Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Rand Never Lost an Argument

Sam Anderson, in a review of Anne Heller's biography of Rand, notes: "Eyewitnesses say that [Rand] never lost an argument." Given the poor quality of many of Rand's actual arguments, as one finds them embalmed in her writings, this is a bit of anamoly. The written evidence, such as it is, demonstrates no very great arguing skill on Rand's part. Quite the contrary, Rand, when she deigns to offer any sort of arguments at all, produces rather poor ones, afflicted with yawning gaps and blistering equivocations. How then could a philosopher who produced such wretched arguments in print be a veritable Hercules of disputation when relying, not on her pen, but on her tongue?

There are several factors which contribue to explaining this anamoly. Rand depended on at least five such factors to provide the varnish of irrefragibility over her otherwise hollow and empirically impoverished arguments. Those factors are:

  1. Inability of individuals to evaluate the quality of arguments made on behalf of conclusions they agree with.
  2. Intimidation tactics
  3. Selection of debating opponents
  4. Reliance on explicit articulation of views
  5. Avoidance of empirical tests in favor of verbalism

(1) Cognitive science and experimental psychology have uncovered reams of evidence that people are not very good at evaluating arguments when they agree with the conclusions. A smoker, when challenged as to the dangers of his habit, will sometimes reply "Well, everybody dies" and believe, quite sincerely, that his verbalized rationale for smoking is both wise and irrefragible. Devotees of Ayn Rand sincerely believe that the Objectivist metaphysics, although based on little more than empty tautologies and other such empirically vacuous truisms, represents the very acme of logical soundness. People tend to believe what they want to believe, and then accept the "best" arguments easily at hand for those beliefs. Best, in this sense, is entirely relative. If only bad arguments are available, they will gravitate toward the best of the bad.

Most people become attracted to Objectivism when they are young and without experience either of the world or of philosophical arguments. Rand's Objectivist philosophy provides an intriguing set of rationalizations defending an extreme form of secular individualism and egoism coupled with common sense view of reality. A young person sympathetic with these positions will have difficulty evaluating the actual quality of the arguments Rand presents on behalf of her doctrines. Rand's passionate lip service on behalf of "reason," objectivity, and reality will further disarm whatever nascent critical thinking might still exist with new convert.

(2) For Rand, intimidation became central to maintaining her intellectual dominance over disciples. John Hospers noted of Rand:

I learned ... that it didn't pay to be confrontational with [Rand]. If I saw or suspected some inconsistency, I would point it out in calm and even tones, as if it were "no big deal." That way, she would often accept the correction and go on. To expose the inconsistency bluntly and nakedly would only infuriate her, and then there would be no more calm and even discussion that evening. I did not enjoy experiencing her fury; it was as if sunlight had suddenly been replaced by a thunderstorm. A freezing chill would then descend on the room, enough to make me shiver even in the warmth of summer. No, it wasn't worth it. So what, if a few fallacies went unreported? Better to resume the conversation on an even keel, continue a calm exchange of views, and spare oneself the wrath of the almighty, than which nothing is more fearful.

Alan Blumenthal noted:

Many of my patients used to tell me that they were terrified to ask questions because of the way Miss Rand might respond to them. They knew that the answer might be that the question revealed a bad psychoepistemology or an immoral value system. Or she might say "Can't you read? That's not what I said," In answer to an unfortunately phrased question like "Don't you think your characters are unrealistic?" she would say "I don't answer questions like that!" when she might have taken the opportunity to explain what is and is not required of fictional characters so the questioner might learn something.

And Robert Hessen:

I remember many occasions when Rand pounced, assuming that a question was motivated by hostility to her or her ideas, or that the questioner was intellectually dishonest or irrational, or had evil motives, or was her "enemy." The key, I believe, to Rand's reaction was an assumption that every question was unambiguously clear, so she never asked anyone to clarify or rephrase a question that appeared to be critical [of Rand]....

My earliest memory goes back to Ayn Rand's appearance at Yale University in February 1960. The morning after she gave a public lecture, she spoke to a small philosophy class and invited questions from the students. A young man asked if her brief characterization of Immanuel Kant's philosophy was accurate, and she exploded that she had not come here to be insulted. I was surprised at the heated tone of her response because he was not antagonistic to her and he had, as I watched him, no glimmer of malice or "gotcha" in his eyes.

Rand's anger helped shield her from effective criticism. It encouraged her disciples to be extra cautious when asking questions, which led to many important doctrines in Objectivism remaining unchallenged. This partially explains why there exists so many bad formulations and dubious assumptions in Rand's philosophy. Individuals tend to be rather poor at evaluating and criticizing their own beliefs. For this reason, criticism from others is essential for any philosophy that presumes to be rational. Indeed, criticism from others is central to rationality. That's why science and rational scholarship require peer review. Holding one's scholarship, one's research to the critical scrutiny of others makes it easier to ferret out the mistakes and errors that inevitably occur in the pursuit of knowledge. Rand's refusal to allow herself to be effectively challenged renders her system irrational and dogmatic. It also helps create the impression that she was Rand never lost an argument. After all, how could she have lost any arguments when she refused to allow herself to be challenged?

(3) Rand not only refused to engage in formal debates with other philosophers and intellectuals, she refused to have anything to do with the two groups which could have challenged her most effectively, namely, conservatives and liberatarians. She would not even allow herself to be in the same room with the William F. Buckley, the leading conservative intellectual of the fifties and sixties; and of course she would never have consented to appear on Buckley's debate show, Firing Line. Her disdain for libertarians is both notorious and perplexing. The reasons for her disdain (which include such trivial reasons as her dislike for the word libertarian) strike one as contrived and superficial, as if they were mere rationalizations. In any case, some of the best and most effective early criticism of Rand came from the liberatarian quarter. In November 1961 Bruce Goldberg published a review of Rand's For the New Intellectual in The New Individualist Review. After pointing out one contradiction after another and castigating Rand's misrepresentation of Western philosophy, Goldberg concludes:

It is not difficult to understand the attraction Ayn Rand has for the uninstructed. She appears, I suppose, to be the spokesman for freedom, for self-esteem, and other equally noble ideals. However, patient examination reveals her pronouncements to be but a shroud beneath which lies the corpse of illogic. Those who are concerned with discovering the principles of a sound social philosophy can read and study libertarian thought at its best. The ludicrously mistitled “philosophy of Ayn Rand” is a sham. To those who are travelling her road I can only suggest its abandonment—for that way madness lies.

Rand supposedly read this review (she dismissed it as "B.S."). Is it possible that at least part of her hostility toward libertarianism has its root in Goldberg's scathing criticism? In any case, Rand's hostility (and the subsequent Objectivism policy to avoid libertarians because, as Peikoff once put it, Libertarians are worse than communists) gave her a pretext for avoiding the very group which could offer the most well-informed criticism of her Objectivist philosophy. Libertarians tended to be far more knowledgable of Objectivism than other ideological groups. They could offer criticisms that came from a genuine knowledge of Rand's philosophy, rather than just a vague familiarity of it. Yet Rand kept her distance from them, as she kept her distance from conservative intellectuals. By doing so, Rand was able to protect herself from just the sort of intellectuals who could have conquered her in debate. Rand never lost an argument, not because she was a great debator, but because she never took on any challenging opponents.

(4) Many people do not know how to verbalize their basic beliefs. They have never bothered either to articulate their beliefs or find rationalizations for them. Consequently, if they are challenged to defend their beliefs, they do so very poorly, and are no match for someone who, like Rand, can articulate a set of doctrines. It should be obvious that it would not be possible for Rand to lose any argument against any individual lacking an articulable philosophy. Regardless of how poor Rand's actual arguments might be, the very fact that she could articulate her beliefs would give her a decisive advantage.

(5) In the absence of effective, empirical criticism, debates are determined by factors that have little, if anything to do with the truth. If a debate is not determined by empirical evidence, then it will be determined by other qualities that have nothing to do with the truth. Debates conducted without reference to effective empirical criticism become exercises in verbal facility, where the most aggressive, articulate, personable, and/or witty debator inevitably wins. Rand may not have always been particularly witty or personable; but she was always aggressive, determined, and articulate. She had verbal rationalizations for most of her beliefs; and when these failed, she could always throw a temper tantrum. Hence she came off as a formidable debator who "never lost an argument."


Neil Parille said...


1. The 2009 bios say that Rand refused to appear on TV unless she was first told what the questions would be and also that no critics would be mentioned. This doesn't sound like a person convinced of the brilliance of her own arguments.

2. Nonetheless, many people did find Rand persuasive and magnetic in her personality, such as Murray Rothbard who was no doubt better read than the typical Objectivist acolyte.

-Neil Parille

Lee Kelly said...

People often recommended that I read Ayn Rand's books; I never do. I have read a few articles by Rand and other Objectivists, but I have never been impressed. There are so many other things to read.

Ayn Rand actually reminds me of Murray Rothbard. They seem to have had a similar effect on acolytes. I am unsurprised to learn from Neil that Rothbard found her "persuasive and magnetic." Rothbard clearly found himself persuasive and magnetic, and so it follows that he would feel the same about Rand.

None of these comments come from partisan hostility. I am classical liberal in the Smith, Hayek, and Popper tradition. I actually agree with many of the political stances held by Rothbard and Rand; my problem is primarily that they make such very bad arguments for those positions.

I also dislike the anti-rational strategies explained by Daniel Barnes.

Great post, by the way.

Lee Kelly said...

Oops, sorry Greg!

Not "Daniel Barnes." I followed a link here from one of his comments on another blog accidently wrote his name.

Ken said...

This reminds me of the Monty Python "argument clinic" sketch. It sounds like Rand was pretty good at disagreement and intimidation, not so adept at argument, and avoided actual debate. Is that a fair assessment?

gregnyquist said...

It sounds like Rand was pretty good at disagreement and intimidation, not so adept at argument, and avoided actual debate. Is that a fair assessment?

Rand was not good at argument on paper. In her writings, he arguments are often rather poor, relying far too much on various ad hominem tactics and ex cathedra assertion. In person, however, she seems to have been a good arguer after a fashion; which is to say, although the actual quality of the arguments she was presenting were not very good, by her sheer will power and sense of convicion and the fact that everything she said seemed really well thought out, she would often carry the day. But I don't believe she would've stood a chance against any particularly well informed and intelligent debator, such as a WF Buckley or a Sidney Hook. Such individuals would've noticed immediately that she was taking far too much for granted and they would have pinned her down on that.

Wells said...

Really; if someone is not a good debater on paper, then they are not a good debater.
Everyone on Earth can make bullshit sound like wisdom. Only good thinkers can write things that stand up to being read, reread at their opponent's leisure, and fact-checked.

Xtra Laj said...

Really; if someone is not a good debater on paper, then they are not a good debater.
Everyone on Earth can make bullshit sound like wisdom. Only good thinkers can write things that stand up to being read, reread at their opponent's leisure, and fact-checked.


Do you really believe this? So many practical issues are time sensitive and perception is often reality, so by the time people have fact checked, which is sometimes the same as revised history vs. truly fact-checking, the practical nature of the issue is often moot and the bad debater (by your standards) has already ridden victoriously with his spoils into the sunset (think of many politicians).

Wells said...

Actually, I do believe it.

I am defining "Good debater" to mean someone who is able to take data, analyze said data for its veracity, choose the best data available, then propose novel conclusions that follow from that data. A "Good debater" will then be able to defend the conclusions against hostile actors regardless of how much time, intelligence, and research those actors have at their disposal.

You have a point about a person not really needing to have good logic if they only need to fool some of the people some of the time. Being able to do that has utility that should not be ignored.
However, I was thinking it didn't apply to the situation of this particular thread. Ayn Rand probably didn't want to be considered a good bullshitter.

For normal work is is usually not necessary to convince someone far smarter than yourself, who wants to refute you, and is willing to read what you write closely to look for the finest contradiction, and is also willing to spend infinite time in the library looking for just the right information to discredit you.

Ayn Rand and her acolytes though are trying to refute the entire academic establishment (in Philosophy most definitely, in Physics as well from The Logical Leap). These are people who have high IQ and bundles of time on their hands. The ability to give a good speech and abuse critics counts for nothing in this arena. If they can't convince in writing then they can't hack it.

Xtra Laj said...


I consider debate to be about persuasion, which is not necessarily the same thing as truth seeking inquiry. With your focus on truth, I can see why our conclusions diverge.

Rand may not have wanted to be considered a good bull shitter but she did want her view to win out because she hardly accepted the possibility she could be wrong. And with that as a starting point, winning the argument is the focus, not examining it for flaws. I can't recall a single example of critical introspection in her writing (not to be confused with her contrived internal conflicts). Internal conflicts show doubts and are not practically persuasive. You don't want to sound like you have doubts when the goal is to persuade unless you are dealing with experts who can assess risks themselves.

Anonymous said...

Bah objectivism, say it out loud and with enough umphhh and it'll make any idiot look like a genius. That is it's one strength.

Steven Johnston

Dragonfly said...

Anyway, "eyewitnesses say...", what eyewitnesses? Acolytes from the collective? To them Rand may have seemed to be an intimidating force with eyes that burned holes into them if they ever seemed to doubt anything she said.

But that's not the impression I get from the videos I've seen of her. Even while the interviewers were no serious opponents and she'd screened the questions in advance, she looks rather shy and uncomfortable, mechanically delivering her standard lines as if she were reading them from one of her books. It still wasn't her setting and that seemed enough to make all that alleged brilliance and superiority disappear. Small wonder that she refused to debate serious and knowledgeable opponents.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

What I wonder about is how these eyewitnesses define "losing" an argument. If it requires the arguer to concede that her position is wrong -- or to admit that just maybe her opponent's position has some merit -- or to show doubt or weakening in her conviction -- then I could believe Rand never lost an argument. (Anyone here ever heard of Rand backing down?)

But if losing an argument means failing to persuade the audience (or the opponent), then I think it's pretty clear that Rand lost a lot of arguments.

Neil Parille said...

I too wonder which acolytes.

Remember, Nathaniel, Barbara and others stayed with Rand for at least 18 years.

I don't imagine they are going to say, "Rand won some and lost some."

Rand's followers (even those who broke with her) have an interest in saying that she was a genius.

That being said, there were smart people who found Rand something of a genius.

Xtra Laj said...


It's pretty obvious that anyone who can write a book like Atlas Shrugged is quite intelligent ("genius"). "Never losing an argument" is a different proposition altogether and points to the kind of explanation that Greg provided and the kind of doubts that Dragonfly and ECE have raised.

Jeffrey said...

On the issue of libertarianism, I reprint here some notes I took on the Clemson conference's final faculty roundtable: "libertarianism is eclectic in its philosophy, superficial, floating abstraction, subjectivism"

To be fair that's obviously just a parahrase of what was actually said but still I find it noteable that modern Objectivists still hold the same antagonism towards libertarianism Rand herself held (they even said once that Ron Paul wasn't "really" a libertarian! [appearently forgetting for a moment their antagonizism towards that word]. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recentely about how Objectivism has never been able to form coalitians with its close allies (of course they didn't want to hear it). Gee I wonder why :)