Thursday, February 03, 2011

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 12

“The process of forming a concept is not complete until its constituent units have been integrated into a single mental unit by means of a specific word.” This assertion reflects Rand's bias against tacit knowledge. Rand was always mistrustful of anything that smacked of "just knowing." She shared the rationalist's contempt for non-explicated knowledge. The problem with this attitude is that does not square with what is known as the "cognitive unconscious," which plays a much larger role in cognition than Rand could have ever imagined. Hence the pressing need for Objectivists to come up with a large body of compelling, scientifically validated evidence to back Rand's extraordinary assertion about the necessity of words for the "completion" of a concept. The fact is, there are far more meanings (i.e., concepts) than there are words to stand for them. To declare that these unworded meanings are incomplete is sheer prejudice. Indeed, Rand herself seems to have thought better of it; for her notion of "implicit concept" contradicts her view that concepts require explicit words.

“The battle of human history is fought and determined by those who are predominantly consistent, those who … are committed to and motivated by their chosen psycho-epistemology and its corollary view of existence.” Leonard Peikoff, Rand's most orthodox disciple, has attempted to provide evidence for this view in his book Ominous Parallels. Unfortunately, that book cannot be taken very seriously. It suffers from an extreme case of confirmation bias. It has eyes for only that evidence which supports Rand's view, while ignoring the large body of evidence that goes against it. Worse, it even distorts and mauls such evidence that is brought forth to support the Objectivist position.

Consider, as one example, Peikoff's treatment of Kant, who is regarded, by both Rand and Peikoff, as a "predominantly consistent" advocate of all that they deplore. This, however, is not a very compelling position, for a whole host of reasons. In the first place, hardly anyone outside of Objectivism regards Rand's view of Kant as fair or accurate. But even if it were, questions arise over Kant's supposed consistency. Kant, for example, believed in the ideality of time, space, and causality; which means, if he had been "predominantly consistent", he would have been forced to regard all multiple and successive experiences as purely mental and imaginary. Nonetheless, Kant had no difficulty squaring these bizarre speculative allegiances with his work on astronomy and in his comforting postulates about immortality. Kant was also one of the principle figures of the so-called "Enlightenment," and gave voice to many things esteemed by Rand and her disciples. This aspect of Kant, while acknowledged by Peikoff, is dismissed as "inessential" and inconsequential. Why so? Even on Objectivist assumptions, Kant's advocacy of Enlightenment ideals must be regarded as a deep and abiding inconsistency.



“Only three brief periods of history were culturally dominated by a philosophy of reason: ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the nineteenth century.” This statement is so vague it's not clear its empirically testable. But to the extent that any meaning can be drawn from it, it is largely false. If by "reason" we mean something logical, we find the same examples of illogic and non-logic governing all periods of history. The human being is not a logical animal, but a sentimental animal. Ancient Greece, for example, was still rife with superstition; and Plato, Socrates, and even Aristotle, despite all their fine words about "reason," were hardly shining exemplars of scientific thinking. The Renaissance was the age of Luther and Savronola; it featured a revival of interest in the mysticism of Plato. The 19th Century, on the other hand, was "philosophically" dominated, in Germany, England, and America, by the horrors of neo-Hegelianism (although this so-called domination played hardly any influence outside of academia).

The assault on man’s conceptual faculty has been accelerating since Kant, widening the breach between man’s mind and reality. Given the immense progress made in science and medicine made since the 18th century, this is a grossly implausible view. In the 18th century, doctors bled people. Men rode around on horses. Plows were drawn by ox or mules. The majority of people in the West believed in the literal truth of Genesis. Anti-semitism and various forms of racism were rife. Blacks were bought in Africa and sold to colonists in the New World. It's not clear, given everything that has been learned in the interval, how anyone with even a rudimentary of history can believe that the breach between man's mind and reality has been "widening" since the 18th century.

12 comments:

Rey said...

"Given the immense progress made in science and medicine made since the 18th century..."

But that only proves the power of reason to over come the evils of evilism, and your continued arguments against Rand only prove that you secretly esteem her. After all, nobody kicks a dead dog! [/objectivist]

I'm convinced Rand never read any Kant and what she (thought she) knew about Kant was filtered through from her Bolshevik-approved professors at the University of Petrograd, who had their own axes they were required to grind.

I'm given to understand that her "students" read their extracts of Kant to her, but if there was ever a situation that would lend itself to apple-polishing confirmation bias, that would be it.

As for the 19th century being a brief period where reason reigned, all I have to say is "Romantics." Wait, didn't Rand regard herself as a Romantic? Strange. So confusing.

caroljane said...

"..nobody kicks a dead dog"??? Where? Certainly not in Randland, where dead dogs are kicked and dead horses flogged for the fun of bringing them back to life and killing them again. After leading them to water and instructing them how to conceptualize drinking.

Rey said...

But first they have to conceptualize chemical bonding so they can conceptualize water.

caroljane said...

Oh, Lord. This reminds me of an absolutely clear memory I have of something I read in an Objectivist Newsletter, the white and blue ones of the late 60s-early7s.Don't remember if it was before or after the mysterious name Peikoff started appearing. It was a Rand Q&A question, what would you do if you discovered you had a disease? And the answer, I swear by Apollo, was something like "I would build (!!) a microscope, discover the cause of the disease, and devise a cure."
I don't think I had a psychotic episode back then, but how would I know? I remember reading this, and thinking, Somebody is crazy here, and I hope it isn't me.

Anon69 said...

“The process of forming a concept is not complete until its constituent units have been integrated into a single mental unit by means of a specific word.”

I'm glad that Greg decided to cover this. If this were true, then one would expect a constant proliferation of new words and a special language for each individual. If the Objectivist epistemology were taken seriously, individuals would be forming concepts and inventing words for them on a daily basis. This doesn't happen. For the most part, we stick with a common vocabulary learned from others.

Rey said...

"...then one would expect a constant proliferation of new words and a special language for each individual..."

It's funny. I just read a short story by Borges called "Funes, the Memorious" about a young man who, after a head injury, remembers with perfect clarity every detail of every nanosecond of every pecerption he has ever perceived in his entire life and thus feels that the words he has are inadequate to communicating reality. If I may quote:

He told me that toward 1886 he had devised a new system of enumeration and that in a very few days he had gone beyond twenty-four thousand...The first stimulus to his work, I believe, had been his discontent with the fact that "thirty-three Uruguayans" required two symbols and three words, rather than a single word and a single symbol. Later he applied his extravagant principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Maximo Perez; in place place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train; other numbers were Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar, Brimstone, Clubs, The Whale, Gas, The Cauldron, Napoleon, Agustin de Vedia...Each word had a particular sign, a species of mark; the last were very complicated...I attempted to explain that this rhapsody of unconnected terms was precisely the contrary of a system of enumeration...Funes did not understand me, or did not wish to understand me.

"If the Objectivist epistemology were taken seriously, individuals would be forming concepts and inventing words for them on a daily basis."

They get around this problem by claiming the sole right to define what words mean regardless of their common usage. When words mean what you say, you never have to say what you mean. It's always up to the other guy to decode your secret language and adhere to it when attempting a refutation.

gregnyquist said...

"I'm convinced Rand never read any Kant and what she (thought she) knew about Kant was filtered through from her Bolshevik-approved professors at the University of Petrograd, who had their own axes they were required to grind."

While Rand's teaching at the University of Petrograd may have helped predisposed her against Kant (as would her reading of Nietzsche), she owed her violent detestation of Kant (and much else in Objectivism) mainly to her philosophical mentor, Isabel Paterson. Much of Objectivism, particularly the politics and Rand's theory of history, owe a great deal to Paterson, and could even be regarded as a kind of vulgarization of what Rand learned at Paterson's feet.

Daniel Barnes said...

Rey:
>But first they have to conceptualize chemical bonding so they can conceptualize water.

It's concepts all the way down...

Anonymous said...

Greg wrote: Much of Objectivism, particularly the politics and Rand's theory of history, owe a great deal to Paterson, and could even be regarded as a kind of vulgarization of what Rand learned at Paterson's feet.

I've known about Rand's writings for about 15 years, and only in the last year did I learn about Isabel Paterson. I was shocked at how derivative Rand's ideas were of Paterson's. Also interested to learn that Paterson was a wide-ranging, voracious reader (which Rand was not).

What do Greg and Daniel think of her writings? Are they as flawed as Rand's? Does she commit most of the same fallacies and errors?

- Chris

Ken said...

“Only three brief periods of history were culturally dominated by a philosophy of reason: ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the nineteenth century.”

Logical analysis indicates an unstated preparatory lemma which is essential to this argument. It would be something like, "History is limited to what Victorian gentlemen read at Oxford, and most particularly does not include anything south of the Mediterranean or east of the Euphrates."

caroljane said...

This history-as-philosophy stuff has always driven me wild. It's worse than the Great Man Theory. And it leaves American Randians in a perpetual anguished longing for a double golden age that never existed.

"periods of history" are not dominated by philosophy. Generations of people are dominated by, and dominate, the mix of ideas and realities they live with.

Not to say you cannot have overviews, indeed you must,
but this line of thinking leads to such dehumanization of most of the people who ever lived--"they lived before Aristotle or the Age of Reason, so they couldn't think properly or have fully human emotions."

GRRRR!

gregnyquist said...

"What do Greg and Daniel think of her writings? Are they as flawed as Rand's? Does she commit most of the same fallacies and errors?"

Paterson wrote only one really serious, non-fiction book, The God in the Machine. Considering that Paterson was largely self-educated, the book is extraordinary, especially in comparison to Rand. But it also has some of the failings of a book written by a self-educated person who has never experienced much feedback from a wide assortment of scholars. This made it impossible for Paterson to appreciate what ever may have been lacking in her education (i.e., all the important information in books she hadn't read). Paterson was an uncompromising ideologue, and her ideology at times debauches her judgment. She also tends toward over-generalization -- although this respect she is no where nearly as bad as Rand. At least Paterson's over-generalizations are based on wide reading. Rand's are based on brief summations she learned from Paterson, Branden, Peikoff, and her misreadings of the handful of books she deigned to consult.

In comparison to Rand, Paterson is usually more sophisticated and nuanced in her thinking. Simply compare Paterson's "The Humanitarian with the Guillotine" (from The God of the Machine) with any of Rand's philippics against altruism and you'll notice at a glance who is the better thinker. Rand accused Paterson of stealing her (Rand's) ideas in that chapter; but although Paterson's was obviously influenced by Rand (one of the few instances where the influence ran the other way), she improves on Rand's ideas, stripping them of much that is excessive and poorly thought. Whereas, when Rand borrowed from Paterson, she inevitably makes a botch of it, as Paterson herself seems to have recognized in some of their correspondence.