Thursday, March 31, 2022

Objectivist Schisms: an Overview by Neil Parille

As observers of Objectivism know, schisms are a perennial part of the world of Objectivism. In particular, the “official Objectivism” going back to Ayn Rand, which has continued into today with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), has been particularly prone to dust-ups, breaks, and even excommunications.  I don’t know of any sociological studies of schisms that might shed light on this, but there may be a couple reasons.  First, Objectivism is a relatively small movement, and most people tend to know each other.  This means that disputes will tend to become personal.  Second, many associates of Ayn Rand are still alive.  Hence protecting her legacy in their eyes likely heightens the gravity of any disputes.

The biggest schism in the Objectivist movement was Ayn Rand’s break in 1968 with Nathaniel and Barbara Branden.  The Brandens were the chief promoters of Objectivism, particularly through the Nathaniel Branden Institute.  While the details remain somewhat obscure, the rupture began because Nathaniel and Rand had years earlier commenced an affair which eventually grew cold.  When Rand wanted to restart the affair, the much younger Branden balked at this, in large part because he was having an affair with a beautiful young model and actress, which he concealed from Rand for years.  When Rand found out about his affair, she denounced Nathaniel in her own inimitable way.  In her “To Whom It May Concern Statement,” she never mentioned that she and Branden had an affair, nor Branden’s clandestine affair with the model.  She went on to denounce him for failing to devote his efforts to advance Objectivism and she all but accused him of stealing from her. She did hint that Nathaniel had betrayed her in an unspecified way:

This year, in a long series of discussions, held at his request to help him solve what he characterized as his psycho-epistemological problems, I was shocked to discover that he was consistently failing to apply to his own personal life and conduct, not only the fundamental philosophical principles of Objectivism, but also the psychological principles he himself had enunciated and had written and lectured about. For example: he was unable or unwilling to identify the motivation of some of his actions or the nature of his long-range goals; he admitted that in many respects he was acting on the basis of unidentified feelings.

As Nathaniel later wrote in his memoir, Rand’s attack was so “over the top” that people suspected that he was an alcoholic or a child molester.  Both Nathaniel and Barbara responded, countering Rand’s allegations of wrongdoing.  Nathaniel hinted that there had been an affair and conceded that he concealed something important of Rand.  He explicitly denied her allegations of financial wrongdoing.
After the Branden split, there were other schisms during Rand’s life.  After her death, Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s self-proclaimed “intellectual heir,” started the ARI.  Peikoff shortly thereafter split with philosopher David Kelley over Kelley’s contention that Objectivism was an “open system.”  Peikoff’s denunciation, in which he purported to speak for Rand, was vitriolic.  More splits, generally of a lesser significance, have continue until the present.

Monday, March 07, 2022

Taking Ideas Seriously

[Neil Parille continues where he left off in 2009.]

Ayn Rand was quite explicit that ideas are what matter and, in particular, it’s abstract philosophical ideas which guide human history.  Because of this, Objectivists usually blame the sorry state of the world on “intellectuals” and professors of philosophy.  Leonard Peikoff once said that we’d know the world is on the right track when the philosophy department of UC Berkeley was Objectivist.

Objectivists talk about the history of philosophy as a battle between Plato and Aristotle.  According to Objectivists, a society or culture succeeds to the extent it adopts Aristotelian ideas.  For example, they argue that the Renaissance began and flourished because Thomas Aquinas supposedly reintroduced Aristotle’s works to the West.  In the main Objectivist work of historiography, Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels, he argued that Nazism and the gas chambers were the direct result of the influence of Immanuel Kant on German intellectual life.  Christianity, to them, is as foolish as one can get.

History paints on a large canvas.  One can find examples and counterexamples to prove or disprove any broad historical narrative.  For example, contrary to Rand, many scholars argue that the most important Renaissance thinkers were Platonists.  Germany’s leading Kantian philosopher was Ernst Cassirer.  It’s said that upon hearing a Nazi say “truth is what the Fuhrer says it is,” he responded, “if that’s the case, there is no hope for Germany.”  He promptly left for England.  I recently heard Yaron Brook claim that the Roman Empire fell because it adopted Christianity.  Yet the Eastern half of the Empire - which was more Christian – lasted until 1453.