To John Hospers [Letter 459]

Item Reference Code: 141_HO2_020_001

Date(s) of creation

November 27, 1960


John Hospers


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36 East 36th St.
New York City

November 27, 1960

Dear John:

Thank you for your letters and for the reports on Nathan’s lectures [on the “Basic Principles of Objectivism”]. Both Nathan and I are very much interested indeed in hearing your reactions to the lectures. Please do continue sending them, if your time permits it. I deeply appreciate your interest. Whether we agree on specific points or not, your analysis is very valuable in helping to establish a fuller understanding between us.

To answer first your letter of November 2: you object to our statement (in the lecture brochure) that “Philosophy has been reduced to a linguistic game divorced from any application to practical reality.” No, we did not mean only the “linguistic analysis” school of philosophy. We meant all the leading schools of today. There may always be individual exceptions in any majority trend—but, today, they are not heard from forcefully enough to counteract the trend. I shall be glad to discuss this with you in detail when you return to New York, with specific philosophical texts for evidence, as you suggest. For the moment, let me mention only two general points.

A. The dominant doctrine of today’s philosophy is epistemological agnosticism. In application to practical reality, this doctrine is either futile or disastrously destructive, that is: either a man has to ignore it altogether and struggle as best he can, without any philosophical guidance—or, if he accepts it, he has to stop dead, paralyzed by uncertainty, and be taken over by the first thug or dictator who chooses to make loud, arbitrary assertions, while he, the victim, can refute nothing and answer nothing, possessing no intellectual weapons but the lethal: “Who am I to know? How can I be certain of anything?” Man has to act in reality, he has to have knowledge in order to act—and whenever philosophy collapses into epistemological agnosticism, it is defaulting on and betraying its primary function.

B. Observe that today’s philosophical journals are devoted almost exclusively to out-of-context discussions of epistemological minutia, and that the subject of politics has all but disappeared from their pages. And this in an age when politics is the crucial issue, when about one-third of the world’s population has been enslaved by the bloodiest political system in history, which is advancing to take over the rest of

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the globe. Politics has always been and, logically, has to be a branch of philosophy. Where are the voices of philosophers at a time when they are needed most?

You say that you know modern philosophers personally and that “Each and every one of them that I know of is vitally interested in problems of practical reality.” If I understand you correctly, you mean that they are interested as men, as individual citizens. This may be true, but what I am talking about is their work as philosophers, their professional and public—not their personal and private—interest.

As a small, but timely, illustration of my point, let me quote from a letter which Professor Lean wrote to me after our meeting with you: “Though I am inclined to think that ultimately I have certain sentiments that would keep me from agreeing with all of your beliefs regarding what is or is not individually, socially, politically, economically moral and-or feasible, I am very much interested in what you have to say about these matters. (You see, I am not as much of a Kantian as you are!! That is, I do not believe these issues are wholly matters of demonstrable fact and deductive logic, but in an important degree “subjective”—to use a vague but usefully suggestive term.)”

In regard to Ziff’s paper on God: it represents, in a condensed form, everything that is wrong with modern philosophy.[*] I agree enthusiastically with your argument on why the idea of God as “self-caused” is self-contradictory. I hope you remember that passage of your letter: it is brilliant. What I found most important in your argument is not merely the specific content, but the method, the epistemological approach, best exemplified by your sentence: “the notion of cause is applicable only in a temporal context, and only in that context has the term been defined; it is unmeaning apart from this context.” Now this, in essence, represents my epistemology or, to be exact, my method of dealing with concepts. It is the method I consider proper to a philosopher. (As a small aside: I would subscribe to everything in the above sentence, except the word “notion”; I take it that you meant “concept.” But this is not directly relevant to the point I am now discussing.)

The epistemological method you used in that entire passage illustrates what you and I have in common philosophically and why I find great pleasure in talking to you. But I have two questions to ask you. A. I observe that you do not use this method exclusively, as your constant approach to all thinking and all problems. Don’t you think that it should be one’s constant and exclusive method? B. Do you think that the main tenets of modern philosophy could withstand the test, if you examined them by this epistemological method, with the same rigorous precision, with the same observance of the full

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context, the genetic roots and the exact definition of every concept involved?

Let me anticipate an objection which, I think, you might make. You might tell me: “But that method is the one advocated by linguistic analysis.” And I would answer you: I believe that this method is your version of linguistic analysis, but it is not the version of Professor Lean, nor of Ziff, nor of that philosophical school as a whole. I would say that this method rests on basic premises antithetical to their basic premises, as I understand them. But a full demonstration of this will have to wait until our future detailed discussion.

Now to the question of Freud. You say: “I do not see that the psychological theory of Freud is involved one way or the other in the subjects we have discussed together.” I would say: since the subjects we have discussed are philosophical, a discussion of them must necessarily precede any discussion of any particular science, such as psychology. I assume that you will agree that philosophy is the basic science which provides the frame of reference and the epistemological criteria by means of which one then approaches the task of judging or evaluating the theories of individual thinkers in particular sciences. Without a commonly understood philosophical base, any discussion of particular sciences would be futile, because we would have no means to understand each other. It is in this sense that I agree with you that the subject of Freud did not have to be raised in our discussions at this time—and I regret that Professor Lean raised it. The psychological theory of Freud is not involved in a discussion of philosophy; but philosophy has to be involved in any discussion of the psychological theories of Freud.

Since you discuss Freud in your comments on Nathan’s lectures, he will answer you in detail on this subject; you may take it as my answer, too, since he and I are in complete agreement on it. For my part, I will answer only the particular or personal points of your letter.

You write a brief summary of what you consider to be the essence of Freud’s theory (with which summary I do not agree), and then you write: “I really cannot see WHY you were so concerned to deny all this; surely it makes no difference to your theory one way or the other.” My answer is: I am concerned to deny any theory which I regard as false. As to the second part of your sentence, surely, as a philosopher, you understand the difference between my theory of how a human consciousness acquires knowledge and draws conclusions about the facts confronting it—and any theory which asserts that at a certain stage of development every human consciousness has to (is predestined by nature) to draw certain specific conclusions.

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You write: “As long as we accept the statement that there ARE causes for human behavior, why need one be so alarmed that Freud has discovered what some of these causes are?” John, who is the “one” in this sentence, you or I? By the context, I assume that you were referring to me, and, therefore, I will say that you are here guilty of psychological “projection” (to use a Freudian term): I was not “alarmed” by this discussion; you were. I did not jump to my feet and shout insults instead of arguments; you did.

I disregarded it, because I did not want to let Professor Lean cause any trouble, confusion or unnecessary difficulties in our relationship—particularly when it was our last evening together and you were going away for almost a year. To be fully frank, he had caused trouble already: by arriving three hours earlier than expected and by deflecting the conversation away from the subjects which you and I wanted to discuss. You may take this as a compliment to you (I intend it as such): I resented his early arrival then, and still do now. It was he, not I, who brought up the subject of Freud, which I do not regard as of primary importance.

I had promised you not to be offended by any inadvertent occurrence, so I did not consider myself offended by you that evening, and I do not consider myself offended by that line in your letter: I consider both as issues to be clarified between us. Let me request the following: you know me well enough by now to know that I do not enter any discussion lightly, that I do not discuss subjects of which I am ignorant, that I have reasons for any judgment I form, and that my judgments will seldom coincide with the generally accepted ones; therefore, in the future, please do not resort to assertions about my ignorance in place of an answer to my arguments, if we happen to disagree. An assertion of that kind is merely offensive and cannot prove your point to anyone, least of all to me.

Now to come back to Freud. Apart from those personal elements, I take issue with your sentence on purely epistemological grounds: “As long as we accept the statement that there ARE causes for human behavior, why need one be so alarmed that Freud has discovered what some of these causes are?” If I accept the statement that there are causes for physical phenomena, need I or need I not object if someone claimed that the cause of measles is God’s retribution for man’s Original Sin, or that the cause of a volcano’s eruption is the anger of a subterranean demon, or that the cause of a solar eclipse is the sun’s frustrated emotion of love for the planet Venus? Freud did not discover any actual causes of human behavior (if by “causes” we mean basic motives, not psychological mechanics); the epistemological methods by

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which he allegedly “proved” his theory were so fantastic, so crudely irrational that they have been denounced in print repeatedly by philosophers and scientists.

That Freud observed and/or discovered many facts about the operation or the mechanics of a human consciousness, such as repression or conversion or other neurotic devices which a human consciousness has the capacity to employ, is a different issue; these are not causes, but functional potentialities. If I were the first scientist who discovered some of the things that man can do with his vocal chords, this would be valuable, but it would not entitle me to declare what songs all men would sing at a certain time nor why they would want to sing them. And if I made such a declaration, its validity would have to be judged by the proofs I offered, not by my achievements in the science of the physiology of vocal chords. If Freud discovered that men have the capacity to practice repression, this does not entitle him to declare that what they repress is the desire to sleep with their mothers or fathers.

As to the issue of determinism, the fact that human behavior does have causes is not sufficient to equate my view of it with Freud’s; the crucial issue here is: is the ultimate cause of man’s behavior within his control—or is he ultimately moved and motivated by forces outside his control? Or: is man free to draw his own conclusions about reality by the work of his mind—or is he predestined, predetermined to form certain conclusions at certain times, with no power of choice on his part? (I trust that you do not confuse my theory of free will with the traditional theory of the mystics who equate the “free” with the causeless or the insane, in the sense of a spontaneously generated whim.)

You say: “I am absolutely certain that there is a very great deal of truth in what Freud says.” Are we talking about Freud, the theoretician, or Freud, the clinical observer? I would agree with you (in part) on the second, but not on the first.

You say: “I don’t see how anything that Freud says conflicts with anything that you want to defend.” John, I cannot believe that you mean it. If I took that sentence literally, I could not take it seriously. “Anything that Freud says”? Freud, the theoretician? Freud’s view of man—and mine?

I agree with you that we should not discuss Freud at present. Please suspend this issue until we are ready for it—but suspend it as a disagreement to be resolved later. Please do not equate my views with those of my opposites.

Now, to another subject. No, I did not see the ad of

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“businessmen for Kennedy”, which you mention. You are right when you say that “It’s true that money has to be spent over a long period in order to get more money in the end, but that this does not constitute any reason why the government should do it.” I would like to offer further objections to their argument as you present it in your letter: not every long-term investment of money is necessarily and automatically profitable or self-liquidating; that depends on the investor’s economic judgment; bad judgment leads to a total loss, to bankruptcy or “money poured down the drain.” When, however, the investor is the government, then the results are necessarily disastrous for the economy, for the following reasons: A. There is no way, standard or criterion by which to judge the economic value and future of an investment, outside of the free market mechanism of supply-and-demand (see Ludwig von Mises for the details of why economic calculation is impossible to a socialistic government). B. Assume in some specific case that the government has invested money in some long-term project which may actually have future economic value; the fact that it was a forced, premature investment which was not yet economically justified (that is: not yet profitable for private investors), which the economy could not yet afford, has disastrous repercussions on the whole economy and causes unpredictable, incalculably harmful consequences. The best example of that is the government-subsidized construction of the so-called first transcontinental railroad in the United States, (the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific). A railroad, as such, is an economic value; but the premature construction of a railroad which private capital could not yet find profitable caused economic evils (the plight of the farmers, the Granger movement, etc.) which are still multiplying to this day.

To illustrate my point in a simple manner: suppose that you are an industrialist and that you want to market an invention which will bring you a fortune in ten years; if your calculations are sound, that would be a good investment, and you would be justified in saving your money for it and in living modestly for ten years. But suppose you decide to market an invention which will bring you a fortune in a hundred years and for which the savings of your lifetime are not sufficient. Would that be a good investment? Would you become prosperous by spending your life on the level of semi-starvation and by draining the resources of all those who may lend you money? Would that be wise or economically sound? By what standard could you be certain—even if your entire generation died in misery, pouring all resources into your project—that the invention would still be needed or valuable to your children or grand-children who, by that time, would be perishing for lack of shoes, clothes and adequate shelter?

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These are merely the economic or “practical” consequences of government “investment.” The moral meaning and consequences are obvious: by what right does the government take the money of some individuals for the future benefit of other individuals? By what right does it force privations on an individual, against his own choice and judgment, for the future benefit of himself or others, actual or hypothetical? That which is in fact beneficial to an economy (that is: to the individuals who comprise an economy) is done by men voluntarily (as the history of capitalism demonstrates); that which cannot be proved to be beneficial does not become so at the point of a gun.

I believe this covers the questions in your letter of November 2. Now let me tell you some of the local news. By way of explanation and apology for my delayed answer, I will mention that your letter reached me at the same time as the galleys of my new book [For the New Intellectual] on which I had to work under a deadline. After that, I had to prepare and make two speeches within one week: one speech at Yale, the other at Hunter College. I enjoyed both occasions, but they involved a period of terrible rush and pressure.

In the meantime, I received a letter from Professor Lean, and my first chance to hold the discussion I had promised him was last Wednesday (November 23). The guests present were Professor Lean, his friend Miss Lutzky, Nathan and Leonard [Peikoff]. It was a very disappointing evening. We talked from about 8:30 p.m. to 4 a.m.—and I cannot actually say what we talked about. The conversation kept skipping all over the place, ranging from such subjects as Freud and the “analytic-synthetic” issue to Professor Lean challenging me to define the word “which.” (No, this is not a “parody”.) You know what happened to the conversation last time. The same happened this time—only more so.

As a more cheerful note: Your name was mentioned constantly during the evening, in the context of what you would or would not agree with, by both sides in the discussion (that is, Professor Lean as one side, Nathan, Leonard and I as the other). We even brought out your book and read passages aloud. So, at one point, Professor Lean said the following, indicating all of us Objectivists: “John Hospers, who seems to be beloved around here, would agree that…” I do not recall what his specific point was; but I remember this preface verbatim. I am repeating it to you in the spirit of a friendly “I-told-you-so,” if you still think that Nathan or Leonard were ever antagonistic to you.

This letter is so long now that I will send it to you in order not to delay my answer further. I will take up your comments on Nathan’s lectures in a separate letter, which will follow soon.

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I hope that you will be able to hear all the lectures, but if your time does not permit it, I would particularly like you to hear Lectures 7 and 8, which deal with psychological subjects, namely Self-esteem and “Social Metaphysics.” If you remember, we discussed these subjects briefly last spring, but the lectures give a much better and fuller presentation than I could give in a brief discussion. Needless to say, I would be very interested to hear your comments.

Thank you for the copy of “The Meaning of Life” by [Kurt] Baier. I have not read it yet, but will write to you when I finish it.

With my best wishes,


*The reference is to Paul Ziff’s well-known paper “About ‘God’.” The Ayn Rand Archives contains a typewritten version of this paper, with marginal comments handwritten by AR.