Saturday, November 13, 2010

Collision Course

It is a great shame that I have had little or no time to write about Objectivism over the past few months, as the ongoing McCaskey Objectischism represents a singularly critical moment in the movement's history - one that has been easily foreseeable for a long time now, and one that is, I think, potentially far more damaging in the long run than the Reisman, Kelley, and even Branden schisms.

Why do I think this? After all, aren't ridiculously overwrought schisms a weirdly normal feature of life in the Objectivist microverse? And why would McCaskey , a relatively low-key figure in the movement compared to the aforementioned, be the flashpoint for a more damaging contretemps than say David Kelley, or even the Brandens?

The reason is simple. With the Brandens, the break was obviously highly personal; a adulterous affair between aging guru and young acolyte that was bound to turn ugly. With Kelley and Reisman it was more political; these breaks were really about power struggles within the Ayn Rand Institute that in the classic Objectivist fashion were merely post-rationalised into pseudo-philosophical disagreements. The McCaskey schism has some features of the latter two in that it ostensibly revolves around the ARI's - and Leonard Peikoff's - penchant for intellectual authoritarianism. But the McCaskey affair is different because this time the source of the conflict really is a philosophical problem, instead of just a political or personal conflict in drag.

The problem in question is the well-known problem of induction. Perhaps the most important problem in epistemology, it is also one that, in her own words, Rand never even began to think about. Thus for once Rand's legion of Little Sir Echoes have little or nothing to dutifully recite; for once, they have to formulate an original response to an important problem working by implication from Rand's work, rather than resorting to the usual pull quotes from Galt's speech. Even worse, the problem of induction is a clearcut logical one, and is thus subject to a set of objective rules, rather like mathematics. This makes it more difficult for Objectivism's usual verbalist legerdemain to function, though of course true believers would - and do - happily accept 1+1=5 if Rand says so in a suitably inspirational way. Further, it is problem that goes to the heart of epistemological certainty, a much touted brand differentiator for Rand's philosophy. It is after all the problem made famous by Objectivist hate-figure David Hume, and which inspired Rand's arch-enemy, Immanuel Kant. Surely Rand's philosophy must contain some kind of riposte. Finally, it has been a massively debated problem for the last 100 years, with almost every conceivable angle covered ad nauseum. If Objectivism is such a strikingly original philosophy in every respect, as its followers insist, then we could reasonably expect a strikingly original answer here.

Sadly, original thinking is basically antithetical to Objectivist culture. This, along with the poverty of Rand's own style of argument meant that Objectivism's long promised answer to this famous philosophical problem would inevitably be an intellectual embarrassment. The signs were obvious for years, as Objectivists talked up Leonard Peikoff's supposedly revolutionary solution whilst Peikoff himself refused to actually publish it, opting instead to bury it somewhere in vast, outrageously expensive audio tape lectures only available from the Ayn Rand Institute. After a while, there was the threatened book; but that too never emerged. Finally Peikoff's solution - and it almost certainly will be Peikoff's handiwork at root - has timidly appeared under the auspices of Peikoff's colleague, David Harriman, in the new The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics.

Yet clearly even after all this time, and his convoluted path to publishing, the only thing that's clear is that Peikoff has almost no confidence in his own solution; The McCaskey Objectischism is all about his hysterical overreaction to a mild-mannered, basically favourable critique on Amazon by long time ARI board member and fundraiser John McCaskey, with Peikoff simply pulling rank to shut down any and all such criticism. Since then it has spiralled out of control, resulting in defections from previously ARI-loyal publications such as the Objective Standard as well as numerous rank and file supporters. Neil Parille will detail when we post his latest update here at the ARCHNblog in a day or two. We here at the ARCHNblog will also review the book at some point, although at first glance it does look really, really terrible - a compendium of the most tired, old hat, long-debunked pro-inductive fallacies with a central argument that appears to be nothing more than "assume induction!", all varnished in leaden Objectivese just to add to its delights. If there's any idea that can't be found in say, Anthony O'Hear from 30 years ago I will be very surprised. In fact if there's anything even as modern as that I will be even more surprised. But that will have to wait for now.

While there are no doubt underlying personality clashes and long standing enmities behind the scenes which will play out over time, for once the primary driver of the schism is a genuine philosophical problem - one that Objectivism has long been on a collision course with. And far from triumphantly flattening the dreaded Hume, this culmination of decades-long endeavour from Rand's vaunted New Intellectuals has crumpled like a wet paper bag on first contact. To make matters worse, Peikoff's telling sense of intellectual insecurity has driven to him to a desperate authoritarianism, which in turn has only maximised the debacle and created deep rifts within the movement. In short, Objectivism seems to have confronted its first real intellectual challenge, only to be immediately holed below the waterline.


Xtra Laj said...

Here's hoping that the controversy gets some Objectivists to understand the real problem of induction, why the problem has no universally accepted solution, and why it is dumb to insult people who do not agree with your solution when the consequences of your solution are just about the same as theirs!

Michael Prescott said...

I really don't think this schism marks "a singularly critical moment in the movement's history." It might, if the primary appeal of Objectivism were its logical arguments, but I doubt this is the case. I think most people who are drawn to Objectivism are attracted by the "sense of life" that Rand projects in her novels. The philosophical arguments are just rationalizations that make it okay to respond emotionally to the characters and stories.

My guess is that most Objectivists either haven't read "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology" or did read it once, found it boring an incomprehensible, and went back to the novels. "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" are the real magnets for most Randians, not arcane arguments about induction.

In other words, I don't see it as an intellectual movement (which could be damaged by a philosophy-based schism). I see it more as a cult of personality centering on Rand herself, her characters, and to a lesser extent her top acolytes.

gregnyquist said...

I really don't think this schism marks "a singularly critical moment in the movement's history." It might, if the primary appeal of Objectivism were its logical arguments, but I doubt this is the case.

If we are talking about the affect this controversy has on the rank and file within the Objectivist movement, this is true. The significance of this particular schism, however, is that it has exposed Peikoff in a way so blatant and embarrassing that even orthodox Objectivists are beginning to experience serious doubts about Rand's self-appointed intellectual heir. How this will play out is hard to ascertain. But it will likely lead to demoralization and defections among the faithful. It could also lead to a lot of bad feelings between the those who remained faithful to Peikoff and those who expressed doubts about his behavior. We all know that orthodox Objectivists are not very mature when it comes to handling such differences. They too often resort to playing the morality card, which only intensifies feelings of bad will among the parties involved.

From a larger view, these schisms are merely nature's way of thinning the Objectivist herd and recirculating some of the lower level elites. There are always more Objectivists aspiring to be among the elect than positions within the elect to hold them. This encourages feelings of rivalry which, however, must be repressed, because, after all, there are no conflicts among rational men. Well, sooner or later, a pretext must be found so that people can act out what they really feel; and even though the pretext, in this case, may be intellectually genuine, it's major effect will be the unleashing of repressed hatreds and jealousies among those vying for a place in the Objectivist sun. Along with this, those in the movement of little faith, i.e., those who can no longer square Peikoff's irrational behavior with their conscience, will lose interest and drift out of the movement, thus purging the Objectivist herd of an undesirable element.

Anonymous said...

Burnham's First Law:
Everybody Knows Everything.
The medium of discontent is a neglected aspect of this little drama, since the speed of reaction and comment certainly exceeds that evidenced during previous schisms. Put simply: Peikoff couldn't get away with it this time.
It would have been nice, too, if McCaskey's attempt to bring some scholarly discipline to the review had been honored - if there's going to be any work from Objectivists on induction (our genial host's skepticism notwithstanding), it will have to done in the open, criticized mercilessly.

Daniel Barnes said...

@Michael P,

The reason this is particularly significant for Objectivism is due to its major strategy of infiltrating academia. Like Gramsci's "long march through the institutions", the idea was to institute long term cultural change via a change in the intellectual elite. This strategy, however, has some implications which I don't think the ARI had thought through. Firstly, you're going to move from the comfort of your own little think-tank into the harsh light of academic scrutiny and criticism. Secondly, you are going to have to put up or shut up - cruising on the fumes of a novelist's high octane romantic rhetoric isn't going to wash when it comes to a logical problem (which is why I suspect Objectivists like Binswanger have been trying to claim they have their own type of "logic"...). Thirdly, your own followers will inevitably become exposed to intellectual values that Rand tried to suppress, such as the importance of self-criticism, and a disciplined reluctance rather than reckless enthusiasm to express ethical judgements. As Greg points out in his latest post, they will find themselves conflicted as they try to measure Objectivism's doctrines against rational argument and evidence - who are they going to believe, Rand/Peikoff or their own lying eyes? Objectivism has spent many years evading real philosophical and scientific problems in order to prop up Rand's highflying fictional arias, largely by preaching to its own choir. Now, as part of its own long term strategy, it has to actually confront these problems under the gaze of intelligent, educated, non-believers. This debacle demonstrates how utterly feeble Objectivist doctrine really is in the hard light of day.

Michael Prescott said...

Okay, Greg and Dan, I see your point.

I never thought Objectivism would make much headway in academia anyway. Rand's ideas aren't necessarily any worse, and may in fact be better, than some current fashions in the humanities. But the overwhelmingly leftist slant of modern universities seemed, to me, an insurmountable obstacle.

Even so, the Objectivist higher-ups did think they could infiltrate academia and establish a beachhead there. And as you've ably explained, the latest schism has exposed the hopelessness of this strategy. Just as Rand's characters can flourish only in the hermetically sealed world of her fiction, her philosophy can thrive only when safely quarantined from inconvenient facts and penetrating criticism.

It reminds me a little of Rand's break with John Hospers, which came about because Hospers subjected Rand's ideas to some of the normal give-and-take of academic discourse. She never forgave him for it.

Daniel Barnes said...

>It reminds me a little of Rand's break with John Hospers, which came about because Hospers subjected Rand's ideas to some of the normal give-and-take of academic discourse. She never forgave him for it.


Neil Parille said...

What I think is different here is that the rank and file Objectivist, thanks to the internet, has a better idea of what's going on.

In the old days all you had The Intellectual Activist, the Objectivist Forum and Peikoff's pronouncements at the Ford Hall Forum. So if Peikoff excommunicated someone the average Objectivist could only conclude that there must be some good reason for it.

Peikoff's pettiness is now on full display.

-Neil Parille

Xtra Laj said...

What I think is different here is that the rank and file Objectivist, thanks to the internet, has a better idea of what's going on.

I think this is on equal footing with the induction issue as the biggest thing. The letter is accessible to everyone and has not been denied by Peikoff, so the argument from intimidation is there for all to see from the man is purportedly the paragon of Objectivist thinking given his Randian heritage.

Dragonfly said...

Now we also have the "Closing Thoughts on ARI, Peikoff, and McCaskey" by the Hsiehs. My god, it sounds like one of those public confessions of guilt that were so popular in communist countries.

First, given ARI's position that The Logical Leap is a "major ARI project" on which they must take "one consistent position", then it makes sense that McCaskey's criticisms of the book constituted a conflict of interest incompatible with his serving on the ARI Board. We're glad that ARI has made this known in its recent statement. In earlier internet discussions, some people made similar arguments, and in retrospect, one of our errors was to not give this view sufficient credence.

McCaskey's private criticisms constituted a conflict of interest? I wonder, are these people really that stupid? This is definite proof that Objectivism is a cult. Even internal discussions are not allowed, but constitute a "conflict of interest". No, Harriman got the blessing from Pope Peikoff, so when Harriman hath spoken, the matter is settled, and any criticism is a sign of betrayal of the True Objectivist Principles!

Now that ARI has explained recent events and its future policies, we do not regard further debate on those matters as fruitful.

ARI has explained recent events?! Well, that surely was one hell of an explanation: "it is a private matter that's none of your business, so if you apologize and shut up, we won't officially discredit you!" So now they've closed all comments on this highly embarrassing matter, as they know only too well that their weasely retreat would elicit some quite unfavorable comments beside the usual ass-kissing of the sycophants.

Anonymous said...

I wonder, is this behaviour just down to individuals like Peikoff and the ARI board or is part and parcel of objectivism?

It's tempting to write it off as the former but I'm beginning to wonder if the movement is hard wired to self destruct. As there can be no arguing with Ayn's men, they are right and you, if you disagree with them are wrong, ergo to disagree with them you risk expulsion from the movement.

Few cults can survive the death of their founder and this one shows signs of disintegrating. Peikoff can't even keep the faithfull in line you wonder who will take over when he stands down and will they be up for the job? As to show any sign of weakness towards those that question the faith would be considered a crime...yet look where they are now. In the real world they are just a laughing stock. Yet the doctrines they follow demand that those that dare question the policies of the cult are denounced in shrill tones.

I believe they have painted themselves into a corner and are banking on a movement lead by romantic businessmen to inspire growth in the movement. So far the John Galts' have remained immune to objectivism.

- Steven Johnston

gregnyquist said...

"I wonder, is this behaviour just down to individuals like Peikoff and the ARI board or is part and parcel of objectivism?"

It's part of the whole dynamic of the Objectivist movement. Most converts to Objectivism are quite young: high school and college age. These are people without much experience of real life or much in the way of learning. They are not in a position to rationally evaluate and test many of the assertions made my Peikoff and Rand about human nature, history, philosophy, science, etc. For the newly converted, Rand's doctrines must be accepted on the basis of Rand's and Peikoff's authority, that is to say, on the supposition that Rand is especially qualified, because of her genius and insights and moral probity, to pronounce on philosophical, political, and moral issues, and that Peikoff is the closest thing living to Rand herself, and must be honored as the foremost expositor of the Randian creed. In order for Rand and Peikoff to continue as these special authorities whose pronouncements can be trusted, it is important that their image as exemplars of reason, integrity, and intellectual honesty are maintained. That's why no criticism of Rand or Peikoff can be tolerated. Once doubts begin to rise about these two luminaries, the whole edifice might come crashing down, because it isn't built on much else.

Xtra Laj said...


Diana Hsieh's status as one of the few PhDs who are Orthodox Objectivist makes her quite valuable to the ARI and its committed believers and I have seen that she values the regard with which she is held as she makes her podcasts for sale and provides party-line accepted views on Rand's thought. Someone as rational as herself (lol) is not going to throw this all away becos of some commitment to a nebulous defined rationality. All it may have taken was a conversation with someone who knew what the approach the ARI would prefer her to take for her to fall in line.

Xtra Laj said...

I just read the actual post and they spoke to Yaron Brook. Why am I not surprised? :D

Xtra Laj said...


I read the whole post, and I don't find it quite as sycophantic as you might. There are clearly strong forces pulling them in both directions and the post was an attempt to sit on the fence pending further developments. The key here is the content of those OAC calls. I speculate that some thing were likely said about the Hsiehs that the Hsiehs cannot forgive anyone for saying.

Dragonfly said...

Xtra Laj: if they had had still the remnant of a spine, they'd have banged their fists on the table and said "fuck Peikoff, fuck Brook, fuck ARI, we're independent thinkers!" instead of that weasely and groveling excuse and attempt at a coverup. But of course a future with an antagonistic ARI is for them much worse than being left with an ounce of self-esteem, and therefore they now suddenly have so much "understanding" for ARI's decision and they even apologize for their earlier mild criticims... yuck, what a slimy behavior!

notaphilosopher said...

Harriman "essentialized" the scientific logic of Newton etc. to illustrate Peikoff's theory of induction. He also edited Ayn Rand's diaries didn.t he? Do you think she made any leaps of logic, er, logical leaps in there?