I confess, when I first read Objectivism, I was rationalistic and somewhat ultracrepidarian.
Okay, I know: “ultracrepidarian” has seven syllables and is a tongue-twister. But if you can say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, you can say ul tra crep i dar i an; and it’s the only word that really fits. It means: one who expresses opinions, criticism, and advice on matters outside the scope of their knowledge, expertise, or experience—a know-it-all. I wish there were a better word, but I couldn’t find one. It is cognitively useful and is a word needed in our mental tool kit. It describes a lot of people.
Rationalism (not to be confused with rationality) is the mental practice of connecting ideas to one another but not grounding them in reality—not applying ideas to life and living. Rationalistic systems of ideas may appear and sound exalted and wonderful, but in fact they are merely houses of intellectual cards with little or no relevance to reality.
Aristotle was aware of the problem of rationalism. He tells us that the student of ethics requires “experience of the actions in life which are the subject and premises of our arguments”. He writes:
“Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics [and philosophy], and wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars [concrete experience] as well as universals [abstract ideas], and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it.”
The starting point in ethics, he says, is to be found in life experience. To build a valid system of ethics, one needs a body of knowledge and experience about actions and people.
Rationalism and ultracrepidarianism are both serious intellectual dysfunctions. They can and do cause serious damage – they have been serious problems within the Objectivism community. But first, a little context:
To live and be successful, we need to understand the world around us, so we seek a mental framework for that understanding. The framework we choose is a system of ideas, or of stories and myths, that offers us explanations for the complicated phenomena we encounter and provides moral guidance to help us navigate the course of our lives. Our explanatory framework needs to be tied to reality. If not – if detached from the real world – then we can drift into destructive rationalism and not achieve a successful life.
For example, religions are rationalistic systems of thought. They attempt to provide an understanding of human existence rooted not in the real world, but in imaginary, other-worldly notions – pie in the sky. Theologians are the rationalists-in-chief. Consider the personal, psychological, and social destruction that religious rationalism and the fanaticism have inflicted upon the world.
As a secular example of the dangers of rationalism, Karl Marx and his ideas, which are similarly unconnected to reality – ignored the nature of man and the real world – have in the past 100 years perpetrated vast evil, death, and destruction that rivals any prior rationalist or rationalistic system.
Like rationalism, ultracrepidarianism is an infection in our intellectual life that can also have horrific consequences. Take the field of infection itself—specifically the COVID pandemic. The English medical expert Dr. Neil Ferguson is a rationalist and ultracrepidarian, and his bizarre, exaggerated projections and guidance caused massive damage. Similarly, the American infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who knows little about political science, economics, or management, posed as an expert in these fields and caused massive damage with his unhinged advice. Medical experts are specialists who typically know little of other matters and should refrain from posturing and pretending. As the saying goes, “to the hammer, everything looks like a nail”; so, to a medical expert, every problem looks like it should succumb to their medical expertise. Drs. Fauci and Ferguson, and too many other experts are ultracrepidarians; they are dangerous.
Most reporters today (not all) are horrible ultracrepidarians. They claim to be reporting the facts, the truth, about a range of topics. But if you’ve ever read a news story about yourself or anything that you’re knowledgeable about, you know they are careless, or clueless, or worse: unconcerned with truth.
Many politicians and presidents are awful ultracrepidarians.
Sadly, rationalism and ultracrepidarianism also infect the Objectivist movement.
When highly intelligent, intellectual people are introduced to Objectivism, they see a brilliant, coherent intellectual system and become enamored with it. But many don’t make the effort to connect its abstract ideas to observable reality – to life and daily living. Such people’s minds are full of ideas for which they can make logically interconnected arguments. But because their ideas are disconnected from real-world concretes, their arguments fail to account for reality and often contradict it. Put in language Objectivists might recognize: Some tend to view and argue by appealing to internal systematic coherence, rather than by its correspondence to external facts – to the world.
Rationalism and ultracrepidarianism (a “Ratul”) are closely related. When someone is immersed mainly in the ideas in his skull, it becomes easy to be a know-it-all – a ratul. Over the decades, we’ve observed this in Objectivist circles.
By 2002, there was so much concern about widespread rationalism within the Ayn Rand Institute and the Objectivist community that the ARI Board created a “Rationalism Resolution Task Force.” I was asked to chair it. On the task force were John Allison, Harry Binswanger, Yaron Brook, and John Ridpath. We met and discussed the issues and came up with a list of action items to combat rationalism. Some of these things have been done, but many have not.
Dr. Peikoff told me that Onkar Ghate (“Chief Philosophic Officer” at ARI) was the worst student he ever had. He said this several times with emphasis. I told him that I had never repeated it, but that I might find an occasion to and asked if he would mind being quoted. He answered that it was okay to repeat, but to be sure to explain what it meant: That Onkar was the worst rationalist by far he had ever encountered. He went on to say that he was extremely concerned because he knew what it took him to combat rationalism (he was coached and mentored intensively and long by Ayn Rand personally), and he doubted that Onkar would ever be able to overcome it. (This is not a moral criticism of Onkar, and it’s not to say that he may not be combating it. It is something of concern, and it does explain some of the problems with ARI.)
In his course Understanding Objectivism, Dr. Leonard Peikoff offers a cogent analysis and antidote to this problem. Leonard observes that students of Objectivism often have a tendency toward rationalism, which distorts their thinking and their understanding of the philosophy in significant ways. He acknowledges that this mindset is very hard to overcome, and that he had to fight it himself. Combatting rationalism is an ongoing challenge. Leonard told me that it took a great many years and Ayn Rand’s coaching for him to overcome it.
Ayn Rand readily admitted when she lacked knowledge required to analyze complex issues such as those in law, science, or psychology – areas in which she was not an expert. She understood that knowledge of philosophy was necessary but not sufficient to speak expertly about topics such as the application of political theory, which requires specialized knowledge of law, history, economics, and the current political context.
Similarly, when asked a question he isn’t qualified to answer, Leonard openly responds: “That’s outside the purview of philosophy” or “I’m not knowledgeable about that topic” or something to that effect. He has the grace to know when he doesn’t know—he is not an ultracrepidarian. We all should have the same kind of “humility”. The same intellectual modesty should characterize how we engage with subjects beyond our areas of expertise.
Some students of Objectivism make cavalier psychological and inappropriate ethical evaluations of others. In judging and criticizing someone, justice requires us to acknowledge the full context of relevant facts about that individual – both positives and negatives. To evaluate someone psychologically (which is enormously difficult) requires a great deal of study and experience. Similarly, to evaluate people morally, justice requires that we gather and weigh a range of evidence, and that can be done only with requisite experience. For instance: Has one been an observer in courts of law, or been a defendant or a plaintiff in legal matters? Has one been in a management situation where he has had to constantly evaluate people and apply principles of justice? Has one been a mediator, arbitrator, or a judge? Such experiences help a person to make rational, responsible judgments.
For instance, one prominent ARI Objectivist stridently asserted to him that you cannot be an Objectivist if you supported Donald Trump. (This was authoritarian and gratuitous, and ARI lost many contributors.) Unknown was the fact that Leonard Peikoff, the world’s most prominent living Objectivist, supported and even contributed to Trump. The anti-Trump (student of) Objectivism treated his own opinion as virtually absolute and self-evident – a logical deduction from a narrow set of facts. But in evaluating Trump, Leonard was able to cite an abundance of additional, mitigating facts, which provided a fuller context.
Most moral evaluations are not clear-cut, and “mixed” individuals don’t deserve total condemnation. Any fool can criticize, scoff, and condemn based upon a limited range of facts. (Perhaps criticizing others, including presidents, makes them feel superior and thus bolsters their self-esteem.) But justice demands that we account for all the relevant facts, in context – objectively weighing the good and the bad, and giving credit where credit is due. But that requires thought, integration, and a mind connected to the real world. It also requires a passion for simple fairness. Ratuls rarely admit their mistakes or when they are wrong.
Rationalists drop the context of large parts of reality – they just don’t get into the messy world. Ultracrepidarians do not have the context of knowledge or experience. Context-dropping is a major logical fallacy. As Leonard explained in “The Philosophy of Objectivism”: “Whenever you tear an idea from its context and treat it as though it were a self-sufficient, independent item, you invalidate the thought process involved. If you omit the context, or even a crucial aspect of it, then no matter what you say, it will not be valid….” And as Ayn Rand wrote in “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests”: “Context-dropping is one of the chief psychological tools of evasion.”
Maintaining context, keeping ideas connected to reality, to real life, and being honest about what you know and don’t know are virtues and aspects of the virtue of rationality. Objectivists need to uphold these virtues and encourage the same in others. In that way, we can overcome the intellectual dysfunctions of rationalism and ultracrepidarianism, and not be ratuls. And in doing that, I hope we can foster the development of an Objectivist movement (quoting George Washington) “to which the wise and honest can repair”.