Rumor and Supposition

 Posted by on 14 August 2004 at 12:27 pm  Uncategorized
Aug 142004

I received an e-mail from a friend of mine recently, someone I know from my long-gone days at The Objectivist Center. His letter disturbed me, as it suggested that some false reports about me have been circulating amongst TOC supporters. (I’m very glad that he e-mailed me to inquire as to the facts. I fear that too many people — even those I’ve known for years — are content with rumor and supposition.) So let me set the public record straight, at least with respect to the two concerns raised by my friend.

First, this friend was confused by my reversal in judgment on David Kelley’s views, since he thought that I was already an “advanced” Objectivist when I initially sided with then-IOS over ARI. In fact, I was very, very new to Objectivism at the time of my decision. I read Ayn Rand’s fiction as a senior in high school. In the fall of my freshman year of college, I read her major anthologies (The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology) for the first time. At that time, I also diligently searched the internet for information on Objectivism, joined both the MDOP and OSG mailing lists, and thus very quickly exposed myself to the acrimonious debates between the “Kelleyites” and the “Peikovians.” Not long thereafter, in February of 1994, I publicly sided with Kelley in my “Yet Another Heretic is Created” post.

Looking back upon my reasons for that choice, it’s clear to me that I didn’t possess an adequate understanding of the relevant philosophic issues. To compensate for that deficiency, I tended to focus on the actions of the people associated with each side, tried to connect that behavior to the ideas espoused by Peikoff and Kelley as best I could, and then judged according to my understanding of Objectivism. As the events of the past year demonstrate, that method didn’t work out so well for me. The reasons are fairly simple:

First, I didn’t realize that my samples were biased. Through Jimmy Wales, I quickly met lots of smart, serious, and committed supporters of David Kelley. I encountered a far more random assortment of Peikoff supporters, far too many of whom were loud, rude, and ignorant, as tends to happen in unmoderated discussion groups. Unfortunately, it took quite a few years to revise those basic judgments. Thinking back, the catalyst was likely my interactions with the fine folks of FROG, our local Objectivist discussion group. All were reasonable and kind people, many were longtime supporters of ARI, and some even knew far more about Objectivism than I did. It was all something of a shock. Around the same time, as my scholarly interest in Objectivism deepened, I became increasingly unhappy with the intellectual climate at TOC, particularly with the unserious approach to the philosophy exhibited by so many students. Finally, attending OCON in 2003 largely obliterated my generally negative view of ARI supporters.

Second, I did not adequately understand the positions defended by David Kelley and Leonard Peikoff. Although Kelley’s views seemed clear enough to me at the time, I misinterpreted them to be more reasonable and consistent with Objectivism than they actually are. For example, I largely thought of his “open system” as a call to develop and extend Ayn Rand’s ideas into new philosophic territory, perhaps with a few minor tweaks here and there. I did not see it then as I see it now, namely as a means of reducing her philosophy to some of its distinctive elements, then opening up the rest to contradictory and moronic revisions. And I didn’t realize the full meaning of Kelley’s positive comments about Barbara Branden’s abysmal biography until I read parts of it last summer. I was also generally baffled by Peikoff’s arguments in “Fact and Value.” His notion of inherently dishonest ideas, for example, never made much sense to me until I heard him explain it last fall in listening to his Understanding Objectivism course.

Third, I didn’t understand Objectivism well enough at the time to judge whether Kelley’s ideas were consistent with it or not. Although I quickly absorbed Ayn Rand’s ideas, I lacked the necessary time to integrate them, consider their implications, and develop my skills of philosophic detection. To many knowledgeable Objectivists, Kelley’s subjectivism, pragmatism, and skepticism seem glaringly obvious. But such judgments presuppose a vast context of knowledge not available to a newcomer. So in retrospect, I’m not surprised that I didn’t understand, for example, why Kelley’s views on moral principles amount to pragmatism. Given my context of knowledge, I simply had no rational means of coming to such a conclusion.

Of course, at the time of my decision in favor of Kelley, I was quite unaware of these three defects in my capacity to properly judge the issue. Had I known, I certainly would have revisited the issue sooner than ten years later. In fact, I wouldn’t have made more than a preliminary judgment while I gathered more gathered more information, developed my understanding of Objectivism, and honed my philosophic skills. As it was, seeing the necessity of revisiting the philosophic issues required me to experience a great deal of personal unhappiness at TOC over a wide variety of practical issues. And at that point, my context was sufficient to quickly grasp a number of David Kelley’s significant errors and departures from Objectivism, as I did once I re-read Truth and Toleration.

To be clear, I’m not attempting to plead perfect, sweet, angelic innocence. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes along the way, usually in a very public fashion. Nor do I think that only newcomers to Objectivism can be honestly mistaken about Kelley’s views, as so much depends upon a person’s context of knowledge. But I think that history indicates the reasons why I mistakenly chosen Kelley’s side ten years ago.

Second, my friend was concerned that I am “under pressure to denounce” various people, presumably by folks in and around ARI. That’s a common view, I think, but it’s totally and completely false.

Here’s the truth: My rejection of David Kelley’s views and subsequent disassociation from The Objectivist Center was not an isolated event; it was naturally connected to questions about the moral status of people like Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. After all, both were openly embraced by David Kelley as knowledgeable of and friendly to Objectivism. The issue was also more personal to me, in that I had served as Nathaniel Branden’s webmaster for many years.

Unsurprisingly then, questions about the Brandens were raised in the course of my lengthy and detailed discussions with an ARI supporter about TOC, Kelley, and all the rest last spring. Rest assured, this person did not simply assert Nathaniel Branden’s dishonesty as obvious fact, then demand agreement. (Such claims are not merely unpersuasive, they are also offensive.) Rather, he presented detailed and compelling reasons for his conclusions about Nathaniel Branden’s dishonesty based upon Branden’s own published writings on Ayn Rand and Objectivism. His arguments convinced me that I needed to investigate the issue for myself as soon as I could afford the time. Recognizing that I was overloaded, this person did not demand immediate consideration or decision. He was content to know that the issue was in my queue. This spring, I was finally able to read Nathaniel Branden’s “Benefits and Hazards” article for the first time in ten years. I was immediately and totally appalled by it. At that point, it was easy for me to agree with this person’s moral assessment of Nathaniel Branden — not due to any pressure or demands — but because I saw for myself that his reasons were correct. Even then, he did not demand a grand public denouncement, but merely suggested that I publicly state my change in judgment since I had been Nathaniel Branden’s webmaster for years. Working on a longer commentary on the Brandens was entirely my choice and my idea. In sum, the only “pressure” in that whole exchange was the pressure of evidence and logic.

With all such issues, my decision procedure has been the same. My philosophic conclusions and moral judgments are based upon the evidence available to me — and nothing else. Of course, discussion, debate, and conversation with ARI supporters has been enormously helpful to me. It has clarified my understanding of key issues enormously, as well as overturned my negative presumptions about such people from years past. It has not been — and will never be — a means of ingratiating myself. (Ugh. The mere thought is revolting!) I do not bend under threat, intimidation, authority, pressure, or inducements — as anyone who knows me even a little should realize. And when I encounter people who attempt to use such methods on me to sway my judgment, I get downright cantankerous.

Notably, for friends or acquaintances to suggest otherwise — merely due to my change in views — is a serious moral insult. Whether intended or not, such a suggestion calls into question my honesty, integrity, independence, rationality, and justice — all without a shred of relevant evidence. That’s happened a few times — and believe me, it’s quite distressing.

In some ways, I hate to end on such an unpleasant note, but perhaps it’s best to let that last bit sink in all the way.

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