Tuesday, September 27, 2022

An Epistemological Quandry

Harry Binswanger has come out with a video on Ayn Rand's break-up with philosopher John Hospers. Binswanger attended the notorious meeting for the American Society for Aesthetics that led Rand to terminate her friendship with Hospers. Against the advice of his colleagues, Hospers had invited Rand to present a paper on aesthetics. Rand read one of her essays on her concept of a "sense of life." Afterwards, Hospers offered some criticisms of Rand's theories, to which Rand then offered a replied. 

Now according to Binswanger, Hospers criticism was "unhelpful," amounting to something of a philosophical put-down. "He didn't give her respect," he would later recall. When Rand delivered her responses, she was "so nice and so gentle." But when she looked in Hospers direction, to perhaps gauge his reaction, he not even paying any attention to her.

Hospers delivers a remarkable different account of the event:

By tradition, commentators make criticisms. Mine, I thought, were mild as criticisms go. I wondered publicly about whether every work of art (even mediocre ones) carries with it a sense of life; I mentioned Ayn’s own example of Dinesen (fine writing, but an awful sense of life); I speculated about whether to any extent what we say about sense of life depends on the language we use to characterize it ("emotive meaning" again).

I saw something wrong when I noticed that her remarks in response were icy, sarcastic, even insulting. I never discovered what there was about my remarks that made her "go ballistic." Apparently I had betrayed her, and I had done so publicly, when an academic audience already presumed critical of her might have been turned her way. There was no doubt that she felt deeply hurt. At the party in her room afterward, she would not speak to me, nor would anyone else: word had gone out that I was to be "shunned." I never saw her again.

So the epistemological question that confronts us is How can we know which account is the right one? Presumably, almost everyone who participated and witnessed the event in question is dead. A few members of the audience who, like Binswanger, were mere students may still be around. But finding them would be difficult and verifying that they were actually in attendance at the meeting close to impossible. So it really is Binswanger's word versus that of Hospers (who is no longer with us). How are we to determine which, if either, is telling the truth? Does Rand's own epistemology provide us any insights on solving this quandry?

The irony is that most people will decide this question on the basis of their general view of Ayn Rand. Those who think highly of Ayn Rand and regard Objectivism as an important philosophy will likely side with Binswanger, while those who have a more guarded or even negative view of Rand and hold Objectivism to be a sad tissue of error will likely side with Hospers. But of course, one's opinion of Rand and Objectivism can hardly be regarded as a reliable principle for determining the truth or falsity of what went on at that meeting.

One way to solve this dilemma might be to acknowledge that it is impossible to know for sure what exactly happened but that we might make an educated guess. We could do what is often done in such situations---that is, try to pick up reputational information about Hospers and Binswanger with the aim of determining who is likely to be the most reliable witness. Even here we run into various epistemological quagmires. Binswanger, for example, to the extent that he is known at all, is something of a controversial figure. He has both admirers and detractors. Who among these two groups are we supposed to believe?

Another way to explain these varying accounts of Rand's behavior is to presume that Binswanger and Hospers perceived the entire event through the veil of their assumptions and prejudices. Binswanger perceived Rand as being "so nice and so gentle" because he was favorably disposed toward her, while Hospers regarded her as sarcastic, icy, and insulting because he was the target of her criticism. But perhaps her behavior was far more neutral and hence open to radically different interpretations.

One last method of settling this question, and the one I tend to favor, is to ask which account of Rand's behavior is consistent with other evidence we have of her general mode of conduct. Rand is well known for being ultra-sensitive to slights and breaking with people on trivial pretexts. As Hospers himself notes, 

Rumors persisted ... of how she would "excommunicate" people: they would say or do something that seemed trivial to others, and she would be done with them forever. Some of them were quite good friends, such as Edith Efron, who cared a great deal for Ayn but who was also cut off. None of this would have happened, theynsaid, ten years before, but with the years she had become more suspicious, testy, impatient—no one was sure why. Quite a few people, it seemed, were suddenly out of her life.

These rumors that Hospers talks about have been verified by a wide number of sources, as has been documented in Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Therefore if we are to ask which account of what happened at that meeting of the American Society of Aesthetics is most in keeping with Rand's general conduct during that period of her life, it has to be Hospers' version. It fits with what scores of other people have testified. Binswanger in comparison comes off as special pleading about someone he would never dare to criticize.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another way to look at this is that Binswanger represents a faction of Objectivists that claims Rand didn't - and couldn't - have any serious character flaws because she was a "fully integrated person." Her life mirrored her works. Also, I haven't heard Binswanger say it was wrong for the ARI to rewrite her posthumously printed material. Binswanger produced a posthumous work (the workshops in ITOE Revised edition). Burns doesn't say one way or the other whether these transcripts have been rewritten.