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Wide as an Ocean, Shallow as a Puddle: Epistemological Primitivism IV

February 15th, 2010 by Jim May · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

In the past, I have illustrated how pragmatism cripples the intellect, especially among conservatives.  Today’s case, however, is not one of the Internet pundits that we’ve seen before, but is one of conservatism’s stars, one of its best pretenders to the intellectual mantle: Anthony Daniels, perhaps better known as Theodore Dalrymple.

Last week, Daniels penned an article critical of Ayn Rand at The New Criterion.

Yawn.  Nothing new there, right?  It’s just Whittaker Chambers all over again.  But something different happened this time.  Objectivists shot back.  They did so in enough numbers that Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion, found it necessary to cherry-pick some of the nastier ones for mockery over at Pajamas Media.

But there is one comment there that he did not address at all.  It may very well be due to his not having seen it, but an equally plausible explanation — one that I consider to be equally as likely, in the absence of any other information — is because it eviscerates Daniels and his pretenses to competence in discussing Rand, by means of that weaponry which forever relegates conservatism to to pretender status in the realm of the intellect: ideas.

It is a devastating critique — so much so that Diana Hsieh posted it in its own article at Noodlefood.

Go read the whole thing.  It is meaty, and argues throughout from the Objectivist position of strength: our epistemology.  Marshall uses it to hammer home his core point, always coming to it from different angles but delivering the same blow to which conservatism has no answer.

“Daniels, however, demurs from looking too deeply into the matter. But while he steers clear of the ideas in the cultural milieu…”

“Daniels, however, does not attempt to identify or explain why the current fad of intellectual snobbery is an obsession with nihilism…”

“Daniels never examines what ideas the “totalitarian mindset” consists of, or what philosophy underlies it. In fact, apart from vague notions of “inhumanity” and “authoritarianism,” I don’t believe that Daniels knows what a “totalitarian mindset” is, which is why he can be so flippant with the label.”

“Mr. Daniels does not ask such questions nor offer answers. He does not write about ideas.”

“Daniels does appear to have read The Fountainhead (alas, apart from skimming The Virtue of Selfishness that seems to be the extent of his reading from Rand), but he is unable to name its theme: individualism as intellectual independence…”

“What is clear in his analysis of The Fountainhead is that Mr. Daniels can’t get past his hang-up on the details of architecture to evaluate the ideas at its core.”

“Again, this is the whole of his case. And again Daniels does not write about ideas, but superficial non-similarities–Stalin also spoke Russian and had a respiratory system, don’t you know.”

“Such superficial and baseless evaluations are the closest Daniels gets to Rand’s ideas. He spends the rest of the article attacking a straw man.”

This is the end result of pragmatism: a crippled intellect, so incapable of handling ideas that its only possible defense while still attempting to maintain at least a pretense of intellectuality, is to pretend that they don’t exist; the famous “Blank out”.  We saw that pattern on this blog in Clayton Jones’ comments on this post, and Marshall lays it bare with Daniels.

In those rare times when conservatives actually do try to address ideas, the most bizarre — and revealing — things result.  With Jones, the one time he risked dealing with the *principles* of American government, he ended up equating the principle of limited government to anarchy (!)  Daniels does this several times, most notably in his declaration of Ayn Rand as being “Soviet”.  And who can forget Whittaker Chambers’ hysterical screeching, thirty-four years before Godwin: “to the gas chambers, go!”

But Marshall goes even further; via Daniels’ own words, he eloquently reveals the conservatives’ emotional motivation for their avoidance of ideas: they fear them, and the black art (epistemology) that involves them:

“If Daniel’s had read her works or listened to her lectures, he would have observed that she made her case by laying out the evidence that led her to draw the abstract conclusions that became her philosophy. But why bother thoroughly investigating someone you are going to critique when you believe that ideology as such is just window dressing for dark, bestial impulses?

The root and meaning of conservatism’s insistence upon being an “anti-ideology” is its deep-seated, fundamental mistrust of the human mind, of reason and of everything that proceeds from it.  For such minds, “black art” is a precise description of epistemology.

So it should be no wonder why conservatives should find themselves confused and frightened by ideas.  They lack the tools required to comprehend them as such.  Like primitive tribes who rely on faith to ameliorate their helplessness in the face of physical nature, conservatives do the same to address their helplessness in dealing with ideas.

In closing, I can do no better than to close with Paul Marshall’s last line, which is an epitaph for the intellectual pretenses of Anthony Daniels and of conservatism itself:

“”Anthony Daniels’s writing can sparkle. He can entertain with erudite and obscure trivia. But he seems unwilling to think deeply about ideas. Consequently, his intellect is as wide as an ocean, but as shallow as a puddle.”

6 Comments so far ↓

  • Myrhaf

    Thanks for pointing out Paul Marshall’s essay. Somehow I had missed it. It’s good that someone took the time to write a thoughtful response that gets to the essence of Daniels’s errors.

  • clay barham

    Ayn Rand has little affinity for the Soviets or the Republicans, allied more with the libertarian 19th century Democrats who followed Jefferson and Madison. (See The Changing Face of Democrats on Amazon and The modern Democrats follow Robespierre and Marx, while Republicans hang with Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln and TR, all interventionists. She identifies with the result and not the cause, when we consider the Pilgrims, their Geneva Bibles and the foundation of American law.

  • Gideon Reich

    The thing that I find interesting about the Daniel’s piece and its response is that in many ways it illustrates that Objectivism is beginning to come into its own as a movement.

    Think about it: I can now think of several major essays written by the major recognized ideological perspectives, that are trying to criticize or minimize the impact of Ayn Rand’s ideas. A few years ago, at the time of the Ayn Rand centennial, there was the Algis Valiunas piece in Commentary, more recently, with the publication of the Burns and Hathaway reviews, Jonathan Chait had a long essay in the The New Republic, then there was the Anthony Daniels piece in the New Criterion, so eloquently demolished by Paul Marshal followed by Roger Kimball’s comments in Pajamas Media and finally Reason editor Cathy Young’s op-ed.

    Within a relatively short period of time, conservatives, liberals and libertarians all have seen fit to attack the new rising star. At the risk of psychologizing, I think they are getting worried. And I think they have reason to be worried.

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  • Paul Marshall

    As a long-time lurker it’s a bit surreal to see my name in a New Clarion post–but good surreal. Thanks for your kind words.

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