Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and the Objectivist Movement

Note: This post has been automatically imported from my old blog. Formatting may be incorrect.

In philosophy, as in every intellectual field, I strive (largely successfully, I think) to be a completely independent thinker. I look at the evidence, study the issues, and come to my conclusions on my own. That doesn't mean I'm never influenced by others, far from it: the ideas and arguments of other people often play a huge role in my ultimate conclusion. But I only accept their stances if I can make their arguments fit with what I see, and in the end my conclusions are, in fact, mine. So, while my philosophy is immensely influenced by the work of others, it is a unique system of thought both in its content (I doubt anyone else believes the same totality of philosophical knowledge that I do, and I have reason to believe that some nuances of my philosophical thought are wholly my own) and in the specifics of the approach that led me to it.

And yet. As is obvious to most everyone who knows me online, there is one thinker whose influence on my philosophical thought is of a qualitatively different type than all others. Ayn Rand's work inspired my systematic study of philosophy, her views and arguments are those I've studied and worked to understand far and above any other thinker, and, particularly as the issues get more fundamental, I agree with the the vast majority of her philosophy (excluding her aesthetics, which I have not studied in depth). Moreover, even though there are places we disagree (such as limits on the lifetime of intellectual property), places that she covered where I have no opinion (such as in most important areas of aesthetics), and places that I've covered where she has no opinion that I know of (such as the role of statistical methods in scientific discovery), I believe that the essence of the way I live my life is the same as that of someone who lived his life in accordance with the principles of her published philosophy (I don't know enough about her personal life to say whether or not she was such a person). Despite the importance of her work to my life and our philosophical similarities, however, her philosophy is not, and never will be, mine. Even if I were to spend my life studying her work, understanding it all, and agreeing with all of her philosophical positions, my philosophy would still be mine by virtue of the independent way in which I came to accept it.

Why does this matter? Well, I call myself an Objectivist. But Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand (I will leave aside for now whether it is the philosophy given by her written works, her lectures, and the approved works and lectures of others or whether it is the philosophy she actually lived by, or whether there is a difference). If an Objectivist is someone whose accepted and lived-by philosophy is Objectivism, then I am not an Objectivist (nor, I would claim, is/was anyone except Rand herself, since the tenants of Objectivism preclude someone accepting her word without independent thought). Even if the requirements are looser than that, however, I still have misgivings about the term. It's hard to say exactly why, but I have a few thoughts.

Calling yourself an Objectivist seems to shift the focus from which principles you accept to the fact that those principles happen to match a particular historical system (whereas calling yourself a laisseiz-faire capitalist, for example, merely describes a particular position that has no relevant historical qualities to it). Because of this, if you call yourself an Objectivist, it seems important to check your views against Rand's work if given reason to think they don't match, even if you're sure your views are right and don't think seeing Rand's view will help you understand the actual philosophical issue better for yourself. It also leads to a tendency for some to substitute discussions about what Rand actually meant on a particular issue for discussions about what the participants mean on that issue (not to say that the former type of discussion is always inappropriate, but often the latter type is more relevant).

I also worry that, since Objectivism is now a fixed body of knowledge, there might be tendencies to study of that body of knowledge for study of philosophy as such (with study of other philosophers often being thought of as solely "history of philosophy") and to subconsciously resist (not to completely block, but to decrease the likelihood of) thinking about ideas that are outside of or contradict Objectivism. Some people, for example, will respond to reasonable challenges to their views that they don't want to address not with "you may be right, but I don't have time/inclination to figure this out right now and my current view is serving me well" but with "you may be right, but I agree with Rand on so many issues and she's a brilliant integrator, so I give her views benefit of the doubt until I have addressed them". I've also seen many people go through many contortions to cast truly new philosophical questions (whether fundamental principles or just applications) in such a way as to suggest that Rand already answered the question or that there is another question that Rand answered that is only superficially different. One possible example of this latter problem is those who present the "total war" approach to warfare as Rand's, though perhaps she did address it somewhere and I've simply been unable to find it. One definite example (which I had seen long before The Logical Leap) is those who try to stretch Rand's words in such a way as to claim that she already had an (implicit, some argue) theory on induction, even when she clearly stated that she did not. Also, when people DO seriously consider new ideas, they often focus on the question "is this consistent with Objectivism?" rather than "is this consistent with reality and my views?"

Calling oneself an Objectivist may be an injustice both to yourself and to Rand. To yourself, because you are assigning your core set of ideas that you have worked hard to independently arrive at and validate to Rand. To Rand, because unless you are very conscientious in presenting your views you might be implicitly attributing views that Rand did not hold to her simply by calling yourself an Objectivist while presenting them. I'm not sure, however, how significant this issue really is.

So why don't I just stop calling myself an Objectivist? This is an issue of concept formation. There is a group of people that includes me, a significant subset of my friends and acquaintances, my girlfriend, and some of the public figures I care about that doesn't include my family, some of my closest friends, or some of my most admired public figures. Conceptualizing this group is important because membership in the group implies similar values, ways of life, and approaches to issues in a way that reasonably affects how members of the group interact with each other. For example, despite all that I have in common with my brother, I have no reason to expect that he'd be interested in an Atlas Shrugged reading group or attending the Atlanta Objectivist Society's mini-con, but, even though I've only just started talking to him and in some ways have far less in common with him, I can reasonably expect that Santiago Valenzuela might be interested. As another example, while I can reasonably expect to be able to discuss the role of measurement-omission in concept formation with any random member of the group without having to explain what I mean by basic terms or set up my cognitive framework, I would probably have to spend a lot of time working just to make sure my good friend Kathy (with whom I've often discussed ideas) understand what I'm saying, let alone has cause to believe it (A good illustration of this is the time I listened to the first few lectures of Dr. Peikoff's Induction in Physics and Philosophy series while in the car with my brother. Seth was legitimately listening and trying to chew what Dr. Peikoff was saying, and about an hour and a half in he paused the CD and asked something along the lines of: why does Dr. Peikoff keep talking about "generalizations", aren't those inherently over-sweeping statements (often about people) that don't apply to all the particulars? I was able to explain what was meant, but that question had never even occurred to me.) So I think there is a good cognitive case for giving that group an associated concept, and the best concept I have for now is "Objectivist". I'd definitely like to figure out a better term (if not a different concept), however, for the reasons stated above.

As a first step toward either figuring out the new term/concept or deciding that "Objectivist" actually fits, I'd like to discuss some of the essential distinguishing characteristics that I think the group has. First, the members of the group live idea- and value-oriented lives. This actually rules out some so-called Objectivists who, to use John Allison's phrasing, accept Rand's view only "on the top of their heads" and don't have them fully integrated with their lives and thinking, but it's far too broad on its own. Second, these are people whose philosophies were shaped, solidified, and/or confirmed by study of Rand's work. This rules out people who have come to many of the same conclusions as Rand independently of her (which is important because such a person would probably think in different terms and be less interested in studying/discussing Rand's work than actual members of the group), but by itself might be said to cover even people such as Alan Greenspan (who, after all, was definitely shaped by Rand's work, even if he rejects it) who definitely do not belong in the group. Third, these are people who agree with the essential principles of Rand's philosophy. This is a challenging characteristic since it raises the obvious question: essential, for what purpose? If someone agrees that A is A but disagrees that selfishness is moral, he definitely doesn't belong to the group, but I differ from Rand on her characterization of percepts as being somehow composed of sensations, yet I think I do belong. I'm not sure how to determine where the line of "essential" is in this case, so for now I'll have to be content with a vague "I'll know it when I see it" standard of judging this factor.

Though I'm far from certain, I think these three characteristics, while hardly exhaustively descriptive of the group, are enough to distinguish its members from non-members in a way that best explains most of the characteristics that group members have in common with each other but differ from non-members. In other words, I think a properly condensed statement of these characteristics might serve as a good definition of the concept I am searching for. So now that I have a (sloppy, in current form) definition, I need a word. I'm loathe to create an entire new word without being sure nothing existing covers this, but I've had a hard time figuring out what existing word my fit. I'm slightly leaning toward "Randian", but that might actually increase the emphasis on Rand herself, and it also has a negative connotation as it's currently used. I don't really have any ideas besides this one, and it's not particularly good, so for now I'll use "Objectivist", take care to recognize all the potential problems with that term, and keep searching for a better one.

Thinking about this issue has made me rethink what the central goals of an Objectivist social movement should be. Previously, I had thought that spreading understanding and acceptance of Objectivism throughout the culture was the fundamental goal. But now that seems to focused on the particular historical ideology to be a central goal. Honestly, while I certainly wouldn't mind a world where most people were Objectivists, I don't view such a world as necessary for the kind of society I want to live in and the kind of values I want to exist, and I have doubts about whether most the population should even be reasonably expected to care about philosophy in the explicit, in-depth way that being an Objectivist requires. That being said, there are certain central goals that I think an Objectivist movement (or some aspect thereof) should reasonably address. The primary social one is implementation of laisseiz-faire capitalism, for reasons I don't think I have to explain here. Another value, though less important, is more people creating intellectual work based on a philosophical framework influenced by Objectivism in the way described above. Creating more social opportunities for Objectivists to interact would also be a huge benefit. Finally, having a more significant portion of the population approach their work rationally (though not necessarily in accordance with Objectivism) would be a great benefit, especially in intellectual fields (e.g. I don't care if my physics teacher is an Objectivist, but I do want him to stop telling me that physicist can only describe appearances, not reality). Now, it may turn out that the best way to achieve these goals is to spread Objectivism as such, but even if so I think that should properly be viewed as the means, not the end, of a movement of Objectivists. So from now on, to the extent that I support or participate in any organized Objectivist endeavours, I will be careful to ensure that the aims of those endeavours are ultimately these values (unless I've decided that there are other values that Objectivists as such are best suited to pursue). Importantly, I hope to remove any subconscious notion from myself that Objectivist proselytisation on anything more than an individual basis is really that valuable, since ultimately I think there are values far more fundamental than the Objectivist philosophy as such.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'm particularly interested in what people think about my misgivings about the term "Objectivist" and ideas about alternative words for my conceptualization of the relevant group of people.