Friday, November 17, 2006

The Intellectual Activist’s lost guide

Robert W. Tracinski, editor of The Intellectual Activist, has taken a public stand that makes clear the gulf between his thinking and the philosophy of Objectivism that he had previously claimed to espouse. He recently states in Part 3 of his position, "What Went Right?" that "every thinking man who does honest work in his own field is our ally and is helping to move civilization forward. The work of such men is not mere cultural 'momentum' from a previous era, but an active addition to human knowledge and achievement. And whatever their philosophical errors, in their professional work these men are creating valid and important ideas that do change the course of events."

Counterpoint: Such men are today working in a philosophical vacuum. Unless a philosophy of reason salvages our culture and civilization, civilization cannot move forward and the work of such men will be for nought. Their work will constitute the rubble of a civilization that committed suicide because it rejected a fully consistent philosophy of reason.

"But philosophy does not and cannot dictate the content of a specialized field."

Counterpoint: Yes, philosophy can and will dictate the content of any specialized field. Until men subscribed to reason - reason anchored to reality - they floundered for centuries trying to explain reality and the universe. Much of what constituted knowledge in antiquity was lost in the Dark Ages. It had to be rediscovered - by a philosophy of reason. This philosophy of reason was an incomplete system. Nevertheless, that incomplete philosophy of reason allowed men to abandon attempts to turn lead into gold and discover physics and chemistry. A philosophy of reason allowed them to discover the true properties of lead and gold.

To illustrate his claim that philosophy cannot sire all the "details" of specialized fields, Tracinski quotes Dr. Peikoff from p. 453 in the Epilogue of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

"Philosophy is not the only cause of the course of the centuries. It is the ultimate cause, the cause of all the other causes. The books of philosophers are the beginning. Step by step, the books turn into motives, passions, statues, politicians, and headlines."
This is an incomplete, and dishonest quotation. The full quotation should have been:

"Objectivism does not deny that 'many factors' are involved in historical causation. Economic, psychological, military, and other forces play a role. Ayn Rand does not, however, regard all these forces as primaries.

"There is no dichotomy between philosophy and the specialized factors. Philosophy is not the only cause of the course of the centuries. It is the ultimate cause, the cause of all the other causes. If there is to be an explanation of so vast a sum as human history, which involves all men in all fields, only the science dealing with the widest abstractions can provide it. The reason is that only the widest abstractions can integrate all those fields.

"The books of philosophers are the beginning. Step by step, the books turn into motives, passions, statues, politicians, and headlines.

"Philosophy determines essentials, not details...." (Dutton edition)
And without a determination of the essentials, details will be contextless, unintegrated, and random, as they were in the Dark Ages, and as they are to any modern child or adult until he grasps the role of reason. It was the discovery of essentials by men that allowed them to abandon alchemy and found the sciences of chemistry and physics. And the integrator of essentials is philosophy. The full quotation of Dr. Peikoff's excerpt blows Tracinski's assertions to pieces. Tracinski omitted those parts of the quotation that did not fit his thesis.

Tracinski follows his dishonest quotation of Peikoff with this assertion:

"This is a kind of trickle-down theory of intellectual influence, in which the philosopher is the originator and only source of the ideas that drive the course of history, while the public intellectuals and the men in the specialized sciences are mere transmitters and translators of those ideas."
How would one then explain the "trickle-down" intellectual influence of Kant and his successors in philosophy? Tracinski dwells on "fact-driven" knowledge in the sciences and in the headlines, but discards the ultimate philosophical causes of those facts. If men defy reality and pursue the irrational, regardless of the consequences in reality - such as the Democrats wishing to impose socialism on America or Bush refusing to acknowledge this country's foreign enemies - what will govern and explain the "new" facts of the impoverishment of Americans and Iran's Ahmadinejad developing nuclear bombs? What will explain suicide bombers, or the Amish forgiving the killer of schoolgirls? What would explain advances in stem cell research, or its prohibition by government?

Tracinski is on his way to rejecting Objectivism. The very first sentence of OPAR, in Chapter 1: Reality, reads: "Philosophy is not a bauble of the intellect, but a power from which no man can abstain." Tracinski is following a path of logic that will lead him to more or less state: "Yes, philosophy is a bauble of the intellect. It has its uses, but the true referent is reality and men can abstain from taking it too seriously."

Hailing the investigations and reporting of Internet bloggers versus the standard fare of the news media, Tracinski writes:

"Theirs is a career path with one healthy epistemological consequence: the work of these intellectuals is relentlessly fact-driven. Every day brings new events whose causes and consequences they have to explain."
Explain how? Are they the heirs of Aristotle, or of Kant? While it is not necessary for a journalist to be able to trace the ultimate origin of a fact, the fact remains that philosophy is the origin of facts. If the fact-driven epistemology of a 21st century American is healthier than that of a feudal serf (or of most modern journalists), what can explain the difference?

In trying to explain how philosophy is a kind of "adjunct" to reality, Tracinski writes:

"It is worth noting that the first great pro-reason philosopher, Aristotle, was also his era's greatest biologist and an inheritor of several centuries of progress in Greek science. Or, in a modern context, consider where the defenders of reason would be without Newton and Darwin, men who provided natural, scientific explanations for the nature of the universe and the origin of man, two questions that had traditionally been the exclusive domain of religion."
Counterpoint: Aristotle was a pioneer in his fields and applied reason to them (not always consistently, since, as Rand and Peikoff noted, there were still elements of intrinsicism in his thinking). And, it was the advocates of an incomplete philosophy of reason that allowed Newton and Darwin to accomplish what they did, advocates who lived and wrote before Newton's and Darwin's times.

As for the alleged dependence of the defenders of reason on the discoveries of "fact-driven" scientists such as Newton and Darwin, the philosophy of reason did not have a fully consistent defender until Ayn Rand, from the Renaissance to the 20th century. What validated Newton's and Darwin's discoveries? A philosophy of reason.

5 comments:

Jack Galt said...

Thank you, Mr. Cline, for your sure-footed examination of Robert Tracinski’s reasoning. I take no relish in watching Tracinski stray further and further from Objectivism (primarily because he is a talented writer) yet his writing skills do not repair the serious errors in his thinking—errors that become more apparent with each passing day.

Anonymous said...

Jack Galt said:

"yet his writing skills do not repair the serious errors in his thinking—errors that become more apparent with each passing day."

You can say that again. In today's TIA Tracinski said this of Milton Friedman:

"He is one of the men who held up the roof of American civilization and saved us from collapse."

Say what? Tracinski is in the process of becoming a full fledged conservative.

He's also deciding if he agrees with Ayn Rand's theory of history.

This should be very interesting.

D Eastbrook

Burgess Laughlin said...

Ed, first greetings and congratulations on your many literary successes. I look forward to each new volume of the Sparrowhawk series.

Second, I have a question about your comment: "This is an incomplete, and dishonest quotation ..."

How did you arrive at your conclusion that the selection was made dishonestly rather than in error or by improper psycho-epistemology?

(The more general question, underlying my question above, is how should one assess honesty in a distant person, that is, one known only or mainly through his writings?)

Marnee said...

"This is a kind of trickle-down theory of intellectual influence...".

Strange that he (might be deliberately) is confusing philosophy with Philosopher.

I also dont understand why he wouldnt acknowledge the role of implicit world views or philosophies. I am still shocked that he does not see the connection between a man's accomplishments and his philosophy, as if major advancements in society and technology could actually be coincidental. Also, just because a man, on the outside, claims be a religionist, does not mean that he truly uses that as his guide in all of his actions. The results of his work should be testament to that.

Tracinski's failure to integrate here is awfully dismaying, really. I mean he pretty much can spend all day thinking about these things yet he fails to make what seem to me to be obvious connections. Something is going on....

RnBram said...

Germany's non-philosophical'V'-Rocket scientists sure contributed a lot to the peaceful development of society: killing people in WW2... and then driving the bloated NASA programs. Cf Burt Rutan et al.