Monday, March 10, 2014

Future of Objectivism 8

Peikoff's Legacy. How will Leonard Peikoff be remembered by future Objectivists? Will even the orthodox remember him all that fondly? Will he continue to be influential? Rand's most steadfast and controversial protoge casts a long shadow over orthodox followers of Ayn Rand. His legacy is definitely of the questionable, perhaps even dubious, variety. While he exhibited some skills as a teacher, lecturer, and expositor of Objectivist orthodoxy, whenever he attempted to stray from the Randian straight and narrow, and take flight on his own intellectual steam, the consequences were often deeply embarrasing. The man simply has very little in the way of independent judgment. Couple this with an over-sensitivity to criticism and a deep-seated distrust of anyone who refuses to defer to even his most outlandish ideas, and you have the perfect recipe for the paranoid idealogue, seperated from the world by his own political and moral delusions. His apologists describe him as a man who does not well suffer fools; which is an overly kind way of saying that Peikoff is not a nice man.

Peikoff's legacy consists of four parts: the intellectual, the institutional, the personal, and the cultural. Let's examine each in turn.

1. Intellectual. As the foremost expositor of orthodox Objectivism, Peikoff can lay claim to being the most influential proponent of Objectivism other than Rand herself. And while his additions to the Objectivism have been extremely limited and modest (due to "closed" view of Rand's philosophy), he has exercised at least some influence on what parts of Objectivism are to be emphasized. Whereas Peikoff's rival, David Kelley, has a tendency for emphasizing the most plausible and least troublesome aspects of Objectivism, Peikoff has demonstrated a talent for emphasizing and making less plausible the worst parts of Rand's thought. Indeed, Peikoff made a speciality of that very portion of Objectivism that is furtherest from reality: Rand's "philosophy of history," which consists little more than wishful thinking mixed with bad history and even worse philosophical exegesis. Rand's views on history were supposed to supply special insights on the future course of history not accessible to those of us who rely on our own wits, rather than the dubious conceptual schemes of intellectual triflers like Rand or Peikoff. These special insights are what allowed Peikoff to insist that Republicans were the biggest threat to American freedom (because their underlying ideology was based on religion), whereas the Democrats were nearly harmless (because leftists ideologies were moribund and empty). Assuming with Rand that ideology and philosophy, rather than human nature and institutional incentives, determines the course of history, Peikoff insisted that anyone who didn't agree with his eccentric views on politics didn't understand Objectivism.

That was in 2006. In just a couple of years, all of Peikoff's speculations about Democrats and Republicans were proved entirely baseless. What Peikoff calls "socialism" (i.e., extensive welfare state, extensive government regulation coupled with distrust, dislike of free markets), far from being dead, had merely been dormant, waiting for a chance to thrive once more in the sun of financial disasater and Republican incompentence. Peikoff was wrong about the whole ideology thing. He mistook popular effusions of radical leftist ideology, which can come off as disparate and unserious, with the more deeper substratum of sentiments and interests that drive political elites.

Peikoff has also presented himself as an expert in another one of the more dubious areas of Rand's thought, the Objectivist epistemology. Here Peikoff, with the help of the amusing but none too credible David Harriman, attempted to interpret science on the basis of metaphysical constructs. The results, while not as blatantly embarrassing as his political prognostications, still left a deep stain on Objectivism's credibility. Consider the following, lifted from a Peikoff lecture:

Philosophy certainly has a veto power over any subject if it violates principles established philosophically. So, if Heisenberg says for instance in the principle of uncertainty that causality is a myth or has been overturned on the subatomic level, you can throw out Heisenberg's theory on that grounds alone. And the same is true for the idea of something proceeding out of nothing. In other words, that is something proceeding causelessly, because there was nothing before it and it violates the very meaning of nothing. Nothing is nothing, it has no potentiality, there is no there to become. It simply is the book of Genesis rewritten by people who are entirely within the philosophy of religion and want to posture as scientists.

Now, if you consult Dave Harriman's course, you will see that quantum mechanics, the theory of everything, string theory, is riddled with contradictions and is arbitrary, 'cause it reflects the corrupt epistemology dominant in the intellectual world. So you cannot decide that that is the standard by which to judge philosophy. Put it another way – science is not what scientists say. Science is what scientists say if they use a rational methodology, but scientists, even in their capacity as holding chairs at universities, can be – and a great many of them are – as irrational, dishonest and corrupt as in any other field.

The trouble with these remarks is that they don't evince any really detailed understanding of the subject matter at hand. And without a detailed understanding, Peikoff comes merely as an ideological crackpot trying to dismiss views that don't square with his pet notions. Calling scientists who refuse to accept Objectivism's dubious inferences from vague metaphysical constructs "irrational, dishonest, and corrupt" is hardly the way to improve Rand's standing in the intellectual world.

What sort of effect Peikoff's intellectual follies exercise on the future course of Objectivism remains to be seen. It's hard to know how many of the denizens over at ARI are hard-core Peikoffians, willing to follow the master into any intellectual faux pas, no matter how absurd. My guess is that the majority of orthodox Objectivists are not entirely pleased by Peikoff's sallies against the GOP and academic physics. However much Objectivists may dislike Republicans and conservatives, they tend to dislike Democrats and progressives even more. And while many Objectivists probably don't have a strong opinion on physics one way or the other, the McCaskey scandal could hardly have left a good taste in their collective mouths. Ironically, Peikoff's influence could run directly opposite from his intentions. His example may serve as a warning sign, urging his followers to leave historical prognosis and physics alone.

2. Institutional. Peikoff's legacy involves the creation of ARI and the ownership of Rand's copyrights, which (or so it has been rumored) will be transferred to ARI upon Peikoff's earthly demise. ARI will obviously exercise an important influence on the future of Objectivism. An institution adds the factor of political/bureaucratic manipulation to competition among Objectivist elites for leadership and influence among the Objectivist masses. Without ARI, leadership and influence would be determined largely through personal and intellectual charisma. The Objectivist who, through personal charm and intellectual skill, could gain the largest following among the faithful would, in a post-Peikoffian world, become the leading expositor of Rand's philosophy. With  ARI playing a leading role in the propagation of Randian ideology, skill at rising within an organized hierarchy suddenly takes on an importance it would not otherwise have. The existence of ARI gives the relatively uncharasmatic, intellectually unadventurous a greater chance to assume the role as the leader of the Objectivist movement going forward. It also pushes the more adventurous and charasmatic Objectivist elites out into the wilderness, increasing the odds that movement will experience schisms and splinter into many disparate fragments.

If Peikoff were to decide to leave his estate to his daughter, Kira Peikoff, or to someone like David Harriman, that could potentially have a huge effect on the future of Objectivism. Essentially, any individual who owned the Rand copyrights would be able to exercise the very sort of veto power over ARI that Peikoff enjoys today. This could potentially neuter any attempt by Yaron Brook and his successors to make ARI a bigger player in the free market advocacy space.

3. Personal. This is actually more important than most Objectivists realize. While it is true that most Objectivists don't know Peikoff personally and have experienced little, if any, interaction with him, how Peikoff has treated other people, both Objectivist and non-Objectivists, both within and outside ARI, sets the tone for the orthodox Objectivist movement as a whole. When Peikoff treats people he disagrees with contempt, he encourages his denizens, both within and without ARI, to do likewise. When, in his essay "Fact and Value," he boasted of breaking "all relations" with David Kelley, he was setting an example (or, rather, reaffirming Rand's own example) of how to handle differences of opinion with other Objectivists. When he admitted, in his apologia for the McCaskey scandal, that "a few longtime Board members and I are on terms of personal enmity," he was giving tacit blessing to being at enmity with one's colleagues. When Peikoff wrote, in his email to Arline Mann, "I hope you still know who I am," he was sanctioning just the sort of self-aggrandizing, contemptuous, high-handed behavior that we find rife on so many Objectivist forum sites.

It is not merely an issue of the sort of example Peikoff sets. Peikoff has also influenced the movement by his failure to provide the right sort of leadership. If you don't want your ideological movement to become tarred by fanatical, angry douchebags, barking like mad dogs at everything they are incapable of understanding, then you have to come out against it. Ideologies, particularly of the non-mainstream (some might say "extreme") variety, tend to attract individuals on the fringes of society: social outcasts, loners, misfits, etc. While some of the people may be mild and inoffensive, some of them are anti-social for more disturbing reasons. If you don't want such people entering your movement and bringing disrepute upon it, you need take active measures to keep them out. Peikoff has failed to provide any effective leadership in this regard.

The late Barbara Branden, back in 2006, wrote:


Objectivists are by no means immune to ... rage. On the contrary, I find it to be increasingly prevalent among Objectivists. We see everywhere—particularly on the Internet—the spectacle of supposed supporters of reason and free inquiry erupting in fury at the least provocation and hurling abuse at anyone who opposes—even questions—their convictions.

But what I call “Objectivist Rage” has a peculiar twist to it, unlikely to be found anywhere else except, paradoxically, in religion. It is almost always morally tinged. Those who question our ideas and those who oppose them, we are told, are not merely unintelligent, ignorant, uninformed; they are evil, they are moral monsters to be cast out and forever damned. And that is what I want to discuss today: the immensely presumptuous moralizing, the wildly unjust condemnations, and the towering anger and outrage exhibited by so many Objectivists.

Why was  this issue raised by Barbara Branden and not Leonard Peikoff?

4. Cultural. Peikoff's greatest influence, and longest shadow, may be cast in the cultural sphere. What I have in mind here is Peikoff's decision to make deference to Rand's memory, rather than to the Objectivist philosophy, the de facto primary goal of ARI and orthodox Objectivism. In particular, how Peikoff handled the challenge of Barbara Branden's biography of Rand has exercised a huge influence on the orthodox Objectivist movement.

There are many ways Peikoff could have responded to the Branden biography. He could have said, for instance, that the negative stuff  related about in Rand in Branden's book, even if true, was irrelevant to Objectivism. He could have said he didn't care whether the Branden book was true, because it is ideas that matter, not personal foibles. He could have argued that Branden was too emotionally involved with her subject, too conflicted to objectiviely write about Rand's life; and he could have offered all of the Rand source material to an independent non-Objectivist biographer, who would be charged to follow the evidence wherever it led, regardless of who might be offended. In short, he could have done any number of things that would have been reasonable, "objective," and reality-orientated. He choose none of those options. Instead, he condemned Branden book outright, even while boasting that he would never read it. He even went so far as to claim, at one point, that "everything" the Brandens said was a lie.

Robert Bindinotto explained how Peikoff was affected by Branden's biography as follows:

 According to [a source close to Peikoff], Peikoff was emotionally distraught during [the time Branden's book came out]. The Barbara Branden book -- which he refused to read, but whose contents he had heard about from others -- terribly distressed him. One's response to the book soon became for him a moral litmus test: it apparently carried for him all the old emotional baggage from the stormy NBI days, and provoked him to revert to that state of mind. For one thing, it helped spark the initial tension between himself and Kelley, since the latter had a more tolerant attitude toward the book.

Peikoff explained to my source that he was also being urged by both Peter Schwartz and Harry Binswanger to take a much more hard-line stand on issues of moral judgment. Peikoff explained that there seemed to be "two kinds of Objectivists" -- those who liked his approach in "Understanding Objectivism," and by contrast, "hardliners like Peter and Harry." It was clear that Peikoff at the time felt very torn between the two positions.

It is also clear which side won out. Behavior that had been common during the ugly NBI days -- demands of loyalty and fealty, moral denunciations, evaluating books without reading them, etc. -- suddenly returned to fashion. Traumatized by the appearance of Passion, Peikoff's new-found contextualism, as evidenced in "Understanding Objectivism," now seemed like a kind of moral weakness or compromise, and was abandoned. He reverted to his old habits of the NBI days -- rule by denunciation and excommunication. Just as Greta Garbo's "Comrade Ninotchka" wanted "fewer but better Russians," Peikoff now relished the prospect of fewer but more loyal Objectivists -- and boldly promised further excommunications to approach his ideal.

Peikoff's choice to take a hard-line against any assertion that could be interpreted as criticism of Rand's personal life constitutes his most important legacy. Peikoff's decision to regard Barbara Branden's biography as an attack against Rand, rather than merely as a true-to-life portrait, guaranteed that orthodox Objectivism would remain first and foremost an Ayn Rand cult. The Peikoff-Kelley split was only tangentially over the issue of an open or closed Objectivism. The heart of the difference involved differing visions of Objectivism's future. Kelley seems to have wanted to develop Objectivism into a respectable philosophy that could make an impact in academia. Peikoff, on the other hand, clearly put defending Rand's personal life as the most important consideration of his brand of doctrinal orthodoxy. These are not fully compatible goals. Rand, in her personal life, did not always practice what she preached. She was not always rational or reality-centered or just and fair in her dealings with others. She would make unreasonable demands on her associates and then abuse them when they failed to live up to her unrealistic standards. Her conduct did not always fully square with the highest ideals she preached her philosophy.

Peikoff's decision to defend Rand's personal life at all costs reinforced many bad tendecies that already existed in the Objectivist movement. Rand had become increasingly hostile toward the world at large. However much she might praise American ideals and the Founding Fathers, she really didn't care for the America of her time. While Rand might have said complimentary things about the American people, her feelings toward real Americans could often be far more ambivalent. As she aged, she became increasingly embittered about the direction of the country. Peikoff inherited these attitudes from Rand. They reinforced tendencies toward paranoia, eccentricity, and anomie already present within Peikoff's psyche. His animus toward the Branden's and their relevations about Rand merely sealed the deal. After Barbara Branden's biography came out, Peikoff and his chief denizens, Schwartz and Binswanger, went into full retrenchment mode. All the cultish practices that had thrived under Rand's watch were resumed at full throttle. Ayn Rand's life was carefully sanitized; her journals, letters, speeches, lectures, workshops, and marginalia were bowlderized and published. Nathaniel Branden's role in the development of Objectivism was ignored, denied, glossed over.

Peikoff's legacy could affect the future of Objectivism in two main ways: it could serve as either an example to be admired and imitatated, or as an incubus to be cast off and ignored. Undoubtedly Peikoff was sincere in his attempt to maintain the purity of Rand's Objectivist doctrine and to defend Rand's personal life. But the way he went about defending Rand's life and philosophy were heavy-handed, narrow-minded, and sometimes even hypocritical. For example, Peikoff objected to Kelley speaking to a Libertarian group. But that didn't stop Peikoff himself from interfacing with that same group (a few years earlier) or for allowing John Allison to become President of CATO many years later. Peikoff was also very jealous about keeping the doctrine of Objectivism within the bounds of what Rand actually wrote and said. But that didn't stop him from adding his devising his own solution to the problem of induction, or introducing his own DIM hypothesis. In other words, Peikoff granted himself the right to do things he resented in others.

It's hard to believe that Peikoff's hypocripsy, his use of indimidation in intellectual disputes, his gratuiotous appeals to authority, and his suspicion and even paranoia of any difference of opinion, won't, in the end, alienate enough Objectivists to render a large part of his legacy as something to be avoided, reformed, reacted against. This is not to suggest that, following Peikoff's passing from the scene, we will be confronted with a far more open and tolerant version of Objectivism. Some of the intolerance and intellectual xenophobia manifested over at ARI is baked into the Objectivism movement as such. It results from the fact that there really is no technology of reason or morality over at ARI through which all or even most personal and/or intellectual disputes can be settled. If two Objectivists disagree on whom to vote for in an election, or over the aesthetic merits of a movie, or on the morality of Peikoff's conduct in the McCaskey imbroglio, how is that to be settled? How does "reason" settle such disputes? Which Objectivist moral principle allows one to determine, within a tolerable degree of certainty, on which side the axe must fall? Since these issues are not resolvable on the basis of Objectivist principles, they either must (1) be left irresolvable; or (2) some authority figure must pronounce on them, and his word must be accepted as the one and only "rational" conclusion by the Objectivist faithful. Tolerance inevitably leads to moral skepticism, a state of affairs hardly tolerable to a card carrying Objectivist; but moralism requires an authority figure with the power to settle disputes and determine what passes for canonical doctrine. Objectivism is caught between these two unpalatable extremes; and there doesn't appear to be any way it can escape this unappetizing quandry.

My guess is that we will see greater openess and tolerance at ARI and among the orthodox Objectivist faithful. The pendalum having swung so far in one direction, it is inevitable that it must swing back in the opposite direction. But tolerance and openness is not really what the elites at ARI want. It will merely lead to more free thinking, to more riffing on the Objectivist canon, to more eccentric interpretations of the Randian creed, and, ipso facto, to more internal disagreement. For an ideological organization, tolerance and openness works like a dissolving acid to eat away at the bonds that hold the organization together. The pendalum, having swung violently in one direction, must inevitably swing back in the other. The example Peikoff set is probably resented by at least some (perhaps many) Objectivists, both in and out of ARI. Some of these Objectivists might assume that everything they find offensive in Peikoff's conduct in recent years stems merely from Peikoff's own personal failings, and from Peikoff's intolerance and manic orthodoxy. Take Peikoff out of the equation, bring in more tolerance and openness, and all will be well. But is it tolerance and openness that the orthodox Objectivist really wants? I doubt it. What they really want is an authority figure who they can admire and follow and whose interpretations of Rand they can trust; someone who will at least present the appearence of being rational, just, and benevolent; someone whom, in short, they can follow in good conscience.

9 comments:

Neil Parille said...

Did Peikoff say everything in Barbara Branden's biography was a "lie"? I recall him saying that everything was an "abitrary assertion."

gregnyquist said...

Did Peikoff say everything in Barbara Branden's biography was a "lie"? I recall him saying that everything was an "abitrary assertion."

He didn't specifically cite Barbara Brandens book. He said on his radio show on KIEV in Los Angeles (in 90s) that everything the Brandens (meaning, I suppose, both Barbara and Nathaniel) said was lie. That was obviously not a carefully worded statement and perhaps doesn't express exactly what he meant; but it probably does express how he feels toward the Brandens.

Francois Tremblay said...

"These special insights are what allowed Peikoff to insist that Republicans were the biggest threat to American freedom (because their underlying ideology was based on religion), whereas the Democrats were nearly harmless (because leftists ideologies were moribund and empty)."

Well, he was right about THAT. The Left IS moribund, and Republicans ARE the greatest threat to American freedom. Too bad you're too brainwashed to realize that (conservatives routinely confuse mainstream right-wing ideologies for extreme Leftism, because they are stupid).

Apart from that, yea, Peikoff is braindead.

Anonymous said...

Does Greg Nyquist want ARI to be a "bigger player in the free market advocacy space"?

Anonymous said...

"Does Greg Nyquist want ARI to be a "bigger player in the free market advocacy space"?"

That's a weird question to ask.

The point of analysis is not necessarily to advocate for what the author wants, but to understand what is, and possibly predict what might come.

It's more pertinent to ask if that's what ARI themselves want, and whether they are willing to take reasonable steps to achieve that.

Neil Parille said...

Greg,

To me, Peikoff's legacy will be allowing (if not ordering) the rewriting of Rand's posthumous material and also allowing her diaries to be published in Valliant's book.

I can't think of a single prominent Objectivist who has denounces what Peikoff has done.

Alex said...

And now it looks like Harriman and Peikoff are having a tiff. Fun!

Dragonfly said...

I wonder if there is still any prominent Objectivist left with whom Peikoff hasn't fallen out...

seymourblogger said...

Peikoff's great legacy to Ayn Rand is that he kept her work Orthodox and away form the 35th raters - most anyway - who are riding on her skirts. He was accurate in saying that the banks should not have been bailed out in 2008. And he has kept her work intact. I honor him for this.

Rand is a great continental philosopher anticipating Foucault and Baudrillard and Zizek. IN HER FICTION ONLY!She is never seen this way in the US or anywhere else except by me and Zizek. I do a blog on her on this subject. You won't like it. http://aynrand2.blogspot.com/