Friday, May 18, 2012

Understanding Objectivism: Preliminary Thoughts

(I've not yet proof-read/edited the entry below, so be prepared for any grammatical errors. Tags will be added later, when I have the time/inclination to whittle tags down to the essentials.)

I've finished chapter 1 of the book version of Leonard Peikoff's lecture course. It has been many years since I heard the lectures in audio, but the first lecture does accord pretty well with my somewhat vague recollection of the audio lectures. (Arguably there are benefits as well as drawbacks to "absorbing" these lectures via the audio format; in any event, Peikoff, Michael Berliner and others evidently saw the benefits of putting these lectures in book form in addition to the audio.)

First off, I want to point out that these lectures are for "serious students of Objectivism." It is expected that one has familiarized oneself decently with the written Objectivist "canon," including Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (1991), or "OPAR," the "book adaptation" of the 1976 Philosophy of Objectivism course endorsed by Rand and given in her presence. The Objectivism being discussed in the Understanding Objectivism (hereafter shortened to "UO") is far, far removed from the superficial, caricature-ish version you see being discussed in the mass media. It is also fairly removed from the Objectivism one is exposed to in the written canon, with the main exception of chapters 4 and 5 of OPAR. The primary focus of UO is on "chewing" Objectivist ideas in an active fashion - of making the Objectivist way of thinking part of one's internalized, first-hand mental practice, as distinct from the more "passive" approach involved in reading the literature. The purpose is to get the "serious student of Objectivism" to move on to becoming an "advanced" student of Objectivism, i.e., someone who could, independently of the canonical texts, arrive at the Objectivist ideas themselves the way Rand herself did. (As Peikoff points out in the first lecture, Rand did not learn Objectivism from reading Atlas Shrugged or from attending courses by Peikoff. It all had to come first-hand.) In any case, UO presupposes a considerable degree of familiarity with Objectivist ideas, so it is targeted not to newbies but those who've spent some time reading and thinking about the ideas. That is one chief barrier to just any ol' outsider profitably plunging right in and "getting" what it's all about. Absorption of ideas takes time - often on the order of years. This presents a further difficulty: those who don't take Objectivism all that seriously to begin with aren't going to be willing to invest that amount of time "chewing" Objectivist ideas and finding out just what there is of so much value to its practitioners. (Common sense would tell you that long-time Scientologists telling you that if only you would invest so much time (and money!) learning about their ideas will you come to see its profound value, is not going to be all that plausible on its face if you don't buy into it at the outset.)

So, that being said, what does UO offer listeners and/or readers? Above, I've alluded to the notion of actively "chewing" ideas and to the closely related notion of the Objectivist way of thinking. "Chewing" refers to the process of working over ideas extensively in one's mind before one is really ready to digest them. The audio version of UO is rougly 27 hours of doing just that. Fundamentally, the course deals with the proper method of thinking through or chewing ideas, as distinct from the content, which in the case of Objectivism is laid out in the canonical texts primarily by Rand and the Brandens pre-1968, and in Peikoff's 1976 course. The method consists in what I'll call a rigorous and systematic approach to "premise-checking," that is, of tying one's ideas to the concrete facts of reality as well as to the systematic whole of ideas that is the Objectivist system. Viewed as a method of thinking, Objectivism, therefore, serves as its own best protector: it demands that one be able, first-hand-, to validate one's ideas by the highest standards of fact and logic. Whether this makes the content of the "official Objectivist canon" just as impervious is a different question. Aside from some basics - namely, the axioms of existence, identity and consciousness, the fundamental reliability of sensory information and some minimal notion of volition as a presupposition of rational discourse - there is very little if anything that is obvious or indisputable. For instance, plenty of other thinkers besides Rand would look out on the same sensible reality that she does and arrive at different conclusions about ethics and politics than she did, and these matters are (or at least so Rand and Peikoff would argue) hierarchically dependent upon metaphysical and epistemological fundamentals. Which brings me to some important methodological observations for philosophers as such to take careful note of.

Central concepts within Objectivist methodology are: integration, context, and hierarchy. These concepts are so central to Objectivism, in fact, that you basically cannot separate method from content at this point. (Perhaps by now you are beginning to see how woefully inadequate the superficial mass-media treatments of Objectivism are; an article or book covering Objectivist ideas that make essentially no reference to these central concepts, or display not a clue about them, are probably not worth your time except as a cultural exercise.) These concepts are treated at considerable length in chapter 4 of OPAR. And, I would argue, these concepts are so closely related to one another that you can't separate them from one another. To properly integrate one's ideas is to respect both context and the hierarchy of ideas, and vice versa.

Now, I assume the reader is at least minimally familiar with these concepts as discussed in the above links, if not the more indepth discussion in OPAR. So here's an important question that should arise at some point in a thoughtful person's mind: just who or what serious thinkers would disagree with the importance of properly integrating one's ideas, of maintaining (i.e., not dropping) context, of respecting the hierarchy of ideas? Aren't these of fundamental importance to the practice of philosophy as such? What makes Objectivism special in this regard? Why has this blogger in particular been on record for touting the historical importance of Rand as a thinker, particularly in regard to the need to properly integrate one's ideas? I think the answer is this: since these concepts are so fundamental to the practice of philosophy, what major figures in the history of philosophy have identified their fundamental importance? Remember, this is a matter of methodology, of the very practice of doing philosophy itself, of meta-philosophy perhaps. An historically-informed treatment of Rand's ideas points to deep methodological similarities in the so-called dialectical tradition, dialectics being understood as "the art of context-keeping." So it isn't like Rand is the first thinker to come along and realize that all ideas (all phenomena?) are embedded in a context and cannot be adequately understood apart from that context. Indeed, I'd say any great thinker in history paid scrupulous attention, at least implicitly, to the context of statements and attempt to reconcile conflicting ideas by properly taking into account the widest possible context. Whether this has been explicitly formulated and acknowledged as a matter of philosophical method by others besides Rand, I do not know. What is significant here is that Rand, a widely read and "popular" philosopher, made these identifications - apparently independently of other historically significant thinkers - for the benefit of the layperson. Wouldn't it be nice if other "popular" thinkers and philosophers out there would make the same explicit identifications and thereby perhaps stem the tide of cultural decay?

This segues into another basic focus of the UO course: the role of philosophy in human existence, or the role of philosophy in daily living. From the very beginning of the first lecture, Peikoff addresses the matter of how one lives by a philosophy, particularly in a society from which one's philosophy is largely alien (as current society is with respect to Objectivism). He naturally moves on to the issue of how philosophy as such, not just Objectivist philosophy, can play a role in human life. Another chief idea in Objectivism is that philosophy - whether directly or indirectly, whether by adoption or by rejection or neglect - is the fundamental moving force in human life. (Rejecting or neglecting philosophy in one's life generates existential impoverishment in a number of ways.) The problem here is: how does one connect abstract ideas to the practice of concrete daily living? And here Peikoff sets up his number one target of destruction: rationalism. Now, it must be noted that "rationalism" has become a buzzword among longtime Objectivists and on online Objectivist forums, even though in the written canon it is hardly at all touched upon. This generates a problem in terms of how one properly defines, in fundamental terms, what the problem of rationalism is as Peikoff (and, presumably, Rand) understood it. How would one identify an idea, thought process, or person as "rationalistic"? Further, just how pervasive is the phenomenon of rationalism so identified? As to the latter question, Peikoff says that the problem is pervasive in a very large segment of individuals, including among students of Objectivism, and that it is a problem that can undercut and paralyze their thought processes, and in fact destroy their commitment to integration, context, and hierarchy, quite unbeknownst to them. Being that it is a serious and pervasive problem, and largely unidentified, we're in deep doo-doo if we don't unroot it and fix it. Peikoff emphasizes that this problem is so ingrained in so many people's thought processes that it presents a, if not the, chief obstacle to living - and living well - by a philosophy. Since thought and action are integrated phenomena in human beings, the problem of applying philosophical principles to daily living is primarily an intellectual problem.

So what is rationalism? It has some important similarities to rationalism in early modern philosophy (associated with Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz), but the sense in which it is used by Peikoff is more all-embracing than the term applied there, I think. It concerns one's habitual method of dealing with ideas, or one's "psycho-epistemology," and key to understanding Rand and Peikoff's criticism of most of the philosophical tradition is understanding their criticism from a methodological standpoint: they would insist that rationalism as method of thought is quite literally pervasive among intellectuals, i.e., among those who deal with the most abstract ideas. And, so, at last, what does this rationalism consist in? I would formulate the problem as follows: rationalism consists, in effect, of treating the map (our abstract system of ideas) in the same manner as one would treat the territory (concrete reality). Take a common lay-criticism of the practice of philosophy: that philosophers have their "head in the clouds," that all they do is play around with ideas in their heads, with little practical importance or application. Just what do philosophers do, anyway? How do they make their ideas relevant to practical daily living? What if, in effect, whether they realize it or not, their map is their territory, and so what makes sense in their territory has little if any connection to the real territory? After all, if we all have the same real territory to work with, why do philosophers, via their conceptual system-building, still disagree with one another (in some deep fashion that doesn't similar afflict the community of scientists)? Further, if rationalism is a fundamental methodological phenomenon, then might not David Hume be just as much a rationalist in this sense as Descartes? Does Hume start with some "floating" premises (premises not properly anchored in concrete reality, as much as he would insist on some doctrine of empiricism) and deduce from those premises conclusions that fly in the face of practical, real-world concerns? In the tomes of Immanuel Kant, what do we have besides an elaborately worked-out system of interrelated ideas represented by words, words, words, without a clear tie to our concrete and everyday concerns? (Put the question the following way: what benefit would the layperson have in reading, or trying to read, the Critique of Pure Reason?) Or, to take an example from more "practical" (ethical and/or political) philosophy, what territory does Rawls's A Theory of Justice map out?

But remember something I noted above: Peikoff says that the problem of rationalism, or of deducing to or from "floating ideas" not properly grounded in concrete reality, is a pervasive problem among many students of Objectivism as well as among the historical philosophers he and Rand love to heap their invective upon. Peikoff mentions having struggled with rationalism himself for over a decade. It is an affliction present in many intellectual types as such, due to hazards inherent in dealing with abstract ideas. They would identify the phenomenon in so simple a circumstance as a student of Objectivism reciting some tenet or argument in Objectivism and then failing to establish the truth of the claim first-hand apart from relating words to other words that they gleaned from a book.

I am quite sure that the problem of rationalism needs to be fleshed out much, much more than the summary treatment I've provided here, for the problem to become more apparent. The whole point of philosophy, the counter-objection would go, is to ensure that one's ideas are true, i.e., properly grounded in reality, and there's no clear reason to believe that Rand and Peikoff have done better at this than others, their identifications and protestations concerning methodology notwithstanding. My very strong impression is that, over the course of a few decades (namely the '50s through the '70s), Rand and Peikoff encountered countless instances among the students and thinkers, Objectivist and non-Objectivist alike, instances of what they came to identify as the problem of rationalism. UO is the only course/book that I know of where the problem is fleshed out indepth, but I'll need a refresher from reading the rest of it to really pinpoint what they have in mind.

I would like to make an observation concerning methodology and the idea of Objectivism-as-its-own-protector. The way that Peikoff structured OPAR, for both epistemology and ethics, is to define the basic concepts - "concept" (chapter 3) and "value" (chapter 7), respectively - and devote a chapter to explaining these concepts before proceeding to matters of what I might call "application," particularly in the chapters on "objectivity" and "virtue," respectively. In each of the chapters of the latter sort, we are presented with general advice (along with some concrete examples) of how to conduct ourselves epistemically and ethically, respectively. In the later epistemology chapters (4 and 5) we are given "commonsense" advice concerning such things as arbitrary claims, or when a claim is assigned such values as "possible," "probable," "likely," and "certain," or when a claim is considered to have been properly proved as true. In the chapter on virtue (chapter 8) we are given an extensive discussion that is expanded to book-length in Tara Smith's Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics. At least in the case of the ethics chapters, you have a division into meta-ethics or the discussion of the meaning of ethical terms (chapter 7 on "the good") on the one hand, and normative ethics or discussion of the content of ethical obligation (chapter 8 on virtue) on the other. Perhaps a similar sort of division needs to be made in the area of epistemology; perhaps what many professional specialists in epistemology are focused on are matters correctly classified as "meta-epistemological," while how to conduct oneself epistemically is a matter of "normative epistemology." I raise this possible division as food for thought. If the division is a valid one, then I think chapters 4 and 5 of OPAR are concerned with normative epistemology. This raises a further possibility: if Randian normative ethics can be plausibly described as a version of ethical perfect(ionism/ivism), then her doctrine concerning epistemic method might be considered a version of epistemic perfect(ionism/ivism). For some time I have viewed Objectivist methodology (mentioned above as a rigorous and systematic approach to premise-checking) in this light, and doing so has inspired me to approach philosophical subject-matter in general (and not just Objectivism) accordingly, as best as I can. Any such philosophizing can trump Objectivist content. Hence the term I've adopted: Perfectivism. :-)