Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Maverick Philosopher vs. Ayn Rand

The Maverick Philosopher, who elects to identify himself at his blog under real-nym Bill Vallicella, doesn't think all that highly of Ayn Rand.

That is unfortunate, but understandable, given his context.

What's more, when he bashes Rand as being a "hack" and whatnot, he goes through the trouble of presenting evidence and argument.  So he presents something of a formidable foe to those who would take Rand seriously as a philosopher.  (He does allow that she is a philosopher, but just not a good one.)  As one could quite readily discern from his blog, he is an honorable fucking adversary, even if mistaken in his general assessment of Rand.  (Plus he has a better (more perfect) overall command of the written word than I.)  He provides a very refreshing alternative to the anti-philosophizing attitude represented by the ignoble Leiters.  Perhaps one day I should have the pleasure of meeting him and collaborating, as all mutual philosophizing should be about.  Here I want to take issue with his overall assessment while acknowledging, in the spirit of dialectic, what he gets right.

First, the "bad stuff" about Rand (and Peikoff) . . .

Maverick pretty much nails Rand on the issues he has decided to cover when discussing her.  Pretty much, though not all the way.  Rand's very simple approach to metaphysics on neo-Aristotelian lines either hardly adds to what Aristotle already accomplished, or gets things wrong when applying understanding of the axioms to various substantive issues, including perhaps The Most Substantive Issue of Metaphysics: Does God Exist?  Going back to Nathaniel Branden's "intellectual ammunition department" response to the God-as-First-Cause question in The Objectivist Newsletter, the official Objectivist position is, in essence, that God cannot exist because, as Branden put it, the universe is the totality of that which exists.  God is not part of the universe, therefore, God does not exist.  Q.E.D.  It's pretty much that bad, and Maverick will fill you in on the details.  It also makes Peikoff's own position very muddled in light of his statement that "existence exists" does not specify that a physical world exists (and how could it, given its trivially-true character?).

The Objectivist rendering of the law of causality as a corollary of the law of identity (stated as "A is A" although expanded upon by direct quotation from Aristotle in the last pages of Atlas) is at best a simplistic restatement of Aristotelian ideas about causes, while Peikoff's treatment of the issue in light of what he subsequently says about free will is muddled.  The standard Rand/Peikoff/(Binswanger?) claim is that since under a given set of circumstances, only one "action" (behavior?) is available to a given entity, this rules out  (as "irrational" or something) indeterministic interpretations of Quantum Mechanics.  The Objectivist interpretation  of causality as (correctly!) applied to free will is that the "only" action open to a volitional being is that which follows from its nature: to act freely, to choose.  The problem for the orthodox Objectivist is that this, in turn, allows for indeterministic causation (yes, you read that right) not just in the subatomic realm studied by QM, but universally.  What we are left with is the inductive epistemological task of discovering which phenomena are (mechanistically) determined and which are not.  (Indeterminism must not be equated with volition; if subatomic particles don't behave as classical mechanics would dictate, that hardly at all implies their exhibiting volition, as you might hear many an amateur student of Objectivism claim.)

Rand/Peikoff's "refutations" of idealism and materialism are similarly, and hopelessly, muddled.  The Objectivist axiom of consciousness dictates most reasonably that a consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms; that in order for it to be conscious, it had to be conscious of something (which exists).  The problem is, this doesn't do anything to refute idealism, since standard idealisms hold that, in Berkeley's formulation, "to be is to be perceived."  Consciousness still remains the faculty of perceiving that which exists, in such a formulation.  This cannot be rejected on the basis of "the primacy of existence" (if that is read as implied by the [I hate to put it this way, but I have to] trivially-true axioms).  This would amount to metaphysics-by-fiat, that "existence exists" means something substantive to the effect that Berkeley's formulation is automatically ruled out.  I think had Rand been surrounded by expert metaphysicians during her intellectual career, she'd have done a much better job at this sort of thing; however, had the mainstream of academic analytic philosophy at the time not been bogged down in anti-metaphysical practices while Aristotle was going relatively neglected, she might have found such experts where they around.  This gives rise to the question: Why did she not integrate/dialecticize with Henry Veatch, or him with her?  What we have here is a failure to integrate.

The Objectivist "refutation" of materialism is little better, since it amounts to a strawman equation of materialism with a vulgar, uber-reductive materialism.  In OPAR, Peikoff mentions four supposedly paradigmatic materialists in his sense: Democritus, Hobbes, Marx, and Skinner.  In one indication that Peikoff was behind the times at the time of OPAR's 1991 publication, he appears unaware that Skinner had long been a non-issue by then, particularly in wake of Chomsky's demolition job some two decades before.  Not only that, he hadn't been influential in mainstream philosophy.  Skinner might plausibly be an example of vulgar reductive materialism but since mainstream philosophers didn't take him seriously, what's the idea of bringing him into a discussion of what allegedly went wrong in metaphysics at the hands of philosophers?  The case of Marx doesn't work well here, either, because Marx as a vulgar reductionist reeks of a strawman.  But the real kicker here is: how does Objectivism escape charges of materialism when (contrary to Peikoff's earlier admission that the existence axiom doesn't specify the existence of a physical world) it rules out the existence of God on the grounds that only the physical universe exists?  Objectivism turns out to be a substantive naturalism, which isn't (as John W. Robbins's incompetent critique of Objectivism would have it) synonymous with materialism, at least not as Peikoff describes it (the vulgar-reductive kind which denies the reality of consciousness), but that leaves the question: who of significance in the history of philosophy does hold that latter view?  I won't hold my breath for an answer.

So, getting back to the Maverick, when he's bashing the substantive Rand/Peikoff arguments in metaphysics, he's shooting fish in a barrel.  It's no surprise to me that inasmuch as Rand scholars write on metaphysics they go back to Aristotle and sometimes Aquinas for beefing-up.  (For instance, Chapter 1 of Den Uyl and Rasmussen's The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand seems to contain more discussion about the Aristotelian tradition than about Rand in particular.)

When Maverick attacks Rand's views on abortion, he rightly points out where her views are sorely lacking, although I would not consider her views obviously stupid considering the time at which she wrote them, a time when Judith Thomson's flawed article defending abortion was not so obviously flawed according to the understanding of many readers then.  (The violinist example . . . whoo boy!  I mean, if a fetus could be easily transferred from the mother's body to some other nutritive environment - just as the violinist could be hooked up to someone else - then the violinist example is a great, knock-down defense of a woman's unlimited "right to choose what happens to and in her body."  Not to mention that whole thing about volitional activity bringing about the (special) relation of fetal dependence, in marked contrast to the involuntary hooking-up to the violinist.  And why a violinist, anyway?)  I would also take issue with one subtle but significant point.  When Rand wrote, "The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn)," Maverick interprets this as follows: "Rand equates the unborn with the not-yet living."  The "or" here might suggest a logical equivalence, but the rhetorical context does not make that at all clear and, being accustomed as I am to Rand's writing style, I read it as the different kind of "or," as in presenting two distinct cases.  In any case, I think needless to  say, the abortion debate has gotten more sophisticated in the nearly-forty years since, with Don Marquis's anti-abortion argument making a most potent case for how abortion is, at minimum, extremely morally problematic; the standard "woman's right over her body" arguments advanced by so many intellectually-lazy defenders of abortion rights have to fully confront Marquis's argument.

Maverick's coverage of Rand's intellectual relationship with John Hospers sorely mischaracterizes the reasons for their parting of ways.  It was not over Hospers having "dared criticize" Rand, but the style in which he did so.  Binswanger has the scoop on what precipitated their break, and if that is an accurate portrayal, then Hospers's behavior cries out for a reasoned explanation, which (due to Hospers's passing) we may never get.

Speaking of Binswanger, Maverick is to be commended for his respectful interchange with Binswanger at his blog.  It's too bad all these one-sided cheap-shot artists around the online world don't have the guts or the decency to do likewise.

Before continuing, I do want to mention that I'm lukewarm about Maverick's seemingly blanket characterizations of "liberals" as decadent libertines on moral and cultural matters and freedom-stomping statists on political and economic ones.  (Maverick self-identifies as a conservative.)  If one were to pin him down to specifics, I'm fairly sure he would distinguish the thoughtful liberals from the not-so-thoughtful ones, in which case the former aren't the ones giving liberalism such a bad name.  But doesn't that go for pretty much any "school" of thought, be it liberalism, libertarianism, Objectivism, or . . . conservatism?  If we're going to criticize "the liberals" for their faults, then "the conservatives" are fair game . . . and have you seen how "the conservatives" have done a piss-poor job, since roughly around the time of their adoption of the Southern Strategy, at presenting an intellectually-fortified defense of conservative ideals?  There was Barry Goldwater back in the '60s penning The Conscience of a Conservative, and then later coming to identify as a libertarian and to decry the religious fundamentalism taking over the GOP.  There was William F. Buckley (by the way, did he get calmly and methodically destroyed by Chomsky on his "Firing Line" show, or what?) who came to identify as a libertarian as well as conservative.  (I read somewhere that, to his credit, Buckley smoked a little bud; also, he proved in his eloquent style how the Drug War is a moral and practical disaster.) You had Reagan playing up to the il(classical)liberal Moral Majority, and things continued downhill from there: the Dan Quayle VP nod, the illiberal declaration of "culture war" at the '92 GOP convention, Clinton Derangement Syndrome, the Bush torture regime, FOX's credibility-destroying partisanship, Limbaugh's descent into intellectual dementia, Hannity's blatant partisanship and anti-intellectualism, Savage's paranoid hysteria, O'Reilly's anti-intellectual streak, the ridiculous '08 Dingbat VP nod, "refudiate," Obama Derangement Syndrome, demise-is-always-around-the-corner paranoia, End Times-ism, many Tea Partiers' selective attention/memory/knowledge, seeming GOP indifference to the healthcare affordability crisis, Moneybags as the lone credible (sic) '12 candidate, birtherism, intellectually vacant opposition to marriage equality, evolution denial, climate change denial (coupled by projections onto scientists as allegedly politicizing the issue), and, now, out-and-out morons running the House Science (sic) Committee.  If "the conservatives" would address these problems as much as "the liberals" should address theirs (starting perhaps with their pathological inability or unwillingness to seriously and honestly confront what they imagine to be impossible: a formidable Aristotelian-individualist-capitalist intellectual juggernaut spearheaded by a fiery novelist), we might well have neo-Aristotelian/perfectivist nirvana, would we not.

Okay.  Now.  Where does the Maverick get it wrong about Rand?

First, let me point out that his shooting-fish-in-a-barrel routine is directed almost exclusively at Rand's lousy substantive metaphysical arguments.  What he does not cover is her ethics, her politics, or - most crucially, most fundamentally, most signficantly - her prescribed (neo-Aristotelian) methodology for dealing with ideas.  (Method pertains primarily with epistemology, not metaphysics.)  Outside of what Peikoff, Sciabarra, and a few others have done, this never gets addressed those writing about Rand, her critics most of all.  One might claim that Peikoff's lecture courses, in which this central topic is most extensively worked out, are too inaccessible a format (the complaint about their being too expensive - as in the hundreds of dollars - no longer holds, by any remotely plausible stretch), but that still leaves Sciabarra's Russian Radical, which has been in print for nearly two decades now, and which Rand critics either brazenly evade or remain blazingly ignorant about.  Peikoff's Understanding Objectivism course has been in print for almost a year now (and if you aren't deeply familiar, directly or inderectly, with the contents of this course, then your understanding of Rand's philosophy is probably for shit, given the crucial, fundamental, supremely significant role of method in it; this is not even to speak of Peikoff's later courses, such as The Art of Thinking or Objectivism Through Induction) and so far the critics have remained completely silent about the book version of Understanding, through either ignorance/cluelessness or evasion.  (Right on bad-faith cue, the haters did manage, just around the same time Understanding was released, to heap attention upon Gary Weiss's Ayn Rand Nation which, from what I can tell, is as clueless as any of the secondary literature out there.  This disparity of response right here says pretty much all you need to know about the haters' total lack of scruples.)

(I mean, if staunch adherents/admirers of Thinker X's ideas uniformly tell you that such-and-such resource is absolutely essential to grasping Thinker X's ideas properly, the intellectually curious person would very much want to obtain that resource if the person wanted to speak competently and persuasively about the merits of Thinker X's ideas, rather than to run around like a random thug taking pot-shots at Thinker X and the adherents of Thinker X's ideas.  This is only common sense; this only stands to reason.  Oh, did I mention that Peikoff lecture courses available at $10 a pop, for undergrads to snatch up and integrate en masse, spells Game Over for the intellectual Establishment?  If not, I'll say it again: Peikoff lecture courses available at $10 a pop, for undergrads to snatch up and integrate en masse, spells Game Over for the intellectual Establishment.  Done deal.  I've never been more certain of anything in my life.  The fuck you think Russian Radical was all about, anyway, fun and games?   You've been spermjacked, Leiter & Co.  Checkmate, assholes.  You can't refute perfectivism. :-)

Second, the intellectually responsible thing to do is to see in what areas Rand's ideas have been carefully analyzed and developed by subsequent thinkers, if one wants to know where her strengths were.  I've already touched upon method (Peikoff and Sciabarra).  In ethics, there's Tara Smith's Cambridge-published book on Randian-egoistic normative virtue-ethics, along with the recent Ayn Rand Society volume.  In politics, Rand's "What is Capitalism?" is a hugely important essay with respect to a central theme of hers: the role of the mind in human existence.  The essential substance of her political ideas has reached its latest academic development in Sciabarra's Total Freedom and Rasmussen and Den Uyl's Norms of Liberty.  As for her aesthetics: first off, not to understand her aesthetics is not to understand her views about sense of life, which is not to understand Rand's own sense of life, which is not to understand the benevolent universe premise, which is not to understand Rand the person; it is to not understand her views on psycho-epistemology, which is to not understand her theory about method, which is to not understand her philosophy, period.  Second, when a scholar of aesthetics such as John Hospers says that Rand's novels carry much aesthetic importance, the intellectually responsible reaction is to perk up one's ears.  Finally, in regard to epistemology "proper," the forthcoming (2013) Ayn Rand Society volume continues and develops Rand's work on the nature of concepts and their role in knowledge.

It is a fascinating psychological and sociological dynamic to observe, how people's views on a thinker or topic can vary so much depending not only on their individual contexts of knowledge, but also on what data points they cull into making their observations and judgments.  If you focus exclusively on things like Rand's terrible polemics and lousy substantive arguments in metaphysics, one is bound to think little or negatively of her.  If one focuses exclusively on (to put it in briefest essence) the perfectivist aspects of Rand's philosophy and personality, one is bound to see her as the second coming of Aristotle.  The perfective dialectical reconciliation of these two seemingly disparate data sets - the act of objectively and comprehensively establishing the full context - involves doing as I do right here and in dozens of other blog entries on Rand.  And to his great credit Maverick, being staunchly anti-intellectual-bigotry and perfectivist in his sensibilities, wrote: "Rand's ideas ought to be discussed, not dismissed."  A shit-ton better than the closed-minded sneers and ultra-politicized "gatekeeping" of Leiter and his ilk, innit?  (A search on the term "nietzsche" at Maverick's Rand page (which I linked at the outset of today's discussion) is apropos.  Further, I have it on authority of a well-established Nietzsche scholar that Rand was more disciplined a thinker than Nietzsche was.  She did select the Aristotelian route from Alasdair MacIntyre's (dialectically inadequate?) Aristotle/Nietzsche alternative, if that tells you anything.  But what if Nietzsche had been productive another thirty years?...)

The unquestionable fact is, there is a fast-growing academic literature on Rand that didn't exist before.  Combined with the effect of those now-way-inexpensive Peikoff courses, and the publication of Understanding Objectivism, and the neo-Aristotelian resurgence in general gathering steam in the academy, the effect should be exponential: an explosion in interest in Rand among the intellectually curious.  The deniers - inside the academy and out - have two options: (1) keep evading and behaving like thugs, or (2) get a clue.  To wit:
"Checkmate, asshole."