Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rand and Aesthetics 2

Sense of Life 1. This is in many ways the most troublesome of Rand's aesthetic conceptions, precisely because it is the least implausible, particularly those inclined to accept Rand's judgments. Rand defines the notion as follows:

A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence. It sets the nature of a man’s emotional responses and the essence of his character.

Elsewhere, Rand writes:

It is only those values which he regards or grows to regard as “important,” those which represent his implicit view of reality, that remain in a man’s subconscious and form his sense of life.

“It is important to understand things”—“It is important to obey my parents”—“It is important to act on my own”—“It is important to please other people”—“It is important to fight for what I want”—“It is important not to make enemies”—“My life is important”—“Who am I to stick my neck out?” Man is a being of self-made soul—and it is of such conclusions that the stuff of his soul is made. (By “soul” I mean
“consciousness.”) The integrated sum of a man’s basic values is his sense of life.

Rand's term "sense of life" is roughly equivalent to such terms as character and personality. Rand's sense of life is, in effect, the general drift or tendencies of the individuals emotional reactions. Two important conclusions can be drawn from the Randian conception:

A. That the "content" of a man's sense of life (i.e., his specific reactions) are not determined or even influenced by innate tendencies, but are the consequence of integrated (or "misintegrated") value judgments.

B. People tend to have either a "benevolent" or "malevolent" sense of life; or, if they seem to have parts of both, this is a result of contradictory basic premises.

The first conclusion states what should be fairly obvious: Rand's conception of an individual's sense of life is merely her view of human nature applied to the issue of aesthetic judgment. An individual's reaction to a work of art is thoroughly emotional; and this emotion, for Rand, is "automatic effect of man’s value premises." The second conclusion is one of those hidden premises in Objectivism, one implicit in the philosophy, rather than one explicitly endorsed by Rand or her chief disciples. Rand tends to break down sense of life emotional reactions into two predominant types: (1) A "benevolent" sense of life; and (2) a "malevolent" sense of life. If an individual does not easily into either category, that can only be as a result of contradictions in the basic premises that make up his character.

I have written enough posts on this blog about Rand's theory of human nature to establish that it her view of man is factually incorrect. The character or personality of the individual is not a mere product of his basic premises, ethical or otherwise. So Rand's assumption that an individual's sense of life is, in effect, his own responsibility is empirically insupportable. Moreover, it has the unfortunate effect of reducing all arguments about aesthetic judgments to an argument ad hominem (more on this in my next post).

What about conclusion B? Well, the falsity of conclusion A causes serious problems for conclusion B. Here's the chief problem: Rand tends to categorize aesthetic reactions as being either benevolent or malevolent. Yet in real life, aesthetic reactions tend to be far more complex and even nuanced than can be adequately summed up in just two words. Nor does this complexity result from mixed or contradictory premises, as is suggested in Objecitivism: it doesn't result from premises at all, but from much more complex sources, which may include innate proclivities, influences from peers, reactions to traumatic events, and independent conscious judgments. There is no support in experimental psychology for the view that emotions arise either solely or even primarily from consciously chosen (or accepted) value judgments.

Rand's conception of a sense of life is, in its overall tenor, merely an attempt to integrate her view human nature with her aesthetics. It also serves as a convenient rationale for attacking those who have aesthetic reactions that varied with Rand's own. In my next post, I will examine how Rand uses her sense of life notion to denigrate those who dared to have different aesthetic tastes from her own.


Rey said...

Man, that phrase "sense of life" gave me flashbacks to a conversation I had with an Objectivist over dinner.

I was talking about my fondness for Shakespeare and what a freakin' genius he was, how his works encapsulate everything that preceded them and set the template for what was to come, his mastery of high and low language, etc.

The Objectivist's response was "[Yawn] I appreciate all that, but I despise his sense of life." I asked him what he meant, and basically he felt that because Shakespeare's heroes were flawed and met tragic ends, Shakespeare had a malevolent sense of life. I pointed out that the whole tragic flaw leading to a catastrophic downfall is straight from Aristotle and Greek tragedy and that the Greeks had an arguably more malevolent sense of life because their heroes were crushed by fate (all of which he must have known because he translates Aristotle for a living), while Shakespeare's heroes destroy themselves through rash action or inaction or any number of other poor choices and that in the comedies, flawed characters actually change and become better, happier people.

No matter. He admitted that he didn't know much Shakespeare (read a few tragedies (in school) and saw Branagh's HENRY V; he was dimly aware that Shakespeare wrote some sonnets or something, but had never read those), but literally with the same breath with which he admitted his ignorance, he said he didn't really need to read much Shakespeare because he had grasped his "essentials."

C. Fajardo said...

Hi, from Guatemala. Excuse me my bad english, I promise you write better later. I read this blog and take my time to analized; this blog is very useful to know the wrong of the Rand´s philosophy. Here in my country there is a university called Universidad Francisco Marroquin, where grown a group of randians... very, very mad about the novels of Ayn Rand and this world.

Please, go on with analysis of the Rand´s philosophy... and fight her.

Bye. Adios.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

I would say that the trouble with "sense of life" is that, unlike many of Rand's concepts, this one connects to something very real. Specifically, we all carry around assumptions (usually unchallenged and sometimes not even conscious) about how the world works and how we should live in it. These assumptions color our responses to the things we encounter, often in ways we aren't fully aware of. So when Rand talks about a sense of life, it resonates: it's a name for this bundle of deeply-rooted assumptions.

Pretty much everything Rand says about sense of life, however, is just wrong. Its roots are not value judgments -- not exclusively or even predominantly, as Greg has discussed. Worse, reducing a complex set of assumptions to two "essentials" (i.e., benevolent or malevolent) is a massive oversimplification -- although it is characteristic of Rand, who, it seems, couldn't deal with the possibility that there might be more than two possibilities. Assuming that "sense of life" (or basic assumptions, character, personality, or whatever you want to call it) fully explains one's response to a work of art is also just plain wrong, as I suspect Greg will get into later. That's another oversimplification that ignores many other factors that go into how one responds to an experience.

The worst intellectual crime of all may be applying this grossly oversimplified version of sense of life to make judgments of people's character based on what they think of some art work or other.

BoiCymraeg said...


This squares pretty accurately with my own experience of objectivists - making some broad generalisation about some kind of art, before revealing they have no knowledge whatsoever about the subject, and when challenged about it, saying that this such knowledge is entirely unnecessary.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Rand's idea of the "sense of life" corresponds somewhat to innate temperament/personality.

The other thing at issue is culture -- we grow up learning to value certain things, have certain preferences, express ourselves in certain ways through the culture we're raised in. Rand is no exception...Except that she'd never acknowledge anything she ever did as having precedent, so culture goes out the window. So she'll call it her chosen sense of life, instead.

From what I remember of the Romantic Manifesto, "benevolent sense of life" corresponded to Western high culture from before 1900 (in the abstract, of course -- she always seemed disappointed with actual artworks. She liked Vermeer's realism, but hated that he that he chose to paint peasants and servants).

"Malevolent sense of life" corresponded to everything else -- popular culture, Indian culture, African culture, whatever. Her appraisals of them read like uninformed chauvenism to me.

So, in my view, benevolent sense of life = Ayn Rand's cultural upbringing + her personal idiosyncratic taste.

- Chris

stuart said...

Chris, that is a good definition. For a prime contemporary example, look at Maestro Perigo on SoloPassion. He's Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria over there, complete with chamber orchestra and periodic swoonfests.