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.

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 AynRandLexicon.com. 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.

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?