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Premises Of Post-Objectivism


AN ASS OR A LION?

A REVIEW OF LEONARD PEIKOFF'S OBJECTIVISM: THE PHILOSOPHY OF AYN RAND
Copyright Nicholas Dykes

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff New York: Dutton, 1991 cloth, 493p., $30.00 ISBN 0-525-93380-8


Previously published in Free Life, the journal of the UK Libertarian Alliance, no. 21 (November 1994).

AD 1993 saw some notable anniversaries, from Queen Elizabeth's 40th as a powerless monarch to "Whitewater Bill" Clinton's first as the world's most powerful elected official.

In the less grandiose but nonetheless powerful world of publishing, another milestone was reached: the 50th anniversary of The Fountainhead, the novel which established Ayn Rand as a major literary figure and which contained the first statement - albeit in embryo - of her challenging philosophy, Objectivism. (A fuller statement arrived in 1957, with her novel Atlas Shrugged.)

As a novelist, Rand achieved enduring success. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged not only remain in print but sell upwards of 100,000 copies a year, nearly 20 years after their author's death. For Rand the philosopher, however, reception was distinctly mixed. Among students, she quickly acquired a wide following; among their professors, she was usually either ignored or scornfully dismissed.

Since over a quarter of a century has elapsed since the heyday of the "Objectivist Movement" it is worth noting some of the reasons for the latter reaction. In the first place, from the beginning of her career, Rand made no secret at all of her scorn for "modern philosophers" (and with few exceptions, she was not renowned for tact). Little wonder "modern philosophers" responded in kind.

Secondly, Rand was an atheist who rejected out-of-hand all religions and virtually every other philosophy from Platonism to Existentialism; specifically any brand of scepticism, subjectivism, determinism, pragmatism, or positivism; and all forms of altruism. She also maintained that most "problems" in philosophy - such as the analytic-synthetic dichotomy and the is-ought problem - were either false or easily resolved. Since the above just about covers the syllabus for a philosophy degree, Rand's acerbic veto was unlikely to win friends in, or influence, the professoriat.

Nor did Rand broadcast her ideas in the forms or outlets used by other philosophers. Eschewing academic journals, she expressed herself at first in novels; later in essays, articles, pamphlets and speeches most of which she initially edited and published herself. Media of this kind do not normally excite much interest in philosophy departments.

Lastly, though an avowed system-builder, Rand's approach to philosophy was anything but systematic. Her views are scattered among her novels and essays, and the closest she came to a philosophic treatise - her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (1971) - is, while eminently worthy of study, barely 70 pages long and covers only one philosophical topic, the theory of concepts. Rand often spoke of a "future book on Objectivism" but never wrote it.

For anyone interested in Ayn Rand's philosophical ideas, therefore, Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism should be a welcome arrival. It is the first full treatise on Rand, the first time her philosophy has been presented in its entirety in a single volume.

Dr. Peikoff's book has several virtues. It is clearly written and easy to follow. In effect, the book continues the exceptionally high standard of clarity set by Rand herself, who invariably said exactly what she meant, and meant exactly what she said. The work is also well organised and moves easily and logically from Rand's first premises in metaphysics and epistemology to her final conclusions in ethics, politics, and aesthetics.

Dr. Peikoff begins where Rand begins, firmly and positively in reality, in this world. He expounds her founding axiom "existence exists", and its corollaries: that one exists possessing consciousness - the faculty for perceiving existents - and that to exist, to be, is to be some thing, hence the law of identity, and its corollary, the law of causality. He then elaborates Rand's insistence on the primacy of existence over consciousness; the crucial role of reason in man's life; her view of man as a being of volitional consciousness; and her stress on objectivity, hierarchy and context in determining what constitutes knowledge. These and other topics take up most of the first half of the book.

An objection at this point is that Dr. Peikoff spends less time than one might have wished on Rand's innovative theory of concepts. Rand described the core of the theory herself in a highly condensed summary in the aforementioned Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

The process of concept formation consists of mentally isolating two or more existents by means of their distinguishing characteristic, and retaining this characteristic while omitting their particular measurements - on the principle that these measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity. A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted.

Other lacunae in the book are the absence of any discussion of the "problem" of induction, and of the "is/ought" controversy. Since Rand offered resolutions for both, this is surprising. (Dr. Peikoff's disclaimers, on p. 74 and p. 186, do not suffice.)

Having dealt with Rand's metaphysics and epistemology, Dr. Peikoff proceeds to her most controversial contribution to thought: her egoistic ethics, with its adamant rejection of altruism. Rand maintained that, far from being bound in duty to others, each human life is an end in itself, not a means to any other end, and that therefore each human being has a right to live for his or her own sake, neither sacrificing themselves to others nor others to themselves.

For Rand, the ultimate goal for humanity on this earth is each person's own life; the ultimate beneficiary of action, each person's own self.

Dr. Peikoff concludes his presentation of the Objectivist ethics with a chapter on happiness, which Ayn Rand held to be the "only moral purpose" of one's life (p.325). The chapter closes with Rand's movingly exalted view of sex:

...the moment when, in answer to the highest of one's values, in an admiration not to be expressed by any other form of tribute, one's spirit makes one's body become the tribute, recasting it - as proof, as sanction, as reward - into a single sensation of such intensity of joy that no other sanction of one's existence is necessary. (p. 348).

From the sublime, Dr. Peikoff brings us sharply back to earth with Rand's politics; explaining her dedication to individual rights; her identification of the initiation of force as the one real political or social vice (pp. 310-23); and her view of government as a purely retaliatory institution existing solely to protect the individual against internal or external aggression. This leads naturally to Rand's ringing endorsement of capitalism as mankind's only proper form of social organisation. But not the "mixed" economy which poses as capitalism today, rather:

a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism - with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Dr. Peikoff ends his study with Rand's aesthetics, this, the last, actually being one of the better chapters in the book. However, virtually all sections cover their material comprehensively and Rand's ideas are presented cogently throughout, with ample quotations and careful annotation. Thus, in many ways, Dr. Peikoff's work is both excellent and useful and will no doubt take its place as required reading wherever Objectivism is studied.

The reader may be wondering by now about my title. In brief, despite the credit I have tried to give to Dr. Peikoff, I was not at all happy with his book. From Preface to Epilogue I was troubled by errors, gaps and flaws, many of which I found so annoying that I had to put the book aside, often for long periods. Seventeen months elapsed between purchase and completion of an initial reading.

The first egregious error comes at the end of the short Preface, where Peikoff describes himself as Rand's "best student and chosen heir" (p. xv). Leaving aside the questionable taste of such a pronouncement, Peikoff's assertion is fanciful to say the least. Anyone who knows anything at all about the short history of Objectivism knows that for nearly twenty years Nathaniel Branden was quite obviously Rand's "best student", just as he was for ten years her publicly proclaimed heir. After her break with Branden, Rand changed her Will more than once, it appears, and it is more than likely that the main reason Peikoff was eventually "chosen" was that he was Hobson's Choice, as the English say, or no choice at all. He was the only early member of Rand's erstwhile "Inner Circle" to stick with her to the end.
In my day, students, even the best of them, were taught: a) be accurate; b) avoid self-congratulation.

My second problem is that I found Peikoff's tone far too polemical for a philosophical work; too reminiscent, one has to say, of Rand at her worst. There are the same sudden switches from exposition to harangue; the same sweeping generalisations, caustic dismissals, and frosty denunciations. Even Rand's over-use of pejorative jargon terms is emulated - although her favourite, "whim", is leavened by the addition of "caprice", and her fiendish "whim-worshipper" is partially displaced by a new jabberwock, the dreaded "intrinsicist".

These stylistic irritants grate because Rand's lapses were usually forgivable: most of the time she rewarded the reader with new, forcefully expressed and compelling insights. Dr. Peikoff by contrast, however worthy, has little of Rand's discernment, brilliance at condensing, or relentless pursuit of the essential. Although admittedly Rand would be a hard act for anyone to follow, we are nevertheless left with the impression of the journeyman who apes his master; producing, after immense labour, something much better in the original.

My third problem is that from beginning to end I did not notice a single word of criticism of Ayn Rand. Peikoff writes as if everything she uttered was beyond reproach. But this is not the case. As even friendly critics have pointed out - e.g., Ronald Merrill, David Kelley, and others - there is both imperfection and incompleteness in Rand's thought. There are also many areas of concern to philosophy about which she had little or nothing to say; and even where she was most thorough, few philosophers, friendly or otherwise, would accept her ideas as fully worked up in a philosophical sense.

Peikoff's uncritical acceptance of Rand, warts and all, makes one doubly aware of another serious flaw in the book, that Peikoff writes as if he were alone in the world. Many contemporary toilers in the vineyard have addressed the issues Rand addressed yet, with the exception of Peikoff's colleague Dr. Harry Binswanger, who is cited once (p. 191), the only practising philosophers referred to in the text - both disparagingly - are John Rawls (p. 122) and W. Gerber (p. 140).

This rather glaring deficiency may of course be due to Peikoff's unfortunate decision to perpetuate Rand's anti-academic stance, which he advertises with a gratuitous insult in his Preface (p. xiv). Disregarding the self-defeating consequences of such a posture, the obvious snag with it is that a significant number of professional philosophers, including other Randians, have raised issues, objections and problems which bear directly on Peikoff's subject matter. Their studies, several important and interesting, cannot simply be ignored, nor should they be. As the noted Aristotelian scholar Henry B. Veatch observed, when reviewing Peikoff's book for Liberty magazine:

Had he taken cognizance of what various of these contemporary critics have said ... it would have rendered his own presentation ... far more sophisticated and illuminating.

But the greater difficulty with Dr. Peikoff's myopic one-sidedness is that it makes the work unconvincing - even to an Objectivist of thirty years such as myself. The book would have been much stronger, for example, if Dr. Peikoff had devoted some space, even just a few pages, to rebutting some of the better-known criticisms of Rand. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how he managed to resist a swipe at the knock-kneed straw man set up by Robert Nozick in his Personalist article On the Randian Argument. Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen had a field day blowing it to bits, why not Dr. Peikoff?

These considerations lead naturally to my major criticisms of Dr. Peikoff's book: his seriously inadequate, sometimes non-existent presentation of opposing points of view; and his corresponding failure to fit Objectivism into the context of Western philosophy.

Dr. Peikoff is certainly aware of such requirements. His pages are peppered with the names of dozens of other philosophers, from Socrates to Wittgenstein (although only six are deemed worthy of inclusion in his Index), and every once in a while he lifts his approving gaze from the Randian corpus for a brief, and usually withering, survey of other ideas. (For examples, see: re metaphysics, pp. 30-35; epistemology, 142-49; reason, 182-85; ethics, 243-49; and politics, 369-77.)

The crux of my criticism, and a grave charge in my view, is that those whom Dr. Peikoff (or Peikoff/Rand) disagrees with so vociferously are not allowed anything like a proper say. His surveys are mostly composed of generalisations about "mystics", "sceptics", "subjectivists" "determinists", and our friend the "intrinsicist"; or are based on equally vague allusions such as: "We hear on all sides..." (p. 22); "The monist insistence that..." (p. 35); "Kant-inspired attacks..." or "according to Kantians" (p. 49); "The followers of these schools, who are legion..." (p. 80); "For centuries, rationalist philosophers have..." (p. 90), etc, etc.

When particular philosophers are treated at all, their views are presented either in briefest summary or in paraphrase - there is an extraordinary paucity of non-Randian quotations. Most irritating of all, on those rare occasions when another philosopher is actually quoted, there is no reference. Of 400 footnotes, only seven refer to non-Objectivist works. As to the bibliography, it is one of the shortest I have ever seen, confined entirely to Rand's own main works and one or two posthumous collections of her essays.

The three philosophers who are presented in some detail, Plato, Aristotle and Kant - villain, hero, villain - fare no better. Quotation is scant or absent. Platonic dialogues are mentioned twice by name, and two of Kant's critiques, but there are no edition or page references for either. Aristotle does receive mostly favourable treatment throughout the book, but only two references to his work are provided, both in the last chapter, and both from De Poetica, which is hardly the sum and substance of peripatetic philosophy.

I have already referred to Peikoff's polemical tone. This is most noticeable when he deigns to consider opposing viewpoints, his manner quickly becoming terse, flippant, sarcastic, or dismissive. The following off-handed, parenthetical aside about Hume is typical:

the worst offenders philosophically are not the primitives who implicitly count on causality yet never discover it, but the modern sophisticates, such as David Hume, who count on it while explicitly rejecting it. (p. 15)

Another typical passage is this treatment of "materialists" (p. 33), which is, if I recall correctly, all the attention they receive in the book:

men such as Democritus, Hobbes, Marx, Skinner - champion nature but deny the reality or efficacy of consciousness.... [which is] either a myth or a useless byproduct of brain or other motions....Ayn Rand describes materialists as "mystics of muscle"....[According to materialists, man] is essentially a body without a mind. His conclusions, accordingly, reflect not the objective methodology of reason and logic, but the blind operation of physical factors, such as atomic dances in the cerebellum, glandular squirtings, S-R conditioning, or the tools of production moving in that weird, waltzlike contortion known as the dialectic process.

There are two issues to consider here. The first is convincing the reader. Labelling Hume a "paralyzed skeptic" (p. 54), or Kant "the world's greatest subverter of the conceptual faculty" (p. 109), may be entirely just; but if one's case is not demonstrated it is mere opinion or, worse, abuse. Nowhere in the book is there any documentation or clear evidence to justify Peikoff/Rand's revulsion for Kant. All is assertion or paraphrase. It is simply not enough to instruct the reader, "For evidence...consult The Critique of Pure Reason" (p. 109), particularly when one has just implied that the Critique is so badly written as to be unintelligible (pp. 108-9).

Nor does it suffice, on such serious matters, to refer readers to one's own earlier work, as Peikoff eventually does (p. 451). His first book, The Ominous Parallels, does indeed document a (partial) case against Kant, but couldn't we have had a few of the juicy bits reiterated here?

To be convincing, a writer must make a case there and then, not pack the poor reader off to the library to do the job himself.

The second issue here is that when Ayn Rand is treated for hundreds of pages with solemn respect, while all other philosophers are skimped over in hasty or dismissive pastiches (even Aristotle takes his share of knocks), the reader fairly soon comes to question the objectivity of the writer.

Thus when we read of Rand's "unprecedented and pregnant identification" (p. 91); or her "landmark discoveries" (p. 151), even an Objectivist sympathiser is reaching for the salt. The most peculiar thing about this book on Objectivism is, alas, how subjective it is.

Throughout his book Dr. Peikoff treats Objectivism as if it had sprung, fully formed, pristine, and almost entirely original, from the forehead of Ayn Rand. This is partly true, Rand was neither a scholar nor a reader, she worked out her ideas herself. Nonetheless, Objectivism inevitably had roots and origins and influences. The reader would like to know what these were. For example, Rand frequently acknowledged her debt to Aristotle, but Dr. Peikoff does not attempt the all-important task of showing exactly how Objectivism dovetails with Aristotelianism.

A further deficiency concerns Locke. The great man does get his name dropped a couple of times, but since he anticipated a substantial part of Rand's politics he surely deserves more than that.

Another "missing person" is Nietzsche. Ronald Merrill demonstrated a Nietzschian influence on the younger Rand in his book The Ideas of Ayn Rand, yet the enigmatic German gets no more attention from Dr. Peikoff than Locke does, even though Rand herself reported her youthful attraction without too much reticence.

In fact no biographical information about Rand is provided whatsoever. Her education during and after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia; her carefully contrived escape; her arrival in the United States as a penniless immigrant with barely a word of English; her bitterness at the lack of respect accorded her by the American intellectual establishment after her dramatic success: all these experiences coloured her thought, style and behaviour, and should therefore feature in a discussion of her ideas.

Similarly, the evolution of Objectivism into its final form surely merits attention in a treatise on Ayn Rand's philosophy. Nobody, no matter how brilliant, reaches Rand's level of insight and abstraction without decades of trial and error, false leads, blind alleys, formulation and reformulation, and long years of refinement. Dr. Peikoff has had better access than anybody to Rand's Philosophic Journals. Even if he intends to publish them later, a summary and a few extracts would not have been amiss in this book.

In a philosophy which lays such emphasis on context, gaps of the kind I have been discussing are not merely mystifying, they are serious sins of omission.

I have been very critical of Dr. Peikoff's treatment of opposing points of view. I would like to conclude this article with a look at his discussion of anarchism (pp. 371-73), which I found so unacceptable that it made me wonder whether my judgement elsewhere had been too lenient.

The discussion occupies a bare one-and-a-half pages in Dr. Peikoff's chapter on Rand's concept of government. Now, it is true that Ayn Rand dismissed anarchism in her own brief look at the nature of government, and certainly she had no sympathy or patience with modern "anarcho-capitalists". But I do not believe that the following accurately represents her thinking:

"Anarchism...amounts to the view that every man should defend himself by using force against others whenever he feels like it, with no objective standards of justice, crime, or proof". (pp. 371-2)
"'What if an individual does not want to delegate his right of self-defense?' .... The question implies that a "free man" is one with the right to enact his desire, any desire, simply because it is his desire, including the desire to use force."
"Anarchists in America pretend to be individualists.... however... as its main modern popularizer, Karl Marx, makes clear, anarchism is an expression of Utopian collectivism."
"...anarchism does not recognise that honest disagreement and deliberate evil will always be possible to men; it does not grasp the need of any mechanism to enable real human beings to live together in harmony.... the theory has no place for real human beings..."
(p. 372).
"The immediate result of anarchy...has to be gang rule/or the rule of a strongman."
"Anarchism is merely an unusually senseless form of statism..."
(p. 373).

I do not think it is necessary for me to spell out - in a review which is already long enough - the inaccuracy, contradictions, misrepresentation, smear by association, argument by intimidation, disregard for history, and twisted reasoning evident in the above passages. It is hard to believe an Objectivist author wrote them. Where are context, hierarchy, and objectivity? Gang rule? Strongmen? What happened to Objectivist man: to reason, purpose, self-esteem; to rationality, productiveness, pride; to honesty, independence, integrity, and justice? Where is the "benevolent universe" Rand so often upheld? Who said "There are no conflicts of interest among men of goodwill"? Who invented Galt's Gulch - the haven with neither government nor dispute?

Was it all just a dream, then? Men can not, after all, be entrusted with liberty? Must we ignore all history, all experience, all the overwhelming evidence that power corrupts and, when all is said and done, bow to the inevitable statist claim that freedom and happiness really do depend upon government?

One last problem with this problematic book is that in it Dr. Peikoff tells us nothing new. Every important point he makes was made previously by Ayn Rand. Contrast Nathaniel Branden in psychology, say, or David Kelley in epistemology, who have taken an Objectivist foundation and built upon it substantially. Dr. Peikoff merely repeats what Rand said. He is always looking over his shoulder, never at the road ahead.

I take no issue with his intention to present Rand's system systematically, but there are enough open spaces in her philosophy, or areas she did not touch, that one would have thought that any philosopher worth his salt would have seized the Randian ball and run off joyously into parks and pastures new. Instead, Dr. Peikoff seems so overwhelmed by the marvellous inheritance which fell into his hands that he remains welded to the spot he was occupying when probate was granted in 1982.

Regretfully then, for I was really looking forward to this book, my conclusion is that Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, while from an Objectivist point of view it is worth reading, from the perspective of philosophy in general it is far from "the definitive statement" that Dr. Peikoff imagines it to be (p. xv).

Tom Paine said that a king could just as well be born an ass as a lion. Something similar can be said of chosen heirs, who often fail to live up to their inheritance. No doubt Objectivist "true believers" will continue to uphold Leonard Peikoff as a lion, but with this narrow-focused and intemperate book I am afraid he has made himself appear a bit of an ass.


The address of this document:
http://www.ifi.uio.no/~thomas/po/ass-or-lion.html

Author's address:
oldnick@wbsnet.co.uk

Index to the Post-Objectivism web site:
http://www.ifi.uio.no/~thomas/po/articles.html