Taking Ayn Rand Seriously


The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, edited by Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 235 pp., $21.95

For many, Ayn Rand is known as the writer of the bestselling novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, which are still holding their own in bookstores 25 and 40 years after they were published. Rand's novels are novels of ideas—ideas about individual freedom that she developed not only through the genre of fiction but in numerous philosophic essays. Yet while Rand the novelist achieved enduring popularity, Rand the philosopher has gone not only unappreciated but largely unremarked.

Rand and her followers have seen her as a major philosopher—indeed, as the most significant philosopher since Aristotle. But professional philosophy, at least as it is practiced in the most-prestigious universities and disseminated in major journals and books, has only very rarely, if at all, rated her contributions worthy of a philosophy course, a scholarly essay, or a careful book review—not even a critical one.

This scorn for Rand's work in professional philosophy has resulted in what one might politely call an "unstable" situation. For Rand gives what appears to be philosophical argumentation for her claims about individualism and refers extensively and with some appropriateness to the ideas of Aristotle, a reputable philosopher by any standard. Furthermore, in the last 20 years, an increasing number of professionally trained philosophers (usually those attracted to some minimally coercive role for government activity) have read her work with interest, or with irritation, but not with the cozy condescension that has typified some of the least-glorious moments in recent intellectual history.

The publication of The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, edited by Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen, marks a turning point in this lamentable state of affairs. This volume is a collection of original essays by reputable professional philosophers, some quite critical. Intended for a professional audience, it assesses Rand's contributions to three main areas of philosophy: epistemology (the theory of knowledge), ethics, and political philosophy.

Given its intellectual context sketched above, this collection can be evaluated by posing a single question: to what extent would reading the essays in this volume convince a professional philosopher that the work of Ayn Rand is worth taking seriously? Rand has never suffered a shortage of staunch defenders; on them, such a book would have little impact. The volume is not, and should not be, for those who require no further arguments or who wish to hear no critical exploration of Rand's ideas. It is for the professionals who have heretofore dismissed Rand; and one must maintain that regardless of how brainwashed they might have been by anti-individualist ideas or how addicted to the intellectual soup kitchen of government grants, philosophers—at least insofar as they are rational animals—eventually will succumb to rational argument.

Some of the essays in the collection fulfill this mission extremely well. Wallace Matson's essay, "Rand on Concepts," includes a sparklingly clear picture of what Rand saw as key mistakes in the history of philosophy: most notably, an overconcern with individual consciousness; a lack of concern with an unyielding objective reality; and an obsession with an "inside-out" methodology, typified by the philosopher René Descartes's famous "I think, therefore I am," that moves cautiously from individual observations to objective statements.

Matson's essay is marred only near the end by his now old-fashioned attempt to give all mental notions a behavioral or linguistic account. Man as a rational, reflecting animal, and not merely as a "behaving" or "speaking" animal, lies at the heart of Rand's thought. So his proposal seems totally inappropriate.

The book also contains an especially elegant and insightful essay by Jack Wheeler (perhaps better-known to REASON readers for his worldwide reporting, but also a professional philosopher). In his comparison of Rand's ethical views with Aristotle's, though, Wheeler's essay is rather clearly intended for those at home in the relevant texts (and in Greek, in the case of Aristotle).

The more-critical essays of J. Charles King and Eric Mack probe deeply into Rand's best-known efforts in philosophy, namely, her defense of an ethics of rational egoism. King explores and eventually rejects Rand's puzzling claim that human beings must constantly choose between living and not living and that this is the ultimate source of all values. (This is also one of the main topics of the more-sympathetic essays by Den Uyl and Rasmussen and by Mack.)

Still more provocative is King's criticism of Rand's claim that "productive work is the central purpose of a rational man's life." King proposes—half seriously, one fears—that a good game of golf could be the central purpose of a rational man's life. He implies that playing golf is clearly not "productive." For such a casual counterexample to be effective against Rand, however, one has to take productive in its most literal sense. Rand clearly does not mean this: she glorifies both musical performers and philosophers, neither of whom "produce" anything in the narrow literal sense. Once the virtues and beauties of a good golf game are spelled out in more detail, it is far from clear that, like a good performance of a Beethoven sonata, it could not be the goal of a rational man.

In a careful and thoughtful essay on moral issues in Rand's theory of human rights, Eric Mack finds particularly problematic Rand's crucial maneuver from an egoistic characterization of the good human life to a need to respect the rights of others. This is a connection that in Rand's writings often seems to materialize out of thin air. Mack concludes that it is a substantially empirical issue whether "the best life course for a person is [one] congruent with his respect for others' rights."

Yet Rand would surely balk at this. Most Randians follow her in strongly believing that the idea of respecting others' rights is somehow implicated in the very idea of a good human life. The most promising line of argument to connect the good (individual) life and a respect for others' rights might be that to engage in true social behavior—talking, listening, asking, obeying—is implicitly to consent to treating others as creatures with rights that should be respected. Tantalizingly close to this issue is German philosopher Immanuel Kant's central thesis that other human beings can never be treated as means to our own ends. There are, however, few philosophers toward whom Rand directed more scorn than she did toward Kant, and this has unfortunately made some of his wiser observations unusable for dogmatic Randians.

Robert Hollinger compares Rand's theory of knowledge with a number of philosophy's classical and contemporary theories. Although correctly highlighting the key Randian themes of rationality and objectivity, the essay includes far-fetched comparisons between, for example, the ideas of Rand and those of German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. One suspects from his sometimes annoying name-dropping that Hollinger's method is a reversal of "guilt by association"—namely, that by drawing connections between Rand and more-"reputable" philosophers, Rand's status is thereby enhanced. But the looseness of many of these connections, and the lack of selectivity in choosing philosophers "related" to Rand (so that he ends up including a philosopher sure to offend almost any reader) greatly weakens his points.

Other essays, most notably those of Antony Flew and Tibor Machan, are less closely connected to Rand's actual writing but rather are explorations of themes raised by her work. Flew's essay is so long on rhetoric and anecdotes, and so short on philosophical substance, that one wonders why it has been included in this collection. Machan's essay, on the other hand, raises some of the most interesting questions one can pose about Rand's works and the impact of rational individualism in general.

How is it, Machan wonders, that in popular discussion the "moral vision" of individualism tends to inspire so few, while various collectivist and conservative perspectives find constant—and perhaps increasing—approval? The answer surely lies in the more-satisfying "moral vision" that conservatives and collectivists have offered. They have been quick to promote the virtues of self-sacrifice, happiness, friendship, and love, whereas many individualists have written as if such values were unimportant (or "beside the point" of politics properly understood) or would automatically arise in an individualist utopia and are not worth discussing.

The most notable exception, as Machan remarks, is Rand herself—although her language in treating, for example, love as "trade" might initially seem somewhat unappetizing. Rand is one of the few individualist writers who have taken the high ground of a moral visionary, in showing how her vision of a society would promote admitted virtues. She has thus supplied individualism with what is essential for its being an inspiring, and not merely a "correct," set of ideas.

We should come back for a moment to reflect upon the motivation for this volume. What is it about Ayn Rand that has earned her such contempt among philosophers and other "establishment" intellectuals? First and foremost, there are the individualist ideas—and Rand herself understood very clearly the source of the hostility to them, as her caricatures of intellectuals in her novels show.

A close second to the individualism, one could wager, is her theory of aesthetics and its application in her novels and plays. Her theory of aesthetics (whose treatment in this collection would have made an important addition) is a robust but, one cannot help but think, naive and not-well-thought-out romanticism. As applied in her novels, this aesthetic amounts to long, strident, blustery tirades by major figures—as if loud, angry speeches were the primary literary mode of being "moving." Seen from another perspective, the novels are heavy-headed political-ethical propaganda, virtually lacking in all the niceties of careful character development, plot nuances, and elegant language that are the standards of good novels.

Rand's uncontrolled—if basically correct—assaults on beloved figures in philosophy, science, and mathematics further fuel her abiding unpopularity. Frontally attacking the intellectual heroes of others (for example, Immanuel Kant, German physician-scientist Werner Heisenberg, German mathematician Kurt Gödel), and at the same time showing an ignorance of the basic details of their work, is not an endearing quality.

Finally, there is Rand the person. She was a Russian immigrant, and Russian immigrants have always been suspect and, as the recent treatment of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others has shown, this has subtly evolved into a McCarthyism of the left—where Russian immigrants critical of the American establishment are quickly branded as fascists or monarchists.

Rand also occasionally showed herself to be an unpleasant person: ungenerous, intolerant, with a well-known penchant for cronyism. But there is no reason to believe that major philosophers of the past have totally lacked these qualities. Indeed, the patron saint of modern logic and philosophical analysis, Gottlob Frege, was a vicious, anti-Semitic, embittered man—yet personal qualities are not mentioned as detracting from his ideas. With Rand, however, such personality analysis often seems to pass as serious criticism of her ideas, sometimes even by those who take her ideas seriously enough to discuss them.

In conclusion, this collection is not a uniformly successful work. But by seriously treating the main ideas of Ayn Rand, it is to be hoped that it will lead to still more such serious, professional treatment—perhaps even in the classroom. Rand herself probably would have approved neither of the authors nor of the no-holds-barred criticism to which her ideas are here exposed. But objectively seen, this volume singlehandedly redresses a grievance against professional philosophy that has long been Rand's due.

Randy Dipert is a philosophy professor at Fredonia State University College, New York.