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The DIM Hypothesis

Mises Daily: Thursday, September 27, 2012 by

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[The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out • By Leonard Peikoff • New American Library, 2012 • xvi + 378 pages]

The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out

Whatever the failings of this book, its author has a sense of humor. Peikoff writes of his unusual name for his main hypothesis,

In order to refer to all three modes [of integration] together, I have coined the acronym DIM.… Given my symbolism, I myself can be identified, even ridiculed, as a DIM-wit, "wit" in the old sense of intelligence. I accept this designation and even boast of it on my license plate. (p. 65)

The DIM hypothesis, though, is no laughing matter. It is nothing less than an Objectivist philosophy of history, an attempt to interpret the history of Western civilization from the ancient Greeks to the present though an analysis of the philosophical ideas to be found in four "cultural products" of each period of history treated. These cultural products are literature, science, education, and politics. Peikoff has devoted many years of work to the book, which he calls his "final, overall integration" (p. xv); he guesses that there is an 80 to 85 percent chance that Ayn Rand "would agree with the book, extol its virtues, and regard it as of historic importance" (p. xvi).

Objectivists believe that philosophy exerts the decisive influence in shaping a culture. Two related aspects of philosophy in particular stand foremost: how concepts are acquired and the nature of reality.

If the essence of thought is integration, then the science that teaches men how and whether to integrate is the power that shapes men's thought … it is philosophers who do this job … by defining the modes of integration entailed by their fundamental principles. (p. 64)

Three great philosophers — Plato, Aristotle, and Kant — offer the pure modes of integration. In addition, there are two mixed modes that attempt to join elements of the pure modes. There are thus five, and only five, modes.

Leaving aside theory now and considering only facts, it is a fact that in the history of Western thought, from Greece to global warming, we find many different kinds of philosophy, but only five modes of integration. (p. 63)

How do these modes influence culture? Most people lack direct awareness of the works of the philosophers. To grasp the influence of philosophy on culture, then, we must look more widely.

To reach and direct the minds of the general public in any era, philosophy has to take the form of concretes of a special kind: concretes that incorporate and communicate fundamental abstractions, but do so largely by implication — while in explicit terms they engage people's interest and assent by offering them specific items of knowledge and/or value they do understand and desire. Only cultural products perform this dual task. (p. 253, emphasis in original)

Though Peikoff deserves praise for his broad and ambitious plan, a basic mistake disables his analysis. He is in the grip of an Objectivist morality play. The Dark Force has held man in its grip for much of history. It spurns the physical world, holding rather that a supernatural realm takes precedence over it. Partisans of the Dark Force wrongly assume that we grasp concepts a priori; instead, proper concepts must be abstracted from the senses, in the fashion Ayn Rand has described in An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. If we understand the proper foundation for concepts, we will realize that only the physical world exists. The blandishments of religion will no longer entice us. Peikoff would emphatically agree with Lucretius: Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum ("to such heights of evil are men persuaded by religion").

Whether Peikoff is right about concepts and religion is not our concern here. The problem I wish to raise lies with his historical narrative. As he sees matters, at only a few times in history has the Dark Force been successfully resisted by the Truth. In particular, the two great defenders of truth have been the ancient Greeks and the thinkers of the Enlightenment, of whom Newton stands foremost. America was founded on Enlightenment principles of secular reason, but unfortunately the Dark Force threatens us with domination by religious fascism. The Romantic movement in literature also represents one of the few victories of reason.

Peikoff's vision of the struggle of secular reason against the Dark Force leads him into two sorts of mistake. He exaggerates the secular and naturalistic character of the historical periods that gain his approval, on the one hand; on the other hand, he overemphasizes the otherworldly character of the rest of history. His modes are imposed on history in order to fit his preconceived scheme; they do not, as he thinks, gain inductive support from an analysis of the historical evidence. He says, "my conclusions at each stage of this study are reached by the only method appropriate to generalizations: induction." (p. 73); but to arrive at his conclusions, he often lops off facts that do not fit his scheme.

He claims that in the Iliad, the

gods' intervention in the action, and the characters' obeisance to Zeus's unlimited power, are all over Homer's story. Despite this, however, the gods have no real effect on the story. (p. 186)

Is that so? Zeus, at the urging of Achilles's mother, Thetis, leads the Greeks to the brink of defeat through the effects of a dream he sends to Agamemnon. Aphrodite rescues Paris from death after he loses his duel to Menelaus. Are these interventions of no effect?

More generally, Peikoff claims that "the Greek writers usually present the generating problem of their story as of divine origin; the gods, so to speak, write the prequel, and humans take it from there" (p. 187). But in Oedipus Rex the pollution brought to Thebes by Oedipus's unintentional patricide and incest hardly fits the picture of secular reason that Peikoff defends.

If the Greeks are for Peikoff the early model of secular reason, the Romans are for him entirely different. He says,

in the Roman state, the political Many — the citizens, laws, and officials — are integrated into a system in virtue of a divinity who endows it with purpose and authors its laws. (p. 229)

Oddly, he says this immediately after quoting a historian who remarks, "Rome as a civilization and an empire … is unique in the feebleness of its religion" (p. 229). Why Peikoff thinks this quotation supports his opinion baffles me.

In the Middle Ages, we learn, "Science, largely unknown to the medievals, was of little interest to them" (p. 234). Can Peikoff be serious? What has happened, e.g., to Buridan on the theory of impetus? Has he so much as glanced at such standard authors as Anneliese Meier, Marshall Claggett, A.C. Crombie, and Edward Grant, not to mention Pierre Duhem?

Peikoff does acknowledge that in the Middle Ages "there were a dozen or so thinkers who were more secular than their culture and who can be said to have carried science some small steps[!] forward" (p. 236); but these thinkers remained idealists and rationalists. They still denied that all knowledge must stem from the senses, so they cannot count as genuine proponents of reason: "The whole of the medieval view of the physical world, from metaphysics to mistletoe, rejects sense experience in favor of a priori ideas gleaned unlimitedly from faith." Of course, as Peikoff is aware, Aquinas held the view of concepts that qualifies as correct, but never mind him.

Let us turn once again from Darkness to Light. Peikoff maintains that "[late-18th- to mid-19th-century] Romanticism does not rely on the supernatural. Most Romanticists did believe in some form of the divine, but this was irrelevant to their method of interrelating the elements of their books" (p. 92).

If one recalls the familiar lines from Wordsworth,

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.

I do not think that the irrelevance of the divine is the first thought that will come to mind.

The DIM Hypothesis contains other surprising claims. He remarks of Newton's physics, "A God who does not affect physical motion is, to the science of physics, an irrelevancy" (p. 111). But God does affect physical motion in Newton's system; in a famous passage of the Opticks, Newton suggests that God's intervention is needed to keep the planets in their proper orbits. Peikoff might respond that later physics showed this intervention to be unnecessary, but the statement he makes is as it stands wrong.

Probably the oddest assertion in the book is this:

In ethics, the most influential expressions of Knowing Skepticism are Comte's Religion of Humanity and the Utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill.… Being Kant-inspired, both regard elements within consciousness as the only basis for a distinction between good and evil. (p. 59)

This is decidedly a nonstandard view, and one would welcome evidence that either Bentham or Mill was influenced by Kant. If Peikoff's failure to respond to earlier criticisms of his interpretation of Kant may be taken as precedent, he is not likely to offer such evidence.