Literature, Philosophy, Rhetoric

Reasoning why

Read the first half of this post here

In some lighter posts, I’ll come onto the severe weaknesses in Rand’s writing which I believe she cannot control, and which generated some of the fun that kept me sane during the harder going parts. But I think it’s clear that partially Roark’s bizarre construction is an intentional effect. Rand wants to create an embodiment of her virtues: if we were to describe Roark even in negative terms as unreflective, callous, monomaniacal or bone-headed, I can see the committed Randian openly embracing these qualities (though I suspect they would rather cast them as unswerving, selfish, focussed).

So why does it backfire so badly? I would challenge even the most starry-eyed devotee to find the Roark we’re given compelling. The narrative voice – and by extension Rand herself – chooses to spend more of the novel away from him than otherwise.  Even if we allow ourself to discount the rape scene – where the distancing is total, and he may as well be an incidental criminal – he comes out as a pretty second-rate kind of superman.

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Philosophy, Rhetoric

Amateur philosophical background: the ethics

In this second philosophical preamble to actually starting talking about The Fountainhead, I’m going to give an overview of the more relevant part of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, the ethics. Unlike the epistemology, which has a very ad-hoc vibe to it, it’s hard to dispute that Rand’s system of values was present (in increasing degrees) in her earlier novels, until it came to dominate her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. The length of the novels, and the volume of speechifying, correlates with this. Rand published a distillation of her position in The Virtue of Selfishness in 1961 (predating the epistemology), and it’s this we’ll draw on.

Heads up

Like in the Epistemology, I’m going to flag some things to watch out for as we go through Rand’s argument.

  1. I should do it because it’s natural. It was Hume that pointed out that there is a fundamental distinction between the descriptive – that which is observable in the world – and the normative – what we ought to morally do. Observing these kinds of disjunctions is commonplace: an observer in the antebellum South might see that slavery is all around him, and that it seems God has ordained that some men should be slaves – but clearly this doesn’t make the ethical decision. A more subtle example might be: John is good at getting on well with people, and this makes him a good person. We may strongly disagree with the first state of affairs and agree with the second, but in both cases we need to cross Hume’s divide.
  2. Nietzsche. As before Rand misrepresents effectively all the other philosophers she mentions. She’s … almost like an unreliable narrator in an interesting work of literature. The big one here is Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s brand of virtue ethics essentially argues that the world has become depressed under the weight of Christian self-sacrificing ethics. He posits a (rather implausible, but gripping) history of the world where in the time Homer, there was no distinction between being strong and being good. Christians were originally slaves, and because they had no power, they created an ethics where to suffer and to be oppressed was virtuous. This “slave morality” was poisonous, but also – and this is what takes Nietzsche far beyond Rand – what made men “interesting”. Nietzsche thinks to break free from this we must exercise our “will to power”, using our individual talents to become some sort of genius – an ubermensche. In doing this we can become “overflowing” with virtue, and create giant achievements for the benefit of all (like Beethoven). This sort of Virtue (or eudaimonic) ethics – where we identify qualities we see as virtuous and cultivate them – has had a resurgence in recent years. Nietzsche was a great psychologist, and his descriptions of the tensions between, say, the visceral world and the life of the mind, are still very resonant.
  3. Contraband. Generally, anyone formulating a theory of ethics wants it to broadly agree with the ethics of their time. Any ethical theory that advocates say, slavery is seen as faulty, and with good reason. Because of this, whenever any claims are made to be generating a universal, timeless ethics, great care must be taken not to smuggle the conclusions into the argument. Rand wants her ethics to indicate very specific things (like laissez-faire capitalism!) and we’ll see how she not-so-subtly slides these into her “objective” argument.

“If a man values destruction … like a masochist”

While there is a lot which is wobbly in the epistemology, its dryness makes it far more easy to take it seriously as a philosophical position. Selfishness suffers from a significantly worse prose style, which continually veers into the unintentionally comic. Ayn begins and ends the first, seminal essay (The Objectivist Ethics) by quoting her own fictional character, and repeatedly returns to John Galt as some kind of sage. Rand is self- parodically shrill in her call to arms:

most philosophers have now decided to declare that reason has failed, that ethics is outside the power of reason … must be guided by something other than reason. By what? Faith — instinct — intuition — revelation — feeling — taste — urge — wish — whim. Today, as in the past, most philosophers agree that the ultimate standard of ethics is whim … If you wonder why the world is now collapsing to a lower and ever lower rung of hell, this is the reason. If you want to save civilization, it is this premise of modern ethics — and of all ethical history — that you must challenge.

The claim – that “all ethical history” has been based on subjective standards is plainly nonsense (millennia of theology would tend to point against this), and Rand’s bogey men: Kant, Descartes, Mill – were engaged in trying to ground ethics in something reliable, rather than being the subjectivists she thinks they are. Rand’s obvious, if unacknowledged, inspiration was Nietzsche (she was apparently teased as a teenaged that he had “already stolen all her ideas“), and his amoralism is far closer to Rand’s despised subjectivity.

It’s enough just to survive

Rand wants to begin from something she considers incontrovertible, and so starts from the position that living things exist and can die. So what is the good for plants and “lower animals”? Purely continuing their existence:

An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.

So

imagine an immortal, indestructible robot … Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; It could have no interests and no goals.

Rand follows this with a lovely bit of hubris

In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values … The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.”

so existence is the only good.

Right, where’s my crossbow?

But clearly there are many destructive ways to survive. I could eat my friendly neighbour and live off the thousands of calories within. Rand doesn’t want these ways to qualify – she hates “moochers”:

men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating

and “thugs”

men attempt to survive by means of brute force … or enslaving the men who produce

So Rand puts forth the idea that being rational is the key to survival:

Consciousness—for those living organisms which possess it—is the basic means of survival. For man, the basic means of survival is reason.

indeed,

He cannot provide for his simplest physical needs without a process of thought. He needs a process of thought to discover how to plant and grow his food or how to make weapons for hunting. His percepts might lead him to a cave, if one is available … No percepts and no “instincts” will tell him how to light a fire, how to weave cloth, how to forge tools … how to produce an electric light bulb or an electronic tube or a cyclotron … Yet his life depends on such knowledge

It’s important to note that Rand thinks that this is completely optional, and we have to work at this constantly to qualify:

it is a machine without a spark plug, a machine of which his own will has to be the spark plug, the self-starter and the driver; he has to discover how to use it and he has to keep it in constant action.

Dubious metaphor aside, this talk of will, as the tirade against self-sacrifice, is straight out of Nietzsche. But in an almost identical way to the ambiguity of the faculty required to distinguish essential properties in the epistemology, Rand has to insist that fact of rationality being the essence to survival comes straight out of nature itself:

That which his survival requires is set by his nature and is not open to his choice.

In itself it is very debatable whether Man’s rationality has been key to his survival. Human beings existed for 200,000 years – without even caves in most places (it’s a bit of a myth that early humans lived in caves, rather they used them as sacred sites and left relics and artwork there) before any of the things that Ayn describes, and certainly without nuclear weapons or dramatically increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The history of civilization (~10,000 years) is dramatically shorter than that of humans themselves, so if survival is the only yardstick we have a long way to go to prove rationality’s superiority. After all, dinosaurs were probably very stupid, and reigned on earth for 135 million years – 13,000 times longer than there has been any recorded human history.

Well, that was easy

So, Rand seems to believe that survival is the only thing, and being reasonable is the only way to get there. But remember those thugs. Rand wants us not just to live, but to live in a certain way.

In three helpfully short sentences she passes from one to the other:

(a) The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man. (b) Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil. (c) Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work.

(my annotations). One can only speculate that Rand passes over this so quickly because she is aware of how weak the connection between (a) and (b) and between (b) and (c) are. Let’s look at the sleight of hand in slow motion:

  1. (a) Survival is the judge of good and evil
  2. (b) Survival, in the way property to a rational being is good
  3. (c) Thinking and productive work are the good.

Ayn’s smuggling is very plain here. It’s clear that actually survival is not important if it is not in the right way. That right is a the value she has smuggled in – and its contents (thinking and productive work) are pulled clean out of the air.

Objection

Rand thinks that the life of the follower, moocher, thug etc are not surviving in the right way. One argument Ayn has for this is that it just doesn’t work:

If some men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating… it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by those who did choose to think … The survival of such mental parasites depends on blind chance

If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force … or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims…Such looters are parasites incapable of survival

Rand is very strong on this

Such looters may achieve their goals for the range of a moment, at the price of destruction: the destruction of their victims and their own. As evidence, I offer you any criminal or any dictatorship.

These practical arguments are very weak. Stalin and Pinochet lived long lives, and North Korea has been ruled by a dynasty of vile dictators since the 50s. What about Jordan Belfort, the “Wolf of Wall street”, who was caught, spent some months in prison, paid back a fraction of what he made, and now makes $30,000 a time for speaking engagements?

Theoretically there is nothing inherently impossible about deciding to become a thug or a parasite as a means of existence. The utter profusion of parasites in the natural world should be a clue to this. As for the argument from chance – who’s to say using your own intelligence is a better gamble than following someone really smart? Wouldn’t that be the smart move for a dumb guy?

Live right

This is obviously deeply unsatisfactory, and Rand knows it. So she shifts her position to make survival as a rational being the good:

Such is the meaning of the definition: that which is required for man’s survival qua man. It does not mean a momentary or a merely physical survival.“Man’s survival qua man” means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being

In fact, she rather admits that you can survive while not being rational, but you’ve lowered yourself

He can abandon his means of survival, his mind, he can turn himself into a subhuman creature … But he cannot succeed, as a subhuman, in achieving anything but the subhuman

As the essay wears on, she forgets her reasoning, and becomes even stronger on this

In psychological terms, the issue of man’s survival does not confront his consciousness as an issue of “life or death,” but as an issue of “happiness or suffering.” Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death.

There is an attempt to hedge with the “in psychological terms” and the equation of suffering with death, but ultimately she is talking about a new standard here.

If everyone would just be reasonable, like me, then the world would be perfect!

Rand ultimately comes to formulate a sort of Virtue ethics, where instead of flourishing, rationality is seen as the ultimate good. Doing bad things is supposed to corrode your soul in some way – but in Rand’s version, it would mean you have acted irrationally, which is worst of all.

The problem with this is she has failed to ground it in anything at all. She doesn’t want virtue to come from the outside world (human nature or teleology) or from the structure of the human mind (that would be automatic and require no effort). Rather there must be a single right answer, inherent in the world, and the measure of your goodness is how close you reason your way to that answer. These correct answers are of course the values Rand developed in her troubled time in revolutionary Russia, and which run through her work like a stick of rock. Objectivism is really the ethics of nostalgia – reaching back to that universal right answer.

Finally, Rand is wrong about a monolithic cadre of philosophers being against opposed to this kind of naturalistic virtue ethics – teleologists like Alisdair MacIntyre have created similar systems, but explicitly built value in as part of the definition of virtues.

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Credit where it's due, Philosophy, Rhetoric

Being “reasonable”: what’s worth salvaging from Rand’s epistemology?

Given the critical tone of my last two posts, the main motive for my overview of the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology would seem to be scorn. On the negative side, as well as a the expected deep inconsistencies I was genuinely surprised to find how many straight-up contradictions I found when I started to tabulate Ayn’s claims against different types of philosophical system (a particularly perplexing one is her attitude to measurement, which she simultaneously suggests is unnecessary and the only way essential characteristics can be compared – but this will make a post in its own right).

But I maintain that we need to give credit when it’s due, and try to find the sensible equivalents of Rand’s positions – she is after all mimicking the greats.

Rand – not a racist

Let’s start with something we can all get behind – Rand presents her definition of man as anti-racist:

There is no difference between [things she dislikes] and those chosen by individuals who define man as “a Christian (or Jewish or Mohammedan) animal” or “a white-skinned animal” or “an animal of exclusively Aryan descent”

It’s important to note that while this value may be laudable, Rand is smuggling it into her epistemology. There’s nothing to stop someone creating an objectivist racist definition of “man”, or simply denying that people of some other race are the ideal “rational animals”. This subtle passing in of values – from entirely unrelated sources – is a pattern that will become very obvious when we start to look at Rand’s ethics. Nonetheless, Rand (rather unwittingly) aligns herself with a great tradition of assuming a common human state or nature renders us all morally equivalent – a very sympathetic position.

Pragmatism

I am also generally very sympathetic towards pragmatic approaches to gaining knowledge. A central pragmatic theme is that epistemological approaches should be adopted according to how much intellectual work they can perform, with less emphasis on the thing-in-itself. Several years of struggling with rather basic attempts to induce scientific knowledge from observed natural phenomenon have left me with a great caution in interpreting data from instruments, balanced by the need to make decisions on evidence rather than (excessive) theoretical speculation.

Oftentimes Rand sounds very pragmatic in the Epistemology. She isn’t particularly worried about the intermediate cases when one natural kind blurs into another:

In the case of existents whose characteristics are equally balanced between the referents of two different concepts … there is no cognitive necessity to classify them under either (or any) concept

Is concerned about how practically useful concepts are:

For example, there is no concept to designate “Beautiful blondes with blue eyes, 5’5” tall and 24 years old.” … If such a special concept existed, it would lead to senseless duplication of cognitive effort (and to conceptual chaos)

and has little patience for philosophical thought-experiments (the David Bowie-esque “Spider from Mars”).

I can sympathise with the frustration in each of these, though of course Rand has no nuance and is absolutist. Obsessive classification can be a nerdy means of escapism, or it can lead to the great unifying theory of biology; refusing to generalise can lead to difficulty in thinking analytically, but is great for more lateral thinking; and thought experiments can be misleading, but also incredibly revealing. Likewise, her lack of patience with any ontology other than realism can be seen to be borne of pragmatism.

Filthy relativists?!

Rand rails with great vigour and spittle against evil subjectivists, relativists, and a host of others she (usually unfairly) lumps in with them. The kind of position she is attacking is a straw man, and is rarely seriously encountered in academia or elsewhere. On the other hand, every so often popular culture will latch onto this, and the results are indeed annoying. The irony is that Rand’s position (“there is an objective definition of justice, which you can perceive if you are rational enough”) is no less risible, and has gained more middlebrow traction than any of these.

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Irony, Lol, Philosophy

Light relief: the funny stuff in Objectivist Epistemology

Reading through the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology was frankly a bit of a chore, but it was brightened by Rand’s trademark bizarre language. Here are some of my favourites:

  • “Mathematics is the science of measurement” … erm
  • “Man can perceive the length of one foot directly; he cannot perceive ten miles”. Never, ever, has any man been able to see ten miles.
  • “If a child considers a match, a pencil and a stick, he observes that length is the attribute they have in common”. It would have to be a terminally dull child to look at each of those and only see differences in length!
  • “There is evidence to suppose that written language originated in the form of drawings—as the pictographic writing of the Oriental peoples seems to indicate”. Yeah, this sounds about right for something written in the 1860s. Wait, this was from 1966?
  • “In this respect, concept-formation and applied mathematics have a similar task, just as philosophical epistemology and theoretical mathematics have a similar goal”. Don’t know anything about maths? In for a penny…
  • “In the equation 2a = a + a, any number may be substituted for the symbol “a” … In the same manner, by the same psycho-epistemological method, a concept is used as an algebraic symbol that stands for any of the arithmetical sequence of units … Let those who attempt to invalidate concepts by declaring that they cannot find “manness” in men, try to invalidate algebra by declaring that they cannot find “a-ness” in 5 or in 5,000,000”.  Her “algebra” really doesn’t work here – the important thing ‘a’ can just be factored out of the equation, and there really isn’t any “a-ness” in 5. Well, duh.
  • “Learning to speak does not consist of memorizing sounds—that is the process by which a parrot learns to “speak.”” D’oh – isn’t this is exactly how children first learn to speak!
  • “The definition of “animal” (in general terms) would be: “A living entity possessing the faculties of consciousness and locomotion.”” – Cut off my legs and I am no longer an animal!
  • “Observe the fact that in the writings of every school of mysticism and irrationalism … one finds, sooner or later, a clear, simple, explicit denial of the validity … (For example, see the works of Kant and Hegel.)”. Yep, they are exactly the same, irrational mystics
  • “…the neo-mystics who—punch-drunk with undigested concepts of measurement, proclaiming measurement to be the sole tool of science—proceed to … the learning time of rats, as indices to the human psyche … fail to observe that measurement requires an appropriate standard … one does not measure length in pounds, or weight in inches.” Irony failure…

To be fair, Rand was aware of her own limitations…

“Cognitively, such an attempt would produce nothing but a bad hash of equivocations, shoddy metaphors and unacknowledged “stolen” concepts”.

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Philosophy, Rhetoric

Amateur philosophical background: the “epistemology”

“Mathematics is the science of measurement” – Ayn Rand, An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology

Before I jump (or sink) into The Fountainhead, I thought I’d put together an (amateurish) primer on Ayn Rand’s philosophy in two parts. The first will deal with what she calls her “epistemology” – something that is usually understood as a means of knowing. The second will deal with the ethics. In each case, I’ve taken most of Rand’s material from her own words – if you want to follow along here, this is all taken from her book, An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. I’m also indebted to the wonderful Partially Examined Life podcast’s episode on Rand – I’d highly recommend this for a professional touch – and the rest of their episodes too, for that matter.

Why the philosophy? Get to the point, man

I first really came across Rand from the philosophical side – and this might explain why I’m not a fan. While she has her defenders (by necessity, interpreters of her oracular pronouncements), generally Rand is regarded as a third-rate philosopher. It is revealing that the purely philosophical work dates from nearly twenty years after the success of The Fountainhead. Rand wants to give the impression that she has a holistic philosophy, starting from self-evident axioms (“axiomatic concepts”), working up to an ethics, which is expressed artistically in the novels. In practice, chronologically the reverse is true – the philosophy was produced as an ad-hoc justification of the ethics of the novels. I also strongly get the impression that Randians generally care little for the details of epistemology, and are happy that Rand produced something passable to justify the ethics.

So, this has nothing to down with The Fountainhead?

What’s interesting is, once I started to tabulate the holes and contradictory positions in the ethics and epistemology, how often exactly the same problems came up in the novel. Why are we, and all the other characters, supposed to (spoilers!) believe that Roark is the greatest of men, when to a casual observer he behaves alternatively like a manikin or a dick? Because all of mankind are supposed to possess a rational faculty that dependably tells us the definition of the good. It is supposed to be a deliberate choice, a perversion, to ignore this – so all the evil characters in the book secretly admire Roark, even as they undermine him.

Rand seems to know what she’s talking about. She uses phrases like “psycho-epistemological function”

Rand has swallowed a lot of jargon, and invented a good amount of her own, so it can be hard to cut through what she means. To get a handle on this, and put it in the long, long historic context which Rand either ignores or misrepresents, it’s good to bear a few things in mind:

  1. A division. A critical division in the history of epistemology has been between rationalism and empiricism. Empiricism is the attempt to gain knowledge through experience of the outside world (sense-data). Rationalism doesn’t mean what Ayn thinks it does here – rather it is the use of the capacities of the human mind to understand the universe. A bit of both is generally healthy. Extreme versions of both forms have existed through the history of philosophy. Generally Rand wants to align Objectivism with extreme empiricism, repeatedly insisting that all our concepts are derived from our experience of real things (“existents”). But as we shall see, Rand cannot keep out a strong form of rationalism from her argument.
  2. A little knowledge… Another extremely empiricist philosophy was that of logical positivism, but Rand repeatedly trashes this. She also believes Kant to be the fount of all “subjectivism”, and dismisses Wittgenstein in a sentence, despite his clear interest in the same subject. Rand’s insistence on her own originality and brilliance meant that she refused to test her work against the canon of philosophy. The consequences are the Dunning-Kruger effect.  I had what I thought were some pretty brilliant ideas when I was seventeen, and I was greatly dismayed to find out that they were far from original (or brilliant). Many of the ideas in the epistemology are the beginning glimmers of some more sensible version – which has been better presented elsewhere. She then proceeds to trash the same figures she was unknowingly in the shadows of.
  3. Weak and strong. A really common rhetorical technique in these sorts of arguments is to defend a broad principal on weak grounds – and then spend the rest of the time extrapolating from a much stronger form of it. For example, I might argue that mice have a different metabolism to humans, and so it can be difficult to extrapolate the toxicity of any drugs tested on mice to humans (a weak claim, in that it is not difficult to accept). I would extend this by arguing that testing drugs on mice is therefore scientifically indefensible, and we should only use computer models (a much stronger claim). When challenged with examples of success stories, the position is retractable – I simply claim to only support the weak position.

Things are things, alright?!

Rand really, really wants reality to be real. She wants what we see and hear to be a direct representation of the real. Now this might be easy to buy – it’s useful, to an extent, for getting through our lives (as long as we don’t start believing our dreams are real).

Existence exists — Consciousness is conscious — A is A. Since axiomatic concepts refer to facts of reality and are not a matter of “faith” or of man’s arbitrary choice … axiomatic concepts are the guardians of man’s mind and the foundation of reason

Rand in this mode takes a position called naive realism. The observation that consciousness is consciousness of something is highly unoriginal. Rand thinks that this is proof in itself of an outside world, but this argument is extremely weak: really, it only tells us something about the structure of being conscious. Every night I’m conscious of dreaming, but I think we can accept that those aren’t real.

What’s the basis

Beyond this there’s a problem, a very old philosophical chestnut (“the problem of universals”). This is how we form universal concepts – the idea of a table, square, man, or of justice – from what we experience. Rand also really does not want this to be based on our individual minds or brains (she hates the idea of “whim” – I’m guessing she wasn’t a fan of Monty Python). Rather she wants there to be something constant which lets us carve the world up into useful concepts. Something objective. There must be one single right answer to the question – what defines a table?

Their shapes vary, but have one characteristic in common: a flat, level surface and support(s). He forms the concept “table” by retaining that characteristic

Observe, however, that the utilitarian requirements of the table set certain limits on the omitted measurements … This rules out a ten-foot tall or a two-inch tall table (though the latter may be sub-classified as a toy or a miniature table)

Or Man?

The definition of man (“A rational animal”)

Or … justice?

For instance: what fact of reality gave rise to the concept “justice”? The fact that man must draw conclusions about the things

Or Love?

As to concepts of consciousness, we shall discuss them later and at length. (To anticipate questions such as: “Can you measure love?” — I shall permit myself the very philosophical answer: “And how!”

I challenge anyone to read these with a straight face.

But it’s fine for simple things, right?

Considering even Rand’s simple example definitions quickly raises problems (in fact she insists that the simple examples are the worst – things like “justice” are far simpler!). Who says a table can’t be 20 foot high (if the chairs are also high enough?). Ayn may pout and insist this can’t be a table, but she’s begging the question here. Or is it a separate concept? Who says which are the “essential characteristics”?

Kant, Boo!

A Kantian view of this problem is that humans possess a faculty, which is dependent on the structure of the mind or brain, which allows them to perform this useful trick. Rand explicitly rejects Kant – she doesn’t want this important role to be at all dependent on the sorts of normal variation that might be in a brain due to biology or culture.

This does not mean that conceptualization is a subjective process … The only issue open to an individual’s choice in this matter is how much knowledge he will seek to acquire

In fact,

If his grasp is non-contradictory, then even if the scope of his knowledge is modest and the content of his concepts is primitive, it will not contradict the content of the same concepts in the mind of the most advanced scientists.

Ayn thinks she knows how this happens. We use reason to find the “essential characteristic”. This is the thing which is most important to being, for example, a table:

The distinguishing characteristic … is determined by the nature of the objects from which its constituent units are being differentiated.

Rand cannot stomach any individual differences in perception changing making identification of different essential characteristics. For much of her essay, it seems like essential characteristics are a real thing we can perceive:

This method permits any number of classifications and cross-classifications: one may classify things according to their shape or colour … or atomic structure; but the criterion of classification is not invented, it is perceived in reality.

This is radically empirical. Indeed, according to Rand concept definitions really are just an aggregation of a whole bunch of experience:

A definition is the condensation of a vast body of observations—and stands or falls with the truth or falsehood of these observations. Let me repeat: a definition is a condensation.

Perception of concepts directly – sounds almost like…

Aristotle, Boo!

Despite claiming that Aristotle was her “only influence”, Rand is down on him here. For one, she doesn’t want anything that is not material to be important in making concepts. If there’s a special substance in the world we perceive that indicates what a table is, this could have existed before humans, and points to something metaphysical. In the later chapters she pedals away from the Aristotelian position and starts to sound a bit … like Kant.

Aristotle held that definitions refer to metaphysical essences … and he held that the process of concept-formation depends on a kind of direct intuition by which man’s mind grasps these essences … Aristotle regarded “essence” as metaphysical; Objectivism regards it as epistemological.

So, context becomes important too

all conceptualization is a contextual process; the context is the entire field of a mind’s awareness or knowledge

and, not just that, but what is cognitively useful

In the case of black swans, it is objectively mandatory to classify them as “swans,” because virtually all their characteristics are similar to the characteristics of the white swans, and the difference in color is of no cognitive significance. (Concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.)

This is then a claim about some function of the brain, and what is useful work for it to do to identify concepts. Rand has to sneak in a rationalist idea about what is supposed to be the action of logic on empirical data.

Objectively equivalent

So can one person’s definition of, say justice, be legitimately different from someone else’s? Rand seems confused on this. She will deny the evil subjectivism to her dying breath, and yet seems to imply that the amount of knowledge available changes what is considered a valid definition:

Remember that concept-formation is a method of cognition, man’s method, and that concepts represent classifications of observed existents according to their relationships to other observed existents. Since man is not omniscient, a definition cannot be changelessly absolute, because it cannot establish the relationship of a given group of existents to everything else in the universe, including the undiscovered and unknown

But

If definitions are contextual, how does one determine an objective definition valid for all men? It is determined according to the widest context of knowledge available to man … Objective validity is determined by reference to the facts of reality. But it is man who has to identify the facts; objectivity requires discovery by man

Rand wants to make a very strong claim here: that there exists a single, immutable essence to things which allows us to define concepts. But she will settle for a weak definition of “objectivity” – the discovery of facts by man, with limited knowledge. She then conveniently forgets this weaker claim when it comes to throwing invective around at people like…

Pragmatists

The reductio ad absurdum of a long line of mini-Kantians, such as pragmatists and positivists, Linguistic Analysis holds that words are an arbitrary social product

Ultimately, Rand seems unbothered by some of these contradictions in her epistemology. Rather, she is concerned with just whether things are practical:

In the case of existents whose characteristics are equally balanced between the referents of two different concepts—such as primitive organisms, or the transitional shades of a color continuum — there is no cognitive necessity to classify them under either (or any) concept

In short, she isn’t that bothered about what is actually true, rather on what is useful. This makes her sound awfully pragmatic, and indeed she cites a history of American Pragmatism in the introduction to the book. Another philosophy that is usually hateful to Rand is…

Utilitarianism

Rand even manages to sound a lot like a utilitarian in this work. Once you’ve perceived the true value of things, you just do the maths, and

This requires that he define his particular hierarchy of values, in the order of their importance, and that he act accordingly. Thus all his actions have to be guided by a process of teleological measurement … Another man may love a woman, but may give her up, rating his fear of the disapproval of others … higher than her value.

On the other hand we’re told that

Still another man may risk his life to save the woman he loves, because all his other values would lose meaning without her.

So values change according to who your partner is now?

An eaten and an uneaten cake, in superposition

To sum up, Rand wants to have her cake and eat it too.

She wants to seem like the maverick, bravely fighting against the hordes of philosophers that have just screwed everything up; but she emulates her “enemies” and pours scorn on would-be allies more articulate than she.

She wants to put forward a strong idea of objective knowledge, one grounded entirely in empirical observation of what we sense; but slips in a weaker version of the idea involving the context of knowledge, the structure of cognition, and other rationalist notions.

She wants the factor that distinguishes concepts to be perceivable and accessible to everyone; but is unclear if it exists in the physical world, denies it being non-material, and denies it’s individually happening in people’s heads.

So where does it come from?  Ultimately, the philosophy is nostalgic, not committed to reasoned argument. Rand wants a constant, unassailable authority to hand out what the correct concepts are. Justice, love, right and wrong are to be dictated. And her followers went right to the source – Ayn Rand’s pronouncements became the source of all these values.

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Admin, Literature, Philosophy

Welcome post

Welcome to Objectively Bottom Quartile, a blog in which I attempt to read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and furthermore attempt to comment on it in an pithy or at least mildly entertaining way.

Why are you reading The Fountainhead?

As an exercise in mind-broadening, or possibly masochism. Full disclosure: I have never been an enthusiast of Ayn Rand, and I think Objectivism is a half-baked philosophy, or approaching a cult, depending on how seriously you take it.

However, a heuristic for good art that I’ve been using for a long time is: are its defenders enthusiastic about its enriching qualities? There are many art forms that do nothing for me, but I can appreciate the genuine enthusiasm of those who are in to it. Rand’s novels clearly pass this test. And in the end: it’s difficult to justify criticism of novels based on excerpts.

Why the name?

Objectively Bottom Quartile is to poke fun at the literal imposition of supposedly “objective” values onto writing, philosophy and ethics, long the signature of Rand and her followers. It is intended to draw attention to the fact – in my objective opinion – that Rand, obsessed with genius and the great individual, was a very mediocre writer and a dreadful philosopher. Indeed, the very things she rails against in The Fountainhead – pretentious lauding of art because it flatters one’s ego or accords with your own political values – seems a central reason for her popularity.

Why The Fountainhead? Why not Atlas Shrugged?

It’s shorter. I’m not Spartacus.

So you object to Rand politically?

I don’t have a problem with libertarians or classical liberals. I find the kind of extreme laissez-faire capitalism advocated by Rand to be the least offensive of the common extreme political positions. I am sympathetic to some of the individualistic notions Rand supports – although of course they had long been expressed, in far superior form, elsewhere.

Philosophically?

Yes. One of the goals of these posts will be to see how the rather large holes in Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, manifest themselves in her writing – generally with detrimental effect. Aside from specifically looking at this in Rand’s work, I’m also interested in some of the higher level questions: is there utility in creating a philosophical literature of ideas? Does this justify a tin ear for language?

Having said that, nearly all of Rand’s ideas have some – better expressed – equivalent which I can appreciate. I am sympathetic to virtue ethics, pragmatism, egalitarianism, meritocracy, liberalism, and individual creative engagement.

So this is an exercise in schadenfreude?

Yes, partly. This is not to rule out that there is also a good deal of wholesome fun to be had in some of Rand’s more bizarre attempts at, for example, figurative language. Any book that can unintentionally make me laugh out loud (in public) so often has something to recommend it.

But all this isn’t really very significant – I’d rather use it as a test case of my conception of good art – and to think about what makes some of the writers I admire skip over the pitfalls Rand tumbles into.

Secondly, there’s the interesting phenomenon of a oracle-like figure, proclaimed by a genius for her writing – fiction and philosophy – where the material works are so poor. The question of what is valuable in the work, and whose values, is one which continually lurks in the background of the Objectivist movement.

Finally, I also find Rand a somewhat tragic character: someone who had a genuinely interesting life, who could never live up to her own ascetic, sentimental philosophy, and whose acolytes transformed into a cult figure which must have been – at least partly – to her distaste. Fundamentally the juxtaposition of this with being the writer of the biggest selling book (after the Bible) in the US is simply an interesting story.

So which writers do you admire?

As far as I am concerned, Nabokov is the man. One benefit is I am beginning to reread Nabokov for contrast, and am gaining a clearer perception of his occasional flaws but mostly a deeper appreciation of what he achieved.

What about comments?

Comment is free, but I am unlikely to respond to them.

I fully expect to be deluged with material from Rand’s fans, followers and acolytes. I’m not really sure why: doesn’t this make commenters like the parasitic characters in The Fountainhead, continually worried about what some anonymous stranger (who has never even met them!) thinks? Shouldn’t you be spending that time building your one true individual heroic work, oblivious to the herd of faceless mediocrities like me?

Good arguments and interesting points will be picked up in blog posts.

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