Sunday, February 20, 2011

Imperfection as Insidious: An Example

The most perfectionistic philosopher to date once wrote, "The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold." That's why anal-retentive perfectionism is so damned important. (Well, duh!) I want to apply this principle to something that caught my eye - and my ire - as I proceeded through the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Ayn Rand, viz:
Nor, again, should the discovery that attributes like color are not intrinsic features of entities be taken to imply their subjectivity; inasmuch as such attributes depend not on consciousness alone but rather on the relationship between consciousness and its objects, they are neither intrinsic nor subjective, but rather objective. (Thus an entity can exist intrinsically even if some of its attributes exist only objectively.)
(2nd to last paragraph under section titled "2.2. Perception")
Now, if Ayn Rand were to read this about her ideas in an entry in an encyclopedia of philosophy of all places, she would jump through the fucking roof. I'll leave it to Rand's best student to explain the essence of the matter:
The term "objective," let me stress here, does not apply to all values, but only to values chosen by man. The automatic values that govern internal bodily functions or the behavior of plants and animals are not the product of a conceptual process. Such values, therefore, are outside the terminology of "objective," "intrinstic," or "subjective." In this regard, automatic values are like sense data. Sense data are neither "objective" nor "nonobjective." They are the base that make possible man's later cognitive development; they thereby make possible all the standards, including "objectivity," which are eventually defined in order to guide human choices.
(Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 243; emphasis mine)
I should mention that this is my first time going through the Stanford Encyclopedia entry with any close attention to detail. (Ah, attention to detail. The hallmark of the pain-in-the-ass perfectionist.) There are a number of oddly-worded glosses on Rand's ideas that raised my eyebrows and caused me to pause as I read along, before coming to this. This one, though, seemed significant enough that I had to stop and give some time to think what was going on here, since it kinda seemed a reasonably accurate take, but maybe not. I had to spend a good hour or so going through through my background context of knowledge about Objectivism, such as how values and concepts are described in analagous ways by Rand and Peikoff using the "Intrinsic-Objective-Subjective" (or "I-O-S-") trichotomy. I remembered Peikoff titling the last section of the chapter in OPAR on The Good, "Values as Objective." I remembered that both Rand and Peikoff spoke of objectivity at least partly in terms of the relation of an aspect of reality to man. I then had to think and re-think how the analogous nature of concepts to values plays out. Such thoughts came to mind as, "Concepts are to percepts as values are to...what?" I was going 'round and 'round trying to square this circle, knowing that something indeed hinged on the volitional character of concept-formation. I had to go back and read the applicable Lexicon entries to re-refresh my memory. That still didn't quite clear it all the way up for me, though those entries made it reasonably clear she was discussing values as they relate to man's distinctive form of awareness. Then I had to go and see Peikoff's section on "Values as Objective" to make double-sure Peikoff hadn't deviated in some way by characterizing all values, even including the automatic values of non-human valuers, as "objective." Then, of course, I encountered the paragraph above from p. 234. And that's when I got just a little pissed about what I had been reading in the Stanford Encyclopedia entry.

As much as one might applaud the efforts of the entry authors to make Rand accessible to students and professors of (basically analytical) philosophy, this shit just doesn't cut it. It's downright amateurish in comparison to what you would get from Ayn Rand's best student. What's more, to invoke that wonderful quote from Aristotle at the beginning of this entry, who knows just how the fuck this subtle misinterpretation of Rand on the nature of the objective can be spun into thousandfold-multiplied errors of interpretation, or how many massively-wasteful false leads this sort of thing generates, or how many failures to see the forest for the trees might ensue. (This last phenomenon is downright pathological when it comes to way too many people's responses to Rand. Just observe the cognitive meltdown that occurs when Rand's use of the term "egoism" plays out in the hands of many a clueless critic, to name just one example. Then someone like yours truly comes along and notes that Howard Roark can be described uncontroversially as an Egoistic Perfectionist, and it all comes together, like a sort of Copernican Revolution, a simple perspective shift without the need for the messy epicycle-adding style of analysis so often involved in "interpreting" Rand's egoism in light of commonsense morality.) I'm going, like, "No wonder Rand got so pissed when others would 'interpret' her and screw up - especially when the interpreters are academic philosophers." See, there's more to the nature of objectivity than just the relational, there's also the volitional - in which case the "I-O-S" trichotomy simply doesn't apply to attributes of entities (or to sensory qualities). (Also, to close a loop above, concepts are to percepts as moral values are to values generally, the relevant criterion for the analogy being the difference between the volitional and the automatic. Ergo, a more perfect title for that section in OPAR would have been, "Moral Values as Objective.")

What's more, I have grave doubts that those who aren't students of Peikoff's work would be in a position to catch this sort of interpretive error. In fact, there's a reason to believe that Peikoff's students would be especially attentive about an error like this.

For those who are basically out of the loop on high-quality, high-level Objectivism interpretation - i.e., for those who haven't taken the time, effort and attention to understand and integrate Peikoff's writings and courses, which means frighteningly close to 100% of the people out there - here's a little anecdote to clue you in just a tiny little bit: Peikoff himself succumbed to that very error in his earlier lecture courses. In his 1970 course on modern philosophy, which ended with two lectures on Objectivism as providing the solution to various problems generated by the modern philosophers, he applied the "I-O-S" trichotomy to sense perception. This theme, however, dropped out of the scene in his later lectures, after he and Rand chewed the issue, identified the error, and corrected it. There's a reason, see, that Rand appointed him his successor: he had actually gone through the process of coming to a full understanding of her ideas and of weeding out the interpretive errors that arose along the way. (Don't fucking tell me there isn't analytical rigor in understanding Objectivism's fine points. It's pretty much necessitated by its own prescribed methods. It's about time its critics in this regard got a clue, and it's about fucking time Peikoff's work was integrated more seamlessly into any and all serious Rand Studies.)

(There's evidence that even so, Peikoff wasn't immune from interpretive error later on, such as the subtly insidious deviation from the Rand-endorsed 1976 "Philosophy of Objectivism" course on the nature of the arbitrary in relation to the true and false. You can have a careful look at the truly official source, the Lexicon entry, if you don't believe me. There, the formulation is that the arbitrary is not to be regarded as true or false. In OPAR we get a bizarre deviation from the correspondence theory of truth, in which the arbitrary is neither true nor false. At least Peikoff provided a disclaimer in his preface to OPAR that it is not "official Objectivist doctrine," since Rand was not around to see its contents and could not be responsible for any errors it might contain. That's only appropriate given that - as he'd be the first to tell you - she's the world-historic genius, he a mere student.)

I suppose it just takes an extra-special effort and mindset to Get Things Right - the failure at which, lamentably, explains the low state of things right now in terms of the Intellectual Community's understanding of Rand, and in terms of philosophy generally. Hell, just think of all the nasty consequences flowing from many importantly-situated folks' failures to Get It about Aristotle over the many centuries, and all the thousandfold-multiplied disasters that have resulted - or, conversely, the flourishing of civilization that has ensued when the rare Aquinas-caliber figure has given him his due.

One thing we do know for sure: Anyone coming to the Stanford Encyclopedia to learn about Ayn Rand is not going to be getting a first-rate presentation of her ideas. And that fucking sucks. (Here's a more promising lead.)

And, so you see, this is why the concept of perfectionism plays such a central role in my current project. In the field of philosophy, most especially, we can't afford screw-ups.

[ADDENDUM: Now, to provide another illustration by way of an exercise: just consider all the thousandfold-multiplied errors swirling around in the academic community since Rawls's Theory of Justice, and not Norton's Personal Destinies, has occupied so much of people's attention. All the false leads, all the failures to see the forest, all the failures to integrate, etc. Thanks a lot, academia.]

[ADDENDUM #2: In the Integration Department, there is also this earlier blog entry, which certainly ties into this one. Big, long sigh is right! And I haven't even gotten past the "concept-formation" section in the Stanford Encyclopedia entry yet....]

[ADDENDUM #3: This reminds me of that scene in The Godfather, where Sonny is beating the crap out of Carlo. He clearly fails to "land" a punch, but the impact sound effect is still there. Kubrick would not have stood for that shit on his own productions. Do 150 goddamn takes if you have to, but GET IT RIGHT. Coppola's imperfectionism becomes more and more manifest after the '70s, of course. He even screwed up the "redux" of Apocalypse Now by weaving in the footage he rightly cut from the original release - again, something Kubrick would never dream of doing to one of his own films. On a lighter note....]

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