A Note on My Translation Work

The other day I received a comment on my page Leonard Peikoff Takes Legal Action, which I threw away, since I am not interested in flame wars and do not wish to spend my remaining few decades on this earth[1] on senseless quarrels that do not lead anywhere, anyway. But the commenter suggested that, instead of continuing translating Ayn Rand’s works into Swedish without Leonard Peikoff’s permission, I should have asked for this permission, and then I would probably have been paid for my work. Obviously, this person did not take the trouble to read what I have written about the background of this conflict.

The fact of this matter is that I did have Peikoff’s permission to make those translations from 1987 and onwards; he revoked it in 1996 because I had the temerity to demand of him that he explain to me why he had declared his former associates George Reisman and Edith Packer “immoral”. He flatly refused to give me this explanation and chose instead to punish me for even asking by revoking this permission.

This translation project was a joint venture between me and Henrik Unné (we were friends and comrades-in-arms in those years). Henrik financed the venture, while I made the translations; I also performed all the manual work involved: copying, stapling, stamping and taking the result to the post office. (This was before the age of the Internet; today I would have published my translations as blog posts.)

There was never any question about payment for this work. Both I and Henrik did this for idealistic, though thoroughly selfish, reasons. I like translating, and I certainly thought it was a good deed to make Ayn Rand’s works available in Swedish.

So how can anyone think that I would be paid for my work now, if I just performed an act of abject cowardice, licked Leonard Peikoff’s boots and decided to take part in the backstabbing of Reisman and Packer?

The commenter also pointed out that my translations are a copyright infringement. I cannot dispute that. But that Peikoff has legality on his side does not mean that he also has morality on his side. Backstabbing Reisman and Packer and then punishing those who question it is an act of profound immorality.

Had I been a multi-millionaire, I would have fought this in court, and the world would know what this conflict is all about. But I am not even a common-and-garden millionaire; I have enough money to live on, but not more. I cannot afford a court case that might reduce me to begging.

I have to say a word about the sheer hypocrisy of Dr. Peikoff’s actions. In the letter I received from his attorneys it says:

The Estate and the Ayn Rand Institute have built on Ms. Rand’s intellectual property by investing a great deal of money and years of effort in protecting her literary legacy, including careful management of the publication of her works. This includes strict oversight of any translations of her works, which are themselves derivative works.

This clearly implies that my permission was revoked, not because of my refusal to lick Leonard Peikoff’s boots and take part in his backstabbing of the Reismans, but because of the poor quality of my translations.

So has Leonard Peikoff or any of his associates made an investigation into the quality of my translations? Has he asked any Swedish speaking person about it? Has he received reports from Swedish Objectivists telling him my translations are lousy?[2] Certainly not. This is just a smoke screen.

No flame war in the comments, please. If you think Objectivism is all about licking the right boots and stabbing the wrong people in the back, just disregard this post.

Update June 14, 2017: See also Storm in A Glass of Water.


[1] I am 72 years old, and although I am in fairly good health, I do not realistically expect to become a centenarian.

[2] I, myself, have never received any such complaints. On the contrary, I have received much praise for them. Some years ago, one person wrote in a discussion forum that my translations were the only ones in Swedish that were worth reading.

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Ayn Rand on ”Organized Objectivism”

There is an ongoing soap opera called “Objectivist Schismology”, and it has recently come to the fore again, when a prominent Objectivist attended a funeral no right-minded Objectivist should attend, and then had dinner with an old friend no right-minded Objectivist should be friends with or have dinner with.[1] This has been widely discussed on Facebook lately (probably in other fora as well). And this has led to a discussion whether there is some organization that can be said to truly represent Objectivism and has the authority to decide who is and who isn’t an Objectivist.

One should therefore recall what Ayn Rand herself said about this.

In her statement on the “Branden split” in 1968, “To Whom It May Concern”, she writes:

I never wanted and do not now want to be the leader of a ‘movement’. I do approve of a philosophical or intellectual movement, in the sense of a growing trend among a number of independent individuals sharing the same ideas. But an organized movement is a different matter.

And in “A Statement of Policy” in the next issue of The Objectivist, she uses even stronger words:

I regard the spread of Objectivism through today’s culture as an intellectual movement – i.e. a trend among independent individuals who share the same ideas – but not as an organized movement. […] I want, therefore, to make it emphatically clear that Objectivism is not an organized movement and is not to be regarded as such by anyone. […] I shall not establish or endorse any type of school or organization purporting to represent or be a spokesman for Objectivism. I shall repudiate and take appropriate action against any attempt to use my name or my philosophy, explicitly or implicitly, in connection with any project of that kind or any organization not authorized by me.

But after March 8, 1982, she has not been in a position either to endorse or to repudiate any organization using her name or purporting to use her philosophy.[2]

Sarcasm aside, the fundamental issue here is that everyone has to speak for him- or herself. Only Ayn Rand can speak for Ayn Rand, only Immanuel Kant can speak for Immanuel Kant, only I can speak for myself, etc., etc. Pretty obvious, but often overlooked.

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The best analyses I have seen on “Objectivist Schismology” have been written by Robert Tracinski:

Anthemgate (on the “McCaskey split”).

The 1980s Called, and They Want Their Objectivism Back

And I have written a few posts on “Objectivist Schismology” myself. And some years ago, I made an attempt to untangle the subject (hardly the last word, though).

As to my own role in this soap opera, see My Life as a Translator and the English section of my website.

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[1]) Deliberate sarcasm on my part – but I think you understand that.

[2]) This is not to say that The Ayn Rand Institute is not doing good work on disseminating Objectivism – but so do others, as well. (There are quite a few Objectivist blogs and websites nowadays, and some of them are good.) But it is not any kind of “final authority” on what is and what is not Objectivism. Neither is The Estate of Ayn Rand.

Whose Premises Should One Check?

There is a new site up on the web, called Checking Premises. Its stated purpose is:

This site is being created by serious students and proponents of Objectivism in response to the danger that some, who may seem in agreement with the philosophy, are in fact subverting it.

So who is subverting Objectivism? Judging by the content so far, the main culprit is Diana Hsieh of Noodle Food fame; but since the site is new, there may be other culprits in the future; I might even have the honor of being picked out myself.

Now, I myself have at least one serious disagreement with Diana Hsieh, and, since she is criticized for criticizing Leonard Peikoff, I should say I have a far more serious disagreement with Leonard Peikoff. But I will leave those brawls aside and simply ask the question whose premises one should check, one’s own or everybody else’s?

The origin of the phrase “check your premises”, as I am sure you already know, is this exchange in Atlas Shrugged between Hugh Akston and Dagny Taggart:

There is only one helpful suggestion that I can give you: By the essence and nature of existence, contradictions cannot exist. If you find it inconceivable that an invention of genius should be abandoned among ruins, and that a philosopher should wish to work as a cook in a diner – check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.

“Check your premises” is what Dr. Akston says – not “check any premise that someone may hold”.

Am I nit-picking and marking words here? I think not. Premise checking can only be performed in the privacy of one’s own mind. (Neither, by the way, should one spend every waking hour checking one’s premises; one should do it when discovering or sensing some contradiction in one’s own thinking.)

As a rule, other people’s premises are not available to you. The exception is if the other person clearly states some premise of his. So if someone tells you that “it is impossible to have knowledge about true reality” (I’m sure you know which philosopher I’m paraphrasing), then you know his premise. But is it even necessary to check it? Not unless you yourself hold this premise. (If you even read this, I assume you don’t.)

If the other person’s premises are not explicitly stated but merely implicit, one may of course wonder what his hidden premises are. But this is “philosophical detection” rather than “premise checking”. You are not checking the person’s premises, you are merely trying to figure out what they are.

Here is one small exercise in philosophical detection: I once received a letter from a prominent Objectivist containing the following line:

…you might want to check your premises and ask yourself why three different ARI Boards of Directors took retaliatory action against [two persons] and why virtually every other prominent Objectivist ceased dealing with [them] over the years …

Can you find the hidden premise here?

Update April 14, 2012: As I said above, I do not always agree with Diana Hsieh, but I do agree with her latest blog post on this controversy, Private Judgments and Cults of Personality. Just one reflexion:

Against what should one check one’s premises? The obvious answer is: reality. But is this the premise checking premise of the “Checking Premises” web site? No. Judging from their criticisms of Diana Hsieh, one should first and foremost check one’s own premises against Leonard Peikoff’s thoughts,  statements and premises. What else is the meaning of a statement like this:

Every person who dares to call himself an Objectivist should have nothing but the profoundest respect for Leonard Peikoff and should demand nothing less from their friends and cohorts who also call themselves Objectivists. To fail to do so is an act of injustice!

You can read Diana’s answer to this. As for myself, I lost every shed of respect for Leonard Peikoff after what he did to the Reismans (and, as a consequence, to me) in the mid-90s. If that makes me an “enemy to Objectivism”, then so be it.

And now, I will try to stay out of all those personal quarrels and controversies and focus on the only thing that should matter to me: my own life.

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.

Objectivist schismology rears its ugly head

I have to get this off my chest:

M. Northrup Buechner, an Objectivist economist, has completed a book called Objective Economics: How Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Changes Everything about Economics, due to be released later this year. The preface to the book has been published both on Buechner’s own website and on Capitalism Magazine. Nothing wrong with that, so far: economics does need Objectivism. But what has stirred some controversy is the following line from the preface:

To the best of my knowledge, this book represents the first attempt to rewrite economics in the light of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.

In other words, Buechner does not acknowledge the existence of George Reisman’s Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics.

This was discussed on CapMag, and I was stupid enough to open my mouth. Here are some excerpts from the discussion:

ND: While I doubt Dr. George Reisman ever used the phrase “rewrite economics” to describe his Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, it seems like quite an omission to make this claim, unless, of course, Dr. Buechner is not aware of that volume.

Phil Coates:  The above is a truly shameful statement. Nort Buechner is indeed aware of George Reisman’s book and his massive attempt to apply Objectivism completely and fully to the field of economics. He attended and spoke at seminars and conferences organized by Dr. Reisman.

“Reisman offers the most comprehensive defense of capitalism ever written… Reisman attempts something nobody else has done: combine some doctrines from classical economics, plus the free-market economics of the Austrian School and the pro-capitalist moral vision of Objectivism.” — The Freeman

POS: Standard Objectivist procedure since the mid-90’s has been to pretend George Reisman doesn’t exist and has never existed.

Mike: Yeah, except for Andrew Bernstein and Brian Simpson. [Andrew Bernstein quotes Reisman extensively in The Capitalist Manifesto, and Brian Simpson acknowledges Ayn Rand and George Reisman as his main sources of inspiration in Markets Don’t Fail.]

POS: Yes, I was exaggerating. There are some exceptions.

CapMag: Interesting how trolls (Philip Coates, Per-Olof S. etc.) are ready to condemn Dr. Buechner without even reading his work. [Emphasis added.]

Reisman’s work is his attempt at integration of Austrian and Objectivism; Buechner’s is a rewrite. They are very different books.

This is not say whether one or the other is correct; but, only that Buechner’s is a rewrite.

As to whether Dr. Buechner is correct or not is another issue for the reader to decide. But the method to decide is not that used by the above trolls. [Emphasis added.]

[One person commented, quite rightly, that neither Coates nor I had condemned Buechner’s book. But that comment was removed before I had a chance to copy it.]

Phil Coates: I wasn’t condemning his book, just his claim that it is “the first attempt to rewrite economics in the light of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism” and thereby totally failing to acknowledge the massive prior work of George Reisman in this area.

I would certainly hope that Dr. Buechner’s book itself is a great one.

And I don’t “condemn him” as a person or a thinker. Merely this statement and the enormous injustice done to Dr. Reisman.

POS: If you consider me a troll, then good-bye. I won’t accept insults.

Of course I don’t condemn Buechner’s book. How could I do that without reading it? What I condemn is the treatment accorded to George Reisman by “official Objectivism”. Read my website!

When I tried to post this comment, I found that I was unable to post. Obviously, I have been blocked. I wrote the following mail to CapMag:

With regard to the comments on Northrup Buechner’s book:
1. You call me a “troll”. That’s an insult, and I don’t accept insults.

2. I wasn’t condemning Buechner’s book, and there is nothing in what I wrote that could be construed as a condemnation. What I do condemn is the treatment accorded to George Reisman by “official Objectivism”.

3. When I try to post to rectify this, I can no longer post, which must mean you have blocked me.

4. Another commenter pointed out that I didn’t condemn Buechner, but you have already removed this comment.

I have to ask: What kind of people are you?

I have received no answer to this. I also wrote some comments on CapMag’s Facebook page, but those comments were immediately removed.

The subject also came up in a discussion on Facebook. I will quote my own short comment, which gives my actual view on the subject:

I’m willing to give Buechner the benefit of the doubt here. What he means to say is probably that his book is the first attempt to systematically and in great detail apply Objectivism to economics.

As you might know, I am a great admirer of George Reisman. And Reisman has some very good integrations of Objectivist ideas with economics in his book. I am particularly impressed with his integration of Ayn Rand’s “pyramid of ability” principle with the Ricardian “law of comparative advantages”; see p. 357f in his book. There are other examples, but this will do for the moment.

But the book is not a systematic attempt to apply Ayn Rand’s ideas to every aspect of economics. There is certainly much more Mises than Rand in the book.

This is of course a very preliminary judgment. I might say something different when the book is out and I have had time to read it. And if he gives Reisman the “silence treatment”, pretending he doesn’t exist and has never contributed anything to economics, that would certainly affect my judgment. ‘nough said.

This now being off my chest (unless I get nasty comments), I can now turn my attention to more worthy subjects, such as enjoying the coming of spring.

Or I could write a treatise on the virtue of justice. But then I would have to figure out why so many people pay lip service to this virtue and then don’t even bother to practice it.

Or maybe a treatise on evil being smutty and small.