Saturday, December 01, 2007

Ayn Rand's Style of Argument, Part I

[Cross-Posted at Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature]

Ayn Rand’s two most important philosophic works are her essay “The Objectivist Ethics” and the essays on concepts that form Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. In their critiques of these works, Gary Merrill and Michael Huemer have drawn attention to an important technique in Rand’s argumentation. Rand defends her position using as a background the supposedly failed attempts of previous philosophers, arguing that the credibility of her position is advanced because their positions are so blatantly false (if not pure evil). To the extent that Rand fails to accurately describe these opposing views, her case for Objectivism becomes that much less credible. (Some of what I say is indebted to the discussions of Merrill and Huemer.)

Rand begins her discussion in ITOE with a review of various philosophical traditions on the question of universals with an overview of five schools: extreme realism, moderate realism, nominalism, extreme nominalism and conceptualism. (p. 2.) We are, however, given only two philosophers (Plato and Aristotle) who hold any of these positions (extreme realism and moderate realism). Not a single representative is given for the nominalist, extreme nominalist and conceptualist schools. This makes it difficult for the reader to determine the accuracy of Rand’s description. It might be the case that they were wrestling with problems or encountered difficulties which Rand’s theory also has. Her readers will never know.

Rand returns to these schools later with slightly more elaboration. Rand says the following about nominalists and conceptualists: “The nominalist and conceptualist schools regard concepts as subjective, i.e., as products of man’s consciousness, unrelated to the facts of reality, as mere ‘names’ or notions arbitrarily assigned to arbitrary groupings of concretes on the ground of vague, inexplicable resemblances.” (p. 53.) This is interesting because Rand’s position that only particulars exist is (in the view of many commentators) a version of nominalism or conceptualism. Is it really the case that all nominalists and conceptualists consider concepts “unrelated to the facts of reality”? Is there not a single significant thinker in this tradition who considered concepts objective? Doing a bit of reading lately in John Dewey (who probably falls in conceptualist camp), I came across the following from his Nature and Experience: “Meaning is objective and universal . . . . It requires the discipline of ordered and deliberate experimentation to teach us that some meanings, as delightful or horrendous as they are, are meanings communally developed in the process of communal festivity or control, and do not represent the polities, and ways and means of nature apart from social control . . . the truth in classical philosophy in assigning objectivity to meanings, essences, ideas remains unassailable.” (Nature and Experience, pp. 188-89.) Maybe Dewey and the like are mistaken, but it hardly seems fair to imply that their motivation is the destruction of the human mind without some evidence.

Even if the various positions with respect to universals are sufficiently well known as to justify Rand’s cursory discussion, there is much in ITOE that calls out for explanation. Merrill points to an example which has became somewhat famous: “As an illustration, observe what Bertrand Russell was able to perpetrate because people thought they ‘kinda knew’ the meaning of the concept of ‘number’ . . . .” (pp. 50-51.) Because of Rand’s unwillingness to provide a citation or elaboration concerning what Russell perpetrated, even her point gets lost.

There are many other jabs in ITOE which are almost as egregious. Rand occasionally objects to “Linguistic Analysis,” without much of a description of this diverse movement. (pp. 47-48, 50 and 77.) She does, at least, name Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblance as an example of what is supposedly wrong with it. (p. 78.)

Curiously, Kant does not loom large in ITOE, or at least not in the way one would expect. Since Kant was the most evil man in history and universals the most important problem in philosophy, one might expect that Rand would discuss Kant’s theory of universals. When Rand does get around to discussing Kant, she attacks him for inspiring pragmatists, logical positivists and Linguistic Analysts (“mini-Kantians”). Her two sources for Kant are herself (a quotation from For the New Intellectual) and a quote from the now obscure Kantian Henry Mansel. (pp. 77, 80-81.)

What David Gordon says of Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels is even more true of ITOE: it is “the history of philosophy with the arguments left out.”

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