Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Concepts In a Hat"

No, not a droll putdown of Rand's epistemological disarray, but apparently an Objectivist party game - I suppose the New Intellectual equivalent of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon". But of course this being Objectivism, it could never merely be just a game; it would have to aim at "developing a deeper understanding of Objectivist ideas" too, right?

The idea is to put 25 or more Objectivist concepts into a hat, then draw any two at random and explain the connection. Just as many a true word is said in jest, this simple game really does unwittingly give us a greater understanding of the Objectivist method in action ie. a series of purely speculative rationalisations, the more vaguely and speciously connected, the better. Here is a perfect example, apparently cited from one of Peikoff's tape lectures
"...Peikoff says that when he started playing the game many years ago, he was stumped when he was asked to explain the connection between "private roads" and "the validity of the senses." But eventually he made the following connection: Private roads are an expression of the fact that the purpose of government is only the protection of individual rights. Individual rights are defended on the basis that man is a rational being who survives by the exercise of his mind, so he has to be left free. Finally, the validity of man's mind depends on the validity of the senses because the mind is the conceptualization of sensory data. Therefore you can see from this rough analysis that it is useless to argue for private roads with someone who rejects the validity of the senses."


(hat tip to Meg's Marginalia)


Mark said...

Well, actually, what I find "priceless" is your inability to grasp that, even if this alleged Peikoff paraphrasing is manufactured, it still makes perfect sense. It's only a rational grasp of reality that makes it possible to recognize what makes private roads legitimate, i.e., that private roads are (like other instances where government intervention is avoided) an extention of man's rational nature.

I think what you have a problem with is integration itself, i.e., holding a philosophy without the contradictions that make life bearable for you because you believe that they shelter you from reality. They don't, of course, thus resulting in a certain insecurity on your part that comes across in your efforts in creating a blog with the sole purpose of tearing something down rather than providing legitimate alternatives.

Moony said...

"private roads are ... an extention (sic) of man's rational nature."

Why are private roads an extension of man's rational nature, and why are government-built roads not? I don't understand this.

Jay said...

Because it's not rational to have an agent of force, a process-oriented bureaucracy, responsible for our roadways. See John T. Reed's article on process orientation vs. results orientation. (Reed is not an Objectivist.)

As an aside, I don't think I'll be playing "Concepts in a Hat" anytime soon, lol. ;)

Jay said...

Off topic, but it seems like Founders College may be on the rocks. Here's an IM between me and one of their students, with his SN obfuscated.

————— 03:15 pm —————
Student: Dude, do not come this semester
reardentech: No?
reardentech: Why not?
Student: because the school is falling apart
Student: Prof Niblett left this morning, giving us resignation letters instead of the finals we thought we were about to take
reardentech: Shit, really?
reardentech: Why is this happening?
Student: He hasn't been paid since 31OCT
Student: we had a three hour meeting with Tamara about everything... she is sorry this is all happening... start up schools have lot's of difficulties... every person that has left has just not been right for the school... it'll get better... Dr Narrett might come, and that could be good, if he did....
Student: she can't convince him. she isn't paying niblett because she didn't have the money, and Narrett wants more money
Student: Niblett was going back to england for another obligation there, we knew that from day one. but he was supposed to return fall of 08.
reardentech: and he's not going to
Student: he walked out on us, without giving us our tests. he considers himself as done with the school. I'm sure he's no longer welcome.
Student: Dr narrett is interested in the position of Lit/Drama/Art History and applied a while back. he taught a sample class-- we all loved it. but he wants money....


Jay said...

Follow up:

Student: so many people see this school as their personal chance to mold education. all of the pivotal figures (Dr Hull, Tamara, Lee Sandstead, and now Dr Niblett) have had differing opinions. they can't get along, and Tamara is the one with the cash
reardentech: Tamara is the investor?
Student: CEO, owner of the property, figurehead. she lives here.

Meg's Marginalia said...

aw, that sucks big time. As much as I disagree with the whole endeavor, and enjoyed all the Founders jokes made on this blog and elsewhere, in the end it's these poor students who are suffering, and that's not very funny, to pour away a year's worth of tuition just to get screwed over.

Daniel Barnes said...

Wow, thanks Jay.

Sad, but entirely predictable.

gregnyquist said...

"all of the pivotal figures (Dr Hull, Tamara, Lee Sandstead, and now Dr Niblett) have had differing opinions. they can't get along, and Tamara is the one with the cash"

This is yet another illustration of what happens when a philosophy or an ideology get human nature wrong. All of human experience testifies to the fact that, in the absence of authority, compromise is necessary in order for people to get along. Rand's belief that, as long as people follow "reason," they will all come to the same conclusions is wrong on a number of levels. In the first place, most situations that people confront are too complicated to be solved by reason alone; one also needs tacit knowledge (i.e., Oakeshott's practical knowledge), and since this knowledge depends on a person's innate talent combined with their experience, it will differ from individual to individual. A second consideration involves motivation, which underlies everything we do. Rand had no coherent theory of motivation. She pretty much assumes it arises from one's values, which she believed could be determined rationally. But this is a mistake. Motivation is fundamentally non-rational. There is no rational accounting for why people want what they want. Nor can you invent, by reason alone, motivations. Reason itself requires motivation. But since motivation is non-rational, individuals will have, at the very least, slightly different motivations, and this is bound to be a source of conflict as well, even among people who are otherwise fully rational. Thus compromise, give and take, allowing other people on occasion to have their way, is necessary in any collective endeavor. (The only alternative is simply for everyone to surrender authority to a single individual and to abide by whatever that individual decides.)

Jay said...


Sound analysis. However, would you concede that widespread use of reason makes conflict less likely?

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay, I would certainly agree with that.

I define "rational" as being open to argument and experience, using commonly held standards such as logic and evidence. We "attack" each others arguments, and "defend" our positions, so conflict per se still happens; but this sort of conflict is in fact potentially productive, so long as it is not violent. Conflict is inevitable, rational standards help make it productive rather than destructive, tho of course there are no guarantees. Tational argument is helpful in that so long as we are debating we are not physically damaging each other; as Popper says, our arguments live and die in our stead.

Wells said...

I've seen variations of that game numerous places. There was this old show called 'Connections' that was on late at night when I was a little kid that would explore the connections between two seemingly disparate things. Nowadays you could even play a version of this on Wikipedia by pulling up one random article and following the links to get to another random article.
The only problem I see with Piekoff's game is that his iteration isn't fun enough.

Wells said...

The private roads thing is really complicated. On one hand roads, and other forms of transportation infrastructure have been subsidized by the state or by entities that may as well have been the state since about forever. On the other hand toll roads exist, seem no different than toll roads, and could be privatized.
Even continuing in this vein, public roadways violate the rights of people who would otherwise go into business to be highway tycoons. Meanwhile, in order for me to use the land that is my property, I need rights to travel places without being held up for monopoly rates at my driveway.
I sense a moral dilemma here, not a clear cut solution.

gregnyquist said...


I agree that "reason," if defined as Daniel has (i.e., along the lines of Popper's critical method), can be effective within certain domains of experience. In the so-called "hard" sciences, rational methods of inquiry do in fact lead to a consensus about matters of fact. But this is largely due to the fact that such sciences are quantifiable and therefore, since quantity is the closest we come to abstract literal knowledge, the whole system of peer review and empirical testing becomes possible. Not quite so with pedagogical knowledge. Yes, test scores can be measured, but it's not clear that they are fully reliable indicators of how well one's education system is doing. So you have a domain in which it is difficult to determine how well you are doing, particularly in the short-term (the true true test is long term results: how successful one's students are over the course of their lives compared with peers of comparable intellectual and socioeconomic status). Lacking any reliable short-term standard, one has room for what Objectivists call the arbitrary.

Look, the real problem with Founders is that its administrators are arrogant about their own knowledge claims. They have over-rated the power of "reason" and their ability to use reason in a domain in which reason has serious limitations. As a result their "reason," rather than decreasing conflicts (as it should), may, in this instance, be increasing them. They would probably be much less likely to fall out if they were hide-bound traditionalists blindly following some standard usage.

gregnyquist said...

Mark: "private roads are (like other instances where government intervention is avoided) an extention of man's rational nature"

Actually, it is precisely because human beings aren't rational that hardly anyone wants private roads. Anything that's privately owned can be abused by the irrationality of the owner. That's perfectly fine if you're talking about the local bowling alley. If its owners are irrational, it simply goes out of business and that's the end to that. But I don't want the person who owns the road I drive to get home going insane and refusing, for example, to extend a contract I may have with him for using it ("Sorry, it's my property and I can serve whomever I like"). There are some things that you simply cannot allow people to own, like nuclear power plants, tanks, important roads, etc.

Behemoth said...

This isn't particularly related to Concepts In a Hat, but one of the other blogs I read regularly, Overcoming Bias, has an interesting writeup about the Objectivist movement today.

I've found a better understanding of cognitive biases has helped explain why I found Objectivism to be so appealing back in the day, and helped in my "recovery." Here, OB ties it into earlier discussions it had about cult-like behavior and does a good job of explaining the incompatibility of a scientific orientation with a closed system.

Jay said...

From Behemoth's link:

So where is the true art of rationality to be found? Studying up on the math of probability theory and decision theory. Absorbing the cognitive sciences like evolutionary psychology, or heuristics and biases. Reading history books...

Agreed 100%, however I don't think "The Virtue of Selfishness" or "Atlas Shrugged" discourages that. I think, as PhysicistDave and others have noted, it takes lots of hours and effort to study those subjects. To me that's the widespread human impulse to take the path of least resistance more than anything Rand did. In fact, Rand did a great deal of advocating against that mental passivity, at least in her writings. What she did in her personal life is frankly irrelevant to me. That's not what I evaluate when deciding to put her ideas into practice.

David said...

I'd like mark to answer moony's question:

How are private roads any more an extension of "man's rational nature" than government built roads, especially if that government is democratic in nature?

Jonathan said...

Objectivist aesthetic concepts in a hat:

Concept #1:
"As a re-creation of reality, a work of art has to be representational; its freedom of stylization is limited by the requirement of intelligibility; if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art."

Concept #2:
Music is art even though it "cannot tell a story, it cannot deal with concretes, it cannot convey a specific existential phenomenon, such as a peaceful countryside or a stormy sea...even concepts which, intellectually, belong to a complex level of abstraction, such as 'peace,' 'revolution,' 'religion,' are too specific, too concrete to be expressed in music."


Concept #1:
" objective evaluation requires that one identify the artist's theme, the abstract meaning of his work (exclusively by identifying the evidence contained in the work and allowing no other, outside considerations), then evaluate the means by which he conveys it—i.e., taking his theme as criterion...until a conceptual vocabulary is discovered and defined, no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgment is possible in the field of music..."

Concept #2:
Music is a legitimate art form, but abstract visual art is not.


Concept #1:
"Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical serves no practical, material end, but is an end in itself; it serves no purpose other than contemplation... utilitarian objects cannot be classified as works of art."

Concept #2:
Architecture is an art form that "combines art with a utilitarian purpose and does not re-create reality."

Ellen Stuttle said...


My congrats on the skilled "selective [highlighting]" (in the post just above) of several of AR's contradictory theses on aesthetics.


Michael Sutcliffe said...


Daniel, I think the world might be a smaller place for you than it is for a lot of other people!

C'mon......It might be an immaterial observation but it's not that tedious to appreciate. Trivial Pursuit wouldn't be half as fun if the questions weren't trivial and this wouldn't be much of a party game if you had to produce a dissertation on Atlas Shrugged.

Ryan Robinson said...

Well said Mark.