Monday, May 14, 2007

The Intellectual Sources of Peikoff's Ominous Parallels

As elucidated in an earlier posting, it had become fairly common during the thirties and forties to blame the rise of German statism on German philosophy. "The popularity of the opinion that German nationalism is the outcome of ideas of German philosophy is mainly due to the authority of George Santayana," wrote Ludwig von Mises in 1940. There is a problem, however, with this view of the matter. Santayana never actually claimed that German idealism logically brought about (or caused) German nationalism and Hitlerism. His claim was much more modest. He believed that German nationalism and German philosophy were both expressions of the German character, so that philosophy, far from being a cause or a logical precondition, was merely a symptom. But conservative intellectuals were eager to blame German idealism, which they despised, for German aggression; and so they assumed as Mises assumed.

Santayana's book Egotism in German Philosophy , originally published in 1915, was seen as a prophetic explanation of the rise of militarism and Nazism in Germany. Of course, it was no such thing, but once the notion had entered the intellectual culture, there was no getting it out. In 1943, Hayek published Road to Serfdom, which was the first book to popularize the idea that there existed parallels between what had happened in Germany around the turn of the century and what was happening in England and America during the thirties. Hayek's book focused almost exclusively on politics and economics; he did not try to put the finger of blame on German idealism. His friend Karl Popper, however, once more played the German Idealism card in the second volume of his The Open Society and its Enemies, which focused on the deleterious influence of Hegel.

Popper's book was published in 1945. The Anglo-American intellectual milieu had undergone a transformation in the thirties. Nazism had forced many of central Europe's most important and influential scholars and intellectuals to emigrate to England or America. Many of these expatriated scholars and intellectuals had studied Hegel under the most advanced Hegelian scholars in the world, and they simply could not accept Popper's view of Hegel as the forerunner of German totalitarianism. There was something of a critical backlash inspired by Popper's Open Society that marks the waning of the view that German idealism caused the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. By the time Peikoff, under the direct tutelage of Rand, began embalming the notion in his book The Ominous Parallels, it had become largely discredited. Extensive research in pyschology, sociology, and history all demonstrated that social change was not determined by abstract philosophy. The belief in the simple causation between philosophical doctrine on the on hand and social crisis on the other belongs to a less sophisticated intellectual milieu.

The trouble with Objectivism, particularly in its ARI manifestations, is that it seems trapped in a kind of time warp: its main notions have their source in ideas Rand was exposed to in the conservative circles she travelled in during the thirties and forties. By the fifties, Rand rarely ventured outside her own hermetically sealed circle of young Objectivist enthusiasts (the "collective"). She knew little--and evinced hardly any interest at all--in developments in cognitive science, psychiatry, neuroscience, historical scholarship, and philosophical scholarship. Peikoff's The Ominous Parallels has its roots in a very shallow, intellectually impoverished soil. It stems from misrepresentations and over-simplifications of the works of Santayana, Hayek, Popper and a few others, as filtered through the unsophisticated conservative intellectuals of the thirties and forties.


Neil Parille said...

Barbara Branden (who has a masters degree in philosophy) has said that she, Nathaniel Branden and Leonard Peikoff would summarize works of philosophy for Rand and Rand would ask questions about them. I think she concedes that Rand wasn't much of a reader (which is evident from her essays).

The supposed influence of German philosophy on the Nazis was popularized by William Shirer in his hugely successful 1960 book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which Peikoff uses as a source.

The Ominous Parallels is portrayed by Objectivists today as a brilliant application of Rand's philosophic method, but it was a bit dated even when it came out.

It's rather telling that while Peikoff makes a big point of the Nazism of certain German intellectuals (such as Heidegger), if the intellectual wasn't a Nazi (such as Cassirer) he forgets to mention that.

David Gordon has a good review of the book which is available on the web.

Dragonfly said...

Peikoff also argues that scientific theories are influenced by bad philosophy. He mentions Heisenberg's uncertainty relation as an example. No doubt no such thing would exist in Objectivist physics! Further he writes: "Even the professional mathematicians, the onetime guardians of the citadel of certainty and of logical consistency, caught the hang of the modern spirit. In 1931, they were apprised of the latest Viennese development in the field, Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem, according to which logical consistency (and therefore certainty) is precisely the attribute that no systems of mathematics can ever claim to possess." Really a strange version of Gödel's theorem! No doubt Objectivists can point out the error in Gödel's proof? As in his DIMwit lectures, Peikoff uses as reference for his scientific insights the well-known scientific publication The New York Times.

The following observation is also interesting: "Decades ago, the exponents of purposefully guided, objective cognition - which is what scientists had once been - began yielding to two newer breeds: the narrow technicians and the punch-drunk theoreticians. The former are intent on amassing disconnected bits of experimental data, with no clear idea of context, wider meaning, or overall cognitive goal. [Really, Doctor Peikoff? How do you know? Where is your evidence?] The latter - trained in a Kantian skepticism by Dewey, Carnap, Heisenberg, Gödel and many others - turn out increasingly arbitrary speculations while stressing the power of physical theory; not its power to advance man's confidence or make reality intelligible, but to achieve the opposite results. Quantum mechanics, the theoreticians started to say, refutes causality, light waves refute logic [I wonder how they do that?], relativity refutes common sense [and therefore it must be wrong?], thermodynamics refutes hope [???], scientific law is old-fashioned, explanation is impossible, electrons are a myth [where did he get that notion?], mathematics is a game, the difference between physics and religion is only a matter of taste [it is at least bigger than the difference between Objectivism and religion].

Sometimes you can hear some of the less orthodox Objectivists whisper that Peikoff now has lost his marbles, but that he has been so brilliant in the past. Well, it seems he lost his marbles already 25 years ago. Perhaps he has never had any marbles!

Daniel Barnes said...

Yo, DF, that's great, I'd like to hoist it from comments to the main page, can you give me a page ref?

Neil Parille said...

Dan, it's on page 276-77 of Ominous Parallels. Note that there are no footnotes to anyone who supposedly takes these positions. Apparently any "theoretician" will do (although German or Austrian are to be preferred).

Incidentally, according to what I have read, the Godel theorem is a decisive refutation of artifical intelligence, which I assume Objectivsts are against.

Daniel Barnes said...

Thanks Neil,

But of course, the Teutons have all been corrupted by Kant...

Re: the Godel Theorem refuting AI, are you referring to Roger Penrose's theory about the non-algorithmic nature of consciousness?

Dragonfly said...

A formal refutation of Penrose's argument can be found at

A more practical refutation, showing Penrose's fundamental error, is given in Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Ch. 15 The Emperor's New Mind and Other Fables.

Neil Parille said...

The theory I've heard, from various writers, is that a computer can't work like the mind because it must rely on a system outside itself for a proof of consistency.

I meant that many Objectivists have a Teutonophobic history of philosophy.

Dragonfly said...

Neil, read the Dennett reference for a refutation of that notion. The basic error in the argument is that it supposes that if the brain uses an algorithmic program to think and among other things to derive mathematical theorems, that its algorithms themselves must form a formal mathematical system containing those theorems, and that Gödel's theorem then would apply to that system. But of course that's not the way our brain works, it uses all kinds of heuristic algorithms, a lot of trial and error and interaction with other brains (current and past) to arrive at conclusions, which yet may be incorrect (even mathematicians make errors). Other brains may point out those errors, and so we get in the course of time watertight proofs. In general we only get to see the polished end results, not the struggle to arrive at those results. (Dennett explains it much better than I can do here in a few lines.) Edis' refutation is different: he shows that even if we would accept the idea that the algorithms in our brain form a formal mathematical system, the addition of a random element would destroy the Gödel barrier, and as it isn't difficult to incorporate random elements in the brain or in a machine, the Gödel argument fails.

Jeff Perren said...

"Extensive research in pyschology, sociology, and history all demonstrated that social change was not determined by abstract philosophy."

Could you provide some references? I'd like to explore them.

Thank you.

Jeff Perren