The Role of Philosophy, Part 1

Part 1 of a series of posts on the first chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism", "The Role of Philosophy".

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 One, “The Role of Philosophy”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism.

Peikoff Lays Out Arguments Against Philosophy

Peikoff opens by talking about people who attack philosophy. He basically says that if the ignorant man on the street who doesn’t know anything about philosophy attacks it, no big deal. And if someone who likes Linguistic Analysis or skepticism attacks philosophy, that’s also no big deal. Peikoff wants to talk about people who like Ayn Rand, egoism, capitalism, but still attack philosophy. He lays out three such attacks, and asks the reader to consider whether they seem even momentarily plausible, and to not reject them out of hand “because you know that I’m going to slaughter them in the fullness of time.” (side comment: not a fan of “slaughter” here — it’s a bit too much like that “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Libs!!” stuff on YouTube. “Refute” would have been better.)

Philosophy v. the Self

Argument one is that philosophy stifles individuality or the self. Philosophy lays out a bunch of principles and rules about what to think on important issues, and thus doesn’t leave room for individuality or self-expression. You’re supposed to bring yourself under rules that apply to all men at all times. To do this, supposedly, you have to repress yourself and turn yourself into a robot. So if e.g. an Objectivist doesn’t like skyscrapers or New York, he’s got to get over that and learn to love those things or else he’s a bad person. Or if he likes Beethoven’s music he’s got to stop because Rand thought his music was “malevolent universe.” Or if a woman wants to have kids she might feel guilty she’s not an industrialist like Dagny Taggart.

Peikoff presents what he calls a psychological variant of the same argument. It goes like this: if everyone were raised Objectivist, and had consistent, integrated personalities as a result, then everything would be fine. But real life is not like that. People are raised by irrational parents and deal with lots of other irrational people. So when they discover Objectivism, they have various bad ideas and problems. They like Objectivism, but they’ve got a big conflict between this new intellectual stuff and their existing, flawed ideas. Peikoff gives the example of someone who was raised poorly and never developed strong values or passions related to their career. They feel guilty for not being Roark-like. Peikoff says that you might tell a person to go to a psychotherapist, uproot and reintegrate their basic principles, and so on, and things will clear up in time. But the person having a problem thinks that their problems are effectively insoluble, because even with effective help, the state of psychological knowledge is so primitive that they might spend their entire life with an inner conflict.

So Peikoff summarizes his variants and examples:

So, in one variant here, the person says, “This is me, and I want to be this way, and philosophy stamps me down,” and the other says, “This is me, and I don’t want to be this way, but I have no choice, I have to, and again, philosophy stamps me down.” So in either case, there is constant inner conflict. And that is the argument of philosophy versus the individual, or philosophy versus the self.

One criticism I have about Peikoff’s first variant (which is heavily informed by the fact that I’ve already read some of the rest of the book and am proceeding very out of order, so I already know some of Peikoff’s arguments) is that philosophy lays down principles but does not lay down every concrete. So e.g. it says that you should have a productive career — so, don’t be a thief or a bureaucrat at the Redistribution Bureau or something — but there is actually a huge spectrum of stuff that falls within the definition of productive. And in terms of liking certain music or skyscrapers or whatever, judging that sort of issue is context dependent in that you need to know what you like or don’t like about it and why. For example, maybe you dislike New York because you associate it with statism or tyranny or something. Regardless of whether you’re right or not in making that association, if you have that association, your reaction to the idea of New York is understandable. Or I’ve even met people who like New York (in a certain historical period — in, say, the 1970s) due to an association with degeneracy, crime, and disorder (this is my description of their view), which I think indicates bad values (and which of course was very different than Rand’s reasons for liking New York). So it all depends on why you like stuff. To look at the music example, I enjoyed listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony many times, because I took it as a very triumphant and heroic-sounding piece of music. I didn’t see any malevolent universe in it. I’m not saying Rand is wrong, by the way — I’m just saying I literally did not see what she saw in it, and so I had a different emotional reaction, and I think that my emotional reaction was quite proper and correct given my aesthetic or interpretative premises or whatever you want to call it. I associated musical piece with X idea, and reacted accordingly; Rand associated musical piece with Y idea, and reacted accordingly. This doesn’t mean it’s all subjective and a matter of personal preference, though. I concede that Rand might be right in the sense that if she were able to explain her perspective in detail to me then I might concede the point and have a change in my emotional reaction. Part of the issue there is that our ability to talk about the relationship between music and ideas is very imprecise. But anyways, until and unless I actually understood Rand’s perspective and changed my view, my own interpretation is perfectly understandable and valid given my existing premises. So there is nothing to feel bad about there.

Regarding Peikoff’s psychological variant, I think there is a big error in it. Objectivism points out a problem in someone’s life (like that they don’t have a career that they are passionate about) and the person having the conflict agrees that this is a problem (or else they would not even feel a conflict in the first place), but they blame Objectivism/philosophy, which has given them useful knowledge about a problem in their life, for pointing out the problem. This is a very shoot-the-messenger sort of mentality.

The idea of having an insoluble conflict due to a clash between one’s messed up ideas and conflicts between those ideas and rational philosophy is interesting. It’s something that I have some sympathy towards. It’s maybe worth walking through the example. Suppose that someone lacks a career passion and discovers Objectivism and thinks that a career passion is something they should have. Should they feel bad? No. They should feel excited that they have the opportunity to explore the possibilities involving a new value for their life. And exploring is what they should do. They should explore interests and possibilities and try different things out. They shouldn’t expect a career passion to be something that just hits them out of the blue like a lightning bolt. It’s something they have to investigate and cultivate. A career passion is a value, like any other value. “‘Value’ is that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” And so, before attacking philosophy as causing them some sort of insoluble conflict, they should ask themselves what actions they’ve undertaken to gain the value of having a career passion. And if the answer is not very impressive, they should reconsider the idea of the existence of a conflict between philosophy and their ideas. They shouldn’t expect to introspect for a day or two and discover that their one true passion in life is to be a sculptor or tax attorney or something. That’s not a realistic model of how things will generally work. They haven’t put in the work yet to arrive at a conclusion that some conflict exists.

There is also something weird/Utopian/revolutionary about conceding that an Objectivist culture would be good while claiming that Objectivism creates insoluble problems in one’s own individual life. If Objectivism actually created insoluble problems for individuals, wouldn’t it be dangerous to implement it society-wide? Is the idea that in an Objectivist society, Objectivist parents would be completely error free and not cause their children to have any trouble-causing misconceptions, or that maybe the culture at large would correct any such problems? I think that’s unrealistic. I don’t think that you can rely on an error-free or misconception-free upbringing and then build your projection of a society around that. The people in “Atlantis” will still be mortals who can and will make mistakes. They will hopefully make better mistakes, but they will still err. Maybe in such a society there would be more people who feel pressure to be something great, because there would be way more examples of such people and a general culture of celebrating such people. And maybe in such a society there would be better counselors/advisers/philosophers to help people with that sort of problem, with more effective advice. But people might very will still have the problem. And if you’re one of the people encountering that problem at an early stage (before we get to an Objectivist society), that’s actually pretty exciting, in a way. You’re at the cutting edge of a new problem that other people haven’t figured out well yet, and so you have a unique opportunity to try to figure things out using your mind and intelligence. And dealing with that very problem (of being on the frontier of dealing with an apparent clash between Objectivist philosophy and one’s own lack of career passion) could wind up being the very solution to one’s problem (Objectivist career counselor? The obstacle is the way).

Philosophy v. the Outside World

The second argument against philosophy that Peikoff lays out is that it puts a philosophically consistent person in the position of judging a bunch of stuff in the world negatively. And this is particularly true of Objectivism, which clashes with basic principles of the last 2500 years of philosophy. So the result is that the Objectivist has to be a loner who lives a life of cultural alienation and is in a protracted battle with everyone. He can’t e.g. just watch a movie and enjoy it. And so the person winds up rejecting philosophy to get rid of the constant tension.

Peikoff described/criticized this idea in Lecture 11, which I’ve already read. The basic resolution is that you need to be good at objectively assessing things and people in the culture and not fall into either being overly condemnatory or a Pollyanna. We live in a mixed culture and so your attitude should reflect the mixture and not be overly negative.

Philosophy Is Basically Useless

Peikoff describes an argument that says that philosophy matters when you’re young or when you first discover it to set the basic direction of your life. But after you’ve made certain basic choices about your politics and career and friends and so on, you don’t get much else out of philosophy, assuming you’re not a professional intellectual. Peikoff analogizes this view to Deism. He says that the religious view is that God is all-powerful and determines everything. And then Deism says you need God to get things going but then you can get along with out him. And then the atheist says that if you can get along with God for almost everything you can get along without at the beginning too. And so I think Peikoff’s analogy is that an Objectivist view would be that philosophy is all powerful and determines everything. And this “Deist” view he’s describing says you need it at the beginning but then can get along without it. And so the conclusion of “philosophical deism” is rejecting philosophy, since if you can get along for most of your life without it, why do you even need it at the beginning? So the view ultimately results in an attack on philosophy as such.

I think the argument against philosophy Peikoff is describing is flawed, because I don’t think that you can just put life on autopilot after some effort at the start. You will come up with new problems and challenges and need to correct some earlier mistakes. A whole human existence is very complex and needs constant, active thought in order to deal with it effectively.

Peikoff says that the common denominator to the arguments he has laid out is a dichotomy of philosophy and life. Peikoff says there are different anti-philosophical attitudes in the culture. Some people think philosophy is just abstract theoretical stuff with no cash value. Other people have some respect for philosophy but keep it as a side issue they only deal with sometimes — this is the “church on Sundays” attitude. There are also “fanatics who sacrifice their lives to their philosophy”, according to Peikoff, like nuns and political fanatics.