Recovering from Rationalism

I am a recovering rationalist. I thought I was pretty smart, back in 1992 (it must have been), when I first got my copy of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. I read it, understood it, and was even ready to start correcting it. Or so I thought. In fact, I did not understand Objectivism, at all. Or, rather, I understood only a few of its tenets, and those poorly. I was certainly not prepared to apply Objectivist principles consistently in my own life. My main problem was rationalism. I understood the philosophy as an interconnected system of ideas, but I did not understand how those ideas were related to the real world.

Take, for instance, my (lack of) understanding of “life” as the standard of value. I wrote thousands of words over the internet explaining the problems with that position. For example, how is one to choose between length of life and strength of life? I created long, rationalistic chains of arguments that (I thought) demonstrated the absurdities of holding “life” as the standard. Of course, what I was not doing is looking at what life really is. I was not drawing the principles from the facts; I was trying to derive principles from floating deductions.

Another example may be found in my interaction with libertarianism. Within a few years, I went from enthusiastically promoting libertarianism to denouncing libertarianism. In 2002, I was still defending libertarianism, though I was starting to pay more attention to certain of its problems. I made two basic arguments in defense of libertarianism. First, “If libertarianism is roughly wanting government only to protect property rights, then Objectivism is a type of libertarianism…” In other words, I was starting with (dubious) definitions and then proceeding deductively, rather than looking at the content of libertarianism. Second, I argued that the Objectivist case against libertarianism makes little sense, because Objectivists interact with others who are not principled. I was attempting a reductio ad absurdum, rather than looking at the relevant facts about libertarianism.

I revisited the issue in 2004. I was becoming much more aware of the problems within the libertarian movement, but I still tied myself to libertarianism using rationalistic arguments. I again tried to point out the internal contradictions of criticisms of libertarianism, to reduce those criticisms to absurdity. And I remained stuck on definitions as a starting point: “a single term can[not] be used to name only a single concept. … [W]e frequently assign the same word to multiple concepts, and we rely upon context and explicit definitions to make clear our meaning.” In short, I thought I could re-define libertarianism into respectability. A bit later I wrote of “two libertarianisms” and declared that, by the correct “definition, I am a libertarian, I have been a libertarian for many years, and I anticipate I will always be a libertarian.”

By 2005, I was deeply alarmed by goings on in the libertarian movement, and I was beginning to look at what libertarianism is, rather than attempt to reconstruct it according to my prior definition. A month later, I declared, “I am not a libertarian.” I summarized my reasons: “For I do not want to be lumped together with the pragmatists, reactionaries, tribalists, nihilists, hedonists, rationalists, subjectivists, idealists (of the Platonic variety), propagandists, utopians, and kooks of the libertarian movement.” This was a big development for me. I had finally beat my head against enough concrete problems to begin to abandon my rationalistic view of libertarianism. However, I did not at that point explicitly understand that what I was starting to do is replace rationalism with an inductive approach. I continue to struggle with overcoming rationalism.

Unfortunately, the best Objectivist material about using induction to learn philosophy is not easy to access. A lecture by Darryl Wright helped me to understand the ethical significance of “life.” (Unfortunately, I cannot at this point recall the title of that lecture.) Far and away the most helpful material for me has been Leonard Peikoff’s “Understanding Objectivism” lectures. This outstanding material explicitly deals with the problems of rationalism. It is quite expensive; those who have a problem with the cost might consider finding a loaner copy or buying a copy to share. I’ve started Peikoff’s “Objectivism Through Induction,” which so far is also quite good. He discusses how to inductively approach issues such as causality, reason as man’s means of survival, egoism, and other critical topics.

I am thrilled that Peikoff is making available on his web page a podcast in which he answers questions. He has not so far dealt explicitly with the topic of rationalism versus induction in philosophy, but his answers explode the rationalistic premises of various questions. For example, in his new podcast, he explains why the possibility of human instincts cannot be derived from evolutionary history. Instead, he suggests, we should look to see whether people in fact have instincts. So those trying to overcome rationalistic tendencies can listen to Peikoff’s answers at the level of how they treat rationalism versus induction.

Craig Biddle Coming to CO for Atlas Shrugged Talk

I just got this announcement: Craig Biddle, author of Loving Life and editor of The Objective Standard, will speak in Boulder on November 15.

“In this talk, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Atlas Shrugged, Craig Biddle presents the basic principles of rational egoism, contrasts them with the alternatives, and shows why everyone who wants to live happily and freely needs to understand and embrace them.”

Thursday, November 15 2007, 6:30pm – 7:30pm
Wittemyer Courtroom, Wolf Law Building, University of Colorado at Boulder (Campus Map)

Ayn Rand Lexicon Online

This is spectacular! The Ayn Rand Institute just announced that the Ayn Rand Lexicon is now available online, appropriately enough at You can search by key words or explore the alphabetical listing. So, if you ever wanted to know what Rand thought about something, this may well give you the answer.

Just for fun, I clicked on a topic at random. I came up with “Isolationism.” Rand describes one “view of foreign policy which is wrecking the United States to this day: the suicidal view that our foreign policy must be guided, not by considerations of national self-interest, but by concern for the interests and welfare of the world, that is, of all countries except our own.” Her description continues to hold for the foreign policy of the United States.

D’Anconia Warns Against Repression

Recently I read Francisco d’Anconia’s monumental speech about the virtue of money in Atlas Shrugged (pages 387-391 in my Signet 35th Anniversary Edition). In answer to someone who quips that “money is the root of all evil,” d’Anconia argues that the root of money is production, and the root of production is the reasoning mind. It is a speech well worth perusing, and it is often discussed.

On this reading, I was equally struck by the discussion that d’Anconia holds with Hank Rearden immediately after the speech. I have heard the claim that Atlas Shrugged encourages emotional repression. However, Ayn Rand presents some of her heros as emotionally repressed precisely to point out why that’s a problem. Rearden mentions some “fool woman.” D’Anconia replies:

That woman and all those like her keep evading the thoughts which they know to be good. You keep pushing out of your mind the thoughts which you believe to be evil. They do it, because they want to avoid effort. You do it, because you won’t permit yourself to consider anything that would spare you. They indulge their emotions at any cost. You sacrifice your emotions as the first cost of any problem. They are willing to bear nothing. You are willing to bear anything. They keep evading responsibility. You keep assuming it. But don’t you see that the essential error is the same? Any refusal to recognize reality, for any reason whatever, has disastrous consequences. There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think. Don’t ignore your own desires, Mr. Rearden. Don’t sacrifice them. Examine their cause. There is a limit to how much you should have to bear. (page 394)

So, Rand points out, emotionalism, letting one’s emotions guide one’s life without rational oversight, stems from essentially the same error as emotional repression. That error is evasion, the pushing out of one’s mind relevant knowledge or questions. Because Rearden tends to evade certain types of facts, he becomes emotionally repressed. This leads him to actively help those who are trying to tear him down and to damn his own desire for romantic sex. In presenting emotional repression in certain characters, Rand is exploring the roots of such repression so that it can be overcome.

Leonard Peikoff’s Podcast

Outstanding! Leonard Peikoff has just released his first podcast. He says he’ll produce a new one every week or two. He does an excellent job answering difficult questions in a way accessible to a general audience. In his first podcast, he answers four questions sent to him via e-mail (in my wording):

1. Is “non-initiation of force” the main ethical principle?

2. What should one do if one’s relatives are upset about one’s atheism?

3. What is the theme of mystery and adventure novels?

4. Do religions as such tend to become militant? How should a country defend itself against terrorist states where good people live?

Dr. Pritchett on Freedom

Inspired by the 50th anniversary of Atlas Shrugged, I decided to read the great novel again. I’m nearly a third of the way through. The novel is a magnificent accomplishment — and it’s as though I’m reading it for the first time. The first third focusses on the characters of Dagny Taggart, the great railroad executive; Hank Rearden, the steel producer; and Francisco d’Anconia, the copper owner who has apparently fallen to depravity. The dramatic tension, as when Dagny and Hank meet at a party or celebrate an accomplishment, is gripping.

I thought that I would include a few quotes on this web page. They’re not necessarily the most central quotes; they’re just what happen to grab me. Here’s what Dr. Pritchett has to say about the Equalization of Opportunity Bill, which forces business owners to sell off all but one enterprise:

But I believe I made it clear that I am in favor of it, because I am in favor of a free economy. A free economy cannot exist without competition. Therefore, men must be forced to compete. Therefore, we must control men in order to force them to be free. (page 129)

Ridiculous? Nobody would ever actually say that? But my previous entry quotes just such a statement.

Atlas Shrugged — The Game

Often I come across tidbits in the popular media and think, “Wow, that could have come straight out of Atlas Shrugged.” Indeed, Ayn Rand’s ability to read and predict cultural trends can seem uncanny. So, as a fun way to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the publication of the novel, I’m suggesting Atlas Shrugged — The Game.

It’s simple to play. Just blog the best example you can find from (let’s say) the past eight weeks of commentary that sounds like it could have been lifted straight from the pages of Atlas Shrugged. I imagine that nearly all examples will sound like the voice of a villain, unfortunately. Edit out specifics and leave only the general points. Let’s give it, say, till the end of October. Here’s my entry for the sort of mealy-mouthed gibberish common among Atlas’s political “reformers:”

It’s heating up. The debate… is picking up speed… Unfortunately, this naturally leads to polarization of opposing views regarding a critically important issue for all of us. And this cheapens and oversimplifies the discussion.

Our [industry] can’t be corrected with one liners and political scoring points.

We need cooperation. We need compromise. We don’t need political hoopla.

Thankfully, the continued work of the… Commission is a good example of how a group of people with differing views can work together on a critical issue. It would be premature to grade their efforts. However, they are making progress and we all should support their endeavor.

Source: Dr. Michael J. Pramenko, “Time to find people ‘medical homes’,” Grand Junction Free Press, September 28, 2007.

Celebrating Atlas Shrugged

From the Colorado Freedom Report:

“Today marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s seminal novel about producers who go on strike to oppose their treatment at the hands of political plunderers. The novel celebrates the greatness possible to the freed human mind in pursuit of life-enhancing values. The work unabashedly endorses the moral doctrine of rational self-interest. …

“Atlas Shrugged lays out the vision of heroic people who refuse to compromise their principles — and thereby refuse to compromise their happiness. Such people realize the full value of life on earth, and they therefore apply their reason and efforts to the goal of living. They hold productiveness as a moral virtue, and they seek to protect the political liberty that allows individuals to act, create, and trade according to their own judgment.”