Philosophy is not the only cause of the course of the centuries. It is the ultimate cause, the cause of all the other causes. If there is to be an explanation of so vast a sum as human history, which involves all men in all fields, only the science dealing with the widest abstractions can provide it. The reason is that only the widest abstractions can integrate all those fields.
One of goals of philosophical criticism is to investigate the various implications of a given theory. Often the deviser of the theory is not aware of these implications and may not even endorse them. But they are there nonetheless. Now this passage contains one very odd metaphysical implications which, to further complicate matters, is expressed as a conditional. Peikoff writes “If there is to be an explanation of so vast a sum…” This suggests the possibility that there may not be an explanation. It also produces a dichotomy which gives but two choices: (1) Philosophy is the “ultimate” explanation of history; (2) or there is no explanation of history. Since most people (and all Objectivists) would be loathe to accept (2), the first solution wins by default.
There is another way of approaching this subject that allows us to escape the false dichotomy introduced, via implication, by Peikoff. Consider, as a point of contrast, what Herr Nietzsche has to say on the subject of “wide abstractions”:
The other idiosyncrasy of the philosophers is no less dangerous; it consists in confusing the last and the first. They place that which comes at the end—unfortunately! for it ought not to come at all!—namely, the “highest concepts,” which means the most general, the emptiest concepts, the last smoke of evaporating reality, in the beginning, as the beginning…. Moral: whatever is of the first rank must be causa sui… That which is last, thinnest, emptiest is put first, as the cause...
Now Nietzche’s target in this passage is, of course, the wretched ontological argument for God (with a few digs at the cosmological argument thrown in for good measure); yet the extent to which it can be applied to the Objectivist philosophy of history is quite extraordinary—a demonstration of the close kinship between theology and metaphysics. Philosophy, asserts Peikoff, because it deals with the widest abstractions, must be the “ultimate” cause (where ultimate cause = causa sui). Yet is this really true? Do wider concepts really have more explanatory power? Do they really tell us more about reality? Existence is one of the widest concepts of all. What does it explain? Nothing. It is merely descriptive of some entity, object or quality.
The main problem with wide abstractions is that they miss details that are often of great importance to understanding something as complex as history. This is why Nietzsche ridicules “high” or “general” concepts for being “empty” and “the last smoke of evaporating reality.” By including everything, a wide abstraction ends up including nothing. This provides ample room for equivocation, so that the resourceful metaphysician may deduce anything he damn pleases from his general concepts.
Note the equivocation in the Peikoff’s argument. Peikoff does not deny that there are other causes to history: economic, political, sociological, what have you. He merely denies that they are “primaries.” Philosophy, by virtue of the fact that it deals with “wider” abstractions than politics, economics, subsumes (or, if you prefer, “integrates”) these narrower fields, and is therefore the “ultimate” cause of history.
It is wonderful what can be done, polemically, with this equivocation. If the critic complains that Peikoff denies the role that economics or politics or sociology play in history, the Objectivist apologist can claim: “No, Peikoff does not deny a role to these other things.” But when the critic attempts to find out what the role of these other elements actually is, he finds them conveniently subsumed under philosophy as the “ultimate” cause. With the right hand Peikoff giveth; with the left he taketh back.