Sunday, September 30, 2012

Understanding Objectivism

The 2012 edition of Dr. Leonard Peikoff's 1983 lecture series, edited by Dr. Michael S. Berliner, does not so much explain Objectivism as it does argue against intrinsicism, subjectivism, rationalism and empiricism.  The book opens and closes with a problem we all know from personal experience: Objectivism versus the world.  Does life have to be one long argument against everyone else's wrong ideas?  Are we condemned to live among dishonest and foolish people? 
(This review is edited from posts and responses I placed on Rebirth of Reason and Objectivist Living discussion boards.) 
"... the fact is, since you're in a very small intellectual minority, if you're an Objectivist, you're going to quickly conclude that people in general are rotten and that life is miserable." (page 351)  His answer may not be satisfying, as he offers no pollyanna reply.  By a string of examples, he suggests that a reasonable person, an Objectivist, must navigate a dreary swamp of depressing nonsense.  The best you can hope for is good friends - a good spouse - and the knowledge that the purpose of Objectivism is to make you happier.   Unfortunately, like much else here, the specifics are missing. 

Page 170, the Q&A for Lecture 5:  About Peikoff's list of 20 key items, arranged hierarchically, a student asks: "If metaphysics comes first in the branches of philosophy, then why do the first ten items go back and forth between metaphysics and epistemology?"  (The list is presented and discussed on pp.  150-166.)  Peikoff says: "Because metaphysics does not come first.  Metaphysics and epistemology are simultaneous -- what exists and how we know it are the foundation that starts together. ... The two are completely intertwined."  

On that basis, the three fundamental axioms of Objectivism are (page 166 and again page 224):
  • Existence. (Existence exists)
  • Consciousness. (Consciousness as the faculty of perceiving existence.)
  • Identity. (A is A, with corollaries "The Primacy of Existence" and "Free will and volitional consciousness." pp 166-167)
It was a surprise to me after all these years.  I always thought that the Three Axioms of Objectivism were metaphysical: A is A (identity), Either-Or (the excluded middle), Non-Contradiction (Aristotle's statement of the law of identity). He also says later that these three cannot be arranged in a hierarchy of their own. The desire for a single root axiom - A is A - is an example of the fallacy of monism applied to Objectivism. (Page 224)

Peikoff frames the lectures more as refutations of error than as positive assertions.  The text starts with strawman arguments made up by students who attempt to validate certain truths; and then it also includes about 170 pages (four chapters) that explain the errors in Intrinsicism, Subjectivism, Rationalism, and Empiricism.

Certainly, I did gain some insights from reading this.    But this is ultimately unsatisfactory.  Demonstrations by negation are not assertions.  His summaries of other people's philosophies is always suspect. Based on what I learned in freshman philosophy, he is very good with Leibnitz; and Peikoff admits several times to being a rationalist before coming to understand something objectively.  But his other sketches are little more than parodies. I found his presentation of subjectivism (before and after page 172) is wholly unsatisfactory.  As I understand it, subjectivism is not based on an irrational desire to substitute emotions for perceptions.  Regardless of how we feel about our perceptions, we nonetheless perceive differently.  Rather than attempt to solve that, Peikoff defeats a straw man.  Overall, he invests over half the book setting up opponents of his own invention.  Even after his students fail to integrate Objectivism in the opening chapters, four more chapters (pages 171 to 307) expose the errors in Instrinsicism, Subjectivism, Rationalism, and Empiricism.

Peikoff's positives come in Lecture 11 "Intellectual Honesty."  There, he really gives good advice on what Objectivism should be in practice in the narrow events of discussing ideas with other people.   The valuable advice involves judging the intellectual honesty of other people.  Regarding the personal in philosophy he says, only: "Assuming that your self is not identified with irrational principles, there is no reason whatever to have a conflict between philosophy and your self." (p. 371).  With other people, though, as we know, it is different.  

I think that the best advice is to remember that you are not the standard for the expected intellectual development of others. "And this is one of the tests of a good teacher or communicator -- to be able not to take your own knowledge as the sole standard , to realize that honest confusion can exist, even though to the speaker himself perhaps the issue was always clear." (page 357)  

Depending on your social context, other people may not be "formalizers" who actively build and maintain an explicit understanding of the world.  So, when someone makes a statement you disagree with, realize that for them, this may have no wider philosophical implications, and not much emotional investment, either.  You can let it go without comment.

According to Peikoff, (pp 350 et seq) you do not need to engage anyone who is intellectually dishonest.  Ignore anyone who explicitly repudiates reason or facts.  Ignore anyone who explicitly attacks values as such. Ignore anyone who advocates political totalitarianism.  Again, context is important.  You will not change their mind.  They will never accept your facts or your logic.  You may have an audience - as at a party - but, again, you can say "I disagree with you, but this is not the place to discuss it" and drop it.


And so, much of his good advice in Lecture 11 is contextual. He does not provide Easy Rules to Remember.  If you are discussing politics or whatever with someone who resorts to ad hominem arguments, name dropping and name calling, you can ignore them.  If someone is reasonable and responsive while discussing ideas, you can engage them.  However, many college professors have long experience talking reasonably only as intellectual entertainment for themselves.  They sound honest, but are not. Similarly, when confronted with a surprising opinion on global warming or child labor, an ordinary person can become emotional because they feel threatened.  If they recover the next day and reconcile with you socially, that can show intellectual honesty.

Peikoff also enunciates a truth contrary to both strict rationalism as (by error) Objectivism as practiced by many of its adherents: "... the essential process of knowledge is not from principles but to principles."(page 276) 

Overall, when I started the book, I was less than sanguine about its prospects.  On the second read, despite the long detours of denunciation against Kant and Leibnitz, the book is a good read for anyone who already knows Objectivism, but wants to understand more.

1 comment:

  1. Prof. Gregory Browne emailed in this Comment.

    Re: Peikoff in Understanding Objectivism

    My reaction to his statement "the essential process of knowledge is not from principles but to principles":

    If most people had said this, I would be rather dubious, because they would probably be praising ampliative induction from some individual cases to a generalization about all cases that was merely probable, over deduction from those generalizations, or deduction from (allegedly) certain generalizations (demonstration--demonstrative knowledge being the original meaning of 'science'), since I think that today demonstration is very undervalued, and ampliative induction a little overvalued.

    However, I know that Peikoff is using 'induction' in the old sense to include non-ampliative induction, and even concept-formation--especially concept-formation--even from one case (as in the example I gave of the key in the lock). In that sense, I think that the formation of principles is more important than deduction from them. Now, I want to stress that the principles are derived by conceptual analysis--thouigh I am aware that concepts are not always formed in the arm chair, but may require investigation in the field or laboratory, and so science more geometrico ("in the manner of geometry"), which forms concepts in the arm chair and analyzes them, is not the only kind of demonstrative science: gathering concepts from the field or the laboratory can also form the basis for geometric knowledge.

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