Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Plato: The Wise Man Who Knew Nothing

Plato knew rightly that he knew nothing and that is why he has, over the ages, proven to be the originator of many philosophies of nothingness. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Why Postmodernism Managed to Defeat Enlightenment?

In his book, Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen Hicks says that Postmodernism was able to defeat the Enlightenment project by taking advantage of the weaknesses that are there in the Enlightenment’s account of reason. Here's an excerpt:

”Postmodernism emerged as a social force among intellectuals because in the humanities the Counter-Enlightenment defeated the Enlightenment. The weakness of the Enlightenment account of reason was its fatal flaw. Postmodernism’s extreme skepticism, subjectivism, and relativism are the results of a two-centuries-long epistemological battle. That battle is the story of pro-reason intellectuals trying to defend realist accounts of perception, concepts, logic, but gradually giving ground and abandoning the field while the anti-reason intellectuals advanced in the sophistication of their arguments and developed increasingly non-rational alternatives. Postmodernism is the end result of the Counter-Enlightenment attack on reason.”

Friday, May 27, 2016

Book Review: A Companion to Ayn Rand

A Companion to Ayn Rand
Edited by Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri

Ayn Rand’s novels are full of nuance. There, in the entertaining and intense landscape of her fiction, her philosophical ideas are superbly communicated through a cast of characters who are larger than life and yet so lifelike. But Rand tends to introduce important ideas in the most unexpected places. A first-time reader, or even a repeat reader, faces the risk of missing many of her ideas and perspectives.

Scholarly studies of Rand’s works can play a critical role in facilitating a deeper understanding of her fiction and non-fiction. The recently published A Companion to Ayn Rand, an exhaustive study of Rand’s entire corpus, is targeted at the readers who are grappling with her powerful literature and unique philosophy. The volume takes a systematic approach in dealing with her novels, essays, cultural commentary, and several aspects of her life—it covers all the essentials in a condensed presentation of 544 pages.

A Companion to Ayn Rand is divided into six parts and it has 18 chapters, including the coda. The chapters are written in such a way that they can be read independently—you may, if you feel so inclined, dive directly into the chapter of your choice.

The contributors to the volume are: Harry Binswanger; Tore Boeckmann; Onkar Ghate; Allan Gotthelf; Lester H. Hunt; John David Lewis; James G. Lennox; Shoshana Milgram; Fred D. Miller, Jr.; Adam Mossoff; Jason G. Rheins; Gregory Salmieri; Tara Smith; and Darryl Wright. Here I can merely provide a brief account of all the chapters to give potential readers the general flavor of the book’s contents and arguments.

In the introduction, Gregory Salmieri explains that the “aim of the book is to facilitate the study of Rand’s works and thought by identifying Rand’s key theses and methods and her reasons for them, by tracing the role that these theses and methods play in her thought, by showing the evidence in her texts for all of our interpretive conclusions, and by drawing illuminating comparisons between Rand and other thinkers.”

The biographical sketch of Ayn Rand, by Shoshana Milgram, follows the introduction. In its coverage of the major turning points in Ayn Rand’s life, this chapter provides a clear view of the conscious choices that she made in her life to enable her to evolve into the artist and the philosopher who could write the thought-provoking fiction and non-fiction that many readers would want to reread many times.

In the chapter, “The Act of Valuing,” Salmieri’s focus is on explaining how the idea of valuing is central to the character of the heroes in Ayn Rand’s novels. He writes: “More than any other feature, what distinguishes Rand’s heroes is that they are valuers on a grand scale, and central to her own intellectual development was sustained reflection on what it is to value and on the alternative between valuing and its absence.”

Allan Gotthelf, in the chapter, “The Morality of Life,” deals with the new concept of morality that Rand has proposed in her works. The chapter expounds Rand’s views on why human beings need values and it goes on to explore her idea that man’s life is the standard of value. Gotthelf writes: “The term “hero” designates the exceptional, but this need not be a statistical exception. A rational ideal is the exceptional as measured against all other possibilities taken together. But Rand thinks that, as a rational ideal, her vision of moral greatness is open to everyone.”

The next chapter, “A Being of Self-Made Soul,” Onkar Ghate has dealt with Ayn Rand’s views on how the actions, character and happiness of any individual are shaped by the ideas, goals, and motives that he holds. He writes: “Thus for Rand man is a being of self-made soul in two senses. By his specific choices, man necessarily creates the kind of person he becomes: the basic premises and values that move him. And man’s faculty of volition gives him the power to (re)shape his soul in the image of his moral ideal — a process which any individual concerned with his own self-preservation and happiness should strive to undertake.”

In the chapter, “Egoism and Altruism: Selfishness and Sacrifice,” Gregory Salmieri deals with Ayn Rand’s defense of ethical egoism and rejection of altruism. Salmieri explains the reasons for which Rand insisted on describing the moral life as selfish, even though most people have a bad feeling about selfishness. He writes: “Structurally, Rand’s stance here is like that of other thinkers who seek to reform language that they think reflects and reinforces widespread prejudices.”

On the subject of the seemingly monstrous kind of selfishness that the protagonists in Rand’s two major novels seem to display, Salmieri has this to say: “Rand does not only ask us to recognize the selfishness of actions we already admire, she pushes us to reconsider our views of what is admirable. Central to the plots of her two major novels are actions taken by the heroes that, by conventional standards, are not merely selfish, but monstrously so. Roark demolishes a housing project — “the home of the destitute” —  rather than let it stand as a deformed version of one of his designs. And Galt abandons a whole continent to chaos and mass starvation. The plots of each novel is carefully constructed to create a situation in which she thinks an action so dramatically contrary to conventional morality is right and in which she can convey its rightness to readers. In this way the novels function as complex counterexamples to the conventional altruistic morality.”

Ayn Rand rejected the idea that man is a social being, because she believed that a man’s personal choices lead to the development of his ideas and values. In A Human Society: Rand’s Social Philosophy Darryl Wright has dealt with Rand’s social philosophy. He points out that Rand was of the view that “the only possible path to human good in a social context is through independent thought, productive achievement, and trade.”

Fred D. Miller, Jr. and Adam Mossoff have authored the chapter, “Political Theory: A Radical for Capitalism.” Here the authors deal with various aspects of Rand’s political theory—they explain why she believed that a government is necessary for ensuring the voluntary cooperation of rational individuals in a free society. They point out that Rand does not assume that we need government because men are driven by irrational passions or are incurably immoral. They write: “Rand not only rejects the pessimistic view of human nature, but she also maintains that, even if all men “were fully rational and faultlessly moral,” they would still require government.”

Tara Smith, in the chapter, “Objective Law,” deals with Rand’s ideas on legal theory. “Ayn Rand agrees that the Rule of Law is imperative. Indeed, a recurring theme in her discussions of political relations is the evil of some men ruling others by physical force. The only way to avoid this, she believes, is through objective law, and her understanding of that, I think, sheds light on the value of the Rule of Law.” The discussion on Rand’s condemnation of non-objective law, in areas such as obscenity law and antitrust, is particularly interesting.

Onkar Ghate deals with Rand’s philosophical perspective on capitalism, in the chapter, “A Free Mind and a Free Market Are Corollaries.” He begins his chapter with a quote from the first paragraph of Rand’s introduction to her book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal: “This book is not a treatise on economics. It is a collection of essays on the moral aspects of capitalism.” Ghate points out that Rand believed that a book like Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal is vital because capitalism was perishing from a lack of a moral base, and that the alleged defenders of capitalism have accepted the basic philosophical tenets of the mystic-altruist-collectivist axis.

Ghate also discusses Rand’s views on economists like Henry Hazlitt, Ludwig Von Mises, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. She recommended some ideas of Hazlitt and Von Mises, but she also cautioned that her recommendations not be taken as an unqualified endorsement of their total intellectual positions. Her judgement of Friedman and Hayek was much harsher. On Friedman, she said: “He is not for capitalism; he’s a miserable eclectic. He’s an enemy of Objectivism, and his objection is that I bring morality into economics, which he thinks should be amoral.”

Jason G. Rheins, in his essay, “Objectivist Metaphysics,” deals with Rand’s views on the key questions of metaphysics and the answers to these questions. In Philosophy: Who Needs It, Rand has described the “province of metaphysics,” as the “study of existence as such.” Rheins explains that the view of existence that Rand has endorsed is the one of “primacy of existence,” which is “a fundamental claim about the relationship between the world, which is identified as mind-independent, and the mind, which is awareness of the world.”

Ayn Rand’s theory of knowledge is covered in Salmieri’s essay, “The Objectivist Epistemology.” Salmieri’s stated aim is to make Rand’s book, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, accessible to the readers. He points out that Rand has credited “Aristotelian epistemology for such achievements as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the Founding of the United States.” He examines Rand’s affinity with the Enlightenment ideas and her view that the Enlightenment was undermined by philosophical failings.

James G. Lennox, in the chapter, “Who sets the Tone for a Culture?” deals with Rand’s approach to the history of philosophy. The chapter is divided into three broad sections—in the first section, Lennox talks about the approach that Rand has taken in her exploration of the history of philosophy; in the second, he dwells on the distinct conclusions that she derives from her study of the history of philosophy; in the third section, he presents her ideas on the critical role that Aristotle and Kant have played in the history of philosophy.

There is no dearth of commentators who seem to have ample reasons for associating the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche with the literature and philosophy of Ayn Rand. Lester H Hunt clears the misconceptions, about the relationship between Rand’s ideas and those of Nietzsche, in the chapter, “Ayn Rand’s Evolving View of Friedrich Nietzsche.”

Ayn Rand was a prolific writer on political and cultural issues. Between the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957 and the end of her life in 1982, she wrote hundreds of articles and gave many talks. This commentary from Ayn Rand is discussed in the chapter, “A Philosopher on Her Times: Ayn Rand’s Political and Cultural Commentary,” which is written by John David Lewis and Gregory Salmieri. The descriptions of Rand’s views on the political figures like Goldwater, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and a few others is quite enlightening.

The section on Art has two chapters: The first is “The Objectivist Ethics” by Harry Binswanger and the second is “Rand’s Literary Romanticism” by Tore Boeckmann. The Romantic Manifesto, Rand’s main work on aesthetics, comes in for a detailed examination in Binswanger’s chapter, which also deals with the aesthetics-related ideas that Rand has proposed in her other works. The chapter by Tore Boeckmann gives an overview of the romanticism in Ayn Rand’s novels. Boeckmann has also dealt with her views on the classicist and naturalist schools of art.

The book closes with a brief “coda,” in which Allan Gottehelf and Gregory Salmieri present their insights on Rand’s benevolent universe premise and her heroic view of man.

A Companion to Ayn Rand lets the reader get a deeper insight into Rand’s philosophical ideas and her methods. Ayn Rand was a controversial and understudied thinker with an expansive body of work, and the Companion therefore is a rare triumph for a scholarly study.

Paul Krugman's Economics at Work: The Kid - Charlie Chaplin

Aristotle’s 2,400-Year-Old Tomb Discovered in Greece

Greek archaeologists at Ancient Stagira, Central Macedonia, say they have found Aristotle’s tomb. Addressing the Aristotle 2400 Years World Congress, they point to the 2,400-year-old tomb as the most important finding from the 20-year excavation.

The discovery of the tomb of Aristotle was announced by archaeologist Kostas Sismanidis, according to whom the findings from the 1996 excavation lead to the conclusion that the tomb belongs to Aristotle.

Although the evidence of whose tomb it was is circumstantial, several characteristics — its location and panoramic view; its positioning at the center of a square marble floor; and the time of its construction, estimated to be at the very beginning of the Hellenistic period, which started after the death of Aristotle’s most famous student, Alexander the Great, in 323 B.C. — “all lead to the conclusion that the remains of the arched structure are part of what was once the tomb-shrine of Aristotle,” Mr. Sismanidis said.

Read more on NYT & Daily Mail 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ayn Rand on Milton Friedman

“He is not for capitalism; he’s a miserable eclectic. He’s an enemy of Objectivism, and his objection is that I bring morality into economics, which he thinks should be amoral.” ~ Ayn Rand speaking on the TV show "Free to Choose" in 1980

(Source: A Companion to Ayn Rand; Chapter: 'A Free Mind and a Free Market are Corollaries' by Onkar Ghate)

J.K. Rowling Criticizes Trump, but Defends His Freedom of Speech

"I find almost everything that Mr. Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted. But he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there. His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot. His freedom guarantees mine. Unless we take that absolute position without caveats or apologies, we have set foot upon a road with only one destination. If my offended feelings can justify a travel ban on Donald Trump, I have no moral ground on which to argue that those offended by feminism or the fight for transgender rights or universal suffrage should not oppress campaigners for those causes. If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on them grounds that they have offended you have crossed the line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison, torture and kill on exactly the same justification." ~ J K Rowling

Monday, May 23, 2016

On Private Racism

In a civilized society “private racism” must never be illegal.

If people want to dislike people of certain religion, certain geographies, certain skin colour, etc., they must be free to do so. As long as people are not taking law into their own hands--as long as they are not violating the "individual rights" of those others who are different from them, they are not committing any "crime." In a civilized society people should have the right to “hate”.

Hatred for racist reasons can be illogical, immoral and perhaps even stupid, but it is not a crime to feel hate. Government has no right to prosecute private people or businesses that are racist, as long as they are not taking steps to violate the rights of people of other races. Individuals and businesses have the right to decide with whom they want to associate or do business.

The onus of dealing with instances of "private racism" must rest on the enlightened members of the society. They can boycott and socially ostracise the individuals and businesses that are racist; they can start a debate within the community to create more awareness against racism. However, the government can't get directly involved in dealing with such issues unless a crime gets reported.

On this issue, there are some interesting ideas in Greg Salmieri's 'A Companion to Ayn Rand'. Here is an excerpt from the book:

“Private racism,” Rand wrote, “is not a legal, but a moral issue — and can be fought only by private means, such as economic boycott or social ostracism”. Just as the law must protect a communist’s freedom of speech, she argued, it must protect a racist’s right to the use and disposal of his property. ~ (A Companion to Ayn Rand; Chapter: A Philosopher on Her Times)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz Praised Hugo Chavez’s Economic Policies

In his blog, Don Boudreaux reveals that in 2007 Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz predicted that Hugo Chavez’s brand of socialism in Venezuela would succeed. Here are two lines from the statements that Joseph Stiglitz made during his trip to Caracas in 2007:

"Venezuela's economic growth has been very impressive in the last few years." 

"Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears to have had success in bringing health and education to the people in the poor neighborhoods of Caracas, to those who previously saw few benefits of the countries oil wealth." 

The Nobel Prize for economics has zero credibility. This award usually goes to leftist economists who tend to support some of the world's worst dictatorships. I think it is right to regard every Nobel laureate as a potential leftist propagandist and an outright idiot unless it gets proven otherwise.

What is the qualification of the judges who select the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics? What do the judges know about economics or international politics? What is their experience? Are they biased towards a leftist worldview?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Ockham Chooses A Razor

On J H Randall’s ‘Aristotle’

Finally I purchased J H Randall’s book on ‘Aristotle.’ Ayn Rand has written a review of Randall’s book, so I had been planning to buy it for some time.

The book is out of print, so I had to order an old copy through Amazon. It arrived few hours ago and I am surprised to see that it is in a good shape. In fact, it appears brand new. It seems that the person who owned it before me, never opened it. The book is clean—not a single page is folded, not a single line is marked, there are no notes on the margins, and the binding and the cover are perfect.

This is my 11th book related to Aristotle. I just read few of the early pages and the impression that I am getting is that Randall has used a very clear language to describe Aristotle’s life and ideas.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

On The Uncivil Totalitarian Ideas Of ‘The Civil Society’

Children of Road Workers
Arundhati Roy, a Civil Society socialite, has written an article in which the phrase ‘Gandhians with guns’ is used in context of the Naxalites. She uses the term ‘Gandhians’ for them despite the fact that thousands of Indians have lost their lives in Naxalite related violence during the last 20 years. The Naxalites are responsible not only for the wanton destruction of life and property, but also for hindering development activity in the areas that they control.

The Civil Society pulpit, from which the likes of Arundhati Roy pontificate, is like an Orwellian Animal Farm, where everyone is supposedly equal but the totalitarian left is more equal than the others. The Civil Society intellectuals claim that they want people to live in peace and harmony, yet they provide intellectual, moral and political support to the Naxalite groups, whose political goal is to establish a Maoist-style communist dictatorship in the country.

The paradox about Civil Society intellectuals is that their ideas have seldom helped the marginalized people on whose behalf they claim to be working:

1) Civil Society activists claim that they provide financial support to needy people, but many of these activists are guilty of financial improprieties. Teesta Setalvad, who is often described as a Civil Society member, has allegedly misused the funds that her nongovernmental organization (NGO) collected for providing relief to the Gujarat riot victims. Another high-profile NGO, Greenpeace India, has been accused by the government of violating the rules of foreign funding and withholding information on transactions.

2) Civil Society activists claim that their ideas are based on scientific evidence, but they use pseudoscientific agitprop to oppose genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist, leads several NGOs that are engaged in protesting against GMOs like Bt cotton, although Bt cotton is resistant to bollworm and leads to a dramatically increased cotton yield. Many developed countries have been using Bt cotton for decades without any adverse effect. But Vandana Shiva claims that growing Bt cotton in India will lead to genocide. Due to her efforts, Indian farmers were banned from using Bt cotton seeds for many years.

3) Civil Society activists claim that they favor development, but they try to scuttle every major infrastructure project. Megha Patekar, the star Civll Society activist, is chief of the NGO called Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which is famous for organizing vitriolic campaigns against the Sardar Sarovar Dam project. Started in 1979 with the idea of increasing water availability to drought-prone areas, improving irrigation and producing hydroelectricity for millions of people, the Sardar Sarovar Dam project continues to be held up. Arundhati Roy was associated with the NBA in the past. She has written several emotional articles, which make use of distorted data, to show that the Sardar Sarovar Dam is bad for the environment and the people.

4) Civil Society activists claim that they are the liberal voice of India. They claim to represent the interests of the poor. However, you will never find landless laborers or displaced people participating in Civil Society deliberations. Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi says that some of the NGOs are working for the Naxalites and spreading intellectual pollution in the country. He accuses the NGOs of showing no concern for the village poor in whose name they collect millions in donations.

An important aspect of the rise of Civil Society activism in India is the proliferation of NGOs. According to a survey done by the Central Bureau of Investigation, India has around 3.1 million NGOs, which means that there is one NGO for every 600 Indians. The number of NGOs in the country is many times the number of primary schools and primary health centers. NGO leaders are part of the Civil Society bandwagon, which also includes human rights activists, academics, high-profile journalists, celebrities and representatives of left-leaning think tanks.

The Civil Society is a coalition of the totalitarian left. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many leftist intellectuals realized that communism was now thoroughly discredited and a communist regime may never come to power in most countries. To retain their grip on power, the communists developed the idea of the Civil Society. They claimed that it would serve as the public space between the state, the market and the ordinary household, in which people could debate and develop ideas for action.

The Civil Society is a collectivist concept. Its sole purpose is to transfer power from individuals and businessmen to intellectuals and certain leftist groups. Civil Society intellectuals have no direct stake in the government or the markets, so they can’t be blamed when the implementation of their ideas results in devastating consequences for millions of people. These intellectuals enjoy power without responsibility.

If you are in favor of modernity, urbanization, better law and order, industrial development and free markets, the elites of the Civil Society will dub you barbarian, despotic and premodern. They believe that they are smarter than others. They believe that their left-wing ideology makes them equipped to reach the truth. Even though they are far less rational than the average man on the street, they have a high opinion of their intellectualism.

The leftist intellectuals who have branded themselves as the Civil Society dwell in a make-believe world. They portray themselves as well meaning idealists, but in reality they are the agents of irrationalism, totalitarianism, disinformation, poverty, hopelessness and violence. The flaws in their ideas do not get exposed because powerful interests in the mainstream media and academia are part of the Civil Society setup. But now there are indications that the Civil Society’s monopoly on intellectual discourse in the country may be ending.

With the rise of social media platforms and web-based publishing, India’s intellectual center of gravity is shifting away from the mainstream media and academia. On the Internet, there is now a lot of support for free markets and industrial development. Many Indians have now begun to understand that millions of people in the country will remain trapped in poverty if we do not reject Civil Society intellectuals, whose bread and butter comes from propagating false ideas, opposing development and supporting terror groups such as the Naxalites.

Margret Thatcher on Crisis of Socialism

"What we face today is not a crisis of capitalism, but of Socialism. No country can flourish if its economic and social life is dominated by nationalisation and state control. The cause of our shortcomings does not therefore lie in private enterprise. Our problem is not that we have too little socialism. It is that we have too much."

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Onkar Ghate on Ayn Rand's Fiction

Recently there was short piece in FEE from Sarah Skwire in which Ayn Rand's novels were criticized as didactic sermonizing. Skwire called Rand's novels “moralizing fiction” or “message fiction." She also said that the primary function of this type of fiction is to instruct the reader rather than to entertain.

In reference to Rand's novels, Skwire wrote: "It is a conference talk, a classroom lecture, a sermon disguised as a novel."

In response to Skwire’s piece, Onkar Ghate has written an excellent article, which explains why it is wrong to classify Rand’s novel as didactic. His article concludes with these lines:

Now one might still object that a fiction writer should not invent stories in which the discovery of new philosophical ideas is integral to the action. But to this I think the appropriate response is: why not? The objection reminds me of the esthetic opposition Roark faces in The Fountainhead. In real-life terms, it is rather like telling Beethoven that since the classical symphonic form was good enough for a genius like Mozart, it should be good enough for him. Beethoven could not express what he wanted to express in the classical form, so he invented new forms. Similarly, Rand has a very definite purpose as a fiction writer: to present a new conception of the ideal man. She offers it to us in the form of the character and actions of Howard Roark, John Galt, Dagny Taggart and the other heroes of her novels. To present what she wants to present, she cannot rely on the philosophical bromides or platitudes of the present or past, because in her estimate none of these produce the ideal. To make her new moral vision concrete and real, she invents a new kind of story, one in which the protagonist’s discovery of new philosophical knowledge drives his actions and the story’s conflicts. This is what makes Anthem, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged so unusual, and this is how we should approach these novels — not as didactic lessons to be endured but as unique stories worth enjoying and contemplating for their own sake.

Ghate's article is particularly illuminating as it provides many interesting insights into the nature of Ayn Rand's fiction. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Egalitarianism is evil

"Egalitarianism is evil, not because it puts us on a slippery slope toward the Khmer Rouge—it is evil because, in any dose, it amounts to waging war on human values: achievement, virtue, independence, intelligence, wealth, opportunity, everything that makes human life and happiness possible. The fact that egalitarianism does put us on a slippery slope toward mass carnage only makes matters worse."

~ Don Watkins and Yaron Brook in 'Equal is Unfair'

Friday, May 13, 2016

On Character of Cathy Ames in Steinbeck's 'East of Eden'

East of Eden’ is John Steinbeck’s most entertaining novel. It has lot of well-developed characters and drama in it. The most significant character in the novel is Cathy Ames, who is born in a good family, but for some mysterious reason, she develops the idea that there is only evil in the world, and by her own choice she becomes a serial-killer and a prostitute.

She commits her seemingly evil acts without any ultimate purpose in her mind. But she is a very plausible character. She is, I think, more believable than the novel's other major characters. In one scene, she declares, “She would rather be a dog than a human.” She symbolizes the ides that evil does exist in the world and it is possible for someone to be evil for the sake of being evil.

The people, who often try to look for an external cause to explain the criminal tendencies of any individual, are completely failing to understand the nature of the human mind. It is possible for an individual (or even a group of people with similar backgrounds) to be evil from the inside, like the murderess Cathy Ames. Being good requires a higher goal, but being evil doesn’t.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Proof of Philosophy's Power

Schwartz on The Perversion of Liberty

"Since the fundamental question of ethics is how to define the good, there is nothing outside of ethics which precludes the view that virtue is achievable by force. If, for example, the good is a world that heeds God's will and reflects God's presence, then it is virtuous to prevent — by force, if necessary — the distribution of pornography or the drinking of alcohol or the preaching of atheism. One cannot exhort people to have blind faith in a being beyond their comprehension, and then insist that freedom — which means the right to act on the judgment of the mind — is a prerequisite. A moral code that urges man to surrender his mind to a higher authority is irreconcilable with the principles that man ought to live his life by his own thinking. If unquestioning obedience is a virtue, freedom of thought and action cannot be a right.

"If prayer is a duty one is obliged to perform — if, that is, the act of praying in intrinsically good, without any demonstrable connection to one's knowledge or interests — why shouldn't one be compelled to go though the motions, if that is supposed to bring greater glory to God? How many "sinners" throughout history have been forced to "repent" — indeed, how many have been tortured and killed — in order to save their souls and to please God? Of what relevance is the victim's lack of consent, under this concept of the good?"

~ Peter Schwartz in "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty"

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

On Postmodernist Bullying: If You Don’t Like Kafka, You Are a Philistine

Google doodle on July 3, 2013
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.

~ These are the opening lines of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

On July 3, 2013, the 130th birthday of Franz Kafka, there was a Google doodle to celebrate Kafka’s book, The Metamorphosis. The doodle shows a man-sized cockroach stepping out of a door, clutching a briefcase in one of its six hands — maybe one of its six legs, which is what any cockroach would have.

The man-sized cockroach depicted in the Google doodle was inspired by Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of The Metamorphosis. The story opens with a scene that shows Samsa waking up one morning to find himself transformed into an insect. Kafka doesn't provide any reasons for the bizarre transformation. The whys and the hows are of no concern to Kafka.

In the first line of the story we are informed that Samsa is now a horrible insect and the next few lines describe his new insect body. Then the story hurtles onward to dwell on Samsa’s thoughts. Samsa frets about being late for work. He agonizes over the callous and unforgiving nature of his boss. He worries about losing his job and his life crumbling around him. Surely anyone who faced Samsa’s predicament would have much more to worry about.

Kafka’s abhorrence of capitalism is the reason behind Samsa's bizarre characterization. The accounts of many of Kafka’s contemporaries show that Kafka was a strident supporter of anarchism, libertarian socialism, and anarcho-syndicalism.

In The Metamorphosis, Kafka attempted to show that for a workingman it is impossible to get over the feelings of capitalist subservience. Even when someone is transformed into a cockroach, he will, like Samsa, prefer to fret about issues such as his job. Kafka blames capitalism for Samsa’s ordeal. He believed that capitalism turns people into vermin.

As the story progresses, Samsa becomes comfortable with his cockroach body. He begins to enjoy his insect-like skills, which allow him to scale walls and walk on the ceiling. But his family disowns him — his sister tells him that he has become a burden to them. His father hits him with, of all things, an apple. There is no allusion to the apple of knowledge in the primordial Garden of Eden; it seems that it is just an ordinary apple. Finally, Samsa crawls back to his room and willingly dies.

There is no logic, no artistic quality, and no moral in The Metamorphosis, and yet this story was enshrined in a Google doodle.

Kafka’s other stories are also built around anti-capitalist motifs and are quite absurd. The absurdity of Kafka reaches an entirely new level in his diaries, which consist of a series of random sentences that do not connect with each other. The diaries, which run to 450 pages, are completely meaningless. No one has ever found what Kafka wanted to convey through the random sentences that he jotted in those pages.

Here is an excerpt from a conversation that I recently had with a Kafka devotee:

“The diaries of Franz Kafka are really deep. They are beyond the powers of comprehension of ordinary people. You need a deep literary sense to read Kafka’s diaries.” 

“Were you able to make sense of Kafka’s diaries?” I asked. 

“It is not easy to discover the meaning of Kafka’s diaries. This is because there is a nuanced meaning in each line that he has written. You must spend hours contemplating every line that Kafka has written in order appreciate the depth of his thought.” 

“After hours of contemplation you managed to find the meaning?” I persisted. 

“You see, it is not for finding the meaning that you read Kafka’s diaries. You read Kafka because meanings are meaningless, life is absurd and truth does not exist. A sentence can have multiple meanings, some of which can be unknown even to the author.”

A literature whose leitmotif is to portray the idea that meanings are meaningless, life is absurd and truth does not exist is an absurdity, and it is surprising that Kafka devotees regard such literature as deep. They smugly state that they can’t find any meaning in Kafka’s dairies and accept that even Kafka may not have known what he was writing. Yet they like the diaries anyway. If you can’t find any meaning, then what are you liking?

Kafka’s works were published in the early part of the 20th century, but he became popular only in the post-World War II period. That’s when the philosophical movement known as existentialism arose, led by Heidegger, Sartre and Camus. Existentialists advocate nihilistic ideas. They believe that the world has no identity, consciousness is a kind of nothingness, and absurdity is the quintessence of the human condition. There is lot of common ground between Kafka and the existentialist writers, and it is believed that Camus was inspired by Kafka.

The reign of existentialism ended by the late 1960s, when this ideology became so discredited that leftists with a long record of being existentialists started rejecting that label. Instead, they began calling themselves postmodernists. Postmodernism was led by the likes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty and few others. With respect to literature, there is hardly any difference between the philosophy of the postmodernists and the existentialists.

In the era of postmodernism, which continues to this day, Kafka’s literature received unprecedented hype. This is because promoting skepticism and relativism in art and culture is a key goal for the postmodernists. They believe that the purpose of literature is to express ideas of nothingness, meaninglessness and ambiguity. They dismiss as naive realism, the idea that reality is independent of consciousness. They believe that reality is a conceptual construct and there is no such thing as truth. They reject reason and logic.

George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language, said: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” By hailing Kafka and his ilk as great writers, the postmodernists and the existentialists have corrupted language and they have corrupted thought. With thought corrupted, people can’t tell good political ideas from bad ones. That way it’s easier for intellectuals to get their political ideas accepted, even though the ideas are based on false premises.

The postmodernist agenda of destroying politics by corrupting literature has succeeded. It has created political confusion and made the rise of progressivism and leftism possible.

In Kafka’s literature (if you insist on calling it literature) there is no merit. The existentialists and the postmodernists are the main culprits behind Kafka’s literary fame. The absurdity that we find in his writing is an expression of the essential absurdity of existentialism and postmodernism.

This article was also published in Savvy Street with some changes.

Ayn Rand's Trader Principle

Sunday, May 8, 2016

George Reisman on how govt. interference destroys the moral fabric of business

"The government’s ability to violate freedom gives it the power to provide businessmen with subsidies and to damage their competitors. This creates corruption of a much worse character, one in which businessmen are led to offer bribes not to defend what is theirs by right, but as part of an act of depriving others of what belongs to those others by right. Few businessmen are moral philosophers, and those who may have begun their practice of bribing government officials in order simply to avoid harm to themselves cannot be counted upon always to keep in mind the distinction between an act of self-defense and an act of aggression, especially when they must operate increasingly in the conditions of a virtual jungle, in which competitors are prepared to use the government against them and in which large and growing numbers of other businessmen are all too willing to gain subsidies at their expense. The result is a powerful tendency toward the destruction of the whole moral fabric of business." ~ George Reisman in Capitalism

(Source: Capitalism by George Reisman; Chapter: Economics and Capitalism)

Saturday, May 7, 2016

On Rewriting of Reality by Marx, Freud and Einstein

Historian Paul Johnson, in his book, Modern Times, has lumped Marx, Freud and Einstein in the category people who through their theories tried to rewrite reality, and had a negative influence on people's thinking. Here is a quote from the book:

"Marx, Freud, Einstein all conveyed the same message to the 1920s: the world was not what it seemed. The senses, whose empirical perceptions shaped our ideas of time and distance, right and wrong, law and justice, and the nature of man's behaviour in society, were not to be trusted. Moreover, Marxist and Freudian analysis com­bined to undermine, in their different ways, the highly developed sense of personal responsibility, and of duty towards a settled and objectively true moral code, which was at the centre of nineteenth- century European civilization. The impression people derived from Einstein, of a universe in which all measurements of value were relative, served to confirm this vision - which both dismayed and exhilarated - of moral anarchy."

(Source: Modern Times, by Paul Johnson; Chapter: A Relativistic World)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Writing of Atlas Shrugged

The kind of focus that Ayn Rand would have needed for completing Atlas Shrugged is highlighted in this comment by Jack Portnoy, her cousin, in his interview with Scott McConnell

“At the time she was writing Atlas Shrugged, and she had some very eccentric things she used to do. She used to have a needle that she wrapped around her thumb and she would press her fingers with it, and actually bring up little spurts of blood. I kept saying, “What the devil are you doing that for?” She said that would keep her thoughts alive.”

(Source: '100 Voices: Oral History of Ayn Rand' by Scott McConnell; Chapter: 1940s)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Book Review: Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell

Intellectuals and Society
By Thomas Sowell
Basic Books

When things go wrong politicians face flak, even though the intellectuals exercise a much deeper influence on national and international affairs. In Intellectuals and Society, Sowell describes the different forms of the symbiotic relationship that exists between the intellectuals and the politicians. The intellectuals and politicians work together because their goals are closely aligned; they aim to increase the size of the government and take the decision-making powers away from private individuals and organizations.

The ideas proposed by the intellectuals get propagated by a wide array of journalists, artists, teachers, bloggers, politicians, judges, activists and other members of the intelligentsia. “The power of the intelligentsia is demonstrated not only by their ability to create a general climate of opinion that strikes fear into those who oppose their agenda but also by their ability to create a climate of opinion which richly rewards those political leaders whose decisions are consonant with the vision of the intelligentsia,” writes Sowell.

As the intellectuals deal in ideas, they are seldom blamed when the actual implementation of their ideas results in devastating consequences for millions of people. Sowell points out that we seldom apply to the intellectual class the exacting external standards by which we judge the ideas of the engineers, doctors, bankers and other professionals, who in their line of work deal with concrete things. The ideas of the intellectuals are evaluated on the basis of the merits or demerits that other intellectuals see in those ideas. Sowell says that the evaluation is non-empirical and illogical.

“The very terms of admiration or dismissal among intellectuals reflect the non-empirical criteria involved. Ideas that are 'complex,' 'exciting,' 'innovative,' 'nuanced,' or 'progressive' are admired, while other ideas are dismissed as 'simplistic,' 'outmoded,' or 'reactionary.'"

Sowell finds it difficult to think of any benefit that the intellectuals have conferred on anyone outside their own circles. In the final chapter, Sowell bluntly asks: “What have the intellectuals actually done for society—and at what cost?”

The problem with Intellectuals and Society is that it is a tirade against the liberal and progressive intellectuals—it does not inform the readers about what must be done to bring improvement in the intellectual environment. A tirade, howsoever justified, is not a solution. The entire book seems to project the idea that the intellectual class as a whole is completely worthless. But this is not true—the leftists and the progressives are not the only intellectuals.

There are in the world intellectuals with a better vision. John Locke’s political principles led to the founding of America. Ideas of intellectuals like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and many others also played a decisive role.

Sowell has made a tepid acknowledgement that not all intellectuals are bad and that intellectuals with differing visions exist in society. But this acknowledgement is a description of the existing state of affairs; it is not a blueprint for improving the intellectual environment. In the Part III of the book, Sowell explains his theory for dividing the modern intellectuals into two broad categories—those with 'Vision of the Anointed Elite,’ and those with the 'Constrained or Tragic Vision.'

Many contemporary intellectuals think of themselves as an anointed elite, or people with a mission to lead others in one way or other towards better lives. They think that only they have the insight and the knowledge to guide others in developing a better way of life. The second kind of vision that Sowell describes, the constrained, or the tragic vision, regards civilization as something that requires great and constant effort merely to be preserved. Those with the tragic vision believe that the world cannot be made a better place by merely changing the institutions, by compassion, or by commitment to leftist or progressive ideas.

The categorizing of intellectuals on the basis of different kinds of social visions is fine, but Sowell leaves far too many questions unanswered. For instance, he doesn't analyze what is the root cause of any type of intellectual vision.  Sowell writes: “When a story fits the vision, people in the media do not always find it necessary to check whether it also fits the facts.” But why do such intellectuals enjoy disproportionate influence on the media and on the consumers of the media?

Sowell does not say anything about the philosophy that forms the basis for the ideas that the intellectuals propagate. From the early 19th-century, vast majority of American intellectuals were the followers of European philosophy which was dominated by the ideas of the likes of Immanuel Kant and David Hume. John Dewey, who is rightly criticized by Sowell for propagating ideas that have led to disastrous consequences in education, was a follower of both Kant and Hume. Kant and Hume are philosophical godfathers of leftism, and also liberalism and progressivism.

The only major philosopher to merit a mention in Sowell’s book is David Hume—Hume’s name comes up in context of the role that he played in urging his fellow eighteenth-century Scots to master English. The book has no mention of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke—the three philosophers whose ideas have played a seminal role in the development of the Western civilization. Most of the contemporary intellectuals are anti-capitalism because they have rejected Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and John Locke, and accepted Kant and Hume.

Sowell is an intellectual—he is an intellectual with the right philosophical ideas. If his terminology for describing the intellectuals were to be applied to him, then he would be regarded as an intellectual with tragic or constrained vision. Why is he losing the argument against the intellectuals with the anointed vision? Why are the tragic vision intellectuals unable to find support for their social, economic and political ideas? Sowell has not answered these crucial questions.

Intellectuals and Society is full of quotable lines, as any book by Sowell is bound to be, and it presents lot of useful ideas in a clear and colourful language. But in my view there is very little scope for the book to make any improvement in the state of affairs, because it does not go beyond criticizing the leftist and liberal intellectuals. It does not offer any solutions. An intellectual renaissance can happen only when there is a revival of the philosophy of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke. But Sowell has not spoken about the importance of good philosophy. 

Why are Howard Roark’s rules his own?

In 'A Companion to Ayn Rand,' Greg Salmieri gives this view on why Howard Roark’s rules are his own:

“Roark’s rules are his own because of the relation in which they stand to the mental processes that he performs as an individual. This is true in two respects. First, though Roark was not the first to think of these rules, he did the thinking needed to understand them and the facts that give rise to them. Consequently, they stand in his mind as knowledge, rather than as edicts accepted on the authority of others; and, when he makes decisions by applying the rules, he is acting wholly on his own judgement. Second, whereas Keating proceeds by rote, Roark’s rules demand a great deal of original thought at each stage. He must first understand the relevant architectural problem by identifying the proposed building’s function and location and the nature of the available materials, then he must conceive some central idea as a specific solution to this problem, and then select every detail of the building in accordance with this central idea, thereby integrating the building into a harmonious whole.”

(Source: A Companion to Ayn Rand by Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri; Chapter: The Act of Valuing)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

On Human Achievement

"Human achievement is primarily intellectual, and it consists, not of creation ex nihilo, but of building on the achievements of others and taking them further. What a person adds through his own thought and and effort is his achievement."

~ Yaron Brook and Don Watkins in Equal is Unfair