David Kelley, the “Knowledge as Contextual” Principle, and the Destruction of Systems
In Truth & Toleration, Kelley implied that the open system’s policy of modifying principles within Objectivism was a natural consequence of the principle that knowledge is contextual, which means in essence that “[h]uman knowledge on every level is relational.” (L. Peikoff, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 122 ) Kelley states that such modifications, reformulations, and qualifications have been “part of the brief history of Objectivism to date,” and that such changes should be “expected in light of the Objectivist theory that knowledge is contextual.” (T&T, p. 77 )
I challenge Kelley’s claim, however.
Assuming the open system had a justification for changing principles in the first place, if a person discovered a context that mandated the modification of a principle, adhering to the “knowledge as contextual” principle would require him to call into question all of the Objectivist principles, as they would have some type of relationship with this incorrect principle.
Let’s assume, for instance, that some future fact throws suspicion on the principle that rights can only be violated by the initiation of force—something points an open system advocate towards the conclusion that force does not violate rights (I wouldn’t know what fact; it is the task of open system advocates to show us why we can’t be certain of such principles). If this were followed through, then the validity of other principles would become suspect as well, if one followed the “knowledge as contextual” principle, among them:
(1) The principle that the government’s task is to protect individual rights by retaliating against the initiation of force. If we can’t determine what actions actually violate our rights, how can we expect a bunch of bureaucrats to do so, and what would be our justification?
(2) The principle that the initiation of physical force is a form of evil. Rights connect morality to one’s social existence, protecting one against immoral actions by others. But if rights no longer serve this function (uses of force no longer constitute violations of rights), it implies that people don’t really need to be free from others’ brutal interference, making one wonder exactly why physical force was deemed evil in the first place.
(3) The principle that “Man’s Life” as the standard of moral value. The moral is the right, Objectivism counsels, but physical force doesn’t violate rights (the counter-example I gave above), though force still impairs one’s ability to live (assuming that “seeing is believing”); if certain things which negate or impair life are not morally evil, are not disvalues, then “man’s life” doesn’t seem to be the appropriate standard for determining moral values.
Ultimately, the validity of the entire system would have to be called into question by this advocate, precisely because the reasons given for the validity of the principles, and the principles themselves, are so tightly integrated; consequently, this integration is weakened when one of the principles is removed. The advocate would find it necessary to eventually change the entire character of the philosophy, turning it into something deserving its own name. The “knowledge as contextual” principle would mean that a change in one element of the philosophic principles must logically lead to the transformation of the philosophy into some other philosophy—in other words, “any change in any element…would destroy the entire system.” (Leonard Peikoff, Fact and Value; see online here:
Kelley offers no principled rebuttal to Peikoff’s claim that philosophies, as integrated wholes, cannot withstand a change in one of their principles. He protests that an Objectivist philosopher may disagree with Rand on some “particular point,” and that this doesn’t necessarily lead to a rejection of all the logically related principles. (p. 79 ) Read literally, I agree: “particular point” could mean a host of issues that Rand discussed, philosophical or otherwise; I disagree with Rand on the neurological/psychological topic of babies experiencing a sensation stage, but I don’t think this has bearing on the truth of Rand’s philosophical principles. Rather I think it is a misapplication of her view of perceptions/sensations (specifically, it doesn’t invalidate the heavily related principle that the perceptual level is the epistemically given and the self-evident, or “directly experienced”).
Assuming we’re discussing a philosophical principle here, I find it absurd that Kelley expects us to disprove any alteration that an Objectivist may decide to undertake, with or without argument on his part beforehand. (Kelley says that “[i]t may well be that he takes the position he does because he regards it as the true implications of [other, logically related] principles,” and then challenges us to “prove him wrong” if we disagree with him. p. 79; bold mine, italics in original) The fact that Kelley doesn’t even say that the objector’s argument has to be true, or forceful in its logic, only increases the absurdity of his demands.
To be clear, I regard this as absurd because we would need an entire department or more of knowledgeable Objectivists to correct and/or disprove well-reasoned out objections by supposed Objectivists whom offer alternative principles that could be integrated into Objectivism: which is bad enough; to have to show why fallacious or even outright crazy departures of Objectivism are wrong as well is way beyond unreasonable.
(Comment: If a student of Objectivism, or an Objectivist who’s having second doubts about his philosophy, thinks that Rand is mistaken in one of her philosophic principles, then he should critically think about what this mistake implies about the rest of the philosophy. He should relate it to the rest of his knowledge, and even consult well-versed Objectivists to help him see if he’s mistaken. If he concludes that he is logically right, then he should honestly give up the term “Objectivist” while giving credit to Rand for whatever insights from her he still believes to be true. I can certainly respect such a man, who practices intellectual honesty by approaching ideas seriously and who refuses to accept labels for a set of ideas he disagrees with (even if I think he’s in error). )
Contra Kelley, we can “assume in advance, without argument [supporting the objector’s view]” that an alteration of some positions (philosophic principles) would destroy the system, because we are capable of thinking in terms of principles—specifically epistemological principles. (T&T, p. 79 ) We can understand how principles relate to and depend on other principles, and realize that only a haphazard mess of ideas could withstand having one of its elements changed. We can induce from these processes of cognition a contextually certain principle: that the nature of philosophical systems rules out changing an element within the system and keeping the rest of it intact—the result from such alterations must be the fracturing of the system’s integrity, weakening of the remaining principles’ strength and meaning, and ultimately the destruction of the system.
(Comment: Emphasis on “can” here: we don’t have to assume without argument that someone’s alteration obliterates the system. If an Objectivist is willing to engage an objector’s alteration, and prove to him how it must destroy the system, he is free to do so. I’m simply challenging Kelley’s skeptical remark that we can’t be sure if any change in a philosophy would trash the system. It seems the skepticism in Kelley’s position truly runs deep.)
I believe Kelley’s objection to Peikoff, that systems can be modified without necessarily destroying them, stems from a deeper issue: Kelley’s mistaken view of the “knowledge as contextual” principle.
Applied to his open system, Kelley thinks the principle counsels us to revise and change principles as new “contexts” (e.g. evidence, facts) demand, while keeping certain aspects (such as his “list”) intact.
In fact, the “knowledge as contextual” principle informs us that we must integrate all of our knowledge, and that we must never drop the context: or in this case, we must never forget that philosophic systems are integrations and that their elements can never be “dropped” without wrecking that integration.
To ignore this principle, as the open system advocates must, means to engage in the worst kind of compartmentalization: improper specialization in the field which seeks to integrate all of human knowledge—philosophy.
The Open System as a Rejection of Objectivism as an Integrated System
This final section on the open system is a conclusion.
The majority of this paper has argued that the following are flaws within the open system viewpoint:
(1) The arbitrary elevation of philosophic principles to the status of scientific principles.
(2) The mistaken “need” to then rework, qualify, and otherwise change Objectivist principles.
(3) The skepticism of the truth of Objectivism.
(4) The resulting skepticism of philosophical principles as such.
(5) The rejection of the view that philosophies are integrated systems that are destroyed upon alteration.
It is because of these flaws that the open system advocates could not logically uphold Objectivism as an integrated system—i.e. a philosophy.
For any philosophy, whether true (internally and externally consistent) or not, its principles and the connections within are simply a part of its identity, even if they contradict reality.
Any change within the principles which are connected in a system would contradict other elements and principles, creating even more contradictions—the resolutions of which would completely alter the philosophy’s nature—as was argued previously.
The open system advocates seek to change Objectivism into what they think it should be, into what they think is “the truth,” but this seeking, in the context of what philosophical systems are, is self-defeating: whatever original principles by Rand they initially accepted (or due to the skepticism, at least believed were a part of Objectivism, including Kelley’s list) would eventually need revision to make the system internally consistent in the view of the advocate.
Kelley’s protestations to the contrary, the open system viewpoint must amount to “the freedom to rewrite Objectivism as one wishes.” (p. 80)
While the open system advocate may try to restructure Objectivism to fit whatever alterations he makes, he has to be skeptical of the truth of all principles (since a “new context” is ever-present), whether he thinks they are a part of Objectivism, or some new (or old) principle he wants to fit into the existing structure; if he even gets far enough to integrating principles (which I doubt), he can’t be certain that they are true—i.e. which means he can’t really think they’re principles, and hence that they can be integrated.
Whatever jumbled mess of ideas the advocate eventually formulates (if he doesn’t give up the task in despair and/or leave Objectivism for a different philosophy), the result certainly cannot be an integrated system.
More importantly in this context, it cannot be Objectivism.
(Later in the series: Part 5)
Roderick Fitts is a former Vice-President of the University of Michigan Students of Objectivism.