Questions and Comments on the Closed System

 Posted by on 21 April 2004 at 4:56 pm  Uncategorized
Apr 212004

Over on Objectivism Online, a rather active and largely speculative discussion was progressing about my views on the open system versus closed system debate. Unfortunately, the cause of all the speculation was a person who chose — without my knowledge or consent — to publish loaded summaries and then select quotes from my brief private e-mail correspondence with him. The whole situation was rather infuriating, although I am grateful to those in the discussion who urged caution. As I figured that some people would continue wrongly speculating on my views unless I actually sketched them, I posted a long comment on the thread this morning.

The relevant portion is reproduced below. Please note that my comments and questions are aimed at those who accept the closed system view. Comments and questions from all are welcome, although I’m presently quite busy writing term papers. So here goes:

First, in “Fact and Value,” Peikoff says that the “the essence of the system [of Objectivism]–its fundamental principles and their consequences in every branch–is laid down once and for all by the philosophy’s author.” I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. Contra Kelley, to reject or revise some principles of Objectivism is to depart from Objectivism. The philosophy is not some loose family of views generated within a school of thought, but a specific system developed by a single person. It necessarily includes many principles regarded as derivative and hence optional by Kelley, such as the axiom of consciousness, the virtues of pride, honesty, and integrity, knowledge as hierarchical and contextual, the form/content distinction in perception, the benevolent universe premise, the value of romantic love, the whole of aesthetics, and so much more. In my view, the claim that Objectivism is an open system is not merely wrong, but disastrous as implemented in both academics and activism at TOC.

In keeping with the above, I also agree with Peikoff that “if anyone wants to reject Ayn Rand’s ideas and invent a new viewpoint, he is free to do so–but he cannot, as a matter of honesty, label his new ideas or himself ‘Objectivist’.” I know and respect many “fellow travellers” of Objectivism, i.e. people who agree with some aspects of the philosophy, but not the whole. Such standing is basically fine by me, so long as the disagreements with Objectivism are openly acknowledged. (Of course, I regard them as in error, but that’s another matter.) So long as they approach ideas (including Objectivism) seriously and carefully, debate and discussion with such fellow travellers can be extremely profitable.

Second, in “Fact and Value,” Peikoff also says that “the ‘official, authorized doctrine’ [of Objectivism] remains unchanged and untouched in Ayn Rand’s books.” Again contra Kelley, I have no objection to the idea of an “official, authorized doctrine” of Objectivism. I deny that such represents a departure from the norms of the history of philosophy. A person wanting to know the definitive Kantian view on some subject ought to consult Kant’s writings; secondary sources or later thinkers may be illuminating, but only Kant’s writings are authoritative. (Of course, Objectivists also validly use the term “Kantian” to encompass a wide range of philosophic views which trace back to Kant, such as pragmatism and logical positivism. However, such usage is derivative and dependent upon a more restricted understanding of the term as referring to the particular philosophic system developed by Kant.) In addition, Kelley’s argument that an authorized Objectivist doctrine generates conflict between the demands of Objectivism and the demands of independence and rationality is an expression of tribalism, not a repudiation of it. Rational and independent people discard labels like “Objectivist” when no longer applicable to them; they do not clutch onto them by arbitrarily weakening and redefining their terms.

I am, however, quite reluctant to limit the principles of Objectivism to only those found in Ayn Rand’s books. This limited view is most clearly elucidated by Harry Binswanger in his HBL List Policies, where he writes that “Objectivism is limited to the philosophic principles expounded by Ayn Rand in the writings published during her lifetime plus those articles by other authors that she published in her own periodicals (e.g., The Objectivist) or included in her anthologies.” Clearly, such carefully vetted written works constitute the core of the Objectivist corpus. They are the “gold standard” against which all other potential sources ought to be judged. Nonetheless, some other works do seem worthy of standing in establishing the principles of Objectivism, even though excluded by Binswanger’s criteria. Most uncontroversially, Peikoff’s The Philosophy of Objectivism course was specifically endorsed by Ayn Rand as a presentation of “the entire theoretical structure of Objectivism.” From what I understand, other lecture courses given by Ayn Rand’s associates were presented with her basic approval. In addition, a wealth of very Objectivist material is found in Ayn Rand’s posthumously published letters, seminars, and journals, as well as in recorded Q&As. Also notable are reliable reports of philosophic discussions, particularly those between Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff, as he reports taking copious notes over the course of 30 years. Given that such sources were never prepared for publication by Ayn Rand, they ought not be accepted at face value as part of Objectivism, but instead carefully compared against the principles found in the core sources. The often fascinating and illuminating insights in these sources ought not be regarded as mere curiosities irrelevant to the substance of Objectivism.

In essence then, my basic view is that Objectivism includes all of the philosophic principles and methods substantially developed by Ayn Rand, i.e. those elements of her personal philosophy given physical form.

Third, in “Fact and Value,” Peikoff says that “new implications, applications, integrations can always be discovered” and that “anyone else’s interpretation or development of her ideas, my own work emphatically included, is precisely that: an interpretation or development, which may or may not be logically consistent with what she wrote.” Read literally, I am again in agreement with these claims. My question concerns the status of such “new implications, applications, integrations,” in particular, whether they are part of Objectivism or not. From what I understand, the closed system answers an emphatic “no.” In many ways, this strictly limited understanding of Objectivism seems quite sensible and significant to me. People often claim that some new idea is merely a straightforward and logical development of Objectivism. To passively accept such claims would be idiotic — and to investigate them requires differentiating between the core principles of the philosophy developed by Ayn Rand and the work of later Objectivist scholars. This strictly limited sense of “Objectivism” is, I would say, the root meaning of the term.

So my question is really whether such is its only possible meaning. In other words, are there contexts in which a slightly broader term — one which includes later philosophic developments deeply and thoroughly consistent with the core principles of Objectivism — would be appropriate? From my perspective, it seems that Objectivists, including advocates of the closed system, appeal to this broader meaning rather frequently — and rightfully so. For example:

  • Objectivists commonly claim that “the Objectivist view on X is Y,” even though Y is a later application of the core principles established by Ayn Rand rather than one of those principles themselves. So if an analytic philosopher invents some new object allegedly demanding our sacrifice (such as bacteria, alien invaders, or household pets), we would not be shocked or dismayed to hear Objectivist scholars say that Objectivism rejects that view entirely, even though such a rejection is, strictly speaking, an application of the general Objectivist view on self-sacrifice to this new case.
  • As far as I recall, Leonard Peikoff’s lecture course, “Objectivism: The State of the Art,” primarily concerns material he learned while writing Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. On the strict and narrow meaning of “Objectivism,” this title seems baffling to me. How could such material fall under the title “Objectivism”? How could Objectivism have a “state of the art” after Ayn Rand’s death? Yet such is perfectly comprehensible under a slightly broader meaning of the term.
  • In his excellent course Understanding Objectivism, Peikoff breaks new ground in his detailed discussions of the rationalist and empiricist methodologies, particularly their relationship to the mind-body dichotomy. Such elaboration upon and integrations of already-established Objectivist principles are apparently not part of Objectivism, narrowly construed. Yet the deep connection to Objectivism is undeniable. One of the primary values of such work is that it provides us with the means to substantially enrich our concepts, e.g. those of rationalism, empiricism, and the mind-body dichotomy. Since such concepts refer to all that we might ever learn about their referents and such concepts compose various principles of Objectivism, in what sense can Objectivism exclude such new insights? We might think of many such insights as implicit in the system and thus part of it, even if not explicitly identified until after Ayn Rand’s death.
  • In Ayn Rand’s writings, some principles of Objectivism were merely asserted, but not explained or justified. For example, she claims that reason, purpose, and self-esteem are the cardinal values, but does not tell us what that means or why that is. Without a good explanation of the meaning and justification of this claim, it stands alone, without any connection to the rest of the system. When a good, deeply Objectivist explanation and justification is offered, should we continue to allow those cardinal values to stand outside the system? Or should we integrate them by incorporating this new understanding into our understanding of Objectivism? The latter seems like the right approach to me, but it also seems incompatible with the strictly closed system.

    To be clear, I’m not advocating any version of the open system here. Instead, my modest proposal is merely that “Objectivism” might also derivatively refer to the full system of philosophy rigorously and consistently developed from the principles and methods established by Ayn Rand. Some people might ask “Who decides what is included and what is not?” Let me answer simply by quote Peikoff: “In regard to the consistency of any such derivative work, each man must reach his own verdict, by weighing all the relevant evidence.” Ultimately, the final arbiter is, of course, reality.

    To forestall confusion, perhaps the broader notion of Objectivism ought to be designated “extended Objectivism” or some such. Perhaps instead we ought to say that such later developments are “Objectivist” but not part of “Objectivism.” However, I tend to think that the same term could be used reasonably clearly for these two related meanings based upon the context. In any case, unit economy seems to demand a single word to designate the philosophy developed by Ayn Rand plus the valid and consistent “new implications, applications, integrations” of that philosophy. (That’s quite a mouthful!) So long as we adequately differentiate between Ayn Rand’s philosophic work and the developments of later thinkers by retaining the root meaning of “Objectivism,” this modest proposal seems reasonably consistent with Ayn Rand’s comments about the use of the term “Objectivism” in the first issue of The Objectivist Forum.

    One final puzzlement: Adherents of the closed system generally claim as justification that Objectivism is a proper noun, not a concept. (Peikoff doesn’t say that in “Fact and Value,” so I’m unsure of the origin of this idea. Does anyone know?) I’ve always been rather puzzled by this view. If Objectivism is a proper noun, to what single particular does it refer? None of the candidates I’ve considered make much sense to me. One option is that the particular could be the philosophic ideas which once existed in Ayn Rand’s mind. If so, Objectivism doesn’t exist any more — and no one but Ayn Rand could have been an Objectivist. So surely that’s wrong. Another option is that the particular is the sum of the philosophic ideas which Ayn Rand gave physical form. However, those ideas do not exist in some Platonic realm; their physical forms do not possess intrinsic meaning. Individual minds are required to grasp the meaning of the ideas in those physical forms. Yet then we seem to have multiple instances, which excludes a proper name. Such multiple instances also serve as the basis on which to form a concept. Thus I must admit to some bafflement at the proper noun view.

    I hope that sufficiently explains my present views. I’m eager to hear the best contrary arguments that thoughtful and knowledgeable Objectivists can marshal!

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