How To Avoid Dogmatism About Objectivism

By Larry Sanger

Date: 23 Jul 1995 14:11:18 GMT

From: Lawrence M Sanger

Newsgroups: alt.philosophy.objectivism

Subject: How To Avoid Dogmatism About Objectivism

It is a problem that *no one* would admit to having -- and a problem which *everyone* would feel at least a little insulted at being accused of having. The problem is being dogmatic, a blind follower, a mere conformist -- to the thinking of *Ayn Rand*

Of course, everyone who has even a passing acquaintance with Ayn Rand's thinking can see the irony of such conformism

So as to put others at ease on this issue, I want to say from the outset that I myself have held philosophical views which I *later* realized that I held *merely* because someone else "taught" them to me. This is a natural habit, for *all* of us but in *varying* degrees, for the simple reason that we depend upon others for some of the information that we get about the world. What philosophers call "testimony" is an important source of knowledge; without people telling us what is going on, on the other side of the world, or on the other side of town, we would know nothing except what we personally encounter. And of course none of us has personally encountered *very* much of the whole universe. So we are in the natural *and necessary* habit of relying upon other peoples' words for things. Of course, we can be lied to, misled, or the victims of well-intentioned but false communications. Fortunately for us, this is not the norm, and more importantly, we possess (or some of us do) the know-how to glean the most reliable information from what others say and imply

In philosophy, reliance on testimony -- on what others say -- in forming our beliefs is a *particularly* bad idea. I take it I do not need to argue this point for Objectivists. It's one of the central and essential aspects of Objectivist methodology

But unfortunately, being in the habit of taking other people at their word, we (humans) sometimes, *even in philosophy* -- again, to varying degrees, depending on how independent we are as thinkers -- simply *believe*, in an unreasoning, accepting way, what we read. Or, more commonly, we unknowingly accept the premises of an argument or question without any critical assessment on our part. We as it were *find* ourselves with beliefs that we did not rationally decide to have

Now let's take the case of Objectivists and Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand is a very eloquent, persuasive writer and has a powerful mind. She is also practically unique in her philosophical point of view. For those people who share her general philosophical point of view (I being one of them), her eloquence, her intelligence, and her uniqueness make her a *particularly* powerful writer. What this means is that it is *easy* and *natural* (in the sense of being hard to resist) for at least some of her admirers to avoid being caught up in the power of her words and argument. They become so excited that this is a mind, unlike almost every other mind that has ever existed, that genuinely understands the *core* of philosophical truth; and this excitement makes Ayn Rand's writings *extraordinarily* persuasive to them

But Ayn Rand herself told her students not to take her word for anything -- but instead to learn to her reasoning, and judge *it* and whether *it* supports her views

Nonetheless, there are some who, for reasons mentioned above, find Ayn Rand's writings so impressive that they make only a lame show of evaluating them rationally and with an independent mind. They read what Rand wrote, and it sounds so trenchant, so to-the-point and so *right*, that they do in fact *forget* to read with a rational, active, independent mind, exercising *their own* judgement rather than *merely* being caught up in the excitement of Rand's discussion. As I said at the outset, no one would admit that this is the case with them; and it is not my purpose now to scold anyone for this vice. I simply want to point out, what may perhaps be obvious to many people, that this *is* a vice, and that it *is* natural for some Objectivists to fall prey to it. (And, I should add, it is natural for *almost all* Objectivists to fall prey to it *to at least a small degree*. I have, though I do not call myself an Objectivist.) I think there are a few broad categories of people who are most *at risk* of blindly following Rand, in this way. I say they are at risk of mere conformism -- not that they *definitely are* conformists

(1) The philosophically uneducated. People who have never or rarely read anything about, or thought through, the philosophical problems that Ayn Rand discusses. If Ayn Rand is your first exposure to philosophy, and you naturally agree with *most* of what she says, then you are *very* apt to fail to see that you are accepting very many controversial theses. The solution to this problem, of course, is to read other philosophers besides Ayn Rand. Especially those who are *close* in point of view *to* Rand, so that you can see the fine conceptual and doctrinal differences that divide philosophers. So you might read Aristotle's metaphysics, logic, and ethics; Locke's politics and epistemology; Reid's epistemology and metaphysics; and quite a few others

(2) Religious refugees. Some people go immediately from being faithful Christians (or whatever) to being Objectivists, and the contrast is so strong and striking that it is easy to fail to see the controversial (but important) aspects of Objectivism. One is so deeply impressed with the *general* rational attitude, that one is tempted to, as it were, buy the whole system lock, stock, and barrel, without investigating the particulars with any care

(3) The logically unsophisticated. Some people catch on to logical habits of mind more naturally and easily than others. It is hard to be always logical in one's assessment of Rand's philosophy, when one's own capacities for fine logical analysis are *much* inferior to Rand's. And this then can be intimidating: one thinks, perhaps to oneself or implicitly somehow, "Ayn Rand had such a deep and rigorous mind. How can I possibly expect to be able to analyze *and judge* her philosophy in as finely-grained a way as she expects? I know that she has *all the important* things right; so it is certainly very reasonable for me to believe that she has *almost all* the details right. I can at least take her views on the details as a sort of default..." This is surely a mistaken way of thinking

The way to remedy this mistake is to take a course in logic, or to read logic books. One that is recommended by many Objectivists is David Kelley's textbook, *The Art of Reasoning*. A standard text that covers much of the territory that Kelley's text covers is *A Concise Introduction to Logic* by Patrick Hurley. I personally think that Objectivists will find little to complain about, and much to learn from, in Richard Feldman's *Reason and Argument*. All of these books can be easily ordered at your local bookstore. -- And a course in traditional logic or what is sometimes called "critical thinking" at your local university would also certainly not hurt. -- And one course or one book will not make you a perfectly good logical thinker; it takes a good deal of practice

Those are the three categories of people that I think are most at risk of being dogmatists about Objectivism: the philosophically uneducated, religious refugees, and the logically unsophisticated

Consider then someone young -- perhaps 17 or 18 -- from a religious family -- never had any exposure to philosophy in or out of school -- not well trained in logic (what can be expected from today's schools?). But with the correct, namely Ayn Rand's, basic philosophical point of view. It is *very easy* for such a person to become a dogmatist about Ayn Rand's philosophy, I think. I think that after what I have said above, it should be fairly obvious why this is so

* * *So if you, *in all honesty*, suspect that you have indulged in a little of this sort of dogmatism, and want to do *everything you can* to keep yourself from such bad mental habits, what is the best way to ensure that you do not pick up such bad habits, and to unlearn old habits? As I said above, if this applies to you: read other philosophers, and either study a logic text or take a course in logic

Realize that philosophical truth is *subtle*. There are many important *and fine and difficult-to-grasp* concepts, distinctions, and principles in philosophy. If you approach Objectivism with the attitude that philosophical truth is all really quite obvious, and can be stated sloppily, and without too much trouble, then you are setting yourself up to be a philosophical dogmatist

As you read Ayn Rand's very enjoyable and persuasive works, try to keep at the forefront of your mind the consideration that *just because she wrote it doesn't make it so*. You should believe what she says (if ever you should!) because there is *good reasoning* to support what she says -- *not* because it is stated well, or because she just *really knew* how to humiliate her intellectual enemies (which she did), or because you agree with her in generalities, or because *you like the sound* of an argument she gives for a particular point. If she just states something without any argument at all, as she does sometimes (and as of course all philosophers do and must -- you can't argue for everything in a single article!), you should not take her word for it. You should *demand* that it be grounded in experience, which is to say: rationally supported by sound argumentation based on empirically-verifiable premises

Do your own thinking on an issue *before* you read what Ayn Rand, or anyone else for that matter, wrote about it. This has two beneficial effects: it makes you much more personally involved in the issue, and it improves your capacity to understand what is being said in an intuitive, experientially-based way. It has a third effect which is important here: it makes you *less* likely to follow blindly someone's, such as Ayn Rand's, opinion about the issue. For you will realize automatically and vividly, in a useful way, by the practice of thinking an issue through by yourself, that *you* are solely responsible for what you are to believe about a certain issue. And of course, be sure not merely to try to second-guess what Rand would say about the issue

Closely related to the previous point, I would recommend *not* taking Ayn Rand's views as your own "default" views. This is a habit that I have noticed in some Objectivists (and even in myself, in the past). That is to say, when you are presented with a certain issue, do not think, "Well, the proper starting-place for thinking on this issue is what Ayn Rand said; if I am to change my opinion, it will have to be changed *from* her opinion." Instead, your attitude should be expressible in this way: "Well, what exactly is involved in the proper resolution of this issue? What, in my own experience and philosophical knowledge, bears upon it? And -- by the way -- what did Ayn Rand happen to think about it?" Do *not* fall into the trap of thinking that *all* you have to do, to be justified in holding a philosophical belief, is to go over and understand, in all its rich detail, Ayn Rand's reasoning for that belief. Rational evaluation is *far more* than that: it involves asking for *precise meanings* of terms or concepts that Rand may not have defined (or at least, not in the texts you have in front of you); actually *checking* the reasoning to see if it is valid (just because it's an argument by Ayn Rand, that doesn't mean it's valid!); and making sure that the premises on which the reasoning is based are all rational for you to believe (a.k.a. check Ayn Rand's premises just as much as you do everyone else's)

Above all, *be honest* with yourself. In particular, be honest with yourself about (1) what evidence and arguments you certainly have; (2) what views that evidence and those arguments certainly support; (3) whether you *really are* believing what you believe based on that evidence -- or instead because Rand (or someone else) put it in a very vivid, forceful way -- or because it "just seems right." ("It just seems right" is not an argument.) In other words: get used to honest introspection about the *actual reasons* you have for believing (or disbelieving) what you do. And be prepared to *suspend judgement* about what you had hastily believed on inadequate evidence

If all of this sounds very difficult, that is because it is. If it sounds like it means you have to make yourself something of a specialist in philosophy, that is because it *does* mean that. If you are going to be an independent thinker, then you have to be an independent *thinker* -- and no one, including Ayn Rand, can do your thinking for you

All of this is what Ayn Rand *wanted* of you; so if you are going to be a follower of hers, then *start* by following her on her doctrine of intellectual individualism.

Larry Sanger, M.A.

Department of Philosophy

The Ohio State University

Columbus, Ohio



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