The debate between Craig Biddle and Stephen Hicks concerning Open versus Close Objectivism took place last month in Belgrade, Serbia. Biddle took the Closed position and Hicks the Open position. I enjoyed the debate and thought each side presented his position well. There wasn’t the rancor that one might expect for what has often been a contentious issue. For background on the Open versus Closed controversy see here.
Biddle took a reasonable approach. Ayn Rand died in 1982 and the positions she set forth in her books and essays constitutes Objectivism. He conceded that there are philosophical topics that Rand didn’t discuss – such as propositions and the problem of induction – but what she did discuss constitutes Objectivism. Any extension of Objectivism outside of this is not part of Objectivism no matter how consistent it might be with Objectivism. He also said that if Objectivism were open, then one would never know what precisely Objectivism is. Is it Rand’s Objectivism plus Peikoff’s extensions or Objectivism plus Hicks’ extensions?
Biddle, however, went on say that there were aspects of Rand’s thought that are incidental and shouldn’t be considered Objectivism, such as her opposition to homosexuality and a woman president. He even said that these positions are in effect contrary to Objectivism because a consistent application of Objectivism would lead to the opposite conclusions. This assumes that there are essential and non-essential parts to Objectivism.* Rand never said this, much less provided guidance on how one separates the essential from the non-essential. Consider taxation, which Rand considered immoral. Ideally, government should be funded by voluntary contributions. Is this incidental to Objectivism? One could make an Objectivist argument for taxation. Contrary to anarcho-capitalism, for Rand government is necessary. If government is necessary then shouldn’t it insist that citizens provide support via taxation (which in Rand’s view would be small)?*
Hicks compared Objectivism to a science, giving the example of Newtonian physics. Hicks said one could still call himself a Newtonian post Einstein because Einstein’s physics is at most a modification of Newton’s physics. He said one should look at Objectivism as a method for discovering philosophical truth. He asked whether some of Rand’s ideas might need to be revised in light of later science. He gave the example of Rand’s theory of concept formation which is potentially subject to revision because of recent findings in neuroscience. Rand, however, seemed to look at philosophy as in effect the master science. Taken to an extreme, this implies one can’t properly understand contemporary findings in science outside the interpretive lens of Objectivism.*** Hicks conceded that there is a core to Objectivism and one can only go so far in rejecting this or that teaching of Objectivism and still consider oneself an Objectivist. Unfortunately, the debate format – lengthy presentations from each side – didn’t allow for much back and forth on this question, which seems to be the essence of the controversy.
I’ll close with a few comments:
1. One factor not discussed is that Rand died in 1982. Not only that, but some of her most important members of the “Second Collective” are still alive such as Leonard Peikoff (Rand’s self-identified “intellectual heir”), Harry Binswanger and Peter “Don’t let the door hit you in the back” Schwartz. If Rand had died in 1882, the question of Open versus Closed Objectivism would probably be discussed no more than Kant’s contemporary followers discuss whether his system is open or closed.
2. The Ayn Rand Institute – which has the support of Peikoff and which will inherit the rights to her books – is well-funded. The ARI has staked out a claim that it is the expert on Rand’s thought and its contemporary application. Not surprisingly, the ARI is the leading advocate of the Closed position. (However, the ARI has no problem claiming that Rand would have despised Donald Trump or serially rewriting Rand’s posthumously published material.) In fairness to Biddle, he is not on good terms with the ARI so no one should question his sincerity.
3. I don’t know what Rand would have thought about this; however she was rather zealous in guarding her thought. As Nathaniel Branden wrote pre-split, “In the future, when Objectivism has become an intellectual and cultural movement on a wider scale, when a variety of authors have written books dealing with some aspect of the Objectivist philosophy – it could be appropriate for those in agreement to describe themselves as ‘Objectivists.’ However, at present, when the name is so intimately associated with Rand and me, it is not. At present, a person who is in agreement with our philosophy should describe himself, not as an Objectivist, but as a student or supporter of Objectivism.”
*I am indebted to Scott Schiff for this and other insights.
**Rand seemed to concede as much. In “Government Financing in a Free Society,” she suggested that the state could impose a “voluntary” surcharge on contracts which parties would not be forced to pay. However, if they didn’t pay, the government would not enforce the contract. This sounds as voluntary as paying the Mafia protection money.
***Hence the perhaps apocryphal statement attributed to Peikoff: “Philosophy has a veto over physics.” Note that Peikoff opposes Big Bang cosmology because it was first developed by a Catholic priest and has, at least to some, theistic implications.