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Saturday, April 25, A.D. 2009

Recently on Auster’s View from the Right, there was a fascinating thread on Ayn Rand and Objectivism. The discussion occurs on three pages: “How a Randian website replied to [a] polite explanation of traditionalism,” “Continued thread on Randianism, reductionism, and more,” and “The totalitarian Ayn Rand cult.” Therein, Auster and company tackle the question of ideology, and I wish to offer some great passages.

Oddly for someone with a natural and developed affinity for Nietzschean thought, I have never read anything by Rand. I considered myself a libertarian in my adolescence, I received materials from the Cato Institute for research papers and essays in grade school, and I had many friends who were into Objectivism. It is therefore strange that I never entered the Randian cult. Perhaps like some of Auster’s readers, I had no taste for the overtly anti-Christian tendencies of a group that extols “the virtue of selfishness.” I make an exception for Nietzsche because I find him wonderfully but dreadfully insightful.

Auster’s thread focuses on the question of ideology. Auster points out that people use the term in various ways. In one sense, an ideology is simply a set of opinions—a world view. He does not find that usage very useful; we already have many good words for systems of thought. The other meaning for ideology—one that conservative thinkers have used for generations—is a way of thinking that reduces one’s awareness of the world to the level of a particular and limited interpretive key. One of Auster’s Randian critics states that Auster’s Christianity is just as much an ideology as Objectivism. In this, he means a system of beliefs. In response, Auster and his Christian supporters have an interesting discussion about how traditional cultural and religious thought wrestles with the messy world as it is, whereas modern ideologies force all phenomena into a few choice categories. In this sense, all ideologies are reductionist; all ideological description of the world lies.

On the first page, Auster writes,

There you have the unabashed, unembarrassed avowal of a reductive ideology: “Objectivism values reason alone.” ONLY reason. NOTHING else. All the world, in all its dimensions, is reduced to JUST reason.

But such is the power of ideology. Ideologies have the great attraction they have to their followers because of their simplifications. Communism reduces all values to equality of economic outcome. Modern liberalism reduces all values to the equal right to choice and satisfaction of desire. Islam reduces all values to the will of the totalitarian god Allah. Anti-Semitism reduces all values to Jew hatred. Randianism reduces all values to reason. In a complex world, having such a simple, all-inclusive answer allows people, in Andrew Dalton’s words, “to avoid exposing many of their doctrines to rational scrutiny.” The followers of the simplistic ideology can simply hate and dehumanize everyone who doesn’t follow their simplistic formula.

As I read Auster’s description of ideology, I thought of Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences—not because Husserl is yet another profound Jewish Christian, but because Husserl argues that modern scientists tend to reduce all reality to their own discipline. The physicist thinks that reality is fundamentally matter in motion, and his field stands as the foundation—and the judge—for all other sciences. The same holds true of the dominant cultures in other modern scientific disciplines: chemists, biologists, anthropologists, economists, psychologists, political theorists, and so on. For Husserl, the various scientific enterprises are species of philosophy, and only a unifying philosophical perspective can assign the various philosophical investigations their rightful but limited domains without reducing them and the phenomena that they examine to something other than what they are. The misologists among us will surely accuse Husserl of hypocrisy, but we friends of philosophy come to his defense. Unlike the other disciplines that largely take much of their foundation for granted, philosophy alone constantly questions itself as a discipline. Its methods, proper objects, and every other conceivable component are perpetually examined. Only philosophy questions human knowing and human reason per se. One could argue that philosophy enlightened by theology even comes to recognize its own insufficiency in understanding all that can be “known” by mankind, but let us save such questions for other posts. Regardless, true philosophy is the best example of an anti-ideological orientation toward the world.

Kristor, a frequent commentator on View from the Right, crafts the following in response to Auster:

Yes. And scientism reduces everything to matter. The problem of reductionism is that it’s a form of idolatry; of loving the map more than the territory, the tidy ideal more than the wild anfractuous concrete being. It is the error of thinking that our ideas about things can ever be completely adequate.

What a remarkable image! I think that his “loving the map more than the territory” offers much insight into the intellectual psychology of modernity. The proud rationalism of the Enlightenment is not so much an exaltation of reason—for what age could hold reason in higher esteem than medieval Christendom?—as a deification of particular systematic methodologies. The modern mind lusts after laws that can explain all phenomena. Yet, like all lust, the desire for all encompassing explanatory systems tends toward perversion. Otherwise sincere seekers of truth misuse the evidence (i.e. the world and our experience of it) in order to make it fit their working explanatory theory. The messiness of reality, the complicated and unwieldy explanations needed to account adequately for the world, and the omnipresent reminders of the degree of human ignorance all intensify the modern hunger for a clean, comprehensive answer to all.

Christendom had its own such answer, but it did not dare assert human mastery over it. For how can mortals understand the majesty of God? Modern rationalists dismiss the Christian attitude with disgust . . . the God of the gaps is for superstitious primitives. Yet, there is greater wisdom in acknowledging ignorance than in falsely reducing, perverting, or ignoring the complexity of the world that does not easily fit into one’s pet theory.

Auster further points out that ideology does not simply reduce the world as it seeks to understand it, but it approaches the world with the intent of changing it:

Thus, using this second meaning of ideology, it is a truism among conservatives that (say) Jacobinism, Communism, liberalism, feminism, etc., are ideologies, because they reduce the world to one thing or set of things, and aim at transforming the world; but that conservatism is not an ideology, because it accepts and seeks to understand the world as is. It has no driving purpose toward some transformative goal. (This would not apply to some modern forms of conservatism, such as economism, which reduces the human world to the economy, or neoconservatism, which narrows the world to democracy and universal human sameness and seeks to create a single world of democracy loving people, ignoring everything that doesn’t fit into that scheme.)

Here’s a classic example of ideology. Marx said (approximately): “The idea is not to understand the world, but to change the world.”

In response to Marx’s idea, the conservative writer and thinker Thomas Molnar once said to me in conversation, “The idea is not to change the world, but to understand the world.”

The (traditional) conservative tries to understand the structure of the world and to harmonize his own being with it. The ideologue is profoundly dissatisfied with the world as it is and seeks to transform it.

Ideology is modern. In it, knowledge is power, and power is for making the world conform to the human will. It is not much of a reductionist move to say that modernity qua modern is a playing out of the Cartesian project to master nature. Men, as Lewis reminds us in The Abolition of Man, are part of nature, and the modern project at its root involves the transformation of mankind into something other than it is. Modernity is, as thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Shestov, Lewis, and Schmemann all note, the story of Christian redemption reduced to the horizontal narrative. All “isms” are indeed decadent Christian heresies.

Posted by Joseph on Saturday, April 25, Anno Domini 2009
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