Objectivism Versus the Intrinsic and Subjective, Part 1

Post on the sixth chapter in Leonard Peikoff's book "Understanding Objectivism", "Objectivism Versus the Intrinsic and Subjective"

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 about Lecture Six, "Objectivism Versus the Intrinsic and Subjective", in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism. I’ll go through the chapter, summarizing and adding my own thoughts, comments, or questions.

Peikoff says understanding the topic of this lecture is essential for being able to understand Objectivism versus rationalism and empiricism, and that lots of Objectivists have confusions about it.


He then briefly describes subjectivism as "the doctrine that feelings are the creator of facts, and therefore, man's primary tool of cognition." Subjectivists have different technical views on the nature of reality but they all boil down to saying that reality doesn't matter much and the thing that really matters is consciousness.

Peikoff points out that subjectivists believe that consciousness has a nature and that the fact that it has a nature means we can't jump outside the limitations of that consciousness and see reality by itself. Therefore, they claim, all we ever really know is the subjective reality we create. Peikoff attributes this view to Kant in particular.

Peikoff says that subjectivists believe that since there's obviously no automatic way to get to the truth (since people disagree), that means there is no way to get to the truth at all. That seems like a ridiculous view.


Peikoff describes intrinsicism as the view that reality is all there is and consciousness contributes essentially nothing to the process. Consciousness is "only an empty mirror" and "is like an emptiness on which reality writes" (tangential comment: this sounds a lot like how some meditation programs describe thinking of consciousness). Consciousness in this view is passive metaphysically since it can't change or alter the nature of reality (this is the primacy of existence view). And consciousness is passive epistemologically since it doesn't have to do anything to acquire knowledge but expose itself.

Peikoff claims that the one form of human cognition that is compatible with the epistemological model just described is sense perception. He also says this:

If you wanted to haggle, you could say that there were physiological processes our brains had to learn to go from sensation to perception when we were infants, and there is a certain issue of focus involved now—if you let your eyes blur, you won’t see me clearly—but leaving aside those technicalities, it’s true that sense perception is an example of pure passivity. There is no method of seeing; you just open your eyes.

This is a bit of a tangent, and I haven't looked into it carefully, but I have read that blind people who have their vision restored with modern medical procedures have trouble with identifying objects and faces and such things. E.g. see this article:

The new work focuses on three adolescent and young adult patients in India, and follows them from the time of treatment to several months afterward. It suggests that "not only is recovery possible, but also provides insights into the mechanism by which such recovery comes about," says Sinha.
Testing the patients within weeks of sight restoration, Sinha and his colleagues found that subjects had very limited ability to distinguish an object from its background, identify overlapping objects, or even piece together the different parts of an object. Eventually, however, they improved in this "visual integration" task, discovering whole objects and segregating them from their backgrounds.

It makes sense to me on a philosophical level that, as a rational being, you would have to figure out how to interpret sense data like any other bit of data (IOW, there is a method of seeing – most people just learn it early on and forget the details, but now with medical technology we're seeing more examples of what that might involve). So I don't think this is a mere issue of haggling but one of learning.

Peikoff moves on and says that the intrinsicist believes that reality operates on our minds directly, on the conceptual level, and not just on our senses.

There are certain entities intrinsic in reality (thus the name, you see, “intrinsic,” entirely apart from us) that act on our minds; not on our senses, but on our minds. And all we have to do is turn our minds to those entities, and then they strike us, we’re illuminated, we know. And if you ask a person, “How do you know?” he gives exactly the answer on the conceptual level that we would all give on the perceptual level. He says, “You just know, it’s obvious, it’s self-evident.”

Tangent: on this description, it seems like there might be something a bit intrinsicist about the theme in some of Rand's books that you can look at someone's face and get conceptual knowledge about their character, ideas, willingness to have sex with you, and so on. Note that I think you can get some (fallible) knowledge about such things in a specific cultural context. But that requires knowledge of that cultural context, and my hunch is that it would actually work less well with super outliers in a particular cultural context (like Rand's heroes) since they'd be more outside the standard cultural context where the knowledge applies. Rand's heroes don't act like they're acting on fallible, culturally-contextual knowledge with potentially limited applicability to them – Roark certainly doesn't when he's sexually aggressive with Dominique.

Peikoff says that intrinsicists don't feel a need to base their knowledge on their sense experience because what really matters is the intrinsic entities that operate on their mind. They think cognition requires no work.

Peikoff says that subjectivists go by their feelings and reject their being one truth or right answer. Intrinsicists also go by their feelings (since they don't believe cognition involves work) but they also think they're objectively correct. Peikoff refers to this as righteous emotionalism. Peikoff gives a couple of examples here. One is somebody at the race track who believes in his feeling about which horse is going to win in some race; another is somebody who has a feeling that accepting some job offer will lead to disaster. They just go with their feeling. There is "[n]o analysis, no process, no steps, nothing" according to Peikoff.

Peikoff talks about the relationship between intrinsicism and mysticism. He says that intrinsicism is like the metaphysics of mysticism. Intrinsicism says that existence is all that matters and consciousness is nothing. So then you just accept whatever strikes you (the intrinsic stuff in reality) and embrace mysticism.

Peikoff describes the intrinsicist view of the nature of consciousness:

In a word, the intrinsicist view is, “Consciousness has no nature; consciousness is a pure empty mirror.” And in fact, the intrinsicist philosophers agree with Kant and echo his point repeatedly; they say, “If consciousness did have a nature, then it couldn’t know reality, because then we would be trapped in the nature of our own consciousness, and we could never get out and see true reality. And therefore,” they say, “the only way to say that we know reality is to say that the mind is nothing but pure receptivity—it adds nothing, it contributes nothing, there’s no such thing as the distinctively human consciousness.”

Kant's premise, according to Peikoff, was that if consciousness has a nature, then consciousness is cut off from reality. Kant thought consciousness had a nature, so he thought consciousness was cut off from reality. Intrinsicists accepted Kant's premise, but then argue that consciousness does not have a nature – that it's just an empty mirror – in order to keep consciousness connected to reality.

Peikoff emphasizes that intrinsicism is a method issue and not a content of ideas issue. E.g. a socialist could be an intrinsicist, a subjectivist, or an Objectivist (note: my guess here is that Peikoff means a socialist could be an Objectivist in terms of a basic approach to questions and not in terms of agreeing with the overall philosophy). If someone thought – mistakenly – that you could give objective arguments that socialism is true, that would mean he's within the objective approach. A subjectivist would say that socialism is true for him, and an intrinsicist would say it's self-evident.

A question I thought of in light of Peikoff's discussion of socialism: is a tribalistic approach to politics intrinsicist or subjectivist? I would think intrinsicist, because I think a key feature of political tribalism (at least the types I am familiar with) is a righteous emotionalism that regards the truth of the views of one's political tribe as self-evident, such that if you need the points explained to you then you're either evil or stupid. I don't see much in the way of an attitude of "Well it may be true for you but not for me" in regards to modern day political controversies.

Peikoff says that intrinsicism means "automatic illumination on conceptual issues."

How would this apply to questions of value judgments, morality? It’s the same. On this viewpoint, moral or evaluative questions are also self-evident: You merely expose yourself to reality, and some kind of intrinsic entity acts on you and produces illumination; you simply automatically infallibly know what is the good, in the same way you infallibly know what is the true. How do you know? You just know. No method, no process, no steps. Sometimes advocates of this view say we have a special moral faculty that is like the perceptual faculty, and it’s attuned to goodness or rightness. Sometimes they call it the “moral sense,” and sometimes they call it “conscience.” But whatever the terminology, the idea on the value level is: Reality writes on you; the good out there simply acts on you.

That view seems pretty silly. Did the intrinsic entities fail to illuminate with regards to the morality of slavery or the oppression of women for thousands of years? And what happened with Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia? There is a big problem with such a view in terms of its ability to explain moral error or moral progress, IMHO.

Peikoff says lots of people hold intrinsicist views who have never heard of the term. He gives what I think is a good example:

For instance, “We need to help the poor.” If you ask people why, a lot of people will just look at you and say, “What do you mean, ‘Why?’? It’s obvious, that’s the good.” And if you ask them, “How do you know?” they’ll say, “What do you mean, how do I know? That’s self-evident.” A subjectivist would say, “For me, you should help, while for you…,” but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about people who say this is the right thing to do. If a person gives an argument, “We have to help the poor because—” and he gives some reasons, then, to that extent, that’s not intrinsicism; he’s trying a process of validation. But for most people today who believe this type of view, they simply think you just have to be this way; something in reality mandates it, and you just know it.

Yeah. People have trouble conceiving of different moral ideas or intuitions than their own. To the extent they recognize that such ideas exist, they may reject them as evil or crazy. They lack an ability to think about moral ideas other than those that they are familiar with.

Peikoff gives another example, regarding pacifists. He says they typically think that killing is intrinsically wrong and that you just need to look at the act to see how evil it is. They don't make distinctions between self-defense versus aggression. Another example is egalitarianism in the form that treats differences in income as bad. Peikoff shares a story.

I took a philosophy class many, many years ago, and the professor put before the class this situation: "Imagine we have one society where there are tremendous differences in income from the lowest to the highest, and in another society where everybody has the identical income, which is, however, lower than the lowest one in the first society. Which one," he asked, "is the morally superior society?" And I was the sole person in the class of about fifty who voted for the first society. The rest of the class-and this was a graduate course in ethics-considered this simply out of the question, "Equality is intrinsically good, and therefore, it's much better that we all starve as brothers."

☹️ (especially @ graduate ethics course). I was reminded of this video of Margaret Thatcher (note that this isn't pure advocacy of capitalism, despite Thatcher's reputation, because part of her argument seems to be based on creating wealth to provide for social services. Still, it gets a bit to the issue of preferring everyone be more equally poor together versus preferring a richer society with more variation in income)

To be continued.