Wednesday, October 17, 2018

McCaskey: "Rand doesn’t follow the conventional standards of logic"

John McCaskey, the former ARI board member forced to resign for mild criticisms of a Peikoff protege, wrote in a blog post a few years back about Rand's "method of arguing."

Rand doesn’t follow the conventional standards of logic. She has her own distinctive method of arguing. If that method is valid, her moral and political philosophy stands. If it is invalid, her whole system comes crashing down. 
What is her method and is it valid?... 
Rand’s distinctive method to answering many philosophical questions is to ask what knowledge is already presumed by the very terms in the question. 
You say, “Miss Rand, I want to argue with you about the proper role of government.” She replies, in effect, “OK, but let us first unpack the concepts you are using. What are you already assuming by using the words ‘proper’ and ‘government’?” If you think of a government as the owner of buildings where you fill out forms and “proper” as whatever avoids your mother’s wrath, then Rand will insist that the two of you first work out a mature and essentialized understanding of these concepts.

In other words, Rand seeks to answer very complex philosophical questions via an explication of the meanings of words. Is this an effective way to answer moral questions? Is it an effective way to determine matters of fact?

Well, it clearly is not an effective way to determine matters of fact. Ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle and the later scholastics may have attempted to determine matters of fact in such a manner, but we now know they were mistaken in trying to arrive at knowledge by such a rationalistic and non-empirical method. No scientist would try to discover truths about the material world via a "distinctive method of arguing" which involved the "unpacking" of the concepts used in the argument. Nor is that the method resorted to when dealing with real problems in everyday life. If there's something wrong with my car and I have a mechanic look at it, this mechanic is not ever going to find out what's wrong with my vehicle by explicating the meanings of automotive terms used when arguing about cars. That's not how knowledge works. The mechanic, if he wishes to find out what's wrong with my car, has to get his hands dirty. He has to examine the car and find out what the heck is going on. If you've injured your leg, does the doctor begin his examination by unpacking medical concepts relating to legs, muscles, bones, tendons, and joints? Or does he proceed with a physical examination of your leg and then perhaps have an X-ray taken of your afflicted limb?

Now it could be argued that Rand's method, while not very useful for determining matters of fact, might on the other hand yield fruit in moral questions, such as the proper role of government. Yet even if that were true, it would still not get Rand where she wanted to go. For a question such as the "proper" role of government cannot be answered solely on moral grounds. Whatever moral answers may be derived from Rand's nonconventional standards of logic, at some point they would inevitably touch upon matters of fact. The issue of the proper role of government, for example, cannot be decided without first examining whether the role envisioned is something that is plausibly achieved in the real world. There would be no point in advocating for a role that no real government would ever take up. But determining this question of realizability would require knowledge of human nature and of human society, and these are very much matters of fact, not of morals, and cannot be understood via Rand's unconventional methods of logic and verbalistic definition mongering.

Objectivism has been trying to inflict its vision of the "proper" role of government on the rest of us for over sixty years. How much progress has Objectivism made in achieving this goal? Virtually none. So what does that say about the realizability of the goal in question?


Gordon Burkowski said...

“In other words, Rand seeks to answer very complex philosophical questions via an explication of the meanings of words.”

A good example occurred in Rand's Playboy interview. She was asked whether attempting to lead a wholly rational life would lead to a “juiceless, joyless existence”.

She responded by claiming – given her definition of reason – that such a claim was not only false but literally unintelligible. So much for Motivational Psychology.

Danny said...

As a matter of emphasis, you can get into these three issues:

1. vagueness in terms
2. lack of precision in definitions
3. improper concept formation

It counts, I think, as a real epoch-making discovery that all of these matters turn out to be fantastically huge complex fascinating matters, if you let them. One can come to see most philosophy, and indeed, one can come to see 'philosophy', whether Marx or whathaveyou, as a bunch of abstractions being tossed around informally. Rand is hoist by her own petard, of course, when she brings up logic, but she's in good company.

Anonymous said...

Ayn Rand was basically a linguistic analyst, then. "What do you mean?" is the first question. Actually the only question.

In a field as rationalistic and chaotic as philosophy actually is, clearing away that junk by first defining your terms is a good procedure. It clears the way for a fruitful discussion. But it doesn't constitute that discussion. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a discussion.

By contrast, nobody contests basic definitions in car repair. The mechanic and you know what a "tire" is, and if there's some part of your car that you aren't very familiar with, the mechanic has a ready explanation of it for you. But philosophy in general is, frankly, such a pile of rationalism that an immense amount time is usually spent just arguing terms and trying to ascertain what your interlocutor means. For proof of this, you can look at many comments on posts here.

It's a bait and switch to make such linguistic analysis (or whatever term you want to use to describe it) the end-all of philosophy. While often a necessary preliminary to a debate, it doesn't constitute that debate, nor is it a substitute for that debate; and it's not actually doing philosophy. It's like a warm-up without the exercise that is supposed to follow the warm-up. It's akin to vamping in music without ever getting around to playing the piece.

Nor is the Randian method effective in even that much. Real clarification would long ago have established the fact that her vision of the proper role of government is a white elephant.

Dan Edge said...

Yet another great post from Greg Nyquist. Since I don't believe I've publicly delcared this elsewhere, I owe a lot of credit to ARCHN for helping me overcome the stifling poison of Oist philosophy and culture after almost 20 years of involvement. On my birthday over three years ago, I spent about 15 hours across two days pouring over ARCHN blog, and when I was done I was no longer and Objectivist. Nor will I ever go back. It will take me many more years and much effort to unburden my mind of all the indoctrination I subjected myself to beginning at age 16 (if I can ever do it at all). Another benefit of ARCHN: I don't feel the need to discredit Oism for the next generation, since Nyquist has already done such a thorough job of it here. Well done Mr. Nyquist, and many thanks!

Dragonfly said...

Hi Dan, welcome to the club!

gregnyquist said...

Glad to be of service, Dan. What in some respects we've done here is merely provide a way out of the Randian bunny hole that people — usually very young people — fall into. Assuming they wish to get out of the Randian bunny hole, we drop them a conceptual rope so they can climb out. Once they're out of the Randian matrix, they can figure things out on their own.

Clipping Path Service said...

Thanks again for this post.

Anonymous said...

Here is a recent interview with soon to be (one of these years, decades) biographer of Ayn Rand, Shoshana Milgram:

Gordon Burkowski said...

re Milgram:

I expect that she's waiting for Peikoff to die. . .