Ayn Rand on David Kelley

 Posted by on 27 July 2005 at 4:33 pm  Uncategorized
Jul 272005

In the course of listening to Ayn Rand’s Ford Hall Forum Lectures, I swear I heard her speak from the grave directly to David Kelley:

There is nothing wrong in using ideas, anybody’s ideas. Provided that you give appropriate credit, you can make any mixture of ideas that you want; the contradiction will be yours. But why do you need the name of someone with whom you do not agree in order to spread your misunderstandings — or worse, your nonsense and falsehoods? (From “The Moratorium on Brains,” Question and Answer Period.)

Although Ayn Rand’s “Why?” question is obviously rhetorical, I think we can learn something by answering it in the case of David Kelley.

By now, it’s fairly plain that the philosophy advocated by The Objectivist Center bears little more than a superficial connection to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. These days, pretty much anything goes. However, I think that David Kelley once had a fairly grand vision of what Objectivism might and ought to be — if reshaped in his own image. The open system was his justification retaining the banner of “Objectivism” for his makeover of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

So let us examine the basic folly of the open system — and then ask ourselves what it accomplishes.

On Kelley’s view, as stated in Chapter 5 of Truth and Toleration, the inadequacies of Objectivism as a philosophy are substantial. It does not range over enough territory, in that it fails to “address a wide range of specific issues” (T&T 61). It does not dig as deeply as it should, in that Ayn Rand had “great insights that are partially developed in some directions, not at all in others” (T&T 62). It is not technical enough, since Ayn Rand “did not develop her ideas in the form of detailed treatises” (T&T 61). In general then, David Kelley regards Objectivism as “no more (though no less) than the foundation and outline of a system [of philosophy]” (T&T 61).

Kelley is certainly wrong in his claims about Objectivism’s defects as a philosophic system. However, I will leave that point aside, since our concern lies with his response to this supposed problem. To transform Objectivism into a full-fledged philosophy on par with the grand systems of Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, Kelley claims that

…it must attract philosophers who will build on Ayn Rand’s discoveries, using them as a base for an assault on specific problems in philosophy and drawing out their implications for other disciplines such as economics, psychology, or literary theory. And Objectivism is more than a theoretical structure; it is a philosophy to live by. Over time, the accumulated experience of those who practice it will produce a moral tradition, a body of reflection about the issues that arise in applying the principles. As this happens, the philosophic content of Objectivism will become more complex and detailed. Philosophers who specialize in various fields will address issues that Ayn Rand did not consider, and put forward ideas that were not hers (T&T 62).

Certainly, the need for active scholars, intellectuals, and otherwise thoughtful folk to extend our knowledge in accordance with Objectivism is genuine. To spend all our days poring over the same Ayn Rand writings again and again for some as-of-yet overlooked tidbit of insight would be silly, if not suicidal. That’s not in dispute though — contrary to the strawmen accusations about the closed system leveled by various critics of ARI. (In light of the flurry of scholarly activity around ARI, those critics no longer have the excuse of misunderstanding Leonard Peikoff’s comments in “Fact and Value.” As I’ve said before, it’s long past time to check those premises!)

My critical point of dispute with the above passage is that such new work, even if true, ought to be acknowledged as separate from (albeit related to) the philosophy of Objectivism developed by Ayn Rand. Apart from some semantic differences, such is standard practice in the study of intellectual history. In teaching Aristotle, for example, philosophers recognize that any given interpretation stands or falls based upon its coherence with the text, even if contrary to fact. The substantive developments of Aristotle’s ideas offered by later thinkers are considered part of an Aristotelian tradition, but not an addition to Aristotle’s philosophy. Philosophers are even careful to note later terminological additions (such as the naming of the various forms of the syllogism or parts of the soul by medieval scholastics) as just that in their teaching.

Speaking generally, good scholars carefully distinguish the original system of ideas developed by one pivotal figure from the mix of derivative work produced by others in its wake. They also distinguish a discipline’s current body of truths from its historical development. Such distinctions are necessary for cognitive clarity; without them, our understanding of a given field would disintegrate into a mess of contradictory confusions. Such cognitive clarity is precisely the function served by the “closed system” view of Objectivism, in that it clearly distinguishes Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism from both later developments based upon it and from general philosophic truths. In contrast, Kelley’s open system deliberately conflates those critical distinctions.

Far more important than any of that, however, is that fact that David Kelley regards Objectivism as inadequate in a more substantial way: it is not merely underdeveloped, but also likely marred by flaws. That is why, on his view, we must allow scholars to “reformulate principles, or qualify them, or reconceive the hierarchical relations among them” (T&T 62). Even “points that [people] previously took as settled” must be open to revision (T&T 62). In other words, Objectivism shall not merely be augmented by logically consistent additions, but also subjected to all manner of revisions.

Kelley claims that such changes to Objectivism are “to be expected in light of the Objectivist theory that knowledge is contextual” (T&T 62). In a similar vein, he argues that “the very nature of inductive knowledge” means that all philosophic principles except the axioms are “subject to further confirmation, qualification, or revision” (T&T 63). However, these arguments are deeply confused. How so?

To put the point bluntly, no augmentation of context or additional inductive data can justify change to well-grounded philosophic principles. What new information might justify qualifying or revising principles like that knowledge is hierarchical, that rights can only be violated by force, that capitalism is the only moral social system, and that existence is identity? Might we discover that some abstract truths may be intuited directly by the eye of the soul? that rights are also violated when feelings are hurt? that communism is good for developing countries? that some existents have no identity? I think not.

Contra Kelley, we need not leave the door open for such “discoveries” because well-grounded philosophic principles are already formed in their full context of inductive data. Such is the case with philosophy (but not with the special sciences) because, as Peikoff notes in “Fact and Value,” philosophy “deals only with the kinds of issues available to men in any era” (F&V). Kelley wholly misconstrues this point as implying the obvious falsehood that the principles of philosophy are self-evident (T&T 63). The true point is that all the required data for any given philosophic induction is accessible to any person in any age — provided that he already understands the logically prior principles. So when a person does truly grasp a philosophic principle (as opposed to holding it as a floating abstraction), he need not worry that it might be overturned, revised, or qualified in the future.

In fact, well-grounded philosophic principles are not even further confirmed by additional data, as Kelley claims. Certainty is the end point of an evidentiary continuum of possibility and probability; it does not admit of degrees. So when a person grasps the principle that justice is a virtue, he is certain of it. When he later discovers a connection between justice and pride, its applications to forgiveness, or its importance in marriage, he is certain of more about the virtue of justice, but not more certain that it is a virtue.

In short, David Kelley seriously misunderstands the structure of knowledge, particularly philosophic knowledge. As a result, he lapses into skepticism, charging those who defend certainty with dogmatism. Even if such skepticism were justified, it would only imply that philosophers must free themselves from their ties to historical systems, not that they have license to covertly update those established systems as they please.

Ultimately, so much of the motivation for the open system seems to boil down to the tired skeptical refrain of “But what if you’re wrong?!?” — only now it’s “But what if Ayn Rand was wrong?!?” and “Ohmigod, what will we do then?!?” Obviously, the fact that Ayn Rand was fallible does not prove that she erred. And in my experience, those who criticize her (including myself at times) have usually failed to carefully study her arguments, to understand relevant underlying principles, and/or to employ proper methodology. However, if Ayn Rand did err, if her philosophic system contains serious flaws, then the proper approach is to “take what you want, and pay for it,” where the payment is the relinquishing of the title “Objectivism,” while still crediting Ayn Rand where appropriate. That’s exactly what she requested — and it’s what honesty, justice, and pride demand. (Why? Because Objectivist scholars, by carefully distinguishing their own philosophical work from that of Ayn Rand, also distinguish their own successes or failures from hers.)

Notably, David Kelley does not push his skepticism to its logical conclusion by subjecting all non-axiomatic principles of Objectivism to reformulation, revision, and qualification. (That sort of subjectivism would be too blatant to be misunderstood, overlooked, or ignored.) Instead, he limits the identity of Objectivism by appealing to a set of principles supposedly fundamental to and/or distinctive of Objectivism (T&T 66-8). I will examine that aspect of the open system in a later post. At present, my only concern to emphasize the far more basic point that Kelley cannot rationally justify revising Objectivism — or any other philosophic system — even if for the better. Objectivism is not some loose school of thought to which Kelley and his followers might contribute. It is the work of a single philosopher: Ayn Rand. Like other philosophical systems, it stands or falls as it was created by her.

Let us now return to our original question: Why would David Kelley wish to retain the title “Objectivism” for work that substantially departs from Ayn Rand’s philosophy?

Based upon what I saw in my ten years at IOS/TOC, I cannot believe that Kelley was ever seriously interested in creating a lively and productive community of (vaguely) Objectivist scholars, as claimed (T&T 76-7). His longstanding unwillingness to offer young scholars any guidance, education, or even encouragement too clearly contradicts that claimed motive. Nor did he make any effort to stem the slow hemorrhage of smart, knowledgeable, and committed Objectivists drifting away from IOS/TOC over the years. If Kelley cared about that intellectual community, he would do more than neglect it.

Moreover, Kelley’s argument for the open system has easily predictable consequences that even he must regard as pernicious — like determinists, animal rights advocates, and anarchists claiming that their views deserve the title of “Objectivism” too. (Even if such views are outside the scope of Objectivism as defined by Kelley, he set the precedent by claiming that revisions to Objectivism are not just permissible, but also healthy and good, while only limiting those revisions by demanding adherence to an arbitrary collection of supposedly core principles. That’s a topic for that later post, however.) Kelley surely knew that his open system would unleash, attract, and even encourage all manner of stupidity, carelessness, and ignorance in the name of open debate and inquiry. Then again, perhaps he does not mind those results, since otherwise he would attempt counteract them by upholding some basic standards.

So why develop this theory of Objectivism as an open system? What is the purpose of this folly?

My general suspicion is that David Kelley had a vision of what Objectivism might and ought to be — if only written by a serious academic philosopher rather than some half-crazy Russian novelist. Perhaps he was genuinely concerned that Objectivism would fail to realize its potential as a major philosophical force in our culture unless fleshed out, toned down, and corrected for errors (T&T 60-2). Whatever the reason, Kelley clearly sought a philosophy like Objectivism in general outline — but one more technically developed as a system and in its details, more tolerant of opposing views and open to new ideas, less passionate in its moral judgments and fiery polemics, and more capable of fitting comfortably in the world of academic philosophy. Such is the basic plea of “A Question of Sanction” and Truth and Toleration that has set the direction of the work produced by David Kelley and IOS/TOC over the years.

For example: Kelley’s monograph Unrugged Individualism elevated benevolence to the status of a major virtue. In TOC’s mission statement, non-controversial “achievement” replaces controversial “egoism” as a core value of Objectivism. Kelley has attempted to broaden the tent by appealing to a vague set of “modernist” values. He welcomes critics of Objectivism (like Mike Huemer), altruistic welfare statists (like Brink Lindsey), and far worse to speak at its summer seminars, without identifying them as such. Kelley warmly embraced Nathaniel Branden, along with his dishonest warnings about the hazards of Objectivism. His long-stagnant book, The Logical Structure of Objectivism, was supposed to offer a systematic and technical presentation of his vision of Objectivism-as-it-ought-to-be. (It’s worth perusing the complete draft of the book from 1999 to get a sense of the scope of favored revisions to Objectivism. Although it’s been many years since I read it, I particularly recall the reduction of Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts to almost nothing and the bizarre division of virtues, particularly the supposedly social virtues. Perhaps the only good news about that book is that it has floundered in recent years, likely due to Kelley’s declining interest in philosophy.)

Such is David Kelley’s vision of a new and improved Objectivism. In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s failing miserably.

Notably, to even attempt his project of reconstructing Objectivism, David Kelley needed to retain title to “Objectivism.” After all, if he designated his new hash of a philosophy with some new name, few (if any) people would have paid it any attention whatsoever. Objectivism might not be revered or even respected in academia, but it is at least known to exist. The name is also a substantial draw for regular folks interested in Ayn Rand’s fiction and philosophy. It’s not the don’t-mean-nothing-to-nobody that something like “Kelleyectivism” would be. (Somehow, I doubt that an Institute for Kelleyectivist Studies would have ever gotten off the ground!) So by the method of cost-benefit analysis advocated and practiced by David Kelley, the term “Objectivism” had to be preserved, even if the principles of Objectivism itself are sacrificed in the process. And thus the open system was born.

Like with Nathaniel Branden’s memoir and Barbara Branden’s biography, David Kelley would not have dared promulgate his idea of Objectivism as an open system during Ayn Rand’s lifetime. She would have shot him down in an instant. In fact, we know exactly what she would have said:

There is nothing wrong in using ideas, anybody’s ideas. Provided that you give appropriate credit, you can make any mixture of ideas that you want; the contradiction will be yours. But why do you need the name of someone with whom you do not agree in order to spread your misunderstandings — or worse, your nonsense and falsehoods? (From “The Moratorium on Brains,” Question and Answer Period.)

She would have been right.

  • lolwut

    “But why do you need the name of someone…”

    I was unaware there was any person named Objectivism Rand

  • dbhalling

    If I solve a problem using Newtonian physics that Newtonian did not solve am I wrong for saying it is part of Newtonian physics? I understand that Rand was burned and I also understand the frustration of people subverting ideas, however if Objectivism is to mean anything then it has to be about the logical system not about a historical accounting of what Rand said. (Marx purposely made his labor theory of value sound like Locke’s Labor theory of property; Antitrust advocates pretend their ideas are the same as the Statute of Monopolies, Liberals pretend that their ideas are consistent with the classical liberals of Natural Rights because they stole the label liberal)

    Neither Rand nor ARI can control the world and what it will do with her ideas (anymore than Newton or Euclid could control the world). But the appropriate approach is to point out whether the ideas are consistent with Objectivism, not to create a museum around Rand’s ideas.

  • Bryan Ogilvie

    Great points. From what I gather, while an argument might be “Randian” or “Objectivist” (-ic?) in nature, it doesn’t follow that any of us – an institute or individual – have the right to REDEFINE Objectiv*ism* or “expand” it (a brilliant euphemism, you got to admit). To do so would contradict the very mechanics of philosophic knowledge itself.

    I rarely find good arguments for the “Closed” perspective – people sometimes refer to something “closed’ as Dead. Thanks for this.

    Also, you mentioned early in the post that “Kelley is certainly wrong in his claims about Objectivism’s defects as a philosophic system. However, I’ll leave that point aside, since our concern lies with his response to this supposed problem” Any good links going more in depth?


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