Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rand and Aesthetics 4

Malevolent sense of life. For Objectivists, a malevolent sense of life stems from an acceptance of the malevolent universe premise (MUP), which Rand defined as "the theory that man, by his very nature, is helpless and doomed—that success, happiness, achievement are impossible to him—that emergencies, disasters, catastrophes are the norm of his life and that his primary goal is to combat them." Objectivism contends that the MUP ultimatly derives from mistaken (perhaps even evil) philosophical premises:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rand and Aesthetics 3

Rand's "Sense of Life" as an argument ad hominem. All ethical arguments, according to the philosopher George Santayana, ultimately resolve into an argument ad hominem. "There can be no other kind of argument in ethics," Santayana warns us. Aesthetic arguments often suffer from the same problem, particularly when they are either used as the pretence for baseless psychological speculation or moral condemnation. In Rand, we find evidence of both. She could not accept that people had different aesthetic tastes than her own. Her tastes were not only "objectively" better, but those with contrary tastes were lesser people. Worse, in her public philosophy, Rand tended to be rather coy and ambigious about all of this, as if to give herself plenty of wiggle room so that she could deny that she meant any offense. But her scorn for contrary tastes is palpable, even if it isn't always explicit. And in her private life, she didn't always hold back her scorn. People, she declared, who did not share her sense of life were psychologically incompatible with herself.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rand and Aesthetics 2

Sense of Life 1. This is in many ways the most troublesome of Rand's aesthetic conceptions, precisely because it is the least implausible, particularly those inclined to accept Rand's judgments. Rand defines the notion as follows:

A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence. It sets the nature of a man’s emotional responses and the essence of his character.

Elsewhere, Rand writes:

It is only those values which he regards or grows to regard as “important,” those which represent his implicit view of reality, that remain in a man’s subconscious and form his sense of life.

“It is important to understand things”—“It is important to obey my parents”—“It is important to act on my own”—“It is important to please other people”—“It is important to fight for what I want”—“It is important not to make enemies”—“My life is important”—“Who am I to stick my neck out?” Man is a being of self-made soul—and it is of such conclusions that the stuff of his soul is made. (By “soul” I mean
“consciousness.”) The integrated sum of a man’s basic values is his sense of life.

Rand's term "sense of life" is roughly equivalent to such terms as character and personality. Rand's sense of life is, in effect, the general drift or tendencies of the individuals emotional reactions. Two important conclusions can be drawn from the Randian conception:

A. That the "content" of a man's sense of life (i.e., his specific reactions) are not determined or even influenced by innate tendencies, but are the consequence of integrated (or "misintegrated") value judgments.

B. People tend to have either a "benevolent" or "malevolent" sense of life; or, if they seem to have parts of both, this is a result of contradictory basic premises.

The first conclusion states what should be fairly obvious: Rand's conception of an individual's sense of life is merely her view of human nature applied to the issue of aesthetic judgment. An individual's reaction to a work of art is thoroughly emotional; and this emotion, for Rand, is "automatic effect of man’s value premises." The second conclusion is one of those hidden premises in Objectivism, one implicit in the philosophy, rather than one explicitly endorsed by Rand or her chief disciples. Rand tends to break down sense of life emotional reactions into two predominant types: (1) A "benevolent" sense of life; and (2) a "malevolent" sense of life. If an individual does not easily into either category, that can only be as a result of contradictions in the basic premises that make up his character.

I have written enough posts on this blog about Rand's theory of human nature to establish that it her view of man is factually incorrect. The character or personality of the individual is not a mere product of his basic premises, ethical or otherwise. So Rand's assumption that an individual's sense of life is, in effect, his own responsibility is empirically insupportable. Moreover, it has the unfortunate effect of reducing all arguments about aesthetic judgments to an argument ad hominem (more on this in my next post).

What about conclusion B? Well, the falsity of conclusion A causes serious problems for conclusion B. Here's the chief problem: Rand tends to categorize aesthetic reactions as being either benevolent or malevolent. Yet in real life, aesthetic reactions tend to be far more complex and even nuanced than can be adequately summed up in just two words. Nor does this complexity result from mixed or contradictory premises, as is suggested in Objecitivism: it doesn't result from premises at all, but from much more complex sources, which may include innate proclivities, influences from peers, reactions to traumatic events, and independent conscious judgments. There is no support in experimental psychology for the view that emotions arise either solely or even primarily from consciously chosen (or accepted) value judgments.

Rand's conception of a sense of life is, in its overall tenor, merely an attempt to integrate her view human nature with her aesthetics. It also serves as a convenient rationale for attacking those who have aesthetic reactions that varied with Rand's own. In my next post, I will examine how Rand uses her sense of life notion to denigrate those who dared to have different aesthetic tastes from her own.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Rand and Aesthetics 1

Intro. Aesthetics, if it aspires to be in the least rational, sane, and just, must seek to explain, rather than judge, personal responses to works of art. When aesthetics seeks to justify a specific set of preferences, it degenerates into mere special pleading and rationalization.

Rand's foremost consideration in her aesthetics was to judge. She belonged to what I call the malicious school of aesthetic criticism: it was not enough for Rand merely to glorify her own preferences, she also had to denigrate the preferences of those with different aesthetic tastes. Her entire aesthetics seems orientated toward disparagement. And for Rand, there was plenty to disparage. She appears to have disliked most of what passed for art. Her remarks on specific works of art are nearly always, in some respect, negative. Rand simply did not care for most of what passes for great art in Western Civilization. People who don't like most art usually don't make best aestheticians. Combine that with a mania for judging (particularly for malicious, narcissistic judging), and you have a recipe for philosophical malfeasance on a grand scale. The Objectivist aesthetics is largely a rationalization of Rand's own aesthetic prejudices and hatreds. Rand's actual doctrine is littered with overly vague generalizations, historical inaccuracies, false attributions, and a congenital incapacity to understand any work of art she failed to respond to. Despite all her high talk about reason and objectivity, her aesthetics remains rooted in her own blatantly subjective feelings. Given how different her emotional reactions were from those of most educated people, one wonders what business she had dabbling in aesthetics.

Rand's aesthetic tastes largely revolve around six main prejudices: (1) prejudice in favor of Rand's "ideal" man, i.e., the man who has "no inner conflicts," whose "mind and his emotions are integrated," and whose "consciousness is in perfect harmony"; (2) discomfort with tragedy; (3) mania for realistic description or literal representation; (4) strong preference for plot over character in literature; (4) indifference to most forms of beauty, particularly beauty of nature; (6) indiference, sometimes even hostility, to most aesthetic forms. These six prejudices make up the bulk of what could be called Rand's "real" aestethics. Her official aesthetics, though inspired by these prejudices, takes on a different aspect, as we shall see in the ensuing posts.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Latest:

Here's The Daily Caller's John Aglialoro interview in full, including the bizarroworld possibility of a musical adaption of the third part.

Meanwhile the word of mouth suggesting a stinker continues to grow - as does the reported budget, now up to $20m - with Filmstage giving it a C- and describing the film as "incomprehensible gibberish" that is "neither compelling nor entertaining".

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 15

“Man’s survival requires that those who think be free of the interference of those who don’t.” I will assume that Rand doesn't mean this literally, for it would be absurd to believe that people who don't think could interfere with people who do. After all, who doesn't think at least on some level? The severely mentally retarded? The severely brain damaged? I suspect what Rand meant to say is, Man's survival requires that those who think well be free of the interference of those who don't think well. In the face of the evidence, this is clearly an exaggeration. Men who think poorly have been interfering with their betters for centuries, and yet somehow the human race has managed to survive. Rand provides no evidence to the contrary because no such evidence exists.

“All the evils, abuses, and iniquities, popularly ascribed to businessmen and to capitalism, were not caused by an unregulated economy or by a free market, but by government intervention into the economy.” Well, at least Rand tried to provide a little evidence for this one in her article praising Vanderbilt and James Hill. Unfortunately, the little evidence she provided is one sided and riddled with confirmation bias. Moreover, a broad sweeping statement such as Rand's requires more than just a little evidence. What about the evils of 14 hour work days? What about the evils of child labor? Yes, I know, Rand argues these things were necessary in the constitution of things, and that the only possible alternative would have been starvation for the workers and/or children involved; but they were an evil nonetheless, nor were they an evil caused by government interference.

“A ‘mixed economy’ is a society in the process of committing suicide.” What does it mean to say "in the process of committing suicide"? The vagueness of the expression makes Rand's statement impossible to either confirm or deny on the basis of evidence. All societies throughout human history have had some form of what Rand would call a "mixed economy." And all nations, except those currently prevailing, have at some point collapsed or metamorphized into something else. Nor does there exist any necessary connection between freedom and longevity. Athens was freer than Sparta; yet Athens' period of freedom was relatively brief; Sparta flourished for seven centuries. History is full of examples of less free societies outlasting, even conquering, more free ones. Nor is there any reason to believe that an "unmixed" economy, assuming such a phenomenon even capable (per impossible) of existing, would not at some point face the tolling bells.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011


According George Will, anyway, who writes:
...the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.
Gee, who knew? Ironically, this is just the kind of phoney, hilarious psychologising Rand specialised in. (Via Krugman)

Watch Another So-Bad-It’s-Fun Clip From Atlas Shrugged: The Movie

Watch Another So-Bad-It’s-Fun Clip From Atlas Shrugged: The Movie

This also in from New York Magazine's entertainment section. And yes, it's pretty bad alright. It reminds me of the immortal Libby Gelman Waxner's line: it's like this movie was designed by NASA to see how long people could last in space without entertainment.

Atlas Shrugged Movie: Actually Really Bad After All

More in line with expectations, Comingsoon.net rates the movie 2/10, describing it as a "laughable failure" and "wholly unappealing".

Stay tuned.