Monday, April 4, 2011

A Big, Fat Anti-Euphemism

Ayn Rand was an expert at identifying and diagnosing the myriad techniques of intellectual sloppiness and evasion used by enemies of the American way of life, i.e., of reason, individualism and capitalism.

These techniques include (but are by no means limited to): package-dealing, smuggling in premises, stealing concepts, purveying anti-concepts, hurling ill-defined approximations, dropping context, equivocating, and weasel-wording.

One such occasion of expert Randian diagnosis occurs in a little-cited article, "How to Read (and Not to Write)" in a 1972 issue of The Ayn Rand Letter (reprinted in The Voice of Reason [1989]). There, Rand addresses a charge made against individualist ideas like hers time and time again, viz., that they promote "atomism." Rand breaks down a New York Times editorial, which stated that "this country cannot go back to the highly atomistic, competitive model of the early nineteenth century," as follows:
If a euphemism is an inoffensive way of identifying an offensive fact, then "highly atomistic, competitive model" is an anti-euphemism, i.e., an offensive way of identifying an inoffensive (or great and noble) fact -- in this case, capitalism. "Competitive" is a definition by non-essentials; "atomistic" is worse. Capitalism involves competition as one of its proper consequences, not as its essential or defining attribute. "Atomistic" is usually meant to imply "scattered, broken up, distintegrated." Capitalism is the system that made productive cooperation possible among men, on a large scale - a voluntary cooperation that raised everyone's standard of living - as the nineteenth century has demonstrated. So "atomism" is an anti-euphemism, standing for "free, independent, individualistic." If the editorial's sentence were intended to be fully understood, it would read: "this country cannot go back to the free, individualistic, private property system of capitalism." (Voice of Reason, p. 131)
(The chickens' homecoming, as far as any last shred of intellectual credibility in NYT editorials are concerned, has been dissected by Greenwald. The NYT euphemized torture so that the Bush Administration didn't have to, torture - usually a last-ditch, pathologically-agnostic, no-absolutes, panic-ridden attempt to force a mind - being the naked-essential end-of-the-line for a pragmatist ethos.)

I'd like to identify a massive anti-euphemism that has been perpetrated on this country, much to its long-term detriment. And that is the identification of the American ethos of "commonsense practicality" with pragmatism (either little-p or big-P).

This didn't happen overnight and the corruptions involved have hardly been made explicit much less manifest to the American people. America's implicit founding philosophy - groped toward by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine - was Aristotelian through and through. Rand is the only 20th-century American thinker to have made this fully explicit.

The fundamental difference one needs to know between Aristotelianism and Pragmatism has to do with their respective stands on the Law of Identity and the Primacy of Existence. Aristotelianism affirms Rand's statement that "Existence is identity; consciousness is identification." Pragmatism systematically undercuts this axiomatic principle.

Since Pragmatism understands truth in terms of "what works" rather than in terms of correspondence to an independent, term-setting, causal reality with its own definite identity, it fails right on its face to represent "common sense," whereas Aristotelianism clearly does not so fail. What's more, an Aristotelian primacy-of-existence approach recognizes the ontological primacy involved: something works in virtue of being properly in accord with reality. Pragmatism dispenses with any such talk as being "metaphysics" with no "cash value." But getting this right is fundamental to getting it right about the nature of existence and humans' relationship to existence, which includes having a philosophy that fully and adequately addresses the independent-fact-integrative requirements of our conceptual nature.

Before Aristotle's complete works were translated into English in the early 20th century and before Ayn Rand's arrival on the scene - before America had had the opportunity to become a philosophical behemoth as a complement to its becoming a political and economic behemoth - its budding intellectual class, consisting first and foremost of the Pragmatists, had to cobble together the "best" of the philosophical ideas out there (again, in the absence of Aristotle). It must be kept in mind that inasmuch as people had heard of Aristotle, it was in terms of non-essentials - for instance, that his biology had been overturned by Darwin, or that his universal teleology was outmoded, or that the Church had canonized him into a dogma, or (among those less intellectually out-of-it) that he was being invoked by Hegel and Marx as a forerunner to modern "dialectics."

(Throw into this whole mix the rise of modern psychology: by the mid-20th century, many of the most adept minds were preoccupied by matters of psychology rather than philosophy - see Nathaniel Branden, Stanley Kubrick, David L. Norton. It's probably not at all accidental that people who developed like these three did were also all born right around 1930. An intellectually-minded person reaching college age ca. 1950s is more likely to be reading a lot of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Maslow, and Fromm, than to be reading Aristotle or Rand. Only a highly-unusual instance - namely, Branden - would have feet in both these worlds. What's more, young idealists aren't going to be interested much in reading middling, cynicism-breeding Pragmatist philosophy, and anyone who bothers to delve into philosophy around this time is going to be assaulted by positivism and existentialism. Given this default by the philosophers, one can hardly blame a perfective artist like Kubrick for being much more psychology-focused than philosophy-focused. This of course only reinforces Miss Rand's point about the inescapable power of philosophy to affect a culture for good or bad, be it through influence or default. Oh, and ain't integration fun?)

No, Aristotle was pretty much a non-factor on the intellectual scene at the height of the Pragmatist movement. Instead, the chief influences were Hume and Kant, and if you want the non-identity, non-primacy-of-existence version of doing philosophy (complete with - get this - an atomistic, homo-economicus conception of the empirical-natural person!), you get it in full force with these two. In this fundamental respect, Hume and Kant share essential premises that only an Aristotelian approach can answer. In more specific terms, Hume and Kant both agreed that you could not get the concept of causal necessity from experience. From there, it's a matter of preference whether you go the Humean route of giving up on finding such an account, or the Kantian route of assigning to necessity a subject-dependent ("a priori") status.

On this point, I think Peikoff and Rand may have misidentified just how strongly "Kantian" the Pragmatists were, because I see them much more as Humean. What is the "cash value," after all, of Kant's whole categorical scheme? As a primacy-of-consciousness view - hence the purported subjectivity of the category of necessity - Kant's view is still a metaphysical one of sorts. (If you want another anti-euphemism in connection with this, how about the identification of Kant's critique of Rationalist metaphysics with a critique of metaphysics as such. Just imagine the thousandfold-multiplied disasters that might proceed from that kind of imperfect lumping-together. For evidence of the cashing-in there, see post-modernism.) Hume, to his commonsensical credit, makes no pretense to overturning empty metaphysics and replacing it with a primacy-of-consciousness one. In this, the Pragmatists are much more akin to Hume. It's Hume's philosophy, his whole approach, which sets the terms for everything to follow. The Pragmatists were too "common sense" to go with Kant's (metaphysical) subjectivism over Hume's (epistemological) subjectivism, which - unfortunately for the Pragmatists - still devolves into skepticism. (Again, see post-modernism for the final dead-end of a Humean influence.)

In the mind of the pragmatism-bred mainstream American now, philosophy is associated with skepticism - with questions without answers. That, of course, isn't practically workable, so the average American "rationally" rejects the study of philosophy as a waste of time. ("Rationally," that is, in the morally-vacuous sense used by social scientists who just don't know better, while their cognitively-Humean counterparts in the philosophy departments never told them otherwise. Certainly it's not "rationally" in the sense used by Rand or Henry Veatch. [From Hume: "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions," and "'Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." This, today's philosophical Establishment considers a formidable thing to have to respond to - and is ill-equipped to do so as things currently stand.])

The important thing which only a few astute intellectuals grasp at this time, is that Aristotle and Rand have Hume and the Pragmatists checkmated/trumped on Law-of-Identity and Primacy-of-Existence grounds, just like Aristotle had all the ancient skeptics and proto-pragmatists checkmated (in addition to having been more dialectically comprehensive-completist-perfectivist than was his otherwise beloved teacher, Plato - and having become the father of inductive Western science in the process). Rand's primary-of-existence terminology is her way of more effectively phrasing the fundamental essence of classical commonsense realism. American-style commonsense would dictate adopting the comprehensive/perfectivist style of an Aristotle or Rand over the disintegrative style of Hume and the Pragmatists. What's more, there's a lot more cash-value in adopting the former over the latter.

Relative to the implicit neo-Aristotelian philosophy of America's founding, Pragmatism represents a regression, and the chief force undermining what made this country great. By having Hume as the "best" to fall back on in the tradition, America has never really declared an intellectual independence from Britain (or British notions of common sense). The Intellectual Establishment here is so very Humean (that is, non-Aristotelian) in basic cognitive style and many of its leading practitioners don't even seem to be aware of it. (That's why I'm here to point this out.) It's quite undeniable, actually: had they been more Aristotelian in basic cognitive style, the Establishment leaders would have acknowledged the deep similarity of cognitive style between the venerated Aristotle and the snidely dismissed Rand. Absent Aristotelianism and Randism, these children of Hume are reduced to increasingly-complex acts of squaring circles: see, for instance, the various ingenious but non-Aristotelian attempts to get around Hume's "is-ought" distinction, attempts which serve no useful purpose to the community at large but which can make for exhaustive publication or dissertation material. And that's not the only thing the Intellectual Establishment is way out-of-touch about.

Pragmatism breeds staleness, conformity, mediocrity, stagnation, weakness, and cowardice. (And so much anti-euphemism-spouting, soul-killing cynicism!) For abundant real-world evidence of this, see the state of America today. For Rand's expert, naked-essentials, theoretical analysis of all that's wrong with Pragmatism as against Aristotelianism, see Peter Keating as contrasted (spiritually) with Howard Roark, or Mr. Thompson as contrasted (intellectually, morally and metaphysically) with John Galt.

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