In response to that post, Tibor Machan pointed me to this passage from an 1872 speech Marx gave in Amsterdam:
“We are aware of the importance that must be accorded to the institutions, customs, and traditions of different countries; and we do not deny that there are countries like America, England (and, if I knew your institutions better, I would add Holland), where the workers can achieve their aims by peaceful means. However true that may be, we ought to recognize that, in most of the countries on the Continent, it is force that must be the lever of our revolutions.”
Interesting exceptions. America, England, and Holland are, arguably, the countries in which capitalism had achieved the most development. Machan’s explanation is that Marx came to believe that in such advanced countries workers’ advancement could come about by gradualist methods: “Bit by bit, step by step, at municipal, county, state, and the federal levels of government, socialism can be instituted by democratic process.”
Over the years I’ve enjoyed and learned from many of Carlin Romano’s articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He can do good philosophical reporting. So I picked up America the Philosophical, and I was disappointed.
Romano’s thesis is that the United States is a nation of vigorous philosophical activity and — contrary to the critics who portray it as an intellectual wasteland of complacency and platitudes — a culture that takes philosophy seriously. It’s a great topic, and I agree with Romano’s thesis.
But here’s how to write a book about other philosophers:
1. Present their positions.
2. At least sketch their arguments for the positions they take.
3. Criticize those positions when necessary by making counter-arguments.
Here’s how not to write about other philosophers:
4. Ignore the academic literature about the philosopher and use only critical remarks gleaned from amateurs or non-philosopher-professionals.
5. Focus more on gossip about the philosopher’s person rather than the person’s philosophy.
6. In passing, identify the philosopher’s views with those of contemporary politicians you despise.
First impressions matter, and the first section of America the Philosophical I read was the eight pages on philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand.
On 1: Of the perhaps sixty major issues a philosopher can take a position on to define his or her worldview, Romano mentions perhaps four of Rand’s positions. Easily more than 95% of Romano’s Rand is about her biography and some indicators of her cultural impact. Why she has had that impact, though, is left a mystery since we don’t learn about the positions that have driven it.
On 2: Not a single argument of Rand’s is presented.
On 3: Romano makes no counter-arguments, though his disdain is clear. Once, he cites Wittgenstein in questioning Rand’s claim that words should be used with clear meanings.
On 4: Romano mentions works about Rand written by a journalist, an English professor, a political scientist, and a pair of high-school teachers — but none of the many books published on Rand by professional philosophers — e.g., Tara Smith, Allan Gotthelf, Leonard Peikoff, Tibor Machan, Douglas Rasmussen, Douglas Den Uyl, David Kelley, and Harry Binswanger.
On 5: Romano has read some of the colorful biographies of Rand, and he quotes many of the insults traded by her admirers and detractors. What philosophical issues drove the disagreements that led to the insults? Who knows?
On 6: Rand was an atheist and hostile to social conservative politics, but Romano blithely identifies her views with those of a recent theistic social conservative president. Rand opposed central banking and government monopolies, but Romano sees no disconnect between that and the policies of a recent chief central banker and money monopolist.
Rand is one of my areas of scholarly expertise, so I somtimes use other authors’ presentations of her views as a bellwether of their objectivity. Mess up there, and I’m disinclined to read further. Many books, little time, etc.
But maybe the author has good stuff to say about other philosophers. Romano’s short sections on Charles Pierce and Cornel West are better, actually stating their views and arguments. He devotes much sympathetic space to Susan Sontag, and his extended discussion of Richard Rorty is the best part of the book.
So why not for Rand? Yes, Rand is unorthodox. Yes, she is radical, often hard to categorize, provocative, sometimes outrageous, and controversial. But hey, guess what — so were the other influential philosophers in history. That goes with the territory, and a competent professional philosopher should be able to handle it.
Tibor Machan is professor of philosophy at Chapman University in California. He was born in Communist Hungary, smuggled out as a teenager, and came to the United States, where he earned his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara. A prolific writer, he has published over forty books and scores of essays. A recent collection of scholarly essays on Machan’s work, Reality, Reason, and Rights: Essays in Honor of Tibor R. Machan, edited by Douglas B. Rasmussen, Aeon J. Skoble, and Douglas J. Den Uyl, was published in 2011.
Why did you become a philosopher? [00:19]
You grew up in Hungary under communism. What was that like? [08:43]
How did you come to the United States? [00:09]
The practical differences between authoritarian and liberal societies are so striking, so does liberal society need a philosophy? [06:26]
Previous question continued [00:09]
Where did you get your academic degrees? [07:11]
Samples from the scholarly reviewers of the first edition:
“By the end of Explaining Postmodernism, the reader may remain ill at ease with postmodernist malaise, but Hicks’s lucid account will demystify the subject.” Curtis Hancock, Ph.D., Review of Metaphysics
“With clarity, concision, and an engaging style, Hicks exposes the historical roots and philosophical assumptions of the postmodernist phenomenon. More than that, he raises key questions about the legacy of postmodernism and its implications for our intellectual attitudes and cultural life.” Steven M. Sanders, Ph.D., Reason Papers
“Refreshingly, Hicks does not take it as given that the poststructuralist viewpoints have been demonstrated to be in error. Rather, he seeks to trace them to a powerful ressentiment directed against the partisan of the Enlightenment and of capitalist achievement, and to provide the Enlightenment thinker with openings for serious intellectual engagement.” Marcus Verhaegh, Ph.D., The Independent Review
“This is not a book review but a flat out endorsement. Stephen R. C. Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism is a great but very scary read.” Tibor R. Machan, Ph.D., Hoiles Chair of Philosophy, Chapman University
“Stephen Hicks has written an insightful and biting commentary on the nature of postmodernism and its revolt against the Enlightenment. He situates the movement in a larger historical context and analyzes its cultural and political implications. Even when one disagrees with Hicks’ interpretations, his work will challenge and provoke. This is must-reading for anyone interested in philosophy-by-essentials.” Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ph.D., Department of Politics, New York University
“Explaining Postmodernism is extremely valuable for understanding postmodernism from a standpoint outside of and critical of it. Perhaps the most important value of the work is Professor Hicks’s analytical skill in isolating the essential theses of postmodern writers, in summarizing the relevant historical background, and in tracing the lines of development that led to postmodernism. In addition to wonderfully clear expositions of Hegel, Heidegger, and other influential thinkers, the book has what I think is a brilliant analysis of the different pathways by which skeptical questions that Enlightenment thinkers asked about reason led to the nihilism of Derrida and Foucault.” David Kelley, Ph.D., Executive Director, The Objectivist Center
“Explaining Postmodernism offers a concise and convincing argument that post-modernism is not primarily about epistemology. If postmodernism were about science as a ‘hegemonic discourse,’ then postmodernists would endorse any political viewpoint that tickled their subjectivities. Yet every postmodernist is on the Left politically. Hicks concludes that relativism is not what motivates postmodern thought—but is a device that postmodernists have adopted for strategic purposes. Explaining Postmodernism will be of value to anyone who seeks to understand where postmodernism originated, what impulses motivate it, and how it can be challenged.” Robert Campbell, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Clemson University
“Stephen Hicks has written a very fine book, one that reveals both the historical roots and the current strategies of postmodernism. He has helped to reduce the puzzlement of those of us who have wondered how the truly amazing form of madness called postmodernism has managed to take over the minds of people who in other ways seem both sane and intelligent. Buy two copies and give one to a postmodernist acquaintance. It will ruin his week.” Max Hocutt, Ph.D., The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies
The expanded edition also includes my Free Speech and Postmodernism and From Modern to Postmodern Art: Why Art Became Ugly essay. Images of the art works discussed and referred to in the latter essay are available at a dedicated page at my website here.
The rationale for the session: Two giants of twentieth-century thought — but few comparative studies have been done. The following panelists will discuss how Friedrich Hayek’s account of reason compares to Ayn Rand’s.
Reason in Hayek and Rand Chair: Stephen Hicks, Rockford College
Jennifer Baker, College of Charleston Title: “Buying and Value” Abstract: F. A. Hayek and Ayn Rand have very distinct descriptions of consumer behavior. Rand describes consumers purchasing what they do as an acknowledgement of the value of the product. Hayek reprimands economists who make a similar description, as it is a clear “mistake.” What causes one account to differ from another on this matter? What is at stake when it comes to the rationality ascribed to consumer choice? In this paper I lay out the Randian and Hayekian alternatives and assess them against each other.
David Kelley, Atlas Society Title: “Rand vs. Hayek on Abstraction” Abstract: Both Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek understood that the political institutions of freedom rest on cultural foundations. Both thinkers held that individuals are influenced by the beliefs, values, and practice of their culture. Both believed that civilization has progressed from the tribalism of primitive societies toward the greater individualism of modern liberal society. At a deeper level, however, Rand and Hayek differ profoundly about the nature of culture and cultural change. Rand holds that cultural practices rest on ideas that are the product of reason and open to rational assessment. Hayek offers an evolutionary account in which ideas as well as practices are acquired by imitation and spread by a kind of natural selection.
This difference is in large part the result of more fundamental differences in their respective epistemological views. In this paper, I will discuss one central issue that I believe underlies many of the others. That issue concerns the nature of abstractions—our concepts for general kinds of their and their common attributes, and the abstract principles and rules that we form with our concepts. Rand held that we form abstractions from the observation of particular, concrete things. Hayek held the opposite view that abstractions are primary; some are innate, some acquired from our cultural environment, but neither can be independently supported by observation of concretes. Though Hayek’s view is in some ways more in tune with current theories of cognition, I will argue that it is both false and inconsistent with a fully individualist moral and political theory.
Tibor Machan, Chapman University Title: “Hayek and Rand on Constructive Rationalism” Abstract: F. A. Hayek was suspicious of constructive rationalism and this has sometimes been taken to amount to a diminution of human reason in Hayek’s eyes. Ayn Rand, in contrast, has embraced human reason as the primary means for people to grasp reality and to guide themselves as they conduct their lives.
Do Hayek and Rand disagree? Yes, Ayn Rand has been very harshly critical of Hayek, judging by her marginalia of The Road to Serfdom (see Robert Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand’s Marginalia). But her focus in these comments was Hayek’s allegedly infelicitous writing and thus sloppy thinking, not so much his positions on various issues and even less his ideas concerning human reason. In other contexts Rand has been identified as a critic of rationalism, which could be taken as paralleling Hayek’s objection to constructive rationalism. I plan to explore these matters.
Alexei Marcoux, Loyola University Chicago Title: “Hayek’s Epistemic Case for Entrepreneurial Capitalism” Abstract: One case for entrepreneurial capitalism is straightforwardly philosophical. A handful of fundamental principles are announced and argued for. Then it is shown that an entrepreneurial capitalist social order follows from the principles announced and defended. Roughly, this is the approach of libertarian defenders of the market like Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, and Ayn Rand. Another case for entrepreneurial capitalism proceeds differently. It is based on an account of the epistemic limitations of human beings and what works to their advantage given those limitations. This is the approach of F. A. Hayek. In a long and prolific career that saw him make significant contributions to economics, psychology, and social and political philosophy, the common thread in Hayek’s thought is the limits of human cognition. Those limits undermine the prospects of socialist calculation and of the technocratic, managerial capitalism taught in university-based business schools and championed by thinkers like Alfred Chandler and J. K. Galbraith. The case based on epistemic limitations is contingent rather than necessary. For that reason (among others), it draws fire from other defenders of entrepreneurial capitalism for being insufficiently definite. Parallels in the thought of Michael Oakeshott will also be discussed.
Posted 3 years, 3 months ago at 12:09 pm. 1 comment
3/21 Fascinating: a study released in 2005 by Shanghai Jiao Tong University: The Top 100 Universities in the World. The global-distribution patterns are striking: Of the top 10 in the world—8 are in North America, and 2 are in Europe. Of the top 30 universities—23 are in North America, 5 are in Europe, and 2 are in Asia. Of the top 50 universities—39 are in North America, 9 are in Europe, and 2 are in Asia.
3/3 For researchers and admirers of the Enlightenment: Electronic Enlightenment, a developing site with texts and correspondence of over 3,800 eighteenth-century figures. Check out also the Voltaire Foundation, the force behind Electronic Enlightenment.