Friday, March 10, 2017

Orthodox Objectivism: an Autopsy, Part 1

While it may be an exaggeration to say that orthodox Objectivism, since ARI continues to exists and apologists for that organization still exist. But as an intellectual force, it is dead --- and probably not revivable. Some might argue it's been dead, or close to death, for several decades. But there was always a hope, however dim and unlikely, that the corpse might be resusitated. Indeed, in 2008, orthodox Objectivism showed a brief flicker of life. Sales of Atlas Shrugged surged, and Rand once again became a favorite target of the left. But in the end, nothing came of it. In 2010, Leonard Peikoff conspired with ARI executive director Yaron Brook to force John McCaskey, a lucrative donor, to resign from the ARI board of directors for the sin of challenging then Peikoff protege, David Harriman. In retrospect, that unsavory episode appears to have been orthodox Objectivism's last gasp. While ARI will undoubtedly persist for many decades to come, perhaps even longer, in terms of intellectual significance, it's impact on the culture will be so close to zero that it might as well be zero.

To get an idea of what the future holds in store for the O'ists, consider the Henry George Institute. How many people know that such an institute exists? For that matter, how many people know who Henry George is? Late in the nineteenth century, George may have been the third most famous person in America (behind Mark Twain and Thomas Edison). Now he's largely forgotten, and his influence is virtually nil. If someone were to declare themselves a Single Taxer, hardly anyone would know what he was talking about. A hundred years from now will anyone know what it means to be an "Objectivist" in the Randian sense of the term?

This is not to suggest that Rand herself will be forgotten. The Fountainhead, and maybe Atlas and We the Living, could persist for many years to come. The point is that, while Rand may continue to influence a certain number of high school and college age youths for decades, even centuries, in the future, very few of these youths will ever become orthodox Objectivists, and those that do will exercise no real influence on society as a whole.

Perhaps the most significant reason for the demise of Orthodox Objectivism is the shortcomings of the philosophy itself. I'm not merely refering to the intellectual or technical shortcomings of Rand's ideas. While those shortcomings are very real and very troublesome, few people care about them. What people want in an ideology is a narrative that can give their hopes and aspirations meaning and scope. Rand provides a narrative of sorts in her novels, especially The Fountainhead and Atlas. But what is distinctive to orthodox Objectivism arises not merely from the stories in Rand's novel but also from her non-fiction works. The novels give the reader a sense of Rand's moral ideals. There are serious problems, to be sure, with these moral ideals --- and not just with the ideals themselves, which is not all that important, but with the appeal of those ideals, which is far more significant. I will discuss this issue in a future post. For the nonce, I will stick to the non-narrative aspect of Orthodox Objectivism, the technical philosophy.  According to Rand, her moral ideals are founded on "reason," which in turn is founded on her metaphysics and epistemology. Therefore, to become a genuine orthodox Objectivist (as opposed to a mere "student of Objectivists," as Rand's followers called themselves in Rand's lifetime) requires mastering the arcane details of Rand's metaphysics and epistemology --- details, moreover, which can't really be applied, in any meaningful way, to real life and which, on technical grounds, don't even make all that much sense. In short, absorbing and mastering Randian orthodoxy doesn't add anything to a person's life, beyond perhaps a bit of status among other aspiring orthodox Objectivists. Why anyone would wish for a bit of status among such a small and insignificant group of individuals is beyond me; but for some people, being the largest minnow in a muddy puddle may in fact be the very most they can aspire to.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

With the elevation of Yaron Brook (whose degree is in finace) as chief spokesman for the ARI it looks like they feel that the future is in politics.

-Neil P.