Jun 302008

Here are some more highlights from the second day of the Ayn Rand Institute’s summer conference (a.k.a. OCON).

Lin Zinser on “Health-Care Activism: Saving the Life Savers,” Class 2 of 3:

Today, Lin discussed some strategies for successful activism, connecting those lessons to her own experience with FIRM. (Some of her stories would be very surprising to most people — in a good way.)

Robert Mayhew on “Thales and the Birth of Philosophy in Ancient Greece”:

This lecture was a fascinating discussion of the birth of philosophy, particularly the radical departure from primitive supernaturalism that began with Thales in ancient Greece. Thales inaugurated the study of philosophy as an explicit discipline on the basis of observation and rational argument — as opposed to relying on traditional myths to explain natural phenomena. Mayhew clearly showed the radical differences between the methods of Thales and those of thinkers in other cultures at the time. Mayhew also traced the unique factors in ancient Greek culture that made possible (but not necessary) the development of explicit philosophy.

I particularly enjoyed the lessons for the prospects for Objectivism at the end of the lecture.

(The lecture was related to Dr. Mayhew’s essay criticizing Robert Tracinski’s analysis of the role of philosophy in history, posted to NoodleFood in January 2007.)

Pat Corvini: “Two, Three, Four, and All That: The Sequel,” Class 1 of 3:

This course examines three modern ideas in mathematics: (1) equivalent sets, (2) the postulational method, and (3) the continuum and actual infinities. Today, Pat explained the basics of Cantor’s arguments about comparisons of sets, with a few hints of the criticisms to come. (I remembered that somewhat fuzzily from my undergraduate course in philosophy of mathematics.) Tomorrow and the next day, she’ll lay out the standard the postulational method, and then discuss the Objectivist approach to these topics. (Very cool!)

This course is a sequel to her excellent course of last year: Two, Three, Four, and All That.

That’s all for today!

Feb 192007

A few weeks ago, I told Boaz Simovici that I’d be interested in publishing an essay from him on Robert Tracinski’s recent “What Went Right” series, if he were interested in writing something formal. (I was impressed by the perceptiveness of his comments in the sordid debates on SoloPassion.) He was able to write the following two-part essay before other matters demanded his attention. (I mention that only because the essay ends without a proper conclusion.)

I did carefully re-read Tracinski’s essay in preparation for posting this response. I noticed many of the same problems that Boaz explains below, problems that I didn’t see so clearly initially. So that makes me particularly grateful for Boaz’s contribution. So without further ado…

In what follows, I’m presuming that the reader is well acquainted with Robert Tracinski’s (still unfinished) essay, “What Went Right,” enough to judge whether I interpret him fairly.

Rational Egoism by Osmosis?

By his own account, Robert Tracinski’s working theory of history is consistent with the Objectivist view of the role of philosophical ideas in social change. But the core of his argument tells a different story — and his story of the role of philosophy in the destiny of a culture is unconvincing.

Tracinski argues that western institutions are the mechanism of philosophical change in today’s world. The experience of scientific education, capitalism and liberal democracy leads to a wider acceptance of enlightenment ideals: reason, individualism, the pursuit of happiness. Men are “inducted” into a rational worldview — they form new and better ethical concepts implicitly — by experiencing the rewards of certain virtues (honesty, thrift, initiative). This mechanism constitutes nothing less than a “virtuous cycle,” at the end of which a philosophy of reason takes over the culture. Western institutions –> implicit philosophy –> Moral revolution:

…But observation of today’s world indicates that these institutions [scientific and technological education, global capitalism, representative government] are self-reinforcing and self-propagating. And I think the evidence suggests something more: that these institutions are not just a product of the influence of Enlightenment ideas across the world; they are the leading edge and specific mechanism of that influence…

…Both an individual and a culture have to learn a rational method and world view, not just from instruction in explicit philosophical tenets, but first from learning the specific methods and world view of the sciences and seeing the validity and power of that method in all of the myriad concretes it can explain to them and in all of the concrete problems it allows them to solve. If people who have been trained in a scientific education then encounter the basic tenets of a pro-reason philosophy, they will regard them as practically self-evident [italics mine]… because the broad philosophic truths are implicit in so many of the truths that the individual has grasped in his studies of mathematics, geometry, physics, engineering, medicine, and so on…

…Wherever it goes, and to the extent that it is adopted, global capitalism is not merely a practical or material force; it is a moral force. Capitalism does not have a moral impact by preaching any particular virtues; it is mute. It simply re-arranges the incentives that men face, lowering the resistance and massively increasing the reward for certain kinds of behavior… If the main effect of scientific and technological education is to induct men into a rational method of thinking, the main effect of global capitalism is to induct them into rational egoism [italics mine]. And in both cases, I mean the word “induct” in an epistemological sense: capitalism encourages individualism inductively, by giving men the experience of being independent agents seeking self-interest through rational, productive effort. ["The Metaphysics of Normal Life"]

Much of this argument has the ring of truth. It’s true, for instance, that existential and political conditions play an important role in the spread of ideas. This is hardly an original point — within or outside of Objectivism. Leonard Peikoff made a similar argument about how values can spread indirectly, once explicit philosophy has set the stage for a given political system:

…Philosophy works in two ways to produce such a psychology [of dependence or independence]: indirectly, by shaping a nation’s institutions, and directly, through the explicit statements of its intellectuals…Philosophy shapes a nation’s political system. Then the political system encourages and appeals to a certain kind of psychology. For instance, under a statist system…the average man has less and less control over his life. He becomes increasingly dependent on the government and/or on a pressure-group simply to get by. At the same time, since statism doesn’t work, he is confronted by one crisis after another — inflation, depression, riots, war, etc. The average man soon comes to feel that he is out of control, that he cannot trust his judgment, that he cannot make sense of events, that he is helpless on his own…these consequences arise quite apart from any abstract message he is given explicitly…A rational philosophy works the same way, but in a positive direction. Such a philosophy leads to the establishment of a free country…the system demands and rewards independence. Men’s daily existence is not dotted with inexplicable crises; the general standard of living and of well-being is constantly rising… ["Philosophy and Psychology," The Objectivist Forum (October 1985)]

What is also true — and, again, this is old and undisputed ground — is that fundamental philosophical ideas penetrate the culture indirectly, inadvertently, by shaping how people are taught to think and giving rise to a characteristic pattern of life. So it’s true that Aristotle’s influence in India (and Lebanon and Iran and Iraq) comes in the form of scientific education and the benefits of an industrial economy, however tenuous (and quite possibly short-lived) such benefits have been.

This does indeed constitute the spread of good implicit philosophy, and that’s precisely the problem. Good ideas, so long as they remain unidentified and unintegrated — so long as they remain deathly silent — can only go so far.

For if Tracinski were right, and the right existential conditions (politics) and the right combination of pajama epistemologists (people doing good work in specialized fields) could enact rational egoism on the scale of a whole culture (!!) — if a thriving civilization could result from these factors alone — then we should have expected our leaders to incinerate our enemies in the Muslim world long ago. For “What Went Right” to be right, we should expect Pakistanis in London and Moroccans in Amsterdam to wage war against Jihad — not cheer it on, or (at best) acquiesce in their own slaughter.

If Tracinski were right that an implicit rational method, embodied in scientific education, could render self-evident a rational, this-worldly philosophy, then our legions of engineers, doctors and scientists would long ago have thrown off the shackles of religion. Sure, most of them don’t pray or believe in miracles, but they won’t challenge those who do. They admit of the “possibility” that Jesus rose from the grave; that “meaning” transcends truth; that virtue is about giving things up; that killing our enemies is evil.

What in the American experience, in the “induction” into freedom and (semi-)capitalism of our own citizens, is prompting our current healthcare policies? Has any of the inculcation of good values wrought by previous policy — say, the 80′s boom — taught America anything important about what happens to any industry under “managed care”? Not in the least. Sure, people balk (and politicians bristle) at the phrase “socialized medicine,” but the urge and political will to subsidize and regulate the field remains, accelerating with each attendant crisis. The economic arguments have been there for two hundred years; the “inductive” base of a capitalist civilization, decades of immersion in the glories unleashed by the unfettered mind…all for what? Mirabile Dictu! Socialized Medicine!

Theory and Practice

The salient, tragic truth about our culture is that we are heirs to warring traditions, theories about the meaning and purpose of life — about where our loyalties should lie and our moral boundaries begin and end — and these theories collide everyday. The result is an unstable mix, a civilization in profound tension with itself. So it is exasperating to watch Tracinski wax eloquently about the myriad strides forward in many fields, as if no Objectivist before him had recognized such developments, as if any Objectivist of note has even intimated that the work of philosophers is the fount of all knowledge or that Objectivism was an indispensable blueprint for innovation in the sciences.

Is there any doubt that the veritable phalanx of new technologies (and massive profits) we’ve seen in the last decades represents progress? Don’t Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and the Biotech industry move our civilization forward? Of course they do. Great minds and great new ideas can have an impact in almost any culture. The question is how — and how deeply — such strides would indicate meaningful cultural change, a change in philosophical outlook that can alter the course of a nation. And on this point I agree entirely with Noumenal Self’s analysis: “Insofar as special sciences make concrete discoveries that can improve human life, civilization will move forward in concrete ways.” (italics mine)

For it is precisely in the realm of all these discoveries and economic achievement that we see the nature of the clash between good implicit ideas and destructive explicit philosophy. Great businessmen can achieve much despite their casual adherence to bad moral precepts — they operate on a good implicit philosophy — and their accomplishments inspire thousands of new entrepreneurs in pursuit of their own happiness. But if these same men bow to affirmative action shakedown-artists on Monday and Tuesday, intone (on television and in their mission statements) on their fundamental duty to consumers on Friday and Saturday, endow environmental causes with millions on Wednesday, and applaud the president when he spits in their faces in public, they do nothing to halt the steady and stealthy pace of socialism. The implicit philosophy serving them well in one field — where it doesn’t overtly conflict with the bible — is impotent when it comes to changing the deeper fundamentals of their culture.

What applies for a philosophically mixed individual applies equally for a good country beset with philosophical poison.

The story of Israel’s war with Hezbollah in July of 2006 will reign forever in history as a spectacle of self-inflicted torture and humiliation. On one side, a largely pro-reason culture wielding superior technology, with all the resources of years of army intelligence in Lebanon and training in guerilla warfare in the stench of Gaza; on the other, men so cowardly they would stoop to firing on fleeing civilians in order to seal them inside their villages, the better to ratchet up the death-count on CNN.

Israel knew where their enemies were; they knew they could bomb villages in the south and thus draw Hezbollah’s foot soldiers out into the open, where they would stand no chance. They knew that bombing Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut wouldn’t be enough, that only a significant invasion in the south (after using airpower to destroy village bunkers and soften up Hezbollah’s supply lines) would ever eradicate their enemy. They did none of these things. They chose a political half-war, knowing full well that it would mean another flare-up in a year or two…

They’ve chosen a permanent war of attrition.

Israel isn’t a methodically altruist country, not by a stretch — not if the standard is implicit philosophy. Its better premises have preserved it largely intact, its economy has bloomed in recent years, its secular culture lends joy and excitement to many of its people. (At least for the moment.) But when push comes to shove, the same pattern emerges in each of its conflicts: fight only to survive and save face — never to win. In doing so, the Israeli leadership genuinely believes it is being “realistic” — which would be true, if realism meant that you could never indulge in mere “theory,” that you have to play the game by the world’s standards. But Israel has its own standards, too: their morality tells them they need to be humane, that they uphold the right cause by sacrificing their children to avoid civilian casualties. They say it openly — and proudly.

Now, I ask you: is it plausible that what Israel needs philosophically is more science, markets and democracy?


I’m delighted to present this post: it’s an original essay by Tore Boeckmann on the importance of and respect due to experts, including the minimal demands of objectivity in criticizing them. (I have some comments at the end.)

Who Is a (Non-Final) Authority in Philosophy?
Tore Boeckmann

A couple of years ago, a question was raised on Harry Binswanger’s moderated email list: Is participation in unmoderated internet discussion groups a good way to learn the philosophy of Objectivism? I replied that it was not (though I didn’t claim it could not have any value). The effective way to learn Objectivism, I indicated, was from experts in the field: first reading Ayn Rand’s books, then listening to lectures by Dr. Peikoff, taking classes from Dr. Ghate–or participating in email lists moderated by a genuine authority on the philosophy like Dr. Binswanger. I made the point that any instruction one receives from others must be accompanied by one’s own independent thinking. And I contrasted this approach (to learning Objectivism) with participation in internet forums with a very low general level of understanding.

My old statement has been dug up by Stephen Speicher, who replies thusly on his “The FORUM”: “Any man who uses reason and whose frame-of-reference is reality possesses the key to understanding Objectivism–or anything. Those who would have us defer to ‘intellectual superiors’ and ‘genuine authorities’ instead of reason and reality, are dead wrong.”

The subjectivism and anti-intellectualism of Speicher’s reply is obvious. In his view, to recognize some individual as an expert in a field, and to seek to learn from him, is ipso facto to “defer” to authority and to abandon reason and reality. (Otherwise, what is the relevance of his reply to my original statement?) As Ayn Rand describes this mentality: “Only a subjectivist, who equates facts with arbitrary assertions, could imagine that to ‘learn’ means to ‘accept on faith.’” (“Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?”)

It is interesting that Speicher should associate the idea of teachers being authorities with the idea that they are the “intellectual superiors” of their students–which may be, but is not necessarily, true (in any sense more fundamental than knowledge of a specific subject matter). He even puts this phrase in quotation marks, as if it came from me, which it did not. (The one time I recall using this phrase is in a recent discussion, not of the relationship of students to teachers, but of the resentment and envy of a mediocrity toward his betters.) In combination with Speicher’s characterization of learning from experts as “deferring” to them, this view of being a student as being an intellectual inferior makes one think that he regards learning as humiliating.

Speicher’s mentality is common enough to merit a response. Take the following example (also relating to Speicher)–a small one, but symptomatic of the wider error.

Robert Mayhew recently published his article “What went wrong with Tracinski’s account of the ancient Greeks?” on this blog. He included the following sentence: “Thales predicted an eclipse–something inconceivable on the mythological world view, which held eclipses to be omens from the gods (and in one archaic poem, proof of the feebleness of man’s mind).” Speicher replied, on his forum, that while he was “glancing through Mayhew’s article,” he “stumbled over a couple of apparent discrepancies in Mayhew’s ‘correcting [of] Tracinski’s presentation.’” He went on: “The last paper I read on this (Thales’ Eclipse, A.A. Mosshammer, Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 111, pp. 145-155, 1981) made a very strong case in demonstrating ‘how fictional the story of Thales’ prediction is.’” Based on this, Speicher “can’t help but wonder what corrections are necessary for correcting Mayhew’s ‘correcting [of] Tracinski’s presentation.’”

Of course, it is irrelevant to Mayhew’s thesis whether Thales successfully predicted an eclipse–or merely tried to, and had the reputation, in the classical period, for having done so. But let us leave that aside and ask what is going on with Speicher’s reply. He skims, not reads, Mayhew’s article. He spots a reference to Thales’ having predicted an eclipse. This raises a question in his mind, and he goes, presumably, on Google and searches for Thales+eclipse. The TAPA article is the third hit (try it yourself). Speicher reads (skims?) the article, sees that it concludes against Thales having predicted an eclipse, and uses it (as “the last paper I read on this”) to snidely question Mayhew’s scholarship.

Now, there is a large scholarly controversy over this matter, of which Speicher knows nothing and Mayhew knows everything. As Jonathan Barnes, in The Presocratic Philosophers, says of the many scientific achievements attributed to Thales (including the eclipse): “the heated controversy they have aroused will deter all but the most reckless from advancing an amateur opinion.” Wise words; but not to Speicher. He is quite prepared to conclude that Mayhew’s “claim appears to be historically inaccurate, factually untrue.” On his premise, to recognize any distinction between a professional and his own amateur opinion is an affront.

Observe also the irony of the second-handed nature of Speicher’s disagreement with Mayhew. It is based on no fact, evidence, or argument–except for Mosshammer’s view. Speicher simply appeals to a rival authority, with no indication of why one is better than another, except his own subjective preference.

When Mayhew indicated, on Dr. Binswanger’s list, that he would not be answering Speicher’s criticism, considering its ignorant and insulting nature, Speicher reacted with extreme hostility. He wrote on his own forum, referring to Mayhew: “We are well aware that there are those who would like Objectivists to unquestioningly take them on faith and hate those who won’t, but they don’t dare say that publicly. Some are cowards who give pseudo-reasons for their hatred and then refuse to answer questions about their attacks.”

There is no reason to believe that Mayhew wants anyone to take him on faith, or hate those who don’t. All one can surmise is that he demands of potential interlocutors a minimum level of politeness–and of objectivity. Objectivity demands that if you are only barely familiar with a field, you do not criticize, question, pontificate to or write about distinguished authorities (i.e., experts) in that field without, at the very least in some manner of form, taking the difference of knowledge into account.

This is a rule of human interaction observed by most literate people. But not by Stephen Speicher. He doesn’t defer to anyone’s authority! No sirree, Bob! Who is this Mayhew dude to think he knows more than Speicher about Thales and the eclipse? So what if Mayhew has spent decades studying Greek philosophy, as opposed to a few minutes on Google? No one knows anything better than Speicher does, and reality, incarnated as Mosshammer’s article, is his only frame of reference!

There are many interesting questions relating to the broader issue of how to judge objectively who is an authority in a field, and when and in what manner to be guided by the greater knowledge of others, while maintaining one’s intellectual independence. Such questions come up in one’s relationship to doctors, garage mechanics — and teachers.

But independence requires objectivity, and objectivity requires acknowledgment of facts. One such fact is that human beings differ in knowledge, and are not all equal participants in some cosmic internet bull-session. Recognition of this fact does not make one a second-hander. It is a prerequisite for being a first-hander.

And in terms of one’s values, the following holds true: one cannot logically profess a love of wisdom (philosophy) in the abstract, while showing nothing but hostility to wisdom in the concrete.

(Preliminary note: These comments are purely my own; I did not discuss them with Tore before posting them. So please don’t assume that he agrees with them.)

When Tore first sent me this essay a few days ago, I was delighted to read it. I didn’t merely appreciate his valuable general observations about expertise; his analysis of the criticisms leveled against Robert Mayhew on the Speichers’ Forum was like a breath of fresh air to me.

For some weeks now, I’ve been enormously disgusted by those attacks. As Tore illustrates, many posts were not intended to raise serious questions: they were hit-and-run attacks designed to impugn Mayhew’s credibility as a scholar. People familiar with Mayhew’s work know that such cannot be done, at least not justly. Mayhew is not only extraordinarily knowledgeable, but extremely careful in his analyses and conclusions. Personally, I trust very few secondary sources on Aristotle: Mayhew is one of the few that has earned that trust. To attack his scholarship, particularly in the manner done by Stephen Speicher, is simply beyond the pale.

During the election debate last fall, I resolved never to post on The Forum again in light of the attacks on Leonard Peikoff, myself, and others. (I asked Stephen to delete my account; I didn’t even wish to be counted as one of the “users” thereof.) I wanted nothing further to do with either Betsy or Stephen Speicher, but I hoped the discussions on the Forum wouldn’t be quite so vitriolic after the election. That was clearly a false hope. The recent attacks on Robert and Tore showed that Objectivist intellectuals — particularly those critical of Robert Tracinksi’s views — will be savaged by the Speichers, however flimsy the grounds. To add insult to injury, such attacks would occur under the banner of a “Forum for Ayn Rand Fans.”

In my view, such a forum clearly deserves to be boycotted by anyone with a respect for the facts, let alone by anyone with respect for the Objectivist intellectuals targeted by the Speichers.

I’ve been particularly disturbed to see Stephen and Betsy Speicher publicly post quotes from Harry Binswanger’s very private e-mail list for the sake of criticizing Objectivist intellectuals. Although I don’t subscribe to HBL, I regard their public posting of quotes from a private e-mail list to be grossly unfair. Such quotes were necessarily pulled out of their proper context, not just from the post in question, but also from the larger conversation. Unlike with linked quotes of public blog posts, for example, readers not already subscribed to the private list have no means of accessing that full context — and no capacity to judge either the accuracy of the quotes or the fairness of the criticisms.

Moreover, in this case, the Speichers’ actions have put the Objectivist intellectuals under attack in a serious bind, in that they have no proper place in which to respond to the criticisms. It would not be appropriate to clutter up HBL with responses to posts from The Forum, particularly not if those responses might also be publicly quoted and criticized out-of-context. Nor should other Objectivist forums (like ObjectivismOnline) be dragged into such debates. Yet it would be sanction of the victim for the intellectuals under attack to enter into debate on the Speichers’ Forum, particularly when subject to Stephen’s heavy-handed moderation. What would need to be said — namely something akin to Tore’s essay above — could not be said.

Finally, I regard the public reposting of material from HBL without permission to be a clear violation of HBL policies. I cannot imagine that either Robert or Tore expected quotes from their HBL posts to be published on The Forum — or anywhere else.

Undoubtedly, my decision to post Tore’s essay will engender further attacks on both of us on The Forum. That’s hardly new for me: I learned to endure that kind of vicious behavior from once-friendly people when I left TOC. That’s precisely why I’m so determined to now defend the integrity of Objectivist intellectuals unjustly maligned — and why I think The Forum deserved to be boycotted.


This evening, Robert Mayhew asked if I might be interested in posting the following essay on Robert Tracinski’s discussion of the role of philosophy in the ancient world in his “What Went Right?” essays. I am happy to do so. (For those unfamiliar with his academic credentials, Robert Mayhew is a professor of philosophy at Seton Hall specializing in ancient philosophy.) Bewarned: The essay is fairly long. It is also well worth a slow read.

*** *** ***

“What went wrong with Robert Tracinski’s account of the ancient Greeks?”
Robert Mayhew

In the first half of the penultimate installment of “What Went Right?” (“The Summit and the Foundation”), Robert Tracinski presents a view of the development of ancient Greek philosophy, and its relationship to classical Greek culture generally, that is deeply flawed. Further, these flaws seem to stem not simply from his ignorance of the subject matter, but from a desire to have his alternative to the Objectivist philosophy of history seem to fit the facts.

Tracinski writes: “The development of Greek culture at its height did not go . . . from abstract philosophy down to art and the sciences. It went the other direction. . . .” He then presents a survey of some of the (purportedly pre-philosophical) achievements of the ancient Greeks. (All dates are BC. A minor point: few of these dates are known with the precision Tracinski’s presentation suggests, and I have altered some of them accordingly, though nothing of importance follows from these revisions.)

  • In medicine, Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease (c. last quarter of the 5th century)
  • In history, Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (last quarter of the 5th century)
  • Sculpture and architecture reach their peak with Phidias and the Parthenon (c. 490-430)
  • In drama, Aeschylus (525-426), Euripides (c. 480-406), and Sophocles (495-406)
  • Science “reached an important peak with the theories of Anaxagoras” (5th century)
  • In politics, “the Athenian state was fundamentally reformed by Solon” (late 7th, early 6th century), “while the statesman who presided over the height of Athenian power was Pericles” (495-429).

    Tracinski then asks: “How does all of this relate to the history of Greek philosophy?” He answers (sort of):

    Greek philosophy made some important innovations beginning with Thales (c. 624-526 BC), there was in these early years no strong differentiation between philosophy and science or the other specialized fields, and the views of the early Greek philosophers were a confusing maelstrom, ranging from those who taught that change was impossible (Parmenides, 515-480 BC) to those who taught that there was nothing but change (Heraclitus, c. 535-475 BC). Philosophy did not fully emerge as a separately defined field until Socrates (c. 470-399), who defined the specific questions addressed by the discipline.

    This does not really answer the question he posed, as it does not indicate the relationship between philosophy and the Greek cultural accomplishments that he surveys. Rather, it tells us that the first philosopher made some important innovations (no examples are given) but that philosophy in its early years was confusing and not properly distinguished from science. He sums up:

    Notice the pattern: Greek art, literature, science, history, and medicine reached a crescendo of achievement in the second half of the 5th century BC–while Greek philosophy reached its crescendo of achievement one to two generations later, in the middle of the 4th century BC. In short, Aristotle was a product of the Golden Age of Athens, not the other way around.

    If Tracinski were simply commenting on when the various disciplines reached their peaks, this might count as an interesting observation–though it is certainly questionable (not to say absurd) to claim that ancient Greek science reached its peak in the fifth century. (How much of fifth century science is better than Aristotle’s?) But even assuming that Tracinski has his facts straight, notice that it does not follow that if art, literature, medicine etc. “reached a crescendo of achievement” before philosophy reached its crescendo, then therefore art, literature, medicine, etc. must have come to be and/or developed independently of philosophy. Yet in some sense this is what he wants to claim. Recall his statement: “The development of Greek culture at its height did not go . . . from abstract philosophy down to art and the sciences,” rather it “went the other direction”–i.e., from art and the sciences up to abstract philosophy.

    What Tracinski wants us to conclude is that the greatness that is classical Greece had little to do with philosophy–though he conflates this idea, with another (more obviously true) one: that Aristotle did not come at the beginning of the development of classical culture, but at its end. We receive a stronger, more open, indication of his actual conclusion a bit later:

    This history suggests a progression that should, in fact, seem natural and unsurprising: that new ideas arose first from achievements in the special sciences–from physics, mathematics, history, medicine, biology, and politics. These achievements were paralleled by advances in literature and art, which expressed, often in implicit, non-verbal form, the new conception of human life that was suggested by advances in other disciplines. Then at the end of this process, a great philosopher was able to explain what made all of those previous achievements possible, to identify their implicit method, and to draw, in explicit terms, the widest implications for our conception of human life and potential.

    * * *

    I cannot here reply to everything in this installment which I find objectionable, nor can I take the time to deal with the interesting issue of why ancient Greek philosophy and culture did not continue to progress after Aristotle. I am concerned most of all with correcting Tracinski’s presentation of the history of ancient Greek philosophy. But to fully understand where he goes wrong, it is necessary to point out that he equivocates on the meaning of “philosophy.”

    Let me begin by making the following distinctions: First, “philosophy” in its broadest sense refers to a person’s (or culture’s) basic ideas about reality and man. It is in this sense that we can say, for example, that ancient Egypt was driven by a philosophy of death; it is also in this sense, I believe, that Ayn Rand claimed that “religion is a primitive form of philosophy” (“Philosophy and Sense of Life”). Second, “philosophy” also (and primarily) refers to the science that studies the fundamental nature of reality and man. Used in this sense, we would exclude the basic beliefs of pre-philosophical cultures, and say, for example, that philosophy was born in Greece (but did not exist, as such a discipline, in Egypt), and distinguish philosophy from religion. Finally, we can also speak of good philosophy and even the pinnacle of philosophy (in the ancient world, Aristotle’s). I mention these distinctions because Tracinski moves back and forth between the second and third of these–between when philosophy per se appears and exerts an influence, and when it reaches its pinnacle–and he gives the first sense little consideration (or credit) in assessing the role of philosophy in history. But the view that philosophy is the prime mover in history certainly includes (where relevant) philosophy in this most basic sense–especially when dealing with such an early period as archaic Greece. This is important to the present discussion, because it means that one cannot legitimately claim (certainly not without further argument) that philosophy could yield little or no influence in ancient Greece before it was fully developed and distinguished as an independent discipline (which is what Tracinski implies).

    The basic world-view of the ancient Greeks (their philosophy in the broadest sense) was already (before Thales) very good–relative to other cultures in the ancient Mediterranean. (I have in mind the implicit philosophy or basic ideas that we find in Homer and Hesiod, c. 8th-7th centuries.) It was essentially a this-wordly and pro-man outlook, which valued reason and argumentation. As primitive or pre- philosophies go, it provided an excellent potential background for development–a potential that was eventually actualized. But it was still primitive–it was still a conception of the universe as a place inhabited by supernatural deities that one was supposed to accept simply because they had always been believed in–by one’s family and one’s city.

    A somewhat transitional figure is Solon (late 7th, early 6th century). In my blurb on the back of John Lewis’ recent book on Solon, I say that he is arguably the first (and only) presocratic political philosopher. He saw the world as a rational, intelligible cosmos (albeit inhabited by some version of the Olympian gods), and he believed that the ancient Greek polis or city-state ought to be organized according to rational principles.

    The first philosopher proper–the person who deserves the title Father of Philosophy–is Thales of Miletus (early 6th century, a younger contemporary of Solon), for he did something truly revolutionary. He was the first person in human history to attempt to explain the universe in rational, naturalistic terms–that is, with arguments and without any reference to anthropomorphic gods (e.g., Zeus, Poseidon). The assumption driving Thales was that the universe is an intelligible place, and the human mind is capable of grasping fundamental truths about it through reason (as opposed to “truths” revealed by seers or Delphic oracles or Muse-inspired poets). Thales predicted an eclipse–something inconceivable on the mythological world view, which held eclipses to be omens from the gods (and in one archaic poem, proof of the feebleness of man’s mind). He held that everything was made of or came from water, and on the basis of this it seems he argued that earthquakes were the result of movements of the earth floating on water. This is not cutting edge philosophy or science by our standards, but it is a giant leap away from the traditional attribution of earthquakes to Poseidon’s anger. Thales’ basic outlook–rational, this-worldy, man-centered–set the trend for the next couple of centuries. Thales did not simply make “some important innovations.”

    Not long after Thales (and two other Miletian monists, Anaximander and Anaximenes), another Ionian–Xenophanes of Colophon–presented an alternative to the monism of Thales (Xenophanes holding that all things were earth and water) and for the first time, as far as we know, presented explicit arguments against the existence of the Olympian gods. (Xenophanes himself seems to have been some kind of pantheist.)

    In the history of presocratic philosophy that followed Thales and the other early Ionians, there continued to be errors, less-than-probative arguments, and major confusions–perhaps most of all about what did and did not count as philosophy. (Most ancient philosophers–including Aristotle–combined philosophy with what we now properly consider the separate sciences. See Ayn Rand’s comment on the problem with Thales’ approach to philosophy, Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 698-99.) And there were definitely some dead ends–the Pythagoreans, Heraclitus and Parmenides, for the most part–but the basic progression moved in the spirit of Thales.

    Incidentally, there is no reason to single out Anaxagoras’ achievements in the field of science, nor to count what he did as science in contrast to philosophy. (Presenting him as a scientist was extremely tendentious on Tracinski’s part.) And on an important related issue, there is no reason to treat the Hippocratic corpus (mostly 5th-4th century, no works of which can be confidently attributed to Hippocrates) apart from ancient philosophy. That corpus has only recently begun to get the attention it deserves, and it is clear that many of the most important works in it (including On the Sacred Disease) represent fusions of philosophy and science in the manner of the presocratics, except that most of them also deal with medicine. (For example, many of the Hippocratic treatises contain presocratic-like cosmologies of their own–see On Breaths and the very different On the Nature of Man, to name just two.)

    We turn finally to Socrates. Tracinski claims that “Philosophy did not fully emerge as a separately defined field until Socrates.” This is inaccurate, as Socrates was interested in moral philosophy alone. As the Roman philosopher Cicero observed:

    Socrates I think–indeed it is universally agreed–was the first to divert philosophy from matters which nature herself wrapped in obscurity, with which all philosophers before him had been concerned, and apply it to ordinary life, directing its inquiries to virtues and vices, and in general to good and evil. Celestial phenomena he regarded as beyond our comprehension, or at any rate, however well we might understand them, as irrelevant to the good life. (Academia 1.4.15)

    Cicero says that Socrates diverted philosophy away from one area–that which interested the presocratics primarily–and focused it on another: moral philosophy. (The sophists–whatever their differences from Socrates–made pretty much the same move, and for the same reason: their conviction that we cannot know anything about the fundamental nature of physical reality. There were exceptions, however: Prodicus of Ceos was a sophist who dabbled in the study of nature, and at least two of the works in the Hippocratic corpus were arguably written by sophists or thinkers influenced by sophists.)

    From Thales and the Ionian materialists through the Atomists, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras to Diagoras of Apollonia, and including the unknown authors of the bulk of the works of the Hippocratic corpus, we are dealing with the progression of one cultural movement–the history of ancient Greek philosophy. One might claim that Socrates and the sophists temporarily changed its primary focus, but his student Plato put all the parts together and became the first systematic philosopher. He may have placed less of an emphasis on the issues that we now properly consider science and not philosophy–e.g., the movement of the planets, the nature of matter–but he certainly did deal with them, as did his student Aristotle (to say the least).

    Again, what I have described (as briefly as possible) is basically one ongoing development–one series of accomplishments (and confusions and errors)–from Thales in the early sixth century to Aristotle in the fourth. In light of this development, it simply makes no sense to say: first there were major developments in medicine and history and the arts, and then there were the major developments in philosophy. (I’ll have something to say on the arts shortly.) They all developed at the same time and no doubt influenced each other–in complex, fascinating ways that specialists try to detail–and there was no doubt a spiraling effect. But there is no reason to think that anything other than philosophy–especially the basic philosophical outlook that I sketched at the outset–was the most fundamental force driving the culture. That is to say–in general terms (though an historian of ideas would try to show the details of the steps)–without the first moves made by philosophers like Thales and Xenophanes, beginning in the 6th century, and those who carried the torch after them, there could not have appeared the Hippocratic On the Sacred Disease or Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War in the last quarter of the fifth century–or for that matter, Aristotle in the fourth.

    * * *

    I’d like to turn briefly to Greek art. I know very little about ancient Greek architecture and sculpture, so I have little to say on the connection between those arts and philosophy. But I think I can say with some confidence that they reflect a rational, pro-man outlook, and reasonably speculate that it is unlikely that this was in no way an effect of the basic ideas that I have described. These basic ideas–this-worldy, pro-reason, and man-centered–were in the air; they were part of the culture, and I would be surprised if architecture and the visual arts did not feed off of them, while also fueling them.

    I do have sufficient knowledge of ancient Greek drama to say something a bit more substantial about how the development of philosophy helped to make possible the achievements of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. In fact, I would say that many if not most of the great ancient Greek plays have conflicts driven by the cultural conflict between traditional Greek religion and the emerging philosophical outlook. (This is hardly an original or idiosyncratic observation on my part; one encounters it all over the place in the secondary literature.) In his great Oresteia, Aeschylus attempts to resolve a problem with the traditional conception of justice, and the religion it is based on–which in some respects he admires–namely: how to prevent the application of justice (which is crucially important to a civilized existence) from descending into bloody tribal vengeance. His brilliant solution (whatever its flaws, and largely borrowed from political developments around him) involves the application of reason and law to the execution of justice. It seems highly unlikely that such a trilogy of plays could have been written outside a cultural context like the one I have described.

    In Sophocles’ Antigone, we see a clash between an individualist defender of moral absolutes rooted in the existence of the gods (but presented in language that is highly philosophical for a play) and a social-subjectivist conception of morality and politics that may reflect certain views of the early sophists. In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles is again struggling with an intellectual conflict–between his admiration for the new, pro-reason, fifth century enlightenment outlook (he clearly admires the intellectual acumen and confidence of Oedipus, who scholars have long noted uses language and concepts similar to those employed in contemporary intellectual circles) and his concern over the ongoing attacks on traditional religion, which he seemed to think gave morality its foundation. For instance, Oedipus Rex contains criticisms of the notion of prophecy–perhaps the most important aspect of ancient Greek religious practice–which were no doubt in the air in the second half of the fifth century.

    Euripides was simultaneously the most explicitly philosophical Greek playwright and the one most at odds with the spirit of Greek philosophy. For example, it has long been argued that in the Medea, he is responding to and rejecting the Socratic view that no one knowingly does what is wrong–for on Euripides’ view, reason is impotent in the face of irrational emotion. (In lines 1078-80, Medea says she knows or understands [manthanô] what evil deeds she is going to dare to do, but her anger or spirit [thumos] overpowers her faculty of deliberation [bouleumatôn]. She is planning to kill her own children to get revenge on Jason.) And his Bacchae is in effect a hymn to the irrational that is clearly aware of (and at odds with) the pro-reason outlook of contemporary ancient Greek philosophy.

    Setting aside the creative genius of these playwrights, which is primary, the greatness of ancient Greek drama is at least as much the product of what came before it as it is material which helped to make possible later philosophical achievements.

    * * *

    At some level, Tracinski seems to be aware of some of these problems with his account. I think this is why he conflates philosophy exerting an influence and philosophy reaching its peak. All that he is really able to conclude from his (flawed) presentation of the development of ancient Greek culture is the entirely non-controversial point that Aristotle arrives late in the history of Classical Greece. But even on this point, Tracinski is tendentious: “the greatest Greek philosopher, Aristotle, comes last, after most of the important developments in Greek science, politics, literature, and art.” Why not add “and philosophy”? (Aristotle certainly comes after most of the important developments in ancient Greek philosophy.) Because that would not fit the broader conclusion Tracinski wants us to come to (the one not supported by the evidence), namely, that philosophy did not have the primary causal role in the history of ancient Greece that many of us think it had. Again, he seems to be aware that something is amiss with his account, because elsewhere he says “the achievements of earlier scientists (and scientist-philosophers), laid the foundations for Aristotle.”

    Tracinski writes that “The role of the philosopher, historically, is not as the sole motor of all progress, but rather as the observer, defender, promoter, and intellectual amplifier of that progress.” (This is unclear. Is the “but rather” meant to contrast the list of roles that follow with being a motor or with being the sole motor? Does he think the philosopher’s role is exhausted by being “the observer, defender, promoter, and intellectual amplifier of that progress”?) I prefer to speak of philosophy and not simply of philosophers. And in my view, good philosophy is the fundamental (not sole) motor of all progress, and it is so, in part by being “the observer, defender, promoter, and intellectual amplifier of that progress,” but most of all, and at its best, through the identification, demonstration and dissemination of fundamental truths–truths that make possible a culture open to all that the other disciplines and activities contribute to human progress.

    The purpose of Tracinski’s discussion of the ancient Greeks is to show that philosophy–whatever its merits and importance–is not the prime mover in human history. The same is true, he believes, of the philosopher. This explains the lukewarm nature of Tracinski’s portrait of Aristotle (at least that’s how it comes across to this Aristotle-scholar): Aristotle is a product of the Golden Age of Athens, a catalyst and source of the later Classical revival. I prefer (and I’ll end with) Ayn Rand’s more accurate and reverential account of Aristotle’s influence, as it is relevant to the issue of the role of philosophy in history:

    If we consider the fact that to this day everything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value that we possess–including the birth of science, the industrial revolution, the creation of the United States, even the structure of our language–is the result of Aristotle’s influence, of the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men accepted his epistemological principles, we would have to say: never have so many owed so much to one man. (“For the New Intellectual”)

Dec 202006

In a recent blog post on Rule of Reason, Nick Provenzo notes that the op-eds of Robert Tracinski posted on ARI’s web site now appear with the following note in the tagline: “Robert W. Tracinski is no longer associated with the Ayn Rand Institute–neither as a writer nor as a speaker.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Nick’s sentiments about the change:

Objectivists are often criticized for their public break-ups, but I think being forthright when a relationship ends is the more honest approach. Reality demands an unflinching dedication to the truth, including the fact that some relationships deserve to end.

In my opinion, Tracinski has publicly embraced a theory of history that rejects the importance of Objectivism and principled consistency in defining and defending the long term good. As such, it would be dishonest to claim that he continues to be a public advocate for Ayn Rand’s philosophy. If the end of Tracinski’s association with ARI was brought on by his recent thinking, I am glad for it, for it would be an honest end to recent events.

If I can manage the time, I’d like to write a post or two on Robert Tracinski’s significant departures from basic principles of Objectivism in recent years. In particular, I have much to say about his switch from rationalism to empiricism in his view of the role of philosophy in human life found in his not-yet-finished “What Went Right” series. At the moment, however, I’m intensely busy with real work. If I can find the time though, I’ll write what I can.

(And speaking of terminated relationships, I won’t be posting further on SoloPassion for the reasons detailed in this post.)

Evil, Not Mere Error

 Posted by on 4 November 2006 at 11:42 pm  False Friends of Objectivism, Robert Tracinski
Nov 042006

Elan Journo of the Ayn Rand Institute recently published this op-ed Washington’s Failed War in Afghanistan.

America’s campaign in Afghanistan was once widely hailed as a success in the “war on terror.” We have nothing more to fear from Afghanistan, our policy makers told us, because the war had accomplished its two main goals: al Qaeda and its sponsoring regime, the Taliban, were supposedly long gone, and a new, pro-Western government had been set up. But as the daily news from Afghanistan shows, in reality the war has been a drastic failure.

Legions of undefeated Taliban and al Qaeda soldiers have renewed their jihad. Flush with money, amassing recruits, and armed with guns, rockets and explosives, they are fighting to regain power. In recent months, they have mounted a string of deadly suicide bombings and rocket attacks against American and NATO forces; more U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan in the last 20 months than did during the peak of the war.

Taliban forces have effectively besieged several provinces in southern Afghanistan. Local officials estimate that in some provinces the “number of Taliban… is several times more than that of the police and Afghan National Army.” Taliban fighters are said to amble through villages fearlessly, brandishing their Kalashnikovs, and collecting zakat (an Islamic tithe) from peasants. With astounding boldness, they have assassinated clerics and judges deemed too friendly to the new government, and fired rockets at a school for using “un-Islamic” books.

The Taliban and al Qaeda forces are so strong and popular that Senator Bill Frist recently declared that a war against them cannot be won, and instead suggested negotiating with the Islamists.

How is it that five years after the war began–and in the face of America’s unsurpassed military strength–Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are threatening to regain power?

Victory in Afghanistan demanded two things. We had to destroy the Taliban and we had to ensure that a non-threatening, non-Islamic-warrior-breeding regime take its place. But we did not think we had a moral right to do what was necessary to achieve either goal.

Our military was ordered to pursue Taliban fighters only if it simultaneously showed “compassion” to the Afghans. The U.S. military dropped bombs on Afghanistan–but instead of ruthlessly pounding key targets, it was ordered to gingerly avoid hitting holy shrines and mosques (known to be Taliban hideouts) and to shower the country with food packages. The United States deployed ground forces–but instead of focusing exclusively on capturing or killing the enemy, they were also diverted to a host of “reconstruction” projects. The result is that the enemy was not destroyed and crushed in spirit, but merely scattered and left with the moral fortitude to regroup and launch a brazen comeback.

Even with its hands tied, however, the U.S. military succeeded in toppling the Taliban regime–but Washington subverted that achievement, too.

A new Afghan government would be a non-threat to America’s interests if it were based on a secular constitution that respects individual rights. The Bush administration, however, declared that we had no right to “impose our beliefs” on the Afghans–and instead endorsed their desire for another regime founded on Islamic law. Already this avowedly Islamic regime has jailed an Afghan magazine editor for “blasphemy”; earlier this year Abdul Rahman, an Afghan convert to Christianity, faced a death sentence for apostasy. The new Afghan regime cannot be counted on to oppose the resurgence of Islamic totalitarianism. Ideologically, it has nothing to say in opposition to the doctrines of the Taliban (two members of the Taliban leadership are in the new government). It is only a matter of time before Afghanistan is once again a haven for anti-American warriors.

The failure in Afghanistan is a result of Washington’s foreign policy. Despite lip-service to the goal of protecting America’s safety, the “war on terror” has been waged in compliance with the prevailing moral premise that self-interest is evil and self-sacrifice a virtue. Instead of trouncing the enemy for the sake of protecting American lives, our leaders have sacrificed our self-defense for the sake of serving the whims of Afghans.

The half-hearted war in Afghanistan failed to smash the Taliban and al Qaeda. It failed to render their ideology–Islamic totalitarianism–a lost cause. Instead, at best it demonstrated Washington’s reluctance to fight ruthlessly to defend Americans. How better to stoke the enthusiasm of jihadists?

America cannot win this or any war by embracing selflessness as a virtue. Ultimately, it cannot survive unless Washington abandons its self-sacrificial foreign policy in favor of one that proudly places America’s interests as its exclusive moral concern.

Elan Journo is a junior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand–author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Contact the writer at [email protected].

Copyright (c) 2006 Ayn Rand(R) Institute. All rights reserved.

In other words, 340 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan fighting for absolutely nothing. In Iraq, 2801 American soldiers have died for worse than nothing, i.e. in order to create yet another virulently anti-American Islamic regime. In both conflicts, over 10,000 American soldiers have been seriously wounded.

Yet in a recent (11/2) TIA Daily article entitled “Is Bush All Hat and No Cattle?”, Robert Tracinski claims that “All of Bush’s errors [in Iraq] could have been, and still can be, corrected.” Did I miss something? Has Jesus granted President Bush the power to raise the dead and heal the wounded?

It’s not mere “error” to kill over 3,000 American soldiers and seriously wound more than 10,000 for the sake of granting our Islamist enemies the power to vote in Islamist governments that will shelter, organize, and finance the terrorists who will attack America and other civilized nations in upcoming years. It’s not mere “error” for an American President to pursue that strategy despite overwhelming evidence of its grossly self-destructive results.

So let’s call a spade a spade: President Bush’s foreign policy is active, deliberate, and blind self-sacrifice. That’s not error. It’s evil.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha