A Review of Henry Emrich's Battlefield of the Mind

G. Stolyarov II
 
Issue XXI - April 26, 2004
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Henry Emrich, a contributor of articles to The Rational Argumentator, has recently released a brief but informative book-length discourse on the state of the present culture and the Objectivist filosofy itself. The book is a swift read, but in a variety of respects, it extends the Objectivist critique of contemporary religious, political, scientific, and filosofical trends into new territory, where nothing is wholly exempt from scrutiny and re-evaluation except the fundamental principles of Objectivism on which the book’s propositions rest. Even Ayn Rand, the novelist and filosofer whose voluminous works triggered the formation of the Objectivist movement, is not an unquestionable authority in Mr. Emrich’s mind.

Having read the first draft of this
Battlefield of the Mind, I am aware that the contents have been updated and supplemented to increase the book’s length to 199 pages. Mr. Emrich begins by describing his own intellectual transformation, from a man who believed, by default, in the correctness of mainstream classifications and the all-encompassing nature of the “Conservative”/“Liberal” distinction to a thinker who learned to distinguish the fallacy-riddled underpinnings of the modern paradigm in both form and content. Mr. Emrich, to his credit, derives insights from a wide array of thinkers, and does so not indiscriminately, but with a fundamental devotion to logical consistency. He has gained from the anti-statist commentary of George Orwell, the science fiction of Ray Bradbury, and even the writings of Tammy Bruce, author of The New Thought Police: Inside the Left’s Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds, a self-described “pro-choice, gun-owning, voted-for-Reagan feminist progressive.” Though these individuals differ on numerous fundamental points from the typical Objectivist, their contributions to waging the war against the irrationalities of modern culture must not be overlooked. This is a theme that thoroughly permeates Mr. Emrich’s commentary.

The body of the book explores issues related to the four fundamental branches of filosofy and beyond. In metafysics, Mr. Emrich reaffirms the absolutism of reality and refutes such doctrines as Hume’s categorical skepticism and subjectivism, as well as the idea, prevalent in New Age spin-offs on post-Classical fysics and postmodern deconstructionism, that “Nothing” is a fundamental fabric of reality. Cleverly commenting that “the holes are not the cheese,” Mr. Emrich takes the argument further, to show that modern “relativity” and “quantum mechanics” have greatly overstepped their bounds by asserting self-contradictory metafysical generalizations at odds with the Identity Principle. At all times, Emrich takes the position of a lucid champion of scientific progress and its rigorous grounding in logic and objectivity. He recognizes that established scientific “traditions” such as peer review and lab repeatability are not inherent to science per se, and notes that the greatest scientists of history, such as Copernicus, Galileo, Da Vinci, rose to their heights without such unquestioning embrace of customary formalities. What is essential to science, according to Emrich, are empirical observation, and the logical integration thereof for the purpose of refining hypotheses. The mind of the individual, not the “scientific community” is of prime import in these processes, and this mind has historically resulted in the technological and theoretical progress that the advocates of scientific regulation and collective standardization have branded as excessive. Emrich, once again, argues the side of reason and human happiness, countering the irrationality of those who would suppress evolutionary teachings (without thoroughly
knowing what evolution is about), or those who would impose top-down controls on the genetic makeup of a society via Eugenics and suppress the rendering of genetic alterations a free-market process by the bigoted abolitions of cloning and genetic engineering.

Mr. Emrich demonstrates that no tool is inherently evil or prone to misuse in itself, that the alleged “harms” of science in fact result from individuals with false
filosofical mindsets (including mysticism, subjectivism, determinism, and Humean skepticism, the antitheses of the radiantly definite and absolutist mentalities resulting in technological progress itself). Similarly, Emrich criticizes those who would brand a tool, a gun, responsible for crime, rather than the people who would wield it. A gun can be used for purposes of coercion and destruction, but it can also be employed by righteous citizens for their self-defense; the blanket abolition of private gun ownership or any restrictions thereon would merely deprive the good from a means of assuring their survival.

The Western culture, to the extent that it has been successful, has embraced individual autonomy in thought and action. With this fact Emrich juxtaposes the stark contrast of non-Western havens of cultural decay, the repressive caste system in India, the waterfalls of blood on the slopes of Aztec pyramids, the blind collective hatred of “the white man” by power-lusting Amerindian chieftains and shamans, whose present militant loathing of all individuals based on skin color, argues Emrich, is comparable to the impression of some in the 19th century U.S. Army that the Amerindians threatened the livelihood of all white individuals. Though Emrich does not condone the occasionally coercive policies of the U.S. Government toward “Native Americans,” he also takes issue with the present-day racism and revisionism preached on the reservations, a fundamentally collectivist worldview, held, in the majority, by Amerindian demagogues themselves.  In other backward or arrested cultures, Emrich observes similar fallacies, renunciation of individual success and prosperity, unconditional adherence to a guru, the perversion of curiosity, and the denunciation of man’s identity as a rational being striving to attain happiness. This is not a fenomenon from which Western culture is immune, and the modern academic paradigm has already infused precisely those backward values into the mainstream. According to Emrich, “
Without [the] particular values of individualism, rights, freedom, and property which came to full flower in the Enlightenment, ‘Western Culture’ would be in the same pitiful state as many others.” This is a warning that we overlook at our own peril.

Emrich’s writing style is a passionate one, often employing brief sentences with numerous words in bold or capital letters in order to produce emfasis and further strengthen the content with firm conviction. This mode of expression is reminiscent of the works of filosofer Michael Miller of Quackgrass Press, able to integrate a series of complex concepts and fenomena within a remarkably compact amount of space. It is effective, but, to disagree with Mr. Emrich, it is not the only effective style. Stylistic issues underlie Emrich’s criticism of the later novels of Ayn Rand (
Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead), where he considers the style to have exhibited excessive wordiness and characterization to have been expended in favor of a systematic exposition of Rand’s filosofy. Emrich writes (in a letter to me): “I would submit that the ‘life-changing’ aspect of her works comes NOT in the main, from her skill as a fiction writer, but from the ideas and philosophical formulation she communicates through those novels.  Atlas Shrugged IS life-changing, but that still does not obviate the fact that all of her ‘rational’ characters' dialogue reads exactly the same as ‘the Galt speech’, and that all of her ‘irrational’ characters' dialog reads like something out of a bad ‘dime novel’ from the 1950s.  Perhaps it was because she was writing in English, a 'second language’, but there is a certain stiffness and ‘wordiness’ that, at least to my way of thinking, detracts heavily from the impact of her work.

In Ms. Rand’s defense, however, it is essential to note that Rand’s chosen style of writing, Romantic Realism, approached characters as embodiments of a certain set of underlying value-premises, which act themselves out to their inexorable logical conclusions via the plot of the novel. Rand recognized, at the core of every possible permutation of individual values, one fundamental choice of method, awareness or non-awareness, and one fundamental choice of ultimate goal, life or death. Rand’s approach toward filosofy as a scientific discipline and her recognition of the existence of an absolute truth would imply that, in her fiction, the rational characters would, via deliberate awareness of their respective situations, come to hold similar basic values, though they would likely still differ in their individual activities (and Rand’s characters range from architects to railroad tycoons to composers, doctors, filosofers, and even a Robin Hood antithesis, Ragnar Danneskjold, who returns to the wealthy the money that was unjustly redistributed from them to the dependent poor), as well as certain periferal judgments (note, for example, Dagny Taggart’s and Hank Rearden’s initial hesitation to join John Galt’s strike in
Atlas Shrugged, while other great creators in that novel, such as Francisco d’Anconia, entered into it from the very beginning). Far from being “pale stick figures”, Rand’s characters demonstrate an immensity of depth and variety, with her approach toward their ideological essences far more effective at connecting to the reader than the Naturalist School’s random associations of characters with petty minutiae (such as colloquialisms, fotografically described rooms, and, at times, bizarre dreams and fantasies).

Mr. Emrich does give due credit to Rand’s earlier novels, such as
Anthem and We the Living, because, in his words, “the characters are more human -- more noble, because they actually seem to be confronted with the CHOICE between striving for betterment, or succumbing to defeat.” This is true, and part of the admirable element of these novels, as they demonstrate individuals’ struggles to discover the rational way of living while immersed in a cesspool of societal delusions. However, Rand’s later works serve to portray characters at a later stage of this progression toward an objective understanding, persons like John Galt, who have already reached the firm ground of consistent reason and can launch assaults on the evils suffusing mainstream culture from a far more empowering standpoint. This is an essential demonstration of the rewards of rational living to those who cultivate it diligently and unwaveringly.

Essential as it may have been for me to frase my disagreement and clarify my position on this issue in Mr. Emrich’s commentary, I would nevertheless overwhelmingly recommend the book. Not merely does it skillfully debunk the dominant paradigms of the intellectual vacuum of our time, but it also seeks to bring about a consistent reliance on individual sovereignty and autonomy within the Objectivist movement itself. Even Emrich’s critique of Rand’s writing style is intended to dissuade Objectivists from establishing her as an unquestionable authority and instead approaching her works by giving them due credit, but still from a purely individualistic perspective, not fearing to express disagreement in content and form where applicable. I, as an autonomous thinker, have my own disagreements with certain periferal viewpoints proposed by Rand, which I am willing to evaluate critically, rather than unconditionally. Agreeing with Rand that there can be no judgment superseding that of the individual mind, I consider this a far healthier ideological attitude than the closed-doctrine, “you must accept 100% of Rand’s words as the undisputable truth” approach. If you consider yourself an Objectivist, it is imperative that you read this book, as it may well be an antidote to the schismatic mentality that has been tearing the movement into backbiting factions for the past fifteen years. If you are not an Objectivist, you will, however, still amply benefit from the ideas therein, as Mr. Emrich’s intent is not to preach to the choir, but rather to amplify the cultural exposure of certain essential metafysical, epistemological, ethical, and political truths. The degree to which you embrace and propagate these will be the degree to which you will be allied with Mr. Emrich and myself.


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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.