This Is Objectivism? Another Sequel

I see that The Objective Standard has posted a review of The Rediscovery of America: Essays by Harry V. Jaffa on the New Birth of Politics. The reviewer is ambivalent about the volume, which collects most of Jaffa‘s writings in the final two decades of his life (1918-2015):

Harry Jaffa was perhaps the most philosophically astute of all American conservatives. His books, though often flawed, were studded with thought-provoking insights….

At last, a new book, The Rediscovery of America, gathers his often dazzling, sometimes outrageous, valedictory writings.

What does the reviewer like about Jaffa’s valedictory writings? This:

Jaffa called himself a “gadfly” because he criticized his fellow conservatives, especially traditionalists such as Russell Kirk and Robert Bork, who, as Jaffa proved, actually surrendered the principles they purported to defend. His attacks on those he called “false prophets of American conservatism” often were harsh, because he wisely approached philosophical disputes with grave seriousness and because he believed they had embraced the same fatal thesis that modern liberals had: “there is no objective knowledge of, or rational ground for distinguishing good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust” (101). This obliterated the only ground—reason—from which justice or liberty could be defended.


Jaffa’s effort to defend reason and freedom … was handicapped by his defense of religion (which he vainly tried to portray as rational) and his homophobia—a word sometimes abused but appropriate for Jaffa, whose ferocity toward those he insisted on calling “sodomites” was grounded in an irrational fear that homosexuality represented the “repudiation” of “all morality”.


Despite these flaws, Rediscovery often is enlightening and instructive. Jaffa’s essays display an intellectual depth lamentably absent from today’s conservatism. And for all of his errors, his insistence that the truths of the Declaration are not historical artifacts but timeless principles worthy of defending will make his best work last forever.

I am struck by the reviewer’s totemic invocation of reason. It must be an Objectivist’s “thing”, because there is a similar invocation in the inaugural issue of The Objective Standard that was the subject of my earlier post, “This Is Objectivism?”:

We hold that reason—the faculty that operates by way of observation and logic—is man’s means of knowledge…. Reason is the means by which everyone learns about the world, himself, and his needs. Human knowledge—all human knowledge—is a product of perceptual observation and logical inference therefrom….

In short, man has a means of knowledge; it is reason—and reason alone. If people want to know what is true or good or right, they must observe reality and use logic.

Thus, to an Objectivist, reason — the application of logic to observations about the world — is the only source of knowledge, and Jaffa (usually) defended reason. Therefore, Jaffa was (mostly) correct in the views with which the reviewer agrees. An interesting mix of post hoc ergo propter hoc and circular reasoning.

Reason, of course, is subject to error — great error. Observations can be in error, or selected with the aim of reaching a particular (and erroneous) conclusion. The application of logic to observations usually means, in practice, the application of mathematical and statistical tools to understand the relationships between those observations, and to make falsifiable predictions based on those relationships. Even, then, the “knowledge” that arises from scientific reason is always provisional, unlike the certitudes of Objectivists.

As I wrote in “Objectivism: Tautologies in Search of Reality” (a sequel to “This Is Objectivism?):

Reason operates on perceptions and prejudices. To the extent that there are “real” facts, we filter and interpret them according to our prejudices. When it comes to that, Objectivists are no less prejudiced than anyone else….

Reason is an admirable and useful thing, but it does not ensure valid “knowledge,” right action, or survival. Some non-cognitive precepts — such as the “Golden Rule“, “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”, and “talk softly but carry a big stick” — are indispensable guides to action which help to ensure the collective (joint) survival of those who observe them. Survival, in the real world (as opposed to the ideal world of Objectivism) depends very much on prejudice.

That is, human beings often rely on ingrained knowledge — instinct, if you will — which isn’t a product of “reason”.

That there is such knowledge seems to escape Objectivists. How can anyone possibly write with a straight face that “Human knowledge—all human knowledge—is a product of perceptual observation and logical inference therefrom”? It takes a rather strained view of logical inference to account for such things as the mating and suckling instincts (without which human life would end), or the squeamishness and disgust that helps people to avoid infectious diseases. But such things are human knowledge — essential human knowledge.

Objectivism is a cult. To be a member of the cult, one must not only invoke reason ritualistically, one must also profess atheism. The reviewer is an atheist, and it shows here:

Jaffa’s effort to defend reason and freedom … was handicapped by his defense of religion (which he vainly tried to portray as rational)….

An Objectivist will perform intellectual somersaults in the defense of atheism. This is from a post at the website of The Atlas Society, an Objectivist organization:

Objectivism holds that in order to obtain knowledge, man must use an objective process of thought. The essence of objective thought is, first, integration of perceptual data in accordance with logic and, second, a commitment to acknowledging all of the facts of reality, and only the facts. In other words, the only thoughts to consider when forming knowledge of reality are those logically derived from reality….

Agnosticism—as a general approach to knowledge—refuses to reject arbitrary propositions….

The primary problem for the agnostic is that he allows arbitrary claims to enter his cognitive context. The fully rational man, on the other hand, does not seek evidence to prove or disprove arbitrary claims, for he has no reason to believe that such claims are true in the first place….

[E]]ven if the notion of God were formulated in a testable, coherent manner, the claim that God exists would be no less arbitrary and would be equally unworthy of evaluation. The proposition was formed not on the basis of evidence (i.e., perceptual data integrated by logic)—it could have been formed only on the basis of imagination.


In fact, the existence of the physical universe is “perceptual data”. And there is a logically valid argument to explain existence as the creation of a being who stands apart from it.

Whether or not one accepts the argument isn’t a matter of reason but a matter of faith. The mandatory atheism of Objectivism is therefore a matter of faith, not a product of reason.

As I say, it’s a cult.

(See also Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, which I have discussed at some length here; “Social Norms and Liberty” and the many posts listed therein; “Words Fail Us“, “Through a Glass Darkly“, and “Libertarianism, the Autism Spectrum, and Ayn Rand“.)