Friday, January 19, 2007

JARS: "Demystifying Emotion"

The Fall 2006 Journal of Ayn Rand Studies commences with an article entitled "Demystifying Emotion: Introducing the Affect Theory of Silvan Tomkins to Objectivists" by Steven Shmurak. The article begins by acknowledging that Rand's view of emotions "fails to make sense o fthe totality of our emotional lives." Shmurak then introduces Tomkins' theory as possible alternative. Although he doesn't say so outright, Shmurak appears to be suggesting that if we were to "update" Rand's theory of emotions by replacing it with Tomkins' that would serve to strengthen the Objectivist position. But this suggestion assumes that the primary aim of Rand's theory is to provide a realistic explanation of human emotions. What if this assumption is false? What if the primary aim of Rand's theory is simply to prove that emotions can be entirely subjected to "reason"? After all, Rand's political, social, and psychological ideals would all be seriously jeopardized if emotions could not be entirely controlled by "reason." Hence my suspicion that Rand's theory of emotion is a little more than a formalized rationalization of a much deeper pathology in Rand--namely, her desire to subject every aspect of human existence to conscious "reasoned" thought, so that nothing is ever left to chance and the human being can be regarded as responsible for everything about himself.

This viewpoint, which Rand clung to with passionate obstinacy, is the fountainhead of nearly everything that is wrong with Rand's philosophy. It amounts to a kind of idealism. Just as ordinary idealists believe that their minds create and populate the natural world, so Rand, in effect, believes that the mind creates the psychological world--man's very self--out of its own ideas (or "basic premises").

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was on a philosphical journey from age eight until age 32 - during which I investigated all the various philosophical and religious viewpoints of the present and past - you have studied and mention a number of them.

Finally I discovered Rand's writings, and knew I had found my home. After several years delving deeply into Objectivism, I realized I am an Objectivist. It has enhanced my life for the good for the ensuing 25 years.

Seeing just now, your posts and writings, it appears you have put a lot of work into your journey as well, but you seem to allow for exta effort to debunk Rand.

I can only assume that you see her ideas as a strong force with which you do not agree. In one respect, you are right, it is a strong force and continues to become more forcefull as each year clips by.

She has influenced the world for the better in my opinion, and unless you are ready to reassess your premises and assumptions, you should probably continue as you are doing, fighting against her ideas, as they represent the most powerful influence for change on the horizon. Of course I am thankful for the changes they represent - just as you are alarmed.

Your single minded focus on attacking her ideas gives me hope that some of those who represent the mishmash of the past's failures see the strength of her work and discoveries and believe thay must be stopped. Of course they can not be stopped and her influence is growing every year.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for stopping by, glad you're enjoying the site...;-)

Dragonfly said...

Isn't it Shmurak instead of Shmunk?

Daniel Barnes said...

Having investigated Silvan Tomkins work a little now, I will be intrigued to see how it is hoped to fit into Rand's schema.

For Tomkins proposes 9 families of innate "affects", or basic physiological mechanisms, which combine complexly to create our emotions. These physiological mechanisms are of course predisposed to act in a certain way when confronted with particular circumstances - for example, a mechanism like a water wheel is predisposed to turn when confronted with a stream of water. This is what mechanisms are - predispositions to act in a certain way.

Yet this is precisely what Rand denies in her psychological theory. "Free will" in conjunction with "reason" is all. Once these are compromised, she unravels.

Of course, she realised this in her usual confused way. She did attempt to assert that her "tabula rasa" did consist of certain mechanisms, the content of which however was empty. But she did not seem to click to the fact that as soon as you assert a mechanism, you assert a predisposition.

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "She has influenced the world for the better in my opinion, and unless you are ready to reassess your premises and assumptions, you should probably continue as you are doing, fighting against her ideas, as they represent the most powerful influence for change on the horizon. Of course I am thankful for the changes they represent - just as you are alarmed."

Whether she has influenced the world for the better is a tricky question, since it is difficult to document precisely what her influence has been. One could argue that her charasmatic championing of free market individualism and entrepreneurial heroism has been, in a kind of Sorelian myth sort of way, beneficial; but her psychological theories, particularly her ideals about emotion and character, probably did more harm than good during the sixties and seventies when they were more influential. Objectivist psychotherapy, as Branden and Blumenthal (who, along with Peikoff, were the most important of Rand's associates in the 60s) have testified, was more or less a failure. Rand's theories, when put in practice, simply didn't work.

I don't see any evidence that Rand's influence is going to increase in the future, so I find no reason to be alarmed. My main objection to Rand is that many of her doctrines, particularly those that make claims about matters of fact, are not true. Her theory of emotion, for instance. It goes against the grain, not only of Silvan Tomkins, but of every empirical study of emotions out there.

gregnyquist said...

Dragonfly: "sn't it Shmurak instead of Shmunk?"

Yes, you are right; thanks for the correction.

David said...

Has anyone else noticed that many Objectivist critiques of Objectivism's critics don't say, "This criticism isn't valid for the following reasons"? Rather, they question the endeavour of criticism itself, making sure to note that the "extra effort" critics put forth proves that they feel "threatened" by her ideas, and therefore (in a super-human leap of logic), her ideas must be true.

Similarly, the anonymous poster here offers no specific critique of Nyquist's many criticisms of Rand's philosophy. In fact, like many of Rand's defenders on the net, his post is almost content-free!

In the most general way, he says that Objectivism "has enhanced his life for the good" (What uniquely Objectivist ideas have enhanced your life and how?) and he asserts that Rand's ideas are on the rise, are unstoppable, and will change the face of things to come (Again, which ideas? Evidence that their on the rise? What changes are in the wind? Evidence that "they cannot be stopped"?). The rest of the post consists of verbal variation on those two themes.

At least this poster refrains from the usual name-calling (Statist! Collectivist! Subjectivist! Relativist! Kantian! Hegelian! Communist! Mystic!)(terms that only Objectivists find especially insulting, btw), although he does make a typically vague reference to "those who represent the mishmash of the past's failures" to imply a false dillema with the proposition that because everything in the past has failed (a bold conjecture if ever there was one), we all must become Objectivists.

It you'll allow me to make an analogy to the martial arts, it's akin to someone who comes to a wushu studio, tells everyone that their style sucks, and that his style is the best. When asked specifically which techniques suck, he won't say. When challenged to prove his assertions, he won't fight. When someone criticizes his technique, he states that their criticisms are prima facie proof tha they fear his technique, ergo, his techniques are unstoppable! And not once does it cross his mind that they're doing him a favor by pointing out his flaws.

Daniel Barnes said...

David:
>Has anyone else noticed that many Objectivist critiques of Objectivism's critics don't say, "This criticism isn't valid for the following reasons"?

Or if they do, they attempt to invalidate it only by reference to particular Objectivist dogmas and buzz-phrases, these being imbued with special meanings outside the common parlance and often begging the question themselves.

Your criticism and analogy is excellent, BTW. As I've written elsewhere, my guess is that as Rand ultimately presents philosophical problems as a kind of fairy-story struggle between a few lone goodies who know all the answers and a swarm of baddies who for some reason don't want to know, the underlying assumption is that anyone who criticises Rand's philosophy is a baddie. Hence one never need discuss what criticsactually say, only meditate darkly on their motives...;-)

Neil Parille said...

I find that the most common approach of Objectivist defenders is to claim that the critics don't understand Objectivism.

Picking up on what Dan said, two of Rand's most important works are Objectivist Ethics and ITOE. In each she starts out with rather skewed views of what she is arguing against. For example, in ITOE she discusses nominalism and realism in such carciature fashion that the reader is left with the impression that Rand's view must be correct if everyone else is so irrational. I found that Peikoff followed this approach in his DIM lectures.

BTW, I can't think of published (book or journal) critique of an Objectivist critic (at least not by the Peikoff wing).

Steve Shmurak said...

I would like to respond to Greg Nyquist's post where he states:

"Although he doesn't say so outright, Shmurak appears to be suggesting that if we were to 'update' Rand's theory of emotions by replacing it with Tomkins's that would serve to strengthen the Objectivist position. But this suggestion assumes that the primary aim of Rand's theory is to provide a realistic explanation of human emotions."

Greg, you are right. I am trying to take Objectivism at its best -- to never let one's wishes or preconceived notions interfere with one's contact with reality. And in so doing, about emotion, Objectivism would be significantly changed. This is not to say that unresolvable conflicts between reason and emotion are inevitable. Not at all. But it is to allow for all the color in our lives which emotion brings, for good or ill -- something Rand didn't bother with. Too much, especially in the last 20 yrs or so of her life, she preferred to live in her own ideal world, while saying she was never out of touch with experienced reality in any way.

Affect (the fundamental constituent in emotion) has a specific nature. Tomkins was able to identify and describe its essence and how it works to create emotion and interact with our cognitive faculties.

As an Objectivist, one has the responsibility to change one's ideas when facts contradict them. That is what I attempted to communicate in my article.