Maybe it is the terrible mood I am right now, but it was very hard to read Jacques Maritain today. If I want to present a paper in the upcoming conference I need to find something to write about him. But, now that I just finished reading “Christian Humanism”, my impression is that I just listened to Catholic sermon.
“The power of the good is enormous, but depends on its consistency. That is why the good has to be an issue of “all or nothing,” “black or white,” and why evil has to be partial, occasional, “gray.” To be evil “only sometimes” is to be evil. To be good is to be good all of the time, i.e., as a matter of consistent, unbreached principle.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 266.
In another life, I worked a bit with Fuzzy Logic, and I used to say that “life is fuzzy, but I am boolean” when talking about integrity. It is a hard, not always successful way of living, but the only one that allows me to sleep at night.
(Image by Kyle McDonald from Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Integrity is loyalty in action to one’s convictions and values. As Ayn Rand put it, the man of integrity may “permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions….” But to keep all your value-judgments ready at hand amid the turbulence of everyday life is a volitional task. And a hard one. You need to hold the full context of your knowledge in focus while retaining your long-range purposes in front of your eyes all the time. The only way you can do that is if you have integrated your knowledge and purposes into principles.
Of course Jacques Maritain was not an Objectivist; he was a Thomist. But to be a Thomist, I learned, is to partake of at least the first (and, arguably, the most important) axiom of Objectivism: “Existence exists”. This makes my life much easier, now that I decided to present a non-existent paper on him at an upcoming conference.
“For what end should a man live? By what fundamental principle should he act in order to achieve this end? Who should profit from his actions? The answers to these questions define the ultimate value, the primary virtue, and the particular beneficiary upheld by an ethical code and reveal thereby its essence. […] The ultimate value is life. The primary virtue is rationality. The proper beneficiary is oneself.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 206.
(Diogenes Sitting in his Tub, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860): Man’s life qua man is the Objectivist standard of value, not life at any price. One thing I can say for sure: Diogenes was not an Objectivist.)
Ethics provides “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.” Value, according to Ayn Rand, is “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” Value presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where there is no alternative, there are no possible goals and values. The fundamental alternative of life or death is the precondition of all values. This shows that life should be our ultimate value, something to be pursued as an end in itself, the standard for all other values.
“The lower conscious species may be said to survive by “instinct,” if the term means an unchosen and unerring form of action (unerring within the limits of its range). Sensations and percepts are unchosen and unerring. An instinct, however—whether of self-preservation or anything else—is precisely what a conceptual being does not have. Man cannot function or survive by the guidance of mere sensations or percepts. A conceptual being cannot initiate action unless he knows the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot pursue a goal unless he identifies what his goal is and how to achieve it. No species can survive by regressing to the methods of more primitive organisms.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, pages 193-194.
(Sanichar, the “wolf-boy”, forces us to think what really makes us men. If reason is our basic means of survival, and we have no instincts, how did he survive?”)
As I said in my crazy post about “Dune“, reason is the word of Objectivism. Chapter 5 of O.P.A.R. established that it is only through reason (not emotions) that we acquire knowledge about the world; and Chapter 6 has established that it is only through reason that man survives. I will no longer delve into (i) for now, but I think (ii) needs a little more attention.
“Reason is man’s tool of survival. From the simplest necessity to the highest abstraction, summarizes ‘The Fountainhead‘, ‘from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man—the function of his reasoning mind.’”
— Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 198.
(A pre-historic mammoth hunt showing a great number of men using arrows, spears and knifes to overcome one single mammoth. Could they do it by instinct? No. Perhaps they could when they were apes. But the moment they stopped being apes, their survival depended on their minds. Man is the rational animal, “because man is the organism that survives by its use.”)
A system of thought must provide a philosophical understanding of the nature of man. The metaphysical nature of man, as Ayn Rand put it, is what links the broad abstract principles at the base of any one system to the practical decisions at its apex. If you don’t know what you are, you won’t be able to decide correctly what to do in any given situation. For example, if you are a cell of a larger whole, whether of Society or of God, you will behave according to the dictates of one of them; if you are “just” an individual, you will act as one.
“Objectivism is not against emotions, but emotionalism. Ayn Rand’s concern is not to uphold stoicism or abet repression, but to identify a division of mental labor. There is nothing wrong with feeling that follows from an act of thought; this is the natural and proper human pattern. There is everything wrong with feeling that seeks to replace thought, by usurping its function.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 162.
(Do you really think you should kill a cockroach and pity the cats on the streets? Do you really think you do so because you have reasoned through all the facts? You kill a cockroach because it evokes a bad feeling. Nothing more. What else do you kill — or let die — based on your feelings? In the end, it’s all about philosophy — or the lack of it.)
“Follow Reason”. If objectivity is adhering to reality, reason is the faculty of man that allows him to do so. It is the faculty that processes data coming from reality — percepts — into the human form of cognition — concepts — through the human method of cognition — logic. Yet man would rather be guided by his feelings than by reason. And then he wonders why the world is as it is.
“All knowledge is interconnected. To cut off a single field — any field — from the rest of cognition is to drop the vast context which makes that field possible and which anchors it to reality. The ultimate result, as with any failure of integration, is floating abstractions and self-contradiction.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 127.
(The Hindenburg disaster. This is just a visual metaphor for a floating abstraction: when the context is dropped and reality sets in, concepts become a dangerous thing.)
Earlier when I talked about epistemological evasion I mentioned our mental laziness, how we avoid the effort to think correctly because it hurts. The problem is that if we really go through each idea thoroughly, we become responsible for it when we use it, and that is something we hate. This may sound offensive, but I have no doubt that this is the case with the vast majority of us, during the vast majority of our waking time. Of course, I include myself in this team of evaders.
“Mr. Chamberlain treated Hitler’s demand as an isolated fact to be dealt with by an isolated response; to do this, he had to drop an immense amount of knowledge. […] The prime minister wanted ‘peace at any price.’ The price included the evasion of political philosophy, history, psychology, ethics, and more. The result was war.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, pages 124-125.
(Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returns to Great Britain after signing the Munich Agreement, effectively handing Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Any new knowledge, proposal or idea must always be integrated to its full context, which is ultimately the sum of available knowledge. Such all-encompassing integration, far from being easy, demands a lot of effort, but is made possible through philosophy. The price of not heeding to it can be war. “Combat as philosophy of life – Philosophy as only alternative to combat.”)
According to Leonard Peikoff, objectivity means accepting that “thinking, to be valid, must adhere to reality”. Concepts do not belong only to consciousness or only to existence. They are the product of a specific type of relationship between the two, guided by a human method: logic.
“As an aid to the conceptualizing process, men select from the total content of the concept a few characteristics; they select the ones that best condense and differentiate that content at a given stage of human development. Such a selection in no way shrinks the concept’s content; on the contrary, it presupposes the richness of the concept. It presupposes that the concept is an integration of units, including all their features.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, pages 102-103.
(There is a lot that is wrong in Kant’s conclusion that “There must exist synthetic a priori judgements.”, but the “synthetic” part of it is due to a faulty theory of concepts, one that conflates a concept’s definition with its content.)
I don’t partake of Ayn Rand’s (and Leonard Peikoff’s) animosity toward Kant. Yet his theory makes no sense at all to me.