Now that I’m through with the open system, I’d like to focus on explaining what the closed system is. Specifically I’d like to do this by contrasting it to what it is not.
I think several factors are responsible for misunderstanding the closed system:
1. Besides Peikoff’s essay “Fact and Value,” there is little material that discusses the closed system from the perspective of a defender, which leaves us to figure it out for ourselves (and we unfortunately get it wrong sometimes, or even oftentimes). For evidence of faulty conclusions drawn from insufficient information, read Kirsti Minsaas’ letter to Harry Binswanger, particularly the last five paragraphs: http://folk.uio.no/thomas/po/minsaas-letter.html
To my knowledge, a few of Diana Hsieh’s blogposts on “The Many False Friends of Objectivism” are the most extensive works on the internet in defense of the closed system, so I would advise people to read those, including the first one I’m going to list, as it asks interesting questions which people inquiring about the closed system should look into. (In particular, “Questions and Comments on the Closed System,” “Ayn Rand on David Kelley,” and “The Open System, One More Time.”)
2. Conflating the closed system perspective with an evasion of truth, independent thinking, rationality, etc. This view implies (and sometimes explicitly states) that since closed system advocates are focusing on “official authorized texts” and closing the system off from revisions, they must be deifying Ayn Rand and/or Leonard Peikoff as authorities to be dogmatically accepted and followed. Kelley basically characterizes Peikoff’s view of the closed system, when applied to real Objectivists, as precisely a choice between accepting Objectivism as true, even when facts suggest otherwise (the “dogmatic” approach) and giving up Objectivism when we disagree with even the “least fundamental” of the philosophy’s ideas. (p. 77 )
I think what’s important here is that there are two perspectives that should be taken into account: (1) the perspective of discovering and following the truth, and (2) the perspective of recognizing the identity of Objectivism.
In regards to the truth, one uses one’s own mind to figure out the truth of ideas and works, whether it is authoritative of some philosophy (e.g. Rand’s works) or not. This is the proper perspective when determining the validity of Objectivism (or anything else), as you are letting the evidence and inferences drawn guide you to reach conclusions with certainty.
From the perspective of the closed system, however, the issue is delimiting the identity of Objectivism, rejecting new additions to the philosophy in accordance with this “delimiting” procedure, and distinguishing derivative works as either “extended Objectivism/related to Objectivism” or not depending on the coherence of the work with the authoritative sources on the philosophy.
Determining what “Objectivism” is, and determining if it is true, are thus two different tasks. In contrast to the person discovering truth, the person who wants to know what Objectivism is should consult the primary works, and then carefully analyze derivative works to determine if they cohere with the primary works before reaching a verdict about them being in the “Objectivist tradition” or not.
In fact, I believe the “closed system” approach is how Objectivists convinced of the truth of their philosophy should approach other philosophies, like if one is studying in the field of philosophy in college. The fact that an Objectivist would disagree with Hume doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t consult Hume’s actual works to learn about his philosophy, and afterward uses these works as a “litmus test” for derivative works which claim to be in the “Humean tradition.”
3. Ignorance (honest or deliberate) of what closed system advocates are doing. One of the strawmen I’ll discuss later in this post is that the closed system, in closing off the system to additions and revisions, thus limits our ability to learn more about Objectivism.
If this is true, then what has the Ayn Rand Institute been doing all this time, with its lectures, Op-Ed campaigns, and Objectivist Conference lectures? What is Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, if not a resource that allows us to extend our knowledge of Objectivism substantially? I’ll say more on this when I get to the strawmen.
4. Thinking that “Objectivism” is a concept, which in turn leads one to reject the (previously) bad argument that “Objectivism” is a proper noun. In truth, there couldn’t be a concept for “Objectivism,” just as there’s no concept for Aristotle’s philosophy (or “Aristotle,” for that matter). “Objectivism” refers to a definite set of principles which one grasps by understanding the ideas within the philosophy. There’s no measurement-omission involved in grasping the term “Objectivism”; there aren’t two referents from which measurements can be abstracted. But differentiation is involved in regards to other philosophies. One’s knowledge about a proper noun like “Objectivism” can differ, but there’s still only one set of ideas which is “Objectivism.”
The old argument used to be that since “Objectivism” is capitalized, it is therefore a proper noun which refers to Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Besides being a empty, rationalistic argument, it doesn’t dig deep enough into what a proper noun is. To my recollection, Mike Mazza was the first person to speak of “abstract particulars” on the internet, which allowed him to grasp why “Objectivism” and other sets of ideas are proper nouns rather than concepts. As Diana Hsieh noted in the interview I linked in Part 1, it’s a technical point of epistemology, as it subsumes concepts, proper nouns, theories, laws, and possibly other mental contents; further, Ayn Rand didn’t publish anything on it, so it isn’t a part of the Objectivist epistemology (though I think it is logically consistent with it). As this is new territory, I can see why this aspect of the closed system is so misunderstood.
5. Not understanding what a “philosophic principle” is; which means not knowing the scope of philosophic issues (i.e. what counts as a philosophic principle), and/or not knowing the nature of principles (i.e. what counts as a philosophic principle). (I really have to thank Diana Hsieh for bringing this to my attention in her blogpost “The Open System, One More Time.”)
I think this is a big factor in generating strawmen, including a couple I’ll address momentarily.
Now to criticize some of the strawmen which are floating around (especially on the internet), distorting what the closed system is:
1. Closed system means that “Ayn Rand has said everything in philosophy and thus ‘philosophy’ is closed to additions, new ideas, etc.”
I suppose I should say that I’m going from “most ridiculous strawman” to “strawman that misses some key insight, though not a terribly bad strawman.”
First of all, the whole “Open/Closed system” issue was exclusively about the identity of Objectivism—what constitutes it. Obviously, Ayn Rand hasn’t “said everything in philosophy”; she admits there are areas she hadn’t touched on and that she didn’t seem to have any intention to (e.g. Philosophy of Law). Philosophy in general is open to all kinds of new viewpoints, Objectivist or not, and people are going to disagree with Rand on all kinds of philosophical topics (including the people who already have), and a few will even generate entirely new philosophies. This is such a gross misrepresentation of the “closed system” position that it’s more like meaningless noise than a faulty characterization.
2. We must accept everything that Ayn Rand wrote and never question it, for fear of becoming a “non-Objectivist.”
Agreement with the principles of Objectivism is the only requirement for being an “Objectivist.” Rand wrote on many topics, some philosophical, some pertaining to other subjects, and even those statements in philosophy are not all about philosophical generalizations. There are many things one could disagree with Rand about and still be an Objectivist. A person who seeks conformity with a certain group or title and avoids questioning it out of fear of not conforming is certainly not an Objectivist, or an advocate of any set of ideas, as he obviously has not appraised the facts with his own mind to determine their truth.
3. The closed system stifles a person’s mind by requiring him to adhere to authorized texts, on pain of rejecting “Objectivism”; this results in the independent thinker having to reject the philosophy whenever a disagreement emerges. Kelley, I think, originated this strawman: “To be Objectivists, in other words, we must abandon rationality; to be rational, we must be ready at any moment to abandon Objectivism.” (T&T, p. 77)
The closed system, contra Kelley, allows one’s mind to identify what Objectivism is, and properly distinguish it from derivative/unrelated works (the ideas of which may or may not be consistent with the philosophy of Objectivism), which is a benefit for one’s cognitive faculty. The result from not meeting this cognitive need can be seen in sub-groups such as “Christian Objectivists,” who blatantly support principles diametrically opposed to those formulated by Rand, and yet still want to keep the name “Objectivist.” Of course, the logical conclusion of the open system must include Christian Objectivists as “Objectivists,” since basically “anything goes,” as I’ve argued (or to be more exact: “nothing goes”).
As far as rejecting the philosophy when disagreements occur: well, if the disagreement can’t be resolved, then the person should, in reason, give up Objectivism and only keep the elements he still accepts. I agree with Diana that it’s an “expression of tribalism” to keep a label or remain in a group by redefining the terms which one first agreed with.
Further, the closed system allows one to learn more about Objectivism, not restricting him to only reading a few “canonical texts.” With the closed system, the person can accurately identify what “Objectivism” is, and use this understanding to further his knowledge of the philosophy by comparing his knowledge to the work of future intellectuals and scholars (e.g. Tara Smith).
I’ve argued that it is the open system which, in effect, stifles the mind by offering the advocate no cognitive means of knowing what sources, if any, are in accordance with the Objectivist philosophy; which leaves him to figure it out for himself (or change it at will).
Making certain works “authoritative” simply means that these works came from the originator of a system or is endorsed by her, and these are the definitive sources from which to learn about some subject; it certainly doesn’t mean that someone must now accept the works uncritically as the “truth”; which means Kelley is equivocating on the meaning of “authority.” In different contexts, “authority” can mean a definitive source for information, and it can sometimes mean someone whose statements are accepted uncritically by yes-men, and Kelley wishes to use both while denouncing closed system advocates.
(Comment: I personally think this is very dishonest of Kelley, especially for a person who’s been involved in academia (and Introductory Logic courses) and should know better than to commit logical fallacies. Of course, by the method of cost-benefit analysis supported and practiced by Kelley, maybe such a mischaracterization and insult of Peikoff and the closed system advocates outweighed the possibility of the fallacy being exposed and the reduction of the scholarly level of his book.)
4. Kelley’s definition of the closed system: “A closed system, by contrast, is defined by specific articles of faith, usually laid out in some canonical text. Internal debates are highly constrained and usually short-lived; they are typically settled by a ruling from some authority.” (p. 72)
I’ve already explained what a “closed system” is, though I will note that religious systems which make believers accept their edicts on faith is one category of a “closed system.” In general, a “closed system” is concerned with identifying the constitution of a given integrated set of ideas; it is irrelevant in this context whether the system is to be accepted by reason (e.g. a philosophy) or by faith (e.g. religion). Kelley’s definition therefore is not wrong per se, since what he describes is one kind of a closed system; his definition, as he proceeds to apply it to Peikoff and to the other closed system advocates of Objectivism, however, is a textbook example of the fallacy of the frozen abstraction.
(Here’s Rand’s definition, for those who need a refresher on that fallacy: http://www.aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/frozenabstraction.html )
Here, he takes a particular type of closed system (religious authoritarian systems) and substitutes it for the concept “closed system” as such, using his version as if it were the only one which could possibly exist. In fact, this is how he uses the term for all of chapter 5 on “Objectivism.”
It’s quite unfortunate, as I think this is the most used of the strawmen concerning what people think the “closed system” viewpoint must be—and I’m becoming certain that we have David Kelley’s use of fallacies in that chapter to thank for that.
5. Objectivism as a closed system means the integrated principles and Rand’s applications of those principles; the implication being that a wrong application means the invalidation of the philosophy.
Here’s an example provided by “critic of Objectivism” Robert Campbell (using his words except for one phrase in brackets for clarity):
“And [the system of Objectivism] must be dead, in its turn, because a single false ‘philosophical’ proposition in the Randian corpus gives Randians the choice between deliberately accepting a system that includes falsehoods, or hitting the road out of Rand-land. Rand’s belief that newborn infants experience pure sensations has turned out to be false; she enunciated it as part of her epistemology; therefore, the whole ‘system’ is already dead.”
The closed system does not include Rand’s applications of her philosophy, but rather the axioms and principles which integrate it into a system of thought. To undercut Objectivism, one would need to discover something wrong with one of its principles, not with its applications. The fact that babies don’t experience sensations doesn’t refute any of the principles within Objectivism: particularly, it doesn’t refute the fact that discriminated awareness, the perceptual level of consciousness, is the epistemically given. It’s simply a mistake Rand made in applying her principles. Notice that the example is actually a technical point of psychology or neuro-biology, not some fundamental insight in philosophy.
6. Lastly: Objectivism means everything that Ayn Rand ever said or thought. (Hat tip to Diana for pointing this one out)
This makes it impossible to make a distinction between philosophic principles espoused by Rand, applications of such, or opinions on a host of non-philosophical topics (e.g. her critique of the “open mind/closed mind issue” or her opinion on the philosophical merit of the Logical Positivists
To answer this strawman, one must keep in mind what a philosophy is, and what it is for: a form of system that covers fundamental issues of our lives and that is tasked with offering a person the means to deal with real-life problems over a lifetime.
This delimits substantially what can actually count as “philosophy,” and therefore “Objectivism.” Specifically, it amounts to fundamental principles and ideas expressed by a particular philosopher in regards to his philosophy, not his particular applications of those principles, and definitely not his opinions and views on non-philosophical topics.
I think I’ve already covered the issue of what Objectivism is enough to not explain it again here, but understanding the boundaries of philosophy would be very helpful in exposing this strawman.
This concludes my series criticizing the “open system” and David Kelley while arguing in favor of the “closed system,” and my reasons for doing so.
Roderick Fitts is a former Vice-President of the University of Michigan Students of Objectivism.