Note from Diana Hsieh, 22 Feb 2012
If you’ve come to this page via “Checking Premises” or something similar, please note that I’ve written a length commentary on the criticisms circulating about me, including explaining my views of various controversial matters, in this post: On Some Recent Controversies. I’d recommend reading that, then judging me based on my full range of work, not just a few out-of-context snippets. If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post is the joint work of Paul and Diana Hsieh.
As some of you might already know, Dr. John P. McCaskey resigned from the Board of Directors of both the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship in early September. He did so in response to an ultimatum by Dr. Leonard Peikoff in an e-mail to Arline Mann, the co-chair of ARI’s Board.
Before you read further, you should read Dr. McCaskey’s announcement of his resignation. It includes Dr. Peikoff’s letter in full, reproduced with the permission of Dr. Peikoff and ARI.
We — Diana and Paul — are deeply concerned about this conflict because of its three-fold impact on our values. First, we’ve been public supporters of and donors to ARI and Anthem for many years. We care about their use of our donations, and we want them to be effective in performing their respective missions. Second, we’re heavily invested in the broader Objectivist movement. We’re concerned for its efficacy, direction, and credibility. We do not wish to see the recent work of scholars, intellectuals, and activists undermined, or future work derailed. Third, we know, respect, and like Dr. Peikoff and Dr. McCaskey. We were surprised to learn of a conflict of this magnitude between them.
We have tremendous respect and admiration for Dr. Peikoff, as an intellectual and a person. During his many years of speaking and writing, he has done more to advance Objectivism than has any person other than Ayn Rand. Every Objectivist has profited hugely by his work, including us. His book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand is a monumental achievement. Time and again, we’ve been impressed with the insights in his writings and lectures. Also, we’ve known Dr. Peikoff personally for many years, and we’ve enjoyed and respected him on that basis. We would not expect him to condemn someone morally without good reason.
We’ve known Dr. McCaskey for many years too. We’ve seen him give a stellar course at OCON and two lectures to FROST (Front Range Objectivist Supper Talks). We’ve admired his remarkable achievements with the Anthem Foundation. Diana was consistently impressed in her scholarly interactions with him, including for Anthem projects at CU Boulder. We regard him as one of the three trailblazers (along with John Allison and Yaron Brook) who’ve forged Objectivism’s remarkable in-roads into academia and the culture over the past decade. In every interaction, Dr. McCaskey has always been the consummate gentleman — unfailingly polite and even-keeled. He’s a scholar in the best sense — concerned to draw the proper conclusions from a detailed and careful understanding of the facts. Very recently, Diana saw him take the trouble to do right in a serious (but private) matter of justice.
(Henceforth, for the sake of brevity, we’ll refer to the principal participants by their last names, without their titles.)
Already, Peikoff’s letter and McCaskey’s resignation have been the subject of much discussion — and some acrimonious debate — among Objectivists. Some have judged matters already — whether in favor of McCaskey or Peikoff. Others are confused by these events and waiting for more information. Initially, we thought the matter too murky to state any firm conclusions — although we saw much of grave concern in Peikoff’s letter. Given its importance to our values, we sought out relevant information from people we know over the past few weeks.
At this point, we’ve gathered as much information as we can. We cannot claim to know everything, and we hope that more facts will be revealed in time. The most critical gaps in our knowledge concern Peikoff’s judgments and actions. Unfortunately, he does not seem likely to say anything further on the subject.
In this post, we’re presenting what facts we can, as they shed light on Peikoff’s letter and McCaskey’s resignation. (We won’t report on everything we know, as some information is private.) Our purpose is to enable other people with values at stake here to judge these events based on facts rather than assumptions and speculations. We will post our judgments of this matter — as well as the lessons that we think Objectivists should learn from these events — over the coming weeks.
Of course, if you have any relevant information that you’d like to share or if you think that any claims in this post are inaccurate, please e-mail us so that we can update and/or correct the record as needed.
Some Background History
The background context for McCaskey’s resignation stretches back some years. We think that the following points, mostly public knowledge, might be helpful to those seeking to understand this matter.
- Dr. Leonard Peikoff is the executor of Ayn Rand’s estate. He founded the Ayn Rand Institute in 1985, and he served as the first chairman of its Board. He has not been a member of the Board for some years. The nature and quality of his relationship to ARI’s current board is not public knowledge.
- Dr. John P. McCaskey is a lecturer and a visiting scholar of history and philosophy of science at Stanford University. He founded the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship in 2001, and he served on its board until his recent resignation. He joined ARI’s Board in 2004.
- Mr. David Harriman earned a master’s degree in physics from University of Maryland, and a master’s in philosophy from Claremont Graduate University. He has worked as an applied physicist. He is the editor of Journals of Ayn Rand and the author of The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics.
- About ten years ago, Peikoff studied physics under Harriman for a few years, then produced two lecture series in 2002 and 2003, now sold as Induction in Physics and Philosophy. Peikoff’s web site describes the lectures as “the Objectivist solution to the problem of induction,” whereas the Ayn Rand Bookstore describes them as “the solution to the problem of induction.”
- David Harriman’s book, The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics, was released on July 6, 2010. Parts of that book are based on Peikoff’s Induction in Physics and Philosophy lectures, and Peikoff wrote the book’s introduction. The book was written with the support of grants from ARI, as the author states in his preface.
- In e-mail to us, McCaskey reported that he traded occasional emails about the history and philosophy of science with Harriman, as well as about their respective writings. In addition, they attended each other’s lectures and discussed related topics in person. Their last interaction was at OCON 2010 in Las Vegas. Regarding The Logical Leap, McCaskey states: “Over the years, the author shared drafts of the book with me (the Institute provided funding for the book and I was the board member most knowledgable on the subject matter), he submitted excerpts to a journal of which I have been an editor, I have heard him lecture on the material, and he and I have had live one-on-one discussions about it.”
- From July 11th to 13th, 2010, a workshop was held to discuss philosophical issues raised in Harriman’s book. It was part of a long-standing series of workshops on topics in Objectivist epistemology. The eight participants were Objectivist academics with PhDs in science and engineering, history of science, or philosophy. They agreed (verbally) to keep comments made in the workshop confidential. (That’s nothing unusual.)
- Some notable Objectivist scholars reviewed The Logical Leap on Amazon this summer, including Travis Norsen (July 25), Allan Gotthelf (August 11), and Harry Binswanger (August 23).
On Dr. Peikoff’s Letter
On September 3, 2010, McCaskey posted his announcement of his resignation from the Board of Directors of ARI and Anthem on his own web site. That announcement included an e-mail from Peikoff to Arline Mann (co-chair of the ARI Board), also cc’ed to Yaron Brook (President of ARI), dated August 30, 2010. The e-mail seems to have been prompted by two phone calls to Peikoff from Mann, received only as voicemail messages.
The e-mail concerns McCaskey’s criticisms of David Harriman’s book The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics. Peikoff describes the book as “a great book sponsored by the Institute and championed by me.” Peikoff says McCaskey “attacks” and has “denounced” The Logical Leap. He says that McCaskey’s disagreements “are not limited to details, but often go to the heart of the philosophic principles at issue.” He does not say whether he means philosophic principles of Objectivism or those of his own theory of induction. He does say that McCaskey is either (1) claiming to understand Objectivism better than Harriman and Peikoff or (2) claiming that Objectivism is inadequate on “these issues” (presumably on induction).
Peikoff explains that his judgment is based on e-mails written by McCaskey, as well as what Peikoff heard of its “overall tenor and content” from “others who attended” the workshop. The e-mails are presumably those forwarded by Harriman. We have not learned of any other possible correspondents.
Regarding the workshop, McCaskey does not believe any of the participants spoke to Peikoff directly. Also, Peikoff and McCaskey never spoke about Harriman’s book. McCaskey reports that he has “rarely spoken with Dr. Peikoff and never about this book” and that Peikoff did not “seek [him] out for a first-hand discussion” of it.
Peikoff was not concerned with whether McCaskey’s criticisms were expressed outside the workshop, stating that “I do not know where else he has voiced these conclusions, but size to me is irrelevant in this context.” Peikoff told Arline Mann that, because of McCaskey’s criticisms, “someone has to go, and someone will go,” and that “it is your prerogative to decide whom.” In so doing, he said, “I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism.” In addition, Peikoff condemned McCaskey on moral grounds, stating that McCaskey’s work for ARI and Anthem “raises him one rung in Hell.”
Peikoff’s e-mail was originally written as private correspondence to Mann and Brook. After McCaskey’s resignation from the boards of ARI and Anthem, McCaskey posted it to his web site, with Peikoff’s and ARI’s permission.
On Dr. McCaskey’s Resignation
McCaskey resigned from the boards of directors of ARI and the Anthem Foundation on September 3, 2010. He posted an announcement of that resignation on his web site. (He has since made, and noted, a few changes.) In McCaskey judgment, “Peikoff’s weighing of my criticisms [was] hardly objective, his remarks [were] insultingly unjust–especially that part about Hell–and his ultimatum, as such, [was] a threat to the Institute.” He said, “I believe it would be damaging to the Institute if the Institute acted either way, either acceding to his demand or rejecting it.” As a result, he resigned from the boards of ARI and Anthem. As already noted, that announcement included a copy of Peikoff’s e-mail.
We asked McCaskey why he published this e-mail. He replied:
When I first heard of Peikoff’s demand that I be removed from the board, I broached the obvious possibility of my resigning. But I said I thought that would make good sense only if Peikoff were willing to go public with his denunciation and demand. It became increasingly clear to me that the Institute would be seriously damaged if it took either horn of the dilemma, but I still had seen nothing in writing that articulated exactly what Peikoff was demanding and why.
After I received a copy of the email, I offered to resign if he gave permission to release that. It was the only thing in writing I had. I expected he would edit it first. He preferred to have it stand as is. The Institute also gave me its permission to release the email.
We would like to add two observations of our own.
First, while a member of ARI’s Board, McCaskey had a legal obligation to protect ARI’s best interests. If he thought that asking the Board to choose between Peikoff and him would be more damaging than his resignation, he was obliged to resign. Also, the Board could have removed McCaskey before he resigned, but opted not to do that. We do not know its reasons.
Second, McCaskey could have remained silent about his reasons for his resignation, but that would have raised even more questions and doubts for ARI and Anthem donors. Personally, we prefer to know the facts, even when difficult, so that we can judge and act accordingly.
McCaskey’s Criticisms of The Logical Leap
McCaskey’s Amazon review of The Logical Leap was his first public comment on that book. It was posted on September 4, 2010, after he announced his resignation from the ARI and Anthem boards.
Before posting that review, McCaskey’s criticisms of the book were, in his words, “always shared privately.” The “consistent theme” of his criticisms was that “[t]he historical accounts as presented are often inaccurate, and more accurate accounts would be difficult to reconcile with the philosophical point the author is claiming to make.”
McCaskey cites this Amazon review as an example of the sorts of criticisms he made privately. It largely concerns details about Harriman’s presentation of the history of science. McCaskey’s basic point, stated in the first sentence, is that “readers of the book should be aware that the historical accounts presented here often differ from those given by academic researchers working on the history of science and often by the scientists themselves.”
In his conclusion, he writes: “The theory of induction proposed here is potentially seminal; a theory that grounds inductive inference in concept-formation is welcome indeed. But the theory is still inchoate. If it is to be widely adopted, it will need to be better reconciled with the historical record as the theory gets fleshed out and refined.”
McCaskey gave the book three out of five stars. In a subsequent comment on his own review, McCaskey says that he did not intend his remarks to be a comprehensive book review. Instead, he writes, “I limited my contribution to something I happen to know a lot about and something I thought would help potential buyers decide whether to read the book and if so, how to get the most out of doing so. Since I wasn’t providing a comprehensive review, I picked the neutral 3-star rating.”
Recently, and at Paul’s request, McCaskey posted some representative samples of his e-mails to David Harriman. The page includes three full e-mails, plus an excerpt from one that concerns the proper view of induction in the history of science. Like the Amazon review, these e-mails largely concern details in the history of science. On that page, McCaskey reports that “references to Objectivism in my exchanges with Mr. Harriman were rare.”
Since learning of McCaskey’s resignation, we took the following steps to gather more information.
1. Diana sent two separate e-mails to Peikoff. The first was sent on September 6. It was very brief, simply requesting that he say more about his letter. The second was sent on September 17. It explained in some detail that his letter looked very bad on its face, such that Diana and others were put in a very difficult and unpleasant position by its publication without further explanation.
As of this time, Peikoff has not responded — not even to say that he would be willing to say something in a few weeks or months. In the past, Diana was used to receiving replies to her letters within a few days, at most. Based on that, plus his characterization of some issues as “not worth talking about,” we doubt that Peikoff will choose to explain himself further.
2. Diana spoke to McCaskey on the phone in early September, as well as in early October. Paul spoke to him on the phone in early October. In addition, Paul and Diana have corresponded with him via e-mail over the past few weeks. He has been willing to answer questions about his views and actions, including some of the challenging questions that arose in online and other discussions.
For example, Diana spoke to him about why he decided to post Peikoff’s letter for public consumption, whether he plans to attend any future ARI events, whether the Board is free to comment on his resignation, why his Amazon review was worded so cautiously, and more. His answers have been thoughtful and illuminating.
If you have questions about McCaskey’s views or conduct, we suggest that you ask him in the comments on this post, rather than engage in speculation. He’s not obliged to answer every inquiry, of course, but he might choose to respond to some polite questions.
3. Paul and Diana asked a few of the participants of the July workshop about the comments and criticisms McCaskey made there. McCaskey gave them his permission to report on “their impressions of the tone, spirit, and general content” of his remarks. They’ve chosen not to say anything for the public record.
4. Paul and Diana spoke to Craig Biddle about McCaskey’s comments on portions of The Logical Leap published as articles in The Objective Standard. McCaskey is a contributing editor to the journal. He reviewed some of Harriman’s submissions and provided comments to Biddle, who then forwarded them to Harriman. According to Biddle, McCaskey’s criticisms were always polite and professional.
5. Paul contacted McCaskey to see if he would be willing to share his half of any relevant e-mail correspondence with Harriman criticizing Harriman’s book (or the precursor articles in The Objective Standard). McCaskey was willing to publish his whole e-mail correspondence, and as a result of Paul’s request, he did publish the page of sample e-mails.
Paul contacted Harriman with the same request, specifically inviting him to include whatever he considered especially harsh or damning. Paul said that he’d already obtained McCaskey’s permission to release that material. Harriman sent Paul the following reply. In subsequent correspondence, Harriman invited Paul to post this e-mail to NoodleFood.
Date: Mon, Sep 20, 2010 at 1:30 PM
From: DAVID HARRIMAN
To: Paul Hsieh
Subject: Re: Question about McCaskey’s criticisms of your book?
I don’t think you need access to private emails in order to reach a judgment on this conflict. Professor McCaskey has published a negative review of my book on Amazon. He has also published articles expressing some of his own views on induction, and praising the ideas of William Whewell (a 19th century Kantian).
Anyone who is interested can read my book, read the writings of McCaskey, and come to their own judgment. I realize that most people know little about the history of science, and so they may believe that they lack the specialized knowledge required to make a judgment in this case. But I do not think the basic issues are very complicated.
McCaskey claims that Galileo discovered the law of free fall without even understanding what is meant by “free fall” (since Galileo allegedly had no clear concept of friction). Likewise, Newton discovered his universal laws of motion without understanding the concepts of “inertia,” “acceleration,” and “momentum.”
In effect, scientists stumble around in the dark and somehow discover laws of nature before they grasp the constituent concepts. This view is typical of academic philosophers of science today. I am well acquainted with it; in my youth, I took courses from Paul Feyerabend at UC Berkeley. But how believable is it?
In short, I ask you which is more believable — that Isaac Newton was fundamentally confused about the difference between “impetus” and “momentum,” or that John McCaskey is confused about this issue?
A favorite pastime among academics today is to find “feet of clay” in great men. But that is not the purpose of my book.
In essence, Harriman’s view is that McCaskey’s publicly-available writings (such as his Amazon review and articles) are sufficient for others to reach a judgment about him. That judgment does not require access to the private correspondence between them, nor specialized knowledge of the history of science. Whether that is also Peikoff’s view, we do not know.
As for McCaskey’s “articles expressing some of his own views on induction, and praising the ideas of William Whewell,” Harriman seems to be referring to “Induction and Concept-Formation in Francis Bacon and William Whewell.” McCaskey’s web site describes that paper as being “presented at Concepts Workshop, a workshop primarily on aspects and applications of Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts, Department of [History and Philosophy of Science], Pittsburgh, May 2004.”
In the paper, McCaskey states that his purpose is to introduce his readers to “a line of British philosophers from Francis Bacon (1561-1626) to William Whewell (1794-1866) who, like Rand, held induction to be closely associated with concept-formation” in order to “learn more about this association on which Rand left frustratingly little.” If Harriman means to refer to any other papers by McCaskey, they can be found on his web site.
6. Diana e-mailed and then spoke to Yaron Brook in early September. In her e-mail, she sought Brook’s answers to questions concerning background context, ARI’s position on McCaskey’s resignation and Peikoff’s letter, and ARI’s view of the limits of acceptable disagreement for intellectuals and scholars associated with ARI. (Diana forwarded this same e-mail to a member of ARI’s Board whom she knows. As she expected, that person was not at liberty to speak on the matter, presumably due to the confidentiality requirements of the Board.)
In her subsequent phone call with Yaron Brook in early September, Brook was able to discuss his answers to only some of her questions. Instead of summarizing those remarks, we shall let Brook speak for himself. On October 11, 2010, he sent Diana a statement via e-mail, with permission to quote it. Of McCaskey’s resignation, he writes:
Dr. McCaskey resigned as a result of a conflict between him and Dr. Peikoff, regarding David Harriman’s newly published book on induction, in the creation of which Dr. Peikoff had a large role. We are not going to comment here on that conflict itself, but we do want to make clear that the issue for Dr. Peikoff was only whether or not Dr. McCaskey should remain on ARI’s Board, not his continued involvement in ARI activities.
In other words, contrary to claims that some are now making, no “excommunication” was demanded by Dr. Peikoff or considered by any Board member. While Board members were still weighing this matter, Dr. McCaskey decided to resign.
We understand the public’s interest in changes in ARI’s Board membership, but our internal discussions about Board composition are properly kept confidential.
The fact that the Ayn Rand Bookstore continues to sell McCaskey’s (excellent, in our view) lecture course on The Philosophy and Influence of Sir Francis Bacon supports Brook’s denial of an “excommunication.”
Also, we don’t think that Brook’s comments should be taken to mean that McCaskey resigned unilaterally. In the message quoted earlier, McCaskey said that he “offered to resign if [Peikoff] gave permission to release [the e-mail]” and that he was given such permission by Peikoff and ARI. ARI’s Board was somehow involved in that process of obtaining and granting permission. We don’t know why the Board chose that course, but it could have done otherwise (such as by delaying or by acting on Peikoff’s ultimatum, one way or the other) if it had seen fit.
The events surrounding McCaskey’s resignation have raised a host of questions. Here, we wish to state what we regard as some of the important but unanswered questions of fact:
- What criticisms by McCaskey did Peikoff find unacceptable — and why? Does Peikoff regard his theory of induction as part of Objectivism — and, if so, why?
- Do the members of ARI’s Board think that Peikoff’s e-mail was appropriate in its claims and demands? Did Peikoff offer them more detail about his objections to McCaskey’s criticisms in prior communications?
- Why did Peikoff morally condemn McCaskey, as opposed to merely thinking him mistaken? Why didn’t Peikoff seek out McCaskey for a discussion of these matters?
- What is Peikoff’s relationship to ARI’s Board? What would it mean for him to “go”? Might Peikoff (or his heirs) issue similar ultimatums in the future? If so, what will the ARI Board do, if it disagrees with the demand?
- What does ARI regard as the limits of acceptable disagreement — including the public or private expression thereof — for people associated with the Institute in various capacities (e.g., as Board members, employees, OAC students, grant recipients, OCON speakers, campus club speakers, etc.)? What is Anthem’s view of those limits?
- What else has happened here that we don’t yet know but that might affect our judgments?
We hope that these questions will be answered someday, preferably sooner rather than later. However, perhaps those who know the answers have good reason to remain silent. We don’t know. Again, if anyone wishes to share relevant facts, whether anonymously or with attribution, we would be happy to update this post accordingly. Further comments from McCaskey, Peikoff, Harriman, and Brook are particularly welcome. You can e-mail us at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, we — and others with values at stake in these events — must judge as best we can based on the information available, while being willing to revise our judgments in light of any new information. We hope that the information in this post will help others make better-informed judgments of these events. In addition, we hope that discussions of this topic, whether online or in-person, will be conducted with greater concern for the facts, mutual respect, and basic manners than we’ve seen from many people so far.
In the NoodleFood comments, people are welcome to state their views of these recent events. However, any commenters must be not just civil but also respectful in the process. We will strictly enforce the rule against personal attacks by deleting objectionable posts.