Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Lesson of the Peikoff-Kelley Split Today

If the last 20 years of the Objectivist movement tell us anything, it's the triumph of the Peikoff model over the Kelley model. This is not to say that the Peikoff model is correct in every way, but its superiority over the Kelley model is now no longer in any serious question - much like how even advocates of socialism like Robert Heilbroner eventually and graciously conceded to Ludwig von Mises.

Let's start with the endorsement Ayn Rand herself lent to Leonard Peikoff. His 1976 Philosophy of Objectivism course is - superseding any and all presentations by the discredited Nathaniel Branden in particular - the only course on Rand's philosophy she herself authorized. In a general recommendation included in Letters of Ayn Rand, she described Dr. Peikoff as having a "superlative" understanding of her philosophy and ability to communicate it. This observation is borne out for normal listeners of such Peikoff audio courses as Understanding Objectivism and the advanced seminars on Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Let me cut to the chase of the thought that led me to post this rumination: David Kelley's version represents a mushy, pragmatist approach to Objectivism. It all seemed quite innocuous back then, in 1990, when he penned Truth and Toleration and spoke to some commonsense issues such as how not to judge people illicitly based only on ideas they espouse. The concern and issue that I think Peikoff and Kelley each in their own way addressed was the role of context in moral judgment. But Kelley would make these awkward formulations of Objectivist principles that you'd never in a million years see Ayn Rand making. The formulations sounded a little mushier, a little more accommodating to Objectivism's critics and opponents. We got these Rawls-sounding digressions about dialoguing and reconciling, a "forge an overlapping consensus" type of approach (hence the "libertarian outreach"), doing more of the give-and-take of discourse, and strange pragmatist language about "balancing acts."

If Ayn Rand taught us anything about philosophical integration, it's that small and subtle disintegrations are insidious to the integrity of the whole. This is the basic problem with pragmatism: once you start going into "compromise" mode, there's no end to it. This is the basic issue behind the "quality control" that Rand and Peikoff were always concerned about maintaining. It wasn't about enforcing agreement, but about keeping out mushiness. And that's what David Kelley symbolizes: mushiness.

As personages go, the Brandens are central to the difference in the respective courses charted by Peikoff and Kelley. It starts with the Brandens' bios/memoirs, Nathaniel's being the especially vicious, pathological, and dishonest one. The issue of Barbara Branden is a minor distraction relative to the issue of Nathaniel Branden. If you don't get it about Nathaniel Branden by now, there's something gone wrong. If there's anything that all the now-available evidence about his grossly immoral treatment of Ayn Rand (among others) shows, it's that he can't be trusted any further than he can be thrown. Anyone paying at least half attention could discern that the Rand-Branden schism wasn't about "a jealous woman scorned" but about gross immorality by someone posing as a spokesman for Objectivism. That's all it was about. Allen Blumenthal had figured that out, which is why he stuck by his 1968 pledge and left Kelley's Institute for Objectivist Studies when Branden was brought on there.

But let's just say - and there are reasonable bases for saying this - that the full scope and extent of Branden's immorality was not made publicly manifest until excerpts from Rand's journal were published in Jim Valliant's The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics in 2005. The gist was Nathaniel Branden's dishonesty and betrayal of Objectivist principles, and Barbara Branden's complicity in that. Anyway, they lied convincingly to Rand for years, taking advantage of her goodwill, and then Branden continued to conceal the full scope and extent of his "psychology/sex problem sessions" with Rand in his Judgment Day/My Years With Ayn Rand, while laying out an open challenge for Rand's journals regarding the whole train wreck to be released. Well, they were released - and Branden was proven to be a way bigger liar than he had let on. (And not merely a liar. Brad Aisa once summed it up aptly: "Branden's a creep." He was revealed not to be a semi-helpless guy caught between a rock and a hard place, but a manipulative, narcissistic creep. In addition to being a liar.) The only rationally justifiable thing to do at that point was to be entirely disgusted at Nathaniel Branden and his monstrously unjust treatment of Rand.

Kelley's response to The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics was - let's cut the shit - an evasion. A downright cowardly refusal to face facts and accordingly. It was the "cashing in" of the initial mushiness taking hold and building. So, even after Branden was exposed as a total fraud and creep, up through his memoirs and beyond, he was still invited to present at the Objectivist Center's (the new name for the Institute for Objectivist Studies)
events. That's when the falling-out began. Lindsay Perigo couldn't stand the ever-insidious-and-expanding mushiness (a lack of what he called KASS, or a Kick-ASS sense of life), much less the outright cowardice on the Branden issue. Once Perigo left in disgust, the dominoes fell. Along the way, the Objectivist Center changed its name again, to the Atlas Society (Perigo affectionately dubbed it the "KASSless Society"), and quickly became irrelevant.

Today, the only Objectivism-advocacy organization doing serious work training the next generation of intellectuals is the Ayn Rand Institute. Kelley's brand of doing things is all but defunct.

There was a time that I found Kelley's sensibility more attractive. It hit home more for me as an aspiring academic philosopher. Kelley's idea of advancing Objectivism was to make advocacy more like the academic model of doing philosophy - with the inevitable consequence of repudiating Rand's "intolerant," non-scholarly approach to thinkers like Kant. (Pathological fixation on "scholarship" may well explain various problems within "the academic model." Rand's not being "a scholar" or "consensus-forger" in her mode of popular exposition is a question-begging excuse for the insular snobs to downplay or ignore her.) Indeed, for a period of time there in the 1990s, many of the best minds within the Objectivist movement were attracted to Kelley's organization. The case for ARI around this time was hurt severely by the presence and position of Peter Schwartz there. In addition to writing a disreputable and silly hatchet job on some non-existent he called "Libertarianism," he also cited Rand's authorship of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as good-enough proof of her character vis-a-vis the Brandens. (According to Atlas Shrugged, a morally-ideal person, Dagny, apparently-needlessly shoots a guard toward the end of the story. Is this to say Ayn Rand herself would do such a thing, or is this to say that Atlas Shrugged is subtly and insidiously flawed in mis-integrated kinds of ways?) Never mind that this settles no issue, epistemologically, when the disputants are Atlas Shrugged's author and dedicatee, respectively, a decade after the novel was written. One of them went corrupt, but which one? Long story short, the credibility of Peikoff and ARI suffer around this time due to the Schwartz MO.

I happen to be a rather unique case in that, even while drawn to the "academic model" around the mid- to late-1990s, I also listened to a good number of Peikoff audio courses. These courses provided little in the way of help for my graduate-school years in Philosophy - the paradigms are so at odds - but have proven to be saving graces and game-changers long-term. The essence of courses like Understanding Objectivism is that Objectivism doesn't need "updating" and "improving" or bridge-building with academia; rather, understood and used properly, it is its own best defender. Kelley seemed to pay lip service to Objectivism's special imperviousness to refutation, but what he says and the way he says it is unconvincing; the way he talks about Objectivism, it ends up sounding like merely a reasonable-sounding entry into the discourse with no special sales points. I think if he were truly aware of its special sales points, he'd not have drifted the way he did.

This gets back to his drift in regard to Nathaniel Branden. Branden is so discredited by now that his influence can only be poisonous. But there's something of a "sense of life" nature here, and that has to do with Ayn Rand's sense of life as opposed to David Kelley's. Rand was an uncompromising idealist and this comes out in her art. Kelley's basic operative MO is pragmatism. Much like in Rand's art, the cashing-in of Kelley's pragmatism is the irrelevancy of his organization and MO after 20 years. (You ever have the patience to sit through an Ed Hudgins op-ed when he was Ex-Dir of the Objectivist Center and/or Atlas Society? Total undistinguished mush, every time.)

Another insidious effect of pragmatism is how easily it devolves into cynicism. And it is ugly, naked cynicism that explains so many folks' seemingly instinctive attraction to the Branden message: that Rand was a "great, but ultimately flawed" human being. A cynical sense of life is shut off to ideations of greatness and grandeur and moral innocence and purity. "These ideals only pop up in juvenile novels and appeal to naive youth." That's the kind of amateurish bullshit that the Kelleys and Brandens feed right into. "Great, but ultimately flawed" is typical cynical double-speak and the effects of this portrayal of "flawed greatness" was - of course - entirely insidious; naturally, it devolved into "Rand was an unhappy/tyrannical/delusional/etc. human being," with the acknowledgment of her greatness - if it even remains after all the evisceration - reduced to a mere concession.

I still take issue with certain aspects of the Rand/Peikoff MO, and it concerns mainly their (non-essential) polemical criticisms of other thinkers or ideas. Nonetheless, if you disregard their polemics entirely - hell, I'm fine with that; Rand and Peikoff never advised anyone to take their word for it, after all - the substantive core, particularly the methodology (which is the fundamental ground of the rest, including the theory of concepts), stands pure and strong. Rand and Peikoff mastered that methodology at a much higher level than Kelley did. Branden was as clear a litmus test as any.

To illustrate Peikoff's continuing contribution to the discourse about Objectivism in ways Kelley doesn't measure up to, I'd like to mention Peikoff's own DIM Hypothesis and apply it to the difference between Peikoff and Kelley. Kelley, through his basic pragmatist orientation, falls into the "D" or "disintegration" category. Rand goes into the "I" or "integration" category. (I'll leave aside here the issue of subtle/insidious mis-integration or "M" as it's popped up in Objectivist circles.) Peikoff has a deeper grasp of Rand's "I" method. Part of Peikoff's DIM Hypothesis is that integrated worldviews have a kind of influence and appeal that disintegrated worldviews do not. This was illustrated in the 2004 presidential election campaign: Kelley, er, uh, John Kerry was the mushy disintegrated guy who didn't stand for anything and came off as weak. Counter to that, there was a widespread attraction to Bush's being bold and standing for something even if it was wrong; at least with fundamentalist cowboys like Bush there's no question about his sticking to a course or position whatever the practicality or political winds.

To sum up: Kelley = mushy pragmatic "D"; Rand and Peikoff = uncompromising and intransigent "I". It's like Keating vs. Roark all over again. At stake this time: the future of philosophy. Rand FTW!

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