Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Philosophy Weekend: Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters)

by Levi Asher on Saturday, April 16, 2011 12:08 pm

I wrote Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters), a new book now available for Kindle, to fill a vacuum. I'm pretty sure it represents a completely original approach to the works of Ayn Rand.

There are a lot of smart people in the world who value Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, and there are also a lot of smart people who don't. This ought to be the making of a great public debate ... but the two sides don't debate.

Instead, they call each other names. Non-objectivists caricature Ayn Rand as a shrill proto-fascist and mock the enthusiasm of her fans. Her fans circle the wagons and remind each other that the world is full of cowards who can't handle Rand's clear thinking anyway. Both sides seem to just wish the other side would go away. This is how we treat a philosopher who dares to write with strength and originality?

Philosophy Weekend: The Case Against Egoism

by Levi Asher on Friday, April 8, 2011 12:01 pm

Egoism, the belief that people can or should only act on their own individual self-interest, is the great unchallenged premise of our age.

It’s hard to imagine that many people fully subscribe to this idea, and yet there is no well-known critique of egoism. Various religions or social/political activist movements point away from egoism, but religious or political writers rarely confront the egoist premise directly. Many people object instinctively to the egoist idea, but there is no popular common understanding of why the egoist premise is a weak and unconvincing one.

Those who advocate the egoist view of life have been more vocal and more direct than those who don't. Several philosophers are associated with the egoist position, though they each cover distinct facets of the egoist doctrine, with vastly different attitudes:

Philosophy Weekend: Check Your Premises

by Levi Asher on Saturday, April 2, 2011 07:55 pm

A friend recently called me out on a problem with my series on Ayn Rand: I was using Ayn Rand as a straw man, she said, for a general argument that is about more than Ayn Rand.

I admit that this is true. I began this exercise because I pay close attention to the political debates going on today in my country between liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Tea Partiers, and (most often of all) disaffected and disgusted citizens who are just sick of all the noise. I'm sick of the noise too, and I think it's unfortunate that our public debates (on TV and cable news, on radio talk shows, in newspapers, on blogs) are so pigheaded and thoughtless on all sides. We're missing the chance for real debates on real principles.

Ayn Rand, it happens, was also a big believer in intelligent debate and principled argument. This is the biggest thing Ayn Rand and I do agree on. Debate matters. Debate is everything. I love this quote of hers:

Philosophy Weekend: The Elusive Self

by Levi Asher on Sunday, March 27, 2011 09:41 am

Why do the models we use to understand the human mind often seem so shallow, so unsatisfying? Could it be because the great discoveries in this field have not been made yet?

Plato wrote of the mind in a cave, groping towards the light. Sigmund Freud broke the mind down into three components, Id and Ego and Superego. Ayn Rand depicted the mind as heroic raw intellect, needing only to throw off its chains. All of these models have their purposes, but they creak and sputter under real-world use.

We can't blame the great philosophers and psychologists of the past for not trying hard enough, but we should look to future thinkers to help us understand our conscious selves better, and I suspect there's some low-hanging fruit on this tree. The question of the self -- what it is, how it evolves over time, how it relates to other selves -- is the great philosophical puzzle of our current age.

Philosophy Weekend: The Puzzle of David Foster Wallace

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 19, 2011 07:27 pm

Two and a half years after the shocking suicide of celebrated novelist David Foster Wallace, a conversation is emerging -- in fits and starts -- about how Wallace's readers can possibly comprehend his life story, and how the book industry may be processing it. David Freedlander wrote an article for the New York Observer titled "Dead Author Breeds Big Business". Closer to the heart, Wallace's good friend Jonathan Franzen set off a Twitter firestorm by musing during an interview with Tim Walker of the Independent:

The author struggled for years to get to grips with [The Pale King, a newly published posthumous novel] and, says Franzen, who was a close friend, “If he’d finished it, I think he’d be alive today. Boredom is a tough subject to tackle in a novel and, arguably, Dave died of boredom.”

At least one blogger was infuriated by "Dave died of boredom":

It’s enormously disingenuous and insulting, not only to people who are still alive and dealing with severe depression, but also to Wallace - who is ill-served by such poorly-executed mythologizing nonsense - and, well, *Wallace’s goddamn wife*.

I would give Franzen a pass here, since I think he was waxing ironic, pointing us piquantly towards the incomprehensible koan that the suicide of every talented artist or public figure leaves behind. Boredom is as noble a form of anguish as any other (as Lee Rourke or Lars Svendsen would confirm). I'm not completely sure what Franzen is alluding to with this remark -- boredom with literary possibilities? boredom with success? boredom with the inside of his own brain? -- but it's an interesting point, and Franzen could not have meant it to be understood in a trivial or demeaning sense.

Philosophy Weekend: Grounding

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 12, 2011 08:03 am

No arguments today ... just a few words of support and concern for the victims of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor explosion in Northern Japan, and for everyone around the world affected by the disaster. The rest of us are out here watching, wishing for a way to help.

I wasn't planning on writing a philosophy post this weekend anyway; the last five posts were exhausting, and I can use a break to get grounded. That's it for now -- be well ...

Philosophy Weekend: The Cage Match Between Ayn Rand and Carl Jung

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 5, 2011 08:23 pm

I began this five-part series (informally titled "Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong" -- the previous four sections are here, here, here and here) by quoting Rand's own succinct summary of her ethical philosophy, and I'll repeat it today:

Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
--Ayn Rand, 1962

I believe this is terrible advice, yet I know Ayn Rand's ideas have become increasingly popular. What you've seen here in the past four weekends is me struggling to articulate why I think Ayn Rand is wrong. I have a particular argument in mind, but I feel a bit flummoxed by the fact that I can't find another major thinker who has expressed the argument I wish to express, which leaves me in the ironically Randian position of having to stand here alone, supported by nobody else, screaming my argument to the skies.

Philosophy Weekend: What We Crave, When We Crave

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 26, 2011 10:44 am

I catch episodes of "Jersey Shore" on MTV whenever I can -- because it's hilarious, that's why -- and during a recent episode a powerful realization came over me.

I'd heard a friend complain that this show signaled the fall of Western culture due to its brainless, shameless exhibits of hedonism. Wondering about the validity of this critique, I started thinking back over various episodes and trying to catalog the instances of shameless hedonistic behavior I could remember. Here's what I started thinking of:

  • Snooki and the Situation mugging for the camera.
  • Pauly D. playing his music in a nightclub.
  • Pauly and Vinny trying sincerely to fall in love.
  • Sammi and JWoww fighting the best boxing match since Tyson/Douglas in 1990.
  • Everybody dressing up, fixing their hair, checking themselves out in mirrors.
  • Big communal meals, everybody cooking and cleaning (or not cleaning) for each other.
  • Not much sex, lots of "smushing".
  • Angelina having a full-scale freakout after the group ostracizes her, and leaving.
  • Sammi having a full-scale freakout after Ronnie cheats on her, creating a drama that goes on to consume about ten hour-long episodes.
  • Ronnie having a full-scale freakout after Sammi pretends to get revenge, and tearing all Sammi's possessions to pieces in an insane roid-rage, followed by Sammi leaving.

Hedonism? When?

Appreciating Neil Peart, Lyricist

by April Rose Schneider on Tuesday, February 22, 2011 08:37 pm

(April Rose Schneider's first Litkicks article was about nearly-forgotten 1960s novelist Richard Farina. Here, she analyzes the poetic sensibility of a not-forgotten but barely appreciated rock drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart of Rush. Enjoy! -- Levi)

Rock and Roll lyrics are generally anything but artful. Flimsy as a piece of tissue in a tornado, the words to most pop or rock songs are best suited for head scratching. Remember "Louie, Louie", first released in 1963?

Philosophy Weekend: A Shot in the Arm, or the Meaning of Empathy

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 19, 2011 04:28 pm

"Psychological egoism" is the name given to a theory widely held by ordinary men, and at one time almost universally accepted by political economists, philosophers and psychologists, according to which all human actions when properly understood can be seen to be motivated by selfish desires. More precisely, psychological egoism is the doctrine that the only thing anyone is capable of desiring or pursuing ultimately (as an end in itself) is his own self-interest. No psychological egoist denies that men sometimes do desire things other than their own welfare -- the happiness of other people, for example; but all psychological egoists insist that men are capable of desiring the happiness of others only when they take it to be a means to their own happiness. In short, purely altruistic and benevolent actions and desires do not exist; but people sometimes appear to be acting unselfishly and disinterestedly when they take the interests of others to be means to the promotion of their own self-interest.
--Joel Feinberg, "Reason and Responsibility", 1958

I'm going to go out on a limb, so to speak, with today's blog post.


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