When I first heard this lecture in 1983, I saw these comments by Peikoff as indicative of his willingness to break free of Rand’s orbit and be open to taking a fresh perspective on Objectivist epistemology. It appeared to me that Peikoff, in the aftermath of Ayn Rand’s death, was moving in the same direction that Nathaniel Branden had taken following the 1968 schism. Peikoff’s comments seemed to echo much of what Branden had said in the 1970s about the importance of using one’s emotions--in conjunction with reason--to enhance one’s capacity for full conscious awareness. Like Branden, Peikoff was warning Objectivists about the ways in which emotional repression can distort conscious awareness.
Peikoff is here addressing the problem of rationalism—i.e., the erroneous cognitive policy of focusing on abstractions while ignoring the concrete reality to which concepts refer.
The process of removing the blinders from your eyes and taking your concept back to its concretes, I call reduction.
I want to add one more thing to this point, a crucial tip, on how to keep the word (like ‘value’ or ‘life’) connected to things rather than to words. Of course, you can remind yourself, you can make it a policy, but there is a crucial mental process that, if you have it and allow it to operate, will do that for you to a significant extent. In the seminar, we were trying to figure out why it was that half the seminar—and it was the male half—felt quite at home with this process of deduction from definitions, and even if they disagreed with one particular argument, they could really grasp it. On the other hand, the women in the seminar looked simply aghast; they couldn’t figure out what was going on; they felt uncomfortable, they were bored, and they wondered, “What is this guy doing when he says, ‘life has got this attribute, and the statue has this attribute?’ ” [NOTE: The prior discussion examined the differences between “the basic alternative of existence vs. non-existence” confronting living organisms as opposed to inanimate objects like statues.-DH]
We were trying to elicit what it is that [women] do that prevents this from seeming natural. And my wife came up with this—she said she finds this floating definition method revolting, or she used some word like this; she said that what keeps her tied to the concretes when she uses the word “life” is emotion. She said as soon as you think “life,” the automatic connector, the thing that then comes to her is particular living things for which she feels strongly. And she gave us a list. For instance, a cat we had that we loved very much that died. Or a dog that she once had. Or I think she threw me in there as an example. Or she likes the plants (we have certain ones in the apartment). In other words, she was saying that what was automatically the context that stood in her mind was a series of concretes bound together by a positive emotion. And therefore, “life” to her was important because it invoked a certain feeling of the things she liked. Therefore, when she heard the word “life,” that constellation was present right away. And from that perspective, the idea that “life equals self-sustaining action” just simply baffled her. She thought, “This is from another dimension.”
I think that is very, very helpful, because it points out that emotion can function, and should function, as a crucial psycho-epistemological agent, as a crucial means of keeping you in contact with reality. And therefore, it is not an accident that people who are inclined to floating definitions are, in my experience, typically characterized by a pronounced psychology of repression. They are very much on the premise of shunting aside emotion—emotions are unreliable, they’re bad, they’re subjective. These people feel uncomfortable with emotions. They automatize a detachment from their emotional lives. And consequently, they have cut off the mechanism that the mind provides to keep us in that kind of immediate, automatic, psycho-epistemological contact with the concretes of reality. And they end up manipulating terms.
The same thing could be done, in one way or another, whether it’s positive or negative emotions, with virtually any concept. For instance, with “value”—if you just think, “that which one acts to gain and/or keep”—then of course, you’re just lost in the clouds. But if you think your wife, money, your house, clothes, and so on—if those are the things you like, if that’s what you have emotion for, then the word “value” will immediately convey those concretes to you; if you have the feeling and let it function, you will have an invaluable tie to the details, to the concretes, that you otherwise won’t have.
This is only the beginning of a long discussion of the role of emotions in thought and life. But I hope I’ve shocked you by coming out in favor of emotions, rather than against them. I hope you also see that I am not saying that all cognition is driven by passion, that objectivity is impossible, although undoubtedly there are people who think that is about to come. Emotions are not the means of justifying your conclusion—that would be mysticism or subjectivism—but they are essential to automatize the process of concretization; in other words, to automatize the tie to reality of your concepts.
Understanding Objectivism, pp. 59-60