Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Peikoff's The DIM Hypothesis: a review

This posting probably wouldn't fit the usual formal standards of a book review, but that's not my concern.  I want to get my comments out there, in whatever order they come out.

(Some context for newbies: Leonard Peikoff is heir to Ayn Rand's estate and her foremost interpreter.  If people understood Objectivism as well as he and Rand did, the world would be a heck of a better place.  The DIM Hypothesis (2012) is the latest of his books.)

First off, it's an important book to read if only because it's very much thought-provoking in its basic thesis, i.e., that modal inquiry helps us to figure out large-scale historical trends.  Dr. Peikoff actually makes some rather modest claims on behalf of this work in the preface/intro part of the book, apparently under the (correct) belief that his hypothesis at the very least needs to be put out there and mentally chewed however much it need be chewed.  I think it would be hard to come away from this book not having one's thinking forever altered in regard to understanding history in terms of modal change.  This is not to say that Peikoff gets it right in his analyses as to all the specific modes - what they are, when and how they apply to a given culture - but one almost surely cannot help thinking that there is contained in his analyses significant germs of truth.

So what is this talk of modal inquiry all about?  As you might have guessed or already know, Peikoff divides modes or methods of integration into three main categories: I for integration, a process which seeks a (conceptual) One in the (perceptual) Many, based purely on secular sense evidence, a mode for which Aristotle is the prime exponent; M for mis-integration, a mental process that leads ultimately in essence to a focus on the (supernatural) One at the expense of the (natural, perceptual) Many, a mode for which Plato, with his Form of the Good, is the prime exponent; finally, there is D for disintegration, a modal opposite (if you will) of M, which is a secularized approach to knowledge focusing on (perceptual) concretes at the expense of any unifying theory, which Peikoff says was brought about as a distinctively modern approach by one Immanuel Kant.  D would be the flipside of the religionist coin which holds that if God is dead, everything is permitted, only the D mode in its extreme or pure form would reject God or the supernatural in favor of "everything goes."

Peikoff makes further distinctions within the two "bad" modal types, the M1 and D1 versions being unstable mixtures of I and M and I and D, respectively, and the M2 and D2 modes being the "pure" variant which would be brought about by consistent application or implementation of the Platonic/M or Kantian/D modes, respectively.  The Renaissance, for instance, was characterized by M1, a mixture of secular and supernaturalist modes, following the Middle Ages which was a pure M2 period and preceding the early modern (still M1) and Enlightenment (I) periods.  There's a handy table on the very back page of the book that provides the "standing on one foot" version of the DIM hypothesis as applied to nine different major epochs of human history.  Only ancient Greece and the Enlightenment receive the I designation.

Peikoff spends the first half of the book explaining how, in a few of the major epochs (Greece, Rome, Middle Ages, Modern), the mode dominant in each culture translates into representative cultural products, namely literature, education, science or physics, and politics.  Here is where I began to get wary because many of the examples he offers as indicative of a culturally dominant mode have such a contrived flavor to them.  Okay, just for instance: totalitarianism is said to emphasize a One (the state, the ruler, the Volk) taking precedence over or dominating the many (the individuals).  What's more, not only does Peikoff say that modern eastern and central Europe was characterized by an M2 mode (associated with Communist ideals - socialist realism in literature, dialectical teleology in science, and "instilling communism" in education) and was "therefore" totalitarianism in politics, but he also says that the Middle Ages, also M2, was politically totalitarian (the One societally being the Church as God's representative, with a One politically being a King).  Now, maybe Peikoff has it correct and the mainstream historians have it wrong, but nowhere else (except perhaps in New Atheist-type literature) have I seen the western Middle Ages as being characterized by totalitarianism politically.  Now, sure, the culture was authoritarian and repressive but . . . is this splitting hairs?  I suppose we could look to the socio-cultural structure of modern-day Islamist theocracies as examples of the M2 approach; are they totalitarian, or something else?  Are they importantly different from western medieval theocracies, which had a more "Greek" relative to "Abrahamic" influence?  Does the person of Jesus vis a vis the person of Mohammed make a crucial difference to the overall flavor of their (measurements-omitted) respective authoritarian cultures?

Anyway, that's kind of a side note.  What I really want to object to is the continuation of very bad "Objectivist polemics" against Immanuel Kant.  How right (or wrong) Peikoff gets things about Kant plays a significant role in Peikoff's modal analysis as applied to the post-Kant modern world.  Looking at the book's index under the entry for Kant, we get "father of nihilism, [pp.] 38-39, 174-175, 350n15" and then "in ethics, self-sacrifice for its own sake, [p.] 37".  Now, perhaps there is some historical narrative that points to a Kantian influence leading to the nihilism that Nietzsche takes up the challenge of overcoming, but I doubt that it's a narrative you'd see coming from Objectivist circles who insist on buying into the anti-Kant polemics that bear little to no resemblance to interpretations of such Kant scholars as Paul Guyer, Christine Korsgaard, or Allen Wood.  Getting from Kant as arguer for how the categories are employed in uniting the world of sense into an orderly Nature, or as arguer for reason as the source of the Categorical Imperative in its two formulations, to Kant as father of nihilism, would be so convoluted on its face as to invite derision.  Kant's influence did indeed spawn a number of different philosophical traditions or schools, be they German idealism, or Nietzsche-as-foil, or Pragmatism, or Rawlsian contractualism, or post-modernism and its offshoots (definitely not a good thing, IMHO; if you want D2 in concrete manifestation, it's a prime candidate), . . . or sensible and straightorward scholars like Guyer et al.  What's more, once the analytic-synthetic dichotomy was widely (though not universally) abandoned in philosophy in the wake of Quine's "Two Dogmas," and when Aristotle and others have made a resurgence in the academy, Kant has ended up being - while still greatly influential on modern philosophizing - more like a foil if not punching-bag for many.

Peikoff is careful to point out that there are a lot of contributing factors to historical change, not merely the presence of a dominant mode.  The modal analysis might suggest something on the order of a necessity between an underlying dominant mode and historical cultural shifts, but to take the example of the Greeks, the dominance of the Aristotelian-style approach was ended by historically-contingent displacement brought about by military conquest.  (That left M1 to assert its dominance in the West over the next few hundreds years, which paved the way for M2 Christianity.)  The modal analysis can generate "prediction" only in terms of probabilities, as Peikoff reminds the reader in the last chapter (which I'll get to in a moment).  Anyway, the notion that Kant's philosophy paved the way for late-modern culture almost surely ends up being complicated by a significant number of factors, enough to render it close to implausible.  It carries with it about as much plausibility as the leftist notion that Ayn Rand's ideas have had a significant impact on the culture in Washington D.C. (i.e., District of Cynicism) much less on Wall Street.  How much attention does the general public (in America especially) pay the intellectuals?  Okay, so a better question to ask would be: how has the intellectual culture indirectly impacted on the general culture?  But what is that intellectual culture?  Is it really so Kant-influenced as to be D1-ish?

As perhaps the most glaring instance of clumsy fact-handling amidst an otherwise intriguing presentation of theory, we get this on p. 304: "Today, however, the ideas of Aristotle are absent from Western culture and have been so for well over a century."  Good lord now, really?  I mean, a lot really does stand or fall on the truth-status of that claim, so we'd want to be damn sure to get it right in pursuit of non-shoddy analysis and prediction.  There are enough dubious claims like this throughout the book that one would have to do a lot of independent fact-checking and study and general observation of concretes to integrate into an explanatory whole, and that's what it ultimately comes down to in thinking about whether Peikoff's translation of modes into cultural manifestations (literature, science, politics, education) really lines up with the best explanation of the facts.  The virtue of this is the food-for-thought element; how much Peikoff's specific analysis throws us off the scent of perfectionistic correctness is another matter.

Peikoff's analysis leads him to a (probabilistic) prediction in favor of an M2 religious totalitarianism in America sometime in the coming decades.  (Not if I have anything to say about it!)  The signs of this are the apparent revival of religion in America in reaction to an intellectually-weak (because disintegrative?) secularism.  People do need a sense of all-encompassing order and explanation as a requirement of cognitive efficacy, yes, and since they're not getting that from the "progressive" establishment or agenda, the only supposed alternative is M of some variant.  (His relating of the "material-prosperity-eschewing" New Christian movement to the "anti-material-prosperity" environmental movement, as a potential or actual alliance, is extra-dubious; it certainly doesn't correspond to the universe of facts I've been integrating.)  He does bring up Ayn Rand's philosophy as the I antidote to this trend, but - given our divergent perspective of the facts of the matter - I think he way underestimates the potential of Rand's ideas to help effect a reintroduction of the I ethos to the west.  I mean, what else does $10 per Peikoff lecture course (a 95+% markdown from before) mean for the future?  Does he not fully realize just how many aspiring Randian-Aristotelian grad students will be generated and fortified by these courses?

I also find it highly dubious that late-modern science/physics (physics being the most abstract, all-encompassing and fundamental of the sciences) is predominantly a D phenomenon, but unfortunately I haven't (yet) all the conceptual tools on hand necessary to effectively counter Peikoff's characterization in this regard.

I'd like to propose an alternative explanation for historical trends.  The theme of Atlas Shrugged is "the role of the mind in man's existence."  Peikoff and I both accept this fundamental, but we probably differ in its application to historical analysis.  Let's say that broad historical and cultural change is effected by a uni-dimensional analysis, namely in terms of this criterion: just how well and to what extent has the potential that is the human intellect been actualized at any given point in history?  Let's take Peikoff's proposed M2 mode as an example to reinterpret in these terms: M2 represents a compartmentalized integration: if you look at the mode of integration of the medieval scholars, it's all very vigorous and intellectually-adept . . . within its restricted domain.  Being that it was restricted so, it served as an impediment to a more full actualization of intellectual potentialities.  With the introduction of Aristotle's secular mode of analysis (via Thomas Aquinas), we had an opening-up of the realms of "permissible" inquiry.  Peikoff would characterize Thomism as M1 - as a mixture (of some sort) of religious and secular modes of thought, but let's say that an unambiguously perfected Thomism adopts the key Aristotelian principle that the key to human flourishing is the maximal perfection of the intellectual capacity.

Peikoff is of the belief that an I mode has to be purely secular or else it's some variant of M, i.e., mis-integration.  It's highly doubtful a Thomist intellectual would buy into that (and especially not on the basis presented in the Objectivist literature), but does or should a Thomist intellectual accept the key Aristotelian-intellectualist (what I call perfectivist) principle?  (At the least, the Thomist should.)  That would make the Thomist essentially an ally on behalf of what Peikoff calls the I mode.  If both Jefferson (a deist) and Franklin (a Christian) exemplify (as I believe they both do) the same key intellectualist-perfectivist principle, and if they both clearly exemplify what Peikoff called the healthy I mode of the Enlightenment, then the fundamental division here isn't a secular/religious one, but an intellectualist/nonintellectualist one.  Perhaps in terms of this fundamental division, we can understand various non-I modes as shortcomings in some way or other, perhaps even as I modes just waiting to be lured out.  (I'm reminded of this line from Full Metal Jacket: "Inside every gook is an American waiting to get out.")

Besides, with some exceptions, religious intellectuals who've come up against Aristotle have performed the proper integration as Aquinas did.  There's also the secular aspect of the key American Framers that the right-wing religious propaganda surely cannot succeed at blinding a critical mass of Americans to.  And doesn't someone like Glenn Beck represent a significant non-M2 (non-totalitarian) cultural force in America today?  Peikoff's doom-and-gloom scenario, based on extrapolation from the conglomeration of facts he cites about today's religious right, looks (to me) to be quite incomplete and selective (likely unknowingly on his part).  If we interpret human history in light of the intellectualist analysis I suggest, and therefore in terms of a not-always-steady progress from the primitive hunter-gatherer days, and in conjunction with the actual and growing presence of Aristotelian ideas in American culture, then there is much cause to be optimistic about the future.  I suppose we can use the coming decades as a testing grounds for these respective explanatory hypotheses.  (If I were a betting person, I'd bet things will end up more Aristotelian than religious-totalitarian, compared to the present.)

Overall I'd give Peikoff's book a B- grade, a 6.5 out of 10.  In sum, the shortcomings have to do not with the concept, but with the execution.  There will continue to be shortcomings in any Objectivist literature that adopts the polemical style practiced by Rand and Peikoff.  As long as one can mentally abstract this and other weaknesses from the thoughtful and thought-provoking stuff, then I'd give this book a solid recommendation.  But since I think this sort of project could be carried out quite a bit better than in its current manifestation, I can give it only a lukewarm recommendation.

Given the potential significance of this book and my curiosity as to what I may have missed in it, I've enabled comments (with minimal common-sense moderation) for this posting.  Thoughtful comments a big plus. ;-)  I'm figuring out how to enable comments on this posting.  It appears not to be so simple as changing blog settings.  (I've also been trying to change the stylization of this blog - or at the very minimum experiment with stylization, preview changes, etc. - with little luck there as well.  I guess that goes with the territory of a free blogging platform....)