Monday, December 3, 2018

Thinkers Must Confine Themselves to the Area of Their Expertise

Thomas Reid; Ayn Rand
Thomas Reid, in the final paragraph of An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, notes that all the thinkers who attempt to develop a theory of everything, end up creating work that is lacking in quality and significance. He gives the example of Galileo and Newton, who, he says, managed to create works of timeless importance because they confined themselves to the core area of their expertise. Here’s an excerpt:
If Galileo had attempted a complete system of natural philosophy, he had, probably, done little service to mankind: but by confining himself to what was within his comprehension, he laid the foundation of a system of knowledge, which rises by degrees, and does honour to the human understanding. Newton, building upon this foundation, and in like manner confining his inquiries to the law of gravitation and the properties of light, performed wonders. If he had attempted a great deal more, he had done a great deal less, and perhaps nothing at all. Ambitious of following such great examples, with unequal steps, alas! and unequal force, we have attempted an inquiry only into one little corner of the human mind; that corner which seems to be most exposed to vulgar observation, and to be most easily comprehended; and yet, if we have delineated it justly, it must be acknowledged that the accounts heretofore given of it were very lame, and wide of the truth. 
These lines from Reid’s Inquiry make me think of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. The reason there are so many inconsistencies and errors in her thought is that she is a philosopher of the “whole,” virtually everything. She conceived of objectivism in the late 1950s as a complete system for living on earth. But the quest for a complete system for living on earth is as delusional as the quest for Bigfoot, which can never be found because it doesn’t exist. No one in the history of humanity has ever created a complete system for living on earth, and no one ever will in the future. Philosophy will keep evolving as the knowledge of mankind evolves in other areas of activity.

In her eagerness to create a complete system for living on earth, Rand wrote and spoke on a range of topics. From Metaphysics to Epistemology, Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics; from Plato and Aristotle to Immanuel Kant and the Logical Positivists; from theory of mind and body to the theory of evolution; abortion, family life, education, sports, libertarianism, conservatism, foreign policy, race relations—in the Ayn Rand Lexicon, you can find a Rand quote on virtually everything. But in many cases, a small quote is all that we have from her on any particular subject, as she has not revealed the arguments on the basis of which she has developed her conclusions.

If instead of speaking on so many topics, she had focused on the core areas of her expertise, and given us the complete treatises on those areas, then she would have created a work of much more value under the banner of objectivism. I agree with Reid that thinkers must confine themselves to the area of their expertise if they want to leave behind a work of any value.

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