Thursday, July 31, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 2

Metaphysical presuppositions 1. In the Epilgue to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, we find the following curious assertion:
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.

8 comments:

David said...

Vico attacks this idea from a slightly different angle too in "New Science" where he goes after philosophers who read all kinds of esoteric meanings (which happen to support their theses) into the religion and philosophy of the ancients.

I've previously noted the parallels between the aims and means Rand's Romantic Realism and the Bolshevik notion of Socialist Realism, and here in the Objectivist approach to history I see echoes of Marxism.

Both schools of thought reduce all historical and social phenomenon to one single cause. For Marxists it's economics. For Objectivists it's abstract ideas (or what they call "philosophy" - even tho' abstractions are only one feature of philosophy).

In fact, Rand's whole philosophical approach is rather Marxist-Leninist in that she starts with broad abstractions and overlays them on top of reality. Hell, the Objectivist movement itself parallels that of the Bolsheviks ... the splits and schisms and purges; the elevation of minor disagreement to major disputes of "principal" (the fate of the world, after all, is in the balance); the use of shaming and shunning; "democratic" centralism wherein all branches must submit to the authority of a central committee, and it to a Leader; the belief that a "vanguard party" possessing an ideology that unlocks the mysteries of life, the universe, and everything will lead the world into a new golden age...

They may be driving different cars, but they're using the same engine.

[In fairness, do Objectivists renounce the use of force except in self-defense - and against Savages, of course.]

David said...

edit: at end, should read "Objectivist do renounce..."

Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I'd be very interested if you could tell me in which book, written, by Marx, he states that all historical and social phenomenon has one single cause; economics.

Anonymous said...

quote

In fact, Rand's whole philosophical approach is rather Marxist-Leninist in that she starts with broad abstractions and overlays them on top of reality. Hell, the Objectivist movement itself parallels that of the Bolsheviks ... the splits and schisms and purges; the elevation of minor disagreement to major disputes of "principal" (the fate of the world, after all, is in the balance); the use of shaming and shunning; "democratic" centralism wherein all branches must submit to the authority of a central committee, and it to a Leader; the belief that a "vanguard party" possessing an ideology that unlocks the mysteries of life, the universe, and everything will lead the world into a new golden age...

quote

You are confusing Marx and Lenin.

For Marx, there would be no state & no party. No leader, no centralism. Don't confuse the two, Lenin was not a Marxist. He even states this quite clearly when he says that what they are building in Russia is not socialism.

Damien said...

One of the similarities between communists and objectivists is that the two often ignore facts that contradict their view of the world. Although in a way Rand's view of the world was a bit more realistic than that of the communist. Communists expected their leaders to serve without any desire for power. Socialist Realism was and is an oxymoron.

David said...

@anon: In the passage you quoted, I said actually "Marxist-Leninist," which is what Lenin's philosophy (derived but different from Marxism) is usually called.

However, you are correct in that earlier in my post (para. 2) I did refer only to Marxism which I should have referred more specifically to Marxist-Leninism or Bolshevism.

Clearly, Marxism-Leninism is a deviation from orthodox Marxism which holds that only through the self-activity of the proletariat will a stateless, classless socialist society come into being.

@damien: By Socialist Realism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_realism) I'm referring to the top-down literary "movement" with rather formalistic (formulaic?) rules on the purpose of art, subject matter, and how it is expressed. With Socialist Realism, the only permissible form of art is that with promotes Socialism (as defined by the Party) and expressed in a simple (simplistic?), "realistic" manner - no decadent, bourgeois avante-gardism, thank you.

In Rand's conception of Romantic Realism, she only deviates from the Socialist Realist model in terms of "the what" (the ideology), not "the why" (promote said ideology) or "the how" (via "realism"). And no irrational, mind-killing, anti-life avante-gardism, please.

So in short, I'm not referring to a general philosophy or attitude. Perhaps you know this and you're just riffing on it (based on your previous posts, you probably are), but I want to clarify my point nonetheless.

gregnyquist said...

David: "...here in the Objectivist approach to history I see echoes of Marxism."

The parallels between Marx and Rand, particularly on the issue of history and social change, are surprising considering how different they are on so many fundamental issues. Sciabarra draws attention to the parallels in his Russian Radical and claims that they are based on a "revolt against dualism" which both Rand and the Marxist tradition share. I agree that there is, in both Marxism (and intellectualized radical leftism in general) and Objectivism this notion of intellectual vanguard that regards itself as the bearers of a special insight based on "reason" (or "dialectic") that will allow them to bring about a brave new world. That is part of special appeal of Rand. She takes some of these idealistic, leftward conceptions that appeal to the idealism of young, ignorant intellectuals and uses them to develop an exciting pro-capitalist, pro-entrepreneur ideology. In that sense, Rand did for capitalism what Marx did for socialism.

Anonymous said...

I always get the feeling that Rand and her so called philosophy, was just some cheap stunt cooked up in an American government 'think tank' to keep good middle class white university kids out of Marxist groups. It is like some capitalist friendly 'radical group' put together by a Madison avenue pr firm.

It is like they just gutted Marxism (or at least a superficial version of it) and put in parts that didn't fit. Throw in a huge misunderstanding and hatred for Kant (why study real philosophy? you can pretend you are smart with Objectivism) and the kids will eat it up.