Introduction and Key Points Concerning the “Open” and “Closed” Systems
It’s been about a year since I first encountered the “Closed System vs. Open System” or “Leonard Peikoff vs. David Kelley” issue, and about 9 months since I sided with the closed system advocates (in my facebook note: Why I Support the Closed System).
I’d like to point out that I didn’t completely understand the issue when I wrote that note, and I now regard my reasons given back then for siding with the “closed system” side as weak. To give examples, I had not yet grasped the relevant difference between philosophy and science to dispute David Kelley’s claim about the need to revise and reformulate principles already accepted as “Objectivist,” and I lacked an understand of exactly why Objectivism was a proper noun, as I hadn’t progressed sufficiently through the epistemology to know this.
After giving it a lot more thought, interacting with Ayn Rand Institute staff and affiliates, noticing the Objectivism-related material pouring from ARI members and supporters, and re-reading the papers central to the dispute, I can properly defend my stance as a “closed system” advocate. I’d especially like to thank Diana Hsieh for posting her thoughts about this dispute, including her disagreements concerning the “open system” view that Kelley and The Objectivist Center espouse.
(Comment: My interaction with the ARI has consisted of hosting speakers for the University of Michigan Students of Objectivism college lectures, taking courses at the Objectivist Academic Center, and most recently attending a summer conference about “Atlas Shrugged and the Moral Foundations of Capitalism.” While the issue of the “open/closed system” never arose in my dealings with ARI, my dealings with them helped in confirming that the accusations made about closed system advocates were strawmen and unjust.)
Now, I will name what I regard to be the key points of both the “closed” and “open” view, and afterward comment on four things:
(1) How the closed system is supported in academia, and why they’re correct in upholding it.
(2) Kelley’s view of using philosophic principles in essentially the same manner as scientific ones, and why he is mistaken.
(3) My reasons for characterizing the “open system” as I have here.
(4) Why the closed system is misunderstood and addressing several strawmen attributed to it.
1. Objectivism is the integrated whole of philosophic ideas, principles, and consequences (of said principles) expressed by Ayn Rand in published form, and material from others she agreed to include as part of Objectivism (e.g. Peikoff’s lecture course “The Philosophy of Objectivism”) Due to the nature of integrated systems, any change of an element within Objectivism would have disastrous effects on the entire system, wrecking it.
2. New implications, applications, and integrations can always be discovered and learned by Objectivists, but these are to be considered separate from the actual philosophy as developed by Ayn Rand. One could say that some new work (e.g. one of Tara Smith’s book on Rand’s ethics) is “in the Objectivist tradition” or “Objectivist” in the broad sense that it is logically consistent with the philosophy, but is not an actual addition to the philosophy.
3. Objectivism is an abstract particular—a proper noun which refers ostensively to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Specifically, the set of philosophical abstractions, principles, and ideas espoused by her. As an abstract particular, it refers to the same mental content which all of us possess who know anything about Objectivism.
(Comment: To grasp how “Objectivism” is a proper noun, I suggest thinking more about the differences between concepts and proper nouns. For example, the concept “car” is an abstract particular in that it refers to the same mental contents in all of us who can identify cars; there doesn’t exist a “meta-concept” of “car” which is formed by omitting the measurements of our concepts of “car.” Please see Diana Hsieh’s interview with Axiomatic Magazine for more on this, which can be found on the Wayback Machine’s archive: http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.axiomaticmagazine.com/article.php?iss_index=3&art=4)
1. Objectivism is, in effect, equivalent to: all true ideas and principles discovered in philosophy, and to be discovered in the future. Beyond the self-evidence of axioms, all ideas and principles are subject to revision, reformulation, and/or qualification.
(Comment: In a sense, not even the axioms are safe from revision, etc. because there exists specific reasons why we need axiomatic concepts, specific functions that they serve and that are not self-evident; more specifically, it’s the function of axiomatic concepts as “underscorers of primary facts” which makes it epistemologically necessary to formulate axiomatic concepts into formal axioms—into a “base and a reminder.” (see Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology 2nd ed. ch. 6 and p. 260; p. 59) )
2. There is no inherent need to integrate the principles which are, at any given moment, determined to be “Objectivist.” Under the “open system,” the principle that knowledge is contextual (and therefore calls for integration of one’s new insights into one’s previous knowledge) need not be heeded, as principles are always subject to future revision.
3. Objectivism is to reflect the epistemological approach taken in regards to science, where principles must constantly be tested and confirmed by new data, reformulated or even outright changed when the data suggests such a policy.
4. Skepticism of the truth of principles is the consequence of this view. Because there is never a “full context” in which to ground a principle, one can always doubt that one even has a valid principle.
Academia and Closed Systems
In my understanding, philosophic systems (e.g. Aristotle’s philosophy, Hume’s philosophy) are closed systems in the same manner that I’ve indicated above, and this is how they are treated in academia. For instance, in my 402 course on Aristotle, the class wrote papers which interpreted areas of Aristotle’s thought; even if the papers stated ideas which were logically consistent with Aristotle’s philosophy, they wouldn’t have been considered additions to the actual philosophy. At best, they were “Aristotelian” or “related to the philosophy of Aristotle.”
Generally, this has been my experience as an undergrad philosophy student and reader of scholarly works: philosophies are specific sets of principles laid out by the philosophies’ authors, and while new implications, applications, etc. can be drawn out by others, these do not become part of the respective philosophies. Contrary to Kelley’s view from ch. 5 of “Truth and Toleration” (T&T), Peikoff’s claims of philosophies being closed systems do have “precedent” and “foundation.” (p. 72; For the online text, see: http://www.objectivistcenter.org/cth–40-Objectivism_Chapter_5_Truth_Toleration.aspx )
The “precedent” is the practice of scholars carefully separating the works of a philosophy’s originator from the works of followers, which has gone on for centuries. The “foundation” is the cognitive need to separate Rand’s philosophy from both future developments (e.g. “Neo-objectivism”) and from other distinctive philosophies (e.g. Pragmatism and Platonism), and more broadly the need to do this with every other philosophy.
(Comment: In my view, it is this cognitive need which leads to forming proper nouns for people’s theories, philosophies, and other mental products; a similar case involves actual people, whereupon we need a shorthand tag to cognitively differentiate among the various people we encounter, a function served by proper nouns.)
Roderick Fitts is a former Vice-President of the University of Michigan Students of Objectivism.