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?

During my junior year of college, I began studying Objectivism in greater detail. At that time, I didn't have sufficient philosophical literacy or  knowledge of science to fully understand what might be wrong with Rand's thought. While I already had concluded that Rand was wrong about human nature and aesthetics, I still thought there might be something to her metaphysics and epistemology. I sympathized with their broad conclusions (i.e., realism and objectivity), just as I sympathized with the broad conclusions of her ethics and politics (i.e., individualism and freedom). I took several Objectivist taped courses, including Peikoff's lectures on Objectivism. In this first official run through of Rand's philosophy, I didn't find much to quibble with other than Rand's theory of emotions and her aesthetics. I knew, however, that I would have to become far more philosophically literate before I could come to a final verdict, but at the time I believed of Rand's formulations showed definite promise. To be sure, there was much that I didn't fully appreciate. I couldn't figure out, for example, how Rand's "solution" to the problem of universals really solved the problem. I expected some carefully worked out argument, but all she provided was raw assertion. Other aspects of Rand's philosophy struck me the same way, which inevitably led to the question: how did Rand know that her various claims had the stamp of truth to them? Rand and her followers spend so much of their time emphasizing "reason," proof, and validation; and yet we find so little of these elements in the actual philosophy!

Nonetheless, whatever issues I had with Rand's formulations, in those early days I found her philosophy fascinating. Yes, there might be problems, even big problems, with her various contentions, but these problems I speculated might be fixable. Then I heard  Peikoff make remarks during a question and answer period of one of his Ford Hall Forum lectures that made me realize the problems with Rand's philosophy went far deeper than I had heretofore imagined. Somebody had asked Peikoff how long it would take for Objectivism to "win." Peikoff replied that it shouldn't take all that long: if courses on Objectivism could simply be introduced into the Ivy League colleges, Objectivism's victory would become a matter of course (or words to that effect). That Objectivism's greatest living proponent should believe such a thing shocked me. I knew from my own experience with Marxists, socialists, and "progressives" that this could not possibly be true; that such people came to their beliefs for psychological reasons that had nothing to do with Immanual Kant or the problem of universals; and also that institutions in civilized societies had a momentum all their own that were eroding our freedoms irrespective of anyone's will to the contrary. The fact that Peikoff believed that merely by teaching  Objectivism at the nation's top universities, this could lead to massive changes in the political direction of the country, struck me as delusional in the extreme. That Peikoff claimed to a champion of "reason" and "objectivity," zealously opposed to "evading reality," only made it worse. I felt I needed to explain how a philosophy ostensibly dedicated to rationality and factual reality could misfire so badly.

When I questioned other Objectivists about this issue, they merely regarded me with a kind of vague irritation and incredulity. They couldn't understand why I regarded Peikoff's claim as so absurd. "People have free will," I was told repeatedly. "But that free will has tendencies that predispose some people to be statists and socialists," I would counter. "No it doesn't," they would insist. And one Objectivist read me the passage in Atlas Shrugged where Galt argues that tendencies of character cannot exist because they contradicted the principle of free will: "If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free," pontificates Rand's moralizing hero.

At this time I was reading, for a course at the university, Joseph Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy --- a book that made a big impact on my thinking at the time. Schumpeter had a very different view of how history worked than we find in Rand, one that struck me as more realistic and in accordance to what I was seeing in everyday life. As Schumpeter explains:

However, whether favorable or unfavorable, value judgments about capitalist performance are of little interest. For mankind is not free to choose. This is not only because the mass of people are not in a position to compare the alternatives rationally and always accept what they are being told. There is a much deeper reason for this. Things economic and social move by their own momentum and the ensuing situations compel individuals and groups to behave in certain ways whatever they may wish to do --- not indeed by destroying their freedom of choice but by shaping the choosing mentalities and by narrowing the list of possibilities from which to choose. If this is the quintessence of Marxism then we all of us got to be Marxists. [129-130]

This is the prelude to Schumpeter's famous theory that capitalism destroys itself by its own success. This seemed to me a far more plausible theory than anything to be found in Rand, because it was based in human nature as revealed in history and social science. Rand's philosophical view of historical change seemed to me little more than wishful thinking: a view propagated by powerless intellectuals who were too cowardly to accept their own impotence. 

In 1989, the year I read Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, the Berlin Wall came down, and a few years later the Soviet Union "collapsed." At the time, the predominant view was that socialism had been vanquished forever. Yet how long did it take for the ideology socialism, like a dog's vomit, to make a noisome return? Within a generation, we had a whole new generation of radicals wanting the same things as before but using different words to describe them. Radical leftism ebbs and flows: it afflicts liberal societies in cycles. Hence it waxed intense during the thirties, sixties, and in the last decade, and receded in the fifties and eighties. But each cycle seems to get a little crazier. Or perhaps it is merely the case that the opposition is less rigorous. The abundance of capitalist society has made some people weak and others unhappy; and the unhappy are staging temper tantrums to bully the weak into concessions. Immanual Kant has nothing to do with any of it. It's just human nature doing its thing. 

Rand saw human nature as the product of philosophy. Human beings, in her view, were bundles of premises. This is why she believed that social outcomes could be changed through arguing about abstruse topics in metaphysics and epistemology. But she is just wrong about this. Human nature is a product of evolution, not philosophy. One of the issues we are facing in the present age is that capitalism, in league with science and technology, has transformed the world so dramatically that evolution has not been able to keep up. Human beings now find themselves in a society they did not evolve to live in. That's part of the reason why there are so many unhappy people. It has nothing to do with philosophy. It arises from the conditions of everyday life. These people on the "woke" left are genuinely distressed. Or if they're not distressed they nevertheless feel genuine moral outrage at the inequality and "unfairness" of the capitalist social order. This moral outrage is not the product of philosophical theories, but rather, the theories were devised to explain the feelings of outrage. As Jonathan Haidt has shown, morality is largely intuitive. It isn't the product of ideas or consciously directed thinking. It is the product of genetics and circumstance. People are hardwired to see the world differently, and part of this involves how individuals react to inequality. You can argue against these intuitions until your blue in the face --- it won't make a jot of difference. Rand is wrong about the role philosophy plays in determining social outcomes because she's wrong about human nature. While her errors in  philosophy won't make any difference to social outcomes, they do make a difference to our understanding of  how world works. If you want to understand what causes radical leftism or right-wing authoritarianism or any other social phenomena that may end up playing a decisive role in shaping the future course of Western Civilization, you can't reach that understanding through Objectivist principles. 

The reason I have gone into this issue in such detail is I wanted to make clear that I did not become a critic of Objectivism over some obscure or trivial issue. I was fascinated by the problem of ideology. Why did some people become "liberal" and others "conservative"? When Peikoff declared that all Objectivism needed to "win" was to be taught in the Ivy League, I realized that I could not look to Rand's philosophy to provide answers to this question. But there was more at stake than just this question of the origins of ideology and political conviction. Peikoff's declaration about the future prospects of Objectivism seemed so alienated from reality that it raised issues as to the quality of Objectivist thought as a whole. It turned out that being wrong about human nature might be an indication of far more catastrophic errors. I decided I needed to examine Rand's contentions far more closely and critically than what I had thus far endeavored. But that would require becoming philosophically literate --- which would be a task in itself. 

[Note: my latest book on Objectivism, The Faux-Rationality of Ayn Rand, is available here.]


max said...

Entrepreneurship: Creative Production, Not Creative Destruction
Gary North - February 15, 2017

The free market's process of enabling entrepreneurs to bring together resource sellers and product buyers should not be called creative destruction. It should be called creative production. It could also be called creative substitution. A successful entrepreneur goes to customers and makes them an offer: "Buy from me, not from my competitors. I will offer you a better deal." He can afford to offer a better deal because he bought production goods at prices lower than his rivals did.
Schumpeter borrowed the concept from a pair of revolutionists, Bakunin and Marx. They preached rival social philosophies that were both based on literal murder, not figurative murder. Schumpeter was impressed by their concept.

Felix Somary records in his autobiography, The Raven of Zurich (1986), a discussion he had with the economist Joseph Schumpeter and the sociologist Max Weber in 1918. Weber was the most prestigious academic social scientist in the world when he died in 1920. Schumpeter expressed happiness regarding the Russian Revolution. The USSR would be a test case for socialism. Weber warned that this would cause untold misery. Schumpeter replied, "That may well be, but it would be a good laboratory." Weber responded, "A laboratory heaped with human corpses!" Schumpeter retorted, "Every anatomy classroom is the same thing." Weber stormed out of the room (p. 121). I don't blame him. (I am indebted to Mark Skousen for this reference.)

It is time for defenders of the free market to abandon Schumpeter's concept of the free market's creative destruction. The concept is theoretically erroneous, as Murray Rothbard pointed out in 1987. But it is also a strategic liability. The market process is destructive for entrepreneurs who guessed wrong and failed to satisfy customers. It is creative for everyone else.

max said...

Why Capitalism Will Win
Gary North - August 29, 2015

In the first week of January, 1950, Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter was completing the final edits of a manuscript which he had delivered as a speech on December 30, 1949. The title was: "The March into Socialism." He died before he finished the editing.
The article became a classic. It was reprinted in the third edition of his 1942 book: Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1950). The book has never been out of print.
In his article, he argued that the success of the business class is in fact its own destruction. It had created a massive, centralized industrial structure, and the government was now going to come in and regulate it. He had seen this during World War II. Capitalist civilization was undermining the traditional Western family. It was going to be regulated by socialists. World War I killed laissez-faire, he said. Now World War II had completed the transition. Perennial inflation was weakening the social fabric of society. Price controls were universal. "In other words, price control may result in a surrender of private enterprise to public authority, that is, in a big stride toward the perfectly planned economy." At that point, he died.

Schumpeter was startlingly wrong. Economic growth has not declined. Economic growth was about to enjoy an extraordinary increase. What happened in Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea after 1950, and in China after 1979, has completely and utterly refuted Schumpeter.
Socialism as an ideology is finished today. There is almost nobody who calls himself a socialist, although Bernie Sanders is one.
Marxism is finished. Outside of North Korea, nobody calls himself a Marxist, except for the political elite in Communist China. But the economy over which they reign is not Communist, but basically Keynesian.
Maybe Fidel Castro and his brother still call themselves Communists, but the handwriting is on the wall in Havana. They have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
The triumph of the Keynesian version of capitalism is so comprehensive that Schumpeter's prediction looks silly in retrospect. How could he have been so blind?

He was right about what capitalists do. They send their children to the best universities, if their kids score high enough on the SAT to get in. But, lo and behold, the suicide of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was so startling and unexpected that, on campus, non-Marxist professors began snickering at their Marxist colleagues. This so humiliated their colleagues, that most of them decided to become democratic socialists, rather than remain out-of-date fuddy-duddies, calling vainly for the Revolution. As soon as it became unfashionable to be a Marxist on campus, Marxists became something else. The commitment in the faculty lounges to armed revolution was always more a matter of theory than practice. Academic tenure has this effect in most cases.
They still rant, but they are growing old. New causes have replaced socialism: feminism, multiculturalism, transgenderism, and global warming. None of these is causes is socialistic in the sense of the state's ownership of the means of production.

max said...

The problem of suicide and the present condition of the conjugal family, Durkheim concludes, are both instances of the modern decline of authority.

“Religious society possess the authority to restrain individuals from suicidal impulses.”

The sociology of Emile Durkheim by Robert A. Nisbet

in the very process of transferring society’s honor from institution to man, Durkheim writes, there arises a false conception of individualism-one in which society’s attributes become conceptually transferred to man’s biological nature:

“In societies where the dignity of the person is supreme, where man is a God to mankind, the individual is readily inclined to consider the man in himself as a God and to regard himself as the object of his own cult. When morality consists primarily in giving one a very high idea of one’s self, certain combinations of circumstances readily suffice to make man unable to perceive anything above himself. Individualism is, of course, not necessarily egoism, but it comes close to it; the one cannot be stimulated without the other being enlarged.”

Durkheim’s treatment of the relation between individualism and egoism is reminiscent of Tocqueville, who had also put the two in common focus. Egoism, wrote Tocqueville, “is a passionate and exaggerated love of self which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself to everything in the world.” Individualism, on the other hand, is a mature and calm quality which disposes each member of the community to separate himself from the mass of his fellows. Egoism originates in instinct; individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment—from deficiencies of mind rather than from perversity of heart: “Egoism blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright egoism.

Tocqueville, too, had been struck by the tendency of the
individualistic characteristics of democracies—the drive for wealth, equality, status, and so on—to produce a general malaise and the paradox of men increasingly miserable even in the midst of relative abundance. The essence of the process, for Tocqueville, was the gnawing sense of despair men felt at their inability to reach the heights that were progressively opened to them, new heights that appeared maddeningly on the foundations of what they were able to achieve. Tocqueville believed that the frustration caused by constantly receding goals, coupled with the separation from statuses and norms which—however binding they may have been —had at least offered certainty and repose,

Durkheim’s view does not differ, basically, from Tocqueville’s:

“Social man necessarily presupposes a society which he expresses and serves. If this dissolves, if we no longer feel it in existence and action about and above us, whatever is social in us is deprived of all objective foundation. All that remains is an artificial combination of illusory images, a phantasmagoria vanishing at the least reflection; that is, nothing which can be a goal for our action. Yet this social man is the essence of civilized man; he is the masterpiece of existence. Thus, we are bereft of reasons for existence, for the only life to which we could cling no longer corresponds to anything actual, the only existence still based upon reality no longer meets our needs.”

Anonymous said...

"For decades Gary North has made a living predicting modern society will end in panic and ruin. In 1980, he forecast rationing of housing and a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. He warned his followers to buy "gold, silver, a safe place outside the major cities."

Then AIDS became the threat: "In 1992, we will run out of available hospital beds.... The world will eventually panic," he wrote in 1987.

Now North has found Y2K and a skittish audience receptive to predictions of doom.

A recent advertisement for his Remnant Review newsletter proclaims: "A bank run like no other will bankrupt banks all over the world in 1999."" --Wired Magazine

Anonymous said...

... staying tuned for Part 2 of this apologia, in which I presume you will discusss the foundations (yours, anyway) of "philosophical literacy." Sources would be appreciated.

Anonymous said...

The salt is palpable.

Anonymous said...

I am an Ayn Rand fan but I take her philosophy with a grain of salt.

Several grains, in fact.

The FOUNTAINHEAD is her best work.

ATLAS SHRUGGED would be twice as good if it were half as long.

Anonymous said...

AR asked the right questions-----

even if she didn't always come up with the right answers.

There would be no Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature without Ayn Rand!

Albionic American said...

Rand's career makes more sense when you read for historical context Peter Watson's book, The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God. Watson doesn't discuss Rand, but her quest for an alternative humanism in response to the cultural death of God in the late 19th Century invites comparisons with other thoughtful people's efforts as they grappled with this problem over the time period Watson covers.

As a poster above says, Rand asked the right questions. She just came up with answers that often fall into the "not wrong" category, namely, that they show some insight, but mixed up with confusions, gaps and fallacies.

Of course, you can say that about many mainstream humanist doctrines as well.

gregnyquist said...

AR asked the right questions...

William O'Neil, in his academic critique of Rand, said exactly the same thing. He was rather perplexed by Rand --- as many academic philosophers are --- by Rand's philosophy. Perhaps they're astonished by her philosophical illiteracy. However, I sometimes wonder what it means to say she asked the right questions. What questions were those? I would contend, rather, that Rand's chief merit as a philosopher is her ability to frame philosophical ideas in such a way that she was able to reach a large audience with them. Rand was a literary genius who was also a strange but genuine charismatic visionary. I'll admit to not finding her peculiar vision of the heroic to my taste (I find it too eccentric and encrusted with false ideals), but it has a force and power of its own nonetheless, and to be entirely frank, it's on the visionary side of things that apologists for capitalism have often been most lacking.