Software Nerd

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Objectivist Theory of History (In Brief)

Here is a brief summary of what I understand to be Objectivism's theory of history.

While historical events often have multiple causes, some minor, some major, some dependent on others, when we ask "What causes history?" we are asking about fundamental causes. In the first quote below, Dr. Peikoff gives an example of his 8th grade teacher's non-integrative method of trying to explain history:
(Source=Peikoff, Voice of Reason, Why Johnny Can't Think) What factors, the teacher was asking, move history and explain men's past actions? Here are the answers he listed on the board: competition among classes for land, money, power, or trade routes; disasters and catastrophes (such as wars and plagues); the personality of leaders; innovations, technology, new discoveries (potatoes and coffee were included here); and developments in the rest of the world, which interacts with a given region. At this point, time ran out. But think of what else could qualify as causes in this kind of approach. What about an era's press or media of communication? Is that a factor in history? What about people's psychology, including their sexual proclivities? What about their art or their geography? What about the weather?

In contrast, to the extent that Objectivism has a philosophy of history, it says that the ultimate and most fundamental cause of history is Philosophy. "Ominous Parallels" is the most in-depth Objectivist presentation of this idea. Ayn Rand introduced the book as follows:

(Source=Ominous Parallels, Introduction) Dr. Peikoff ... identifies the cause of Nazism... He demonstrates that there is a science which has been all but obliterated in the modern world. "Yet this science determines the destiny of nations and the course of history .... "he writes. "It is the science which had to be destroyed, if the catastrophes of our time were to become possible. The science is philosophy."

Other than Ominous Parallels, here are some other references to Objectivism's theory of history. First, a paragraph where Rand mentions, somewhat in passing, that "philosophical ideas, particularly moral philosophy, determine the course of history":

(Source=The Objectivist, August 1969) The fact that philosophical ideas, particularly moral philosophy, determine the course of history; the fact that altruism is an evil doctrine aimed at and achieving nothing but destruction; the fact that altruism is the major cause of the disintegration of the modern world; and the fact that altruism is incompatible with capitalism—all these are broad, abstract principles, which many people find it difficult fully to grasp and to concretize in terms of current events.To those who seek specific examples, I recommend a modest, unpretentious—and truly hair-raising—book: Poverty Is Where the Money Is by Shirley Scheibla.

In another essay, Rand says that a philosophy of reason caused certain historical periods that saw great progress:

(Source=Voice of Reason, "The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Our Age) Only three brief periods of history were culturally dominated by a philosophy of reason: ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the nineteenth century. These three periods were the source of mankind's greatest progress in all fields of intellectual achievement—and the eras of greatest political freedom. The rest of human history was dominated by mysticism of one kind or another; that is, by the belief that man's mind is impotent, that reason is futile or evil or both, and that man must be guided by some irrational "instinct" or feeling or intuition or revelation, by some form of blind, unreasoning faith. All the centuries dominated by mysticism were the eras of political tyranny and slavery, of rule by brute force—from the primitive barbarism of the jungle—to the pharaohs of Egypt—to the emperors of Rome—to the feudalism of the Dark and Middle Ages—to the absolute monarchies of Europe—to the modern dictatorships of Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and all their lesser carbon copies.

In unpublished note, reproduced in "Journals", she traces cultural values back to philosophers.

(Source=Journals of Ayn Rand, Part 5 - Final years) When men attempt to evade the responsibility of thinking, they become the victims of an enormous self-made hoax, each man believing that his neighbor knows that the ideas they share are true, even if he himself does not know it, and the neighbor believing that his neighbor knows it, even if he doesn't, and so forth. Where, then, do these ideas come from? Who sets the terms and the direction of a culture? The answer is: any man who cares to.For good or evil, whether such a man is a profound thinker or an ambitious demagogue, an idealistic hero or a corrupt, man-hating destroyer—those who choose to deal with ideas determine the course of human history. Those who formulate men's thinking determine their fate. The makers of trends, the creators of cultures, the actual leaders of mankind are the philosophers.

Does it follow that Objectivism says that all of history can be traced back to a single basic philosophical idea? After all, there is a hierarchy within Philosophy itself. So, if the predominant philosophers of the time are attacking the idea that existence exists, can we predict that civilization is doomed? After all, that is the fundamental idea in philosophy, and philosophy is fundamental to the rest. At the same time, we know that people compartmentalize; for instance, many accept God in some sense and yet many of them compartmentalize and carry on normal lives. In other words, what if everyone were to actually accept that existence does not exist, and if everyone were to actually act accordingly (it's pretty bizarre trying to imagine it -- but let's assume some bizarre "nothing is constant, nothing is predictable, action is futile" mindset? If that were to happen, civilization would surely collapse.

However, that is not what Objectivism is saying. As far back as the UO lectures, Dr. Peikoff referred to this as a rationalist way to think about it. [Standard caveat that this is my interpretation and all errors are mine.]He described a false line of reasoning and the problem with it thus:

(Source=(UO: Lecture 7, Tape 1, Side 2))... philosophic ideas come from metaphysics and epistemology... and they come, ultimately from certain axioms, or perversions of them... so, was only one idea central in all history, and that is the law of identity if a major philosopher attacks the law of identity, all the rest will follow in terms of cultural trends, political trends, economic trends, etc. Now, that is a monist rationalist approach and it is obvious that no one error, however disastrous will explain everything else. It's a ludicrous construct. That's what I would call "Objectivist Monism".

Finally, there is a question of inevitability. Does the dominance of any particular philosophy imply that one is headed toward a particular inevitable history, or can philosophy change enough so that the otherwise likely history does not come to pass? Dr. Peikoff addresses a similar topic in his UO lectures, when he speaks of the idea that "controls breed controls". This is the idea that when the government creates a regulation it causes some type of problem, and the government then introduces another regulation. So, for instance, the government may start with some control on labor, and then add a control on businessmen, and so on.

(Source=Understanding Objectivism, Lecture 9, Tape 1) We’ve got lots of controls; so they are going to breed more controls. The end has to be dictatorship. If you say to such a person: “how would you explain the American revolution, for instance?” ... lot of controls, and that bred a revolution! So, you can say: controls bred freedom.

Dr. Peikoff identifies the problem as being one where a person takes "controls breed controls" as an axiom, rather than a derivative (i.e. something derived within a context and that only applies in that context). He notes that controls will breed controls...

(Source=Understanding Objectivism, Lecture 9, Tape 1) ...assuming that nobody tells them there’s an alternative philosophy, as, for example, was said during the American revolution.

Saying that philosophy is the prime mover of history, is a variant of another argument that Objectivism makes: that ideas have power and that, in particular, people use Philosophy either implicitly or explicitly across the whole range of their actions. Objectivism holds that it is the nature of man that he survives by the use of reason. Practice is guided by ideas, and philosophical ideas are the broadest ideas. It is my understanding that Objectivism's theory of history is the same type of induction, at a much broader scale.

The above is my summary of the Objectivist theory of History. My main question, for starters, is not whether this theory is strong or weak. First, I'd like comments on whether I am representing it correctly.

  1. "The Voice of Reason"
  2. "The Objectivist"
  3. "Journals of Ayn Rand"
  4. "The Ominous Parallels"
  5. "Understanding Objectivism"
  6. "The Objectivism Research CD-ROM"


  • Have you read the title essay from For the New Intellectual?

    By Anonymous Mike, at 10:42 PM  

  • Yes, but so many years ago that it only stands in my mind as "Attila and the Witch Doctor". Now that you mention it, I suppose it also was "The History of Attila and the Witch Doctor".

    So, thanks a lot for the reference, Mike. It had completely slipped my mind. That's exactly the kind of feedback I was hoping to get. Now I know what I'm going to be reading during my son's Karate class this weekend!

    By Blogger softwareNerd, at 4:27 AM  

  • No problem. It's been a while, so I should re-read it, too.

    By Anonymous Mike, at 12:23 PM  

  • I think you got a pretty good general picture of it, SNerd, at least from my understanding.

    By Blogger Jennifer Snow, at 4:59 AM  

  • Overall, I think your understanding of the Objectivist philosophy of history is sound.

    I would like to add several points. At the beginning of Ch. 7, "United They Fell," Dr. Peikoff says:
    Because philosophy deals with broad abstractions, most people regard the subject as detached from life. ...

    If a man is skeptical about the role of philosophy in life, let him put aside philosophy books. Let him leave the cloistered ivory tower of theory and plunge into the sprawling realms of practice. Let him observe the concretes of his society's cultural life -- its politics, its economics, its education, its youth movements, its art and religion and science. In every area, let him discover the main developments and then ask: why?

    In every area, the actors themselves will provide the answer. They seldom provide it in the form of philosophical speeches. [...] Predominantly, however, they offer passing references, vague implications, and casual asides [...] The references reveal the basic premises motivating a given development.

    To understand the state of a society, one must discover the extent to which a given philosophy penetrates its spirit and institutions. [...]

    From the passage I've cited above, I want to make several points to add to your summary:

    1. Note that Dr. Peikoff recommends, when one is trying to understand the philosophy that dominates a culture, that one plunge into the concretes. The procedure he suggests following is a sort of philosophical detection: listen to what people say, and, tracing back step by step, look for the premises underlying what they say. In other words, trace everyday life to its roots.

    2. This is also an inductive method, in that it starts with the concretes of a particular culture.

    3. Note also the clear implication that Dr. Peikoff does not hold to a billard-ball view of philosphical causation in history any more than he does in the rest of existence. He uses words such as: "... discover the extent to which a given philosophy penetrates its spirit and institutions."

    In some cultures, there is a continuing battle among various philosophies. In time, one may come to dominate, but usually there is conflict -- otherwise how would one explain change, indeed, progress?

    4. Note also the areas he mentions for examining a culture: art, business, science and so forth. These are generally the same areas Ayn Rand shows in Atlas Shrugged as represented by a composer, an industrialist, a physicist. The point is that fundamental ideas -- from one philosophy or another -- permeate all departments of that culture.

    5. Last, note that the procedure Dr. Peikoff has so quickly sketched in Ominous Parallels, pp. 143-144, is the same procedure he follows in the "DIM Hypothesis" lectures (which were really walkthroughs for a prototype design rather than formal lectures).

    Someday some highly intelligent, philosophically inclined historian will write a whole book presenting an objective philosophy of history. Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff (originally working under her supervision), have provided a sketch of the foundation for that philosophy of history.

    By Anonymous Burgess Laughlin, at 8:04 PM  

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