Rand on Rand (Almost)


Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Leonard Peikoff, New York: E.P. Dutton, 448 pages, $24.95

This long-awaited book is Leonard Peikoff's official, Estate-of-Ayn-Rand-approved version of the philosophical treatise that Rand herself never got to write.

Ayn Rand, author of the blockbuster individualistic novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), had promised a big book on her philosophy, but despite the burning interest of her fans, allowed the project to lapse. She died in 1982. Now her self-proclaimed "best student and chosen heir," philosopher Leonard Peikoff, offers a hefty exposition. It is not a "critical reassessment" of her ideas; there have already been a few of those, of varying quality and usefulness. Instead, Peikoff seeks to fully elaborate, interconnect, and defend the "Objectivist" insights that Rand hurled forth in her essays and fictional passages. In a way, it's as if Ayn Rand were still alive and writing, only through Leonard Peikoff's brain.

There is nothing of Peikoff's own in here, he claims, beyond the structure and wording: All the ideas are Rand's. "The absence of a reference note in my text does not imply that the point is my own. On the contrary, where no reference is given, the material in all likelihood is taken from the lengthy philosophic discussions I had with Miss Rand across a period of decades.…I have not changed or added to any of Ayn Rand's ideas. My contribution is not to the substance of Objectivism, which is entirely Ayn Rand's achievement, but to the form of its presentation."

My suspicion is that Peikoff has pretty much restrained himself in this respect. Nor do other thinkers in the history of Western civilization receive excessive shrift. A passing swipe at Herbert Spencer gets a footnote, but it points us only to another Randian position, not to the relevant passages of Spencer that would enable us to confirm Peikoff's charge. Such documentation would be modern academic paraphernalia, and, Peikoff writes, "Like any proper work of general philosophy, this book is written not for academics, but for human beings (including any academics who qualify)."

It is to be hoped that Peikoff's rather lordly tone will not discourage close attention to his text, because it is a worthwhile achievement. Peikoff is nothing if not dedicated in his discipleship, and these pages bear the fruits of painstaking labor. They clarify a great deal. Ayn Rand's claims about reason, freedom, and rational self-interest—defending The Virtue of Selfishness, as she aptly titled one of her essay collections—have spurred some of the most bitter controversy of our times. Certainly her ideas have not been well understood, in or out of academia. With the advantage of his 30-year tutorial, Peikoff is able to amplify details of her arguments, show how the Objectivist system hangs together, and answer many common objections to her views.

Consider, for example, Rand's attempt to bridge the is-ought gap in ethics, ever the bane of moral philosophers. "How how how," they wonder, "can an 'ought' be derived from an 'is'—a value from a fact?" Rand answers in part that only living creatures face a fundamental alternative, that of life or death, and that "Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible." It is the existence of the alternative that enables goal-directed action, and the objective requirements of sustaining life as the ultimate end that gives rise to (objective) values—values defensible in terms of their life-sustaining service. To nail down her point that only an entity facing the possibility of life or death can pursue goals and have values, Rand gives her infamous example of the "indestructible robot," which, she writes, "moves and acts, but cannot be changed in any respect, which cannot be damaged, injured or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; it could not regard anything as for or against it, as serving or threatening its welfare, as fulfilling or frustrating its interests. It could have no interests and no goals."

Although the robot was supposed to make Rand's claim "fully clear," some students of Objectivism (to use the '60s term for her fans) were puzzled. OK, Rand's robot has no use for food or shelter, but can't it at least enjoy opera, or maybe Saturday morning cartoons? Might not aesthetic and other cerebral pleasures serve as values which it can seek to achieve notwithstanding its lack of purely physical needs?

This is precisely what Peikoff, drawing on his private chats with Rand, denies. "What about the psychological level?" he asks. "Can this entity, assuming it were to have a conceptual faculty, pursue goals that are not mediated by purely animalistic needs? Can abstract knowledge, say, be a value to it? What for? The robot has no use for knowledge as an aid in achieving its ends; so far, it has no ends. Is money a value to it? To buy what? So far, the robot has no use for material objects or services.…Is a trip around the world a value—as relaxation, say, or rest? Rest from what? The thing does not engage in work." Perhaps not every reader will be persuaded by Peikoff's elaboration, but at least there is more grist to chew on now. He provides the same service for many other Randian points, which Rand herself was often too impatient to develop fully.

In her lifetime Ayn Rand covered a wide range of topics, everything from metaphysics—the inextirpable status of "existence" and "identity" as the foundations of knowledge—to the core virtues of the rational man, why capitalism must be justified by an egoistic ethics (religious conservatives just love this one), and the cognitive function of art. It's all here in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Rand's philosophical writing was always incisive, passionate, and bursting with dramatic flair. Peikoff's philosophizing is driven and relatively dry, but just as clear as Rand's, and, thanks to his comprehensive treatment, often even clearer. Overall, he has written a persuasive and fascinating book that should interest almost anyone intrigued by Rand's work.

The Objectivists argue that the philosophy men hew to is the basic explanation of history and the modern state of the world. If they're right, about that and about their own solutions to historic philosophical questions, then the fate of the 21st century could well hinge on the efforts of writers such as Rand and Peikoff, as well as more original Rand-inspired philosophers like David Kelley. "Ayn Rand's ideas would resolve the contradiction that has been tearing apart the land of the free, the contradiction between its ethics and its politics," Peikoff argues. "The result would be not America as it is or even as it once was, but the grandeur of a Romantic pinnacle: America 'as it might be and ought to be.'"

It is a possibility worth thinking about.

David M. Brown is a free-lance writer and the managing editor of the Laissez Faire Books catalog.