Rationalism and Empiricism, Part 2

Second 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 the second of two posts 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.

In the previous post we looked at Peikoff's conclusion of his discussion regarding rationalism. Peikoff gave some reasons for why rationalists like polemics and why they argue the way they do. He also connected rationalism to intrinsicism. Then he turned to empiricism. His first point about empiricism was that they emphasize reality apart from abstracts or constructs, which he illustrated with various examples.

Now we move onto Peikoff's second point about empiricism, which is a discussion of "the primary cognitive process according to empiricism", which is observation. Peikoff says that empiricists either reject induction entirely (like David Hume), or think it can only give you probabilities. Note that Peikoff here conflates induction with generalization. I'm not going to argue epistemology with Peikoff here, since I think Peikoff's main point is to describe a problematic intellectual attitude and not offer a detailed discussion of epistemology. Peikoff's point is that empiricists are skeptical or distrustful of broad generalizations, conceptualizations, principles, abstractions, or really anything that tries to integrate or deal with a bunch of concretes. They think such efforts are "simplistic". They are the people that think that government controls might mess up one industry but not see the problem in another industry. They are against "integrating your views in philosophy so that it’s all part of one total proceeding from certain basic principles" (which Peikoff calls "system building").

Peikoff says that empiricists wind up with floating abstractions because they still need abstractions but those abstractions are disconnected from reality and concretes (presumably due to their hostility to integrating concretes with concepts). Peikoff gives Hume as an example of this approach; Hume apparently categorized knowledge into "matters of fact" and "relations of ideas" and thought they had nothing to do with each other.

Peikoff says that empiricists like fields where there appear to be masses of data with no integrating principles. Examples he gives are history, statistics, psychology. (Contrast this with rationalists who like Math). He also says empiricists are indeterminists who think the universe is ruled by chance and chaos.

Peikoff's third point regarding empiricism is their view of the starting points of knowledge. Empiricists don't think there is a starting point (unlike rationalists. who think there are self-evident conceptual truths, or Objectivists, who think there are axioms based on self-evident perceptual truths).

Empiricists also take a pluralistic approach to explanation (contrasting with the monism of the rationalists). Peikoff gives the example of a historian who says there were 12 causes of the Civil War and mixes up fundamental and secondary points, or of another historian who says there were various causes of Nazism that are all somewhat valid explanations. Peikoff makes an interesting point here: he says that you can argue with a rationalist, because they will actually put forth some kind of a theory (however mistaken) and have a discussion. But with an empiricist, they reject the idea of fundamental explanations existing as such, because they are "opposed to conceptualizing phenomena as such", so you can't deal with them.

I think in my own approach to discussions, I've actually often gone back and forth between rationalistic and empiricist approaches. In trying to apply an idea from economics to some real-world phenomenon, I might omit some concretes in a rationalistic way so that I can explain everything in terms of the idea that I'm attached to. By contrast, in discussing someone's character, I might be more empiricist and shy away from explaining behavior in terms of one theory that implies a negative judgment about them, and thus take more of a "maybe it's a little-of-this-and-a-little-of-that" type of empiricist approach. I think there's an interesting issue there in terms of the relationship between one's biases and one's methodology to explanation. The specific thing I think is interesting is that there is room for bias in terms of the approach one takes to explanation depending on whether one wants to defend/uphold a concept or avoid accepting a concept. If you want to uphold a concept, facts be damned, then you turn towards rationalism. If you want to avoid dealing with a concept, you turn to empiricism. In the abstract, that might sound more difficult than it is, because as Peikoff has been discussing them, they seem like opposite extremes. But he's also discussed how they intersect and come to the same conclusions on some points. Furthermore, few people are super intellectually consistent, and it's quite hard to be intellectually consistent about a mistaken idea anyways (it's hard enough to be intellectually consistent when one's ideas are in accord with reality, forget about when they contradict reality). Anyways, it seems like it's worth considering one's stake in the discussion (whether attachment to or aversion to a particular theory) and how that might affect one's approach to the discussion as an area of potential bias.

Peikoff says psychology is an empiricist domain today. There used to be theoreticians like Freud but most people today take a John Erik Snyte (from The Fountainhead) style pluralistic approach to psychological theories.

Peikoff's fourth point is that empiricists reject the idea of certain/definitive/final answers. They think we don't know a ton of stuff and so you can't just say stuff is true.

Peikoff's fifth point is that empiricists are against orders, systems, and structured thinking processes as such, and think all options are valid. (Major contrast with rationalists here). They view logic as a game or convention or matter of word use. Peikoff clarifies re: his point about the empiricist opposition to structured thinking processes. He says that empiricists can often write well and clearly, but they're against putting things in any kind of hierarchy conceptually (from fundamental points to secondary points and so on). But within that framework, they can write decently.

Peikoff's sixth point is regarding the empiricist attitude towards emotion. The empiricist is pro-emotion, unlike the rationalist. The empiricist has to rely on his emotions heavily to act and make decisions since he rejects concepts/abstractions/generalizations.

Peikoff's seventh point regarding the empiricist is that he feels vulnerable in the face of disagreement due to his lack of certainty. He may try to offer some examples to convince other people, but that often fails.

Peikoff's eighth and final point is that the base of empiricism is subjectivism. We go by our choices/emotions/personal starting points. Reality doesn't come into it. Empiricism tries to focus on reality but can't deal with reality without concepts, so it winds up dropping reality, contrary to its intent.

Peikoff goes on for a while about the limitations of the trichotomy of rationalism/empiricism/Objectivism. He starts with a reminder that you might have one approach in one field of life and a different approach in another. But more broadly than that, some people don't fit into the categories at all. Some people don't have any sort of approach or tendency and just mix different slogans together. There are also different things like nihilism. Also, you can't say stuff like “All religionists are rationalist" because religion includes so many different types of people.

One quote I found amusing (emphasis added to amusing part):

One last clarification and application: Can you say, “All politicians are empiricists”? No, just in the same way that you can’t say that all religious people are rationalists—it’s too broad a category. It’s even possible to have a good politician, theoretically.