Posted by: Michael Logan | June 22, 2009

What Is Objectivism, Please: Part One.

——–I am listening to a podcast right now in which a self professed Objectivist describes a moment in which Ayn Rand stand up on one leg and describes her philosophy as: “Objectivism is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own sense of happiness and moral purpose in his life, with productive achievements as his noblest activity and reason as his only absolute.”. I haven’t been able to find the video, but I do have a question for anyone interested.

What exactly is Objectivism? What does the philosophy entail, and does the above quote properly represent it? Is the philosophy consistent with the ideas of the Libertarian philosophy? I have never been overly fond of Rand; I found her work to be rambling and imprecise, which is the primary reason I never looked into it that deeply. However, I have noticed that there is a growing segment of the electorate that prescribes to the Rand philosophies, particularly Libertarians, and assuming the Republican party continues to self destruct, it may be the case that it 4-12 years we have a significant Libertarian presence in our government, something I do not at all agree with in principle but would not be at all troubled with if it were to happen.——–

I sent that email to the Cleveland Freethinkers last night, hoping to clarify my understanding of the subject of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. The CFT has a number of members who are particularly well versed in a wide variety of philosophical subjects, myself included, and it is very easy to get the information needed, or in the very least to be provided with a number of excellent resources for finding out the answers you had. A few of the most helpful responses follow:

Mark T.

I read The Fountainhead 25 years ago- I found it to be very interesting, yet it was hard for me to get through because it goes way off on tangents (like much other deep philosophy).
Some principles of Objectivism: (with my 2 cents)
1) reality exists independent of consciousness (Check! This is a very simple concept- yet so few understand it, or want it to be true)
2) individual persons are in contact with this reality through sensory perception (Check!)
3) human beings can gain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive and deductive logic (Check!)
4) the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness or rational self-interest (hmmm… does this attempt to justify negative selfish/self-centered behavior?)
5) the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in pure laissez-faire capitalism (highly debatable, of course- here is where Objectivism really polarizes)
6) the role of art in human life is to transform man’s widest metaphysical ideas, by selective reproduction of reality, into a physical form—a work of art—that he can comprehend and to which he can respond emotionally (that’s part of it, but does art always have to be that deep? What about art for pure visual or audio appeal to the senses, like at Parade the Circle?)
I see another huge conflict in her philosophy itself- the supremacy of the individual is in there, also the glorification of Man being triumphant over Nature. But the individual does not, of course, triumph over nature (we die, nature “wins”). I should probably revisit that book, and read it at face value as a novel. The person who gave it to me to read (25 years ago) urged me to try and absorb the philosophy within it.

Mikkel F.

For my 2 cents her epistemology is just a hodgepodge of Descartes, Hume and Kant…with quibbling semantic disagreements to make it “different.”
1) reality exists independent of consciousness is an axiom in nearly all philosophical ideas…in fact you could argue that philosophy itself depends on this
2) individual persons are in contact with this reality through sensory perception See Kant. Wikipedia says “To defend and explain her position on reason, she developed a theory of sense-perception that distinguishes between the form and the object of perception, holding that the form in which an organism perceives is determined by its physiological means of perception but that in whatever form it perceives, what it perceives—the object of its perception—is reality. She rejected the Kantian dichotomy between “things as we perceive them” and “things as they are in themselves.” The validity of the senses, she held, is axiomatic: sense-perception, being physiologically determined, cannot make “mistakes” or err in responding to the facts of reality.” OK so she agrees with him completely about how the world is filtered through innate perception but then just says “reality” is what you perceive and there is no reason to think otherwise.
3) human beings can gain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive and deductive logic Hume/Kant put emphasis on empiricial perception, Descartes on logic. Again the primary difference is that they were all concerned with there being a reality outside of an individual’s perception and that we use internal representational models to interface with that reality. Her distinction again is that they are equal.
4) the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness or rational self-interest She despised altruism and to me her policies argue for social Darwinism (not forced mind you). Although this is ironic because in the last 10-20 years they’ve discovered that contrary to the perception, altruism amongst social animals is one of the most successful means of propogation.
5) the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in pure laissez-faire capitalism Well I think it is consistent with her philosophy. Based on 4.
Quite frankly I have no idea how she can justify perception and reality as being the same. Anyone with a modicum of understanding about the role of language in concept formation would quickly see that representational models directly affect what someone holds to be true, and that there is a feedback between how language evolves from and shapes cultural experience. Moreover, I don’t see any role for consensus to alter opinion. If you were colorblind, then you’d say that two objects are the same color, and if 98% of people around you say that they aren’t…then is it more “realistic” to claim that they are? Especially when there is a biologically driven explanation for why you see them the same? What about things that you cannot directly observe? In complex systems there are always competing models that are abstract representations of reality because it’s impossible to directly observe and measure all variables at the same time. The question isn’t whether they are the Truth, but whether they do a reasonable job of giving insight.
In my personal experience, most individuals that consider themselves Objectivists have a sense of self-aggrandizement and tortured genius syndrome. If only everyone were rational like they are, then surely they’d come to the same conclusions about life and things would be easy. I think they are attracted to it because they tend to be highly rational and self opinionated and want to say that their thoughts are objective truth. After watching some Rand interviews, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to smear her ideas based on the behavior of many of the adherents, but even she had odd things like thinking homosexuality was “disgusting” as if that were objective fact instead of a subjective belief or opinion. As Randall mentioned, she was hardly the epitome of her philosophical ideals in her own life. For my two cents, I find LaVeyan Satanism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_LaVey) to be a much fuller representation of this sort of life philosophy. He quipped it was “just Ayn Rand’s philosophy, with ceremony and ritual added,” but from the (admittedly little) I’ve read, that’s not exactly true: it’s more a recognition that we’re not all rational Ubermenschen.

Ray V.

5) the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in pure laissez-faire capitalism (highly debatable, of course- here is where Objectivism really polarizes)
Alan Greenspan met Ayn Rand early in his career and was greatly influenced by her. He recently admitted the he was wrong to believe that capitalists would regulate themselves out of self-interest. How much more evidence is required to discredit this position?
“Greenspan, protege of Ayn Rand and the driving mind behind the notion that risk can be contained by having ever growing numbers of market players taking pieces of that risk, has now admitted that ‘Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity (myself especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief.’ […] “The whole concept of self-regulation through self-interest is now dead,”
http://www.capmag.com/article.asp?ID=5353

——————————————————————————————————————————————-

Having read these, with my interest sufficiently piqued, I began to do a google search on the subject and came across these 3 sites in particular:

http://www.cwporter.com/rand.htm
http://attitudeadjustment.tripod.com/Books/OPAR.htm
http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=index

Now, I would never claim that philosophy should be simple and easily understood, especially to the extent illustrated at the beginning of the post (Rand standing on one foot); however, one thing has become abundantly clear to me; just looking at the enormous catalog of Rand’s writings, the vast resources available to help explain and implement the ideas espoused by Objectivism, and the growing acceptance of the basic ideas (libertarianism to an extent) of the philosophy, I can only conclude one thing; or rather, reaffirm one thing: Ayn Rand did not have a clear enough understanding of Objectivism to explain it properly. Furthermore, I would submit that in order to create and establish a genuinely useful and beneficial philosophy, one must have both a comprehensive understanding of the philosophy and an ability to communicate the central tenants properly to a layman in a manner that would allow them to act on it.

I cannot say at this time how exactly I feel about the subject, and because of this I shall spend the coming weeks studying the issue. I really would not mind at all finding something both valuable and significant here, but my investigation thus far has caused me to find Objectivism wanting. Thanks to everyone who assisted me thus far in this, btw.

Michael

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Responses

  1. I too found her so-called philosophy wanting and quite incoherent. To me it sounds like an appeal to emotion and eg, justifying the most childish aspects of us under this facade of intellectual prestige. In other words, baloney. It was solopsistic to the extreme and beneath the obscure wording was a seething black heart beating black blood.


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