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.


  1. Great analysis. I have my doubts about Peikoff's predictions, but I think what The DIM hypothesis does is firmly establish is the utter indispensable necessity of focusing on epistemology if you want to advocate for any long-term cultural change. Focusing on metaphysics or morality or politics or esthetics won't move the mountains. Only epistemology will ultimately elicit fundamental cultural change.

    Religious activists recognize this. They don't start out trying to convert you with Aquinas' five proofs of the existence of God or telling you homosexuality is evil or that abortion should be illegal. They start out by questioning *why* you believe this or that.

    Also, I think there may be more hope for America (and the West) than Peikoff thinks. There are LARGE grass roots movements of people pursuing rational epistemology in many areas. And the thing is, once you get onto an I methodology in one area, you often begin to apply it in other areas. I see this a lot in the Paleo diet community as people desperately pursue rational methods for improving their health.

    I think it is true that the current D state of the culture will become so untenable that it will force people into either I or M if only out of sheer desperation. I try to steer people toward I as much as possible.

  2. I have read the book one time, and that was a casual read for the purpose of familiarizing myself with the hypothesis. But I too was struck by his seeming endorsement of innate ideas. Here is my abbreviated take:

    The human mind is an integrative tool. Its nature requires it to seek integration. However, integration must be learned, and it requires a specific and precise process. Absent that process, misintegration—improper integration—is the consequence. Given the history of philosophy, the necessary theory and instruction has been rare. Consequently, most individuals misintegrate.

    In short, misintegration is the default, and thus appears to be innate.

  3. Innate is not the same thing as by default.
    I saw nothing that indicated innate ideas. I find it odd that people see the book that way.
    LP clearly says that religion in its primative form was pre-philosophic. Therefore, Platonic ideas found very very fertile ground, and continue to do so today. But that does not suggest innateness.

  4. From standpoint of Objectivism, one of most revolutionary aspects of the book is shift in the nature of Communism and Nazism. Fundamentals of these ideologies have more elements of Plato (Misintegrations) than Kant(Disintegrations). Here I think, to understand the exact role of Kant we need to separate two aspects of Kant.

    Kant the primary philosopher of Disintegration from Kant the secondary platonic intellectual. I think the chapter on Kant by Burgess in his book captures mostly Kant the intellectual, who limited reason to make room for Plato based Christian faith. And thus enabled Plato to re-conquer West in different form. The political aspects of Kant the primary philosopher are only beginning to appear now.

    Burgess, is it possible for you to comment on this separation?

  5. 1. I do not know what "shift in the nature of Communism and Nazism" means. Do you mean that Dr. Peikoff has changed ("shifted") his view of the nature of totalitarianism?

    Are you referring to, for example, the second full paragraph of page xiv? There he explains that formerly he saw Nazism as an instance of materialism (as distinct from supernaturalism). Now, in _TDIMH_ he sees materialists as a type of supernaturalist "and thus essentially akin to religionists." (p. xiv)

    My personal view is that materialists are "subnaturalists," especially in reference to the nature of man. Materialists see man as a being who has fewer characteristics than he actually (objectively) has. For example, materialists deny man's volitional consciousness. Materialists are subnaturalists also in the sense that they are reductionists. They obliterate man's spirit (his consciousness) by reducing it to a cloud of molecules.

    My understanding, however, is that Dr. Peikoff's main point about the supernaturalism of Nazis (and Communists) is that they get the premises of their ideology from somewhere other than sense-perception of reality. That is what Dr. Peikoff, on p. 27, labels as _a priori_.

    That is a valid and important point: The religionists and the Nazis/Communists are alike fundamentally, to the extent that they look to another dimension for the starting point of their rationalistic thinking. (The religionists and the Nazis/Communists were different, however, in where they promised rewards. The religionists promised rewards in heaven; the materialists (Nazis/Communists) promised rewards (for some individuals) in this life, here on earth.

    I suggest holding this discussion until the Study Groups for Objectivists DIM study group starts in late January. Then we can discuss this in detail.

    2. I do not agree that the political aspects of Kant are only beginning to appear now. Nazism and Communism arose around a century ago. They were consequences of Kant's philosophy. It is true, however, that the full disintegration implicit in Kant's philosophy has become apparent in the last 20 years or so (with post-modernism, especially).

    1. Thanks Burgess for the response. This clarifies some doubts. Yes I was referring to preface. And as an aside, by Objectivism I meant Objectivist movement and not Objectvism the philosophy.

      Regarding Kantian influence on Nazism and Communism, its true they were consequence of Kant's philosophy. But as Dr. Peikoff elaborates, they were essentially misintegrated cultural products, that is Platonic in nature. Few Kantian elements like classless society communism projected, but in undefined future. Promise for better future on earth being anti-essential, and therefore leading to a relatively quick downfall of these political ideologies.

      So I think Kant played two roles in this regard. First halting the march of I mode, that had conquered science(via Newton) and politics(via American constitution) by then. Halting allowing background but strong misintegrated mode to reappear(Hegel setting the course). And since his disintegrated ideas were so new, and thus it took time to be clearly understood through Dewey, Wittingstein and Rawls. So the cultural products with his mode(D2) as essence only appeared starting 1920s(in science and education). Political cultural products in last 30 years.


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