Friday, May 20, 2011

Saving the Appearances: Notes on Cultism In "The Logical Leap"

Before we look at the highly cultic nature of "The Logical Leap", I'd better explain some of the mechanisms a typical cult uses to function.

Based on his experiences with survivors of Chinese Communist re-education programs, in the early 60s psychologist Dr Robert J. Clifton developed what he called the "Eight Criteria For Thought Reform" - a set of methods for moulding individuals to fit a given ideology. He soon realised that these programs closely resembled those of the plethora of different cults from the Children of God to EST to Scientology that sprang up in America during the '60s counterculture revolution.

Almost all of the eight have some relevance to Objectivism. However, the three key ones for the purposes of this discussion are as follows:
• The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliche (thought-stoppers)
• Repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon - "The language of non-thought"
• Words are given new meanings -- the outside world does not use the words or phrases in the same way -- it becomes a "group" word or phrase
• The world becomes sharply divided into the pure and the impure, the absolutely good (the group/ideology) and the absolutely evil (everything outside the group)

• The totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic doctrine or ideology, holding it as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence
• Questioning or criticizing those basic assumptions is prohibited
• A reverence is demanded for the ideology/doctrine, the originators of the ideology/doctrine, the present bearers of the ideology/doctrine
To the first mechanism, Objectivism has a well-established obfuscatory jargon which puts a myriad of very effective "thought-terminating cliches" in the hands of its followers. The second standard mechanism, also known as "black and white thinking", is also part of Rand's standard operating procedure. Finally, Objectivism offers an "ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence". Naturally this entails ultimate reverence for the creator of this ultimate morality. Hence Job #1 for official Objectivism, as with most cults, is always and everywhere the premise that Ayn Rand was, as one adherent put it to Newsweek back in the 1960s, "the greatest individual that has ever lived."

These three criteria explain a lot about Objectivism in general, and "The Logical Leap" in particular. Their demands set up all kinds of strange tensions in their adherents, giving Objectivist writing a distinctive apparatchik and even robotic flavour and shrouding even the simplest issues in esoteric confusion. Like Mediaeval astronomers obsessed with "saving the appearances", they have to produce ever more convoluted epicycles to maintain their sacred beliefs. For example, the first question one asks on encountering TLL is: who is actually responsible for this damn book in the first place? The front cover says: "David Harriman with an Introduction by Leonard Peikoff". The back cover, however, leads with "A groundbreaking solution to the problem of induction, based on Ayn Rand's theory of concepts." It then claims the book is
"inspired by and expanding on a series of lectures by Leonard Peikoff...Ayn Rand presented her revolutionary theory of concepts in her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. As Dr. Peikoff subsequently explored inductive reasoning, he sought out David Harriman...for his expert knowledge of the scientific discovery process...Here, Harriman presents the result of a collaboration between scientist and philosopher."
Say what? If this is a "collaboration" why does Peikoff only get a credit for the introduction? This confusion is intensified by Harriman's preface, which goes even further:
"This book is the result of a collaboration between myself and Leonard Peikoff....I was excited by his breakthrough I decided to write this book which is a full presentation of his theory as it applies to physical science...the original philosophic ideas belong to Dr Peikoff..."
In fact Harriman also claims how a whole chapter is taken ""nearly verbatim" from his lectures, and that Peikoff exercised "line-by-line scrutiny" and "taught me how to write this book." OK: so it's Peikoff's breakthrough discoveries, his theory, and even his lectures that the book is presenting. Um, but didn't the blurb say the "groundbreaking solution" was based on Ayn Rand's theory of concepts? Turning to Peikoff's Introduction, we find that yes:
"The theory developed here is based on Ayn Rand's theory of concepts...Although she did not provide the solution, she did provide the key to it....This book represents the first major application of Ayn Rand's epistemology to a field other than philosophy. "

So what we seem to have here is not really a book by David Harriman at all, but rather David providing an "illustration" of Peikoff's "original philosophic ideas"; which in turn can hardly be very original as Peikoff himself declares them merely an "application of Ayn Rand's epistemology"!

What we're seeing here is, of course, merely the cultic tensions playing themselves out and twisting everyone into knots. If Job #1 is always and everywhere the premise that Ayn Rand is the greatest philosopher that ever lived, this sets up the problem of authorship: for her mere acolytes cannot possibly have solved major problems of philosophy that she failed without betraying this prime directive. The appearances must be saved. Hence her ultimate authorship must be somehow asserted - even of those solutions she "hadn't worked on...enough to even begin to formulate".

But this in itself produces other tensions. What if Peikoff has got it wrong? What if "the first major application of Ayn Rand's epistemology" is not a triumph but an embarrassment? What then? And in fact it seems that Peikoff has had some kind of crisis of confidence over his theory, leading to a major internal schism. After all, he's been claiming he has this "breakthrough" solution for years now yet has dragged his feet over publishing it, and now is presenting it via a third party as a "collaboration" rather than risk putting out simply, say, "Leonard Peikoff's Solution To The Problem of Induction". So now we have plausible deniability. But on the other hand if the solution turns out to be right then it's almost worse - the pupil trumping the master using the master's own tools. Given Peikoff's remarkable feat of self-abnegation in his Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, where he presents himself as the entirely passive vessel for Rand's epochal doctrine, this must have been unthinkable. Ah, the lot of the cultist apparatchik is perpetual anxiety. And we haven't even got to Chapter 1.


Neil Parille said...


I think Peikoff said that he dropped out of a full scale collaboration with Harriman to spend more time on his DIM book.

It probably would have been more accurate to say "by David Harriman with Leonard Peikoff."

When Peikoff speaks at OCON there is a disclaimer that he doesn't necessarily agree with everything that is said. Maybe he's just a little paranoid that someone will find a flaw and blame him for it; hence no formal co-authorship.

Incidentally, we are about to get a complete rewrite of economics in light of Rand's theories. It's a nearly 400 page book by ARI supporter M. Buechner called Objective economics.

o the best of my knowledge, this book represents the first attempt to rewrite economics in the light of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. [***] Objectivism changes everything about economics. This includes economics’ method, the conception of the economy, the meaning of competition, the conception of price, the principle of gains from trade, the nature of business costs, the concepts of supply and demand, the theory of price, the role of scarcity, and the theory of aggregate production.

Yep, the law of supply and demand has to be rewritten in light of Objectivism.

Ken said...

Be fair. Clifton's criteria show up in lots of institutions - religious, political, scientific, and social - some with a long history. Remember, it's only a cult for the first century, after which it's a religion.

Of your examples, Scientology is most likely to make the century mark. Do you think Rand-ism will "graduate" to a full religion? Not that the followers necessarily want that...

Daniel Barnes said...


Yes why be the author of the solution to one of the most famous philosophical problems of all time when you can be the author of...The DIM Hypothesis...;-)

@Ken, yes. The first sentence of the Clifton link I provided says "Any ideology -- that is, any set of emotionally-charged convictions about men and his relationship to the natural or supernatural world -- may be carried by its adherents in a totalistic direction." So I didn't bother reiterating it in my own part.

Daniel Barnes said...

@Neil, re Objective Economics, can't wait for the review of that one.

Daniel Barnes said...

Didn't George Reisman do that first anyway?

Neil Parille said...


In Capitalism (1000 double columned pages), Reisman mentions Rand a fair number of times, but almost always in the context of ethics, politics and Capitalism in general. There is no attempt to rewrite economics in light of Objectivism. His book is something of a combination of Austrian and Classical economics.

No matter, since Reisman has been excommunicated his book couldn't have been the first anyway.

Mr. Wonderful said...

This site and you gents take this material more seriously (in a good way) than I can, but for some comic relief I recommend the definitive parody of Atlas Shrugged. All the bombast and twice the pretension at 1/15th the length. There will be laffs.

Find it here:

Michael Prescott said...

I enjoyed the Atlas Shrugged parody very much and recommend it to anyone who reads this site. At 99 cents it's a steal. I'm guessing Mr. Wonderful is the author, Ellis Weiner, so to him I say: Bravo, sir! Bravo!

Michael Prescott said...

Another aspect of cultism, which may be implied by Lifton's criteria but doesn't seem to be stated (unless I missed it), is apocalypticism. Cults often predict the end of the world in the near - but not too near - future. The cult's mission is to avert this catastrophe and save the world, but it is understood to be engaged in a race against time against daunting odds. This gives the movement a sense of urgency and paramount importance that justifies abandoning more trivial concerns like having a personal life.

The apocalyptic predictions of Atlas Shrugged fed the rise of the cult and continue to be powerful today. Note how often Objectivists claim that things are working out exactly as Rand predicted, even though, in fact, her track record as a prognosticator is considerably inferior to that of (say) Alvin Toffler or John Naisbitt.

Lloyd Flack said...

Rand did not seem to have much knowledge of or be very interested in science and technology. Any advances in them in Atlas Shrugged were merely plot devices and I don't think she should be judged by standards which were irrelevant to her purposes.

When some people say that she successfully predicted events they are mostly looking at the follies of your government. This is especially happening with your current administration.

Now as an Australian I only get a fragmentary impression of what is happening in the US but it looks to me as if you have an increased proportion of narcissistic left-wing intellectuals in your government. As a result their silliness has become more common and more conspicuous.

Now while Rand was poor at understanding opponents motives she could be a good observer of behaviour. In particular a lot of the minor villains in The Fountainhead and in Atlas Shrugged are what I consider to be fine satires of narcissistic left-wing intellectuals. With more of her targets on display right now it looks like she was predicting a trend. In fact I think it is blip and she could not see the things which will bring things back under control.

Wells said...

Lloyd Flack, Actually I see Conservative thought being more prevalent within American government at the moment; as evidenced by
(1) a lack of Punishment towards bankers for the fraud perpetrated during the financial crisis,
(2) the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay as a sort of legal black hole,
(3) the Governor of Wisconsin openly taking orders from the Koch brothers on matters of state policy, and
(4) a desire to whittle down various entitlements to balance the budget while doing nothing with respect to cutting the military.

But anyway, if Ayn Rand did not predict the effects on Technology on global society, then she basically 'predicted' nothing; as changes in telecommunications technology have dominated the scene.
Whining about 'narcissistic left-wing intellectuals' is less than nothing. People have been whining about 'narcissistic left-wing intellectuals' ever since the first Quaker who said that slavery was wrong.

Lloyd Flack said...

Atlas Shrugged was a what if rather than a set of predictions. Objectivists who are trying to get predictions out of it are really stretching it. Thus I do not think it should be judged as a set of predictions.

Narcissism is hardly restricted to progressives. Objectivists, as has been pointed out here, are serious offenders. All ideologies have people who are attracted to them for bad reasons. People can be attracted to conservatism because they are fearful. People can turn libertarianism into a rationalization for callousness. And progressive movements are I think particularly attractive to narcissists. Being the champion of the underdog That does not mean that all progressives are narcissists. I know those on the left who have kept their attention on their original aims and are embarrassed by the posers.

And outsiders can see the narcissism of large sections of the left more easily than those inside. But then outsiders can often spot the flaws of other movements more easily as well.

If you are claiming that a lot of the right is over reacting to the current administration and seeing it as something much more radical than it is, I would agree. That does not mean that the Obama administration is probably the most left-wing federal administration that you have had.

Michael Prescott said...

Interesting comments, Lloyd. But I think Rand and her followers made a case for AS being more than a "what-if" scenario. Rand's magazine The Objectivist ran regular updates, dubbed the Horror File, showing how the predictions of Atlas Shrugged were coming true. Rand frequently cited various trends as evidence of her prescience, sometimes quoting passages from AS side by side with contemporary news items.

Such claims have continued after Rand's death. During the recent release of the AS movie, there were many articles by Objectivists and Objectivist sympathizers stating that Rand's powers of prediction were uncanny, and that the book precisely anticipated our current conditions.

Wells, if Obama is a conservative, I don't want to know what a liberal president would look like! Obama has increased federal spending to 24% of GDP (vs. 18-19% over the past 20+ years), signed a health-care bill that greatly expands government's role over 1/6 of the economy, pushed for carbon caps and EPA regulation of CO2 as a health hazard (!), added $5 trillion to the national debt, etc. He's clearly a Big Government guy whose mentors were all on the left, and who comes from a background of "progressive" activism.

Lloyd Flack said...


Point taken on social and political predictions. On technological predictions, all the innovations in Atlas Shrugged were plot devices rather than predictions.

Ken said...

@Neil Parille (5/21/2011 03:59), sorry, didn't mean to seem critical - really, I was just snarking about Objectivism turning into a religion. Though it has since occurred to me that it would be the rare case where a group doesn't want the designation - Scientology may have started that way, but now jealously guards its religious designation (and tax status).

BTW, are there really people who see Atlas as predictive? I guess that could arise from the view that all her writings are to be considered correct.

gregnyquist said...

In particular a lot of the minor villains in The Fountainhead and in Atlas Shrugged are what I consider to be fine satires of narcissistic left-wing intellectuals.

Well, left-wing intellectuals do make easy targets for satire. And while would agree that The Fountainhead does contain some find satire of intellectuals, the satire in Atlas is more problematic, for the simple reason that I suspect it's not meant as satire. Keep in mind that Atlas attempts not merely to offer highly negative portraits of left-wing intellectuals (which may somewhat accurately represent the worst excesses of such individuals), but also presumes to explain what forces drive such people. This is where Rand really goes off the tracks. She would have us believe that left-wing ideology is the product of denying that A is A, hatred of the good for being good, and death worship.

What reason why some conservatives approve of Atlas is because it provides simple, easily understandable parables purporting to demonstrate the virtues of the free market. Most rank-and-file conservatives have jobs and families and don't have the time required to develop a sophisticated understanding of social and economic phenomena. That's why they turn to Atlas and Rush Limbaugh, rather than Hayek and Edmund Burke.

Jeffrey said...

Wells, I actually live in Wisconsin and wish to qualify your statment about our governor, Scott Walker.

What happened is that a blogger posing as one of the Koch brothers called Walker and then released a trancript of their conversation. One could well be concerned that Walker is being unduly influenced by a wealthy donor, but it's probably an exagerration to say that he's "openly taking orders" from him.

Also, it must be noted that Walker's proposal to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers sparked protests in our capital, Madison, that lasted LONGER THAN THOSE FOR THE VIETNAM WAR. And the polls backed up the fact that public sentiment had turned somewhat against Walker. So I'd hesitate to use what's happening in Wisconsin as evidence of the dominance of conservatism in America.

Xtra Laj said...

Keep in mind that Atlas attempts not merely to offer highly negative portraits of left-wing intellectuals (which may somewhat accurately represent the worst excesses of such individuals), but also presumes to explain what forces drive such people. This is where Rand really goes off the tracks. She would have us believe that left-wing ideology is the product of denying that A is A, hatred of the good for being good, and death worship.


Thanks for stating so clearly what I couldn't when I initially wanted to respond. One of the benefits of Atlas Shrugged the movie is that it is largely stripped of what makes the book so annoying - the imputation of motives onto people that they would hardly recognize and then claiming without any critical debate that this is how things really are. Of course, they couldn't fix the problems that created without deviating more from the novel...

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

Ken asked: "BTW, are there really people who see Atlas as predictive?"

Yes, definitely -- at least as to government regulation and its destructive effects. ARI's writers and spokesmen love to describe current events as coming "straight out of Atlas Shrugged." Just peruse a few op-eds or listen to an interview or two, particularly on health care, the environment, or regulation of Wall Street. It won't be long before you hear that Rand predicted some regulation or policy or other.

Michael Prescott's earlier comment about apocalypticism is right on the money. Rand said she wrote Atlas in hope of preventing it from coming true, but many of her followers almost seem to want it to come true. I was talking to one the other night, and he seemed disappointed to hear me say that I don't believe economic Armageddon is on its way (and that I don't think anyone will be taxed into poverty to avoid it).

In contrast, nobody seems to regard the science-fiction aspects of Atlas Shrugged as predictive. Wait, make that "almost nobody." In my Echo Chamber days, I did meet a couple of people whose stated goal was to revolutionize our understanding of energy and/or build Galt's motor. For the most part, however, even the most cultish of Objectivists laugh at that sort of thing.

Lloyd Flack said...

I agree completely with Greg about Rand attributing motives to opponents that have little relation to reality. Of course she is hardly the only person to do this. It is far too common on all sides of politics though the right is probably a bit worse.

Read Roy F. Baumeister, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. This is a superb psychological study of why people do evil. He finds the explanation in common things that most of us share. In particular he explodes what he calls “The Myth of Pure Evil”, the idea that there is a force called evil that is a part of some people that seeks the destruction of good. A person who believes this is likely to take extreme measures to combat this perceived evil and in doing so commit the worst of evil acts themselves. The Nazis saw the Jews as evil and in doing so committed evil acts. Al-Quaeda sees us as evil and in doing so commits evil. Both sides of politics are seeing their opponents as evil and this distorted perception fuels the worst behaviour on both sides. See an evil which

Anonymous said...

"thought-terminating cliches"

Nuff said.

Really though, Ayn Rand has some stuff so right and other stuff is just mindless garbage.

Holy Bible God said Satan wraps every lie in a bunch of truth.

Anonymous said...

I read that objectivist economic website. Ayn Rand did not invent capitalism. She plagiarized it. Ironically she claims to despise plagiarism.

The Holy Bible presents the first written case for capitalism.

Since capitalism with enormous private charity is a Biblical mandate, what is Ayn Rand all about? One word, atheism.

The sole intention of Ayn Rand was to discredit God and claim all that is good for her and Satan.

Seriously, capitalism is Gods creation.

Read this and then tell me you disagree. The Bible mandates free market capitalism. It is anti-socialist. The proof is here: 10,000 pages of exposition, verse by verse. Free.
Gary North

Jeffrey said...

Sorry Gary North, but there's two big problems with your post.

1. "The sole intention of Ayn Rand was to discredit God and claim all that is good for her and Satan."

What? Yes, Rand was against religion, but to claim that her SOLE intention was to discredit God requires a selective interpretation of her works: she was every bit against secular socialism as religion and actually devotes more space to refuting the "mystics of muscle" than the "mystics of spirit".

2."The Bible mandates free market capialism. It is anti-socialist."

One can prove just about anything in that convulated compilation of works through special pleading. In fact, Objectivists have found biblical passages that call for Marxism (
"from the Bible: "And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. (Acts 2:44-45) ... Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need." (Acts 4:34-35)."

The bible isn't exactly they first place I'd go to defend capitalism, sorry.

Ken said...

Scanning through the 613 mitzvot: You must lend to a poor person; you may not demand repayment of a debt which the debtor cannot pay; all debts are cancelled every seven years. There are other rules in the Bible, but the above would make capitalism as currently practiced impossible.