Wednesday, November 28, 2012

BkRev: Peikoff, The DIM Hypothesis

 Leonard Peikoff, The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out, New York, New American Library, 2012, 378 pp.

The DIM Hypothesis is an ambitious book. It sets out to explain the essential nature of Western culture, the path Western history has taken from the ancient Greeks to U.S. culture today, and our most likely route for the next two generations. Will we see prosperity, advances in science, and greater freedom for individuals to pursue happiness? Or will we see decline? The DIM Hypothesis provides a framework for answering such questions. The book is "[a]n essentialized account" but "not of course a proof" of the hypothesis, which would require multiple specialized studies rather than a single volume. (p. xii)

The author of the book is philosopher Leonard Peikoff, PhD. As the Acknowledgments section of the book shows, he has drawn on the expertise of a gallery of specialists in four major fields of our culture and in each of the major periods of Western history.

THE ARGUMENT. In Part One ("Epistemology"), Peikoff explains the key that he thinks opens the lock on our doorway to understanding the past, grasping the present, and predicting the future. The key, he says in Ch. 1, is identifying the mode of thinking that representative individuals in a society use to create their culture. Why is the mode important? The mode shapes the "cultural products" that result from the thinking. (For a concretizing analogy, I view mode of thinking as the narrow "waist" of an hourglass, with the sand in the top compartment being a society's dominant philosophy, and the sand in the bottom compartment being culture; the nature of the culture depends not only on the broadest philosophical principles, the heavy "sand" at the top, but also on the nature of the very narrow "waist" through which those principles are applied to culture.)

A mode of thinking is a person's way of mentally connecting the multitude of bits and pieces he knows ("the Many") into a system of thought ("the One") that explains the world and our role in it. Peikoff sees three major modes of thinking: Integration (I), Misintegration (M), and Disintegration (D).

The I mode, Peikoff explains in Ch. 2 ("The Three Archetypes"), is the mode of Aristotle: start with sense-perception of nature, form concepts of the things we see, produce wider concepts, infer principles, and organize -- that is, integrate -- those principles into a system of thought about the world as a whole, which is philosophy.

The M mode is superficially similar in that its practitioners (originally Plato) do attempt to connect up what they see in this world, but to foundational ideas that come to them from another world, a transcendent world (the world of Forms for Plato, or God's supernatural realm for Jews, Christians, and Muslims). This is a misintegration because it is an attempt to connect the world of nature to the (non-existent) world of the supernatural.

The third major mode, the D mode, is an anti-mode; it is the mode of disintegration, the mode that philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) originated: the mode of rejecting a connection of any item of knowledge to another, leaving only a pile of individual bits of knowledge ("the Many"), if anything.

In looking at history, Peikoff works from the premise that the ideas individuals hold are the causes of their actions. The broadest ideas are philosophical ideas. Broad ideas have broad effects in history, which is the record of human actions. (Peikoff demonstrated these views in his book, The Ominous Parallels, an examination of the ideas that caused the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1920s.) How, though, do broad philosophical ideas -- from Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Rand, and others -- actually translate into particular human actions and therefore the flow of history?

In Ch. 4 ("DIM and the Hypothesis"), Peikoff says the mode of one's thinking -- where one looks for the elements of thought and how one connects those elements -- determines the results in thought and action. The Integration mode led to the philosophical, literary, and mathematical creativity of ancient Greek culture and especially the scientific creativity of the Enlightenment period. The Misintegration mode produced an increasingly oppressive pagan Roman Empire, the Christian Middle Ages, and the supposedly secular regimes of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. The Disintegration mode, which first appeared in modern times, has led to the culture of our own world, a world in which children are educated but cannot think; physicists deny the possibility of knowledge of reality; serious literature lacks plot and theme; and politicians heap up a pile of arbitrary regulations that destroy productivity.

In Part Two ("DIM in Modern Culture") the author -- striving always to practice the mode he champions, the mode of Integration -- illustrates and tests this hypothesis -- that mode of thinking, more than any other factor, explains the nature and trajectory of a culture. Peikoff starts, not at the beginning of history, but with our own, modern time, a culture that most readers know best. He looks at four fields of our culture -- literature (Ch. 5), physics Ch. 6), education (Ch. 7), and politics (Ch. 8).

In Part Three ("DIM in Pre-Modern Culture"), Peikoff examines the same four fields but in the I culture of Classical Greece (particularly Athens), the initially mild M ("M1") culture of pagan Rome, the severe M ("M2") cultural of most of the Christian Middle Ages, the return to a mild M ("M1") culture during the Renaissance, and the I culture of the Enlightenment. In all these cases, Peikoff approaches a field by looking at particular cultural products. He says:

"Cultural products," as I use the term, are not academic treatises. Rather, they are things such as the Aeneid, the discovery of heliocentrism, Progressive education, the welfare state -- i.e., entities that are familiar in some form to the people in a given society and that influence their lives uniquely, in both thought and action. Cultural products in this sense are not theories of aesthetics, but plays, concerti, the David. They are not philosophizing about science, but the publicly known conclusions of working physicists, who tell us about an absolute law of gravity or about big bangs and anti-causal quarks. They are not philosophy of education, but the curricula and teaching methods of the K-12 schools children attend daily. They are not political abstractions, but the behavior of actual governments wielding defined or purposely undefined powers. The sum of such products is the culture of a society. (p. 71)

In Part Four ("The Future"), Peikoff continues to build his hypothesis but in "the other direction -- not from hypothesis to [cultural] products, but from the observed facts about [cultural] products to hypothesis." (p. 251) This is an inductive test of the hypothesis. The first chapter of this part, Ch. 12 ("Identifying a Culture's Essence"), is an example of one element of his approach. This element will be welcomed by serious readers, but will slow the reading of casual readers: He explains the method he is using at each major step. Some of the discussion is abstract, but Peikoff guides the reader with aids such as: inserting subheadings that show the reader the main steps; summarizing major points in short statements; and explaining where in the thought process the author's account now stands.

In Ch. 13 ("The West's Modal Progression"), Peikoff examines the nature of the changes from one mode of thinking to another.

The progression of modes is not a march of reified abstractions propelled independently of worldly events by the dictates of some preordained logic beyond human control. On the contrary, a mode is a method of thinking, and method entails content; thinking, if it is non-Platonic, is about particulars. The rise and fall of any mode, therefore, can be understood only in conjunction with a specific triggering event or events -- that is, event(s) which, in the context of the period, lead people to question and to conclude that the established mode is unsafe, backward, invalid, and/or evil. The result, other things being equal, will be a modal changeover. (pp. 266-267)

Throughout the book, Peikoff is careful to say what the DIM hypothesis is not, as well as what it is. For example:

The DIM theory has no distinctive means to predict the rise of disaffection [with the dominant mode of thinking] in an era; nor can it identify in advance the concretes that will trigger a changeover [to another mode of thinking]. The basic question that modal theory does attempt to answer is this: Given a society's established mode, along with the eruption of such concretes [as triggers for change] if and when they come, which new mode will people choose to embrace and why? (p. 267)

In Ch. 14, Peikoff examines the four "secular modes" in the United States today. The secular modes are the disintegration modes (both mild D1 and the radical D2); the integration mode (surviving now in our culture mostly as an Enlightenment sense of life, but also as the tiny new Objectivist movement); and the mild form of misintegration (M1), which Peikoff labels as Worldly Supernaturalism, meaning that the advocates of this mode accept this world as fully real, but not as a source of guiding principles. (pp. 65 and 305)

In Ch. 15, by contrast, Peikoff considers the fifth and and last mode, the radical misintegration movement (M2). They are pure Platonists, but now in a religious form. In the U.S., the dominant religion, at this time, is Christianity. Among Christians, the greatest threats are the "New Christians," a group distinguished by "the consistency of their religious ideology." This group includes fundamentalists, evangelicals, Pentecostals, and the "born-again." (p. 310). They are calling for "dominionism." This doctrine "holds that the secular authorities in the United States must be replaced by men of faith who will refashion American life according to God's teachings." (p. 315)

In the last chapter, Ch. 16 ("What's Next?"), Peikoff makes his prediction: "religious totalitarianism in America." (p. 333) After considering many factors that might speed or slow the rise of a religious totalitarianism in some form, he says:

Given all these factors and being as specific as one can be, I estimate the M2 triumph to be complete within another forty to fifty years at the latest -- say, two generations. On current evidence, though, it might very well be a generation earlier. ... (p. 340)

My claim that an M2 success is not yet certain depends on my view that a resurgence of Aristotle is still possible. There is some evidence now pointing to the germ of an I revolution in the United States -- that is, to an I philosophy with cultural potential here. (p. 342)

In the final pages, Peikoff says: "The high probability of a monstrous evil should not induce paralysis in those who see it coming. It should not lead to the end of action, but to the beginning." (p. 346)

EVALUATION. The DIM Hypothesis covers 2500 years of Western history. It rapidly plumbs the depths of all those cultures from the concretes of daily life down to the broadest abstractions of philosophy as represented by the dominant mode of thinking. The book presents a hypothesis of what causes a culture to be what it is and change as it does. Overall, the author's presentation of that chain of causes and effects is reminiscent of the mechanical clocks developed in the Enlightenment, a period of triumphant integration in some fields. The clocks' mechanisms were complex, intricate, and at some points delicate, but always including precision-made components that provided a check on other components that might drift in operation. For some viewers, such clocks were a marvel to contemplate. The same is true for The DIM Hypothesis.

Is the book persuasive in its conclusion that the USA is headed to religious totalitarianism within two generations? Peikoff says he holds his conclusion to be "so highly probable as to border on certainty." (p. 341) Will readers agree with him? Equally objective readers may reasonably come to different conclusions, depending on their knowledge of Western history. For me, the answer is yes and no. Yes, there is some probability of such a dictatorship. No, there is not a probability so high it borders on certainty, and for three reasons. 

First, two slow readings of The DIM Hypothesis uncovered dozens of puzzling or doubtful statements (out of the thousands of evidential and methodological statements that constitute the book). Most of the doubtful statements are about debatable particulars of history cited as evidence, but a few of the doubtful statements are about methods. For instance, is the author presenting a "hypothesis" (as stated in the book title and elsewhere) or a "theory" (the term used on pp. 72, 74, and 78)? And when the author says, "The overwhelming dominance of M [throughout most of history] ... would mean that its fundamentals have been so entrenched in the mind of our species that we have never truly escaped them" (p. 285), what is he saying? In particular, what does "entrenched in the mind of our species" mean?

That sounds like innate ideas, but Peikoff has a long track record of opposing innate ideas. Most likely, given evidence throughout the book of ruthless editing to abbreviate the text, Peikoff was using short-hand, so to speak, to say that elements of the Misintegration mode of thinking (wedding what we see in this world to a supernatural realm) are now and always have been so common in our culture that most individuals simply absorb them into their subconscious in childhood onward, making acceptance of religion likely. Clarification of such statements would reduce readers' doubts about the author's near certainty in his disturbing prediction.

Second, also inducing caution are Peikoff's own careful reminders to readers that he is explaining only Western history, the flow of Western culture, a culture shaped, Peikoff holds, by philosophy that was originally Greek, but later combined with the non-Western religion of Christianity. His modal analysis does not apply to Eastern culture, which Peikoff has not studied. (p. 264) Yet we live in a fluid world that is mixing cultures, with Western elements spreading eastward and Eastern elements spreading westward. Will this situation affect a modal change in the U.S. or elsewhere?

Example "other factors" which the author sets aside as not part of modal analysis are: the historical role of philosophical skepticism and other forms of "non-integration" (pp. 37-38, 39, and 67); the effects of pre-philosophical culture (pp. 264, 284, and 285); and the place of cultural elements that do not reveal a particular mode (pp. 68 and 74-75). This list should make the reader extra cautious in evaluating the author's level of certainy about his conclusions.

Third is the problem of explaining the appearance and rise of the integrative mode to prominence in particular cultures at particular times. Why did it arise when and where it did arise -- ancient Greece; in the late medieval period (leading to the Renaissance); the Enlightenment period, but beginning in the 1600s; and, at least as a seedling, in our own time with the philosophy of Ayn Rand?

I have written two books on somewhat related subjects: The Aristotle Adventure: A Guide to the Greek, Arabic, and Latin Scholars Who Transmitted Aristotle's Logic to the Renaissance, especially the chapters on the revival of Aristotle scholarship in the late Latin-Christian period; and The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, especially the chapter on Thomas Aquinas and Siger of Brabant. I am thereby somewhat familiar with the facts of the long, slow rise of the integrative mode. In each case, how did advocates and practitioners of the Integration mode manage to survive and eventually flourish, even if only in mixed cultures? This needs to be explained before accepting as nearly certain a prediction of domination by radical misintegration, that is, a religious totalitarianism.

RECOMMENDATION. Is this a book for everyone? No. It is useful, challenging, and important for long-term students of at least three fields: philosophy, history of philosophy, and philosophy of history. It will also aid serious philosophical and intellectual activists, those individuals who have a well defined, long-term purpose as activists and who know the importance of spreading fundamental ideas as preparation for narrower changes later.

Peikoff himself suggests that general readers, those without requisite background in history and philosophy, "need not flee" from the book but might "browse the sections pertaining to modern literature, education, and politics (chapters five, seven, and eight), and above all ... take a look at the book's final three chapters, dealing with America's future." (p. xiii) The most difficult sections for general readers are the very ones that will probably fascinate serious students of history and philosophy: the sections which describe Peikoff's methodology in thinking and explanation. Both are delightfully integrative.

For that reason, Peikoff's The DIM Hypothesis, as well as his long stairway of labor before it, may itself be one reason why his own prediction -- the triumph of misintegration, in the form of religious totalitarianism -- might fail. Taught and led by thinkers such as Leonard Peikoff, the integrators may yet win.

(This review is provisional. I may revise it after leading a 17-week study group examining the book in Study Groups for Objectivists. The study group begins in January, 2013, for registered members.)

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described here.