Medworth and Hester on Tracinski

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The commentary on Robert Tracinski's laying out so far of his theory of how ideas propagate through cultures and affect history continues. Harry Binswanger's analysis at HBL has been excellent, although it (like Tracinski's theory at TIA Daily) remains unavailable to non-subscribers. Fortunately, Andrew Medworth has taken the time to consider Tracinski's views in detail at his blog, and my friend Adrian Hester has given me permission to reproduce some thoughts on the controversy he shared with me over email.


First, Medworth: His post (via Myrhaf) is quite long, but I agree with almost all of it and highly recommend it. Three points in particular are worth repeating here. The first two follow:
I object to Rob's theory, on two main grounds. Firstly, I believe he is seriously misrepresenting Leonard Peikoff's view of the role of ideas in history, in essence constructing a straw man. Secondly, I see Tracinski's own new and still-forming theory as being incompatible with Peikoff's actual view, with which I agree completely. [bold added]
Like Ed Cline, Medworth notices that Tracinski quotes only part of a larger passage on the subject from Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Like Harry Binswanger, he quotes a much larger passage -- the quote Tracinski used along with some relevant missing context. Medworth uses this larger passage as a basis for examining in more depth how Objectivists think ideas shape history.

Unlike anyone else so far, Medworth also notes a point made by Tracinski with which he agrees:
I do agree with Tracinski on one point, and that is that the modern achievements are significantly helped by the collapse of Objectivism's enemies. In particular, the Kantian influence in the world has taken a big knock. Fascism is dead, and communism is discredited, an ideological "dead man walking". Socialism has been exposed as a failure, and this has left a gap for freedom to be advanced by the more rational thinkers in society. More fundamentally, modern academic philosophy is widely held to be a useless joke, even among academic philosophers. I know of philosophers today who see their profession as a meaningless pushing-around of words, a fraud perpetrated on those (usually taxpayers) who fund them. This blunts their influence on society.

But the collapse of a negative is not a positive. What we increasingly have today is an ideological vacuum waiting to be filled.

If Objectivists are getting anything wrong at present, I think it might be an underestimation of the strength of good ideas in society. Reason and egoism may be in a parlous state in modern academic philosophy, but the strength of their influence in society (the "cultural momentum", if you will) is still strong. Looking around society today, it is absurd to say that reason and egoism are dead today. ... [bold added]
This is not only the most thorough freely-available discussion of the controversy I have seen so far, it is the most polite. In fact, Medworth urges us to take the time to hear Tracinski out.
I am certain that Tracinski has received many letters from TIA Daily readers making many of the points I did above. Tracinski is not a fool, nor do I have any reason to suspect he is dishonest. I see no call for frenzied denunciations or insults: in fact I am grateful to him, and to Harry Binswanger, Ed Cline and others who have commented, for helping me to think through these issues. Tracinski is only half-way through his six-part article, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to his critics.
Fair enough. But after reading the following from an Editor's Note in Friday's TIA Daily, I would add a caveat.
"[O]n the question of whether I disagree with Ayn Rand on this topic, the answer is: I'm still trying to figure that out for sure, and I am certain there will be many people who will offer their suggestions (friendly or otherwise) on this question. I certainly don't reject the essentials of Ayn Rand's philosophy -- indeed, I am relying upon them in this series -- nor do I mean to imply, for example, that she held that the content of specialized fields could be deduced from philosophy.

That leads me to say something about the status of my own theory. I have always held that Objectivism is Ayn Rand's philosophy and stands for her ideas, and that any new theory contributed by a subsequent thinker is his own. So I am not arguing that my view on the role of ideas in the world is the "real" Objectivist theory. To the extent that what I am saying is original, it is my theory, and the reader may judge for himself to what extent it is consistent with Ayn Rand's philosophy -- and, most important, with the facts of reality. [my bold]
If Medworth closes his post by citing Ayn Rand on the the role of ideas in history, I will close my comments on his post by quoting her on the matter of being in less-than-full agreement with Objectivism. I owe the following quote to Diana Hsieh:
There is nothing wrong in using ideas, anybody's ideas. Provided that you give appropriate credit, you can make any mixture of ideas that you want; the contradiction will be yours. But why do you need the name of someone with whom you do not agree in order to spread your misunderstandings -- or worse, your nonsense and falsehoods? (From "The Moratorium on Brains," Question and Answer Period.)
If Robert Tracinski, upon finally stating his theory, believes (or even suspects) that it is at variance with Objectivism, I would hope that he would publicly announce that, although he is strongly influenced by her ideas, he is not an adherent to her philosophy. That he has forthrightly acknowledged that he might be at odds with Ayn Rand is encouraging in that respect.


And now, Adrian Hester. The following is lifted from three emails I received from him and is quoted unchanged but for some minor editing on his part, minor formatting changes by myself, and whatever commentary I added outside the blocked quotes or within brackets.
I was interested enough in his new series to read it pretty closely, and I'm not convinced. He made a point about a common view among Objectivists; I've run across it myself. However, he doesn't do a good job at all of quoting anyone actually propounding that view, and among major Objectivist thinkers I'm not sure he'd be able to do so.

So, at best he's cleaning out some undergrowth, but his misquotes of Peikoff are shadowboxing with a cardboard cutout of his own making. My considered response is exactly what Edward Cline's was -- the growth of knowledge in the special sciences only leads to the growth of rational philosophy at large when there's an openness to and glimmerings of rational philosophy in a culture in the first place. [cf. Medworth's "mutual reinforcement" as below --ed]

In the past the circumstances have sometimes been due basically to historical accident; for instance, the rise of science and liberal philosophy and the decline in religiosity in England after Elizabeth's accession because the balance of power between the Church of England and the low-church sects was such as to encourage tolerance (in other circumstances you'd have ended up with disastrous wars of religion like the Thirty Years' War just a few years after her death).

If you're going to discuss the history of those ideas as an historian, you'll have to take all that into account rather than rationalistically deriving things from bare ideas, and more than that, you'll have to take into account the interaction between one generation of thinkers' ideas and those of the following as well as the growth (or extinction) of knowledge in the various fields of thought.

However, historical accidents merely give opportunities, and if the ideas aren't there, all the freedom and scientific research in the world isn't going to bring them into existence. Basically, he's taking too short-term a view of things; at best he's simply arguing past Peikoff. [my bold]
The bold above reminded me of an attempt on my part a few months ago to write a rather lengthy review of Glenn Reynold's An Army of Davids because the error Tracinski makes is like one that Glenn Reynolds makes, and which permeates his entire book. Reynolds' error seems to be that it is advancing technology -- and not better ideas -- that will fundamentally improve society in the long haul. Quoting from that review:
Here's another counterexample to the notion that technology -- unaided by an improvement in a society's intellectual climate -- can effect meaningful social change. Reynolds notes that Philippine President Joseph Estrada was brought down by a text-messaging flash mob. He fails to mention that this flash mob gathered in exactly the same place the old-fashioned mob that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos 15 years before had gathered. I dare say that unless the people of the Philippines make fundamental cultural and political changes, some other corrupt president will probably have to be overthrown later on. What difference does it make that a president can be overthrown if he never gets replaced by anything better?
Although, as Medworth points out, the various advances -- in philosphy and the special sciences -- of a rational society can be "mutually reinforcing", it is clearly easy to lose sight (by dropping context) of when a technological advance serves as "reinforcement" of the underlying rationality of a culture and when it falls more into the category of "historical accident".

In the above example, the existence of text messaging technology in the Philippines was, in the context of the discontented populace, merely an historical accident which afforded the opportunity to overthrow their president. Unfortunately, it was just that, and the opportunity was lost in every meaningful sense because the people were ill-equipped, ideologically, to take full advantage of it.

And how would such technology reinforce the underlying rationality of a culture? In any number of ways. For example, it could inspire further technological or scientific innovation or even inspire advances in commerce (e.g., suggest a new way of doing business). It could even conceivably cause someone to think about something as abstract as epistemology. But still, the technology could only provoke rational thought, and in someone capable of and inclined towards rational thought at that. [11-20 Update: Text messaging can also, simply by being available to the enterprising, make it easier for someone to be productive or innovative. It is probably this means of "mutual reinforcement" (or as I have called it, "positive feedback") that lends itself to being misinterpreted and overestimated.]

I cannot help but wonder, especially given the homage to bloggers in Tracinski's title, "Pajamas Epistemology", how heavily influenced he is by Glenn Reynolds.

And now, back to Adrian Hester's thoughts. We now start the second of the three emails.
And besides, the example Tracinski uses of Aristotle's biology is misleading in another way than Edward Cline mentioned. Aristotle didn't start Greek science or philosophy. The two advanced pretty much hand in hand starting with Thales (actually, probably centuries earlier than him, but he's the first big name in both), and the really significant fact about Greek science and philosophy is that both flourished because Greek thinkers were free (within broad limits, such as not denying certain aspects of a given city's religious myths) to pursue thought as far as they could.

How that culture came about is a ripe question, and no, I don't have an answer; but it was only with such a view of reason that Greek science could advance beyond the rules of thumb of Egypt and Mesopotamia and philosophy beyond the Homeric myths. (In that regard, compare the Greek myths and subsequent philosophy with Hindu myths and philosophy; the two started with the same Indo-European basis and ended up in quite different places. And the two philosophical systems, or better, bundles of systems, ended up more similar than many people realize because they converged with the spread of Greek thought under Alexander and his successors.

For example, three of the four Aristotelian syllogistic figures are basic to Tibetan Buddhist logic, and the realistic musculature of Greek sculpture lives on in Japanese (!) sculptures of Buddhist guardian dieties, thanks to the spread of Hellenism to the East and its influence on Buddhism.) Aristotle didn't just start pursuing science out of the blue, nor for that matter did Thales; Aristotle pursued science in reaction against his training in Platonism at the Academy, and Thales pursued science because he was seeking to understand the nature of the world -- you can't even separate the scientific and the philosophical into different compartments with those guys.
Binswanger made a related point about the ability of scientists to function as philosophers. He noted that a scientist who, say, figured out an epistemological method needed for his research, was functioning as a philosopher when he did so.
And that, when you think about it, is one big reason they made the progress they did, and why progress in the specialized sciences is in the long run philosophically nugatory without a pro-reason philosophy. And without some favor for reason in a culture, you're not going to have the specialized sciences growing at breakneck pace in the first place. And thus you can see from another vantage point in what way Tracinski's view is short-term; he's confusing the inertia of institutionalized science with the motive power of free reason.
[This is from a third email.]
And of course, having thought about it further, this is a good sentence of mine to think about: "Thales pursued science because he was seeking to understand the nature of the world -- you can't even separate the scientific and the philosophical into different compartments with those guys." Which condemns the tendencies of our age -- if it's not nonsensical to think of science but not philosophy as seeking to understand the nature of the world, that's a sign science is doomed in the long run.

And another thought: Greek science didn't end with Aristotle, though he was certainly the height of Greek philosophy. So, obviously the continued progress in Greek (more precisely, Hellenistic) science didn't translate into philosophical progress. Instead, you had a pinnacle of scientific knowledge roughly around the time the Mediterranean became a Roman lake, and then a slow contraction in what was known to the world outside a few centers of learning.

It's not directly related to a decline in rational philosophy, but instead is due to a number of historical factors: There was foremost the transformation of the Mediterranean into a Roman lake, or more precisely the rise of the imperial system, which demanded a strictly set curriculum devoted to the practical arts of administration; this led to the concomitant reduction of the curriculum to the seven greatest plays of each dramatist, the greatest works of each poet, etc. Their other works were less and less copied at Alexandria and other centers of learning, which caused a slow winnowing of the mass of classical learning. Over the centuries there was a slow funnel effect of more and more of the non-essential material being discarded and a loss of variety in the manuscripts made.

More generally there was the straitening effect of a uniform and prosaic imperial system (not to mention the simple fact that it was run by Romans, who were skilled at technology and the brutely practical but had little curiosity on the whole for science or philosophy); and socially and economically there was a marked decline in independent cultural centers in the cities of the empire from the high imperial period on (say after Trajan) due to increased taxation and interference from the center. The factors more familiar to most people, like the rise of Christianity, the incursion of barbarians, and the severing of tradition as higher civilization collapsed, were added onto this.

But again, how much of that is not due in some way to the decline of rational worldly philosophy?
I will close by noting a thought of my own. Harry Binswanger's series on Tracinski he titles, "The Power of Philosophy", which reminds me of the current title of a blog by a fly-by-night "Objectivist" whose blogging style is to overwhelm the reader with tons of selected evidence, slipping in his own assumptions on the sly the whole time. I at one time contemplated fisking this blog, using the title of "The Fallacy of Narrative".

While I am not accusing Tracinski of the above offenses against good journalism, I would note that the kind of news he chooses to cover will be affected by his views on the importance of ideas in history and thus he will certainly seem, especially to readers too busy to look at many other news outlets, to have provided plenty of evidence for his views, including any that are in error.

Therefore, if we owe it to Tracinski to hear him out, we owe it to ourselves -- especially if TIA Daily is one's primary or only source of news -- to check Tracinski's premises, especially regarding his advice on the last election. For example: Just how much "debate" really is going on within the right? About anything?

-- CAV


11-20-06: Added update on "mutual reinforcement" within text.


Anonymous said...

Tracinski's articles are available, starting here (via the Forum4AynRandfans)

Looks like Tracinski is slowly disconnecting himself from Objectivism. Pity, cause I like what he writes. I noticed he began his article about the Democrats and how they add nothing to the debate, with "Like many on the right, I ...". That made me read the sentence twice, thinking that most Objectivist commentators do not count themselves as belonging to the right. But maybe that was just rhetoric.

Without having looked to deeply into the whole subject, I'd say that his view of the state of the world is overly rosy. It's at best a mixed picture, isn't it. Aren't things like the reappearance of piracy off the coasts of Africa, the reprimitivization of Africa and other parts (like Afghanistan before 9/11), the trading in human flesh (trafficking, etc.) signs that the boundaries of civilization are shrinking? And the fact that a barbaric theocracy is even allowed to threaten civilized countries and still remain functioning. Oh well ...

Gus Van Horn said...

I have noticed Tracinski arguing for a "secular right" for at least the past year, but I was also taken aback by his referral of himself as being on the right in that article.

My gut says that Tracinski is going to leave the Objectivist movement. But my gut is no mind-reader and it has certainly been wrong before.

Assuming his ideas turn out to be at variance with Ayn Rand's, it will either be up to him to declare himself no longer an Objectivist or up to us Objectivists to make it clear for him.

Anonymous said...

Oh, btw agree 100% on your take on Tracinski's soccer article! :o)