is supposed to be good enough for the rest of us. This is what a woman who prided herself on being rational and adhering to reality resorts to whenever she wants to believe in something that doesn't correspond to the facts. And this is how she begins her Objectivist system: with a colossal falsehood which she tenaciously throws into the very face of reality. We find ourselves in the presence of a philosopher who not only doesn't give a fig about the truth, but who is ignorant of the most basic requirements of intellectual honesty.

- Greg Nyquist

10 comments:

Daniel Barnes said...

Greg N:
>It is from this romantic conception of human nature, which Rand fashioned, not from her experience of men, but merely from her own fantasies and wishful thinking, that leads her to the absurdity of the "ideal" man who, although born with no personality or character, nevertheless experiences no difficulty in creating his own self ex nihilio, merely through "rational" thinking.

The absurdity of Rand's tabula rasa position reaches peak intensity when she writes the following:

"No one is born with any kind of 'talent' and, therefore, every skill has to be acquired."
(from the Introduction to 'We The Living', thanks to Dragonfly for the tip)

What is one supposed to say in reply to a such statement? Yes, one can acknowledge the merits of hard work and practice; one can agree that persistence pays off; yes, many qualities of a Tiger Woods or a Mozart that appear to be god-like gifts are the result of unseen hours of focus and determination. However, the idea that I could just up and play football like Maradona, or sing like Caruso, or play guitar like Hendrix, or fight like Ali, with nothing more than the application of a little willpower is just laughable. Anyone who's worked in the creative industry, or sports, or any other field, is bound to encounter talent, even prodigious talent. And when one does it is unmistakeable. It will be someone who's put little or no prior effort in, and they'll be able to blow away far more experienced and hardworking competitors (usually to their considerable chagrin). In fact, this ability to best people with far more practised than you seems to be the very definition of 'talent'. Yet Rand seems to be claiming that this is impossible. I have certainly read Objectivist sites where it is claimed that one can be the next Einstein, or Edison, simply by the application of effort and the correct philosophical principles! I mean, wishful thinking is charming enough as far as it goes, and I can certainly see that this kind of promise is makes Rand particularly appealing for your more naiive types. But this goes beyond wishful thinking into a kind of megalomania. And most notably, like most wishful thinking it is doomed to fail.

Brendan Hutching said...

Daniel: “"No one is born with any kind of 'talent' and, therefore, every skill has to be acquired. (From the Introduction to 'We The Living')…But this goes beyond wishful thinking into a kind of megalomania.”

Apparently, Rand made a comment to Nathaniel Branden to the effect that her philosophical ideas were less to do with her talent than her honesty. Interesting that some Objectivists have interpreted this comment as evidence of Rand’s modesty.

In Greg’s introduction to his book, he makes some pretty damning claims about Rand; that she cared nothing for the truth and ‘is ignorant of the most basic requirements of intellectual honesty.’ My initial reaction was Whoa! But then one comes up against absurdities in Rand’s writing so often that one can only conclude she lived in a world of her own making.

But it’s not just her. Any of her followers who feel compelled to defend one of her more nonsense claims is condemned to create their own rationalisations as they attempt to make sense of her claims. Eventually, this practice must lead to a sort of casual corruption of the truth.

But this is where it gets complicated, since Rand also invariably ascribed intellectual dishonesty to her philosophical enemies. In fact, she had something of an obsession with ‘intellectual honesty’. One suspects a large element of projection on her part, as well as a visceral understanding that the rhetoric of moral condemnation has a power that can’t be matched by mere argumentation.

On a side note, I think Greg has done a great job in writing this book. Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature is the most accessible and wide-ranging critique of Rand that I’ve read to date.

Brendan

Dragonfly said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Daniel Barnes said...

Dragonfly wrote:

There is a thread on Objectivist Living about a review by Fred Seddon of ARCHN that originally appeared in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (the version here

http://www.objectivistliving.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=544

seems to be slightly abridged). This review is a typical example of hairsplitting about some minor points that are hardly relevant (and often misrepresenting these by highly selective quoting) and ignoring the really important parts of the book.

(reposted by Daniel due to a weird comments glitch)

Jay said...

I think it's obvious that people are born with certain inclinations. If Rand truly denies that then I disagree with her. But what I always took away from Rand is that with introspection and discipline you could shape your attitudes and actions any way you choose. That's what most Objectivists I've talked to believe.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>I think it's obvious that people are born with certain inclinations. If Rand truly denies that then I disagree with her...

She makes some pretty strong remarks to this effect (see her preface to "We The Living" above).

>But what I always took away from Rand is that with introspection and discipline you could shape your attitudes and actions any way you choose. That's what most Objectivists I've talked to believe.

Well, I'd broadly agree with that too, but the question would be over degree.

Jay said...

For example, in the book "The Art of Demotivation", E.L. Kersten recounts a tale of a man born with a birth defect affecting the digits on his hands and feet who nevertheless persevered and became a high school football and professional tennis player. The easier thing to do would be to just accept it and never aspire to anything.

Obviously, that's a VERY extreme case but it illustrates a human's potential to change his limitations or inborn qualities.

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Stephen said...

>Because human beings have free will, Rand argued, this means that man can shape “his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of . . . the rational being he is born able to create.” Rand never provided even the tiniest shred of compelling empirical evidence for this view.

Only because man has free will is evidence possible. To a brute animal, whose mental actions are determined beyond its control, there is no such thing as evidence, merely automatic responses to material causes. Only man
can and must view a fact relative to an idea and identify the logical relation, if any.

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