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Objectivism's Theory of History

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If you want a theory of history you ask a historian not an objectivist,

If I want a theory of history, I'll go to an Objectivist Historian.

PS: Objectivism and/or Objectivist has a capital "O", please spell it correctly.

Edited by RationalBiker

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I disagree human nature is atleast partly innate. We all possess certain desires and predispositions which exist prior to any ideas we choose to accept. These are the key motivating factors governing human affairs[...]
If you mean that we all possess emotions, that we all want to experience good emotions, and that experiencing emotions begins at birth, I agree with you. However, emotions do not lead to action without ideas. Imagine any emotion you'd like and try explaining history by saying only, "angry," "alarmed," or, "content." It's impossible because emotions cannot create any understanding beyond a primitive "good" or "bad." Why is something good or bad? What could or should one do about it? And there is the start of history: thinking. If I have misunderstood what you mean by "innate," I will need you to clarify.

Philosophy and history are closely linked, where one must draw upon the other. The difference is the focus; philosophy would not focus on any more particular events than would be needed to form its principles. History would not focus on philosophy beyond linking events and happenings for a clearer understanding of "how it went down." I guess we will just disagree on what the two fields entail. Perhaps you could explain what they mean to you?

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If I want a theory of history, I'll go to an Objectivist Historian.

and presumably he will assert that philosophy is the most/sole important thing governing human affairs and that human action is entirely the product of ideas. Certainly looking at the nature of this (Big O!) Objectivist's articles he doesn't seem to focus upon much apart from the history of philosophy, the implicit assumption being that is what 'proper' historians should really be concerned about.

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Certainly looking at the nature of this (Big O!) Objectivist's articles he doesn't seem to focus upon much apart from the history of philosophy, the implicit assumption being that is what 'proper' historians should really be concerned about.

So the fact that he is a historian, as you said one should seek in learning about history, has no bearing on his opinion of history. The implicit accusation is that because he's an Objectivist his theory of history must be tainted. You truly are the cynic.

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If you mean that we all possess emotions, that we all want to experience good emotions, and that experiencing emotions begins at birth, I agree with you. However, emotions do not lead to action without ideas. Imagine any emotion you'd like and try explaining history by saying only, "angry," "alarmed," or, "content." It's impossible because emotions cannot create any understanding beyond a primitive "good" or "bad." Why is something good or bad? What could or should one do about it? And there is the start of history: thinking. If I have misunderstood what you mean by "innate," I will need you to clarify.

Our motivations or desires are primarily emotional, we act to satisfy certain conflicting desires. Our thinking or reason is used to make decisions in order to satisfy these wants. We cannot decide what we want to desire, these motivations are therefore innate. In other words the prime motivator of human action is emotion.

Objectivism as penned by Ayn Rand claims that man is born as a blank state and any emotions he feels are as a result of a philosophy he implicitly or explicitly accepts. In a sense Objectivists are claiming that the mind is master over emotions so that for instance an individual is in complete control of his sexuality, for example by this standard homosexuality is simply a result of embracing irational ideas. Certainly if a man could choose his sexuality it would be in his interests to have a sexuality in synch with the majority of the members of society.

Philosophy and history are closely linked, where one must draw upon the other. The difference is the focus; philosophy would not focus on any more particular events than would be needed to form its principles. History would not focus on philosophy beyond linking events and happenings for a clearer understanding of "how it went down." I guess we will just disagree on what the two fields entail. Perhaps you could explain what they mean to you?

Philosophy deals with abstract principles, history deals with concrete facts. How can something so remote as philosophy really guide the actions of individual concrete decisions?

I come back to one contested historical event amongst Objectivists of Lincoln's decision to use force to prevent the South from seceeding. Of what worth would a philosophy of Objectivism be in explaining his actions as his response to south seceeding. One can from a moral standpoint justify the use of force against the South and justify the non-use of force.

If you wanted to know why Lincoln made that decision that day one would be better looking at Lincoln's personality (which was partly innate) and the circumstances he faced (which were not neccessarily a result of concious moral design) rather than consult a philosopher.

The Objectivist historical meta-narrative that all events in history can be traced back to bearded men in philosophy departments is a false short cut to knowledge. An Objectivist certainly may enter the history profession but it will not be long before he comes across facts which do not fit into the nice and neat Objectivist meta-narrative. Then he has to make a decision become a real historian concerned with facts or a mere propagandist interested in spinning historical truth to suit his ideological prejudices.

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Our motivations or desires are primarily emotional, we act to satisfy certain conflicting desires. Our thinking or reason is used to make decisions in order to satisfy these wants. We cannot decide what we want to desire, these motivations are therefore innate. In other words the prime motivator of human action is emotion.

[...]

Philosophy deals with abstract principles, history deals with concrete facts. How can something so remote as philosophy really guide the actions of individual concrete decisions?

Your reply to my second paragraph was addressed by me as well as I am able in that second paragraph, and I wouldn't state it differently. I'll add that our larger disagreement seems to be on the nature of philosophy as first observing men in action throughout history. You seem to be alluding to philosophy only as a large set of floating abstractions.

As for emotions, no, we cannot change our immediate responses, but over a long period we can. That is also observable in anybody. Happy things for a while used to actually make me sad! Obviously everyone is not like that, there were reasons for it, and I had to think to figure out what was going on, and change the ideas that were creating my emotions.

Sexuality is something different, IMO, and I don't have a working theory on it.

Also, I think you should provide a reference to Rand stating that men are born emotionally tabula rasa, because I believe she was referring only to ideas. Like I said before, I think men are born with a primitive "good" or "bad" emotion, but beyond that not much else.

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Cynic, There are too many sub-topics within your posts to be allow a coherent response that addresses them all. Whether babies have some type of emotion and whether homosexuality is at least partly biological are questions for a different thread anyway. On the current topic, the following seems to be the crux of where you misunderstand Objectivism:

Philosophy deals with abstract principles, history deals with concrete facts.
You seem to imply that there is some type of disconnect between concrete facts and abstract principles. This is not the case. People get their philosophies by the observation of concrete facts, by interpreting those facts and by forming principles around those interpretations. This is as true of the Objectivist as it is of the Palestinian suicide bomber. Surely you would not say that the suicide bomber just had different glands that caused him to act differently? The biological differences exist, but are not the material factor in deciding in this context.

Again, take your example of the US Civil war. Whether slavery was a crucial factor is something for a different thread. However, that's not relevant. Suppose we grant that something else was the cause: let's say a refusal to allow secession, or some other idea (it does not matter what). It still follows that those ideas (whatever you claim them to be) were the cause of the civil war.

The wrong approach would be to list all the causes, little or great, and enumerate them all, with a refusal to weigh and interpret them. That type of empiricist approach says: we cannot understand, we can only observe. It is false.

How can something so remote as philosophy really guide the actions of individual concrete decisions?
This happens all the time, and is actually not the exception. This is the rule, even if people do not identify it as such. Take one simple example: some years ago, the ClintonsClintons tried to change health-care in the U.S.. There was a hue and cry and it didn't quite happen the way they wanted to. Was that concrete step not the result of people's ideas?

Since then, polls indicate that an increasing percentage of people want to see some change in U.S. health-care. This shift in attitude is not because of something in the glands, nor in the air; it is because of some type of evaluation they are making; aka, because of their ideas. However, the ideas in peoples' heads aren't like discrete dots, where they have some idea about health-care that is disconnected from everything else. Their ideas are connected and related. I'm not speaking of philosophers; just regular folk. Ideas of what they expect, what is fair and unfair, what is due to them, what they owe to others, what government ought to do or ought not to do, etc. in the area of health-care, are related to more general ideas that are relevant to other aspects of life. In other words, people have some general and abstract ideas of fairness, of government's role, and so on. They evaluate the concretes they see, based on their ideas. Some part of these more abstract ideas are general ideas about right and wrong and about government; in other words, they are "philosophical" ideas.

On the same issue of health-care many polls show that over 50% of Americans say that their own health-care is good or excellent, but that the coverage for "all Americans" is less than desirable. Yet, those same polls show that people do want to change the status quo. Obviously, this is odd. Could it perhaps be based on their ideas of fairness and the correct role of government? Of course it is. If change is finally enacted, it will be because of ideas.

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If you mean that we all possess emotions, that we all want to experience good emotions, and that experiencing emotions begins at birth, I agree with you. However, emotions do not lead to action without ideas

Actually, I would disagree with this, James, and I think it's a sloppy equivocation. We do not experience emotions immediately. We experience sensations. The two primary sensations, pain and pleasure, form the basis for our later emotional context, much like our faculty of sight is the basis for our later visual esthetic sense, but they are not the same thing.

This transition period from pure stimulus/reaction to actual thinking and emotions is part of the reason so many people develop psychological problems. If you treat your emotions as a self-evident primary the same way that physical pain is, you wind up doing some pretty stupid crap.

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If you treat your emotions as a self-evident primary the same way that physical pain is, you wind up doing some pretty stupid crap.

Okay, that is going into the "favorite OO.net quotes" thread. I can't seem to locate it, however...

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We do not experience emotions immediately. We experience sensations. The two primary sensations, pain and pleasure, form the basis for our later emotional context, much like our faculty of sight is the basis for our later visual esthetic sense, but they are not the same thing.
Hm, I had never considered this, and I did in fact believe emotions to be some sort of primary. I'll have to mull it over a bit to see if my experiences match up; thanks for bringing it up.

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I had thought that Ayn Rand thought that history is caused only by ideas, i.e., philosophy determines history.

According to Objectivists, philosophy is the ultimate cause of history, not the sole cause. For example, 9/11 was not caused directly by altruism, but by over half a century of foreign policy shaped by altruistic premises, among other ideas. Philosophic ideas can take decades and even centuries to bear their full impact on history through intermediate causes. For example, the Critique of Pure Reason was published in 1781, but Mark Rothko, Kant's artistic legacy, flourished in the 1950's.

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For example, the Critique of Pure Reason was published in 1781, but Mark Rothko, Kant's artistic legacy, flourished in the 1950's.
Coincidentally, one of Rothko's paintings (the red, blue, and orange one) sold last month at Christi's auction house for $34 million dollars. (That "million" is not a typo!)

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Actually there is a Peikoff tape that most specifically addresses some of the questions raised so far.

"The Role of Philosophy & Psychology in History"

I guess I'll have to relisten to it if I want to participate.

Hey, anyone know how to patent a 36 hour day?

aj

I haven't heard Peikoff's "History of Philosophy" lectures. Thanks for that ref. Someone else pointed out that Rands essay describing the history of "Attilas" and "Witch Doctors", from the main essay of "For the New Intellectual" is also a relevant reference.

Another possible reference is "Philosophy: Who Needs It". Understanding how philosophy plays a role in the life of an individual is seems to be one step toward understanding how it plays a role among a group of people.

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It may be useful to differentiate history from the past. One could say the past is the sum total of all the interactions of existents till the present. I seem to recall history would be specifically related to the relationship of Man to the past,specifically the written record of mans interactions in the past.

Not sure if this is a necessary dichotomy yet ,still pondering it.

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Objectivism as penned by Ayn Rand claims that man is born as a blank state and any emotions he feels are as a result of a philosophy he implicitly or explicitly accepts. In a sense Objectivists are claiming that the mind is master over emotions so that for instance an individual is in complete control of his sexuality, for example by this standard homosexuality is simply a result of embracing irational ideas. Certainly if a man could choose his sexuality it would be in his interests to have a sexuality in synch with the majority of the members of society.

Rand was not suggesting a literal 'blank slate' but a figurative one. I think this is merely an incorrect interpretation that many objectivits draw. As you point out, any cursory knowledge of behavior psychological science proves as much. Aristotle wrote that all of human behavior is a complex interaction between chance, nature, habit, and choice. This is what leads to the seemingly contradictory evidence that behavior psychology is confused over, some experiments show that certain behaviors are chosen, others show that it is linked to particular genetic markers.

Rand wrote

That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character

One must ask then, what guides your actions if you choose not to think? That ultimate choice, the manifestation of free will, to THINK, is what leads to volitional conscious reasoned choice. If you do not choose to think, you're behavior is influenced by your culture, or your genes. To whatever degree you choose not to think about particular behaviors, is the degree to which they are influenced by habit, culture, and genes. Some behaviors have strong genetic influences on them, some have strong environmental influences acting on them, but all of them can be over ridden by conscious volitional choice. Thus we have identical twin studies which show approximately a 50% correlation of sexual preferences, but NOT 100%. This confuses the nature vs nurture arguers, because none of these psychological studies have ever shown an absolute correlation for ANY behavioral characteristic. The more 'examined' life you live, the more likely your behavior is the product of volitional reasoned choice, and your emotions the product of new or different values integrated over your life. The less examined, the more it is governed by nature, culture, and environment. If you do not have the capacity for reasoned introspection, for example, are raised ferral, then your genetic influences pretty much take over.

I think this is a reasonable evolutionary strategy, when we look at the complexity of animals, we see a progression from instinctual behavior in less complex animals (fleas, slugs, etc) to a mix of instinctual and chosen behavior (cats, mice, horses) to one which can be dominated by volitional choices, humans and probably other animals with similar brain to body weight ratios. Ultimately, in complex intelligent animals, evolution has encouraged your genetic code to be submissive to complex rational thought, obviously surviving in the real, complex world, would be easier with a mind that can make connections between events and recognize over arching conceptual basis than one which can only follow pre-programmed behavior. But if you choose not to think, your genes take over, providing a greater evolutionary advantage than random behavior does.

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*** Merged with an existing topic. ***

 

 

A survey of "Mind drives History" ideas

 

 

 

“...You cannot resist an idea whose time has come.”(Victor Hugo).  Actions flow from ideas. That's why  tyrants imprison intellectuals.That's why the Stasi monitored and controlled the spread of ideas. (Movie to see: "The Lives of Others")

Religious view of History: The ancients thought God was the prime-mover of history. It was the  unfolding of His plan. For polytheists, history might be a story played out between different Gods. Man could have a role: a King or a people could make God happy or angry, driving historical reward or punishment. God might give you a promised land, or send a plague. Religious guru Pat Robertson still thinks God rewards and punishes America from time to time!

Deterministic views: Secular historians are split. Some people see little pattern and lots of accidents, while others try to integrate history more broadly, seeing either nature or man as the driver. Jared Diamond argues that geography and the availability of domesticable animals lead to certain ways of working, and to certain human institutions. Then, as way leads on to way, one society ends up rich and industrial while the other stays primitive. Marxists speak of material forces and productive relations molding and driving ideas. In this view history is driven by man, but not quite consciously -- much determinism remains.

Ideas as the conscious driver: Finally, there are historians who say ideas drive history. At the level of a particular ruler, and one generation, Emperor Ashoka might massacre many thousands, but then he turns to Buddhism and becomes an entirely different ruler. A yarn says that, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln greeted her by saying, "so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." While false, the fable reveals the thesis. Across generations, the spread of Confucian ideas can mold the culture, with historians tracing elements down to the way Chinese rulers run their country today.

Gibbons ("History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire") blamed the adoption of Christianity by Roman elites as a major factor in undermining a previously worldly culture and thus weakening the Empire. He speaks of the Christian belief in the importance of an after-life as undermining a focus on this real life.

Consider Max Weber's thesis: praising the Protestant work-ethic and the ascendancy of individualism created by the idea that the priest and church (the social hierarchy) is not the ultimate arbiter of truth, and crediting this with thriving Capitalism in Northern Europe and the British Isles (which we can extrapolate to America). Thomas Macaulay sees a deeper ideological trend, where successive generations threw off their superstitions and adopted a more secular and worldly epistemology. The Italian Renaissance is usually traced to a similar epistemological evolution, driven by the rediscovery of Roman and Greek philosophy.

Thomas Carlyle thought that hopes, aspirations and ideas of the people at large formed into ideologies, and created competing forces. Then, certain men came along and took charge of those ideologies, or helped mediate between competing ideologies, becoming leaders and shaping the political system.

John Locke: The ideology of the American Revolution can be traced to Thomas Paine's best-selling "Common Sense". While aimed at common folk and even illiterate listeners, its ideas can be traced back to John Locke. In turn, one can trace his political ideas to his epistemology ("An Essay Concerning Human Understanding") which put reason front and center as the practical fountainhead of knowledge.

Gustave Le Bon (The Psychology of Crowds - 1895) said this: "The great upheavals which precede changes of civilisations such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the Arabian Empire, seem at first sight determined more especially by political transformations, foreign invasion, or the overthrow of dynasties. But a more attentive study of these events shows that behind their apparent causes the real cause is generally seen to be a profound modification in the ideas of the peoples." (emphasis added)

Keynes said, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”, but what he left unsaid was that economists like him would not weigh the individual versus society the way they do, except that they are slaves of some "defunct" philosopher. Keynes can channel Plato without being too conscious of the ideas that have come to him via cultural osmosis.

Summary: Regardless of what theory you support, one thing is clear: many historians draw a link from philosophical ideas, to major historical events. Many of these theories are fleshed out in great detail in their works, examining other factors that help take an idea to fruition. In this post, I do not want to praise the "mind-driven" theories over theories like Jared Diamonds. My purpose here was merely to survey some of the popular advocates of the ":mind drives history" genre.

Bonus: Enjoy this theme in the poem "We are the music makers..."

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world's great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire's glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song's measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o'erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world's worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth. 
Arthur William Edgar O'Shaughnessy
Edited by softwareNerd

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