Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ayn Rand & Derek Parfit

A funny thing happened over at Leiter yesterday. There was a discussion about the Stanford Encyclopedia: someone emailed Leiter complaining about the worthlessness of the subject matter of some of the most recent articles, e.g. Ayn Rand. Leiter's correspondent thinks that Ayn Rand (in particular) is unworthy of inclusion in the Stanford Encyclopedia, and wonders what the SEP is coming to.

So anyway, this person Tibor Machan chimes in to this discussion, and says,

I have been impressed and influenced by Rand and have done reasonably well in the discipline and find the effort to purge her disgusting--how many thinkers I might purge if I just went by me gut reactions, like that commentator appears to have done! (Habermas, Derrida, Lyotard (?), Parfit, and a whole bunch of funsterists/sophists posing as serious philosophers. Give me a break. Let a million flowers bloom and ignore the snooty bunch!

The funny thing is, I kind of agree with this, overall. I side with the commenters who think the SEP ought to cast its net widely, in case I ever need a quick, accurate overview of otherwise worthless "philosophical" set of ideas. But then there's this weird inclusion of Derek Parfit, whom I did not realize had much in common with Habermas, Derrida, or Lyotard. Hmmmm.

It didn't take long for an anonymous commentator to come to Parfit's defense:

Judging by his comment above, Tibor Machan appears to think that Ayn Rand is vastly superior to a number of other philosophers, including - of all people - Derek Parfit. At the very least, he suggests that the case for excluding Rand from the SEP is *on par* with the case for excluding the work of Parfit (!).

This is not the place to discuss the merits of Professor Parfit's writings. I will simply note that Machan's assessment of the relative merits of Parfit's work and Ayn Rand's work is surely the the most bizarre and preposterous claim that has ever been made on this blog.


So Tibor Machan replies:

So I read that "Machan's assessment of the relative merits of Parfit's work and Ayn Rand's work is surely the the most bizarre and preposterous claim that has ever been made on this blog." We are to take this on faith, I assume. Well, I have studied Parfit's work--Reasons and Persons, in particular--and it is pure funsterism, sophistry: Because something is logically not inconceivable (that, say, we are all nations or teams, not individuals), it becomes a serious philosophical thesis. Give me a break. Just because someone is clever it doesn't make him or her philosophically astute! (At least is looks match his style!)

I don't know about you, but I found this exchange to be extremely fun. Say what you want, Atlas Shrugged is not philosophically on a par with Reasons and Persons. And if the main, representative thesis you took away from R&P is that "Because something is logically not inconceivable..., it becomes a serious philosophical thesis," then you were not "studying" it (as Mark Silcox points out in a later comment). And luckily for us all, Ayn Rand and her writing style are extremely sexually attractive. Also, what is funsterism? I googled it, but Google thought I was spelling it wrong.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Yeah, Machan just embarrassed himself. I wonder what purpose he thought those comments -- esp the second one -- would serve.

Verification word: "ouching"!

Anonymous said...

I'm more or less with you, Zero, in that I kinda sorta agree that casting a wider net is the way to go. I'm pretty sure that SEP letting some yahoo write an entry for Sir Denial of Antecedent, the shittiest philosopher of the latter half of the middle of the third decade of 16th century Outer-Upper-Surry, won't somehow make the entry on David Lewis shorter or less informative, I suppose I'm having a hard time synchronizing my tolerance meter to that of SEP. Am I mistaken in thinking that SEP, at least recently, seems to aim at nothing more than being a higher-end version of Philosophy Wikipedia allowing entries on any and everything remotely related to the field of philosophy however, wherever, and whenever it may be practiced? Just because the informational space exists doesn't mean that it must be filled.

Regardless of my misgivings, here is one minor downside to SEP promiscuity. Writing an SEP entry itself seems less and less something to be proud of let alone something to brag about now that jolly ol' shitheel Ayn Rand has her jackass apologists writing SEP entries, which in virtue of the malarkey she spewed can't help but be either mercifully short or laughable bunkum.

I can't wait to see what comes next. An entry on The Secret? Philosophy of the Simpsons? Deepak Chopra? This crazy dude, Parfit, and his wacko argument against Simple Aggregation?

Sort of like finding out that the super cool bar you know and love has started holding Coprophilia Club meetings in the back. They never bother you, you hardly ever see them (if at all), and you certainly don't go looking for them, but still, the simple fact that they are there kinda makes the bar not so super cool anymore (or, I suppose, even more super extra awesome for those who enjoy eating shit).

Of course, all the other bars suck.

Anonymous said...

Re: "funsterism" -- yeah, well if I were going to write an obnoxious, shoot-from-the-hip comment like Machan's, I'd take shelter in vague neologisms, too.

To relate this discussion to the job market: I went on the market two years ago. As a graduate student, I was used to people telling me that I was pretty good, that my dissertation was coming along well -- all of that. As a job seeker, the most common experience was rejection -- not getting these interviews, not getting that flyout, people telling me they couldn't see why my project was important, interviewers falling asleep on me, etc. Not such a pleasant transition. When I was at my lowest point, though, my advisor told me something that made me feel better -- that no matter who you are, no matter how deep or insightful or original you are, some people are going to think you suck, so get used to it. Machan's comment is the best proof of that I've seen so far.

Anonymous said...

Random thoughts on the topic:

1)Funsterism sounds kind of awesome to me. I think I am going to add it to my AOS.

2) Apart from from their all being born "on the continent," (and apart from Habermas's potentially ill-conceived attempts to make his theories speak to those with interests in "postmodernism") I would think that Derrida and Lyotard have less in common, philosophically, with Habermas than does Parfit.

3) The SEP entry on Rand seems like a reasonably good idea to me (big caveat though--I haven't read it, and don't want to. This point is off if it is in fact just propaganda) because A) like it or not, she is a big deal and a lot of simps are interested in her views so B) why not have a clear exposition of her views available, as opposed to all the Randian propaganda out there on the interwebs?

Anonymous said...

I think it would be very interesting to find out how many very good philosophers got interested in philosophy by reading Ayn Rand. Hard to get them to admit to it, though.

Anonymous said...

When I think Funsterism, for some reason, in philosophy, I think of the philosopher as prankster, as practical joker. In this vein, the name Zizek comes much more readily to mind than Parfit.

I have to disagree with Anon. 6:50 though about supposed SEP "promiscuity."

This writer clearly has no time for comparative philosophy or the history of philosophy, presumably because they aren't part of his or her field (you're an M&E guy, amirite?), but it seems to me that the SEP's attempt to provide thorough coverage in these areas is admirable.

I think it is only once the QUALITY of any such articles (or articles on contemporary themes) start to go downhill that we need to worry. But I don't see any signs of this happening, and this commentator's notion that the SEP aims at "nothing more than being a higher-end version of Philosophy Wikipedia" is nearly as absurd as Machan's original comment about Parfit.

I can only assume that the writer is deliberately trying to be provocative. Consider me provoked.

Verification word: fissen, which could be German for "to set something in the key of F-sharp major or minor."

zombie said...

Rand is excerpted in one of the Intro textbooks I've used in the past. I use it as an example of a philosophically lazy and indefensible articulation of egoism. Since a lot of college students (presumably) still read Rand, I think it is a good idea for them to see it critiqued more carefully, and contrasted with rigorous philosophy. I suppose the SEP might serve a similar purpose, although I haven't read the entry on Rand, and don't plan to unless kidnapped.

But why attack Parfit? Presumably funsterism involves, in some way, having fun with philosophy by exploring the odd philosophical implications of some of our more ingrained and poorly considered intuitions. I'm in favor of that. Or maybe "funsterism" is Machan's word for "consequentialism." I doubt it will catch on.

Bobcat said...

A couple of things:

From what I gather, Machan is something of a defender of Rand in his philosophical work. At the very least, he pretty closely agrees with her policy proposals.

Second, while I'm comfortable with the notion that an entry on any philosopher should include criticisms, I get the sense from some of the commenters at Leiter's blog that they think that a special effort at criticizing her should be made, so as to make likelier the result that people don't take her seriously or agree with her. Perhaps that's just my impression, but if my impression is correct, then that makes me very uncomfortable.

Third, I wonder what other articles Leiter's correspondent has in mind when saying that the quality of SEP articles has declined in recent years?

Fourth, I think Rand is eminently worthy of inclusion in the SEP. I haven't read much of her work at all, but what I have read certainly is provocative in an interesting way--getting one to think of just what is wrong with egoism and what the justification is for a middle ground between impartialism (of the sort defended by Peter Singer) and egoism. Even if she is not particularly good at arguing, there are other historically significant philosophers who aren't great arguers but who are important because of how they influenced others. Rand could fall into that camp.

Anonymous said...

1) Could someone please explain this american obsession with Ayn Rand to an european reader? Over here, we're slightly puzzeled.

2) Dear Zero, what on earth makes you think that Habermas -- an arch-rationalist kantian liberal (who as well happens to take in interest in some more obscure german thinkers like Hegel, Marx, Gadamer and Weber) -- has anything in common with Derrida and Lyotard, the high priests of postmodern antirationalism? Please elaborate!

Anonymous said...

I agree with 7:13. The fact that Habermas can breathlessly be included with Derrida and Lyotard shows how idiotic most of the finger-pointing over who is 'philosophical' and who is not can be. But, hey, even though I study analytic philosophy I also think that Derrida has some good philosophical points to make. Of course, you would actually have to read the thinker in question to make those determinations. I sometimes wonder if most of the continental-bashing that goes on in this country is simply a defense mechanism to cover up the obvious anxiety that there is just as much half-baked crazy shit that goes on in so-called mainstream philosophy as well. It is just familiar crazy shit that everybody happen to sit around and slap each other on the back about.

Mr. Zero said...

Hi anon 7:13,

In answer to your questions:

1. I don't know.

2. I did not assert that Habermas had anything in common with Derrida or Lyotard. Although my remarks entail that they are "similar" in having little in common with Parfit, that is a Cambridge similarity, and Parfit is an Oxford man.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Habermas does not belong together with Derrida. Habermas's writings are clear, argumentative, and address many issues also addressed by mainstream anglo-american analytic philosophers. Notice the influence of Habermas in analytic political philosophy focused on democratic theory. And remember that Rawls, the #1 analytic political philosopher, devoted a whole paper to responding to Habermas (a level of attention he only gave to a few others, such as HLA Hart and Sen).

Anonymous said...

Machan really is making a fool of himself. It's slow-motion-traffic-accident fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Matt Burstein FTW.

Anonymous said...

"...Let a million flowers bloom and ignore the snooty bunch!

The funny thing is, I kind of agree with this, overall."

Except for when if comes to the question of whether homosexuality is immoral, right Zero!

Word verification: noncyco

Mr. Zero said...

Yes, anon 1:28, let a thousand flowers bloom. And since some of those flowers think homosexuality is immoral, no matter how dumb their arguments may be, we must stand by and allow immoral antigay discriminatory hiring practices to go unopposed. Capitulation to anti-gay intolerance is clearly what is required by a consistent commitment to an ecumenical attitude about online philosophy encyclopedias.

Word verification: "antigaybigotrymakespeoplestupid"

Anonymous said...

So the guy is a global warming skeptic. My guess is that before this thread is over, he'll either say pi is 3 on the nose, say Obamar is a Muslim, or express sympathy for the 9/11 truthers. Any takers?

Word Verification: I loved Matt before any of you. Hands off.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with 8:10 AM, and though I'm a hopelessly straight dude, want to gay marry him just to piss of 1:28 PM! (You're just collateral damage, 3:11. Sorry.)

captcha: ballheas

Anonymous said...

Well, just to be fair (in case we care about that sort of thing), the comparison should not be between Reasons and Persons and, say, Atlas Shrugged, but between the former and some of Rand's self-styled philosophical writing. But at least one problem is that, whatever one thinks about Rand's ideas, she pretty clearly didn't write anything remotely like contemporary academic analytic philosophy. So in terms of the virtues of that genre (clarity, rigor, detail, charity to one's opponents, etc), she can't possibly come out well. But then again, neither can other philosophers who really are worth reading even if they aren't anaytic: Habermas or Foucault in the 20th century, Nietzsche or Kierkegaard in the 19th. I wouldn't rank Rand in anything like the same category as either of those two, but it's at least worth taking literary issues into account.

For what it's worth, though, I do think Rand's positions are closer to the truth than Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or Parfit's, and I'm inclined to agree very much with Machan's assessment of Parfit's work. Parfit beats them all hands down if we evaluate philosophical value in terms of rigor, inventiveness, and ingenuity. But those of us who care about truth and don't think that conceivability ought to be equivalent to 'metaphysical possibility' tend to find Parfit among the most tedious of living philosophers.

That said, it is utterly bizarre to include him with Lyotard and Derrida, and the only conceivable (ahem) way to defend the alleged superiority of Rand would have to be in terms of the truth of her positions and not in terms of the arguments she gives for them -- since, so far as I can tell, she doesn't really give any arguments and isn't usually very clear about what exactly she means. Parfit, on the other hand, almost redeems himself by being so delightfully rigorous and telling us in painstaking (pain-inflicting) detail precisely what he means.

Saul said...

But those of us who care about truth and don't think that conceivability ought to be equivalent to 'metaphysical possibility' tend to find Parfit among the most tedious of living philosophers.

I don't think conceivability is equivalent to metaphysical possibility. Neither do these philosophers: Ted Sider, Mark Johnston, Karen Bennett. But I don't find Parfit tedious at all, and neither do Sider, Johnston, Bennett.

How is the view that conceivability is different from metaphysical possibility supposed to be linked to a perspective from which Parfit is tedious? That seems very mysterious to me.

Anonymous said...

Letting the flowers bloom where they may...

A good piece by Pruss:

Also, Jeremy Pierce

Zero seems to be confused: that consequentialism is taken to imply that homosexuality is morally permissible seems to mean to him that those other meta-ethical views that can easily imply that homosexuality is morally questionable (some deontological theories, natural law theory, some versions of virtue ethics, etc.) have no legitimate philosophical defense whatsoever.

The only thing that I can conclude about Zero's view of the morality of homosexuality is something akin to the following characterization of some philosophical positions by van Inwagen, in his "Problem of Evil":

"of all the kinds of scorn that can be poured on someone's views, moral scorn is the safest and most pleasant....It is the safest kind because, if you want to pour moral scorn on someone's views, you can be sure that everyone who is predisposed to agree with you will believe that you have made an unanswerable point. And you can be sure that any attempt your opponent in debate makes at an answer will be dismissed by a significant proportion of your audience as a 'rationalization'--that great contribution of modern depth psychology to intellectual complacency and laziness. Moral scorn is the most pleasant kind of scorn to deploy against those who disagree with you because a display of self-righteousness--moral posturing--is a pleasant action what the circumstances, and its nice to have an excuse for it" (p. 62).

Mr. Zero said...

...that consequentialism is taken to imply that homosexuality is morally permissible seems to mean to him that those other meta-ethical views that can easily imply that homosexuality is morally questionable ... have no legitimate philosophical defense whatsoever.

Uh. I don't know what you're talking about. I didn't affirm consequentialism. I didn't deny deontology. My views about homosexuality & anti-gay discrimination are compatible with a wide variety of normative- and meta-ethical views. My claim in the above comment is merely that there is no sound or otherwise convincing argument for the conclusion that homosexuality is wrong in a way that would interfere with a "practicing" gay person's capacity to perform the duties of a college professor based on the premise that the editors of the SEP ought to adopt a policy of inclusiveness. If you think you've got a sound argument from that premise to that conclusion, please don't keep it a secret.


Pruss argues that the text of the APA's policy is defective; he does not argue that homosexuality is immoral or that anti-gay hiring practices are not immoral.

"of all the kinds of scorn that can be poured on someone's views, moral scorn is the safest and most pleasant..."

It's a pretty awesome irony for someone who thinks homosexuality is wrong to use this strategy against someone who thinks gays are not thereby incompetent to teach college philosophy. If you've got an argument, let's hear it. But I suspect I'll have to settle for hypocritical moral scorn and uncomprehending uses of platitudes.

G.B. Sadler said...

Wow, that comment thread ranged. Two things:

I've written for the quite similar IEP (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), at first just for kicks, then more seriously. On some topics I've found SEP is better, on others IEP. Funny how having that Ivy name makes people assume the product is better -- totally unwarranted assumption, as it turns out. What keeps both Encyclopedias (and anyone else who'd get into that game) from being merely slightly better Wikipedias is a rigorous process of peer review (enough to be a genuine pain in the . . . ) which assesses whether there is genuine quality content in the articles.

As to Rand, if third-rate thinkers like Russell deserve a place, or half the continentals other there, there's a legitimate place for her too. Not her fault she became wildly popular among a non-academic set for peddling easily digestible ideology -- that's what made Russell's bones too, for that matter. And, who else do you think is going to out in a lot of time writing an article on her -- it's going to be someone interested in her thought. If the article is just a fluff piece, SEP's peer-review should catch it, no?