WHO NEEDS PHILOSOPHY?
Under the title "Philosophy: Who Needs It" the Russian-American novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982) gave a speech to the graduating class of cadets at the U.S. Army's Academy at West Point on March 6, 1974. This speech eloquently defended the necessity of philosophy in each person's life. I recommend the speech to all.1
However, in "Philosophy: Who Needs It" Rand made numerous important errors.
On a political level, she commended the graduating cadets for being the army of "the last semi-free country left on earth." She said that the United States "has never engaged in military conquest." She said that it had "never profited from the two world wars," the entering and winning of which was "a foolishly overgenerous policy." She said that the U. S. Army had subordinated might to right: "no other army in the world has achieved it. You have." She said that the U.S. Army had used force, "but not as an instrument of compulsion and brute conquest -- as the armies of other countries have done in their histories -- only as an instrument of a free nation's self defence."
Well, this is sunny indeed. But is it accurate?
The United States is not "the only semi-free country left on earth." It is -- perhaps -- the freest country on earth. It is one of a number of free democracies, each of which is controlled by its own people collectively and each of which allows a great deal of freedom to the individual. While each employs a different mix of private and public sectors, it is absurd to think that the United States is, or was in 1974, enormously more free than, say, Canada or Sweden. It was, perhaps, different -- perhaps more free in some areas.
For instance, the United States probably had a lower level of taxation overall and a smaller public sector than most of the advanced industrial countries. In that sense, it was probably more economically free. Of course, since its welfare schemes were rather minimal compared to, say, Western Europe's, the poor of the United States were (and still are) more likely to sleep in cars or under bridges than the poor in Europe.
But in 1974 Canada, for instance, did not have conscription and had not had it for decades. The United States had just abolished conscription shortly before Rand's speech (but reinstated compulsory draft registration in July 1980).
So, for example -- in the important matter of conscription -- how was the United States freer than Canada?
It was not.
# # #
In terms of civil rights, the United States had (technically speaking) ended black slavery and given the vote to black people in the 1860s. In reality black people were not consistently allowed to vote in many states until the late 1960s. Black people were segregated in the South until the middle Sixties, and much discrimination, for example, in housing and schools, carried on past then. Ahem . . . this was not so in Canada or Sweden. So how were black people (13% of America's population) freer in the United States than in Canada or Europe?
I am the last to disparage economic freedom, a vast measure of which exists in the United States. The great economic freedom and freedom from constricting laws that the political system of the United States allows has created a freewheeling capitalism which is restlessly and relentlessly inventive and ingenious. It creates vast examples of what the Austrian-American economist Joseph Alois Schumpeter (1883-1950) called capitalistic "creative destruction" which ultimately greatly benefits consumers. But it can be argued, and has been, that the American economic system means more people suffer economic hardship and live in poverty than in other advanced countries, and this is unanswerably true.
The American system's vast freedom for corporations allows them to lobby against, for example, a national health care system. Evidence seems to indicate that this shortens the life and diminishes the health of the average American compared to people in the other advanced countries.
And, pace Rand, the United States has, alas, engaged in conquest -- or tried to. Numerous times.
# # #
For instance, in the invasion of Canada several times by American forces in the American Revolution (1776-1783), it is doubtful that the French-speaking inhabitants of Canada supported the invaders. The French-Canadian leadership trusted the British. They had reached an arrangement with the British that was very advantageous. They were allowed to keep their system, their customs, and their Catholic religion. French-Canadians feared the anti-Catholicism and anti-French bias of the Americans (I was astonished to learn recently of the depth of the prejudice America's leadership then had against Catholicism. Did you know that George Washington had to swear on oath that he did not believe in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation to become a surveyor?).
Now these invasions of Canada were, to some degree, in self-defence against the British -- but they were also about conquest. Anyone doubting this should check out, for example, the attitude of John Adams (1735-1826), second president of the United States. (The other day I came across a statement of his which made manifest his hawklike bellicosity on the subject of annexing Canada. Unfortunately, I neglected to write down this quotation.)
In the 19th century invasions and conquest of Indian territory by the United States (in violation of America's many treaties with the Indians -- see Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee), the U.S. Army again and again and again committed atrocities and massacres; Wounded Knee in 1894 was just one of them. Contrary to Rand, in these struggles the U.S. Army initiated aggression and used brute force as an instrument of compulsion and brute conquest. It also invaded Indian lands for no better reason than to support the encroachments of white miners and land-grabbers. Historians agree, it was all about greed for land and racism.
The U.S. Army also invaded Mexico in 1846. Most historians believe that the invasion was a brute conquest. Massachusetts author Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) thought so at the time, and condemned it. The Congress of the United States officially censured president James Polk for misleading it. At the end of the war of conquest, a huge portion of Mexico was annexed to the United States.
In the Philippines, beginning in 1898, the U.S. Army again used force as an instrument of compulsion and brute conquest. To defeat Emilio Aguinaldo (1869-1964), the leader of the Filipinos, and to successfully conquer the Philippines over a period of about 10 years, the U.S. Army killed or caused to starve tens of thousands of civilians (some historians think -- get ready for it -- 600,000).2
The official reason for conquering the Philippines was to "help our little brown brothers," in the words of American president William McKinley. "Civilize 'em with a Krag," American soldiers sang. A Krag was the standard American rifle of the time.
But I digress . . .
To get control of and complete the Panama Canal, President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) made a secret deal in 1903 with Colombian rebels. He recognized the provisional government of the Colombian territory they controlled, the modern nation of Panama, and threatened Colombia with the U.S. Marines and U.S. Army. As a quid pro quo for recognizing the new republic, America got the right to build the Panama Canal and garrison it.
Despite Ayn Rand, the United States did profit from World War II, as did the other victorious Allies. The Allied nations retained their freedom, employed their people, and developed their economies. The United States became the world's overwhelming military and economic power, and its industrial leader. But, of course, the United States did not fight the war to enrich itself. The war cost the United States a great deal of money. Nor did it fight from "foolish generosity" or altruistic motives (although it fought the war wisely and, it could be argued, with generosity). No. It fought World War II because on December 7, 1941 the Empire of Japan attacked it, and Japan's allies Germany and Italy soon declared war on it. (Incidentally, it can be argued -- and has been -- that the United States did not win the war in Europe, despite being the main Allied power on the Western and Italian fronts, but that the Russians did, grinding up the main body of Germans in the East. Of course, though somewhat assisted by Britain and Australia, America beat the Japanese with its mighty Navy, Marines, Army Air Force, and atomic bombs, virtually single-handed.)
So all these statments of Rand are erroneous.
But Rand made more interesting and fundamental errors in this speech as well.
# # #
In her speech Rand defends the importance of philosophy by pointing out how academic philosophical positions end up as catch phrases forming the "thought" of those who do not actively concern themselves with philosophy. She then attributes specific catch phrases to the influence of specific historical philosophers. She argues that these catch phrases have warped popular thinking, and that historical philosophers spread evil incorrect thoughts about epistemology, altruism and dictatorship.
Rand's statements unfairly smear these philosophers, vastly over-simplifying and distorting their doctrines, and even distorting their characters as people. Rand's remarks demonstrate that there is a great deal of philosophy and history that she did not understand.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) fares worst. That philosopher, who loved freedom, gets blamed for nearly everything wrong with the world. Well, to be more accurate, he shares the blame, in Rand's opinion, with Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1832).
"You," [Rand says to the cadets] "are the target of a special attack by the Kantian-Hegelian-collectivist establishment that dominates our cultural institutions at present." She goes on: "Today's mawkish concern with and compassion for the feeble, the flawed, the suffering, the guilty, is a cover for the profoundly Kantian hatred of the innocent, the strong, the able, the successful, the virtuous, the confident, the happy."
Well, this is absurd.
Poor Immanuel Kant. Like many European proto-liberals, like his fellow German Hegel in fact, the East Prussian philosopher had generous hopes that the French Revolution would liberate France and possibly Europe. Many European intellectuals hoped that the Revolution would spread across Europe and shake up the system of absolute monarchies that kept most of the Continent in chains. How disappointed Kant must have been when the Revolution stalled and Napoleon became a conquering emperor who put his brothers on the thrones of Europe. But how much more disappointed Kant would have been, had he known that he would be blamed for students in a faraway continent 150 years later rioting against their ROTC buildings!
Now to you or me the connection between Kant's three philosophical critiques and America's 1960s campus riots might seem remote; but obviously we lack the insight of Ayn Rand. She could see the direct connection.
(I wonder if Rand got this bizarre idea by reading Sir Karl Raimund Popper's two-volume work The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), where he blames 20th-century totalitarianism on Plato, Hegel and Marx. I think we have to say -- more accurately than Rand or Popper did -- that each person is responsible for what he or she does; no one should be allowed to blame their actions on the philosophy of someone else, especially a long-dead person.)
Rand then proceeds to make another serious mistake.
[To Be Continued and Revised]
1 From Rand's Philosophy: Who Needs It, published by Bobbs-Merrill, New York, 1982, pg. 1.
2 For an interesting history of the American conquest of the Philippines, see "Benevolent Assimilation": The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903, by Stuart Creighton Miller. Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1982.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Bantam Books, 1975 (?) [paperback edition].
Rand, Ayn. Philosophy: Who Needs It. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1982.
Last slightly modified: 8:50 PM 12/08/2003