Similarity and Difference

Much has been written, in the past few weeks, on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s report entitled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” Some bloggers, including me, held off on writing about this news immediately because the report is so irrational that it seemed like a spoof or hoax. I am writing about it now in order to make a point that I have not seen in the news.

Here is a statement from the Department of Homeland Security’s report:

Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely.

What kind of mentality lumps racists together with individuals who are “anti-government”? According to this mentality, an extreme racist such as Hitler and an extreme advocate of individual rights and limited government such as Thomas Jefferson both belong under the same category: “rightwing extremist.”

It should be basic common sense that socialists, communists, fascists, Nazis, monarchists, and religious fanatics (including Islamists, animistic environmentalists, and “I-am-my-brother’s keeper” Christians) all belong on the same side of the political spectrum—call that side the Left—and that capitalists, who advocate individual rights and limited government solely for the protection of those rights, belong on the other side. Ayn Rand made this identification many times back in the 1960s. See, for example, her lecture, “The Fascist New Frontier” (describing the Kennedy Administration) and her essay, “The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus” (based on a 1965 lecture and reprinted in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal). Ayn’s Rand’s long-time student and associate Leonard Peikoff wrote an entire book (The Ominous Parallels) on the subject. I reiterated a few of their identifications here and here. Yet what should be common sense is very uncommon.

Here is my summary of the argument:

In metaphysics, the Left claims the existence of something—the collective conscience, the whole of the human race, the planet, the whole of nature, God, god, the black race, the white race, the chosen people, some economic class—that is higher and/or more real than the individual. In epistemology, the Left claims that reason is impotent and any individual’s claim to knowledge is a fraud, that ‘truth’ is what you feel (from your Christian faith or Aryan blood or socialist heart), as long as you belong to a big enough group that feels the same way. Since no individual can claim knowledge, any individual’s success or failure is a matter of luck or abuse. In ethics, accordingly, the Left calls for sacrifice by the individual to the higher whole. In politics, accordingly, the Left calls for sacrifice of the individual to the higher whole.

What I will call the absolute extreme Right, the opposite of the Left, is epitomized by Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, which she once described “on one foot” as follows:

1. Metaphysics Objective Reality
2. Epistemology Reason
3. Ethics Self-interest
4. Politics Capitalism

The initial Leftist propagandists who lumped fascists and Nazis with capitalists could not have been honest; the facts, summarized above, are just too glaring to have missed. But what has enabled this fraud to continue for so long? As Ayn Rand has written often (see, for example, The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution) the post-Kantian epistemology underlying the Left—and, more broadly, underlying the professions of philosophy and education—has eroded many individuals’ ability to think conceptually. The Kant-dominated universities and public schools are perpetrating a self-fulfilling prophecy, turning individuals into the Leftist model of human beings incapable of independent, rational, efficacious thought.

Many professional philosophers have become bloggers. Here are names of some of their popular blogs:

Matters of Substance
Honest Toil
Logic Matters
Epistemic Value
Logic and Rational Interaction

And here are names of other such blogs:

It’s Only A Theory
Certain Doubts
Nothing of Consequence
Obscure and Confused Ideas
Possibly Philosophy
fragments of consciousness
There is Some Truth in That
Probably Possible
This is the Name of This Blog
Just ‘because’
Brain Pains
Go Grue!
Snow is White
So. There’s That.
The Splintered Mind
Theories n things

“It’s Only a Theory” is a group blog in the philosophy of science; its list of contributors consists of more than 40 of the leading professionals in the field.

Of course, many of these names must be intended as self-deprecating (and, in my judgment, self-demeaning) humor; but the humor is humorous because it contains a strong element of truth, as any college student in a philosophy class can confirm.

Many philosophers, I hope, do sincerely want to see the big problems of philosophy solved, and sincerely want to see non-philosophers use their theories in order to make advances in other fields; but many also seem to accept—with resignation—that what they have been doing has not been working. And skepticism and resignation in epistemology leads inexorably to Leftist politics. The intellectual Leftist concludes in effect, “I cannot figure out what’s true or what’s right. Neither can anyone else. But if we bring everyone together and talk it out in a group, maybe the Group will figure it out. At least, the Group will decide.”

“And the only man who is evil is the one who thinks he knows.”

One epistemological notion underlying Leftist politics is the doctrine of ‘nominalism’, which holds (in its extreme form) that all concepts are no more than arbitrary names or labels with arbitrary definitions; that the way we group things under names such as ‘table’ or ‘chair’ or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ is arbitrary because every thing is different from every other thing in every way, and so there is no objective basis for saying that two things are similar to each other. Capitalism, socialism, and fascism are all different from each other in every respect, so we can group capitalism with fascism and call them both ‘rightwing’ if we feel like it.

It is through notions such as nominalism (among too many other anti-conceptual notions), undercutting the objectivity of the most basic conceptual building blocks such as similarity and difference, that common sense has been replaced by an anti-conceptual mentality among ‘intellectuals’ and even among the general public. (After all, almost everyone is implicitly taught these notions in college if not sooner.) Now it will take nothing short of a genius such as Ayn Rand to restore that common sense.

Here is a small taste of one aspect of how Ayn Rand deals with similarity and difference. (For more, see Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Expanded Second Edition, especially the first two chapters and the first two sections of the Appendix.) Consider two sticks, one of which is 10 inches long and the other 11 inches long. If all you perceived were these two sticks, you would perceive them as different from each other. But now add to your perceptual field a third stick that is five feet long. Now you perceive the first two sticks as similar to each other and different from the third. And there is an objective basis for that perception. The measurable difference between the first two sticks (in length) is much less than the difference between each of them and the third.

While ‘difference’ entails a comparison of at least two things, similarity entails a comparison among at least three things. ‘Similarity’ is ‘less difference’, by some objective measure.

Thus, if you consider only fascism and socialism (or only Catholicism and Protestantism), you see two social systems that seem to differ in every respect. But now consider capitalism (or atheism) as well. If you measure the differences among all three systems along axes of essential characteristics (such as the degree of political freedom or of property rights), you will see that the differences between socialism and fascism are very small compared to the differences between capitalism and either of the other two systems. (What qualifies as an ‘essential’ characteristic is another epistemological issue; in this case, the essential characteristics would be the ones measured to be the most pivotal for the sustaining of human life.)

I found on the Internet an excellent essay that incorporates Ayn Rand’s theory of similarity in the very treatment of capitalism vs. socialism and fascism, but I could not find the author’s name.

Memo to philosophers: There is much more to Ayn Rand than her ethics and politics. If you want to get out of your post-Kantian rut, study her epistemology.

4 thoughts on “Similarity and Difference

  1. You have covered a lot of ground. You have identified a major confusion (if not dishonesty) about classifying things, and you have identified the philosophical roots of Right vs. Left.

    How would you define Right and Left?

    What I am looking for is a concise — genus and differentia — definition of each that is useful in discussions with a broad audience. I hope you are open to discussion on this. I have more questions.

  2. First off, it’s clear that ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ are not the best words for the extremes of a political spectrum. Better words are ‘Freedom’ and ‘Coercion’. Ayn Rand defines ‘freedom’ as “the absence of physical coercion.”(Capitalism the Unknown Ideal, p. 46, cited in Glossary of Objectivist Definitions, edited by Allison T. Kunze and Jean Moroney.) I think a decent definition of ‘coercion’ is ‘the initiation of force’.

    In accordance with those extremes, the political spectrum itself would be the degree to which individuals in a society are free from force initiated either by government or non-government individuals.

  3. >Now you perceive the first two sticks as similar to each other and different from the third.

    Tell nominalists that a small circle and a big circle are different, thus they cannot both be circles. The obvious absurdity will encourage honest philosophers to consider, if only implicitly, ranges of measurement. Then they may consider Rand’s theory.

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