Saturday, May 20, 2023

Neil Parille Breaks Down the Recent Debate Over Closed Versus Open Objectivism

The debate between Craig Biddle and Stephen Hicks concerning Open versus Close Objectivism took place last month in Belgrade, Serbia.  Biddle took the Closed position and Hicks the Open position.  I enjoyed the debate and thought each side presented his position well.  There wasn’t the rancor that one might expect for what has often been a contentious issue.  For background on the Open versus Closed controversy see here.

Biddle took a reasonable approach.  Ayn Rand died in 1982 and the positions she set forth in her books and essays constitutes Objectivism.  He conceded that there are philosophical topics that Rand didn’t discuss – such as propositions and the problem of induction – but what she did discuss constitutes Objectivism. Any extension of Objectivism outside of this is not part of Objectivism no matter how consistent it might be with Objectivism.  He also said that if Objectivism were open, then one would never know what precisely Objectivism is.  Is it Rand’s Objectivism plus Peikoff’s extensions or Objectivism plus Hicks’ extensions?


Biddle, however, went on say that there were aspects of Rand’s thought that are incidental and shouldn’t be considered Objectivism, such as her opposition to homosexuality and a woman president.  He even said that these positions are in effect contrary to Objectivism because a consistent application of Objectivism would lead to the opposite conclusions.  This assumes that there are essential and non-essential parts to Objectivism.*  Rand never said this, much less provided guidance on how one separates the essential from the non-essential.  Consider taxation, which Rand considered immoral.  Ideally, government should be funded by voluntary contributions.  Is this incidental to Objectivism?  One could make an Objectivist argument for taxation.  Contrary to anarcho-capitalism, for Rand government is necessary.  If government is necessary then shouldn’t it insist that citizens provide support via taxation (which in Rand’s view would be small)?*

Hicks compared Objectivism to a science, giving the example of Newtonian physics.  Hicks said one could still call himself a Newtonian post Einstein because Einstein’s physics is at most a modification of Newton’s physics.  He said one should look at Objectivism as a method for discovering philosophical truth.  He asked whether some of Rand’s ideas might need to be revised in light of later science.  He gave the example of Rand’s theory of concept formation which is potentially subject to revision because of recent findings in neuroscience.  Rand, however, seemed to look at philosophy as in effect the master science.  Taken to an extreme, this implies one can’t properly understand contemporary findings in science outside the interpretive lens of Objectivism.***  Hicks conceded that there is a core to Objectivism and one can only go so far in rejecting this or that teaching of Objectivism and still consider oneself an Objectivist.  Unfortunately, the debate format – lengthy presentations from each side – didn’t allow for much back and forth on this question, which seems to be the essence of the controversy.

I’ll close with a few comments:

1.    One factor not discussed is that Rand died in 1982.  Not only that, but some of her most important members of the “Second Collective” are still alive such as Leonard Peikoff (Rand’s self-identified “intellectual heir”), Harry Binswanger and Peter “Don’t let the door hit you in the back” Schwartz.  If Rand had died in 1882, the question of Open versus Closed Objectivism would probably be discussed no more than Kant’s contemporary followers discuss whether his system is open or closed.

2.    The Ayn Rand Institute – which has the support of Peikoff and which will inherit the rights to her books – is well-funded.  The ARI has staked out a claim that it is the expert on Rand’s thought and its contemporary application.  Not surprisingly, the ARI is the leading advocate of the Closed position.  (However, the ARI has no problem claiming that Rand would have despised Donald Trump or serially rewriting Rand’s posthumously published material.)  In fairness to Biddle, he is not on good terms with the ARI so no one should question his sincerity.

3.    I don’t know what Rand would have thought about this; however she was rather zealous in guarding her thought.  As Nathaniel Branden wrote pre-split, “In the future, when Objectivism has become an intellectual and cultural movement on a wider scale, when a variety of authors have written books dealing with some aspect of the Objectivist philosophy – it could be appropriate for those in agreement to describe themselves as ‘Objectivists.’ However, at present, when the name is so intimately associated with Rand and me, it is not. At present, a person who is in agreement with our philosophy should describe himself, not as an Objectivist, but as a student or supporter of Objectivism.”
*I am indebted to Scott Schiff for this and other insights.
**Rand seemed to concede as much.  In “Government Financing in a Free Society,” she suggested that the state could impose a “voluntary” surcharge on contracts which parties would not be forced to pay.  However, if they didn’t pay, the government would not enforce the contract.  This sounds as voluntary as paying the Mafia protection money.
***Hence the perhaps apocryphal statement attributed to Peikoff: “Philosophy has a veto over physics.”  Note that Peikoff opposes Big Bang cosmology because it was first developed by a Catholic priest and has, at least to some, theistic implications.


Anonymous said...

Here is the video:

A commenter said:


This quote by Ayn Rand (in introduction to "The Objectivist Forum", 1980) may be relevant here:

«If you wonder why I am so particular about protecting the integrity of the term “Objectivism,” my reason is that “Objectivism” is the name I have given to my philosophy — therefore, anyone using that name for some philosophical hodgepodge of his own, without my knowledge or consent, is guilty of the fraudulent presumption of trying to put thoughts into my brain (or of trying to pass his thinking off as mine — an attempt which fails, for obvious reasons). […] If you agree with some tenets of Objectivism, but disagree with others, do not call yourself an Objectivist; give proper authorship credit for the parts you agree with — and then indulge any flights of fancy you wish, on your own.»



Michael Prescott said...

I’m sure Peikoff made the "veto" comment in one of his taped lecture courses. I believe it was in the context of disputing quantum physics on the grounds that it entails logical contradictions. (I don’t think QM is necessarily self-contradictory, but it’s what Peikoff thought.)

It’s been decades, but I’m quite sure I recall a couple of scientifically trained attendees (listening to the tape with me) saying that they had their doubts about the whole veto thing.

Anonymous said...

Scott Schiff pointed to me a minor correction. After Peikoff gave all of Rand's publications to the ARI, he amended his will and gave We the Living, The Fountainhead and Atlas to his daughter:


Jim Klein said...

>>>He also said that if Objectivism were open, then one would never know what precisely Objectivism is.<<< There ya go, he just made the case for the other side. Nobody DOES know precisely what Objectivism is, else there would be no or little dispute among rational thinkers. Indeed the only way this even COULD happen were if everyone, even everyone rational, were in full agreement about what is a "fundamental principle," what isn't one, and how they relate to the instances of the principles. But of course, it's very basic to Rand's Objectivism that this could never happen.

As a definitional matter, there's only one person who could ever "precisely" say what is or isn't Objectivism and she's been dead over 40 years now. As I see it her lifelong goal was to persuade others to think for themselves, not think like her. Obviously plenty disagree and in fact the ARI has made it basically its mission to persuade folk to the contrary. TO ME, this is a fundamental reason why the ARI has presented, AT ROOT, the "Perfect Inversion of Objectivism." Naturally I'd also say there are other elements, tons of evidence, and that all facts are like that.

Anonymous said...

IMO the only sensible thing to do is to call "objectivism" the ideas and writings of Ayn Rand, at least those that she indicated to be part of her philosophy. Then you may call current philosophies based on objectivism "neo-objectivism" (no doubt in many different versions),

I think that today not many people take Rand's more theoretical ideas, with their elementary logic errors, seriously; anybody can see the flaws in those. With regard to her more practical ideas, she is more or less a libertarian, although she would no doubt strongly object ("plagiarizing my ideas!"). That is also how I discovered libertarianism. Only to discover llater that libertarians often are just as dogmatic and illogical as objectivists.

Peikoff has uttered a lot of nonsense about physics. Rand may have had agreed, but she was a bit more careful in what she said, probably more aware of her intellectual limitations than Peikoff.

Unknown said...

"However, the ARI has no problem claiming that Rand would have despised Donald Trump"

Rand liked Gerald Ford whom no one can claim to be anything near an "Objectivist". She was a self-described anti-Nixonite for Nixon and voted for him. How can anyone claim Rand would have DESPISED Trump? This is beyond REASON. IMHO, some Objectivists border on Rationalism. They take Objectivist ideas and rationalistically apply them to events without regard for context.

Peikoff himself supported Trump despite that Trump probably cannot be thought of as a consistent capitalist.

The truth is that Trump loves and values America and her ideals -- just without a good philosophic understanding. For this, I suspect Rand would have supported and reluctantly voted for him. Maybe he has some flaws but they are not a primary issue. But I cannot speak for her and neither can certain "Objectivists" who claim they can.

What was the alternative to Trump -- Biden and the hard left. Well, you see what we are getting. Trump would have a least hindered the march to statism, giving America more time.

gregnyquist said...

After Peikoff gave all of Rand's publications to the ARI, he amended his will and gave We the Living, The Fountainhead and Atlas to his daughter

Peikoff explained why he left most of his and Rand's publiciations to ARI, but he said nothing why he left Rand's novels to his daughter. Perhaps he wants her to have an income. His daughter doesn't seem to be an Objectivist, but rather one eager to have a place within the east coast neo-liberal establishment. Rand might have called her a social metaphysician.

Anonymous said...

"The truth is that Trump loves and values America and her ideals -- just without a good philosophic understanding."

Oh, I don't know about that. From my perspective, Trump loves and values America and her ideals only so much as they can get him what he wants. Any part of that which hinders him in any way is cast aside, denigrated, or re-defined as "not American" somehow.

And that may not be philosophic in the sense of laying out one's moral principles in a manner suitable for discussion and analysis, but I think Trump has always had a consistent principle at the heart of all his actions, which is "Trump first". America gets Trump's approval by virtue of being the place of his birth and residence - had he been born in France or Turkey or any other place I suspect he'd have his allegiance there, such as it is. But America happens to be "his team" and so it has to be great, because he's in it.

Unknown said...

Here is the link to the video

Anonymous said...

Biddle says at around 28 mins and on that O'ists, particulary younger ones, should ignore the debates and personal disputes over the last 40 years. Perhaps this is an indication that he suspects his approach is not that of Rand's.


Anonymous said...

Do I have access to this program?

Neil Parille said...

Biddle's version of "closed objectivism" sounds open to me.

Anonymous said...

Would Rand have "despised" Trump.

Short of a seance it's hard to say.

But lets look at her voting record:

She abstained a lot till 1964 when she voted for Goldwater.

She supported Nixon in 1969 & 1972 and Ford in 1976.

In 1980 she abstained since Reagan was anti-abortion.

I SUSPECT she would have opposed Trump because of the abortion issue.

Also as an immigrant she probably would have opposed him on that issue as well.

Objectivists take extreme right positions on economics and extreme left wing positions on social issues.

Hence it is hard for them to find a Rand-worthy candidate!

Anonymous said...

Trump wasn’t opposed to immigration and Rand never wrote anything about immigration.

Anonymous said...

Trump wasn't opposed to immigration?

He wanted to build a wall!

For Rand's views on immigration see AYN RAND SPEAKS.

Michael Prescott said...

Trump wasn't opposed to immigration?

He wanted to build a wall!

I believe the other commenter's point is that Trump wasn’t opposed to legal immigration. He was only opposed to illegal immigration.

That’s an important difference to most people, but not to the Objectivists I’ve known, who are in favor of completely open borders. It’s not clear to me that Rand took that position, but her admirers clearly believe that she did.

gregnyquist said...

She supported Nixon in 1969 & 1972 and Ford in 1976. In 1980 she abstained since Reagan was anti-abortion.

I suspect her opposition to Reagan presumably on the issue of abortion was a bit of a fig leaf to cover her main reason. Rand was upset that Reagan challenged Ford in the 1976 primary. She suspected that Reagan's challenge cost Ford the election. He preference for Ford over Reagan might at first glance seem odd, as Ford had more moderate views and although he did become "pro-choice" later in life, in 1976 he was an outspoken critic of the Roe vs. Wade decision and indulged in anti-abortion rhetoric. So why then did Rand prefer Ford to Reagan? Here's a possible hypothesis. Ford was only President Rand met in person. I would assume he treated her with great deference and respect. Of course, she could not give that as her reason for preferring Ford, so she instead bitterly griped about Reagan's primary challenge and his anti-abortion stance.