Why I Don’t Accept Kelley’s “Outline” as Essential to the Open System Claim
In chapter 5 of Truth & Toleration, Kelley lays out what he takes to be the essence of Objectivism as a philosophy (in the section “What is Objectivism?” pages 81-84 ). He claims “anyone who accepted all of these ideas would have to consider himself an Objectivist.” (p. 84) So for Kelley, the list he develops is closed to the revisions he regards as possible (or more likely necessary) to other philosophical points made by Rand that he omits from his list. To support this, in Appendix B of T&T, Kelley says “[Objectivism] is even open to revisions in light of new evidence, as long as [the revisions] are consistent with the central principles of the philosophy, such as the efficacy of reason and the individual’s right to live for his own happiness.” (p. 121; italics mine)
I view this closing off of certain principles from revision, and Kelley’s desire to have a philosophy which is distinct from other philosophies, as inconsistent with the broader open system viewpoint, at best; at worst, it blatantly contradicts that viewpoint and defeats the purpose of advocating an open system in the first place.
Kelley’s reasons (on p. 84 ) for keeping certain principles and insights free from the “process of inquiry” are:
(1) To “distinguish Objectivism from every other viewpoint.”
(2) To “identify the boundaries of the debate and development that may take place within Objectivism as a school of thought.”
(3) And to determine Objectivists from non-Objectivists.
In light of Kelley’s conflation between scientific and philosophic principles, his argument that we should keep certain principles anyway is completely baseless, no matter the reason he gives; on his scientific/philosophic view, it is only a matter of time before some new fact or perspective will invalidate one of the principles he has deemed “essential.”
(Comment: This is supported by his claim about how small the Objectivist literature is, and I infer from Kelley’s perspective that since the philosophy did not address all issues in philosophy, making it tightly integrated in all branches, it is less likely that its fundamental principles won’t undergo some form of change in some future date. See page 76 of T&T )
A consistent open system advocate would only keep principles that were proven to be true; in this regard, it wouldn’t matter if some (or indeed all) of Objectivism’s principles were embraced by other philosophies and it lost its “distinctive character.” The open system advocate would probably claim that it is Objectivism’s particular way of integrating its principles that makes it the “true philosophy”; the other philosophies, while having some true principles, are not integrated properly and are consequently false.
As far as the “boundaries”: I think this would be absurd to the consistent open system advocate. The only proper “boundaries” which determine positions taken in the debate and the development of Objectivism in the consistent viewpoint would be: the facts of reality. On the open system view, if a person does show that a principle upheld by Kelley is mistaken and should be discarded, and he’s right in doing so, then how could this not be a “development within Objectivism”?
And lastly, the supposed need to distinguish Objectivists from non-Objectivists: Kelley doesn’t give any reasons grounded in facts for keeping his list of what is essential to Objectivism; meaning his distinction of who is or isn’t an Objectivist is of no cognitive help. Going by my own analysis, the open system viewpoint in practice would state that anyone who sought truth in philosophy and accepted the axioms would be an “Objectivist”; there could really be only three kinds of people who were “non-Objectivists”:
(1) People disinterested in philosophy.
(2) People interested in philosophy (whether truth or otherwise) but who reject one or more of the axioms.
(3) People who accept the axioms but don’t seek truth in their philosophical pursuits. (Maybe they just want a mash of ideas to prop up their preconceived notions, who knows?)
Even if there were other kinds of people who could qualify as “non-Objectivists,” my essential point on this sub-issue is that Kelley’s justification for his distinction doesn’t coincide with the open system viewpoint as defended in his underlying view of science and philosophy.
There’s a reason why I’ve been comparing Kelley’s views here to the “consistent open system advocate”: insofar as Kelley holds to his outline, he is not in fact an open system advocate. If I had included Kelley’s outline as essential to the open system viewpoint, it would completely fall apart on even moderate inspection. Kelley’s outline is an unjustified variation of the closed system theme, and at best gives us one indication of why one can’t simultaneously be an “open system advocate” and claim to have some kind of philosophy: as I’ll argue later, the former extinguishes the possibility of the later.
Why the Open System Needs to Conflate the “Philosophic Principle/Scientific Principle” Issue
The open system viewpoint is logically consequent of Kelley’s views regarding philosophic and scientific principles, particularly applied to what this would mean about Objectivism. If the blending of these different forms of principles were indeed necessary (i.e. if Kelley was right and they really weren’t different), then it would imply that Objectivist principles could become invalidated by future evidence; the avoidance of this would be the justification of–and the essential task for–the open system viewpoint.
(Comment: I’ll note but won’t comment here on another presupposition of the open system: that it has the right to rewrite philosophical systems when it disagrees with the philosophy’s author, all for the sake of “truth”, “objectivity” or to adhere to Kelley’s mistaken view of the principle that “knowledge is contextual,” which I’ll address later; or the presupposition that one couldn’t just abandon the old system which needs revision and develop a new and more rigorously true philosophy.)
The closed system, as I understand it, wouldn’t concern itself with this possibility (I’m still assuming that Kelley’s view of principles is correct here, just for the sake of argument); if Objectivism will eventually become invalid, then its response to any honest inquirer would in effect be the same response it would give if the assumption were false: “use whatever Objectivist principles and insights you think are true, and discard false ideas while giving appropriate credit; but give up calling yourself an ‘Objectivist’ once you don’t advocate all of its principles anymore.”
But as I’ve argued earlier (see Part 2), Kelley’s mixing of these two types of principles was in error, and I believe this is the essential error with the open system, its fatal error. Because this presupposition of the open system was wrong, there is no justifiable, philosophically grounded reason for its advocates to revise Objectivist principles.
The underlying reason that I haven’t yet given for the need to conflate these principles is that the open system needs to invoke skepticism of the truth of Objectivism in order to bolster its claim that certain principles should be redefined, revised, or otherwise re-organized. What reason could be given for changing principles one is convinced to be certainly true?
In short, the open system needs the science/philosophy principle conflation to invoke skepticism of the truth of Objectivist principles, since the possibility of Objectivism being wrong in the future necessitates (in their view) revising and reformulating principles, which is only possible in the open system viewpoint.
Why this attempt fails, I’ll discuss in the next section.
(Comment: My statement about the open system and its skepticism of Objectivism’s truth should not be taken to mean that all closed system advocates, on the other hand, must be certain of Objectivism’s truth to properly be advocates. A closed system advocate could be a student of Objectivism who wants to discover if Objectivism is in fact true, but has learned enough about it to discredit the open system viewpoint, such as myself. As I’ll explain later, complete certainty of (or dogmatic faith in) Objectivism is not a prerequisite for supporting the closed system; the claim about dogmatic faith was in fact a strawman constructed by David Kelley in this sentence: “A closed system, by contrast, is defined by specific articles of faith, usually laid out in some canonical text.” [Truth and Toleration, 2nd ed., Ch. 5, p. 72] )
(Another Comment: Interesting observation: the closed system’s primary concern is clarifying what Objectivism is, so that the inquirer can cognitively distinguish it from other philosophies or developments; while the open system is primarily concerned with keeping Objectivism consistent with reality, clarifications of its identity [e.g. Kelley’s “list”] or not. Under the open system, as a result, “Objectivism” is whatever principles [integrated or not] people have determined for themselves to be true in addition to advocating the axioms. By ruling out the possibility of even defining what Objectivism is, it prevents one from being certain of what Objectivism’s identity is, and discourages a successful attempt at contrasting it with other philosophies.)
Skepticism of Principles as the Necessary Result of the Open System View
I just noted that the open system covertly uses skepticism of the truth of Objectivism as an excuse for revising and adapting its principles to fit the future data of reality. This is, I believe, essential to the open system viewpoint, and I second Diana Hsieh’s remark that:
Ultimately, so much of the motivation for the open system seems to boil down to the tired skeptical refrain of ‘But what if you’re wrong?!?’ — only now it’s ‘But what if Ayn Rand was wrong?!?’ and ‘Ohmigod, what will we do then?!?’ ” (See: http://www.dianahsieh.com/blog/2005/07/ayn-rand-on-david-kelley.html ; bold mine )
Because the open system’s view of principles is mistaken, the necessary result is epistemological skepticism in regard to knowing when one has a valid principle.
In science, it is proper to test theories in all types of ways and with new data, technology, and knowledge because the nature of scientific subjects requires constantly learning more and testing more to determine the ultimate causal mechanism(s) of a given subject. Every advance means a new way to test established and new theories (and hypotheses) alike, which leads to further knowledge and increases the likelihood of someone discovering the truth. But with philosophical topics, the data needed to determine the truth of a given principle requires no special research or equipment, and is available in any era of human history, as others and myself have argued. If we are to accept that even well-grounded principles are subject to possible revision, reformulation, etc. in light of “new data,” then how can we ever know when we’ve reached a valid principle?
My contention is that once one has properly grounded a principle, it stands as a contextual-absolute that he can be certain of. Because future advances in human knowledge and technology are irrelevant to philosophical investigation as such, there wouldn’t be a need to reassess one’s principle in light of such advances. The decision to consider reformulating a principle one regarded as knowledge would only make sense if one had a reason for thinking that it didn’t apply to some case (e.g. if there really was a concept which, on reflection, didn’t seem to need measurement-omission to be formed). And even then, the proposed counter-example does not necessarily demonstrate that the principle is wrong and should be revised.
Consider the case of emergencies, where one’s circumstances effectively eliminate the ability of choosing life-furthering actions: since morality is within the province of choice, the morality of rational egoism strictly doesn’t apply to those cases, according to Objectivism. Do these cases refute the principle that rational egoism is the proper means of guiding one’s life—or do they simply highlight the scope of the principle’s valid application?
In fact, Kelley offers us no means of determining what conditions make a change or qualification to a philosophic principle necessary; he merely asserts that the future data, which represents a “change of context,” (my phrase) will make principles subject to them. (p. 78 ) Unfortunately, he doesn’t even concretize how a change/revision to a principle not on his list would go about, as this would have allowed us to analyze the example and show how it is mistaken.
(Comment: I don’t consider Kelley’s moral differences from Peikoff’s view (e.g. on tolerance) as examples of changing/revising existing Objectivist principles, in his view. Kelley basically thinks that his view is consistent with Objectivism as formulated by Ayn Rand, as shown in this example: “In regard to the scope of honest error, for example, both Peikoff and I appeal to the basic principles of Objectivism in defense of our respective positions, and both of us argue that the other’s position is not compatible with those principles. Even if it could be shown—and I do not think it can be shown—that Ayn Rand would take Peikoff’s side on this issue, the question would remain: which position is in fact consistent with the basic principles of Objectivism? That question must be decided by logic, not authority.” (p. 79) )
This absence of even a general outline for forming valid principles is logical, insofar as Kelley’s previous conflation of principles implies that new data may always call into question even the most rigorously defended and logical principles that could ever be formed. Unlike science, I’ve noted, philosophic principles do not require “confirmation” or revision in light of new technology, data, or specialized knowledge; Kelley’s contrary protestation that philosophic principles need at least to incorporate new inductive data to be valid (such “new data” that never ends, I should note), while offering no cognitive guidance on how to go about doing this, causes the collapse of the open system/Kelley’s “scientific view of principles” into skepticism of principles.
Ironically, Kelley’s scientific solution to his skeptical attitude towards philosophic principles simply leads to more skepticism, this time of his scientific take on principles (which he doesn’t elaborate on).
Paraphrasing Mrs. Hsieh: The perplexed open system advocate will ask “What will we do if Ayn Rand was wrong?!?”
Kelley’s response? “Who knows?!?”
Roderick Fitts is a former Vice-President of the University of Michigan Students of Objectivism.