Equivocating on Dialectics

Chris Matthew Sciabarra has achieved some herostratic fame by claiming that Ayn Rand – her own protestations to the contrary notwithstanding – was a “dialectical thinker”. What does he mean by “dialectical” here? I will let him speak for himself:

Throughout the history of philosophy the term “dialectics” has been used in many different senses. Aristotle recognized dialectic and rhetoric as counterparts of each other; for him, rhetoric was the art of public speaking, or the “faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion”, whereas dialectic was the art of logical discussion and argumentation. In dialectic, the interlocutor proceeds from accepted (or specific) propositions and argues toward a more basic (or general) conclusion. Although mastery of this dialectic technique was the hallmark of Socratic and Platonic philosophy, Aristotle argued that it was insufficient for establishing scientific truth. Nevertheless, he valued the dialectic because it demanded the study of questions from multiple vantage points. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Marx, Engels, and Lenin recognized Aristotle as the father of dialectical inquiry. Engels, in fact, called Aristotle “the Hegel of the ancient world”, who “had already analyzed the most essential forms of dialectic thought”. And Lenin argued that within Aristotle lies “the living germs of dialectics and inquiries about it”. (Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, p. 15f.)

Now, Plato’s philosophy is called “dialectic” simply because it was presented in the form of dialogues. And Sciabarra immediately forgets the truth he spoke in the first sentence: that the term “dialectics” has been used in many different senses – or else, he thinks that all those different senses are actually the very same sense. He continues:

More than two thousand years after Aristotle’s death, Hegel developed a conception of dialectics as an ontological and historical process. Hegel’s dialectical method affirms the impossibility of logical contradiction and focuses instead on relational “contradictions” or paradoxes revealed in the dynamism of history. For Hegel, opposing concepts could be identified as merely partial views whose apparent contradictions could be transcended by exhibiting them as internally related within a larger whole. From pairs of opposing theses, elements of truth could be extracted and integrated into a third position. Other philosophers saw this form of dialectics as a triadic movement in which the conflict of “thesis” and “antithesis” is resolved through “synthesis”. Dialectical materialists place this process on an economic foundation and used it as the basis for a philosophy of history. (Ibidem, p. 16.)

Now, this is a widely different sense from both Plato’s and Aristotle’s.

Hegel begins his dialectics by analyzing the widest possible of all concepts, namely “being”. To be is to be something: a thing may be red or blue or some other color; it may be quiet or noisy; it may be large – such as a solar system, a galaxy or the entire universe; or it may be small – as a speck of dust, an atom or an elementary particle; etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum. When we form the concept “being” – says Hegel – we abstract away from all those qualifications, until there is nothing left. Then the concept “being” turns into its opposite, the concept “nothing”. And then – lo and behold! – those concepts merge into the concept “becoming” – where “nothing” turns into “something” (or “something” turns into “nothing”).[1]

And what on earth does this have in common with Aristotle?

Aristotle called an argument, or a line of reasoning, demonstrative, when the premises are certain, and dialectical, when the premises are uncertain or disputed. In his own words:

Now a deduction is an argument in which, certain things being laid down, something other than these necessarily comes about through them. It is a demonstration, when the premisses from which the deduction starts are true and primitive,[2] or are such that our knowledge of them has originally come through premisses which are primitive and true; and it is a dialectical deductions, if it reasons from reputable opinions. Things are true and primitive which are convincing on the strength not of anything else but themselves; for in regard to the first principles of science it is improper to ask any further for the why and wherefore of them; each of the first principles should command belief in and by itself. On the other hand, those opinions are reputable which are accepted by everyone or by the majority or by the wise – i.e. by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and reputable of them. Again, a deduction is contentious if it starts from opinions that seem to be reputable, but are not really such, or again if it merely seems to reason from opinions that are or seem to be reputable. For not every opinion which we call reputable actually is reputable. (The very beginning of Topics, p. 167 in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. by Jonathan Barnes, Vol. 1; translated by W.A. Pickard-Cambridge; also available on the web.)

Aristotle being a reputable philosopher, we can at least argue dialectically with him! Hegelians ­– and Marxists – on the other hand are impossible to argue with, since they will turn everything one says into its exact opposite; hoping – I presume – for some synthesis to come out of it.

But the point is that Aristotle’s dialectics and Hegel’s have only the name in common. Sciabarra’s whole reasoning is based on an enormous equivocation or package deal.

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What, then, did Ayn Rand herself have to say about dialectics? Not much. The only thing that comes to my mind is that Floyd Ferris, in Atlas Shrugged, once accused Fred Kinnan of being unable to think dialectically. And – in case you have not read the book – Floyd Ferris is one of the worst villains, while Fred Kinnan is the best of the villains.

She certainly opposed Hegel’s philosophy – this is almost a “true and primitive” statement.. Not that she ever read him – she once wrote:

And no one has ever read Hegel (even though many have looked at every word on his every page). (Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 143; italics mine.)

Well, I have not looked at every word on his every page; but I have read what he wrote about “being”, “nothing” and “becoming”.[3]

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I have not thought about Sciabarra for ages. The reason I do it now is a couple of Facebook discussions about a comment on his book, written by Anoop Verma.

My Swedish readers may recall that I wrote some criticisms of Sciabarra in the late 90s. If you happen to know Swedish, you may read Nattväktaren, årgång 2, nr 6, årgång 2, nr 9, årgång 3, nr 7 och årgång 3, nr 10–11.

For another critical appraisal, read James G. Lennox’s review. John Ridpath also wrote a highly critical review in The Intellectual Activist, but only a short summary is available on the web.

And here is a comment on Facebook by Brad Aisa, with which I concur:

That book is intellectual claptrap. The first, largely biographical section was interesting. But once he gets into the meat of his thesis it breaks down utterly. His entire schtick is taking two things with an inessential common attribute, then trying to claim fundamental parity. The sundry ideologies he tries to claim formed a basis for Rand’s own ideas are utterly opposite of Objectivism in every important way.


[1] In case you wonder what is wrong with this reasoning, I refer you to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

A widespread error […] holds that the wider the concept, the less its cognitive content – on the ground that its distinguishing characteristic is more generalized. The error lies in assuming that a concept consists of nothing but its distinguishing characteristic. (P. 26 in the expanded second edition)

[2] ”Primitive” here means ”primary”.

[3] You can read what he writes in an English translation here.

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On the Origin of Ethics

Facebook note from September 2010.

What is the central concept of ethics? There are two answers to this question: Immanuel Kant makes “duty” the central concept; Ayn Rand makes “value” the central concept. This, in a nutshell, explains why Objectivists cannot stand Kant; it also explains why so many people cannot stand Ayn Rand; they are simply too steeped in a deontological view of ethics (and Kant was not the only deontologist in the history of philosophy).

How do Rand and Kant arrive at those widely diverging fundamental concepts? I do not know about Kant – he seems to have simply taken it for granted – but Ayn Rand tells us. I won’t repeat her derivation of “value” from “life”, because you are already familiar with it. But she also has something to say about the formation of the concept “value” in a child:

Now, in what manner does a human being discover the concept of “value”? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of “good or evil” in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain. Just as sensations are the first step of the development of a human consciousness in the realm of cognition, so they are the first step in the realm of evaluation. (From “The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness.)

Does this sound like hedonism? Well, we know Ayn Rand was “profoundly opposed to the philosophy of hedonism”. And we know why: pleasure could not possibly be a standard of value. Neither could happiness: one’s own happiness is the proper goal of morality, but it is not the standard.

But “life as the standard” is too abstract for a small child to grasp. For one thing, the child does not yet know about death, and so cannot grasp the fundamental alternative of “life or death”. It only knows “pleasure or pain” and can then proceed to the slightly more abstract “happiness or suffering”.

An implication of this is that a child starts out as a hedonist: “pleasure” is the implicit standard. As his knowledge grows, he becomes an eudaemonist: “happiness” becomes the implicit standard. And finally, when he grasps that it all has its roots in the alternative of “life or death”, he becomes an Objectivist. (But he probably would have to read Ayn Rand to arrive at this stage.) And from this it would also seem that hedonism is closer to the truth than a deontological ethics.

How would a child form a deontological or “duty-centered” ethics?

What is “duty”? Essentially it is obedience to some authority. For a small child, the authority would be his parents, so it is his duty to obey them. Later come the duty to one’s country, or to God, or whatever. (Immanuel Kant would object to this and say it is a matter of obeying one’s own conscience – but to untangle this, I would have to write an essay on Kant’s distinction between the “noumenal” and the “phenomenal” self.)

Now, children do obey their parents (and later their school teachers) to a large extent. And so long as parents and teachers are rational, I see no harm in this. To use a phrase from Cesar Millan (“the dog whisperer”), children, as well as dogs, need “rules, boundaries and limitations”. The child will discover on his own the reasons for those rules, boundaries and limitations; and he will object to them only if and when he finds something wrong with them. (Of course, this last point is not applicable to dogs.) (And it goes without saying that the matter is very different, if or when parents and teachers are irrational.)

The reason I started thinking about this is that somebody recommended that I read Jean Piaget. I have read one of his essays, though unfortunately in a Swedish translation, so I cannot give any quotes. But the point is that Piaget writes that “pleasures” and “duties” sometimes conflict; and if I understand him correctly, he thinks that “duty” takes precedence over “pleasure”; it is a sign of maturity in a child when he subordinates a temporary pleasure to some duty. This is hardly the Objectivist view…

Piaget spent most of his life studying the cognitive development of children and adolescents and developed an extensive and rather complex theory about it. It was based, as all good theories should, on observation. This “pleasure/duty” clash is one such observation. But it is hard to reconcile with Ayn Rand’s view. But she might answer that it is actually a clash between “short-term pleasure” and “long-term happiness”. An example of this is that it may be painful to go to the dentist; but we do it anyway, since not doing it will impede our future happiness.

Some further observations

(Added 2016.)

In the period preceding Kant, it was customary among rights philosophers to distinguish between three kinds of duties: duties to God, to society (or one’s fellow human beings) and to oneself.[1] Immanuel Kant, to the best of my knowledge, makes no such distinction.

Kant famously argued that man has a duty to preserve his life, even (and especially) when life has become so painful as to be unbearable. Is this a duty to God? Why should God even care, unless he were a sadist? Is it a duty to one’s fellow men? But why would they want you to suffer? Is it a duty to oneself? Hardly. No, it is just duty for the sake of duty, with no visible beneficiary.

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A famous Objectivist once said in a courtroom speech:

Man’s first duty is to himself.

He obviously had not read Ayn Rand’s essay “Causality versus Duty”, where she dismisses the very concept of duty.[2]

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Aristotle’s ethics if of course value-centered, in that it has a specific aim: the achievement of ευδαιμονια, i.e. happiness or flourishing. There is no talk in Aristotle about obedience to some authority, whether outer or inner. The same of course is true about any form of eudaemonism or hedonism.

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Once a long time ago I saw the objection to Objectivism, from an academic philosopher, that there is no duty to act egoistically, just as there is no duty to act altruistically. Abysmal ignorance about Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Or are we to assume that there is a duty to pursue values? That we should pursue them because some outer or inner authority has commanded us to pursue them?


[1] See for example Samuel Pufendorf, De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem (or On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law  in English), published in 1673.

[2] I am referring of course to Howard Roark. Don’t take the words “famous Objectivist” too seriously!

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.)

Learning from History

There is an old adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And recently several people (including myself) have posted this picture on Facebook:Image

It has been suggested that those who do study history should make an effort to educate the rest of us. But this presupposes that the rest of us are willing to listen and be educated, which I think is rather doubtful.

But I see a wider and deeper problem here. It is not enough to know what has happened in the past; one must also have some understanding of the underlying causes; otherwise one would just know what happened, not why it happened. Understanding those causes and then explaining them to others is the big challenge. And, as Ludwig von Mises once wrote, “Facts don’t speak; they have to be spoken about by a theory.”[1]

One small example of this from economic history: America had a depression in 1920–21, but it was over in about a year’s time. The depression that began in 1929, on the other hand, went on for a decade or more. Why? In 1921 there was no or little government meddling with the economy; by 1929 president Hoover had introduced a lot of interventionist measures, which were then continued and expanded by FDR. Will today’s politicians and economists learn from this experience? No. They cannot learn from it, because they either don’t know or reject the Austrian Business Cycle Theory.[2]

There are many theories of history, but most of them are simply false (and even bizarre). There is the theory that all of history is a manifestation of God’s will; and there is Hegel’s variation on this theme, that interprets history as a series of steps whereby the World Spirit seeks its own self-realization. And there is of course dialectic materialism. The first two theories do not explain anything (unless one is able to read the mind of God or the World Spirit); and the last one leads to severe misinterpretations of history. (And people who are steeped in this theory will stick to it, no matter what the facts are.)

Objectivism does have a theory of history, but unfortunately it is not developed in any detail (the exception to this is Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels). The theory is that history is ultimately determined by philosophical ideas, and history is, in Leonard Peikoff’s words in OPAR, a “duel between Plato and Aristotle”. And one has to stress that it is the ultimate cause, because there are so many other factors that have an influence on history.

One may also object to this theory that history did not start with Plato and Aristotle, so what determined history before their time? Well, there have always been philosophical ideas; most often they have been religious ideas, but religion is the precursor to philosophy. And if one takes Plato and Aristotle as symbols for an other-worldly orientation versus a this-worldly orientation, it does make sense.

One last remark: theories themselves ultimately have to be derived from facts. But I believe they have to be derived from facts that are very simple and basic, even self-evident. A case in point is what “Austrians” call the “axiom of action”, the fact that man is a being who acts purposefully and does merely react the way animals do. This, I think, we learn directly from introspection and from observing other human beings. Much can be deduced from this simple axiom, but the axiom itself is not deduced; it is a matter of direct observation. (As to the idea that this is “a priory” knowledge, not derived from experience but preceding experience, I refer to my earlier blog post Is action an a priori category?)

PS. Objectivism is not the only philosophy that sees history as a struggle between Platonism and Aristotelianism; Lyndon LaRouche (and his followers) hold the same idea. The big difference is that they take the side of Platonism and regard Aristotle much the way Objectivists view Immanuel Kant, as the arch-villain of philosophy.


[1]) I’m quoting this from memory; I have forgotten where in Mises’ writings I read it. Maybe some Mises expert can remind me.

[2]) You can read about this in Robert P. Murphy’s The Depression You’ve Never Heard of: 1920–1921 in The Freeman, and in Thomas E. Woods’ The Forgotten Depression of 1920 on The Ludwig von Mises Institute’s web site.