Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Formal Versus Practical Meaning in Objectivism

When examing any philosophy or ideological belief system that oversteps important realities, it is important to distinguish between the formal and the practical or real meaning of the doctrine in question. The formal meaning is the literal meaning. But for the very reason that the literal meaning does not correspond to reality the doctrine cannot be followed unless it is transformed into something else. So, for example, the formal meaning of the Objectivist theory of history is that social conditions are determined by which system of philosophy appears the most compelling in the minds of intellectuals. Since this doctrine is not true and will not lead to the results predicted in the theory, Objectivists don't follow it literally. While they all give lip service to it, their behavior does not follow logically from it. If Objectivists were logical, they would seek to make every effort to present their philosophy in as favorable a light to as many people as possible. They would also seek to answer all serious objections made to their doctrines. Yet we don't find orthodox Objectivists doing this. Instead, we find them intentionally limiting exposure of their doctrines (e.g., they won't talk to libertarians, for instance) and refusing to engage with their critics. Although they often seek to challenge the status quo, they do so only within venues that they can control, so they can avoid any really serious challenge. When they nevertheless are confronted with challenges from others, rank and file Objectivists often become scornful, angry, and resentful. They regard those who disagree with them with a blistering contempt. Although ever so sensitive to any critic who even mildly distorts some aspect of the Randian creed, they demonstrate no conscience at all as far as distorting the views of their ideological opponents, thus making their espousal of selfishness take on a sinister aspect in the eyes of disinterested bystanders. In brief, the behavior of Objectivists, particularly when it comes to their attempts to spread the Randian philosophy, are not terribly rational nor do they make any sense when judged in relation to Rand's philosophy of history.

So what then is the real, practical purposes of Rand's philosophy of history? If the behavior of Objectivists is anything to go by, this theory would appear to have several practical purposes having more to do with the unique psychopathology of the Objectivist faithful than with logic or rational behavior. First, Rand's philosophy of history gives Objectivists the comforting illusion of potency and self-importance by suggesting that the course of history can be changed merely by arguing about abstruse points of metaphysics and epistemology; second, it helps to justify the Objectivist's instinctive loathing and mistreatment of those who refuse to agree with him (such people are evil because their espousal of wrong ideas threatens individualism and civilization); third, it justifies not getting involved in anything as messy, difficult, and threatening to one's ego as politics (because politics doesn't really lead to social change; only arguing about philosophy accomplishes that); and fourth, it helps justify shunning any person or group perceived as a threat to Objectivism (because such people are the most evil of all, since they consciously pursue evil values, and having any contact with them only gives their ideas a moral sanction they don't deserve). Hence the real, practical, behavorial effect of Rand's philosophy of history is to justify that disagreeable mixture of arrogance and hostility on the one side and self-complacency and lack of initiative on the other that exemplifies most Objectivists when it comes to spreading their philosophy. The typical Rand follower simply wants to enjoy the comforting illusion that, eventually, everyone will agree with him and his ideas will be vindicated without ever having to do anything too strenuous or risky to make it happen.


Neil Parille said...


I agree with most of what you say, but I think there has been a trend in recent years for orthodox Objectivists to "branch out." Tara Smith, the leading Randian ethical thinker, has had her books published by major presses. I even see that Gotthelf will be publishing an article on Rand & universals in the Journal of Metaphysics. There is also the Ayn Rand Society where orthodox Objectivists often participate with non-Objectivists.

The ARI is even putting some videos and lectures on the web for free. (Of course, if you want Peikoff's courses, you have to pay hundreds.)

All this has to be in perspective. It's been 25 years since Rand died and the basic attitude of the orthox hasn't changed much. I've been attacked as "dishonest" and engaging in "evasion" for pointing out obvious mistakes in Valliant's book.

gregnyquist said...

Neil: "I agree with most of what you say, but I think there has been a trend in recent years for orthodox Objectivists to "branch out."

Perhaps so. But all my remarks are merely generalizations which apply in differing degrees to differing people. The point is to try to explain why orthodox Objectivists aren't very rational or logical about how they go about spreading their philosophy. You would think, for example, that any philosophy that was trying to convince people that selfishness compatible with justice and benevolence would go out of their way to behave in a just and benevolent fashion. But in their dealings with people that disagree with them or whom they have fallen out with, this is not what we find. I don't know if this is true any more, but twenty years ago it was not at all uncommon for rank and file orthodox Objectivists to insinuate that Branden murdered his wife Patrecia. Imagine their reaction if such lies had been spread about Rand!