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The New Open Objectivism

The New Open Objectivism

3 mins
April 19, 2011

Sidebar article accompanying book review of The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics .

Spring 2011 -- Philosopher Leonard Peikoff, founder of the Ayn Rand Institute, was intimately involved in the thinking and writing that went into The Logical Leap. The book’s philosophical elements are directly based on lectures he gave. Indeed, he would have been justified in taking a co-author’s credit, had he been of a mind to do so. And like an author, he has shown a paternally defensive attitude towards the book’s critics. But in turn, his defenses of the book have sparked one of the biggest convulsions to strike the Objectivist movement in recent decades.

McCaskey went. But he did not withdraw his criticisms.

Last year, Ayn Rand Institute supporter John McCaskey privately questioned some aspects of David Harriman’s historical research. The questioning occurred in private meetings and in direct communications with Harriman. (These criticisms have since been posted on Amazon and on McCaskey’s own website.) Certainly, as a Stanford PhD in the history of science, who now teaches part-time at Stanford, McCaskey was eminently qualified to speak on these issues. It is also worth noting that while McCaskey questioned some details of Harriman’s account, he was supportive of the book’s project and wrote: “The theory of induction proposed here is potentially seminal.”

One of McCaskey’s criticisms is that Galileo’s own notes do not show him using a fully developed concept of “friction,” as Harriman claims, but rather a concept more like “buoyancy.” “Buoyancy” is a relation between an object and the medium it is in, such as the air. But “friction” applies to all forms of physical contact. In The Logical Leap itself, Harriman recounts Galileo’s experiments rolling balls down ramps. Galileo sought to relate acceleration down an inclined plane with acceleration toward the Earth in free fall. Galileo apparently did not realize that there is friction between rolling balls and the surface they are on: it’s why they roll, rather than slide. “He never suspected that the acceleration of a rolling ball is about 28 percent less than that of a sliding ball,” Harriman writes (55).

In reaction to such thoughtful observations by McCaskey, Leonard Peikoff broke off all communication with him. Peikoff also demanded that McCaskey resign from the ARI Board, writing:

In essence, [McCaskey’s] behavior amounts to: Peikoff is misguided, Harriman is misguided, [McCaskey] knows Objectivism better than either. Or else: Objectivism on these issues is inadequate, and [McCaskey] is the one pointing the flaws out.

When a great book sponsored by the Institute and championed by me—I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism—is denounced by a member of the Board of the Institute, which I founded, someone has to go, and someone will go.

McCaskey went. But he did not withdraw his criticisms.

Peikoff’s blatant appeal to authority has provoked a backlash of sympathy for McCaskey, causing many previously loyal followers to stand up against such an irrational attack. For his part, David Harriman has since launched a blog online in which he posts occasional ripostes to criticisms of his work, although he rarely directly quotes or even cites his critics.

The controversy has raised two issues that go to the heart of the Objectivist movement. The first is the issue of intellectual toleration. The Atlas Society, publisher of this magazine, was founded as a home for open discussions of Objectivism precisely because honest debate is the only way for reasonable people with differing contexts of knowledge to agree on the truth. It’s also the only way to convince someone that he is wrong.

But the more fundamental issue is whether Objectivism is an open philosophy or a closed doctrine. In attacking McCaskey, Leonard Peikoff defends The Logical Leap’s theory of induction as part of Objectivism, despite the fact that it contains many innovations that Ayn Rand herself never addressed. Yet he has long argued that Objectivism is all and only the philosophy Ayn Rand herself endorsed. Only such a closed system has a place for an authoritative interpreter. Someone must be the gatekeeper who declares what is or is not part of the system. With Ayn Rand dead, Peikoff has claimed that role.

No rational theory can move forward except in a spirit of independence. An open Objectivism has room to consider innovative thought and new integrations, including the Peikoff-Harriman theory of induction. But each interested individual can grasp the system only through his independent thought and through an open, reasoned discussion of ideas.

Peikoff’s attack on McCaskey has caused many former advocates of the closed view of Objectivism to realize the value of new ideas and independent thought. In declaring their independence, they have launched a new wave of open Objectivism.

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