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About seddon

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    Fred Seddon
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    Book Review: Essays on Ayn Rand's We the Living, edited by Robert Mayhew Review of Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature

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    Philosophy, Music, Sex. In short, PMS

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  1. Summer vacation with Leonard Peikoff by Fred Seddon What did I do on my summer vacation you ask. I went to Galt’s Gulch, i.e., Ouray, Colorado. Since I drove, that means I had to find a way to use 36 hours of driving time for something more than watching white lines go by. So I took my IPod, filled with more music than I could listen to in two weeks, but, I also took Leonard Peikoff with me. Specifically, Volume Two of his The History of Philosophy, Kant to the Present. I got both volumes about 11 years ago and although I have listened to all 48 tapes at least twice, it has been a while since my last listening, so I decided now was the time, at least for Volume Two. These tapes were made, according to the labels, in 1970 and Peikoff never sounded better. I first heard Peikoff on tape in 1966 and my first impression was that his voice was a cross between Daffy Duck (he has a slight lisp) and Bob Newhart—and I just loved the sound of his voice. On the trip, there were times when I actually preferred listening to LP than to music. Go figure. I am going to focus on his Kant exegesis, and I want to start by telling how impressed I still am at his attempt to lecture to a group of non-graduate students on the “Transcendental Deduction of the Categories.” The “Forms of Intuition” would have been tough enough, but come on. I can’t believe that most in the audience could have followed the entire presentation. After listening to the four tapes on Kant twice, I have several differences that I would like to note. Three to be exact. (1) Reason can’t know reality; (2) “collective subjectivism” is still “subjectivism;” and (3) Kant is a primacy of consciousness philosopher. Before I begin, I want to say that it is very frustrating to a scholar to have to deal with tapes. It’s almost impossible to give decent references and I’m not about to sit here and run, say, Lecture 2, Tape 1, Side A and time how many minutes and seconds it take LP to get to a particular topic. So there will be not quotations from him, just paraphrases. Almost all the material on Kant can be found in Lectures 2 and 3. (1) Early on in his presentation, LP tells us that for Kant, “Reason cannot know reality.” Allow me to quote me from my article, “Uncle Kant: Enlightenment Hero and Proto-Objectivist.” published on the old SOLOHQ. Here is what Kant says — if anyone cares to hear what the Enlightenment giant himself actually said. 1. We can have no theoretical knowledge of the noumena. 2. We can have practical knowledge of the noumena. 3. Items that we think in the noumena do serve the purposes of science in the following way — they provide us with a basic presupposition of rational inquiry, to wit: that we can systematize our knowledge into an integral whole. This is not something we discover through experience but rather a presupposition of that very experience. 4. And the concepts we use have a heuristic function rather than a constitutive one. So there is a sense in which LP is right, reason cannot know reality if by reason you mean theoretical reason and if by reality you mean noumenal reality. But that doesn’t mean, and here is where LP is misleading, that we have no cognitive access to noumenal reality: we can have cognitive access in at least two ways: (1) practical knowledge and (2) we may “think” noumenal reality and use such thoughts as heuristic devices in order to do science. (2) After presenting Kant's doctrine of categories, LP asks the question, does that mean that any individual can foist any category he wants on reality based on nothing but whim. To which he answers, correctly, “No.” Human nature is determined to have these twelve categories and it’s not a matter of individual whim what those categories are. So one might conclude that Kant is not a subjectivist. But LP doesn’t make that move. Instead he calls Kant a “collective subjectivist,” and says that, alas, that still make him a subjectivist since “collective subjectivism” is still subjectivism. But I think there is an equivocation here. According to Rand, “Subjectivism is the belief that reality . . . can be altered . . . by the consciousness of the perceiver—i.e., by his feeling, wishes or whims.” But for Kant, man cannot alter his categories or reality at all, let alone “by his feeling, wishes or whims.” (3) Kant is a primacy of consciousness philosopher. In order to assess the truth of this claim we must remember what Objectivism says the primacy of consiousness is. It is the rejection of the primacy of existence, which claims that “the universe exists independent of consciousness.” (PWNI 29) The primacy of consciousness turns the mind from the perception of reality to the creation of reality. Now I have answer this charge at length in my book AYN RAND, OBJECTIVISTS AND THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY, chapter 4. Suffice it to say here that it is the noumenal world that makes Kant into a realist, a primacy of existence philosopher. Before any kind of cognition can take place, even and especially perception, something has to be given to consciousness, which for Kant is an organ of receptivity. It is metaphysically passive vis-à-vis the matter of perception. For Kant, the mind provides only the form of perception. From this I can only conclude that Kant is not a primacy of consciousness philosopher. What a vacation! Fred
  2. Michael, You wrote, "Congratulations on a magnificent review." Dragonfly wrote, "it is a rather poor review." I agree with Michael and thank him. How's that for dispassion. Tee hee. Fred
  3. tndbay I would like to point out an equivocation in your reply. You wrote that "there is absolutely no such thing as an absolute..." whereas I wrote that there is no absolutely certain "theoretical" knowledge--A much smaller domain. There may very well be absolutes in other areas (I would of course need your definition of "absolute") even if there were no absolutes in the area of theoretical knowledge. Fred
  4. Dragonfly, You wrote, “Nyquist is not talking about sentence refutations,” It’s hard to tell if you’re dropping, ignoring or misremembering the context but I Never said or accused Nyquist of talking about sentence refutations. That was my point; a point against his claim that the ONLY time you can be certain is when you have a refutation of a theory. So maybe we finally found something to agree upon, “Nyquist is not talking about sentence refutations.” If that is one of your points, then I agree. He’s not. But of course I was. Let me stop here with this tiny little point to see if we agree. Fred
  5. Dragonfly, 1. You’re still missing my point, which is quite a simple one. Nyquist claims that utopians blame the environment rather than the individual for the evil that exists. I claim that Rand doesn’t do that. Do you have anything to say about my actual claim? 2. “I don't know if he is a Popperian positivist.” In addition to many statements throughout the book, see pp xx. 3. “I could have formulated my objection like this: you can't be sure, as there is always the possibility (even if it's highly unlikely) that you're hallucinating.” Well, I’m unimpressed. I simply what to know what makes you say such a thing the my context, ordinary everyday experience of women, naked or not. If you point to my recent drug use, lose of 10 family members which caused major depression, then I might listen. But just because you refer to the possibility of hallucinations in general doesn’t provide evidence in any particular case. And don’t lose my point in this whole thing if you don’t want to be accused of dropping the context. I was making the point that given Nyquist’s Popperian position that “the only time was can be CERTAIN about a theory is when we have discovered evidence refuting it.” (172 in his book, emphasis mine) I then make two points, one about sentence refutations and two about the implications of sentence refutations. Get it. It’s Nyquist that would claim we can be CERTAIN about the naked woman in my bedroom. This parallels Popper’s claim that just one black swan give us a CERTAIN refutation of the sentence that all swans are white. Fred
  6. Dragonfly, 1. I check the original in JARS and there is an in passing reference to Torres and Kamhi. It reads, “I would send the interested reader to Torres and Kamhi’s WHAT ART IS (2001), . . .” 2. “But that's obviously not a definition!” [of “utopian”] Well, that seems to be Nyquist’s problem, not mine. He doesn’t give your definition. I responded to what he wrote, not to what you think he should have written. How could I have done otherwise? And your reference to the Introduction is no help. The point I was making was to deny to Rand what he says is characteristic of all utopians, to wit, “the utopian blames evil, not on man, but on environmental circumstances.” The question for me, but maybe not for you, was, is that true of Rand. I claim it is not. 3. “you take some common figure of speech and analyse it as if it is some philosophical statement which should be taken literally” You must remember that this man is a Popperian positivist. For him, “valid scientific evidence” is not and he doesn’t mean it as “some common figure of speech.” 4. “It may be a standard reply, but that doesn't make it a good reply... The point is not whether I have evidence that you have a hallucination, but whether the possibility exists that you have a hallucination.” I think it is a good reply. It recognizes that fact that I don’t have to respond to arbitrary assertions for which you admit that you don’t have any evidence. The question is not “are hallucinations possible?” The question is ““But how do you know that YOU’RE not hallucinating?” It is that statement that is arbitrary and for which you admit not having any evidence. Not only that, it sounds more like an ad hominem than a serious question and invites the obvious tu quoque, “How do you know you not a moron?” There is enough evidence that people can are morons, and while the probability in any particular instance may be very low, it is not zero, so you have no certainty (unless you mean "certainty" in the everyday sense of something that is extremely likely, but as long as we're chopping logic...)
  7. Dragonfly, Thanks for reading and responding to my review. Let me respond briefly as follows. 1. I don’t recall making any cuts from the body of the review. 2. “After all the definition of an utopian is: someone who proposes ideal schemes that can't realized in practice. With that meaning in mind, his argument does make sense, even if it is formulated in a somewhat confusing way.” That may be your definition of “utopian” but it is not Nyquist. He gives the definition I quote, “The utopian blames evil, not on man, but on environmental factors, such as unjust social conditions, abusive parents, or an improper or pernicious education.” Sure my argument will misfire if you change the definition of the words both Nyquist and I use. 3. On positive evidence settling the matter once and for all you write, “I think this is also semantic hair splitting. When Nyquist states that it ‘this would settle the matter once and for all’, he obviously doesn't mean literally that it then would be some eternal truth, he just means that it would be clear whether she presents valid evidence or not.” Not on my reading. In the sentence before the one you quote the point to be established is “reason=B” not that Rand had presented “scientifically validated evidence.” But even if we read it your way, that still leaves Nyquist with the claim that positive evidence can settle something once and for all. Your dysphemism “eternal truth” is misleading, because in Popper, negative evidence CAN establish something once and for all, to wit, the falsity of a claim. 4. About whether this is a naked woman in my bedroom, you ask “But how do you know that you're not hallucinating?” Allow me the standard and very old (I first heard it in 1966) Objectivist 101 reply, “What evidence do you have for making that statement?” 5, On the “stolen concept fallacy” you write, “I think it is in fact a bit of a joke, as he continues with a discussion of what Rand really means.” I think my real criticism here was in the form of a rhetorical question, to wit, “Is he ignorant of the stolen concept fallacy?” It is covered in Atlas, a book he lists in his bibliography. But tell you want. I so appreciate you post that I think I should give you something. You may be correct. Perhaps he was telling a joke. I even suggested that “Maybe he was trying to be funny.” And surely the line “Rand is guilty of committing one of the cardinal fallacies of philosophical ratiocination: she has reified her concepts into sexual entities.” (212) On that laugh I’ll say “Goodnight Gracie” even though I’m no George Burns. Fred
  8. Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature by Fred Seddon (first published as "Nyquist Contra Rand," The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 4, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 361 72.) Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature Greg S. Nyquist New York, Writers Club Press xi + 374 pp., bibliography, no index Let me begin by announcing what a treat it was to read this work. The author, who is described on the back cover as a freelance writer, has a clear and engaging style that made this book a page turner for me. If fact, it has a narcotic quality about it. I keep turning the pages instead of thinking critically. It required a real effort to slow down and assess Nyquist’s logic and argumentation, especially in the face of his dripping sarcasm and repetitive name-calling. One must ignore those factors in order to assess this book on its merits, because he has enough arguments that prevent this book from degenerating into a mere screed. Unfortunately his writing style is not complemented by much organizational skill. Let me give two examples from Chapters five and six respectively. On p. 209-21 of chapter five he announces the project which he will develop in the next two (or maybe three) sections, but this announcement is actually followed by nine numbered sections, the first two of which have no title, while the last seven sport italicized titles. Then on p. 223, immediately preceding section three, he announces what he will do in the next four sections, but the text contains not four but seven more sections. And there is no section 8! After section 7 titled “Honesty is the best policy, we proceed directly to section 9, “Sex as metaphysical.” Chapter six is even worse. After telling us on p. 276 that he will divide the chapter into four sections, the text is actually numbered and titled as follows: (1) The Objectivist Politics (2) The practical viability of individual rights (2) [sic] Class-circulation [Not announced on p. 276] (3) Capitalism (4) Freedom (1) Social Conditions (2) Untitled I think what he meant to outline was the following: (1) The Objectivist Politics (2) The practical viability of individual rights (3) Class-circulation (4) Capitalism (5) Freedom (i) Social Conditions (ii) Objectivist strategies Before I look at the eight chapters, I want to say something about the introduction. On p. xii he states his purpose in writing this book. But don’t get the impression that he has nothing good to say about Rand. He regards her “as an important and perhaps even a great thinker.” (xiii-xiv) But after reading the book I came away with the exact opposite impression. On p. xvii he writes that Rand is “wrong about the nature of man, about the role of philosophical ideas in history, about the validity of induction, about the absolute objectivity of values, about the feasibility of laissez-faire capitalism, and about the nature of romanticism; and she is confused about philosophical idealism, the nature of consciousness, the relation between ideas and the thing they represent in reality, the psychology of altruism, and the issue of a benevolent versus a malevolent sense of life.” How much remains for her to be a great thinker about? As to Nyquist’s method, on page xxix he tells us that he does not have access to Rand’s mind and so he will “judge her entirely by her writings.” But he immediately begins to focus on her intentions (the word occurs twice on p. xxix alone) and constantly tells us what she is consciously thinking as well as her subconscious motives. Next he writes that he is “content to allow Rand and her disciples to define their terms in any way they see fit, provided that I am granted the same liberty in my criticism of Objectivism.” (xxix) But how is this to work in practice? If Rand can define man anyway she chooses and Nyquist can do the same, how do we know that they are referring to the same entity. Rand may define man as a rational animal, but if Nyquist defines man as an instinct driven power luster, then how can we determine who is right? And is this even a question of right or wrong? Since both terms may refer to beings that actually exist, how can this dispute be adjudicated? Won’t they be talking at cross-purposes? Given his stated allegiance to Popper, he should have simply stopped at the clause before the comma, i.e., let Rand define her terms anyway she wants, and see what happens from there. But his proviso seems to make communication quite beside the point. Let’s move on to chapter one which contains Nyquist’s critique of Rand’s theory of human nature. Nyquist begins be chiding Rand for not including philosophical anthropology as one of the major branches of philosophy. He then goes on to recall a distinction which he had introduced in the preface between two “conceptions of human nature: the utopian and the naturalistic.” (2) He then lists the following characteristics of the utopian. “The utopian blames evil, not on man, but on environmental factors, such as unjust social conditions, abusive parents, or an improper or pernicious education.” (2) He then goes on to characterize Rand as “utopian to the core.” (3) But anyone familiar with Rand’s writings know that she blames man for the evil he commits. She regarded all forms of determinism as anti-Objectivist. Where Nyquist got this notion I cannot say. He then concludes the section by saying that “Rand believed that by changing man’s ideas she could . . . change man’s nature.” (3) But she constantly tells us that we cannot change the fact that we are volitionally rational beings. (See the reference to Atlas Shrugged below.) On p. 9 he accuses Rand of committing the fallacy of difference. He claims that this fallacy occurs when one regards “only the qualities that differentiate a species from a genus [are] essential qualities. . . “ But this is simply wrong. We don’t try to differentiate a species from a genus, but from other species in a genus. What would it mean to differentiate man from animal? Man IS an animal. He does make a good point on p.10 when he tells us Rand’s statement that “everything we do and are proceeds from the mind” is a bit over the top. It leads to contradictory sounding statements about man such as “he must create himself.” Nyquiest rightly asks, “how is it possible for an entity to create itself?” Here I would like to make a general statement about the whole book. Nyquist often refers to Rand’s Journals or Letters as the sole basis for a given argument. I suppose he feels that anything she ever wrote is fair game. I tend to favor weighting the published writings more heavily than stuff she herself never saw fits to print. I didn’t like it when Heidegger in his Nietzsche, focused on Nietzsche’s The Will to Power, a collection of unpublished notes, while virtually ignoring his published writings. Notice, I’m not against using unpublished material, but I think one should make it a point to inform the reader that one is using unpublished material and downgrade their importance. This may, of course, be just a personal preference. Let us consider one last topic from chapter one; free will. He claims that regarding man’s primary choice as a first cause is tantamount to a collapse into the miraculous. (19) Now one can hardly discuss free will in all of its ramifications in a book review, but I would point out that the Objectivist position is very close to that of Karl Popper, one of Nyquist’s heroes. When he writes that “under such a view, human behavior becomes inexplicable and unpredictable” I could not help recalling Popper saying precisely that vis-à-vis a Mozart symphony. Popper challenges anyone to try to predict the g minor symphony from antecedent causes. But if you can’t do that, Popper concludes that there is novelty in the world and much of what Mozart did was unpredictable, albeit not inexplicable. He is also wrong when he writes, “Human beings are free, she declares, to adopt any sort of nature they please.” (45) Whereas what she said was “you are not free to escape from your nature.” (Atlas Shrugged 939) His assertion that we are free to adopt any nature we please simply does not have any basis in Rand’s writings. He then closes the chapter with the following: “Rand’s ideal society is nothing more than the puerile fabrication of a mind that has lost all connection with reality.” (47) Chapter two examines the Objectivist theory of history. “According to this theory, the course of history is primarily determined by one major factor: philosophy. (49) Nyquist disagrees with this claim. On p. 59 he makes the following point against Rand. “If it is really true that in ‘any historical period when me were free, it has always been the most rational philosophy which has won,’ how is it that Kant’s philosophy, which, as Rand puts it, ‘closed the door of philosophy to reason,’ ended up winning the battle of ideas during the very period of history (i.e., the Nineteenth Century) which Rand considered to the freest? Objectivist Epistemology is the topic of Chapter three. I would agree with Nyquist that the theory should be called a “theory of concept formation, because that is the primary focus of the theory.” In this chapter and throughout the book, Nyquist accuses Rand of being “vague” and “indefinite”. But I think he goes to far when he confounds semantics with syntax or form. Consider the following from p. 150. The “great advantage of indefinite terms is that you can use them to prove anything you like.” But this is simply false. Let us see why. He uses the variable X to stand for an indefinite term, and then he constructs the following syllogism. Reason = X X = B Therefore, Reason = B. He then concludes, “As long as X remains indefinite, we can use this syllogism to prove that reason is just about anything we please.” (151) But consider the following syllogism: Reason = X B = X Therefore, Reason = B Here we have not proven that Reason = B since we have failed to distribute our middle term, X, this despite the fact the X is just as indefinite in this syllogism as it was in the first. The difference between the first valid syllogism and the second invalid one is not the definiteness or indefiniteness of the term X, but rather the form of the syllogism. As everyone of my first year logic students know, AAA-1 is valid; AAA-2 is not. Indefiniteness is irrelevant to the validity of an argument. But what would he have Rand do if not use logic. His reply is she should back up her “claim that reason = B with scientifically validated evidence” and this would settle the matter “once and for all.” (150) Two points about this. First he seems to be telling Rand what she ought to do; i.e., she ought to present scientific evidence. But this will not do if we are to believe Nyquist who a mere five pages later tells us, “The term ought is not compatible with the rigors of scientific thought.” So, ought we be scientific or not? Second, he cannot, as a good Popperian be serious about positive evidence being the end of the matter, even and especially scientific matter. If one claims that all swans are white and produces a white swan, or a 1,000 white swans, as evidence for his claim, is that the end of the matter? Popper built a career on the importance of falsifiability. Has Nyquist forgotten this fact? Nyguist closes chapter three with an examination of Rand’s position on certainty. On p. 103 he writes, “[o]ne of Rand’s most outrageous claims” is “that certainly is possible.” I take this to mean that certainty is not possible. Imagine my surprise when on p. 172 he tells us that certainty is possible after all. Here are his words: “the only time we can be certain about a theory is when we have discovered evidence refuting it.” But is theory testing the only time we can be certain?. How about sentence refutations? If I claim that there is a naked woman in my bedroom and upon entering the bedroom I find no naked women about, am I not only certain that there are no naked women in my bedroom, but also that my senses did not deceive me, and that I remember what women look like so that I don’t confuse them with aardvarks, etc. If he answers yes to these questions then we seem to have a proliferation of certainties when just a few pages ago we were told how “outrageous” is the claim that certainty is possible. In defense of Nyquist, I do think that Rand is really a radical here. Her notion of certainty is one that challenges the usual definition of knowledge as “justified true belief,” a notion that probably goes back to Plato. This definition insists that in order to know P, P must be true. Rand, for better or worse, sees this as a variant of intrinsicism and rejects it. Therefore, and Nyquist is quite right about this, you can know P, yet P may be false. But this should not bother a man who claims he will let Rand define her terms anyway she chooses. After exposing Rand’s concept of “contextual certainty” he asks what is the value of such a definition of certainty. To concretize this problem, Nyquist asks Would a skydiver “give a fig” if you told him that you, the parachute packer, were “contextually certain” his chute would open? He thinks not. He thinks that what the skydiver wants is a “guarantee that the parachute will open.” (177 italics added) To focus on the word “guarantee” is to highlight and get at Rand’s point, that there are no epistemic guarantees in life. God could guarantee that the chute will open if there was one, but alas, there is not. This is why Rand thinks such a quest smacks of intrinsicism. Since she is an Objectivist, this move is not open to her. But let’s press this issue. What good is contextual certainty? Nyquist sees no value in it at all. But I would suggest that if I’m the skydiver, there is a difference between a chute that has been conscientiously packed, and one that has been shoddily packed. If I ask my packer, Are you certain the chute will open? and he says, “what are you asking me for, I was drunk when I packed it,” I would be worried. On the other hand, if he says, “I checked it twice and so did my boss” and I know that he is telling the truth, that is about the best I can hope for. And surely there is a life and death difference between the two packers. Someone who does the best that is humanly possible is to be preferred to someone who doesn’t “give a fig.” This is the value of contextual certainty. It’s the only certainty about the empirical that we humans can get. Descartes’ dream is precisely that, a dream. If one has any doubt as to how positivistic Nyquist is, one has only to read the opening paragraphs of chapter four on the theory of metaphysics. I felt like I was back in the middle of the last century during the heyday of logical positivism. He writes, “there is no word in the language that I detest more that the term metaphysics.” (180) And just like the positivists of old, he commits the same self-referential fallacies, i.e., he does metaphysics. For example, on p. 183 he writes, “According to my philosophy [metaphysics!?] facts come first.” If this doesn’t remind you of the opening of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the most beloved book of the Vienna Circle, then you don’t know much about 20th century philosophy. For readers who enjoy self-referential fallacies, I highly recommend this chapter. But what about Objectivist metaphysics? In this chapter, unlike the earlier ones, Nyquist seems to have ignored parts of the Objectivist corpus. This is particularly obvious in his examination of the concept of self-evidence. First he tells us that the concept is “scandalously vague” but since he then waives that objection, I shall also. Then, instead of doing what he said he was going to do on p. xxix and letting Rand define her own terms, he ignores her and writes, “if it has any meaning at all, [self-evidence] must refer only to those things which the self has first-hand experience of.” (192) Contrast that with what Rand says about the self-evident, to wit; it “defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in order to deny it.” (Atlas Shrugged 965) The self-evident cannot be denied or escaped. This is not original with Rand and goes back to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, but it is the meaning she uses. Rather than do what he said he was going to do and let Rand define her own terms, he ignores her explications, imputes his own meanings to her and then bashes his own poorly constructed straw man. In his attack on Rand’s view of causality as the application of identity to the action of entities, he retorts, “If you want to know whether causality is valid, study the empirical word of facts. Only by observing the facts can you know what they are.” (195 italics added) He equates “observation” with “knowledge,” a bit of empiricism that is both bad Rand and bad Popper. Rand would point out that most of human knowledge is conceptual and that you can’t get it simply by “observing.” That observation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for conceptual knowledge. Popper would be even more vituperative in remonstrating Nyquist about his replacing the divine God with the divine senses. For Popper, observation in not divine--everything is subject to refutation. But even if observation were divine, and we tried to take Nyquist’s advice on p. 195 to simply observe the facts, by the time we get to p. 201 he tells us that all we “directly perceive” are “images and feelings--and image and feeling do not constitute knowledge of the real world.” “When I turn and look at the tree outside my window, what is fundamentally given and directly perceived by the mind is not the tree existing in time and space, but only an image of the tree which my mind, in its poetic fancy, has painted across the canvas of my consciousness.” Is this not a reductio of Nyquist’s position? He ends the metaphysics chapter in a rather curious way. After spending pages telling us how vague and vacuous are the axioms of Objectivism, he quotes approvingly Santayana who writes “the world meantime is just as it is, has been what is has been, and will be what it will be.” (203) True. But how is that different from the axiom of identity? But maybe I’m just one of “those uncritical persons who are most taken in by such piffle” as the “vacuous axiom of identity.” (204) In chapter five he turns to her theory of morality and degenerates into silliness. To appreciate how silly, consider the following: Her thesis is that life is the ultimate value. She tries to prove this by arguing that the concept value is “genetically dependent” on the concept life. But what on earth can this mean? [is he ignorant of the stolen concept fallacy?] Does Rand believe that concepts copulate with one another and engender offspring? If so, then Rand is guilty of committing one of the cardinal fallacies of philosophical ratiocination: she has reified her concepts into sexual entities. (212) Any good dictionary would have helped Nyquist here. The biological meaning of “genetic” is not the only meaning, nor even the first, listed in either the OED or Webster’s 3rd New International. What is he up to? Maybe he was just trying to be funny. But once he gets us laughing at silly counterarguments, will we not have a hard time taking him seriously. Nevertheless I will try. Perhaps the best set of criticisms in the ethics chapter has to do with the virtue of honesty. Section (7) is titled “Honesty is the best policy” and runs from p. 258 to 265. The target in the entire section, however, is not Rand but Peikoff, who for some obscure reason Nyquist randomly calls “Leonard Peikoff,” “Peikoff” and “Mr. Peikoff,” the latter in ignorance of the fact the Peikoff has a Ph. D. First he attacks Peikoff for saying that there is an incompatibility between dishonesty and survival by pointing out that this seems to be contradicted by the fact that “many dishonest individuals . . . have lived long and prosperous lives, . . .” (258) Next he points out that contrary to Peikoff’s assertion that the dishonest man “wages war with reality,” the con man usually “has a better grasp of the facts of reality that the honest fool whom he cheats and bamboozles.” (259) Finally consider what Nyquist says in response to Peikoff’s suggestion “that dishonesty is bad when it is used to ‘obtain’ a value, but justified when it is used to ‘protect’ one’s values from criminals.” (263) He asks us to suppose, “that an individual uses dishonest means to obtain a burglar alarm system for his home. Why would dishonesty in this situation necessarily be wrong?” Chapter six is a sustained attack on Rand’s theory of politics. Nyquist is simply not willing to consider that in addition to descriptive political theory, there exists normative political theory. Most of what he says in this chapter is vitiated by his unwillingness to even consider the validity of the latter. Surely it is one thing to describe the politically sanctioned practice of clitorectomy, another to prescribe this as a great way to raise one’s daughter. Here again his positivism seems to blur his vision. Given this, he endeavors to “avoid any concern with what ought to be, preoccupying myself entirely with what is.” (274) This causes him to totally misunderstand the logic of the social sciences vs. the natural sciences. All social sciences are like the natural sciences in their descriptive parts--after Kepler discovered the ellipticial orbits of the planets he did not have to agonize over whether they ought to go round in circles. But in the social sciences we do have more work to do after the descriptions are in. By their very nature, as the postulations of ideals, one cannot expect them to be actual. This means that they will deviate in part or in whole from what is the case. Given this, laissez-faire capitalism is more of a goal to be aim at than anything that may actually be. This makes possible criticism of the status quo. If Rand is right and the 19th century approached nearer to this ideal that, say, the 20th or 10th centuries, then good for the 19th century and bad for the other two. But the chapter is not a total disaster. He does refer to historians who seem to refute Rand’s rose-colored picture of men like Vanderbilt and J. J. Hill. If this causes Objectivists to check their history as well as their premises, then so much the better. And I say this no matter who turns out to be right. Next we come to aesthetics. This short chapter (329-344) is divided into three sections: (1) Sense of life; (2) Rand the philistine; (3) conclusion. He spends three pages on “sense of life,” a concept Rand explored in two essays in The Romantic Manifesto. But he spends nine pages on “Rand the philistine!” This space allotment should come as no surprise from a man who tells us in the Introduction that his “fiercest antagonism towards Rand is inspired by her views on aesthetics. None of Rand’s views on human nature, epistemology, history, ethics, or politics bothers me [as much as her] shallow, uninformed, uncultivated, arrogant and thoroughly appalling” views on art. (xxvii-xxviii) He then concludes, “Rand’s aesthetics is merely a rationalization of her own idiosyncratic tastes.” (343) In chapter eight we get his “Final thoughts.” I will allow him to have the last word. “No one who is well educated in these matters and is endowed with the ability to think critically can ever regard Objectivism as anything but a mistake.” (367)
  9. Essays on Ayn Rand's We the Living, edited by Robert Mayhew Book review by Fred Seddon I liked this book. How much? Let me count the ways. I bought it a while back, read the whole book, made copious notes in the margins and then, hold on to your hats, lost the book. So I bought another copy just so I could write this review. (And I wanted it on my shelf for future reference.) It is a collection of essays edited by Robert Mayhew, who also contributed the preface and two essays. All the essays except one rate at least an “A” or “A+” from this old teacher. I shall not mention the name of the only “B” author. The book is divided into two sections. Part I is entitled “The History of We The Living; Part II, We the Living as Literature and Philosophy. I will comment on a few of the essays, the ones I liked the most, but before I do I must comment on two surprises. And remember how hard it is to surprise someone who has been around Objectivism for over forty years. By now most old hands know and have often repeated Rand’s statement about the three most important elements in fiction writing, to wit, plot, plot, plot. But about We The Living, (hereafter WTL) she privileges background over plot. So much so that in a letter dated October 17, 1934 she wrote, “the background is more essential than the plot itself.” This was surprise number one. The second surprise is related to the first. In essay after essay, the contributors emphasize one point repeatedly and that is the fact that when it comes to the background of WTL, Rand invents very little. Four essays are devoted to this theme as Mayhew points out on p. vii. Essays two through five stress what might tendentiously be called Rand’s “naturalism” vis-à-vis the background of “Soviet reality in the mid-1920s.” The very word appears in a biographical interview when she states that the opening scene, the train ride into Petrograd, “is practically naturalistic autobiography. I mean the conditions and the trains and the bundles” (50) In general the book is a terrific read for anyone interested in Rand. It provides another way of “chewing” WTL and provides so much nitty-gritty information that a good subtitle for the book could be “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about WTL But Were Too Busy to Research Yourself.” The interested reader can find the following: the drafts of WTL, the models Rand used for the various characters, stuff in family letters that impact on WTL, a history of pre-Russian Revolution ideology, the music in WTL, publishing WTL, reviews of WTL, adapting WTL for other media, comparison between the ’36 and ’59 versions, spelling and grammar changes Rand made between editions, and that’s just part one. Two complaints before I look at some individual essays. First, there are those writers who, for whatever reason, are incapable of writing the word “Rand” without the word “Ayn” preceding it. Milgram is the worst offender here, and since she is responsible for over 21% of the whole book, this can be quite annoying. On p. 235 she uses “Ayn Rand” five times in one paragraph. (Dah, we have feminine pronouns in the language) Only in n. 59 on p. 255 does she write simply “Rand.” I first encountered this strange phenomenon in Allan Gotthelf’s On Ayn Rand. Scholars don’t do this. No scholar writes “Immanuel Kant” every time they write Kant’s name. Since Mayhew bemoans how little scholarly attention Rand’s fiction has received, it appears that he regards his collection of essays as “scholarly.” Then they should act like scholars. In addition to Milgram, McConnell, Ridpath, Lewis, and Smith always write “Ayn Rand.” Second complaint. Occasionally when I would go to the notes to check some source on my own, I was always upset to find, “Biographical Interviews (Ayn Rand Archives)” to which I would always yell, “publish this stuff, please.” But enough of complaints, let’s look at a few essays. My favorite essay is Mayhew’s “We The Living: ’36 and ‘59” because it is, perhaps, the most philosophical. This is not to imply that he doesn’t deal with minutiae, he does, including typos, punctuation, capitalization etc. One small word replacement that caught my eye was the following word change--“Kant” to “Spinoza.” The ’36 sentence reads, “When his young friends related, in whispers, the latest French stories, Leo quoted Kant and Nietzsche (156).” Mayhew conjectures that Rand did not regard “Kant as the most evil philosopher (actually she said “man” not “philosopher”) in history” “when she left Russia or first got to the United States.” (192) For me this poses the question When did she start hating Kant? Some time between ‘36 and ’59 else why the name change. I prefer the ’36 version because of the balance between the French stories and the German philosophies. Leo’s friends are reading light French stories, while he is reading heavy German philosophy. The “light/heavy” and “French/German” switch is lost when “Spinoza” is substituted for “Kant.” Anyway, Kant is not mentioned in the published Journals or Letters entries until 1960. So they are no help in this issue. She had written some anti-Kantian lines for Galt’s speech that she ultimately cut, but she does not mention him by name. If you have an idea, let me know. On the other hand, Mayhew’s section “The ‘Nietzschean’ Passages”, requires “chewing” as well as reading, because the changes are, as Mayhew suggests, “especially interesting, substantial and in some cases controversial.” I can’t recall how many years it has been since I traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. to “read” the ’36 edition of WTL. But many had obviously been there before me because the book fell open to pp. 92-3 and I saw the word “what” surrounded by 5 question marks. The text, starting on the bottom of 92 reads as follows: “I loath your ideals. I admire your methods. If one believes one’s right, one shouldn’t wait to convince millions of fools, one might just as well force them. Except I don’t know, however, whether I’d include blood in my methods.” I was shocked. Ayn Rand, (I presumed that Kira was a mouthpiece for Rand) admiring communist methods and recommending force. I photocopied pp. 92-95 (and have them today) and brought them home where they occasioned much discussion within the Pittsburgh Objectivist group. So I was delighted by Mayhew’s decision to write about, what is for me, the most infamous passage from the ’36 edition. Let me put the passages in question together. Obviously the ’59 is much better philosophically. But it shouldn’t be. Why not? Rand wrote in the Foreword to the ’59 edition that all of the editorial changes she made had to do with grammar. “I have changed only the most awkward and confusing lapses of this kind. I have reworded the sentences and clarified their meaning, without changing their content. I have not added or eliminated anything to or from the content of the novel.” (xviii) Yet Mayhew writes about the ’36 passage that it “certainly sounds Nietzschean and amoral; and I think it’s clear that when Ayn Rand wrote this passage she had not yet identified (fully) the evil of the initiation of force.” Here I don’t wish to quibble about Mayhew’s interpretation of Nietzsche, my thoughts on him are contained in Chapter 6 of my book, Ayn Rand, Objectivists, and the History of Philosophy.” My point is that what we have here is obviously a change of content. The ’36 Kira is, to use Mayhew’s concept, an amoralist who believes in the initiation of physical force, if you’re right; the ’59 Kira is more of an Objectivist. One more passage to illustrate the same point--this time on the necessity of sacrifice. Andrei asks Kira whether one can sacrifice the millions for a few and, instead of rejecting the premise that sacrifice is necessary at all, she says, Whether the ’36 passages sound more Nietzschean or not I will leave as an exercise for the interested. You could not have a better guide than Mayhew. The second essay I would like to examine is a wonderful piece by Ridpath entitled “Russian Revolutionary Ideology and We The Living.” In my book I took Ridpath to task over his Nietzsche interpretation, but this essay is a fine piece of work. He begins by telling us, as I mentioned above, that for Rand the “background for the novel was ‘true,’ ‘true to the smallest detail,’ ‘real,’ and ‘exact.’” (87) Since Rand made the claim that the ideological background of WTL was true to the smallest detail, Ridpath sets out to demonstrate that she was correct. He begins by noting that there are 70 “seemingly disconnected and unsystematic fragments” of ideology throughout WTL and by a wonderful feat of reduction he presents them as seven propositions (with the page numbers so you can check for yourself). He follows this with five propositions that are specifically Marxist-Leninist in origin. Now it is obvious that Marx and Lenin are responsible for the five, but where do these seven come from? What thinkers and writers, in addition to Marx and Lenin, are responsible for the world Kira has to face? To answer this question, Ridpath goes back to Russia before 1825. Russian history has been “dominated for centuries by three institutions.” First there is “despotic autocracy;” second, the Russian Orthodox Church; third, serfdom. All three come to a head in the person of Czar Nicholas I who “openly suppressed universities, and drove the intellectuals underground where, like poisonous mushrooms in the cellar, the seeds of the Russian revolutionary movement were sown and nourished.” (95) After some more history, with a special focus on Chernyshevsky, Ridpath turns to the philosophers responsible for the ideas, i.e, “the epistemological lice” that were in the air Kira had to breathe. We find two of these thinkers in a section entitled RESPECTABILITY AND GUARANTEED SUCCESS: THE ROLE OF HEGEL AND MARX. Now normally at this point I would begin to discuss my disagreements with Ridpath’s interpretation of Hegel. But for the purposes of this review, I want to grant, contrary to fact, that he gets Hegel right. I’m more interested in the question of how much we can blame Hegel for the Russian revolutionary ideology and the atmosphere of WTL? And I want to say, precious little. And as evidence for this I simply want to quote Ridpath against himself. Let me concretize this. After giving “an extremely brief essentialized overview of Hegel’s philosophy” (103) he goes on to tell us that after Hegel’s death there were actually two Hegels, two groups of followers who, of course, claimed they were following the “real” Hegel. The group that Marx was eventually to follow were known as “the ‘left’ or ‘young’ Hegelians. After this filtering through ‘young’ Hegelian like Feuerbach and Strauss, Marx decided that the villain in alienation story is not God, ala Hegel, nor religion ala Feuerbach, but rather the economic conditions. Now transport Marx to Russia, making the inevitable adjustments by thinkers like Plekhanov and pass the whole thing off to Lenin who then “adapts” Marxism to his needs. But what is really left of Hegel after all of this? Just like cocaine that isn’t very effective if its been “stepped” on too many times, likewise Hegel. To appreciate this, imagine the same thing happening to Rand. In 2050 some thinker decides that Objectivism needs to replace its realism with Idealism; 25 years late another “genius” drops Rand’s commitment to reason, followed by the “young” Randians in 2100 who finally junk the passé egoism for a more up to date neo-altruism. And finally ion 2125, Objectivism scraps capitalism and proclaims a victory for the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Then they find a proof for the existence of God that Rand would have endorse if only she had known about it. They take over the government and begin to oppress all non-Objectivists. Question: How much blame does Rand get for this “dictatorship of the Atlasers?” If your answer is, “precious little,” I agree. But surely ideas have consequences and philosophy is important. Of course. But exactly what that means is beyond the scope of this review.
  10. John, I saw this painting in person. My daughter, Ayn, and I were in Amsterdam for a week and we took a day trip to the Hague just to see this painting (and view the outside of the house Spinoza wrote the Ethics in). Your poem is a worthy addition to my enjoyment of this work. As is the movie, which I own.
  11. This is a great idea. A great painting poetized by John Enright. Talk about "milking" one's value. Thank you John and thank you Salvador.
  12. I agree with Phil about seeing Winged Victory in person. YOu can approach it by ascending a long staircase, which forces one's head to be thrown back (a favorite Rand expression) and predisposes one to feelings of exaultation. [in a similar view, the best approach to the David is through the comparitively dark corridor which features a group of unfinished work by the man himself. A photo doesn't do Winged Victory justice, but then, why should it? I'm reminded of a remark that Jacob Bronowski made in the ASCENT OF MAN which I will now paraphrase. The photo does not so much FIX the object as allow us to EXPLORE it. This photo is a shot from a certain angle, an angle one might (or might not) have missed when seeing it in person. The same goes for John's poem. It is another exploration of this art work; a work that cannot be exhausted. I still don't put it up there with the David, which I've seen in person three times, but it's up there. Especially if by "up there" one means "reduces Fred Seddon to tears."