Objectivism, the philosophy created by Ayn Rand in the 1950’s United States, is a neo-Aristotelian virtue theory, or as Rand and her followers would maintain, a correction of Aristotle. Rand was an atheist who believed religion had begun as an attempt to answer men’s needs, but had failed by positing irrational explanations and practices.
Rand believed that nature was made up of entities which operate under causality and natural law. She maintained that reason was the only means of acquiring knowledge, even knowledge of values. She believed that the capacity to think must be exercised by choice. Rand thought that by exercising reason, people could build a value system based on natural laws. She believed that philosophic truths should be supported by factual evidence. Rand maintained that animals do the correct thing for survival through instinct, but humans choose through reason. A flaw in Rand’s reasoning concerning the external world is apparent in her philosophy. She believes that we are conscious of the world and the world is the object of our thought. Our consciousness, she maintains, is mental, but the world is not. Therefore the world exists. This idea is a jump. All her statement proves, as many philosophy scholars have observed, is that the world need not exist. The answer that something must have prior existence for us to think it is not cogent. People think of god, of fairies, of sea monsters and none of these entities has any existence, prior or otherwise.)
Rand believed that freedom and independence were the necessary terms to allow people to choose their values and then make those values the objects of their actions. She decided that freedom and independence were best served by laissez faire capitalism. She believed that capitalism was the only correct political system. Rand’s form of capitalistic government would have a constitution to protect individual freedoms, a police force to keep plunderers with lack of values in check, and a volunteer army to fend off attacks from non-objective states. A government with powers to tax excessively or otherwise control people’s lives had succumbed to statism, which Rand saw as socialist.
Rand believed that a person might give up pleasures or work hard to help someone she loved, such as a child. The person’s actions were in line with Rand’s thinking that selfishness did not mean a narrow, non-giving form of life. She thought that a person could only flourish through choosing a value and having the freedom to carry it through. Only then, stated Rand, could she attain success. If hindered by altruistic moral systems or government regulations, people would neither be successful or generous.
Independence is valued by Objectivists as people must be strong enough to resist social forces to reach their goals. Many of the great discoveries of mankind, Rand asserts, in science, technology, the arts and other areas, met resistance at first. The great people who had invented or thought of these breakthroughs had to be strong-willed and independent thinkers to stand against the disapproval, ostracism and worse from mediocre thinkers who did not comprehend the creators’ concepts. Rand believed that the great discoveries came from free minds.
Rand’s thinking is libertarian and her philosophy had a large effect on the Libertarian Movement. Robert Nozick, the libertarian philosopher, has written criticisms of Ayn Rand that are very robust. Nozick is the author of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974.)
Rand’s theory of aesthetics is outside the mainstream, also. She believed artists should make concrete through their necessarily abstract works and conceptions the values that are connected to the reality in which we live. She maintained her theory held true for literature, art, architecture and music. She thought that artists, such as Victor Hugo, the great 19th Century author, emphasized humans’ pursuit of values and placed herself within that tradition. The Romantic Manifesto (1971) is her statement on aesthetics.
Rand has many critics, but her philosophy of Objectivism has helped clarify the irrationality of religion and belief in god for many secular people who have embraced her thinking. The Ayn Rand Institute began in 1985 and promotes Objectivism; Objectivism is still very popular outside academe, but many professional philosophers continue to deny Objectivism the designation of a complete philosophy. Objectivism is being taught at many universities in the present day and Rand’s novels are assigned in some literature courses. Her novels, especially The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), vehicles for her philosophy, continue to be read, made into films and discussed by large numbers of the public.
Video of Discussion: Objectivism
Bernstein, Andrew. Objectivism in One Lesson: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Hamilton Books, 2008.
Bernstein’s volume is a good introduction for readers who do not have a background in philosophy but who want to understand Objectivism. Bernstein carefully lays out Ayn Rand’s thinking, building in each chapter. He sums up principal ideas at the end of each chapter and repeats prior points every so often to remind the reader and to help clarify the concept. The text is in twelve short chapters and Bernstein gives a fine summation of Objectivism. He does not cover Rand’s theories of art, however, so readers who are interested in the aesthetics of Objectivism will be disappointed. Readers who want a concise and understandable text on Objectivism will benefit from this book. Secular readers who want a more technical grounding in Objectivism would be advised to try Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism listed below.
Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Plume, 1993.
Peikoff, a professor frequently called Rand’s intellectual heir, has written a thorough elucidation of Rand’s theory of Objectivism. He deals with concepts in chapters labeled: Reality, Sense Perception and Volition, concept formation, Reason, the Good, Virtue, Happiness, government, capitalism and art. If some of the chapter headings have Aristotelian resonance, that is because Rand felt she had corrected Aristotle.
Peikoff writes lucidly on Rand’s philosophy and many readers believe they have gained an understanding of it through this volume. The book is tight knit and well-organized. Criticism of Peikoff’s statements and conclusions abound. There are more sophisticated defenses and criticisms of Rand than Peikoff’s, such as Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia,(1974,) and some critics believe that Peikoff is less subtle than Nozick. If a reader who has some acquaintance with philosophy wants to understand Objectivism, this is the book to read.
Rand, Ayn and Leonard Peikoff. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. 2nd Rev. and Expanded Ed. New York: Plume, 1990.
Ayn Rand’s volume is considered a must read for people who want to understand Objectivism. Rand makes statements that she does not always take the trouble to prove, such as the accuracy of the senses. No serious epistemologist of any reputation has held that position on the senses for years. This volume helps to explicate her ideas somewhat.
Rand is derivative of Aristotle, whom she admires. This book explains her corrections of Aristotle. Her monograph is followed by a question and answer session between Rand and other intellectuals. Readers who are followers of Objectivism feel she has clarified her philosophy in this session, even including her theory of concepts. Words (concepts) correspond to reality, according to Rand. But language correspondence, or the attempt to find a language correspondence, was attempted by both Russell and Wittgenstein and they both came to grief.
Many readers find Objectivism, as explained in this volume, a viable philosophy. The book deals with the validity of human knowledge and the way to recognize reality. Many readers find Rand’s explanation of epistemology (how we know) very helpful. Objectivism is not a good book to begin learning Rand’s philosophy if a reader does not have a background in general philosophy. It would be best to read either Bernstein’s book, listed above, or an introduction to philosophy before venturing into Objectivism.
More books for readers who want to learn more about Objectivism and Ayn Rand:
Ayn Rand’s Novels: We The Living (1936); Anthem (1938); The Fountainhead (1943); Atlas Shrugged (1957). Atlas Shrugged is an elaboration of Objectivism in novel form and states many of Ayn Rand’s ideas in the narrative.
Ayn Rand’s Nonfiction: For the New Intellectual (1961); The Romantic Manifesto (1969); and The Virtue of Selfishness (1964).
Books about Ayn Rand:
Anne C. Heller. Ayn Rand and the World She Made (2010); Jennifer Burns. Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (2009); Barbara Branden. The Passion of Ayn Rand. (2009); George H. Smith. Atheism, Ayn Rand and Other Heresies. (1991- Smith’s book has a largely favorable discussion of Rand’s philosophy in Part 2.); Michael Shermer. Why People Believe Weird Things. (2002- Shermer is very critical of Ayn Rand, accusing her followers of the Cult of Personality in Chapter 8.)
1 Kelley,David. “Ayn Rand.” In Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 626.
2 _______________. 627.
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