L. Neil Smith's
Number 188, August 26, 2002


Reply To Mr. Bommarito
by James J Odle

Exclusive to TLE

In his letter to the editor in the last TLE, Mr. Joseph S. Bommarito questioned my suggestion [in the TLE before that] that philosophy is 'mental masturbation.' Perhaps I should clarify what I mean.

'Mental masturbation' is intellectual pretension or perhaps I should say, it is the over intellectualizing of subject matter that isn't worth the effort. Philosophy, to be relevant to our lives, must retain some connection to the real world. When it floats off into space in pondering questions on the order of, "If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?" it devolves into MM. Philosophy is worthwhile when it is confined to practical issues of morality, rights, and the relation of the individual to 'society.' As far as political action goes, it is only useful when it is concerned with achievable goals,

MM can be found in areas of academic endeavor other than philosophy and I am not the only one to notice this.

Example One: In the movie Manhattan, Woody Allen and friends take a tour of an art gallery when the Woodman comes across a cube. Immediately, in mocking the pretensions of the intelligentsia, he begins to describe how the cube does this, that, gives off this, etc. {I don't remember what he says.} Point is he indulges in all this MM over a cube. A cube is just a cube! A rose is just a rose!

Example Two: I once read a discussion of the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in which the reviewer proclaimed that it was Beethoven's intent to convey the idea of 'fate-knocking at the door.' Personally, I find it hard to believe that Beethoven, when composing his symphony, asked himself the burning question, "How do I convey the idea of fate knocking at the door? AHAH!! I know!! DA-DA- Da-Duh!"

He probably came up with a musical idea he thought was interesting and put it down on paper. The idea of 'fate knocking' was all in the reviewer's head.

Example Three: When one studies psychology in college, one encounters theories [i.e. artificial models] of human behavior. You can't put someone's thinking under a microscope and study it. While there is some grounding in reality, as demonstrated in experiments, the majority of it is MM. What else can you make of the following:

  • Freud's theories of the Id, Ego and Superego

  • Jung's theories of subconscious archetypes

  • Maslow's 'hierarchy of needs'

  • Transactional Analysis: "I'm OK -- You're all screwed up!"

  • B. F. Skinner's Operant Conditioning otherwise known as Behavioral Modification

This guy believed that we were all mindless shells of human flesh instinctively responding to environmental stimuli -- that nobody has anything resembling freewill to call his own. {I'm taking his psychobabble and translating it into plain English.} He also believed that because psychologists have such a keen understanding of human behavior that they should run the world. He wrote a book with this thesis: Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He also conducted psychological experiments on his own children.

Which of these guys has the 'inside scoop' on what makes people tick?' Or are they all simply 'mental masturbators?'

Example Four: MM can also take place in philosophy [and law which is derived from philosophy] when we get caught up in minutia and begin fretting over every nut, bolt and rivet of which it is composed. When this happens, we end up with articles in TLE such as Bob Wallace's "The Menace of the Libertarian Materialist", in which he states,

"This raises the question of how a libertarian materialist believes that political liberty and economic freedom are the best way for humanity to live. Is it objective truth, discoverable through logic and reason?"

My Response, "It's a process of elimination! In 10,000 years of human history everything else has been tried!" Or when he states,

"They'll often claim that liberty and economic freedom "evolved" as being best for humans, but they're on really shaky ground, since materialism is an essentially nihilistic philosophy that has no defense against murder. Or genocide. They're trying to use a foundation that won't support what they believe."

My Response, "I don't know what foundation Mr. Wallace is talking about. Nevertheless, it is always possible to come up with a utilitarian argument against murder and genocide. And besides, who the hell is it am I supposed to be defending myself from in the first place?!"

In your letter you ask:

"Where would we, as modern libertarians, be without the philosophers? Rather than discussing their accomplishments, I simply name a few, many of whom are quoted regularly by libertarians: John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Mason, James Madison."

Believe me. I deeply appreciate the contributions the Revolutionary War-era thinkers had on their fellow Americans, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. The Jan. 29, 2001 issue of TLE featured a previous article of mine titled Constitutional Drift in which I stated:

"As I see it, the Constitution - metaphorically speaking - lies mortally wounded on a hospital gurney, under an oxygen tent, with an IV stuck in it's arm and every once in a while, the critical care staff has to come along and apply the electro shock paddles to it's chest!

"No, the Constitution is not dead. A sort of Constitutional 'template' has been laid upon the land. What we have today is the 'form' but not the 'substance' of a Constitutional government.

"After all, what is the whole purpose of the Constitution - together with the Bill of Rights? Let us remember our basic high school civics now. The whole point is to protect each of us - as individuals - from the tyranny of a strong central government as well as the possible oppression involved with majority rule. And it supposed to accomplish this by constraining the range of options and thus the range of lawful activities available to public officials - particularly, federal public officials. The Constitution is even supposed to protect us from our politicians' and fellow citizens' good intentions - particularly when they take the form of demented, dimwitted socialist/welfare/warfare government programs. After 150 years of public school indoctrination, no one seems to remember this - or care. Put it another way, the purpose is to inconvenience public officials as much as possible in order to secure our liberty. Problem is, I don't see much inconveniencing going on out there.

"Thomas Jefferson once suggested that we should not put our trust in men but that we should "bind them down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution." The trouble is, those chains have come unbound. Leviathan has slipped its leash."

Now every philosophical principle that I have just stated is supposed to be part of everyone's basic high school education. So where is the practical application in our every day lives? Why are public officials behaving as though, with election to public office, they received some sort of power-of-attorney to go out and do anything and everything the Supreme Court and public opinion allows them to regardless of what the Constitution actually says? Why are lawmakers and the judiciary deciding when, where and under what circumstances our most basic fundamental rights are 'available?' How did they acquire this power in the first place? It wasn't Constitutionally delegated to them.

The answer is, politicians know that the average American can't think beyond the end of his nose where the subject of politics is concerned. Put it another way, economists would describe Americans as 'rationally ignorant.' Few, if any Americans can muster an intelligent discussion on the psychopathological nature of government. I spend a lot of time listening to talk radio and judging from the quality of the 'thinking' taking place, in my more cynical moments, I can't help but believe that if a politician came out and proclaimed that the moon was made of green cheese, half this country would drop to its knees and shout to the heavens, "I believe! I believe!!"

Read the complete article, Constitutional Drift. Tell me where I'm wrong. Take a good hard look at our fellow Americans and tell me whether writing the article was a profitable use of my time or whether I was indulging in pointless 'mental masturbation.' Did I influence anybody?

I too, was attracted to the libertarian philosophy from reading Ayn Rand. I consider her to be one of the most brilliant and original thinkers and writers of the previous century. I recommend the majority of her books. Nevertheless, I consider the average philosophical tract to be birdcage liner. Why? Because the first obligation of any writer on any subject is to engage the reader -- to keep him reading. Most political, philosophical writing qualifies as a sure cure for insomnia. I tried to read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and he made my eyelids droop. So did Thomas Paine's Rights of Man.

Nevertheless, there is some political writing that is worth everyone's time {I won't promise that these works will keep reader awake.}:

And for fun:

For the record, I hold a B.S. degree in Management from Arizona State University. And yes, I did take a course in philosophy in college, and promptly fell asleep.



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