Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The McCaskey Schism, Part 2

Two months ago I gave the lowdown on the latest schism in Objectivism. I suggested that the schism had not yet reached the level of the David Kelley split in the 1980s. In two short months we’ve reached Kelley levels and may be heading for a schism of Brandenesque proportions.

By way of background, it should be noted that Leonard Peikoff is not on the Board of Directors of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and does not appear to have the legal authority to veto its decisions. Rather, as the heir of Rand’s estate, the owner of her copyrights and the owner of her papers, a decision by Peikoff to separate from the ARI would probably hamper its day to day operations if not require its dissolution.

On October 24, Diana Hsieh published her evaluation of the McCaskey schism. Hsieh, who has a doctorate in philosophy, is the most prominent Objectivist blogger and podcaster. She is an interesting character. A long-time Objectivist, she was for ten years a supporter of David Kelley’s the Objectivist Center (now the Atlas Center). She was no admirer of Leonard Peikoff, criticizing his magnum opus Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR) and alleging that Peikoff lied in claiming Rand designated him her “intellectual heir.”

In 2004, however, Hsieh had a conversion experience to orthodox Objectivism in which all her previous criticism of the ARI and Leonard Peikoff suddenly became “inoperative.” In order to make up for lost time, she launched numerous attacks on the “false friends” of Objectivism. These included not just the usual suspects such as David Kelley and the Brandens, but her old friend Chris Sciabarra. Sciabarra is particularly loathed in ARI circles for his work Ayn Rand the Russian Radical, a book which puts Rand in historical context. In 2006, Hsieh, using private emails from Sciabarra without his permission, wrote a nasty hit piece. She repudiated her previous work. Leonard Peikoff now became a god in Hsieh’s eyes, even endorsing his 2006 fatwa on the moral obligation to vote for the Democratic Party.

Hsieh’s attempt to become Objectivism’s avenging angel worked, at least for a time. In a 2009 podcast, Leonard Peikoff said he respected her work. However, in June 2010 she disagreed (as did many Objectivists) with Peikoff’s contention that Moslems do not have the right to build an Islamic Community Center (which contains a mosque) near “ground zero” in New York City. (This was a dangerous position to take because Peikoff, as with the 2006 voting fatwa, had equated his position with Objectivism as such.) Nonetheless, she tried to be as respectful as possible to Peikoff, urging Objectivists not pester the Grand Old Man at the summer Objectivist Conference. Curiously, Hsieh reported, in September, that her proposal for a lecture at the 2011 ARI-sponsored Objectivist Conference (OCON) was rejected.

In preparation for her October 24 piece on the McCaskey schism, Hsieh wrote a couple letters to Peikoff asking for clarification concerning his now notorious email which, she said, “looked very bad on its face.” Peikoff did not respond or acknowledge the emails. She also spoke to McCaskey and ARI president Yaron Brook to get their side of the story. The most interesting bit of information in Hsieh’s piece was a letter that David Harriman sent to Hsieh’s husband, Paul (a medical doctor).

Date: Mon, Sep 20, 2010 at 1:30 PM


To: Paul Hsieh

Subject: Re: Question about McCaskey's criticisms of your book?

Dear Paul:

I don't think you need access to private emails in order to reach a judgment on this conflict.
Professor McCaskey has published a negative review of my book on Amazon. He has also published articles expressing some of his own views on induction, and praising the ideas of William Whewell (a 19th century Kantian). Anyone who is interested can read my book, read the writings of McCaskey, and come to their own judgment.

I realize that most people know little about the history of science, and so they may believe that they lack the specialized knowledge required to make a judgment in this case. But I do not think the basic issues are very complicated.

McCaskey claims that Galileo discovered the law of free fall without even understanding what is meant by "free fall" (since Galileo allegedly had no clear concept of friction). Likewise, Newton discovered his universal laws of motion without understanding the concepts of "inertia," "acceleration," and "momentum." In effect, scientists stumble around in the dark and somehow discover laws of nature before they grasp the constituent concepts. This view is typical of academic philosophers of science today. I am well acquainted with it; in my youth, I took courses from Paul Feyerabend at UC Berkeley. But how believable is it?

In short, I ask you which is more believable -- that Isaac Newton was fundamentally confused about the difference between "impetus" and "momentum," or that John McCaskey is confused about this issue?

A favorite pastime among academics today is to find "feet of clay" in great men. But that is not the purpose of my book.


Of course contempt for academics and the claim that all non-Objectivists are “Kantians” is vintage Peikoff. And who needs expertise in the history of science to evaluate a book on the history of science when a little “thinking in essentials” will do the trick?

Hsieh’s piece generated lots of comments. The most interesting was from physicist Travis Norsen, who revealed that he had been critical of the Harriman book for quite some time, resulting in a “cooling” of his relationship with the ARI.

Now, ironically, during this same period, a dear friend convinced me to consider trying one last time to submit an OCON course proposal; in particular I was assured that, this time, such a proposal would receive a fair hearing. So, despite doubting that a proposal by me could possibly be accepted, I did end up submitting something. To my pleasure and surprise, it was accepted, and so I was slated to teach a course at the summer 2007 conference (in Colorado). But then, a couple months later (in December of 2006), I was informed by ARI that they were withdrawing the invitation for me to speak, based on the “views on induction generally and on Dr. Peikoff’s lectures more specifically” that I had posted here.
Norsen also reported that he was told that the ARI had need for only one lecturer on physics, and that was David Harriman.

Hsieh didn’t reach many conclusions in her piece, claiming that there wasn’t enough information available to determine just what Peikoff was up to in his “moral condemnation” of McCaskey. Trying not to get into too much trouble, she urged everyone to be understanding of Peikoff and acknowledge his contributions to Objectivism.

If Hsieh’s failure to support Peikoff 100% was surprising, things got even more surprising a couple weeks later when, on October 29, Craig Biddle attacked Peikoff for his “nonobjective” and “unjust” attack on McCaskey. Biddle publishes The Objective Standard (TOS), an Objectivist magazine that publishes only orthodox Objectivists and has close ties to the ARI. McCaskey is on the masthead along with ARI president Yaron Brook. TOS had published excerpts from Harriman’s book. You’d think Biddle would be the last person to turn on Peikoff. Just a few weeks previous Biddle published a fawning review of James Valliant’s now debunked The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, even though it is out of print and orthodox Objectivists such as Hsieh have long stopped mentioning it. In his 2002 book Loving Life he called OPAR “one of the most important books ever written.”

Biddle removed Brook from the masthead of TOS, duly noting that he respects Brooks and does not want to sever ties with ARI writers. Lot of good that did him, because the next day he posted on Face Book that the ARI had cancelled his speaking engagements at several universities.

By now people were asking lots of questions, in particular students at the Objectivist Academic Center (OAC), a graduate program run by the ARI. Perhaps fearing that a decision by Peikoff to take his marbles and go home would result in OAC becoming another Founders College, they demanded a conference call with the ARI, which apparently took place in early November. The call was confidential.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, Peikoff returned from on high on November 5 to settle scores. First he denounced McCaskey. Lest there be any doubts, he said was morally condemning McCaskey. (This had been disputed by certain Objectivists, apparently forgetting that virtually every condemnation is moral in Peikoff’s eyes).

Because some people have turned the dispute into a moral issue, I should state the full truth, which is not stated in the letter: I have, for years, long before Harriman’s book, condemned McCaskey morally: I regard him as an obnoxious braggart as a person, and a pretentious ignoramus as an intellectual. Had I held a more positive estimate, I would have attempted first of all not to demand his resignation, but to discuss the book with him, understand his viewpoint, and see if together we could resolve and/or delimit his problems with it. But given my opinion of him, intellectual discussion was impossible to me.
Next, he reminded people that as the one who allegedly best understands Objectivism, he is entitled to trump any decision of the ARI, notwithstanding the fact that he is not even on its Board of Directors.

Ultimately, someone has to decide who is qualified to hold such positions and where the line is to be drawn. An organization devoted to spreading an ideology is not compatible with “freedom” for its leadership to contradict or undermine that ideology. In theory, the best judge of such contradiction would be the person(s), if he exists, who best understands and upholds the ideology, as evidenced objectively by his lifelong intellectual consistency, philosophic attainments, and practical results. In practice, the best judge would be the person, if he is still alive, who founded the organization and defined its purpose, in this case as a step in carrying out a mandate given him by Ayn Rand. On both counts, only one individual qualifies: me. (I have retired from books, classes, and official position, but not from perception and evaluation.)

Next, he pointed out that he is on terms of “personal enmity” with “a few” Board members and doesn’t speak to them. Since there are eight Board members, Peikoff apparently isn’t on speaking terms with at least 40% of the Board.

Finally, in case anyone was wondering against whom Peikoff was directing his invective, he closed with “if . . . my detractors in this issue represent a sizable faction within the Objectivist movement whose spokesmen include magazine founders and PhDs with podcasts– then God help Objectivism, too.”

By now things had reached critical mass. With a “sizeable faction” of ARI supporters having questions about what little amount of intellectual freedom remains in orthodox Objectivism and a possible fall-off of contributions to the ARI, Yaron Brook decided to speak. The upshot of Brook’s press release is that Peikoff threatened to walk away from the ARI and the Board caved.

The substantive issue that Dr. Peikoff raised—whether a person who does not support a central ARI project should sit on the Board—was itself a very serious one. In addition, the Board had the practical, moral, and fiduciary responsibility to avoid needlessly damaging our important relationship with Dr. Peikoff. Dr. Peikoff founded ARI, served as its first Board chairman, and has continued to provide ARI with moral, financial, and practical support over the 25 years of ARI’s existence. As Ayn Rand’s heir, he has been very generous in giving Ayn Rand’s materials to the ARI Archives, with much more planned for the future. In these and many other ways, Dr. Peikoff’s ongoing support is important to ARI; we are certainly interested in hearing his thoughts and analyses, and we give them due weight in our deliberations

I won’t go into the details of Brook’s statement, which was brilliantly dissected by one “Saul” on Diana Hsieh’s blog. Of note, however, is that Brook does not say whether he considers Peikoff’s criticisms of McCaskey’s person (an obnoxious braggart and ignoramus) appropriate in light of McCaskey’s years of devotion to the ARI. Most importantly, we are never told why McCaskey had a “conflict of interest” as a Board member because he is unable to support the ARI-sponsored The Logical Leap. Is McCaskey obligated to support a work that is, at most, an extension of Objectivism? I don’t get the impression that McCaskey was out to publicly “trash” The Logical Leap or the ARI for sponsoring it. Rather it looks like he intended on keeping his criticism private.

We now have more information about this schism, although there is a great deal we don’t know. Most importantly we know that Peikoff’s denunciation of McCaskey is the culmination of his attempt to make David Harriman the official Objectivist expert on physics and science, notwithstanding his eccentric view on relativity theory and some other matters. In my initial piece I raised the suspicion that Peikoff’s anger might have something to do with the Archives granting access to Jennifer Burns for her critical biography of Rand. I thought that ARI supporters might be angry over Burns’ revelation that the ARI, apparently at Peikoff’s direction or at least consent, has rewritten Rand’s posthumously published material. That doesn’t appear to have been a factor.

The McCaskey schism is the logical culmination of Peikovianism. When Peikoff excommunicated David Kelley he implicitly put his interpretation of Objectivism on par with Rand’s stated positions. This was made explicit in the 2006 Fatwa and the New York City Mosque podcast. Now with the McCaskey auto-da-fe Peikoff has made his extension of Objectivism into an area on which Rand wrote nothing as much a part of Objectivism as anything that Rand wrote. If the DIM Hypothesis ever appears will Objectivists be free to express the mildest disagreements?

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Objective Standard Reviews The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics

Five years after it was published and a year or two since it’s been out of print, James Valliant’s The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics (PARC) finally got reviewed in The Objective Standard (TOS), the house organ of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI). The reviewer is the relatively unknown Roderick Fitts. Fitts, a mechanic in the Air Force, has never published on Rand's life. He is certainly an odd choice to review a book about Rand, given that the ARI has many folks with expertise in this area, including Jeff Britting, Shoshana Milgram (the official Ayn Rand biographer) and Dina Schein.

Early on Valliant’s opus got some positive attention from ARI supporters. In 2006 Diana Hsieh wrote, “In my view, Jim Valliant's case against Nathaniel and Barbara Branden in The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics is overwhelming that no honest person can read it without dramatically changing their judgment of the Brandens for the worse -- and of Ayn Rand for the better.” In early 2007 Edward Cline wrote, “I must commend Valliant on a feat of detective work that would have daunted any career detective novelist. . . . In my mind, Rand never needed exoneration for her actions, and his book more than vindicates my position.”

It’s been pretty much downhill since then for PARC. Hsieh didn’t mention PARC when she noted the publication of the two new Rand biographies. Nor did Cline. (Curiously, TOS was going to publish a review of Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made written by Cline. Cline finished the review but apparently TOS decided not to publish it.) TOS did publish a negative review of Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market by Robert Mayhew. Burns, it will be recalled, identified Mayhew as among those who have rewritten Rand’s posthumously published material. Mayhew didn’t mention PARC.

Getting back to Fitts’ review. It’s brief and doesn’t go into much detail about Valliant’s charges. Nonetheless it appears that the wagons are being circled. Fitts implicitly endorses all of Valliant’s claims, including those about Frank O’Connor’s drinking. Fitts even approves of Valliant inserting his hectoring comments around (and sometimes right in) Rand’s journals. There is not a word of criticism* and Fitts even goes beyond Valliant in claiming that Rand and O’Connor were “happily married.” He makes the absurd claim that Valliant’s book is “well-researched.”

The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics is well-researched and covers a wide range of articles, audio recordings, books, movies, and interviews with individuals who knew Rand for years, if not decades. Although the book focuses primarily on the Brandens’ claims and the evidence against them, it also includes interesting details about aspects of Rand’s philosophy (such as her little-known concept “meta-selfishness”) and fills many gaps in the history of her life.

Just what are the wide range of interviews covered in PARC? The Archives has done over one hundred and twenty with people who knew Rand. Valliant didn’t consult one.

Fitts’ review doesn’t betray any indication of having been run by the Archives. It doesn’t mention the two new biographies, both of which side with the Brandens on numerous questions with which Valliant took issue.

It’s always hard to figure out what is going out in ARI-land, but I wonder if Leonard Peikoff is happy with the help the Archives gave to Burns and Heller and Burns’ revelation about the posthumously published material. While Peikoff’s auto-da-fe of John McCaskey doesn’t mention the Archives, it does indicate a frustration level about his position in orthodox Objectivism.

Fortunately things are looking up for those who are interested in Ayn Rand’s life. The Archives will publish 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand on November 2. On October 19 the paperback version of Anne Heller’s biography appears.

*On Fitts’ website, where a lengthier review of PARC appeared, Fitts offered this minor criticism:

Generally, I'm satisfied with Valliant's quoting and sources, and will say that he should have been less liberal how he quoted others (bordering on paraphrasing, like in the case of John Hospers), and should been more careful in citing his sources, like in the case of Rothbard. If he ever publishes a second edition, I'd certainly like to help in any editing he would need.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The McCaskey Schism

There is a new Objectischism brewing, and this one might be the biggest since the David Kelley excommunication in the 1980s. Thus far only John McCaskey has been excommunicated from the movement, but it could be a sign of growing Objectivist frustration with Leonard Peikoff and the tone of orthodox Objectivism.

John McCaskey is a well credentialed Objectivist scholar. He holds a doctorate from Stanford University in the history of science, where he currently teaches. He was, until recently, on the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute. He has written for the Objective Standard, the house organ of the ARI. He has spoken at Objectivist Conferences. McCaskey appears to be tight with Allan Gotthelf and Harry Binswanger, but has “rarely spoken” to Peikoff.

McCaskey founded The Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship in 2001. The Foundation, which was so closely tied to the ARI that it was absorbed by it in 2008, may be the most interesting “special ops” of the ARI. The Foundation sponsors Objectivist professors (always orthodox) at universities through the United States. Intentionally or not it gives the illusion of greater Objectivist penetration in the academic world than it probably has. The Foundation received national attention in 2007 when Texas State University at San Marcos turned down a Foundation grant because of the dogmatic nature and intolerance of orthodox Objectivism.

The roots of this latest schism go back a ways. According to orthodox Objectivism, Rand solved the problem of universals in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. The biggest remaining problem in philosophy was the problem of induction, a thorny question which, by common consent, no completely satisfactory solution has been given. Peikoff, Rand’s self-proclaimed “intellectual heir,” teamed up with physicist David Harriman to solve the problem and show how induction worked in science. The result was Peikoff’s 1999 lecture course Induction in Physics and Philosophy which “present[s], for the first time, the solution to the problem of induction—and thereby complete[s], in every essential respect, the validation of reason.” The solution apparently built on Rand’s theory of concepts and, if true, would be a significant extension of Objectivism.

Peikoff and Harriman were for a time collaborating on a book on induction; however Peikoff dropped out of the project deciding to spend more time on his “DIM Hypothesis” book (which, like some other Peikoff book projects, hasn’t appeared). In July 2010, Harriman’s book – The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics – was finally published. The book contains an introduction by Peikoff, who calls it “the first mayor application of Ayn Rand’s philosophy to a field other than philosophy.” Harriman states that theory of induction and concept formation in the book is Peikoff’s. He also acknowledges that the book was funded by the ARI. The history of science isn’t my strong suit, but the Harriman book follows the general Objectivist view of intellectual history: good guys with good (i.e., proto-Objectivist) ideas, bad guys with bad ideas, good ideas leading to good results, bad ideas leading to failure. All contrary evidence is ignored or explained away, as when Harriman claims that Galileo’s notes in his journals that suggested he was a rationalist who used “thought experiments” don’t accurately convey what Galileo was doing. (Harriman, as we will see, is apparently an expert when it comes to what people really mean in their journals.)

Harriman is controversial in Objectivist circles for his (at least partial) opposition to relativity theory and quantum mechanics. He also thinks the big bang theory is a “creation myth” (duly noting that it was developed by Catholic priest). He edited The Journals of Ayn Rand which, according to Jennifer Burns, he rewrote in the process to make it conform to Objectivist orthodoxy. As summarized by Laissez Faire Book’s review:

Burns writes, “On nearly every page of the published journals an unacknowledged change has been made from Rand’s original writing. In the book’s foreword the editor, David Harriman, defends his practice of eliminating Rand’s words and inserting his own as necessary for greater clarity. In many case, however, his editing serves to significantly alter Rand’s meaning.” She says that sentences are “rewritten to sound stronger and more definite” and that the editing “obscures important shifts and changes in Rand’s thought.” She finds “more alarming” the case that “sentences and proper names present in Rand’s original …have vanished entirely, without any ellipses or brackets to indicate a change.”

The result of this unacknowledged editing is that “they add up to a different Rand. In her original notebooks she is more tentative, historically bounded, and contradictory. The edited diaries have transformed her private space, the hidden realm in which she did her thinking, reaching, and groping, replacing it with a slick manufactured world in which all of her ideas are definite, well formulated, and clear.” She concludes that Rand’s Journals, as released by ARI, “are thus best understood as an interpretation of Rand rather than her own writing. Scholars must use these materials with extreme caution.”

In 2000 he ganged up with Leonard Peikoff to attack Allan Gotthelf’s incredibly fawning On Ayn Rand for its overly academic style. Harriman holds masters degrees in philosophy and physics. He would be a second-tier figure in the Objectivist world if it weren’t for his association with Peikoff.

Orthodox Objectivism has well credentialed physicists such as Keith Lockith (Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin) and Travis Norsen (Ph.D. from the University of Washington). Both have lectured at Objectivist Conferences and have lectures sold by the ARI’s bookstore.

Although Rand didn’t write anything on the philosophy of science, oral tradition has it that she was skeptical of what little she knew of modern physics. Peikoff doesn’t appear to know much about physics and what little he knows is from Harriman. (In Peikoff’s 2006 DIM lecturers Peikoff said he had never heard of Richard Feynman, probably one of the few household names in physics in recent years.) It’s been rumored that there is discontent with the preeminent position Harriman and Peikoff have when it comes to physics.

The first sign a schism was on July 25, when Norsen’s review of The Logical Leap appeared on Amazon. He called it “valuable but disappointing” and gave it three starts (out of five). The review is lengthy, and takes aim specifically at chapter 1 (which is Peikoff’s contribution):

To begin with, I think the three key ideas presented in chapter 1 are important and correct. There *are* first-level generalizations which support and make possible the higher-level sorts of generalizations that scientists are (and unfortunately most philosophers concerned with induction have been) primarily concerned with. And as a matter of epistemological methodology, it is right to focus on these simplest, foundational cases to construct a theory to guide us in the more complex cases. I also think it is profoundly true that causal connections are sometimes perceivable, and Harriman is absolutely right to stress this as the fundamental answer to the skeptical views that emerge ultimately from a Humean, sensationalist account of perception. I would even go so far as to say that this idea (which, however, is not novel -- see for example the important book "Causal Powers" by Madden and Harre) is the key to solving the problem of induction. And second, the idea that generalizations are formed -- i.e., propositions are rendered general -- via the application of (open-ended) concepts to particular causal instances, strikes me as very interesting and pregnant.

However, even at the level of dealing with examples like "balls roll," I find that the book does not go far enough in clarifying and developing these ideas. I see rather large gaps in the account of first-level inductions presented in chapter 1, and these gaps seriously undermine the project of showing, through the subsequent history-of-science case studies, how induction works in physics.

Something must have been “going down” because on August 11 and August 23 Gotthelf (of all people) and Binswanger posted brief five-star reviews on Amazon praising Harriman’s book. Prior to these reviews Gotthelf and Binswanger had a combined eleven reviews on Amazon going back to 1999.

It now turns out that McCaskey had for some time been critical of The Logical Leap, although he never discussed his concerns with Peikoff. Peikoff however got wind of McCaskey’s criticism and took it as a personal attack on him. In an incredible email dated August 30 from Peikoff to ARI legal counsel Arline Mann (and cc’d to ARI director Yaron Brook) Peikoff made it clear that someone had to go and it wasn’t going to be him:

When a great book sponsored by the Institute and championed by me – I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism – is denounced by a member of the Board of the Institute, which I founded someone has to go and will go. It is your prerogative to decide whom.
I do understand how much money M has brought to ARI, and how many college appointments he has gotten and is still getting. As Ayn would have put it, that raises him one rung in Hell, but it does not convert Objectivism into pragmatism.

Three days later McCaskey resigned from the ARI and the Foundation he started.
The next day McCaskey reviewed The Logical Leap, giving it three stars. The money quotes:

Readers of the book should be aware that the historical accounts presented here often differ from those given by academic researchers working on the history of science and often by the scientists themselves.

* * *

Generally, scholars who try to recreate the development of scientific concepts in the minds of great scientists are struck by how successful these scientists are in making propositional generalizations while still forming--and often themselves never fully forming--the concepts that constitute the generalizations. The narrative these scholars present (using Harriman's metaphor, not theirs) is not that a fully formed concept comes into the mind of the scientist who then uses it as a green light to an inductive propositional generalization, but that a partly formed concept serves as a flickering greenish light to a partial generalization, which acts as a less flickering, somewhat greener light to a better concept, which in turn improves the generalization, which then improves the concept, and so on, until well-defined concepts and associated propositional generalizations emerge fully formed together (at which point, the subjectivist says, "See, it's all just a matter of definitions.") Most scholars find the process of scientific progress less linear than Harriman indicates and much more iterative and spiral.
I cannot say that the conventional narratives (or my own) are all correct and Harriman's all wrong--certainly they are not--nor do I want to say how any inaccuracies would affect the theory of induction presented in The Logical Leap. I merely want to alert readers unfamiliar with the field that Harriman's narratives are often not the ones accepted by other scholars who research the conceptual development of great scientists and often not the ones that the scientists themselves give.
The theory of induction proposed here is potentially seminal; a theory that grounds inductive inference in concept-formation is welcome indeed. But the theory is still inchoate. If it is to be widely adopted, it will need to be better reconciled with the historical record as the theory gets fleshed out and refined.

What to make of this latest schism? It’s never easy to determine what is really happening in the noumenal realm of orthodox Objectivism. Even long-time Objectivism watchers with degrees in Kremlinology are having a hard time here. But let’s make some guesses:

1. Now that Harriman’s book is out and Peikoff has given the imprimatur to Harrimanesque physics, orthodox ARI physicists have decided that they aren’t going to let a philosopher with little knowledge of physics dictate how their work is done.

2. Objectivists are getting tired of Peikoff’s reign. With Peikoff’s retirement from the daily affairs of the ARI and his age they think can get along just fine without him.

3. Peikoff’s behavior has become increasingly erratic. In 2006 he issued a fatwa against anyone who was considering not voting Democratic, going so far as to claim that they didn’t understand Objectivism. He recently made a similar statement concerning Objectivists who believe that Moslems have a legal right to build a Mosque near the site of the September 11 attacks in New York City. He has called for a nuclear attack on Iran. He’s so self-important that when he speaks at an Objectivist Conference a disclaimer is published that his attendance doesn’t mean he agrees with everything other speakers say.

4. Peikoff, for whatever contributions he has made to Objectivism, has actually hurt Rand’s reputation. For example, in 2005 he sponsored James Valliant’s cracked The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, a book which, far from rescuing Rand, made her look worse. He has permitted people like Harriman to rewrite the published versions of Rand’s posthumous material in classic cult of personality fashion. Peikoff said in 1987 that Barbara Branden’s biography of Rand was “arbitrary” and would eventually be countered by an authorized biography. No such biography has appeared, but two independent biographies were published in 2009 both generally supportive of Branden’s. It must be increasingly obvious to younger Objectivists that the Peikoff line that Rand’s only character flaw was occasionally blowing her top was dishonest.

In 1968, Rand kicked out Nathaniel Branden (a psychologist). In 1977 she so harangued Alan Blumenthal (a psychiatrist) that he quit. Shortly before her death she booted out Robert Hessen (a historian). Leonard Peikoff has excommunicated not only David Kelly but George Reisman (an economist) and his wife Edith Packer (a psychologist). The McCaskey excommunication continues a trend of Rand and Peikoff breaking with independent thinkers who for ideological or personal reasons don’t toe the party line.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

New Book: The Power and the Glory

Burgess Laughlin, an Objectivist, has published The Power and the Glory. I haven't purchased the book yet, but based on the pages available it looks interesting.

What I found curious is that the disscussion of Rand's life is based on ARI Archivist Jeff Britting's hagiographic and brief Ayn Rand. There is no mention of the two new Rand biographies (by Anne Heller and Jennifer Burns) or Barbara Branden's 1987, The Passion of Ayn Rand.

Laughlin even recommends the now-discredited The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics by James Valliant.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Entry on Ayn Rand

Roderick Long and Neera Badhwar have writtent is entry on Ayn Rand.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Ayn Rand and Taxation

It's occasionally said (and I believe I said it) that Ayn Rand thought that taxation should be voluntary, or more accurately, that she believed government should be funded by voluntary contributions.

That, however, is somewhat misleading. Look at what she said in "Government Financing in a Free Society":

As an illustration (and only as an illustration), consider the following possibility. One of the most vitally needed services, which only a government can render, is the protection of contractual agreements among citizens. Suppose that the government were to protect--i.e., to recognize as legally valid and enforceable--only those contracts which had been insured by the payment, to the government, of a premium in the amount of a legally fixed percentage of the sums involved in the contractual transaction. Such an insurance would not be compulsory; there would be no legal penalty imposed on those who did not choose to take it--they would be free to make verbal agreements or to sign uninsured contracts, if they wished. The only consequence would be that such agreements would not be legally enforceable; if they were broken, the injured party would not be able to seek redress in a court of law.

Such an arrangement would hardly be voluntary. A makes a contract with B for a million dollars. A is afraid that B might default or otherwise refuse to pay. The only way A may enforce his contract is by paying a fee to the government. Even if the contract contained an arbitration clause, the arbitration agreement could not be enforced (as such agreements are today under the American Arbitration Act) by enforcing it in court.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why Rand's Critics "Overcompensate"

Objectivists quite rightly complain that much criticism of Rand and Objectivism is unfair. For whatever reason people often find it difficult to fairly discuss ideas with which they agree. Most Christians shake their heads when they read Objectivist critiques of their views, I imagine.

Here are a few reasons why I think Objectivism is easy to misrepresent or, perhaps better put, for critics to "overcompensate" in their criticism.

1. Rand is the greatest thinker since Aristotle. While I admit that she is worth reading and even important, some of the claims about her genius and originality are overstated. And is everything Rand said worthy of great praise? I think of Leonard Peikoff's claim that Rand's diagnosis of the streaker at the Academy Awards as a Kantian nihilist as the summit of cultural criticism.

2. Rand is a great novelist and Atlas Shrugged is the greatest work of fiction ever. Like many people I enjoy The Fountainhead but think Atlas Shrugged brought out some of her worst tendencies, such as using characters as a soap box.

3. Rand's style. It strikes me as hectoring in the extreme and does to many others as well. Of course that doesn't mean someone should call her a "fascist" or "totalitarian."

4. Rand's life. Unless Rand's three biographers (Barbara Branden, Jennifer Burns and Anne Heller) got it completely wrong, Rand had a cruel and eccentric side and encouraged what, with some exaggeration, might be called a "cult." Rand's critics might not know the controversy about Rand's character, but aren't they entitled to rely on these books (in particular those written by non-insiders, Burns and Heller)? When Peikoff tells us that Rand's only character flaw was occasionally blowing her top (which he tries to turn into a virtue) aren't Rand's critics justified in concluding that maybe orthodox Objectivism has something to hide?

5. Rand's movement. The denunciations of fellow advocates (Peikoff's attack on Gotthelf's 2000 book Ayn Rand for example), the splits, Harry Binswanger's loyalty oath, the rewriting of Rand's journals and other material (first revealed by Burns) to conform to Rand's reports about herself, etc. make Objectivism look a little eccentric.

6. Altruism. Rand's jeremiad against altruism just doesn't "resonate" with most people. For example, in Burns' book there some discussion of Rose Wilder Lane's interaction with Rand. Lane grew up on the frontier when people just "helped out." She could never understand why all behavior should be motivated by self-interest or why Rand couldn't appreciate the difference between coercive and non-coercive altruism.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Jeff Riggenbach: Ayn Rand and the Early Libertarian Movement

Here is a discussion by Jeff Riggenbach on the two new biographies of Rand from the Ludwig von Mises Institute.