To John Hospers [Letter 460]

Item Reference Code: 141_HO3_005_001

Date(s) of creation

January 3, 1961


John Hospers


[Page 1]
36 East 36th Street
New York City

January 3, 1961

(This letter was written, by hand, but not typed, before my letter to you of December 28, 1960. A.)

Dear John:

I shall now answer your letter of November 12, and your comments on Nathan’s lectures 1, 2 and 3. I shall take them in order.

Lecture 1.

I was very happy to hear that you liked this lecture and that you agreed with most of it. As to the points which you criticize:

1. “Injusticeto Plato. Nathan classified the anti-reason trend of the nineteenth century as Platonism, after he had defined the specific sense in which “every man and every philosopher is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian,” (this observation is not ours, but we agree with it). That classification is based on the fundamental metaphysical-epistemological conflict among philosophers. It is not an “oversimplification”—it is a wide abstraction. If one were to say that Marx is the direct consequence of Plato, that would be an oversimplification; but to say that Marx, Hegel, Kant and others belong to the philosophical camp whose earliest and most famous exponent was Plato, is an abstract summation in a context that deals only with the fundamentals they all have in common.

I disagree with your statement that Plato’s views come close to the truth “after the metaphorical and allegorical elements are taken out.” The same statement can be applied to any religion; most religions can be interpreted as containing a great deal of truth, if one decides to treat their doctrines as metaphors and allegories; but this would be a translation or an interpretation, and one could not equate it with the original doctrines. Would you treat Plato’s world of Forms as a metaphor? Would you regard his epistemology (with abstractions as innate memories, with the ultimate mystic illumination that surpasses reason) as an allegory? If you did, what would be left of Plato, except broad generalities that would apply to any philosopher?

I do not know what you mean when you say that Plato is “the arch-objectivist among all philosophers.” Don’t you think that you should stipulate the definition you give to the word “objectivist,” since you use it in some sense other than the one we have been using?

I do not understand the meaning or relevance of such an attribute as “a philosophically pregnant philosopher,” which you explain as “has the germ of more fruitful ideas.” I would assume that the criterion of what is “fruitful” in philosophy is: truth. But that does not seem to apply. You say that Plato is “more philosophically pregnant” than Aristotle. Does this mean the following: since Aristotle gave birth to a great many truths, which require no further seeking, he is no longer pregnant—while Plato is still bulging with falsehoods, therefore he left something for us to discover and give birth to? If this is not what the attribute means, what does it mean?

[Page 2]

(Oh sure, I know damn well what it means in the language and context of modern philosophy, but I don’t speak that language and I don’t want to be accused of misinterpreting the modern truth-seekers—so you tell me.)

2. The slogan “It will work if you want it to work” was used in a metaphysical, not a psychological, context. That slogan does not say: “You will make things work if you take the appropriate actions.” It says: “Things will work as your desire commands them to work, regardless of their actual nature.” That slogan means (literally, and in most frequent usage) that one’s desire can affect the metaphysical nature of facts and of inanimate objects, as, for instance: “A perpetual motion machine will work if you want it to work.” The example you cite is inexact: it is not an instance to which that slogan is applicable. If two sides in a battle are about equal materially, it is true that victory is likely to go to the side that wants to win the most; but it is not the desire as such that will win, it is the fact that the desire will inspire the men to a better performance, to countless actions which will lead to victory. Even in psychological terms, a desire can be only an incentive to acquire the knowledge and to perform the actions necessary to achieve the desired. There are many people who desire, wish or long to be a movie star, but do not take any actions and never become one. Whether a man actually desires to achieve a certain goal or not, the fact remains that it is not his emotional state, not his desire as such, that can achieve that goal.

3. The example of the geologist and the stone. [Transcription note: The example: a dishonest geologist moves the only stone that would invalidate his pet theory were the stone found in its original position.] You say: “I don’t call that subjectivism at all, but just plain cheating.” Yes, of course, it is cheating. But cheating is not an irreducible primary; the question here is: what kind of metaphysical premise (held explicitly or implicitly) would allow a man to cheat in this manner? In order to hope to get away with it and continue enjoying the role of a scientist, that geologist had to forget the absolutism of reality, at least for that moment and in that issue, and had to believe that reality could be altered by his wish or his evasion, that a fact would cease to exist if he refused to perceive it.

You say: “Who are these subjectivists, anyway? Many people are subjectivists about values, but I don’t know any philosopher who is a subjectivist about physical reality.” I would maintain that most philosophers are subjectivists (though they disclaim that title) and I will be glad to give you my reasons in detail, when we discuss it in person. For the present, I will answer only your specific point about “value subjectivists.” Are values unrelated to physical reality? Do values belong to some separate realm, some other “dimension,” of existence? Should man choose and pursue his values without any consideration of physical reality, that is: apart from or against his knowledge of physical reality? Is ethics independent of metaphysics, that is: should man form a conclusion on what he evaluates as good or evil, and act on the basis of this conclusion, regardless of the nature of the universe in which he lives and acts?

Since no values can be pursued or achieved (or even conceived of) except in terms of and in relation to physical reality, since man exists in physical reality and cannot step outside of it, any man or philosopher who chooses to be a “subjectivist about values” simply means that he

[Page 3]

proposes to act against the objective facts of reality (he proposes to choose goals which contradict his knowledge of reality, and to achieve them by means which contradict his knowledge of reality). And since no man would hold such an intention in full, literal, conscious terms, the only way to be a subjectivist about values is to evade knowledge of reality (when convenient) and to believe that reality is not a firm, objective absolute, but an indeterminate flux amenable to one’s subjective wishes. (And the only way to believe that, is to assert that one’s consciousness is not valid and that one can never be certain of what the facts of reality are.)

You say: “Even Bishop Berkeley, the arch-subjectivist of all time, agreed that there REALLY IS a table here; he just gave a different (and incorrect) analysis of what it MEANS to say that there is.” I will answer: A. If the meaning of what Bishop Berkeley said constitutes agreement that there really is a table here, and he is thus to be regarded as an advocate of objectivity—then a new word with a new definition has to be stipulated for the meaning of what Aristotle said and of what I say. B. By what means would Bishop Berkeley (or anyone else) give an analysis (correct or incorrect) of “what it means to say that there is”? To “analyze” means: to resolve a complex into its constituent parts. Into what does one resolve the concept of “existence”? By what means does one analyze a primary—and what is the status of the propositions one uses while one is in the process of analyzing the concept “is”? (Do you remember the logical fallacy which I call “the fallacy of the stolen concept”? You agreed with me, when we discussed it.)[*]

4. You ask: “Now why this diatribe against logical positivism as a new form of mysticism?”—and then you list three points which you regard as the main contentions of this group. (I hope you have a carbon copy of your letter, so I will not recopy the three points, but merely answer them briefly.) 1. Logical positivists, to my knowledge, would never accept such a proposition as “There is an objective reality”; neither would they commit themselves to saying that there isn’t; they get out of it by classifying the proposition as “meaningless” (along with all issues of ontology). 2. Logical positivists reject the concept of “mind” in the sense you (or I) use it. ([Otto] Neurath suggested that the word “mind” should be placed on an “index of prohibited words,” along with such words as “entity, essence, matter, reality, thing.”) 3. It is in their concept of what constitutes “verifiability,” in their basic premise and approach (which is implicit in their specific, individual theories) that logical positivists become most mystical. You say: “One must be careful not to condemn it (the Verifiability Principle), en masse in all its forms”—because there have been many different formulations of it. Your statement implies that the Verifiability Principle is sound in essence, qua principle, and that it is only with its various formulations that one can legitimately quarrel. But what I challenge, oppose and condemn is the essence of that principle and of the method it proposes, in all and any of its variations. (I do not believe that “propositions” have to be “verified”; I believe that they have to be “validated”; it is a night-and-day difference.)

You say: “So when I hear people condemn ‘logical positivism’ as if it were ONE doctrine, without separating out SPECIFICALLY the various views that may fall under this head, I just sigh and conclude that they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

[Page 4]

John, isn’t it time to drop this sort of remark, if you do not intend to be offensive? I do not wish to have to remind you of it in every letter. Please stop asserting our ignorance of any subject on which you happen to disagree with us. I do not care to argue in such terms nor by such means nor on such level.

To answer your remark on a philosophical level, I will say that there are over three hundred sects of Christianity, all of which interpret the Bible differently and all of which claim to be the only true version of Christianity. Since I reject the basic premises of the Bible and of Christianity as untenable, I do not consider it incumbent upon me to discuss or refute (or even to study) the particular interpretation of every one of the three-hundred-some sects. And if I were to discuss the issue with a philosophically-minded Christian, it is the basic premises that I would discuss.

Lecture 2.

First of all, I am glad that you agree with us on many points. It is inevitable, I suppose, that you and I should spend more time discussing disagreements than following up agreements, at least at this early stage.

The “straight stick bent in water” argument. Most laymen have heard that argument used against the validity of the senses, usually by third-rate mystics. And it is a good illustration of the essential pattern of all arguments against the senses, though many are much more complex. The fallacy of “context-dropping” was the main point in that part of the lecture.

I am glad that you liked the part about abstraction and integration.

On sensing colors. You say: “I would distinguish between the DIRECT report of the senses and CONSTRUCTS based on the senses.” I would not accept such a term as “constructs” in this context. Our knowledge of ultra-violet and of radio-activity is “conceptual,” not “constructural.” Would you call our knowledge of the existence of air a “construct”? It is certainly not a direct sense-experience; primitive people had no such knowledge. DO YOU ACTUALLY USE THE WORD “CONSTRUCT” AS A SYNONYM OF “CONCEPT”? If not, would you tell me your definition of the difference between them?

Perceiving incorrectly vs. perceiving inadequately. You cite the example of hallucinations as “perceiving incorrectly.” But hallucinations are not perceptions at all; they are caused, not by an action of the senses, but by a malfunction of the brain.

The example of the demons. I do not know what you mean when you call this example “a bit unfair.” This example is an exact concretization of the meaning of an untenable abstract theory. If, as some theorists claim, man’s emotions come from a separate faculty of his consciousness, which is independent of reason, against which reason, by innate necessity, is powerless at times—then man’s life has to be exactly as it is presented in that example; then man’s emotional faculty works by throwing fits of “emotional epilepsy” once in a while, and man lives in a state of temporary sanity alternating with periods of insanity at unpredictable moments. Either man’s emotions are the effects of his cognitive faculty

[Page 5]

or they are not. There is no middle ground. Whether man can or cannot control his emotions is a different question, which can’t be answered until one has answered the first question: what is the source or cause of emotions?

You say: “I can agree with everything you say about reason and YET insist on the very real and profound insights into human psychology that were made by Freud. Freud exposed better than anyone else the conscious and unconscious tactics of rationalization, repression, evasion that the human psyche is capable of.” You know, of course, that here you change the subject under discussion. The “conscious and unconscious tactics of rationalization, repression, evasion” are issues that pertain to the mechanics, to the actions of a human psyche. The existence of such actions does not tell us their source or cause. What determines which “tactics” a human consciousness will use? Is it the innate mechanism, by and of itself? Is it man’s “emotional faculty” as such? Is it man’s cognitive faculty, that is: his mind? Which actions of a human psyche are causes and which are effects?

It is not the existence of such actions that was discussed in the lecture, but the source of emotions. Therefore, if Freud is here relevant at all, it is Freud’s theory of the source of emotions that has to be compared to ours. Well, Freud’s theory holds that man has certain “innate emotions” (“strivings”)—or that man’s psychological mechanism has to (is predetermined by nature to) generate certain emotions in response to certain existential situations, such as an Oedipus-complex response toward his parents, at a certain age. Since emotions represent value-judgments, innate or innately predetermined emotions mean: innate or innately predetermined valuejudgments. Now compare Freud’s theory with ours.

You say: “One may conceive of the development of the human being as a kind of RISE TOWARD RATIONALITY. But in this upward struggle there are many things pulling him down—especially these very evasions and repressions and complexes that Freud exposed in such detail. Isn’t the proper thing to do to RECOGNIZE these things, so that thereby one may conquer them? Surely this is better than inveighing against Freud, thereby pretending that these mechanisms don’t exist in human nature.”

What are the “things pulling him down”? Are these “things” innate? Are the “evasions and repressions and complexes” innate? Is man’s consciousness predetermined to start evading, repressing and acquiring complexes before it rises toward rationality? If so, what form of cognition does it employ on this pre-rational level? Or are all these “things” created apart from any cognitive process? And how does one “conquer” them without knowing their relationship to whatever faculty is going to do the conquering?

Now I will ask you to look at the last two sentences of the above quotation from your letter. I regret that I have to remind you of logic, by the following example: If some faith-healer were attempting to cure rabies by exorcising the demons which, he claimed, had been inhabiting the patient’s body from birth, and if Pasteur objected to it, would an admirer of that faith-healer be logically justified in declaring: “If you inveigh against him, you are pretending that rabies don’t exist”?

[Page 6]

John, this is a good instance on which to illustrate Freud’s theory. The level of your argument in these two sentences is so far distant from the strict logic, the precision, the perceptiveness, the rationality you are capable of and have demonstrated on other subjects, that it indicates that some enormous complexity of emotions takes precedence over your judgment when you deal with the subject of Freud. I think that both Freud and I would agree on that. But here would be the difference: Freud would believe that you cannot help it; I don’t.

I do not know what subconscious emotion made you say: “I tend to think that your group is a bit too ‘voluntaristic’” and to ascribe to us some sort of “get hold of yourself, buddy” approach. I do know that it was not caused by an objective fact, viz. by the content of the lecture. If you heard a lecture on anatomy in a medical school, you would not conclude that the lecturer believed that all diseases can be cured by will power, just because he did not discuss diseases or their cures; you would know that pathology is not part of a lecture on anatomy, but is a separate subject, and that no doctor would discuss pathology before he had established what is the healthy state of a human body.

I do not know how to read the meaning of your criticism in that particular paragraph, except in one of two ways: either you believe that a philosophical view of man’s consciousness in its healthy state must not be presented or discussed without a discussion of psychopathology, and that the two subjects are inseparable; or you believe that psychopathology is the norm, that it represents man’s state at birth—as Freud believed.

I do not know what other premise would make you expect a discussion of pathology in a lecture on the nature and source of man’s emotions. My impression is further heightened by the following peculiar remark: after setting up the straw man of “get hold of yourself, buddy,” as your idea of our approach, you say: “This certainly helps, especially with superficial mental disturbances, but with the really deep-seated cases, such appeals are as ineffective as water is to dissolve a stone.” Surely, you did not think that that lecture was intended as psychological “group therapy”—or that it was addressed to a group of the “mentally disturbed,” whose derangements make them impervious to ideas.

The fact that most people, particularly today, are neurotic in various degrees does not change the fact that lectures, speeches, articles or books can be addressed only to whatever degree of rationality people are able or willing to exercise. And if any listeners or readers grasp the right philosophy, but find themselves emotionally unable to apply it, it is up to them to decide whether they need a course of psychotherapy.

You say: “I think your aim is the same as Freud’s—to help people to behave in a rational manner. You do it by appealing directly to reason, Freud does it by helping people who are incapable of it to BECOME capable of it, and thus living by your philosophy. You should not regard him as an enemy.”

If you mean that I, as a philosopher, appeal directly to reason, then this is true—but it is also true of any philosopher and it does not imply that I, or any philosopher, deny the need of psychotherapy for neurotics and propose to cure them solely by means of philosophy. Do you actually equate psychotherapy with Freud? Do you mean that to oppose Freud is to oppose psychotherapy?

[Page 7]

Neurosis is a disease, and has to be treated as such; it is the subject matter of a special science and is not the basic and central concern of philosophy. Which school of psychology any given philosopher will judge to be valid, depends on his epistemological criteria and on his view of the nature of man’s consciousness. In forming his view, he has to take cognizance of the existence of neurosis, just as a doctor has to take cognizance of diseases in forming his view of the nature of man’s body. And just as a rational doctor does not take disease as the innate and the normal, neither does a rational philosopher. As to me, you know why I would not think that any modernized version of the Original Sin theory can help people to become rational and to live by my philosophy(!).

Now I should like to offer for your consideration a hypothesis I have formed about a certain epistemological error which you seem to be making. I do not claim this as knowledge, only as a hypothesis, and I would like you to tell me whether I am mistaken.

You say: “I can’t imagine why your group is so opposed to Freud. How do you suppose that psychiatry achieves its good effects on patients? THROUGH REASON, THROUGH UNDERSTANDING. The patient understands his own repressed mechanism, and through understanding he becomes a more rational human being.” You might remember a similar instance which we once discussed: your statement that it is wrong to claim that Heraclitus denied the existence of entities, since “change” presupposes that which changes. In both these instances, the two thinkers involved, Freud and Heraclitus, are guilty of what I call “the fallacy of the stolen concept,” which consists of using or counting upon the very concept one is attempting to invalidate or to deny. Whenever I can demonstrate that a theory is based on this fallacy, I consider it sufficient proof of such theory’s invalidity.

Well, it occurred to me that you seem to regard this fallacy in the exactly opposite way, namely: that you take it as proof of a theory’s validity and use it in defense, not in criticism, of a given thinker. For instance, you say, in effect, that since “change” presupposes that which changes, it would be irrational to claim the existence of “change” while denying the existence of “entities,” therefore Heraclitus could not have meant what he said. And thus you whitewash him, in effect, by ascribing your own rationality to him. This implies the premise that reason is an absolute for all theorists, that no one could preach contradictions by conscious, deliberate intent or that no one could be guilty of evasion.

It struck me that you use, in defense of Freud, the very argument which I have always used against him (and against other schools of psychology who are guilty of the same kind of error), namely: that while he reduces reason to the role of a feeble “mediator” between violent, conflicting forces, he counts on the power of reason to cure a patient’s neurosis. You take this as proof of Freud’s championship of reason; I take it as proof of a basic contradiction in Freud’s theory.

My hypothesis, then, is that you use a thinker’s errors in his defense, or you use his contradictions as proof of his consistency, on a premise which amounts, in effect, to: “He couldn’t have been as irrational as that!” Such a premise would be an epistemological “sanction of the victim”: it would mean that you transfer the power of your own rationality to an irrational theorist and give him a credit he does not deserve,

[Page 8]

at your own expense. “The fallacy of the stolen concept,” which you seem to take for granted as self-evidently simple, can be detected only by the most disciplined minds, because it requires an enormous, abstract range of integration. You, who possess that unusual capacity, toss it away, giving yourself no credit for it; when you encounter irrationality, you hand your own virtue over to the enemies of reason and place the blame upon your own mind, believing that you have failed to understand them, that nobody could be as irrational as they appear to be. Well, take their own words for it: they are.

I will be very anxious to hear whether I am right or wrong in this hypothesis, whether such is or is not your epistemological policy, your method of approach to more than one or two thinkers. If I am right, I know what such an error would mean and imply; I know that its correction would be of incalculable importance in helping you solve the psychological problems and the unhappiness from which you might be suffering.

In case I am right, I will offer just two preliminary suggestions, which I would like you to consider, one philosophical, the other psychological. 1. In any process of thought, contradictions are our only evidence and proof of error. Whether in one’s own thinking or in considering the theories of others, it is only by reaching or finding a contradiction that we can know that the reasoning was faulty and proceed to check our own premises or condemn the theories involved, as the case might be. What would be left of logic if we began to take contradictions as proofs of rationality and proceeded to twist concepts, language, theories and our own minds, struggling to ascribe a rational meaning to the irrational? 2. As a psychological suggestion, I would venture the following: do not be afraid of discovering how evil some people are. They do not rule the world and the only power they have is your own, when and if you transfer it to them. Which is more frightening: to be a giant among vicious dwarfs or to struggle to shrink and deform one’s own stature down to the size of a dwarf, while inflating the dwarfs into monstrous giants by the transfusion of one’s own virtue and power?

Now to your last comment on this lecture, your paraphrase of Pascal: “The head has its reasons which the heart does not know.” It is a very intriguing statement, and very witty as an epigram to throw at those who agree with Pascal. But did you mean it literally, that is: do you accept reason vs. emotions as a dichotomy? I grant that such conflicts can and do exist, but not that they have to exist. In a man of fully rational, fully integrated convictions, emotions follow the judgments of reason as an unforced, automatic response. (That is the way they work in my consciousness; I am not saying this as a boast; I know what makes it possible—and I know also that the same harmony can be achieved by any human being, if he wants it, but it cannot be achieved easily or overnight.) May I paraphrase your epigram to state my exact view?—thus: “The head has its reasons which the heart must learn to know.”

Lecture 3.

Your comments on this lecture are based on modern philosophy, as if modern philosophy (in all or any of its variants) were a primary absolute or an incontrovertibly proved body of knowledge. But we oppose and reject modern philosophy and, most particularly, its basic premises and its epistemological methods. Therefore, I could argue with you about basic premises—but it would be futile to argue about statements derived from

[Page 9]

premises which I reject.

I hope that you and I will discuss modern philosophy from scratch, from the basic premises on up, when you return to New York. I won’t attempt to do it by mail. So I will comment only on your specific points, for the purpose of indicating where our basic disagreements lie.

You say: “How is ‘A is A’ a means of proving other propositions? (Can it be used to show whether this is red or blue?)” Who decided that that is the use of logic? Do you differentiate between a specific piece of knowledge and that which makes all knowledge possible? Or between particular sciences and philosophy? Or between the content of knowledge and the method by which knowledge is acquired? No, “A is A” will not tell you whether this is red or blue. It will “merely” tell you that it is. It will bring you to the stage where you will be able to grasp that “this” exists and that “this” has attributes and that you can differentiate between what is red and what is blue, and that you may not claim that “this” is red and blue at the same time and in the same respect. It will tell you why you may not claim that dictatorship is freedom, or that looting is production, or that self-sacrifice is happiness.

(Incidentally, “two plus two makes four” will not tell you whether I have four apples, four cows or four battleships.)

You say that “A is A” does not “provide a validation for any particular arguments,” but “All A is B, all B is C, therefore all A is C,” does. I will answer by telling you a story I heard years ago. Two men were arguing about which is more useful to men, the sun or the moon, and the argument was decided in favor of the moon, because, they declared, the moon shines at night, when it’s dark—while the sun shines in the daytime, when it’s light anyway.

What, if not “A is A,” gives any validity to “All A is B, all B is C, therefore all A is C”? What is the latter but one of the concrete applications or derivatives of “A is A”? (Incidentally, Nathan mentioned this specific point and this specific “principle of inference” in his lecture explicitly.) And if anyone claims that something other than “the Aristotelian laws of thought” was needed to validate that principle, he is using the same type of reasoning as the men in the sun-moon controversy.

I have mentioned to you that we challenge and reject the proposition that truth is a matter of propositions—or that knowledge is acquired by proving or disproving single sentences. We call that approach “context-dropping.”

You say: “Sentences about physical things are based upon other sentences having to do with our PERCEPTIONS, and these in turn are based on other sentences having to do with IMMEDIATE EXPERIENCES (sometimes called sensations) in which the integration performed by the mind on the material of the senses has not yet been accomplished.” By what means do we acquire “sentences”(!) when we are on the preperceptual level of development, when our consciousness is in a sub-animal state? By what means do we acquire “sentences” when we are on the perceptual level, when our consciousness is in a state equal to an animal’s? All sentences deal with concepts and originate on the conceptual level of development. How does a mind get to that level? Not by means of “sentences.” Knowledge does not begin with and is not based on “sentences.” Any school of epistemology

[Page 10]

that takes language as the given, and sentences as irreducible primaries is merely by-passing the real problem and cannot even be regarded as an epistemological theory.

You say that you do not know what we mean by “Existence exists.” You have forgotten that you asked me that very question here, in New York, at one of our early meetings, and that I took a long time answering you exhaustively, after which you said that it was clear to you. I am sorry (and slightly discouraged) if you have forgotten, but I will not repeat it all over again. I will mention only what I do not mean. I do not mean what you mean, when you give the example that “grass is green, but greenness isn’t green.” I do not regard existence as an attribute.

You object to my definition “Truth is the recognition of reality,” and  you say: “No—for truth may not be recognized… There are truths even when nobody knows them and nobody recognizes them. Many things are true about the world which nobody yet knows.” Aren’t you confusing “truth” with “facts”? “Truth” is a concept that refers to epistemology, not to metaphysics; to consciousness, not to existence or reality. “Facts” cannot be “true” or “false”; facts are (“existence exists”). “Facts” are the standard of truth or falsehood; it is by means of “facts” that we determine whether an idea of ours is true or false. “Truth” is the attribute of an idea in somebody’s consciousness (the relationship of that idea to the facts of reality) and it cannot exist apart from a consciousness. You say: “There are truths even when nobody knows them and nobody recognizes them.” No, there are “facts” even when nobody knows them and nobody recognizes them; these “facts” are potentially the material of truths; the recognition of these “facts” by some human consciousness constitutes “truths.” You say: “Many things are true about the world which nobody yet knows.” Isn’t this a colloquial, verbal foreshortening, which is inexact? To be exact philosophically, one would have to say: “Many facts exist in the world, which nobody yet knows, and when somebody discovers them, he will be able to form many true ideas which nobody can form at present.”

In regard to: the Law of Causality. Yes, of course, my formulation of it (“A thing cannot act in contradiction to its nature”) is mine; it is not the usual: “everything that happens has a cause.” Compare the two and decide which is the more fundamental.

You say: “But the truth of the statement, in your formulation, is guaranteed by the meaning attached to the word ‘NATURE’.” You bet your life it is! But what shocked me was the fact that you seem to attach no meaning to the concept of “a thing’s nature,” even though it was specified most clearly in the lecture and in “Atlas Shrugged.” A thing’s nature is that which it is metaphysically; a thing’s nature is its identity, that which cannot be changed by miracle nor by any wish, whim or will, God’s or man’s. This is the meaning of “A is A”—and you have told me firmly that you accepted it. How, then, could you cite, as an example in this context, such a thing as a man’s “tempertantrum” and ask whether he “acted contrary to his nature?” On top of which, you assume that we would answer that this is “part of his nature.” (!!!)

I will answer: This is what happens to logic (and language) without ontology.

No, I will not struggle to clarify this issue any further. We have

[Page 11]

given you enough evidence not to misunderstand us in this kind of way. If you care to understand us, and to untangle the contradictions of your argument, I will give you two leads: consider the metaphysical difference between the natural and the man-made; consider the role of the Law of Identity in the scientific quest for causal connections. If you do not care to understand us, no added discussion by me will help.

In regard to: the mystics’ arguments about God. You say that we “have not answered what the proponents of the argument have wanted to say.” We never answer what people want to say; we answer what they do say. You claim that mystics construe “the universe” to mean the Physical universe and that they demand a non-physical cause for it, namely God. Well, here is where “Existence exists” comes in again: whatever it is that they mean by non-physical, whether it is God, ectoplasm or simply X, either X exists or it does not exist; and if X exists, it is part of the universe; and if the mystics don’t mean “the universe,” it is up to them not to corrupt language and not to play on equivocations; if they mean that “God is the creator of matter,” then that is what they should say (which would make their case still less tenable and would confuse fewer people).

In regard to: time as a measure of motion. You ask: “What of clocks which measure time? Are they a measure of a measure of motion?” Clocks do not measure time. Clocks are a mechanism that produces a certain kind of motion (a uniform motion, of unvarying speed, gauged in a certain manner to the motion of the sun); by taking the clock’s motion as the unit or standard of measurement, we measure time. (Or: we measure all motion by relating it to the motion of the sun.)

In regard to: people’s desire for the causeless. You say: “I don’t think people ever want or expect anything to be CAUSELESS… they only want certain things to occur as a result of a DIFFERENT cause than the one we know is required to cause it.” This is a psychological interpretation, open to debate. Philosophically, I don’t equate reality with non-reality, or the existent with the non-existent. If someone wants the impossible, as, for instance, a miracle, or wealth falling on him from heaven by miracle, I do not identify this as a desire for a “different cause”; I identify it as a desire for the causeless, which, in terms of reality, it is. Now, speaking psychologically, one could say that evaders of this kind want things to occur from a “different cause”; but that “different cause” is: their own wish; they desire their desire to be a sufficient cause for anything, to be omnipotent—“somehow.”

You ask: “And who ever wanted to see the front and the back of something at the same time?” Anyone who ever claimed that man’s mind is “limited.” Anyone who doubts the validity of concepts (and calls them “constructs”), because they are “inferential,” that is: not immediate, direct and automatic, like percepts.

In regard to: mystics. You ask what is our definition of the term “mystic.” Our definition is: “Anyone who claims some non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable means of knowledge.” This includes the three groups you listed: those who doubt the validity of the senses (by means of what faculty do they doubt it?)—those who claim to have a sixth sense (what is that sixth sense?)—those who claim that something is true because they feel it (are feelings a tool of cognition?) There are many others.

[Page 12]

You say: “As the term ‘mystic’ had traditionally been used, a mystic is a person who believes that God is unknowable because no attribution can be made of God—since He is outside all concepts, etc.” Aren’t you here describing one very narrow variant of mysticism, namely: so-called “negative theology”? By that definition, consider a person who believes in a God possessing all the conventional attributes (including a long beard); would you say that such a person is not a mystic?

Now, I will answer your letter of November 12th (which you sent together with your comments on Lecture 3).

You say that many issues were “oversimplified” in the lecture, and you ascribe it to the necessities of a “popular lecture.” As I mentioned at the start of this letter (in regard to the issue of Plato and Marx), you do not seem to use the term “oversimplification” in the same sense that I would use it, therefore I am not sure of what you mean. I take “oversimplification” to mean: a brief summary which omits essentials and thus distorts the issue. In this meaning, nothing in any of the lectures is “oversimplified”; neither Nathan nor I ever talk or write “down” to a “popular” audience; we gauge the knowledge of our potential audience and decide how much explaining is necessary, but we do not distort issues to fit people’s ignorance. I suspect that what you mean by “oversimplification” is a matter of how much detail is given to any particular issue. In this respect, our standard of judgment is: the precision of the abstractions by means of which we present the essentials of an issue. (And, as a corollary: if challenged to expand these abstractions into full detail, could we support our statements? Well, we can and do.)

You say that those present at the lecture seemed to accept what they heard without thinking. I am sure that this is true of many people there, and at anyone’s lectures anywhere in the world. But what I resent profoundly is your implication that this is what Nathan and I want or seek. You write: “I would hate to have anybody accept ANY views, including my own, just on my authority or without giving them due thought; I always prefer intelligent disagreement to undigested agreement.” John, have you dropped context to the extent of forgetting to whom you are writing this? To the first person who has made thinking the base of morality; to the only person in the modern world who is fighting for the absolutism of reason and thought, and against any (I repeat: ANY) form of subjectivity, of faith or of surrender to intellectual authority.

You are touching here upon what I regard as the most vicious, false and destructive dichotomy with which modern philosophy has infected modern men: dogmatism vs. skepticism—the idea that certainty implies mystical authoritarianism and that the sole alternative is an attitude of chronic uncertainty, which claims nothing but tentative “probabilities” and tolerates anything. (Or: the idea which equates mysticism with certainty—and reason with Richard Nixon, that is: with an apologetic, mealy-mouthed readiness to compromise.) Observe what is blanked out and swept out of existence by the mere setting up of this dichotomy: rational certainty and rational knowledge.

Does one’s choice consist of “intelligent disagreement” or “undigested agreement”? “Undigested agreement” does not interest or concern me (you would be surprised how I treat any person in whom I detect “undigested agreement”; you would probably accuse me of “intolerance”). Through all the years that I spent formulating my philosophical system, I was looking

[Page 13]

desperately for “intelligent agreement” or at least for “intelligent disagreement.” I found neither (I am here omitting my personal students). Today, I am not looking for “intelligent disagreement” any longer, and certainly not from children or amateurs (I realize too well that it would be a contradiction in terms). If a professional philosopher disagreed, I would always be interested to know his reasons; but what I am looking for is “intelligent agreement.” That is what any thinker looks for, when and if he knows that he has discovered and stated something which is new.

To quote you further: “I do think that the rather dogmatic and brief presentation, the oversimplification of some points, and the sort of ‘I’m right and everyone else is wrong’ manner of the presentation, tends to MAKE slavish dogmatists out of the audience.” In other words: since some people in the audience are unthinking, evading, cowardly “social metaphysicians,” who are looking for somebody else’s certainty and are seeking some band-wagon to join, we (Nathan and I) must not admit or project the fact that we are certain of what we say? We must, instead, assume the manner which substitutes “it seems to me” for “it is”—the manner which implies: “It seems to me that I may be right, but I would not claim that everyone else is wrong”? Is this what you really expect of us? Haven’t you read “Atlas Shrugged” and what I think of the “it seems to me” school of thought?

And if you think that our certainty will intimidate the poor little “social metaphysicians,” what do you think our uncertainty would do to them? Would it make them think independently? You’ve handled enough students to know full well that it wouldn’t. It would merely permit them to play the cynical, irresponsible, hooligan act that is so fashionable among today’s youth: it would permit them to make loud, brash, arbitrary assertions of disagreement, while evading and ignoring everything they heard us say. Just as John Galt would not help Mr. Thompson pretend that he, Galt, had not made his radio speech, so I will not help anyone pretend that “Atlas Shrugged” has not been written (and neither will Nathan nor any other Objectivist). There are enough people in the world who are busy pretending it; they may continue to do so, but not with my sanction or help.

You write: “And I keep wondering: is the aim of the lectures catechetical or is it to provoke intelligent comment?” Neither. Has no alternative actually occurred to you? The aim of the lectures was best expressed by George Washington: “to raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.” That is: to present what we know to be true, as clearly and rationally as we can, and to leave the rest to the intelligence and the honesty of any listener or reader. I have told you here in New York (and the lecture brochure states it explicitly) that “these lectures are not given to convert antagonists.” And they most certainly are not given “to provoke intelligent comment,” if, by that phrase in this context, you meant “to provoke, stimulate or encourage people to disagree with us.”

Observe that we are tolerant, but only of honesty, not of evasion. We grant that most people cannot grasp an entire philosophical system from one novel; so we offer a course of lectures to help them grasp it; and we intend to give many lectures and to write many, many books to help them grasp it, to offer further and further details, elaborations and extensions. But we do not grant that my novel, or any lecture, or any

[Page 14]

future book, has said nothing. Therefore, we offer these lectures only to those who have understood enough of “Atlas Shrugged” to agree with its essentials. That some people are attracted, not by any understanding, but by some blind emotions, is their problem, not ours; they are sailing under false colors and it will come out sooner or later. We cannot let them prevent us from addressing those who do seek to understand. And those who seek to understand, do not disagree until they have understood; so if anything is unclear to them, the question period is available and they may ask questions which we are willing to answer; but there is a difference between a question period and a debate.

You write: “There was no discussion after the lecture—the group simply disbanded and each person went his separate way. I wonder whether this was Mr. Branden’s intention.” Nathan has no intention about it, one way or the other. He has neither forbidden nor invited them to hold discussions. That is up to the local group; I hear that some groups hold discussions after a lecture, others do not. The only thing that Nathan has made clear is that no one, including the business representative, is to assume the role of official spokesman for or authority on Objectivism; that is, they may all express their own views or opinions, but they may not speak for us.

I know that part of your attitude on this issue comes from a certain confusion which you might tend to have about your own policy in a university classroom and our policy in these lectures. A teacher in a university has to be concerned, to some extent, with the “psycho-epistemology” of his students, with the development of their minds, with the inculcation of independent thinking; but even then, only to some extent and not at the expense of the subject being taught. But we are not and do not regard ourselves as teachers; we are not part of a wider program of education, we have nothing resembling exams, we address ourselves to adults and have to leave up to them the full responsibility for learning something from the course. The difference is the same as that between a textbook and a book; people can and do learn from both, but the authors’ methods and approaches are different.

I have watched you in your seminar and at the Esthetics convention here; on neither occasion did you project any tentativeness or uncertainty; you projected that you were very sure of what you were saying and that you were right. Particularly during the concluding passages of your paper on art, you were speaking with such intensity, self-confidence and righteous contempt for the views you were opposing that all of us wanted to cheer, and we admired you precisely for these qualities. So I do not think that you are actually an advocate of modern “non-commitment.”

But I know also that some part of your attack on our certainty and self-confidence comes from modern philosophy, from its epistemological agnosticism. I know that this is a conflict within you. I hope that this letter will help you to consider it and to reach some solution. You know that I don’t get hurt easily. Of all our many disagreements, this last issue has hurt me; it implied your tolerance of and concern for any weakling’s needs, ideas and interests, as against mine; it implied that they must be considered, because they have not developed their minds, but I can claim no consideration, because I have. I felt (and knew) that I was being penalized, not for a flaw, but for a virtue—a very steady, patient virtue that has had to endure a great deal for a great many years, without receiving any acknowledgment or any justice. Don’t add to that kind of burden.



*In Galt’s Speech, AR had written, “As they feed on stolen wealth in body, so they feed on stolen concepts in mind, and proclaim that honesty consists of refusing to know that one is stealing.” She used the term in non-fiction in “Collectivized Ethics” (1963) and “What is Romanticism?” (1969). An article discussing the fallacy appears in The Objectivist Newsletter, January 1963.