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.

14 comments:

Damien said...

greg,

You make an excellent point.

Anonymous said...

I get what you're saying, however...

just because something is not currently understood is not to say that it is intelligible. To do so would be to cower and genuflect in obessience and fear before the Gods, which (while many would happily argue and cite countless examples over time) I don't believe is the true nature of evolved man.

I understand that unfounded egotism regarding our ability to decipher the complexities of the universe may likely prove futile and, worse still, could very well be our downfall, and yet, what is the alternative? To resign from an effort to understand? That sounds to me to go against the very grain of human nature.

I've just stumbled upon your blog and, while I disagree with many points, I happen to believe that challenging a philosophy will either invalidate or strengthen it. I have no apprehension in regards to modifying my philosophies, and will definitely keep reading with a reasoned and open mind.

Patricia

gregnyquist said...

Patricia: "...just because something is not currently understood is not to say that it is intelligible."

True, that would involve committing the opposite error from Peikoff, of assuming thorough unintelligibility. Nor by admitting, provisionally, that some aspects of reality may either be unintelligible or very difficult to reduce to a human scale of comprehension without seriously disorting it do we suggest that we should just give up. Ultimately, we can only discover the degree of intelligibility that any object of knowledge has empirically, by going out and trying to cognitively fathom it. Nevertheless, despite this caveat, the view that reality is thorougly intelligible only makes sense if we equate knowledge with reality—a premise foreign to any philosophy of realism.

"...I happen to believe that challenging a philosophy will either invalidate or strengthen it."

That is more or less the position of this blog.

Anonymous said...

Piekoff is referring here to the complexities of human society, not the complexities of metaphysical reality. Big difference. Human society moves according to the thoughts and actions of its individuals. The thoughts and actions of the individuals are guided by their philosophy, whether or not they are even cognizant of its make up.

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "Piekoff is referring here to the complexities of human society, not the complexities of metaphysical reality. Big difference."

I think I understand the point here: if I have him (or her) right, Anon is distinguishing between "metaphysical" reality and social or "human" reality, or as Rand would put it, between the metaphysical and the man-made. Very well. What if I just drop the mischievious term "metaphysical." For my criticism was meant to apply to any complexity, metaphysical, social, psychological, or otherwise. When Santayana says we "cannot assume that the world is thoroughly intelligible," he is not confining his generalization merely to what Rand called the "metaphysical." The realist cannot make any a priori assumptions beyond what his basic realism requires. We can only assume that the world is intelligible enough for us to survive long enough to produce and nurture the next generation. Beyond that, it may be as unintelligible as it pleases. After all, on realist premises, we are not allowed to assume that the world was created for the convenience of our intellects, but rather that our intellects evolved to understand those aspects of reality necessary to pass on our DNA to the next generation.

Nevertheless, Anon makes an intriguing and useful point.

Anon69 said...

Rand's asserted distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made is a major weakness of Objectivism. It imports the (supposedly) ethically-relevant "could have been different/otherwise" notion into the realm of metaphysics, where it is a cognitively empty, contextless floating abstraction. There is simply no way to tell whether (and hence no basis to claim that) everything man-made could have been different, or that everything "metaphysically given" could not have been different. The most we can say is that both claims are arbitrary and (on Objectivism's own terms) not worthy of consideration without more context (i.e. the conditions under which a thing would be different). Why Rand blundered in this respect, I don't know.

Abolaji said...

As Greg has pointed out elsewhere, and anyone who has studied evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics will also know, the claim that the thoughts and actions of human beings are guided by their philosophy shows a very narrow understanding of human nature in general - it is far more likely that human beings select philosophies that suit their natures/prejudices.

Cavewight said...

Abolaji said...
>As Greg has pointed out elsewhere, and anyone who has studied evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics will also know, the claim that the thoughts and actions of human beings are guided by their philosophy shows a very narrow understanding of human nature in general - it is far more likely that human beings select philosophies that suit their natures/prejudices.

Don't forget cultural memes. Certainly Rand had her individual nature and prejudices, but her anti-dualist approach goes back to her early years in Russia where dualisms were things to be eliminated at any cost. This tendency is strong in Rand's thinking, she rejected dualism in metaphysics, epistemology, psychology, ethics, and almost politics in which she settled for a less rebellious minarchy over the anarchism which should have resulted.

Cavewight said...

And I should add, radicalism itself (of which Rand was a part) is common to a European intellectual style, whereas American intellectuals have taken a more Pragmatic approach.

gregnyquist said...

"[Rand] rejected dualism in metaphysics, epistemology, psychology, ethics, and almost politics"

Well, that is Sciabarra's thesis; and, at least in a superficial sense, there is a kind of truth about it. Yet, if we look deeper, we'll find that the dualisms Rand rejects are often of her own making. Assuming, as she did, that nearly all other philosophers were wrong, she would conveniently group their errors into two camps, claiming all the while that her philosophy entirely transcended the traditional dualism (even though in reality she borrowed shamelessly from each camp -- regardless of the resulting contradictions -- and rebadged the whole mess as Objectivism!). Hence, in her realism, her expositor, Peikoff claims to be neither a direct nor an indirect realist, but an Objectivist!

Cavewight said...

Greg,

Your point about Sciabarra can be made simply by stating that he pointed to some real or imagined Randian dialectic form of argument, and that in fact Rand's arguments are largely based in a kind of Nietzschean labeling system. We all know there are no "mystics of mind" or "mystics of muscle," and that history is not that simply reduced to such terms. I always get a chuckle when I see some reference to Rand's alleged "philosophy of history." But it blends in well with libertarian revisionistic history.

In the appendix to ITOE 2nd ed. Rand discusses dispositional properties but resorts to sophistry in order to invalidate the idea. There are no, let's say, "x" type of properties and "y" type of properties, there are just properties of an entity.

The analytic-synthetic dichotomy, which Rand's patsy Lenny Peikoff challenged in an essay that launched him to fame, is a real 20th-century theory popularized by logical positivist A.J. Ayers. Unfortunately for Lenny's thesis, it has little to do with Kant's original distinction. But they would reject that too simply *because* it is a distinction.

Rand took on the rationalistic and empiricistic traditions by attacking them at their root - the problem of universals from which this division originated. It is an artificial division which can simply be dismissed by saying "where is the manness in men"? (That is not even an original question but goes back to an ancient Greek philosopher's response to Plato.)

So the distinctions or dichotomies are real, the form she placed them in was sometimes imaginary, but my original point is far from lost simply because there was a level of fantasy to her thinking. Rand was a product of Russian intellecutal cultural memes, and minarchy is only a tiny step away from total anarchy which is a form of totalism or organicism.

Cavewight said...

Greg wrote:
>Hence, in her realism, her expositor, Peikoff claims to be neither a direct nor an indirect realist, but an Objectivist!

I wasn't aware. Was this in OPAR?

Cavewight said...

Since you brought him up, Sciabarra quoted a 20th-century Russian author named Nina Berberova who said: "All dualism is painful for me, all splitting and bisecting contrary to my nature...My whole life has been the reconciliation of the old dichotomy...[D]iverse and often contrasting traits fuse in me. Long ago I stopped thinking of myself as being composed of two halves. I feel physically, that a seam, not a cut, passes through me, that I myself am a seam, that with this seam, while I am alive, something has united in me, something has been soldered, that I am one of my examples in nature of soldering, unification, fusion, harmonization, that I am not living in vain, but there is sense in that I am as I am, an example of synthesis in a world of antithesis."

Cavewight said...

I'd better specify, before someone else does, that this cultural anti-dualism was not common to the Russia people per se, but only to its intelligentsia.