Sunday, May 06, 2007

Conservatism's Role in Rand's Intellectual Development

Chris Sciabarra has tried to dredge up the Russian influence on Rand, but little has been done to illuminate the conservative influence. Although Rand was never a conservative, she was clearly influenced by certain notions about history, philosophy, and the role of ideas in society that were commonplace among conservatives in the thirties and forties.

In 1940, Rand campaigned for Wendel Wilkie. This episode in her career influenced what would later become her philosophy of history. Her frustration at trying to convince people to vote for Wilkie rather than Roosevelt convinced her of the futility of trying to reason with people. But rather than assuming that ideas and reason are impotent, Rand concluded that only political ideas were impotent, because such ideas depended on a metaphysical and epistemological foundation.

This theory that political ideas and receptivity to "reason" depended on the higher branches philosophy was fairly common among conservative thinkers in the 30s and 40s. The theory was largely inspired by a misreading of George Santayana, the most important and respected conservative philosopher of the 20th century. Santayana did not care much for modern philosophy, which he regarded as dismally subjectivist. The two main strands of modern philosophy, German Idealism and British Empiricism, both regarded consciousness (or the experience of consciousness) as the starting point and main focus of philosophical investigation—the only thing "given" in man's knowledge. Santayana considered this view not only mistaken, but foolish and conceited. He had studied philosophy at Harvard, Oxford, and in Germany in the closing decades of the 19th century, when German Idealism dominated Anglo-America and German philosophy. Santayana consequently devoted much of his philosophy to criticizing and ridiculing, with his usual detached irony, all manifestions and forms of German idealism. During World War I he published an essay entitled "German Freedom," which helped popularize the thesis that Hegel's political philosophy is essentially totalitarian at its core. "For liberal freedom, for individualism, [Hegel and his followers] have a great contempt," Santayana wrote. "They say a man is nothing but the sum of his relations to other things... And they further say that a dutiful soul is right in feeling that the world it accepts and cooperates with its own work; for, according to their metaphysics, the world is only his idea which each man makes after his own image, and even as you are, so is the world you imagine you live in. Only a foolish recalcitrant person, who does not recognize the handiwork of his own spirit about him, rebels against it, and thereby cancels his natural freedom; for everywhere he finds contradictions and closed doors and irksome necessities, being divided against himself and constantly bidding his left hand undo what his right is doing. So that, paradoxical as it may seem, it is only when you conform that you are free, while if you rebel and secede you become a slave. Your spiritual servitude in such a case would only be manifesting itself in phenomenal form if the government should put you in prison."

Conservatives during the 30s and 40s were not particularly sophisticated in their thinking, and so they interpreted Santayana's subtle and ironical essay on German freedom in simple cause and effect terms, as if Santayana were declaring that statism is caused by German metaphysics. Hence we find Albert Jay Nock, considered one of the leading conservative intellectuals of the thirties, declaring that Hitlerism, Bolshevism, and Fascism "are all essentially ... branches off the same tree planted by the German idealist philosophers." It is likely Rand was exposed to such notions during her involvement in the conservative movement during the forties. This idea that higher philosophy (namely, "German metaphysics") is the root cause of statism thus became embedded in her mind during her formative years. Later, she would twist this notion for her own purposes, until at last we find it springing forth in the title essay of For the New Intellectual.


Neil Parille said...


I believe you wrote an article showing the similarities between Rand's view of the "problem of universals" and what Weaver said in Ideas Have Consequences.

Rand's attack on egalitarianism was also common among conservatives at the time, including the attack on Dewey and progressive education.

Rand oftens strikes me as a conservative secular humanist.

Michael Prescott said...

Jeff Walker, in The Ayn Rand Cult, discusses the influence of 1920s pro-business thinking on Rand, pointing out that among conservatives of that era, it was common to emphasize the role of "brains" in society, and to speculate darkly on what would happen if the "men of brains" were to walk off the job. Walker also points to a 1907 political novel as containing some of the themes later developed in Atlas Shrugged.

I haven't seen any discussion of Rand's debt to 1930s and '40s conservative philosophy - until now. Thanks, Greg, for an excellent post.

Kelly said...

I thought she developed her philosophy by herself, with reason and logic as her only tools. I'm floored.

Daniel Barnes said...

>I thought she developed her philosophy by herself, with reason and logic as her only tools. I'm floored.

Hi Kelly,

This is one of the widespread myths propogated about Rand by some of her followers, and to a large extent herself; that she is somehow sui generis, rather like the heroes of her novels. For example, I've often heard it said in Objectivist circles that Rand was the first to "identify" the common roots of the supposed opponents, Communism and Fascism. Yet here you are, with Albert Jay Nock saying the same thing, Santayana well before him, Karl Popper, Hayek. Even George Bernard Shaw, a socialist, in his bestselling '30s book "The Intelligent Woman's Guide" agreed that there was not much difference between the two, although he regrettably seemed rather approving of this similarity.

Ayn Rand was an extremely intelligent, original woman, who did indeed work independently. But the idea that she developed her philosophy - and note, not just a mere independent take on philosophy, but the answers to all the important philosophical questions of all time - all by herself, using only reason and logic is a fairy-tale spread by her none-too-objective heirs.

Neil Parille said...


It's probably safe to say that there are only a relatively small number of approaches to any given philosophical problems. So any "new" approach is likely to be a variation of an older one.

Rand's epistemology strikes me as a version of empiricism with traces of rationalism, for example.

I think Rand's ethics is unique. I don't know of anyone who has advocated a conistently egoistic and rights-respecting ethics before Rand.

gregnyquist said...

Neil: "I believe you wrote an article showing the similarities between Rand's view of the 'problem of universals' and what Weaver said in Ideas Have Consequences."

It was actually in a review of Scott Ryan's Objectivism and the Corruption of Reality. I have some more information on the possible Weaver influence in a future posting.

Neil: "Rand's epistemology strikes me as a version of empiricism with traces of rationalism, for example."

That is what her epistemology in terms of pure theory, but practice is a different matter. The Objectivist claim that causality is corollary of the Law of Identity is rationalism at its purest.

Most philosophies, even those that are considered either purely rationalist or purely empiricist, are mixtures, because, as Kant famously said, "Percepts without Concepts are blind; Concepts without Percepts are empty." Rationalists require something to reason about, so they must indulge in a little empiricism for their content; and empiricists, no matter how zealously anti-rationalistic, still need apply some intelligence to the data of the senses. The real issue, in terms of epistemology, is whether matters of fact can be determined through logical reason alone, and whether such reasoning is more reliable than empirical fact checking. The orthodox Objectivism of Rand and Peikoff believe, at least implicitly, that some facts, particular basic metaphysical facts, can be determined through logical reasoning.

Rand's approval of this sort of rationalism find itself exemplified in the commendation given in The Objectivist Newsletter to Brand Blandshard's Reason and Analysis.

Thomas Hägg said...

Go read her books people. Even a beginner student of Objectivism would be able to refute most claims made by these blogger "critics".

At least have a look in the lexicon that was produced to avoid these kind of mistakes....