History of Philosophy – Lesson 7: The Skepticism of the Sophists

“Gorgias, who was the perfect example of a 20th century skeptic transplanted into ancient Greece […] maintained three basic propositions: one, nothing exists; two, if anything existed, you couldn’t know it; three, if you could know it, you couldn’t communicate it. Now that is what you call skepticism.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 7.
(I don’t like modern art. But if we look hard, there might be something to learn from it. The steel sculpture “Protagoras”, by Charles Ginnever, could well be considered the concretization of a philosophic idea. The sculpture changes shape as viewers move around it, the play of light and shadow on its triangular forms giving life to the massive structure. “The senses deceive” I’d say is the message. But, now, try to imagine someone jumping from this malformed idea (because it’s not the senses that are wrong, but the concepts we generate from them) to the conclusion that nothing exists. Perhaps some of the federal judges working at the Burger building, in St. Paul, Minnesota, where “Protagoras” is installed, would like it to vanish. But to assert it never existed would be a bit farfetched. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what sophists like Protagoras and Gorgias did.)

The sophists have been branded throughout history as greedy and imoral teachers, but that’s polemics for a history course, or one on Plato and his obsession with them. Leonard Peikoff focuses instead on the ideas they put forth — even if their main idea is the negation of all ideas.

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O.P.A.R. – Commentary: Voltaire’s Stance

“The agnostic treats arbitrary claims as matters properly open to consideration, discussion, evaluation. He allows that it is “possible” that these claims are “true,” thereby applying cognitive descriptions to verbiage that is at war with cognition. He demands proof of a negative: it’s up to you, he declares, to show that there are no demons, or that your sex life is not a result of your previous incarnation as a pharaoh of ancient Egypt.”
Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 170.
(There might be aliens on the dark side of the moon. Who knows? Claims devoid of any evidence should be disregarded. It doesn’t matter what you feel about it. Take your stance based on your assessment of reality and say what you know. You know there isn’t any alien civilization on the dark side of the moon, don’t you? Or are you going to tell me you are an agnostic with respect to that too?)

“Yo no creo en brujas, pero que las hay, las hay”. That summarizes the agnostic’s creed. This is no attitude at all. It is sitting on the fence. It is renouncing the responsibility of judging, of choosing your path, of building and then standing behind your own convictions. In a word, it is evasion. I used to say I was an agnostic. No. Let’s take a stance. Let’s have the guts to say it. Let’s be bold for once. I am not an agnostic anymore. I am an atheist.

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O.P.A.R. – Chapter 5: Reason

“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.

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O.P.A.R. – Commentary: Floating Abstractions Eventually Fall

“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.

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O.P.A.R. – Chapter 4: Objectivity


“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.

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History of Philosophy – Lesson 5: Pythagoras and the World of Numbers

“…the crucial point is the vital importance of mathematics in discovering the laws of the world, in making sense of the universe […] modern science is in part a development of this discovery of the Pythagoreans.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 5.
(The Drake equation is a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible. How crazy is that? I bet Drake would not have come up with that idea if it weren’t for the Pythagoreans. Original source: Kevin Gill; CC BY 2.0 / Desaturated from original)

So, Parmenides created a problem. The world was made of one single stuff but it appeared to change, while Logic asserted that was impossible. How to reconcile this in one single world? Well, you don’t. There are two worlds: the “world of appearances” here below, always changing and apprehended by the senses; the “real world” high above, immutable and hidden. And the real one, believe it or not, is made of numbers.

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O.P.A.R. – Commentary: Definitions and Kant’s Analytic-Synthetic Mess

“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.

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O.P.A.R. – Chapter 3: Concept-Formation

“The experiment was an attempt to discover the ability of birds to deal with numbers. When crows were gathered in a clearing in some woods, one man entered the clearing and walked on into the woods. As soon as he appeared, the crows hid in the treetops; they would not come out until the man returned and left the area. Then three men entered; again the crows hid. This time only two of the men left, and the crows did not come out; they knew that one still remained. But when five men came and then four left, the crows came out, apparently confident that the danger was now over. These birds, it seems, could discriminate and deal with only three units; beyond that, the units blurred or merged in their consciousness. The crow arithmetic, in effect, would be: 1, 2, 3, many.”
Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 105.
(The “crow epistemology”, as Ayn Rand called it informally, is the principle that underlies the fundamental utility of concepts: to integrate a group of concretes into a single mental whole — a device to achieve unit-economy.)

An animal knows only a handful of perceptual concretes, and acts on them automatically. A man, by contrast, goes beyond his observations, he generalizes and identifies natural laws, he hypothesizes causal factors, and he projects alternative courses of action and long-range consequences. Man, in sum, is a conceptual being. That’s the theory, at least; in practice, we see animals all around.

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O.P.A.R. – Commentary: Epistemological Evasion

“The drifter does not integrate his mental contents; the evader disintegrates them, by struggling to disconnect a given item from everything that would give it clarity or significance in his own mind. In the one case, the individual is immersed in fog by default; he chooses not to raise his level of awareness. In the other case, he expends energy to create a fog; he lowers his level of awareness.”
Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 61.
(“The Fog Warning”, by Winslow Homer, 1885, depicts a fisherman spotting his mother ship on the horizon, ahead of ominous clouds approaching. Like him, we must work hard to achieve security; all it takes is that we do nothing to be swallowed up by the fog of evasion.)

Man’s distinct capacity is his conceptual faculty, the ability to focus, integrate, think. But all that depends on his volition. He may, instead, let himself “go out of focus, relax his concentration, drop his purpose, and lapse into a state of blur and drift”. That’s evasion, and as far as I know, everybody does it — routinely — with less or greater frequency. I fit into the second group.

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O.P.A.R. – Commentary: Metaphysical Evasion

Realism […] becomes a synonym for mindless conformity. In this view, it is ‘unrealistic’ to […] reject racism when Hitler is in power… This approach leads to the sanctioning of the status quo, however debased, and thus turns its advocates into pawns and accessories of evil.
Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 26.
(German women in Czechoslovak Sudetenland joyfully greeting Hitler after the first of a series of absurd invasions that led to World War II. They had submitted their own individual’s perception of reality to that of the group, and, by doing so, willingly blinded themselves. As Pascal warns in Pensées : “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.”)

Almost every protagonist in a story has an antagonist, something or someone who will try to prevent her from achieving her goals. It is normal to imagine some kind of “bad guy”, and Ayn Rand actually seems at times to see the world’s problems as the fruit of machiavellian machinations of Kant and his successors. But in her saner moments, she exactly pinpoints the true evil, an impersonal force that plagues humanity, the arch-enemy of Objectivism: evasion.

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