Monday, January 10, 2011

Quine and Peikoff

It is now "conventional wisdom" over there in the hallowed halls of Analytic Philosophy (like there's something in Analytic Philosophy that isn't "conventional wisdom"?) that Harvard's Willard van Orman Quine was probably the most significant philosopher of the last half of the 20th century. This is due more to "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951) than any other Quine article, and it is that very article where the traditional analytic-synthetic distinction comes under attack. It also happens that Leonard Peikoff wrote an article attacking the distinction, "The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy," (1967) in The Objectivist, which was under the editorship and squarely under the philosophical guidance of Ayn Rand. The basic Objectivist package-deal here - a good package deal, as it happens - is Ayn Rand's theory of concepts and Peikoff's essay on the analytic-synthetic distinction. If Rand and Peikoff basically do the same substantive work that Quine did, then they deserve every bit a spot up there among the most significant philosophers of the century.

I've read Peikoff and Rand and understand their arguments quite clearly. I've tried to read Quine and gave up trying to understand after a few pages. Here lies the fundamental difference between Objectivism and Analytic Philosophy. The practitioners' brains are simply wired/habituated to think, argue, and write differently. Academic philosophy journal articles excel in being highly technical and obscurantist. I think the model promotes a certain kind of elitism that essentially cuts off a lot of professional philosophers from rabble out there the Ayn Rand-types would appeal to. So the academic "conventional wisdom" is that it's hard to take Objectivism seriously unless or until its proponents put their ideas in academic peer-refereed journals - an effective device for separating the worth-taking-seriously from the "cranks."

Now that Objectivism is beginning to make notable inroads in the academic publishing realm, the infrastructure of the academic "conventional wisdom" on Rand is beginning to crumble. Further, Objectivism isn't the only philosophical movement that has leveled significant and notable criticisms against the analytic style of philosophy; Continental and Existentialist philosophy have also noted the detachment of analytic-style philosophy from the concerns of everyday people and life. The compounding factor here with Rand is that whispering she's an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism (/whisper), and the CW says that's a no-go. But then again, Rand's theory of concepts is of greater philosophical significance than her advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism, based on her own insistence on the primacy of epistemology over politics and on the nature of the rule of fundamentality applied to philosophical hierarchy.

Rand was fundamentally an advocate of a neo-Aristotelian, non-Platonized form of reason. This puts her right there in the philosophical mainstream, as Aristotle-without-Plato is just what the mainstream has been yearning for, for who-knows-how-long now. (Aristotle is the Philosopher of Common Sense, see, and the conscientious philosophers try to emulate Aristotle by taking a humpty-dumpty they were handed from their forerunners and doing their best to merge it with common sense, somehow.) So the task ahead is to translate that message into terms the philosophically inclined can appreciate and understand.

There is a criticism of ITOE by Gary Merrill posted on Usenet in the early 1990s. ("Usenet? What's that? Is that like Twitter or somethin'?") Merrill's review hones in on Rand's polemical style, which does leave something to be desired, but he does not discuss the content of Rand's theory of concepts. If one focuses on Rand's polemical style, it does become a convenient way to dismiss her as a thinker. ("If she doesn't take much care with respect to other thinkers' ideas, how much care could she take in presenting her own?" Actually, that would be a pretty lame basis for dismissing a philosopher's views. They do tend to spend a lot more time on their own views than those of others, after all. Or is that not true in the very conventional-wisdom-like world of academic philosophy?) Anyway, he then hones in on Peikoff's "Analytic-Synthetic" essay as an example of the same bad tendencies he sees in Rand, because it is evidently ignorant of the fact that Quine's essay had attacked the distinction some 15 years before. "Peikoff is dishonest or incompetent, take your pick." Now, come on. Please.

First off, the criticism may well be self-defeating, for if Peikoff did launch a pretty definitive attack on the distinction without knowledge of Quine's essay or its significance, then that indicates a great deal of originality on Peikoff's part. Second, Peikoff was in a very unique position, that of being a Ph.D. from a respectable graduate program in philosophy and of having had Ayn Rand as a long-time mentor. He has described the mental turmoil the back-and-forth between Rand's methodology and theirs put him through. Now, in the time that Peikoff was in the academy, studying the history of philosophy with focus on "the status of the law of contradiction in classical logical ontology," there's no compelling reason to think Quine's essay or its significance had become well-known in philosophy. This is the time, remember, that academic philosophy was so dominated by positivism that Yale's Brand Blanshard wrote a whole book, Reason and Analysis (1962), covering this dominant tendency. This book Peikoff most definitely would have been familiar with (having been reviewed by Branden in The Objectivist), but I don't see a reason that he should have known about Quine's essay. Best as I can tell, Quine didn't begin to attain his status until about a generation (surprise, surprise?) after "Two Dogmas" appeared, and the field had been cleared.

I just find it noteworthy that the CW-pick for "most significant philosopher since Wittgenstein" and Ayn Rand's best student both attacked the analytic-synthetic distinction. Just like I find it noteworthy that - as the academics are now beginning to discover - Ayn Rand's ethics is the best legitimate heir to Aristotle's on the contemporary field. Just like her politics is the best legitimate heir to that of "lightweights" Locke, Jefferson and Spencer.

Anyway, we know what happens if the analytic-synthetic distinction goes. That means all the pretense surrounding Immanuel Kant crumbles. (I already know it crumbles when it comes to ethics - my "area of specialization" - given the clear and immense superiority of a eudaemonistic ethics over Kant's formalism.) But if that pretense deflates, . . . then what happens to the pretense surrounding the analytic-philosophy model, of which Kant was a supreme practitioner? Maybe if Quine had written in terms non-specialists could understand, we wouldn't even be so much as wondering whether Peikoff was or should have been familiar with "Two Dogmas"?

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