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ragnarhedin

ARI vs. TOC

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(I wrote the following letter to a young Objectivist some time ago, and have been told it is clarifying. Since this topic has been discussed on this forum lately, I thought I would post the letter here. I have changed the name of the original recipient of the letter in the text. Italics are missing in quotes and text.)

Letter to a Young Objectivist

By Anonymous

Dear Anette,

You ask me about David Kelley’s claim, in his 1990 tract against morality, Truth and Toleration, that Objectivism is an “open system.” I read his book when it was published, and I have re-read the relevant chapter now. I will be happy to comment.

First some history. In a short article the year before his book was published, Kelley had written that Ayn Rand’s “system of ideas . . . is not a closed system.” In an essay answering this article, Leonard Peikoff wrote: “Yes, it is. Every philosophy, by the nature of the subject, is immutable. New implications, applications, integrations can always be discovered; but the essence of the system-–its fundamental principles and their consequences in every branch-–is laid down once and of all by the philosophy’s author.” Objectivism, he writes, “is the name of Ayn Rand’s achievement” and its “‘official, authorized doctrine’ . . . remains unchanged and untouched in Ayn Rand’s books; it is not affected by any interpreters.”

This is the view that Kelley argues against in the last chapter of his book. But before we examine his arguments, let us hear from the horse’s mouth.

Two years before her death, Ayn Rand wrote: “If you wonder why I am so particular about protecting the integrity of the term ‘Objectivism,’ my reason is that ‘Objectivism’ is the name I have given to my philosophy-—therefore, anyone using that name for some philosophical hodgepodge of his own, without my knowledge or consent, is guilty of the fraudulent presumption of trying to put thoughts into my brain (or of trying to pass his thinking off as mine—-an attempt which fails, for obvious reasons). . . What is the proper policy on this issue? If you agree with some tenets of Objectivism, but disagree with others, do no call yourself an Objectivist; give proper authorship credit for the parts you agree with—-and then indulge in any flights of fancy you wish, on your own.”

Kelley does not agree that this is the proper policy. He wants to discard Ayn Rand’s use of “Objectivism” as a proper noun for her philosophy and turn it into a generic noun designating a broad philosophical tendency (not one that exists, but one that he envisions will arise in the future), on the order of “Platonism” and “Aristotelianism.”

Except that he does not put it in terms of discarding Ayn Rand’s usage. He does not say: “Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged, she developed the philosophy of Objectivism, in order to protect its integrity she gave her system a proper name of her own choosing, she popularized this name and made it famous and respected among thousands of people-—but to hell with that! I have my own ideas about how the term should be used, and I see no reason to respect her wishes.”

Kelley does not openly state this; if he had, he would have revealed himself as a complete psychopath.

In fact, Kelley makes no reference whatever to the above statement by Ayn Rand (or to any other ones along similar lines), instead leveling his polemic against “Peikoff’s account of the philosophy,” as if it were an open question what Ayn Rand herself thought on the issue or what she intended by giving her philosophy its name.

He does, however, address the more fundamental question of whether she had any right in the first place to name her philosophy. ”An argument that lies close to the surface in Peikoff’s essay,” he writes, is that Ayn Rand “is the author of Objectivism in the same sense that she is the author of Atlas Shrugged. She is accordingly free to stipulate the content of the term.” To add to or detract from Objectivism, therefore, would be “like the efforts of the mediocrities in The Fountainhead who claimed the right to disfigure Roark’s buildings.”

This is essentially right: as a creator, Ayn Rand was entitled to name her creations, whether a novel or a philosophy. Note, however, that Kelley smuggles his own presuppositions into his manner of describing what he is arguing against, when he talks about Ayn Rand “stipulating the content of the term.” This has a ring of the arbitrary, but in fact a proper noun by its nature refers directly and exclusively to whatever particular it names, and all that is involved in assigning one is choosing an appropriate word for a properly identified particular.

But Kelley wants to argue that a philosophy is not the kind of particular that can be assigned a proper noun. His arguments are weak in the extreme. He writes that unlike a novel, which is “the concrete embodiment of an idea by a specific author,” a philosophy “is a body of theoretical knowledge about reality.” This is true, but why is it relevant? Objectivism, after all, is not just “ideas and such,” it is a specific body of knowledge developed by a specific philosopher, as presented in concrete books, speeches, etc.

Well, this is in essence what Kelley denies. He writes about “a philosophy” that “as a body of knowledge, a grasp of certain facts in reality, its content is determined by the nature of those facts, including their relationships and implications, not by anyone’s stipulation.”

This is a remarkable statement, and a preposterous one. It contains one element of truth—-that Ayn Rand, in developing her philosophy, was governed by the nature of the facts she observed (this is why her philosophy is true). But she was not “determined by the nature of those facts” to develop her system. She had to do it, and the result was her achievement. Moreover, when she had done it, the result was something specific and concrete: a systematic set of specific philosophical identifications, communicated to the world in concrete words and sentences. This philosophical system was not something pre-existing “out there” in reality, which merely happened to have been discovered (in part) by Ayn Rand. Rather, it was her achievement, an achievement with an identity of its own and whose contents and boundaries were determined by her-—by what she had and had not identified.

But Kelley will have none of this. Note that he is not merely objecting to Ayn Rand’s assigning to her philosophy a proper noun – he is denying, at least by implication, the very existence of a specific, delimited philosophy (or systematic set of philosophical truths) developed by Ayn Rand. The “content” of a philosophy, according to his view, is to be determined not by the factual matter of what a given philosopher has and has not discovered (which would be heer “stipulation”), but by “the facts” (whatever this means). According to Kelley, the reason why it is inappropriate to assign the term “Objectivism” specifically to Ayn Rand’s philosophical system, is that there really is no such thing, and never was.

But there was and is, which is why it was right for Ayn Rand to choose proper noun, and why it is right for us to respect her wishes.

What are some of Kelley’s other arguments for why we should regard Objectivism as an open system?

He spends two pages documenting the existence of such terms as “Platonism,” “Aristotelianism” and “Kantianism,” which do name broad historical schools encompassing many different thinkers with varying views, and then he asserts that the very existence of these terms and schools “provide the most obvious evidence against Peikoff’s claims”--when it provides no such evidence at all. That, say, “Platonism” is not a proper noun in as restrictive a sense as “Objectivism” is, tells us nothing about how we should view the term “Objectivism.” How would you react if I said that “Anette” cannot refer to you specifically, since there is in the language the word “redhead,” which refers not only to you, but to many other redheaded girls?

Kelley then argues at length for the trivial point that much work needs to be done by Objectivist philosophers. Such work, he says, “will not be a matter of adding blocks to a monolithic structure, with everyone in full agreement at every step.” But who would deny this? Obviously, an Objectivist philosopher can disagree with other Objectivist philosophers, apart from Ayn Rand.

A closed system, Kelley asserts, is defined by “articles of faith,” and internal debates are “typically settles by a ruling from some authority.” Defined by whom? After all, it is not as if this phrase is in common parlance. And while this “definition” may be true of Leninism and Catholicism, it has no apparent relevance to Objectivism as a closed system, i.e., to the issue of “Objectivism” as a proper noun for Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Kelley, however, seems to think it has. His one remaining argument against regarding Objectivism as a closed system is that a thinker “will not function with double vision, . . . keeping one eye on reality and the other on Ayn Rand’s texts. This approach would be inconsistent with any philosophy of reason.” Why? Apart from the tendentious ridiculousness of Kelley’s metaphor--one eye on reality and one on a book--why shouldn’t an Objectivist thinker both look first-hand at reality and at the same time relate and (if possible) integrate his observations, identifications, conclusions to what he has learned from Ayn Rand? Isn’t this precisely what one would expect an Objectivist thinker to do?

No, implies Kelley. A rational and independent mind is one “whose only concern is the truth” and who “admits no obligation to accept [Ayn Rand] as an authority.” For Kelley, apparently, an “Objectivist thinker” not only need not agree with all of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, he need not even accept her as an authority on philosophical matters, relate his own ideas to hers, or, if he finds himself in disagreement with her, give the matter any thought whatever.

Any concern with how one’s own observations and conclusions relate to a body of “authorized doctrine,” Kelley implies, “leaves us with two alternatives.” We may either “trim our mental sails” to ensure consistency with Ayn Rand’s writings “at all cost,” or we “may remain loyal to our perception of the facts, and be prepared to announce that we are not Objectivists, should we find ourselves in disagreement with even the least fundamental of her philosophical ideas.” The result of such a policy, Kelley concludes, is that “to be Objectivists . . . we must abandon rationality; to be rational, we must be ready at any moment to abandon Objectivism.”

But this conclusion does not follow. First, to accept Ayn Rand as an authority in philosophy, and to relate one’s own perception of reality to her system, is not equivalent to treating “consistency with her writings as a value to be achieved at all cost, trimming [one’s] mental sails to ensure that result.” This latter policy would be a complete abandonment of Objectivism, which no one has advocated, and Kelley is arguing against a preposterous straw man. One should relate one’s own perception of reality to the “authorized doctrine” of Objectivism only because doing so is a tremendous intellectual benefit and provides a powerful wind in one’s mental sails. There is no question of “abandoning rationality to be an Objectivist.”

Does this then mean that “to be rational, we must be ready at any moment to abandon Objectivism”? No—since the underlying premise of this conclusion is pure skepticism.

To be rational, we must be prepared to abandon any idea, theory or “authorized doctrine”-—if and when we become rationally convinced of its falsehood. But this does not mean that we must be “ready at any moment” to abandon any idea-—as if it is a logical possibility that we may stumble upon contradictory evidence around the next corner. There is such a thing as being rationally convinced, even certain, of something, in which case, contrary to what Kelley implies, one need not live in constant fear of new evidence.

Perhaps Kelley thinks that Objectivism is in a special category here. After all, if in order to be an Objectivist one must agree with all of Ayn Rand’s philosophical ideas, “even the least fundamental,” one could not be confident in one’s status as an Objectivist until one had become certain of the truth of the totality of Objectivism. Maybe this is a superhuman task?

But note that Ayn Rand’s philosophical corpus is not enormous. Kelley himself comments that “her philosophical essays . . . would fit comfortably within a single volume.” This is not to say that it is easy or quick to master her philosophy--but it can be done.

Also, Kelley sets up the problem in the most tendentious way, making the most trivial-sounding case of disagreement (“with even the least fundamental of her philosophical ideas”) lead to the most drastic consequences (“abandon Objectivism.”) I cannot speak for Dr. Peikoff, but it seems to me that if a disagreement really were trivial, one would not have to stop calling oneself an Objectivist. The question of what is or is not trivial could of course be controversial—-as could the question of whether something was or was not a disagreement—-but these are discussions that could well be conducted within the framework of the principle of Objectivism as a closed system.

In short, Anette, the answer to your question is that there is no validity to Kelley’s position. It is nothing but a slipshod rationalization for Kelley’s establishment of an institution that would provide him with a sinecure and a coterie of acolytes.

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An excellent letter. Thanks for posting it!

a thinker "will not function with double vision, . . . keeping one eye on reality and the other on Ayn Rand's texts.

Mister Kelley should be reminded that Ayn Rand's texts are a part of reality; what's more, they are a very valuable source of relevant knowledge on the rest of reality.

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I also thank you for posting the letter. I will make a point of it to direct any who favor Kelly's shenanigans to this letter. I think it explains very well everything that need to be explained on this matter.

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This is a remarkable statement, and a preposterous one. It contains one element of truth—-that Ayn Rand, in developing her philosophy, was governed by the nature of the facts she observed (this is why her philosophy is true). But she was not “determined by the nature of those facts” to develop her system. She had to do it, and the result was her achievement. Moreover, when she had done it, the result was something specific and concrete: a systematic set of specific philosophical identifications, communicated to the world in concrete words and sentences. This philosophical system was not something pre-existing “out there” in reality, which merely happened to have been discovered (in part) by Ayn Rand. Rather, it was her achievement, an achievement with an identity of its own and whose contents and boundaries were determined by her-—by what she had and had not identified.

Well said! I must say that I was impressed by your post. I still want to read the document by Dr. Kelley though so that I can find the problems that may lie in it for myself.

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I've read many comments on this subject scattered around the board in many threads. I created this thread so that we could put all relevant material on the subject in one place, along with a good discussion on the schisms (if such a thread already exists, admins, please forward me to that thread and feel free to delete this one).

For those who do not know anything about this subject, the links provided below are a good start. If you find some material elsewhere that would be relevant, please post a link.

-------------

There are two main issues that I'd like to discuss here: open/closed system, and moral judgment.

Fact and Value, Leonard Peikoff

A Question of Sanction, David Kelley

Do you side with either of these individuals? What is your view on this subject? What is your support? Do you consider this issue dead?

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The problem with Kelley is that he is a Kantian in Objectivist's clothing.

Kelleyism is subjectivism in epistemology, altruism and subjectivism in ethics, and libertarianism in politics.

His departure in epistemology is less well known than his other departures from Objectivism. His famous example of a Marxist professor is intended to show that even an extremely well-educated adult of much higher than average intelligence can believe in dialectic materialism.

The view is based on the premise that man's mind is not potent to know reality; that an honest man using a consistent process of reason, could arrive at literally *any* conclusion whatsoever. There is no correlation between having a good method of cognition and forming correct conclusions.

Note also the correlary to this. Kelley clearly sanctions the premise that Ayn Rand was dishonest and extremely neurotic. And yet this type of mind was able to discover and articulate Objectivism, somehow.

His departure from Objectivism in ethics is fairly well-known. Kelley claims that one cannot make a moral judgement about an idea (nor about a man who expressed an idea). He declares that one can judge only by actions. This divorces volition from cognition, and turns "free will" into the faculty that somehow chooses between actions.

He has invented new "virtues" like toleration. This is pure altruism.

Politically, Kelley and his Center have allied with the libertarians. They sanction the idea that the primacy of consciousness and the primacy of existence, mysticism and reason, whim-worship, intrinsicism, pragmatism, and egoism all lead to "liberty" which is so profound a concept, that it cannot be defined!

There is no "schism"; Kelley and his followers are not Objectivists. They have some other philosophy which they believe in. The only problem is that they call it "Objectivism".

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If spaghetti sauce has less than 2% meat in it, they have to call it "meat flavored" sauce.

TOC is Objectivism flavored philosophy.

If jewelry has a thin layer of gold over a base metal, they have to call it "gold plated."

TOC is Objectivism plated libertarianism.

:)

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The view is based on the premise that man's mind is not potent to know reality; that an honest man using a consistent process of reason, could arrive at literally *any* conclusion whatsoever.  There is no correlation between having a good method of cognition and forming correct conclusions.

Excellent point, Bearster. I agree.

About the Marxist professor, a friend of mine thinks that forming an argument against Kelley based on this example is engaging in a straw man. I don't agree with him as Kelley himself used it to support his own case. What do you think?

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Kelley himself used it to support his own case. What do you think?

I agree. Ironically, he gave a good example of his principle of toleration. If toleration is a virtue, then one must practice it regardless of the "extremeness" of the would-be toleratee's ideas. Ideas cannot be good or evil.

It is not a straw man at all--it's what Kelley really said!

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Chris Sciabarra, self described as a "Rand Scholar" hasn't seemed to have read Atlas Shrugged.

He's promoting this news/cultural item:

"A John Galt is attemping "to launch an unlicensed Denver radio operiation" which is "illegal under regulations administered by the FCC.""

"I'm not quite sure if this new John Galt uses Atlas as inspiration, but it's clear that he and his colleagues, like Rand, have invoked the Robin Hood legend in trying to take back radio from privileged license holders."

Anybody who's ever read Atlas Shrugged wouldn't connect Ayn Rand with Robin Hood. It's one of the realizations of Atlas that what people remember about the Robin Hood story is altruism.

Like most Libertarians, he doesnt make any sense. Is he saying that the licenses were stolen from this "John Galt?" I don't remember the heros of Atlas trying to get assets that weren't their's.

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Chris Sciabarra, self described as a "Rand Scholar" hasn't seemed to have read Atlas Shrugged.

Oh, I can assure you that he has read it. But reading and comprehension are not synonymous.

Sciabarra is an academic who had made his career on what I consider to be rather bizarre interpretations of Ayn Rand and her philosophy. He has become a magnet that attracts others with strange approaches, a sort of clearinghouse for those who would distort Objectivism. By now my default position in regard to any writings emanating from Sciabbara and his entourage is to simply not treat anything they say seriously. A well-earned distinction, in my view.

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I agree that Sciabarra is way off on this issue (I have not read Sciabarra otherwise, except for a few articles of his). The article Sciabarra quotes from can be found at http://westword.com/issues/2004-05-06/mess...ml/1/index.html and makes it clear that these radio Robin Hoods are not only violating the law, but doing so out of altruism. If Sciabarra has libertarian leanings, this makes sense, as libertarians are usually more AGAINST government than for anything else. So he rushes into applauding anyone who challenges the government.

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Maybe Chris meant Ragnar but said Robin Hood instead to sound familiar?.

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If Sciabarra has libertarian leanings ...

"leanings?"

If Sciabarra leaned any further he would fall over. Sciabarra bills himself as a "libertarian scholar." He has written books on this, as well as papers. But, keep in mind that, first and foremost, Sciabarra is a full-fledged modern academic, replete with all the jargon and obfuscation that comes with the privilege.

I bet you did not know that Sciabarra's hermeneutical approach deals explicitly with the synchronical and diachronical organic dialectical which transcends false alternatives. Are you now feeling enlightened? :)

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I bet you did not know that Sciabarra's hermeneutical approach deals explicitly with the synchronical and diachronical organic dialectical which transcends false alternatives. Are you now feeling enlightened?  :lol:

I am. :)

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...feeling enlightened about what a fraud Sciabarra is, that is. :)

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I bet you did not know that Sciabarra's hermeneutical approach deals explicitly with the synchronical and diachronical organic dialectical which transcends false alternatives. Are you now feeling enlightened?

I'm feeling more obfuscated than enlightened, really.

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I'm feeling more obfuscated than enlightened, really.

Sciabara and other ARI Objectivists have been having a rather sizable debate at Diana Hesiah's blog. So many points were covered including the early Objectivist years, the open/closed system debate, Nathaniel Branden, the Iraq war, etc.. If you want to get a taste of his ideas just read the comments section of Diana's blog. Sciabbara is indeed hard to understand.

His "Dialectical" approach (he calls it Dialectical Libertarianism) is a synthesis of Rand, Rothbard, Hyak and others. Some of his conclusions I agree with others are nothing more than Libertarian diatribes backed with quotes of Ayn Rand. He and his compatriot Arthur Silber (Light of Reason Blog) love to lambaste "Orthodox Objectivists" for siding with the evil "Neo-conservative" movement and selling their souls to the "New Facism" all the while betraying the "radical legacy of Ayn Rand." If his scholarly work is anything like his politics I would say his biggest problem is context dropping. He (and Silbur) completely misunderstand and misrepresent ARI's political press releases as being unequivical support for the Bush administration. At times reading their rants I feel like I'm reading the rant of an angry liberal or libertarian.

Also a major issue for both of them is the alleged persecution of homosexuals by the early Objectivist movement.

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Sciabara and other ARI Objectivists have been having a rather sizable debate at Diana Hesiah's blog.

Sciabarra is NO "ARI Objectivist." I have heard that he contributes to ARI, but I disagree that he's an Objectivist.

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I'm feeling more obfuscated than enlightened, really.

I can't tell if you are serious or just kidding. But, if you are serious, then, that was the point, i.e., the postmodern gibberish of academia, which tends to obfuscate rather than to enlighten.

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Sciabara and other ARI Objectivists ...

Whoa! Sciabarra is certainly not an ARI Objectivist. In fact, in my opinion, Sciabarra is not an Objectivist using any flavor of the term.

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He interprets the organized system of non-"A is A", which by the way discards "Either-Or", at each stage and as it changes across time.

Is that even close? (That dictionary is quite useful when it comes to the "postmodern gibberish of academia, which tends to obfuscate rather than enlighten.")

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Sciabarra is NO "ARI Objectivist."  I have heard that he contributes to ARI, but I disagree that he's an Objectivist.

Betsy, forgive my bad grammar. My point was that Sciabarra and ARI objectivists were in a debate on Diana's blog, not that Sciabarra was an ARI Objectivist (or any type of Objectivist for that matter). I recognize that they are two different entities.

Sorry for bieng confusing.

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