The Fundamental Problem With Objectivism, Ctd.

There’s a difference between denying that (1) we can’t know (2) that we’re not dreaming, and denying that (1) we do not in fact know (2) whether highly speculative empirical claims about very complex systems (societies, human history) are true. Objectivists routinely argue that rejection of highly speculative empirical claims is tantamount to rejecting the possibility of knowing anything. Cartesian skepticism, in turn, is associated with rejection of science and technology, moral indifference and the condoning of evil. Peer pressure and vanity does the rest. This way one can come to think that one is morally obligated to believe things for which there isn’t sufficient evidence, and moralize against those who disagree. Much of the psychology of this is common as grass, but the use of Cartesian skepticism as a strawman is, as far as I know, unique.


5 comments on “The Fundamental Problem With Objectivism, Ctd.

  1. Jay says:

    “Cartesian skepticism, in turn, is associated with rejection of science and technology, moral indifference and the condoning of evil.” [Citation needed]

  2. Richard says:

    The issue of overblown claims of knowledge seems more a problem with Objectivists rather than Objectivism, assuming the later means a theory rather than a movement. In theory Rand had a relatively strict epistemological standards, and held that even such knowledge as we have is “contextual”. But many people follow Rand more in terms of style than in terms of theory, especially when it comes to the more technical stuff such as epistemology.

    • poseidonian says:

      I am open to that possibility. But one difficulty is interpreting the texts clearly enough to make out that boundary, that distinction. I think there are different elements here (a moral critique of certain kinds of tolerance, a ‘Socratic’ account of concepts, and what I would call a ‘pragmatist’ [or what is called ‘contextualist’] element to both the moral theory and the epistemology, and they give rise to certain tensions. I don’t think it’s as simple as a distinction between “properly understood” and “misunderstood,” not because the least charitable interpretation is correct and the only possible one, but because you can take the texts in more than one direction. I use the “ism” word to refer to an overall phenomenon of texts, interpretations, practices guided by them etc. And this is not all of a piece. But I do think the theory of concepts alone plays a role in generating overconfident claims. But that’s a very big claim, and one not easy to defend short of presenting a theory of concepts.

      Also, I should say (though you might see this already) that the title of this post is an artifact of continuing (“Ctd.”) an earlier post, and it’s no longer really apposite. It should read something more like “I have more issues with objectivists-and/or-ism.”

      • Richard says:

        I don’t believe the issue here is about misunderstanding (in some cases, perhaps, but not generally), but of non-application. I presume Leonard Peikoff understands her theory; in his book on her philosophy he describes the need to integrate new material into one’s “context of knowledge”, and says explicitly that it is time-consuming. This suggests a methodical and contemplative approach to new situations. But the practice, including his own, is snap judgments. People see the claim that knowledge and certainty are possible and run with it, de-emphasizing or outright ignoring the bit about how hard they are supposed to be to achieve. I think her theory of concepts makes the practice of overconfidence even more at odd with her theory, but you’re right that this is too much for blog posting.

        I think that this is all suggestive of some potential critiques of her epistemology that have been mentioned in some corners but not fully explored, probably because most critics have other priorities for what aspects of her thought they want to reject.

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