The Incomparable Ayn Rand and the Objectivist Movement

Can subjectivism and objectivism be reconciled?

We can compare and confirm sensations received by different individual observers and thus form an objective view, that is, a view that is common to all observers and therefore void of observer idiosyncracies. But this is as far as we can go with the notion of objectivity. We cannot observe the absolutely objective and true reality unless we step outside of our human perspective, which is an impossibility. In spite of our given skepticism of absolute objectivity, we cannot dismiss the new wave of objectivism in twentieth century philosophy centered around the notion that reality exists outside of human consciousness, a view that seems quite logical to many of us but not as easily adopted by some philosophers.

The objectivist movement was founded by novelist, screenwriter and philosopher Ayn Rand. She was born in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia to a middle class family. Rand showed early promise in writing and mathematics. Her family was devastated in the 1917 Revolution, where her father lost his pharmacy business. Rand enrolled at the University of Petrograd studying history, politics, philosophy and literature but was soon disillusioned with the suppression of free thought. At the age of 21 she received permission for a brief visit to relatives in the United States but her intent was to stay there permanently. Having studied western history and culture, she was an admirer of America’s individualism, vigor and optimism.

Rand’s first significant novel was not published until 1936. It was titled We the Living and was autobiographical of her early years, with vivid depictions of the brutality of the Soviet system. Intellectuals in post-Depression America were rather sympathetic to the Soviet experiment and Rand’s novel was not well received. Rand’s next novel, The Fountainhead was finally published in 1943 after being rejected by twelve publishers. The novel became a best-seller and was even made into a Hollywood film starring Gary Cooper. The film was panned by critics but led to increased sales of Rand’s book, making Rand famous. In the novel Rand uses fictional plot and characters to lay out her groundbreaking philosophy of objectivism.

Another novel followed several years later, titled Atlas Shrugged, which was an immediate best-seller and is, by most accounts, Rand’s magnum opus and the most complete expression of her philosophical vision. Rand described the theme of the novel as the role of the mind in man’s existence and, as a corollary, the demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest. Rand’s plot and characters are integrated into a comprehensive philosophy that includes metaphysics, epistemology, economics and psychology. This was Rand’s last work of fiction.

In the 1960’s Rand began writing philosophical articles and essays in various non-academic journals, as her works were generally shunned in academia. Rand’s philosophy had moral and political implications that were not in line with prevailing views of academic philosophers. Rand’s own attitude was often disapproving of other philosophers and they returned the compliment by dismissing her work.

Rand’s concept of man is that of a heroic being with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity and reason as his only guiding force. This concept reveals Rand’s intellectual lineage: Aristotle-Aquinas-Nietzsche, a line of moral thought that we have not explored in these articles, as our interest is centered on the philosophy of knowledge. Accordingly, we will focus here on that part of Rand’s work that is relevant to our exploration of knowledge.

That is not a simple task, as her epistemological propositions are often mixed with metaphysical, ethical and political ideas. Rand acknowledged that Aristotle is the only philosopher who ever influenced her, although she had found inspiration in Aquinas and Nietzsche as well. She believed epistemology was a foundational branch of philosophy and considered the advocacy of reason to be the single most significant aspect of her philosophy.

Rand’s best known non-fiction book is the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, published in 1979 just three years before her death. Rand discusses the mental processes of conceptualization, the nature of definitions, distinguishing legitimate concepts from anti-concepts, the hierarchical nature of knowledge and what constitutes valid axiomatic knowledge.

Rand is definitely an empiricist, as she believes that all knowledge is derived from perception. An idea can be validated only by tracing it to its source in perception. Reality consists of entities, which are the objects of our perception. Entities have a status which is independent of our conscience and a status which is defined by the entity’s relation to our conscience. The question arises: does Rand believe that humans perceive both of these statuses?

I believe that the correct interpretation of Rand’s theory is that humans form their own perception of reality, while knowing that reality exists independently of human existence. This idea may be trivial and obvious to many of us, but it is not trivial to some philosophers who are still questioning the possibility of a real world that can exist without mankind. After 2400 years, Plato still rules in many philosophical quarters!

Rand describes axiomatic concepts as the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be analyzed or reduced to simpler parts. The three axiomatic concepts identified in her book are existence, identity and consciousness. Existence is recognized as is and an examination of the causes of existence is not meaningful. The concept of identity simply means that everything that exists has a specific, identifiable nature. The concept of consciousness recognizes the existence of consciousness in accordance with Descartes, that one cannot coherently deny the existence of one’s own consciousness. Actually, this part of Rand’s theory is a bit simpler than it appears: Rand recognizes existence, identity and consciousness as axiomatic entities. They are a reality that we must accept without having to prove why and how they came to be.

Rand’s ideas were influential during her lifetime and following her death. Her books have sold more than twenty million copies and continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies each year. Excerpts from Rand’s works are regularly reprinted in college textbooks and several books have been published containing her early letters, journals and other writings. Ayn Rand has not just won the public, she has made inroads into academia as well! That is quite a feat in the agnostic and skeptical world of modern academic philosophy.

In our exploration of philosophical theories of knowledge our first goal is to find a good analysis and description of the process of scientific discovery. Our second goal is to find, if possible, a prescriptive system for scientific discovery. A kind of reasoning blueprint that will guide us through to a better understanding of natural phenomena. The question arises: has philosophy been helpful in the pursuit of these goals or is it just an endless and meaningless discussion of unprovable and useless theories?

Independent consultant and author who writes about the philosophy of science and the scientific method. His most recent book is “The Mind of Science”.

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