Philip Coates

Smallness of Mind

191 posts in this topic

One of the most depressing things about our culture is the relentless small-mindedness of the debates and of the kinds of issues that are discussed in public. It is actually the intellectuals (in politics, particularly the "commentariat") who are largely responsible for this focus. Right now more attention is given to the personalities and marital histories of those competing for the Republican nomination than to the arguments and evidence for their positions. I remember a few years ago, there was a nationally-televised Presidential debate in which the questions came from the audience, from the public not from the Dan Rather-Diane Sawyer-George Stephanopolous types. What struck everyone, including the candidates, was that the man on the street focused on issues, on what was wrong with the country and what should be done. He didn't focus on personalities or on 'gotcha' type questions, trying to embarrass or pursue the latest scandal.

small-minded [dictionary]---> "marked by pettiness, narrowness, or meanness <small–minded conduct>"

But a small-minded focus is not something we see only in politics. Scientific and academic debates often turn into personal squabbles. The discussion of biographies of important figures tends to be not on their achievements or ideas, but on their personal quirks or feet of clay. Was Steve Jobs a bossy tyrant? Was Newton a religious nut? Did Ayn Rand have an extramarital affair?

One of the biggest advantages Objectivism has as a philosophical system was the focus on issues, on ideas not on isolated individual personalities. More on what people could be at their best and a lot less on NIxonian "enemies lists." That has been refreshing and inspiring to people starving for something higher and more noble than gossip. But, the problem is the danger of slipping back into battles between individuals. (Even people who have absorbed a philosophy of reason can slip back into habits acquired long before they became mature thinkers or philosophically-committed.)

That is why Peikoff's "Fact and Value" was such a fateful and influential wrong turn two decades ago.

Ostensively, a philosophical piece about an abstract epistemological and ethical issue, it was heavily directed at sliming and discrediting one man within the Objectivist philosophical movement. And everyone who thinks like him. And, of course, that became polarizing. Instead of discussing ideas, people tended to line up as Kelley-ites and anti-Kelley-ites. This should never have happened. People have also lined up on whether or not they have a positive or negative view of Ayn Rand's personal life. As if that were a metaphor for being open or closed, tolerant or intolerant.

And it has only gotten worse. With the ease of being heard and the lack of adult supervision, an entire generation now has found all sorts of other personal conflicts to air publicly and to try to vilify and humiliate their personal enemies. I used to think there was too much incivility or personal gossip or grudges on the old OWL list. The it got a bit worse sometimes on the Atlantis list. But then, in another turning point and with thier own websites as megaphones, two very small and vindictive minds, Diana Hsieh and Lindsay Perigo began to repeatedly push this to another level.

Sensing that it was a new low, only about five years ago I spent a lot of time pointing out what was wrong with DH's personal campaign to attack Chris Sciabarra, an unprecedented campaign of focusing solely on attacks one decent person. (DH was a big step below "Fact and Value" because that was, agree or disagree, to a significant extent about epistemology and ethics and what constituted good Objectivist practice; it wasn't solely about attacking the actions of Kelley, but largely what Peikoff thought to be his basic ideas.)

Lindsay Perigo expanded on D.H. by attacking -everybody- and by discarding the intellectual language of Diana H. And simply using biliousness, ridicule and insult instead. Not even pretended overly much to be an intellectual but more of a self-proclaimed "rabble" rouser.

The result now, is that it has spread to all sorts of websites or forums. Peikoff, then Hsieh, then Perigo are imitated on every side in the Oist "public discussions". The generation-long trend had already long ago ripped apart or knifed in the cradle campus clubs, community clubs, summer conferences. Oists focusing on "what side are you on" within movement issues. That's the first kneejerk thought, too often. Much more than a focus on the ideas they have in common or what can be done to implement them. The people who want to have a serious discussion are ignored and bad money drives out good, and they often just stop participating or leave. It doesn't take very long for a serious thread to degenerate into tong warfare, into people who get angry at a false view to call their opponents dishonest, evaders, hypocrites, scum and to use gutter language when they can't or don't have time to mount an argument. The victim fires back in angry and personal terms. And the outraged aggressor escalates and repeats his attacks. And the hostilities get carried over and never forgotten.

Magnanimity and thoughtfulness and intellectual seriousness are the first things that get lost. First in our wider culture among the intellecutals, journalists, biographers, politicians, etc. and more recently -- in imitation -- in the more loudmouthed and assertive of Objectivist circles.

small-minded = "having a narrow outlook; petty"

"Synonyms: bigoted, illiberal, narrow, narrow-minded, prejudiced

Antonyms: broad-minded, liberal, open-minded, tolerant, unprejudiced"

,,,,,,,,,,

PS, My guess is this post will simply become the vehicle for renewed personal attacks. Rather than a focus on the ideas involved.

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OR,

the above post will be acknowledged as a well-reasoned discussion of this issue from an Objectivist perspective.

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The people who want to have a serious discussion are ignored and bad money drives out good, and they often just stop participating or leave.

That's often true, but, personally, I'm not the type to be driven off when I'm having serious discussions about ideas and others are intruding and trying to use personal attacks, as well as claims of their own victimhood, as distractions when I've been calmly and reasonably defeating their arguments. When I've got the truth behind me, I don't let the bad money drive out my good.

It doesn't take very long for a serious thread to degenerate into tong warfare, into people who get angry at a false view to call their opponents dishonest, evaders, hypocrites, scum and to use gutter language when they can't or don't have time to mount an argument.

I agree. I saw quite a lot of that on the Flame War Rant thread. I had been trying for years to get others to keep discussions on aesthetics civil and substantive, but their response, culminating in that thread, was to smear me and to adamantly refuse to discuss the ideas at hand.

The victim fires back in angry and personal terms. And the outraged aggressor escalates and repeats his attacks. And the hostilities get carried over and never forgotten.

You're right, and that's sad. The hostilities could be easily forgotten if only the aggressors (who often try to disguise themselves as the victims) would just act like adults and recognize and apologize for their behavior.

Magnanimity and thoughtfulness and intellectual seriousness are the first things that get lost.

Here I disagree. The Flame War Rant thread is a good example. Despite all of the efforts of my attackers to shut me up and to evade the ideas being discussed, I and others stayed on course, and we took a thread that had started out as a shallow, emotional whine-fest and smear-job, and we turned it into a very thoughtful and intellectually serious thread. For my part, I think that I was very successful in showing the similarities between Kant's notion of the Sublime and the Objectivist Esthetics/Rand's personal aesthetic "sense of life." The Flame War Rant thread ended up being a case of good money driving out bad. Or at least some of the bad.

J

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On a scale of 1-5, I'd give Phil a 4 for his post here, referring to substance.

--Brant

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Phil's comments remind me of De Quncey's remark that murder leads to other vices, and finally to procrastination. 8-)

Also, note how Phil calls people he dislikes "small-minded" and "petty." He dislikes such people because they resort to name-calling and personal attacks. The universe is in constant flux, but Phil never changes.

Ghs

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The one thing you might have added, Phil, is that, tragically, Ayn Rand set the stage for allowing personal vendettas to supercede rational discussion by excommunicating so many of her own admirers—Isabel Patterson, John Hospers, Edith Efron, the Brandens, Henry Mark Holzer, Robert Hessen, et. al. (Peikoff himself was also frequently banished to Siberia, but always managed to worm his way back into her good graces.) I believe it was Jennifer Burns who stated that, toward the end, she had very few friends. She had managed to alienate just about everyone who had ever been close to her.

In ‘Fact and Value,’ Peikoff was largely channeling Ayn Rand. As I recall, Pigero has often defended his own lunacy by claiming that he is just doing what Rand did.

It's fascinating that many allegedly 'independent' adherents of a philosophy of reason have shown themselves utterly incapable of distinguishing her genius from her personal flaws.

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It's fascinating that many allegedly 'independent' adherents of a philosophy of reason have shown themselves utterly incapable of distinguishing her genius from her personal flaws.

Her "flaws" are a consequence of her genius.

I'm sure she would have had more long-lasting friendships if only her expectations had been lower.

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> The one thing you might have added, Phil, is that, tragically, Ayn Rand set the stage for allowing personal vendettas to supercede rational discussion by excommunicating so many of her own admirers—Isabel Patterson, John Hospers, Edith Efron, the Brandens, Henry Mark Holzer, Robert Hessen, et. al.

Dennis, with my criticism of "small-mindedness" I certainly am not meaning to create a new false dichotomy - between interest in people (personalities, gossip, observation of quirks or personal behavior more broadly ) and interest in ideas (philosophy, how people -ought- to be, goals to strive for, abstract codes and guidelines). On the one hand, there is the focus on "personal quirks and feet of clay" that I outlined as increasingly there in the culture and in the Oist movement. But on the other hand, you can't just think "high" thoughts about philosophy and not apply them to real people as examples and assess how they are doing. Abstract ideas without the concrete study of examples and cases and instances are floating abstractions and you need to actually examine how things work or have worked in practice.

My problem with the focus I decry is that a) it has been excessive or out of balance (in the case of Rand, your points are very important and one has to use them as a cautionary tale about how to deal with people, with those around you, how not to lapse into vendettas or excommunications, but on the other hand you have to put that in perspective and move on.

Also, b) When people focus on the personal traits, the biographies, romantic relationships, 'breaks', interactions of others, it is amazing how often what they find - whether it be in Steve Jobs or Isaac Newton or Ayn Rand - comes down heavily "out of balance". On the negative. So if one is going to investigate how people live their ideas and not just the abstract ideas themselves, one needs to make sure one is doing it in a full, fair, balanced, integrated way. Not pick just the point that has been most written about or most discussed. In our culture, that is likely itself to be skewed or out of balance in a number of subtle ways.

We don't exactly live in a Victorian age of "hero worship". Rather we live in a cynical, negative, name-calling, denigrating, "expose-ish", feet-of-clay finding age. To quote George S. Patton in the movie, "God, how I hate the 20th Century." {Ok, that was a little bit over the top.... :-) }

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> Her "flaws" are a consequence of her genius. I'm sure she would have had more long-lasting friendships if only her expectations had been lower. [john42t]

John, this is sort of the "great man theory". He is permitted things not permitted lesser mortals because he is such a genius. The problem is it is false. Everyone needs to operate according to the same standards toward others. The fact someone was less of a great mind or has not shown himself a world-girdling hero or the like, doesn't mean he or she is not worthy of respect and good treatment and courtesy. Dagny never treated Eddie Willers in a contemptuous or overbearing manner. And there would have been something seriously wrong with her as a human being if she had done so regularly (as opposed to a momentary flash or anger or weariness, which happens to everyone.)

Expectations? Expectations of friends is simply that they be your friend, that you have important values in common, or that you enjoy doing x together. Not that they are your intellectual peer in every case.

And in some cases they may not even be philosophically minded or even -understand- your philosophy and yet be of great importance to you and of great value in many dimensions.

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(We've had dozens of threads on Ayn Rand and her personal life and -thousands- of posts already over a decade, so I hope those who want to discuss that further yet again will create a new thread for that.

This thread is not on Ayn Rand or on two decades worth of biographies and two decades of discussing those biographies - she was just mentioned along with Newton, Jobs and others - and along with figures in the Oist movement - to illustrate a point.)

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In ‘Fact and Value,’ Peikoff was largely channeling Ayn Rand. As I recall, Pigero has often defended his own lunacy by claiming that he is just doing what Rand did.

That is to say: behaving badly.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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> Her "flaws" are a consequence of her genius. I'm sure she would have had more long-lasting friendships if only her expectations had been lower. [john42t]

John, this is sort of the "great man theory". He is permitted things not permitted lesser mortals because he is such a genius. The problem is it is false. Everyone needs to operate according to the same standards toward others. The fact someone was less of a great mind or has not shown himself a world-girdling hero or the like, doesn't mean he or she is not worthy of respect and good treatment and courtesy. Dagny never treated Eddie Willers in a contemptuous or overbearing manner. And there would have been something seriously wrong with her as a human being if she had done so regularly (as opposed to a momentary flash or anger or weariness, which happens to everyone.)

Expectations? Expectations of friends is simply that they be your friend, that you have important values in common, or that you enjoy doing x together. Not that they are your intellectual peer in every case.

And in some cases they may not even be philosophically minded or even -understand- your philosophy and yet be of great importance to you and of great value in many dimensions.

Excellent post, absolutely true.

The fact that a jerk/genius has admirers who constantly enable and rationalize his jerkiness, makes the jerk's behaviour more contemptible. A genius of all people, we feel, should know bettter.

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> Her "flaws" are a consequence of her genius. I'm sure she would have had more long-lasting friendships if only her expectations had been lower. [john42t]

John, this is sort of the "great man theory". He is permitted things not permitted lesser mortals because he is such a genius.

Just saying that Rand must have been very lonely.

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I'm sure she would have had more long-lasting friendships if only her expectations had been lower.

I would say rather, if her expectations had been reasonable.

It's because Rand was a proponent and exemplar of reason, that she gets bashed for personal actions which defy it. She could not claim to originate and embody"A Philosophy for living on Earth" without inviting comment on the way she lived on Earth.

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> Her "flaws" are a consequence of her genius. I'm sure she would have had more long-lasting friendships if only her expectations had been lower. [john42t] John, this is sort of the "great man theory". He is permitted things not permitted lesser mortals because he is such a genius. The problem is it is false. Everyone needs to operate according to the same standards toward others. The fact someone was less of a great mind or has not shown himself a world-girdling hero or the like, doesn't mean he or she is not worthy of respect and good treatment and courtesy. Dagny never treated Eddie Willers in a contemptuous or overbearing manner. And there would have been something seriously wrong with her as a human being if she had done so regularly (as opposed to a momentary flash or anger or weariness, which happens to everyone.) Expectations? Expectations of friends is simply that they be your friend, that you have important values in common, or that you enjoy doing x together. Not that they are your intellectual peer in every case. And in some cases they may not even be philosophically minded or even -understand- your philosophy and yet be of great importance to you and of great value in many dimensions.

I've been comfortable for some time with the notion that Rand was less than perfect - even by her own standards.

Isn't it enough that she pointed the way?

Phil, the "great man theory" can just as easily become the "ordinary Joe theory", and both are flipsides of the same coin.

A great mind has no extra right to be a jerk, yes - but no less either.

I don't know about "Everyone needs to operate according to the same standards toward others." By whose morality? There is a creeping collectivism to it.

Certainly, she demanded more from herself, than she did from others.

( For instance, I believe in a basic level of respect and good will to everyone, until facts change things one way or the other. I've learned not to count on the same treatment from others, though.)

Rand knew well those people she alienated, at least academically - and we know how strongly even we fellow Objectivists can disagree, leading to fall-outs. At her level of intellectual discourse, differences of opinion would be fatal, I imagine.

I agree with John: her expectations were extremely high. Her disappointments must have been painful.

Sure, her choice; but if she'd compromised for the sake of friendship, she would have been someone else! Many geniuses are completely immobilized by their comprehension of reality, but Rand produced.

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Ayn Rand also glorified the jerk genius in her fiction when it suited her.

Henry Cameron, who cussed his customers and ended up an alcoholic.

Mike, Roark's construction friend, who was both ugly and sarcastic.

Ken Danagger, who canceled appointments of people if they were 5 minutes late.

Ellis Wyatt, who had a violent streak.

I could probably come up with more if I think about it.

Michael

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Many geniuses are completely immobilized by their comprehension of reality, [...]

What do you have in mind here?

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Many geniuses are completely immobilized by their comprehension of reality, [...]
What do you have in mind here?

Don't go spoiling a nice theory for a few facts.

I do have personal knowledge of somebody who fits - who became a lifelong recluse, ineffectual at earning a living, or relating to anybody. Along the way, I have read references to studies made about the inability of some geniuses to cope, or, who retreated into escapism and addiction as youngsters.

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Many geniuses are completely immobilized by their comprehension of reality, [...]
What do you have in mind here?

Don't go spoiling a nice theory for a few facts.

I do have personal knowledge of somebody who fits - who became a lifelong recluse, ineffectual at earning a living, or relating to anybody. Along the way, I have read references to studies made about the inability of some geniuses to cope, or, who retreated into escapism and addiction as youngsters.

Sure. But being immobilized by the realities of life, or driven to escapism and addiction, happens to (dare I say?) nearly everybody at times, and doesn't permanently affect geniuses more than anyone else.

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Many geniuses are completely immobilized by their comprehension of reality, [...]
What do you have in mind here?
Don't go spoiling a nice theory for a few facts. I do have personal knowledge of somebody who fits - who became a lifelong recluse, ineffectual at earning a living, or relating to anybody. Along the way, I have read references to studies made about the inability of some geniuses to cope, or, who retreated into escapism and addiction as youngsters.
Sure. But being immobilized by the realities of life, or driven to escapism and addiction, happens to (dare I say?) nearly everybody at times, and doesn't permanently affect geniuses more than anyone else.

I should have added ..."to a greater incidence than the average." The way I recall it.

That's without taking into account the logical - but maybe flawed - assumption that geniuses have the 'potential' to achieve more than the rest of us.

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Excellent job, Phil.

Dennis Hardin responded:

The one thing you might have added, Phil, is that, tragically, Ayn Rand set the stage for allowing personal vendettas to supercede rational discussion by excommunicating so many of her own admirers . . . . I believe it was Jennifer Burns who stated that, toward the end, she had very few friends. She had managed to alienate just about everyone who had ever been close to her . . . . It's fascinating that many allegedly 'independent' adherents of a philosophy of reason have shown themselves utterly incapable of distinguishing her genius from her personal flaws.

end quote

Well said Dennis. When I think of her “personal flaws” becoming “her philosophy,” I feel sick at heart. Old age, dementia and encroaching senility magnify her established character flaws. Barbara Branden’s movie and Rand’s depiction by Helen Mirren appear quite accurate. I can practically see Rand sweeping into the room like the diva she was, and her enemies are scathingly condemned to hell.

By the way, type in Helen Mirren bikini and go to that site for a treat. I especially like her beautiful behind.

Peter

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Many geniuses are completely immobilized by their comprehension of reality, [...]
What do you have in mind here?
Don't go spoiling a nice theory for a few facts. I do have personal knowledge of somebody who fits - who became a lifelong recluse, ineffectual at earning a living, or relating to anybody. Along the way, I have read references to studies made about the inability of some geniuses to cope, or, who retreated into escapism and addiction as youngsters.
Sure. But being immobilized by the realities of life, or driven to escapism and addiction, happens to (dare I say?) nearly everybody at times, and doesn't permanently affect geniuses more than anyone else.

I should have added ..."to a greater incidence than the average." The way I recall it.

That's without taking into account the logical - but maybe flawed - assumption that geniuses have the 'potential' to achieve more than the rest of us.

Though I've been arguing against it, I think the "greater incidence than average" may be right. I am thinking of the studies which show mental illness in families of geniuses to be more common than in the families of control groups with average intelligence. Like you though, I am hopeless at remembering where I read it.

Carol

Not a Genius

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Well said Dennis. When I think of her “personal flaws” becoming “her philosophy,” I feel sick at heart. Old age, dementia and encroaching senility magnify her established character flaws. Barbara Branden’s movie and Rand’s depiction by Helen Mirren appear quite accurate. I can practically see Rand sweeping into the room like the diva she was, and her enemies are scathingly condemned to hell.

By the way, type in Helen Mirren bikini and go to that site for a treat. I especially like her beautiful behind.

Peter

Thanks for the kind words, Peter.

Now, as to those photos of 63 year old Helen Mirren. . .

helen-mirren-bikini-photo.jpg

Recognizing my own personal flaws as a superficial man, I can't help but wonder what might have been different for the future of the Objectivist movement if Ayn Rand had more closely resembled the actress who portrayed her. Would Nathaniel Branden have given this woman a written statement which was "a tortured, awkward, excruciatingly embarrassed attempt to make clear to her why I felt that an age difference of twenty-five years constituted an insuperable barrier, for me, to a romantic relationship"?

The schism never would have happened, Objectivism would have been led by the confident, charismatic Branden rather than a self-esteem challenged nerd, and we would all be living in a world that looks more like Galt's Gulch than the Great Depression..

Oh well. I can dream, can't I?

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Old age, dementia and encroaching senility magnify her established character flaws.

One out of three isn't very good. No one I know of has ever before referred to Rand and dementia and senility. Confusion in the hospital may have had more to do with her medication.

--Brant

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> The fact that a jerk/genius has admirers who constantly enable and rationalize his jerkiness, makes the jerk's behaviour more contemptible. A genius of all people, we feel, should know better. [Daunce, Post 12]

Often all the life energy, focus, mental effort invested in certain areas meant other areas were slighted. The genius doesn't have time to be equally accomplished or skilled or aware in -every- sphere of life. For a popular example, there's the absent-minded professor. Rand (and many, many Oist intellects) understood people on one level, but not on another.

> I don't know about "Everyone needs to operate according to the same standards toward others." By whose morality? There is a creeping collectivism to it. [whyNot, Post 15]

I meant in terms of basic standards like benevolence, civility, not judging people until all the evidence is in, not bullying or using force, honesty, treating people with respect no matter who they are - until a particular individual shows he doesn't deserve it, etc.

> Phil, the "great man theory" can just as easily become the "ordinary Joe theory", and both are flipsides of the same coin.

Good point about the opposite mistake. People can be inappropriately excused (or self-indulgently give themselves a "pass") because they are too good for or 'above' the standards of ordinary mortals, or because their attitude is aw shucks, I can't do that, I'd have to be an Olympian.

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