POP culture

Premises Of Post-Objectivism


Copyright Kirsti Minsaas

Note: This letter was written by Kirsti Minsaas to Harry Binswanger, at the time when the Peikoff-Kelley split took place in 1989, after Peikoff's publication of his article, Fact and Value, and before Kelley's publication of his monograph, Truth and Toleration. It is published here because it addresses the philosophical issues of the dispute clearly and succinctly. Also, the issues are addressed in a timeless way, that is, in a way that continues to hold relevance and interest beyond the specifics and particulars of the Peikoff-Kelley dispute.

Dear Harry,

I regret to tell you that I have written a letter to Dr. Buechner in which I inform him that I've taken a stand siding with David Kelley in his dispute with Dr. Peikoff. Since, however, I fail to see that Kelley's paper represents ''a repudiation of the fundamental principles of Objectivism'', as Peikoff states, and since I know that my stand will jeopardize my standing with the Objectivist movement, I ask you to consider my reasons.

First of all, I wish to make it clear that, ideologically, I have no sympathy with the Libertarian movement. As I've had no affiliation with the movement, however, I feel that I lack sufficient knowledge to pass judgment on the intellectual honesty of its individual members, or to decide whether or not it's appropriate to speak for libertarian groups. Consequently, I want to bypass this question and restrict my discussion to the philosophical issues.

First, the relationship between fact and value. In principle, I subscribe to Peikoff's view that a proper understanding of Objectivism lies in grasping the concept of objectivity, both in its application to cognition and evaluation. But I'm not convinced that his own interpretation of the proper application of this principle is the right one. Nor am I convinced that he's fully right in his analysis of the schisms that have plagued the Objectivist movement. His contention that Objectivists who become champions of tolerance are people who have failed to grasp the concept of objectivity, causing them to swing from intrinsicism to subjectivism, may apply to some (I have, in fact, made a similar reflection regarding the Brandens), but I fail to see that it's true of Kelley. Judging him from his paper, my conclusion is that Kelley too seeks objectivity, both with respect to cognition and evaluation, but that he find its application a much more complex issue than does Peikoff. In my judgment, then, the dispute between them boils down to differences regarding interpretation of the concept of objectivity - differences that lead them to irreconcilable positions, with Peikoff accusing Kelley of subjectivism and Kelley accusing Peikoff of dogmatism. Instead of giving my opinion of who is or is not right in this kind of labeling, I find it more fruitful to offer my standpoint on some of their philosophical arguments.

One important point of argument concerns the question of moral evaluation of ideas. On this point I agree with Peikoff that an idea can be evaluated morally on the basis of its implicit causes and effects, but I do not share his view that one can infer from the truth or falsehood of an idea to the virtue or vice of its advocates. In this respect, my position is closer to Kelley's.

My reason is that knowledge is contextual and that consequently the causes and consequences logically implicit in an idea exist merely as a potential; the actual causes and consequences will vary with different individuals - depending on their particular intellectual context. Accordingly, if we are to judge a person morally for his ideas, we must consider his context and the specific causes and consequences they give rise to in his individual case. To judge him for his convictions in the abstract, ignoring his context, may, in my opinion, easily result in gross injustices. Part of this context, for instance, will be a person's sense of life - in consideration of which Ayn Rand could say of Victor Hugo that she shared his sense of life although she disagreed with most of his conscious ideas. Obviously, sense of life affinity was, in this case, more important to her than philosophic agreement. My position, then, is that objective evaluation implies contextual evaluation and that consequently we cannot judge a person morally merely on the basis of his ideas - not even in the cause of clearly irrational ideas. There is always the possibility of extenuating circumstances.

In consequence of this view, I agree with Kelley that we must consider differences of degree in our moral evaluations. In his discussion of the moral evaluation of ideas, Peikoff largely brushes such differences aside, trivializing some important distinctions - both with respect to the causes and the consequences of ideas.

In regard to causes, he trivializes the distinction between error and evasion. Arguing that honest errors are self-correcting and short-lived, he restricts their relevancy to the very young, making it safe, in an adult context, to infer from the irrationality of a movement to the evasion of its adherents. This, in my opinion, is a gross simplification, and not very consistent with Ayn Rand's fictional use of this distinction in her novels, where a number of characters, Gail Wynand and Hank Rearden most notably, struggle with serious errors well into their mature years. Although clear enough in principle, the error-evasion distinction is not always that easy in application. Take, for example, the case of Thomas Mann who, shortly before his death, acknowledged his own role, as a leading Weimar nihilist, in paving the way for the Nazis. Would his be a clear-cut case of evasion?

Similarly, in regard to consequences, Peikoff trivializes the question of whether or not a person acts on his own ideas. Although I do concede his point that the advocacy of an irrational philosophy is ''a form of action'', I do not see that we can evaluate a person morally on this basis alone - for the same reason that we cannot judge a person morally on the basis of his actions alone. Again, we have to consider certain contextual factors; in particular, we have to consider a person's motivation and interpretation.

In considering motivation, or intention, we have to ask whether a person advocates irrational ideas with the deliberate purpose of destroying other people (like Toohey), or whether he does so out of misguided idealism, in ignorance of the harm he may cause (like Andrei) - to take two extreme examples. Just as we cannot assumethat advocacy of the irrational necessarily implies evasion, we cannot assume that it necessarily implies evil intent. I am, for example, not convinced that Kant was deliberately evil the way Toohey is, although I believe him guilty of evasion; nor am I sure that Toohey's evil is rooted in evasion the way it is in James Taggart. There is a distinction here between deliberate evil and evasion that never was made explicit by Ayn Rand, and that needs further exploration.

In considering interpretation, we must bear in mind that a philosophy, however inherently irrational, will be interpreted in different ways by different people, and that consequently the effects of the philosophy will vary - both regarding the enactment of its ideas and the nature of its influence on other people. Consider the case of Friedrich Schiller, for example, who was an avowed Kantian. Yet, in his case, the result was not nihilism but the passionate moral idealism we find in his plays. It would be bloody unfair to condemn him on a par with a modern non-objective artist; and it would be equally unfair to hold him responsible for the later atrocities caused by Kant's philosophy - particularly since he tried to uproot some of the worse aspects of this philosophy.

It's on the basis of such reflections that I sympathize with Kelley's view on the question of moral evaluation of ideas, and, by implication, with his appeal to tolerance, or benevolence, in the cognitive realm.

In his article, Peikoff rejects the concept of tolerance, as used by Kelley, on the ground that it's rooted in subjectivism and scepticism and hence incompatible with Objectivism. Instead, he upholds the virtue of justice. But Kelley's argument is not based on subjectivism; it's based on contextualism. He does not say that we can never know whether a man is irrational (this is Peikoff's inference); what he says is that ''we should assume that people are rational until we have evidence to the contrary''. I think this is a sound principle and fully compatible with justice, even integral to it. In fact, I believe that Peikoff here is creating a false dichotomy between justice and tolerance (as well as compassion and kindness). One of the things that attracts me to Ayn Rand's heroes is that they combine qualities that are normally held to be contradictory - such as selfishness and kindness, ruthlessness and compassion, justice and benevolence. The benevolence we find in Hank Rearden, for example, is expressive of his passionate sense of justice, his fear of judging people without having sufficient evidence. Judging from his paper, I believe that Kelley's appeal to tolerance arises from a similar fear of injustice. In my view, then, his tolerance is not the result of a dichotomy between cognition and evaluation, but of a wish to integrate the two, to base evaluation on cognition. It's a recognition of the principle that evaluation must be suspended, though not evaded, until we have established certainty in the cognitive realm. Such demand for cognitive certainty does not spring from scepticism, but from conscientious willingness to consider all relevant facts before passing moral judgment.

Another point on which I sympathize with Kelley is in his appeal to independent thought. As I see it, independent thought is the mark of the creative thinker and hence of the true Objectivist. In his article, Peikoff states that the authentic Objectivist is a ''valuer'' - a statement I readily support. But, again, I take exception to his interpretation. In Peikoff's view, the valuer is primarily a moralist; in my view, he is primarily a creator. This view is derived from my interpretation of Ayn Rand's heroes. Invariably, the passionate dedication to values we find in the Randian hero is expressed through his single-minded pursuit of a productive or creative goal, not through constant preoccupation with moral judgment; his overriding concern is with his work, his own self-fulfillment, not to fight a moral crusade to change other people or the world. To the extent he spends time and effort judging, fighting or persuading people, it's of secondary importance, a part of his struggle to attain his creative goals.

I have often wondered why it's so rare to find such dedication among Objectivists, why, indeed, Objectivism seems to inspire so little true independence and creativity, which to my mind is what Objectivism is all about. One reason, no doubt, is the stifling effect of rationalism and dogmatism on all creative impulse. However loyal to Ayn Rand's ideas the dogmatic Objectivist might be, he will, in a deeper sense, betray the spirit of her philosophy by closing his mind shut to any first-hand knowledge of reality; he will become a second-hander, living through and for Objectivism, making it an end rather than a guide and inspiration to become a thinker, producer, creator in his own right.

I don't know whether similar reflections underlie Kelley's statement that Ayn Rand's philosophy is ''not a closed system''. Since he does not specify what exactly he means by this statement, I'm a bit uncertain about how to interpret it. I agree with Peikoff that the essence of the philosophy, its basic principles, is immutable and cannot be changed. The problem is that this essence tends to branch out so that every statement ever uttered by Ayn Rand is held up as indisputable truth, stifling any urge to question, develop or correct the philosophy in its wider implications and applications. If it's this kind of closed system Kelley wishes to oppose, I sympathize with him on this point as well.

For this reason, I'm a little dubious about the implications of Peikoff's statement that ''a proper philosophy is an integrated whole, any change in any element of which would destroy the entire system''. If what he means is that a philosophy, as defined by its author, is not changed by its interpreters, I agree. If, however, the implication is that a philosophy has to be accepted or rejected in toto, I disagree. It's perfectly legitimate to take a selective approach to a philosophy, to extract from it what's good and to use that as a basis for new integrations - as Aristotle did with Plato and Ayn Rand did with Aristotle. It's true that in the process one may change the philosophy, even develop a new one, but if these changes are for the better, this is the approach to take. In the long run, any philosopher, however great his achievement, is best served by such discrimination. This goes for Ayn Rand, too. Revolutionary as her philosophy is in its scope of truth, it is neither exhaustive nor infallible; it needs systematization and expansion, as well as correction - although not in its basic principles, where it stands firm and should be left intact. But it is meaningless, even dangerous, to demand complete adherence to the whole system, to not only its fundamental base but to all aspects touched upon by Ayn Rand concerning its wider implications and consequences, the way Peikoff seems to be doing. This is to invite a dogmatic approach to Objectivism - an approach that will freeze the philosophy into rigid dogma and stifle creative independence.

It's this fear of dogmatism and its consequences which is my primary reason for siding with Kelley in this dispute. Not only does he have my sympathy, but I regard him as an authentic Objectivist. His benevolence, his will to consider the context of other people before judging them, his independent and questioning mind are, in my opinion, qualities that are desperately needed in the Objectivist movement, qualities that serve as a valuable antidote to the dogmatism that has plagued the movement. The fact that he now is being ostracized for these very qualities is very saddening. What Objectivism needs is more of his kind.

I hope that in writing this letter I have not excluded myself from the Objectivist movement. As Objectivists and advocates of reason we should try to solve the issues raised in this dispute, not let them split us into irreconcilable factions. Let us leave that kind of thing to our enemies, to those who advocate irrational philosophies. Let us show that reason works in solving conflicts and disputes. If we cannot show it, how can we preach it?


Kirsti Minsaas

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