Saturday, November 10, 2007

Oh Yes, They Called Him The Streak

[Cross-Posted at Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature]

Objectivists often accuse non-Objectivists, anti-Objectivists and apostates from ARI Objectivism as suffering from “rationalism.” This term appears to mean something like applying principles to situations without taking into account the facts of experience. A recent example is Leonard Peikoff’s 2006 statement that anyone who considers voting Republican or abstaining from voting “does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism, except perhaps as a rationalistic system detached from the world.” Incidentally, the term does not appear in this sense in either The Ayn Rand Lexicon or the index to Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Ellen Stuttle has drawn attention to the following from Leonard Peikoff’s 1987 talk “My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand,” reprinted in The Voice of Reason:

About a dozen years ago, Ayn Rand and I were watching the Academy Awards on television; it was the evening when a streaker flashed by during the ceremonies. Most people probably dismissed the incident with some remark like: "He's just a kid" or "It's a high-spirited prank" or "He wants to get on TV." But not Ayn Rand. Why, her mind, wanted to know, does this "kid" act in this particular fashion? What is the difference between his "prank" and that of college students on a lark who swallow goldfish or stuff themselves into telephone booths? How does his desire to appear on TV differ from that of a typical game-show contestant? In other words, Ayn Rand swept aside from the outset the superficial aspects of the incident and the standard irrelevant comments in order to reach the essence, which has to pertain to this specific action in this distinctive setting.

"Here," she said to me in effect, "is a nationally acclaimed occasion replete with celebrities, jeweled ballgowns, coveted prizes, and breathless cameras, an occasion offered to the country as the height of excitement, elegance, glamor--and what this creature wants to do is drop his pants in the middle of it all and thrust his bare buttocks into everybody's face. What then is his motive? Not high spirits or TV coverage, but destruction--the satisfaction of sneering at and undercutting that which the rest of the country looks up to and admires." In essence, she concluded, the incident was an example of nihilism, which is the desire not to have or enjoy values, but to nullify and eradicate them.

[. . .]

Having grasped the streaker's nihilism, therefore, she was eager to point out to me some very different examples of the same attitude. Modern literature, she observed, is distinguished by its creators' passion not to offer something new and positive, but to wipe out: to eliminate plots, heroes, motivation, even grammar and syntax; in other words, their brazen desire to destroy their own field along with the great writers of the past by stripping away from literature every one of its cardinal attributes. Just as Progressive education is the desire for education stripped of lessons, reading, facts, teaching, and learning. Just as avant-garde physics is the gleeful cry that there is no order in nature, no law, no predictability, no causality. That streaker, in short, was the very opposite of an isolated phenomenon. He was a microcosm of the principle ruling modern culture, a fleeting representative of that corrupt motivation which Ayn Rand has described so eloquently as "hatred of the good for being the good." And what accounts for such widespread hatred? she asked at the end. Her answer brings us back to the philosophy we referred to earlier, the one that attacks reason and reality wholesale and thus makes all values impossible: the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

The event in question was the 1974 Academy Awards. By that time, streaking had become the national prank. Ray Stevens’ song “The Streak” had been written but not published. Based on the little evidence available to Rand that night, the most likely explanation was that the streaker was just another “kid” pulling a prank, and the Academy Awards program chosen because it would give him maximum “exposure.”

In fact, the streaker was one Robert Opel, a thirty-three year old variously described as a photographer and an advertising executive. Opel wanted to make a statement about public nudity and sexual freedom (he was for it) as well as jump-start his career. His motive, then, does not appear to have been nihilism or tearing down the Academy Awards.

Rand’s discussion of the streaker incident highlights a couple of problems common with her analysis of historical and cultural events. First, she tends to draw conclusions in the absence of evidence. Second, she tends to ascribe philosophical motivations to individuals without considering more mundane explanations. In short, it was Rand who was guilty of rationalism in this case.

In the above excerpt, Peikoff continues that hearing Rand that night inspired him to write the chapter on Weimar culture in The Ominous Parallels. This misguided work, in which Peikoff all but blames Kant for Auschwitz, illustrates the streaker problem in reverse: the facts available to the historian are so vast that determining the one philosophic principle explaining it all (if there is just one) is close to impossible. It is more likely that a number of philosophical trends converged in 1933 which, when combined with the German public’s frustration over the economy and the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, resulted in the Nazi takeover. As Greg Nyquist argues in his book, if Hitler’s adversaries had adopted a better strategy, it is possible that the Nazis might not have seized power.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Jim Valliant Unplugged

Jim Valliant recently "went acoustic" on (registration required, even to view).

Among other pearls of wisdom, Mr. Valliant explained that didn't impugn the motives of the Brandens in throwing (or in his version, merely attending) the surprise party for Rand in honor of the publication of Atlas Shrugged.

This is Mr. Valliant yesterday on

Of course, PARC attributes no such malevolence to them for throwing a party.

Mr. Valliant said something quite different in PARC:

Rand was not seeking to 'control' anyone’s context here but her own. It was the Brandens who were part of the effort to 'control' Rand’s context through deception—Rand was merely objecting to the deception. (We shall see that this will not be the last time they will attempt to do this, merely one of the less important times.)

Mr. Valliant even claimed that no one had ever found a misquotation in PARC. Since numerous misquotations have been pointed out by me and others, this was quite a claim to make.

I responded with the following:
Here is Barbara Branden:

He retained his studio in the apartment building where he and Ayn lived, and continued to spend his days there. And each week, when Ayn’s housekeeper went to the studio to clean it, she found no new paintings but, instead, rows of empty liquor bottles.

Here is Jim Valliant:

As her sole corroboration for these sources, Ms. Branden refers to the “rows of empty liquor bottles” in O’Connor’s studio which Rand’s housekeeper is said to have found there after O’Connor’s death.

The response? As someone used to say, "Blank out."

Saturday, November 03, 2007

John Dewey on Concepts

From How We Think (1910)

Conceptions are not derived from a multitude of different definite objects by leaving out the qualities in which they differ by retaining those in which they agree. The origins of concepts is sometimes described to be as if a child began with a lot of different particular things, say his particular dogs; his own Fido, his neighbor’s Carlo, his cousin’s Tray. Having all these different objects before him, he analyzes them into a lot of different qualities, say (a) color, (b) size, (c) shape, (d) number of legs, (e) quantity and quality of hair, (f) digestive organs and so on; and them strikes out all the unlike qualities (such as color, size, shape, hair), retaining traits such as quadruped and domesticated, which they all have in general.

As a matter of fact, the child begins with whatever significance he has got out of the one dog and has seen, heard, and handled. He has found that he can carry over from one experience of this object to subsequent experience certain expectations of certain characteristic modes of behavior – may expect these even before they show themselves. He tends to assume this attitude of anticipation whenever any clue or stimulus presents itself’ whenever the object gives him any excuse for it. Thus he might call cats little dogs, or horses big dogs. But finding that other expected traits and modes of behavior are not fulfilled, he is forced to throw out certain traits from the dog-meaning, while he contrasts certain other traits are selected and emphasized. As he further applies the meaning to other dogs, the dog-meaning gets still further defined and refined. He does not begin with a lot of ready-made objects from which he extracts a common meaning; he tries to apply every new experience whatever from is old experience will help him understand it, and as this process of constant assumption and experience is fulfilled and refuted by results, his conceptions get body and clearness.