The Role of Philosophy, Part 2

Part 2 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 the second in a series about Lecture One, “The Role of Philosophy”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism.

Part 1 Recap

In Part 1, Peikoff laid out three arguments against philosophy that he says are made by people who like Objectivist ideas. The three arguments are that philosophy puts one in conflict against the self, that philosophy puts one in conflict with the wider world, and that philosophy is basically useless. I offered some initial criticisms to those ideas (both my own and rehashing some of Peikoff’s from later in the book).

More from Lecture One

Peikoff says that they used to tell college freshman a bunch of positive things about philosophy in general — that it gives you a sense of certainty, basic self-confidence, intellectual control over your mind, and so on. For the man on the street, the world is a mystery. He can’t understand the injustices he sees or even be sure they are injustices.

Peikoff makes some analogies regarding the three arguments against philosophy I discussed in Part 1:

If you started to walk into the path of a speeding truck, and someone screamed out to you, “Watch out for the truck!” no one apart from a deliberate suicide would dream of answering the following: “Don’t try to impose rules on me, I want to express myself.”

Peikoff thinks this is an analogue for the idea that philosophy puts you in conflict with yourself. People think that philosophy is a rigid set of rules that you have to conform to at the expense of your own self-expression. But the knowledge of philosophy is actually necessary and important information in order to avoid disaster. If you want to avoid doing the equivalent of walking into trucks with your life, you need that knowledge. With a truck, the issue is pretty clear. Most people, if they had a pre-existing desire to walk into the street at a particular moment (to get to the other side or whatever), would actually change that desire really quickly in order to avoid the truck and not die. The analysis is clear and intuitive for them. Their hierarchy of values clearly says that preserving life is a higher value than crossing the street at a particular instant. No conflict would result. But with more complex issues, people get more confused and are more likely to err.

Or, “I don’t have views on trucks, because I don’t want to argue all the time, and people have so many different ideas about trucks.”

Peikoff thinks that this is a perceptual-level analogue for the idea that philosophy puts you in conflict in with the world. Even if some people out there deny the existence of trucks [1], most people wouldn’t feel the need to entertain/conform to/pander to such a viewpoint in a serious way. The existence of trucks is obviousness enough to them that they have no doubt about it. Other people’s views to the contrary aren’t something that affects them. So they can act with certainty and without internal conflict.

Or, “I’ve already seen all the trucks I need to in my life when I was young; looking is a waste of time for me now, I’m too busy.”

Peikoff thinks that this is the perceptual-level analogue for the argument that philosophy is basically useless and that you maybe only need it at the start. The idea that you could get all your looking for trucks done at some point in the past and just go on autopilot on the truck issue for the rest of your life is ridiculous. What if trucks come up later? Same with philosophy.

One interesting takeaway from Peikoff’s examples is that most people are extremists/absolutists about various concrete things. “Extremism” is often used as a slur but basically everyone’s a don’t-get-in-the-way-of-trucks extremist.

On the perceptual level, that is the analogue of the three arguments against philosophy. On that level, reality confronts us immediately, concretely, inescapably, and is not a matter of debate. The point is that this does not happen on the conceptual level—that is, the level of ideas, abstractions, thought. On that level, a gap is possible; an idea, sincerely held, mind you, but utterly unconnected to the world; and that is what makes possible a disdain for ideas. If ideas—and I mean here abstract philosophical ideas—were held by people with the same immediacy, the same reality, the same relation to actual perceptual concretes as the way we see trucks, none of the anti-philosophical line could arise, because it would be immediately obvious that it was an anti-reality line. If a person saw his philosophy in every concrete, and I mean see it, reallysee it, the way he now sees trucks, then no problems of the kind mentioned could arise. The person might still have problems with himself or with people, but he wouldn’t have problems with philosophy; he wouldn’t think the solution was to abandon philosophy.

I think that you could talk about Peikoff’s idea here in terms of Elliot Temple’s idea of practice and mastery. That is to say that if one were to practice and learn philosophy to full mastery, then one would be able to see philosophical principles in concrete, immediate terms, as one sees trucks (or near enough), and then one wouldn’t have the problems Peikoff is describing.

Peikoff says that the essence of being in favor of reason is “proving your ideas”. He has a very particular definition of what he means by proving, though:

Proof is not some formalized, ritualized deduction that would satisfy a pack of desiccated scholars somewhere. It is notsome tricky, convoluted rigmarole designed to outwit dishonest adversaries. Proof is a very simple thing, and it is utterly nonsocial. It is the method of seeing firsthand that your ideas come from reality, that they actually reflect or correspond to facts of reality. That’s all. Proof is really nothing but taking an abstract idea and endowing it with the vividness, the immediacy, the compelling quality of the percept of the truck that we talked about. So if you really proved an idea, it should stand in your mind like that truck, as a fact that is there, real, perceivable, unanswerable, absolute.

So he’s not talking about things in the vein of formal logic or math proofs or anything like that. He means something like connecting an abstract idea to a bunch of concretes, thinking about the idea in detail, and so on. He says that that can be hard to achieve.

Peikoff makes an epistemological claim. He says there is a general problem with abstractions, which is that they are shorthand symbols for integrations of concretes and that, by the very nature of what they are, they are a step removed from reality, and can get more and more removed as you go along. So there’s a problem of keeping abstractions tied to reality that exists generally. But this general problem is a particular challenge for philosophy, because it deals with the widest abstractions, and is the most universal. This makes sense to me so far.

Peikoff continues and says that, on the one hand, philosophy is the most accessible field, because you don’t need anything like specialized knowledge regarding engineering, medicine, or whatever. It deals “with issues available at all times in all places to all professions” and to engage with it just requires that you “look at the world and grasp what’s available in every age to every man.” But on the other hand, it’s the hardest, because your abstractions cover the totality of existence. And most people can’t actually deal with this complexity, and so they retreat to a world of words untied from reality, and so their actual practice of philosophy follows a “church on Sunday” pattern of being disconnected from the reality of their life.

Peikoff says that a false philosophy being disconnected from reality isn’t such a big deal in a sense, but Objectivism is true and so it actually is super demanding in terms of making you stay connected to reality. Peikoff says students of Objectivism find this part about being connected to reality super hard, even if they are hard-working and motivated. He says he had similar trouble for fifteen years (!) and that you need a specific method to keep that connection to reality.

I liked this passage on what it takes to actually understand something:

Many people have the idea that they can read a book on philosophy or Objectivism—now, we mean here that they’re reading it in focus, they’re sincere, they follow carefully—and they think that if they do that, and then at the end say, “This makes sense, I agree,” that that constitutes understanding. It does not. Reading is not enough. The same is true of lectures. You can listen to someone else, the most wonderful lecturer in history, and you can be focused, sincere, honest, but that does not yield understanding in the sense we’re talking about. I’m not downplaying reading or listening; that’s obviously important, it’s vital, it’s the first step in learning a new philosophy. But the point is, it’s only the first step. There’s a whole process that has to come after that if you are to reach the stage of seeing, knowing, really grasping. There’s a whole series of intervening steps required to bridge the gap.

Peikoff also says that people confuse summarizing an idea with understanding it. To me, having only a summary one can’t explain in detail seems like an example of having a floating abstraction. For example, one might summarize the law from Brandenburg v. Ohio as saying that the government can’t prohibit speech advocating the use of force unless the speech is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and the speech is “likely to incite or produce such action.” But what the hell does that mean in 10 concrete cases, each with somewhat different facts? To be able to answer that question well would constitute understanding.

Peikoff makes a good comparison (and one I particularly appreciate because I actually learned how to cook some as an adult!). He says that nobody would read a cookbook or attend a cooking course and expect to come out an accomplished cook. Those activities are fine as a starting point, but you actually have to cook to learn the material. You’ve got to connect abstract discussions about sauce pans to figuring out whether you can make a recipe in a particular pan. If you were told to press the button on a food processor to start it, and you see two buttons — “Pulse” and “Steady” — you’ve got to figure out which button. And so on. So there are all these concretes and questions you have to deal with to connect abstract discussion of cooking to actual cooking. And philosophy is even harder than that. I’ll quote a bit extensively here because I liked this part, especially the end:

Philosophy is the same, only more so, because the abstractions are so wide. 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. Now we can drop the analogy and just say it straight. The real goal has to be to learn to derive your philosophy from reality as though you were the first creator of it. Having heard the lectures and read the books, you have to then forget all summaries, all the lecture notes, and go back to reality and learn to grasp the philosophic idea from what you directly perceive and what you know about yourself.
Obviously, this is how Ayn Rand had to get Objectivism. She didn’t get it from reading Atlas, nor from attending my lectures. To her, it was like seeing the truck; it was the result of her perception of reality (obviously not on just one day). There’s no substitute for this. Her summary in her works is the beginning of the quest—it’s like a map, or a traffic guide, but that’s all. You still have to travel the same route. Of course, the map makes it a lot easier. But you still have to take the journey.

I think part of the issue here is that people think that Rand had some innate genius and so the idea of taking a journey that results in the same understanding of Objectivism she had seems absurd. This view regarding Rand’s genius contradicts Objectivism [2], IMHO, and was something Rand and Peikoff argued about.

Peikoff says there are many complexities involved in the journey, like dealing effectively with things like abstractions, the crow epistemology, when to use definitions, and so on. Rand called the process “chewing”. He says that one reason people don’t know about chewing is it’s not taught. Another important reason is a philosophic error called the mind/body dichotomy, which has many variants. Three key variants, according to Peikoff, are reason versus emotion, the moral versus the practical, and concepts versus percepts. Moral versus practical is a problem of what to do — someone feels like there is a conflict between standards they are trying to hold to and an alien world. Reason versus emotion is about how to handle emotion — people think there is a conflict between their intellectual ideas and their emotions. Concepts versus percepts is about an apparent conflict between one’s concept and the stuff one is seeing in the world.

So people feel like there’s some kind of conflict and they have to pick between mind or body. And Peikoff has names for people who pick one side or other of the dichotomy. Like for moral vs practical, he says the people who pick morality/mind/principles are tortured idealists and the people who go for body/practicality are the pragmatists. For ideas vs emotions, the mind/idea people are the repressors and the body/emotion people are emotionalists. Regarding concepts vs percepts, if you go for mind (concepts over facts) you’re a rationalist, and if you go for body (facts over concepts) you’re an empiricist. Peikoff says that Objectivists tend to go towards the “mind” side of things, and that, as a tendency (and he heavily emphasizes it’s just a tendency) Objectivist men go more for rationalism and Objectivist women go more for empiricism.

A tree:



  1. Atlas Shrugged: “You must learn to take a philosophical attitude,” said Dr. Simon Pritchett to a young girl student who broke down into sudden, hysterical sobs in the middle of a lecture. She had just returned from a volunteer relief expedition to a settlement on Lake Superior; she had seen a mother holding the body of a grown son who had died of hunger. “There are no absolutes,” said Dr. Pritchett. “Reality is only an illusion. How does that woman know that her son is dead? How does she know that he ever existed?” ↩︎

  2. Atlas Shrugged (spoilers): “Don’t be astonished, Miss Taggart,” said Dr. Akston, smiling, “and don’t make the mistake of thinking that these three pupils of mine are some sort of superhuman creatures. They’re something much greater and more astounding than that: they’re normal men—a thing the world has never seen—and their feat is that they managed to survive as such. It does take an exceptional mind and a still more exceptional integrity to remain untouched by the brain-destroying influences of the world’s doctrines, the accumulated evil of centuries—to remain human, since the human is the rational.” ↩︎