Burgess Laughlin

What is rationalism?

24 posts in this topic

Frankly, I think the charges of rationalism should be on the other foot: I think it is rationalistic to look at what the Republicans are doing today and think that theocracy is coming anytime soon.

What is your evidence proving that anyone who reaches this conclusion is rationalistic? I say "anyone" because you make no exceptions or qualifications.

Perhaps we can use your statement as a starting point for a productive discussion of a common issue. (I suffered from rationalism for most of my life, so I have some familiarity with the issue.)

I see two important, underlying questions worthy of consideration in this area:

(1) What is the nature of rationalism?

(2) What constitutes evidence of rationalism?

In a review of the history of philosophy, Ayn Rand describes Rationalists as "those who claimed that man obtains his knowledge of the world by deducing it exclusively from concepts, which come from inside his head and are not derived from the perception of physical facts ...." (The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 405, citing Ayn Rand, "For the New Intellectual," For the New Intellectual, p. 31 [hb] or 30 [pb].)

In my own words, I think of rationalism as the epistemology in which the thinker tries to erect a syllogistically correct structure of knowledge on arbitrary premises. I say "arbitrary" because the premises may come from anywhere or nowhere, there is no way for him to prove a source, and the rationalist doesn't really care as long as what he deduces is "logically" (syllogistically) correct. The premises then may come subjectively -- from wishes. Or they come through some form of intrinsicism, such as revealed "truths" coming from God in mystic intuition or written on golden tablets and handed to the elect.

What would constitute evidence of rationalism in a particular position statement or in a person as a whole? I would say that the evidence would consist of the person saying, explicitly or implicitly, that he deduced his conclusion from premises as starting points whose source cannot be tied to sense-perception. To uncover such evidence, about a particular person in general or on a particular issue, would require interrogation in some form. There must be an active investigation, not merely observing that a particular person in a particular write-up did not support a particular statement.

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In a review of the history of philosophy, Ayn Rand describes Rationalists as "those who claimed that man obtains his knowledge of the world by deducing it exclusively from concepts, which come from inside his head and are not derived from the perception of physical facts ...." (The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 405, citing Ayn Rand, "For the New Intellectual," For the New Intellectual, p. 31 [hb] or 30 [pb].)

In my own words, I think of rationalism as the epistemology in which the thinker tries to erect a syllogistically correct structure of knowledge on arbitrary premises. I say "arbitrary" because the premises may come from anywhere or nowhere, there is no way for him to prove a source, and the rationalist doesn't really care as long as what he deduces is "logically" (syllogistically) correct. The premises then may come subjectively -- from wishes. Or they come through some form of intrinsicism, such as revealed "truths" coming from God in mystic intuition or written on golden tablets and handed to the elect.

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I would consider one issue concerning the arbitrary premises. I don't think that the essence of rationalist thinking is that the premises are arbitrary. I think that rationalist thinking implies that the conclusion is arbitrary and not derived from or connected to observational premises. If the premises "may come from anywhere," then, in some cases, the premises could just as likely be based on observation. It is the conclusion, i.e., his knowledge and how he arrives at it, that is divorced from his observation. For example, Descartes certainly observed people; he observed that they had minds and bodies (reason and senses). What he did not observe was that the mind and body were distinct entities and that the mind could properly question the existence of the body. This issue resulted from his religious beliefs, which he tried to integrate into secular philosophy. So, perhaps you are correct, since he didn't use his observations as premises in his argument. He used arbitrary premises that were already divorced from reality to base his argument.

On another point, one can become rationalistic with ideas that are based on reality if one does not grasp their perceptual basis. For example, I can take an idea about egoism, that one should be the beneficiary of one's own actions, which has an objective basis, and make it a premise of a rationalistic argument if I don't keep in mind the link between the idea and its perceptual base (I must act if I want to live because my ultimate value is my life). I could take that idea and use it to argue that stealing is acceptable since I'm the beneficiary of my actions. I could then go on to say, since stealing is egoist, the government shouldn't protect other peoples property or rights. On this basis, I could argue that environmental laws are good. Thus I've arrived at a rationalistic conclusion from premises that I didn't keep connected to reality.

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Understanding Objectivism is the first place I encountered the term rationalism, not in the historical sense, but as an epistemological malady. For a thorough description and discussion of that, I would refer the reader to the lecture series. Unfortunately I don't have written notes on the course, nor the time at present to listen to it. So, I offer the following not as the final word on the subject nor a formal definition, but as a description of rationalism based on my understanding.

Rationalism is an epistemological error and malady characterized by an improper focus on deductive logic and systemization. In cases where the proper action would be observation of facts and induction, the rationalist relies on abstractions and principles he's already formed and deduces facts from them. In a sense, his focus is on his own ideas more than on reality.

As an example, contrast the views of two people looking at the relationship between inflation and employment. A. W. Phillips argued that there was an inverse relationship between inflation and the unemployment rate: increase one and the other decreases. So, for instance, the Carter administration would increase the money supply in order to drive down unemployment and thus get voters back to work. When this didn't work at first, they kepy at it, increasing inflation even further. Observers were bewildered that we could have both inflation and high unemployment, and invented the term "stagflation" to describe it.

In fact the relationship is not inverse, but proportional: the increase in inflation caused high unemployment. Sure enough, when the money supply stabilized under Reagan, unemployment decreased. In fact, an historical analysis (as Henry Hazlitt did in The Inflation Crisis) shows that annual unemployment rates and inflation rates are all over the map.

How should one deal with these events? The fact of rising unemployment should serve as a reality check for Phillips' idea of an inverse relationship. Yet that fact was ignored. The adherents of the Phillips curve clung to their idea in the face of evidence to the contrary. Some claimed there were extraneous factors which caused the curve to "reset" or shift left and right. Excuses were made in order to maintain the illusion that their idea was correct.

The adherents of the Phillips curve were engaging in rationalism to defend a false principle against the facts that refuted it.

Here's another example of rationalism. I've encountered several young Objectivists, new to the philosophy, who want to "systematize" Objectivism. They like the rigor of mathematics and want to put the philosophy in a different form, in order to make it more "rigorous." They feel that Objectivism as it is today isn't logical enough. But from where does mathematics get its rigor? Why does it relate to reality? What are sets and numbers, and are they metaphysical or epsitemological entities? These are philosophical (epistemological and metaphysical) questions that underpin mathematics. In other words, these people's efforts are based on the false idea that mathematics is more fundamental than philosophy. It is philosophy that can justify the validity of mathematics, not the reverse.

These two examples are pretty abstract, but rationalism can also apply to less theoretical issues, like relationships. Suppose a young man and woman meet at an Objectivist conference. They talk and find that they have much in common, such as Objectivism. Both relate that it is wonderful to meet someone with whom they can discuss such things, as back home they are rather isolated philosophically (and socially, as they base their relationships on adherence to Objectivism). Although neither feels really strong passion for the other, they feel that they ought to, since they have their most important values (their philosophy) in common. Since they don't feel this attraction, they attack their self-esteem, blaming themselves for having some deep, hidden, unknown fault that prevents their attraction. They view it as a personal failure and blame themselves.

In fact the error lies on the assumption that philosophic agreement is sufficient for a romantic relationship to blossom. Romance requires an attraction to another's personality and sense of life. It is not correct to say to onesself: "If we hold the same philosophy, then we ought to fall in love." Romantic love entails love of the sum of the other person, of the essence of who they are as a concrete person, not as simply a floating abstraction of "Objectivist of the other gender."

All three examples illustrate a willingness to cling to a premise in the face of a contradiction with reality. Instead of checking the premise, the rationalist makes excuses to explain the contradiction, so that he may keep his cherished premise. He either sees the facts themselves as mistaken, or the connection between his theory and the facts as more complex than at first thought. The bottom line is he rationalizes.

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Burgess, thank you for starting this thread. I have often thought about this question.

In James S. Valliant's book, The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics: The Case Against The Brandens, Valliant writes:

9. Objectivism certainly rejects "rationalism," as in the classical sense of the term, i.e., the philosophical approach of men like Descartes and Leibnitz. But Objectivists also use this term to mean something else, an approach not necessarily tied to the content of one's philosophy but to one's normal cognitive method, i.e., how one thinks. It is a "syndrome," if you will, which sometimes afflicts intellectuals, in particular; it is characterized by emotional repression and an excessive reliance on purely deductive logic--in short, the overly "cerebral" personality. More precisely, the rationalist tends to avoid the perceptual level of awareness in favor of the abstract. His values and opinions tend to be developed independently from fact and experience and, therefore, at some point invariably come into conflict with them. An ideal not based on reality will be impossible to achieve in reality. (40)

A "rationalist" is one who might, for instance, repress his genuine emotions in order to live up to what his supposed "logic" is telling him he "should" value. He might attempt to "force" himself to like, say, a certain kind of art and the facts, including his authentic values, will not be regarded as an obstacle. In other words, he will exhibit the very self-abnegating behavior which we have already seen in the Brandens. Theirs was an "Objectivism" not based on facts, but on the desire to live up to their distorted view of Rand's ideals.(p. 210-211)

(40) For a complete discussion of the syndrome Objectivism refers to as "rationalism," see Peikoff, "Understanding Objectivism." (p. 412)

After reading the above passage( at least a year or two ago), I went through the e-osg archives and found some good posts and discussions on "rationalism." I will try and locate my notes. I also put Peikoff's 'Understanding Objectivism" on my "List of lectures to listen to."

Has anyone listened to the 'Understanding Objectivism" lecture and is it a good source to learn about "rationalism"?

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In my own words, I think of rationalism as the epistemology in which the thinker tries to erect a syllogistically correct structure of knowledge on arbitrary premises. I say "arbitrary" because the premises may come from anywhere or nowhere, there is no way for him to prove a source, and the rationalist doesn't really care as long as what he deduces is "logically" (syllogistically) correct. The premises then may come subjectively -- from wishes. Or they come through some form of intrinsicism, such as revealed "truths" coming from God in mystic intuition or written on golden tablets and handed to the elect.

What would constitute evidence of rationalism in a particular position statement or in a person as a whole? I would say that the evidence would consist of the person saying, explicitly or implicitly, that he deduced his conclusion from premises as starting points whose source cannot be tied to sense-perception. To uncover such evidence, about a particular person in general or on a particular issue, would require interrogation in some form. There must be an active investigation, not merely observing that a particular person in a particular write-up did not support a particular statement.

I agree with Mr. Laughlin. Rationalism is the process for gaining knowledge by deducing conclusions from premises. It's up in the air as to how those premises become premises; it's different between rationalists (devine revelation, they are "reasonable," Ayn Rand said it, etc.). Rationalists are masters of deductive logic and have no to little understanding of inductive logic.

One thing that I've noticed about rationalists is how they're convinced that their knowledge describes reality. Like astronomers who came up with equations that accurately described the motion of heavenly bodies while assuming the Earth at the center of the universe, so too do these people think that they are correct because their conclusions describe the world around them to some extent.

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Has anyone listened to the 'Understanding Objectivism" lecture and is it a good source to learn about "rationalism"?

I have heard it and I do recommend it. If I recall correctly, the first two-thirds was very helpful to me -- as a rationalist at that time. There was one, rather unpleasant session, a purported interview that, in my opinion demeaned Dr. Peikoff. I could have done without that. That was in the last third of the series. By the way, the series is not just lectures. There are other activities too. The series is expensive, but I found it quite worthwhile. I took detailed notes. I may still have them.

Valliant is correct in pointing out the psychological use of the term "rationalism," but I see that as a consequence, an application of the philosophical use. Philosophy causes psychology, generally.

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I see two important, underlying questions worthy of consideration in this area:

(1) What is the nature of rationalism?

(2) What constitutes evidence of rationalism?

...

What would constitute evidence of rationalism in a particular position statement or in a person as a whole? I would say that the evidence would consist of the person saying, explicitly or implicitly, that he deduced his conclusion from premises as starting points whose source cannot be tied to sense-perception. To uncover such evidence, about a particular person in general or on a particular issue, would require interrogation in some form. There must be an active investigation, not merely observing that a particular person in a particular write-up did not support a particular statement.

In answer to your second question, in the case of a particular position, I would look at the argument the person gives for his position. Is he clinging to a premise in light of facts to the contrary, or checking the premise? Does he consider not just a few facts but the whole range and draw out the most essential ones? Does he ignore certain facts of which he should be aware? There's nothing wrong with deductive arguments, but is he trying to prove a controversial point by deducing his view from a more abstract but also controversial idea?

To establish someone as rationalistic as a characteristic thinking method requires many more observations of his thinking. It is entirely possible for someone to mistakenly be rationalistic on occassion, or to compartmentalize his rationalism to one area of his life. An indicator, though, is how the mind handles concepts. If I use the word "man," does your mind first think of the definition, or of concrete instances, of particular individual men? A rationalist typically thinks of the definition, rather than concretes. Such would be evidence, but not necessarily proof, of rationalism.

Let me add that I don't regard rationalism as a moral failure nor a catastrophic error. It is one incorrect method among many. I don't spend my time looking for instances of rationalism. Rather, if I find an error in my thinking or that of others, depending on the context, I track down the cause, which in some cases can be rationalism.

Also, there's some good discussion of rationalism in Peikoff's course Objectivism Through Induction.

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I have heard it and I do recommend it. If I recall correctly, the first two-thirds was very helpful to me -- as a rationalist at that time. There was one, rather unpleasant session, a purported interview that, in my opinion demeaned Dr. Peikoff. I could have done without that. That was in the last third of the series.

I'm drawing a blank on the interview you mention. Could you refresh my memory?

For the record, I hold Eight Great Plays as my personal favorite lecture series, but Understanding Objectivism as the one that's had the biggest impact on my thinking. I listened to the tapes at least ten years ago, after reading just about all of Ayn Rand's writings and those of Dr. Peikoff. It gave me a new perspective on the philosophy as such and how to integrate it into my life. I highly recommend it, above all other lecture courses of that length, for any new Objectivist who has read nearly everything by Ayn Rand and Dr. Peikoff and has a good grasp of the content. This course will help with the method.

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I'm drawing a blank on the interview you mention. Could you refresh my memory?

Perhaps I am misremembering. I recall the interview being conducted by Dr. Edith Packer. If my memory is mistaken, either in facts or in evaluation, I hope someone will correct me.

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Perhaps I am misremembering. I recall the interview being conducted by Dr. Edith Packer. If my memory is mistaken, either in facts or in evaluation, I hope someone will correct me.

I haven't listened to the course in years, but I don't recall such an interview.

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I also put Peikoff's 'Understanding Objectivism" on my "List of lectures to listen to."

Has anyone listened to the 'Understanding Objectivism" lecture and is it a good source to learn about "rationalism"?

I was in a philosophical bind myself until Mrs. Speicher recommended the course to me on another forum two years ago or so.

The lectures are excellent and bring great insight and relief. I believe they are required listening, and ought to be considered an "unofficial" part of the wider Objectivist canon.

I quickly followed up on them with two of Harry Binswanger's lectures: The Metaphysics of Consciousness and Emotions. More recently, I have gone through HB's Psycho-Epistemology lectures. Very soon, I will be attending Jean Moroney's Thinking Tactics class.

The key, I think, to overcoming rationalism - or any other epistemological problem - is to learn as much as you can about how to think, to the point where you can almost "watch" your mind working. And then, begin to practice the principles in earnest.

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Perhaps I am misremembering. I recall the interview being conducted by Dr. Edith Packer. If my memory is mistaken, either in facts or in evaluation, I hope someone will correct me.

I haven't listened to the course in years, but I don't recall such an interview.

I don't recall the interview either. I suspect it was excised after a revision.

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I don't recall the interview either. I suspect it was excised after a revision.

Maybe. I thought of that as well, but I don't know. Do you have a reason to suspect that it was, either than the absence of the interview and the falling out Dr. Packer had with ARI a few years ago? Was the interview part of the "live" lecture? Maybe someone in attendance then would know.

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Do you have a reason to suspect that it was, either than the absence of the interview and the falling out Dr. Packer had with ARI a few years ago? Was the interview part of the "live" lecture?

I haven't a clue. I'm just hearing about it for the first time.

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Was the interview part of the "live" lecture?

I listened to UO three times. According to my 1989 set of notes, Lecture 12 was the one in which Dr. Packer appeared, discussing cognitive therapy. I have very few notes for Lecture 12, for that year. However, according to my 1995 and 1997 notes (the second and third review sets), the subject of my notes was Judging Intellectual Honesty. I do have many more notes on that lecture for those years, but I didn't mention Dr. Packer in my notes. The informal interview or discussion with Leonard Peikoff was only a part of that audiotape.

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In reviewing my earliest notes for Lecture 1 of Understanding Objectivism, I notice Leonard Peikoff's clear, concise, easy-to-learn style in his description of two fundamental errors in thinking:

Empiricism is rejecting concepts and keeping the concretes.

Rationalism is treating concepts as if they were objects.

In other words, I would say, rationalists start with the ideas already in their heads, never mind where they came from. What matters to rationalists is creating the syllogistically-correct, deductive structure on top of that floating foundation of axiomatic-concepts-as-objects. Rationalism is what the metaphor "castles in the sky" applies to.

If you find this sort of insight valuable, keep in mind that it is just a tiny sample of the jewels in UO. But if you audit UO be prepared to either do so very slowly, perhaps one lecture per week, or repeatedly, perhaps over a period of years.

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Rationalism is treating concepts as if they were objects.

In other words, I would say, rationalists start with the ideas already in their heads, never mind where they came from. What matters to rationalists is creating the syllogistically-correct, deductive structure on top of that floating foundation of axiomatic-concepts-as-objects. Rationalism is what the metaphor "castles in the sky" applies to.

I found some of my notes from the OSG-S archives. One aspect of rationalism that I noted was:

A rationalist does not aquire knowledge from direct observation of reality but from ideas or statements about reality. I think this statement is consistant with your "castles in the sky" metaphor.

I thought I had more notes besides what I just provided so I will keep looking.

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Ed,

I just wanted to say how much I liked your post #3. I thought it flowed very well and gave very good examples of rationalism.

Has anyone listened to the 'Understanding Objectivism" lecture and is it a good source to learn about "rationalism"?

Yes, Leonard Peikoff addresses rationalism a lot in the course. This is the lecture course that was recommended to me most highly by nearly every Objectivist I asked (and I asked many). It is definitely the most universally recommended out of all the taped courses.

I have listened to it a couple of times now. This time I've been listening very slowly (with a lot of repeats) over the last year or so. I have it in my car, and drive only short distances, so it has taken a while, especially because I like to repeat lectures.

On the CD version I have, there are 11 lectures and no interview.

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Has anyone listened to the 'Understanding Objectivism" lecture and is it a good source to learn about "rationalism"?

I consider "UO" the best and most useful lecture course Dr. Peikoff ever gave. It addresses and helps Objectivists deal with and overcome psycho-epistemological problems like rationalism, avoid unearned guilt, and apply Objectivism effectively to almost every area of life.

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While I agree with Burgess that one part of rationalism is "[trying] to erect a syllogistically correct structure of knowledge on arbitrary premises", I find this far too rarely for me personally to use that as the defining feature of rationalism. I use the word in a slightly different sense, and I think James Valiant has hit the issue perfectly on the head, from RickWilmes' quote:

More precisely, the rationalist tends to avoid the perceptual level of awareness in favor of the abstract. His values and opinions tend to be developed independently from fact and experience

It's this reluctance to consider perceptions, sensations, and emotions (as Valiant states further down), preference for inference at the cost of experience, that for me is the defining feature of rationalism, or at least its most commonly manifested form.

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While I agree with Burgess that one part of rationalism is "[trying] to erect a syllogistically correct structure of knowledge on arbitrary premises", I find this far too rarely for me personally to use that as the defining feature of rationalism. I use the word in a slightly different sense, and [...]

It's this reluctance to consider perceptions, sensations, and emotions (as Valiant states further down), preference for inference at the cost of experience, that for me is the defining feature of rationalism, [...]

[bold added for emphasis.]

As usual, I am bewildered by your statements. I see no basic difference between my definition, your definition, Leonard Peikoff's definition (via my notes), and Valliant's definition.

They all mean the same thing: rationalism is attempting to produce "knowledge" inferentially (syllogistically) without reference to sense-perception (objects of experience).

How can one have inferences without syllogisms? A syllogism is an inference.

How can one ignore perceptions (objects, experience) and not have arbitrary premises? An arbitrary premise is, in part, one that cannot be referenced to the sense-perceptible world either introspectively or extrospectively.

All you have done is change the terminology or adjust the emphasis. The basic meaning is the same in all cases.

If I were to go any further with this line of discussion, I would be repeating myself. So I won't.

If anyone has comments on other aspects of the subjects I named in the title and subtitle, please offer them. In particular, what are symptoms of rationalism, on a personal and psychological level?

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If anyone has comments on other aspects of the subjects I named in the title and subtitle, please offer them. In particular, what are symptoms of rationalism, on a personal and psychological level?

This might be somewhat redundant from what has been said, but I consider the primary symptom to be a steadfast refusal to look at facts of reality which contradict the rationalists' pet theory. A corollary of that, is a theory which is based entirely on deduction and which, by its nature, is not amenable to support by actual observations (and corresponding integrations.)

A rationalist wants *less* empirical information (i.e. actual observational facts), or disdainfully rejects it as being beneath his attention. I think, sometimes, that this is due to a subconscious psychological realization that a shaky theory can readily be upset by mere dirty facts that stain the wonderful gem of deductive conclusions. A rationalist also does not want logical objections against his theory for similar reasons - in this case, higher level conceptualizations that are based on facts.

A rationalist clings to empirical observations that come to his attention that seem to confirm his theory, but disdainfully rejects contradictory observations as flawed (his hierarchy of judgement about reality being his deductive framework rather than observation.)

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If anyone has comments on other aspects of the subjects I named in the title and subtitle, please offer them. In particular, what are symptoms of rationalism, on a personal and psychological level?

I think you and Phil have it dead on. Really good analysis.

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One sure sign of a rationalist is someone who goes through long chains of abstract argument -- even going so far as to employ symbolic notation -- to prove something that can be established by simple sensory observation.

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