Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ayn Rand's Originality Part 1: Human Nature

Guest poster Neil Parille from Objectiblog wonders just how original the key elements of Rand's philosophy are:

One of the appeals of Objectivism is the claim by its advocates that Ayn Rand has created a strikingly original philosophy. Leonard Peikoff writes that Rand “discovered true ideas on a virtually unprecedented scale.” Rand herself claimed that her only philosophical debt was to Aristotle, although she occasionally praised others such as the American Founding Fathers, John Locke and Thomas Aquinas. Even in the area of politics, Rand accused libertarians of “plagiarizing” her ideas although laissez-faire and the “non initiation of force” principle predated Objectivism by many years.

In this series I will show how many of Rand’s central ideas were advocated by numerous philosophers before her. It should be noted that a philosopher might advocate commonly held ideas but present new arguments for them, integrate them differently into his system, or extend them in ways previously not done. My comments here, then, should not be taken as implying that Rand had nothing original to say on these topics.

Turning first to Rand’s view of human nature, there are quite a few parallels between Rand and other thinkers.

Man Is Born Tabula Rasa

Rand believed that man was a “blank slate,” which she defined as follows: “Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments. Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are ‘tabula rasa.’ It is man's cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 28.) Perhaps the most famous advocate of the tabula rasa view was John Locke. Many trace its philosophical origins to Aristotle who was interpreted by the Medievals as holding that “nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses.”

Rejection Of Original Sin

Like many secular thinkers, Rand took offense at the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. She was hardly original in this. As Alister McGrath notes, Original Sin was "vigorously opposed" in the Enlightenment, naming Voltaire and Rousseau as two examples. “The rejection of the doctrine of original sin was of considerable importance, as the Christian doctrine of redemption rested upon the assumption that humanity required to be liberated from bondage to original sin. For the Enlightenment, it was the idea of original sin itself which was oppressive and from which humanity required liberation.” (McGrath, Christian Theology, p. 84.)

Free Will

Rand’s belief that man has free will has been widely shared by thinkers from diverse schools.

Cognitive Theory of Emotions

According to Ayn Rand, “Emotions are the automatic results of man's value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man's values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 27.)

Anon (apparently Anon57), one time poster on the ARCHNBlog, stated:
“Incidentally, your aversion to the Objectivist theory of emotion, which I've seen both on this blog and in your book, is a particularly odd bone to pick when it comes to assessing Objectivism's theory of human nature. That's because the cognitive view of emotions is hardly distinctive to Objectivism. It has been held by Aristotelians for decades (see Magda Arnold), and more recently by the highly successful discipline of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and a number of other more theoretical branches of cognitive science, viz.: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/emotion/#5”

“Perhaps cognitivism about the emotions is not entirely uncontroversial, but it's also not so at odds with reality that no scientists take it seriously.”

Magda Arnold (1903-2002) was a devout Roman Catholic.

Mind/Body Dualism

Rand never discussed the mind/body problem in any detail, but her general approach was that conscious states could not be reduced completely to brain processes. Official Objectivist Harry Binswanger says, “Yes I am a dualist. . . . We [Objectivists] believe that both consciousness and matter exist and neither is reducible to the other.” Dualism is traced back to Plato and Aristotle, and its most famous advocate in modern philosophy was Rene Descartes.

Reason Is Man’s Distinctive Characteristic

Rand’s definition of man as a rational animal was hardly unique. As von Mises says, “Reason is man's particular and characteristic feature.”

- Neil Parille

3 comments:

Jay said...

It should be noted that a philosopher might advocate commonly held ideas but present new arguments for them, integrate them differently into his system, or extend them in ways previously not done.

I think this is her main achievement. Instead of advocating ideas in a vacuum, she tied them together into a very coherent and powerful message. The sum was what Diana Hsieh called "a major departure from traditional moral systems."

For example, the loudest advocates of freewill, historically, have been religious leaders. You have freewill, they said, to carry out His wishes. Rand held that freewill was a biological given. Furthermore, that you should employ it intelligently in the service of your own life and goals.

She rejected Original Sin within a radically new, egoistic theory of self-esteem. (Thanks in no small part to Nathaniel Branden, but still.)

She upheld reason in formulating principles and pursuing your egoistic well-being. When the school system has been under John Dewey's influence for decades, the importance of this cannot be stated enough.

I would also add that she helped reclaim reason from those who claim that it supports utilitarian/totalitarian ends.

Michael Prescott said...

Official Objectivist Harry Binswanger says, “Yes I am a dualist. . . . We [Objectivists] believe that both consciousness and matter exist and neither is reducible to the other.”

This quote surprises me. In my Objectivist years I don't recall anyone ever describing the philosophy as dualist. Rand was very critical of the "mind-body dichotomy," which I would take to mean dualism. Chris Sciabarra wrote a book arguing that Rand's overarching purpose was the rejection of dualism (though his interpretation is controversial).

I suppose dualism could be seen as implicit in Rand's idea that consciousness and existence are separate axiomatic concepts (if we interpret "existence" as "physical reality," which seems to be her intent). But as far as I know, she never identified herself as a dualist or endorsed the dualistic tradition in philosophy.

Binswanger's quote raises more questions than it answers, I think.

Daniel Barnes said...

Mike P:
>This quote surprises me. In my Objectivist years I don't recall anyone ever describing the philosophy as dualist.

The Objectivist position on the mind/body problem is as inconclusive as everyone else is. Binswanger's position is not necessarily that of anyone else's. Diana Hsieh's survey Mind in Objectivism gives us an overview. There is little or nothing original or even very interesting in any of the positions outlined. Rand did not write clearly or interestingly on the topic at all, but what she did write had a clearly dualist leaning, despite her generally monistic tendencies (for example, she opposed ethical dualism) One explanation for this might be that like several other problems of philosophy, including some she claimed to have solved, it is not clear she understood the mind body problem well.