Part III of multi-part review series.
A greatest hits: introductory essay and selections from the four novels. Will reserve commentary on the novels for those reviews.
Introductory essay develops two sets of binaries: Attila/Witch Doctor and Producer/Parasite. The latter is crass unexamined producerism--so it’s standard proto-fascistic aggressiveness.
Preface proclaims that the volume “presents the outline of a new philosophical system” and a “new theory of the nature, source, and validation of concepts“ (vii). By the end, we see that, vanity of vanities, there’s nothing new under the sun.
Introductory essay contains the master figure of her writings: “When a man, a business corporation, or an entire society is approaching bankruptcy” (10). This is neo-spenglerianism, tacitly admitted to be erroneous at the end of [b:The Virtue of Selfishness|665|The Virtue of Selfishness|Ayn Rand|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1309282126s/665.jpg|443285]. Nevertheless, “America is culturally bankrupt” (id.), whatever the hell that means. (Rand has no law, so the precise meaning of bankruptcy
can’t be deployed here.)
Worse than bankrupt, “America is a country without a voice or defense” (id.), a fundamentally odd proposition to utter in 1961, when the US was launching coups d’etat with impunity and issuing nuclear threats with sprezzatura.
Her indictments of particular fascist states notwithstanding, we see the fascist roots of the doctrine here: “In times of danger, a morally healthy culture rallies its values, its self-esteem, and its crusading spirit to fight for its moral ideals with full, righteous confidence” (11). Mussolini wrote that--or could have, anyway, if he didn’t. Instead of rallying around objectivism, the US committed a “tragic error” by believing “the solution is to turn anti-intellectual and rely on some cracker barrel sort of folksy wisdom” (11).
Ersatz epistemology in how humans must “integrate perceptions into conceptions by a process of abstraction,” but “he must perform it by choice” (14): “volition begins with the first syllogism” (15). None of this happens automatically as an apparatus of consciousness. Rather, one must choose as an act of volition to integrate two particular tall green & brown leafy things to achieve the concept of tree
. Death-choosers apparently choose to evade the integration and therefore have no arboreal concepts. It’s odd: it seems for “choice” to be meaningful, even in the most naïve sense, the separate alternatives must be knowable, at least to a basic extent--and if the alternatives of “I’ll integrate the concept of treeness” or “I won’t integrate the concept of treeness” are available prior to the choice being made, it would seem that the point is mooted, as the concept must have been available when the rational mind evaluated the ramifications of the conceptual fork. So, yeah, it makes no sense in reality, but it probably makes a perverse sense in Randland.
Nifty comment that Witch Doctor provides “an insurance against the dark unknown of tomorrow” to Attila, “to sanction his actions and to disarm his victims” (19). I regard this comment, like “folksy wisdom,” supra, to be entirely unintentionally self-reflexive in this volume.
The text unravels completely when “it is not the case that Attila and the Witch Doctor cannot or do not think; they can and do--but thinking, to them, is not a means of perceiving reality, it is a means of justifying their escape from the necessity of rational perception. Reason to them is a means of defeating their victims” (19). This is odd when juxtaposed with the comments in VoS that humans are distinguished from animals by volitional thinking, equated with reason. That text then lays out the argument that capitalism, good governance, and whatnot arise out of reason. So: Witch Doctor and Attila use reason to beat their victims. Does the objectivist merely shrug away this tacit equivalence?
Text thereafter develops as a reading of history from the perspective of the simpleton Attila/Witch Doctor binary. It’s very schematic and puerile. But: “the first society whose leaders were neither Attilas nor Witch Doctors, a society led, dominated and created by the Producers,” was predictably enough the US (24).
Let’s back up for a moment: Attila “never thinks of creating, only of taking over. Whether he conquers a neighboring tribe or overruns a continent, material looting is his only goal and it ends with the act of seizure: he has no other purpose, no plan, no system to impose on the conquered, no values” (16). (This will of course be contradicted soon thereafter--“Attila herds men into armies, the Witch Doctor sets the armies’ goals. Attila Conquers empires--the Witch Doctor writes their laws” (2)--but never mind that.) The Witch Doctor “provides Attila with values” (16) and “preempts the field of morality” (17).
So: the US, with its slavery, and genocide of natives, and coverture for women, and property qualifications for voting, and exclusion statutes, and domestic torture, and starvation, and interminable war on the frontier, and religious supernaturalisms, is led by neither Attila nor Witch Doctor. Gotcha. We are assured that “during the nineteenth century,” again, as in VoS, “the world came close to economic freedom, for the first and only time in history” (25). Nevermind all the slavery and poverty and whatnot. Instead, we get the bizarre inversion that capitalism “released men from bondage of their physical needs, has released them from the terrible drudgery of an eighteen-hour workday of manual labor for their barest subsistence” (27).
Then comes the survey of philosophy, and it is a parade of sophomoric horribles, in which the summaries of others’ ideas is mendacious beyond measure:
Descartes is ridiculed for “the belief that the existence of an external world is not self-evident, but must be proved by deduction” (28). This is dismissed merely as the Witch Doctor, no explanation. After all, the material world is obvious, no? Hume is mocked for seeing “objects moving about, but never saw such a thing as ‘causality’” (29). This is dismissed merely as Attila (with some confusion of Hume’s ideas with Berkeley’s). Kant is pooh-poohed for the noumenal/phenomenonal distinction (31) and the categories, which are dismissed, without refutation, as “preposterous,” a “pre-determined collective delusion” (id.); even if that correctly states Kant’s theory of ideology (and I’m not sure that it does), Rand has not refuted it. Rather, her dismissal is premised on a logical fallacy: “his argument amounted to a negation, not only of man’s consciousness, but of any consciousness, of consciousness as such” (31-32). I’m fairly sure that this is untrue, but the fallacy is argumentum ad consequentiam
, i.e., she has argued that Kant must be wrong because otherwise consciousness is not true--and we can‘t have that. Hegel is dismissed in a sentence as he “proclaimed that matter does not exist at all, that everything is Idea […] and that Idea operates by the dialectical process” of contradiction (33).
The presentation of Marx demonstrates conclusively the unreliability of this text:
“While businessmen were rising to spectacular achievements [detail of achievements that looks as though it were lifted from The Communist Manifesto] (against the scornful resistance of loafing ex-feudal aristocrats and the destructive violence of those who were to profit most: the workers [!])--what philosophy was offering, as an evaluation of their achievements and as guidance for the rest of society was the pure Attila-ism of Marx, who proclaimed that the mind does not exist [error], that everything is matter [mostly error], that matter develops itself by the dialectical process of its own ‘super-logic’ of contradictions, and what is true today will not be true tomorrow [?], that the material tools of production determine men’s ‘ideological superstructure’ (which means machines create men’s thinking, not the other way around, and the seizure of omnipotent machines will transfer omnipotence to the rule of brute violence) [chain of error]” (33-34). It’s a litany of sleights of mind, misreading, silliness. I’d assume that it were plain dishonesty had I any confidence that the text of Marxism had been read--but as there are no citations, I suspect that this is reported second hand, mixed with incidental prevarication.
Thereafter follows equally bogus discussion of pragmatism, logical positivism, positivism proper, utilitarianism, Nietzsche, Spencer. Very much textbook Dunning-Kruger on display.
A revealing slip toward the end: “The intellectuals, or their predominant majority, remained centuries behind their time: still seeking the favor of noble protectors, some of them were bewailing the ‘vulgarity’ of commercial pursuits [who? no citations], scoffing at those whose wealth was ‘new,’ and, simultaneously, blaming those new wealth-makers for all the poverty inherited from the centuries ruled by the owners of nobly ‘non-commercial’ wealth'" (39). Here is a rare sense of historical effect in Rand. Rand will never give the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt for inheriting a feudal economy and for being destroyed by world war and civil war and world war again. Nor will she give the individual worker a break. But here the industrialist can’t be blamed for the poverty under capitalism--that was all inherited. Or is the result of government interference. Or caused by shiftless proletarians. Whatever. It’s deplorable.
Another tiresome refrain: “they [who? no citations] refused to identify the fact that industrial wealth was the product of man’s mind” (40). A silly idealism, buttressed by an even sillier idealist collectivism--as though no actual physical work was involved and capitalists dreamed up “wealth” ex nihilo, whatever that might mean.
The lack of citations is a real problem; it is more in the style of streetcorner jeremiad, impugning the alleged evils of a decadent society, than rigorous, researched colloquy. That fits the trite good/evil moralism and the spenglerian sky-is-falling paranoia.
Eponymous “new intellectuals” are revealed to be “any man or woman who is willing to think. All those who know that man‘s life must be guided by reason” (50). But isn’t Attila a thinker (supra)? Doesn’t the Witch Doctor use reason (supra)?
A contender for one of the worst books ever written--but likely not the winner, as greatest hits collections are mostly forgettable.