Friday, February 16, 2007

Confession of a Former Objectivist, part three

On second thought, it may be that the paper I wrote about Objectivism during my last semester in college is best left in obscurity.

Part of the problem is that I just can't help reading the paper as the work of a student. I keep wanting to grade it, to comment on it, to correct it, to steer it in a better direction by sheer force of will. I am haunted by what the paper might have become in more capable hands than those of my twenty-one-year-old self.

(I experience this sort of thing a lot when reading students' work. They have no idea what an agony it can be, always wanting their work to be the best it can be, but always seeing how it could have been better.)

Besides that, the paper was very much the product of the course for which it was written, which was very much the product of the particular obsessions of the professor who taught it. Much of it doesn't make sense outside of that context.

I will say something about the general idea of the paper, though, with which I am still in basic agreement. I distinguished two agendas in Ayn Rand's work, and argued that one served to undermine the other.

The first agenda is her early effort to articulate her "sense of life" - a bright and clear vision of what human life in the world can be when we are paying attention and thinking clearly. I cast this as part of the broader historical project of humanism.

The second agenda is her later effort to establish the philosophical underpinnings of this "sense of life", through a naive realist ontology and epistemology, rational egoism, and a defense of laissez-faire industrial capitalism. I argued, on the basis of some of the works I read for the course, that this second agenda actually puts Rand at odds with humanism in general and with her own "sense of life" in particular. I have a bit of trouble recreating the connections I made then, but the gist of it is that her contrived foundation offers little hope of actually making sense of human experience or providing a "bright" and "clear" vision of human possibility.

In reading the paper, I was reminded of one of the more amusing aspects of Rand's thought. Somewhere along the way, Rand developed a deep and passionate loathing for the work of Immanuel Kant. Not only did Kant argue that we cannot have knowledge of things as they are in themselves, but the mere fact that Kant believes we may have positive duties toward other people puts him strictly beyond the pale of what is acceptable in an Objectivist system.

Rand, I wrote in the paper, inhabited a moral universe in which a strict, all-or-nothing dualism held sway: either one is a rational, clear-eyed, clear-headed, egoistic Producer, or one is an irrational, dull-eyed, slack-jawed, mushy-headed Looter who uses altruism and collectivism as excuses to drift along at the Producer's expense. It is the job of the Mystic to fill the Looters' heads with mush, to get them to think they are entitled to appropriate what the Producers produce.

In Rand's universe, Kant qualifies as a Mystic simply because he would not have bought into her naive realism or rational egoism. Because of her ideological fervor, she seems to miss the facts that Kant was about as clear-headed as anyone could be in the eighteenth century, that he offered decisive arguments against the kind of naive Lockean empiricism favored by Rand, that he also offered decisive arguments against the Rationalism of Descartes and Leibniz, and that he mounted as robust a defense as has ever been offered of human dignity and autonomy. Kant was, in this last respect at least, an arch-humanist.

These days, I'm quite fond of Kant's critical philosophy and its offspring, particularly it's great-grandchild, existential phenomenology. I still think of myself as a humanist, in some sense of the word, though I guess I would have to call myself a skeptical humanist.

I am also quite alert to false dichotomies in ethical and political discourse (see this, for example). It's another skeptical habit I picked up, thanks to (and in spite of) Ayn Rand.

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