Saturday, June 26, 2021

How I Became a Critic of Objectivism 2

The issue of philosophical literacy is a troubling one for Objectivism on multiple levels. To begin with, many of Rand’s most ardent followers became Objectivists when they were teenagers or young adults. They discovered The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged knowing little if anything about philosophy (or anything else for that matter). For this reason, they were not equipped with the necessary tools—which is to say, the philosophical literacy—from which to evaluate the contentions that at the bottom of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Yaron Brook, in his conversation with Michael Malice, admits as much. Teenagers and twenty-somethings rarely have neither the philosophical literacy nor the worldly knowledge to evaluate Rand’s contentions about human nature, morality, and the role of ideas in history. Swept away by Rand’s charismatic vision of a world populated by individualistic heroes like Howard Road and Hank Rearden, they end up taking everything Rand says on trust, without asking the necessary questions or demanding appropriate evidence.

This matter is further complicated by Rand’s own philosophical shortcomings. Rand had her own issues with philosophical illiteracy—although for very different reasons than we find among her youngest admirers. Rand’s philosophical illiteracy stemmed from her innate dogmatism and her intractable hubris about her own mind which made it very difficult for her to accept criticism and learn from those whom she disagreed with. Rand  rarely if ever entertained the possibility that she might be wrong. In any dispute with an individual who held rival views, she was right and they were wrong—end of issue. This attitude rendered it inconceivable for her to appreciate the possible merits of viewpoints and philosophies that conflicted with her own. 

There is also the issue of Rand’s education to consider. We know little, for example, about what Rand imbibed during her years attending Petrograd State University in the Soviet Union. According to biographical data accumulated about Rand, the most formative philosophical influence on her thinking was Isabel Paterson. From Paterson Rand developed her obsession for “reason,” her over-fondness for the phrase “A is A,”  her admiration of Aristotle, and her enmity to Kant and Hegel. Paterson, who was widely read, presumably had acquired at least some of her views through first-hand sources. She wasn’t merely repeating what had been told to her by another person. She had done the hard work for herself, coming to an understanding of philosophy through her extensive reading. Rand, on the other hand, seems to have relied far too much on brief abstracts provided her by Paterson, the Branden’s, Peikoff, and others. Rand was hardly a voluminous reader. She was impatient with detail and nuance. She did not read to understand; she read to demolish. When confronted with texts she disagreed with, she would begin with what she called the art of “philosophical detection,” which in practice meant putting the worst possible interpretation on anything she ran across that inspired her loathing.

Monday, June 14, 2021

How I became a critic of Objectivism 1

I never intended to become a critic of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. That's just how things worked out independent of any intention I may have entertained concerning the matter. I have spent most of my adult life as a kind of student. Not a student affiliated with a specific college or educational institution, but rather a student attending what Thomas Carlyle called "The University of Great Books." I have sometimes shared the results of my Great Books education in blog posts and books --- and it is my Rand criticism that has drawn the most attention.

In my junior year of high school, I read Rand's novel We the Living. A few weeks later I read The Fountainhead. I found these two novels intensely absorbing. I couldn't put them down. I finished both books in just a few days. 

I saved Atlas Shrugged for the summer. Late in July I checked out a copy from the local library and had a go at it. I confidently believed I would be able to finish the book in less than a week. But this is not how it went down. It actually took me five weeks to finish Atlas, and I had to really push my way through the book. It just didn't grab me like Rand's other two major novels had. I really didn't give a fig for any of the characters. They seemed unreal and one-dimensional. I found the tone of the book relentlessly didactic and moralistic. I felt that Rand was trying to preach at me, which I found off-putting. Sermonizing and moral indignation no doubt have their place, but not in a novel. When I discovered later than Rand considered Atlas her best work, I could hardly believe it.

During my freshman year of college I read the title essay to Rand's For the New Intellectual. I found the work unconvincing. The theory of history she introduced seemed interesting enough, but she didn't offer any proof for it. She expected me to accept all her contentions on faith, all the while pretending she was following "reason." Nonetheless, I wanted to figure out whether she was right. Did her theory have any merit at all? If so, how could it be tested?