Friday, April 24, 2009

Taking Ideas Seriously Pt 2: Peikoff's "The Ominous Parallels"

Objectivists claim to "take ideas seriously," yet are notorious for bad arguments and worse scholarship. Regular ARCHNblog contributor Neil Parille continues his series detailing some key examples of this problem. (Part 1 here) This week, he examines Leonard Peikoff's debut "The Ominous Parallels."

In part one of this essay I discussed some of the problems with the Objectivist theory of history. Here I will discuss Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels, in which Peikoff applies Rand’s philosophy of cultural change to a concrete historical episode.

The Ominous Parallels (“OP”) was published in 1982 with a preface by Ayn Rand. Peikoff’s thesis is that the rise of the Nazis was the direct result of the influence of Immanuel Kant on German philosophy and culture. Kant inspired even more irrational philosophers as Hegel and Fichte, who went on to influence twentieth century German speaking irrationalists such as Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Karl Barth, Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger (most of whom, curiously enough, were anti-Nazi). This intellectual climate paved the way for the Nazis to take control of Germany in 1933. Peikoff gives short shrift to the Great Depression, the Treaty of Versailles, and mistakes made by anti-Nazi politicians to mount an effective resistance to Hitler as explanations for the rise of Nazism.

The most obvious problem for Peikoff is that Kant was not a Nazi or even a proto-Nazi. His political views were generally of the classical liberal variety. The second formulation of the categorical imperative (which Peikoff never quotes in his lengthy discussion of Kant’s ethics) is the rather un-Nazi sounding “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.” For any number of reasons, Kant seems particularly ill-suited as the intellectual godfather of Adolph Hitler.

A larger problem is Peikoff’s assumption that the influence of ideas flows one way (from bad to worse) and that later thinkers will inevitably draw the conclusions that Objectivists assert must be drawn from bad ideas. Peikoff does not establish (or even attempt to establish) that his and Rand’s idiosyncratic understanding of Kant was accepted by German philosophers and intellectuals. In addition, Peikoff does not show (or again even attempts to show) that German intellectuals drew the political conclusions that he thinks are inevitable from Kantian philosophy. Such a demonstration would require the review of an enormous amount of literature (most of it untranslated) by German intellectuals from Kant to 1933. If Kant’s immediate followers were not collectivists of the Nazi variety, any claim that Kantianism leads inevitably to collectivism or Auschwitz (which Peikoff alleges was Kant’s “dream”) is rather dubious.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that there are only a couple of Nazis whom Peikoff cites as finding support in Kant. The first is Lothar Gottlieb Tirala. Peikoff calls him a “philosophically trained Nazi ideologist” who believed that Aristotle was non-Aryan. (OP, pp. 57, 65-66.) I suspect that Tirala first came to Peikoff’s attention through von Mises’ works Human Action and Omnipotent Government. Von Mises discusses him as a representative advocate of “polylogism,” the belief that different classes or races employ different logic. Tirala was a physician who headed the Nazi’s Institute for Racial Hygiene. He was seen as something of an eccentric even by most Nazis because of his theory that proper breathing could cure a host of diseases. He does not appear to have been taken seriously as a philosopher. (Best I can tell, his only work translated into English was The Cure of High Blood Pressure by Respiratory Exercises.)

The second is Adolph Eichmann. Peikoff relies exclusively on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, her famous account of his 1961 trial. According to Peikoff, “[h]e was a faithful Kantian Adolph Eichmann told his Israeli judges.” (OP, p. 96.) As Fred Seddon shows, Peikoff’s use of Arendt is highly misleading.

As David Ramsay Steele notes, one of the presuppositions of Objectivist theory is that there is a “tight fit” between metaphysics and epistemology on the one hand and ethics and politics on the other. However, the one theme running through Nazi ideology is not Kantianism or even philosophy, but biology and race. Fanciful theories of Aryan supremacy were probably accepted by the average Nazi not because of epistemology but because of the all too human need to find scapegoats in a time of crisis. Peikoff is aware that the rise of the Nazis took place simultaneously with the acceptance by many intellectuals of esoteric racial theories of Aryan superiority, but makes the dubious claim that these ideas were believed only because bad philosophy paved the way for them. Of course many German philosophers such as Hegel and Fichte were ardent nationalists, but it does not appear that they advocated proto-Nazi racial ideas. Even the most prominent philosopher who was a member of the Nazi party (Martin Heidegger) did not accept Nazi racial theories completely. If one had asked the average Nazi (or even Nazi intellectual) why he believed in racist ideology I would be surprised if he gave reasons having anything to do with the philosophies of Kant, Hegel or Fichte.

Interestingly enough, probably the most widely quoted philosopher by the Nazis was Friedrich Nietzsche. Unlike the obscure and abstruse Kant, Nietzsche actually sounds like a Nazi, at least at times. His philosophy is also tinged with racial and biological overtones. This is not to say that he would have approved of the Nazism, but if Nazism should be laid at the feet of any thinker (a dubious proposition) it would be Nietzsche. As readers of the ARCHNblog know, Rand admired Nietzsche and echoes of his philosophy show up even in her later works. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Peikoff (always eager to defend Rand) tells us that his influence on the rise of the Nazis is “debatable.” (OP, p. 43.)

- Neil Parille


Daniel Barnes said...

>So we shouldn’t be surprised that Peikoff (always eager to defend Rand) tells us that his [Nietzche] influence on the rise of the Nazis is “debatable.” (OP, p. 43.)

Yes, this is rather like the famous Objectivist double standard that applies to Rand.

We suddenly have to have this careful, delicately balanced discussion about Nietzsche's influence on the Nazis - when Hitler actively promoted his work, and his advocates, and possessed Nietzsche's favourite walking stick - whereas Kant is always and everywhere responsible for the Holocaust, despite the fact that concentration camp inmate Emmanuel Levinas called the faithful dog who gave comfort to the prisoners "the last Kantian in Germany." Likewise, Rand and her followers can make whatever libelous and evidence-free claims about other thinkers, yet critics of Rand must always take into account every scintilla of nuance, the surrounding air pressure of every handwaving argument she came up with. Most amusing.

Michael Prescott said...

I found Richard Weikart's From Darwin to Hitler a compelling read. Weikart does not argue that Darwin was a proto-Nazi or that Darwinism inevitably had to lead to Nazism. Instead he shows that Darwinism, as it was interpreted by influential German intellectuals (especially Ernst Haeckel), provided the intellectual foundation for theories of racial inferiority that led to the eugenics movement and, ultimately, to the "final solution."

The eugenics movement helped to popularize the idea of racial "purification" and to make the horrendous measures imposed by the Nazis more palatable.

I don't think Kant had anything to do with it. The issues Kant dealt with were mostly too abstruse to have much popular impact, but Darwinism in its perverted "social Darwinist" form had an obvious relevance to political and social issues of the day.

Hitler himself is not known to have had any particular interest in Kant, but he did read the sensational pseudo-scholarly magazines and newspapers of his day - the ones that promoted theories of racial purification.

Damien said...

Michael Prescott,

Actually there's so little evidence for Kant's culpability in bringing about the Holocaust and the Nazi's rise to power that it would make about as much sense to blame evolution. Yet that would be absurd. Something like the Holocaust could have just as easily been justified without anyone having a concept of evolution. Evolution is a scientific theory dealing with the development of life on this planet, as well as maybe other worlds, but it makes no claim as to how people ought to behave. Beyond that racism existed long before the modern concept of evolution or natural selection. Antisemitism for one thing predated Darwin, by well over two thousand years. Plus many modern scientist will tell you that race is nothing more than a meaningless social construct, and keep in mind that today almost all scientist accept evolution.

Michael Prescott said...

"Something like the Holocaust could have just as easily been justified without anyone having a concept of evolution. Evolution is a scientific theory dealing with the development of life on this planet, as well as maybe other worlds, but it makes no claim as to how people ought to behave."

I think if you were to read Weikart's book, you might be persuaded that evolutionary theory, as interpreted by social Darwinists (especially in Germany), helped to give rise to the eugenics movement, which in turn provided a large part of the rationale for the Holocaust.

Unlike Peikoff, Weikart traces in detail the development of intellectual theories from ivory-tower exercises to popular, grass-roots movements, and shows how the distinctively German view of Darwinism influenced German pamphleteers, editorial writers and politicians. It's a compelling read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in this subject.

You're right that there was a long history of racism and anti-Semitism in Germany, but the social Darwinist/eugenics movement gave those old racist impulses a newfound acceptability among the intelligentsia and other opinion-shapers.

"Evolution ... makes no claim as to how people ought to behave."

Darwinism as a strictly biological theory may not (this is debatable), but social Darwinism makes very strong normative claims.

Michael Prescott said...

"keep in mind that today almost all scientist accept evolution."

I don't see how this is relevant, since I'm not criticizing evolutionary theory per se, only its perversion by German social Darwinists, whose viewpoints would today be disowned by nearly all Darwinists.

However, I think it would be more precise to say that while almost all scientists accept evolution, not all of them accept Darwinism as the last word on the subject. Darwinism means more than just evolution; it means evolution by natural selection. Neo-Darwinism is the theory that all evolutionary changes can be explained in terms of random genetic mutations that are favored by natural selection.

Random mutation and natural selection are not the only mechanisms of evolution to have been proposed. Other proposed mechanisms include punctuated equilibria, epigenetics, DNA viruses, and self-organizing systems (chaos theory).

No doubt random mutations and natural selection play some role in evolution, but I think it is doubtful that they can suffice as a comprehensive explanation.

Dragonfly said...

Random mutation and natural selection don't just play "some role" in evolution, they are the *essential core* of the mechanism which makes the development of fantastically complex and efficient organisms possible. There are other, supplementary mechanisms like genetic drift and horizontal gene transfer and there is sexual selection, which was already extensively treated by Darwin himself.

"Punctuated equilibrium" is not some new kind of mechanism, it is fully compatible with Darwin's theory, in spite of all the claims by Gould boasting of its "revolutionary" character. To quote Dawkins: "What needs to be said now, loud and clear, is the truth: that the theory of punctuated equilibrium lies firmly within the neo-Darwinian synthesis. It always did. It will take time to undo the damage wrought by the overblown rhetoric, but it will be undone."

Neil Parille said...


I skimmed Weikart's book when researching my piece and he reminded me of the influence of Darwin on Nietzsche.

Another good book is The Holy Reich by Steigmann-Gall who draws attention to the influence of leftist protestant thought on the Nazis.

There have also been studies on the Nazi interst in the occult.

Michael Prescott said...

"Random mutation and natural selection don't just play "some role" in evolution, they are the *essential core* of the mechanism ..."

Yes - according to neo-Darwinism.

But not all evolutionary biologists share the neo-Darwinian view. Here's an interesting essay about a conference on evolution held in 2005. The participants were mainstream biologists, many of them quite notable. Yet it appears that there was considerable dissension from the neo-Darwinist line.

As reported by Michael Shermer (one of the organizers of the conference):

"William Provine gives a talk proclaiming we need a new theory of evolution and argues that natural selection is not a mechanism....

"Next up was Niles Eldredge from the American Museum of Natural History who co-founded (with Stephen Jay Gould) the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he nicely summarized in the first part of his talk that challenged Darwinian gradualism....

"The next lecture would have sent Darwinian fundamentalists into skeptical paroxysms, as Leticia Aviles, a zoologist at the University of British Columbia, summarized the evidence for 'multilevel selection'....

"[T]he acknowledged star of the weekend, Lynn Margulis, famous for her pioneering research on symbiogenesis, ... then got to work, pronouncing the death of neo-Darwinism. Echoing Darwin, she said 'It was like confessing a murder when I discovered I was not a neo-Darwinist.' But, she quickly added, 'I am definitely a Darwinist though. I think we are missing important information about the origins of variation. I differ from the neo-Darwinian bullies on this point.' ...

"The final talk was delivered by evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden, from Stanford University. Evolutionary skepticism must have been in the air, for on the heals of Margulis’ pronouncement of the death of neo-Darwinism, Roughgarden proclaimed the death of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection."

Shermer takes pains to reassure the reader that such heretical views are not widely shared, and that this give-and-take reflects the essential strength of the scientific process. He is probably right on both counts, but the fact that neo-Darwinism came under sharp attack at a major conference ("the Woodstock of evolution," as Shermer dubs it) shows, at least, that neo-Darwinism is seen as unsatisfactory by some of the biggest names in the field.

Anyway, I didn't mean to hijack the thread by talking about Weikart's book. My main point in bringing it up was that Weikart actually accomplishes what Peikoff merely tries (and fails) to do: he shows, in detail, how abstract intellectual theories trickled down to the "man on the street" and helped lay the groundwork for Nazism.