Book Reviews

Return to Reason

A review of Return to Reason by Paul Lepanto


Return to Reason, by Paul Lepanto, New York: Exposition Press, 1971, 154 pp., $6.00.

When taken in terms of its explicit purpose, i.e., as "a layman's introduction to, and organized treatment of, the philosophy of objective reality," this work accomplishes its task excellently. Mr. Lepanto has done Objectivism and Ayn Rand a great service. He may be justly proud of himself for doing what so many of the "official" students of Objectivism have not done, namely explaining Objectivism on an introductory level without pomposity, hostility, defensiveness or spite.

This is indeed an organized work. The author develops the exposition through a natural flow of the problems of philosophy, as this would seem most reasonable to any introductory student of any system of philosophical ideas. He is aware of the few interruptions he makes within that flow, as for example his discussion of the concept of "morality" only after he has treated the topics of "Values" and "Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem."

Lepanto explains that "Just as a student beginning a study of physics may find journals of physics a bit over his head until he has studied the basics, a student of Objectivism may experience a need for a basic non-fictional treatment of the philosophy so that he can better profit from THE OBJECTIVIST and from books like THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS…"

Because of its purpose one oughtn't treat this book as a detailed philosophical argument. There are no grand claims of originality as there have been in other works so called admirers of Miss Rand have written. There is no trace of belligerence or condescension. Lepanto's work is just what the doctor ordered—with perhaps a few spots that could be touched up. These I want merely to point out and not belabor, for Mr. Lepanto should not even get the impression that I regard his accomplishment any less than excellent.

Unfortunately the second sentence of the book tells us that "For several years, I have been a student of the only rational school of contemporary philosophy: Objectivism." (my emphasis). Mr. Lepanto is largely right—but that is different from his having the logical right to say what he does. He does not establish such a claim in his book and should therefore, avoid making it. Otherwise one only offends the interested but critical reader.

Then the title of the book should really have been "Advance to Reason." The conception of "reason" offered in Objectivism and by Mr. Lepanto is different and more comprehensive than what is commonly understood by the term. "Return" makes it appear that Objectivism is a rehash or remnant of the past. In the past, however, reason was understood primarily as a purely intellectual cognitive tool, divorced from—even in conflict with—man's senses.

There is no emphasis of what, to my knowledge, is one of the chief merits of Miss Rand's epistemological theories, namely contextualism. This is a small failing but still of some importance in view of the role contextualism plays in the success Objectivism has against serious and/or shallow skeptical challenges—something a beginning student might find very useful in his upcoming trials in his encounters with philosophical discussions.

Since my focus of attention has been on the theory of human rights within the last few months, I was especially aware of Mr. Lepanto's remark that "At best the phrase 'human rights' is redundant"(p. 117). He argues for this by saying that "it implies the existence of some of non-human [sic] rights (in which category the enemies of property rights inevitably place such trivial matters as production, ownership, and trade). The notion of non-human rights is akin to the notion of non-round circles"(p.118).

Of course there could be nonhuman rights—Nathaniel Branden himself has mentioned that some trouble exists about whether there might not be rights of animals. But aside from this, the category of "human" need not simply serve to distinguish the human from the nonhuman but the human from the special rights people may have. Thus the right to vote in a labor union election is a right but not a human right—one does not possess that right solely by virtue of being a human being but because of additional, special circumstances. Such a right could, for instance, be lost by some set of circumstances, whereas human rights cannot without the loss of one's humanity.

Also, in connection with Mr. Lepanto's treatment of rights he says that 'The only man who can set a man's rights aside is that man himself"(p.109). He also remarks that "When one man tries to violate the right of another, he implicitly abdicates his own right"(p. 111). Because the notions of "set aside" and "abdicate" are ambiguous, these remarks could be misleading. The first remark can be taken to imply that a man may choose to lose his human rights—that he can alienate himself from his own rights. Actually, no man can do this—what he can do is to deprive himself of the opportunity to act on his rights as in normal circumstances, i.e., having done nothing that warrants paying for something he has in fact done, namely violate another's right(s). It is the opportunity to exercise one's rights that a person deprives himself of when he acts criminally; he does not lose his human rights. So a man can only set aside or abdicate what would ordinarily (without his criminality) be considered justified exercise of his rights.

Having pointed up some of the troublesome areas of Mr. Lepanto's work, let me hasten to add that there are a number of valuable insights in this book not found elsewhere in the literature on Objectivism. For example, Mr. Lepanto comments upon intuition (p. 61), a phenomenon most students of Objectivism deny because of its affinity with certain mystical notions. He tells us that "What we call intuition is certainly an instance of subconscious assistance to the conscious mind," which is to bring to mind that there need be nothing mysterious about intuitions and certain intuitive people. The brief coverage of art (pp. 56-58) is very good. It makes the point of the assessability of the overall artistic merit of artistic works succinctly, without the sometimes unfortunate hostility some Objectivists, including Miss Rand, insist on, vis-a-vis most creations of art.

I conclude, I find this book a welcome addition to my own library and to the books I might have occasion to use as a college text for introductory classes in philosophy. I am sure others will, too.