Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Vallicella on Rand
Caught the end of The Passion of Ayn Rand on TV last night, and awoke this morning to find the esteemed Bill Vallicella giving the old girl a philosophical thrashing. Take a look. I’m with Bill: Rand can be interesting, and she delivered some effective polemical blows against socialism and other idiocies, but as a philosopher she is an amateur in the worst sense of the term. (Here is an archived version of a 2005 post of mine on Rand from the old Conservative Philosopher group blog.)
Bill addresses some of Rand’s arguments concerning what she calls “the basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy: the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness.” He effectively exposes their muddleheadedness, or so it seems to me. I think there might be a little more to what she is saying than Bill gives her credit for, though not much. Neo-Scholastic philosophers sometimes distinguished between what they called the “philosophy of being” and the “philosophy of consciousness.” The former starts with a metaphysical account of reality in general and then deals with human nature, and the human mind in particular, only within that larger context. The latter reverses this order of inquiry, beginning with an account of the conscious human subject and working from it to an account of reality in general. The former is the approach of classical philosophy, of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. The latter is the approach of moderns like Descartes, the British empiricists, and Kant. The Neo-Scholastics defended Aristotelico-Thomism as the most adequate expression of a philosophy of being, and opposed it to the errors of the moderns’ philosophy of consciousness. Since Rand was an Aristotelian of sorts, I imagine that at least part of what she had in mind in drawing the distinction Bill cites is this clash between classical and modern approaches, and that she meant to ally herself with the former. More power to her as far as that goes. Still, as Bill shows, it is by no means clear that she really presented a strong case of her own for classical realism.
Bill also evaluates Rand’s argument to the effect that “to grasp the axiom that existence exists, means to grasp the fact that nature, i.e., the universe as a whole, cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or go out of existence.” He sees in this an inadvertent echo of modal Spinozism, and not implausibly. But to me it is even more reminiscent of the even more extreme metaphysics of Parmenides; at least, to start with “existence exists” and deduce from it claims about the impossibility of a thing either coming into being or going out of being seems little different from Parmenides’ procedure. Needless to say, this is not the sort of view Rand would have wanted to defend!