Sunday, December 27, 2009

Objectivism versus Western Civilization

For nearly every critic of Objectivism there is usually one or two things in Rand’s philosophy that he finds particularly objectionable. For some, it is Rand’s attack against altruism; for others it is her uncompromising defense of laissez-faire; for still others it may be Rand’s essentialism and the empirical irresponsibility that follows in its train. For my stead, what I find most objectionable is the view, held by at least one prominent Objectivist, that some ideas are not merely wrong and unsound, but, even worse, are dangerous: they represent a threat to one’s “psycho-epistemology.” Harry Binswanger expresses this position quite well in his recent post about Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market:

I advise you to stay away from [Burns' book], for the reason I gave in an earlier post: it is almost impossible to keep all the false and slanted "facts" out of your subconscious "file folders." Not only would reading it, quite unjustly, tend to diminish your admiration for Ayn Rand, you are very likely, years later, to treat as fact that which is false or arbitrary.



This view is entirely consistent with the Rand’s view of human nature as exemplified in the Objectivist “Philosophy of History.” If the view contradicts the Objectivist take on volition and rationality, well, that is a contradiction that exists in the philosophy itself. Between Rand’s extreme view of free will (human beings as self-creators) and her view of history (where most human beings are seen as pawns in a philosophical, history-determining “duel” between Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Rand) there exists in obvious tension, little appreciated by the Objectivist brethren. Human beings are seen as the mere products or manifestations of their “premises.” Objectivism tacitly assumes that human beings tend to be influenced by the premises they are exposed to. Hence Binswanger’s view that it is “almost impossible to keep all the false and slanted ‘facts’ out of your subconscious ‘file folders.’” This “almost” impossibility necessitates avoiding any works that contain “false” or “slanted” facts. In other words, the Objectivist is well advised to stay clear of works that are deemed “hostile” to Objectivism.

What evidence Binswanger and other Objectivists have for believing this extraordinary doctrine? The answer to this question is simple: Binswanger provides no evidence.
There is a very good reason for this: no such evidence exists. Human beings are not the products of their premises; nor is it, as Binswanger suggests, “almost impossible” for human beings to avoid being influenced by the premises (or “false facts”) they are exposed to. The only danger that Objectivists who read Burns’ book face is the possibility that the evidence Burns presents may change their minds. But that is something different than having one’s subconscious file folders contaminated.

There is, however, a more sinister aspect to this belief that bad premises and "false" and "slanted" facts can somehow seep into one’s subconscious when one is not looking and corrupt one’s psycho-epistemology. It serves as a convenient rationalization for avoiding any book or idea or fact that challenges one’s beliefs. Even worse, it prevents Objectivists from learning from that vast array of knowledge and wisdom stored in the works of thinkers, writers, intellectuals, scientists, philosophers whom Objectivism condemns or ignores. Since this group contains most of the major thinkers making up the literary, scientific, and philosophic canon of Western Civilization, Binswanger’s view, at least by implication, encourages his readers to shut their minds to the lion’s share of what passes for Western Culture. And indeed, we get further confirmation that this is what Binswanger has in mind when we read the various assessments that he and other Objectivists (including Rand herself) have made of important figures in Western Culture. With a few exceptions (e.g., Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, the Founding Fathers), this assessment is overwhelmingly negative. Objectivists are on record as despising Hume, Kant, Burke, Schopenhauer, J. S. Mill Tolstoy, Nietzsche, William James, Thomas Mann, Frank Knight, and Friedrich Hayek; and that list undoubtedly would be much longer if Objectivists were better read.

Now if, as Matthew Arnold once suggested, the aim of culture is “to know ourselves and the world,” then one of the necessary means of attaining that knowledge is (again to quote Arnold) “to know the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Objectivists (at least by implication) believe that knowing Rand is equivalent to knowing the best that has been thought and said. But how can they know this to be true if they have neither read nor understood the great thinkers of Western Civilization? If, following the implications embedded in Binswanger’s advice, they avoid all those thinkers who might corrupt their subconsious file folders, then they clearly are in no position to judge. They are merely taking the Objectivist view of Western Culture on faith.

No one thinker could possibly have all (or even most) of the answers. To think such a thing is to betray a naivete about the world that makes most children seem masters of sapience in comparison. Intimate familiarity with “the best that has been thought and said” is therefore necessary for the development of a cultured intelligence. Anyone who therefore discourages, either explicitly or implicitly, such familiarity, is an enemy of both culture and intelligence.

Binswanger’s conviction that it’s “almost impossible” to keep “false” facts (and, presumably, “corrupt” premises) out of one’s subconscious is, to the extent that it is acted upon, a pernicious notion. How is one to know whether an alleged fact is “false” or a given premise is corrupt unless one has confronted, grappled with it, and tested it? “He that wrestles with us,” wrote Burke, “sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.” Burke’s view is foreign to Objectivism, which believes instead that he who wrestles with us imperils our psycho-epistemology by exposing our subconscious to "false facts" and corrupt or "evil" premises!

24 comments:

Neil Parille said...

Peikoff and Binswanger seems the most hostile to other thinkers.

I wonder if it has something to do with their lack of success in the academic world.

Younger Objectivists aren't so hostile.

gregnyquist said...

Peikoff and Binswanger seems the most hostile to other thinkers. I wonder if it has something to do with their lack of success in the academic world.

That's one possible explanation. I tend think it's because they knew Rand personally and were influenced, not merely by what Rand wrote, but was she said, her personal like and dislikes, her general attitude towards books and ideas. They were able to hear her opinions on many things she never wrote or spoke about in public. I don't think it's a stretch to suspect that her comments were probably mostly negative. Her journals, her letters, and reminiscences about her all corroborate her bad attitude towards many of the main figures of western culture.

Neil Parille said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Parille said...

As I think I said before, Objectivists are in a difficult position. They want academic influence, because that's what Rand wanted; but they aren't interested in writing the type of material that cpnstitutes scholarship. So they mostly do audio lectures and introductory works.

Again, as I said before, if Objectivists think Rand's theory of concept formation is the most important achievement in philosophy since Aristotle and is defensible, they would write books and articles about it.

I think things are changing a bit with the younger generation (such as Tara Smith).

Carrie said...

Neil Parille: Not with the ones I've met unfortunately (with the hostility issue).

Anonymous said...

Who cares how they react towards non-objectivists? It is not their hostility towards us that keeps their movement negligible but our hostility towards Rand’s philosophy. They could bend over backwards to please us and what difference would that make?

Neil Parille said...

Here is what Binswanger says:

____

I advise you to stay away from [Burns' book], for the reason I gave in an earlier post: it is almost impossible to keep all the false and slanted "facts" out of your subconscious "file folders." Not only would reading it, quite unjustly, tend to diminish your admiration for Ayn Rand, you are very likely, years later, to treat as fact that which is false or arbitrary.
____

1. Binswanger has a PhD in philosophy. As such he had to read all sorts of allegedly depraved thinkers such as Kant. It didn't seem to hurt him. Indeed it doesn't appear to have made any effect since he tells us he can't move back and forth between Objectivist and non-Objectivist thought. (Or is Binswanger distinguishing facts from theories?)

2. In Objectively Speaking Rand is asked about whether parents should be concerned about what their children watch on TV or see in movies. She says it doesn't matter as long as they have good premises. Binswanger seems more extreme here.

Anonymous said...

Remember, Binwater and the ARI staffhay are philosopher kings, they've gone through a randian "wall of fire" and hence are unhurt by any exposure to Kant and other 'dubious' philosophers.

Robert Campbell said...

Rand also claimed, in one of her Ford Hall Forum Q&As, that a child who has gone through an elementary education in a Montessori school will be virtually invulnerable to anything he or she encounters in a public school later on (she did not explain whether the invulnerability would extend to being beaten up by bullies).

Obviously, Drs. Peikoff and Binswanger don't think that they and their protégés who aspire to academic positions in philosophy have been corrupted by reading Plato, Kant, or Descartes.

But it wouldn't bother them unduly if their other followers avoided seeking their information outside of Rand-land.

And, when it comes to their guiding myth about Ayn Rand's life and personality, the less anyone actually learns about her, the better.

Robert Campbell

PS. In my article on the doctrine of the arbitrary assertion, I point out that Peikoff skates very close, in some of his writings, to denying that there ever could be any value in learning from mistakes. So I agree with Greg Nyquist that Peikoff and Binswnager would probably reject Edmund Burke's observation.

Wells said...

I semi-understand where Binswanger is coming from. Propaganda is slick and is designed to take in the unwary*.

However, The remedy for that is not to hide from anything that might be propaganda, but rather to be able to read it, and critique it intelligently without being subverted by it.
A person should be able to watch a flick like "Triumph of the Will" and give praise to the Auetuer where due.
The person should also be able to refrain from becoming a NAZI.

If I were a doctor of philosophy; I would prescribe a liberal education to build immunity, and a steady diet the books of dead philosophers, so that you will be able to evaluate their ideas more disinterestedly.

* As well as those who Want to Believe, but they're a different story.

Anonymous said...

For me it's the hypocricy of AR that gets me. She praises the Apollo 11 moon landing, even though that was concevied and funded by the state, as a success. Yet attacks Woodstock by contrasting it againt the Moon landing, even thought Woodstocks was a private venture. Sure the people behind Woodstock lost money but that was not thier intention. They put on that concert to make a buck from the hippies. Surely that should be praiseworthy and the Moon landing, what ever virtues it had, denounced as looting.

Michael Prescott said...

"For me it's the hypocrisy of AR that gets me."

Your point would be valid if Rand's main focus had been politics and economics. But her main focus was on what she saw as "rationality." I put the term in quotes because it means such different things to different people.

To Rand, the moonshot was the epitome of rationality -- a scientific program that relied on logic, planning, skill, and courage. The fact that it was government-financed was, to her, a comparatively trivial issue. Conversely, Rand saw in Woodstock everything she hated and despised: tribalism, emotionalism, collectivism, rampant irrationality. The fact that Woodstock was privately organized for profit would not have mattered to her at all; the event disgusted her on a much deeper level than economics.

I have many criticisms of Rand, but on this point she was not hypocritical. She was for capitalism, but she never said that people should do "anything for a buck." Quite the contrary. Howard Roark could have made more money by compromising than by holding out for his ideals, and John Galt could have made more money by selling his motor than by going on strike. For Rand, it was never *all* about money.

Dragonfly said...

In Atlas Shrugged it is stressed that the most evil person is Dr. Stadler. His mortal sin seems to have been that he accepted government money for his scientific research.

Later Rand waxes lyrical about the Apollo project, although that would never have been realized without huge amounts of government money. Sure, she pays in one sentence lip service to the principle that science should not be government business, but that's brushed aside as a little, unimportant detail. The Objectivist excuse is that the Apollo program was (in Michael's words) "a scientific program that relied on logic, planning, skill, and courage". But I cannot remember her praising similar achievements by the Soviets (first satellite, first manned flight), which were certainly also an epitome of logic, planning, skill and courage.

Well, if that isn't mighty hypocricital, it is at least quite inconsistent. When the Dr. Stadlers are American Dr. Stadlers, it seems they can get away with a lot. "And I mean it!", she said. Yeah, sure.

Anonymous said...

"Conversely, Rand saw in Woodstock everything she hated and despised: tribalism, emotionalism, collectivism, rampant irrationality."

A bit of an over the top attitude from AR then as Woodstock was just a pop concert man, albiet a grandiose one, but, in essence just a pop concert.

Sometimes A is just A, ya'know.

I accept the orgainsers of Woodstock moaned that the cost of cleaning it up eat into theri profits and I'll admit I dont know how much they made or lost. But what war irrational about organising a pop concert on such a scale? Surely if lots of people, paying people turned up, the bands turned up and money was made, what would, from the objectivist point of view, be the problem. Though I accept that Hendrix, bless him, stunk at Woodstock.

Plus AR said that John Galt would not have needed, nor even accepted a government subsidy.
I never did say it was all about the money with Rand but she hated, what she termed 'looting'. I'd of thought she would have taken the point of view that you cannot have the rationality from irrationality?

"The fact that it was government-financed was, to her, a comparatively trivial issue"

Seems odd though don't you think? As this was such a massive undertaking, I mean NASA, they are notorious over-spenders of governemt money. Like $60 a screwdriver, if it's not hypocritcal of AR it comes across as very ironic.

Shame there are Objectvist guidlines on how to run a pop concert, thereby avoiding all those problems of tribalism, emotionalism, collectivism, rampant irrationality that plagued Woodstock. I mean a pop concert without these -isms, now that would be like, far out.

Michael Prescott said...

"Well, if that isn't mighty hypocritical, it is at least quite inconsistent."

Huh. Maybe you're right.

The one time I actually try to defend Rand, I turn out to be wrong ...

Anonymous said...

Well Neil Peart, he of the worst rock band to ever come out of Canada: Rush, is a hard-line objectivist and he disagreed with AR on the Woodstock issue. He saw Woodstock as something to be proud of. I was just disappointed with Hendrix, I know it was 40 years ago but it’s like Hendrix man, if I was giving marks out of 10 the dude was only a 5 that day.

Anonymous said...

Just had a thought, cause Hendrix was so mediocre do you think that is why AR was so angry about Woodstock? The dude was the John Galt of rock, but he played like Peter Keating that day.

gregnyquist said...

"Just had a thought, cause Hendrix was so mediocre do you think that is why AR was so angry about Woodstock?"

I know this is meant in jest, but it's important to not confuse Woodstock the Musical Event with Woodstock the Socio-Cultural Events. Critics of Woodstock (including Rand) regard Woodstock as a celebration of a hedonistic lifestyle they deplore.

Anonymous said...

But, how many of those dudes that went to Woodstock, in like 10 years after it, were working as accountants, lawyers, Dr's etc. I'll bet most of them were settled down, homes in 'burbs, nice wife, station wagon, 2.4 kids, hell the whole nine yards. So much for hedonism.
Didn't Rand realise that in pop culture, what's here today maybe gone tomorrow. I mean, less than 10 years after Woodstock came Saturday Night Fever. More my era and a good film and album. I wonder what AR thought of that?

Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

You are quite correct Greg, AR detested rock music. Bizarre. That means that objectivists are kinda unable to like any music realised after 1957. Unless it was some sort of modern classical music or a composer such as Phillip Glass. I wonder what AR or objectivists made of the album 2112 by Rush?

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "AR detested rock music. Bizarre. That means that objectivists are kinda unable to like any music realised after 1957."

While it's true that AR detested rock music, Objectivists are not required to follow suit.

"Unless it was some sort of modern classical music or a composer such as Phillip Glass."

Rand generally disapproved of "classical music" (with a few exceptions), regarding much of it as "malevolent." Objectivists tend to be particularly disdainful of "modern" classical music--although whether that disdain would apply to Glass, who's hardly modern in his use of harmony, I can't say.

"I wonder what AR or objectivists made of the album 2112 by Rush."

I know nothing about that specific album, but I have known, and know of, Objectivists who think quite highly of Rush.

Rand was someone who had narrow tastes in music, culture, philosophy, etc. Unfortunately, she tended to identify her tastes as "objective" and true and right and tastes that went against hers as somehow wrong. This is why I regard her entire "sense of life" conception, which, from an abstract viewpoint, might appear promising, as deeply problematic: in Rand's hands it merely becomes a method of rationalizing her private likes and dislikes. To regard nearly any non-expressionistic music, whether classical or popular, as exhibiting a "malevolent sense of life" simply means you don't understand that music. But lack of understanding never prevented Rand from having strong opinions about something. One of Rand's least endearing characteristics, as far as I am concerned.

Anonymous said...

I'm not finding the Binswanger post or the post he referred back to. Where is it?

Daniel Barnes said...

Here you go Anon.

Bryan M. White said...

I wouldn't go as far as to sat that people are the "products of their premises", but I think that what a person believes in certainly influences their behavior.

However, this notion that the mere exposure to ideas can damage your psyche is ludicrous. It's the worst recipe for close-mindedness that I ever heard. Sounds like something the Nazis would come up with.

So yeah, it's a shame that Objectivism has been left in the hands of the synchophantic nitwits, but that that's Rand's fault to begin with for being so...well, irrational.