The Open System, One More Time

 Posted by on 12 December 2005 at 6:36 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 122005

As mentioned in my previous post, Trey Givens waded into the Kelley split for the first time by reading Fact and Value. Toward the end of his post, just after agreeing with Leonard Peikoff’s basic statement about the closed system, Trey somewhat hesitantly says the following:

If [Ayn Rand], and … I am not prepared to produce any instances where she did, did not correctly or consistently apply her philosophy, it does not invalidate her philosophy. Further, it seems to me that this also does not mean that the correct application is not a part of Objectivism, but that the correct application would be — where the term “Objectivism” describes her philosophy and the application and movement of promoting her philosophy. Applications of philosophy to some particular issue or situation are of minor value in light of the basic principles themselves of which the philosophy consists.

If I am wrong in my description of the term “Objectivism” the worst that can be said is that correct applications of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, though not Objectivism, would be described as consistent therewith; which is, in my opinion, a distinction of very little worth in itself. Also, if I’m wrong there, I have no idea how one would classify a mistake Ayn Rand herself made in terms of “Objectivism,” if one believes that every word she wrote and word she spoke is subsumed under the term.

I’m not sure that I’m adequately understanding Trey’s point, but I can make some general comments on the nature of philosophic systems. Perhaps he can tell me where we disagree, if at all.

As far as I understand, a philosophic system is a set of interrelated philosophic principles. So while the ways in which a philosopher applies his principles to a particular issues often illuminates the scope or meaning of them, those applications are not part of the philosophy itself. So if Ayn Rand misapplied her philosophic principles by misjudging some point outside philosophy — such as the wording of some piece of legislation, the proper interpretation of some passage of Hume, the historical roots of the Renaissance, the psychology underlying altruistic demands, or whatever — that does not invalidate her philosophy. The critics of the closed system often have trouble grasping this point, largely because they are confused (some willfully, some honestly) about (1) the boundaries of philosophy (i.e. what counts as a philosophic principle) and (2) the nature of a principle (i.e. what counts as a philosophic principle). Ayn Rand’s contentious claim that homosexuality is immoral (with which I disagree) and that a properly feminine woman wouldn’t want to be President (with which I agree, much to my surprise) fail on both counts. Neither is a fundamental generalization, nor even particularly broad or abstract. And while both depend upon the application of some philosophic principles, they heavily depend upon complex and technical points of psychology.

The actual invalidation of the philosophic system of Objectivism would require the discovery of an error in the principles themselves. So Objectivism would be false if we realized that reason wasn’t our basic means of survival, that entities sometimes act contrary to their natures, that existence doesn’t exist, that art has no real connection to metaphysical value judgments, that government is an unnecessary evil, that pride is a vice, and so on. Those principles are (by definition) fundamental generalizations: they are induced from a vast array of inductive data and tightly integrated to the other principles in the system. Any change to or rejection of those principles would require serious changes to the whole system. The result would be a fundamentally different philosophy deserving of its own name.

That a change to one principle would affect the whole system is fairly easy to see with the really broad generalizations like causality. The very possibility of ethics, for example, depends upon the law of causality in myriad ways. Without causality, the choice to think or not would not be a delimited choice necessitated by our human nature, but some random twitch. Without causality, we could abuse out minds at will without suffering the consequences. Without causality, we could not establish that some values are necessary to sustain life, nor that some virtues are necessary means to those values. Ethics, in short, would never even arise.

That a change to one principle would affect the whole system is far harder to see with more specialized generalizations like the virtue of pride. Without the proper context, it might seem that we can trim the twigs of the tree without affecting the branches or trunk. But that’s a bad analogy. The problem with such trimmings is clearer upon consideration of the particular reasons for rejecting the principle in question, for those reasons will require us to also reject a host of other principles. For example, if the moral perfection demanded by the virtue of pride (in the sense of eschewing all willful evil) is impossible, that implies that people don’t always have the choice to think or not, i.e. that they don’t have free will. Or, if individual rights may be violated for the sake of the good of the community, that invalidates egoism and individualism in favor of altruism and collectivism. Or, if government necessarily violates individual rights, that’s because objective judgments about the use of force are impossible, such that we must resort to the subjective-collective judgments of “agreements” between “defense agencies.” (Oy! What an exercise in integration!)

That sounds far more rationalistic than I’d like, so let me put the general point this way: For a set of philosophical principles to form a system rather than just a jumbled mess, those principles must be tightly connected to one another. They must form a single, coherent worldview. Of course, internal contradictions may abound even in such a tight-knit philosophic system — as with Kant. The basic reason is that a philosophy can only be fully self-consistent if it is fully consistent with reality, i.e. true. If a philosophy is only partially grounded in reality, then internal contradictions are inevitable, since the true will conflict with the false. No philosophy can manage to be completely and utterly severed from reality — not in the sense of denying every fact — since that would render it incomprehensible. For example, even Kant couldn’t manage to deny that we experience sensations, emotions, memories, thoughts, and the like! Given the integration inherent in a system of philosophy, contradictions between principles cannot be neatly excised from it. Correcting one contradiction will only generate new contradictions — on and on ad infinitum. Soon, the philosophy will no longer resemble its former self. For any philosophy that does not conform wholly to reality, its falsehoods and contradictions are simply part of its identity.

Returning now to Objectivism, if the acceptance or rejection of some claim genuinely wouldn’t impact the rest of the philosophy, then it’s not a principle at all. The acceptance or rejection of a genuine principle, on the other hand, will impact the whole character of the philosophy. That’s why David Kelley’s “open system” is not merely wrong but actually impossible. The myriad principles of the philosophy that he leaves open to revision cannot be altered without seriously affecting those he claims are closed to revision. For example, he claims that only the virtues of rationality, independence, justice, and productiveness are necessary to Objectivism, meaning that an advocate of Objectivism can reject the virtues of pride, honesty, and integrity. Kelley claims that those virtues, along with everything else he places outside the scope of Objectivism, are “principles of limited range and significance for the system as a whole.” In fact, those virtues cannot be rejected, nor even tweaked, without rejecting the Objectivist view of rationality, not to mention a host of other principles that Kelley regards as necessary. In response to that potential objection, Kelley says:

It’s also important to stress that the principles I have mentioned are not to be taken as a list of articles of faith. They are elements in a connected system. I have been asked whether I would consider someone to be an Objectivist if he accepted all these principles but denied some other point–e.g., that honesty is a virtue. My answer is that the question is premature. I would need to know the reason for his position. If he rejects honesty because he doesn’t like it, even though he happens to like the points I’ve mentioned, then he would not be an adherent of the Objectivist philosophy because he is not an adherent of any philosophy. A philosophy is a logically integrated system, not a grab bag of isolated tenets adopted arbitrarily. If the person did have a reason for his position, then I would need to know what it is. I cannot imagine any argument in favor of dishonesty that does not rest on a rejection of rationality, in which case the person is outside the framework of Objectivism. But if his position is that honesty, while good, is not important enough as an issue to be considered a cardinal virtue; or that the scope of legitimate “white lies” is larger than Ayn Rand allowed; or any number of other variant positions in all such cases, I would consider him an Objectivist even if I disagreed with him, as long as he defends his view by reference to the basic principles (T&T 69).

For starters, notice the skepticism inherent in Kelley’s claim, “I cannot imagine any argument in favor of dishonesty that does not rest on a rejection of rationality…” Contrary to analytic flights of fancy, imagination is not a guide to knowledge. So it does not matter what arguments for dishonesty Kelley might be able to imagine: Any Objectivist philosopher worth his salt ought to know, with full certainty, that “any argument in favor of dishonesty” absolutely requires “a rejection of rationality.” The fact that honesty (i.e. the refusal to fake reality) is the flip side of rationality (i.e. the commitment to grasp reality) out to make this point quite clear. The tentative language is revealing, as Kelley ought to know better than to speak in such loose terms. Although Kelley would certainly reject such explicitly, the comment smacks of Popperian falsification, as if we cannot be certain of our claims because someone might someday offer some counterexample that we hadn’t yet considered.

Kelley’s willingness to consider more moderate changes to Objectivism — like that “honesty, while good, is not important enough as an issue to be considered a cardinal virtue” or that “the scope of legitimate ‘white lies’ is larger than Ayn Rand allowed” or “any number of other variant positions” — tells us little. Kelley allows that those positions might be defended “by reference to the basic principles,” but that’s an arbitrary possibility — particularly since we are not given even a hint about the grounds upon which a person might hold such views. By speaking only in vague terms, he evasively sidesteps the devastating objection that any change to a principle of Objectivism would necessitate dramatic changes to the whole system. Kelley seems to want to allow “moderate” changes to Objectivism, but he can offer no principled grounds upon which to permit those but not the wholesale rejection of Objectivist principles. Nor does he dare offer any concretized examples.

Notably, Kelley never says that the arguments for such changes must be true, or compelling, or even plausible. In other words, a person can advance any crazy departure from Ayn Rand’s philosophy as Objectivism, so long as he claims to argue from the few principles that Kelley arbitrarily claims as necessary to and sufficient for Objectivism. (I’ve certainly seen exactly that kind of craziness from supporters of Kelley’s open system, most notably the argument for animal rights on the grounds that life is an end in itself.) Kelley could not champion even basic intellectual standards like logical consistency in his open system, since the whole scheme is premised upon the idea that a “philosophy of reason” demands mere “dissent,” even though “nine out of ten new ideas will be mistakes” (AQOS). In fact, TOC’s history demonstrates that the ratio of stupid dissents to total dissents is much, much higher than nine out of ten.

As a final note, I’d just like to emphasize just how little of Ayn Rand’s philosophy David Kelley regards as necessary to Objectivism within his open system.

In the chapter on Objectivism in Truth and Toleration, Kelley argues that a “a philosophy defines a school of thought, a category of thinkers who subscribe to the same basic principles” (T&T 57). By his “open system” approach, the “members of the school may differ among themselves over many issues within the framework of the basic principles they accept,” including “a vast array of detailed questions in every area of philosophy,” “the proper formulation of the basic principles,” and the “interrelationships” between them (T&T 57). The philosophy “develops” over time, albeit with “limits on [this] process” so that “the system [can] retain its integrity” (T&T 57). These limits are “set by fundamental principles: the system is defined by the essential tenets that distinguish it from other viewpoints” (T&T 58). Somewhat later in the chapter, Kelley identifies the principles which he regards as fundamental to Objectivism in just over 1300 words (T&T 66-8). As a group, they are supposed to serve three basic purposes: (1) “distinguish Objectivism from every other viewpoint,” (2) “identify the boundaries of the debate and development that may take place within Objectivism as a school of thought,” and (3) differentiate Objectivists from non-Objectivists (T&T 69). In other words, Kelley regards these principles as necessary to and sufficient for Objectivism. They are the only “closed” aspects of the philosophy.

While Kelley’s list certainly includes many basic principles of Objectivism, the omissions are striking. For example, it includes the axioms of existence, identity, and causality, while omitting the axiom of consciousness (T&T 66). It contains the principle that “the material of knowledge is provided by the senses,” but not the rejection of representationalism, the form-content distinction, or even that knowledge is both hierarchical and contextual. It includes the idea of a concept as “an integration of particulars on the basis of their similarities,” but excludes the theory of measurement omission, the rejection of the analytic-synthetic distinction, and countless other elements of Rand’s revolutionary theory of concepts (T&T 67). As already mentioned, it contains the virtues of rationality, justice, productiveness, and independence, but not integrity, honesty, and pride (T&T 67). It includes the importance of productive work, but omits romantic love (T&T 67). It includes the idea that rights are individual rights to action without excluding the possibility of animal rights (T&T 68). It entirely omits the relationship between reason and emotion, the benevolent universe premise, sense of life, the evils of compromise and appeasement, the impotence of evil, the whole of aesthetics, and so much more (T&T 66-9). And that’s just scratching the surface.

Kelley claims that even though the excluded principles “contribute to the richness and power of Objectivism as a system of thought,” none are “primary” (T&T 69). They are of “limited range and significance for the philosophy as a whole,” such that they may be challenged, altered, or rejected without departing from Objectivism (T&T 69). On the contrary, the fact that Objectivism is a tightly integrated system of philosophy means that such is impossible.

I’ve strayed rather far from Trey Givens’ original post, but at least I’ve now finished up my major comments on the errors and absurdities of Kelley’s open system. Of course, further questions and comments are welcome.

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