Monday, 15 August 2016

On Isabel Paterson’s Theory of Knowledge

Isabel Paterson’s The God of The Machine offers an insightful interpretation of history, one that outlines the vital role that philosophy plays in the affairs of mankind.

In almost every page of the book, you find striking ideas on defense of liberty, refutation of collectivist theories, and the connection that exists between philosophy, political movements, and technological innovations.

However, Paterson has scattered a multitude of ideas throughout the book, often as isolated strands of thought. Many of her ideas seem to be inadequately explored as she has not clarified the basic concepts and the evidence on the basis of which she developed her thoughts.

The lack of evidence and logic based argumentation is most pronounced in the assertions that Paterson makes in regard to theory of knowledge. For instance, in the final chapter, “The Dynamic Energy of The Future,” Paterson talks about the everlasting nature of knowledge:

“Because man is not deterministic, there can be no set order of his discoveries. Progress is always possible, but it depends upon the unpredictable use of intelligence. From the known record, it does not appear that men have ever wholly lost any important body of knowledge once attained; though it might lie unused for a time, until the moral principles were affirmed by which material science could be applied beneficially.”

Paterson is essentially saying that knowledge once discovered is never entirely forgotten by mankind. While this is a positive point of view, it is not a convincing one.  If mankind has lost some body of knowledge then we would not know anything about it because no reference of it would exist in people’s memories or in any historical text.

Unfortunately Paterson has not explained why she thinks that mankind has never forgotten any knowledge that it once discovered.

In the chapter, “The Power of Ideas,” Paterson posits the idea of knowledge being interconnected. “The Greeks had their premonitory fables of Prometheus and Icarus. Nevertheless, they perceived that all knowledge might be interconnected and capable of indefinite enlargement by rational inquiry.”

The idea that all knowledge is interconnected is of crucial importance in epistemology. But after proposing this crucial idea, Paterson doesn't explore it further; she doesn't offer any arguments to establish how human knowledge is interconnected.

In regard to the concept of definitions, Paterson has several interesting things to say. In the chapter, “Where Real Money is Insensible,” she asserts that one of the hallmarks of an advanced civilization is that the words that people use, in any given context, have an exact meaning:

“The verbal language of a high civilization is also a precision instrument. When words are used without exact definition, there can be no communication above the primitive level. If those who are supposed to express or influence "public opinion," the writers, economists, social theorists, and pedagogues, think in the concepts of savagery, what can be the outcome?”

In the chapter, “The Economics of The Free Society,” she accuses the Marxists of willfully obfuscating the definitions of words for confusing the people’s minds:

“Misuse of language is the means by which the Marxist cult of Communism has done the most serious injury to intelligence. There is a natural obstacle to progress in abstract thought which has often delayed rational inquiry; an erroneous concept or theory may be expressed in terms which embody the error, so that thinking is blocked until the misleading words are discarded from the given context.”

Further she uses her idea of the words having an exact meaning to show that the Marxist concepts like “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and “dialectical materialism,” are arbitrary assertions:

“…the Marxist terminology reduces verbal expression to literal nonsense on the basis of fact and usage; this is not obvious gibberish, nor the humorous nonsense which will sometimes elucidate an intrinsic difficulty of expression or indicate a gap in knowledge, but arrangements of words ac- cording to the rules of grammar, in which each word taken separately has a customary meaning, but which in the given sequence, the sentence, mean nothing at all. For example, let it be said that: "An isosceles triangle is green." The several words are in common use, and as parts of speech they are placed in proper order 5 but the whole statement is absurd. That is bad enough, but it would be rather worse if one spoke of the "roundness of a triangle." The phrase "dictatorship of the proletariat" is like the "roundness of a triangle," a contradiction in terms. It has no meaning. The theory of "dialectical materialism" is a misuse of terms of the same type as the statement that an isosceles triangle is green. It posits an inevitable succession of a thesis producing its opposite or antithesis and the fissiparous abstraction reuniting into a synthesis.”

This is an outstanding analysis by Paterson, but even the best ideas need to be objectively proved. Her theory of definitions is correct, but how does she know that it is correct—what is the evidence? Paterson has not made any attempt to use facts and logic to prove that in any given context a word must have an exact meaning. She has proposed the final law of definitions, but she has not made any attempt to develop a comprehensive theory of definitions.

Overall, Paterson must be lauded for the broad picture of the philosophy of liberty that she has presented in The God of the Machine. She lapses only on the area of providing a detailed description of the foundation on which she is originating her ideas. Most of the epistemological ideas that Paterson has broached in her book, such as “hierarchy of knowledge,” “definitions,” and “arbitrary assertions,” have been dealt with in detail by Ayn Rand in her articles.

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