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In the title essay/first chapter of Philosophy: Who Needs It, Ayn Rand mentions some catchphrases that people accept and that come from philosophers, in order to show the importance of philosophical ideas. In the next chapter of Philosophy Who Needs It, which is an essay called "Philosophical Detection", she analyzes the catchphrases. I thought it'd be interesting to try doing my own analysis on the catchphrases, read her analysis and then talk about her analysis some. I've read both chapters before, and recently relistened to the first one and started listening to the second when I had the idea to do this.
Here's the relevant quote from the first chapter:
Now some of you might say, as many people do: “Aw, I never think in such abstract terms—I want to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems—what do I need philosophy for?” My answer is: In order to be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems—i.e., in order to be able to live on earth.
You might claim—as most people do—that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? “Don’t be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything.” You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: “This may be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” You got that from Plato. Or: “That was a rotten thing to do, but it’s only human, nobody is perfect in this world.” You got it from Augustine. Or: “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” You got it from William James. Or: “I couldn’t help it! Nobody can help anything he does.” You got it from Hegel. Or: “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s evil, because it’s selfish.” You got it from Kant. Have you heard the modern activists say: “Act first, think afterward”? They got it from John Dewey.
Some people might answer: “Sure, I’ve said those things at different times, but I don’t have to believe that stuff all of the time. It may have been true yesterday, but it’s not true today.” They got it from Hegel. They might say: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” They got it from a very little mind, Emerson. They might say: “But can’t one compromise and borrow different ideas from different philosophies according to the expediency of the moment?” They got it from Richard Nixon—who got it from William James.
All Rand quotes from the "Philosophical Detection" Chapter of Philosophy: Who Needs It unless otherwise noted.
“It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.”
I think that truth is objective - there aren't different truths for different people; there is just the truth.
If people could have multiple separate truths, inconsistent with each other, then the idea of truth would not be meaningful. Imagine a court case where an alleged victim claimed "My truth is that Mr. Smith tried to kill me", and Mr. Smith claimed "My truth is that I was sleeping at home at the time of the alleged crime." The purpose of our courts is to sort out conflicting claims like these and figure out the truth. But imagine if the court had to respect both of these truths as equally valid. The courts would be useless and justice would be impossible.
If something is true, then it's true for a reason - there is some explanation to go along with it being true. If it's possible for people to lose weight by creating a caloric deficit, then that's just a fact that is true for people in general - it's not a question of it being true for one person and not for another. For such a truth to not be applicable to some specific person, you'd need some explanation as to why they're an exception. An arbitrary assertion that some truth doesn't apply to them is insufficient.
People sometimes think there are different truths for different people because different people have different preferences. For example, people think that Bob's favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate and Sally's favorite ice cream flavor is vanilla, and so they each have a separate truth about what their favorite ice cream flavor is. But there is just one reality in which it is both true (in a non-contradictory way) that, at the same time, there is someone named Bob whose favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate and someone else named Sally whose favorite ice cream flavor is vanilla. The same logic applies to favorite band or choice of career - the fact that people have different values or preferences doesn't mean there are multiple truths.
What is the meaning of the concept “truth”: Truth is the recognition of reality. (This is known as the correspondence theory of truth.) The same thing cannot be true and untrue at the same time and in the same respect. That catch phrase, therefore, means: a. that the Law of Identity is invalid; b. that there is no objectively perceivable reality, only some indeterminate flux which is nothing in particular, i.e., that there is no reality (in which case, there can be no such thing as truth); or c. that the two debaters perceive two different universes (in which case, no debate is possible). (The purpose of the catch phrase is the destruction of objectivity.)
Rand's answer starts out with a couple of short, clear statements about truth and then goes into a more logical type of analysis.
Regarding the logical analysis, she says that one of three things must be the case if the catchphrase is true.
One possibility is that the Law of Identity - A is A - is invalid. If A could be not A, then something could be both true and not true at the same time. For example, it could be the case that "healing crystals" are both an actual method of healing and quackery. In that situation, “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me" might be an appropriate response to someone criticizing someone else's use of healing crystals. But in that situation, reality would be an unpredictable and contradictory chaos, whereas our reality seems predictable and orderly. There is also no reason to doubt the validity of A is A.
Rand mentions as a second possibility that "that there is no objectively perceivable reality, only some indeterminate flux which is nothing in particular, i.e., that there is no reality (in which case, there can be no such thing as truth)." I'm not actually sure how much this differs from the first possibility, as it seems like an implication or result of the first possibility.
The third possibility Rand mentions is "that the two debaters perceive two different universes (in which case, no debate is possible)." That makes sense - if you had two different universes, you could have two different sets of rules for how things worked, in which case “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me" could be an appropriate response since it might actually be true of people living in different universes.
“Don’t be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything.”
As I think Rand points out, this statement is making an absolute/certain-sounding statement - "nobody can be certain of anything" - while trying to raise general doubts about certainty. So it contradicts itself.
You don't need to live a life filled with vague uncertain doubts. You can be certain enough to make a decision that's reasonable based on the information that you have. You can't (or shouldn't be) certain in the sense of having a final, irrevocable opinion that you're unwilling to revise given new evidence or arguments. But you can definitely consider the issue and come to a reasonable and final conclusion based on the evidence and arguments that you have available at the time and other things like the time you're willing to dedicate to considering the matter.
Bertrand Russell’s gibberish to the contrary notwithstanding, that pronouncement includes itself; therefore, one cannot be sure that one cannot be sure of anything. The pronouncement means that no knowledge of any kind is possible to man, i.e., that man is not conscious. Furthermore, if one tried to accept that catch phrase, one would find that its second part contradicts its first: if nobody can be certain of anything, then everybody can be certain of everything he pleases—since it cannot be refuted, and he can claim he is not certain he is certain (which is the purpose of that notion).
Rand says "The pronouncement means that no knowledge of any kind is possible to man, i.e., that man is not conscious." The part about man not being conscious surprised me a bit, but I looked it up and in Webster's Third one of the definitions is "2.: perceiving, apprehending, or noticing with a degree of controlled thought or observation : recognizing as existent, factual, or true:". If knowledge was impossible to man, then he wouldn't be able to recognize things as factual or true, since he wouldn't have knowledge of facts or truth, so Rand's statement fits the definition.
Rand says "if nobody can be certain of anything, then everybody can be certain of everything he pleases—since it cannot be refuted, and he can claim he is not certain he is certain (which is the purpose of that notion)." So I think what this means is that, if you accept the catchphrase, you can be certain that e.g. healing crystals work (in the sense of feeling some certainty about their effectiveness) and nobody can refute your belief (since you can just use the catchphrase to ward off any refutations). And if someone says you're contradicting yourself by being certain that the healing crystals work, you can just say that you're not certain you're certain (and then they can't refute that either, cuz how can they be certain that you're not certain you're certain if nobody can be certain of anything? lol). And insulating people from criticism and refutations so that they can just believe whatever is the purpose of the catchphrase.
“This may be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.”
The purpose of theories is to help us understand how things work so that our actions can be effective. The standard by which you judge a theory as good should be the extent to which the theory embodies truth and thus can serve as a useful guide to action.
People often say this catchphrase of things that they like for some reason but nonetheless think is impractical. Some people might say the catchphrase about socialism, because they like the idea of helping others and everyone taking care of each other. But if the actual results are horrible, that is an indication that something is seriously wrong with the theory, since the theory's claims about what it's supposed to produce don't actually match the results. Horrible results are thus an indication that the theory is not good!
What is a theory? It is a set of abstract principles purporting to be either a correct description of reality or a set of guidelines for man’s actions. Correspondence to reality is the standard of value by which one estimates a theory. If a theory is inapplicable to reality, by what standards can it be estimated as “good”? If one were to accept that notion, it would mean: a. that the activity of man’s mind is unrelated to reality; b. that the purpose of thinking is neither to acquire knowledge nor to guide man’s actions. (The purpose of that catch phrase is to invalidate man’s conceptual faculty.)
I like Rand's definition of theory better than mine.
Rand says "If one were to accept that notion, it would mean: a. that the activity of man’s mind is unrelated to reality; b. that the purpose of thinking is neither to acquire knowledge nor to guide man’s actions."
Trying to elaborate her implication (a) it in my words somewhat: if things could be good in theory but not in practice, then you could have a good theory that was bad in practice (in reality), and so there would be a disconnect between theory and reality. Since man's mind deals with theories/ideas, there would be a disconnect between the activity of man's mind and reality.
Regarding implication (b): if things could be good in theory but not in practice, then one could come up with a "good" theory that was useless practically. Rand defines knowledge as "a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation." A recipe for making pizza counts as knowledge under this definition - it reflects a mental grasp of facts of reality (i.e. certain combinations of ingredients arranged and combined a certain way and heated to a certain temperature in a certain manner will produce a pizza). If one could somehow produce a "good" pizza recipe that consistently produced awful pizza, that would not be knowledge in Rand's sense. And such a pizza recipe would not serve to guide one's actions (assuming one were trying to produce good pizza).
“It’s logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality.”
Logic has a direct connection to reality. The fact that something can't both be something and not something at the same time and in the same respect is a true statement about things in reality. A person can't both be simultaneously in New York City and not in New York City (say, in Beijing). That's the sort of thing that ¬(p ∧ ¬p) is summing up.
Logic can let us make predictions in reality given some true statement and some fact. If you can say, as a true statement, "If I'm not on the train at 6:30am on a weekday, I'm not going to work that day", that has implications in reality. You can take that general statement and a fact about a particular day and use it to make true statements in reality. If you know on a particular day that it's 6:30am and you're in bed, then you know you're not going to work that day, so long as the initial statement holds true.
Logic is the art or skill of non-contradictory identification. Logic has a single law, the Law of Identity, and its various corollaries. If logic has nothing to do with reality, it means that the Law of Identity is inapplicable to reality. If so, then: a. things are not what they are; b. things can be and not be at the same time, in the same respect, i.e., reality is made up of contradictions. If so, by what means did anyone discover it? By illogical means. (This last is for sure.) The purpose of that notion is crudely obvious. Its actual meaning is not: “Logic has nothing to do with reality,” but: “I, the speaker, have nothing to do with logic (or with reality).” When people use that catch phrase, they mean either “It’s logical, but I don’t choose to be logical” or: “It’s logical, but people are not logical, they don’t think—and I intend to pander to their irrationality.”
Regarding the last sentence - why would people choose not to be logical? Often because they have some desires or whims or something like that that they don't want to think about or reconsider. So they're pandering to their own irrationality by trying to reject logic. So either they're pandering to their own irrationality or they're pandering to other people's irrationality.
In Closing: Some of Rand's Advice for Doing Philosophical Detection
Now observe the method I used to analyze those catch phrases. You must attach clear, specific meanings to words, i.e., be able to identify their referents in reality. This is a precondition, without which neither critical judgment nor thinking of any kind is possible. All philosophical con games count on your using words as vague approximations. You must not take a catch phrase—or any abstract statement—as if it were approximate. Take it literally. Don’t translate it, don’t glamorize it, don’t make the mistake of thinking, as many people do: “Oh, nobody could possibly mean this!” and then proceed to endow it with some whitewashed meaning of your own. Take it straight, for what it does say and mean.