Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Future of Objectivism 4

Preservation of Orthodoxy. Some Objectivists, following Leonard Peikoff's example, wish to preserve orthodoxy. They desire to prevent other individuals from introducing innovations into Objectivist doctrine. This fear of innovation does not merely stem from a mania for preserving Rand's doctrine in its immaculate, unpolluted form. There may be other motives in the business that intensify the (essentially non-rational) need for doctrinal purity. One important but underrated motive involves competition for status and resources. Most Objectivists would like to believe that many, if not all, schisms are motivated by genuine "philosophical" differences. This is hardly likely. The schism with Kelley, for instance, is often framed as developing over issues of doctrine. Kelley, it was argued, wavered from "true" doctrine. He was guilty, essentially, of heresy. He was not a "true" Objectivist, but an enemy of Objectivism.

Although the official reason for Kelley's dismissal was for speaking in front of a libertarian group, some have suggested that the real reason had more to do with Kelley sanctioning a positive review of Barabara Branden's Passion of Ayn Rand. However, there's probably more to it than that. The positive review of Branden's book, written by Robert Bindinotto, was published in 1986. The Peikoff-Kelley schism didn't take place until three years later. The official reasons for the schism are surprisingly flimsy. Late in 1988, Kelley gave a speech at the Laissez-Faire Supper Club in Manhattan. In 1982, Peikoff had been involved in two book signings with Laissez-Faire books. So why is it okay to have book signings with libertarians, and not speeches? Is there really a significant difference between a book signing and a speech?

It's hard not to suspect that an important factor behind the Peikoff-Kelley schism invovled what amounted to a personal and intellectual rivalry. Peikoff, Schwartz, and Binswanger, the principle faction allied against Kelley, had their own ideas of Objectivism (i.e., they were Ayn Rand cultists who wanted sinecures for themselves). Kelley, more independent minded and capable of earning a living outside of Objectivism, had different notions about the future of Objectivism.  Binswanger and Schwartz, who headed the anti-Kelley faction within ARI and did most of the dirty work, would naturally have seen in David Kelley a dangerous rival. Kelley was smarter than either Schwartz and Binswanger; he had already written the most important Objectivist tome that did not have Ayn Rand's name somewhere on the cover (i.e., Evidence of the Senses); and he seemed on track to become the most important Objectivist after Peikoff: all reasons enough for picking an intellectual fight with him, which essentially is what happened.

The Peikoff and Kelley factions were not only fighting over the future of Objectivism, but over access to resources at ARI, and how those resources would be used to promulgate Objectivism. Actual doctrinal differences between these two factions are miniscule. Kelley may be a more intelligent advocate of Objectivism than Schwartz, Peikoff, or Binswanger, but he's actually surprisingly orthodox, particularly when it comes to purely doctrinal matters. Peikoff and company are more orthodox only when it comes to following Rand's worst intellectual vices.

What we can glean from this episode is that the fight for orthodoxy is never purely intellectual. It arises, at least in part, over rivalries for status and resources. Certain individuals seek to maintain orthodoxy not merely for intellectual reasons, but also as a way of protecting their own status positions within a hierarchy. We could regard orthodoxy as a sort of strategy for people who, by nature, are cautious, skeptical of innovation, and eager to preserve their current position within an organization.

While orthodoxy can be a sort of glue that helps hold an organization together, it exhibits the detrimental side effect of discouraging innovation and growth. An organization that cannot or will not change has rendered itself incapable of adapting to new circustances. Nor can it cleanse itself of just the sort of ingrained abuses that often tend to fester in orthodox organizations. Today ARI still suffers from dogmatism, intolerance, and a cult of personality. ARI's minions must honor a rigid ideology constructed by Rand and Peikoff. The broader aspects of the ideology, such as Rand's cognitive ideals about rationality and "reason," are often in conflict with the narrower aspects of the ideology, such as Rand's views of history and Peikoff's "DIM" hypothesis. If ARI wishes to gain respect and influence within the intellectual culture of America and the west, its denizens will likely find Rand's and Peikoff's shoddy scholarship and extravagent claims about history and philosophy to be an embarrassment. There will likely arise within the bowels of ARI individuals who, eager to see Objectivism gain influence and respect, would like to de-emphasize the especially embarrasing parts of Objectivism, such as Rand's views of Kant, sexuality, Tolstoy, etc. These "reformers" won't seek to challenge whether Rand is right on these issues. They will instead prefer merely to ingore the most disreputable aspects of the Randian creed when speaking to non-Objectivists. At the same time, there will likely be more orthodox types who will resent such "pragmatism." These two factions within ARI will not only conflict over how to present Objectivism to the non-Objectivist world, they will be competing within ARI for status and resources. How many resources will go to outreach and political studies, and how many will go to scholarship on the philosophy of history and aesthetics? These will be issues which could very well divide Objectivists at ARI in the future. People's livelihoods will be at stake in these conflicts. How might they be resolved?

Because of the dark shadow cast over ARI by Peikoff and the old guard, it's difficult to imagine the institute being anything other than a stodgy viper's den of orthodoxy, a place where independent thought is ruthlessly stamped out. While we're not likely to see much in the way of the independent thougth ever at ARI (independent thinkers don't join ideological organizations), the extreme lengths at which orthodoxy has persisted at ARI primarily stems from Peikoff. He, along with old guard cronies, has been the main enforcer of orthodoxy at the institute. He has not merely enforced an orthodoxy around Rand's ideas, he has extended it to his own elaborations and extensions of Rand's views. Worse, over the years, Peikoff has become increasingly eccentric and paranoid. Like Rand, he deeply resents disagreement, even on issues not fundamental to the Objectivist philosophy. Consequently, he has alienated a number of people within ARI, even some higher-ups.  Peikoff has confessed "that a few longtime Board members and I are on terms of personal enmity, and do not speak to each other." This suggests the development of a growing anti-Peikoff faction in ARI itself. Objectivists are naive, or in outright denial, of the degree to which personal grievances unconsciously affect ideological allegiences. Within ARI we have, even now, the ingredients of an anti-Peikoff reform movement. Such reforms, to be sure, contain the seeds of new orthodoxies, to be resisted in turn by a future generation of reformers. But make no mistake about it: there will likely to be challenges to the reigning orthodoxy at ARI. Without Peikoff in the picture, how will such challenges be met?

Peikoff, like Rand, is utterly clueless about these types of issues. He assumes that, as long as everyone integrates their ideas in the "proper" way, they'll all come to the same conclusions. Follow Rand and "reason." and all will be well. But assuming that ARI's board can maintain orthodoxy merely by following "reason" shows how clueless Peikoff really is.

What about Peikoff's own proteges, such as Robert Mayhew, Tore Boeckmann, and especially Yaron Brook and David Harriman? Couldn't these people, and others like-minded, hold down the fort and preserve Peikoff's legacy? The problem is that, other than Yaron Brook, none of these people hold high positions in ARI. Robert Mayhew holds tenure at Seton Hall, a private Roman Catholic university. Tore Boeckman is primarily a mystery writer. While Harriman is currently Peikoff's most important intellectual protege, it's unlikely that the McKaskey scandal has improved his standing among ARI's board members. Keep in mind, Harriman triggered that scandal by running to Peikoff with complaints about McCaskey's criticism of The Logical Leap. No one likes a tattle-tale. It's hard to imagine Harriman becoming a force within ARI after Peikoff's earthly demise.

So that leaves Yaron Brook as the last major Peikoff protege who has a legitimate chance to carry on Peikoff's mania for orthodoxy at ARI. Is he the man for the job? In my next post, I will take a closer look at the curious Mr. Yaron Brook.


Anonymous said...

They cannot give it to Yaron Brook!
Not even objectivists deserve this utterly charmless man to lead the 'offical' movement. No doubt he knows his onions but a leader needs charisma and winning personality too.
Will the succession or handover ot power be like North Korea, where there is only one candidate and everyone votes "yes" for them?
I suppose if there are multiple candidates we will see if there are truly no conflicts or interest among rational men and women. But I can't imagine objectivists make good losers, not when the stakes are this high. As anyone that goes for the job would have to be rationally convinced that they were up to it ergo anyone that says they aren't would be a heretic?

P.S A great and timely series of articles.

- Steven Johnston

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Steven: They cannot give it to Yaron Brook!
Not even objectivists deserve this utterly charmless man to lead the 'offical' movement. No doubt he knows his onions but a leader needs charisma and winning personality too.

I hate to break it to you, but among the plausible contenders, Yaron Brook rates pretty darned high on charisma. Make of that what you will.

Will the succession or handover ot power be like North Korea, where there is only one candidate and everyone votes "yes" for them?

My prediction is that when Peikoff dies, Brook will just remain right where he is. The ARI Board is actualy quite the contentious lot (outsiders would not guess the internal divisions), and Brook may be the only person on earth who can manage to get along with all of them over an extended period of time. They will keep him as long as he continues to be successful at fundraising, profile-raising, and mediation.

seymourblogger said...

If you read online it is obvious the present Mrs. Peikoff is set to take over. She is smart, articulate and aggressive.

seymourblogger said...

I see a big difference between a book signing and a speech.Why don't you?