In the race to review Leonard Peikoff’s latest book, The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West are Going Out, I don’t mind moving slowly and letting others run ahead.
There are many things in the book that I want to think more about, and an honest evaluation of so complex a book, considered as a whole, requires more time and, for me at least, another read.
That said, having read the book through once, I can tell you this much: The DIM Hypothesis is almost exactly the kind of book that fans of Leonard Peikoff would expect.
To indicate how that is so, let me share six quotes from the book with you, along with what aspect of the book I think they show.
For example, here at the start is Peikoff stating his theme in broad terms (which he will get much more specific about later):
The fall of Western civilization—if it does fall—can be traced to its beginning. I do not mean that its beginning led to its end. I mean the opposite: Our rejection of our beginning is what is killing us.
Here is Peikoff being delightfully immodest about himself as the author of this book (in relation to the state of the culture he sees himself writing in):
I am as far from today’s philosophy departments as an atheist is from the pope or, in more positive terms, as a man who wants to live is from an ascetic writhing in the desert.
And here is Peikoff nailing the essential difference between two of the Big Three philosophers in a way that is in my estimate both true and memorable:
Kant’s view that there are two worlds, with ours being inferior, is a reinterpretation of Plato; so is his view of the priority of concepts over percepts; and so is his view that morality is renunciation. For Plato, however, these ideas were an inspiration; they were the key to the transcendent, to enlightenment, to fulfillment. For Plato, they were salvation. For Kant, they are a hatchet.
Moving closer to the theme of the book, and its focus on three “modes” (or methods of thought)—which Peikoff identifies as disintegrated, integrated, or misintegrated—consider a slightly longer passage where Peikoff showcases in this book one of the chief virtues of his previous books: clarity.
Specifically, notice how he defines his terms, gives you many specific concretes (or instances) of them, contrasts what he means with concretes of what he does not, and builds upon each term in a step-by-step manner from simple (or simpler) to more and more complex:
‘Cultural products,’ as I use the term, are not academic treatises. Rather, they are things such as 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.
Philosophy, according to Objectivism, is the fundamental shaper of human life, a role possible to it because it is the subject that deals with the broadest abstractions. But such broad abstractions have little or no reality in the minds of most people, who view them as empty talk. So the question arises: By what means do these abstractions gain and exercise their power over people?
One possible answer, the one I wish to explore, is that such abstractions gain their power through their influence in shaping the mental—integrative—processes of cultural creators; the processes then govern and so are reflected in the creators’ products. This kind of influence can be real and sometimes epochal, even if many creators themselves do not know its deepest source. Thus the full definition of a DIM category: a mode of integration derived from philosophic fundamentals that, when it guides a creative cultural process, leads to a product recognizably reflecting it.
If these generalizations are too sweeping for you, be warned and, if not, be glad: there are plenty more where that came from.
Indeed, in this book Peikoff integrates many of his past integrations, from Ominous Parallels and his course on the history of Western philosophy to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand and his course on eight great plays of Western civilization.
The DIM Hypothesis is Peikoff tackling these, including historical examples of men from Thales to Obama, but “tackling” them by means of naming the essence of the important cultural products of an era—of what those men created—and then of that era considered as a whole—in terms of its dominant mode of integration—and then of the relation between one era and another (including the periods of transition in between).
“Epic” is one of the most frequently misused terms of our own time. But here, in regard to Peikoff’s quest, that word is apt.
For another quote and as an example of the integrations made, consider this comment by Peikoff on the mode that led to the creation of America:
Secularism without skepticism—this was the essence of the Enlightenment philosophy, as it had been for its progenitor, Aristotle. As to rationalism with its claim to intuitive insight, the period tended to agree with Locke’s barb that it is easy ‘to be sure without proofs, and to know without perceiving’; men turned their backs on a priori deductions in order to grasp actual fact—by experience. Jefferson, for example, urged the young to study history on the grounds that it would give them ‘the experience of other times and other nations…’; only this kind of knowledge, he believed, enables us to know the nature of man and the causes of happiness. More important here, Jefferson presents the Declaration of Independence not as an expression of a priori insight or pure thought, but rather as knowledge that ‘all experience hath shewn.’ ‘Experience,’ write Madison and Hamilton, ‘is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred.’
All the key features of the capitalist state—its validation, its powers and limits, the prerogatives and interrelationships of its citizens—are unified, because all are derived from a single principle: the worldly self-preservation of the individual. In this view, the state is a form of connection among the Many—a connection made by the Many, and real only through their agreement. Here we see not a One transcending the Many, but a One in the Many. Or, putting Thales into Latin, e pluribus unum—the I formula.
Throughout The DIM Hypothesis, Peikoff makes these sorts of integrations not just about politics, but also about the approach to education, literature, and science of an era.
And again, he does this for every era of Western civilization, while also making distinctions between both the M and D modes of thought.
As such, if you were to guess that communicating this in an objective manner, one that logically derives generalizations from a wide range of specific concretes, is going to be difficult in so relatively short a book, you would be right.
If you were to continue to play this game of jumping to conclusions, you might also guess that the writing would be dense, and again you would be right, at least in part.
The writing in The DIM Hypothesis can be very dense, especially at the start where the book in some respects opens like a French film, slowly giving you the background before cashing in on that later on.
But partly because of this, and just as in many of his courses, Peikoff’s dry wit can be surprisingly, even spectacularly refreshing.
Moreover, without yet giving my evaluation of Peikoff’s hypothesis or his specific application of it—both of which should be evaluated separately—I can say that reading the book was (for me) worth the effort it requires.
Here, for instance, is a quote from Peikoff on some of the questions that his DIM hypothesis (or later theory) allows you to answer, and specifically what it allows you to answer as against simply knowing what a society’s philosophy is:
Let us take as an example the Objectivist principle that the rise of unreason in a society leads, if unchecked, to dictatorship (a principle on which I based an earlier book analyzing Hitler’s takeover of the Weimar Republic). And let us suppose we know by some means that a substantial part of a given society increasingly accepts unreason. Philosophy by itself would then tell us the ultimate political fate of that society if it did not change its ideas. This is certainly not a vague generality, but a definite and frightening prediction. Despite this fact, however, the philosophic prediction as such necessarily leaves unanswered several questions of great interest to those living in a particular society. What kind of dictatorship will it be? Is any group in the still-free period the most dangerous threat to freedom-lovers now, and thus the most important enemy to fight? If so, is it necessarily an obvious group, such as statist politicians and their Hollywood retinue? Are there better people now among us to be recruited, and are they necessarily to be found on the right? Is there still time for us to reveres direction, and if so, by what specific means can we do so? Or has our society reached the point of no return, and if so, how long does it have? And how probable are all these assessments?
These are the sort of questions that Peikoff’s DIM Hypothesis answers. I will write more on those answers later, after having had time to check them against or integrate them with all that I know.
Until then, please do not wait for my evaluation, let alone anyone else’s.
I shared these quotes so you could see with your own eyes what Peikoff offers in the book and how he delivers it. That done, you can choose for yourself whether to buy the book and act accordingly.
I have now read The DIM Hypothesis three times and each time my view of it gets brighter in some respects but dimmer, much dimmer, in general.
As a result, I will post a long series of questions about the book (on this blog) and, assuming both interest and yet another read through the book, will publish my answers to them in a long essay (most likely for sale on Amazon).