Friday, July 01, 2011

A Reading List For Open Minded Objectivists

Regular Contributor Neil Parille reaches out to Objectivists whose Rand sycophancy is not at the meter busting level

If you’ve taken ARCHNblog’s “Are You A Rand Cultist?” test and are in the 1-6 range, there might be a chance that with some good reading material that you can get a better perspective on Rand. If you are in the 7-12 range some intensive deprogramming is necessary. I would never recommend kidnapping Randroids and locking them in rooms while deprogrammers try some reverse mind control, but as a public service I’ll provide links to books and on-line material that might help unclog the minds of otherwise rational Objectivists.*

For basic critiques of Objectivism, check out this blog's eponymous Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. Nyquist subjects Objectivism’s central claims to empirical enquiry. Many of Rand’s assertions about society and human nature don’t measure up. For a different take on Objectivism, check out Scott Ryan’s Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality, a work that critiques Rand’s epistemology from a more traditional philosophic perspective.

For Rand’s theory of concept formation, see Bryan Register’s discussion of various problems in his 2000 Journal of Rand Studies essay. For a critique of essentialism, check out Karl Popper’s “Two Kinds of Definitions.” For a defense of essentialism, read David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.

To see why professional philosophers don’t take Rand seriously, check out Bill Vallicella’s post here. For flaws in Rand’s style of argument, see my three-part series.

On religion, check out Nyquist’s series on Objectivism and religion. I exposed a few common Objectivist fallacies on religion. Stephen Parrish wrote a solid critique of Objectivism’s claim that A is A means God doesn’t exist. If you think the effect of religion on science has been entirely negative, check out Ronald Number’s Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion. For a book that show that Middle Ages weren’t so dark, read Jean Gimpel’s Medieval Machine.

On aesthetics, see Nyquist’s on-going series.

On Rand’s theory of human nature and human psychology, read Nyquist’s series “Rand and Empirical Responsibility.”

On epistemology, I’d recommend William Alston’s The Reliability of Sense Perception. While Alston doesn’t discuss Objectivism, this book shows that this philosophical question is a bit more complicated than Rand thought.

On Rand’s philosophy of history, check out David Gordon’s withering critique of Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels. David Ramsay Steele also has an excellent discussion of David Kelley’s less heated claims about Kant. I did a two-part critique of the Objectivist view of history here and here.

On ethics, perhaps the best work is Erick Mack’s brilliant discussion of Rand’s ethics in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. Stephen Parrish wrote an informative review of Tara Smith’s Viable Values in JARS. Michael Huemer is excellent as well.

If you believe Kant is the most evil person in history, you might start with Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, an accessible (by Kantian standards) work on ethics which surprisingly omits, among other things, blue prints for the gas chambers at Auschwitz. If you think Kant wanted to save traditional religion, you should consider reading (or pondering the title) of his classic Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Another interesting book by Kant is his Theory of the Heavens. If Kant was out to destroy the human mind, why did have an interest in science? Vallicella wrote blog post on Rand’s misunderstanding of Kant.

The one book I’d recommend by Rand is her Marginalia (comments she wrote in the books she read). Do her comments show a mind trying to understand ideas or refract them through an Objectivist prism? Michael Prescott wrote an excellent critique of Rand’s jottings on C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. If you think Rand was a brilliant social critic, read my discussion of Rand and the streaker at the Academy Awards. For the creepy side of Rand, see Prescott’s essay on Rand and child killer William Hickman.

For background to the ongoing war (as Rand’s followers see it) over the accuracy of the Branden accounts, see my critique of James Valliant’s The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics.

If you think the Ayn Rand Institute has done anything but harm Rand’s legacy, read the “Essay on Sources” in Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market.

*I thank Michael Prescott for his suggestions.


A. said...

...and to find out why you shouldn't be an objectivist in the first place, read Michael Prescott's "Shrugging Off Ayn Rand".

I think it's one of the best, and most honest, anti-rand articles out there.

Anonymous said...

I'd agree with that A, 2nd only to the great review "Big Sister is Watching You".

Steven Johnston

Neil Parille said...

I'm taking David Gordon's Mises Institute course on Rand and Objectivism.

The required readings are:

1. The Kelley and Thomas book, The Logical Structure of Objectivism -

- which unfortunately is still in "Beta version." I think it's better than anything Peikoff produced.


2. Michael Huemer's Critique of Objectivism:

-Neil Parille

Neil Parille said...

Three other books I'd recommend are: (1) Anne Heller's biography (Ayn Rand and the World She Made); (2) Ron Merril's book on Rand (The Ideas of Ayn Rand); and (3) Chris Sciabarra's book Ayn Rand the Russian Radical.

Because of the state of the Archives there probably won't be a completely satisfactory account of Rand's life and intellectual development for some time to come.

Jeffrey said...

For hardened Objectivists, Branden's "The benefits and hazards of the philosophy of ayn Rand" may help at least soften the dogma. Helped for me anyways.

gregnyquist said...

I agree with all the recommendations previously given, particularly Jeffrey's recommendation of the Branden essay.

There are a number of books which, although they don't address Rand specifically, nevertheless lay the groundwork for understanding what is wrong with Rand's philosophy. Of these, Pareto's Mind and Society had the biggest impact on me. Others of note would be:

Personal Knowledge Michael Polanyi
Realism and the Aim of Science, K Popper
Scepticism and Animal Faith, by Santayana
The Revolt Against Dualism, A Lovejoy
Medievel Cities, H Pirenne
"Social Causes of Decline of Ancient Civilization," M Weber
Blank Slate, S Pinker
Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, Guy Clayton
Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson
Descartes' Error, A Damasio
Incognito, David Eagleman
Out of Character, Destano & Valdesolo
The Moral Sense, James Q Wilson
The Machiavellians, James Burnham
Reflections on Violence, Georges Sorel
Individualism and Economic Order, F Hayek
The Constitution of Liberty, F Hayek
The Fatal Conceit, F Hayek
Capitalism, Socialism, & Democracy J Schumpeter
A Conflict of Visions, T Sowell
Classic, Romantic, & Modern, J Barzun

Dragonfly said...

Another interesting book is Gerd Gigerenzer, Gut Feelings, The Intelligence of the Unconscious, in which he not only shows how decisions based on "gut feelings" are in many cases more successful dan on logical reasoning, but also gives an explanation why this is so and why more information doesn't always result in better decisions.

Xtra Laj said...

I think all the bases have been pretty much covered. On Greg's list, I of course think very highly of The Blank Slate, a book which changed my perspective on life, but I find The Revolt Against Dualism to be probably the best book I have ever read that was written by a philosopher - the language is difficult and a bit bombastic, but the quality of analysis shows how difficult philosophy is and I think anyone who reads it will be disabused of the notion that Rand was a serious philosopher. Lovejoy would cite the person he was criticizing, explain the person's view in his own words, and dismantle the position so skillfully even a Rubik's Cube would have stood no chance against his acumen.

I also think David Sloan Wilson has written some good criticisms of Rand/Objectivism and how it is a kind of religion from the evolutionary psychology perspective. He dedicates a chapter to her in his book, Evolution for Everyone. A broader book on religion from an evolutionary psychology perspective is Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer, which analyzes religion as natural human behavior.

For Objectivists who take up Objectivism because they are seeking happiness, I would recommend to them books on happiness by Martin Seligman: Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness, which are studies of the conditions under which most people in the West have achieved happiness/well-being as well as some recommendations on steps to take to do so if happiness/well-being is the primary goal (as opposed to wealth/status etc.)

Dragonfly said...

Interesting recommendations. Thanks to Xtra Laj's enthusiastic comments I ordered The Revolt against Dualism. Pareto's work was more problematic. I found on the Internet a used copy for sale for some $300. Hmmm... It's true that you get 2033 pages for that price, but still... Looking further, I found a German translation, apparently from the same work (Trattato di sociologia generale) for only EUR 14 (new). On the other hand, that version has "only" 290 pages, so perhaps I'm missing something with that version. But for that amount it was an offer I couldn't refuse, so I've ordered the book, I suppose it can still be interesting!

Andrew Priest said...

Actually, you can now find at least some of "The Mind and Society" at the Internet Archive.

Volume 1

Volume 3

Volume 4

Unfortunately, I can't seem to find volume 2.

gregnyquist said...

Unfortunately, I can't seem to find volume 2.

Well, at least volume 2, which largely covers Pareto's taxonomy of residues, is the weakest part of the work. Having the 3 best volumes available on the web is a helpful start.

Anonymous said...

Surely you just need to read Atlas Shrugged to fine out what is 'wrong' with Rand? Works for the great unwashed.

Steven Johnston

Jeffrey said...

Surely you just need to read Atlas Shrugged to fine out what is 'wrong' with Rand?

Unfortunately, reading Atlas is probably one of the best ways to get hooked on the philosophy in the first place, as Murray Rothbard observed. That's how I got into it all in the first place: it's an emotionally intense novel that proclaims to have all the answers to "society's" ills, and if you're new to philosophy, you very well might believe it.

Anonymous said...

But on a 'back-of-the-envelope' figure here concluded that less than 0.5% of those that read Atlas Shrugged go on to become objectivists. That is roughly 1 in ever 200 readers of the book 'get into' Rand, the other 199 leave well alone.

Steven Johnston

stuart said...

Jeffrey and Steven, you are both right, due to the love/hate factor. Reactions to Atlas Shrugged are visceral - to the wee minority it is transformative and in the short term, I guess, makes them happy with a life system which can be learned! On tapes, and not cheaply, but..learned!
For more of us, even softened up by the pounding clarity and certainty of Rand's nonfiction beforehand, the book is repellent and depressing.