Monday, August 23, 2021

How I Became a Critic of Objectivism 4

Rand's epistemology constitutes the most intimidating part of the Objectivist philosophy. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is a difficult book, even for Objectivists. By the time Ayn Rand wrote it, she had already secured herself in an echo chamber from which no criticism could ever reach her. IOTE was accepted by her disciples as a gospel that could not be questioned. But how much of the theory does the typical Objectivist actually understood or care about? Other than a few Rand nerds, I don't think most Objectivists give a fig for IOTE. They may be pleased it exists, allegedly serving as a base for Rand's ethics and the politics. But they could care less about the largely technical issues raised in IOTE.

Critics have often ignored Rand's epistemology as well. The fact is, it's Rand's ethics and politics that stirs up the animals on both sides, pro and con. Those critics that have tried to analyze the Objectivist epistemology have either gotten lost in the thickets or have become consumed by purely technical issues that most people don't care about. For me, Rand's epistemology could be reduced to two salient points: a denial (or at least mis-characterization) of the unconscious, intuitive phases of human thought; and the insistence that every word has an "objectively correct" definition. Those are the most important, or at least the most relevant, points of Rand's epistemology. By importance I mean: they are the most fundamental to what Rand was trying to accomplish in her overall philosophy. Admittedly, this is not obvious at first glance, so some explanation is in order.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

How I Became a Critic of Objectivism 3

Our understanding of what constitutes “human nature” can come from at least three sources: personal experience, literature, and scientific investigation. I knew early on that Rand’s view of human nature had serious problems. I had read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Idiot right before I read Atlas Shrugged, and I couldn’t help noticing how shallow and tendentious Rand’s view of human nature is compared to Dostoevsky’s. The human beings who populate Atlas are little more than ideological caricatures. They is little, if any, of the stuff of real life in them. They are all gesture and speechifying, ---- mere empty vessels, bloodless and without soul.


But how does one demonstrate such a thing? Human nature, in the traditional conception passed down to us by the great poets, historians, and philosophers of Western Culture, consists of innate tendencies of behavior—tendencies which Rand explicitly denies in Galt’s speech—but which are distributed unequally and in varying degrees throughout the species. One trick Objectivists use to dismiss the traditional conception of human nature is to try to interpret it through the prism of their unique versions of essentialism. Rand believed that the objects of knowledge, what she called concepts, where defined by “essential characteristics without which the [existental referents of these concepts] would not be the kind of existents they are.” Rand’s doctrine of essentialism can be a little confusing because Rand regarded essences as “epistemological” rather than “metaphysical.” They were products of thought rather than reality; yet they somehow referred to objects and attributes in reality. The upshot of this essentialism, whether “metaphysical” or “epistemological,” is that the attributes that make a thing what it is have to be universal. They have to apply to every manifestation of the concepts’ real world referent. Rand regarded “rationality” as the essence of the concept man because all men were, she claimed, rational (at least potentially). Now the tactic used in regards to human nature is to claim that if a given innate tendency of behavior isn’t shared by absolutely everyone, then it can’t be part of human nature. And since not many innate tendencies of character are shared by everyone, that leaves the concept high and dry.


Saturday, June 26, 2021

How I Became a Critic of Objectivism 2

The issue of philosophical literacy is a troubling one for Objectivism on multiple levels. To begin with, many of Rand’s most ardent followers became Objectivists when they were teenagers or young adults. They discovered The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged knowing little if anything about philosophy (or anything else for that matter). For this reason, they were not equipped with the necessary tools—which is to say, the philosophical literacy—from which to evaluate the contentions that at the bottom of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Yaron Brook, in his conversation with Michael Malice, admits as much. Teenagers and twenty-somethings rarely have neither the philosophical literacy nor the worldly knowledge to evaluate Rand’s contentions about human nature, morality, and the role of ideas in history. Swept away by Rand’s charismatic vision of a world populated by individualistic heroes like Howard Road and Hank Rearden, they end up taking everything Rand says on trust, without asking the necessary questions or demanding appropriate evidence.


This matter is further complicated by Rand’s own philosophical shortcomings. Rand had her own issues with philosophical illiteracy—although for very different reasons than we find among her youngest admirers. Rand’s philosophical illiteracy stemmed from her innate dogmatism and her intractable hubris about her own mind which made it very difficult for her to accept criticism and learn from those whom she disagreed with. Rand  rarely if ever entertained the possibility that she might be wrong. In any dispute with an individual who held rival views, she was right and they were wrong—end of issue. This attitude rendered it inconceivable for her to appreciate the possible merits of viewpoints and philosophies that conflicted with her own. 


There is also the issue of Rand’s education to consider. We know little, for example, about what Rand imbibed during her years attending Petrograd State University in the Soviet Union. According to biographical data accumulated about Rand, the most formative philosophical influence on her thinking was Isabel Paterson. From Paterson Rand developed her obsession for “reason,” her over-fondness for the phrase “A is A,”  her admiration of Aristotle, and her enmity to Kant and Hegel. Paterson, who was widely read, presumably had acquired at least some of her views through first-hand sources. She wasn’t merely repeating what had been told to her by another person. She had done the hard work for herself, coming to an understanding of philosophy through her extensive reading. Rand, on the other hand, seems to have relied far too much on brief abstracts provided her by Paterson, the Branden’s, Peikoff, and others. Rand was hardly a voluminous reader. She was impatient with detail and nuance. She did not read to understand; she read to demolish. When confronted with texts she disagreed with, she would begin with what she called the art of “philosophical detection,” which in practice meant putting the worst possible interpretation on anything she ran across that inspired her loathing.


Monday, June 14, 2021

How I became a critic of Objectivism 1

I never intended to become a critic of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. That's just how things worked out independent of any intention I may have entertained concerning the matter. I have spent most of my adult life as a kind of student. Not a student affiliated with a specific college or educational institution, but rather a student attending what Thomas Carlyle called "The University of Great Books." I have sometimes shared the results of my Great Books education in blog posts and books --- and it is my Rand criticism that has drawn the most attention.

In my junior year of high school, I read Rand's novel We the Living. A few weeks later I read The Fountainhead. I found these two novels intensely absorbing. I couldn't put them down. I finished both books in just a few days. 

I saved Atlas Shrugged for the summer. Late in July I checked out a copy from the local library and had a go at it. I confidently believed I would be able to finish the book in less than a week. But this is not how it went down. It actually took me five weeks to finish Atlas, and I had to really push my way through the book. It just didn't grab me like Rand's other two major novels had. I really didn't give a fig for any of the characters. They seemed unreal and one-dimensional. I found the tone of the book relentlessly didactic and moralistic. I felt that Rand was trying to preach at me, which I found off-putting. Sermonizing and moral indignation no doubt have their place, but not in a novel. When I discovered later than Rand considered Atlas her best work, I could hardly believe it.

During my freshman year of college I read the title essay to Rand's For the New Intellectual. I found the work unconvincing. The theory of history she introduced seemed interesting enough, but she didn't offer any proof for it. She expected me to accept all her contentions on faith, all the while pretending she was following "reason." Nonetheless, I wanted to figure out whether she was right. Did her theory have any merit at all? If so, how could it be tested?

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Primary reasons for not becoming an Objectivist

Many of Rand's critics object to Rand's philosophy because it does not agree with their own. Ideologues want everyone to accept their particular ideology. Hence their disparagement of rival ideologies. Rand herself was an ideologue of this description. She wanted people to agree with her. Those who didn't share her views she regarded as either mistaken (i.e., "errors of judgment") or evil. The problem with tackling rival points of view in this manner is that it is not altogether honest. This ideologue doesn't seek truth or insight, but merely uniformity of belief: he wants everyone to think like himself. Such critics, when confronted with the question Why shouldn’t I be an Objectivist? can only answer: because I want you to adopt my views instead. And so a progressive would say Objectivism is wrong because it doesn't agree with the progressive ideology; a conservative would say Objectivism is wrong because it doesn't agree with conservative ideology; a religious fundamentalist would say Objectivism is wrong because it doesn't agree with religious fundamentalism; and so and so forth. This works in other direction as well --- that is to say, Objectivists have exactly the same view of progressives, conservatives, religious fundamentalists, etc. All these belief systems are declared wrong because they don’t agree with Objectivism --- or at least that's what it comes to in the end.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Yaron Brook converses with Anarchist Michael Malice

Yaron Brook is still seeking conversations with intellectual figures who can draw a larger audience than he can muster on his own. He managed to pull of one of his more successful efforts along these lines on a podcast hosted by Lex Fridman, where Brook engaged in a hour and a half conversation with self-proclaimed anarchist and twitter troll extraordinaire Michael Malice. The YouTube video of the resulting conversation has been seen by over 250,000 persons, and the accompanying podcast has probably been listened to by many more:

   

Since not everyone will be up to watching all four and a half hours of this video, I will provide a general overview. Malice, as can be expected, intersperses more serious comments with bouts of humor and other jests. As a big Rand fan, he more often than not sides with Brook, even at times pushing Brook aside and giving the appropriate Randian response to one of Fridman's inquiries. He shows himself to be very much the Ayn Rand nerd, sharing obscure trivia and stories about Rand and generally taking a very laudatory view of the author of Atlas Shrugged. Only on a handful of occasions did Malice take a more oppositional stance, as, for example, when he jumped on Brook for believing that words have "real meanings" (which of course they don't). And of course once the discussion took on the issue of anarchism, then the sparks began to fly. For some, this will be the high point of the discussion. At last some conflict! But I have always found debates over non-mainstream political ideals to be somewhat besides the point. It's sort of like two people arguing over the best way to cook and serve and dodo bird. Undoubtedly culinary enthusiasts might find something of interest in such verbal tussles, but the fact that no such dish will ever be cooked and served renders all such speculations about the best way to prepare it rather otiose. We shall never see either the minarchism endorsed by Brook or the anarchism endorsed b Malice implemented on a significant scale anywhere in the world. Why then should we bother our heads over which of these two systems is "better"?

More significant is what this conversation represents — what it indicates about the future of Objectivism. Regardless of what anyone might think of Brook, no matter what criticisms one might throw in his direction (whether for his lack of philosophical expertise in Objectivism, his rather hawkish — in the worst sense of the word — foreign policy, his TDS, and his curious mania for open borders and "free trade") nonetheless it must be admitted that under his leadership orthodox Objectivism has become less narrow and parochial, especially when it comes to its interaction with the outside world. For years, orthodox Objectivism regarded libertarians and anarchists as "worse than communists" (Peikoff's words). Thirty years ago, David Kelley was given his walking papers for a talk he gave at a Laissez-Faire Books supper club (a talk in which he argued that liberty required an Objectivist foundation). The fact that the old guard (i.e., the first generation of post-Rand objectivists) has mostly either retired or passed from the scene has softened many of the old hatreds (particularly for the Brandens) that throttled ARI in its first few decades. Some of credit for this evolution must be given to Brook, who has actively sought to have conversations with all kinds of people, not just Malice.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

New Book: "The Faux-Rationality of Ayn Rand"




I am pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, The Faux-Rationality of Ayn Rand, which is available at amazon.com in paperback (and hopefully soon in kindle). Whether this is the best critical book on Ayn Rand and her Objectivism philosophy on the market today I will leave to others to decide. But I'd like to think it's the most readable, succinct, and relevant piece of Randian criticism that we've seen to date. It covers the main points of Rand's Objectivist philosophy (i.e., her views on human nature, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics), showing, in lively, pointed language, what is wrong with her various contentions about these domains of experience. It is hardly an exhaustive critique of the Randian sophistry. It doesn't cover everything — only the most important stuff. More than anything else, I see this book as a one-stop shop for discovering what is fundamentally wrong with Rand's philosophy. 

The book is only about sixty-thousand words long and is based on posts published here at ARCHN. The fact is this blog is a bit of a mess. Although most of Rand's philosophy is critiqued in a reasonably systematic matter, it's challenging to read the posts on the blog in the order they were originally meant to be read. The format of the blog simply doesn't allow for that, nor is this something that's easily fixable. Another issue is that many of the posts I contributed to ARCHN were written very hastily and they were not always well proof-read. Much of the material could really use a serious and thorough re-write — but that would be an immense job, and given the slippage of interest in Rand's philosophy, I doubt it would be worth the trouble. So instead I have culled the best and most pertinent posts that I have written for the blog, cleaned them up, arranged them in as systematic a way as possible, and then published them via amazon.com. 

    

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Peikoff vs. ARI

Documents reveal that Leonard Peikoff, the founder of ARI and the heir to Ayn Rand's literary estate, gave $297 to Donald Trump's Make America Great Committee. The date on the document December 14, 2020, but it's likely the donation was given earlier (almost certainly before the election). Peikoff's generous donation allows us to get a better sense of how much influence he still exerts over ARI.

So how much influence does Peikoff still exert over ARI? Probably very little. Consider Yaron Brook's view of Objectivists who "apologize"  (i.e., support) Trump:

Those of you who are apologists for Donald Trump, please never use the word "Objectivist" to associate it [Objectivism] with yourself. Because you cannot be Objectivists, you are not Objectivists, if you apologize for this guy.

And you are not doing anybody a favor by selling-out, selling-out the fundamental ideas that we believe in. For the sake of what? Popularity, for the sake of defeating the left?

You are sell-outs, you are the fifth-column within Objectivism.

And:

But the Trumpists are a disaster. If they win, and they come to dominate all of the Republican Party and all of its candidates, this country is finished, this country is finished.

Given Brooks uncompromisingly extreme stance against Trump, what are we to make of Peikoff's $297 donation to the Trump campaign? Is Peikoff a "sell-out" and fifth-columnist within Objectivism? How are we ever going to square this particular circle?

Several years ago, when Peikoff was still doing a podcast, he came out in favor of closing the borders. Brooks quickly stepped in to put a stop to this. On Peikoff's next podcast, we hear Brooks explaining why closing the borders is a bad thing to do and Peikoff rather sheepishly admitted he had been led astray by conservative talk radio. 

Flash forward to the last year or so. Peikoff is now in permanent retirement. For health reasons, he can no longer make public appearances. What is he doing with his time? When he feels up to it, he's supposedly writing short stories. What does he do when he's not writing stories? Could he be listening to conservative talk radio? Peikoff has been a fan of Rush Limbaugh at least since the nineties. Is it possible that in his retirement Peikoff is listening more to conservative talk radio hosts (and not just Rush, who recently passed away) than he is to Yaron Brook and other ARI figures? Or has he simply become a fan of Trump on his own unbiased judgment, irrespective of influences? Whatever the case, his $297 donation to the Trump campaign strongly suggests that he does not agree with the folks who have taken over the institute he founded way back in the eighties. It also strongly suggests that Peikoff's influence over ARI has come to an end. I don't know whether Brooks knows (or if knows, whether he cares) that Peikoff has a soft spot for Trump. Whatever the case, it clearly doesn't matter. Peikoff is no longer relevant  in the world of Objectivism.  It's Yaron Brooks and his people who control the institute and who are the big players in that space. They decide what Ayn Rand would have thought if she were still alive.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Anne Heller, as long ago as 2009, published her biography of Ayn Rand. I have finally gotten around to reading it and will at some point make a post or two commenting upon it. In this post I want to turn to another issue --- namely, one of the two organizations tasked with the propagation of Rand's ideas, The Atlas Society. I had not realized the extent to which Heller had used TAS in research for her book. It is notorious that ARI refused Heller access to their archives until long after her book was finished. But it appears Heller didn't need ARI because she had TAS and David Kelley, who explained Rand's philosophy to Heller. It wouldn't be that much of an exaggeration to call Ayn Rand and the World She Made the official Rand biography of the Atlas Society --- although technically that's not true.