Summary of Understanding Objectivism, Part 1

First part of a summary of what I thought were the most interesting ideas of Leonard Peikoff's book "Understanding Objectivism".

I finished reading Understanding Objectivism so I thought it'd be worth it to go through and talk about some important ideas from the book.

Peikoff started the book in Lecture One with various arguments people offer against philosophy. Some arguments are: philosophy stifles the individual; it presents them with a vision they can't live up to due to being messed up; it makes you fight with the world as a loner; it's useless. Peikoff argues (with a truck analogy) that if you thought about the perceptual equivalents of these various arguments, you'd see they're ridiculous, and that they only seem plausible because people don't hold philosophy ideas in their mind with the same clarity and immediacy with which they hold physical objects. Peikoff argues that people think you can read a book about philosophy carefully and think you understand it, but that that's only the first step. He says how it's like you can't expect to read a cookbook and be an expert in the kitchen. Peikoff:

You need to actually philosophize in order to make the material part of you. You have to enter the philosophical kitchen and work with the material from the books and the lectures.

Peikoff went into various examples about how to analyze philosophical issues in the book. In Lecture Two, using life as the standard of value an example, he talks about how living entities face an alternative of life or death and require a specific course of action in order to remain in existence. Understanding this sort of issue requires breaking things down (e.g. what things can be valuers? what sort of entities can act?)

In the life-as-the-standard discussion, some mistaken reasoning was offered as an example for criticism. Someone is considering the Objectivist approach to life as the standard of value, which involves the idea that life must be the standard of value because only living beings are confronted by an alternative of life or death/existence or non-existence, and only living beings which have to act to sustain themselves need values. The person wondered if maybe a statue confronts a similar alternative of existence or non-existence, because if you smash it, the distinctive shape is gone, and so it's lost its distinctive essence. This struck me at first as plausible. Peikoff argued that this person was dropping a bunch of concretes from what "life" means, and equating an entity with its defining attribute. If a person dies, he crosses over into inanimate matter; if a statue is smashed, it's still inanimate. Treating those as the same because they both lost their essential thing is rationalistic. (We don't treat smashing statutes and murdering people as similar in criminal law on the basis that the essence of a thing has been destroyed in both cases, though a society where that sort of thing was done sounds like a premise for an entertaining story.) Also (my point), a statue doesn't confront alternatives at all. It can only be acted upon. It can't value things. As Peikoff says, values require a valuer. A person can choose.

Another example topic Peikoff used for philosophical analysis, in Lecture Three, was honesty. He said that honesty involves a step beyond evasion. Evasion is where you're out of focus. Dishonesty involves making up false facts. He looked at various mistaken approaches to discussing the topic. One more general point I liked is that Peikoff says that if you're interested in some philosophical issue like honesty, you have to give yourself a "standing order" to collect concretes from real life about it, and make it like a hobby. I did a dialogue that discussed why people might be dishonest and how to not get overwhelmed by being honest about your problems. One main point there was that problems are often mutually supporting in a negative way, so if you can get make some progress on any individual one area, you may have positive effects you didn't foresee in other areas.

Another example topic Peikoff used for philosophical analysis, in Lecture Four, was Force and Rights. Peikoff argued that it's literally impossible to force a mind (e.g. saying something like "Start believing in God, or I'll shoot") and have it work. This has to do with the nature of the mind, which is a "cognitive faculty for perceiving reality by means of a complex process of observation/judgment/connection." You can't just order the mind to come to different conclusions - (my analogy) it's kind of like a computer or program that's going to come out with the result it's going to come out with (unless you reprogram it, but you do that with ideas and not guns). So force can't change minds. But force can change people's actions. So if you use force, you're disconnecting the results of someone's mind from their actions. And force is what people need to use to survive. So force is anti-mind.

Peikoff gave a list of his criteria of evaluating people's presentations of philosophical issues that I thought was good:

1. Right conclusion-is it the right conclusion?
2. Context hierarchy-have they set the right context hierarchically? Inother words, in the right order.
3. Definitions oscillate-are they defining whatever is absolutelyessential, and are they keeping that tied to reality by reducing it to
the concretes?
4. Concretized.
5. Inductive-as opposed to that rationalistic deduction.
6. Stages-if necessary, is the argument broken up into steps?
7. Devil's advocate-are there some objections that the person is justblithely passing by, that are blatant?
8. Integration.

In Lecture Five, people talked about his view of the Hierarchy of Objectivism. My opinion is that his basic approach is reasonable. His approach is of organizing philosophical issues into some sort of big overarching groups or themes that have some relationship to each other, with some topics coming first and others coming later. He thinks his organization has a logically necessary order, and I disagree with that part. He also engaged in an exercise that I thought was good and which he called "the spiral exercise." He asked people to consider the relationship between an "early" and "late" philosophical principle in his hierarchy and how the later principal cast light on the earlier principle despite coming later.

In Lecture Six, Peikoff started contrasting the Objectivist approach to issues to other approaches. Specifically, he contrasts Objectivism with subjectivism, "the doctrine that feelings are the creator of facts, and therefore, man's primary tool of cognition", and intrinsicism, the view that reality is all there is and consciousness contributes is an empty mirror on which reality writes. Peikoff says intrinsicists can be prone to righteous emotionalism, where they go by their feelings but also think they're correct objectively. Intrinsicists think some stuff is just wrong (out of context), don't think human purposes matter, and think that options are bad. Peikoff heavily criticizes the idea that the mind makes no contribution to knowledge. He brings up various points such as that we have to categorize and organize our knowledge (reality doesn't do that for us), and that we need to use certain methods (like logic) in order to figure stuff out correctly (meaning we aren't just figuring out stuff because it's self-evident).

In Lecture Seven, Peikoff talks about rationalism. Peikoff's discussion of rationalism is a very important theme, and wanting to talk about how rationalism can mess up a mental process was apparently a major motivator of Peikoff's in terms of writing the book. Peikoff lays out a bunch of what he calls symptoms of rationalism, and some of them rang really true with me:

  1. Ideas above reality.
  2. Deduction as the basic method of knowledge.
  3. Starting points are purely conceptual self-evidencies.
  4. A desire for "certainty with omniscience".
  5. Concern with order (i.e. liking neat, tidy systems that might be disconnected from reality).
  6. Anti-emotions
  7. Liking polemics and seeing disagreement as a threat.

Some specific points in this warrant some recap.

"Deduction as the basic method of knowledge" relates to having difficulty dealing with the complexity of the world. There is lots of stuff to deal with in reality, and it can be hard to organize your thinking about that (especially if you've picked up a bunch of bad ideas already, as is inevitable), so people just try to find some abstractions to latch on to. One example Peikoff gives is Objectivists who think Christmas celebrates altruism, which they think means Christmas is bad. Peikoff points out that in fact Christmas has various attributes, of which altruism may be just one. One can connect this to the bit about destroying the statue earlier. In that case, someone decided that a statue's essential defining attribute was its shape and reasoned along those lines (dropping the context of the fact that we were discussing living entities). With the trees, someone decides that altruism is the essential defining attribute of Christmas, and drops the context of a bunch of other potential things you could define it in terms of, the role it plays in our society, etc.

"Certainty with omniscience" is about feeling like you've got to address every specific case in detail because you don't have well-chewed concepts to integrate things together. So then you're thinking about an issue like the morality of lying in terms of special cases like "white lies for close relatives" and "used-car salesmen with Chevrolets", which Peikoff describes as compartmentalization. Inefficient! Peikoff also mentions that if you have this sort of approach, you'll see-saw wildly from thinking you're omniscient to coming across some counterexample and thinking you're ignorant.

To be continued...