Saturday, August 01, 2009

Dismissing Your Thoughts

Tibor R. Machan

When I entered college, after a four year stint in the US Air Force, I discovered that a great many intelligent people commit what is called the genetic fallacy. As the entry in Wikipedia puts it, this fallacy is committed when "a conclusion is suggested based solely on something or someone's origin rather than its current meaning or context. This overlooks any difference to be found in the present situation, typically transferring the positive or negative esteem from the earlier context."

Whenever I would voice any of my views about politics, economics, child rearing or whatever, these folks explained it away by my origins, my having been born and raised in Budapest, Hungary, then a Soviet (communist) satellite. Everything I thought and said was deemed to have been caused by my background.

This approach to understanding what people think and do has one very serious problem: the person's views who is doing the explaining would then also be subject to such an explanation; indeed, the explanation would have to be considered caused by that person's background. In the 20th century such a way of coming to understand people became very popular, mainly because how so many people were taken by Sigmund Freud's doctrine of unconscious motivation. By Freud's account, most of what we think and do is so motivated and our explicit convictions and claims to understanding can be pretty much dismissed. Notice how this undermines Freud's own views!

I always had personal misgivings about having my own ideas treated along these lines since they made my own thinking, reasoning, research and such all irrelevant--all that counts is where I was brought up and by whom. No one need actually come to terms even with any arguments I put forward since they have no impact on my thinking and conduct. (Karl Marx had a similar idea with his economic determinism according to which what people think is due to the economic circumstances in which they live! Once again, this would seem to undermine his own ideas but Marx was at least aware of this and tried hard to exempt himself by claiming that unlike all others, he had a proper methodology for figuring things out which made him immune to economic determinism.)

When I got to graduate school I read a wonderful book by Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (U. of Chicago, 1953), which fully supported my own rejection of any of the many uses of the genetic fallacy. Strauss found it very objectionable that so many historians of ideas would study Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes and most other major philosophers by attributing their views to the environmental influences on them. Sure, at times this is a valid point to make but it needs showing in each particular case, not simply assumed about everybody.

In 1962, before I entered college, I had a half hour meeting with the novelist philosopher Ayn Rand whose novels I encountered in the Air Force and liked a lot and I said to her something like, "Maybe the reason I like your books so much is that like you, I too escaped to the West from a communist country." Rand very politely objected saying, in effect, her novels and the ideas in them spring mainly from her mind and her careful reflections, not from her environment. She observed that her aim is to make points that hold for human beings, not just for her and others who escaped from tyrannies.

Over the last couple or so decades several biographies have appeared about Ayn Rand. The one that I think largely respects Rand's and Strauss's points about how to understand a thinker is Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand (Doubleday, 1986). The other two, one by Dr. Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand, The Russian Radical (Penn State University Press, 1995), and the just completed Ayn Rand and the World She Made (Doubleday, 2009), by Anne C. Heller, both give an account of Rand's life and thinking mostly by reference to her history--her childhood circumstances and upbringing.

It seems, however, that these authors do not fully appreciate that if they deal with Ayn Rand this way, they, too, invite being so treated--what Sciabarra and Heller say can then be simply explained away as coming from their own upbringing. And that means the issue of whether what they say is true is moot.

I hope that someone outside her own circle of admirers would someday write a book about Ayn Rand that approaches her in her own terms--examining whether her ideas are sound, not what caused them.

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