Book Review On Objectivism’s Sweeping Theory Of History: The DIM Hypothesis

Grand sweeping theories of history aren’t so popular these days. Neither are Objectivists. So it’s not surprising that a grand theory of history based on the tenets of Objectivism has been virtually ignored.

The DIM Hypothesis claims to offer such a theory, and is the product of over ten year’s work by Leonard Peikoff, the founder of the Ayn Rand Institute and the man anointed by Rand as her “intellectual heir.”

The book touches on a topic of common interest to conservatives: what caused the modern-day degeneration of Western thought and culture? Was the cause merely, as Spengler suggested, the entropic decay inevitable to all complex societies? Or was it the product of determined action by a particular group of people? Did it all begin with the progressive intellectuals? Or the Puritans? Or Luther?

Objectivists have an unusual answer: Kant–more specifically, a mode of thought which originated with Kant, and which came to dominate every field of knowledge in the centuries following the Enlightenment.

Peikoff’s book describes three fundamental modes of thought: the Disintegrative mode, established by Kant; the Integrative mode, established by Aristotle; and the Misintegrative mode, established by Plato.

Peikoff differentiates the three modes by their stance towards “integration,” a cognitive process which, in the Objectivist theory of knowledge, is essential to rational thought: integration essentially involves logically combining pieces of knowledge into systematic wholes. (“Synthesis” is a near-synonym). At the most basic level of thinking, humans integrate perceptual observations into abstract concepts; at higher levels, they integrate concepts into propositions, propositions into theories, and, sometimes, theories into universal systems of knowledge.

Thinkers can choose to integrate or not, and they can integrate validly or invalidly. Disintegrators eschew integration wherever possible; integrators perform valid integrations; misintegrators integrate, but invalidly. (Peikoff judges validity based on his Objectivist framework, which, as I’ll discuss below, some might object to).

If integration is so great, why isn’t everyone a dedicated integrator? Because, Peikoff suggests, people hold differing beliefs on the efficacy of human reason. These beliefs fall into three broad stances:

Stance #1: human consciousness is necessarily divorced from ultimate reality, and the world we observe is merely a construct of our perception; logic is the manipulation of meaningless symbols; therefore neither observation nor logic can give us true knowledge.

Stance #2: the world we observe is merely a shadowy reflection of true reality, which is an abstract realm lying beyond space and time; observation of reality is therefore misleading or worthless; deductive logic built on a priori axioms (often axioms based on mystical insight or revealed truth) is the proper means of gaining knowledge.

Stance #3: the world is a knowable realm of concrete entities, perceivable by human senses; inductive logic is the tool which enables us to organise our perceptual observations; logic combined with observation is a reliable path to knowledge.

The first represents Kantian disintegration; the second Platonic misintegration; and the third Aristotelian integration. Not everyone holds these beliefs consciously. Indeed, most people don’t. However, Peikoff holds, the deepest thinkers — the ones who have the greatest influence on cultural developments — do tend to follow one of these stances explicitly.

Peikoff labels Aristotle, Newton, and (unsurprisingly) Ayn Rand as archetypical integrators; Plato, Hegel and Einstein as archetypical misintegrators; and Kant, Rawls and Niels Bohr as archetypical disintegrators.

The systems defined by Plato, Kant and Aristotle are internally consistent, and so act as stable attractors in intellectual history.  However, Peikoff also defines two ”mixed modes”, Worldly Supernaturalism and Knowing Skepticism: misintegrators who maintain some commitment to reality, and disintegrators who maintain some commitment to reason. “Knowing Skepticism” is, in fact, the dominant intellectual tendency in our culture, and reveals itself in the obsession for statistical methods and p-value hunting in science, or for unprincipled pragmatism in politics.

I’ll use Peikoff’s labels to designate the five modes from here on:

I: integration (Aristotle)

M1: partial misintegration (“Worldly Supernaturalism”)

M2: pure misintegration (Plato)

D1: partial disintegration (“Knowing Skepticism”)

D2: pure disintegration (Kant)

The broad sweep of Western history within Peikoff’s framework is then as follows. The Greeks represented the world’s first I culture, and saw the establishment of I and M2 philosophy by Aristotle and Plato in Athens. The rise of the pragmatic but pious Romans represented a swing from I towards M1; Peikoff paints interesting portraits of the freedom-loving Greeks and the duty-bound Romans, and of the contrasts in their respective cultures.

The dark and middle ages were dominated by pure Platonism in the form of Christianity (M2), and were followed by a swing towards M1 with the rediscovery of Aristotle by the medieval scholastics. The Enlightenment — in particular, Newton’s revolutionary “system of the world” — led to another brief flourishing of I, but Kant’s “Copernican revolution of thought” represented the establishment of D, which would slowly come to dominate Western culture. Fascism and Marxism are both typed as M2; modern liberal culture is largely dominated by D1, but is gradually moving towards D2.

The bulk of the book is devoted to applying the framework to four broad fields, chosen to best illustrate the role of conceptual thought in history: literature (the most conceptual of arts), physics (the most conceptual of sciences), politics, and education. Conservatives will likely agree with much of Peikoff’s analysis, and possibly also encounter some fresh insights. For example, though Peikoff describes in detail progressive ideology in education (D2), and its rejection of traditional pedagogy in favour of self-expression and socialisation, he also notes that modern education is more “pluralist” (D1) than progressive; not committed to a single ideology but to a range of contradictory goals, and not teaching leftist dogma but simply a confusing mishmash of subjects.

He also distinguishes traditional socialism from postmodern egalitarianism, saying that the latter is not merely the evolution of the former, but is something fundamentally different. Socialists tended to view society as an entity with an existence transcending that of individual people, and had a concrete plan for achieving their utopian future; egalitarians, lacking a coherent worldview or plan, aim only to remove “inequality” or “oppression” or “hatred” from the world — and see these things as intrinsically bad, regardless of context. Socialists therefore are typed as M2; modern-day egalitarians (whether environmentalists, feminists, OWS or others) are typed as D2.

The section on physics is possibly the most questionable, as Peikoff is not a physicist, and he appears to be relying heavily on second-hand summarizations. Peikoff cites Newton as an exemplar of I for his establishment of the modern scientific method; Einstein is labelled as M1 for his tendency to reify abstractions; quantum physicists are labelled as D2 for their rejection of Aristotelian logic; and string theorists are labelled as M2 for their rationalistic theory of everything. The obvious problem here is that the latter three, even if wrong, did expose errors with Newtonian mechanics; that said, it is possible that modern physics has fallen down various philosophically-invalid rabbit holes, which would explain its split into mutually incompatible schools of thought.

The obvious danger with any grand theory of history is that the complexity of mankind’s story in shunted into an over-simplified conceptual scheme, where contradictory evidence is ignored to maintain a neat and tidy framework: in other words, misintegration. Peikoff naturally takes care to avoid this trap. The early chapters of the book, which aim to show that integration is the fundamental intellectual issue, are themselves a good example of integrated thought in practice — and, at the same time, demonstrate that Objectivists are not the intellectual lightweights they are often painted as.

I think Peikoff makes a solid case for the existence of the three modes, and for these three representing the fundamental categories of thinking styles. Certainly, one of the defining characteristics of modern thought is the eschewal of system-building and the rejection of any coherent philosophy as “dogma” and “ideology”, and I think Peikoff is correct in diagnosing this tendency as disintegration, and in linking it to the commonly-held belief that human knowledge must always be uncertain and limited.

His distinction between integration and misintegration is more slippery, since it rests on a notion of “validity” defined within the framework of Objectivism. Theists may well object to the requirement for valid integrators to be either atheists or deists; they (and others who share Peikoff’s rejection of modern nihilism, but not his Objectivism) might be tempted to simplify the analysis by grouping together M and I. In this viewpoint, history would become a two-sided battle between integration and disintegration, between light and darkness, between divine knowledge and wilful ignorance. (Peikoff notes that this is precisely how M-thinkers have tended to view history). I think that there is, however, a fundamental difference between the Aristotelian and Platonic conceptions of rationality, and that both are fundamentally distinct from modern skeptical nihilism; on this basis, I think the D/I/M trichotomy is justified.

I would have preferred to see more justification, though, for the notion that “philosophy is the prime mover of history”: the assumption that political, economic and social trends are all caused by intellectual movements, which ultimately stem from one of the three fountainheads (Plato, Kant or Aristotle). Certainly, many seemingly disparate movements often have shared philosophical roots. However, other factors also influence the spread of ideas. The Renaissance didn’t happen merely because Thomas Aquinas made Aristotle hip again (as Peikoff and Rand sometimes suggest), but also because of the printing press and because of Europe’s economic and technological development. Additionally, trying to link all intellectual developments to the three fountainheads seems to be based on an excessive belief in the primacy of individual genius.

Peikoff ends the book with a very unusual prediction: religious totalitarianism in the United States within fifty years.

His reasoning is that the current D-dominated culture is likely to fizzle out from its own internal inconsistency, and, without a strong representative of I waiting in the wings, a resurgence of M2 is the overwhelmingly likely outcome. Based on current trends, this will most likely be in the form of evangelical protestantism. Peikoff draws an analogy to Weimar Germany, where the pragmatic mainstream parties of both left and right (D1) could offer no firm resistance to the fanatically consistent ideology of the Nazis (M2).

Peikoff’s modal breakdown of the US population is interesting:

D1: 15 million people; mostly college graduates,

D2: “high 6 or low 7 figures”; hardcore activists, generally allied with D1.

M1: a small niche, including some “old-school Catholic theologians” (most mainstream, liberal churches are modeless).

M2: between 60 and 120 million people; baptist, evangelical or similar Protestant churches.

I: 100,000 at most; Objectivists being the only significant representatives of this mode.

Interestingly, most people in the alt-right blogosphere (from Orthosphere traditionalists to Moldbug the Misesian atheist with his taste for deductive rationalisations) would arguably fit into M1.

As for Europe, with no strong native religious movement or other ideological group posing a serious threat to the reigning orthodoxy, Peikoff sees the culture continuing to be dominated by D1 and D2 for the foreseeable future — unless, of course, a large and fanatical religious group moves in from outside.

Objectivism today is in a strange place. Rand’s novels are extremely popular, and have seen a surprising increase in popularity since the 2009 financial crisis, but her non-fiction remains largely unknown and her philosophy is almost universally dismissed in both left and right-wing circles. David Kelley’s Atlas Society has succeeded in spreading a more “open,” “benevolent,” and “tolerant” version of Objectivism, but a version that doesn’t pack quite the same punch. (In my mind, I see the Atlas Society as representing the wooly liberal branch of Objectivism, and Peikoff’s Ayn Rand Institute as the cranky neocon wing).

At the same time, those of us who are young, conservative and prone to reading extremely long articles on the internet also seem to have largely overlooked Objectivism, perhaps assuming (as I originally had) that it is little more than an egoistic version of libertarianism. But I think it contains original truths, and possibly answers to some of the questions we’ve asked ourselves.

Personally, I think Objectivism is worthy of further study for anyone with an interest in preserving civilization. That said, though Rand billed Objectivism as a complete philosophical system, her non-fiction writings only contain a cursory sketch of such a system, with many details needing to be filled in or updated. Read them, integrate their ideas with your own understanding, test your understanding against reality: Rand at her best advises no less.

For those who want a comprehensive overview of Objectivist thought, I’d recommend Rand’s Philosophy: Who Needs It, followed by her Romantic Manifesto and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology — the first is a readable collection of her essays on diverse topics, and the latter two are arguably her deepest non-fiction writings. If you complete the list above, I’d recommend finishing it off with The Passion of Ayn Rand by Barbara Branden, a balanced biography which details both the positives and negatives of the early Objectivist movement.

Liked it? Take a second to support Social Matter on Patreon!
View All

9 Comments

  1. Rand doesn’t really strike me as someone who would really appeal to a Reactionary sensibility. In many respects she’s basically a liberal. For Rand there is no real society, only collections of self governing individuals who interact via market mechanisms with a caretaker govt to enforce contracts etc. In this sense her thought shares the same assumptions (supremacy of the individual)as that of modern liberals. The only difference being her emphasis on the primacy of the market as the means to this end as opposed to the Liberal vision of the Leviathan-nanny state. Both system pre-suppose an atomized society as being inherently desirable, so the difference is really more one of kind than of type.

    You’ll find far more of use in Spengler than in anything Rand or her disciples wrote. Then again if you have your heart set on an Aristotle inspired, internally consistent “system” (Spengler hated Aristotle and generally despised all “System Builders”) you might be better off with something like Thomism which, although having plenty of problems of it’s own, is significantly more elegant than anything you’ll probably find in Objectivist thinking.

    1. Interesting point on her sharing the ‘atomization’ attitude with liberals. I generally agree that the use of Objectivism is pretty limited. Still, there’s more to it than her being basically a liberal:
      – She wants ‘movers’ to have free range. Which makes her… a libertarian of the people?
      – She constantly hates on leechers and moochers, aka the ‘victim’ mob. Which I’d say is pretty opposite from usual liberal policy.

  2. Peikoff targets a specific group (who have done him no harm) after his elaborate construction, as a phantom menace. Since he opens this avenue by slandering these would-be storm troopers without, apparently, building any case other than creating a house of cards I don’t see why Peikoff should be taken seriously.

  3. If you can’t see the rise of the evangelical crazies, you’re blind. From Paul Ryan to Ted Cruz (whom Peikoff’s third ex used to cheer for), the icons of Flyover reflect tremendous numbers of illiberal victims of neoliberalism who have seemingly taken up Coolidge’s advice to broke farmers in the 1920s: “take up religion.” The number of young Republican whites hustling up new churches would make Elmer Gantry grin in his grave.

    1. Gantry is a foil for people who believe in nothing at all.

    2. Paul Ryan is an “evangelical crazy” in the sense that he required his staff to read Atlas Shrugged. Anybody who forces people to wallow through that garbage should not be placed in a position of power.

  4. How narrow minded of Peikoff in his attempts to synthesize psychology, history, and philosophy. No doubt, ethics should be included, since he probably believes that a thinker is immoral to the extent he deviates from being a pure “I”. Newton, of course, was a mystic, who claimed his insights into physics were the result of his belief in a rational God who designed the universe according to laws. He also spent most of his life in Biblical analysis and criticism, not scientific investigation. So would this make Newton a “Knowing Skeptic”? Or maybe an “Accidental ‘I'”?

    As the humorist Robert Benchley once wrote, “The world is divided into two groups of people: those who divide the world into two groups of people and those who don’t.” If you wish to learn about those who divide the world into “this group of thinkers” vs. “that group of thinkers”, you would do much better to read Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, which, although mainly about literary thinkers, and not scientific ones, has more substance to it than Peikoff’s musings on the subject. See:

    http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9981.pdf

    >one of the defining characteristics of modern thought is the eschewal of system-building and the rejection of any coherent philosophy as “dogma” and “ideology”

    But Peikoff wants people to reject philosophies and systems as dogma and ideology UNLESS it’s Objectivism; in which case, he demands we accept it as “truthful integration.”

    In science, there are three big systems that stare away from one another like statues on Easter Island: Newtonian physics, Einsteinian general relativity, and quantum mechanics. General relativity deals successfully with the very big; quantum mechanics deals successfully with the very small; and Newtonian physics deals successfully with the in-between, human-sized stuff. It would be nice to have one overarching system that encompasses all three approaches to the three “levels” of the material universe (big, small, in-between), but it hasn’t happened yet; more importantly, for the moment, *it isn’t necessary*. The builder of bridges has no use for general relativity or quantum mechanics.

    In the humanities, however, the creation of “Big Systems” was found to be pompous, pretentious, useless, and often just plain wrong by those engaged in academic research. 20th century holdovers from 19th century ways of thinking, such as Toynbee’s theories on civilizations, were viewed as misleading, glossing over details that the original systemicists found trivial but which later researchers found to be relevant to understanding historical change and development. One example: compare the big-system thesis of Gibbon’s notion of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire — i.e., a loss of morality combined with invasions from barbarian tribes — to the 20th century work of Belgian medievalist Henri Pirenne — “Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would probably never have existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable.” That is, he rejected the notion that barbarian invasions in the 4th and 5th centuries caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. Instead, the Muslim conquest of north Africa made the Mediterranean a barrier, cutting western Europe off from the east, enabling the Carolingians, especially Charlemagne, to create a new, distinctly western form of government” (from Wikipedia). That sort of concrete historical detail is very different from what one might read in a Big System historian like Gibbon.

    Returning to science for a moment: keep in mind that prior to Newton’s Big System, there was no system: cracks were beginning to form in the geocentric system as established by Aristotle and as made official by the church. There were new findings by Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, and others. Keep in mind, too, that it was foolish adherence to a Big Systemicist like Aristotle that HINDERED scientific growth for centuries.

    The moral: Integrating lots of propositions into Big Systems is not necessarily good. Peikoff would agree, but with the proviso that we call such systems “Mal-integrations”. But the problem is this: the way in which one knows that one has a mal-integration is only when a better integration comes along; and “better” is determined by context. There was no single logical syllogism that was applied to the Aristotelian geocentric system and which suddenly found the whole thing “invalid.” The old system, in fact, proved just fine for most things, including rather precise predictions of eclipses. What happened was that too many arbitrary “ad hoc” assumptions had to be added to the old Big System as new observations were made, and the new heliocentric system — supported by Newton’s new Big System of universal gravitation (made exact by means of the calculus) was adopted for a very good (though not very scientific) reason: it was simpler and more elegant than the old Aristotelian system. And it not only answered old questions that the previous system had problems answering, but it permitted the framing of new kinds of questions that the old system couldn’t even conceive of asking.

  5. Stephen Grossman October 27, 2016 at 11:10 am

    > I would have preferred to see more justification, though, for the notion that “philosophy is the prime mover of history”: the assumption that political, economic and social trends are all caused by intellectual movements, which ultimately stem from one of the three fountainheads (Plato, Kant or Aristotle). Certainly, many seemingly disparate movements often have shared philosophical roots. However,

    Your recognition that “other factors also influence the spread of ideas” is consistent with Peikoff’s “philosophy is the prime mover of history. ” A prime cause implies non-prime causes. Applying this, the book is largely a description of how cultural institutions spread philosophy, in increasingly concrete form. You discuss them but then evade your own discussion.

    > The Renaissance didn’t happen merely because Thomas Aquinas made Aristotle hip again (as Peikoff and Rand sometimes suggest), but also because of the printing press and because of Europe’s economic and technological development.

    They do not suggest that philosophy alone causes history. Both discuss cultural institutions.

    The 10th century discovery and approval of Aristotle’s books gradually caused approval of the rationality needed to cause “Europe’s economic and technological development.” Aquinas, in effect, justified this in the widest, ie, philosophical, context.

    >His distinction between integration and misintegration is more slippery, since it rests on a notion of “validity” defined within the framework of Objectivism.

    That framework, evaded by mystics, is mind focused onto reality, ie, the integration of the knowledge produced by mind focused onto reality. The mystic start in consciousness (faith, intuition, “I know it in my heart,” etc.) may be expressed in an integrated form but its not knowledge of reality. Its form without matter, floating abstractions, the rationalization of emotion.

Comments are closed.