Intellectual Inheritance?

In a recent podcast Leonard Peikoff answers the question why he won’t appoint an intellectual heir like Ayn Rand did. His answer: “Nobody I know qualifies.” (It is right at the end of the 15 minute podcast.) This got me thinking – or, rather, stirred up some thoughts I have already had.

First of all: Where did Ayn Rand tell us in writing that she had appointed Peikoff her intellectual (and not merely her legal) heir? I have never seen such a statement from her. I have to assume it is in her last will and testament, but I don’t know how I could get hold of a copy to check what she actually says.

She once appointed Nathaniel Branden her intellectual heir. This is what she wrote in the original “About the Author” at the end of Atlas Shrugged:

When I wrote The Fountainhead I was addressing myself to an ideal reader – to as rational and independent a mind as I could conceive of. I found such a reader – through a fan letter he wrote me about The Fountainhead when he was nineteen years old. He is my intellectual heir. His name is Nathaniel Branden.

After the 1968 break she removed those lines from the text. (I certainly don’t blame her for that.)

However this may be, I think the very idea of having an intellectual heir is completely wrong-headed.

Anybody who owns property larger than a hut in the woods needs a legal heir. Somebody has to take care of the estate. Ayn Rand left a large estate. Among other things, the legal heir has to safeguard such things as the copyrights to her books and determine what (if any) of her unpublished writings should be published posthumously, who should have the film rights to Atlas Shrugged, what institutes and book stores should have the right to include “Ayn Rand” in their names, etc. He would also have to determine what translations of her works are good enough to be published, insofar that can be established without a knowledge of the languages I question. (As an aside, you can see how Leonard Peikoff handles this responsibility here and here. Yes, I have a grudge against the man.)

But an intellectual heir is quite another thing. Nobody can bequeath his brain. Nobody can bequeath his/her innermost thoughts or ideas.

Ayn Rand herself stressed, on various occasion, that one can never endorse a person’s future work; there is simply no way to know whether the person will be consistent in the future. Appointing intellectual heirs is a odd inconsistency on her part.

The only sensible meaning of “intellectual inheritance” is metaphorical. If someone says Ayn Rand is Aristotle’s heir in philosophy, or Victor Hugo’s heir in literature, I would agree. But his is only in a metaphorical sense. There is nothing about Ayn Rand in either Aristotle’s or Hugo’s will, for obvious reasons.

To turn from the serious to the funny, Peikoff said that when he dies, the intellectual inheritance is “up for grabs”. So what will happen when he dies? Will every Objectivist on the planet clamor about being Ayn Rand’s “true heir”? Will the internet be filled with flame wars on the subject?

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PS. After I wrote all this, I remembered that I once got a mail from Barbara Branden, who wrote:

Ayn Rand did appoint Nathaniel as her intellectual heir, but after she broke with him she told me that that had been a mistake, and that she never would make such a mistake with anyone else. As a result, I believe Peikoff is her intellectual heir only in his own imagination, and that she never gave him that title. I have never seen any written or spoken statement by Rand that Peikoff is her intellectual heir, only in written and spoken statements by Peikoff.

Barbara Branden may not be the most reliable of sources, but I can see no reason for her to be lying about this.

(She mailed me, because she had read my essay Untangling “Objectivist Schismology”. She also objected to my statement that her biography is “more stupid than evil”, but I did not bother to pursue this subject. Life is too short for spending it on protracted quarrels.)

A Weird Confusion about Concept Formation

(This is another blog post I write mainly to get something off my chest.)

A former friend and “comrade-in-arms” of mine, Henrik Unné, has written an extremely negative review on Amazon of David Harriman’s The Logical Leap. (He has also posted it on his own blog.) The gist of Henrik’s criticism is that Leonard Peikoff and David Harriman have departed from Ayn Rand’s own writings on concept formation. (He draws out some implications of this with regard to the future of the Objectivist “movement”, but for the moment I will focus on the issue of concept formation.)

Here is what Henrik writes:

Ayn Rand stated clearly in her seminal work on Objectivist epistemology – titled Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology – that only concepts of entities could be first-level concepts. There is no way that Ayn Rand can be taken, by anyone who is both honest and can attach meanings to words, to have admitted even the possibility that concepts of actions or concepts of metaphysical abstractions could be first-level concepts.

Yet David Harriman writes, on page 19 of TLL, – “A first-level generalization is one derived directly from perceptual observation, without the need of any antecedent generalizations. As such, it is composed only of first-level concepts; any form of knowledge that requires the understanding of higher-level concepts cannot be gained directly from perceptual data”. Later, on page 22, Dr. Harriman presents a concrete example of a first-level generalization – “A toddler, say, pushes a ball and it rolls away. How do we formulate (in adult, conceptual terms) what the child actually perceives here, without the benefit of language? Here are three formulations: `I rolled the ball by pushing it’; “`My pushing it made the ball roll’; `I caused the ball to roll by pushing it.'”

Now, all this means that Dr. Harriman claims on page 19, that first-level generalizations are composed only of first-level concepts. Yet, on page 22, he claims that “I caused the ball to roll by pushing it” constitutes an example of a first-level generalization. So, according to Dr. Harriman, such concepts as “roll”, “pushing” and “caused”(!) are first-level concepts!

This is a brazen contradiction of a position which Ayn Rand herself took in a question which belongs to the science of philosophy. Ayn Rand was very clear in ITOE – her conviction was that only concepts of entities could be first-level concepts. And Dr. Harriman is equally clear in his book TLL. He holds that even concepts of actions (such as “roll”) and concepts of metaphysical abstractions (such as “caused”) can be first-level concepts.

Well, Dr. Harriman is free to disagree with Ayn Rand on any philosophical issue he wishes to. But then he has no right to call himself an Objectivist any longer. Ayn Rand insisted on her “property right” to the “brand-name” Objectivism. She created Objectivism. Objectivism is her philosophy. Nobody else has a right to call his philosophy “Objectivism” – if is something other than Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Because it is in fact not “Objectivism” if it is something other than Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

The issue here is honesty. If anyone holds a philosophy which is not Ayn Rand’s philosophy, then that philosophy is not Objectivism. And if that person then proceeds to claim that he is an “Objectivist” nevertheless – then he is, strictly speaking, lying (unless he does not know what he is talking about – in which case he is “merely” shooting his mouth off).

Henrik here saddles Ayn Rand with a manifest absurdity. Let me try to explain:

Here is what Ayn Rand actually writes in ITOE:

The first concept man forms are concepts of entities – since entities are the only primary existents. (Attributes cannot exist by themselves, they are merely the characteristics of entities; motions are motions of entities; relationships are relationships among entities.)

In the process of forming concepts of entities, a child’s mind has to focus on a distinguishing characteristic – i.e., on an attribute – in order to isolate one group of entities from all others. He is, therefore, aware of attributes while forming his first concepts, but he is aware of them perceptually, not conceptually. It is only after he has grasped a number of concepts of entities that he can advance to the stage of abstracting attributes and forming separate concepts of attributes. The same is true of concepts of motion: a child is aware of motion perceptually, but cannot conceptualize “motion” until ha has formed some concepts of that which moves, i.e., of entities.

Yes, she says that concepts of entities are the first concepts to be formed by a child. (And I think that anyone who has a toddler of his own can verify that such is the case.) But does she say that only concepts of entities are first-level concepts? No, she does not. All she says is that concepts of attributes, motions and relationships come slightly later. (I believe that a study of language development in children would verify this, too.)

So, what is actually the difference between a “first level” concept and a “higher level” concept? Well, higher level concepts are formed by “abstraction from abstractions”. First level concepts are not – which leaves only one possibility: that they are formed directly from sense perception. Some examples:

With regard to entities, I can simply use Ayn Rand’s own example: One would have to form the concepts “table”, “chair”, “bed” (and, perhaps, some more), before one could form the concept “furniture”. Or one would have to form some concepts like “dog”, “cat”, “horse”, “bird”, “snake”, before one could form the concept “animal”.

What about attributes? One example should suffice: One would have to form the concepts “red”, “blue” “yellow”, “green”, before one could form the concept “color”.

And what about motions? A toddler would first form some concepts like “walking”, “running”, “swimming”, “flying”, “riding” in order to arrive at some higher level concept, such as “transportation” or “locomotion” (or, simply, “motion”).

This is pretty straightforward, don’t you think? But on Henrik’s interpretation of ITOE, a concept like “blue” or “walking” are formed by a process of abstraction from abstractions! I don´t know what to say about this, except that it is ludicrous.

Was Ayn Rand not clear enough in ITOE? The book was written in 1966. How could she possibly have foreseen that such a weird misinterpretation of her words would crop up in 2011?

(David Harriman himself has answered this kind of objection in a blog post called What Do We Mean by “Level” in Epistemology? So perhaps my blog post was unnecessary.)

Update December 2011: Henrik has now removed his post on his own blog, but it is still on Amazon.