I have some further thoughts about the topic I wrote about in my last post:
Conservative Mistrust & Ideological Certainty (part 1)
I started reading the introduction of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. I immediately could tell that Hofstadter was a man who truly understood what intellectualism is about, but his book isn’t a paean to the glories of intellectualism. I sense that Hofstadter was trying to be fairminded even to those he is criticizing (a respectable trait that any intellectual should aspire towards). In this book, he is analyzing the specific history of intellectuality within the United States, the intellectuals themselves and those who opposed them. He doesn’t shy away from tough issues such as communism.
He clarifies a number of points. I’ll discuss two of them.
First, there generally isn’t a group of people who are entirely anti-intellectual. Those who use anti-intellectual arguments/rhetoric usually do so in response to some particular situation. The main opposition towards intellectuals is when they act as experts which goes against the populist grain of American culture (populist sentiments being particularly appealing to American conservatives). On the other hand, American intellectuals have at times been in alignment with this populism (e.g., the Progressive Era). Intellectualism isn’t inherently anti-populist and populism isn’t inherently anti-intellectual, but it’s obvious that in the US intellectualism and populism haven’t always gotten along.
Second, he distinguishes intelligence from intellectuality. Intelligence is universally valued, but intellectuality is not. Someone can be one while not being the other. The central distinction is that intelligence has practical ends and so can be known by its results (can be observed or even measured) whereas intellectuality doesn’t seek external justification. Intellectuality has two attributes that balance eachother: piety and playfulness. There is an almost religious sense that the intellectual has towards the moral values underpinning intellectual endeavors: truth and honesty, justice and fairness, etc. The intellectual endeavor is extremely serious and many intellectuals will dedicate their lives to it for very little reward (unlike businessmen or media personalities, few intellectuals become wealthy). Intellectualism is a calling. However, it’s playfulness (creativity, imagination, experimentation, openness, etc) that keeps the intellectual from turning into a zealot or ideologue. Also, I’d say this playfulness relates to the ability at role-playing, the ability to see different perspectives, the ability to empathize and understand.
The second point relates to psychological research which shows a correlation between liberalism and psychological factors such as the MBTI function Intuition, the FFM trait Openness to Experience, and Hartmann’s thin boundary type. I couldn’t help but think of MBTI Intution when reading Hofstadter’s description of intellectuality. Intuition is all about both the ability to think in terms of abstractions and imaginatively conceive of diverse possibilities. Intuitives tend to have a very playful sense of humor. Hofstadter’s seemed to be describing, in particular, the MBTI types INFP and INTP. There is other psychological research that I’m reminded of. There was a study that demonstrated a correlation between (as I recall) imagination, empathy (or emotional intelligence), and paranormal/spiritual experience… which makes sense according to Hartmann’s model of boundary types.
Conservatives like to call liberals bleeding hearts and it’s true that liberals on average have a stronger empathetic response (which would imply a higher emotional intelligence in that people tend to personally care about others to the extent that they understand the felt experience of others… not to imply, though, that conservatives entirely lack this because to entirely lack it would mean you’re a sociopath). What is interesting is that intellectualism is strongly correlated, especially in the US, with liberalism. For example, most scientists self-identify as liberals. So, what is the connection between empathy and intellectualism? This connection would be most clearly represented by the MBTI NF types (INFP, INFJ, ENFP, ENFJ), but even NT types would have an above average ability to understand the perspectives of others even if they didn’t experience this on an emotional level. My guess, however, is that most objectivists and anarcho-capitalists are NT types which would explain why they don’t identify with the average conservative who is probably an ST type.
I’ve noticed that some people speculate Ayn Rand was an INTJ. My dad, who has tested as an ENTJ, is fairly interested in Rand’s worldview. There is nothing comparable to the systematic logic of an INTJ or ENTJ… because these two types have Introverted Intuition which is a type of abstract thinking when taken to the extreme is utterly detached from outward reality and in some cases can lead to an idealization of outward reality. Let me use Rand as an example. Here are some quotes from the Wikipedia article titled “Objectivism (Ayn Rand)”:
Rand’s philosophy begins with three axioms: existence, identity, and consciousness. Rand defined an axiom as “a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.” As Leonard Peikoff noted, Rand’s argument “is not a proof that the axioms of existence, consciousness, and identity are true. It is proof that they are axioms, that they are at the base of knowledge and thus inescapable.”
Like Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand likes axioms. To me, these are just ideas based on arguments. The problem with calling them axioms is that it gives me the sense that there are unstated assumptions underlying the argument for these axioms. These axioms don’t stand alone. For one, the very statement of these axioms is dependent on language (specifically, the English language in this case) and dependent on a philosophical tradition (specifically, the Western tradition in this case). If you put these axioms to a group of philosophy professors, they could debate them endlessly and never come to a conclusion about them. Rand’s perception that she defeats her opponents before even beginning the debate is just pure intellectual hubris. It’s a very simpleminded mentality.
As Rand wrote, “A leaf … cannot be all red and green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A.”
Essentially, this is binary (black/white) thinking. It’s easy to point out any number of examples that contradict this style of either/or philosophizing. Most issues in life consist of multiple categories and blurring between categories. Even something so simple as gender involves complexities such as hermaphrodites.
Objectivism holds that the mind cannot create reality, but rather, it is a means of discovering reality.
This is such an over-simplification that I hardly know what to say about it. Our minds aren’t separate from the reality being perceived. Speaking about whether reality is created or not is pointless speculation, but what we can say is that the mind does create the perception of reality. To anyone who doesn’t understand this, I’d recommend reading the vast literature on the mind-body connection and I’d particularly recommend reading about enactivism.
Objectivist philosophy derives its explanations of action and causation from the axiom of identity, calling causation “the law of identity applied to action.” According to Rand, it is entities that act, and every action is the action of an entity. The way entities act is caused by the specific nature (or “identity”) of those entities; if they were different they would act differently.
This touches upon Rothbard’s own axiom of “Humans act”. This variety of conservative is obsessed with action, with doing and achieving. In Rand’s view, mind and reality are separate to some extent which seems to relate to a more general focus on what separates, what makes “A is A” and what makes “B is B”. It’s why this type is so centrally focused on ownership. You can only own that which is somehow outside of the one who owns. Many of these people even speak of individuality in terms of self-ownership which is a truly bizarre concept. The self, like anything else, is just an object to be owned and to do with as one wishes (manipulated, used, destroyed, sold, etc). The self has no intrinsic value and so it’s only value is what it’s worth on the market.
I’d suggest that this attitude is based in Hartmann’s thick boundary type. Research shows that the person with a thicker boundary has a stronger sense of separation between themselves and others, between themselves and the world, between the present and the past, between fantasy and reality, between body and mind. It’s a fundamentally distinct way of viewing and being in the world. It would seem that Rand had an impressively strong sense of thick boundary.
Objectivist epistemology maintains that all knowledge is ultimately based on perception. “Percepts, not sensations, are the given, the self-evident.” Rand considered the validity of the senses to be axiomatic, and claimed that purported arguments to the contrary all commit the fallacy of the “stolen concept” by presupposing the validity of concepts that, in turn, presuppose the validity of the senses. She thought that perception, being physiologically determined, is incapable of error. So optical illusions, for example, are errors in the conceptual identification of what is seen, not errors in sight itself.
Reality is what reality is (A is A). You see what you get. And there is nothing else
According to Rand, attaining knowledge beyond what is given in perception requires both volition (or the exercise of free will) and adherence to a specific method of validation through observation, concept-formation, and the application of inductive and deductive logic. A belief in, say, dragons, however sincere, does not oblige reality to contain any dragons. For anything that cannot be directly observed, a process of “proof” identifying the basis in reality of the claimed item of knowledge is necessary in order to establish its truth.
Objectivism rejects both faith and “feeling” as sources of knowledge. Rand acknowledged the importance of emotion in human beings, but she maintained that emotions are a consequence of the conscious or subconscious ideas that a person already accepts, not a means of achieving awareness of reality. “Emotions are not tools of cognition.” Peikoff uses “emotionalism” as a synonym for irrationality.
Truth is nothing more than the combination of perceived reality (A is A) and pure rationality. This is a very self-contained attitude. Rand or Rothbard is presenting something that they consider to be self-evident for anyone willing to see the obvious (the axiomatic truth) and able to logically deduce the inevitable conclusion (from those axioms).
Integrating with this is Rand’s view that the primary focus of man’s free will is in the choice: to think or not to think. “Thinking is not an automatic function. In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality—or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.” According to Rand, therefore, possessing free will, human beings must choose their values: one does not automatically hold his own life as his ultimate value. Whether in fact a person’s actions promote and fulfill his own life or not is a question of fact, as it is with all other organisms, but whether a person will act in order to promote his well-being is up to him, not hard-wired into his physiology.
This is an extension of something along the lines of the axiom “humans act”. The idealizing of freedom and choosing seems to be a form of heroic existentialism as expressed with Sartre’s radical freedom (it’s because there is no inherent value that we are absolutely free). By acting, we define who we are and we claim self-ownership. The “undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism” is a passive experience that must be acted upon.
If [man] chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course. Reality confronts a man with a great many ‘must’s’, but all of them are conditional: the formula of realistic necessity is: ‘you must, if -‘ and the if stands for man’s choice: ‘if you want to achieve a certain goal’.
Reality is what reality is, but reality in and of itself is separate from and opposed to rational self-interest. Nature must be tamed by man in order for him to attain his self-imposed goal. Reality is a world of objects and before anything else the object of the self must be taken control of. The method of taking control is rationality and hence actively forcing order upon one’s experience.
What is most important in all of this is that everything from this perspective (whether objectivism or anarcho-capitalism) begins with the claim of self-evident axioms. This must be understood in it’s larger context. The more intelligent defenders of this position don’t claim that everything is limited to this axiomatic approach. Much of the hard sciences necessitate research that can lead to objective conclusions, but the social sciences are dismissed out of some generalized criticism of positivism. What this comes down to is that social scientists can’t come to absolute conclusions and therefore all social science is complete bunk. So, all psychology, all sociology, all anthropology, all Keynesian economics based on data about humans, all of it is meaningless. Humans can objectively study the physical world but humans can’t objectively study humans.
Mises Non-Trivial Insight
By Robert P. Murphy
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the economics of Ludwig von Mises is his insistence on the a priori approach. For Mises, economic “laws” must be logically deduced from antecedent axioms, so that—assuming the initial assumptions are true—the conclusions reached are just as valid as any result in Euclidean geometry.This stands in sharp contrast to the method of the positivists, a camp that includes most of today’s practicing economists. In their opinion, economics can only be “scientific” if it adopts the procedures used by the natural scientists. Roughly, the positivists feel that economists should form hypotheses with testable implications, and then collect data to measure the accuracy of their predictions. Those tendencies that enjoy the most success in this sense are then deemed to be better “laws” than conjectures that do not fit the data so well.
Against the mainstream’s impressive mathematical tools and vast budgets spent on data collection, the Misesians meekly insist that economics must start from the premise that humans act. This action axiom lies at the core of “praxeology,” Mises’ term for the science of human action. The Misesians argue that all of the true economic laws can be derived from this simple axiom (sometimes with additional assumptions about the world, such as the fact that labor is onerous).
I think the motivation in this is the desire to see humans as free agents that can’t be predicted and the fear that anyone who would want to predict humans would also want to control humans. That is the real issue and all of the rationalized argumentation is just window dressing. There is a comforting simplicity in this plea for axiomatic truths and logical conclusions. It’s not unlike the theologians desire to understand the perfection of God through the perfection of rationality bestowed upon man by that very same God. It’s a desire for the world to just make sense. The social scientists gather immense data and portray a complex world. The social scientists are experts who debate issues the common man can’t understand. It’s understandable that anti-intellectualism can be an attractive alternative in response to these experts in control of our fates. When politicians call upon experts, how can we know what they discuss behind closed doors? Why should we trust these experts who live their comfortable lives in their ivory towers?
There really is no way to argue against this mistrust. It’s not unusual for this mistrust to be, especially during social turmoil and economic hard times, to turn into paranoid suspicion. It’s ultimate a sense of fear about what is beyond the individual. We do face many complex issues that have resulted from industrialization and globalization. It’s just a fact that we no longer live in a time when a single person can understand everything and can do everything for himself. It’s tempting to idealize the Jeffersonian libertarianism of a pre-industrial age or to idealize the simple unregulated capitalism when industrialization was barely taking hold. Once upon a time, Americans were innocently naive about environmental destruction, about pollution-related diseases, about the degradation of urbanization. The first century or so of American history seems almost utopian in hindsight. Why couldn’t that have continued? It would be nice to believe that capitalism, if left to its own devices, would’ve brought nothing but good. Why did the government have to ruin everything?
These people may profess rationality, but human motivation ultimately is non-rational. George Lakoff makes a good argument for this in his book Moral Politics. All logic about political views comes down to rationalization. Lakoff argues that we begin with metaphors by which we frame our experiences and try to understand them, but in doing so we filter all of reality through this frame (or, as Robert Anton Wilson say it, through our “reality tunnel”). This framing is prior to our verbalization of it. This is further supported by the psychological research (yes, the social science that is dismissed by Mises and Rothbard). Studies show that humans are born with or else develop early on certain psychological traits, but you don’t have to trust the experts. Go to a hospital nursery or a playground where children are playing and you will observe for yourself the distinctive personalities.
The only reason that the anarcho-capitalists and similar types can dismiss this science is because they’re ignorant of the scientific process. It really can’t be called anything other than anti-intellectualism. I don’t even know what they mean by positivism. They dismiss all social science based on the claim that it is positivist which is odd considering that there are anti-positivist social scientists such as Max Weber. Anyways, I don’t see how the world would be improved if we were able to somehow get rid of all social science and get rid of all the experts. So much of our society is built on social science. There is no aspect of capitalism or politics that isn’t informed by social science. Social science is the basis of all advertising and PR. Social science is used for product design and architecture. Social science is used in military training and military strategy. Social science helps city planners design efficient roadways and helps utility companies determine the patterns of customer behavior.
There is this strange notion that social science is about abstract data disconnected from the practical world. If social science can be used to control people as some fear, that only proves how effective it is in a practical sense. The arguments against social science are distractions from the real moral issues. Those who don’t see themselves as experts fear those who sometimes act as experts. These people want self-control and self-ownership which is how they define freedom, but this ideal of freedom is itself an abstraction. These people can offer no real world examples of a society that operated according to their ideals.
There is a serious disconnection here between American populism and intellectualism, but there is no reason it has to be this way. The average person can only have a negative view of intellectuality if he wasn’t ever taught intellectuality in his own schooling. If every American was taught how to think intellectually and taught to value intellectuality, then intellectualism would become a populist value. Most people have the capacity for intellectual thought. Even if the average person doesn’t desire to dedicate their life to intellectuality, it would still be of value for all citizens to get an intellectual education. The only way to counter fear and suspicion is through knowledge.
7 thoughts on “Conservative Mistrust & Ideological Certainty (part 2)”
I was looking at reviews of a book. Some comments reminded me of this post from years ago.
It made me understand why Aristotle is so key to understanding this bizarre axiomatic thinking detached from a modern scientific mindset. Aristotle and his early followers can be forgiven, as they lived before modern science. But those like Ayn Rand have no excuse.
Below the two reviews are some other stuff that I was looking at.
“Aristotle inherited and accepted the Platonic view that mathematics, and geometry in particular, is the archetypal science–which led him to some unfortunate views, such as that ethics, lacking mathematical precision, cannot arrive at certain truths.”
“Rubenstein states that all objective knowledge today in the “hard” sciences, as opposed to subjective knowledge, rest on an appeal to reason. He should have said “rests on experimental evidence”. This is why Bacon and Hobbes came down so hard on Aristotle and scholasticism. The experimental method is the great advance, not the discovery and Latin translation of Aristotle, which simpley enabled the theologians to expand their groundless rationalizations into new areas. Michael Foucault once remarked that the medieval mind considered a book to be of equal authority as observations of nature. It was learning to look to nature rather than a book that made the scientific revolution.”
“Aristotle was not a mathematician of any sort or an experimentalist of any sort; that is, he was not in any way a scientist. His system was subject to sophisticated extension by the Alexandrian Greeks (notably Ptolemy used it to create a mathematical system for astronomy) and the Scholastics. For them, mathematics meant Euclidean geometry, and the Scholastics had only parts of it: they did not have the means to do quantitative analysis of any sophistication. No experiments were performed. There are many books published about Greek “science,” Islamic “science,” Medieval “science”; they’re all talking about Aristotle’s “physics” (the only relation with modern physics is the word), which contained no mathematics, no experiments and virtually no observations (although Aristotle extolled the virtues of observation in his methodology, he did not practice what he preached, and neither did his followers).
“What Kepler and Galileo brought to the table was a taste for precision in measurement and the willingness to move straight from measurement to mathematical manipulation without taking an unnecessary detour through Aristotelian philosophy (or any philosophy).”