In his ‘Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature’ Greg Nyquist noted the lack of serious criticism of the novelist Ayn Rand and her philosophy, Objectivism. His book, which is self-published, begins to remedy the situation with the most thorough, accessible and vigorous dissection of Rand yet. However, judging by Fred Seddon’s review (1) in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, taking Rand seriously is no guarantee that Randians will return the favour.
Seddon is a professional academic and a somewhat controversial figure within Objectivism, largely due to his courageous, if somewhat oblique, defence of Immanuel Kant, who is a cartoon philosophic hate-figure to Ayn Rand’s followers. Given his modest iconoclasm and JARS mission to bring Rand to the wider academic world one might have hoped for a suitably engaged response to Nyquist’s book. However, the result is lost opportunity as Seddon is clearly not up to the job. He claims the book has a ‘narcotic quality’ on him; but not, I fear, in a good way. It turns out his review is so airheaded if you read it on a plane you could safely switch the engines off.
Seddon’s ineptness is evident from the beginning. He seems to be literally unable to understand the simplest thing Nyquist writes. For example, Seddon quotes Nyquist calling Rand ‘an important and perhaps even a great thinker’ but says that the book leaves him with the opposite impression. After all, Nyquist criticizes her views on everything from epistemology to art, from morality and politics to science and history. “How much remains”, puzzles Seddon, “for her to be a great thinker about?”
But Nyquist is crystal clear about what he means by ‘great thinker’ – all that is required is to read the relevant passage:
”For even though (Rand’s) philosophy is riddled with non-sequiturs, over generalizations, incompetent formulations,pseudo-empirical references, and other palpable bunglings, this does not mean that she cannot in fact be regarded as a great philosopher. Many a philosopher considered great by the denizens of academia is every bit, if not more culpable of the sort of violations of logic and evidence which characterize Rand and her disciples”. (ARCHN, xiv)Nyquist then offers Plato, Plotinus, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, Hegel among others as examples of thinkers generally regarded as ‘great’ despite their manifold errors. Simple enough even for a professor of philosophy one would have thought, but somehow Nyquist’s meaning has escaped Seddon. This is especially odd, as this passage occurs immediately following the sentence Seddon quotes. How has he managed to miss it? Perhaps the ‘narcotic quality’ Nyquist’s writing has on the professor caused him, Grandpa Simpson-like, to nod off now and again.
Unfortunately, this is only to be the first of many narcoleptic moments. Seddon is no less obtuse in his critique of Nyquist’s methodology:
“(Nyquist) tells us that he does not have access to Rand’s mind and so he will ‘judge her entirely by her writings.’ But he immediately begins to focus on her intentions…and constantly tells us what she is consciously thinking as well as her subconscious motives.”But the quoted snippet from Nyquist - ‘judge her entirely by her writings’ - simply does not mean what Seddon thinks it does ie: that Nyquist is ruling Rand’s intentions out-of-bounds for discussion. In fact, Nyquist means quite the opposite. Again, all one needs to do is read the passage in question to see that, far from sidelining Rand’s intentions and motives, Nyquist is indeed focusing on them, and using her writings to establish what they are.
“Now obviously I have no direct access to Rand’s mind. I have to judge her entirely by her writings – which is not always easy. In my opinion, the best way of circumventing some of the difficulties involved in interpreting Rand is to begin by focusing on her intentions as a philosopher. (emphasis DB) Her intentions are at least perfectly comprehensible – something not always the case with her philosophical doctrines, which are often riddled with non-sequiturs and palpable distortions of reality.”(ARCHN, xxix)Again, simple enough – and again, Nyquist’s meaning is perfectly evident from reading the very next sentence to the one Seddon cites. Yet somehow Seddon contrives to get it completely backwards.
This is bad enough; but worse, it does not appear to have dawned on our absent-minded professor that the entire book is premised on the stated intention of Rand’s philosophy – that is, “the projection of an ideal man.” This is the central argument of Nyquist’s book after all, hammered home from Chapter 1 onwards – that Rand’s ‘ideal man’ is a rationalization that bears no relationship to the empirical reality of human nature; and as a result, Nyquist argues, the philosophy behind this ‘ideal’, Objectivism, despite all its claims to the contrary, becomes simply another variation of rationalism. Understanding Rand’s intentions is the key to the book, yet Seddon has not grasped this remarkably obvious point. Tellingly, while this yawning gap between Rand’s theories and actual human beings forms the central platform for “Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature”’s argument (perhaps the title might have given him a hint?), Seddon does not refer it even once in his review - a quite remarkable feat of missing the point. One suspects if Seddon was reviewing “Anna Karenina” he would think it about the lack of safety precautions in 19th century Russian railway stations.
Perhaps Seddon would have better luck getting ARCHN’s arguments if he spent less of his time in engrossed in trivia. His opening salvo is an extended discussion on the riveting topic of…wait for it…Nyquist’s section headings. I kid you not. Unfortunately even when Seddon does stumble across a reasonable technical point, he can’t seem to make it stick. For example, Seddon worries that as Nyquist is not concerned with verbalism and arguing over definitions, Nyquist might end up using one definition of a term, and Rand another. “Won’t they be talking at cross-purposes?” he frets. Well, maybe. But having voiced this concern, he can only find one possible example of this happening in the entire book – in the discussion of the “self-evident”, which Nyquist refers to as “those things which the self has first-hand experience of” and Rand refers to as that which must be accepted, even to be denied. While he claims that this is Nyquist beating a strawman, Seddon neglects to tell us exactly why this is such an egregious misrepresentation. Are Rand’s inescapable ‘self-evident’ concepts such as ‘existence’ and ‘consciousness’ not things which, in Objectivism, one has first-hand experience of? And if in fact they are compatible with Nyquist’s definition – and it appears at first blush they are - how would this then vitiate Nyquist’s criticisms? In other words, Seddon’s point is…? One suspects he really doesn’t have one.
And so on in an increasingly hapless vein. He seizes upon Nyquist’s demonstration that Rand uses vague definitions to ‘prove anything’ (ARCHN, 150) she wants and shows that formally in logic there are in fact some things you can’t prove, whether the terms are vague or not. But narcolepsy has struck again – Seddon does not appear to have read the qualifying sentence that immediately follows Nyquist’s demonstration - “just about anything” (ARCHN,151, italics DB) - which shows that Nyquist was not speaking formally in the first place. So Seddon’s point is another fizzer.
Things descend into outright farce when Seddon mischaracterises Nyquist as a ‘positivist’ just because, pace Karl Popper, Nyquist mocks the empty verbalism commonly associated with the word ‘metaphysics’ and considers the best test of the ‘certainty’ of a theory to be how it stands up to the empirical facts. “If one claims that all swans are white and produces a white swan, or a 1,000 white swans, as evidence for his claim, is that the end of the matter?” Seddon intones. “Popper built a career on the importance of falsifiability. Has Nyquist forgotten this fact?” Perhaps a better question is: has Seddon dozed off completely? It seems he has. Turning to the text, we find Nyquist spends a page and a half outlining the famous ‘problem of induction’ in ARCHN’s intro (ARCHN, xix-xx), including the standard ‘white swan’ example Seddon claims to be confused about. More embarrassing still, in chapter 3 - the very same chapter Seddon is discussing – we find nothing less than a lengthy and thoroughly approving discussion of the importance of falsifiability. (ARCHN, 171-174) – again, complete with the ‘white swan’ example. Nyquist quotes Popper:
“…no matter how many instances of white swans we might have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that all swans are white” (ARCHN, 171)and also writes:
“The best that can be said on behalf of a theory is that it has survived every attempt to refute it.” (ARCHN, 174)Thus the answers to our bemused professor’s questions above are, clearly, “no”, and “no”. Who is Seddon trying to kid? Firstly, anyone who read the book – or even the chapter - half-attentively would realise this. Secondly, having stated the formal case against inductive ‘certainty’ at considerable length, Nyquist is again just speaking colloquially when he says “certainty” or “once and for all” or “know” or “probably” or similarly philosophically troubling phrases. As Nyquist says, again in the same chapter, "I will do everything in my power to avoid being technically excessive or abstruse..." (ARCHN, 100) And of course Popper did exactly the same thing in his own writing. Thirdly, surely Seddon knows enough about 20th Century philosophy to know that as Popper is the most famous critic of Logical Positivism, anyone who right from the outset declares himself a Popper fan is unlikely to be much of a 'positivist'. (Seddon invokes Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle; yet despite Nyquist's impressive array of intellectual sources I could find no reference to either in ARCHN)
It appears that, true to form, Seddon has simply not understood what he has read. He cites Nyquist:
“If you want to know whether causality is valid, study the empirical word of facts. Only by observing the facts can you know what they are.” (ARCHN, 195)Seddon seems to think this passage equates ‘observation’ with ‘knowledge’ and is both ‘bad Rand’ and ‘bad Popper.’ In fact it is just bad Seddon. Nyquist is not saying, as Seddon thinks, that the only way you can develop theories (or what Popper calls ‘knowledge’) is from observing facts. This would be bad Popper indeed. He is saying – and merely reading the second sentence of the quote makes it quite obvious - that the only way to get the facts is by observing them. Hardly an interesting statement, let alone a controversial one, and certainly not a statement that anyone, especially Popper, would be ‘vituperative’ about. Seddon is clutching at straws. After all, Leonard Peikoff himself makes the exact same point as Nyquist: he writes, “Thinking, to be valid, must adhere to reality”(OPAR, 110) and claims the old Dragnet line ”Just give us the facts, ma’am” is his motto. So is Peikoff now a ‘positivist’ too? Would Seddon rate OPAR as the Tractatus all over again?
By now it is difficult to avoid the impression that Seddon has not really read, let alone engaged with, the book he is purported to be reviewing – and what few sentences he has read, he appears to have misunderstood. One charitably assumes this is merely serial incompetence, and not a deliberate attempt by Seddon to mislead his readers. Whatever the case, we can only wonder: as a professional thinker, would he accept such standards from one of his students? One can only hope not. And while I know little about JARS other than its aim of improving Objectivism’s credibility in academia, this kind of clowning can only have the reverse effect.
As such, his criticisms of ARCHN probably don’t merit further discussion. While Seddon either misstates or fails to address Nyquist’s otherwise clear and forceful arguments, he does however have a positive gift for the inane – perhaps his taking Nyquist to task for not calling Leonard Peikoff “Dr Peikoff” takes the prize here. But just when I was about to write it off as little more than an insight into the mind of the unpaid academic reviewer on deadline – surely JARS cannot have fronted up with cash for this effort – Seddon suddenly becomes interesting. But his topic is not Nyquist, but Rand – in particular Rand’s theory of ‘contextual certainty’.
Seddon starts with a discussion about whether he can be ‘certain’ there is not a naked woman in his bedroom (did I mention ‘inane’?). He defends the idea that he can achieve not just ‘certainty’ of the truth of this proposition, but an accompanying ‘proliferation of certainties’. So, clearly, as far as Seddon is concerned and contra Nyquist (and Popper), ‘certain truth’ is easy and prolific; indeed manifest. All one apparently has to do is, as Seddon does in his bedroom, simply look around. (2)
But then having come out all in favour of a manifest truth, Seddon then executes a startling 180 degree shift away from such a doctrine. “In defense of Nyquist” Seddon suddenly backpedals, “I do think that Rand is really a radical here. Her notion of certainty is one that challenges the usual definition of knowledge as “justified true belief,” a notion that probably goes back to Plato. This definition insists that in order to know P, P must be true. Rand, for better or worse, sees this as a variant of intrinsicism and rejects it. Therefore, and Nyquist is quite right about this, you can know P, yet P may be false.”(emphasis DB)
If this is really what Rand intended by her theory it is quite a turn-up for the books. For if Rand really rejects ‘justified true belief’ and ‘to know P, P must be true’ in favour of ‘you can know P, yet P may be false’ then she effectively has the same epistemology as Karl Popper – that all human knowledge is ultimately hypothetical and may turn out to be wrong (yes, even including this theory), and that there is no such thing as a justified ‘certainty’; not even about the existence (or otherwise) of a naked woman in one’s bedroom. If this is what she meant all along then I look forward to the coming rapprochement between Objectivism and Popper’s Critical Rationalism, given that – if we are to believe Seddon - they have the exact same fundamental epistemological basis.
But Seddon goes further than this. In a truly eyebrow-raising section he writes:
“…in the social sciences we do have more work to do after the descriptions are in. By their very nature, as the postulations of ideals, one cannot expect them to be actual. This means that they will deviate in part or in whole from what is the case. Given this, laissez-faire capitalism is more of a goal to be aim at than anything that may actually be.” (italics DB)If he is still talking about Rand here - and presumably he is - it now seems she was arguing all along that the ideals she advocated like laissez-faire capitalism - and we can assume, her ‘ideal man’ - are not realizable in reality – that like all such abstractions, “one cannot expect them to be actual”. They are merely goals “to be aimed at”, not things “that may actually be”. This is a truly remarkable take on Rand, who furiously railed against any ‘dichotomy’ between theory and practice, against all forms of compromise, against “the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all” and insisted that “nothing but perfection will do.” Seddon is effectively saying: she didn’t really mean it.
Of course I don’t believe for a moment that Seddon is right about Rand any more than he is right about Nyquist. It seems to me that Objectivism is just another in that same long line of philosophies Seddon mentions, traceable at least back to Plato, searching for the method of obtaining ‘justified true belief”. That Rand had to settle for a transparent verbal fudge such as “contextual certainty” – indistinguishable in practice, as Nyquist ruthlessly demonstrates, from your regular, common-or-garden uncertainty - is merely proof that just like those who came before her, she did not find it. As a result what remains of her various ‘absolutes’ is, as Nyquist’s book also demonstrates, really just hopped-up rhetoric designed to fill the sizable gap between her ambitions and her achievements.
In sum, in Seddon we seem to be dealing with someone who insists on his own idio...no, let us be kind...idiosyncratic philosophic interpretations, with little or no regard to the facts. As I have shown with regard to “Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature”, Seddon’s criticisms are mostly based on nothing more than his own seeming inability to read plain English. With regard to Rand, while it would itself be Seddon-ish to read too much into a few sentences, I would be most interested in how the rest of the Objectivist community views what appear to be major concessions – albeit offhandedly expressed - to moderns such as Popper on key issues. And on reflection, this may be the key to it. Perhaps the man is not as incompetent as he seems. Perhaps he is simply in a difficult position, having to straddle the world of academia and the world of Objectivism, both brutally critical and both diametrically opposed. Perhaps in all his obviously facile criticisms of Nyquist’s book he hoped to reassure the Objectivist community that he was keeping the faith; simultaneously offering sotto voce key concessions to reassure academia that he could not possibly support anything as outré as ‘justified true belief.’
Whatever the case, on the basis of work of this quality Seddon will be certainly retaining his reputation as somewhat controversial. But not, I fear, in a good way.
(1) "Nyquist Contra Rand," The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 4, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 361 72. The review is available online here
(2) I suppose it is worth noting, in passing, some simple refutations of the standard arguments Rand raised against the meaning of ‘certainty’ or ‘absolute certainty’ as it is commonly used. Firstly she claims that it represents ‘the standard of omniscience’ and that as man is not omniscient this is an invalid, Platonic-mystical standard that cannot be applied. But this is a poor argument for the following reasons. One, rather like we might usefully propose “absolute zero” as a hypothetical standard, despite the fact that it seems impossible we will ever actually achieve it, it is always possible by way of analogy to propose “absolute certainty” as a hypothetical standard which we also may never achieve. Two, sometimes Objectivists argue that if there is no basis for uncertainty in a particular case, no contrary evidence or fault in the logic, we can say that we are ‘certain’ in an 'absolute' sense. But in reply we can simply turn to our own experience (and the experience of mankind in general) to encounter many examples where this ‘certainty’ has failed us; where we have overlooked contrary evidence, or a fault in our logic. We are humans, and humans can err. And even in those rare cases where we have had all the facts in front of us, no particular evidence for doubt, clear definitions and a compelling logical argument, there has been the odd time we have still ended up being wrong. What we learn from these experiences is that it is perfectly reasonable to doubt such ‘certainties’ could be described in any reliable way as “absolute”. (We always hope for the best, but this is hardly the same thing). For we have all experienced the feeling of being absolutely certain that something is true. And we have all occasionally experienced the shock of discovering that this cherished belief is in fact false. There is nothing mystical or invalid about either counterargument.