Sunday, November 28, 2010

The McCaskey Objectischism Part 2

Neil Parille details the labyrinthine politics of the latest Objectischism, so you don't have to:

Two months ago I gave the lowdown on the latest schism in Objectivism. I suggested that the schism had not yet reached the level of the David Kelley split in the 1980s. In two short months we’ve reached Kelley levels and may be heading for a schism of Brandenesque proportions.

By way of background, it should be noted that Leonard Peikoff is not on the Board of Directors of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and does not appear to have the legal authority to veto its decisions. Rather, as the heir of Rand’s estate, the owner of her copyrights and the owner of her papers, a decision by Peikoff to separate from the ARI would probably hamper its day to day operations if not require its dissolution.

On October 24, Diana Hsieh published her evaluation of the McCaskey schism. Hsieh, who has a doctorate in philosophy, is the most prominent Objectivist blogger and podcaster. She is an interesting character. A long-time Objectivist, she was for ten years a supporter of David Kelley’s the Objectivist Center (now the Atlas Center). She was no admirer of Leonard Peikoff, criticizing his magnum opus Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR) and alleging that Peikoff lied in claiming Rand designated him her “intellectual heir.”

In 2004, however, Hsieh had a conversion experience to orthodox Objectivism in which all her previous criticism of the ARI and Leonard Peikoff suddenly became “inoperative.” In order to make up for lost time, she launched numerous attacks on the “false friends” of Objectivism. These included not just the usual suspects such as David Kelley and the Brandens, but her old friend Chris Sciabarra. Sciabarra is particularly loathed in ARI circles for his work Ayn Rand the Russian Radical, a book which puts Rand in historical context. In 2006, Hsieh, using private emails from Sciabarra without his permission, wrote a nasty hit piece. She repudiated her previous work. Leonard Peikoff now became a god in Hsieh’s eyes, even endorsing his 2006 fatwa on the moral obligation to vote for the Democratic Party.

Hsieh’s attempt to become Objectivism’s avenging angel worked, at least for a time. In a 2009 podcast, Leonard Peikoff said he respected her work. However, in June 2010 she disagreed (as did many Objectivists) with Peikoff’s contention that Moslems did not have the right to build and Islamic Community Center (which contained a mosque) near “ground zero” in New York City. (This was a dangerous position to take because Peikoff, as with the 2006 voting fatwa, had equated his position with Objectivism as such.) Nonetheless, she tried to be as respectful as possible to Peikoff, urging Objectivists not pester the Grand Old Man at the summer Objectivist Conference. Curiously, Hsieh reported, in September, that her proposal for a lecture at the 2011 ARI-sponsored Objectivist Conference (OCON) was rejected.

In preparation for her October 24 piece on the McCaskey schism, Hsieh wrote a couple letters to Peikoff asking for clarification concerning his now notorious email which, she said, “looked very bad on its face.” Peikoff did not respond or acknowledge the emails. She also spoke to McCaskey and ARI president Yaron Brook to get their side of the story. The most interesting bit of information in Hsieh’s piece was a letter that David Harriman sent to Hsieh’s husband, Paul (a medical doctor).

Date: Mon, Sep 20, 2010 at 1:30 PM


To: Paul Hsieh

Subject: Re: Question about McCaskey's criticisms of your book?

Dear Paul:

I don't think you need access to private emails in order to reach a judgment on this conflict.

Professor McCaskey has published a negative review of my book on Amazon. He has also published articles expressing some of his own views on induction, and praising the ideas of William Whewell (a 19th century Kantian). Anyone who is interested can read my book, read the writings of McCaskey, and come to their own judgment.

I realize that most people know little about the history of science, and so they may believe that they lack the specialized knowledge required to make a judgment in this case. But I do not think the basic issues are very complicated.

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?

A favorite pastime among academics today is to find "feet of clay" in great men. But that is not the purpose of my book.


Of course contempt for academics and the claim that all non-Objectivists are “Kantians” is vintage Peikoff. And who needs expertise in the history of science to evaluate a book on the history of science when a little “thinking in essentials” will do the trick?

Hsieh’s piece generated lots of comments. The most interesting was from physicist Travis Norsen, who revealed that he had been critical of the Harriman book for quite some time, resulting in a “cooling” of his relationship with the ARI:

Now, ironically, during this same period, a dear friend convinced me to consider trying one last time to submit an OCON course proposal; in particular I was assured that, this time, such a proposal would receive a fair hearing. So, despite doubting that a proposal by me could possibly be accepted, I did end up submitting something. To my pleasure and surprise, it was accepted, and so I was slated to teach a course at the summer 2007 conference (in Colorado). But then, a couple months later (in December of 2006), I was informed by ARI that they were withdrawing the invitation for me to speak, based on the “views on induction generally and on Dr. Peikoff’s lectures more specifically” that I had posted here.

Norsen also reported that he was told that the ARI had need for only one lecturer on physics, and that was David Harriman.

Hsieh didn’t reach many conclusions in her piece, claiming that there wasn’t enough information available to determine just what Peikoff was up to in his “moral condemnation” of McCaskey. Trying not to get into too much trouble, she urged everyone to be understanding of Peikoff and acknowledge his contributions to Objectivism. Finally, the Hsiehs produced a lengthy, deeply confused no-comment post which alternates between plaintive mea culpa and self-justifying blather "Closing Thoughts On ARI, Peikoff, and McCaskey", and from which no clear statement on anything at all can be extracted. It really reads like the gyrations of two apparatchiks trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing.

If Hsieh’s failure to support Peikoff 100% was surprising, things got even more surprising a couple weeks later when, on October 29, Craig Biddle attacked Peikoff for his “nonobjective” and “unjust” attack on McCaskey. Biddle publishes The Objective Standard (TOS), an Objectivist magazine that publishes only orthodox Objectivists and has close ties to the ARI. McCaskey is on the masthead along with ARI president Yaron Brook. TOS had published excerpts from Harriman’s book. You’d think Biddle would be the last person to turn on Peikoff. Just a few weeks previous Biddle published a fawning review of James Valliant’s now debunked The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, even though it is out of print and orthodox Objectivists such as Hsieh have long stopped mentioning it. In his 2002 book Loving Life he called OPAR “one of the most important books ever written.”

Biddle removed Brook from the masthead of TOS, duly noting that he respects Brooks and does not want to sever ties with ARI writers. Lot of good that did him, because the next day he posted on Face Book that the ARI had cancelled his speaking engagements at several universities.

By now people were asking lots of questions, in particular students at the Objectivist Academic Center (OAC), a graduate program run by the ARI. Perhaps fearing that a decision by Peikoff to take his marbles and go home would result in OAC becoming another Founders College, they demanded a conference call with the ARI, which apparently took place in early November. The call was confidential.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, Peikoff returned from on high on November 5 to settle scores. First he denounced McCaskey. Lest there are any doubts, he said was morally condemning McCaskey. (This had been disputed by certain Objectivists, apparently forgetting that virtually every condemnation is moral in Peikoff’s eyes).

Because some people have turned the dispute into a moral issue, I should state the full truth, which is not stated in the letter: I have, for years, long before Harriman’s book, condemned McCaskey morally: I regard him as an obnoxious braggart as a person, and a pretentious ignoramus as an intellectual. Had I held a more positive estimate, I would have attempted first of all not to demand his resignation, but to discuss the book with him, understand his viewpoint, and see if together we could resolve and/or delimit his problems with it. But given my opinion of him, intellectual discussion was impossible to me.

Next, he reminded people that as the one who allegedly best understands Objectivism, he is entitled to trump any decision of the ARI, notwithstanding the fact that he is not even on its Board of Directors.

Ultimately, someone has to decide who is qualified to hold such positions and where the line is to be drawn. An organization devoted to spreading an ideology is not compatible with “freedom” for its leadership to contradict or undermine that ideology. In theory, the best judge of such contradiction would be the person(s), if he exists, who best understands and upholds the ideology, as evidenced objectively by his lifelong intellectual consistency, philosophic attainments, and practical results. In practice, the best judge would be the person, if he is still alive, who founded the organization and defined its purpose, in this case as a step in carrying out a mandate given him by Ayn Rand. On both counts, only one individual qualifies: me. (I have retired from books, classes, and official position, but not from perception and evaluation.)

Next, he pointed out that he is on terms of “personal enmity” with “a few” Board members and doesn’t speak to them. Since there are eight Board members, Peikoff apparently isn’t on speaking terms with at least 40% of the Board.

Finally, in case anyone was wondering against whom Peikoff was directing his invective, he closed with “if . . . my detractors in this issue represent a sizable faction within the Objectivist movement whose spokesmen include magazine founders and PhDs with podcasts– then God help Objectivism, too.”

By now things had reached critical mass. With a “sizeable faction” of ARI supporters having questions about what little amount of intellectual freedom remains in orthodox Objectivism and a possible fall-off of contributions to the ARI, Yaron Brook decided to speak. The upshot of Brook’s press release is that Peikoff threatened to walk away from the ARI and the Board caved.

The substantive issue that Dr. Peikoff raised—whether a person who does not support a central ARI project should sit on the Board—was itself a very serious one. In addition, the Board had the practical, moral, and fiduciary responsibility to avoid needlessly damaging our important relationship with Dr. Peikoff. Dr. Peikoff founded ARI, served as its first Board chairman, and has continued to provide ARI with moral, financial, and practical support over the 25 years of ARI’s existence. As Ayn Rand’s heir, he has been very generous in giving Ayn Rand’s materials to the ARI Archives, with much more planned for the future. In these and many other ways, Dr. Peikoff’s ongoing support is important to ARI; we are certainly interested in hearing his thoughts and analyses, and we give them due weight in our deliberations

I won’t go into the details of Brook’s statement, which was brilliantly dissected by one “Saul” on Diana Hsieh’s blog. Of note, however, is that Brook does not say whether he considers Peikoff’s criticisms of McCaskey’s person (an obnoxious braggart and ignoramus) appropriate in light of McCaskey’s years of devotion to the ARI. Most importantly, we are never told why McCaskey had a “conflict of interest” as a Board member because he is unable to support the ARI-sponsored The Logical Leap. Is McCaskey obligated to support a work that is, at most, an extension of Objectivism? I don’t get the impression that McCaskey was out to publicly “trash” The Logical Leap. Rather it looks like he intended on keeping his criticism private.

We now have more information about this schism, although there is a great deal we don’t know. Most importantly we know that Peikoff’s denunciation of McCaskey is the culmination of his attempt to make David Harriman the official Objectivist expert on physics and science, notwithstanding his eccentric view on relativity theory and some other matters. In my initial piece I raised the suspicion that Peikoff’s anger might have something to do with the Archives granting access to Jennifer Burns for her critical biography of Rand. I thought that ARI supporters might be angry over Burns’ revelation that the ARI, apparently at Peikoff’s direction or at least consent, has rewritten Rand’s posthumously published material. That doesn’t appear to have been a factor.

The McCaskey schism is the logical culmination of Peikovianism. When Peikoff excommunicated David Kelley he implicitly put his interpretation of Objectivism on par with Rand’s stated positions. This was made explicit in the 2006 Fatwa and the New York City Mosque podcast. Now with the McCaskey auto-da-fe Peikoff has made his extension of Objectivism into an area on which Rand wrote nothing as much a part of Objectivism as anything that Rand wrote. If the DIM Hypothesis ever appears will Objectivists be free to express the mildest disagreements?


Curious Reader said...

I looked through those linked posts and the thing I find truely amazing is how much invective, insult and hate is spewed forth from a person who is trying to appear rational and reasonable.

Weather is Scibarra, or the TOC or Mckaskey, every time Mrs. Hsieh decides she doesn't agree with something her posts begin with

"I used to really like this person, and held them in high regard and so didn't want to insult them for personal reasons"

Then they always finish to the effect of

"I now realize that person has broken whatever bond I had invisioned in my head and so I will now denounce said person as a dirty, rotten, lieing, thieving, unionizing, tax-collector!"

Again, I find that for a philsophy devoted to "reason" the fact that nobody is allowed to have a "reasonable" objectivtion or even differance of opinion with anything to be a sign of extreme cultishness.

However, if objectivists were allowed personal opionons there wouldn't be a Kelley schism much less a McKlaskey schism.

Michael Prescott said...

Fascinating post, Neil. I had no idea things were quite this bad in the ARI universe.

Your analysis has much in common with the work of Kremlinologists back in the days of the USSR. And what does that say about the present state of Objectivism?

Curious Reader said...

I wish I could just edit the previous comment, but I remembered I had an additional point.

A great deal of time is spent in the linked posts trying to determine if perkoff is making a MORAL condemnation of McKlaskey.

A moral condemation from Perkoiff seems to all but excomunicate McKclaskey. While when some beleived that Perkoiff's condemnation was non moral that still left room for some level of reconciliiation.

I think it would take a blind person NOT to see the similarities to Papal edicts and Perkoiffian judgments.

Orthodox objectivism once again shows its true authoritarian and quasi theocratic colors when times get difficult.

CuriousReader said...

Again, following the links from this post there is a hidden gem.

One of Mrs. Hsiesh's posts is a "fable": "The tale of the cardiac surgeon"

If you read it note how the HEROIC SURGEON's keeps getting to give longer and longer diatribes while the other character keeps setting up weaker and weaker strawmen.

Truely, it is a tale straight from the school of Mrs. Rand. And in the end it confuses tolerance with stupidity.

Henry Scuoteguazza said...

I find it interesting that I don’t see anywhere in Peikoff’s or Brook’s responses a direct challenge or refutation of McCaskey’s points about Harriman’s book. I was not familiar with McCaskey before this controversy. When this story broke I visited his web site where I found a series of his publications, lectures and presentations, most of which deal with the history of science or induction. In addition he teaches at Stanford wihch has a strong reputation. If anyone among the ARI crew could question Harriman’s thesis McCaskey certainly has the qualifications.

gregnyquist said...

"Your analysis has much in common with the work of Kremlinologists back in the days of the USSR."

True. Fortunately, there is one important difference. Neither Peikoff nor ARI have nukes. If they did, well, we can only imagine the consequences. "So what brought down American civilization? How was this mighty edifice laid to waste?" "Oh, that's easy: Leonard Peikoff got the bomb."

Daniel Barnes said...

>I find it interesting that I don’t see anywhere in Peikoff’s or Brook’s responses a direct challenge or refutation of McCaskey’s points about Harriman’s book.

McCaskey's comments are mild-mannered and not even very lucid themselves. That they could trigger such a firestorm - they're an Amazon review fergaltsakes - only indicates the volatility and fragility of the orthodox environment. Peikoff's overwhelming intellectual insecurity has never been so obvious, with heavy irony for the supposed "secure" foundations of Objectivism. The underlying offence I extract from McCaskey's timid remarks is the replacement of the Objectivist Hero such as Newton, with concepts springing fully formed from his forehead, with a more tentative picture of fumbling gradualism and confusion, with insights gradually emerging over time from many minds. This is a vision Randian romantics recoil from in horror, but it seems to be the way it is.

Anonymous said...

The link you have to the comment by "Saul" on Diana Heish's blog leads to a comment that has been removed. Did you save "Saul's" comment? Or can you reconstruct its basic argument?

Dragonfly said...

One of Harriman's claims is that "modern" physics (that is, physics since at least a century) - of course thanks to the evil infuence of Kant - only attempts to describe the physical world instead of trying to understand it. Harriman doesn't realize that any "understanding" is in fact nothing else than a description of the found regularities, reflected in physical laws. Does he really think that the ideas of his big hero Newton give more understanding than modern physics? Then what understanding does the notion of mysterious "action at a distance" give us? Aren't Newton's laws also just descriptions of the regularities in the physical world, and how is that different from quantum mechanics and relativity?

The real reason for Harriman's incorrect conclusion is that the results of modern physics are not intuitive, they go against our intuitions that we've acquired in a macroscopic world, and that they therefore give no explanation. Harriman and other Objectivists long for a simple, predictable worldview, with atoms and elementary particles like little localized billiard balls, behaving in a neat Newtonian way, but alas for them the evidence has shown that this picture is false.

You also hear for example Objectivist idiots often claim that Heisenberg's uncertainty relation is just a description of a measurement problem, but not a reflection of reality itself (again an irresistible longing for the Newtonian billiard balls). They probably base that on the example of the so-called Heisenberg microscope, which is in fact not a correct example, but a first attempt by Heisenberg to illustrate his uncertainty relation in a graphic example, just like the original, incorrect Bohr model was a first illustration of the quantum principles in an atom.

Heisenberg's microscope example incorrectly suggested that the electron does have an exact position and momentum, but that you couldn't measure them exactly simultaneously. Instead one could better use another example, which isn't quite correct either (only the full theory gives the correct answer) but shows better how the uncertainty is an inherent factor of reality itself, namely by considering the electron as a little wave packet. Such a wave packet doesn't have an exact position nor an exact momentum. But for people who still think in terms of little billiard balls this is of course anathema. If reality doesn't correspond to your prejudices, so much the worse for reality!

Neil Parille said...

Saul's Post --

Neil Parille said...

The schism seems to have died down.

I think the key question left is whether the ARI bookstore will continue to sell The Objective Standard and whether ARI writers will continue to write for it. (From what I can tell 100% of the writers are ARI supporters and associates.)

-Neil Parille

Alex said...

I have been patiently waiting for the Hsiehs to give up on Objectivism. Not just OO, but Objectivism, period. It's coming, I think, and it'll be a huge blowup. I'm thinking two years, tops.

Anon69 said...

If the fate of Objectivism hangs on a definitive answer as to whether wave packets have an exact position or momentum, then it's finished.

gregnyquist said...

"The schism seems to have died down."

Maybe so. But no earthquake is satisfied at once. The real question is how this is going to affect ARI finances. From what I gather, McCaskey was a big contributor to ARI. The manner in which he was booted may convince other doners to opt out. This will affect staffing levels at ARI. Because of Peikoff's "someone has to go," people may end up losing their jobs. The elite at ARI may not get as big a pay raise as they were hoping for. This will inevitably lead to resentment against Peikoff. This is hardly a healthy dynamic for orthodox Objectivism moving forward.

gregnyquist said...

"I have been patiently waiting for the Hsiehs to give up on Objectivism.... It's coming, I think, and it'll be a huge blowup."

Perhaps so. I don't know much about the Hsiehs, but there's no doubt that Ms. Hsieh has officially become and Objectivist non-person: that's your status when Peikoff refers to you without using your name (the same is true of Craig Biddle). The only question with the Hsiehs is how much influence they have over ARI doners. Were they to burn their bridges with ARI as they burned them with Kelley's organization, how would this affect ARI funding? Would ARI take a big hit, or would it be relatively minor? How much leverage do the Hsiehs' have over Yaron Brook and ARI? Brook will be under pressure from Peikoff to keep his distance from them. But if a Hsieh blowup would cost ARI bigtime, he's got to be careful about alienating her.

gregnyquist said...

One thing else that I couldn't help noticing. The Hsiehs' come forth with the following astonishing admission: "Yaron Brook explained to us that the core issues were covered by ARI Board confidentiality provisions."
The excuse Brook gave for these provisions is that the McCaskey matter is ultimately "private." What is that supposed to mean? The only justifiable reason I can think of for regarding the matter as "private" is if the issue involved sensitive personal matters that no one wanted to make public. But is that true in this case? No. Even Brook admits that. So why the confidentiality provisions? What is Brook and ARI hiding? What does an organization allegedly staffed and controlled by rational people dedicated to "reason" and reality need with secrecy? Given that they are dependent on outside donations, shouldn't they be transparent in how they make decisions? Shouldn't they be setting a good example to the world they are trying to change?

Of course, all these questions are purely rhetorical. We all know why ARI insists on "confidentiality agreements." Their business is not conducted "rationally," and it would be fatal to the organization if people knew what went on behind the scenes.

Xtra Laj said...

The real question is how this is going to affect ARI finances. From what I gather, McCaskey was a big contributor to ARI.

That might have been the key driver of the "someone has got to go" statement. Both guys might simply be the largest source of ARI funding (or something close to it) and it was painful to the ARI to see one go, but they let go the person who had to go.

Wells said...

I'm somewhat curious. What was the decision process behind making "The Logical Leap" By David Harriman an official ARI Project?

Was the ARI board involved in some capacity? Was it started before the tenure of the current incumbents? Did the board vote for it before it was written? After? At All? Did they request work beforehand by David Harriman to see what kind of work he was capable of delivering in general? Where the opinions of the board, or the opinions of their proxies sought by David Harriman as he was working? Was he required to seek such advice? I'm sure other questions could be asked.

Neil Parille said...

"What was the decision process behind making "The Logical Leap" By David Harriman an official ARI Project?"

This strikes me as the big question. McCaskeys's private criticisms were well-known and it didn't seem to be a problem.

It was only when LP said he had to go that it become an "official project" which everyone had to support.

-Neil Parille

gregnyquist said...

What was the decision process behind making "The Logical Leap" by David Harriman an official ARI Project?

It would have been an "official" product assuming that ARI was paying Harriman to write it. After all, doesn't ARI pay Harriman's salary? (And if not, who's paying him? He doesn't work for the defense department any more.) As far as I can make out, Harriman began his career in Objectivism as a lecturer on physics and an editor of Rand's journals. The most likely scenario is that he was the only physics "expert" who was willing to espouse the Rand/Peikoff narrative of Kant's influence on 20th century physics, and that gave him entry to elite Objectivist circles. Although Harriman doesn't have a doctorate (which might otherwise have been a mark against him), he allegedly tried to write a thesis on the Kant's corruption of physics, only to be frustrated by his academic superiors. This likely got him sympathy with Peikoff (or some other high level Objectivist), from which he managed to leverage a position at ARI.

Alex said...

Uh oh -- better not mention this article to Harriman or Peikoff...

Daniel Barnes said...


Clearly if Kant had never existed, this experiment's results would have been entirely different...;-)

Dragonfly said...

If Kant had never existed, there wouldn't have been corrupt physicists who perform evil experiments...

Neil Parille said...


When Hsieh converted she brought a number of TOC friends with her. These are a small percentage of ARI supporters, but the implication was that the ARI was not as bad they thought when they supported Kelley. Perhaps this is all a rude awakening.

I got the impression that Hsieh was angling for an Anthem Scholarship or an Objectivist Academic Center position.

Yaron Brook shows up on Fox once in a while. Why doesn't someone ask him about this?

-Neil Parille

Daniel Barnes said...


Perhaps then if the physicists had been Objectivists the results would have been entirely different!

Joking aside, this in fact seems to be the basic implication of Hsieh's, Peikoff's etc remarks about physics being "corrupted" by Kant. So nutty.

Don said...

Neil: There’s a relevant detail you got wrong concerning the Hsieh/Mosque imbroglio. Note the timeline: Comrade Sonia issued her own fatwa, to the effect that if you didn’t agree with her about the GZ Mosque being ok because of property rights, you’ll be Facebook unfriended, anathematized…she doesn’t want to talk to you anymore. Then came Peikoff’s podcast, his fatwa. Soon she didn’t allow discussion of it on grounds that OCON was coming up, and everyone wants to enjoy themselves. You’re making it seem like she disagreed after his podcast, when in fact his statement contradicted her earlier statements, and it was impossible for her to backtrack, so she shut down the dialogue. This isn’t a case of her intellectual integrity on display, and your piece at least implies that it is.