Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ayn Rand Bookstore Catalog

[Cross-Posted at Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature]

My copy of The Ayn Rand Bookstore 2008 Catalog arrived the other day. The ARB is owned by the ARI, so you can be sure that you are getting your Objectivism straight-up. The catalog is 74 pages and well produced. It contains lectures, books, coffee mugs, t-shirts and just about everything else needed to make you a passionate valuer of all things Randian.

What is most striking about the catalog is how prominently Leonard Peikoff is featured. On page 2, right after “Who was Ayn Rand?”, there is “Who is Leonard Peikoff?” He is, of course, “the preeminent authority on Objectivism.” In fact, Peikoff’s works come before Rand’s. ARB even sells a documentary on Peikoff. “The life of Leonard Peikoff is a heroic one. From his early years as a precocious student tortured by the dichotomy of the ‘moral’ vs. the ‘practical’ . . . to his . . . already-classic books . . . .”

The catalog also contains the odd disclaimer that “the inclusion of Leonard Peikoff’s materials . . . does not imply that he agrees with the content of other items herein.” No such disclaimer is given for associates of Ayn Rand such as Harry Binswanger or Allan Gotthelf. I guess Peikoff doesn’t call himself Rand’s “intellectual heir” for nothing.

You can purchase lectures by Peikoff on subjects big and small, from his “Induction in Philosophy in Physics” where he solves the problem of induction (thus completing “in every essential respect, the validation of reason”) to “Poems I Like—and Why.” This doesn’t come cheap: $205.00 for the former and $47.00 for the latter (plus $27.00 shipping). And why is it that none of the material in the catalog is available to download to your MP3 players? Wouldn’t downloads be cheaper for the ARB to produce (no need to make CDs) and save customers the rather hefty shipping costs?

The ARB offers several courses and lectures by David Harriman, ARI’s resident expert on physics and philosophical issues related thereto. Readers of ARCHNBlog won’t be surprised to learn that modern physics has been “corrupted” by Kant. Space is even a “chimera” (why not an anti-concept?) and we should return to “the relational view held by Aristotle.”

There are many lectures that would be of interest to anyone critical or sympathetic to Objectivism. If you want to know the Objectivist take on numerous topics not addressed by Rand, there is a dearth of published sources. I’d be willing to pony up some of my hard earned cash to learn what Objectivists think of Karl Popper, or how the Objectivist theory of concepts differs from other theories, but these lectures are just a bit too expensive. And given the bluster that Official Objectivists often direct toward non-Objectivists, I expect to be disappointed.

There’s truly something for everyone in the catalog. Psychologists Edwin Locke and Ellen Kenner even offer a course on sex containing role-playing dialogues “suitable for . . . same-sex couples.” One wonders what Rand would have thought.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Literature of Orthodox Objectivism

In 1967, Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism became complete. In that year, Rand published her collection of essays entitled Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (it was published by Mentor with Leonard Peikoff’s essay in 1979). By that time, she had written The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged and published her important articles “The Objectivist Ethics” and “The Nature of Government.”

Considering the revolutionary nature of Objectivism and the pure evil and evident absurdity of non-Objectivist thought, one might assume that Objectivists would rush into print with defenses and elaborations of Objectivism. Best I can tell, the number of books actually advancing Objectivism is quite small. (I exclude books written by non-ARI Objectivists).

1. Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels (1982)
2. Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1993)
3. David Kelley, The Evidence of the Senses (1988)
4. Harry Binswanger, The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts (his doctoral thesis, published by the ARI press)
5. Tara Smith, Viable Values (2000)
6. Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics (2006)

Even if I’ve forgotten a book or two, this is hardly an impressive list. Granted there is a fair amount of literature produced by Objectivists, but much of it is general discussions of Rand or material unrelated to Objectivism per se. I would put in this list Allan Gotthelf’s 2000 book On Ayn Rand (a 100 page synopsis of Rand’s thought) and Andrew Bernstein’s The Capitalist Manifesto, a defense of capitalism. One prolific Objectivist is Robert Mayhew, who has edited collections about We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead, Rand’s “marginalia,” Rand’s answers to questions posed at lectures or interviews, and a book on Rand’s testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities on the movie “Song of Russia” (Ayn Rand and Song of Russia).

While Objectivists are short on writing books, they are long on producing taped lectures. Quite often one will hear Objectivists recommend Leonard Peikoff’s tape courses, such as Objectivism Through Induction, to those who raise issues about Objectivism. I haven’t listened to this course, but it’s unreasonable to expect critics to spend $270.00 to purchase the CDs. (One can purchase slickly produced courses from The Teaching Company for much less.) If this course is so great, why doesn’t Peikoff publish transcripts of it?

For years we have heard that Peikoff will be publishing a book on his DIM Hypothesis, David Harriman a book on physics applying Peikoff’s theory of induction, and Harry Binswanger on consciousness. If these books see the light of day and are reasonably priced, I will be among the first purchasers.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Rand's Style of Argument, Part 2

[Cross-Posted at Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature]

In the first part of this post, I discussed Rand’s style of argumentation as found in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. As I pointed out, Rand often defends her position using as a background the supposedly failed views of other philosophers. She takes much the same approach in “The Objectivist Ethics.”

Rand quickly disposes with the entire history of ethical thought. “In the sorry record of the history of mankind’s ethics—with few rare, and unsuccessful, exceptions—moralists have regarded ethics as the province of whims, that is: of the irrational.” Rand does not provide us with the names of those “rare” philosophers who consider ethics to be based on something other than whims. In any event, her claim is certainly exaggerated.

First, as Huemer notes, it is inaccurate to say that Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Aquinas, Butler, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Bradley and Moore regarded ethics as the province of whims and the irrational. And, even if unsuccessful, they are not the few.

Second, there is an entire traditional of natural law ethics which seeks to derive universal ethical principles from objective reality. Aristotle was called the “father of natural law.” Heinrich Rommen writes that, for Aristotle, “The supreme norm of morality is accordingly this: Realize your essential form, your nature. The natural is the ethical, and the essence is unchangeable.” (Rommen, The Natural Law, p. 15.) Thomas Aquinas, among others, passed this tradition to the West via his synthesis of Aristotelian and Christian thought.

Natural law theories were prominent in the Enlightenment. As Lord Kames, an important thinker in the Scottish Enlightenment, wrote, “A lion has claws, because nature made him an animal of prey. A man has fingers, because he is a social animal to procure food by art not by force. It is thus we discover for what end we were designed by nature, or the Author. And the same chain of reasoning points out to us the laws by which we ought to regulate our actions: for acting according to our nature, is acting so as to answer the end of our creation.” (Henry Home (Lord Kames), Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, pp. 25-26.)

Natural law ethics wasn’t dead by Rand’s time either. One example is philosopher Henry Veatch who published a defense of Aristotelian ethics in his 1962 book Rational Man. (Rand dismisses Aristotle with the debatable claim that he based his ethics on observations of what wise and noble men did, without asking why they did it.)

Since nature law ethics have commonalities with Rand’s ethics (and in many ways hers seems to be a version of it), her readers would certainly benefit from a discussion of why these theories are unsuccessful.

Rand’s first failed school is the “mystics,” who allegedly hold the “arbitrary, unaccountable ‘will of God’ as the standard of the good and as the validation of their ethics.” No mystic is mentioned, but I assume that these are conventional religious thinkers. Even so, the description isn’t apt. Most religious philosophers would probably disagree with the claim that they consider God’s commands “arbitrary.” The Ten Commandments, for example, contain a mix of religious injunctions (e.g., have no other gods) and practical commands (e.g, don’t steal). Religious thinkers often adopt a natural law ethic, arguing that God created human beings with a certain nature. (See the above quote from Lord Kames.)

Rand next turns to the “neomystics.” These philosophers attempted to “break the traditional monopoly of mysticism in the field of ethics . . . . But their attempts consisted of accepting the ethical doctrines of the mystics and of trying to justify them on social grounds, merely substituting society for God." Particularly problematic is Rand’s claim that apparently all neomystics are advocates of the unlimited state. Her statement is so sweeping that it should be quoted in detail:

“This meant, in logic—and, today, in worldwide practice—that society stands above any principle of ethics, since it is the source, standard and criterion of ethics, since ‘the good’ is whatever it wills, whatever it happens to assert as its own welfare and pleasure. This meant that ‘society’ may do anything it pleases, since ‘the good’ is whatever it chooses to do because it chooses to do it. And—since there is no such entity as ‘society,’ since society is only a number of individual men-this meant that some men (the majority or any gang that claims to be its spokesman) are ethically entitled to pursue any whims (or any atrocities) they are entitled to pursue, while other men are ethically obliged to spend their lives in the service of that gang’s desire.”

Taken literally, Rand is arguing that no secular philosopher places any limits on the state’s power over the individual. This hardly seems the case, the utilitarian Ludwig von Mises being an obvious counter-example.

As in ITOE, Rand’s scholarship is quite poor. Rand mentions only Aristotle, Nietzsche, Bentham, Mill and Comte. None of these philosophers is discussed in any detail, and none is quoted or cited. Rand’s only quoted source is herself, principally John Galt’s speech from Atlas Shrugged. (Galt is called, curiously, Objectivism’s “best representative.”) The amount of hyperbole is excessive, even by Rand’s standards. Rand is certainly entitled to disagree with altruism, but do altruists really hold death as their ultimate value?

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.”