Monday, March 17, 2008

Ayn Rand - Not a Model of Clear Thought

I really would like to read Liberal Fascism. I really hope it's not like The Ominous Parallels, a book whose thesis is "Kant = Hitler = America" somehow spread out through 352 pages. I'm not exaggerating - the book makes the absurd claim that Immanuel Kant bears primary responsibility for Nazism, and instead of offering the excellent argument that this shocking claim requires, Peikoff (like all Objectivists) punts on the rationale. Hitler is Kant with a moustache, obv. Logically, I think that if you accept that premise, you can prove anything else at all, so why not? The United States is just like Germany, Kant is an altruist (!), Reagan is going to bring us down.

Anyway, I think I had a point. Oh yes. This was awfully disturbing, in that, beyond taking Peikoff seriously, Jonah Goldberg actually appears to think he had a point:
Yes, I think I've mentioned around here that I am familiar with Peikoff's book. I found it useful in many respects, thought a particularly enjoyable read. It floats at a pretty high altitude, but that was Peikoff's intent.
I don't know; Peikoff's hysteria and fumbling of philosophical history was pretty shabby, though, to be fair, I only skimmed the book, so maybe the last page included a "j/k, seriously Kant was cool and I know the difference between Hitler and Reagan." The bigger irritation is the credit Kant and Hegel are given for the worst evils of Nazism and Communism. Assigning any blame to Kant is particularly dishonest, because, well, he had that categorical imperative thing, which pretty much cuts out any mass-murder stuff. I'm not familiar enough with Hegel's political theory to offer much of a correction, but I know several things that make me wary of calling him a proto-Nazi. For one thing, the totalitarian tyrannies of the 20th century were ideologically Marxist, and despite Marx's claims to the contrary, he really wasn't much of a Hegelian. Marx took the idea of dialectic and excised the "idealism" part; this is sort of like taking theology and excising God. Either Marx got Hegel wrong or he didn't like what Hegel said; so Marx wasn't a good Hegelian. If someone has a reasonable criticism of Hegel's political philosophy that takes into account that he was not named Karl Effing Marx, I haven't seen it. Of course, I don't know Hegel or Hegel scholarship like I should, so whatever. Maybe these people have a point. I do know it would make a lot more sense to assign the blame to Marx, where much of it belongs.

I hope Liberal Fascism is (and it seems to be) a much better, more thoughtful book than Peikoff's pathetic offering, which was just Randian libel.


At 6:40 PM, March 17, 2008 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) There's no such word as "Randian."
2) Your ignorant point about Peikoff not blaming Marx demonstrates you made no effort to read/grasp the book; he includes Marx fully in the chain of blame between Kant and Nazism.
3) You claim Marx looted Hegel. Peikoff shows how Hegel (plus other Ger. Rom.) looted Kant, how the Nazis looted Marx. At the same time he shows the inevitability of that sequence, because they are all brothers, with Plato (Kant looted Plato), in the same crime. How the Categorical Imperative is not to be admired, and leads to Nazism, is covered as well. I am sure you will enjoy howling at that if you ever actually read Ominous Parallels.

Other than that, your blind irrational hatred for Objectivism was evident. Good job making that clear, despite the rest being garbage.

John Donohue
Pasadena, CA

At 8:59 PM, March 17, 2008 , Blogger Freiheit said...

Apparently, the way to increase blog traffic is to mock the Randians. Perhaps that should be exploited on slow days.

On the original topic, from the book reviews I've read (from actual book reviewers, not internauts), it sounds like Liberal Fascism is a typical election-season affair. If you enjoy reading Coulter, Franken, etc., then it might provide some amusement, but I wouldn't expect any deep scholarship.

At 10:54 PM, March 17, 2008 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) There is no such word as "randian."
2) I did not notice any mockery, only false facts and interpretations and a serious title to the piece.
3) all my other points stand

John Donohue

At 6:40 AM, March 18, 2008 , Blogger Vernunft said...

1) There must be such a word, because I used it and you understood what I meant.

2) I never said that Peikoff does not blame Marx, nor that Marx hasn't been sufficiently heaped up with blame. I simply pointed out that Marx and Hegel go hand-in-hand in these evaluations of the ideological foundations of 20th century tyranny, and I wonder if there isn't some massive error going on - like, for instance, taking Marx at his word that he's an expositor of Hegel rather than merely a guy who thought up dialectical materialism and named-dropped Hegel to try to bolster his philosophical credentials. Given that Marx elevates material conditions to primary importance in the history of societal change, he completely denigrates Hegelian idealism. So to the extent that Marx invented Communist ideology, he was repudiating Hegel. It seems strange to blame Hegel for what his student did when contradicting him.

3) Hegel did not "loot" Kant, though I'm not even sure what that means. Hegel took from Kant the idea that the subject contributes its own forms to experience, altering raw data and making experience something other than realist. He rejected Kant's claim that the forms of the mind were fixed, which would have been unacceptable to Kant. As far as ethics and politics go, I'm not aware of much similarity at all between the men. But, as far as I can tell, the chief Objectivist criticism of Kant and Hegel is that their ethics are anti-individualist (and therefore wickedly anti-human). Kant and Hegel are not even similar, from what I know, and I've yet to see an Objectivist cite their actual writings to compare the two. It's more "slander slander slander."

That the Nazis looted Marx - well, that much is obvious. They were socialists and many of them spoke the vocabulary of Marxism - nonsense about the bourgeoisie, the wickedness of existing institutions, etc. Mr. Goldberg's book has, I hope, brought some of this to light.

Kant deals with Plato a bit in the First Critique, but only (as I recall) after setting up a skepticism that demotes Platonic realism from a reliable metaphysics to a set of convenient ideals that can guide knowledge without ever constituting knowledge. If he "looted" Plato, it is only in the sense that he found Plato to serve some small purpose in the critical system, even though Platonic realism was totally incompatible with transcendental idealism (as well as being obsolete, but whatever).

The categorical imperative is absurdly misunderstood by Objectivists. In essence, Rand accepted a form of it - reason gives us the chance to make morally significant choices and respect for that rational nature guides moral conduct. If that leads to Nazism (because killing millions and starting a war is universalizable[?]), what's so incorruptible about Rand?

I have no blind, irrational hatred about Objectivism - that charge is a clear case of projecting. I've had contact with Objectivists and attempted to discourse with them rationally, but they seem universally unable to understand real philosophy. They also make an art of commenting on Kant without ever actually reading him. Ayn Rand gave birth to a disturbing anti-intellectual cult.

Freiheit: I've read a lot better reviews of LF that suggest it's a good exposure of Progressivism and the intellectual foundations of Leftism, but not having read it, I can't say. I was worried that Jonah Goldberg himself seemed to say that Peikoff inspire him - ugh.

At 10:50 PM, March 26, 2008 , Blogger TGGP said...

Don't bother with Goldberg or Peikoff. Read Vogelin or Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn.

At 4:45 AM, April 01, 2008 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kant's philosophy was foundational to Hegel's, even if Hegel removed a lot of the material. Hegel's philosophy was foundational to Marx's, even if Marx removed a lot of the material. Kant was a metaphysical and epistemological subjectivist who paved the way for totalitarianism by separating reality into "phenomenal" and "noumenal realms." That was all that was needed; his successors took these ideas to their logical conclusions. His categorical imperatives and vague political ideas can and were safely excised.

I am halfway through LF, and it is interesting. It has a lot of interesting gossip, and the similarities and mirror effect of totalitarian nations are discussed. However, Goldberg traces them back mechanistically to the French Revolution. To the extent that he discusses their philosophical roots, his primary culprit seems to be William James' pragmatism. Goldberg didn't really get into high-falutin' philosophy.

At 10:46 AM, April 01, 2008 , Blogger Vernunft said...

It's not merely that Hegel "removed a lot of the material" from Kant's philosophy when developing his own; he used Kant as a jumping-off point for a substantially different philosophy. Hegel took some things, like the antinomies, that were ancillary to Kant's major philosophical doctrines and developed them into big themes on his own. In the process, he arrived at a philosophy quite alien to Kantianism, but one which, admittedly, would have been hard to imagine without Kant's having served as foundation. But to blame Hegel on Kant is misleading; it would be more accurate to blame Fichte on Kant, for Fichte certainly stuck closer to Kantianism and thought himself to be merely an expositor of the consequences of Kant's main insights, even if Kant himself eventually felt it necessary to repudiate Fichte.

Hegel was foundational for Marx, but what Marx made of Hegel was a spectacular mess. Marx took one notion - that of organic change - and transplanted it from the history of the development of ideas to the history of the development of socioeconomic relations. Marx could not have existed without Hegel; but it is easy to imagine Hegel leading to something other than Marx. A key problem with Marxist dialectical materialism is that it depends for its truth on facts about history, economics, and anthropology, and the development of global capitalism and the expanding middle class in the 20th century supplied ample facts to contradict Marx. Hegel's idealism is an explanatory tool for the development of very different fields, and, in fact, the socioeconomic upheavals that Marx believed drove the history of ideas were things that Hegelian idealism viewed as the mundane effects of upheavals in collective and individual cognitive evolution. In other words, Marx really did turn Hegel on his head, and made a boring mess of him.

Kant was not a subjectivist. This misunderstanding is difficult to criticize too harshly, because it takes some study of Kant to get at precisely what his Copernican revolution does to epistemology, but I happen to have devoted some (!) time to that study. Kant's whole purpose in the critical project was to ground knowledge on a secure foundation, to prove, in light of Hume's devastating critique of the idea of causation, that objective knowledge was still possible and in fact necessary. That the forms of knowledge do not derive from an independent experience but come from the mind itself is not a fact that makes Kant into a subjectivist; on the contrary, because, for knowledge to count as knowledge, it must be universal and necessary, this relocation of the touchstone of objectivity does nothing to change the quality of knowledge. Locating objectivity in things was impossible, according to Kant, because then objectivity would always be contingent on actual experience of those things - experience that is never complete and thus never truly universal and necessary. When objectivity is a product of the instrument of knowledge, not the objects of knowledge, then, because that instrument does not change even when the objects of knowledge do change, the cognition produced will always have the same character. This is a mature objectivism, one that recognizes the influence of the subject on knowledge.

It is a matter of some debate among Kant scholars whether the phenomenal/noumenal distinction is one between different "worlds" or different "aspects." I suspect the dual aspect theory is the better one, but it's been a few years since I read the First Critique in its entirety.

It's not at all clear that the "logical conclusions" of Kant included fascism, the Holocaust, and Communism. And that's putting it mildly. I don't understand how "Cognition is a product of the application of the subject's own forms of knowledge on reality" leads to "Kill all Jews!" It'd be nice, for once, to have that explained thoroughly. Further, Kant himself thought the categorical imperative to be extremely important to his philosophy. Practical philosophy was the goal of philosophy, after all, and not ancillary to metaphysics. When the more important thing is excised in order to distort the less important aspects as foundations for totalitarianism, well, then, I think the chain of causation has been broken. Kant's followers became evil by not being Kantian - I think I can agree with that!

William James seems far too late to be foundational for fascism, but whatever. I haven't read the book and I have thankfully not read much about William James and pragmatism (having read only the Varieties and that "Will to Believe" stuff) to make an informed judgment on that score. I may get to LF this summer; probably not, as I have many more personally interesting books to read.

At 11:09 PM, April 29, 2008 , Anonymous Matthew Perry said...

I should like to take issue with your claim "That the Nazis looted Marx - well, that much is obvious. They were socialists and many of them spoke the vocabulary of Marxism - nonsense about the bourgeoisie, the wickedness of existing institutions, etc."

It would be more proper to say that Marx and the Nazis inherent, thrive in, and perpetuate a preexistent German anti-bourgeoisie, anti-urban, anti-democratic, cultural rhetoric. The fact that they share this same rhetoric does not imply that one came from the other or even that they are ideologically compatible. In fact, it is more likely that both Marxism and Nazism share common cultural roots in German thinking at large than in one another.

Nietzsche (who neither read nor is ideologically compatible with Marx) despised the urban bourgeoisie also; he grounded his objections in what he saw as their trivial lives and petty heard-like behavior. Heidegger too, again for different reasons. What everyone shares here is not a single great intellectual ancestor (be it Rousseau, Plato, or else) but rather a common cultural background. These thinkers no more flatly learned their hatred of the bourgeoisie from the socialists than they learned their German from Luther or Goethe. The actual relationship between these movements is closer to a sort of resonance or even a battle of territory within given cultural grounds. The Marxists dislike the bourgeoisie and favor the proletariat the Nazis dislike bourgeoisie and favor the right sort of people (variously construed). The fact that anti-Marxist/communist rhetoric was a major facet of Nazism shows the relationship to be more like a battle than a borrowing. The additional fact that membership in the communist party was sufficient grounds for imprisonment/investigation in the later stages of Nazi development solidifies the matter even more.

The contempt for the urban bourgeoisie in much of the German intellectual class is best seen as manifestation coming out of Germany's quick and late modernization. The cultural background of thinking the cities decadent and corrupt, and the myth of the pure and noble man from the countryside predate and were always far more influential that the intellectual additions to the conversation. This is not to deny importance to the intellectual, but he does not make a culture, he or she only pushes it around as best he or she can.

Thinkers always commit a great error when they believe that great individual intellectuals somehow rise up out of nothing and then shape all the events around them. A community in which a genius is understood must exist prior to the coming of any genius into that culture. We do not get Shakespeare and then English language. We have the English language and framework and then a man who is incredibly artful and innovative within that framework.


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