Rethinking Kelley's Essence of Objectivism
by Dave Saum
Date: 1 July 1999
Copyright: Dave Saum
David Kelley's 1990 essay Truth and Toleration contains the last major analysis of the essence of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, and this essay will attempt a long overdue critical analysis of these arguments. Kelley's focus on the concept of objectivity will be criticized as too narrow, and this will be shown to weaken his arguments for the open nature of Objectivism. Furthermore, Kelley's conception of objectivity will be shown to lead to an overly broad essence of Objectivism. A more fundamental analysis of the concept of objectivity is proposed, and this is shown to lead to both improved arguments for an open Objectivism and the essence of Objectivism.
This is the second of a series of essays that attempt to analyze the Objectivist literature on the essence of Objectivism. The first essay Rethinking the Essence of Objectivism (Saum 1997) analyzed Rand's position, and it was discussed on Objectivism-L email list during October of 1997. Future essays are planned on the views on essence of Leonard Peikoff, Chris Sciabarra, Nathaniel Branden and Robert Merrill.
At issue here are the important questions: Who is an Objectivist? What constitutes Objectivist thought? These issues have not been widely debated since 1991, and I think it is past time to give them the extended debate that they deserve. My primary personal interest is in understanding how to extend Objectivism to new areas, and not in providing an improved litmus test for driving heretics out of the movement.
In this essay, I will attempt to summarize and analyze Objectivist philosopher David Kelley's views on the essence of Objectivism. Kelley's views are primarily laid out in his 1990 essay Truth and Toleration (2) particularly in the introduction and the chapter entitled "Objectivism", and in Kelley's 1990 speech Objectivism, The Philosophy and the Movement (3). My summary of Kelley's views will be much briefer than these primary documents, and for a more complete understanding of the issues you should read Kelley's work. Although these documents are part of a larger body of literature dealing with the split between Kelley and Leonard Peikoff (and other related matters), I will attempt to focus solely on Kelley's arguments about the nature of Objectivism.
I think that Truth and Toleration (T&T) is the most significant Objectivist work of the 1990s. When I first read it I was one the "homeless Objectivists" described by George Walsh in his introduction to Kelley's speech. Kelley's essay stimulated my renewed interest in the philosophy and the movement. Out of all the insights in T&T, two were of greatest interest to me: Kelley's analysis of "toleration" and his analysis of Objectivism itself. I had always been impressed by Rand's power to analyze complex abstractions, but here were examples of similar original analysis by a thinker other than Rand. This suggested to me that there might be an underlying method to Objectivism that could both explain the system and provide a new approach to problems not considered by Rand. Although I may seem to quite critical of some of David Kelley's arguments in the remainder of this essay, much of my thinking has been stimulated by my study of his work, and would not have been possible without it.
2.0 Summary of Kelley's View of Essence
This summary section is a paraphrase Kelley's arguments regarding the essence of Objectivism. The reader is urged again to review the primary documents to grasp the full scope of the arguments. In the Introduction to T&T Kelley states that the
"essential issue in this debate is the nature of objectivity. One of Ayn Rand's great insights, the one that gives Objectivism its name, is her recognition that knowledge and value are objective, not intrinsic or subjective. The common thread that runs though ever issue in this debate is the question of how to interpret and apply her insight."
He begins by considering the question: Is Objectivism an open or closed system of philosophy? Since the core issue is the meaning of objectivity, he reviews Rand's insightful subjective- intrinsic-objective distinction (SIOD). Since the characterization of a philosophic system as open or closed is a metaphor, we must analyze what this actually means in terms of a philosophy. Kelley proposes that the metaphor refers to two aspects of the philosophy: its identity and its completeness. By identity we mean that the philosophy most say something definite about the world and it must be different than other philosophies. By completeness we mean that a philosophy must address a broad range of topics in many areas in order to be a system rather than just a position. But how completely must author lay it out, and to what extent can it be open to growth and modification like science is?
2.1 Kelley's Arguments Against Closure
I will limit my focus to three of the arguments that Kelley makes against the closure of Objectivism, and I will call these the "evolutionary argument", the "outline argument", and the "objectivity argument":
Evolutionary Argument: Kelley argues that if Objectivism is closed, then its essence is laid out by its author and no modifications are allowed, but if it is open like the major systems of the past, then only its broad essentials are closed. Historically it is on this broad view that philosophy has had its major consequences. Therefore in historical terms a philosophy must be defined in the open sense. Its identity is determined by internal debates, and it is not complete as laid out by the author. Only systems like religions and totalitarian ideologies have been closed. Kelley cites the historical examples of Plato, Aristotle, and Kant whose systems are considered much more broadly today than when their authors originally laid them out.
Outline Argument: Furthermore Objectivism cannot be closed because, from an historical context, Rand's work is only the outline of a philosophic system. Her entire philosophical writings would fit within a single volume of about 600 pages, while other major philosophers have written many volumes of elaboration. Her positions need to be worked out in much more detail. For instance, more work is needed in ethics, in epistemology (certainty, probability, induction, and scientific explanation), and in the mind- body problem/relation of consciousness to the physical world to explain how free will is consistent with the law of causality.
Objectivity Argument: Kelley writes that progress depends on the freedom to question Ayn Rand's conclusions and to hold truth, agreement with the facts, as our sole criterion. Disagreement does not place one outside Objectivism if the conclusion disagreed with is not fundamental. Philosophy is like science in the respect that a biologist can question one of Darwin's findings based on new facts without being considered not a Darwinian. According to Kelley, "An Objectivist must be a thinker first, an Objectivist second."
2.2 Kelley's Identity Arguments
Kelley proposes to define Objectivism objectively. What attributes are essential to it and differentiate it from other philosophies? What are the essential principles that give it its internal structure as a system? He starts with Rand's "standing on one foot" comments on Objectivism's essence where she give one-sentence summaries of the metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. He notes that her characterization is too general to provide a unique identity to Objectivism because many Enlightenment thinkers held similar positions. He suggests that we must look deeper into Rand's work to see how she was able to mount a unique defense of her positions in the four major branches of philosophy. He then proposes a list of Rand's innovations in each of the major categories of philosophy that make Objectivism a distinctive philosophy:
2. Rand's Epistemology:
3. Rand's Ethics:
4. Rand's Politics:
Kelley argues that Objectivists are those who agree with these essential principles that characterize Objectivism as a system. Although some of the principles are not original to Rand, their integration into a connected system was original. Many non- essential principles have been left out and can be challenged within Objectivism. These include aesthetics and the role of philosophy in history. Kelley points out that this is consistent with Rand's analysis of essence.
In summary, anyone in substantial agreement with Kelley's core doctrines of Objectivism is an Objectivist, and disagreements on other issues are to be expected. However, since Objectivism is a connected system, the reasons for any challenges to parts of the system must be consistent with the essentials.
How did Kelley develop his core principles of Objectivism? He does not provide a proof in his essay, and he provides this explanation:
"An analysis of this kind is a delicate scholarly task. It requires extensive knowledge not only of Objectivism, but also of the other systems from which it must be distinguished. A vast number of considerations must guide one's judgment about whether to include or exclude a given principle. In this context, I cannot lay out all these considerations."
3.0 Analysis of Kelley's Views on Essence
Kelley began his essay with an analysis of the concept of "objectivity", and this is where this critique will begin. I will attempt to show that Kelley's focuses too narrowly on the fallacies of subjectivism and intrinsicism, rather than a positive identification of the "facts of reality that give rise to the concept" of objectivity. My main method will be to show that much stronger arguments can be offered for the positions that Kelley defends if a positive and more fundamental view of objectivity is taken. Imagine if someone were attempting to be logical by focussing on the logical fallacies without applying the methods of logic. They would avoid some tricks and traps, but they would not have all the power of logic at their disposal.
The first step in my argument is to make a positive analysis of the method of objectivity. A comprehensive treatment of this subject is obviously beyond this essay, but I will outline the major points by following the procedure that Rand recommends in ITOE: ask Rand's question "What fact or facts of reality gave rise to this concept?" When this question is asked about objectivity, we are lead to focus on the question: Why do we need something more than logic and reason in our quest for truth? One hint is found in the everyday use of objective as synonymous with unbiased or unprejudiced. Reason requires us to focus logically on the facts, but the question of just which facts and the firmness of our commitment is not entirely clear if we are directed by only reason and logic. Mankind accomplished an amazing amount primarily with reason, but the progress of science has shown just how powerful the addition of objectivity has been in one domain of knowledge, our understanding of the physical world. We need a concept to identify the importance of focusing on ALL the facts, and ONLY on the facts. Therefore we can define objectivity as "a commitment to thinking in accordance with the facts and interpreting them logically, without bias or prejudice." (4) Note that objectivity incorporates both reason and logic. This definition does not appear to hold much firepower, but I will show that it has significant implications for questions related to the essence of objectivism.
3.1 Analysis of Kelley's Arguments Against Closure
How strong are Kelley's arguments for an open Objectivism? They are certainly an important part of any objective argument against closure in the sense that they address relevant facts, which must be considered in a full analysis of the question. But we need to examine each of them in detail to see how strong a case they make.
Evolutionary Argument: Although there is no question that our understanding of the major systems of philosophy has evolved over time as new thinkers analyzed the original founders ideas, I think this offers questionable support for an open Objectivism. The primary problem is that most past systems of philosophy have not been founded on objectivity, so they are different in kind from an objective philosophy like Objectivism. Shouldn't we rightly be suspicious of claims that the historical evolution of an intrinsicist or subjectivist system (e.g., Platonism or Kanteanism) can give us any deep insight as to how our understanding of an objective system like Objectivism should develop? Objective systems need to be open to modification as new facts are discovered, but they also need to be closed to claims based on intrinsicism and subjectivism. Consider the example of science; does this objective system of knowledge have anything significant to learn about its open nature by studying the historical development of pre- scientific systems of "natural philosophy" such as Cartesianism and Scholasticism?
The strongest argument for open evolution of objective systems of thought should be based on the nature of objectivity and not the history of previous non-objective systems. If man is not omniscient, and we are committed to base our system on the facts, then as new facts are discovered and integrated into the system, it will evolve, just as science has. Whether previous systems ever evolved in this objective way is irrelevant, except as a historical consideration.
Outline Argument: Kelley points out that the body of Objectivist writing is quite small when compared to the major historical systems of philosophy, and this fact provides support for an open Objectivism. This argument is questionable because it appears to imply that there is a connection between openness and completeness for objective systems. Suppose that Ayn Rand had written 6,000 or even 60,000 pages of technical philosophy, rather than 600. And suppose that there were no major technical issues that she did not analyze in detail. Would this "completeness" now constitute an argument for the closure of Objectivism? Or imagine that a small but open Objectivism grows to the size and comprehensiveness of the major philosophic system. After it grows beyond a certain size should it be closed? I think Kelley would agree that both of these hypothetical cases are inconsistent with objectivity. Objective systems of knowledge are always open, at least in principle, no matter what their state of completeness.
Objectivity Argument: Kelley makes an eloquent case for objectivity as an argument for an open Objectivism, which I generally agree with, but I do not think he takes the argument to its logical, and most powerful conclusion. He argues that disagreement with the principles of Objectivism does not place one outside Objectivism if the conclusion disagreed with is not fundamental. However, objectivity suggests that the first criteria to consider when considering contested principles is not the fundamentality of the principal, but the evidence that led to the argument. For instance, if a physicist argues against fundamental principles list the conservation of momentum or energy. The first question asked is "where is your data?" But Kelley argues that in the case of a disagreement within Objectivism, the question to ask is "which position is in fact consistent with the basic principles of Objectivism? That question must be decide by logic, not authority." But I would argue that this not consistent with the fundamental meaning of objectivity. If Objectivism is to be objective, then disagreements are ultimately decided by the facts, not just by logic. This inexorable logic suggests that only the axiomatic facts of Objectivism are clearly outside the scrutiny of objectivity. With this in mind, we see that the use of the term open, when used to describe an objective system it a tautology; it simply means that the system is always open to modification by new facts. For subjectivist or intrinsicist systems the term open does not have this meaning. By an open Objectivism we simply mean an objective Objectivism; that we are committed to an evolving understanding based on facts and logic, and not any preconceived theory, including Ayn Rand's.
3.2 Analysis of Identity Argument
Suppose that we accept Kelley's core principles as the essence of Objectivism. This leads to several bothersome conclusions that suggest deeper problems:
1. Kelley points out in his completeness arguments that the historical trend in philosophy has been to evolve a wider view of major systems (e.g. our present view of the essence of the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Kant). However, in his proposed core principles of Objectivism, Kelley is proposing to go in the opposite direction, toward a narrower and more detailed essence of Objectivism. This is inconsistent.
2. As Kelley points out, the validation on his core principles is quite complex and depends on a deep knowledge of Objectivism and the history of philosophy. In the 9 years since he proposed them there has been no further validation offered, by Kelley or others. This lack of validation is serious if we actually intend to use the principles as tools in deciding important questions like who is an Objectivist? And what constitutes new Objectivist thought? Are we left with an analysis that is not applicable in practice because of its complexity?
3. Kelley starts from Rand's "standing on one foot" analysis of the essence of Objectivism, and I have pointed out previously (1) that this analysis did not consider that there are two primary uses of the term conceptual essence. The broad definition of essence is an outline that lists all the major principles, and the narrow essence is the most fundamental principles from which all the other principles derive. Rand's essence is a broad essence that ranges from metaphysics to politics. Kelley extends Rand's argument, but he still offers a broad essence. He leaves out principles like "measurement omission" because they are not fundamental, but he does not attempt to limit his principles to the most fundamental parts of philosophy. This makes the decision to leave out some branches (e.g., esthetics) and retain others (e.g., politics) appear arbitrary. Ideally the essence should be a fundamental type essence all of whose parts are necessary and none are arbitrary.
4. Kelley argues that Rand's essence of Objectivism is not unique, and we must identify the principles that are unique to Objectivism if it is to be an original system, and not just a variation of an existing system. I do not think this is necessarily consistent with objectivity. If Objectivism is to be an objective system, then what is most important is not that the core principles are unique inventions of any one individual, but that they are objective - consistent with the facts. In fact, what is essential is that all of the principles are consistent with an objective method.
In light of these nagging problems, I think that we can develop a wider view of Objectivism by comparing the requirements of objectivity with Kelley's core principles to see if the two are consistent. If objectivity requires a "commitment to thinking in accordance with the facts", then can we simultaneously claim to be objective and claim to hold all of Kelley's core principles? Some of the core principles (e.g. the metaphysics and epistemology) provide a foundation for our commitment to the facts, and so they are consistent with objectivity. However, the other sets of core principles (e.g., in ethics and politics) are definitely not part of the methodology of objectivity, and we can not claim to both to be objective and hold them to be essential. Therefore if Objectivism is to be objective, its essence must be found in the principles of metaphysics and epistemology that underlie objective method. This view solves all of the four problems cited above regarding Kelley's core principles.
Even if we are quite sure that all the core principles in ethics and politics are true, objectivity requires us to allow in principle that they are open to revision as new facts are evaluated. Therefore, only Kelley's core principles in metaphysics and epistemology that form the basis of our objective methodology can be objective core principles. We can not claim to have an objective system if we include higher branches of philosophy (ethics, politics, esthetics, etc.) in our essence of Objectivism. Generalizing from this argument, the essence of Objectivism or any other objective system must be an objective method and not a system of ideas.
In this essay I have attempted to show that the primary support for an open Objectivism must rest on the nature of objectivity, and that the essence of Objectivism must be an objective method rather than a system of ideas. This new conception of the essence of Objectivism was discussed in the first essay in this series (1), and the term "meta-Objectivism" was suggested as name for this new point of view, in order to distinguish it temporarily from other interpretations of Objectivism. The previous essay also describes some of the implications of this point of view.
Meta-Objectivism suggests a different interpretation of the historical significance of Objectivism. Kelley argues that the great historical systems of philosophy have, over time, been interpreted much more broadly than their founders would have allowed. He suggests that Objectivism, in its full elaboration, "will come to be seen as the fundamental answer to Kant's, in the way that Aristotle's was a fundamental alternative to Plato." However, if the essence of Objectivism is a method rather than a system because of the nature of objectivity, then Rand's fundamental contribution to philosophy can be viewed as the discovery of how to apply objectivity to abstractions. Objectivism becomes the name that encompasses all objective philosophy, since it contradictory to have competing objective systems.
Consider the answers to the two questions about the nature of Objectivism that we started this essay with. Who are meta- Objectivists? This is determined by a commitment to an objective method when dealing with the conceptual realm, rather than agreement with any set of core principles other than objectivity itself. What is meta-Objectivist thought? This is determined by whether the conclusions follow from an objective method rather how they agree with previous Objectivist work, including Rand's. There are many other significant implications of meta-Objectivism that remain to be worked out, and I believe that over time it will be seen to be the most productive way of interpreting Ayn Rand's philosophy.
1. David Saum, "Rethinking the Essence of Objectivism", October, 1997, 2.
2. David Kelley, Truth and Toleration, 87 pages, 1990, available from the Institute for Objectivist Studies. http://www.ios.org.
3. David Kelley, "Objectivism, The Philosophy and the Movement", lecture given in NY in 1990, available on tape from Laissez Faire Books. http://www.lfb.com
4. David Kelley, "The Art of Reasoning, Expanded Edition", W. W. Norton, 1990, New York, p 110.
This essay is Copyright 1999 by David Saum.
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