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.


Damien said...


You said,
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.

Isn't it a bit ironic that in order to take Peikoff seriously on this, you have to embrace something he openly condemns?

David said...

I wonder if Rand's anti-Kantianism is more of an anti-neo-Kantianism, i.e. a reaction to the Neo-Kantian philosophy popular among some Bolsheviks and Mensheviks after the 1905 Revolution.

While Lenin rejected neo-Kantianism as another form "bourgeois revisionism" and "solipsism," many of those revolutionaries who dabbled in neo-Kantianism went on to university positions after the 1917 Revolution. Is it possible that she learn her Kant third-hand through some of these individuals?

It might explain why (a) she blamed Kant for Communism, (b) had such a strange, skewed understanding of Kant (who was a classical liberal, not a communist or socialist), and (c) never bothered to read his works for herself.

It also might provide the provenance for the Objectivist view that one's intentions determine the morality of an act, not it's consequences - an idea she may never have realized was shared by Kant.

Damien said...


You said,
It also might provide the provenance for the Objectivist view that one's intentions determine the morality of an act, not it's consequences - an idea she may never have realized was shared by Kant.

I don't know where you are getting that. Rand believed in an egoist morality, which she incorporated into her objectivist philosophy. She believed that the morality of an act is base on weather or not it was in someone's self interest. Today Objectivists share that notion with her.

gregnyquist said...

David: "I wonder if Rand's anti-Kantianism is more of an anti-neo-Kantianism."

Perhaps. Although I tend to think straight Kantianism is probably closer to Rand's distortion of Kant than is neo-Kantianism. Neo-Kantians tended to reject Kant's morality, for example. Mises' neo-Kantianism seems movitated by little more than a desire to rationalize his extreme a priorism.

There may be any number of sources accounting for Rand's anti-Kantianism. Perhaps she got it from her Russian teachers—but I think that's unlikely. Another possible source is Nietzsche—although Nietzsche's anti-Kantianism doesn't quite anticipate Rand's. In an earlier post, I suggested she might have gotten it, second or third-hand, from Santayana. While Santayana didn't regard Kant as an evil man (merely as a foolish but very clever pedant), no important philosopher before Rand criticized the idealistic strains in Kant's philosophy more thoroughly than Santayana. He even described Kant as a "malicious critic" of knowledge—which anticipates Rand's approach years later. And, since Santayana was the most important conservative philosopher during Rand's formative years (1920-1950), it's possible she might have imbibed her views on Kant from one of her conservative friends who had read Santayana and passed off to Rand a distorted and exaggerated account of what they remembered.

Andrew A said...

Another very interesting passage, thanks Greg.

Sumner clearly demonstrates fundamental human motivations and how they re-enforce within societies collective. I have often thought of Maslows hierarchy of needs in terms of this. Our basic need for water, food, sleep, shelter, sex, and the social interactions that accompany fulfilling these basic needs. Then as our basic needs are met and our social structure progresses we can focus on our emotional needs. These initially consist of being part of a family structure, friends etc. Further up the pyramid we can be engaged in morality, ethics, self-esteem, all the more subtle life affirming aspects of human existence.

Based on what I know about 19th century European existence, which is not very much. But enough to know that most of the peasantry was not basking in self actualization at the top of Maslows pyramid, who would have had time for philosophy? Seems reasonable to suppose only social elites who had reached the highest levels. How would they have achieved that level? Surely not by the driving force of philosophy. Their existence of leisure was based on society slogging through the lower levels of the pyramid.

But I do agree that history can often be observed as a biography of great minds. Newtons science of mechanics coupled with thermodynamics made the industrial revolution possible. Couple this with Adam Smiths economics and possibly one can observe the causes of our current affluence? Would these or other breakthroughs be possible without previous works of philosophy? How closely can science be observed to have stemmed from philosophy in history?

All this is very interesting to me, thanks again for another stimulating post.