Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Taking Ideas Seriously, Part I

Objectivists claim to “take ideas seriously.” According to Rand and her followers it is ideas (more specifically abstract philosophical ideas such as metaphysics and epistemology) that determine the course of history. As Rand put it in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (“ITOE”) concerning “the problem of universals”: “[T]he fate of human societies, of knowledge, of science, of progress and of every human life, depends on it. What is at stake here is the cognitive efficacy of man’s mind.” (ITOE, p. 3.) Yet despite the supposedly supreme importance of ideas in the Objectivist schema, how well do they deal with intellectual history in practice?


Rand’s first work following Atlas Shrugged was a lengthy essay entitled “For the New Intellectual” which appeared in a book of the same name published in 1961. In this essay Rand traced the history of philosophy and its generally deleterious effects on history through brief (and not entirely accurate) descriptions of thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant and Spencer. The first book written by an Objectivist philosopher other than Rand was Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels in which Peikoff blamed Nazism on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

Although Objectivists often present their views dramatically and hyperbolically, the Objectivist claim about the influence of philosophers on the course of history is not new with Rand (nor, in a rare display of modesty, did she claim it was). For example, the historian Christopher Dawson wrote in his 1953 work Understanding Europe: “What we all tend to forget, however, is the way in which even the most irrational phenomena in the modern world . . . have been conditioned and in some sense created by the ideologies of the past, so that behind the modern demagogue and dictator there stands the ghost of some forgotten metaphysician.” (Dawson, Understanding Europe, p. 152.) Other examples are Richard Weaver’s contention that Western culture got off the wrong track with medieval nominalism and Eric Voegelin’s thesis concerning the influence of Gnosticism on revolutionary ideologies.

The Objectivist version of intellectual history is problematic on a number of grounds:

First, is it really the case that the fate of knowledge depends on the right theory of concept formation? History doesn’t bear this out. To take one example, consider the “fate” of mathematics in the twentieth century. No one can deny the tremendous progress that mathematicians made even though there was no agreement as to the conceptual foundation of mathematics or even the definition of a number. Nor does it appear that physics and chemistry (both heavily mathematical) suffered as a result of this conceptual logjam, contrary to what Objectivist “super logic” might suggest if knowledge is rigidly contextual and hierarchical. Is there any reason to doubt that science and technology will continue to make progress even if the Objectivist theory of concept formation remains unheralded?

In addition, a review of individual thinkers and scientists would likely show that a substantial majority did not sympathize with Objectivist or proto-Objectivist ideas. No less than the twentieth century’s greatest scientist, Albert Einstein, considered himself a Kantian. Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead made seminal advances in logic in their massive Principia Mathematica. Whitehead went on to found the school of thought known as “process theology” writing, among other works, Religion in the Making. Another example is Nicholas Copernicus, who famously advanced the heliocentric view of the solar system in 1543’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. Copernicus was a Catholic prelate trained in scholastic theology. Upon a visit to Italy he came under the influence of neo-Platonist mathematicians. It doesn’t appear that Copernicus’ philosophic background prevented him from making one of the most important discoveries in astronomy.

Of course, one could easily conjure up various philosophies that would be destructive of scientific progress (such as the belief that studying the natural world is immoral), but history shows that science is compatible with a variety of philosophical approaches and that a certain eclecticism in method might even be desirable.

Second, Objectivists often look for philosophical explanations for rather mundane events. In a 2007 post I drew attention to Peikoff’s defense of Rand’s claim that the streaker at the 1974 Academy Awards was a Kantian nihilist, when in fact he was a publicity seeker intent on making a statement about public nudity.

Third, Objectivists tend to reduce historical change to a few philosophical ideas and ignore other, non-philosophical factors. For example, in The Ominous Parallels, Peikoff barely mentions the Treaty of Versailles, which fueled German resentment. This, combined with mistakes made by anti-Nazi German politicians and the Great Depression, were far more responsible for the rise of the Nazis than the influence of Kant.

Fourth, for all the Objectivist bluster about “taking ideas seriously,” Objectivism is destructive of the understanding and enjoyment of ideas. The Objectivist approach simplifies and caricatures the history of ideas to such an extent that one wonders at times why Objectivists would study ideas other than their own. This point was made by David Gordon is his review of The Ominous Parallels:

“There is, I think, a deeper flaw in Peikoff's approach to intellectual history than his errors, however grave, about a particular thinker. One has no sense, when reading Peikoff, that Kant (or any of the other thinkers he condemns) was responding to serious intellectual problems. If, for example, Kant differed with Aristotle, the thought never seems to have occurred to Peikoff that he may have had some legitimate reasons for doing so. Peikoff gives us a history of philosophy with the arguments left out. Someone unfortunate enough to derive all his knowledge of Kant from Peikoff's pages would have no conception at all of why Kant's successors regarded him as a profound thinker rather than the proponent of ‘a perverted theory that no one could mean.’”

Fifth, there is a tendency in Objectivist circles to make the thought of various thinkers conform to what the Objectivist theory of history would suggest rather than letting them speak for themselves. To take just one example, Objectivists often portray the ancient Greeks (whom they admire) as secularists when their society was religious to an extent hard to appreciate today.

In the second part of this post I will compare Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels with Christopher Dawson’s discussion of Hegel in Understanding Europe and Ludwig von Mises’ discussion of the rise of Nazism in Omnipotent Government.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your article. What occurs to me is that there is a distinction between the philosophy of Objectivism and the ideas, beliefs, utterances, notions, expressions voiced by those who assert that they are true Objectivists and that what they therefore say is what the Objectivist position on any issue really is.

When I read your article where you show how Peikoff leaves out Kant's arguments and if one were to rely exclusively on Peikoff's statements about Kant that one would have a mistaken understanding of Kant, that is a valid criticism of Peikoff not of Objectivism itself.

I appreciate that one must be careful to avoid conclusions based on limited exposure to anything especially when trying to grasp the truth of an issue where an Objectivist might be skewing the information. But that is not limited to Objectivists.

Ayn Rand used to say that her supporters should describe them selves as students of Objectivism and that she at the time was the only official spokesperson for the philosophy. Nowadays many who have studied Objectivist literature are willing to identify themselves as Objectivists once they are familiar with the basic tenets in the fundamental realms. That doesn't mean that they necessarily know the Objectivist position on issues about which they have not familiarized themselves.

Enjoyed your article and glad I found this site.

Wm

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