Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Rand's Place in Philosophical Traditions

Rand was fond of dividing the intellectual world between the Aristotleans and the Platonists, as if everyone, fundamentally, falls into one camp or the other. This division, however, is far too narrow. It leaves out several other basic philosophical positions, such as naturalism and German transcendentalism.

Both Plato and Aristotle arose out of the Socratic philosophical tradition, which holds, in the words of Socrates himself (as transcribed by Plato) "that Reason [is] the disposer of all" and that if anyone "is interesting in finding out the cause or generation or destruction or existence of anything, he must find out what [is] best for that thing." Things are to be understood by their uses and purposes, not by their elements or antecedents. Hence we find Plato arguing that the eyes, nose, and mouth are in front of the head, because the front is the nobler side! And in somewhat the same manner, we find Aristotle coming up with the concept of final causes, which expresses this methodology at its most abstract.

Aristotle tried his best to integrate this Socratic-Platonist philosophy with common sense, which accounts for Aristotle's popularity with thinkers like Rand. But the methodology of the tradition—a methodology satirized by George Santayana when he compared it to the chorus Moliere's Le Malade Imaginaire, which sings that opium puts people to sleep because it has dormitive virtue—runs deep in Aristotle, as it does, unfortunately, in Rand herself. The whole idea of founding a metaphysics on axioms, is inspired by this dubious Socratic methodology. And the notion of reality as logical—this too, Rand owes to Aristotle and the Socratic tradition.

The naturalist tradition, on the other hand, eschews this sort of nonsense. According to naturalism, matters of fact cannot be determined by logical constructions, for the simple reason that the external world is not a logical system. It doesn't not conform to "reason," whatever that may mean! Naturalism instead asserts two very simple but, from a Socratic point of view, heretical principles: (1) "Nothing arises in the world that we may use it, but what arises brings forth its use." Here we have "that discarding of final causes on which all progress in science depends," comments Santayana. And (2) "Nature is her own standard and must be accepted on her own terms, not on ours." Or in other words, the world does not exist for the convenience of our intellects! Nature must be accepted as she is, not as how we, or our philosophical principles, wish her to be.

Now although Objectivism frequently gives lipservice to naturalistic ideas, fundamentally Objectivism is not a naturalistic philosophy. It belongs to a different philosophical tradition. Hence Peikoff's assertion that philosophy has a veto right over all other disciplines, including physics. Or consider the statement "contradictions cannot exist in reality." How do Objectivists know that? Have they run empirical tests? No, of course, not. They "deduce" it from their axioms. Well this is really no different than Plato deducing the circularity of the planets' orbits from the divininity of the circle as a form. It's the classic metaphysical gesture of determining matters of fact from logical, moral or rhetorical constructions. It is not the way scientists work in empirical disciplines like physics and chemistry, where conjectures are inferred from facts and then corroborated through extensive empirical testing. Nature is its own standard, and to find that standard we must consult nature!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Orthodox Objectivist Questions Randian Theory of History

Since I regularly attack orthodox Objectivists for failing to demonstrate any intellectual curiosity or rigor, it's only fair to point an example of at least one (now former) orthodox Objectivist who has shown at least some capacity to think outside the Randian box. Robert Tracinski, editor of the Intellectual Activist apparently has created a bit of stir amoing the ARI faithful because of his criticism and partial rejection of Rand's theory of history. "I do not mean to deny the crucial importance of fundamental philosophical ideas," Tracinski writes, "but to suggest that the relationship between philosophical ideas and all other ideas, and the means by which ideas are propagated in a culture, is more complex than Objectivists have recognized." Most interesting is Tracinski's explanation of why he's moving away from the Randian theory. He found that when trying to do journalistic work on a daily basis, he kept running across utterly novel experiences that could not always be easily integrated with his pre-existing knowledge. In other words, experience was teaching him that not everything in the world could be explained either by Rand's philosophy or by philosophy in general, leading him to conclude that "Any valid new observation or theory in a specialized field is based on an immersion in facts and observations, and on a whole range of lesser integrations and preliminary conclusions derived from those observations," a conclusion that veers toward my own position.

The question is: now that Tracinski has taken this one step away from orthodox Objectivism, will he be inexorably led, by the logic of that one step, away from Objectivism? Some orthodox Objectivists have accused Tracinski of moving away from Objectivism in order to become a conservative. I don't see that yet. He still seems pretty orthodox on most other points of Objectivism. However, once an individual makes that first step away from strict doctrine, the first thing that happens is that other orthodox Objectivists turn on him and essentially drive him out of the fold. Now Tracinski may be able to find refuge with the TOC crowd, where he's sure to be welcomed. But rejecting Rand's theory of history is a pretty big deal. It's much more important to Objectivism than most of Rand's admirers and critics realize, because it gives the philosophy an almost quasi-religious eschatological force. It provides Rand's disciples with a secular form of salvation which promises the (nearly) inevitable triumph of Objectivist values (see Rand's Playboy interview for more info). Once you reject this theory, it's just a short step to asking what else might be wrong with Objectivism. After all, Rand's main focus in epistemology (i.e., theory of concepts, problem of universals) is clearly motivated by her theory of history; the one follows the other like the cart follows the horse. So to doubt the one is to (at least potentially) experience doubts about the other. Once, however, you begin doubting Rand's epistemology (and there's a lot of evidence compiled by cognitive scientists that give compelling reasons for such doubts), it's just a short step to doubting many other doctrines in Objectivism, particularly the Aristolean methodology embraced by Rand and her rather naive politics.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Shorter ARCHN: Chapter 2, "Theory of History"

A series of handy short summaries of the main arguments of ARCHN for those unfamiliar with the book. For more detail, you can read ARCHN online by clicking on the sidebar link

A utopian view of human nature such as Rand’s will inevitably lead to a utopian theory of history. Such a theory usually posits that man is inherently good, and that any evil he might have done throughout history is the result of some external factor. For Marx it was an unjust economic system, for Rousseau modernity itself; for Rand, the effect of bad philosophical ideas. If man had only possessed a truly rational philosophy, none of the horrors of the past need have taken place.

According to Objectivism, the most important issue in human existence is how man should use his consciousness. “In the life of man,” writes Leonard Peikoff, “epistemological, metaphysical, and moral ideas – which means: philosophical ideas – are the ruling power.” (OPAR, p451) Ultimately every decision a man makes reflects his fundamental philosophical views, and this naturally this thesis expands to cover all of history. But where do these views come from? Well, Rand believed that only a small part of the population takes the trouble to define their views through conscious deliberation; these are “the intellectuals,…the guides, the trend-setters…”, who are the “transmission belts…between philosophy and culture.” Through their own incompetence in the defense of reason, the intellectuals had lost sight of reason’s prime mover, Aristotle, and had submitted to the evil of Immanuel Kant and his destructive Critique. This resulted, ultimately, in the horrors of the 20th Century such as Soviet Gulags and the Nazi death camps.

How does Rand’s theory stack up against the facts? Since it is beyond the scope of “Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature” to empirically verify the causal factors of every period in history, three specific evidentiary claims made by Rand and her followers are examined.
1) Christianity is responsible for Dark Ages in Europe
2) The growth of statism in America is the byproduct of altruistic morality
3) German philosophy is responsible for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi death camps.
On examining 1), it turns out that as usual Rand and Peikoff provide little or no hard evidence for their contention, only a lot of vague insinuation and oratical exaggeration. It turns out that the Dark Ages are far more likely to have been the result of severe trade contraction due to the Islamic military stranglehold over Europe from 7th to the 9th centuries, combined with the Danish and Norwegian barbarians laying waste to much of the North and West, than the rise of Christian belief. Likewise, contra Peikoff’s claim that it was due to the rediscovery of Aristotle, the subsequent Renaissance can also be readily attributed to the retreat of these influences, and subsequent revival of trade and prosperity. Further, if, as Peikoff contends, the asceticism of Christianity was the decisive influence in society, we would expect to find such societies economically destitute and culturally stagnant. Yet this is quite false, as of course the Renaissance marks the apogee of Catholic Church’s dominance over Europe.

As to 2) we again find that this is undercut by a fundamental fallacy – that institutions such as governments are always the product of conscious moral design. In fact, we find the expansions of state power in America was largely brought about by unintended developments in the institutions of the Federal Government, especially Congress, such as ‘pork-barrelling’ and ‘log-rolling.’ These expansions of state power are arrangements that have little or nothing to do with ‘altruism’ or self-sacrifice, and everything to do with the exercise of politics for self-interest and mutual advantage.

Finally, turning to 3) we note once again that Peikoff offers no concrete evidence for this speculation. He is also simply incorrect in claiming Kant, and Hegel advocated “irrationality.” Some of their ideas may have been irrational, but this is hardly the same thing. Further, as the writings of the aforesaid are extremely vague, they are just as subject to the reverse interpretation – one could easily claim that they were responsible for the liberation of the death camps, so one be so inclined. It also appears that far from preaching abstruse doctrines of irrationalism, altruism and collectivism, much of the Nazi’s actually rather limited success came from standard demagoguery like “Freedom, Work, and Bread”, as well as capitalizing on the substantial underlying anti-Semitism that existed in Germany as it did in much of Europe. Even then this did not capture a majority for the Nazis, and Hitler’s subsequent ascent to Chancellor owed more to standard backstage political manoeuvering than the advocacy of any specific philosophical doctrines.

To conclude, it seems that the Randian historical narrative is merely an exaggerated romantic invention, which on examination turns out to be both shallow and factually inaccurate.

(Summary of "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" by Greg Nyquist, Chapter 2)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Formal Versus Practical Meaning in Objectivism

When examing any philosophy or ideological belief system that oversteps important realities, it is important to distinguish between the formal and the practical or real meaning of the doctrine in question. The formal meaning is the literal meaning. But for the very reason that the literal meaning does not correspond to reality the doctrine cannot be followed unless it is transformed into something else. So, for example, the formal meaning of the Objectivist theory of history is that social conditions are determined by which system of philosophy appears the most compelling in the minds of intellectuals. Since this doctrine is not true and will not lead to the results predicted in the theory, Objectivists don't follow it literally. While they all give lip service to it, their behavior does not follow logically from it. If Objectivists were logical, they would seek to make every effort to present their philosophy in as favorable a light to as many people as possible. They would also seek to answer all serious objections made to their doctrines. Yet we don't find orthodox Objectivists doing this. Instead, we find them intentionally limiting exposure of their doctrines (e.g., they won't talk to libertarians, for instance) and refusing to engage with their critics. Although they often seek to challenge the status quo, they do so only within venues that they can control, so they can avoid any really serious challenge. When they nevertheless are confronted with challenges from others, rank and file Objectivists often become scornful, angry, and resentful. They regard those who disagree with them with a blistering contempt. Although ever so sensitive to any critic who even mildly distorts some aspect of the Randian creed, they demonstrate no conscience at all as far as distorting the views of their ideological opponents, thus making their espousal of selfishness take on a sinister aspect in the eyes of disinterested bystanders. In brief, the behavior of Objectivists, particularly when it comes to their attempts to spread the Randian philosophy, are not terribly rational nor do they make any sense when judged in relation to Rand's philosophy of history.

So what then is the real, practical purposes of Rand's philosophy of history? If the behavior of Objectivists is anything to go by, this theory would appear to have several practical purposes having more to do with the unique psychopathology of the Objectivist faithful than with logic or rational behavior. First, Rand's philosophy of history gives Objectivists the comforting illusion of potency and self-importance by suggesting that the course of history can be changed merely by arguing about abstruse points of metaphysics and epistemology; second, it helps to justify the Objectivist's instinctive loathing and mistreatment of those who refuse to agree with him (such people are evil because their espousal of wrong ideas threatens individualism and civilization); third, it justifies not getting involved in anything as messy, difficult, and threatening to one's ego as politics (because politics doesn't really lead to social change; only arguing about philosophy accomplishes that); and fourth, it helps justify shunning any person or group perceived as a threat to Objectivism (because such people are the most evil of all, since they consciously pursue evil values, and having any contact with them only gives their ideas a moral sanction they don't deserve). Hence the real, practical, behavorial effect of Rand's philosophy of history is to justify that disagreeable mixture of arrogance and hostility on the one side and self-complacency and lack of initiative on the other that exemplifies most Objectivists when it comes to spreading their philosophy. The typical Rand follower simply wants to enjoy the comforting illusion that, eventually, everyone will agree with him and his ideas will be vindicated without ever having to do anything too strenuous or risky to make it happen.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Rand's Intellectual Influences — Concluding Thoughts

In a series of posts, I have attempted to infer some of the intellectual sources of key concepts in Rand's Objectivist philosophy. The purpose of these investigations is not to question Rand's originality, or suggest she stole her best ideas from other thinkers, but to emphasize that she had to get her ideas from somewhere. Unless we adopt the supposition, haughtily dismissed by Rand herself, of innate ideas, Rand must have gotten her ideas either through direct observation and/or by contact and interaction with the ideas of others. Now ideas about history, epistemology, social change and the like cannot be made solely through direct observation. They must be formed through contact with ideas found in books and in the conversation with other people. As Rand is not known to have been a volumunious reader, it is likely that she was (perhaps unwittingly) influenced by the intellectuals she conversed with, which, in the thirties and forties, were primarily "conservative" intellectuals, such as Isabel Patterson, Leonard Read, and Henry Hazlitt. All influences, of course, were run through the Randian filter, so they were often transformed into something else by the time Rand got done with them.

Now in Objectivism we can trace two types of ideas: those ideas that are core to Rand's thought and psychopathology and that probably would've remained the same regardless of how she had been influenced; and those ideas that stem from the concepts and notions she found herself exposed to in the intellectual circles in which she travelled. An example of the first type of idea is Rand's support of selfishness, which she stubbornly adhered to despite the protestations of Nathaniel Branden. An example of the second type of idea is her contention that the failure to solve the problem of universals is the main cause of modern irrationality. This notion was, I suspect, suggested by Richard Weaver's central thesis in his book Ideas Have Consequences. Had Weaver not written and published that book, Rand may have never been exposed to the idea of regarding the issue of universals as central to the modern world. And if she had never been exposed to that idea, her theory of history must have taken on a different aspect. She would've had to come up with a different scapegoat for modern irrationality. A different scapegoat, however, would've shifted her focus in epistemology from the issue of universals and concepts to something else. In that case, IOTE would've been a very different book.

So in Objectivism we can trace substantive ideas that find their root in Rand's particular way of thinking and responding to the issues life confronts us with; and then we have ideas that are merely formal and arbitrary, that easily could've been different if Rand had travelled in different intellectual circles and been exposed to different ideas. In the theory of history, the substantive idea is the notion that abstract ideas determine the course of history. Rand's seems to have taken this as an axiomatic idea right from the start. However, the actual form this idea took, the actual abstract ideas that would, for Rand, determine history, was probably determined second or third hand from Richard Weaver, and would've been different had she never been exposed to Weaver's thesis.