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Objectivist and/vs. academic intellectual culture, part 1 of a series

As I said in my April 18 post, Saturday was the Felician Ethics Conference (FEC) at Felician College in Rutherford NJ. Instead of giving you a blow-by-blow summary of the conference (impossible anyway because I only attended a fraction of the papers) I thought I’d use the occasion to make a few general observations about academic versus Objectivist intellectual culture, using FEC as an illustration.

Ayn Rand herself had a highly equivocal attitude toward academic intellectual culture (and what she called “modern philosophers” in particular). On the one hand, her attitude was intensely, even absurdly negative, spilling at times into stereotyping, overgeneralization, and defamation. Consider some examples, all drawn from For the New Intellectual (1961), Rand’s effective debut as a non-fiction writer and public intellectual.

The title essay of the book begins by describing “modern intellectuals” as follows:

If we look at modern intellectuals, we are confronted with the grotesque spectacle of such characteristics as militant uncertainty, crusading cynicism, dogmatic agnosticism, boastful self-abasement, and self-righteous depravity—in an atmosphere of guilt, of panic, of despair, of boredom, and of all-pervasive evasion. If this is not the state of being at the end of one’s resources, there is no further place to go. (p. 11)

After a few very broad generalizations and denunciations, she invokes what she calls the “archetypes” of “Attila and the Witch Doctor,” intended to describe modern politicians and modern intellectuals, respectively, and to lay bare their complicity in one another’s activities (p. 14). After many pages of extremely unflattering accounts of the motives and “psycho-epistemology” of the Witch Doctors, she indicts them of “guilt,” “evasion,” and “treason” for their intellectual crimes against the human race (pp. 35, 37, 38, 43). In one place in the essay, she likens Witch Doctor intellectuals to animals (17); in another to zombies (here, I suppose, she anticipated David Chalmers by a few decades). Like animals, Rand tells us, modern intellectuals lack a critical faculty; like zombies, they are “guided by feelings, instincts, urges, wishes, whims, or revelations” (p. 51). Between these descriptions, she gives us a whirlwind tour of modern human history organized around the relation of Attila to the Witch Doctor—with Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Comte, Nietzsche, Herbert Spencer, the logical positivists, and the pragmatists playing the role of Witch Doctors in the drama. In this same historical part of the essay, she tells us that there were no intellectuals in the Middle Ages, because “there were only monks in monasteries” (pp. 12-13). About a dozen pages later, acknowledging the medieval influence of Plotinus and Augustine, she praises Thomas Aquinas’s work as “the intellectual prelude to the Renaissance” (p. 23). Coming to American history, she tells us that the Founding Fathers were America’s “first…and so far her last” intellectuals (p. 53), ending with a call for “new intellectuals” who will revive the Founding Fathers’ ideals and carry them on into the future.

Rand’s prescriptions for what to do about modern intellectuals echo her evaluations of them. In Galt’s Speech (originally written in 1957 for Atlas Shrugged, but reprinted in For the New Intellectual), she has Galt advise his listeners to “sweep aside those parasites of subsidized classrooms who live on the profits of the mind, and proclaim that man needs no morality, no values, no code of behavior” (123). Insisting repeatedly that intellectual exchange be modeled on warfare, she describes the philosopher as “the commander in chief” of the “army” of discourse (26), commanding an officer class consisting of scientists and businessmen, and non-commissioned officers consisting of the rest of humanity (27). Modern intellectuals are presumably the enemy, and the task is presumably to defeat or destroy them.

In considering these claims, I don’t mean to assert that they’re entirely devoid of truth. Some intellectuals, modern and otherwise, really do deserve Rand’s criticisms. But then, a stopped clock is right twice a day: whatever the truth in her claims, there is something reprehensible and irresponsible about the way she put them. For one thing, Rand never manages to explain whether “modern intellectuals” refers to a highly delimited subset of the intellectuals as such, to the majority of them, or to all of them. But one can’t accuse people of “treason” without being explicit about such things. For another, she makes no effort to describe the inductive basis of the dozens of wild generalizations she makes in the essay. What exactly had she been reading of “modern intellectuals” when she wrote “For the New Intellectual”? Having read a fair bit of mid-twentieth century analytic philosophy myself, I find plenty in it to reject, and some stuff that’s downright contemptible, but no real basis for Rand’s sweeping denunciations. I don’t think a calm, objective reader looking through the indices of the top-tier journals of the late 1950s and 1960s—Mind, Nous, the Journal of Philosophy, Ethics, the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society—would find that the contents of those journals bear out Rand’s extravagant claims. Were Anscombe, Toulmin, Foot, Geach, and Hare really all Witch Doctors? Were Prichard and Ross? Bernard Williams? J.L. Mackie? Whatever one thinks of him, is Rawls? Leonard Peikoff simultaneously criticizes and praises Hannah Arendt in The Ominous Parallels. How could a theorist deserving both criticism and praise have been nothing but a Witch Doctor? If these individuals weren’t the Witch Doctors Rand had in mind, who were? And how can these individuals be subtracted from the sample? It’s not clear how informed Rand ever was about the main trends of mid-twentieth century thought, or what she ended up reading. The only citation in her “New Intellectuals” essay is one to Nathaniel Branden, who is credited for coming up with the “eloquent designation” of Attila and the Witch Doctor. To a great extent, Rand demands that her readers take her on faith–only to describe faith as one of the destroyers of the modern world.

And taking her on faith is not easy to do, even if one puts aside qualms about faith as such. What she’s saying doesn’t exactly have the ring of truth or plausibility about it. In fact, much of it sounds pretty much like the nonsense you would expect of an arrogant autodidact with a Soviet education. On the face of it, her claims about the absence of intellectuals in the Middle Ages seem downright incoherent. How could there not have been intellectuals in the Middle Ages if Augustine and Aquinas had been so intellectually productive then? Perhaps she meant that no true intellectual operates on the basis of faith, so that Augustine and Aquinas, however intellectually productive, were too fideistic to count as real intellectuals. Well, maybe—but she

Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer (1653)

Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer (1653)

doesn’t say that, and anyway, it makes no sense to praise Aquinas’s world-historical achievements and then turn around and deny him the status of an intellectual. Never mind that the American Revolutionaries whom Rand describes as intellectuals were in many cases theists, and therefore just as fideistic about that belief as was Aquinas. (Maybe she was excluding the theistic ones? But she’s the one who insists in her letters that Paine, the most vehemently anti-religious of the American founders, was “not one of us.”) And never mind that there was a world beyond Europe during the Middle Ages. The medieval Islamic world lacked monks in monasteries; did it thereby lack intellectuals, as well? You’d have to read the medieval Islamic philosophers to know the answer to that question. She never said she did. As far as the Middle Ages are concerned, then, the essay ends up raising more questions than it answers. And it doesn’t answer many.

In the case of the American founders, a charitable reader might take Rand to mean that while there were putative intellectuals who followed them in American history, none did as much as they did to put high theory into everyday practice. Having read her in this charitable spirit, however, one might wonder why we should be charitable to someone who is herself so uncharitable to her interlocutors. As it happens, the latter thought ends up making little difference to the underlying historical issue, because even the charitable version of Rand’s claim flouts plausibility. In what sense did the Founding Fathers earn the status of “intellectuals,” but not Abraham Lincoln, Charles Sumner, Frederick Douglass, or the theoreticians of the feminist or civil rights movements? Again, she doesn’t say. But an author who is silent on that point (and never elaborated thereafter) is not entitled to have demonstrated anything significant even if she ended up being right.

I’m sure that a sufficiently apologetic Objectivist could find a way to read Rand so as to show that there’s no explicit contradiction in her claims. But no degree of textual charity or interpretive ingenuity can conceal the irresponsibility and tendentiousness of Rand’s rhetoric when she was in her intellectual-bashing moods. And she was in it a lot.

Because she was in intellectual-bashing mood so often, the quotations I’ve cited above are really just the tip of the iceberg, and I think they’ve affected the way that many Objectivists, particularly non-academic Objectivists, think about intellectual exchange and more specifically academic life, to this day. Adopting the role of intellectual guerillas, many Objectivists see themselves (or see “Objectivism”) as engaged in a revolutionary insurgency against “modern intellectuals.” Convinced that “modern intellectuals” are treasonous, evasive zombies, such people feel the deep need for intellectual “reprisal raids” against them. Looking to (Objectivist) academic philosophers as the “commanders in chief” of such a campaign, they find themselves puzzled that Objectivism’s putative “commanders in chief” don’t act as though they’re leading any armies anywhere (well, at least not overtly, but there’s more here than meets the eye, as I’ll explain in a later post). The result is cognitive dissonance about the academic enterprise as such. What good are Objectivist academics if they neither win nor fight battles for Objectivism? What good is academia if it’s not the final battleground in the cosmic war for the future of man qua man? “Why is it that our best trained, best educated, best equipped troops refuse to fight? Is it that they’d rather switch than fight?”

There is a saner and more sensible, but also more muted side to Rand’s writing. Having expended her rage in “For the New Intellectual,” she makes the following acute observation near the end of the essay: “The process of identifying, judging, accepting and upholding a new philosophy of life is a long, complicated process, which requires thought, proof, full understanding and conviction” (p. 55). Here Rand recognizes the complexity and difficulty of the issues she’s discussing. She implicitly acknowledges the possibility of honest disagreement, and the length and complexity of the task of resolving it. The sequential order of the words she uses here is very careful and deliberate (and worth comparing with such contemporary pedagogical inanities as “Bloom’s Taxonomy“). Identification and judgment come before acceptance and endorsement. Thought and proof come before understanding and conviction. There are, in other words, no short-cuts to philosophical truth or the explication and defense of Objectivism.

She then insists that the two minimal conditions of intellectual discourse are the resolve to distinguish emotion from cognition, and the rejection of the initiation of force (pp. 55-56). The principles are entirely correct, but there is something quixotic about her insistence on them. Having treated the reader to four dozen sustained pages of wildly emotional temper tantrums, she now insists that the reader’s inquiries take a wholly different, emotionally ascetic form. Having told the reader that the non-initiation of force is not an axiom but must somehow be proven, she enunciates the principle in emotionally-charged language, insists on adherence to it, but offers no proof of it.

Fast-forward, however, a decade and a half to Rand’s West Point Lecture of 1974:

If you feel nothing but boredom when reading the virtually unintelligible theories of some philosophers, you have my deepest sympathy. But if you brush them aside, saying: “Why should I study that stuff when I know it’s nonsense?”— you are mistaken. It is nonsense, but you don’t know it— not so long as you go on accepting all their conclusions, all the vicious catch phrases generated by those philosophers. And not so long as you are unable to refute them.

That nonsense deals with the most crucial, the life-or-death issues of man’s existence. At the root of every significant philosophic theory, there is a legitimate issue— in the sense that there is an authentic need of man’s consciousness, which some theories struggle to clarify and others struggle to obfuscate, to corrupt, to prevent man from ever discovering. The battle of philosophers is a battle for man’s mind. If you do not understand their theories, you are vulnerable to the worst among them.

The best way to study philosophy is to approach it as one approaches a detective story: follow every trail, clue and implication, in order to discover who is a murderer and who is a hero. The criterion of detection is two questions: Why? and How? If a given tenet seems to be true — why? If another tenet seems to be false — why? and how is it being put over? You will not find all the answers immediately, but you will acquire an invaluable characteristic: the ability to think in terms of essentials.

It took her a decade and a half to get it right–but that really is right, down to the italicized “some” at the beginning of the passage. Though she uses one battle metaphor in the passage, in the end she retreats to a metaphor drawn from civilian life–the police detective. The truth, of course, is that ultimately no such metaphor will do. Philosophers aren’t battled-hardened commanders in chief, and they aren’t police detectives, either. Philosophy is a sui generis activity, and it has to be understood on its own terms, not those of other activities or professions.

Ayn Rand was in many ways a brilliant thinker and writer, but her non-fiction writing misses an obvious fact about verbal communication. A writer can’t engage readers with rhetoric as overwrought as hers unless those readers are predisposed to agree, not just with the claims, but with the rhetoric. Unfortunately, readers of that kind are a miniscule fraction of the readers that a writer of enduring and world historical significance should want to reach. The task of reaching a broader, less overwrought audience is made exponentially more difficult if one starts by pandering to the groupies and spitting at the audience. But apparently, the need to denounce and condemn was for Rand a passion that overrode the need to connect or convince. In her writing at least (she may have been different in person), she cared more for demonizing modern intellectuals than for arguing with them. And we Objectivists are left with the legacy. An instructive postscript to the Introduction of the fifth printing of The Virtue of Selfishness asks readers of the book to send questions about its contents to Rand at “The Intellectual Ammunition Department” of The Objectivist Letter. The address seems to imply that questions are not to be answered, but to be shot dead. She adds: “I shall be glad to hear from you, since question have always interested me; questions, not debates—I have given those up long ago” (p. xi). The sentence no longer appears in the most recent printings of the book. But I think it should appear, and not just for reasons of historical accuracy: its appearance might induce readers to ask themselves why the world’s first Objectivist essentially gave up on intellectual debate before she even got started with it.

A couple of years ago I found myself in conversation with a well-known ARI-affiliated academic. Alluding on his own to the rhetoric in Rand’s books, he said to me, sotto voce: “It’s fun stuff, but you really can’t do philosophy like this.” I agree, but perhaps the time has come to stop saying such things sotto voce and start saying them out loud. A few years later I found myself in conversation with a different (and even more famous) ARI-affiliated academic, who was thinking out loud about how to make Ayn Rand’s ideas plausible and attractive to a non-Objectivist audience. Referring to For the New Intellectual, he chuckled in embarrassment and said: “It’s not the first Ayn Rand book you’d want your colleagues to read.” True enough, but perhaps the question worth asking is: if they did read it, and found it ridiculous, what’s the first thing you’d want to say to them? Would you agree with them about its ridiculousness, or would you circle the wagons of Objectivist orthodoxy and keep your mouth shut? While we’re on the subject, what would you think or say about an Objectivist who didn’t keep his mouth shut? Would you be grateful for his candor, or would you accuse him of treason?

Objectivists ought to be asking themselves about the intellectual and psychological damage they’ve done themselves by internalizing Ayn Rand’s idiosyncratic and dysfunctional conception of intellectual life—and in particular, academic life. How useful is it to think of modern intellectuals as Witch Doctors? How useful or healthy is it to liken intellectual life to warfare, or even to detective work, where the presumption is that one is making an investigation into the commission of a crime? How easy is it to observe the distinction between error and evil if we lionize an author who so often failed to observe it? How easy is it to observe the distinction between cognition and emotion when we profess to admire an author whose rhetoric was so emotionally over the top? What verdict should we pass on writing that generalizes wildly across disciplines and epochs but fails to cite any evidence for the claims it makes? What are we to make of a movement within Objectivism that insists on induction but fails to ask whether Rand’s writings satisfy the strictures of inductive logic? Finally, how healthy or epistemically virtuous is an intellectual culture that craves respect from academia but also feels the enduring need to spit at it?

I think the time has come to make a clean break with the norms that have governed Objectivist culture since Rand herself began commenting on the malfeasances of “the intellectuals.” I’ll be a little more specific about that in my next few posts.

Irfan

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2 Comments

  1. […] an earlier post, I suggested that Objectivist intellectual culture is dysfunctional. Too many Objectivists (I […]

  2. “Like animals, Rand tells us, modern intellectuals lack a critical faculty; like zombies, they are ‘guided by feelings, instincts, urges, wishes, whims, or revelations.’”

    But what do zombies hunger for? Brains! So the problem is self-correcting.

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