Rationalism and Empiricism, Part 1

Post on the eighth chapter in Leonard Peikoff's book "Understanding Objectivism", "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 about Lecture Eight, "Rationalism & Empiricism", in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism. I’ll go through the chapter, summarizing and adding my own thoughts, comments, or questions.

Concluding Rationalism

Peikoff says he's going to conclude his discussion of rationalism and then turn to empiricism.

Peikoff talks about rationalism and polemics, a topic he addressed some in the previous chapter. He says that rationalists feel insecure in their ideas and feel a strong need to engage in polemics and convince other people of their views. He also says that the characteristic method of rationalist polemics is to try to find internal inconsistencies and "trap" opponents in contradictions. (A side note is that "opponent" is Peikoff's terminology regarding the person you're having a discussion with, and I dislike that because I think it's too adversarial). Peikoff asks why a rationalist doesn't try to refute people by pointing out facts of reality that they have overlooked, and answers that facts of reality are not the domain of the rationalist. (I think I have this issue somewhat as my style of debate has been very focused on trying to find internal inconsistencies.) So the rationalist accepts the basic premises of their opponent and then just tries to demonstrate that their is some contradiction.

Peikoff says that pointing out contradictions is fine, but if this is your characteristic method of argument, it's bad because it means you're not looking at or focused on reality. Peikoff also seems to have some concerns about people making arbitrary claims and you having to entertain those claims. E.g. he describes the rationalist attitude as: "[a]nything that is asserted with which he disagrees must be refuted because it’s there." He gives an example of somebody claiming that reality is made of Campbell's Soup. I think you can deal with such a claim pretty easily. You can just say "That's super underexplained, doesn't really make sense, and seems arbitrary." I doubt there are many people out there who can come back at you with a worked out model of why Campbell's Soup (Campbell's specifically, and not, say, Progresso) is at the basis of all of reality.

Peikoff also says that you need to challenge your opponent's basic premises instead of just accepting them all the time. E.g. if you accept God as a premise and just try to bring up the Problem of Evil, then the religious person can come back with how God's definition of good and evil is beyond our ability to grasp, and so you need to challenge their premise. I actually don't think this is a great example, because I can see places to take the discussion that might be fruitful without challenging the premise of God. I think I understand Peikoff's essential point, though. You need to be willing and unafraid to challenge other people's core premises. You can't just constantly avoid that. But I think that some limited amount of discussion in the style of accepting other people's premises can be useful.

Peikoff says that rationalism is essentially intrinsicist. They have a Platonic realm of concepts disconnected from sensory observation. Peikoff gives a bunch of examples of the intrinsicism of rationalists:

  1. Rejection of choices or options
  2. Rejection of emotion in cognition
  3. Rejection of relevance of personal evaluation
  4. Rejection of context (you get your knowledge/absolutes straight from reality, like a bolt from the blue)

Peikoff says rationalism is just one type of intrinsicism and that there are others. Rationalists like reason and logic. Some intrinsicists are mystics.


Peikoff says empiricism is less common among Objectivists, and there is also some variance by area (e.g. Objectivists are more rationalistic in philosophy and more empiricist in their personal lives).

Essential points of empiricism as presented by Peikoff:

First point: an emphasis on reality apart from abstractions or concepts. Empiricists use ideas but are suspicious of them and think they're academic or just talk. Peikoff says examples are the Greek Sophists and David Hume.

Peikoff gives an example of empiricism. He says it's from "an arch-conservative who I believe is employed by a right-wing foundation to advance capitalism, and this is from a paper written on how to prove that man has property rights." Here's the quote from the paper:

A few defenders of property base their defense on the right to life. They point out that a person cannot eat without at least implicitly establishing property rights over the food he consumes. Similarly, a person would have trouble keeping warm without some property rights with respect to clothing and shelter. Here is an argument that, as far as it goes, is compelling. But certainly a person can eat without the rights to sell, trade, mortgage, let, give away, or bequeath his food. In addition, this argument applies only to consumer goods. What about the main concerns of socialists, the raw materials and capital goods which constitute the means of production—why should anyone own them?

I think this may be an example of empiricism because the author is limiting his focus to the physical act of eating and what's required to complete that act, by itself, disconnected from its prerequisites. The author is not thinking about things like: what are the prerequisites to having a society where people can do things like store up wealth that they can use for food later on? And even more importantly, what's required to enable the large scale production of food in an efficient and effective manner? And the answers to those questions involve things like the rights to sell, trade, own the means of production, and so on.

Peikoff says that the person doesn't define property in terms of something like "the right to use and dispose of material wealth" because such a definition would seem really broad and vague. Instead, he's super-focused on the concrete of eating.

Peikoff gives another example of an empiricist who thinks that principles are BS that anyone can use in their arguments with some "well-chosen doubletalk." Instead of focusing on principles when judging actions, you're supposed to just look at what happens you when take some action. But Peikoff rightly asks how you are supposed to judge consequences of actions without reference to principles.

It is only principles that enable us to gauge the consequences. But here, we’re supposed to use concretes without reference to principles. How are we to decide that? It comes back to feelings, which is all that empiricists have.

Imagine trying to judge the consequences of something pretty straightforward, like turning a screw. Often, it takes quite a few turns before you've turned the screw tight enough to tighten whatever thing it is you're trying to tighten so that it will stay together properly. There's a principle or generalization involved there, something like: "Turn the screw until 1) it stops turning and 2) the elements being screwed together are securely fastened." Imagine you actually tried to screw something together without reference to principles, just looking at concrete actions. And suppose you actually lacked background knowledge or experience with screwing things together. You might turn the screw a couple of times (let's assume that's a woefully insufficient number of times) and say "Well, my observation of the consequences of my action is that I am failing to fasten the elements together with the rotation of the screw." That would be a mistake. You've got the wrong principle and so you're acting ineffectively. Now, that's not so bad, because if you are willing to formulate the principle you're operating under clearly and post about it on Reddit or elsewhere, you can get some advice and correct your mistake. But if you decide that principles are useless and you'll just go with whatever number of screw rotations feels right to you or speaks to your heart, then you're going to have a hard time (and a lot of stuff coming apart on you!)

Peikoff gives one final example of empiricism. An Objectivist publication took out an ad condemning the Soviets shooting down some passenger jet. A professor at some school in the US wrote them a letter (excerpts quoted below):

You say that Soviet citizens “may not get jobs or travel or read newspapers or rent apartments unless the government approves” [quoted from The Intellectual Activist advertisement]. Could you please be more specific? American citizens cannot travel beyond the country’s borders without a passport—that is, without government approval. In what respects is the Soviet system more restrictive? American citizens who hold government jobs cannot change jobs without government approval, if their jobs require security clearances. And no one can be appointed to a government job, country, state, or federal government, without government approval. In what respect is the Soviet system more restrictive? American citizens cannot read newspapers that call for the violent overthrow of the American government by force, or newspapers that print names of CIA personnel, or newspapers that provide instructions for making nuclear bombs, and so on. In what respect is the Soviet system more restrictive?

Wow, this is pretty awful. Getting a passport in the US is a routine process that isn't politicized, doesn't require special government approval or favors or connections or a particular reason. You don't even need to tell the government your travel plans, nor do you need to have any particular travel plans. You can just get a passport (because you want to have it in case you do decide to travel, or just for identification purposes, or whatever). And there are tons of jobs in the United States outside of working with the government, and you quit plenty of government jobs for no reason, since they don't involve any sort of security clearance (there are way more Postal Service or county clerk type jobs than CIA agent type jobs). And I don't even know what to say about his newspaper example. Honestly, in a way, the analysis here strikes me as profoundly rationalistic -- like the professor is grouping things under conceptual categories like "restriction on travel" or "restriction on changing jobs" and completely dropping the reality of the stuff he's unreasonably grouping together. It's pretty awful. I'm curious what Peikoff will say.

So Peikoff says that for this person:

traveling, reading a newspaper, renting an apartment, getting a job—those are floating abstractions, and thus much too broad. Who can deal intellectually with such an immensity as getting a job? You can’t compare two systems in terms of the principle that governs getting a job in one versus the other. You can only compare concretes. You can point to a concrete in the United States where you need government approval, and a concrete in Russia where you need government approval, so what’s the difference? Is it just a quantitative issue of how many jobs? What’s the difference? It’s still the same—for every concrete in one, there’s a concrete in the other. Do you see why this is empiricism? You couldn’t argue with this person, because suppose you gave him fifty examples in Russia against only three in the United States, what would he say? “That was under Stalin.” You can’t talk about the nature of the system, and the principles, and so on. You just collect concretes.

The bit about floating abstractions indicates rationalism, as does the issue of dealing with intellectual complexity. I see what Peikoff's talking about re: this person's focus on concretes, but still, it seems like you could use this as an example of rationalism as well.

To be continued...