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.

5 thoughts on “Recovering from Rationalism”

  1. There are a fair number of kooks in the libertarian movement (which is part of the reason I won’t join the LP), but Schwartz and others exaggerate their numbers. And I still hear Objectivists implying that most or all libertarians are anarchists, which I don’t think is the case.

  2. The problem isn’t that most or all libertarians are this or that. The problem is that libertarianism qua libertarianism has no fundamental ideological base, so it can only serve to destroy the necessary foundations of liberty and empower the kooks, however small in numbers they may be.

    Statistics are not the same thing as thinking in terms of essentials.

  3. Myrhaf asks, “Ari, did the Libertarian reaction to the war help you clarify your thinking?”

    Yes. I agree with Libertarians that the war in Iraq was a bad move. I disagree with their reasons. Many Libertarians immediately joined the “blame America first” crowd. Some Libertarians got into the conspiracy movements about 9/11. I think both responses basically stemmed from reaction against government as such.

  4. On most issues I am more of a Wittgensteinian than an essentialist. Since there is no such thing as “induction,” or, at least, “inductive logic,” that alternative doesn’t really exist. On this topic, however, I think that a bright line test separating the sheep from the goats is possible, even desirable. Here is my first stab at such a separation:


    Somehow, since those dim days in the 60s when former classical liberals and traditional Americans were looking for a new label to describe their political outlook,
    we have lost our way. We have lost our way, I believe, partly because the original vision was never crystal clear. It was distorted, at the beginning, by what Hayek once called “Individualism: True and False.” But it also has become more distorted over time by the success, such as it is, of the “libertarian ideology.” A popular ideology is one that people want to associate themselves with, no matter how different their own views may be.

    So the purpose of this little essay is simple. It is to “set the record straight.” It is not to establish a “bright line,” not to establish a new dogma, for there are always grays at the margin, but it is to say something about what libertarians must, at a minimum, believe if they are, in fact, libertarians.

    First of all, libertarians acknowledge that society is bigger than a political ideology, or, at least, it should be. A society is the many many ways that peaceable human beings interact with one another for what they believe to be their mutual benefit. There is no “political issue” in a society, qua society, since a society is simply about peaceable and voluntary interactions between individuals. Some of these interactions may turn out to be in fact mutually beneficial, some will not, but they are all initially voluntary and peaceable.

    As opposed to voluntary and peaceable interactions, government is essentially about coercive force. It is the agency or institutionalization of approved or sanctioned coercive force. Now since coercive force is antithetical to peaceable and voluntary social interaction, the use of government in a society is, or should be, a last resort. Government may be useful (or it may not be) to suppress those individuals who are themselves persistently violent in their dealings with other persons. It may be useful in thwarting a military invasion of a society by a different, aggressive and hostile society. But it is never useful in promoting “good morals” or “spreading freedom” or any of the other fine sounding goals that we may desire for our society and others, but which we cannot effectively promote through the use of coercive force.

    The foregoing is libertarianism. That is all there is to libertarianism – this distinction between society and government, and the associated understanding of what government is suited to accomplish and not suited to accomplish. Libertarianism is not about having a “free spirit,” or thinking independently or asserting that “people have rights,” although all those things may be good things in themselves. Libertarianism is simply about a fundamental understanding of the nature of society and the nature of government. If you have and consistently apply this understanding then you are a libertarian, regardless of your other views on other topics. If you have views contradictory to that core understanding, then you are not a libertarian.

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