Rebirth of Reason

Favorite EditSanction this itemUnderstanding Objectivism by Leonard Peikoff
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Understanding Objectivism
This transcription of lectures from 1983 may prove less satisfying to those who have considered themselves at least "students of Objectivism" for the past 30 years. 

Peikoff frames the lectures more as refutations of error than as positive assertions.  The text starts with strawman arguments made up by students who attempt to validate certain truths; and then it also includes about 170 pages (four chapters) that explain the errors in Intrinsicism, Subjectivism, Rationalism, and Empiricism.

To explain the hierarchy of Objectivism, Peikoff challenges the audience to arrange these 20 statements in order.

Capitalism as the only moral system
Romanticism as the conceptual school of art.
A is A
The virtue of Independence
The evil of the initiation of force
Knowledge as objective (versus intrinsic or subjective)
The senses as valid.
Existence exists.
The virtue of honesty.
Concepts as identifications of concretes with their measurements omitted.
The integration of man's mind and body.
The validation of individual rights.
Consciousness as the faculty of perceiving that which exists.
The nature of art, and its role in man's life.
Reason as man's only means of knowledge; reason verus mysticism
Reason as man's means of survival.
The proper function of government.
Rationality as the primary virtue.
The law of cause and effect.
Man's life as the standard of moral value.

The list is presented and discussed on pp. 150-166. Then, on page 170, in the Q&A for Lecture 5, after he has arranged them hierarchically for the class, a student asks: "If metaphysics comes first in the branches of philosophy, then why do the first ten items go back and forth between metaphysics and epistemology?" 
Peikoff says: "Because metaphysics does not come first.  Metaphysics and epistemology are simultaneous -- what exists and how we know it are the foundation that starts together. ... The two are completely intertwined." 
On that basis, the three fundamental axioms of Objectivism are (page 166 and again page 224):
  • Existence. (Existence exists)
  • Consciousness. (Consciousness as the faculty of perceiving existence.)
  • Identity. (A is A, with corollaries "The Primacy of Existence" and "Free will and volitional consciousness." pp 166-167)
It was a surprise to me after all these years, but I am open to new learning.   He also says later that these three cannot be arranged in a hierarchy of their own. The desire for a single root axiom - A is A - is an example of the fallacy of monism applied to Objectivism. (Page 224)

Certainly, I did gain some insights from reading this.  Peikoff does identify errors in argument that we all know from others - and I confess, myself; and I trust that I am not alone.
Intrinsicism holds certain concretes or absolutes as immutable principles.  NIOF is one, but among Objectivists "do not sanction evil" is easy to meet. A rigid conformity to the most extreme form of this - striking your boss for a political opinion you must not sanction - is anti-life.  (page 187) Rationalism is perhaps even more  common: the rationalist seeks to argue polemics by accepting the premises and then demonstrating a contradiction in the opponent's statements.  (Lecture 7, page 238; Lecture 8, 242-243) They do not look to facts. 
The empiricist is the opposite of this.  Peikoff says broadly that the error is more common among female Objectivists though it is not determined by gender, but easy enough to find with men, also.  No number of examples is enough.  Maybe the government should not control the oil industry, but what about healthcare, and so on are there not exceptions to these tidy little rules? (pp 247-253). 
But this is ultimately unsatisfactory.  Demonstrations by negation are not assertions. 
His summaries of other people's philosophies is always suspect. Based on what I learned in freshman philosophy, he is very good with Leibnitz; and Peikoff admits several times to being a rationalist before coming to understand something objectively.  But his other sketches are little more than parodies. I found his presentation of subjectivism (before and after page 172) is wholly unsatisfactory.  As I understand it, subjectivism is not based on an irrational desire to substitute emotions for perceptions.  Regardless of how we feel about our perceptions, we nonetheless perceive differently.  Rather than attempt to solve that, Peikoff defeats a straw man. 
Overall, he invests over half the book setting up opponents of his own invention.  Even after his students fail to integrate Objectivism in the opening chapters, four more chapters (pages 171 to 307) expose the errors in Instrinsicism, Subjectivism, Rationalism, and Empiricism.

The book opens and closes with a problem we all know from personal experience: Objectivism versus the world.  Does life have to be one long argument against everyone else's wrong ideas?  Are we condemned to live among dishonest and foolish people?
"... the fact is, since you're in a very small intellectual minority, if you're an Objectivist, you're going to quickly conclude that people in general are rotten and that life is miserable." (page 351)

The answer may well be unsatisfying. Peikoff does not offer a pollyanna reply.  You do have to navigate a lot of depressing nonsense.  The best you can hope for is good friends - a good spouse - and the knowledge that the purpose of Objectivism is to make you happier.

Unfortunately, like much else here, the specifics are missing.
Added by Michael E. Marotta
on 9/24, 4:33pm

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