Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ayn Rand & Epistemology, 40

Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy 13: Is contingency necessary? Objectivists tend to be overly fond of accusing their philosophical opponents of the "stolen concept" fallacy. If some philosophers insists "Nobody can be certain!" an Objectivist is bound to retort: "Can you be certain of that!" What is lost is such facile refutations are the nuances and depth of rigorous philosophical discourse. Stolen-concept "refutations" constitute a philosophical short-cut that fails to do justice to either side in the debate.

If, in opposing the Peikoffian view of necessity, we were to declare the contingency of truth, we must be prepared for stereotypical Objectivist refutation, namely: Is this declared contingency of truth itself a necessary truth? The philosopher George Santayana answered this charge in his book The Realm of Truth as follows:

Finally, turning the doctrine here defended against itself, we might ask whether it is not necessarily true that the truth is contingent and not necessary. Here again I must repeat that what is necessary logically is not necessarily true. In this case, that truth is a necessary proposition, because facts, by definition, make the truth true and all facts, again by definition, are contingent. But there is no necessity in the choice or in the applicability of such categories as necessary, truth, or fact. These categories are not necessarily true. I find that, as a matter of fact, they are true, or at least true enough; they articulate human thought in a normal way which reality on the whole seems to sanction. They are the lungs and heart-valves of the mind. And while we use these categories, we shall be obliged on pain of talking nonsense to stick to their connotations, and to acknowledge, among other things, that there are no necessary truths. But the possession of such categories is after all a psychological or even a personal accident; and the fact that they are convenient, or even absolutely true in describing the existing world, is a cosmic accident.

[Our thesis], then, that there are no necessary truths, is itself made necessary only by virtue of certain assumed intuitions or definitions which fix the meaning of the terms necessity, contingency, existence, and truth. But no definition and no intuition can render true the term it distinguishes. My thesis will therefore be a true thesis only in so far as in the realm of existence facts may justify my definitions and may hang together in the way those definitions require. [Realms of Being, 423-424]

The key to understanding the (so-called) necessity-contingency "dichotomy" is to appreciate the difference between our ideas of things and things themselves. Although in some phases of her epistemology, Rand appreciated the difference between ideas and concepts on the one side and reality on the other, there are parts of her philosophy were she reverts to a cruder, more literalist conception of knowledge. The Objectivist view of necessity and contingency is clouded by a misplaced literalism. At the core of the Objectivist view of logic is the implicit premise that logic can only be "valid" if reality itself is "logical." This misunderstanding infects a good portion of the Objectivist metaphysics, and spills over into the Rand's deeply problematical view of identity. Logic is not, nor can it ever be, a property of matter or consciousness. Logic is a category applicable to phases of thought. An argument can be logical or illogical; facts, on the other hand, are alogical.

Necessity applies merely to the realm of thought,. Propositions can be necessary if they are defined as such. But a proposition cannot make a fact necessary. Even if a "necessary" proposition describing a fact turns out to be true, the truth comes from the fact, which is not necessary, rather than from logic. Facts are not true for logical reasons. Logic is a procedure which can be helpful in testing assertions about matters of fact. Logic, however, does not create truth (as the "facts are necessary" view unwittingly presumes).


Lee Kelly said...

The stolen concept fallacy is just, well, it's a fallacy.

If I "steal" the concept which I intend to refute or deny the existence of, then I must implicitly presume the concept is true or that it exists. If, then, I validly derive the falsity of that presumption, then we have a contradiction in the premises.

The Objectivist goes 'Aha! Your argument is incoherent, you have stolen the concept, and we may reject its conclusion.'

But let's run through that again. Someone "stole" the concept from the Objectivist, meaning they (implicitly or explicitly) asserted an Objectivist position in the premises. They then used this premise to derive a contradiction, which means the premise cannot be true. But this is just a reductio ad absurdum. The whole point of the argument is that it leads to incoherence, because it's supposed to demonstrate the absurdity of the concept being "stolen".

In other words, the "stolen concept fallacy" is a all-purpose means of rejecting any reductio ad absurdum, and so Objectivism is thus immunised from the menace of logical criticism.

Bryan White said...

@Lee: A statement such as "There's no such thing as truth" is NOT a reductio ad absurdum nor is it a demonstration of the flaws in the premise that's being stolen (namely, "There IS such a thing as truth.", since it implicitly claims to be a true statement. You try and show me how saying "There's no such thing as truth." demonstrates the absurdity of that premise. It only demonstrates the absurdity of ITSELF.) On the contrary, the Objectivist counter-argument to the affect, "If there were no such thing as truth, that would include that statement as well." is meant to be a reductio ad absurdum in the proper use of the term.

So basically, you got it all bass ackwards and front otherways.

Bryan White said...

Now, if I had a bone to pick with Objectivism, it would be to wonder if any reputable philosopher ever really said, "There's no such thing as truth." in the sense that Rand takes it. It seems to me that philosophy is usually concerned with debating finer points than that -- which is what makes it so damn interesting. It's like Rand never got past the Freshman year questions of philosophy, and whenever she encountered anything that seemed to go against the answers that she had decided upon for those questions she just shut it out without looking any deeper into it. I tend to agree with many of her answers, but the field is SO MUCH more complex that she seemed to understand or appreciate.

For instance, from what I can tell, the current discussion isn't so much the question of whether there is such a thing as truth per se, but rather whether the facts of the universe just happen to be what they are or whether that HAVE to be that way out of logical necessity. For example, if someone says "The sun is cold", it is a contradiction of fact but not of logic, since the sun is not hot by logical necessity.

At least, that's the argument here (I believe.) I'd have to think about whether I'd absolutely agree with that across the board, but at the moment the point is that it's much more complicated than Rand makes it all sound.

Lee Kelly said...


You don't get it.

The statement 'There is no truth' is false. I agree. If it's true, then it's false. Therefore, it cannot be true, and it must be false. There is, then, such a thing as truth. That's fine. It's a good solid argument.

However, your imaginary interlocutor doesn't care, because he's an irrationalist. That such a statement logically implies its own falsity is irrelevant to him, because he embraces the illogical--he rejects logic along with truth. Accusing him of inconsistency, then, is like accusing a Nazi of anti-semitism.

Normally, and perhaps in all the cases I am aware, the statements which Objectivists accuse of committing the stolen concept are the conclusions of arguments. People don't just declate in vaccuo that 'there is no truth' or 'property is theft', but rather they couch that statement within an argument, or against a background of assumptions.

Indeed, the road to irrationalism often begins with an argument that purports to demonstrate the absurdity of truth itself. Logical paradoxes may provide the inspiration, or perhaps sceptical arguments such as Fries's trilemma. In any case, they proceed to argue that assuming truth or logic, we get untruth and illogic.

These arguments are not uncommon, and they often lead people away from rationalism, or at least to alternative theories of truth or deviant logics.

It does no good, however, to accuse the irrationalist of stealing the concept, because he does't want to keep it; the Objectivist can have it back. The irrationalist "stole" the concept temporarily, merely to demonstrate how, according to the Objectivists own standards, the concept should be rejected. This inconsistency is of concern to the irrationalist, because he makes no pretense of being consistent. His purpose, rather, is to torment the Objectivist by using his own standards against him--to demonstrate that the Objectivist cannot hold his own position with integrity.

However, the Objectivist has a ready made answer to all such criticism. He latches onto the conclusion, such as 'property is theft', and declares that it must presuppose what it seeks to deny. It has "stolen the concept". He then fallaciously uses this as a basis to dismiss the whole argument, when he should be digging into the argument itself and trying to demonstrate that no such contradiction can be derived. If he doesn't, then the Objectivist is merely presupposing what his interlocutor is denying, i.e. that property is a coherent concept.

gregnyquist said...

but at the moment the point is that it's much more complicated than Rand makes it all sound.

That's the issue with the stolen concept fallacy. And it applies to the "There is no truth" statement as well. While that statement is clearly false, I don't agree with the stolen-concept refutation of it. What Rand consistently fails to do whenever she is confronted with a philosophical statement she doesn't like is to understand it. She seems to believe that words have meanings independent of what is actually meant by them. If someone were to insist "There is no truth," what could they mean by that? If the person were a sincere sceptic, he might merely mean that he did not wish to credit any ideas as being veracious descriptions of reality. Since truth, at least in its narrower meaning, is a symbolic description of reality, once it is denied that any such description is possible, then there really is no more truth. Without reality, the category of truth no longer applies.

The notion that there is no truth (because there is no reality) is a false position to hold, but it is not self-contradictory or self-refuting. It's merely a difficult position to express in language. However, the sceptic cannot be considered refuted because he must express himself in other men's words. A position cannot be held to be false merely because expressions of it are pardoxical or lead to verbal inconsistencies. Quantum mechanics is difficult to express in ordinary language; but that doesn't provide a pretext for dismissing it out of hand.

It's like Rand never got past the Freshman year questions of philosophy, and whenever she encountered anything that seemed to go against the answers that she had decided upon for those questions she just shut it out without looking any deeper into it.

That pretty much hits the nail on the head. While it would be an exaggeration to say that she was philosophical illiterate, one gets the sense from reading Rand that there were many subtleties and nuances in philosophy that escaped her. I doubt she ever really came to understand what Hume's is-ought gap was all about, or what old Kant was really up to in the Critique of Pure Reason. Outside of Aristotle, she doesn't appear to have done any in depth philosophical reading; nor, given her inability to understand what other writers/thinkers mean by the words they used, is it likely that such reading would have done her any good.

Dragonfly said...

In 2007 I wrote on this blog:

"What is wrong with the idea of the SCF: even if someone uses a concept in a way that denies its genetic roots, this doesn't necessarily invalidate his use of the concept. It merely means that the concept is no longer the same as the original concept. This may be perfectly valid, for example nowadays the concept "time" is no longer the same as the concept "time" before 1905 [nevertheless we still use the same word as for practical purposes it is more an update of the old concept than a completely new concept, even if there are fundamental differences between the two]. On the other hand is it of course possible that the new concept is not valid, but the point is that you can't prove that by merely pointing out that it denies the validity of its genetic roots. The SCF in itself doesn't prove anything, it's therefore only a rhetorical device without any real meaning."

Xtra Laj said...


I appreciate your point that the stolen concept fallacy would make reductio ad absurdum arguments or proof by contradiction methodologically invalid.

Bryan White said...

@Lee: Ah but see, why would I listen to this "imaginary interlocutor" then? I mean, he's free to disregard sense and reason if he pleases, but I'm not going to consider any subsequent conclusions he reaches to have a whole lot of credibility. Even if we accept Greg's argument that "There's no such thing as truth." Isn't inherently self-defeating from a logical standpoint (and I don't know if I totally buy that), it's still rather self-defeating from a PERSUASIVE standpoint. I would no more accept truisms from someone who declares that there's no truth, than I would order a meal at a restaurant that delares that all food is poison.

Granted, I suppose that puts me in the same "tuning out" position that I just chastised Rand for. So, in the interest of open-minded let's say I give the waiter five minutes to explain precisely what he means by "poison." But if he means what I think he does, I'm not taking a bite and you're welcome to my leftovers. Enjoy.

Lee Kelly said...


You're buying rather heavily into the genetic fallacy there.

Whether the person presenting an argument actually believes in the premises is irrelevant to the validity of that argument. This is especially so with regard to a reductio ad absurdum, since the whole point is that the person presenting the argument doesn't believe the premises.

An argument should not be dismissed just because it comes from an irrationalist, any more than an argument about theology should be dismissed because it comes from an atheist. Some irrationalists are, in fact, capable of producing very clever arguments about all manner of subjects; what makes them irrationalists is that they reject rationalism as a way of life, as a creed, as values to live by and strive for.

Bryan White said...

Not at all. I'm only assuming that our interlocutor is serious. I'm not saying that I won't listen to him because he's a "dirty irrationalist" and a rascal besides. I'm saying that the statement itself belies taking it seriously. If there's no such thing as truth then why should I care about that statement? What lends it weight? On what grounds should I believe it?

Bryan White said...

Besides, if being an irrationist is such a swell and legitimate thing to be, then what difference does it make if I make the gentic fallacy or the smurf with a third nut fallacy or fifteen other fallacies on top of that. Fallacies are for weak minded people who care about making sense. I'll see your fallacy and raise you four coconuts dressed up to look like the Beatles. Ain't they cute? Flip flap flarn cheeseburger toothbrush!!

Bryan White said...
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Lee Kelly said...


You answered your own question.

Why should you care? What lends the argument weight? Why should you believe it? The irrationalist says that that you shouldn't care, nothing lends it weight, and you needn't believe it. He isn't, however, saying these things because he cares whether they're true--he's an irrationalist. He says them because they follow from your position, your standards, and your rational criteria.

A reductio ad absurdum attacks the integrity of any rationalist who believes the premise is true, because it appears to be defeated by their own criteria for what it's rational to believe. The irrationalist, then, is attempting to show that, by rational standards, one cannot be a rationalist, and thus undermine the integrity of the rationalist.

To dismiss the irrationalist's arguments as you have attempted to do is to create a dogma. It is, ironically, to concede one of the irrationalist's points, i.e. that rationalism is secretly dogmatic and, therefore, at the heart of rationality lies irrationality.

You may not take such arguments seriously, but many people have and continue to do so. I take such arguments very seriously, regardless of who presents them or their motives for doing so. In fact, providing an account of rationality that avoids the pitfalls of irrationalist and sceptical challenges has been the philosophical problem that has preoccupied me more than any other. It was in the course of such investigations that I stumbled upon the "stolen concept fallacy", and considered it as a potential solution. However, I soon realised that it wasn't a fallacy at all, but a defense strategy used to evade rather than answer criticism.

Daniel Barnes said...

Lee Kelly:
>In other words, the "stolen concept fallacy" is a all-purpose means of rejecting any reductio ad absurdum, and so Objectivism is thus immunised from the menace of logical criticism.

Objectivism also immunises itself from the menace of logical criticism by claiming to have developed its own version of logic.

Objectivism immunises itself from the menace of criticism in general by constructing its arguments according its own official language.

gregnyquist said...

I would no more accept truisms from someone who declares that there's no truth, than I would order a meal at a restaurant that delares that all food is poison.

That's a perfectly acceptable strategy. After all, there's only so many hours in a day and most of us don't have the time to thoroughly consider every contention that is raised. There is room for saying: "I can't deal with this. It strikes me as grossly implausible. I don't have time to bother my head with it." However, if you decide to take it seriously, you need something a bit more rigorous than the stolen-concept-fallacy trope to dispatch it.

There's one other reason to go after the SCF: it's used in Objectivism to prop up foundationalism, which in turn used to prop up one of the very worst parts of Objectivism, Rand's "philosophy of history."

Bryan White said...

I admit that I'm not an expert on the stolen concept fallacy. I was mostly just needling away at this "There's no such thing as truth" statement.

It seems that Lee Kelly is equating the stolen concept fallacy with the reductio ad absurdum, or at least saying that anyone who tries to deploy the RAA with quickly get shot down with stolen concept accusations. I think, however, that there is a crucial difference between the two.

In the RAA the person is proposing a hypothetical scenario where the premise is assumed to be true, for the sake of argument, and then showing how that assumption leads to asurdity. It can generally be formulated as "If [x] was the case, then [y]" [y] being something that all parties agree would be absurd, hence the name. A good example would be George Carlin's bit where he explores the anti-abortion argument about life beginning at conception. In the RAA, the person is not USING the premise to make their counter-argument -- the counter-argument lies in the absurdity itself. The premise doesn't need to be valid for the counter-argument to hold. Quite the contrary, the premise has only been brought to light to demonstrate its own absurdity. Carlin wasn't COUNTING on the idea that life begins at conception; he was mocking the very notion of it.

In the self-defeating argument (which I'm assuming "stolen concept fallacy" is just a fancy Objectivist name for) the person is BASING their argument on the very premise that they're trying to refute. An example would be someone saying, "It's been scientifically proven that science is complete hogwash." They're banking on the authority of science to make their argument against science. The statement "There's no such thing as truth" could be similiarly formulated as "It's true that there's no such thing as truth" since all statements carry the default implication of claiming to be true. If it were an RAA (as Lee seems to claim) then it would formulated as "If there were such a thing as truth, then there would be no such thing as truth.", and that don't make a lick of sense.

Neil Parille said...


While it would be an exaggeration to say that she was philosophical illiterate, one gets the sense from reading Rand that there were many subtleties and nuances in philosophy that escaped her. I doubt she ever really came to understand what Hume's is-ought gap was all about, or what old Kant was really up to in the Critique of Pure Reason. Outside of Aristotle, she doesn't appear to have done any in depth philosophical reading; nor, given her inability to understand what other writers/thinkers mean by the words they used, is it likely that such reading would have done her any good.

I think you are correct. For example, Rand used the term "modern philosophy" (which is Descartes on) to refer to what we might call "contemporary philosophy."

In one of her Q&A, she was asked about "intentionality" and thought it meant "volition"

Bryan White said...

@Greg: As to the charge of foundatonalism, I would say that, yes, there may be Objectivists who falsely assume that a counter-argument proceeds from their own premises or else wrongly assume that the premises are axiomatic and inescapable. You run into that with religious people sometimes. They're so invested in their beliefs that they have a hard time even conceiving that the non-believer may be arguing from a different viewpoint and thus they accuse the non-believer of contracting themselves when they're doing nothing of the sort. Likewise, the overzealous Objectivist may get it into their head that, their postition being so incontrovertible, all arguments everywhere proceed from Objectivist premises and thus start seeing stolen concepts behind every bush. It becomes a way of declaring victory before the first shot is fired by claiming a patent on all bullets.

However, I would chalk this up more to human error, rather than an error in the principle itself. If it is true that the person is arguing from the very premise they're trying to debunk or if the premise is indeed axiomatic and denying it leads to an untenable and incomprehensible position, then I would say that that person is in the wrong and should answer for it, by whatever name.

Bryan White said...

To give an example:

Suppose someone says, "If everyone would just choose to accept the truth of determism, we'd all be better off." Clearly this person is contradicting themselves, proceeding, as they do, under the assumption that people can make choices and ought to do something, even though what they ought to do is accept that they're poweless to make choices.

However, this is not to say that determism is necessarily false or that determist arguments can ONLY be made on a free will premise. Certainly not! It's just saying that this PARTICULAR argument is inherently self-contradicting.

Dragonfly said...

BMW: "If everyone would just choose to accept the truth of determism, we'd all be better off." Clearly this person is contradicting themselves, proceeding, as they do, under the assumption that people can make choices and ought to do something, even though what they ought to do is accept that they're poweless to make choices."

There is no contradiction here; the implied premise in your argument is that what is commonly understood by "making choices" and determinism are mutually incompatible. There is no reason to accept that premise. That we can't predict someone's choices, and on the other hand that we may influence them, doesn't imply that these choices can't be the result of a deterministic process.

Bryan White said...

Well there are many schools of thought on the matter of determinism, from hard to soft and so forth. For the sake of my example, I'm assuming a fairly hard determist who considers choice an illusion, although I apologize for not stating that explicity. I was trying to provide an example of someone who contradicts their OWN position, not necessarily mine or their opponents -- I don't even have to be in the room. You can take issue with my example, if you wish. But my point remains that such a thing IS possible.

Samson Corwell said...

In response to gregnyquist:
Aagghhh. The Objectivist history of philosophy is so strange. It makes some sense, but the way Ayn Rand describes makes it sound likes she is reifying it. I mean, I can see how Kant's transcendental idealism "cuts the mind off from reality" and how it could have lead to post-modernism, but to blame the Holocaust on him is just stupid on its face. His CI was about treating people as ends, after all. Also, I'm not sure how or why 'mysticism' necessarily leads to 'collectivism', both words being pretty conceptually unclear. Although the former is clearer than the latter.

Daniel Barnes said...

Stranger, the Objectivist position is that Kant deliberately and knowingly caused the Holocaust.

Samson Corwell said...

In reply to Daniel Barnes:
Citation? I don't think that they're that ridiculous. Also, Objectivists say the Nazis were collectivists. How so? Is that even the right word? Monstrous, murderous, and totalitarian easily apply, but "collectivist"? I mean they obviously didn't respect the people they killed, but to say this has to do with a group doesn't make sense.

Samson Corwell said...

I can think of a few situations where the term "collectivism" doesn't apply, actually:
∙Chattel slaves owned by a single person.
∙Murder, robbery, and pretty much any crime.
∙Waging war.

Jzero said...

"Also, Objectivists say the Nazis were collectivists. How so?"

Well, "nazi" derives from "Nationalsozialismus", or National Socialism. I couldn't tell you what actual collectivist policies were in place when the Nazis were in power, but I doubt that matters much to the Objectivist stance on things. I imagine the use of the word "socialism" alone is enough to level the charge.

A few posts back, I was having a discussion with an Objectivist (semi-Objectivist?) who claimed that both the Native Americans as well as the settlers who were pushing them out of their lands were all acting as collectivists.

It makes one wonder if anybody ISN'T a collectivist.

Samson Corwell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Samson Corwell said...

In response to Jzero:
Don't forget, it wasn't only Ayn Rand who used the term "collectivism". Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises used it, too. Personally, I'd prefer the term "collectivism" to be consigned to the waste bin. Some of my reasons for this are:
∙It seems that there are several concepts packed into the word's definition.
∙The sense of the word doesn't jive with the contexts it's used in.
∙I see groups as people, so the word doesn't seem to really express what it wants to express.
∙It has too many metaphysical connotations when Objectivists use it.
∙Almost no one thinks in terms of individualism and collectivism. Instead, they think in terms of freedom and dictatorship, like I do.
∙It seems incoherent to begin with.

Another example that I can give you is totalitarianism. Ayn Rand called it a form of collectivism, but I'd say it isn't because the term "totalitarianism" means "total control". It's got nothing to do with a group as such. I think that Ayn Rand spoke of the wrong concepts. I think sacrifice and failing to treat people as ends in themselves are the more accurate concepts.

Take Final Fantasy XIII for example. In it, the main characters are transformed into l'Cie and used as tools by the fal'Cie, godly entities that are made out of crystal, to be sacrificed for them [the fal'Cie] to reunite with their creator. I wouldn't call the fal'Cie collectivist. Instead, I'd call them Machavellians or something. They wanted to sacrifice people.

Hoepfully, an Objectivist like ungtss can comment on this.

Dragonfly said...

SC: "Hopefully, an Objectivist like ungtss can comment on this."

Oh no! Not another 1000+ comments to wade through...

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

Simon, if you'll settle for an ex-Objectivist (who doesn't have time to read or write 1000+ comments), I'll comment on what Rand meant by "collectivism."

The clearest definition I can offer, in Objectivist terms, is that "collectivism" is a species within the genus "altruism." Altruism, of course, encompasses any ethical system that demands that the individual sacrifice himself to some "greater good," but does not specify what the greater good consists in. In the case of collectivism, the "greater good" is specified as the good of some group.

Socialists are collectivists because their goal is the good of the society as a whole, which may not be what's best for any individual member.

The Nazis were collectivists because their highest goal was the good of "den Volk" (more precisely the Aryan race), and the individual was expected to sacrifice himself for the betterment of the race.

Rand seems to have assumed that all totalitarian states are collectivist. I'm not sure whether this was because she assumed that totalitarians were necessarily socialists or whether she was just failing to see any other possibilities.

I don't know the Final Fantasy games at all, but I think that whether Rand would call the fal'Cie collectivists would depend on whether the reunion with the creator is a collective event (i.e., they all get reunited or not) or an individual achievement (e.g., if a specific fal'Cie achieves its own reunion by sacrificing some threshold number of I'Cie).

And yes, there can be non-collectivist forms of altruism. I recall Rand once noted that there was one good thing about Christianity, namely the notion that salvation is an individual matter. It's still altruistic because the individual sacrifices his life for the sake of a (non-existent) eternal life in Heaven ... but it's not collectivist.

Samson Corwell said...

In response to Echo Chamber Escapee:
Thanks. An ex-Objectivist is just as good.

The deal in Final Fantasy XIII is a bit more complicated than you speculate. The fal'Cie plan in the game is to use the l'Cie to trigger a massive death in the human population to open the gates to the afterlife so they [the fal'Cie] can reunite with their creator. The fight of l'Cie against the fal'Cie (plural) only really shows the leader of the fal'Cie. See this and this for explanations on l'Cie and fal'Cie, respectively.

It's an all or nothing thing because it isn't possible without opening up those gates, but all of the fal'Cie are in on it. Nothing is said about fal'Cie sacrificing themselves, only fal'Cie using humans as means to their ends. But, this in turn makes me wonder if a person working in a group for an all or nothing goal for their (the person) own ends can or would be called "collectivist".

It strikes me that the leader of a "collectivist" movement might try to avoid sacrificing themselves. Stalin seem to be one of those types of guys.

Your explanation partially clears up some of the problems I have with the term "collectivism" that I feel incapable of fully articulating. I have Rand to thank for bringing me to philosophy and I think she had some good ideas even though she hasn't transformed me into an Objectivist.

I might follow this post up with another one.

Lloyd Flack said...

I'm wary about using terms to describe political opponents that they never use to describe themselves. If you do this then there is a risk that you have missed the boat about their aims.

"Collectivism" and "statism” are terms that people never use when describing themselves. They are terms coined by libertarians and related groups to describe opponents.

People talk about collective action and collective goals. Collective simply refers to a group but does not imply that a group is more than the sum of its components. Collective actions are simply actions that are supported by a group many of whom have common goals. Collective goals are goals shared by a group.

Collective does not imply anything about the structure or internal bonds of a group. When you talk about a group held together by interpersonal bonds you generally call it a community. Libertarians and objectivists are generally blind to the bonds holding groups together. They only see the individual people. Collective refers to how people act rather than what they act for. Things like communities, nations etc. are what they act for.

Lloyd Flack said...

"Statist" is worse. It implies that their people are seeing the state as a goal in its own right rather than a means to an end. It is used to imply that opponents are primarilly concerned with power over others rather than with using power as a means to accomplish other purposes.

People who use this term tend to be careless in distinguishing between such things as states, countries, governments and nations. A state is a semi-permanent institution that controls a country. A government is the people who currently run a state. A nation is a group of people who see themselves as a nation. A country is a territory administered by a state.

People's loyalties tend to be to the nation. A state is merely an aspect of the nation and any loyalty to it is part of loyalty to the nation. Thos who use the term "statism" usually do not understand what their opponents true goals and loyalties are.

Samson Corwell said...

In response to Lloyd Flack:
Well, I agree with libertarians and Objectivists in that I only see people. However, I do see people acting in groups.

I think "collectivism" is the wrong word for them to use. Maybe "subjugation" would be a better term for them, since it's the action that they are concerned with.

Samson Corwell said...

You know, "statist" strikes me pretty differently than "collectivist". I'll try to explain. The Soviet communists would be more deserving of being called collectivists because everything was supposed to be owned by everyone, whereas a fascist of the Mussolini variety would be more deserving of being called a statist since he was all about the state. In fascism, it's more like the collective is enslaved to the state.

Gordon Burkowski said...

"Stranger, the Objectivist position is that Kant deliberately and knowingly caused the Holocaust."

Daniel, I find this a rather extreme claim. Can you provide a citation?

gregnyquist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gregnyquist said...

"Stranger, the Objectivist position is that Kant deliberately and knowingly caused the Holocaust."

I'm pretty sure Rand never went this far. Peikoff comes closer to this position in The Ominous Parallels, but I don't think he would put it in quite those terms. However, if you just examine Rand/Peikoff's basic premises about Kant, it's a difficult conclusion to evade. Basically, Peikoff argues that Kant's ideas led to the Holocaust and Rand wrote: "You may also find it hard to believe that anyone could advocate the things Kant is advocating. If you doubt it, I suggest that you look up the references given and read the original works. Do not seek to escape the subject by thinking: “Oh, Kant didn’t mean it!” He did.... Kant is the most evil man in mankind’s history." In other words, Kant unleashed the ideas that led to the holocaust and he did so intentionally, with malicious intent. Now, to be sure, Kant could not have known what specific evil would result from his ideas; and in that sense, Kant did not "knowingly" cause the Holocaust. But if we follow the logic of the Objectivist view to the bitter end, we would have to say, while Kant may not have had anything quite so specific as the Holocaust in mind when he penned his Critiques, he was nonetheless aiming at something very much in line with the Nazi genocidal mania. That, in any case, is what the logic of the Objectivist position entails.

Daniel Barnes said...

>Daniel, I find this a rather extreme claim. Can you provide a citation?

Hi Gordon,

Sorry, been busy and should have responded when Samson asked this question.

This position as Greg points out, exists largely by implication. However, if you have followed Objectivist discussions for any length of time you soon see how clear this implication is. For example, here is a prominent Objectivist advocate here in my country discussing the issue. It is clear that he sees this is Rand's and Peikoff's position by implication, even though he disagrees - sort of - with it.

Samson Corwell said...

Kant doesn't really seem like he could be anything like a Nazi or a communist. One part of his Categorical Imperative was to treat oneself and others as ends and not means.

Daniel Barnes said...


I think these bizarre implications have a rather simple explanation. It stems from Rand rashly pronouncing Kant the most evil man in history.

Objectivism is highly rationalistic, and makes great play on moral judgements - especially Ayn Rand's - having a fully rational basis.

Of course they don't. So it gets post-rationalised back from that original rhetorical claim.

So to qualify, Kant has to be more evil than the other main candidate for the title, Hitler. Best of all, he'd be the ultimate reason for a Hitler emerging. And as true evil is generally considered to be intentional, not accidental, Kant therefore has to have not just made a Hitler possible, but have done it knowingly.

And off down the primrose path to absurdity they go, walking backwards.

Lloyd Flack said...

Perhaps Rand's exaggerated claims for the importance of Philosophy are part of the reason why she needed Kant for the villain's role that she cast him in. She wanted to trace evil to a base in Philosophy and who better as the villain than someone who had expounded on the limits of reason and Philosophy. I don't think she liked the thought of limits to what humans could do.

Samson Corwell said...

Two other things that bother me about the word "collectivism" is that it is applied to things it isn't applicable to and that you can call something "collectivist" if you bend words like "justice" since it has to do with other people.

Can republicanism (not the GOP) be called collectivist? How about taxation if everyone pays equally? What if that's the only thing expected of you and you go on your merry way for other stuff?

Samson Corwell said...

Furthermore, is it possible that the individualism-collectivism scale can be reduced to several other scales?

For example, is racism really collectivist? If it is collectivist, then is collectivism its essential component? I've seen environmentalism get called collectivist, but how is the individualism-collectivism scale even applicable to it?

This could be an interesting topic to tackle.

Tia said...