Friday, 24 March 2017

My Farewell To Organized Objectivism

I have decided to excommunicate myself from the Objectivist movement for the following reasons:

Open System—Closed System
Leonard Peikoff is of the view that Objectivism is a Closed System. I disagree. I strongly believe that Objectivism is an Open System.

Authority Figures
In the Objectivist circles Peikoff and a few intellectuals endorsed by him are regarded as authority figures. But if Objectivism is a philosophy of “realty and reason” as Ayn Rand has said then why does it need authority figures?

The Demonization of the Brandens
I do not agree with the official Objectivist propaganda against Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. There are a few faults in Nathaniel Branden and Branden but they have also contributed a lot to Objectivism and their contributions should be acknowledged.

Problems in Peikoff’s book on Objectivism
I have misgivings about certain ideas in Peikoff’s book—Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. For instance, his doctrine of arbitrary assertion and his theory of volition (free will) are completely unbelievable.

I think with these four points, I have explained the key reasons for which I am bailing out of the Objectivist movement. Hasta la vista, dear Objectivists.


  1. Anoop, I have not read as much on the "open-closed" debate, but I don't agree with your conclusion. I regard the closed system argument as pointing to fundamentals. Metaphysics is predicated on A is A. Ethics is based on life as the standard of value. I am pretty sure you don't see those statements as negotiable. These form the base which individuals should build on. The further you are from that base, the more logical steps are required to reach the conclusion. This doesn't rule out the potential for new knowledge or areas of exploration.
    I view Dr. Peikoff as a great source information. But he is crotchety. I view some of his statements the same way I view an old man on the porch yelling at me to get off his lawn. Other things he says, I agree, are difficult to stomach. I studied the spat that resulted from publication of Logical Leap. His letter to the ARI board had a line that was clearly an appeal to authority and my opinion of him was diminished. I also read McClusky's critique on Amazon before it ever became aN issue. McClusky made a valid point that did not diminish the central theme of the book.
    I was disappointed by the ejection of Robert Tracinski.

    So, I see your reasoning but I am not at a point where you are. I hope we can stay in touch.

    1. I meant "non-negotiable" in that first paragraph

    2. Hi Steve, you will come to the same point, I believe. We will be here, waiting for you. :-)

  2. I will miss your insightful and interesting articles and comments. I hope to see you contributing again soon.

  3. Really? Lack of research into Ayn Rand's history in Russia is a reason to remove yourself from the Objectivist movement?

    I really think that needs further clarification. Because, it seems you are just grasping for justifications.

  4. From your reading, it looks like you've already discovered that there is an Objectivist movement that doesn't bend knee to Leonard Peikoff as lord and master, and that doesn't view Ayn Rand as an infallible, inerrant saint. And yes, it's an open movement that must rely on objectivity as its method.

    So it looks like you are giving up on ARI. Which is fine. That's not all of Objectivism, by any means.

    1. Well put, Will. Here are some interesting works by Will that are well worthwhile.

    2. multi-part response; Part 1

      What in non-Peikoff-related Objectivism studies compares to the quality and usefulness of his body of work? I'm sure you're aware of Miss Rand's 1980(ish) letter of recommendation for Peikoff, not to mention of course the fact of her authorization and participation in his 1976 course. Are we to believe that Rand had a less than firm grasp of who was qualified to be a deputy spokesman for her philosophy? Does the issue lie somewhere else, perhaps?

      I understand how, appropriately framed and executed, an "open-minded and tolerant" approach to disagreement is an essential of good thinking and communication. The issues here can get difficult and complicated, as evidenced by the basic differences dividing Peikoff and Kelley, neither of them exactly young'uns new to the philosophy. Kelley has said things in this regard that I agree or sympathize with, particularly if such basic points are framed with the utmost care and precision. I would probably differ from Peikoff in regard to what approach he takes to someone like an "academic Marxist". (I am of the "Dennett/Rapoport Rules" sensibility, i.e., going out of one's way not to caricature one's opponents.)

      Then again, I've had *enough* exposure to Marxist and other leftist writings, as well as their omissions, to be highly suspicious. Heck, to know "Marxism" by its fruits, the fact that scores of millions of people were killed by regimes proclaiming Marxism as their idea-set, should scare *at least half* the shit out of anyone considering recommendations for political institutions from self-proclaimed Marxists. The "no real Marxist" response would have a lot of 'splainin' to do, *combined with* a sincere program to severely discourage would-be Marxist agitators from going down murderous paths. Any failure to do the latter would be intellectually monstrous. Did prominent academic Marxists of the 20th century come up with such an anti-mass-murder-mentality program, or was there something more like an evasion of the issue about the just-maybe-not-coincidental relation between Marxist ideas and millions of dead bodies in their enactors' wake?

      Just maybe, Peikoff had a better *inductive* (experience-based) basis for damning academic Marxists. Perhaps one just has to actually interact with these types for decades on end to get the point. (If you read Mises' Notes and Recollections, you would find that he encountered exactly one Marxist thinker - one Otto Bauer - who was worth much of anything and demonstrated some intellectual integrity. This was back in the '20s, of course, before the repeated horrors of Communist experiments became widely demonstrable and readily explained in terms of the evils - death and destruction upon implementation - of the motivating ideas.) Something tells me that, whatever you think of his "intolerant" attitude, Peikoff comes off as a more reliable commentator on what makes Marxists tick than Kelley was. They were the concrete under consideration, after all. Maybe Kelley could have picked a better concrete to illustrate whatever valid point he was making, but there you have it: experience and wisdom were more likely on Peikoff's side.

    3. Part 2

      Now, does the Peikoff attitude mean not holding conferences in which the likes of John Hospers or Eric Mack are invited, as was the case in the IOS/TOC/MDOP mid-'90s heyday? Well, if the context here is one of conferences devoted to *studies and applications of Objectivist philosophy*, Hospers and Mack *might* claim some level of qualification in speaking about Objectivism, but on the other hand Peikoff was probably quite capable of making his own judgments on that matter in terms of what kind of personnel to bring on. Whatever else one might say about Hospers or Mack, they don't bring the level of understanding *of Objectivism* that a Harry Binswanger reliably does. And, heck, Peikoff *himself* was the highlight speaker at these '90s events, adding to his considerable body of lecture-course work on Objectivism (after OPAR, there were Art of Thinking, Unity in Epistemology and Ethics, and of course Objectivism Through Induction, and that's before the '00s courses on induction and DIM, a groundbreaking area of work whatever one thinks of it. Subsequent to all that, we've seen quality academic work from ARI-affiliated scholars such as Smith, Salmieri and Gotthelf (who I guess also failed to see the superior wisdom of the Kelley approach and join IOS - although George Walsh did, and unfortunately Walsh's viewpoint on all this remains obscure to good historical documentation; I for one remain curious).

      Those are the fruits of "the Peikoff approach." The fruits of "the Kelley approach" are . . . can they be even compared, really? Are they in the same league? One thing that Peikoff evidently picked up from Rand in a way that Kelley didn't, was to communicate in a more engaging fashion, at least if you look at their lecture courses. Just on the basis of ability to engage the listener, one cannot rate Kelley's courses in the same league. If his writing style in 'Evidence of the Senses' is an indication, his written work suffers from similar issues. I haven't read his two later books on the "virtue of benevolence" or the welfare state; perhaps they add something really new. I already take issue with the apparent mangling of the concept of "benevolence" by equating it to other-oriented benevolence; perhaps the content of the book isn't as misleading in this regard as the title?

      OTOH, I do find it somewhat noteworthy that a sustained rebuttal of Truth and Toleration/Contest Legacy hasn't been written, but maybe the point in respect to all that is something else, and I've been suggesting it already: look at their respective behavioral practices and their fruits. Do Kelley's books have the overall oomph of an OPAR or DIM Hypothesis? I find it hard to believe that they do. I know the courses don't, whatever their merits.

    4. Part 3

      I did not like the way the "ARI-affiliated" treated Sciabarra's scholarly work - the only scholarly work that contains as much (by far!) Peikoff taped material in its bibliography: how awry could someone doing that much research with that kind of material go? (What's more, if we want an answer about what "makes Marxists tick" that doesn't completely indict them for intellectual crimes, we might have a look at what they have to teach about methodology, but there Sciabarra says that Aristotle is the real fountainhead for dialectics done right/well, anyway.) That was a very, uh, timely book in terms of the different cultures of study or scholarship, the one at IOS and the one at ARI. At the ARI, it was not received well by any stretch; at the IOS it was enthusiastically embraced. It's hard to see Sciabarra's book in any worse light than its being benign; in a better light it can be seen as one possible book-length study demonstrating that Rand is a thinker of world-historic importance, with emphasis on her radical methodology. Even if the presentation style is lacking, there's no bastardization of Rand's ideas going on. There is one other book, though, that's even better at presenting what Objectivism is all about, and even gives insight into its methodological essentials, and even doesn't have a questionable presentation style: Peikoff's OPAR. One virtue of the early MDOP days was the OPAR study sessions.

      As for the biggest fruit that was supposed to come from the Kelley approach, some book you might have heard about one the logical structure of Objectivism, a book that might itself serve as material for internet study groups, that hasn't materialized in published form. Could it be published in a form as engagingly written as OPAR, and teach us new things to boot? Logical structure more specifically has been explored at length in none other than Peikoff's lecture courses, and also at some length in Sciabarra's book. I stopped holding my breath on seeing a published version of this book some time ago.

      This is not of course to say that the Kelley approach didn't bear some useful fruit; there have been some useful things put in out one or more of its 'Studies' series, like Long on "Aristotle vs. Rand on Value", a decent presentation by Mack at an IOS conference, those come readily to mind. But if we were to do an all-things-considered comparison between the fruits of Kelley's way and of Peikoff's way, what reason would we have to think that Kelley's way is better, more preferable, etc.? What's more, the dynamics of online Objectivist interactions as well as developments in the academic area Rand-wise have long since made it questionable whether Kelley/IOS/TOC/TAS of all outlets is a big player. It's not to say that Peikoff is the only player, either. But he remains - as far as Oism studies are concerned - as big a player as there is even in his retirement. There's no better source to go to, than his body of work. Not even the meticulously researched Sciabarra, not even close. And arguably the best light of the next generation going forward in this regard - Salmieri - didn't come from anywhere other than the ARI/Peikoff/Binswanger/Gotthelf region; and as anyone aware of such things has figured out some time ago, establishing Rand's place in the Aristotelian tradition is a major piece of the challenge of getting Rand's ideas a widest possible intellectual/scholarly audience and following. Salmieri is as qualified as it gets when it comes to meeting that challenge. Now that's some fruit.

      UP / CRC

  5. I never understood the whole "movement" approach, except that it seemed to have begun with Branden's eponymous "Institute" which had more cultural than philosophical aspects. As Rand said, "It's earlier than you think." It still is. Fortunately, the truth is not a pathless land...

  6. For better or worse, Leonard Peikoff has no longer any active interest in "organized Objectivism." I too was baffled at the open/closed dichotomy, and his insistence on voting Democrat in 2006 (no matter how bad the GOP had become). This last was based on his conclusion in The DIM Hypothesis that the US was in imminent danger of a Christian theocratic takeover, which was a bizarre conclusion that I addressed in a previous essay (which I will post shortly).

    My "break" with organized Objectivism, if I ever was a member at all--the day I stopped contributing to ARI--was over two basic points:

    1) ARI has become a left-libertarian organization, funded by the Koch Brothers and toeing most of the Koch/Cato line on practical political matters. If the world needed another Cato Institute with a little more muscular pro-Israel foreign policy, I'm sure the market would provide, but morphing ARI into it was a mistake.

    2) The people leading Objectivism are fundamentally horrible people on a personal level. They descend to vicious personal attacks as step 1 when dealing with people who disagree. The suppress dissenting viewpoints in comments, on blogs, on the air--and not just when people are obnoxious, just when they dissent politely. They ridicule their interlocutors, engage in ad hominem attacks, and exhibit a group-think that would be remarkably consistent in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

    It is really this last that's the most important. If being an "Objectivist Leader" means you have to be a jerk to everyone who does not fall immediately into line with whatever the issue of the day is, then Objectivism will soon be lacking any supporters at all.

    1. Hi Ed, I would consider David Kelley one of the people "leading Objectivism" for the past quarter century, as a Princeton trained philosopher and founder of The Atlas Society. As CEO of The Atlas Society (I guess that also makes me an "Objectivist Leader") over the past year, I've had the honor to spend a great deal of time learning from and working with David. A kinder, and Lord knows, more PATIENT soul you'll be hard pressed to find. The members of The Atlas Society board -- Jay Lapeyre, Cliff Asness, Baron Bond, and Franklin Brooks -- are also wonderful people by just about any measure: they have integrity, are good family men, are civic minded, and generous, with their time, tolerance, and resources. That said, I have most certainly been singed by the obnoxious, intolerant elements within Objectivism, so I do get where you're coming from. I hope you'll join us on Facebook to get a taste of a different kind of Objectivist community. Namaste.

    2. Ed - your experience tracks mine.

  7. If you consider an argument to be incorrect, you must refute it with better argument. Terms like, “arbitrary,” and “non-cognitive,” are not arguments. You will NEVER win an argument by resorting to such worthless terminology.

    Here is a fact: Barbara Branden’s “The Passion of Ayn Rand” is a GOOD book. It is possible that she may have made some factual errors in the book, but such factual errors are there in most of the biographies that are published. Are you going to term 90% of the biographies in the world as “non-cognitive”?

    The Passion of Ayn Rand is NOT a “non-cognitive” book. Dr. Leonard Peikoff has done a disservice to himself by using this term for a bestselling novel. He could have accused Barbara of factual errors—he could have said that he does not have time to read her book. By terming it as “non-cognitive” he has caused damage to not only his own reputation, but also to Rand’s philosophical system.

    After almost 30 years of its publication, The Passion of Ay Rand continues to be in print. The book sells tens of thousands of copies every year in many countries around the world.

    Does Dr. Peikoff believe that everyone who is buying Barbara’s book is a person with non-cognitive mentality? People are using their hard earned money to buy this book. Why do they buy it? They buy with the hope of getting some value from it.

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  9. On the Open-Closed system controversy, Dr. Peikoff has a podcast titled: “Is Ayn Rand’s philosophy a “closed system”? Here’s an excerpt from the transcription:

    “Now, but what these people mean, who say that it's bad for a philosophy to be a closed system — and they even use the word "system," you see, which means all interconnected — what they want is that everything be optional about the philosophy, not just, for instance, whether you should go into law or medicine, but whether you have a career, whether you should do anything long-range. It's all subjective; it's whatever you want. So, in other words, it's philosophy as a bunch of fortune cookies thrown together, open to anyone, any new one. That is the end of philosophy, the so-called open philosophy.”

    This is a completely incorrect view of the Open System position. This is NOT what the advocates of “Open System for Objectivism” stand for. Dr. Peikoff, in this podcast, is setting up a straw-man that he will demolish with ease. Those who want to know what the idea of a “Open System” stands for should go to Dr. David Kelley’s book, The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand. He has described the idea of Open System in Chapter 5, “Objectivism.” It is a short chapter of only 14 pages.

    Coming back to Dr. Peikoff’s podcast, he goes on to say:

    “Have you ever talked to someone who prides himself on what he calls an "open mind"? An open mind means an empty mind. It means no matter what you tell him, he'll say, "Yeah, that's interesting, but so-n-so is interesting, and so-n-so is interesting." This guy prides himself on never closing a question. In other words, it's just what it is.”

    This is so INSULTING. Now he is proposing that the advocates of “Open System” are fools with “Open Mind.” It is this kind of insulting behaviour by certain high-flying Objectivists that is responsible for driving people out of Objectivism.

    In case of the “Open-Closed System” issue, Dr. Kelley has much better arguments than Dr. Leonard Peikoff. Kelley has WON this debate. That is a fact. Accept it. I can’t deny reality, if Kelley has won the debate, I must accept the truth.

  10. If the Branden's didn't vilify and lie about Ayn Rand in the first place, no one would have any cause to point out they were doing it. The Brandens were the demonizers. It's not demonization to identify demonization, unless you ignore the original demonization, or worse ... agree with it.

  11. I think you are right to leave the movement. The closed-society of "men who get shit done" doesn't account for the fact that failure is apart of iteration. And it is only through iteration that the ideal can be achieved. I think in terms of political expediency it is important to restore Capitalism as the ideal economic system rather than getting in a 'huff over the theocratic mysticism in the republican party. Socialism is a blight that traps all into a state mediocre stagnation. It must be discredited and destroyed before further objectivist aims can be met. Otherwise there will be nowhere for anyone to voice an objectivist thought.

  12. Anoop, I have some points to dispute:

    1. The Brandens. Nathan especially. His behavior leading up to the 1968 schism was not that of someone who was qualified to teach the philosophy, seeing as how he was committed to a breach between ideas (the ones he was preaching) and action (the patterns of actions where he was acting in a systematically dishonest way). He so much as admitted this himself when announcing to his students that he was quitting his position teaching at NBI. Given that all this is documented in Valliant's book (which you've included in your list of sources), I find your comments on NB to be non-responsive to the case made in that book. (What's more, I'm not clear on what major contributions he made to Objectivism theoretically; his psychological theories would not have been part of Objectivism given the nature of the relation between philosophy and psychology (and it's quite important to get this relation right in one's understanding!). Given Peikoff's body of work in particular, what good reason is there to think that we learn much qua students of Objectivism from Branden's that we don't already learn from Peikoff much less Rand?)

    2. Closed system stuff. It's a simple issue of the proper name Rand gave to her philosophy (noun). Philosophy qua activity (verb) is of course an open endeavor. I'm not sure it needs any further amplification than this.

    3. Authority. There is a difference between 'authoritative' and 'authoritarian.' The latter implies submitting one's mind and judgment to that of an authority, which of course is incompatible with Objectivism or philosophy. 'Authoritative' on the other hand means expertise, well-established and objectively so over a period of time. There is no question about Peikoff being in the latter category even if he makes mistakes. (Experts do make a good number of mistakes! Expertise is not perfection, although it is or can be perfective. :) ) There is a well-documented record of Rand conferring this expert-authority status on Peikoff, so in this regard she is putting her own judgment on the line for all to assess.

    4. Political preferences. Peikoff here has arguably erred, although I'm quite curious to know more about his reasoning. But the idea of some theocratic takeover or even a fascist takeover - however well-argued-for - seems not to get it right, for a number of reasons. I don't share his pessimistic outlook (but then again I happen to be in a rather epistemically unique set of circumstances, what with my whole 'perfectivism' idea and such and how no coherent opposition could be made to it). I suppose if we are to take Peikoff's arguments with the utmost seriousness we should use the caveat, "if the present trends continue...." He never did say that he would specify a timeline for all this, did he? And if present trends - considered in the most all-embracingly comprehensive-picture fashion that we can muster - do continue, where might we indeed end up as a culture? Peikoff does have a lot of inductive experience to go on, when concluding that even when a philosophy of reason is presented to people in such bold terms as provided in Rand's works - in so hard-hitting a fashion as Galt's radio address among other writings - there are a lot of people that nonetheless resist, or their psycho-epistemology is not fully functional, or there is outright dishonesty, or they find Rand's words and whatever else off-putting, etc.

    5. On "isms". How about embracing an "ism" than which no better "ism" can be conceived? ;) :D

  13. Anoop, I am heartened to see another person find their way out of the tragedy that is Closed Objectivism. In the early 1980's Dr. Peikoff did some good work that seemed to be leading in an open direction, but he also admitted in one of his taped lectures that he has a tendency to rationalism. Then the schism with Dr. Kelley happened and he wrote Fact and Value. It was a dark day for me when that arrived in the mail. The value of any fact depends upon context; any fact may have many values in different contexts; and it may often not be worth the time to understand the value of a given fact in any context. But none of this was recognized. I remain baffled that anyone finds that article convincing.

    My spouse and I got together at the time with a couple who were our dear friends (one of whom just recently died of cancer and I miss her) and took apart that disastrous article line by line. I was devastated. I wrote David Kelley about the potential to promote a view of objectivism that is more consistent with its underlying principles, as did others. The four of us were all proud to be Founding Contributors of what is now the Atlas Society. I am incredibly proud of the work the Society has done, and greatly value the later philosophic breakthrough made by Kelley regarding benevolence. But much more could have been achieved, had objectivism managed to grow in ways consistent with its fundamental principles.

    Whether or not you affiliate with the Atlas Society, I hope you will continue to bring your independent thinking to the progress of rational human philosophy and advocacy.