Thursday, 19 January 2017

Ayn Rand’s Letters to John Hospers

Ayn Rand’s thoughtful and detailed letters to John Hospers, published in Letters of Ayn Rand, are a source of information on her views on a wide range of philosophical issues.

Only the letters written by Rand are included in the book. From Hospers there is a half-page comment in which he indicates his displeasure at his side of the correspondence not being included. He says: “The reader who read what Ayn wrote to me, and not what I wrote to her, would gather that I was a bloody fool.” Perhaps he is right because Rand’s letters often create the impression that she is finding it too difficult to explain her ideas to him.

In her April 17, 1960, letter to Hospers, she gives a point-by-point answer to the philosophical issues that he had raised in his letter. Here are a few lines from different paragraphs of her four-page letter that highlight not only her ideas but also her disagreements with Hospers:

“I am puzzled by your comments.” “I hold that philosophy should be more precise than the strictest legal document, because much more is at stake—and I am in favor of the most technical language, to achieve such precision.” “You object to my classification of logical positivists as “witch doctors”— and, instead of arguments, you resort to the method of calling me an “outsider”  and implying my total philosophical ignorance.” “I do not believe that philosophy can be discussed without reaching an understanding on Kant. Modern philosophy may and does depart from him on many issues, but it is his epistemological premises that have been accepted without challenge or proof.” “If capitalists are as evil as you say they are, what magic faculty endows a politician with virtue?”

In the letter on August 29, 1960, Rand is trying to convince Hospers that he should not compromise on the content of his new book on ethics. Apparently the publisher wanted the book to have some pro-religious content. Rand tells Hospers that “any compromise between truth and falsehood can only be falsehood.” Further in the letter, she says: “I am opposed to martyrdom as well as to compromise: neither is ever necessary. Integrity does not require martyrdom; but it does forbid compromise.”

The letter on November 27, 1960, has her blasting Hospers for his tendency to see some positive things in Freud. In the letter on January 3, 1961, she disagrees with Hospers on many issues, including Plato, linguistic analysis and Freud. She makes an angry comment: “John, isn't it time to drop this sort of remark, if you do not intend to be offensive? I do not wish to have to remind you of it in every letter. Please stop asserting our ignorance of any subject on which you happen to disagree with us. I do not care to argue in such terms nor by such means nor on such level.”

In the letter on March 5, 1961, she says: “It is, therefore, obvious that an enormous epistemological difference exists between us and that our lines of communication do not work at all. If so, I cannot solve the problem alone: you will have to help me.” Later in the letter, she says: “Please bear in mind the total context of the issues discussed in your note—then accuse me of context-dropping, if you find that you can. Do you remember the slogan: ‘When you say that, smile’? Well, my slogan is: ‘When you accuse me, prove it.’”

In the April 29, 1961, letter she tells Hospers why she was opposed to social workers. She says: “The basic principle involved (which applies to all similar cases and problems) is as follows: it is morally evil to choose as one’s full-time profession, any activity which is not supported by trading, but consists of almsgiving.” She goes on to explain her position on altruist morality, sacrifice, generosity, self-interest, Objectivist ethics, and much else.

The letters that Rand has written to John Hospers are the most interesting part of Letters of Ayn Rand. She wrote these letters in 1961, the year when her first work of non-fiction, For The New Intellectuals, was published. In these letters we have an insight into the way her views were developing on the key aspects of what would later become the philosophical system of Objectivism. 

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