Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand, New York: Bobbs-Merril, 1982, 282 pp., $15.95
I became a professional philosopher because of Ayn Rand. I do not remain one simply because of her. I accepted long ago the main thesis of Rand's new book, that philosophy "matters." However, I have since learned that there is more to philosophy than its practical implications. Philosophy is fun, interesting, extremely complex, and most of all, full of surprises. That philosophy can be all of these things is not necessarily apparent if one's only source of contact with it is Ayn Rand. Philosophy: Who Needs It, as well as Rand's other writings, tells us more about how Rand perceives the implications of philosophy than about what is actually required to do good philosophy. More on this in a moment.
Philosophy: Who Needs It is a collection of some of Rand's writings between the years 1970 and 1975 (with one exception). Most of the essays appeared in the Ayn Rand Letter. Rand had intended to edit this work herself, but her death last year meant that Leonard Peikoff had to do most of the editing and some selection of the articles to be included in the volume.
The title of the book suggests that what people need is philosophy. But this is not so. According to Rand (and Peikoff in the introduction), all of us already have or are guided by a philosophy, whether or not we have made it explicit. Presumably, then, what one needs is the correct philosophy rather than philosophy per se. Assuming for the moment that what we need is Rand's philosophy, there are three classes of people to whom this book might be addressed: those who are unfamiliar with Rand's philosophy and wish to learn about it, those who are familiar with her thought but disagree with it, and those who are familiar with her thought and are in substantial agreement with it.
If you fall into the first category, my advice is not to start learning about Rand's philosophy with this book. On the assumption that you have read her novels, the Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal are much more significant works on Rand's philosophy than is this book.
Those familiar with Rand's philosophy may find this book of value, but I suspect that the more familiar one is, the less one will be impressed. This is not to say that there are not some fine essays in this volume. If you have never read "Kant versus Sullivan" the book is worth buying for that essay alone. The relatively unavailable "Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World" is also contained in this collection of essays, and one would not want to miss "Causality versus Duty." "Selfishness Without a Self" is an interesting piece, and "Don't Let It Go" is inspirational and appropriately placed at the end of the book.
There is, however, one thoroughly terrible essay in the book: "Fairness Doctrine for Education." This essay is full of compromises, contradictions, and sour grapes and offers the absurd proposal that we institute a fairness doctrine for publicly supported universities whereby they would be required to hire faculty members with dissenting points of view. What self-respecting scholar would want to be installed on a university's faculty as its latest Floyd R. Turbo?
Many of the other essays deserve mixed reviews. Consider "An Untitled Letter," wherein Rand declares that she has not read and does not intend to read John Rawls's A Theory of Justice and claims that she will only evaluate a reviewer of Rawls's book. Despite her assertion that "one cannot judge a book by its reviews," Rand goes on to make judgments about Rawls's book anyway. Here is a case where "justice as fairness" is applicable. Rand, to her credit, did not make the same mistake in another essay, on B.F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity.
Consider also "The Metaphysical versus the Man-Made." We are told by Peikoff in the introduction that this is the "fullest discussion in print of one element of the Objectivist metaphysics—the primacy of existence." One thus approaches this essay in anticipation of something like an additional chapter to the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Although the essay contains some interesting sections, one finds little that is new, and quite often a new insight is undeveloped and followed by psychologizing or cultural commentary.
Since this book does little to advance one's understanding of insights Rand put forth almost two decades ago, it is likely neither to challenge her critics into rethinking their views nor to offer much stimulation to those sympathetic to her position. And yet…just as one reaches a climax of disappointment while reading the book, Rand offers the reader something of substance. For example, I found the following passage insightful and typical of a number of worthwhile remarks: "Consumers qua consumers are not part of anyone's market;…Only producers constitute a market.…In the role of producers, they represent a market's 'supply'; in the role of consumers, they represent a market's 'demand.' The law of supply and demand has an implicit subclause: that it involves the same people in both capacities." Remarks like this one are vintage Rand in that they get to the heart of the matter so directly. Moreover, the essay from which this passage was taken ("Egalitarianism and Inflation") was written in 1974—long before anyone ever heard of "supply-side" economics.
Perhaps my mixed assessment of this book reflects inflated expectations. After all, this is Rand's last book, and one would have expected her last statement to be an original and penetrating elaboration on earlier theses. If that is your expectation, you will be disappointed. Compared with Rand's earlier works, this book is not particularly original or substantive. And this relative lack of substance reopens the question whether it is Rand's philosophy or philosophy per se that is more urgently needed. Why is it after all these years that Rand has not been taken seriously by most professional philosophers?
One possible answer to the last question is that there is a massive conspiracy of "neo-Kantians" who are "antimind" and "antilife" and who "hate the good for being good." Whether they be "linguistic analysts" or "existentialists" or whatever, these thinkers ignore Rand because she exposes them for what they are. This is the theory Rand and many of her followers seem to hold.
But conspiracy theories are notoriously difficult to substantiate. For this one to work, it would be necessary to show that Rand had reasonably met the rigorous intellectual standards demanded of someone who seeks philosophical respectability. These standards are primarily concerned with ensuring a careful and painstaking development of philosophical theses. Much of this book does not live up to such standards, although some of the essays in Rand's earlier works do. It is not, therefore, simply the presence of a "conspiracy" that keeps Rand from gaining the respectability she herself probably desired.
Since scholarly standards are largely formal, they can protect the mistaken as well as the true. But such standards evolved for good reasons—to protect the truth. One would have hoped that Rand would have appreciated this and tried to live by these standards in her later works. Perhaps one example can indicate what I mean.
Rand states that "at the root of every civilized achievement, such as science, technology, progress, freedom…you will find the achievement of one man, who lived over two thousand years ago: Aristotle." This statement is made despite the fact that modern science was in large part founded on a self-conscious rejection of the basic tenets of Aristotelianism (hylomorphism, teleology, final causality, etc.). Moreover, modern science has seldom understood itself in predominantly Aristotelian terms. None of this shows that Rand's statement is incorrect; at a certain level of abstraction her remark may indeed be accurate. But why would a serious student of the question of the relationship between Aristotle and science attach much significance to Rand's undeveloped assertion when that person can read William Wallace's Causality and Scientific Explanation or Rom Harre and Edward Madden's Causal Powers?
Furthermore, those unaware of the nature of philosophy are likely to get the impression from Rand that the thinkers of the modern era are moved by a vicious hatred of reason and a willful desire to perpetrate gross falsehood. What one actually finds, however, in studying philosophy is quite often a sincere effort to reasonably treat real problems. Some of these treatments may indeed be as mistaken and disastrous as Rand suggests; but philosophy will quite often surprise enthusiasts of any sort with the formidability of the best statement of their opponent's position.
The battle of ideas is ultimately won by taking the best one's opponents have to offer and dealing directly with those arguments. This is not always what one finds Rand doing in this book.
And perhaps the final disappointment is that Rand does not take philosophy seriously enough. Those of us who have admired Rand's thought over the years had hoped that this last work of hers would be the one promised in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology: a fuller treatment of those introductory comments. Philosophy: Who Needs It is no substitute for that never-to-be-written treatise. Perhaps there are mitigating circumstances that led Rand to spend most of her last decade of life trying to sell or apply her ideas rather than to expand or refine them. And perhaps we should not complain about Rand's failure to deepen her views, since it leaves generations of young philosophers much to think and write.…I am certain, however, that few if any of her students or future admirers will have quite the ability to identify an issue and point to its solution as did the master herself.
Douglas Den Uyl teaches philosophy at Bellarmine College in Louisville and is a coeditor of The Philosophical Thought of Ayn Rand (forthcoming).