The Institute for Objectivist Studies

IOE, paragraph 1, sentence 1

Sentence 1

The first sentence raises the possibility that had there been no popular demand for IOE, there might not have been an IOE.

Of course, the very idea of “popular demand” for “information on Objectivist epistemology” either presupposes a very theoretically sophisticated population that autonomously demands an epistemology whether one was in the offing or not, or some indications from Rand herself—written and/or oral—of claims about an Objectivist epistemology. The Foreword to IOE is dated July 1966. As early as “For the New Intellectual” (1961), Rand had written that the problem of universals/concepts was philosophy’s basic unresolved issue. So she certainly prepared the ground for a book on epistemology, and between 1961 and 1966, Objectivists must have come to anticipate her writing on the subject.

Still, she might not have. She planned a last novel that she didn’t write, and planned a book on Objectivism itself that she didn’t write. So, given the possibility of plans gone awry, Rand might never have written IOE.

This gives us two possibilities to consider with respect to the content of Objectivism.

(1) Suppose that IOE had gone entirely unwritten. What would that have implied for the content of Objectivism?

(2) Suppose that IOE had gone unwritten by Rand, but that a hypothetical version of IOE, identical in content, had been written by someone other than Rand. What would that have implied for the content of Objectivism? Let me take these in turn.

Take (1) first. Suppose that IOE had gone (entirely) unwritten, a counterfactual I’ll regard as possible and worth thinking about. (By “entirely unwritten,” I mean that no part of it had been written.)

I see two exclusive and competing sub-possibilities here.

(1a) If IOE had not been written, there would have been no Objectivist theory of concepts. Without an Objectivist theory of concepts, there would have been no distinctive Objectivist epistemology. Without a distinctive Objectivist epistemology, Objectivism would have been radically incomplete—so incomplete that we would have been justified in dismissing the existence of Objectivism as a philosophical system. Galt’s Speech might have given the outline of such a system, but an outline is not a system. “The Objectivist Ethics” might have laid out a radical ethical theory, but in the absence of a theory of concepts, fundamental claims within that theory–e.g., claims about the “genetic dependence of ‘value’ on ‘life'”–would have been left undefended, and without a theoretical means of defense. In this case, Objectivism would not have come into existence at all. At best, it would have come into existence in potentia, and would have required the efforts of philosophers besides Ayn Rand in order to be developed into a complete (or more complete) system. The whole of the Objectivist epistemology would be waiting to be discovered or even re-discovered (assuming that Rand had some of it in her head without writing it down), but it would not have existed in theoretical form until it had been written down by someone in the form of a monograph or treatise.

(1b) If IOE had not been written, the Objectivist theory of concepts would still have survived in oral form. Rand tells us in IOE that she worked out her theory of concepts in the 1940s, decades before the theory took written form (p. 395). Between the 1940s and the late 1960s, she refined the theory and discussed it with her trusted colleagues (e.g., Nathaniel Branden, Leonard Peikoff, Harry Binswanger, Allan Gotthelf, etc.). Surely by the publication of Atlas Shrugged (1957), the Objectivist theory of concepts (hence the Objectivist epistemology) was fully worked out, whether it took written form or not. Colleagues of hers from that time recall hearing the worked-out versions of the theory long before it was written down. So whether the contents of IOE were written down or not is irrelevant. The Objectivist theory of concepts was fully actualized—if only in Ayn Rand’s mind—sometime between the 1940s and 1957. When we do Objectivist epistemology now (in Ayn Rand’s absence), we are trying to re-discover or better yet re-enact her mental processes. When we succeed at doing that—and only when we do—we succeed at discovering the nature of Objectivist epistemology. (That’s why Ayn Rand’s Journals are such an important resource: they give us a glimpse into her mind at work.) Otherwise, we are engaged in our own interpretive or intellectual activity, and have no right to call it “Objectivist epistemology.” We should take intellectual responsibility by distancing our intellectual activity from Objectivism, which is exclusively her achievement.

I accept (1a), and reject (1b). As I see it, a theory cannot take merely oral form, and certainly cannot survive long (for decades) in that form. A theory involves a complex, integrated, and fully articulated set of claims. No human being can hold a whole theory in her head for decades, writing none of it down, and then regarding the theory as “actualized” when she happens to think about it or assert it, whether at her own initiative or on demand. It’s one thing to have a set of ideas in gestation—even brilliant ideas that will become a great theory when written down. It’s another thing—an impossible thing—to have a theory of something that simply exists in your head and in the memories of the people to whom you recounted it prior to your writing it out on paper. People sometimes talk that way–“I had a theory about X, then I wrote it down”–but it’s a highly misleading way of talking. There is a huge difference between the claims in your head that will eventually become a theory, and the written form they take once you work them out in a form that a responsible author is willing to publish (especially on the pre-Internet conception of publication). As I see it, the latter is a theory (or can be one), the former is not.

Rand herself explains why. She tells us in IOE that a cognizer needs a word for a given concept to complete the process of concept-formation for that concept. A pre-verbal or sub-verbal resolve to treat similars as similar won’t work:

In order to be used as a single unit, the enormous sum integrated by a concept has to be given the form of a single, specific, perceptual concrete, which will differentiate it from all other concretes and from all other concepts (p. 10).

She insists that propositions are verbal entities (p. 48). And given the connection between propositions, definitions, and words, I think her view implies that a theory has to be written down: “The truth and falsehood of all man’s conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions,” she writes on p. 49 (in italics), and every definition has to take verbal form to be in conformity with “epistemological law” (p. 48).

A theory is a complex system of claims, conclusions, inferences, definitions, and the like. If every inference depends on definitions, and every definition (and every fully formed concept) requires verbal means for “completion,” then the same applies a fortiori (or at least mutatis mutandis) to theories. Theories are the best exemplifications of inference, definition, and so on. If the latter are paradigmatically exemplified in verbal form, theories even more obviously require verbal formulation. Given this, there obviously cannot (on Rand’s view, or the Objectivist one) be such thing as a literally sub- or pre-verbal theory.[1]

Option (1b) above entails not quite a pre-verbal theory, but something close enough to have the same problem: a theory that is fully articulated in every relevant respect, and yet held exclusively in oral form or else retained ‘verbally’ in the author’s head without being written down. I flatly deny the coherence of both conjuncts of the preceding claim, when asserted simultaneously. No one can articulate something as complex as a theory without writing it down. And epistemically, even if a super-genius could somehow do that, (which I merely grant ex hypothesi) we non-geniuses couldn’t be justified in knowing that she did. It therefore cannot be “irrelevant” to Objectivism whether or not IOE was written down, as option (1b) asserts. We not only have no real access to this “oral” version of the Objectivist theory, we have reason to believe that it could not have been as determinate or clear as the written version. (And even the written version is somewhat unclear and indeterminate.) The Objectivist theory simply could not have been fully actualized before IOE was written, and would not have been actualized if it had not been written. It is any case doubtful whether the “parallel mental re-enactment” theory of how to do epistemology–drop your own beliefs about knowledge and try to re-enact or replicate Ayn Rand’s mental processes–is truth-conducive or compatible with the virtue of independence.

Suppose I’m right, then, that (1a) is true and (1b) false, and consider the next possibility.

(2) Imagine that IOE had gone unwritten, and that someone besides Ayn Rand had written a version of it identical to it in content (or identical in all theoretically relevant respects, i.e., abstracting from quirks of style, the specificities of various examples, etc.) Call this book COECounterfactual Objectivist Epistemology.

A critic might regard COE as “impossible,” but I’m going to dismiss that criticism out of hand. There’s nothing literally impossible about someone’s writing COE. In fact, I don’t think it’s even that hard to imagine a hypothetical person highly influenced by Aristotle, Locke, resemblance nominalism, and certain currents of thought in cognitive psychology just coming up with a version of Rand’s theory. But nothing turns on how hard it is to imagine, as long as COE is possible.

There are two competing and exclusive sub-possibilities here, as well.

(2a) COE is–given its non-Randian authorship but despite its ex hypothesi Objectivist content–not Objectivism.

(2b) COE is–given its content but despite its not being authored by Ayn Rand–a book stating and defending Objectivist epistemology.

In “Fact and Value,” Leonard Peikoff states a version of Objectivism that entails (2a). I think (2a) is paradoxical, and (b) is obviously true. Option (2a) literally regards the content of a theory as irrelevant to a question of content: whether a theory or book is or isn’t part of a philosophical system called “Objectivism.” It treats the authorship of the theory or book as a kind of magic talisman that overrides questions of content. But if IOE states the most fundamental theses of Objectivism—its account of the relation between mind and world—then ex hypothesi so does COE. It makes no sense to say that if someone other than Rand had stated the fundamental claims of Objectivism, those claims would not be Objectivism. Nor does it make sense to say if someone states and defends those claims, Objectivism doesn’t exist. There seems no alternative to admitting that if someone besides Rand authors Objectivist content, that content is Objectivist. If content is Objectivist, then trivially, it is part of Objectivism.

Imagine that Rand had died in June 1966, just before she published IOE (and finalized it for publication). But suppose that someone familiar with Rand’s writing but from outside of her inner circle and movement had—sitting in some lonely attic in Bismarck, North Dakota—independently worked out an epistemic theory with the same content as the one Rand was about to publish. Suppose that this independent author had published his work in July 1966. Peikoff’s claim entails that this North Dakotan version of COE would not have been Objectivism regardless of its content, simply because it had the wrong author. It also implies that the same book with the same content, written by Rand, would be Objectivism simply because it was Rand who wrote it.

What difference is made to the content of either theory by the identity of the author if ex hypothesi the content of each theory minus the author is the same? If the answer to the preceding question is “none,” as I think it is, then how do we determine the contents of a theory except by its specifically theoretical constituents? And how could the question “Is this Objectivism or not?” be anything but a question about the contents of a theory called “Objectivism”? These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’d really like to know.

One thought on the transition between sentences (1) and (2): I find it highly problematic that Rand begins the Preface to her work on epistemology in the first person plural. I am not entirely sure what “We” refers to in sentence (2). Is it Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden? Is it Rand’s inner circle? (And who might that have been?) Is it the Objectivist movement as such? Whatever the answer, the “we” doesn’t belong. The use of that pronoun makes it seem as though the book is the work of some committee or commissariat–or the philosophic version of Andy Warhol’s “Factory.” But epistemology can’t be done in that collectivist way, and Rand of all people should have known that. That collectivist attitude, I might add (and the unfortunate constriction of audience involved in it), is a clue to some of the infelicities that follow in the book–and is one very good reason why a reader ought always to insist that a theory be set out in writing, rather than content himself with the hand-waving oral version that is supposed, somewhere, to exist. It’s better to look at a theory warts and all, than to watch the hand-waving that hides the stuff that you missed on first reading, but that catches your eye on the nth.


[1] Which suggests that her conception of a theory is incompatible with contemporary uses of the term ‘folk theory’. There is obviously much more to be said here about the concept of the “implicit,” especially as applied to inference.

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