Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Kelley’s Review of Peikoff’s OPAR

Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR) enjoys a high status in Objectivist circles. Most Objectivists believe that everything Peikoff has said in OPAR is beyond reproach. But the book has several imperfections, a few of which David Kelley has identified in his review, “Peikoff’s Summa”.

Kelly published “Peikoff’s Summa” in 1992—about 3 years after Peikoff published his article, “Fact and Value,” which accuses Kelley of betraying the fundamental principles of Objectivism and committing intellectual and moral improprieties. But in his review of OPAR, Kelley does not return the favor by tearing into Peikoff. His review is fair and informative. He praises many features of the book, and he justifies with evidence and logic his criticism of Peikoff’s vague, confused and at times flawed presentation of some of the material.

In what follows, I will focus only on the flaws that Kelley finds in OPAR. I don't need to mention the good things that he has to say about the book because its virtues are already overhyped in Objectivist circles. Here’s a list of the flaws that Kelley finds in OPAR:

Inadequate discussion of epistemological principles
Peikoff places a lot of importance on hierarchy and context, but his treatment of epistemological principles is inadequate. For instance, on page 179 Peikoff says: “A conclusion is 'certain' when the evidence in its favor is conclusive." But if the evidence is conclusive when it adds up to a proof, when does the evidence add up to a proof? Kelley says, “[Peikoff] says nothing on this subject beyond alluding to the standards employed in particular areas of knowledge, such as the legal requirements for proof of criminal guilt.”

Failure to deal with the hard cases for the contextual theory
On page 173, Peikoff says that “knowledge at one stage is not contradicted by later discoveries,” but he does not explain how this applies to the legal cases where a suspect who has been pronounced guilty on basis of available evidence is found to be innocent when new evidence becomes available. Peikoff goes on to qualify his formulation: “Within the context of the circumstances known,” suspect S is guilty. But Kelley points out that “the suspect's guilt or innocence is a fact of the matter — either he committed the act or he didn't — and it is not dependent on anyone's context of knowledge.”

Flawed discussion on of the hierarchical theory of knowledge
As knowledge is hierarchical, the validity of a concept or the truth of a propositional conclusion can only be established by the process of reduction, which is the tracing of a concept of conclusion back to its perceptual bases. But the only example of such reduction that Peikoff gives — an analysis of the concept “friend” — is incoherent. Kelley has conducted an autopsy of Peikoff’s exercise of reducing the concept “friend” in a sidebar to the main article, “What is a friend?”

Flawed definition of proof
On page 120, Peikoff defines proof as "the process of establishing truth by reducing a proposition to axioms, i.e., ultimately, to sensory evidence." Here’s what Kelley has to say on this definition: “This definition suggests that our knowledge has the following structure: Sensory evidence tells us that something exists, that it is what it is, and that we are aware of it (the axioms of existence, identity, and consciousness); from these axiomatic propositions we then infer everything else that we know. This picture is wildly inaccurate. Axioms are involved in any proof, since they underlie the canons of logical inference. But the substance of any conclusion is derived from sensory observation of particular objects and events, from which we form generalizations by induction and scientific hypothesis.”

Peikoff’s rationalism
On page 218, Pekoff says that with a few exceptions (the exceptions he has in mind are presumably the axioms), fundamental principles are supported by induction. But on page 406, he declares: “Capitalism is a corollary of the fundamentals of philosophy. Whoever understands capitalism sees it as the social system flowing from the axiom that "Existence exists” —just as whoever understands the axiom sees it ultimately as the principle entailing capitalism.” This comment makes no sense. Kelley says, “Comments of this kind lend credence to the common misconception that Objectivism is a form of rationalism in the manner of Descartes or Spinoza.”

Choice to live as a kind of higher-order duty
In Galt’s speech Rand says: "My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live." This means that the choice to live precedes all morality—it is the foundation of all normative claims, and so cannot itself be morally evaluated. But on page 248, Peikoff asserts: "A man who would throw away his life without cause ...would belong on the lowest rung of hell." (248) Kelley says that “the reason for this inconsistency is that he does not really regard the choice to live as a moral primary. Since life is existence, the choice to live is subsumed under the wider principle of adhering to existence, which Peikoff implicitly seems to regard as a kind of higher-order duty.”

Kelley further explains:

“The problem here is of more than theoretical significance. The duality which Rand identified at the base of ethics runs throughout her moral code. The choice to live is the fundamental source of motivation, the axiom of existence the fundamental principle of cognition. The choice sets our goal-seeking nature in motion; the axiom directs us to look to reality for guidance, to identify the natures of things, including our own human nature and needs, and to identify the types of actions required to achieve our goals. The choice to live is the fountainhead of that passionate energy, that love of life, which characterizes Rand's heroes. The commitment to reason and reality is the source of their confident command of themselves and their world. In his quest for theoretical unity, Peikoff collapses the choice into the axiom, with effects that are evident throughout his presentation of the Objectivist ethics. He tends to elevate principles over goals, virtues over values, in a way that gives the flavor of a duty ethic.”

Flawed conception of morality
On page 284, while discussing justice, Peikoff declares: “morality is man’s motive power.” But this is a flawed view of morality. Here’s Kelley’s perspective on this issue: “Since morality is a code of values accepted by choice, and a code in turn is a system of principles, Peikoff's statement suggests that we are motivated not by the desire to achieve our goals, but by the desire to conform to our principles. But one's motivation flows from one's purpose. One does not live for the sake of being moral; one acts morally in order to make the most out of his life. We obey nature in order to command it.”

An uninviting picture of life in Objectivism
Kelley says that he would not recommend OPAR to anyone who is unfamiliar with Objectivism because the book creates an uninviting picture of a life in accordance with the Objectivist code.  He points out that in the chapter on virtue, which is the longest chapter in the book, Peikoff presents the virtues “as forms of rationality and as constraints on the ends we can choose, rather than as means for living a happy life.” He does talk about happiness in a section in the chapter, but he does not grant primacy to happiness.

Best student and designated heir?
In his Preface to OPAR, Peikoff claims that he is qualified to present Rand’s philosophy as he is “her best student and designated heir.” My personal opinion is that such an assertion is not only in bad taste, it is also unbelievable. Kelley says that OPAR is not a scholarly analysis of Rand’s thought. “[Peikoff] writes in his own voice, and puts philosophical propositions forth as true of reality; his writing is therefore properly subject to the customary standards of clarity, rigor, and truth by which a work in philosophy must be judged.”

It is noteworthy that Kelley has identified these flaws (barring the last one) by focusing solely on a theme that Peikoff regards as central to the book: epistemological self-awareness. Kelley declares in the beginning of the review that he is not offering a complete inventory of the book. Can there be any doubt that if he were to go through the entire book with a fine-tooth comb many more flaws will come to light! Several commentators, including the philosopher Henry B. Veatch, have excoriated Peikoff for using vague and at times flawed arguments in OPAR.

4 comments:

Dale Halling said...

Thanks for the review. I think Peikoff has said a number of useful things in epistemology, however they are more in the way of explanation than profound insights. I think there are some minor errors and things that need to be expanded on in Rand's IOE

Anonymous said...

a citation for Henry Veatch's criticism would be nice... that aside, has Kelley, or anyone else, worked to address the errors & omissions noted in 1992? in print?

Marsha Familaro Enright said...

Nice review Anoop. I'm sorry that so many people who read Ayn Rand's novels then go on to this book to learn the philosophy because: 1. if I remember right, Peikoff unfortunately uses few, if any, original examples to illustrate her philosophy - his are all taken from her writing - so the reader gets no example of how to apply the principles to other contexts and 2. Especially because there is so much reiteration of exactly what she said, it's far better for people to read her first hand to understand her ideas. She had a level of precision and sophistication in her writing (which many don't notice because of her genius at polemics) which is important grapple with in order to understand them.

Anonymous said...

“as forms of rationality and as constraints on the ends we can choose, rather than as means for living a happy life.”

You might want to re-read the opening to chp. 9.