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Understanding Objectivism Comments

Comments on excerpts from Understanding Objectivism by Leonard Peikoff.
Q: Ayn Rand once said that the attribute that most distinguished her was not intelligence but honesty. Could she have been referring to a concept that subsumes the virtue of honesty, and the lack of any innocent dishonesty such as rationalism?

A: “Innocent dishonesty” strikes me as a self-contradiction. If a person is dishonest, then he’s guilty; if he’s innocent, he tried his best, then he was honest. So you probably mean the correct method—she was not only honest, but had the correct method of thinking. And was that simply the result of honesty on her part? I have to respectfully disagree with Miss Rand’s self-assessment. I never agreed with that, and I argued with her for decades on that point. I regarded myself as thoroughly honest, and I never came anywhere near coming up with her philosophy on my own. I think that to explain the origination of an actual new philosophy, honesty is a valuable and necessary condition, but does not go the whole way. You cannot get away from the fact that you have to be a genius on top of being honest.
Peikoff regards himself as 100% honest and using that as a premise to reach conclusions about reality (including ones contrary to Ayn Rand). This is an arrogant and ridiculous method. You should not assume your own greatness as the starting point of your arguments, and see what the world is like only on that assumption.

The specifics here are terrible too. Who is 100% "thoroughly honest"? No one. No one is literally perfect on honesty. Which is great – it means there is room for improvement, there are opportunities to be better (for those who look for them).

Rather than emphasizing self-improvement maximally, Peikoff starts attributing success to vague, inborn(?), magical "genius".
Let me take a different situation. In college, should you let the professor in the class know you disagree every time you do? Is your silence a sanction of evil? If it is, I certainly sanctioned a tremendous amount of evil in my fourteen years as a college student, so I have to come out as the world’s greatest monster, next to Kant. This was my policy: Sometimes I spoke up, and sometimes I didn’t, according to a whole constellation of factors. I realized that I couldn’t speak up every time, because I disagreed with everything. And since it was philosophy, every disagreement was vital, so I would have had to have equal time with the professor and the rest of the class, which would be ludicrous. So I simply had to accept from the outset, “An awful lot is going to go by that is irrational, horrendous, depraved, and I will be completely silent about it. I have no choice about that.”
This has the same kind of issue as the previous quote. Here Peikoff's reasoning starts with the premise that he's pretty good, and doesn't consider that he may be making a big mistake. Rather than argue the substance of the issue, he just kinda treats any criticism of himself as an absurdity to reject.

Peikoff's argument here is careless too. If he sanctioned a lot of evil, it wouldn't make him the second worst person, after Kant. Lots of people have done that, and Kant (and others) did a lot of other stuff wrong too.

As I read this, Peikoff basically confesses to huge sins and flaws, makes a half-hearted defense, and then says it can't be that bad because then life would be too hard and too demanding, and surely morality can't demand anyone be more than Peikoff is.

There's so much wrong here. Peikoff did not have to go to college. He did sanction college by going and then keeping mostly quiet and going along with it. You know Roark got expelled from school? And Roark says he should have quit earlier. Peikoff acts completely unlike Roark, and makes himself fit in enough to pass, but can't conceptualize that he may have done something wrong. Isn't that weird? He isn't taking Roark or Rand seriously. Rand is pretty clear about the moral sanction issue, and Peikoff's attitude is that a particular version of refusing to sanction evil (getting equal speaking time to his professors) is "ludicrous" and anyway he can't be so bad, so let's just start compromising principles.
Now and then I would speak up; much of the time I kept silent. And I do not regard that as a sanction of evil, and I could certainly not have survived fourteen years of university if every moment had to be total war against every utterance.
Why go to fourteen years of evil university? There are alternatives. He did sanction it. He describes himself sanctioning it and his only defenses consist of thinking there were no better alternatives (while hardly considering any) and thinking he can't be too bad.
For instance, once in a very early phase I tried to be a thorough intellectualist—that is, I was going to function exclusively cerebrally, without the aid of emotions (I was young at the time). And I remember very clearly that I went to a movie with the idea of having absolutely no emotions—that is, they would have nothing to do with my assessment of the movie and were just going to be pushed aside. I was going to try to judge purely intellectually as the movie went by. And I had a checklist in advance, certain criteria: I was going to judge the plot, the theme, the characters, the acting, the direction, the scenery, and so on. And my idea was to formulate to myself in words for each point where I thought something was relevant, how it stood on all the points on my checklist. And to my amazement, I was absolutely unable to follow the movie; I did not know what was going on. I needed to sit through it I can’t remember how many times, and I discovered that what you have to do is simply react, let it happen, feel, immerse yourself in it. And what happens is that your emotions give you an automatic sum. You just simply attend to it with no checklist, no intellectualizing, no thought, just watch the movie, like a person.
Peikoff used a bad intellectual method of movie watching, it didn't work, and then he just gives up completely instead of trying other intellectual methods. That's dumb. It's perfectly possible to watch movies a lot better than passively, and to think during them, while still following the plot. His checklist approach sounds pretty bad, but it's not that or nothing. That's a false dichotomy.
Q: What were Ayn Rand’s reasons for not wanting to be a mother?

A: Primarily I would say because she was committed from a very early age to a full-time career as a novelist and writer. She did not want to divert any of her attention to anything else. She wanted to pursue that full-time, and it was simply not worth it to her to divert any time from that goal, by her particular hierarchy of interests and values. Beyond that, she had no interest in teaching. She was very different, for instance, from me in that regard. She was not interested in taking someone and bringing them along step by step, which is essential to being a parent. She wanted a formed mind that she could talk to on the level as an equal. She had more of the scientific motivation, rather than the pedagogical motivation. So it was as simple as that.
I thought this was notable. For one thing, Rand did a lot of teaching, including with Peikoff personally. As Peikoff describes it (in various places), Rand helped him along a great deal, incrementally, over years and years. I think Rand couldn't find enough equals or peers; I think it's interesting Peikoff reports she wanted that.

"So it was as simple as that" is a bad comment to end with. It doesn't add anything. And it's wrong – the issues aren't simple. Maybe Peikoff hasn't noticed there's lots of interesting stuff here?
Sometimes you have to expect to be momentarily overcome with the sheer force of the evil in a given situation. I want to speak for myself, from this point on, from my own experience, because I’m not prepared to make a universal law out of this, so I offer it to you for what it’s worth. There are times and situations where, despite my knowledge of philosophy, I feel overwhelmed by the evil in the world—I feel isolated, alienated, lonely, bitter, malevolent—and this is, to me, inescapable at times in certain contexts. I’ll give you an example. A few weeks ago, I went to a debate at a large university, on the subject of the nuclear freeze. One of the debaters, my friend, was eloquent, but it was a hopeless situation. The audience of college students was closed, irrational, hostile, dishonest by every criterion outlined tonight. They wouldn’t listen for a moment, they were rude—they were real modern hooligans—and when they did speak up, it was utterly without redeeming features—a whole array of out-of-context questions, sarcasm, disintegrated concretes—it was a real modern spectacle in the worst sense of the term. After a couple of hours of this, I was angry, I was resentful, I was hostile. And I felt (and I underscore the word “felt”), “This is the way the world is. What is the point of fighting it? They don’t want to know. I’m going to retire and stop lecturing and let the whole thing blow up, and to hell with it.” I was depressed. And of course, once I was in that mood, I was more negative about everything, so when I saw the headlines in the Times the next day, I felt worse. Even the long lines at the bank were further evidence that the world is rotten.

The point here is that I don’t think that I made a mistake. I think you have to react to concretes.
How is this not a mistake!? Again I read it as Peikoff describing another big mistake he made. But then he doesn't see himself as having done anything wrong. Why? He tells us about why this isn't good, it's clear enough why it'd be better not to handle it this way, and yet somehow this non-ideal isn't a mistake for some unstated reason.

Elliot Temple on December 28, 2014


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