Leonard Peikoff is a controversial figure in Objectivist circles. Some don’t like the way he claims to speak for Objectivism, as he did most recently in his comments on the 2006 election. As an Objectivist intellectual, I’d say he is something of a mixed bag. OPAR is a pretty good book, given the limitations of space. The Ominous Parallels is a disaster. On the other hand, I’ve heard only good things about his tape series (in particular Understanding Objectivism).
Peikoff is working on a book presenting his “DIM hypothesis.” DIM stands for disintegration, integration, and misintegration. According to Peikoff, societies and disciplines can be analyzed in terms of this triad. Peikoff first presented this theory in 2004. For a limited time, this course is available for free from the Ayn Rand Institute.
Peikoff is an effective lecturer. Through the use vivid examples and well-chosen historical and philosophical vignettes, he presents what appears to be an effective case for his methodology. Unfortunately, he tends to be highly selective in his presentation of evidence.
The most obvious example is religion. Peikoff doesn’t like religion (or “mysticism” as he calls any and all religious belief). All well and good, but with Peikoff it tends to be the motivating factor in his analysis. A couple of examples:
1. He exaggerates the secularism of the Ancient Greeks. He claims that Thales wasn’t religious. But what about Thales’ famous statement that “the world is full of gods”? Granted it isn’t easy to interpret, but claiming that Thales was irreligious goes beyond the evidence.
2. He claims that Descartes wasn’t religious. This overlooks a great deal of evidence indicating that Descartes was a devout Catholic. For example he made a thousand mile pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Loretto. He received last rites in Sweden. [Jaki, Angels, Apes, and Men, p. 13.] Gilson quotes Descartes as saying that he believed in his proofs for God more strongly than in his geometrical proofs. [Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience.]
However, Kant is made out to be religious. As I’ve pointed out before, Kant wasn’t religious in the traditional sense. It doesn’t appear that he prayed or went to church. He thought religious teaching should be followed only when consistent with reason.
I was particularly disappointed with session 7, on historiography. Peikoff attacks Toynbee’s A Study of History as a “meaningless” collection of events without any epistemological purpose. This is a complete misrepresentation of Toynbee, particularly of the later volumes of the work. Toynbee has often been compared to Hegel as a creator of an idealist system.
Nor is Peikoff correct that Augustine was the founder of historiography. Peikoff wouldn’t have made these mistakes about Toynbee and Augustine if he had studied the source he recommends, Ernst Breisach’s Historiography: Ancient, Medieval and Modern.
In spite of my problems with this course, on average it is valuable if you want to understand how Objectivists analyze philosophical and cultural trends.