Saturday, July 17, 2010

Brian Leiter: Jackass and Bully

Seeing as I have no aspirations to enter academia anytime in the near future - that is, unless perhaps the likes of Brian Leiter get their comeuppance or simply grow old and fall out of the ranks - I feel totally uninhibited about shining the light of truth on this individual and those blog-cronies who genuflect in his direction.

Some background: Prof. Leiter holds a distinguished professorship in law and philosophy at the prestigious University of Chicago. He is a big-time Nietzsche scholar, having published books on Nietzsche from the most prestigious academic presses, Oxford University Press in particular. He runs a blog disseminating various bits of philosophical news. Among the bits of "news" he disseminates from time to time are items relating to Ayn Rand. His attitude towards Ayn Rand is hostile, sneering, and dismissive. She "isn't taken seriously by serious philosophers," i.e., by distinguished elites such as himself.

Leiter takes great interest and pride in academic attainment and status; for him it is a "filter of reliability" for what to take seriously or pay attention to. That might be all well and good, were it not also an excuse to deride, ignore, and dismiss such thinkers as Ayn Rand, who stand well outside of the academy in terms of style, substance, readability, and prestige-worship. One thinker Leiter and his blog commentators take most seriously is former Harvard philosopher John Rawls, whose landmark A Theory of Justice presents a highly influential synthesis of libertarian and egalitarian concerns. This left-liberal politics is the mainstream for academia, and presumed in that arena to be the political-philosophical orientation for which there are the best arguments. A look at the philosophy faculty at the top universities would seem to confirm this assessment.

A couple months ago, Leiter posted this blog entry, containing a link to this hit piece on Ayn Rand which Leiter describes as "amusing and worth reading." Anyone with a clue about Ayn Rand's ideas would instantly recognize how utterly, abysmally shoddy and ignorant the hit-piece is. Leiter, however, poses as some kind of qualified commentator on Ayn Rand's philosophical credentials. He apparently thinks that his highly negative opinions about Ayn Rand carry some considerable amount of weight or credibility given his prestigious position within the academy, presumably attained through a process of quality intellectual work and assessment of philosophical ideas. I cannot comment on his published work, not having read it, but I say this without reservation:

Brian Leiter is a jackass. An arrogant, elitist, narcissistic jackass. He thinks he is entitled to bash Ayn Rand and not have to actually present any quality evidence for his claims. The shameful excuse behind which he seems to hide is that to study Ayn Rand seriously is not worth the time and energy. As someone with much more of a clue about Rand's actual ideas and substantive merits, I beg to differ. So what would explain his unscholarly hostility towards Ayn Rand?

We get a clue here. What Leiter displays is an extreme antipathy towards capitalism, and he is also known to be an admirer of Karl Marx, whose characterizations of "capitalist exploitation" have been long discredited amongst those with a clue about economics. (It is unlikely that Leiter is unfamiliar with Robert Nozick's decimation of exploitation theory in Anarchy, State, and Utopia - a theory Nozick describes as an exploitation of economic ignorance.) Marx also made predictions regarding the eventual collapse of the capitalistic mode of production, also not borne out by empirical and historical realities. As these are central ideas in Marx's purported analysis of the capitalistic system, one is left wondering what there is to admire so much about Marx, his methodology, and his mode of inquiry. Whatever Marx might have gotten right, there's really next to nothing in his purported analysis of capitalism that actually corresponds to reality. But it still retains its appeal to Leiter.

(Nozick also provided one intriguing socio-psychological-institutional explanation for the hostility towards capitalism amongst the intelligentsia. It is this explanation, and not explanations grounded in the substantive merits of capitalism, that more likely explains the hostility. There is another, more comprehensive explanation, I think: the disconnect between the mode of inquiry all-too-widely practiced in the academy and actual, everyday reality. Hayek diagnosed this intellectual illness as rationalism. Rawls's theory of justice is one such elaborate exercise in rationalism, but I'll get to that in future postings.)

So anyway, Leiter is big on Marx, who screwed up big-time as an analyst of anything capitalism-related. But I guess he excuses him for that, because the main point seems to be that capitalism is still, nonetheless, exploitative and that it sucks. I can only speculate on what alleged facts of reality - not some rationalistic exercise performed on concepts (well, words purporting to represent meaningful concepts) removed from reality - leads to his overwhelming condemnation of capitalism. My strong hunch is that the explanations (well, the causes) are socio-psychological-institutional in nature. What this is not, is the impartial search for truth that is philosophy. Let's not confuse academia with philosophy. Leiter's got the academia part down, anyway.

Anyway, back to Leiter's contrasting of Rand and Nietzsche: it's plainly ignorant of Rand's ideas. Leiter, incompetently, misconstrues Rand's conception of selfishness and productive achievement. Whether or not one agrees that Rand gave a proper definition of "selfishness," she clearly spelled out what she meant by that term and it is shoddy interpretation to treat her like she meant something else. It is also manifestly clear from Rand's novel The Fountainhead, exemplified in the character of Howard Roark, what selfishness meant in the context of the pursuit of material values. When Roark turned down a major commission - meaning money - because it would mean compromising his own vision, he told the board of directors that it was the most selfish thing they ever saw a man do. In the Randian-Roarkian conception, selfishness means integrity - truth to one's own rationally-based values. It has nothing to do with the vulgar pursuit of material profit. Indeed, Roark is being as true to his vision as Beethoven (mentioned approvingly by Leiter) was to his.

Now how on earth could Leiter be ignorant of this, and yet be so certain that Rand sucks? How on earth can a philosophy of genuine individualism be so crudely mischaracterized by someone so academically prestigious? This is laughable, and Jackass Leiter should really be embarrassed for himself.

Leiter speaks about Rand's "superficiality," but what other way is there to characterize his own reading of Rand?

Leiter then quotes a crony-contributor, Prof. Robert Hockett at the intimidatingly prestigious Cornell Law School:

I thought that this passage in the Rand book review was the most accurate of all:

"Rand's particular intellectual contribution, the thing that makes her so popular and so American, is the way she managed to mass market elitism -- to convince so many people, especially young people, that they could be geniuses without being in any concrete way distinguished." (Fourth full para. at page 8.)

In short, she is the Lumpen-"philosopher" par excellence. My better half was asking me, just as I began to read this review aloud, what could possibly account for the popularity of this ridiculous woman. I hypothesized that it was the way in which she afforded a sort of vicarious self-flattery to narcissistic imbeciles. Then I began reading, and upon finding the just-quoted sentence, smiled with Randian self-satisfaction!

The irony here speaks for itself.

It is also intellectually incompetent to refer to Rand as an elitist, considering it is precisely sneering elitists like Professors Leiter and Hockett she was so opposed to. One need also only - once again - look to the character of Roark and see whether there was an ounce of elitism in him.

So much for Leiter's ridiculous, superficial, stupid, sophomoric, clueless, snooty, incompetent, ignorant and mean-spirited reading of Ayn Rand.

(At some later point I will address Ayn Rand's own similar weak point - her polemics against other thinkers such as Immanuel Kant. Suffice it to say that "Rand did it too" is classic self-serving fallacy and won't work as a defense for Leiter.)

There's another Leiter episode I would like to comment on here. This concerns his attitude towards the CATO Institute's Will Wilkinson. This attitude is reflected in this blog entry of a couple years back. Leiter likes to make wind of the fact that Wilkinson dropped out of philosophy graduate school, the insinuation being that a "libertarian zealot" like Wilkinson wouldn't be able to hack it in that setting.

Let's clear up a bit of Leiterite-leftist mythology about libertarianism and academia. First off, in economics, at least three notable libertarians - Friedman, Hayek, and James Buchanan - are Nobel Prize winners, as high a mark of intellectual prestige as I can imagine. Second, the case of former Harvard professor Robert Nozick presents a bit of a stumbling block for the mythology that libertarianism isn't an academically-serious political philosophy. The mythology has it that he "abandoned his libertarianism" later in life, when this is an egregious oversimplification at best. What he did specifically abandon was the extreme version of libertarianism he advocated earlier, citing concerns about community - concerns that no serious libertarian would ignore in any event. Also, it is unclear how any of his later shifts would provide justification for the sorts of violations of libertarian constraints he defends in AS&U. Seeing as he did not write in detail on political philosophy after that book, the public is left with the little nuggets he provided later on, and much guesswork. Anyway, the point here is that it's patently false that serious, "prestigious" intellectuals - even by Leiter's narrow standards - can't advance compelling justifications for libertarian ideas.

Apparently Wilkinson doesn't meet Leiter's narrow and exacting standards of seriousness and prestige, given how he dropped out of academia to work for a libertarian think tank. Apparently Leiter thinks this entitles him to make note of that fact in order to denigrate him as a thinker ("zealot"). This is the mark of an intellectual bully trying to throw his academic weight around, and it's not an isolated instance of Leiter's behavior. (Some attribute his pattern of behavior to Leiter's possibly being a head-case. I'm not in the business of diagnosing head cases, but this may provide potential pointers for those so interested.) He has a reputation for engaging in vendettas against those who get in his way. How this lines up with being a philosopher is beyond me and anyone else with a bit of common sense. (My own experience with Leiter was a brief email exchange some time back in which I tried to talk some sense into him about Rand, and met a brick wall. Again, this is philosophy?) It's quite possible that a major reason Will Wilkinson left the academy was because of how many assholes like Brian Leiter he had to deal with there.

What I think needs to happen is for Brian Leiter not to be enabled further in his pattern of destructive and irrational behaviors. This means for his blog-cronies and/or other colleagues not to continue their pattern of me-tooing, kowtowing and circle-jerking. As it is, he is the epitome of the Academic Elitist, the very embodiment of what makes the commonsensical, intelligent man-on-the-street (for whom Ayn Rand was an eloquent spokesman, I might add) so contemptuous of the academic world.

(Lest Leiter and his cronies whine and complain about how devastating to his pretentions I am being here, just keep this in mind: He brought this on himself. Reality, as Ayn Rand put it, is its own avenger. I'm only the messenger. The solution, of course, is not for him to bash or denigrate me, but to clean up his own despicable act. But should he deem it suitable to attack me, I say: Bring it on, Jackass, if you're so a glutton for punishment. I can out-think you, I can out-learn you, and I can out-philosophize you.)


  1. Who gives a shit?

  2. actually, Leiter is only important by virtue of his rankings, he is not a reputable philosopher by any stretch of the imagination. He might be a reputable philosopher of law in legal circles, but philosophy departments only pay attention to his rankings of philosophy departments, not his "philosophy" work, which belongs mostly in law journals. His work on Nietszche is debatable, and his books have received mixed reviews at best. He is notorious mostly for being a blowhard.