Objectivism Versus Rationalism and Empiricism, Part 3

Third post on the ninth chapter in Leonard Peikoff's book "Understanding Objectivism", "Objectivism Versus Rationalism and Empiricism".

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on philosophy. I’m just a person trying to figure things out for myself, and speak for no one but myself.

This post is the third in a series about Lecture Nine, "Objectivism Versus Rationalism and Empiricism", in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism. I’ll go through the chapter, summarizing and adding my own thoughts, comments, or questions.

Summary of Previous Posts

So far, we've looked at Peikoff discussing Objectivist as compared to empiricism and rationalism on various points. His first two points of comparison, which I considered in my first post, were on the relationship of ideas to reality and on induction versus deduction.

In my previous post, I looked at two additional points of comparison. The first was the Objectivist view of axioms. The distinction between Objectivism and rationalism on this point seems somewhat subtle. Objectivism views axioms as things that are preconditions of knowledge, whereas rationalism views axioms as the first step in a long argument. I thought that the Objectivist approach seemed better from the perspective of how to organize knowledge.

Peikoff also discussed certainty. The Objectivist view is that you can be certain but not omniscient, or have certainty in a particular context. Peikoff thinks that a newly-discovered limitation on the context in which a theory applies doesn't invalidate a correctly-formed thesis. I disagree and think you need to come up with a new theory. Peikoff is trying to address the issue of generically doubting everything, which I think is a real issue, but I don't think his approach is great.

Now on to new material.

Attitude Towards Order

Peikoff says that Objectivism is in favor of order or system (which makes it different from empiricism). But Objectivism isn't in favor of an order or system supposedly dictated by reality and in which human minds don't matter. Objectivism advocates "an order or system based on the facts and the nature of our consciousness." Peikoff says a proper order or system has options in terms of order of learning, and also has principles of structure that mean certain stuff has to come before other stuff (see the hierarchy exercise). This contrasts with rationalism, which says there are no options, and empiricism, which says everything is an option.

More Points of Contrast Between Objectivism, Rationalism, & Empiricism


Objectivism favors emotions. Rationalism is opposed to them. Empiricism is in favor of them in a whim-worshipping way.


The feeling that you have to beat other people down with polemics reflects a feeling of vulnerability. This feeling of vulnerability reflects a lack of chewing ideas sufficiently in your own mind.

The proper method is to reduce a dispute to basic premises. Rationalists want to focus on internal inconsistencies of their opponents. Empiricists like to cite random facts. Peikoff says you need to recognize that viewpoints rest on a certain foundation and the way you attack that foundation is through facts.

Peikoff gives an example of trying to refute a socialist. The rationalist tries to identify an internal contradiction. Specifically, the rationalist says that the socialist claims to be for freedom, but the system the socialist proposes destroys freedom. The socialist responds that the "real self" is free under socialism and the lack of freedom is just apparent. The empiricist points to the fact that people in Russia are starving but doesn't try to explain the connection. The socialist has various explanations as to why the starvation is occurring. The Objectivist approach is to focus on the foundation, which in this case is altruism, and focus on/argue against that. You point to facts about how man has to live egoistically or give up his freedom and prosperity. So, essentially, you don't concede your opponent's premises, and the facts you cite are part of a principled argument.

Relationship of Mind to Reality

(Peikoff doesn't use my subsection title here but that's what I decided to call it).

Peikoff's final point is about the relationship of mind to reality. The intrinsicist view is that we wait for revelations from reality. The subjectivist view is that we think we're cut off from reality. The objectivist view is that we are trying to know reality by a certain means which has a certain nature and requires a particular method. We grasp the concretes in reality using concepts. So our mind plays an active role.

What is the use of philosophy in daily life?


I now want to move on to one of the arguments that we discussed in the opening lecture: “What is the use of philosophy, or Objectivism, in daily life?” As I presented the argument, “I see that philosophy is important when you’re a teenager, when you’re starting out, because it gives you a basic direction. But after you’re established and you have a political affiliation and a career and a lifestyle and so on, what then is the use or value of philosophy?”

Peikoff says the answer depends on whether your ideas are floating abstractions or chewed. If the former, philosophy doesn't matter much. If the latter, they're essential.

Peikoff says that the idea behind the question re: the use of philosophy is that you can get to a point in life where you've made some basic decisions and things are settled. But Peikoff says that there's a ton of stuff in life that is not routine or settled. So you have to evaluate and deal with that stuff, and you need some means to do so.

He gives an example of your own evaluation of yourself. You can't coast on a high self-evaluation of yourself from when you were 18, because things change and challenges to your self esteem will arise. E.g. say you think you're doing okay at work but you don't get a raise. You might doubt whether your work was good or various other things (like the boss's fairness). You can't put the evaluation of those sorts of issues on autopilot based on some stuff you decided about yourself years ago. If you try to an evaluation out of your mind, you might emotionally settle on something like resentment, or self-doubt, or just confusion. OTOH, if you can approach analyzing things in a principled way, you'll have some standard by which to evaluate questions like "Was my work good?" Maybe you have some vague feeling you should have done better. But then you can remind yourself that human knowledge is limited and you are fallible. So you can use epistemology to address your vague self-doubt. Or maybe you're worried about whether people dislike you, and so you can ask yourself whether they are right or wrong to dislike you, and what their standards are. Philosophy can give you the principles by which to figure this sort of thing out.

Peikoff gives an example of someone being criticized for being opinionated. Without philosophy, they might subconsciously decide they should talk less so that people will like them. But without philosophy, you can't know whether are criticizing you for virtues or flaws, or even what virtues are. So without philosophy your convictions will get destroyed. Peikoff:

Eternal vigilance is the price of self-esteem, and the only method of vigilance is philosophic principles. There is literally no other way to do it.

Peikoff gives various examples. One is about needing philosophy to evaluate other people and whether they're e.g. irrational or not, which you can't judge without understanding irrationality. Another example is of a friend apparently lying to you. You might decide that someone is no good because they made some sort of innocent error. Or you might let someone off the hook who is actually bad. Or you might not really address the issue and just have vague doubt. All these approaches are bad and you need philosophy to figure out what to actually do.

Peikoff says you need philosophy to solve psychological problems. He said that all attempts at self-improvement have some philosophical element. You have some automatized functions that conflict with some principles – some clash, some automatic stuff you don't like, and you have are using principles to try to improve that. "Philosophy is what makes you a self-regulator, as opposed to just a passive, helpless reactor."

The alternative approach is pragmatism, where you just react to stuff and don't consider the long range. Peikoff says if you embrace that approach, "you’ll gradually atrophy, lose control of your life, yourself, your knowledge of your friends, and so on."

Peikoff says he's not saying everyone has to become a philosopher but just that everyone has to keep philosophy alive in their mind.

Towards the end of the chapter, Peikoff quotes from a paper a student wrote. I liked the quotes as illustrations of applying philosophy to every day life:

One, I use philosophy when I’m buying a new pipe. When I walk into a pipe store, I don’t just buy the first pipe that strikes my fancy, because philosophy tells me that feelings are not tools of cognition—my liking a pipe doesn’t make it a good one. It might get too hot when you smoke it. It might be improperly balanced, or too heavy to hold between your teeth. It might cost too much. I choose a pipe by means of reason. If I find several pipes that meet my requirements, I can then safely pick the one that I like best. Philosophy doesn’t stifle my feelings; it simply prevents me from wasting time and money on faulty pipes, so I have more time to enjoy a good smoke.


Two, I use philosophy when I’m late for the bus—I’ll run like hell to catch it, but if it’s pulling away, I’ll relax and light up my pipe. Philosophy tells me the difference between the metaphysical and the man-made. If the bus is gone, there’s nothing I can do to change it, and no use getting steamed up over it. I think philosophy helps prevent stress. It also tells me that I should change what is in my power, for example, my alarm clock.


The other day, philosophy sent a few hundred thousand people marching through the streets to protest the “arms race.” A different kind of philosophy convinced me to stay at home. My philosophy armed me against a pacifist I met at a party that night, and it told me when it was useless to argue any longer.

I liked these examples because they were very practical and down to earth. Examples about deciding which pipe to buy, or how to handle a minor setback like missing the bus, or whether to attend a protest or continue arguing at a party, are not what people think of immediately when they think of philosophy, but they are definitely examples of applied philosophy.