Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Intellectual Sources of Latest Objectischism 1

Since the McCaskey schism is (as Daniel Barnes has noted) largely arose from "philosophical" issues, it might be illuminating to go over the sources of this particular intellectual imbroglio. There are, as far I can ascertain, three main sources:

(1) The Objectivist theory of history
(2) The Objectivist concept of "reason"
(3) The Problem of Induction

Since Daniel has already covered No. 3, that leaves us with the first two. In this post I'll cover No. 1.

The Objectivist theory of history. Since the past cannot be changed, factual claims about the motive forces in history cannot be tested experimentally. Without experimental tests, history becomes a breeding ground for dubious theories. Individuals lacking detailed knowledge of history and insight into human nature can make assertions which, however implausible they may appear to the wise, cannot be decisively refuted. One such theory is the Objectivist "philosophy of history," which claims that the course of history is largely governed by broad philosophical abstractions devised by mankind's "greatest" philosophers (namely, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rand). Rand's theory serves two main purposes: (1) to explain why Rand's philosophy (or the equivalent thereof) did not prevail in the past; and (2) to explain why Rand's philosophy will likely prevail (i.e., dominate the culture) in the future. Explaining these things is important for a palpably simple reason. The very fact that Rand's political and ethical preferences have not fared well in the past would seem to constitute evidence that they are not likely to fare well in the future. Throughout human history, selfishness has usually been regarded with suspicion, whereas sacrificing oneself for the good of the community has always received the highest encomiums. Nor have we ever seen, on any significant scale, Rand's "laissez-faire" capitalism. Given these uninspiring facts, what reason could a sane person possibly entertain for believing that "rational" selfishness and laissez-faire capitalism will take hold at any time in the future?

Rand tries to solve these problems by asserting that the failure of self-interest and laissez-faire ultimately stems from a "concerted attack on man's conceptual faculty," itself a product of the failure of modern philosphers to solve the "problem of universals." Now there happens to be virtually no credible reasons (or evidence) for believing any of this to be true. Historically, the problem of universals was a metaphysical rather than an epistemological problem, and most modern (i.e., post-scholastic) philosophers paid little attention to it. Nor is it quite accurate to claim that modern philosophers were engaged in a "concerted attack on man's conceptual faculty." A great deal of fudging, distortion, and outright malicious interpretation were required to make Hume, Hegel, and Kant the great villians of the Objectivist narrative. While such intellectual malfeasance would hardly stir the conscience of the typical diehard orthodox Objectivist (who, after all, was largely ignorant of philosophy and whose concern about matters of fact and fair play had long ago been debauched by his commitment to to the Randian creed), with men of greater knowledge and integrity, things would fare otherwise. The Objectivist caricatures of great philosophers constituted a major intellectual embarrassment which made Rand's philosophy a tough sell, even among those scholars who might otherwise have been inclined to give it a place at the academic trough. Typical, in this regard, is Gary Merrill's take on Rand:

These sorts of things [i.e., examples of Rand's shoddy scholarship] would not be so bad, though they are bad, were it not for the fact that she so frequently gets things wrong. There is the business above concerning Russell [about "kinda" of knowing the concept of number], for example. There is the claim (p. 59) that “modern philosophers declare that axioms are a matter of arbitrary choice.” (no substantiation or reference is provided). There is the claim (p. 52) that “It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist”. (Any of you Aristotle scholars want to wade in here with a brief account of particulars vs. concretes?) And none of this comes with even a hint of specific attribution that would allow a reader to evaluate it. The closest she gets is along the lines of (p. 60) “For example, see the works of Kant and Hegel.” Now that really narrows it down.

So what is it that differentiates the writing of Rand from those of classic academics and professional philosophers? It is simply that her work has every appearance of an extended and multi-faceted straw man argument that fails to meet even the minimum standards of scholarship. It has all the marks of what in science would be pseudo-science. If there is such a thing as pseudo-philosophy, this is it.

Now fortunately for orthodox Objectivism, academic philosophers are so busy arguing among themselves that it is still possible for the stray Objectivist to scatch and claw his way into a professorship. But matters fare otherwise within the hard sciences, where experiment and exacting scholarship still hold sway and a consensus based on tried and true methods is still possible. All sorts of eccentricities may be ignored or even tolerated within philosophy and the "philosophy of history," but in physics more exacting standards are applied. Objectivism's shoddy scholarship -- its egregious tendency to make extravagently controversial claims based either on bad evidence or no evidence -- is bound to attract unfavorable attention.

Now one of the principle doctrines of the Objectivist theory of history is that the influence of Kant, as long as it remains unchallenged, must eventually eat away like a cancer nearly everything within the culture, including science. Rand and her disciples, afflicted with the sort of monomaniacal confirmation bias that tends to govern most ideologues, were ever vigilant for even the most negligible "evidence" of Kant's irrationality nibbling away at the host organism. Because 20th century physics didn't exactly line up into neat and tidy categories suggested by common sense and the Objectivist axioms, Rand viewed it with suspicion. Many of the leading theories and concepts in physics were couched in terms calculated to arouse Rand's ire, such as Theory of Relativity, Uncertainty Principle, observer effect, wave-particle duality, etc. Such terms suggested a discipline awash in the horrors of Kantian subjectivity. An exorcism, involving rigorous Objectivist criticism, seemed called for. But there were no Objectivists up to the task, none having the requisite "expertise" in physics -- none, that is, until David Harriman arrived on the scene. Harriman was everything Peikoff, now occupying the Objectivist throne, could have wished for. Harriman (allegedly) had worked as a physicist for the U.S. Department of Defense and taught philosophy at California State University San Bernadino. He was a clever and amusing lecturer. To people ignorant of physics, he seemed to know what he was talking about. And even better, he eagerly embraced Rand's and Peikoff's suspicions about physics and began formulating specious rationalizations for them. It was a match made in Objectivist heaven. It would now be possible to devise an Objectivist philosophy of science to do battle for truth, justice, and the Randian way. The Kantian demons could at last be excorcised from physics. Relativity and quantum mechanics could be made safe for an Objectivist metaphysics, and the Objectivist salvation of the world could proceed without concerns about a rearguard action from academic physicists. But alas, it was not to be. There were vipers in the very bosom of ARI uttering heretical murmurs concerning Harriman's shoddy scholarship. Someone would have to go; and that someone wasn't going to be either Harriman or Peikoff.

At the core of Objectivism there has long been a tension between Rand's pretense to rationality and reason and some of her fundamental beliefs, which are neither rational nor in line with the best scientific evidence. Among the Objectivist faithful, there exists a genuine admiration of hard science, which is regarded as an exemplar of "reason," that holy of holies within the Objectivist ideology. There even existed a few (though not many) Objectivists qualified to pronounce on experimental science, including a member of the ARI board, Dr. John P. McCaskey of Stanford's History and Philosophy of Science Program. McCaskey could not help noticing errors in Harriman's scholarship, and, perhaps fearing the scorn which such errors would evoke among his academic colleagues, he tried to bring them to Harriman's attention. But Harriman, secure in his position with Peikoff, would have none of it. McCaskey's minor grumblings were exaggerated, in the usual molehills-into-mountains Objectivist fashion, into one of the great intellectual crimes of the century.

Now all of this could have been contained within the discreet boundaries of a minor scandal were it not for one extraordinary oversight. As part of McCaskey's agreement to resign, Peikoff consented to release the email containing his infamous "someone has to go" ultimatum to ARI's legal department. Nothing demonstrates more vividly the gargantuan size of Peikoff's hubris then the carelessness by which this incendiary missive was allowed to see the light of public scrutiny. In releasing the email, Peikoff placed ARI and it's band of loyal followers in a terribly awkward position. What makes the email particularly hard to swallow for the Objectivist faithful was its blatantly irrational appeal to naked authority and its contempt for rational discourse. Peikoff expected to be obeyed unconditionally because of his "status" within the Objectivist community. "I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism," he complained in the email. "If only we could forget who Peikoff is!" many an Objectivist undoubtedly sighed on reading that email. Peikoff had become an embarrassment difficult to ignore or evade, like the eccentric relative who comes bolting out of the attic at the most inopportune moments.

Yet although most of the consternation arising among the rank and file is over Peikoff's email, the real problem is more intractable. It is a deep rooted conflict between Objectivism and science. Objectivists have for years been sedulously evading this conflict with one ideological makeshift or another. But as a consequence of the Objectivist mania for infiltrating academia, at some point open conflict was inevitable.

In 1982, Leonard Peikoff, responding to a question about what it would take for Objectivism win, responded: "The teaching of courses on Objectivism at Harvard and Yale. After that, it is just a matter of more courses in other places. But that is the end of the battle. From that point on, it's a process of enjoying the triumph and seeing it take hold in art and in politics." With Rand's death, placing Objectivists in academic positions became Objectivism's grand strategy for taking over the culture. But the problem is that once an Objectivist manages (often against great odds) to secure an academic position, he finds himself beholden to two masters. On the one hand, he must remain ideological pure in the eyes of the Objectivist cognescenti over at ARI, and on the other, he must maintain a facade of professorial respectability among his colleagues within academia. In disciplines where no strict consensus holds sway, this may not be so very difficult; but in the hard sciences, challenging the consensus on the basis of poor or non-existent scholarship is rarely tolerated.

We see this dynamic in full play in Alan Gotthelf's five star review of Harriman's The Logical Leap over at amazon.com. "Though I can't speak personally for the full accuracy of the historical accounts," Gotthelf writes, "they are essentialized with great skill, and lucidly presented." Note how Gotthelf hedges his bets: he refuses to endorse the "full accuracy" of Harriman's historical "evidence." Gotthelf finds himself in the unenviable position of being beholden to two masters with conflicting agendas. How can he serve both without alienating one or the other?

As long as Objectivism continues to hold to its bosom positions about human nature and history that run foul of experimental psychology and historical scholarship, these rifts will continue to widen. There's no escaping it. Yet there is another problem that may prove, in the end, even more intractable. Objectivism has no way of rationally settling conflicts that arise among its denizens. This subject I will explore in my next post.


Unknown said...

Simply riveting. Thanks.

Rey said...

"Though I can't speak personally for the full accuracy of the historical accounts, they are essentialized with great skill, and lucidly presented."

Translation: Though the facts may not support the argument, I agree with its conclusions. 5 stars.

Xtra Laj said...

Like Neil pointed out, I think the Internet can be added to the reasons for this Schism's bite. You did discuss the email, but it's hard for me to believe that Peikoff would have been lax if he had considered the possibility that his communication would later become public. I think that Peikoff's implicit distrust of McCaskey led him astray and that McCaskey was looking for some kind of communication, not necessarily that letter.

Anonymous said...

How long before the ARI start sending their members a disc, that when they load up on their computer it filters out any anti-Peikoff/ARI sites? Well, Hubbards men do it. Short of something drastic like that how are they going to keep their followers in check?

This is proof that the only people they hate more than the looters is each other. I just wonder how such a movement will survive like this. The level of paranoia they exhibit rivals some Maoist sect.

- Steven Johnston

gregnyquist said...

I think that Peikoff's implicit distrust of McCaskey led him astray and that McCaskey was looking for some kind of communication, not necessarily that letter.

There is another possible explanation. Peikoff's email, beside going to the legal department, also went to Yaron Brook, and possibly the board. That's why the "someone has to go" line is so ominous. But when Peikoff agreed to release it, Yaron Brook (and the ARI board, if they had seen it), should have stepped forward and said "No!" Brook can't be so destitute of judgment that he didn't know that releasing Peikoff's email would be a bad public relations move. So why did he allow it to be released? Is it possible that Brook wanted to embarrass Peikoff, because he's annoyed with the old man's heavy-handed, arrogant meddling?

Michael Prescott said...

FYI, that Gary Merrill quote is part of a longer piece that seems to be available only on Google's cache. Those who are interested can find it here:


gregnyquist said...

Merrill's short IOTE critique can also be found here.

Anonymous said...

I was once accused of being Gary Merrill at SOLO passion...a case of mistaken identity which I'm sure would have pleased neither of us.

Great article though on the ITOE.

- Steven Johnston