Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Via Arts and Letters Daily is an article poking bemused fun of the latest fads in academia even as its author refuses to completely reject them. The following passage will sound eerily familiar to anyone with a solid familiarity with the works of Ayn Rand:
To defend binary thinking is to invite opprobrium. It is true that fixed oppositions between good and evil or male and female and a host of other contraries cannot be upheld [Really? --ed], but this hardly means that binary logic is itself idiotic. Binary logic structures the very computers on which most attacks on binary logic are composed. Some binary distinctions are worth recognizing, if not celebrating: the distinction, let us say, between pregnant and not pregnant, or between life and death. Others are at least worth noticing -- for example, that between a red and a green light. You either have $3.75 for a latte or you do not. Can that be "complicated"? [bold added]The phrase "complexity-worship" immediately popped into my mind, along with that old ivy-covered hex, "simplistic". A search of the latter term yielded the following, from "How to Read (And Not to Write)", an essay penned by Rand in 1972!
By "clear, simple extremes," modern intellectuals mean any rational theory, any consistent system, any conceptual integration, any precise definition, any firm principle. Pragmatists do not mean that no such theory, system or principle has yet been discovered (and that we should look for one), but that none is possible. Epistemologically, their dogmatic agnosticism holds, as an absolute, that a principle is false because it is a principle -- that conceptual integration (i.e., thinking) is impractical or "simplistic" -- that an idea which is clear and simple is necessarily "extreme and unworkable."Along with Kant, their philosophic forefather, the pragmatists claim, in effect: "If you perceive it, it cannot be real," and: "If you conceive of it, it cannot be true." [The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. 1, no. 26; bold added]Thirty-five years after that essay, the academic left is still using deductive logic unmoored to reality as a straw man for reason so that some fuzzy alternative to whatever rational conclusions its adherents don't like can get a pass.
It should come as no surprise that those who would sell this old snake oil in new bottles would speak of multiple "alternatives to academic dishonesty" or that their political standard-bearer, Barack Obama, would shout "change" while advocating the same old statist chicanery (minus troublesome specifics) as before.
Or that he would so easily deflect charges of plagiarism with his own alternative to unoriginality. Or that his grand ideological larceny would go unnoticed while he stood accused of the petty theft of Deval Patrick's words. His speeches, apparently accepted as other than plagiarized, sound familiar only to people who fail to notice that this time, collectivism isn't being pushed by an old white man.
Russell Jacoby would, I imagine, say that he is merely pointing out the "excesses" in modern academia. But one cannot concede a premise so monstrous that one cannot uphold a "fixed opposition" "between good and evil" while pointing out the obvious usefulness of logic -- which still isn't the equivalent of reason -- in computers, without having something up his sleeve. Jacoby is in fact merely making fuzziness -- that is to say, irrationality -- look respectable by keeping the kids from running with it to its logical conclusions while the adults are looking. (Alternatively, Jacoby has a perfectly valid point in mind, but due to philosophical error, he achieves the same end result.)
PS: On linking to the web site that sells the Ayn Rand Research CD-ROM, I noticed that sales will end at the end of this month!
Today: (1) One minor edit. (2) Added parenthetical note at end of post.