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.

This rather free way of handling philosophical ideas would become a source of friction in the final years of her relationship with Paterson. As Jennifer Burns explains:

Paterson was particularly harsh on Rand’s new venture into philosophy. Responding to critical comments on the philosophers she had been reading, Paterson mused, “to be fair to them, one must envisage the whole problem of systematic thinking as from scratch.” She then told Rand, “the frightening kind of rationality you find in the philosophers is precisely your own kind.” Although she had once celebrated their joint achievement in working out “the necessary axioms and deductions of a free society.” Paterson now doubted the whole goal of syllogistic reasoning. The real problem was not creating a rational system, but making sure the assumptions that underlay it were correct. And she was not at all clear that Rand would do it right, observing, “in lesser matters you talk a lot of ‘reason,’ but frequently you don’t use it, because you make assumptions that are not valid.”

Rand, shocked by Paterson’s criticism (Rand never took well to criticism by anyone), wrote to her former mentor: “I see no point in discussing what some fool said in the past and why they said it and what error they made and where they went off the rails.” [127-128] In other words, Rand already had developed a bad attitude toward any philosophy that conflicted with her own views, operating under the assumption that anyone who had the temerity to disagree with her was either an idiot or worse. That is all part of Rand’s essential hubris. She couldn’t help thinking she was smarter, or at least more rational, than nearly everyone else. This mentality spread to her acolytes who in later years would blithely insist that Rand was the greatest philosopher since Aristotle. This is all the more astonishing considering Rand’s philosophically illiterate views of Hume, Kant, Hegel and other major philosophers of the Western canon (to get an idea of how badly she misunderstood Kant, see George Walsh’s essay comparing Kant’s views with Rand’s misconceptions of them). 

Rand’s philosophical illiteracy led her to commit egregious errors in her philosophy. Consider, as one salient example, how she misconceived the “problem of universals,” framing it as an epistemological problem when it’s actually a metaphysical problem. Unfortunately for Rand, there was no one who could take her aside and explain how she had gotten this issue wrong. Her error would become embedded in the very fabric of her philosophical system, impossible to remove without tearing the whole thing apart. Fortunately for her, the “problem of universals” was an issue that had become passé by the time she commented on it. Contemporary philosophers paid little attention to it, so Rand’s embarrassing philosophical faux pas would go unnoticed until the late Scott Ryan brought it to the world’s attention in his book Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality.

I have indulged in this long preface about philosophical illiteracy because it's an underappreciated issue within the Objectivist milieu. Too many Objectivists are philosophically illiterate. They don’t realize this because part of being philosophically illiterate is not knowing that you suffer from this deficiency. The typical Objectivist may not even regard philosophical literacy as a legitimate issue. He believes that on nearly all major topics in philosophy, Rand is right and those differing from Rand are wrong—and for him, that’s all that counts. Philosophical literacy be damned! Isn’t it more important to be right? But philosophical literacy, while providing no guarantee of “being right” about everything, does, we might say, increase the odds of being right on many things, whereas illiteracy dramatically increases the odds of committing mortifying blunders and appearing ignorant to better informed individuals. Philosophical literacy, in the final analysis, is chiefly concerned with knowing how to be honest. When Rand declared that Kant’s philosophy was a motivated attack on human knowledge, undoubtedly she believed this to be so, and in that sense she was being “honest.” But her view of Kant is untrue. If she had taken pains to test her view, if she had consulted with experts in Kant’s philosophy and immersed herself in the relevant biographical material, she might have discovered her error. The fact that she did not take such measures indicates that she did not fully appreciate the steps necessary to acquire a sure footing in the truth. Rand had unwittingly made her own various personal agendas her standard of truth—and this evinces a kind of tacit dishonesty. Rand operated under the naive belief that honesty was a matter of conscious intention. We now know, from psychological research, that honesty requires more than just good intentions. Openness to criticism, combined with a humility about the conclusions our own "reason," is required as well—and these are attributes of character sadly missing in Rand.


All this became very clear to me when I began my own journey to educate myself in the ways of philosophy. I commenced my excursion into philosophy by reading Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. I had already been exposed to the Objectivist view of Hume via Peikoff’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy. In Hume, Peikoff argued, British empiricism had reached complete bankruptcy. Peikoff charges Hume with, among other philosophical crimes, of denying causality, attacking the external world and creating a breach between logic and fact. I was prepared, as I made my way through Hume’s Enquiry, to find myself knee-deep in a kind of remorseless skeptic, denying all knowledge and leading philosophy into a hopeless muddle. As it turned out, I did not find any of this in Hume. Peikoff's description of the man's philosophy had been misleading, one might even say dishonest. Even if Hume's philosophy was not in all respects “perfect,” it evinced a much higher caliber of reasoning, argumentation, and illustrations from experience than anything I had found in the writings of Rand and other Objectivists. In terms of philosophical skill, he ran circles around both Rand and Peikoff. Far from attacking or denying causality, Hume merely called into question the rationalistic arguments that had been made on behalf of these notions. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is primarily an attack on rationalistic speculation and a clarion call for an empirical responsible philosophy. While not entirely free of errors and other incidental flaws, it's well ahead of its time and far better than anything you’ll find in the Objectivist canon. 

As I read more philosophers—Locke, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, James, Russell—a pattern emerged. It became ever more clear that Objectivist luminaries, particularly Rand and Peikoff, demonstrated no real understanding of these philosophers—that their criticism amounted to little more than the most crude straw manning of views they neither understood nor were capable of treating fairly. This was a problem on a number of fronts. First of all, Rand had declared that the crisis of Western Civilization was caused by failures in modern philosophy. But precisely because Rand and her chief disciples failed to understand the views of propagated by modern philosophers, this by itself discredited Rand’s speculations about them. Rand’s unfounded and eccentric interpretation of Kant’s philosophy can’t possibly be the cause of, say, Nazi Germany (as averred by Peikoff in The Ominous Parallels) for the simple reason that Rand’s interpretation of Kant is hers and hers alone. Hardly anyone else interprets Kant like Rand interprets him—so how can that particular interpretation, accepted by so few, have become influential enough to lead to the rise of Hitler and the holocaust?

There’s also issues relating to Rand’s pretensions to honesty and objectivity that must be given due consideration as well. Rand regarded honesty and objectivity as primary virtues of her ethics. But in her treatment of views she disliked, she demonstrates an inability to apply these values in a way that would allow them to become effective guides to her behavior. Undoubtedly there exists a kind of surface sincerity in Rand’s passionate espousal of the rational and the real. But these ideals did not have roots in the very depths of her soul. There was consequently something histrionic and unreal in her devotion to them. If she really cared about objectivity, truth, and reality, wouldn’t she have taken greater pains to get Kant and other modern philosophers right?

By comparing what Hume, Kant and other modern philosophers actually contended in their various writings with what Rand and Peikoff contend on their behalf, I had discovered not only the extent of Rand’s philosophical illiteracy, but also her scandalous betrayal of honesty, rationality, truth and objectivity. Objectivism, as it turned out, was not about objectivity. Hence was I confronted with the great irony that defines Rand’s philosophy—namely: To be an objectivist, one must reject Objectivism.

This became even more clear to me as I began studying the empirical evidence from the sciences of human nature that for years had been accumulating against Rand’s philosophy.


Anonymous said...

Your link to the Michael Malice conversation is broken. It goes to your version of the article, not the published URL.

Albionic American said...

Youth is not necessarily a barrier to philosophical insight. David Hume, for example, published his Treatise on Human Nature when he was in his 20's. While at the time other philosophers apparently didn't appreciate the power of Hume's arguments - Hume famously joked that his book "fell dead-born from the press" - the Treatise is now regarded as one of the most important philosophical works in the last 400 years.

I also have to agree with the philosopher Antony Flew's assessment where he says that he always discovered new insights in re-reading Hume's works that he simply couldn't see in Rand's.

Albionic American said...

Rand presents a strange view of literacy in her novels. While the heroes need a certain amount of book learning so that they have the knowledge to perform their productive tasks, in general they don't value reading or intellectual curiosity as such. The only character in a Rand novel who reads voraciously is the villain Ellsworth Toohey, and Rand portrays him that way to show that he is a parasite on other men's minds.

Even though many of the Founding Fathers she claimed to admire also read voraciously (George Washington even collected books and found time to read some of them in Mount Vernon, despite his reputation as a jock). And even though many Jewish immigrants and their children in the United States also read voraciously, like Rand's contemporaries Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan.

You'd think, for example, that John Galt would have covered the walls in his cabin with homemade bookshelves and filled them with textbooks about physics, math and engineering, works of philosophy and even a few novels he loved, like Les Miserables or something.

Anonymous said...

further to the first Anon's note:
"(to get an idea of how badly she misunderstood Kant, see George Walsh’s essay comparing Kant’s views with Rand’s misconceptions of them)."

"I had already been exposed to the Objectivist view of Hume via Peikoff’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy."

"Fortunately for her, the “problem of universals” was an issue that had become passé by the time she commented on it. Contemporary philosophers paid little attention to it, so Rand’s embarrassing philosophical faux pas would go unnoticed until the late Scott Ryan brought it to the world’s attention in his book Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality."

Stephan Kinsella (2007) offers some assistance on this last:

unfortunately, overall (and link-cites notwithstanding), you haven't provided a clear definition of "philosophical literacy" and its Unenlightened opposite. But hope springs eternal!

Anonymous said...

All of the "" links in the above post do not work. The Mises link takes one to a page that only links to an "snapshot" of the essay in question, and that snapshot is incomplete.

Also, how much of a definition of "philosophical literacy" does one need? There is a field of study in philosophy; one could assume that to be literate in it, one ought to have read widely in the field, and be able to understand and discuss its most prominent texts. As a layman, that's how I'd interpret the phrase, at least.

max said...

At age 13: “Today, I decided to be an atheist”
Robbins writes trenchantly, “Perhaps this writer can be forgiven if he suggests that at the age of thirteen Rand was not yet capable of understanding the so-called proofs for the existence of God offered from Aristotle to Anselm, let alone grasping the much more subtle (and Scriptural) position that the God of the Bible is not a matter for demonstration, but the axiomatic sine qua non of all logical demonstration and rational thought”

Robbins is surely right that the thirteen-year-old Rand could not have rejected theistic belief based on a thorough examination of the arguments on all sides (let alone the claim that the existence of God is presupposed by all rational thought and proof); Rand, we conclude, became an atheist on what she took to be moral grounds.

max said...

Idols for destruction by Herbert Schlossberg

All idols belong either to nature or to history. The whole creation falls into those two categories, and there is no other place to which man can turn to find substitute for God. Any idol that is not an artifact of the natural world is an artifact of the social world.

Anonymous said...

Yaron debates evolutionary psychology.

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gregnyquist said...

Your link to the Michael Malice conversation is broken. It goes to your version of the article, not the published URL.

Thanks for noting that. Blogger didn't carry over my links from Google docs. I've been using Google docs to write these posts because I've been having garbling issues with blogger. I've tried to fix the links as best I can. The George Walsh essay can be hard to find -- and the essay is well worth reading.

gregnyquist said...

Youth is not necessarily a barrier to philosophical insight. David Hume, for example, published his Treatise on Human Nature when he was in his 20's.

Oddly, Hume himself regarded the Treatise as almost a juvenile work and resented when passages from it were quoted against him. He recast the Treatise in his two inquiries. These works are better written and wiser, but less "original."

gregnyquist said...

you haven't provided a clear definition of "philosophical literacy" and its Unenlightened opposite

Like most forms of connoisseurship, "philosophical literacy" cannot really be defined. It's one of those things you have to possess in order to understand it. Describing philosophical literacy a philosophical illiterate is like trying to explain color to a blind man. To be sure, illustrative examples of philosophical illiteracy can be given, but they're hardly exhaustive nor fully determinative. So for example, when Rand presents the "problem of universals" as an epistemological issue when it is in fact a metaphysical issue; and when she later suggests, or at least implies, that the problem of universals is the great problem of modern philosophy (even though most modern philosophers said very little about it), that is indicative that we may be in the presence of a philosophical illiterate. Had Rand read and understood the basic texts of the philosophical canon, she wouldn't have made such errors. When she tries to reason from tautologies to specific doctrines (implicit in two of her basic axioms, explicit in her view that causality is a corollary of the "law of identity" -- "A is A") that too is a philosophical faux pas. Basic philosophical literacy might have helped her avoid that particular philosophical faux pas.

Some errors in philosophy are not just the result of differing preferences or temperaments or honest mistakes. Sometimes they seem to arise from lacking any real understanding of the underlying issues, and that is where philosophical literacy comes in. There's also the whole issue of being able to judge the quality of philosophical writing. If you look at Rand's main philosophical writings, particularly "For the New Intellectual," "Galt's Speech," "The Objectivist Ethics," and "Man's Rights," they're just not that good. They're full of sentimental (i.e., moralistic) reasoning and empirically weak. Compared to Locke, Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Pierce, etc., Rand just isn't as good. But of course you have to be philosophically literate to tell the difference.

max said...

"Youth is not necessarily a barrier to philosophical insight."

“Today, I decided to be an atheist”

there is nothing scientific behind that --it is faith as any other.