An Imperfect Analogy

I have long been bothered by the following statement by Ayn Rand on how the “trader principle” applies to spiritual issues:

In spiritual issues […] the currency or medium of exchange is different, but the principle is the same. Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtue of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 31.)

But there is one big difference between exchange in the material realm and this “spiritual exchange”. In material exchange, both parties to the exchange are always parting with something. The seller is parting with a good (or service), and the buyer is parting with some money. (In barter, of course, both parties are parting with some good or service, but that does not change the principle.) But this is not true about the spiritual exchange Ayn Rand is writing about here. To love or admire another person, or to show respect for him/her, you do not have to part with anything at all. And so, I find it inexact to call this a payment.

Now, this is hardly some kind of refutation of Objectivism, and I have filed this observation in a folder labeled “nit-picking objections to Objectivism”. And there is another part of this analogy that I find perfectly true:

A trader does not expect to be paid for his defaults, only for his achievements. […] In spiritual issues, a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses and flaws of others, only to their virtues. (Ibid., p. 31f.)

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There is a similar discussion in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

The simplest example of this process [of teleological measurement] […] may be seen in the realm of material values – in the (implicit) principle that guide a man’s spending of money. On any level of income, a man’s money is a limited quantity; in spending it, he weighs the value of his purchase against the value of every other purchase open to him for the same amount of money, he weighs it against the hierarchy of all his other goals, desires and needs, then makes the purchase or not accordingly.
The same kind of measurement guides man’s actions in the wider realm of moral or spiritual values. […] But the currency or medium of exchange is different. In the spiritual realm, the currency – which exists in limited quantity and must be teleologically measured in the pursuit of any value – is time, i.e., one’s life. (ITOE, p. 33f.)

This makes good sense. The more two friends like one another, the more time they will want to spend together.[1] And the less two persons like one another, the less time they wish to spend together. And if we are talking about romantic love, the persons who love one another like to hold hands, hug and kiss, and will even go to such an extreme as wanting to spend their nights together and sleep in the same bed.[2]

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The reason I came to think of this is that Peter Saint-Andre discusses the ITOE quote in the article I mentioned in an earlier blog post. But in this case, Saint-Andre’s objections make no sense.

To the first part of the quote he objects that prices are a “social phenomenon” and a result of “a myriad interactions among buyers and sellers”. True enough; but how does this contradict Ayn Rand’s statement?

Of course, all economic transactions are “social” in the simple sense that more than one person is involved. But the two or more persons involved are still individuals; and each individual has to make the “teleological measurements” she speaks about. That the interactions are “myriad” does not change this. And I think this is a perfect example of people “talking at cross purposes”.

To the second part of the quote he objects that time is “inherently personal or subjective”. But this is nonsense.

If I think about my own life and observe that it has now lasted for slightly more than 70 years, this is not about how I personally or subjectively experience my life; it states an observable and ascertainable fact. And if I say that Usain Bolt has once traversed the distance of 100 meters at 9.58 seconds, it is not about my (or Bolt’s) subjective experience of the race. Time is eminently and objectively measurable.

Or does he mean that time is “personal or subjective” because it is experienced by a person or subject? But then, this is true of all knowledge. There is always “something known” and “someone who knows it”.[3] This is sometimes taken to imply that all knowledge is subjective merely because it involves a subject. But then one could as well say that all knowledge is objective, merely because it involves an object.

So much then about this.

PS. A thought that struck me after I had written this is that one could combine those two accounts by Ayn Rand in the following manner: The time you spend with your friend, or with your lover/spouse, is time that you could have spent on something else (and probably would have spent, if you had no friend or lover/spouse). And then one could say that you “pay” in the form of time spent. There is the old adage that “time is money”, and that might be applicable here.

[1]) Aristotle makes this point in The Nicomachean Ethics. See my blog post Aristotle on Friendship. Or read Aristotle himself.

[2]) What goes on in bed is beyond the scope of this blog post.

[3]) In Ayn Rand’s words:

Existence exists – and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists. (Galt’s Speech.)

Was Ayn Rand an Aristotelian?

Most, if not all, of the criticisms of Ayn Rand’s philosophy I have seen over the years have been nonsensical. They have consisted in smears; or they show gross misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations of her views; and quite often a combination of both. But recently I encountered a criticism that I think deserves to be taken seriously. It is called Our Man in Greece: On the Use and Misuse of Aristotle on the Works of Ayn Rand by Peter Saint-Andre[1]. I will give my own thoughts on some of the points he brings up.

He takes her to task for the following statement:

The most important principle of the esthetics of literature was formulated by Aristotle, who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because “history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.” (“Basic Principles of Literature” in The Romantic Manifesto,)

But in fact, Aristotle says nothing about “things as they ought to be”, only “things as they might be”. (Aristotle’s statement is in chapter 9 of The Poetics.) Ayn Rand simply puts her idea in Aristotle’s mouth.

Besides, I don’t think there is much fiction that actually depicts “things as they ought to be”. This may be true of Ayn Rand’s own novels (with the exception of We the Living), in the sense that the heroes triumph, the good wins out and the evil loses. But what about other famous (or not so famous) works? What about the ancient Greek tragedies, for example? Or the novels of Victor Hugo (Ayn Rand’s own favorite) for that matter? They all have tragic endings. I leave it to you to find more examples.

Then about Aristotle’s historical influence. Ayn Rand writes as follows:

Everything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value we possess — including the birth of science, the industrial revolution, the creation of the United States, even the structure of our language — is the result of Aristotle’s influence, of the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men accepted his epistemological principles… (For the New Intellectual.)

This is an extremely sweeping statement.

How could Aristotle possibly be responsible for the structure of our language? For the way we form sentences? Is there any indication that even the Greek language was differently structured before Aristotle’s time, and that is was he who taught the Greek to form correct sentences? And what about us Swedes or Americans or whatever of today? Our ancestors at Aristotle’s time certainly did not read Greek and cannot possibly have read Aristotle.

Now, Aristotle does have some very elementary things to say about grammar and sentence structure. I believe he was the first one in the West[2] to identify the simple fact that a sentence must have a subject and a predicate (I think we get the word “predicate” from him, when he says that a verb predicates something about a noun or a subject). But this, of course, does not change the structure of the language; it merely identifies something that has always been true. Certainly, sentences have had subjects and predicates for as long as there have been people on earth.

What about Aristotle’s responsibility for the birth of science and the industrial revolution? Saint-Andre says that the evidence for this is “scant to non-existent”. But in one sense he was the father of science: He was the first to write extensively on scientific matters. For example, he was certainly the first to write extensively on zoology. (That much of what he wrote has since been proven wrong is another matter. But would we even have zoology today, if Aristotle had not inaugurated the subject?)

But it is equally true that few, if any, of the great scientists have acknowledged an intellectual debt to Aristotle. (Does Newton, for example, even mention Aristotle?)

But then, Ayn Rand also has the words “explicitly or implicitly”. Few, if any, great scientists have been explicit Aristotelians. But what about “implicit Aristotelianism”?

In very broad terms Plato was an “other-worldly” thinker, while Aristotle as a “this-worldly” thinker. And any scientist has to be “this-worldly” to achieve anything of value at all. So in this sense scientists would have to be “implicit Aristotelians”. But this is in very broad terms. If one goes into details of Aristotle’s epistemology (which is too large a subject for me to delve into at present), one might find other things.

According to Leonard Peikoff in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand viewed history as a “duel between Plato and Aristotle”. An obvious objection to this is that history did not start with those two thinkers – so what was the driving force behind history before their time? But if one takes them as representatives and/or symbols of an “other-worldly” versus a “this-worldly” orientation, then this duel might have been going on since time immemorial. But this, too, is very broad and very sweeping. And in general, I distrust attempts to explain history by formulas such as this; history is simply too complex for this.[3]

As to Aristotle’s influence of the creation of the United States, the only thing I can think of off-hand is that he actually discusses “division of powers” between the legislative, the executive and the judicial branch in The Politics:

There are three elements in all constitutions, and every serious lawgiver must look for the best set-up for each of the three; if these are well done, the constitution will be well done, and the differences in constitutions correspond to the different set-up in each case. The three elements are, first, the deliberative, discussion about everything of national importance, second, the executive, the whole complex of officials and authorities, their number and nature, the limits of their power, and the methods by which they are selected, and third, the judicial system. (The Politics, Book 4, Chapter 13; translation T.A. Sinclair; italics mine.)

Saint-Andre then has lengthy discussions of The Nicomachean Ethics and of Aristotle’s epistemology, but for now, they are “too big a mouthful” for me to comment on, so I will end here.

(Hat tip to Joshua Zader, who linked to this essay on his Facebook wall, and to Kirsti Minsaas, who tipped Joshua about it.)

Minor update: Saint-Andre claims that Ayn Rand is unfair to Aristotle when she says that “he did not regard ethics as an exact science”; and he takes issue with the idea that Aristotle was a “moderate realist” in epistemology. But both those subjects are complex; and I am a slow thinker. But an interesting fact is that on the latter subject, he refers to some essays in the book Philosophical Issue in Aristotle’s Biology, which was edited by two Objectivist Aristotle scholars, Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox. This, I think, shows that there is some awareness of this issue also in Objectivist circles.

[1]) I had never heard of this person before; but obviously he is well versed in Aristotle’s philosophy and also is able to read them in the original Greek.

[2]) In the West, grammar did not emerge as a discipline until Hellenic times, a few centuries after Aristotle. In India, it emerged as early as the 6th century BC. See the Wikipedia article on grammar.

[3]) I have a similar criticism against Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s interpretation of history; see my blog post A Short Word on Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Scandinavian speaking people may also read what I write about him on my Swedish blog.

Is the Universe Eternal?

I am currently reading an essay on Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, to which I may return later. (It is a critique of Ayn Rand’s criticisms of Kant.) For now, just a short comment.

I assume you are familiar with Kant’s distinction between statements that are “analytical a priori” and “synthetic a priori”. To take a standard example, the statement “all bachelors are unmarried” is analytical a priori, simply because “bachelor” means “unmarried male”; while a statement like “all bachelors are lonely” is not analytical; it has to be verified empirically by investigating at least a few bachelors (and finding out that they are not all lonely, since some of them go out for a beer or something together with other bachelors). As Kant would put it, the predicate (“unmarried”) is already included in the subject (“bachelor”), whereas a predicate like “lonely” is not included in the subject.

A “synthetic a priori”, by contrast, is a statement where a predicate is not included in the subject, but is nevertheless true a priori; it needs no empirical verification (or falsification). Kant has several examples of this, one of which is the statement that “the universe is eternal”. I quote from the essay:

Or consider again the judgment: “The universe is eternal.” Neither here is the predicate contained in the subject. So the typical judgments of metaphysics […] are synthetic and a priori. Although necessary and universal, their predicates are not linked to their subjects either by empirical observation [nobody is in a position to observe the universe as a whole] or by logical inclusion.

But what is actually meant by saying that “the universe is eternal”? It means that the universe has no beginning in time and no end in time. But then, what is meant by “universe”? It means “the sum of all that exists”. And then, to say that it has a beginning in time, it would mean that before the universe began, something other than the universe existed; and after the universe ends, something other than the universe will exist. And that is clearly contradictory. (If some hairsplitter objects that before the universe, there was nothing, and that after the universe, there will be nothing, that would merely be a case of “reifying the zero” and making “nothing” into a kind of thing.)

My conclusion is that the judgment “the universe is eternal” is just as analytical as “all bachelors are unmarried”. To talk about a “non-eternal universe” is just as self-contradictory as talking about “married bachelors”.

Aristotle on Youth and Old Age

(This is an adaptation of a recent Swedish blog post.)

I recently re-read Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric.[1] There is a section in this book where Aristotle compares youth to old age, from which I would like to give some quotes and comments. (You may wonder what this has to do with rhetoric, but one of Aristotle’s main points is that a speaker has to take the context of his audience into consideration, and then it might be good to know in what ways the young differ from us old folks.)

First, I’d like to quote something that is virtually self-evident:

And for the most part they [the young] live in hope; for hope is of the future and remembrance of the past, and for the young the future is long and the past short […]

And he repeats the same point later:

And they [the old] live in memory rather than in hope; for the rest of their life is short, and hope is of the future, memory of past things […]

This is incontrovertible. That the remainder of one’s life gets shorter day by day, year by year, decade by decade, is just one of those hard facts of life. One has to live with it.

To the first quote above Aristotle adds:

[…] for on one’s first day one can remember nothing but hope for everything.

If this is taken literally (the very first day of one’s life), this has to be wrong. A newborn baby of course has no memories, but neither does it have hopes for the future. For this to happen a child would have to have at least some rudimentary concept of “future”, and it will take at least a couple of years for a child to acquire such a concept.

To the second quote, Aristotle adds:

… which is also the reason for [our] garrulity; for [we] are always talking about the past, since [we] take pleasure in recollection.

Maybe I should keep silent on this one, so as not to be accused of being garrulous or overly talkative; but I have certainly met young people who talk a lot and old people who don’t. – And one would expect him to say that the young, by contrast, are taciturn; but he doesn’t say that.

Some more contrasts between the young and the old:

[The young] are not sour-natured but sweet-natured through their not having yet observed much wickedness, and credulous through their not yet having been many times deceived […] And they are easily deceived for the reason given (that they easily hope) […]

… whereas we old folks

… from having lived for many years and been frequently deceived or in error, and from most of [our] affairs having been bad, [we] do not have confidence in anything […] And [we] are sour-tempered; for sour temper consists in taking everything for the worse. [We] also nourish suspicions through [our] lack of credulity, and are incredulous through [our] experience.

Isn’t this a rather bleak view of life? It is true that life is full of disappointments – but aren’t there also old people who have led successful lives and whose affairs have not been all that bad? And do we all get more and more sour-tempered as we grow older? And are all young people sweet-tempered? – This is the kind of questions I ask myself, since I obviously cannot ask Aristotle. Well, Aristotle might have answered that this is the kind of truths that do not hold true always, but only “for the most part”. But I think there are too many exceptions for that, too.

Furthermore, the young

… are magnanimous (for they have not yet been humiliated by life […])

… whereas we old folks

… are small-minded from [our] humiliations in life […]

Also, the young

… think they know everything and are obstinate […]

… whereas we old folks

… have many opinions but no knowledge, and in [our] deliberations [we] always add “perhaps” and “maybe”, and say everything like that and nothing without reservations.

Also, the young

… are relatively courageous […]

… whereas we old folks

… are cowards and fear everything in advance […]

Should I take this as a personal affront? I certainly have not grown more cowardly over the years. (I will return to this point later.)

And the young

… prefer doing what is noble to what is in their own interest, for they live rather by character than by calculation, and calculation is connected with interest but virtue with nobility.

… while we old folks

… live for [our] interest and not for nobility, more than is right […] For one´s own interest is a relative good, nobility a good absolutely.

And in connection with this:

[We] are more self-loving than is right; for this too is a kind of small-mindedness.

This I find puzzling, in view of what Aristotle writes about “self-love” in The Nicomachean Ethics. There, he says that

… the good man should be a lover of self (for he will both himself profit by doing noble acts, and will benefit his fellows), but the wicked man should not; for he will hurt both himself and his neighbors, following as he does evil passions.

I have already written about this in a blog post called Aristotle on Egoism, so I refer you to it. – In The Nicomachean Ethics there is some discussion of “proper” versus “improper” self-love, or rather, what should properly be called self-love and what shouldn’t; but there is no word about “too much” self-love or an “excess” of self-love. But here, in the Rhetoric, he makes use of his idea that there is a “mean” that is proper, and that “excess” and “deficiency” are improper. I think this is inconsistent. (And which of these two works represents Aristotle’s more mature view, I simply don’t know.[2])

I’m also slightly puzzled by Aristotle’s distinction between what is “noble” and what is “to one’s own interest”. I think it is more to my interest to perform noble acts than ignoble acts; and the Aristotle who wrote The Nicomachean Ethics seems to agree with me; he says that the self-loving man

… assigns to himself the things that are noblest and best, and gratifies the most authoritative element in himself […]

… which hardly contradicts the fact that the self-loving man also pursues his own interests. – But it would make sense in a case where one forsakes some immediate gratification or short-term interest in view of the long term consequences[3]. Enough hair-splitting on this issue!

But back to the idea that “we old folks” are cowardly; I think this, too, clashes with what he writes in The Nicomachean Ethics. In this book, he makes the point that we become virtuous by practicing the virtues:

The virtues we get by first exercising them […] For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. (Book 2, chapter 1.)

I might add that the same is true of the vices, so that we become cowards by habitually behaving cowardly.

But if this is so, why should a man who has made himself brave by doing many brave acts suddenly become a coward just because he has grown old? This simply doesn’t make sense to me.

Had Aristotle instead said that the old are more cautious than the young, that would make better sense, and it would be in line with the point that the old have much more experience than the young and have experienced many disappointments. But cautiousness is certainly not the same as cowardice.

I think this is a good place to end this blog post, before it becomes excessive.

[1]) The Art of Rhetoric. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by H.C. Lawson-Tancred; London: Penguin Books, 1991. In this translation, the section is in Section 7, chapter 2:12–14, p. 172–177. The Becker numbers are 1388b–1390b.

[2]) The chronology of Aristotle’s works is a matter of dispute; I don’t think anyone knows for sure.

[3]) A good example from literature is the scene in The Fountainhead where Roark refuses to compromise about a building of his and then has to take a job in a quarry. Someone calls this “fanatical and selfless”, and Roark answers: “That was the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.”