Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Big, Long Sigh

First, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Ayn Rand. The authors of that entry are Neera Badhwar and Roderick Long, who are sympathetic to Ayn Rand, are partly involved with "non-orthodox" segments of the Objectivist movement, and are philosophy professors. This last part should have a Rand fan concerned already. Combined with the middle part, there is even more cause for concern. Why? Because the probability that an academic philosopher - much less one not intimately familiar with Peikoff's lecture courses - would understand Objectivism properly, is exceedingly small. The only ones (who come to mind right off) who do a really good job of coming quite close, are the "Dougs," Rasmussen and Den Uyl. But to do things like write Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand or to understand and integrate the inductive methodology behind that book and courses like Understanding Objectivism, requires many years of immersion and habituation in the philosophy. Outside of this process, it's a crap shoot whether you end up "getting" Objectivism or not.

One thing that the academy of present day simply does not and cannot do is habituate philosophers to think in such a way as to "get" Ayn Rand and the way she thinks. There is simply a fundamental disconnect between the two models. It's like apples and oranges how the two modes of "doing philosophy" happens. If we are intellectual cowards and go by strength in numbers, we'd conclude the academy is where it's at and that Objectivism is some kind of cult-like and sheltered fringe. The academy, meanwhile, emphasizes "rigor" (this carries an inherent danger of "paralysis by analysis" if you don't come at it from a proper methodological context) and peer review, and those are ostensibly good things, but - and I'd have to spend much more time on a longer posting or book chapter to explain all this - these things are applied in such a way as to stifle the development of good things like Rand's ideas. The closest the academy has to exposure to Rand at this point - aside from one prominent book published four years ago (Tara Smith's Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics published by Cambridge Press) - is the work of Aristotle. (Speaking of Aristotle, I'm reading Henry B. Veatch's Aristotle: A Contemporary Appreciation. At the time he wrote it - 1974 - the most dominant figures in professional philosophy were Heidegger and Wittgenstein, while Aristotle was just beginning to be looked at by the English-speaking world. Fucking ridiculous!) The current generation of ARI-trained folks going into academia simply could not come out of the academy with their methodological faculties intact, which is why they require the dual-training.

So, getting back to the authors of the Stanford Encyclopedia entry. I encountered this collection of links to a discussion between Profs. Long, Badhwar, Rasmussen and Michael Huemer, a libertarian intuitionist. (Incidentally, intuitionism is a total dead-end. But never mind that, it's a prominent position and it comes from the academy! Yay!) Now, I hardly know Prof. Badhwar; about the most I know is that she contributed articles to the libertarian-friendly Social Philosophy & Policy journal, a leading journal in that area of specialty. (Don't get me started on "area of specialty" or AOS; hell, that alone could explain why the academy as a way of "doing philosophy" is so damaging, by encouraging compartmentalization and paralysis through analysis. For evidence, see the contrast between Rand and Rawls.) I trust she has only the best of intentions and is going on the best of her understanding. But this is simply unacceptable:

Doug is right that the omission of the virtue of practical wisdom from Rand’s discussion is an important one. But I don’t find it surprising: she was not a systematic philosopher, and she omitted to discuss a whole lot of important things, such as generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and charity.

(This is where you're supposed to let out that big, long sigh like I did.)

I just don't know how this shit gets into the mindset of those "analyzing" Rand. I'm sorry, but if - whatever the reasons, whatever the causes - you end up saying things like "Ayn Rand is not a systematic philosopher," you really haven't a clue what you're talking about. You simply are not coming from a proper context of understanding.

One thing about thinking systematically is - seemingly obsessively, but more just a matter of habit and mental organization (see Kubrick for another example) - keeping mental notes about all kinds of concretes and relating them in logical fashion to other instances based on relevant similarities. In this case, I note that we have a "Rand-sympathetic" professional philosopher who doesn't really "get" Rand, who also happens to be the same person to co-author the entry on Ayn Rand at the internet's leading philosophy encyclopedia. To a systematic-integrated mind, this otherwise-unnoticed connection raises red flags. One thing it says is that there is no real effort within the academy as it's currently set up to approach Ayn Rand's writings and ideas on the demanding terms Miss Rand set for her readers. Only a truly corrupt mentality would equate her plainspoken style of writing with such vices as being "simplistic" (I believe Rand identified this as an anti-concept, BTW, but what does she know - she's "simplistic") or unsophisticated. I guess the idea of condensation and essentialization (more Randian buzzwords used in connection with concept-formation, integration, and unit-economy), a process which captures all the original content and applies it to an appropriate (popular) format, means a thinker who isn't "serious" or "rigorous."

(Never mind the eye-opening, free-flowing rigor on display in the ITOE workshops. Never mind that her ideas emerge virtually intact under the rigorous Rasmussen-and-Den-Uyl treatment. One thing you mustn't forget about the ethos of academia: Rasmussen and Den Uyl aren't "prominent" enough for the message to reach the mainstream there. So, in addition to rigor and peer review, you also need prominence and specialization. But those latter can't be all that insidious and corrupting, can they? And if Leiter's views about former UT colleague Tara Smith and her book are any indication, not even prominence helps. Hell, Nozick was prominent. Nozick even gave a biting explanation for why so many academics embrace socialism and oppose capitalism. And even that gets ignored. Rocks the boat too much or something. Boat-rocking is frowned upon as well, and "rightward" political leanings can cost you career-wise. Now there's nothing insidious and corrupting about that, could there be?)

I guess that what I'm trying to say here, is that if Ayn Rand's ideas go under the "rigorous, analytical" microscope according to the present-day academic ethos, prepare for a train wreck. You can start with encyclopedia entries on her by those who seem to understand her by demonstrating a superficial understanding that a legitimate insider can only find inadequate.

Rand and the Academy (as we know it) are fundamentally at odds, and something has to give. I'd even go so far as to question the "infiltrate academia" strategy the ARI has been going with. How do you un-corrupt a corrupt institution? I'm thinking it could only be done from "the outside" - busting the whole system at its root. You can start with how academia these days is funded in large part by taxpayers rather than by a straightforward market process. Alternatively, you could start by noting that "best minds" doesn't mean "best minds in academia," and that a lot of our best minds become rich capitalists whose ethos is way at odds with the academic one (for the reasons Nozick explained). There's no mystery how many of the best minds look at the present state of the academy - the humanities in particular - and throw their hands up in disgust or incomprehension, and move on. This doesn't seem to be a reality that many within that institution have woken up to - hence the intellectual elitism, the insularity, and such. Facepalm.

Anyway, the success of Rand's system of ethics - her individualistic eudaemonism with rationality as the central virtue - in contrast to the trainwreck-theories mulled over for decades on end by the "trained academics," is enough prime facie evidence right there that she's got her act together more than the academy has. That's before you even get to her theory of concepts and - most fundamentally - her (system-oriented) methodology, which will prove the most revolutionary in the end.

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