Comments by Gary Merrill
From: Gary Merrill
Subject: Rand’s work: style and quality
Date: Mon, 2 Aug 1993 14:22:06 GMT
Organization: SAS Institute Inc.
Before I begin discussing the substance of any of Rand’s ideas, I would like to consider some questions pertaining to the form and style of her writings. In part, this is to give an account of why academics typically have a certain response to these writings, and in part it is to set the stage for analyses that are yet to come. The questions I ultimately want to address are these:
1. What is it that differentiates Rand’s writing
from the writing of academics and professional philosophers?
2. Is this a significant difference, or is it
merely a difference in style that can be (and ought to be) ignored in order to
benefit from the deeper content of those writings?
3. What is the quality of scholarship in these writings, and does (and ought) this affect the manner in which the writings are approached and viewed?
I have already (in a previous posting) made some detailed remarks concerning Rand’s style in The Virtue of Selfishness. My comments now are addressed specifically to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (hereafter, IOE). This is an appropriate work for such an analysis since it is offered as one of Rand’s major works in pure philosophy (in which she “offers a startingly original solution to the problem that brought about the collapse of modern philosophy”). It is offered as a “brilliantly argued, superbly written work” as well. (The quotes are from the back cover of the book.)
What sorts of things impress a professional philosopher about this work? First, we discover that we have a book that (excluding the index) is 306 pages in length. Closer examination shows that Rand’s direct and verifiable contribution to this amounts to slightly fewer than 87 pages. There is in addition a 38 page article by Peikoff, 4 pages of preface by Peikoff and Binswanger, and a 179 page appendix of “workshops” on Rand. We will need later to consider the status of this appendix in Rand scholarship. For now, let it suffice to observe that it was not written, edited, or reviewed by Rand. So having bought a 314 page book, we immediately discover (to my surprise, at least) that we have only 87 pages of Rand. This is pretty odd, but not necessarily bad. (Among other things, it means that in reading the original source of Randian ideas, we have much less to read.) It appears at least a little deceitful that the cover proclaims Ayn Rand as the author in a monstrous font while “Edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff” occurs in a much smaller font much further down the page. But we can ignore this oddity.
When we look into Rand’s 87 pages of text, what do we find that stylistically differentiates Rand’s work from what might be called “standard scholarship”. First, any number of positions are referred to without there being any clue as to who is claimed to hold these positions. These are the following (numbers in parentheses are page numbers in which the positions are mentioned):
·Nominalism (47, 53, 74) ·Pragmatism (77) ·Conceptualism (53) ·Linguistic Analysis (50, 77, 78) ·Realism (53 and elsewhere) ·Mysticism (60, 79, and elsewhere) ·Irrationalism (60)
Sweeping and very strong claims are made concerning these various positions, and yet the reader is offered not a clue as to exactly what the position is nor who has held the position that is being criticized. Since Rand is offering these as failed attempts at solving certain problems, and since she is claiming that her purported solution succeeds where these fail, it is (to say the least) irritating to the reader that he has absolutely no way of objectively judging her criticisms of the positions nor the success of her own solution. For example, a familiarity with the positions being criticized may well introduce the reader to certain classic problems that Rand’s solution faces as well. Without such familiarity the reader remains ignorant. Since Rand herself characterizes the dependence of argument on such ignorance as argument from intimidation, it is especially peculiar that she has so studiously failed to be specific. Either she is unable to cite specific references to support her criticisms, or else she is unwilling to do so. This is simply a mark of poor scholarship and both by the standards of professionals and her own criteria it is poor and deceitful argumentation.
At some points she goes so far as to provide vague references. For example, on pp. 50-51 she offers us:
As an illustration, observe what Bertrand Russell was able to perpetrate because people thought they “kinda knew” the meaning of the concept of “number” ...
Now I’m hardly a Russell expert, but at one time I had read quite a bit of Russell, and I did once serve on the dissertation board of a Ph.D. candidate whose dissertation was entitled “Russell’s Theory of Number”. I can’t imagine what she is talking about here. But worse – she offers me no way of determining what she is referring to and no way to determine whether her “criticism” (if we can call it that) of Russell is well founded. In addition, how can this be an illustration of anything since there isn’t enough detail to tell what is being referred to? (To be sure, Russell may have perpetrated any number of things – ban the bomb, for example – but what these may have had to do with the concept of number is rather up in the air.)
Rand mentions Kant repeatedly (he seems to be the guy she loves to hate), but there is absolutely nothing that is specific. She never quotes Kant directly, but when she apparently feels a need to justify her view of Kant she instead quotes from a book published in 1873 by Henry Mansel whom she describes as “a Kantian”. Again, I am not an expert on Kant, but who is this guy Mansel? I can find him mentioned in none of the histories of philosophy I have, and he is not mentioned in the fairly extensive bibliography on Kant in Lewis Beck’s 18th-Century Philosophy. So direct reference to Kant is replaced by reference to “a Kantian” (and a very obscure one at that). Why do this? Why not show how Kant himself held the position that is being attacked? There is no justification for this sort of thing. Again, poor scholarship. (I do not, by the way, believe that even the quote from Mansel supports Rand’s view of Kant. But I will not argue that point now.)
These sorts of things would not be so bad, though they are bad, were it not for the fact that she so frequently gets things wrong. There is the business above concerning Russell, for example. There is the claim (p. 59) that “modern philosophers declare that axioms are a matter of arbitrary choice.” (no substantiation or reference is provided). There is the claim (p. 52) that “It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist”. (Any of you Aristotle scholars want to wade in here with a brief account of particulars vs. concretes?) And none of this comes with even a hint of specific attribution that would allow a reader to evaluate it. The closest she gets is along the lines of (p. 60) “For example, see the works of Kant and Hegel.” Now that really narrows it down!
So what is it that differentiates the writing of Rand from those of classic academics and professional philosophers? It is simply that her work has every appearance of an extended and multi-faceted straw man argument that fails to meet even the minimum standards of scholarship. It has all the marks of what in science would be pseudo-science. If there is such a thing as pseudo-philosophy, this is it.
Nor is this brand of scholarship restricted to Rand herself. Her closest followers embrace it as well. Consider Peikoff’s article, “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy”. This article, said to have been published first in 1967, contains the sweeping claim (p. 89) that “It [the analytic-synthetic dichotomy] is accepted, in some form, by virtually every influential contemporary philosopher – pragmatist, logical positivist, analyst, and extentialist alike.” Well, consider please the following:
But, for all its a priori reasonableness, a boundary between analytic and synthetic statements simply has not been drawn. That there is such a distinction to be drawn at all is an unempirical dogma of empiricists, a metaphysical article of faith. (W. V. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”).
My copy of From a Logical Point of View has an initial copyright date of 1953. The original paper appeared in The Philosophical Review in 1951. Look folks, it simply is not possible for anyone who was aware of what was happening in Anglo-American philosophy in the 50’s and early 60’s to claim with any honesty what Peikoff does in the quote above. So was Peikoff dishonest or ignorant? Take your pick. He had to be one or the other. If one were forced to select a single paper of Quine’s that had the most impact on contemporary philosophy it would have to be “Two Dogmas”. But Peikoff appears ignorant of both it and its impact on the field. Further, it appears that Peikoff’s article appears only in the second edition of IOE, published in 1990. Certainly by this time someone should have noticed “Two Dogmas” and at least conceded in a footnote that Peikoff’s claim was unsupportable both now and when it originally was made. Peikoff, like Rand, goes to great lengths to claim (I would say “make a case”, but no genuine evidence is ever introduced) that he is proposing a novel approach where all other philosophers have failed. In the case of the analytic/ synthetic dichotomy I’ve got news for Peikoff: It was done 15 years earlier, and it was done better.
Is this work of Rand and Peikoff “brilliantly argued” and “superbly written”? In a word, no.
This treatment is getting a bit lengthy. Let me wrap it up. I believe that I have addressed the point 1 above that I set out to answer. Now 2 and 3 need to be considered. Is the egregiously poor scholarship found in Rand and her primary followers merely a difference in style that we can ignore? I’m afraid that I do not think so. It is so systematic and so deeply embedded in her work that it is virtually impossible to separate her “ideas” (as some have put it) from the either poor or deceitful manner in which they are expressed. This is particularly so since Rand repeatedly offers her own “solution” to problems that others have failed to solve and this solution is at least partly explained and justified by contrasting to the “failed” solutions. Much of her time is devoted to claims against others and to claims concerning both the novelty and success of her own approach. I believe I have shown that her treatment is either ignorant and incompetent or dishonest and deceitful. The question is whether, based on reading several of Rand’s works, it is worthwhile to devote further study to these and other works of hers. In order to make this decision we would have to believe that when she turns from the exposition and criticism of other positions to her own ideas she abandons the attitude and techniques with which she has approached the work of others. This is not a reasonable thing to believe.
Regardless of this conclusion I am prepared to consider directly some of “Rand’s ideas”, but I will leave that for another posting. I see that I never did consider the status of the appendix as I said I would. This posting is too long as it is. If anyone really wants to see what I think of the appendix, it will have to be in a separate posting as well.
Gary H. Merrill [Principal Systems Developer, Compiler and ToolsDivision] SAS Institute Inc. / SAS Campus Dr. / Cary, NC 27513 / (919) 677-8000