Premature Identification

One of the things I find most striking about Objectivism is its subtlety. I’m in the minority. The lucidity of Ayn Rand’s writing, I think, tends to fool her admirers nearly as often as it fools her critics. She reduces complex issues to essentials, casts fine lines of distinction in sharp relief, illuminates the obscure, and penetrates the impenetrable. She makes it look easy.

It’s not easy.

Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. And an argument, to be refuted, must be comprehended, which means it must be surrounded with understanding. Ayn Rand made dispatching her opponents look easy because, far more often than not, she had them surrounded.

To my dismay, I’ve observed too many who call themselves Objectivists surround their interlocutors’ arguments, not with understanding, but with mere words. This isn’t comprehension; it’s circumlocution.

And in fact, it’s often worse than that. Philosopher John Searle is famous for his “Chinese room” argument against strong AI:

[I]magine yourself a monolingual English speaker “locked in a room, and given a large batch of Chinese writing” plus “a second batch of Chinese script” and “a set of rules” in English “for correlating the second batch with the first batch.” The rules “correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols”; “formal” (or “syntactic”) meaning you “can identify the symbols entirely by their shapes.” A third batch of Chinese symbols and more instructions in English enable you “to correlate elements of this third batch with elements of the first two batches” and instruct you, thereby, “to give back certain sorts of Chinese symbols with certain sorts of shapes in response.” Those giving you the symbols “call the first batch ‘a script’ [a data structure with natural language processing applications], “they call the second batch ‘a story’, and they call the third batch ‘questions’; the symbols you give back “they call . . . ‘answers to the questions'”; “the set of rules in English . . . they call ‘the program'”: you yourself know none of this. Nevertheless, you “get so good at following the instructions” that “from the point of view of someone outside the room” your responses are “absolutely indistinguishable from those of Chinese speakers.” [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The Chinese Room Argument.” All quotations are from John Searle, “Minds, Brains, and Programs” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, 417–424, 1980.]

When I read things like Don Watkins’ reply to my last post, I think of an “Objectivism room.” Batches of Ayn Rand’s writings, indexed by Harry Binswanger, line the shelves. A challenge to Objectivism is offered through a slot in the door, Don looks up the appropriate item in the index: “Anarchism: pp. xxx — yyy, hither and yon. See also: whim-worshiping, context-dropping, subjectivism, and Thomas Hobbes.” He cuts and pastes the appropriate passages, and voilà! A rebuttal issues forth from the slot. Out of context, it’s absolutely indistinguishable from the response of a real, thinking Objectivist.

Of course, such a system doesn’t require any understanding, only the ability to execute instructions. What temptation Ayn Rand’s works must represent for some of her readers! She provides a terribly useful instruction set for the mind, instructions so finely crafted that even crude automata following her program can pass a Turing test with flying colors.1

Of course, Ayn Rand never meant Objectivism to be used that way. She even warned against this kind of abuse. She wanted intelligent agreement, not a grove of clockwork oranges, drained of their juice.

In his treatment of my Kelo post, was Don Watkins reading as an intelligent critic, or merely scanning symbols from within the “Objectivism room”? Don writes:

On the face of it, Fuller’s argument is compelling. If legal history shows us anything, it shows us that no law [sic], no matter how clearly worded, can be interpreted in ways directly contradicting its intended meaning. And since laws must always be interpreted and applied by human beings, there is therefore no such thing as law – only the whim of the interpreters. The government, any government, may do whatever it wants. Limited government, he says, is a myth. In fact, Fuller calls it an “anti-concept.”

I must assume that Don meant here “any law, no matter how clearly worded” and not what actually made it into his post. That noted, Don makes two comprehension errors, one quite significant. Regarding the significant error, Don has begun here an attempt at a reductio of my observations on law and governance. He thinks I have said that there’s “no such thing as law,” and, in fact, “[there is] only the whim of the interpreters.” I did not say either of these, which is no accident, since I did not mean to. For the record: there is such a thing as law (though it does not and cannot function in the way needed for the Objectivist politics to cohere). And, while legal judgment, jurisprudence, legislation, and the execution of law may proceed from the whims of interpreters (for what’s to stop them, finally?), noticing this fact is substantially different than asserting that “[there is] only the whim of the interpreters.”

To reduce my observations to an easily scanned enumeration: (1) Men write, execute, and interpret the law. (2) At any given time, any given law means, functionally, whatever the persons interpreting it say or believe it means. (3) 1 and 2 have always been the case. (4) Therefore, we are governed by men, not laws.

Note well the absence of a point 5 such as this: “[5] The range of interpretive options functionally available to our governors at any given time is unlimited, therefore law does not exist.”

Those who are reading well will have noticed that, while it’s strictly true that in my Kelo post I neither stated nor implied point 5, Don could have structured his rejoinder around this very omission. Indeed, if the range of interpretations available to our governors is not unlimited, it must be limited, and if the range is limited, then, by that very fact, there is prima facie evidence for the validity of ‘limited government.’

So where do I get off calling ‘limited government’ an anti-concept? This question brings us to the second of the two comprehension errors that Don made in the single paragraph I’ve quoted above. If one were to read each sentence of my Kelo post in context, which is to say with care, with an aim of comprehension, then one would likely have noticed that I did not say that ‘limited government’ is an anti-concept.

Q: Thomas Fuller, I have proof right here! You did say it, prevaricator!

Seasoned Objectivists, you know where I’m going with this, don’t you? ‘Limited government’ is an anti-concept.

A: You have mastered the art of recognizing words. Now try reading.

Seasoned Objectivists, you know where I’m going with this, don’t you? ‘Limited government’ is an anti-concept. The Objectivist politics is a “package deal.” Have you heard it all before? I reckon I’ll give you an opportunity to check that premise after a spell.

I’ll break the paragraph down:

  • “Seasoned Objectivists, you know where I’m going with this, don’t you?” This is irony. The irony continues through the penultimate sentence of the paragraph. For those who still haven’t caught on, I’m saying this: “Denizens of the ‘Objectivism room,’ you probably think you know where I’m going with all this.”
  • “‘Limited government’ is an anti-concept. The Objectivist politics is a “package deal.”” You probably think I’m saying that limited government is an anti-concept and that the Objectivist politics is a “package deal.”
  • “Have you heard it all before?” You probably think Roy Childs said everything essential there is to say on the subject, and that his arguments have been refuted.
  • “I reckon I’ll give you an opportunity to check that premise after a spell.” The irony has ended. Now I’m saying that my argument against ‘limited government’ is not to be found in this post, but is forthcoming. I’m implying that my argument will not be anything you’ve heard before, if you think Roy Childs’ letter is “it all.”

At this point, some might have the poor judgment to suggest that I’m interpreting myself creatively, or with the benefit of hindsight, and that I didn’t really mean what I’ve just said I meant at the time that I wrote it. Or, using slightly less poor judgment, others might suggest that, while my meaning is clear following this explication, I asked too much of my readers to have expected them to discern it on their own.

Not at all. While the paragraph just explicated is, admittedly, subtle, I followed it with an enormous rhetorical neon sign, a quotation from “Philosophy: Who Needs It.” That quotation served as fair warning against the kind of ham-fisted, slack-jawed, robotic, citrusy, unthinking, circumlocutory pap that I anticipated (correctly) might well be forthcoming from self-styled Objectivists in response to my criticism. I erred only in that I thought the warning would be sufficient for Don, at least, to choose circumspection over a circus. (Ladies and gentlemen, gather round! The whim-worshiping anarchist is unsound! He appears fearsome—at first—but look closer and see! He’s abandoned Objectivity!)


Dear reader, despite what’s transpired, don’t lose sight of a fact in Don’s favor: his misreading of my meaning, specifically regarding what I had said about ‘limited government,’ was insignificant and mitigated by the fact that few readers expect, on blogs at least, the kind of subtle language that I often use. More important by far was his imputation of the imagined point 5: “The range of interpretive options functionally available to our governors at any given time is unlimited, therefore law does not exist.” Please remember that.

In contrast to what we have seen from the ringmaster, there is a right way to engage a worthy opponent in debate. Let’s call it “The Presumption of Subtlety.” It’s a simple principle: until or unless a preponderance of unambiguous evidence indicates otherwise, presume that your interlocutor’s arguments are more subtle than they appear. Practically, this means that you should give each of your opponent’s arguments the strongest possible interpretation that could reasonably be attributed to his intent. Since it is difficult to discern the intent behind an argument (it’s difficult enough to discern the argument itself!), it can be a delicate operation to snatch the truth from the jaws of dialog. It requires patience, temperance, forbearance, and, above all, intellectual conscience, the desire to understand and be certain.

It is rare to see an Objectivist apply the Presumption of Subtlety to anyone beyond his own circle. I believe this is because many Objectivists tend to mistakenly assume they are entitled to Ayn Rand’s attitude, already alluded to above: “I am not looking for intelligent disagreement any longer…. What I am looking for is intelligent agreement.” To these callow braggarts I say: she earned that attitude, you have not. Ayn Rand deserves better admirers.

Now that I have said what ought to be done in a debate, it falls to me to do it, which brings me back to an earlier point. I said that Don could have made this a part of his reply: “If the range of interpretations available to our governors is not unlimited, it must be limited, and if the range is limited, then, by that very fact, there is prima facie evidence for the validity of ‘limited government.'”

In fact, by the presumption of subtlety, I can see a plausible direct connection between this argument and part of what Don actually wrote:

Looking at the history of law in this country shows us that in fact the supposed “whim” of jurists follows a very specific pattern, a pattern that gives us insight into just what way laws do in fact limit governments.

Taken together, my suggestion and Don’s argument (which he bolsters with a quotation from Chief Justice Berger) amount to this: Government is in fact limited by law. We see evidence of this in that interpretations of law generally follow a pattern of precedent. In order for a right to be compromised, such as has happened in the Kelo case, a jurist must find basis (or at least pretext) for his decision in a legal precedent. The takings clause of the 5th Amendment is itself a bad precedent, constituting a compromise of what ought to have been an explicit statement of man’s unconditional right of property. If we were to repeal the takings clause, we would strike at the root of this violation of the principle of private property, and thereby restore a core liberty in the United States. Without such action, we are without one of the cornerstones of a free, capitalist society, which is a requirement for each of us, as individuals, to pursue his life as man qua man.

I take the above to be a fair reading of Don’s position on limited government, applied specifically to the Kelo case. Without further elaboration or confirmation from Don, I of course cannot be certain that his total argument is not even more subtle.

If this is a fair reading and full expression of Don’s argument for the legitimacy of the concept ‘limited government,’ then well and good. I comprehend it and I can refute it. My arguments against limited government are far more elaborate and rich than those in Roy Childs’ famous letter. In time, with or without challenge or comment from Don or other Objectivists, I will post the argument here, in installments. The first installment will be entitled “More Eggs.”

I will say only one thing further at this time on the content of Don’s reply, since to further dismantle Don’s treatment might expose me to just charges of piling on: If I take him correctly to be charging me, via the illegitimate tactic of guilt-by-association no less, with epistemological subjectivism, the charges are grossly mislaid.

In sum: Don misread my post. I could easily have taken his misreading at face value, and on that basis taken it for a fact that he is trapped in the “Objectivism room.” If I had done that, however, I would have done no better in responding to Don than he did in responding to me. My judgment in this matter is rather that Don is not used to my rhetorical style (and why should he be?), and so mistook me for one of those anarchists he describes as “dishonest, or hostile, or both” unless they are “hopelessly confused, not only politically, but epistemologically.” His mistake was made easier in the first place by his, I’m sure, very staunch belief that Ayn Rand was right about limited government, and in the second place by the fact that my post was, by its brevity and tone, easy to misread as an argument for anarchy, when it was really only a note promising an argument against limited government.

I will conclude with a protest. While I thought through what I would say in response to Don, I left the following comment on his site:

I believe you overestimate your reading comprehension. Nonetheless, I’m glad to see you’ve driven straight toward ethics, which we agree is prior to politics.

Don replied:

Please don’t comment on this blog again. I will not tolerate insults of that kind.

Don has, of course, every right to this request, and I will honor it. But if you should happen to read this, Don, know that I called it as I saw it, and indeed put the matter far more gently than was strictly necessary. You did not comprehend what you read here. If it is, after reading this, still your pleasure that I don’t comment further at Anger Management, very well, but at least have the honesty not to paint your pleasure in tones of righteous indignation. In that case, I can think of a single color far more appropriate.

1. Especially if the automata administer the Turing tests to each other.

[UPDATE: Don Watkins has retracted his misreading (see this post’s comments for a link). He has also made clear that he does not consider me an epistemological subjectivist. He’s a gentleman and a reader, as I’m sure is already clear without my saying so.]

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