Monday, March 07, 2022

Taking Ideas Seriously

[Neil Parille continues where he left off in 2009.]

Ayn Rand was quite explicit that ideas are what matter and, in particular, it’s abstract philosophical ideas which guide human history.  Because of this, Objectivists usually blame the sorry state of the world on “intellectuals” and professors of philosophy.  Leonard Peikoff once said that we’d know the world is on the right track when the philosophy department of UC Berkeley was Objectivist.

Objectivists talk about the history of philosophy as a battle between Plato and Aristotle.  According to Objectivists, a society or culture succeeds to the extent it adopts Aristotelian ideas.  For example, they argue that the Renaissance began and flourished because Thomas Aquinas supposedly reintroduced Aristotle’s works to the West.  In the main Objectivist work of historiography, Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels, he argued that Nazism and the gas chambers were the direct result of the influence of Immanuel Kant on German intellectual life.  Christianity, to them, is as foolish as one can get.

History paints on a large canvas.  One can find examples and counterexamples to prove or disprove any broad historical narrative.  For example, contrary to Rand, many scholars argue that the most important Renaissance thinkers were Platonists.  Germany’s leading Kantian philosopher was Ernst Cassirer.  It’s said that upon hearing a Nazi say “truth is what the Fuhrer says it is,” he responded, “if that’s the case, there is no hope for Germany.”  He promptly left for England.  I recently heard Yaron Brook claim that the Roman Empire fell because it adopted Christianity.  Yet the Eastern half of the Empire - which was more Christian – lasted until 1453.

Another example is the United States, the creation of which Objectivists see as the greatest achievement of Western political theory.  I can’t claim to have read widely in the founding of the United States, but I don’t get the impression that the American Founders were particularly influenced by Aristotle.  Objectivists like to claim that the Founders were Deists, but as Mark David Hall has argued, few, if any, of the Founders were Deists.  Many held traditional religious views.  Ellis Sandoz points out that more of the Founders were taught by Princeton University’s John Witherspoon, a Scottish born Presbyterian minister and philosopher, than by any other professor.

One way to test the Objectivist thesis is to look at contemporary politics.  In 1984, Ronald Reagan won reelection with 60 percent of the vote.  It is unlikely that more than 6 percent of college professors voted for Reagan.  American intellectuals hated Donald Trump even more.  Trump was elected president in 2016 in one of the biggest upsets in presidential history.  Trump was even hated by conservative intellectuals, who started a “Never Trump” movement. Yet this seemed to have little effect on the rank-and-file conservative voter.  Many seemed to admire him because he was an anti-intellectual populist.   (In fairness, Rand did say that there was an American “sense of life” that was insulated from dominant intellectual trends.)

The idea that college professors are the main drivers of culture, while it may flatter intellectuals, has some practical difficulties.  Most people don’t attend college and those who do often study topics that are not particularly “philosophical.”  Certainly, one can find professors of math who contend that math is a “social construct,” but it’s hard to imagine such theories making it into the curriculum of the typical math major.  Even most philosophy professors likely present ideas from various perspectives.  
I can think offhand of a couple of examples which show that people often reject the teachings of intellectuals.

First, few intellectuals are religious.  While polls show a gradual decline in religious belief in the last few decades, it remains the case that most Americans identify with various religions.  This is particularly striking since 90 percent of students attend public schools which are, by Supreme Court mandate, secular.  If attending secular schools almost for one’s entire childhood doesn’t change one’s religious beliefs, it’s hard to imagine that what students learn in later life at college effects them all that much.  Incidentally, in a 2019 poll nearly three-fourths of Americans said that they either reject evolution or believe God guided the evolutionary process.  I agree that other factors influence people’s upbringing (such as parents and churches), but these numbers stand in opposition to the idea that people blindly follow the teachings of intellectuals.

Second, contrary to what many have heard, it is the agreement of the large majority of experts in intelligence research that IQ tests measure intelligence, that intelligence is largely heritable (probably in the range of 50 to 80 percent) and that IQ correlates with various traits.  For example, high IQ people on average do better in school, earn more money, commit less crime, etc.  I’m not familiar with any polls on this issue, but I imagine that most people still believe that “you can be whatever you want to be.”
As a final point, the typical Objectivist view of history seems to conflict with their long-standing support of free will.  Are the majority of people pawns in the hands of intellectuals?  I’d like to think that absent North Korean style brainwashing it’s unlikely the average math student, regardless of what he is taught, would think the question of whether two plus two equals four or five is on the same level as “I like chocolate, you like vanilla.”



Albionic American said...

Ironically most people's reluctance to exercise their minds with books and ideas tends to limit the influence of fundamentalist Christian religiosity. Studying the Bible and other supporting literature is WAY too much like school work to have mass appeal.

Anonymous said...

Here is an interview from 2020 with Shoshan Milgram, future biographer of Rand. Looks like the biography will be up to 57 only. So she's been working on it on the pace of only 2 years of Rand's life for every one year of work.

She said that the previous (unnamed) biographies don't interpret Rand's life in light of her writings, or words to that effect.


Anonymous said...

''''too much like school work to have mass appeal.

They don't have to STUDY the Bible

They just have to "cherry pick" their favorite quotations.

I suspect Marxists do the same with their sacred texts!

max said...

Democracy The God That Failed by Hans Hermann Hoppe

After more than two centuries of "constitutionally limited government," the results are clear and incontrovertible. At the outset of the American "experiment," the tax burden imposed on Americans was light, indeed almost negligible. Money consisted of fixed quantities of gold and silver. The definition of private property was clear and seemingly immutable, and the right to self-defense was regarded as sacrosanct. No standing army existed, and, as expressed in Washington's Farewell Address, a firm commitment to free trade and a noninterventionist foreign policy appeared to be in place. Two hundred years later, matters have changed dramatically.

Now, year in and year out the American government expropriates more than 40 percent of the incomes of private producers, making even the economic burden imposed on slaves and serfs seem moderate in comparison. Gold and silver have been replaced by government-manufactured paper money, and Americans are being robbed continually through money inflation. The meaning of private property, once seemingly clear and fixed, has become obscure, flexible, and fluid. In fact, every detail of private life, property, trade, and contract is regulated and reregulated by ever higher mountains of paper laws (legislation), and with increasing legislation, ever more legal uncertainty and moral hazards have been created, and lawlessness has replaced law and order. Last but not least, the commitment to free trade and noninterventionism has given way to a policy of protectionism, militarism, and imperialism. In fact, almost since its beginnings the U.S. government has engaged in relentless aggressive expansionism and, starting with the Spanish-American War and continuing past World War I and World War n to the present, the U.s. has become entangled in hundreds of foreign conflicts and risen to the rank of the world's foremost warmonger and imperialist power. In addition, while American citizens have become increasingly more defenseless, insecure, and impoverished, and foreigners all over the globe have become ever more threatened and bullied by U.S. military power, American presidents, members of Congress, and Supreme Court judges have become ever more arrogant, morally corrupt, and dangerous.

First, the American Constitution must be recognized for what it is-an error. As the Declaration of Independence noted, government is supposed to protect life, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet in granting government the power to tax and legislate without consent, the Constitution cannot possibly assure this goal but is instead the very instrument for invading and destroying the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is absurd to believe that an agency which may tax without consent can be a property protector. Likewise, it is absurd to believe that an agency with legislative powers can preserve law and order. Rather, it must be recognized that the Constitution is itself unconstitutional, i.e., incompatible with the very doctrine of natural human rights that inspired the American Revolution. Indeed, no one in his right mind would agree to a contract that allowed one's alleged protector to determine unilaterally—without one's consent—and irrevocably—without the possibility of exit—how much to charge for protection; and no one in his right mind would agree to an irrevocable contract which granted one's alleged protector the right to ultimate decision making regarding one's own person and property, i.e., of unilateral lawmaking.

max said...

Democracy The God That Failed by Hans Hermann Hoppe

The much cherished modem view, according to which the adoption of "constitutional government" represents a major civilizational advance from arbitrary government to the rule of law and which attributes to the United States a prominent or even preeminent role in this historical breakthrough, then, must be considered seriously flawed. This view is obviously contradicted by documents such as the Magna Carta(1215) or the Golden Bull(1356). More importantly, it misrepresents the nature of premodem governments. Such governments either entirely lacked the most arbitrary and tyrannical of all powers, i.e., the power to tax and legislate without consent; or even if they did possess these powers, governments were severely restricted in exercising them because such powers were widely regarded as illegitimate, i.e., as usurped rather than justly acquired. In distinct contrast, modem governments are defined by the fact that the powers to tax and legislate are recognized explicitly as legitimate; that is, all "constitutional" governments, whether in the U.S. or anywhere else, constitute state-governments. Robert Nisbet is thus correct in noting that a pre-modem
“king may have ruled at times with a degree of irresponsibility that few modem governmental officials can enjoy, but it is doubtful whether, in terms of effective powers and services, any king of even the seventeenth-century "absolute monarchies" wielded the kind of authority that now inheres in the office of many high-ranking officials in the democracies. There were then too many social barriers between the claimed power of the monarch and the effective execution of this power over individuals. The very prestige and functional importance of church, family, gild, and local community as allegiances limited the absoluteness of the State's power.