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?
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.