|Good gosh, if my posts are gonna be causing domestic spats, I'm OUTTA here.|
Ed -- let me put it this way: "A picture is worth a thousand words." I'm referring to a principle well known to Objectivists concerning the "crow epistemology." It is simply impossible to hold in one's consciousness the enormous complexity of the entire Objectivist system in the form of mere abstractions. To grasp and internalize the sum of it -- to have it available to one's consciousness at any given moment in one's life -- you need to concretize these abstractions, and reduce the number of concretes to a few, easily grasped percepts...such as the image of a hero.
Here's Rand in her indispensable essay on this subject, "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art," in The Romantic Manifesto:
Metaphysics--the science that deals with the fundamental nature of reality--involves man's widest abstractions. It includes every concrete he has ever perceived, it involves such a vast sum of knowledge and such a long chain of concepts that no man could hold it all in the focus of his immediate conscious awareness. Yet he needs that sum and that awareness to guide him--he needs the power to summon them into full, conscious focus.
That power is given to him by art....
...Art is a concretization of metaphysics. Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly as if they were percepts.
This is the psycho-epistemological function of art and the reason of its importance in man's life (and the crux of the Objectivist esthetics)....
...Observe that in mankind's history, art began as an adjunct (and, often, a monopoly) of religion. Religion was the primitive form of philosophy: it provided man with a comprehensive view of existence. Observe that the art of these primitive cultures was a concretization of their religion's metaphysical and ethica abstractions.
The best illustration of the psycho-epistemological process involved in art can be given by one aspect of one particular art: by characterization in literature. Human character--with all of its innumerable potentialities, virtues, vices, inconsistencies, contradictions--is so complex that man is his own most bewildering enigma. It is very difficult to isolate and integrate human traits even into purely cognitive abstractions and to bear them all in mind when seeking to understand the men one meets....
...When we come to normative abstractions--to the task of defining moral principles and projecting what man ought to be--the psycho-epistemological process required is still harder. The task demands years of study--and the results are almost impossible to communicate without the assistance of art. An exhaustive philosophical treatise defining moral values, with a long list of virtues to be practiced, will not do it; it will not convey what an ideal man would be like and how he would act: no mind can deal with so immense a sum of abstractions...and hold it all in the focus of one's conscious awareness. There is no way to integrate such a sum without projecting an actual human figure--an integrated concretization that illuminates the theory and makes it intelligible. [emphasis added]
Hence the sterile, uninspiring futility of a great many theoretical discussions of ethics, and the resentment which many people feel toward such discussions: moral principles remain in their minds as floating abstractions, offering them a goal they cannot grasp and demanding that they reshape their souls in its image, thus leaving them with a burden of undefinable moral guilt. Art is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal....
This does not mean that art is a substitute for philosophical thought: without a conceptual theory of ethics, an artist would not be able successfully to concretize an image of the ideal. But without the assistance of art, ethics remains in the position of theoretical engineering; art is the model-builder. [emphasis added]
Many readers of The Fountainhead have told me that the character of Howard Roark helped them to make a decision when they faced a moral dilemma. They asked themselves: "What would Roark do in this situation?"--and, faster than their mind could identify the proper application of all the complex principles involved, the image of Roark gave them the answer. They sensed, almost instantly, what he would or would not do--and this helped them to isolate and to identify the reasons, the moral principles that would have guided him. Such is the psycho-epistemological function of a personified (concretized) human ideal.
Ed, who am I to argue with Ayn Rand?
I will repeat again: I believe that it is impossible to truly and fully grasp what Rand meant by her philosophy without reference to her fiction. At best, one gets a woozy, vague approximation consisting of nothing but long lists of abstract virtues.
In recent decades, as more and more theoretical and nonfiction work about Objectivism has become available, I have seen many people begin their study of Objectivism with Rand's (and others') theoretical and abstract nonfiction. Not knowing how her own unique version of the "moral ideal" actually looked and lived, they invariably tried to fit her ideas into their own, preconceived, more conventional conception of "the hero." But they never quite "got it."
The reason for this failure is that we learn starting at the perceptual level, by observing concretes, and then integrating those concretes into abstractions. Rand's art isolates and focuses upon those concretes and characteristics that add up to a sum total: her conception of "the hero" or "the moral ideal." Without reference to those concretes, and without perceiving the concretized image of that sum total, it's virtually impossible to get a true sense of what she really meant.
And that is why I often find myself depressed these days as I follow online discussions by people who believe they are promoting "Objectivism," when I could not, for the life of me, imagine a Randian fictional hero espousing the same values and positions. These people "reason" their way into conclusions diametrically opposed to Rand's fundamental worldview -- something that a moment's contemplation of her fictional characters would make obvious, and which would also reveal the reasons behind those differences.
I believe adamantly that in properly interpreting what Rand meant by her philosophy on any key point, her art constitutes the Rosetta Stone of translation. By her own words, above, her fiction was her means of concretizing what she really meant. Trying to interpret her without reference to those artistic concretizations invariably leads to futile, often rationalistic arguments, where people deduce away from abstractions to more abstractions, getting farther and farther removed from Rand's own vision.
So, we now circle back to the beginning of this discussion, and to my recommendations. For the beginning student of Objectivism, don't start with OPAR or even any of Rand's own nonfiction. Start instead with her fiction, especially The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, where she shows you exactly what she meant...and where, incidentally, she is also remarkably clear and explicit about telling you, too.
After experiencing Rand's universe that way, you'll have the necessary basis for properly grasping and integrating the theoretical abstractions presented in her nonfiction.
(Edited by Robert Bidinotto
on 2/11, 9:05am)