Saturday, August 30, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 9

The force of logic Sometimes the most curious doctrines in Objectivism are not those that are explicitly formulated but rather those that are merely hinted at or presupposed by explicit convictions. One such presupposition is the very odd view that neither people nor societies can long hold contradictory beliefs. Consider this passage from Rand’s “For the New Intellectual”:
From her start, America was torn by the clash of her political system with the altruist morality. Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society.

Rand believed that people cannot long hold beliefs that contradict their fundamental premises. Such contradictions will eventually be resolved in favor of the more “fundamental” belief. So if an individual believes in altruism and capitalism, his belief in altruism will undermine his belief in capitalism because (1) altruism and capitalism contradict each other and (2) altruism is more “fundamental” than capitalism.

Here we find Rand once again misrepresenting human nature. There is no evidence that the majority of human beings have any great concern for whether they hold contradictory beliefs. As human experience repeatedly testifies, most human beings have a weak grasp of logic and are blissfully ignorant of the many contradictions floating about in their brains. The sociologist Vilfredo Pareto dedicated a 250,000 word volume to analyzing what he called “non-logical” action, which is to say, action based on contradictory or non-logical notions. “Pareto not only shows that non-logical conduct is predominant,” noted James Burnham; “his crucial point is that the conduct which has a bearing on social and political structure, on what he calls the ‘social equilibrium,’ is above all non-logical. What happens to society, whether it progresses or decays, is free or despotic, happy or miserable, poor or prosperous, is only to the slightest degree influenced by the deliberate, rational purposes held by human beings.” Pareto, therefore, comes to almost the exact opposite conclusion from Rand. Human beings, he notes, are frequently destitute of logic. And he gives hundreds of examples of non-logical actions in his treatise Mind and Society.

But even if Pareto turned out to be wrong on this issue, Rand and her disciples would still not be in the clear; for they would still have to reckon with the evidence of cognitive science, which pretty much settles the issue. Cognitive scientists have conducted a great many experiments examining the degree to which human beings are logical, and they have found that nearly all human beings not only lack any natural facility for logic, but that, in the normal business of life, they make frequent use of illogical inferences to get things done. As Morton Hunt puts it:
[F]ormal logic is not a good description of how our minds usually work. Logic tells us how we should reason when we are trying to reason logically, but it does not tell us how to think about reality as we encounter it most of the time.…

Logic enables us to judge the validity of our own deductive reasoning, but much of the time we need to reason non-deductively — either inductively, or in terms of likelihoods, or of causes and effects, none of which fits within the rules of formal logic. The archetype of everyday realistic reasoning might be something like this: This object (or situation) reminds me a lot of another that I experienced before, so probably I can expect much to be true of this one that was true of that one. Such reasoning is natural and utilitarian — but logically invalid....

If there still remain doubts on this score, simply attend more closely to the beliefs of other human beings. If one observes the human animal, one will find an astonishing mixture of contradictory notions and clashing ideas. I have recently been listening David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, in which one finds a biographical portrait John Augustus Roebling, the engineer who designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge. Although Roebling was a man of science and a great engineer, this did not prevent him from wallowing in non-logical and empirically dubious activities. In his youth, he studied philosophy under the exquisitely preposterous Hegel. In later years, he dabbled in spiritualism and hydropathy. Hegel’s arch-enemy, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer advocated quietism and asceticism, but he didn’t practice what he preached. He declared he was incapable of practicing his philosophy, even though he insisted that his philosophy was right. I’ve talked to several Obama supporters in the last few months who don’t seem to agree with many of Obama’s positions. Yet when this is pointed out to them, they are unphazed. They simply don’t care whether a contradiction exists between the policies the favor and the candidate they support.

Examples of this sort could be multiplied many many times. Some people—perhaps even most people—don’t really care too much about either logic or consistency, particularly about matters that are remote to their particular sphere of practical action. Rand and her disciples seem to admit of this non-logical aspect of human belief when they talk of people with “mixed” premises. But they don’t seem to realize that the very fact that people can hold mixed premises contradicts Rand’s conviction that capitalism and altruism cannot exist the same person because the two are contradictory.

Yet this is not the only contradiction involved in insisting that contradictions in the human psyche will tend to be resolved in favor of the more “fundamental” belief. Rand and Peikoff both contend that epistemological ideas are more fundamental than ethical and political ideas. This, however, is a problematic position. What if an individual were to embrace epistemological convictions that deny the importance or “validity” of logic? If an individual doesn’t believe in logic, wouldn’t this mean that there would exist no force or tendency in his mind to resolve contradictions between his ethical and political beliefs? After all, why should such contradictions matter to someone who doesn’t give a fig for logic? Moreover, since Rand did not belief that people had innate tendencies, she can hardly presuppose the existence of an innate tendency to resolve contradictions in favor of the more fundamental view. Since people have free will, they should be able to hold as many contradictory beliefs as they damn please? The Objectivist supposition that contradictory beliefs tend toward a resolution in favor of the more fundamental premise can therefore be dismissed as a mere prejudice, without basis in either logic or fact.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


TV Tropes, the site dedicated to popular culture cliches, takes a hilarious look at the various cliches populating "Atlas Shrugged". Particularly good are "Nice Job Breaking It, Hero", the "Author Filibuster", and the spot-on neologism for Rand's writing style, "Anvilicious."

Anvilicious: A portmanteau of anvil and either delicious or malicious, depending on the usage, anvilicious describes a writer's and/or director's use of an artistic element, be it line of dialogue, visual motif, or plot point, to so obviously or unsubtly convey a particular message that they may as well etch it onto an anvil and drop it on your head. Frequently, the element becomes anvilicious through unnecessary repetition, but true masters can achieve anviliciousness with a single stroke

(Hat tip to The Atheist Experience)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 8

Kant contra Rand There appear to be many orthodox Objectivists still in denial about Kant’s influence on history. Despite never having read Kant or the philosophers Kant influenced, they are nevertheless certain that Kant’s influence is precisely as Rand limned it. This prejudice can easily be refuted by quoting any non-controversial account of Kant. Take, as an example, what Karl Popper writes about Kant in the Open Society:
Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, asserted under the influence of Hume that pure speculation or reason, whenever it ventures into a field in which it cannot possibly be checked by experience, is liable to get involved in contradictions or ‘antinomies’ and to produce what he unambiguously described as ‘mere fancies’; ‘nonsense’; ‘illusions’; ‘a sterile dogmatism’; and ‘a superficial pretension to the knowledge of everything’. He tried to show that to every metaphysical assertion or thesis, concerning for example the beginning of the world in time, or the existence of God, there can be contrasted a counter-assertion or antithesis; and both, he held, may proceed from the same assumptions, and can be proved with an equal degree of ‘evidence’. In other words, when leaving the field of experience, our speculation can have no scientific status, since to every argument there must be an equally valid counter-argument. Kant’s intention was to stop once and forever the ‘accursed fertility’ of the scribblers on metaphysics.

Popper’s summation of Kant’s Critique is in line with the mainstream view. Kant’s attack on “pure reason” was not meant as an attack on knowledge as such, but only on speculative knowledge, i.e., claims of knowledge about matters of fact that aren’t backed by evidence. As Thomas Henry Huxley put it:
The aim of the Kritik der reinen Verunft is essentially the same as that of the Treatise of Human Nature, by which, indeed, Kant was led to develop that “critical philosophy” with which his name and fame are indissolubly bound up: and, if the details of Kant’s criticism differ from those of Hume, they coincide with them in their main result, which is the limitation of all knowledge of reality to the world of phenomena revealed to us by experience.

Kant’s basic position can be summed up from the famous aphorism from the preface of the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason: “Concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind.” Whatever errors and mistakes Kant may have committed in explicating and developing this seminal insight, the principle itself remains sound. Nor would even Rand necessarily have disagreed with it, even if she might have quibbled about the terms in which the principle is expressed.

An anonymous commentator in an earlier post insisted “that Kant's philosophy and Objectivism are diametrically opposed.” This is a bit of exaggeration. Even in the field of ethics, where the differences between Kant and Rand are the most striking, there are still similarities (e.g., they are both absolutists, and they both believe in “autonomy”). So would Rand have necessarily disagreed with Kant’s view that “when leaving the field of experience, our speculation can have no scientific status”?

Orthodox Objectivists (including Rand herself) have always been vague on this point. While Rand and her disciples will occasionally stress the importance of keeping one’s concepts in touch with reality and avoiding what they call “floating abstractions,” if we judge Objectivists by how they act rather than on what they say it becomes clear that they really are quite attached to the type of speculative reason that Kant (and Hume) criticizes. Rarely do Rand or Peikoff provide detailed, convincing evidence for their numerous controversial assertions. If they deign to advance any kind of argument at all, it is nearly always of a wantonly speculative and, ipso facto verbalistic nature. Rand’s entire theory of human nature is merely a speculative leap from her equally speculative defense of free will! One can hardly get more rationalistic and non-empirical than that!

To the extent that there is real difference between Rand and Kant on this issue “pure” reason, it is Kant, not Rand, that is on the side of science, truth and realism. The world is weary of philosophers who seek to determine matters of fact with logical, rhetorical, or moral constructions. The sort of “reason” that Objectivists actually practice (as opposed to vague, amorphous “reason” they theorize about and provide genuflect-like homage to) is merely a futile exercise in generating concepts without percepts. Kant and Hume were right to criticize such an approach. To the extent that this aspect of their philosophy has been influential, it has been influential for the better. Objectivism, on the other hand, would, if it exercised any influence at all on this issue, would constitute a step backwards for the human intellect.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 7

Who is this guy Mansel? Among academics, one of the most controversial aspects of orthodox Objectivism is its interpretation of modern philosophy. Rand’s views on Hume, Kant, Hegel, William James, Dewey, Russell, et al. As Gary Merrill puts it:
These sorts of things [i.e., Rand’s sweeping, unsubstantiated generalizations] would not be so bad, though they are bad, were it not for the fact that she so frequently gets things wrong. There is the business above concerning Russell [i.e., of Russell allegedly “kinda” knowing the meaning of the concept of number]. There is the claim (p. 59) that “modern philosophers declare that axioms are a matter of arbitrary choice.” (no substantiation or reference is provided). There is the claim (p. 52) that “It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist”. (Any of you Aristotle scholars want to wade in here with a brief account of particulars vs. concretes?) And none of this comes with even a hint of specific attribution that would allow a reader to evaluate it. The closest she gets is along the lines of (p. 60) “For example, see the works of Kant and Hegel.” Now that really narrows it down!

Rand’s interpretation of Kant is perhaps the most controversial of all. Again, to quote Merrill:
Rand mentions Kant repeatedly (he seems to be the guy she loves to hate), but there is absolutely nothing that is specific. She never quotes Kant directly, but when she apparently feels a need to justify her view of Kant she instead quotes from a book published in 1873 by Henry Mansel whom she describes as “a Kantian”. Again, I am not an expert on Kant, but who is this guy Mansel? I can find him mentioned in none of the histories of philosophy I have, and he is not mentioned in the fairly extensive bibliography on Kant in Lewis Beck’s 18th-Century Philosophy. So direct reference to Kant is replaced by reference to “a Kantian” (and a very obscure one at that). Why do this? Why not show how Kant himself held the position that is being attacked? There is no justification for this sort of thing. Again, poor scholarship. (I do not, by the way, believe that even the quote from Mansel supports Rand’s view of Kant. But I will not argue that point now.)

Even neo-Objectivists such as George Walsh and Fred Seddon have challenged Rand’s take on Kant. And one would be hard pressed to find any Kantian scholars of note who would agree with Rand’s assessment. There seems to be little room for doubt on this question: Rand got Kant wrong. What affect does this have on the Randian philosophy of history?

An important component of the Objectivist philosophy of history is Rand’s take on modern philosophy. Kant and the moderns have to be bad for the whole Randian eschatology to make any of sense. So if Rand is wrong about Kant and other modern philosophers, this provides us one additional reason to reject the Objectivist philosophy of history as mere a tissue of distortions and arrogant ignorance.

Yet this is not all. Even if Rand’s interpretation of Kant and other modern philosophers turned out to be correct, her philosophy of history would still have serious problems. Because even if Rand’s interpretation were correct, the fact that nearly everyone else has interpreted Kant differently it itself would constitute an insurmountable objection. Central to the Objectivist philosophy of history is the notion that Kant’s philosophy as interpreted by Rand exercised a pernicious influence on Western Civilization. But if most philosophers and intellectuals did not interpret Kant the way Rand did, then it would impossible for Kant to have the kind of influence that Objectivists ascribe to him.

The same line of reasoning can be extended to any of other controversial interpretations of philosophy offered by Rand and her orthodox disciples. If Rand is wrong in her interpretation, then the philosopher in question could not possibly have exercised the influence Rand ascribes to him; and if Rand is right in her interpretation and nearly everyone else wrong, then the philosopher’s influence differs from his actual philosophy. Either way, it demonstrates the poverty of the Objectivist philosophy of history. If an individual is in fact influenced by a specific philosopher, it is not the philosophy per se which exercises the influence, but the individual’s interpretation of that philosophy. If individuals routinely misinterpret a philosophy, it will be the prevailing misinterpretations, not the actual intended philosophy, that is critical in assessing questions of influence.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 6

Heterogeneity of human nature. Rand, as this blog has pointed out on countless occasions, rejected the traditional view of human nature. In his lecture “Philosophy and Psychology in History,” Peikoff encapsulates Objectivism’s two main arguments against human nature in two sentences:

1. “A given individual might have any kind of psychology in any era, because men have free will.”

2. “You cannot say that any specific psychology emanates from human nature as such, because not everyone has the same psychology.”

I’ve discussed the first argument, the argument from free will, before. Rand believed free will extended all the way to a person’s character, so that, ultimately, the individual could choose his own personality. Therefore, the traditional view of human nature, which insists on the reality of innate tendencies of character which manifest themselves throughout human history, is rejected on the grounds that such a view violates the “axiomatic” principle of free will. (Other rationalizations are also brought forth against it, such as the view that innate tendencies cannot exist because that would be tantamount to asserting the existence of “innate ideas.”)

The second argument assumes that human nature is homogeneous: that is to say, any trait that can properly be ascribed to the concept of human nature must be applicable to all human beings. If trait is applicable to only some human beings, it cannot be considered a part of human nature.

This argument, when applied to the interpretation of history, leads to yet another argument that could easily be used to rationalize the Objectivist philosophy of history. It goes as follows: History cannot be explained by human nature, because human nature is uniform; and so if human nature were the primary cause of history, historical change would become inexplicable.

What is wrong with these arguments? The main error stems from the assumption that human nature is homogeneous. On this issue, the Objectivist epistemology and its classical theory of concepts has led Rand and her disciples astray. As I argued in an earlier post, human nature is a family resemblance concept:

Among the many lessons that can be drawn from the Cognitive Revolution, perhaps the most important has to do with the inevitable conflict between Objectivist methodology on the one hand and the understanding of human nature on the other. Human nature is a family resemblance concept which is partially based on tacit, intuitive knowledge. Consequently, no detailed ... understanding of human nature can be achieved through the sort of "reason" based essentialism advocated by Rand. The Objectivist definition of man as a "rational animal" provides no real insight into human nature and could [never] be used as a reliable guide in predicting how people are likely to behave in a given situation.

Once the heterogeneity of human nature is established, we can proceed to easily demonstrate the degree to which history may in fact be explained on the basis of innate tendencies. To say that human nature is heterogeneous is tantamount to suggesting that human beings can be classified into various types. From common experience, we know that traits of character are not evenly distributed. Some people are more aggressive, more courageous, more intelligent, more sensitive than others. At least some (if not all) of these differences are influenced by genetic factors. It is fairly well established, for instance, that introversion-extroversion are strongly influenced by genetics. There is no evidence that people “choose” their personalities? How could they? That very choice would itself be an expression of personality—which is a roundabout way of saying that choice presupposes character.

It is from this very heterogeneity of human character that we can explain social change. All change in society is primarily brought about by various elites—by leaders in the various fields of human activities. Carlyle was right on this issue. “Universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the Great Men who have worked here,” the dyspeptic historian wrote. “They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrive to do or attain.” But an important emendation must be added to Carlyle’s theory. Whether a “great man” exercises an influence on history depends on institutional factors: it depends, more specifically, on what is called the “circulation of elites.” The primary determining cause in social change is a corresponding change in the character traits of those who make up the ruling elite. If individuals of one character type replace, within the elites, individuals of a different type, this have an immense influence on the society at large. For example, some character types are drawn to militaristic values. If such individuals dominate within the ruling elite of a society, that society will inevitably become militaristic.

What determines which individuals dominate within the ruling elite? All sorts of factors—although philosophy rarely plays a part. If a society is attacked by its neighbors, for example, this alone will draw militaristic types into the elite. Institutions play an important role in the selection of elites. Democratic institutions tend to favor so-called “politicians”—i.e., individuals with supple spines who will not scruple to say whatever is needed to get elected. For this reason, democratic political institutions often deselect from the ruling elites just those individuals with strong back bones who refuse to bend the knee to his majesty demos.

The course of history itself is largely determined by the competition between various nations, some of which may have ruling elites of differing compositions. If, by way of example, China were to become the world’s leading power in the 21st century, the course of history could be very different than if America remains the leading power. China’s ruling elite has, for many centuries, been opposed to freedom and obsessed with saving face—a lethal combination. Philosophy has little to do with this. On the contary, the philosophy of China’s ruling elites, whether drawn from Confucius or Karl Marx, is merely an expression of the type of people that have ruled that nation throughout its history.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 5

W. G. Sumner contra Peikoff. The ideas of philosophy, claims Objectivism, determine the course of history. Very well. But where do these ideas come from? What is their cause?

Peikoff, in his lecture “Philosophy and Psychology in History,” argues that history is ultimately determined by “mankind’s most abstract minds.”

Millions, billions of men may be oblivious to the mind, they may be ignorant of philosophy, they may even be contemptuous of abstractions. But, knowingly or not, they are shaped ultimately by the abstractions of a small handful of individuals.

This curious position leaves unanswered the question: who (or what) shapes the handful of individuals who shapes everyone else? According to Peikoff, Kant unleashed “the power of philosophy” against the West in the last two centuries. Why did Kant do such a thing? What were his motives? What enabled him to develop and propagate his philosophical system? And why did he choose his particular positions, rather than some other? It couldn’t have happened for no reason at all. At bottom, Kant had to be motivated by something. Ideas aren’t formed in a vacuum. So how did Kant for his system? Why did he arise when he did? Why does any philosopher arise when they do? What explains the “emergence” of their philosophies?

According to Peikoff, these are not valid questions.

You cannot have an infinite regress. Suppose I were to say: “Philosophy derives from factor X; if a man has X, he becomes an original philosopher, and if not, not.” That answer would not satisfy you—it would prompt the question: “Where did X come from?” The point is: you have to start somewhere. The basic cause in this kind of series must be a primary.

Why so? Here we have a palpable rationalization put forth to avoid any questions which might expose the poverty of Peikoff’s view. Because once we start asking the question, Why did the philosopher choose to develop these particular ideas, rather than some other? we will immediately led to recognize the fact that ideas are not primaries, that they are developed for specific purposes, and it is these purposes that, this context, are (if anything is) “primary.”

The fundamental implication behind both the Objectivist view of human nature and its concomitant theory of history is the denial that men’s volition is ultimately affected by motivation. For the Objectivist, volition ultimately comes down to choice to think or not. This choice, by implication, is entirely unmotivated.

Beginning students often have a problem with this issue, asking “But what makes a person think or evade?” … Why he chooses one or the other on this level cannot be further explained. That is what it means to say that man has choice and is not determined. A volitional choice is a fundamental beneath which you cannot go.

In other words, what motivates an individual to choose or develop one idea over another is unknowable. Peikoff has here blocked the path of inquiry using that great bĂȘte noire of Objectivism, phyrric skepticism. This is a doctrine that you have to an Objectivist true-believer to swallow whole, because when mixed with just a little bit of good sense, it just won’t go down.

Human beings are not blank slates upon which “ mankind’s most abstract minds” may write whatever they wish. We know from the scientific study of human nature that many needs and proclivities of human beings are influenced by genetics. As sociologist William G. Sumner put it:

There are four great motives of human action… These are hunger, sex passion, vanity, and fear (of ghosts and spirits). Under each of these motives there are interests. Life consists in satisfying interests, for “life,” in a society, is a career of action and effort expended on both the material and social environment. However great the errors and misconceptions may be which are included in the efforts, the purpose always is advantage and expediency. The efforts fall into parallel lines, because conditions and the interests are the same…. The result is mass phenomenon; currents of similarity, concurrence, mutual contribution; and these produce folkways. The folkways are unconscious, spontaneous, uncoordinated. It is never known who led to devising them, although we must believe that talent exerted its leadership at all times. There are folkways in stage coach times, which were fitted to that mode of travel. Street cars have produced ways which are suited to that mode of transportation in cities. The telephone has produced ways which have not been invented and imposed by anybody, but which are devised to satisfy conveniently the interests which are at stake in the use of that instrument.

People have wants and needs and they seek to satisfy them, often resorting to nothing more intellectually rigorous than trial and error and the imitation of others. At a much later stage of civilization, conscious intelligence may be applied to some of these problems. But even so, the wants and needs remain primary. As Sumner says, life consists of conveniently satisfying interests. Hence arises the “folkways” or “mores.”

[A]ll the life of human beings, in all ages and stages of culture, is primarily controlled by a vast mass of folkways, handed down from the earliest existence of the race, having the nature of the ways of other animals, only the topmost layers of which are subject to change and control, and have been somewhat modified by human philosophy, ethics, and religion, or by other acts of intelligent reflection.

So what, then, is the role of “ mankind’s most abstract minds” in all of this? Sumner states his position very clearly:

Of course the view which has been stated is antagonistic to the view that philosophy and ethics furnish creative and determining forces in society and history. That view comes down to us from the Greek philosophy and it has now prevailed so long that all current discussion [circa 1900] conforms to it. Philosophy and ethics are pursued as independent disciplines, and the results are brought to the science of society and to statesmanship and legislation as authoritative dicta… It can be seen also that philosophy and ethics are products of the folkways. They are taken out of the mores, but are never original or creative; they are secondary and derived. They often interfere in the second stage of sequence,—act, thought, act. Then they produce harm, but some ground is furnished for the claim that they are creative or at least regulative. In fact, the real process in great bodies of men is not one of deductions from any great principle of philosophy or ethics. It is one of minute efforts to live well under existing conditions, which efforts are repeated indefinitely by great numbers, getting strength from habit and from the fellowship of united action. The resultant folkways become coercive…. Then they seem true and right, and arise into mores as the norm of welfare. Thence are produced faiths, ideas, doctrines, religions, and philosophies, according to the stage of civilization and the fashions of reflection and generalization.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Understanding Objectivist Jargon pt 15: "Objective"

The latest in our ever-popular series translating Objectivist jargon into ordinary usage:

"Objective" = subjective

The Objectivist jargon substitutes unusual or specialised word meanings for standard ones.These specialised meanings can even be the exact opposite of the usual ones (see for example "sacrifice"). The Objectivist meanings are then either insisted upon, or inserted alongside the standard meanings and equivocated between. Thus on examination much Randian argument, especially in epistemology, consists literally of double-talk.

A key example of this is the usual meaning of the word "objective", which is redefined to include the contents of consciousness ie that which is usually called subjective. In this classic passage from "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand", we observe exactly how Leonard Peikoff engineers this rhetorical switcheroo:

"People often speak of “objective reality.” In this usage, which is harmless, “objective” means “independent of consciousness.” The actual purpose of the concept, however, is to be found not in metaphysics, but in epistemology. Strictly speaking, existents are not objective; they simply are. It is minds, and specifically conceptual processes [including their products], that are objective (emphasis DB) — or nonobjective." - Leonard Peikoff, OPAR p117

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 4

Philosophy versus psychology. If we examine the theoretic rationalization constructed around the Objectivist philosophy of history, one thing immediately becomes apparent: the Objectivist theory of history is merely an extension of Rand’s theory of human nature. “Ayn Rand’s theory of man leads to a distinctive interpretation of history,” notes Peikoff [OPAR, 451] In his lecture on "Philosophy and Psychology in History," Peikoff begins by trying to make the best case he can for the "psychological interpretaion" of history. "It is obvious that most people have no articulate. coherent philosophy," he admits. "It is even questionable, some observers claim, whether most people have a philosophy at all. But it is obvious that everyone does have a psychology.

So does this mean that psychology determines history? No, not at all. The “psychological interpretation” of history, Peikoff insists, is a plausible but mistaken theory. What is wrong with it? Let us examine the reasons Peikoff gives for rejecting the psychological interpretation:

The first thing to ask is: what is the source of psychological factors? Where do they come from? What is their cause? … Let me give you the answer… All the psychological factors … reduce to one element, however complex the terminology. They reduce to emotions… And the source of emotions is: ideas…

This is the basic answer to the psychological interpretation of history. That theory comes down to the view that emotions are the key factor in history. But emotions on a scale that shapes a culture are a consequence of philosophy.

In other words, the Objectivist philosophy of history is the application of Rand’s theory of emotions to history. If Rand’s theory of emotions is wrong, then her theory of history must be wrong as well. So this leads to the obvious question: Is Rand’s theory of emotions right? Well, it just so happens that ARCHNBlog has already answered this question. That post concluded as follows:

[The Objectivist] view of emotions … has been refuted by research done in cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology. These sciences have discovered that animals (including human beings) have "primary emotions," which are "innate" and "preorganized" and which depend on limbic system circuitry in the brain. They have discovered that emotions are critical in thinking, so that the notion that "man can live exclusively by reason," when accompanied by the additional notion that "emotions are not tools of cognition," misrepresents what actually happens in cognition. Human beings are not blank slates. Their emotions are not programmed into their “subconscious” by their conscious minds. That view is no more credible than would be an astrological view of emotions. On naturalistic assumptions, emotions are and must be the product of evolution. They are tools of survival, forged in the evolutionary furnace.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 3

Metaphysical presuppositions 2. Objectivism rejects what Peikoff labels eclectic theories of history—i.e., those theories that assume the existence of multiple factors affecting the course of history. Objectivism insists that philosophy is the decisive factor in shaping the actions and events of history. As Peikoff explains near the end of Ominous Parallels:
The complexity of human society does not make it unintelligible, not even when it is a society torn by contradictions and in the process of collapse—unless one views the collapse without the benefit of philosophy. Such a procedure means: viewing the symptoms of a disease without knowing that they are symptoms, or that they have a unifying cause.

The metaphysical implications of this view is that reality is so constituted that it is explicable by an ultimate cause. Indeed, this is one of the more controversial implications behind the Objectivist view of knowledge as hierarchical. Reality conveniently allows itself to be explicable within a hierarchy of concepts, with the widest concepts explaining all the lower concepts in the hierarchy. Objectivism tries to evade these metaphysical implications by insisting that this hierarchy is purely epistemological. But in the form it takes in the Objectivist philosophy of history, it is unclear that the metaphysical implications can be carelessly swept under the epistemological rug. Peikoff assumes that as long as you view the complexity of human society with “the benefit of philosophy,” it must be intelligible. Every symptom, Peikoff assumes, has an identifiable unitary cause. This assumption cannot be made on epistemological grounds alone. Unless one assumes that reality itself in fundamentally intelligible, Peikoff’s epistemological assumptions are entirely gratuitous.

The trouble with these unstated metaphysical implications is that they are not fully consistent with realism, that is to say, with the belief in an external substantive world existing in its own plane, with a movement, origin, and destiny of its own, apart from what we may think or fail to think of it. Peikoff’s argument for a single cause of history implies that reality must be intelligible—as if reality exists or was created for our personal cognitive convenience. That is not an assumption the truculent and uncompromising realist can ever make. “A really naked spirit [i.e., a mind without a priori presuppositions] cannot assume that the world is thoroughly intelligible,” wrote one such truculent realist, George Santayana. “There may be surds, there may be hard facts, there may be dark abysses before which intelligence must be silent, for fear of going mad.” At most, the intrepid realist can only assume that reality is partially intelligible, that it is say, that we can know what is necessary for our survival and genetic reproduction. Whether the rest of reality is intelligible can only be discovered empirically; it cannot be assumed a priori.