Saturday, 5 January 2019

Is Ayn Rand’s Objectivism a Philosophy?

Ayn Rand’s novels, like the works of a few other great writers, have a stunning impact on the mind when you read them for the first time. You get mesmerized by the larger than life characters that you discover in her novels, and the notion that philosophy has practical consequences gets inscribed in your memory.

Most people become acquainted with Rand by reading her novels and when they make inquiries about her, they come to know that she is the founder of a school called objectivism. After the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1958, she decided to become a philosopher—with a band of inexperienced youngsters, she launched objectivism. She didn’t have any expertise or interest in philosophy; she had no clue what it takes to philosophize like a philosopher. Much of the work that she has done in the name of objectivism consists of short articles on the political and cultural excrescences of her own time. Her articles are interesting, but they are not philosophy.

Rand’s objectivist followers claim that her novels are an elucidation of the objectivist philosophy. But I believe that her novels are works of fiction; they are not philosophy. You can find in her novels an inspiration for a healthy sense of life, and a sense of the critical role that philosophy plays in the rise and fall of civilizations and in an individual’s life—but all this is not philosophy.

Philosophy, like physics, biology, and mathematics, has a methodology of its own. You can discover the philosophical truth only by following the philosophical method. You can’t do it by following a literary way—but that is what Rand tried to do. She developed objectivism by following a literary methodology and she could not produce a single treatise on any area of philosophy. The contrast between the massive scope of her novels, and the pettiness, ignorance, and dogmatism that we find in objectivism is so blatantly obvious that only the most dogmatic acolytes can claim that all is well in objectivism.

Etienne Gilson’s thought provoking words in The Unity of Philosophical Experience (page 7) come to my mind:
I wish I could make clear from the very beginning that in criticizing great men, as I shall do, I am very far from forgetting what made them truly great. No man can fall a victim to his own genius unless he has genius; but those who have none are fully justified in refusing to be victimized by the genius of others. Not having made the mathematical discoveries of Descartes and Leibniz, we cannot be tempted to submit all questions to the rules of mathematics; but our very mediocrity should at least help us to avoid such a mistake. There is more than one excuse for being a Descartes, but there is no excuse whatsoever for being a Cartesian. 
Taking an inspiration from Gilson’s words, I will say that there is more than one excuse for being an Ayn Rand, but there is no excuse whatsoever for being an objectivist. I am not trying to debase Rand as a fiction writer; she has written fine novels—she took philosophy seriously and was devoted to finding the philosophical truth. But she failed to create any value in objectivism because she was a fiction writer and not a philosopher. She made no effort to learn philosophy. 

4 comments:

Jerome Huyler PhD. said...

Anoop, you are a learned and well-read man. But this article baarely scratches the surface of Ayn Rand's world-turning contributions to philosophy and living well and happily on earth. I offer two examples: (1) Introduction to Objectivists Epistemology where she finally solves the problem Locke left along with his monumental philosophical achievement. She finally connected man's mind to reality by identifying the axioms of thought. She explained that existence exists and wny contridictions cannot exist (and knew full well that Aristotle had already said as much). Her even briefer essay "The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness dismisses all forms of self-sacrifice and announced the seven virtues that reason and rationality dictate, the invaluable absolute guides to human conduct. While Locke had already established the individual natural rights men, by their nature, possess, Rand improved on the defense of rights and followed Locke in developing a government of, by, and for the goverened - one where governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that the governed cannot give government powers they, themselves, do not possess. Men and their governments may not take away or give away what is not theirs. How can a thinking man not see the inestimable contribution Rand made to philosophy and to living free and prosperous lives? That American culture is fast losing its Enlightenment premises is no reflection on the importance of the body of thought Ayn Rand bequeathed to posterity.

Anoop Verma said...

Jerome Huyler, I agree with what you have said. My aim in this post was not to deny the contributions of Ayn Rand but to find some answers. It is a *genuine* attempt to find an an answer to why objectivism has *failed* to deliver on its promises. Objectivism was supposed to be a philosophy of individualism and of reason. But I think that modern objectivism is not individualistic or supportive of reason.

Hugo Schmidt said...

It's almost as though she wrote that she developed her philosophy to write her novels, rather than the other way around.

"It is a *genuine* attempt to find an an answer to why objectivism has *failed* to deliver on its promises."

- I actually offered you an answer on that as I recall.

Anoop Verma said...

Hugo Schmidt: I appreciate having your point of view on this.