Saturday, May 07, 2011

Can Objectivism Be Criticized?

Recently, on Diana Hsieh’s podcast, a listener asked Hsieh and her co-host Greg Perkins a question about criticisms of Objectivism and their opinion of Scott Ryan’s 2003 work, Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality. Hsieh holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Colorado. Both Hsieh and Perkins are (or were) supporters of the Ayn Rand Institute.

Hsieh said she hasn’t read Ryan’s book. Perkins said that with “no exception” all the criticisms he had read of Objectivism are either “blatantly dishonest” or “based on a misunderstanding.” Perkins went on to say that he read parts of the book and concluded that Ryan was not dishonest but rather, you guessed it, didn’t understand Objectivism.

Hsieh said that criticisms of a philosophy have limited value. What is most important is whether a philosophy corresponds to the “facts of reality” and whether its principles fit with “my experience.” She did make the point that, regardless of what one thinks about established philosophies such as Kantianism and Utilitarianism, there are certain legitimate criticisms that provide a good jumping off point for discussion. On the other hand, she maintains, Objectivism hasn’t been around long enough for good critiques to develop. She then agreed with Perkins that none of Rand’s critics understand Objectivism well enough to critique it.

This is a rather striking assertion. Objectivism has been a complete philosophy since at least 1968, when the essays making up Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology were published. In the forty-three years following Objectivism has been studied by numerous supporters, sympathizers and critics. Many of these people have Ph.D.s in philosophy. Is it really the case that no one other than a philosopher associated with the ARI understands Objectivism well-enough to comment on it? Rand’s supporters always tell us (as Leonard Peikoff put it) that Rand was the greatest “salesman” philosophy ever knew. She wrote in a clear language understandable to the common man. Yet at the same time her writings are apparently so difficult to understand that not even professional philosophers can understand them. Which is it? I’d also add that it’s not as if Rand wrote a tremendous amount of pure philosophy. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is 163 pages. The Virtue of Selfishness is 144 pages. The Romantic Manifesto is 187 pages. Throw in Galt’s Speech and the non-dated pieces in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and it’s not more than 800 pages. Compare this to the vast corpus of John Dewey (thirty seven volumes in the collected works) and Bertrand Russell, two writers on which Rand opined without reading more than a small fraction of their relevant work. Most of Rand’s critics have probably read her key essays several times over, so if they don’t understand them maybe it’s because Rand isn’t as clear as her acolytes claim.

That being said, I think it’s the case that two of the earliest critiques of Objectivism by philosophers, William O’Neill’s With Charity Toward None (1971) and John Robbins’ Answer to Ayn Rand (1974), did not always show the best understanding of Objectivism. However, things got much better with 1986’s The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, a collection of essays edited by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen. All of the essays were written by professional philosophers, some of whom are well-known such as Antony Flew and Wallace Matson. In 1999 the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies began publishing, providing a forum for scholars of diverse perspectives to dialogue on Rand’s philosophy and related matters. In 2002 Greg Nyquist published Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. In 2003 Scott Ryan published Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality: A Critique of Ayn Rand’s Epistemology. While neither is a professional philosopher, both are well read in philosophy and, in their own ways, expand on the various critiques others have made.

I won’t summarize all the criticisms of Objectivism, but I think there are a number of stock objections put forward by more than one philosopher that are reasonable based on any “objective” reading of Rand’s philosophy

1. Theory of Concepts. This has been one of the most commented on aspects of Objectivism, in part because it is supposedly Rand’s greatest breakthrough. Just some of the objections: Rand presents no evidence that her theory is true; Rand provides no evidence to support her speculations about how the mind of children and animals work; Rand confuses the problems of universals with the different question of abstraction and concept formation; Rand’s theory of measurement omission cannot explain how certain abstract concepts such as “justice” are formed, nor can it explain the formation of mathematical or logical concepts.

2. Epistemology. Rand’s epistemology doesn’t seem all that well developed. However a standard critique is that Rand’s use of the stolen concept fallacy may show that skepticism is self-refuting; it does not show that the senses are generally reliable or provide us with the means of determining when our judgments about the external world are accurate. (As at least a couple of critics have mentioned, Rand herself became irate when informed by Joan Blumenthal that the tree she thought she saw outside her hospital window was really an IV pole.)

3. Ethics. This has gathered a lot of attention as well since it may be the most novel part of Objectivism. The standard critique is that Rand switches between life as the standard of value and a certain kind of life (rational and non-parasitic) as the standard. Rand is thus able to ignore obvious counterexamples such as the rational parasite who lives off the independence and intelligence of others. It also leads Objectivists to the rather odd conclusion that certain people who are apparently alive and well are “not really living” or even “dead.”

4. Politics. Perhaps the most common objection is that Rand’s advocacy of selfishness cannot provide a foundation for respecting the rights of others. There are various other criticisms such as whether voluntary contributions are sufficient to fund even a minimal state and why anarcho-capitalism is not more consistent with Rand’s politics than limited government.

5. Religion. Here the standard objection is that Rand (and most of her followers) don’t understand religion and theistic arguments well enough to critique them. Rand’s positive arguments for naturalism are weak, e.g., “existence exists” doesn’t preclude the existence of God or gods.

There is, I think, a more fundamental problem. Although Objectivists tell us how stunningly original Rand was, most of her ideas and even the way she defends them are quite similar to other thinkers and schools of philosophy. For example, as Harry Binswanger once admitted, “Objectivism is a version of empiricism.” As such it is subject to the standard criticisms of empiricism, in particular the difficulty of explaining necessity, mathematics and logic without the aid of a priori knowledge. Another example is Rand’s belief that man’s mind is tabula rasa, which makes it subject to various objections from evolutionary psychology.

As I final point, in light of all the schisms, excommunications and denunciations in Objectivism since 1968 it’s not clear who really does understand Objectivism. Recently Leonard Peikoff denounced historian of science John McCaskey over the application of Rand’s theory of concept formation to the problem of induction and its role in the history of science. Travis Norsen, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, came to McCaskey’s defense. If an Objectivist historian of science and an Objectivist physicist can’t get issues right in their own field whereas Leonard Peikoff (who has expertise in neither) can, what’s the hope for the rest of us? Indeed Peikoff has in recent years said that Objectivists who believe Moslems have a right to build an Islamic community center containing a Mosque in New York City or were considering voting Republican or abstaining in 2006 don’t understand Objectivism. Apparently Hsieh doesn’t understand Objectivism because she dissented over the Mosque issue and at least partially sided with McCaskey. Peikoff slammed Hsieh in a statement he since removed from his website.

I would mention that Hsieh and Perkins are a little extreme even by orthodox Objectivist standards here. As readers of ARCHN blog might recall, ARI scholar Onkar Ghate debated philosopher Michael Huemer a couple of years ago over Rand’s ethics. Last year saw the publication of a first volume in a series of papers arising out of Ayn Rand Society meetings. The first volume, edited by orthodox Objectivist Allan Gotthelf and James Lennox contains essays by non-Objectivists Paul Bloomfield, Christine Swanton, Helen Cullyer and Lester Hunt. ARI associated scholars Tara Smith and Darryl Wright engage in friendly dialogue with their essays.

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