Tuesday, September 27, 2022

An Epistemological Quandry

Harry Binswanger has come out with a video on Ayn Rand's break-up with philosopher John Hospers. Binswanger attended the notorious meeting for the American Society for Aesthetics that led Rand to terminate her friendship with Hospers. Against the advice of his colleagues, Hospers had invited Rand to present a paper on aesthetics. Rand read one of her essays on her concept of a "sense of life." Afterwards, Hospers offered some criticisms of Rand's theories, to which Rand then offered a replied. 

Now according to Binswanger, Hospers criticism was "unhelpful," amounting to something of a philosophical put-down. "He didn't give her respect," he would later recall. When Rand delivered her responses, she was "so nice and so gentle." But when she looked in Hospers direction, to perhaps gauge his reaction, he not even paying any attention to her.

Hospers delivers a remarkable different account of the event:

By tradition, commentators make criticisms. Mine, I thought, were mild as criticisms go. I wondered publicly about whether every work of art (even mediocre ones) carries with it a sense of life; I mentioned Ayn’s own example of Dinesen (fine writing, but an awful sense of life); I speculated about whether to any extent what we say about sense of life depends on the language we use to characterize it ("emotive meaning" again).

I saw something wrong when I noticed that her remarks in response were icy, sarcastic, even insulting. I never discovered what there was about my remarks that made her "go ballistic." Apparently I had betrayed her, and I had done so publicly, when an academic audience already presumed critical of her might have been turned her way. There was no doubt that she felt deeply hurt. At the party in her room afterward, she would not speak to me, nor would anyone else: word had gone out that I was to be "shunned." I never saw her again.

So the epistemological question that confronts us is How can we know which account is the right one? Presumably, almost everyone who participated and witnessed the event in question is dead. A few members of the audience who, like Binswanger, were mere students may still be around. But finding them would be difficult and verifying that they were actually in attendance at the meeting close to impossible. So it really is Binswanger's word versus that of Hospers (who is no longer with us). How are we to determine which, if either, is telling the truth? Does Rand's own epistemology provide us any insights on solving this quandry?

The irony is that most people will decide this question on the basis of their general view of Ayn Rand. Those who think highly of Ayn Rand and regard Objectivism as an important philosophy will likely side with Binswanger, while those who have a more guarded or even negative view of Rand and hold Objectivism to be a sad tissue of error will likely side with Hospers. But of course, one's opinion of Rand and Objectivism can hardly be regarded as a reliable principle for determining the truth or falsity of what went on at that meeting.

One way to solve this dilemma might be to acknowledge that it is impossible to know for sure what exactly happened but that we might make an educated guess. We could do what is often done in such situations---that is, try to pick up reputational information about Hospers and Binswanger with the aim of determining who is likely to be the most reliable witness. Even here we run into various epistemological quagmires. Binswanger, for example, to the extent that he is known at all, is something of a controversial figure. He has both admirers and detractors. Who among these two groups are we supposed to believe?

Another way to explain these varying accounts of Rand's behavior is to presume that Binswanger and Hospers perceived the entire event through the veil of their assumptions and prejudices. Binswanger perceived Rand as being "so nice and so gentle" because he was favorably disposed toward her, while Hospers regarded her as sarcastic, icy, and insulting because he was the target of her criticism. But perhaps her behavior was far more neutral and hence open to radically different interpretations.

One last method of settling this question, and the one I tend to favor, is to ask which account of Rand's behavior is consistent with other evidence we have of her general mode of conduct. Rand is well known for being ultra-sensitive to slights and breaking with people on trivial pretexts. As Hospers himself notes, 

Rumors persisted ... of how she would "excommunicate" people: they would say or do something that seemed trivial to others, and she would be done with them forever. Some of them were quite good friends, such as Edith Efron, who cared a great deal for Ayn but who was also cut off. None of this would have happened, theynsaid, ten years before, but with the years she had become more suspicious, testy, impatient—no one was sure why. Quite a few people, it seemed, were suddenly out of her life.

These rumors that Hospers talks about have been verified by a wide number of sources, as has been documented in Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Therefore if we are to ask which account of what happened at that meeting of the American Society of Aesthetics is most in keeping with Rand's general conduct during that period of her life, it has to be Hospers' version. It fits with what scores of other people have testified. Binswanger in comparison comes off as special pleading about someone he would never dare to criticize.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Review of Simon Lemieux's Book on Rand

Who the Hell is Ayn Rand? was recently published.  It is written by Simon Lemieux who teaches at Portsmouth Grammar School in England. It’s a volume in a new series of brief introductions to ancient and contemporary thinkers. It’s a good overview of Rand’s life and philosophy from a somewhat left-wing perspective.  In particular, I like how Lemieux lets Rand speak for herself, letting the reader judge for himself if Rand’s ideas are correct or practical.  In this respect it’s quite unique in the world of Randian criticism.  In lieu of a formal book review, I’ll summarize each chapter and make some comments.


The introduction points out that Ayn Rand continues to be controversial.  Lemieux also notes that Rand has been misrepresented and “wasn’t a fully-fledged libertarian or a reckless libertine.”  He makes the interesting observation that Randianism is something of a combination of Nietzscheanism and can-do American individualism.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Objectivist Round-up, September 2022

1. Who the Hell is Ayn Rand? was recently published by Simon Lemieux. It’s a volume in a new series that provides brief introductions to ancient and contemporary thinkers. It’s a good overview of Rand’s life and philosophy from a somewhat left-wing perspective. I hope to review it in a week or two.

2. Ayn Rand Fan Club interviewed Michael Stuart Kelly of the Objectivist Living website. I enjoyed the discussion of his friendship with Barbara Branden, his involvement in The PARC Wars, and the rise and fall of Objectivist forums.

3. Chris Sciabarra just announced that the final issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies will come out in 2023. JARS published numerous significant articles on Rand and related issues. Chris also published two important essays on Rand’s college transcripts based on archival research. I will always be grateful to Chris for printing three book reviews I wrote. JARS was first published in 1999.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Objectivist Round-up, August 2022

1. An expanded version of the Letters of Ayn Rand is now online. According to Jennifer Burns, this is one of the few pieces of Rand’s posthumous material that hasn’t been rewritten to any significant extent. When I read the volume years ago, I thought that the correspondence to John Hospers was particularly interesting. To print those parts of Rand’s letters that quote Hospers’ correspondence with her, the editor needed Hospers’ permission. They agreed to print Hospers’ statement:

“The letters were interstices between oral conversations; they were written only when Ayn and I were at different geographical locations and could not meet in person. Almost all of the significant material in our communications with each other was in oral, not written, form. The letters may thus give a distorted view of the content of our conversations.”

"You rightly have a great interest in reproducing everything that Ayn said; and you have no particular interest in whatever it was that I said, either to initiate a discussion or to respond to her. The result is that my thoughts just don’t appear in these pages—not that you wanted them to, of course. But sometimes I thought that Ayn had not correctly apprehended a point I had made, and her summary of what I said sometimes did not reproduce what I really did say. Whether what I said was mistaken or not is beside the point here; I was often more interested in clarifying a point than in presenting it for acceptance. I am afraid the reader who read what Ayn wrote to me, and not what I wrote to her, would gather that I was a bloody fool. I daresay that in some ways I was, yet not so much as one would get the impression of from the letters. The trouble is, from her letters one gets only one side of a dialogue. And that isn’t quite fair, is it?”

2. The Ayn Rand University has a new course on comparing Rand’s ethics to the “virtue ethics” of Philippa Foot and G. E. M. Anscombe. I wonder what Rand would have thought about this kind of compare/contrast approach to her work. Anyway, while the course seems a bit expensive at $1,200, you can aways audit it for a mere $900.

3. Speaking of compare/contrast, Harry Binswanger has an interesting video discussion comparing Rand’s philosophy to “academic philosophies.” See here, here and here. Harry says he hasn’t followed academic philosophy since 1990 but he’s been told that philosophy has gotten better since then. He mentions John Searle and Phillipa Foot. Searle’s Mind, Language, and Society is a good introduction to philosophy that sounds like Rand at times. Foot’s best known work is Natural Goodness.

4. The Atlas Society has a You Tube channel with many interviews.

Sunday, July 03, 2022

Objectivist Roundup, July 2022

1. Once it became likely that the United States Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, it’s been all abortion all the time for the Ayn Rand Institute. They have even published a free Kindle book, Why the Right to Abortion is Sacrosanct, not knowing apparently that the “primary dictionary definition” of sacrosanct is, “most sacred or holy.”

2. Speaking of abortion, it’s not clear what Rand’s views were. The ARI’s claim that she supported legalized abortion until birth is debatable. See here and here.

3. This is an interesting (and unusual) discussion with a critic of Objectivism by the Ayn Rand Centre UK. I had never heard of Paul Crider before, but as an Objectivist turned libertarian turned conventional left winger, his criticisms of Objectivism and Atlas Shrugged are much more informed than most critics.

4. Speaking of Objectivists turned liberals, Dr. Diana Hsieh took her website down stating that it no longer reflects her current beliefs. Based on her Twitter feed it seems that she is more or less a left winger. She actually has become a union organizer. I don’t know of any studies, but most Objectivists who leave the movement seem to turn libertarian or conservative.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Guessing Game

Now let's test our ability to match a quote with the appropriate Objectivist (or Objectivist approved) philosopher. Among the great apostles of reason, which great thinker penned or spoke the following bit of rhetoric in praise of enlightenment, independent thinking, and intellectual courage? The quote is as follows:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another . . . "Dare to think! Have the courage to use your own reason!" is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.

Who must we thank for this bit of eloquent magniloquence on behalf of "reason"? Is it Rand? Is it Peikoff? Is it perhaps Binswanger? Or is it some other Objectivist-sympathizing worthy? Can anyone guess this without cheating?

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Objectivist Roundup, June 2022

Here's another roundup of latest Objectivist news, compliments of Neil Parille:

1.  Spanish philosopher Luca Moratal Romeu has a 415 page book on Ayn Rand’s political philosophy.  The book is $37.  I can read Spanish but, unfortunately, there is no Amazon preview so I don’t think I’ll be purchasing it.

2.  ARI philosophers Onkar Ghate and Mike Mazza discuss criticisms of Ayn Rand by professional philosophers Sidney Hook and Robert Nozick.  I can’t find Hook’s review of For the New Intellectual on the web, but my recollection was that much of his criticism was focused on Rand’s caricature of the history of philosophy in the book’s introductory essay.

3. OCON 2022 kicks off next month.  Some of the talks look interesting, but when I saw that future Rand biographer Shoshana Milgram was speaking, I checked the speaker’s section.  Apparently, she is still working on her biography, which will only go to 1957.  I wonder if the book will ever be published.  If so, it likely won’t be authorized as previously promised.