Oct 6, 2010

Why construct a chronology?

UPDATED Oct. 9 through Jan. 30 in the seven postscripts.

INTRODUCTION. A chronology is a statement, usually in the form of a list, of the temporal order of a series of events. Ideally, a chronology identifies: a particular time, the nature of the event, and the place. A chronology ought also to identify the source of the information for each item, thus answering the question, "How do you know this person did this at this time and place?"

The value of a chronology is three-fold. Assembling a chronology helps a researcher discover what he knows and doesn't know. When fully documented, a chronology helps the researcher check the reliability of his information. Placing events in temporal order paves the way for identifying the causal relationships, if any, between the events.

EXAMPLE. Consider an example, the series of events happening around the publication of David Harriman's book, The Logical Leap. The following chronology is a work in progress. Two crucial pieces of information, as well as some details, are missing.

1985. Dr. Peikoff and others created The Ayn Rand Institute. After Ayn Rand's death in 1982, Dr. Peikoff became the executor of her estate and her intellectual heir. [Missing: a source describing Dr. Peikoff's responsibilities as executor and intellectual heir, as he understands them.] Dr. Peikoff became ARI's first chairman of the board of directors. (Source: "Announcements". The Objectivist Forum 5 (6): 13–15, December 1984.)

2001. Dr. John McCaskey founded the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship. Dr. McCaskey is a professor of history and philosophy of science at Stanford University. (Source: johnmccaskey.com/resignation.html.)

2004. Dr. McCaskey joined the ARI board of directors. (Source: johnmccaskey.com/resignation.html.)

200?-200?. ARI funded physicist David Harriman's writing of The Logical Leap. (Source: johnmccaskey.com/resignation.html.)

200?-200?. Dr. McCaskey discussed with David Harriman an early draft of Harriman's manuscript, "The Logical Leap". Dr. McClaskey told Harriman: "The historical accounts as presented are often inaccurate, and more accurate accounts would be difficult to reconcile with the philosophical point the author is claiming to make." That quotation is Dr. McClaskey's later summary of earlier conversations. (Source: johnmccaskey.com/resignation.html.)

June 14, 16, and 28, 2010. Dr. McCaskey sent an email on each of three days to David Harriman. Dr. McCaskey's emails, written as he read through The Logical Leap, challenged Harriman's statements in the published book. (Source: www.johnmccaskey.com/emails.html.) Apparently Dr. McCaskey received an advanced copy, weeks before the official date of publication listed on Amazon, as noted for July 6 below.)

July 6, 2010. David Harriman's book was officially published. Harriman, working through NAL Trade, published The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics. Dr. Peikoff was the author of the Introduction. (Source: "Product Details" section of the Amazon page, www.amazon.com/dp/0451230051, as of Oct. 4, 2010.)

July ??, 2010. Dr. McCaskey and eight other academics privately discussed David Harriman's book. [Missing information: Was the discussion via email or face-to-face? Did the discussion occur after the book was officially published? If so, what was the purpose of the discussion?] (Source: johnmccaskey.com/resignation.html.)

????, ??, 2010. Dr. Peikoff received a copy of emails apparently sent by one or more unknown persons, who apparently were involved in the July 2010 private discussions by nine academics, to another unknown person (who apparently shared them with Dr. Peikoff), apparently relating to Dr. McCaskey's private comments about the book. (Source: the email, from Dr. Peikoff to Arline Mann, at johnmccaskey.com/resignation.html. My repeated use of "apparently" reflects the partly conjectural nature of this particular account.)

August 30, 2010. Dr. Peikoff emailed Arline Mann. She is an attorney and member of the board of directors for ARI. In his email to Mann, Dr. Peikoff said, "By the way, from the emails I have seen, his [McCaskey's] disagreements are not limited to details, but often go to the heart of the philosophic principles at issue." [Missing: What are the principles to which Dr. Peikoff alludes? Do his actions follow from his responsibilities as executor and heir?] Dr. Peikoff said too that Dr. McCaskey must leave (the board of ARI, presumably) or he, Dr. Peikoff, would. [Not clear to me: What is Dr. Peikoff's current relationship to ARI and its board of directors? Was he saying that if Dr. McCaskey didn't leave, then he, Dr. Peikoff, would withdraw sanction of ARI?] (Source: johnmccaskey.com/resignation.html, which reproduces Dr. Peikoff's email, with Dr. Peikoff's permission, Dr. McCaskey says.)

September 3, 2010. Dr. McCaskey publicly announced his resignation from ARI's board. (Source: Dr. McCaskey's statement at johnmccaskey.com/resignation.html.)

September 4, 2010. Dr. McCaskey's comments on and rating of Harriman's book appeared in public. Dr. McCaskey wrote comments on the book in the review section of the book's Amazon page. The title of his comment is "Potentially seminal theory, but some unconventional history." He gave the book a "3" rating. (Source: the review section of the Amazon page www.amazon.com/dp/0451230051 for The Logical Leap.)

CRITIQUE. To critique a chronology, the writer himself as well as his reviewers might ask questions such as:
- Is the chronology accurate, as stated?
- What other relevant events occurred, if any?
- What other information is missing? (In the example above, I have noted two missing pieces: a description of Dr. Peikoff's responsibilities as executor and heir, as he sees them; and the nature of the philosophical principles mentioned by Dr. Peikoff as appearing in private emails. Some details, such as a few dates, are also missing.)
- On any point, has the writer misinterpreted the sources?
- Are "stronger" sources available?
- Do any of the sources need corroboration?

Suggestions about the construction of chronologies in general or about the example above in particular are welcome.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

P. S. 1 (Oct. 12, 2010) -- An expanded chronology is available here: http://blog.dianahsieh.com/2010/10/resignation-of-john-mccaskey-facts.html

P. S. 2 (Oct. 29) -- Craig Biddle presents his argument here: http://www.craigbiddle.com/misc/mccaskey.htm

P. S. 3 (November 10) -- Leonard Peikoff makes a statement here: peikoff.com/peikoff-vs-an-ari-board-member

P. S. 4 (Nov. 11) -- The Ayn Rand Institute makes a statement here: aynrand.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=26109

P. S. 5 (Nov. 16) -- David Harriman, in "Is My Account of History 'Unconventional'?," discusses a criticism of his book at thelogicalleap.com/archives/102, which apparently is the first of a series of posts.

P. S. 6 (Nov. 20) -- Paul Hsieh (with Diana Hsieh) publishes a closing statement (including a comment from a critic, Yaron Brook) and adds elements for the chronology of events here: blog.dianahsieh.com/2010/11/closing-thoughts-on-ari-peikoff-and.html

P. S. 7 (Jan. 30, 2011) In an essay "Justice for Leonard Peikoff," Glenn Jorgensen defends Dr. Peikoff by supporting -- with an extended argument (plus citations) and an example (suggested by Jorgensen) -- Peikoff's position that the issue in the conflict with Dr. McCaskey was McCaskey's repudiation of a key element of Objectivist philosophy. Jorgensen's essay appears in Brian Phillips's weblog, Live Oaks, on Jan. 30, 2011, here: txpropertyrights.blogspot.com/2011/01/justice-for-leonard-peikoff.html (See also the comments by Sean Green, both here on Making Progress, below, and on Live Oaks.)

Oct 4, 2010

Best approach to disputes in a movement?

If I had another lifetime to live, I would like to study social movements -- for example, how they form, how they expand without losing their original purpose, and how individuals respond to the inevitable disputes among members. Intriguing movements of the past were the anti-slavery movement in the 1700-1800s, the movement to break down trade barriers in the 1800s, the movement to abolish the draft in the 1960-1970s, and the movement to abolish prohibitions against abortion, also in the 1960-1970s.

I have been a student of Objectivism and a member of the Objectivist movement for almost fifty years. I have seen conflicts arise and fade away. I am learning that there is a proper procedure for outside individuals -- those who are not directly involved -- to approach these conflicts. Part of that procedure consists of asking and answering these questions:

(1) Does the dispute deserve my attention, that is, is there justification for taking time away from pursuing my highest personal values -- my central purpose in life, my friendships, and my favorite and much needed recreational activities?

(2) Exactly what is the conflict? Is it philosophical, personal, something else, or a combination?

(3) Exactly what is the issue in dispute? If there are several issues, in what order should I resolve them?

(4) Is all the evidence available that I need in order to make a decision about which side, if any, to support? Have I waited long enough -- usually months or even years -- for all the relevant facts to emerge? Do I have the facts straight about who did what? Are my sources -- primary and secondary -- reliable?

(5) Do I need to make a decision now or at any time? If so, why?

(6) If I do decide to investigate a dispute and if I uncover enough information to form a judgment, should I take a stand (which entails time and effort to formulate, present and defend), either in private or in public?

The main lesson I have learned is to wait until I can answer such questions with confidence. A secondary lesson is that Objectivism (which is a fixed set of ideas) remains unchanged no matter what happens between individuals in the Objectivist movement.

What other approach would you suggest?

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Aug 29, 2010

Is Neoconservatism Dead?

From the American Conservative Union Foundation's newsletter, Issue 162, August 25, 2010, at conservative.org . . .

"Neoconservatives today dominate conservative think tanks and foundations; they have a major presence in the media; and they are entrenched in America’s universities. Well-known neoconservative intellectuals such as Michael Ledeen, William Kristol, and David Brooks are regular contributors to the National Review, Weekly Standard, and New York Times. They all appear frequently on Fox News and PBS. They are the public face of the conservative movement.

Given their high levels of prominence and productivity, how can the question of the death of their intellectual movement even arise?" . . .

[For the remainder of this article, see: http://www.conservative.org/acuf/issue-162/issue162cul2 ]

I highly recommend Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, by Thompson and Brook and available through Amazon. The book stands at the intersection of history and philosophy, which is the focus of this weblog, Making Progress.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

P. S. -- I provided a chronology for the key individuals and events in the book, here.

Jul 22, 2010

Peter Schwartz, "The Writing Process"

For beginning and intermediate writers, I recommend The Writing Process, an audio recording of two lectures by writer and editor, Peter Schwartz.[1]

In a quiet, understated style, Schwartz first identifies false ideas some writers -- and would-be writers -- hold about the nature of writing. These false ideas make the writing process more difficult than it needs to be. An example false idea is the notion that the writer as a person is defective if his efforts to write are not productive. The appropriate true idea here is the insight that the process the writer is following, not the writer himself, is most likely the cause of a writing problem. If the writer comes to understand (1) the process he is actually using and (2) the logical process he should be using, then he can take steps to practice the objective process.

The second major section of the lectures considers true ideas about writing, as theory. Topics include the nature of clarity, not only sentence by sentence, but for a whole essay; the integrative role of a theme; and the importance of choosing, before writing, the level of abstractness appropriate for the subject and theme. The problem of abstractness is a problem of depth. For example, does a writer need to establish the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical foundations of a political theme? A homework assignment at the end of the first lecture challenges listeners to decide which sort of article to write for a particular theme -- for instance, that the U. S. Food and Drug Administration should be abolished.

The third major section of the lectures also examines true ideas about writing, but in actual practice. (Integration of theory and practice is characteristic of Schwartz's lectures.) Particularly helpful is Schwartz's discussion of the writer's actions in the five major stages of the writing process: understanding; compiling a "laundry list" (including a theme statement); outlining (Schwartz recommends two types); composing a draft; and editing.

Peter Schwartz's lectures, The Writing Process, are an exercise in objective communication. Drawing from his own long experience, he identifies facts about the writing process and offers suggestions for making it more efficient and therefore more enjoyable.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] Available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore.

Jun 14, 2010

A Chronology for "Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea"

In late August and September, Study Groups for Objectivists will examine selected chapters of C. Bradley Thompson's new book, Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, available from The Ayn Rand Bookstore. The book, which I hope to review next month, spans 2400 years of history as part of the author's plan to characterize the sixty-year-old neoconservatism movement and uncover its tangled roots. The movement's advocates characterize neoconservatism as a form of conservatism uniquely identified with America. It isn't, as shown in the following chronological sketch -- which I drew up while selectively rereading the book.

I have placed this chronology in the Prep section for the study group. Perhaps this chronology will also be useful to anyone now reading Dr. Thompson's book. My third motivation is to counter the impression that some individuals have -- that the book is only about day-to-day politics under the Bush administration. Far from it!

The question marks below show I am unsure of a particular point. Treat the details cautiously; this is only a working draft I wrote to make my own study of this rich book more productive.

428-328 BC:
Plato, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato

1135-1204: Moses
Maimonides. (see Wikipedia) (p. 211)

1469-1527: Niccolo
Machiavelli, Florence, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machiavelli

1844-1900: Friedrich Wilhelm
Nietzsche, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nietzsche

1883-1945: Benito
Mussolini (see Wikipedia)

1889-1976: Martin
Heidegger (see Wikipedia)

1899-1973: Leo
Strauss (see Wikipedia)

1915: During WWI, Werner
Sombart (1863-1941) publishes Merchants and Heroes, denounces the selfishness of the merchant society (capitalism), and praises Plato's idea of society, as a model for the German state. Sombart influenced intellectuals who in turn influenced young nihilists and the young Strauss immediately after WWI. (pp. 206-207)

1920-2009: Irving
Kristol (see Wikipedia)

1921-1929: Strauss is a devoted follower of Nietzsche. (p. 200)

c. 1922: Strauss audits courses taught by Heidegger, whom Strauss initially admires. (p. 200)

1927: Carl
Schmitt (1888-1985), a close friend of Sombart and later an official Nazi scholar, publishes
The Concept of the Political. The theme is that capitalism is bad (it "depoliticizes" society) and a society based on "the political" (collective political action) is good. (p. 207)

c. 1930(?): Strauss, a Jew by birth culture, identifies but does not reject (?) Heidegger's connection to Nazism. Strauss later (when?) shows disdain for Heidegger personally. (p. 201)

1930's-1940s: Later neocons are Trotskyite communists at this time. (p. 27)

1932: Strauss reviews Schmitt's
The Concept of the Political. Strauss, whose much later neocon supporters said he was a "friend of liberal democracy," does not defend a free society but instead attacks it by helping Schmitt strengthen Schmitt's argument against a free society. (p. 208) Strauss thus indirectly aided in destroying the Weimar Republic. Strauss, not a Nazi, sided with Nazis (and others) against capitalism. (p. 211)

1932, Sept. 2: Strauss writes a long letter to Schmitt, adding more intellectual ammunition to Schmitt's anti-capitalist arguments. E.g., man is evil and therefore needs to be dominated by the unifying state, preferably by uniting men against other men. (p. 211)

1932: Strauss leaves Berlin for Paris, then Cambridge Univ. (1935), New York universities (1938-1948), and Univ. of Chicago (1949-1969). (Wikipedia)

1932: Before he turns anti-semitic, Mussolini (writing with fascist philosopher Giovanni
Gentile) publishes "Doctrine of Fascism," an article presenting the fundamental principles of fascism. (p. 214) http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/mussolini.htm

1933, May: In a letter to his Jewish friend Karl
Lowith, Strauss (a Jew by birth but later an atheist in private), says he thinks the best antidote to Nazism is another sort of fascism. It saves man from the "ludricous and despicable appeal to the rights of man." (p. 212) The type of fascism Strauss refers to is the early Italian version he learned from a variety of European writers. (CBT, p. 213) The wording of the letter resembles the wording of Mussolini's brochure. (p. 214)

1941: At the New School for Social Research (NY), Strauss delivers the lecture "German Nihilism," explaining that nihilist young "Conservative Revolutionaries" in the 1920s gravitated from Nietzsche and Heidegger to Nazism and Fascism. Though rejecting nihilism, he sympathizes with the nihilists' attacks on Enlightenment and capitalist culture -- "modernity." (p. 202) From the 1940s onward, Strauss showed contempt for the moral meaning of capitalism, which is the right of each individual to pursue his own happiness. (pp. 203-204) The essence of virtue, he held, is self-sacrifice. (p. 205) While accepting their morality, he did not follow their politics (totalitarianism). (p. 205) He was "moderate" and "prudent"; they were extreme. Further, they blamed Plato for rationalizing capitalism; Strauss "recovered" Plato by reinterpreting him in a way compatible with Strauss's philosophy of governance (Platonic-Machiavellianism, that is, classical [idealism]-realism), the foundation of later neoconservatism. (p. 206)

1950-1960s: The individuals who will later consider themselves neocons are "liberals" at this time. (p. 27)

1952: Reading philosopher Strauss inspires Kristol to launch the neoconservatism movement. (pp. 64, 137) Kristol synthesizes Plato and Machiavelli (both described by Strauss) as "classical [idealism]-realism." (p. 137)

1953: Strauss publishes
Natural Right and History. (Wikipedia) ["Right" apparently refers not to individual moral or political"rights" but to a structure of the world, including society, as when philosophers rule and commoners are ruled by "natural right."

1960s: Certain liberals, on their way to becoming neocons, denounce the cultural Left (moral relativism, etc.). (p. 27)

1970s, early: "... Kristol, following Leo Strauss's lead, begins to flirt with 'the secular myth of nationalism' as an antidote to the internal contradictions inherent in bourgeois capitalism." (CBT, p. 220) This is an example of an intellectual, Kristol,
applying a philosopher's philosophical (universal) idea to a particular culture. Within 20 years, Kristol will be willing to openly say that the three pillars of neoconservatism are religion, nationalism, and economic growth. (p. 221)

1970s: Kristol encourages proto-neoconservatives to accept the welfare state (p. 24) but at the same time his proto-neoconservatives realize Pres. Johnson's "Great Society" was a mistake because it tried to impose liberal idealism too quickly on the supposed reality of a religious, nationalist country. (p. 140)

1990s, late: David
Brooks, intellectual heir to Kristol and a writer for the New York Times, begins publishing the principles of "national greatness conservatism." (p. 222) Note how long the chain of influence is: decades from Strauss to Kristol to Brooks and then in 2008 to John McCain.
See Wikipedia for "David Brooks (journalist)."

2003: Kristol publishes "The Neoconservative Persuasion." (p. 23)

2008: Brooks trains John
McCain in the neocon philosophy of governance. (p. 225)

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Apr 8, 2010

Bernstein to lead study group on capitalism's history

For June 14 to July 25, Study Groups for Objectivists has scheduled a five-week study group examining the historical roots of capitalism. The study group leader will be prolific author, lecturer, and philosophy teacher Andrew Bernstein, PhD ( http://www.andrewbernstein.net ). The study text will be four chapters from his book, The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire. To allow for attendance at the 2010 Objectivist Conference, the study group skips the week of July 4. The fifth and last week of the study group will be a review week.

Why study this text? Dr. Bernstein says:

Capitalism is under attack. The intellectuals accuse it of crimes against humanity. Following the lead of the intellectuals, the politicians push America remorselessly into socialism. Now more than ever in America’s illustrious history, a capitalist manifesto is necessary -- a ringing moral endorsement of the principle of individual rights.

Most urgently, men must start by studying capitalism’s history. Socialist intellectuals have created a vast mythology, claiming capitalism exploited workers, exacerbated child labor, instigated imperialism, and spawned penury. This fabric of interlocking canards is taught to millions of students.

It is time for the antidote.

The antidote to that statist mythology is "Part One: History" in The Capitalist Manifesto.

So far, I have finished reading the Introduction and Part One. The style is clear and direct, yet informal. The content is logically structured. The "joints" in the skeleton of the argument are evident because the author tells readers at each turn where the argument is headed next. The text is objective, that is, it supports each theme and subtheme with a flood of evidence.

This book is a one-stop source for anyone who has an active mind engaged in trying to decide what sort of political system is best for living fully on earth. Intellectual activists working for capitalism can recommend the book for such readers. Readers already supporting capitalism as an ideal will gain a wealth of information about the actual history of the rise of capitalism, its brief period of flowering, and the beginnings of its decline. The footnotes and annotated bibliography are doorways to further study. By assembling all of this information in one spot, Dr. Bernstein has spared readers from the vast investment of time required to sort through scattered scholarly material.

Capitalism has been an "unknown ideal," to use Ayn Rand's phrase. Her work and Dr. Bernstein's work are making it known.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

Feb 16, 2010

"Concepts of Consciousness" next on SGO

On March 15, the six-week "Concepts of Consciousness" study group will begin working through Chapter 4 of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ayn Rand's revolutionary treatise on epistemology. Our rate of study will average two to three pages per week, and a final "Summary" week will allow for a re-reading and overview.

Chapter 4 is one of the most difficult in the book, because the subject matter, introspective concepts, is especially abstract and complex. But it is very worthwhile to study the way in which some of our most important concepts (e.g., love, logic, property, and marriage) are objective, as well as to understand the mechanics of "teleological measurements" which underlie value decisions.

More explicitly than for most SGO study groups, I will be issuing formal posts, including optional study questions, during the three Prep weeks prior to the start of week 1, in order to study and review the first three chapters of the book -- which are challenging but mind-expanding in themselves. The Prep weeks will begin on Feb. 22, but participation in those is optional.

Brad Williams
Co-founder of Study Groups for Objectivists

Feb 10, 2010

A writer's working library?

A carpenter needs tools. A surgeon needs tools. What tools does a writer need? Among others, he needs books as resources.

My purpose here is to identify the kinds of books a frequent or full-time writer might accumulate. I offer examples from my bookshelves; I have not performed a systematic survey of the books available today in each category.

First, a general-purpose, unabridged dictionary is indispensable for me. Online dictionaries can be helpful for quick reference to common, customary usages of terms. I prefer a book because I can mark it up. Using a fine-line black pen, I encircle each word I study. I underline to highlight one meaning or word-origin among many. I write comments in the margins. Thus, as the decades pass, I accumulate knowledge in the form of notes in the dictionary itself. If I return to a word years later I can read my earlier notes and use them as an advanced starting point.

The dictionary I use is the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged, 2nd edition. It offers primary, secondary, and less common usages of English words; and it presents a brief history of each word, including its Latin, Greek or other origin. This large-format book (about four inches thick, and nine by twelve on the face) also includes: maps; tables of weights and measures; translation mini-dictionaries for several European languages; a list of commonly confused words (e.g., "ambiguous" and "ambivalent"); and many other features. I keep it open on a stand next to my desk.[1]

The style manual I generally follow is The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition. It has 900 pages packed with detailed information about the process of developing a manuscript; writing style (for example, when to write "18" or "eighteen"); and production of a book (design, printing, binding). An example section is 6.19, "Possessives, General Rules." In some sections, the manual's authors discuss alternative systems of style but emphasize the system that The University of Chicago Press prefers. I support many of their recommendations, but not all of them. Their discussions allow me to make an informed decision.

Other aids for developing the sort of style I want (objective, clear, concise, and readable) are works -- from most concise to most explanatory -- such as William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style; Rudolph Flesch, The ABC of Style: A Guide to Plain English; and Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. These stylists do not always agree with each other. Good. Each presents reasons for his view, allowing the reader to decide for himself in each application. Bernstein in particular is helpful in distinguishing meanings, for example, distinguishing "annihilate" (destroy completely) and "decimate" (destroy one-tenth).

The premier guide to the writing process is Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers. It deserves slow, careful study. It covers big issues, for example, when to use the conscious mind and when the subconscious (for example, Chs. 5 and 6), as well as narrower issues, such as rhythm in writing (p. 134), the writing of book reviews (p. 145), and the error of editing unwritten sentences (p. 73).

I also use a variety of specialized resources to help me achieve my central purpose in life, which is telling success stories from history. For the beginner, Richard Marius, A Short Guide to Writing About History, 2nd ed., covers every phase of researching and writing history.

I love histories that cover vast subjects. I focus on the history of philosophy and its primitive predecessor, religion. I have used W. L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought, hundreds of times. For instance, it has a full page on "Faith" offering 16 entries chronologically arranged, from the 1st Century Christian apostle Paul to the 20th Century philosopher-theologian Frederick R. Tennant.

Last is a category for amusement as well as education: myth-busters. Tom Burnam, The Dictionary of Misinformation, sets the record straight on such items as the often-quoted sentence, "Brevity is the soul of wit," from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Burnam explains that "wit" is short for "witan," which meant "knowledge" to Shakespeare.

What additional tools for writers would you suggest?

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] In his lecture series, Principles of Grammar, Dr. Peikoff offers advice on selecting a general-purpose dictionary.

Jan 6, 2010

What if other philosophers had been novelists too?

To a novice student of Objectivism, who had read two nonfiction works by Ayn Rand and wanted to know more, I suggested reading her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. They show Ayn Rand's philosophy in action.

Intentionally or not, a work of fiction demonstrates a fiction writer's philosophy in its fundamental branches (metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics). As Ayn Rand has noted, all art is a "selective recreation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."[1] The idea of metaphysical value-judgments means personal evaluations of philosophically fundamental facts of reality -- such as the lawfulness of nature, man's need to think and act, and the necessity of loyalty to one's highest values.[2] But why should there be a need to see a philosopher's ideas in action?

All philosophies are hard to study. First is the problem of content. A philosophy is a vast system of abstractions that individually and collectively are difficult to learn. Second is the problem of the medium for transmitting the philosophy from the philosopher to others. The most accomplished philosophers have developed new philosophical ideas and in their own minds systematized those ideas; unfortunately in their writings (which they published over a period of decades) their systemizations -- for example, connecting metaphysics and epistemology to ethics -- have either been only implicit or explicit but scattered in brief comments throughout the philosopher's body of writings. In either case, the student of a particular philosopher must invest a lot of time either in explicating the implicit connections or in collecting and connecting scattered comments. Not even one of the primary philosophers -- Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rand -- has written a concise, systematized, one-volume view of his whole philosophy, even for scholars, much less for philosophical novices. Nor, with very few exceptions in the history of philosophy, have even the philosophers' most advanced followers written such a book.[3]

Because of such problems, studying a philosophy as a whole is often a project requiring years of reading a variety of texts, wrestling with puzzles, and discussing issues with other students of the same philosophy. Seeing a philosopher's philosophy in action -- as in a novel -- might help grasp his philosophy as a whole, including the integration of its main elements.

What would their novels (or other fiction) be like if the three earliest primary philosophers -- Plato, Aristotle, and Kant -- had written fiction as well as philosophical treatises? Who would the characters be? What sort of plot would the characters follow? What themes might the philosopher convey? What would be the main elements of his style? [4]

As usual, I have more questions than answers.

If formulating literary principles that would represent the first three primary philosophers' philosophical system is too difficult or time-consuming for now, then consider this question: Which novels (or other works of fiction) already written by non-philosophers would best represent each of those three philosophers? And why?

(If you do comment, please note this weblog's strict etiquette -- especially using a recognizable form of your real name, at least in the body of the comment.)

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, p. 22 (hb), "Art is a . . ." and so forth. [2] I have listed my own examples of metaphysical elements subject to evaluation. These fundamental value judgments serve as a foundation for ethics (the study of what man should do about living in the world). For Ayn Rand's examples of metaphysical elements subject to fundamental evaluation: TRM, pp. 21-22 hb, "Is the universe intelligible . . ." and so forth. [3] A sterling exception is: Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. There have been compilers, digest writers, and popularizers, but their works were not single-volume tutorials on a philosopher's philosophical system, which would include not only the basic principles in every branch of the philosophy but the main logical connections among those principles. In a similar, though narrower vein, two Objectivist scholars have shown that one element of a philosophy, a philosopher's theory of concepts, integrates his metaphysics, epistemology, and other branches through cause and effect. Dr. Gary Hull's single lecture, "The Two False Theories of Concepts" (covering intrinsicism and subjectivism in Plato, Aristotle, and post-Renaissance philosophers, versus Ayn Rand), and Dr. Andrew Bernstein's four lectures, "Four Giants of Philosophy" (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rand), are available as audio CDs from The Ayn Rand Bookstore, online. [4] For the essential characteristics of a novel or other work of fiction: Rand, TRM, Ch. 4 ("The Basic Principles of Literature").