Friday, October 01, 2010

Suicide Note

In a new, special edition of his Intellectual Activist newsletter, former Orthodox Objectivist and Ayn Rand Institute member Robert Tracinski claims the official movement is committing "suicide" with what he is calling "Anthemgate", and predicts a "long, ugly period of crisis". We've already touched on this burgeoning schism - see Neil Parille's excellent coverage here - and it looks to be gaining a real head of steam now.

However, rather than being much focussed on the recent controversy over Objectivism's bogus theory of induction, Tracinski's essay turns out to be a rather rambling grab bag of complaints aimed at the increasing authoritarianism of ARI founder Leonard Peikoff. The most interesting point is where Tracinski actually begins to sheet the blame for this authoritarian tendency to Rand herself, specifically her claims that the philosopher is "commander in chief" of all other intellectual disciplines. (We here at the ARCHblog could have told him years ago that this Plato-lite philosophical authoritarianism was central to her system, but I suppose better late than never!) Having discovered this, he then commits a kind of "blank out". Finding himself unable to reconcile this position with Randian characters like Howard Roark, he then decides that while Rand's intellectual authoritarianism is explicit in passages like the "commander in chief" cited from "The New Intellectual", her work is still nonetheless "implicitly" anti-authoritarian. Actually, what this suggests is at the very least that her thinking is obviously inconsistent and even confused, but even this is a heresy even Tracinski cannot quite bring himself to utter; hence he tries to fob it all off on Peikoff's personal tendencies. Perhaps one day he will realise that acorn doesn't fall far from the tree; and that the problem is much deeper, and much, much older.


gregnyquist said...

Despite Tracinski's incoherencies, his article is a fine piece of journalism, laying out in detail the problems of organized Objectivism. Trying to blame the whole thing on an intellectual error (Rand's philosopher as "command-in-chief) is naive, although I understand why Tracinski would wish to take this approach. Had he explained, in clear explicit language, what was really going on (he hints at it in several places in his article) many of the Objectivists he seeks to persuade would immediately turn against him. What really drives this scandal is not philosophical error, but human nature. Human beings want status, deference, respect. That's what drives Peikoff; it's what drove Rand. Of course, according to their explicit philosophy, they're not supposed to care about these things. But since nature is nearly always stronger than principle (especially when nature is denied), these motives make their appearance stealthily, without Rand or Peikoff being any the wiser. Objectivism then becomes a method of rationalizing those very motives or propensities of human nature which the philosophy seeks to deny.

There are, to be sure, more layers of complexity in all of this. Tracinski appears innocent of Robert Michel's insights about the nature of organization qua organization. Organization must always tend very strongly toward oligarchy. You can hardly have one without the other. An organized Objectivist movement can hardly avoid being oligarchical and authoritarian: on any other principle it simply dissolves into the anarchy of thousands of Howard Roarks, raving about their particular notion of reason and integrity. "Reason" is not a unifying force because, as mummified within the Objectivist philosophy, this faculty is largely mythical. Motivation is not, nor can it ever be, "rational" in any coherent sense of the term. The means by which a motivation is pursued may be rational (though often it isn't), but the motivation itself is purely non-logical and hence lies outside the province of the strictly rational. Therefore, what bonds any organization, even an organization ostensibly devoted to "reason," is always some non-rational motivation, some special revelation crying anathema against all other revelations.

Neil Parille said...

I was surprised that Tracinski didn't mention the revelation about what Peikoff has done (or permitted others to do) with respect to Rand's papers with Harriman being the chief offender.

Nor does Tracinski remind his readers that we've seen this before, in the 50s and 60s when Rand allowed Branden to become her enforcer of ideological purity.

Incidentally, I think the change of Peikoff, and others, away from an "open immigration" policy has been one of the few positive things in Orthodox Objectvisim in recent years. Perhaps it dawned on Peikoff that if we nuked Iran and Saudi Arabia while simultaneously allowing tens of millions of Moslems into the country we might increase the amount of terrorism.

-Neil Parille

Cavewight said...

I need an example of Tracinski's "incoherencies." So where is the "suicide note"? Does this refer to -

"Take a long, hard look at these dishonest attacks and put yourself in the place of a young intellectual looking to make a career in the Objectivist movement. Imagine what it would be like to realize that this is what is awaiting you if you challenge any idea approved by Leonard Peikoff and supported by ARI.

"And this is the right perspective to take, because those are the people who are watching this controversy most intently: the young Objectivist intellectual in their twenties, and particularly the graduate students. These are people who had been hoping to rely on the Ayn Rand Institute and the Anthem Foundation for dissertation grants, for teaching jobs, for help in obtaining an academic position. They are now deeply concerned that if they follow this career path, they will not be allowed to think independently, that they will constantly have to worry about having predetermined philosophical conclusions dictated down to them from above."

gregnyquist said...

"I need an example of Tracinski's 'incoherencies.'"

How about several examples:

"Leonard Peikoff's greatest contribution to Objectivism, in my view, is his identification of the thinking error of 'rationalism,' which consists of putting into practice the philosophical theory that all knowledge is gained by deduction from abstractions, rather than by induction from observation of reality. Peikoff's identification of this erroneous view of reason, including detailed analysis of its symptoms, is an achievement that is experienced by many Objectivists."

I have no idea what is meant by "an achievement that is experienced by many Objectivists," but never mind. Although Peikoff has occasionally mentioned "rationalism" as an error, he has always, like Rand herself, leaned toward the rationalistic side of things. Nor is there any great merit in noting that knowledge can't be "deduced from abstractions," since this has been well known at least from the time of Hume and Kant.

"But it is also clear that the author of The Fountainhead would never have endorsed an interpretation of this division of labor that allows for appeals to authority or for the subordination of the individual's independent judgment. And I should note that while the top-down premise does appear in Ayn Rand's theory of history, it is not consistent throughout, and it is very clear that she held an opposite view implicitly."

This is the major faux pas in Tracinski's article, which Daniel above and several others have already criticized. I think the problem here is that Tracinski, in keeping with his basic Objectivist orientation, naively assumes that the problem must arise from a philosophical or ideological error, rather than from weaknesses in human nature.

"I suspect this may be the final Objectivist crack-up."

It will be no such thing. ARI will lose some funding and some followers will leave but the institution will continue on as before. The "crack-up" won't come until after Rand's works fall out of copyright and no one's around to claim that he or she is Rand's intellectual heir.

"This is a reminder that the Ayn Rand phenomenon is orders of magnitude bigger than ARI—and that the American people's love of liberty will continue to drive them to seek out Ayn Rand's ideas."

The tea party is only tangentially an Objectivist phenomenon. It is likely that Rand would have despised the tea party for borrowing her ideas without becoming full-fledged Objectivist drone. Most tea party people, let us not forget, are conservative Christians.

"I think the Objectivist movement will be more vibrant and effective if it is the product of the independent efforts of entrepreneurial intellectuals..."

Objectivist protestantism! We all know how that worked for Christianity. The only difference with Objectivism is that the latter is so much smaller and insignificant. Lacking an organized movement, we'll likely see dozens of Objectivist splinter groups, some of them hostile to the others, all of them convinced that they are following "reason."

Anonymous said...

It needs a Luther...but then wasn't that Dr(!) David Kelly?

"These are people who had been hoping to rely on the Ayn Rand Institute and the Anthem Foundation for dissertation grants, for teaching jobs, for help in obtaining an academic position."

Well that hardly sounds like the attitude of a prime mover...relying on hand-outs. Though no doubt there will be something in the scriptures to justify such a position.

As for the tea party, don't they realise it is just a flash in the pan? It may be flavour of the month but if the tea party ever took power they'd realise that you don't subvert the system, it subverts you. The tea party would do what Reagan did, cut tax and spend more; funded by borrowing. Heck the penalty for disobeying Washingtons laws was the same as it was for disobeying the Kings...I hope the American people don't get fooled again.

Steven Johnston

Xtra Laj said...

As for the tea party, don't they realise it is just a flash in the pan? It may be flavour of the month but if the tea party ever took power they'd realise that you don't subvert the system, it subverts you. The tea party would do what Reagan did, cut tax and spend more; funded by borrowing. Heck the penalty for disobeying Washingtons laws was the same as it was for disobeying the Kings...I hope the American people don't get fooled again.

Brilliant. And yes, they will get foold again. I'm sure of this because no politician has discussed the difficult questions with any honesty. Shows that they really don't believe that America wants the truth!

Anonymous said...

Hahaha - the objectivists have got a boner for the tea party but I think it may split the Republican vote and help the Democrats back into power in 2012...yet come 2012 and who knows, LP maybe telling his followers to actually vote Democrat (again) and this from the man who wrote The Ominous Parrallels.

BTW - Check out SOLO passion, Linz and his drones have hit new depths, if such a thing were possible by urging Neil Parrile to top himself!

- Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else find the title "SOLO Passion" hilarious? It sounds like a masturbator's site!

Anon69 said...

"Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure. On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?"

Michael Prescott said...

It's kind of fun to watch these idiots tear each other apart. It's even more fun to see them dress up their petty power struggles and personality clashes in the guise of weighty intellectual issues upon which hangs the fate of the earth.

Dragonfly said...

Michael, you've taken the words out of my mouth.

Xtra Laj said...

Michael, you've taken the words out of my mouth.

Yesh, especially with respect to the Objectivist eschatology on how civilization will be derailed if their petty squabbles are not resolved to their satisfaction.

William Scott Scherk said...

There is a wonderful tangly metaphor in Greg Nyquist's leading comment here. "Reason" is not a unifying force because, as mummified within the Objectivist philosophy, this faculty is largely mythical.

I shall ever think of Objectivist Reason as a thing denatured, pickled, swaddled and dried, lodged in some crypt deep beneath the Temple in Irvine California.

Cavewight said...


The Objectivist deification of reason has its parallel in its superstitious deification of Aristotle. A is A, and scientific progress is killed for the next thousand years when reason is partially freed from Aristotle's monstrous synthesis. Objectivism would in principle have the same effect on knowledge. If Galt was an actual Objectivist and not a fictional character, there would be no motor, no new theory of energy, because A is A.

Matt Warren said...

Once again I have something to make your regular readers aware of and nowhere to send it. :) Presumably, this is to keep the super-duper-Objectivist-hate-mail to an absolute minimum. I completely get that, by the way.

Read this and enjoy:

Cavewight said...

That was an enjoyable read, Matt. Got any more?

Daniel Barnes said...

Matt, if you want you're welcome to send suggestions, large sums of money, ultrahatemail etc to me at estigon2001atyahoodotcodotnz. Thanks, Daniel

Dragonfly said...

It's amusing to see how all those orthodox Objectivists are tying themselves into knots trying to avoid the obvious conclusion that Peikoff is just a nut who confirms solidly the notion that Objectivism is a cult, with himself as cult leader. Discussions about this subject are prudently closed on forums and Hsieh is walking on eggshells in her recent post. If there is any criticism, it is very cautious, we should of course have the deepest respect for Peikoff, he's the greatest authority on Objectivism blah, blah, blah, but his email to McCaskey is erm... a bit unfortunate, but of course we don't know enough to judge him, etc. etc. Or: "it is a private matter, so there is no reason to discuss it!"

And what do the ARIans say? Are they following their example Howard Roark, saying in effect "to hell with money, to hell with power, I do have my principles!" Oh no, for them money and power play are much more important than principles. Peikoff is holding the strings of the purse, and that is enough to silence those moral cowards completely. And those are supposed to be independent and rational thinkers... they're worse than politicians!

Xtra Laj said...


Thanks for pointing me to that Noodlefood post. The best part of it is Harriman's response to Diana and Paul impugning McCaskey's motives for criticizing Harriman's book. It is required reading for any and all people with even the slightest interest in Objectivism. It shows the kind of approach to facts that Objectivists have - you act as if you are certain about things that no one can be certain about, but people can have reasonably dissenting views.

I quote:

McCaskey claims that Galileo discovered the law of free fall without even understanding what is meant by "free fall" (since Galileo allegedly had no clear concept of friction). Likewise, Newton discovered his universal laws of motion without understanding the concepts of "inertia," "acceleration," and "momentum." In effect, scientists stumble around in the dark and somehow discover laws of nature before they grasp the constituent concepts. This view is typical of academic philosophers of science today. I am well acquainted with it; in my youth, I took courses from Paul Feyerabend at UC Berkeley. But how believable is it?

In short, I ask you which is more believable -- that Isaac Newton was fundamentally confused about the difference between "impetus" and "momentum," or that John McCaskey is confused about this issue?

"Believable" or true? There is a big difference, often subtle but still big, and too often, Objectivists can't tell it.

Xtra Laj said...

By the way, there is a difference between being "fundamentally confused" and not having the modern grasp of the concept that we use today or the grasp he later came to have (other potential interpretations of McCaskey). For example, Newton's Calculus did not use the same concept of limits that we use today and it was quite effective for solving the problems to which Newton applied it. But do such shade of grey matter to Objectivists?