Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Atlas Shrugged versus Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Our recent discussion of Ayn Rand got me thinking about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This is because although it is sometimes claimed that many students are influenced to become philosophy majors by reading Rand, I was never a Randian; I was first motivated to study philosophy in part because I read Zen when I was in high school. I'd never been exposed to the most important questions in epistemology and value theory before, and I thought the narrative was compelling in its own right. (So what? I was in high school.)

I wonder if Pirsig and his book make for an apt comparison case for Rand and her novels in the context of philosophy encyclopedia inclusion. The book is pretty popular (though not as popular as Rand's most popular works), and the views Pirsig articulates in it have a relatively large following, if the number of zany internet websites is a guide. Of course, Pirsig's actual views are sophomoric, deeply unsophisticated, and are therefore taken seriously by literally no one who has a Ph.D. in philosophy. (They're not, right?) And when I reread it between college and grad school, the book also seemed to me to be way, way off in its interpretations of various historical philosophers, such as Socrates and Kant--as a history of philosophy it seemed to me to be remarkably terrible. But Rand's views are unsophisticated and naive, and I read somewhere that she mangles Aristotle pretty bad. But I don't think anyone would argue that Pirsig or Zen... deserve articles in the SEP. Right? So, what gives? Maybe Pirsig's mistakes were more basic, and his followers less influential in the public policy sphere.

--Mr. Zero


Bobcat said...

One strong caveat for all of the following remarks: I read Zen once, in college, and I've not read much Rand. That said...

(1) Pirsig just wrote much, much less than Rand did about philosophy.
(2) Pirsig was less systematic than Rand.
(3) I don't know of any professional philosophers who are Pirsigians, though I know of several who are, if not Randians, then strongly influenced by Rand.

presaged bourbons said...

One reason why I still remember ZAMM with affection is because of Pirsig's prefatory note in which he explained that you wouldn't learn much about either Zen Buddhism or motorcycles from it. Did Ayn Rand ever exhibit comparab;e humility - or indeed self-awareness?

Anonymous said...

I took a philosophy of technology course as an undergrad which featured excerpts from Pirsig. He has a distinction in terms of ways people relate to technology, illustrated in terms of the author's ability to repair his own motorcycle versus his friends' treating the motorcycle as a kind of miraculous black box. The reading was appropriate for the topic we were discussing in the class, and did not lower the level of discourse or appear out of line with the other excerpts we read.

I also never read Rand, but was influenced to start taking classes in philosophy by reading Pirsig. Plus, I was actually attending the Church of Reason at the time. Mentioning Pirsig in an article on Phil of Technology would be acceptable for SEP, I think, although it would be too much of a stretch to devote an entire article to the book.

zombie said...

Haven't read ZAMM or Rand (except in excerpts). In my first philosophy class (Political Phil, as I recall), as a college freshman, we were assigned to read Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan. Neither Brautigan nor TFIA are in the SEP, and probably rightly so. I imagine there are many similar literary works that don't warrant inclusion in SEP (Philip K. Dick? Lem?). Which only adds emphasis to the question: why is Rand there?

Tenure said...

I would say that for some, that may be how it is: they find something they like in Ayn Rand's fiction, something true which resonates with them, but for which they cannot articulate into a philosophical principle. I think there may be many that have not made the transition from the kind of spirit expressed in her novels, to the underpinning philosophy.

Speaking as a student of her work, I can say there is a rich, complex and serious philosophy underneath, which needs to be engaged with. I think it's only a shame that there aren't enough academics who have themselves made that bridge, and who are able to challenge students to look for that philosophy, rather than dismissing them with an, "Oh, you'll grow out of that!"

Anonymous said...

I taught Rand once in ethics and it was the first and only time I felt sorry for her, the argument was embarrassingly bad. As I write this, I feel I must have misinterpreted it. Maybe I should go check out the SEP article

For Egoism, I have always thought Max Stirner was the dude, but have yet to teach him. Something of a hegelian wild man, but you need a little of that to spice things up.

Anonymous said...

Forget Pirsig. What I want to know is, why does Ayn Rand get an entry and someone like Dostoevsky (who wrote what is probably the greatest philosophical novel of all time, and influenced lots of twentieth century philosophers) does not?

Anonymous said...

Note from a Randian:

Had Pirsig written his own treatise on epistemology, maybe we could talk about an SEP entry.

It would also be hard to squeeze out volumes on Pirsig like this:



And: Dostoevsky should definitely have an entry.

David Buchanan said...

As a matter of fact, there are at least two dissertations on Pirsig's work so far. Anthony McWatt has written a thesis and a text book (2005) and David Granger's doctoral thesis was published as a book titled "John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living" (2006). I'm presently working writing a master's thesis on the radical empiricism in Pirsig and William James. Naturally, I think he deserves an article in the SEP.

I happen to know that Pirsig is no fan of Ayn Rand.

Ouch. It hurts me deeply to put them both in the same sentence.

For whatever it's worth,

Dave B.

Anonymous said...

I think the reason Rand is included comes down to something like intellectual tradition. That is, she had (and has to this day) followers, like Greenspan, and even former disciples, both from her immediate circle (Wm. F. Buckley), and from her school of thought (David Kelley). And there are institutes devoted to her school of thought.

So there is a group out there and, if you will, a lobby which can speak up for her inclusion in the SEP. There are living, breathing persons (some working in Philosophy) who identify as Objectivist or Randians. Persig doesn't have that so much.

On the Dostoievski question: I see his greatness, and perhaps he should have an article, but if you put one in, then you open the door to all sorts of other authors who have philosophical elements in their fiction - which ones will you pick and which ones will you leave out?

Anonymous said...

Do the intertubes get too unwieldy if there are too many entries? I wonder why this should really be a big deal

If a respected philosopher is willing to write an entry on Rand, so be it. I assume there also philosophers who would love to do one about Dostoevsky and methinks it should be done

Suppose some silly stuff gets in there. Its not like a random article about Richard Brautigan makes the Sartre and Quine articles less valuable.

Non-Randian said...

I'm definitely not a Randian, but I think the comparison to Pirsig is unfair to Rand.

Both Rand and Pirsig are best known for works of fiction that involve philosophical aspects. Rand, but not Pirsig (AFAIK), also wrote and published philosophical essays. Rand, but not Pirsig (AFAIK), has intellectual followers, including some professional philosophers. Rand, but not Pirsig, has inspired further philosophical work.

Maybe you don't like her work, but some qualified people do. So I think I'm with Anon 6:46 on this one: Let Rand have her corner of the SEP. If you don't want to read it, don't.

Tenure said...

I'd like to bolster what I said earlier: it is not just a matter that some people like her and some don't, but that some (like myself) believe there is actually a philosophy there, one which is very rich and complex, and requires serious study.
If you do not agree, then you're free to, but I for one am glad that Ayn Rand is finally being given the chance to be represented, as opposed to the dogmatic rejection she has received in the past. It is all too fashionable to simply agree that there is no substance there, and to simply brush the issue aside. I believe it will be much harder to brush her aside, now that her philosophy is actually getting some representation.

(Speaking as someone who is no great fan of Roderick T. Long, I think the article itself has some deficiencies, for instance it's total mangling of the issue of the standard of value being Life, or Survival, or Flourishing, and what that means. This section alone, I think, would also benefit from a more serious consideration of where Ayn Rand fits alongside thinkers such as Foot or McDowell on the issue of defining man's nature, and what kind of direction it gives us in action.)

Joshua Harwood said...

Rand pontificates, and ergo she is the pontiff for laymen's stupid stereotypes of what real philosophers do.

I guess that people don't see that novelists can make their characters do whatever the novelist wants them to do, and then pull a nice self-fulfilling prophecy in their own fiction which they can quaintly confuse for inference.

Applicantus said...

The only question is really, is the Rand entry up to par? Was it peer reviewed? Is it professional -- a fair assessment of her work, or a piece of PR?
And if this is the standard, then the Pirsig question would answer itself, as it were; if someone was able to write an entry on Pirsig that was full of content and up to par, well, yeah - it should then be in there.
My guess, btw, is that there is no way in the world that the Rand piece passed that test. I ain't gonna waste my time reading it though; I've wasted enough time before listening to people (philosophers, even) talking about Rand and reading some Rand apologists to convince me of that.

Anonymous said...

I call dibs on writing the Richard Brautigan article for SEP.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:21,

What philosophers who talk about Rand and Rand apologists have you read?

Anonymous said...

So, if there's some "there" there, where do we go to see it? Give me a primary and secondary text that repays the effort. I'm skeptical, but I've only read bad snippets in an ethics anthology on egoism. Struck me as badly confused, but it was a snippet.

Applicantus said...

Anon 1:38 -
Let me recall, OTTOMH: I have read quite a bit of what's on http://capitalism.org/ ;
some Ayn Rand; heard a long lecture by Allen Gotthelf.
I have two friends who happen to be Randians, and since I care about them, out of respect I took their views seriously and we engaged in numerous long discussions. Also I read what they post on facebook (...), and sometimes longer things they write.
I have to say, all this still strikes me as not-philosophy. Full of straw men, facile arguments, and - well - all that's been said in this thread and the previous one. It's a justification for some emotional stance; it's apologetics for an admired leader, etc. Starting from a conclusion and trying to build up to it is not very fetching, anyway.

Anonymous said...

"I think the reason Rand is included comes down to something like intellectual tradition. That is, she had (and has to this day) followers, like Greenspan, and even former disciples, both from her immediate circle (Wm. F. Buckley), and from her school of thought (David Kelley). And there are institutes devoted to her school of thought."

William F. Buckley and Ayn Rand were enemies. In 1962, Buckley's magazine National Review published a famously excoriating review (by Whitaker Chambers) of Atlas Shrugged.

Anonymous said...

7:53: your original questioner here again.

You mentioned Allen Gotthelf. I've sat in on classes with him at Pit, and his Randianism aside, he impressed me very much with his knowledge of Aristotle, and also just as a person.

There are others like him who are devoted Randians. Just out of curiosity, why do you think this is the case? Or do you think that if you are a Randian, then you must not be very knowledgeable and must have serious character defects?

Ron said...

Nicely put. I'm going to steal the Rand/Pirsig comparison for future use.

Anonymous said...

Dear "Tenure", I assure you, you *will* grow out of it. If you don't, be prepared for a career that doesn't require any deep thinking.

If you disagree with me, explain to me why my argument following is untrue: AR "proves" certain statements from the axiom, or tautology, 'A is A'. But any statement that follows from a tautology is itself a tautology, since for B to follow from A is for B to be true in all situations in which A is, and A is true in all possible situations (we could say 'models'). So, the statements she proves from 'A is A' are tautologies, and she doesn't need to prove them at all; she only needs to state them. So, given that *all* of her system is supposed to follow from tautologies, it follows that *all* of her argumentation is worthless; she should just have stated her conclusions, in a few lines and stopped writing.

Anonymous said...

"my argument following is untrue". I meant "unsound" or "invalid", of course, not "untrue". Most humble apologies.

Anonymous said...

Dear 5: 54

I am not a Randroid, but I do love AR.

You are right, up to a point. Yes, her arguments, as she understands them, cannot possibly work for the reason you mentioned. Does this render her work useless? Not necessarily. If we can find general and defensible premises that can replace the tautologies much can survive. Whether these can be found is a substantive issue that I am not going to discuss here, but the general point stands.

This would be analogous to Marxists who give up the labour theory of value (on which the economics rests), but try to replace it with something that salvages a lot of Marx's argument. I don't see any deep problem with such a strategy.

Anonymous said...

I actually think Pirsig was on to something. In ZAMM he makes some sort of distinction between people who naturally are more appreciative of 'romantic beauty' and those who prefer 'mechanical beauty' (or some such, I read it long ago). It is basically a distinction between people who prefer the complex and organic, etc. to those who prefer the structural/mathematical, etc. He claims that this difference, and mutual incomprehension between these groups, leads to a lot of the typical conflicts we see in the world (like humanities v. science). I really do think he was on to something deep and interesting, to wit, that these may well be neurological types of great explanatory power.

The other issue: Should he have an SEP entry? I am going to join those who think that L Ron Hubbard can have one, if it is a quality article, and explicitly states that he has no following in academic philosophy.

paass said...


It is of course *possible* that AR's work was not pure, unadulterated ass. But one can say that about anyone's work. The issue, rather, is that her work is in fact, p. a. ass. It is the work of someone who doesn't understand some very basic issues, issues that any professional philosopher should be ashamed of not understanding. The stuff about "proving" conclusions from tautologies is just an example of her vast inerudition. The only thing of real value in her work is the fact that it enables certain types of quite insecure teenagers - who are, understandably enough, not too well read - to "seem smart" in a crowd of their peers. This is because her stuff sounds very intellectual and authoratitive, partly because she had such a wonderful opinion of herself. But there's nothing of substance there. Teenagers, of course, are quite impressed with her; but one hopes that they would grow out of it.

So what is of substance there? Examples would be nice....

Applicantus said...

10:38, I agree that Gotthelf is a wonderful guy and a first rate Aristotelian. But the Rand stuff I'm convinced is bullcrap. How can the two coexist, or why is it that such couplings occur is beyond me, but I certainly know he's not the only one. Of course often people are all-around idiots, but when someone who clearly is not an idiot has one such obvious folly, well - I allow anyone one major psycho-dent in the hope they'd grant me the same. But i don't have an explanation.

Anonymous said...

Wait, isn't Ayn Rand's philosophy and economic theory part of the reason so few of us have jobs?

Recovering Randian said...

I became enthralled by Rand around the same time I decided to major in philosophy in college, and I guess for some time after that I even sort of considered myself an objectivist. Anyway, I'm not ABD, and I've come out of the Randian spell.

And thank God I have. There are lots of things I can say about this that would take up a lot of space. the one thing I want to say is this: Rand KILLED my ability to do philosophy. Once I became an objectivist, I could only see things through the eyes of an objectivist. I had no imagination, and anything that at all drifted from the objectivist point of view I couldn't even dare consider (most of the time I was forced to denounce such positions as 'evil'), since if I did, well, then I wouldn't have been an objectivist. I didn't realize it fully at the time, but in retrospect it was quite debilitating. Whatever the philosophical problem happened to be, I had to somehow figure out what the objectivist position could have been on it and argue for that. This was most of the time impossible to do.

And that, in the end, was the biggest problem with Objectivism, for me. It was too much just like religion.

Anyway - Objectivism came very close to turning me into an intellectually incurious, unbearable asshole. I am glad that I came out of the spell.

Recovering Randian said...

What I meant to saw was that I am *now* ABD. I am, in fact, about to attain a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Recovering Randian,

Remember to check your premises every night before sleeping. It will save your psycho-epistemology from becoming insufficiently heroic.

Anonymous said...

9:59, yes. thanks for saying it.

Tenure said...

Just a brief follow-up to a few side comments, particularly to "Recovering Randian":
I cannot say your experience is unique to yourself, but it's also hardly reflective of what Objectivism teaches, and it's certainly not unique to students of *Objectivism*. Are you really telling me that it is only amongst students of Objectivism that you find people parroting their teacher's words without really understanding them? You have not been in a classroom, if that's the case.

I don't wish to stand here and defend Rand against every claim. I just wish to state that there is a serious philosophy there. Statements that there is not always end up amounting to some ad hominem about Rand or her students. I can name few other philosophers for whom it is considered acceptable to just state, without *actually* tackling the philosophy itself (rather than giving one's own summary, or talking about some snippets one read in an anthology) that this person has no substance and is not worth reading. I would be roundly and rightly laughed out of all academic circles if I said the same about someone like MacIntyre, or Dennett, or Singer, or whomever, on the same grounds with which Rand is routinely assumed to have no substance.

I have to respond to what Anonymous said at 5:54 though, about tautologies. I have two things to say: (1) You have sorely misunderstood Ayn Rand -- she does not say anything like that; (2) Even if that were true, is Descartes not a serious philosopher, nor other philosophers in that deeply rationalist vein? Heck, I don't like him and I would say precisely what is wrong with him is exactly what you point out: but I'd hardly dismiss his work as a mere... bagatelle.

Ayn Rand's philosophy is not derived from a tautology. The statement that 'A is A' is a summation of the point about the law of identity -- its place as an axiom is not to state that "all thinking must begin from this" but to state that "all thinking must be oriented around this". An axiom != A starting point of enquiry. What 'A is A' means is that the facts are what they are, and that they are a primary, and that all thinking must proceed from facts of reality as they are (which rules out, for instance, arguments about 'necessary vs contingent truths').
If you want to argue that that's ridiculous, fine, but go take it up with Thomas Aquinas, Antonius Andreas and, of course, Aristotle. Or are they a bunch of unserious thinkers as well, whom we should all just grow out of?

Anonymous said...

In defense of Gotthelf: I have spent significant time with Allen and have participated in seminars and reading groups that he has run. He does not teach Rand and, if you did not antecedently know that he was a Randian, you would never be able to tell. Not all Randians proselytize. He is, however, an outstanding Aristotle scholar. By the way, I know at least two other Rand lovers at Pitt. I think everyone would be surprised how many top philosophers love Rand but keep it on the dl.

Recovering Randian said...

"I cannot say your experience is unique to yourself, but it's also hardly reflective of what Objectivism teaches, and it's certainly not unique to students of *Objectivism*. Are you really telling me that it is only amongst students of Objectivism that you find people parroting their teacher's words without really understanding them? You have not been in a classroom, if that's the case."

No, Tenure, I'm not telling you that. And I never even suggested it in my previous post, so I don't know why you are implying that I did.

And you're right, Rand certainly did not advocate blind obedience. She just excommunicated people who didn't agree with her. I have the Branden incident particularly in mind. A close family friend was a student at the time who happened to think that Rand was wrong in booting Nathaniel Branden. That friend was promptly booted himself for not "seeing the light", so to speak.

Applicantus said...

Since I was the one who first mentioned Gotthelf here, I would like to strongly second what 7:48 said about him.

At a conference, once, I heard Gotthelf speak about AR's theory of concept formation (no political proselytizing). It was not good. I was not the only one who thought so. What was remarkable is the difference in level and sophistication between the Aristotle scholarship and the Rand scholarship the man does. But I think this discussion has exhausted itself by now.

As to proselytizing: there are apparently two styles, the clandestine and the flamboyant. Some people would keep it on the d/l, or deliberately avoid mentioning Rand as their source of influence. But at another university where I used to work I encountered a Randian who's out, explicit, proselytizes, and is the dept chair. A nice guy, otherwise :)

Tenure said...

Applicantus: I've seen Gotthelf speak too, and I did not have the same impression. Could you give an example of what you found to be not good about his Objectivist scholarship, in particular cf. with his Aristotelian scholarship?

Mr. Zero said...

I felt funny about publishing the posts mentioning Gotthelf by name, and I will not publish any comment containing specific criticisms of his scholarship.

Anonymous said...

Really Mr. Zero? It's your place, but ... it seems like discussing the merits of the public, scholarly work of professional philosophers is exactly the sort of thing that we ought to be doing, in a venue dedicated to issues of interest to aspiring professional philosophers ...

Mr. Zero said...

Yeah. I don't really have a specific policy I'm adhering to, but I think Rand herself is fair game, as are the people who have come here to defend Rand and Randianism. (As are the people who have come here to attack these people.) But, to me, anyway, criticizing some guy's scholarly performance at a conference or something when we've got no text or encyclopedia article or anything, where the guy isn't here to defend himself, in a discussion where the real topic is not the guy or his views but a half-baked comparison between two philosophical novelists, seems different.

Also, saying "here's an example of someone whose Aristotle scholarship is first rate but his Rand scholarship is iffy" is one thing, but saying "here are the specific ways in which his scholarship is iffy" makes me more uncomfortable.

That's how I see it. I hope it makes sense.

Mr. Zero said...

Hi Tenure,

There seems to be some controversy, even among her supporters, concerning whether Rand presents arguments for her views at all. Say what you want about Descartes, Dennett, MacIntyre, Aquinas, and Aristotle, they all obviously argue for their views.

Also, are you saying that Aristotle and Aquinas thought that the distinction between contingent and necessary truths was obliterated or somehow rendered unimportant or something by the axiom A is A? That doesn't square with my understanding of Aquinas or Aristotle.

I'm happy to take Rand seriously as a philosopher and take the time to work through her philosophy if she's worth taking seriously. I'm happy to study philosophers whose conclusions I regard as seriously in error; whose writing is inscrutable; whose arguments are difficult to follow or even identify. I don't really think it's that big of a deal that her primary works are novels. But if the sources I've been exposed to accurately convey her views & arguments, she seems to me to be unworthy of serious philosophical attention. The criticisms of Kant's ethical views reported in the SEP article, for example, are deeply unserious. And it is not at all clear how the premise (as you put it) that "all thinking must proceed from facts of reality as they are," is supposed to yield the conclusion that "arguments about 'necessary vs contingent truths'" have been ruled out. Or what, precisely, that is supposed to mean: is it a thesis in metaphysics? Epistemology? Table manners?

Anonymous said...

Dear Tenure,

I refute you thus: Consider Flopsy, my pet unicorn. Clearly Flopsy is Flopsy. Therefore Flopsy exists.

Applicantus said...

Tenure: a gifted baker can make a wonderful chocolate soufflé using great ingredients and his particular genius in baking. But give him crap ingredients, and you end up with a chocolate flavored pita-bread, flat and unappetizing.

Tenure said...

I don't claim to be any expert in Aristotle or Aquinas. I'm an undergraduate who tries very firmly to know that limits of his knowledge. And I certainly don't mean that either of them refuted the necessary/contingent dichotomy. All I mean is that they (well, my understanding is that Aquinas and Andreas more elaborated on this point, but that it was implicit in Aristotle's writings on the subject) argued this point about the law of identity, in a similar manner to Rand, and that it wasn't part of some attempt to derive all of philosophy from a tautology (and certainly not one as bare as 'A = A'!).

As to what that really means, well, one could write a book on that (in fact, I think Ayn Rand wrote a 1000+ page novel!), and like I said, I'm not here to proselytise for Objectivism as such, but just for the fact that it ought to be taken seriously.
I could attempt to describe the point about the law of identity, and how it relates to the necessary/contingent distinction, but I worry that given the entire context of academic debate, my description would be woefully inadequate to satisfy you -- hence why I am making my way through academia myself, so I can try to convey this stuff in a serious way, within the context of academia.
In short: ask me again in 5 years, but for now: it means there's no such thing as "true in any possible worlds" - there is only this world, and the entire premise that "things could have been otherwise" (i.e. the very thing which fuels the existence of contingent truths) is false.
It is a metaphysical point, with severe epistemological ramifications, since you ask where it fits in. The very reason it's called an 'axiom' is that it's a fact about the very nature of reality as such - how things really are - but facts being guides to action, and this being a fundamental fact, it is a fact fundamental to all action, in particular that mode of action particular to us as human beings: rational action (that's my hopefully not too convoluted explanation of why it sounds kind of epistemological, but is really metaphysical).


I should just say, btw, that it's your blog and if you feel iffy about comments about the defects of another scholar, then it's your house and your rules. But to make it clear: I wasn't asking out of any bad intention, but rather... well, I know that not every nominally Objectivist scholar out there is good, and I would like to be a good one, so I should like to hear about potential errors I could avoid (to which I'm sure I will hear the very snide, "Well don't be an Objectivist scholar!").

Anonymous said...


Who names a unicorn Flopsy? I mean, really. Therefore, p.

Bean said...

Wait, you're telling us that when Rand wrote about the law of identity, she meant (among other things) the claim that there is nothing that is possible except what is actual? That, literally, nothing could have been otherwise?
I have (for reasons I won't go into) read a huge amount of Rand's non-fiction. I haven't read all of it, though. Can you please tell me where she explains that the law of identity means that everything true is necessarily true?

You will not find that interpretation of the law of identity in Aristotle, by the way. Aristotle had a quite subtle and accommodating view of alethic modality.

Anonymous said...

All philosophers got into the field by reading either Ayn Rand or Robert Pirsig in high school? Really?

Is there anyone else out there who got into this business by having a particularly wonderful high school history teacher assign Descartes's Meditations? Anyone?


(I'm not trying to show off—it's just, really? I need to rethink things, if my experience is this nonrepresentative.)

Nanaimo philosopher said...


I can sympathize with the fact that you, like a number of other undergraduates, find Rand's views initially attractive. It seems clear to me from your exposition, however, that the philosophical ineptitude of Rand and her followers (e.g. Leonard Peikoff) may be rubbing off on you in a bad way. In fact, the statements you make about philosophy and entailment -- which I grant are orthodox Rand, as far as I know -- make no sense and will probably make it difficult to learn genuine philosophy. I really do mean to say that to you in the kindest possible way: I'm not saying you're not smart, but rather that you've eaten some things that are bad for you.

Here goes:
1) you ask whether, if Rand is to be rejected as a philosopher for thinking she can derive substantive non-logical claims from a tautology, then "is Descartes not a serious philosopher, nor other philosophers in that deeply rationalist vein?" Actually, Descartes did _not_ aim to derive all his metaphysical or epistemological claims from a tautology. His method was to attempt to ground all his substantive conclusions in what one could perceive clearly and distinctly by means of the natural light of reason (and reason, for Descartes, did not have to do with syllogistic logic: Descartes' method was intended to be a _replacement_ on using syllogistic logic, which Descartes thought should be considered a part of rhetoric rather than true philosophy. See Rule 10 of the Regulae, and the Discourse on Method, for more on this. As for others in the "deeply rationalist vein", it's worth noting that the history of philosophy has made great advances over the last few decades, and the term "rationalist" in the way Rand and Peikoff use it don't actually seem to refer to any philosophers at all. But even if this were not so, then it wouldn't follow that Rand deserves a place in the history of philosophy. We might forgive Aristotle for thinking that the earth is at the centre of the universe, because he made advances over his predecessors in seeing that it was round. But someone repeating Aristotle's error today does not deserve to be thought of as an important astronomer.

2) You say that 'Ayn Rand's philosophy is not derived from a tautology. The statement that 'A is A' is a summation of the point about the law of identity -- its place as an axiom is not to state that "all thinking must begin from this" but to state that "all thinking must be oriented around this". An axiom != A starting point of enquiry.' This is confusing. How can you say, at the same time, that a Randian axiom is not something that all thinking must begin from, but that it is a (the?) starting point of enquiry? You must be relying on a distinction that is so far unclear. And what, _precisely_, is the difference between "all thinking must begin with this" and "all thinking must be oriented around this"? If these are to be counted as more than impressive-sounding words, then you must make the distinction clear.

*continued below*

Anonymous said...

I got into philosophy after taking a required intro to philosophy class my freshman year at a Catholic university--Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Mill. One of the nice things about Catholic schools.

Matt Burstein (yes, that one) said...

Uh, Tenure, I think you (and Rand if this is her view) are just mistaken. Let's put aside the fact that A=A is true for both necessary and contingent statements (and so can't be a basis for revising the relationship between them), and that there's a ton of literature in the last 50 years (at least starting from Quine's "Two Dogmas") that problematizes the relationship between those categories without thinking that our relationships with our intimates is the same as our relationship to used car salespeople with whom we're NOT intimate and from whom we are buying a used car.

If Rand is committed to the view that nothing (statements? states of affairs?) is contingent, then it seems hard to see how she could be an ethical egoist -- since ethical egoism requires the possibility for us to either act egoistically or not in any particular case. The whole point of her view is that we have been misled by "moralities of altruism" (which she strawmans the fuck out of, btw), and that we don't have to accept them as true. But it is hard to parse "didn't have to" without a notion of contingency.

[As an aside: thanks to all the folks who showed me love in the other thread about Tibor Machan. There's plenty of me to go around, and I love all those who love me.]

some kind of Randian said...

I think that Rand's view about necessary vs. contingent truths is being misrepresented here (Matt Burstein's comment about egoism shows this especially, I think). If anybody wants to learn more about it, the place to look is her the book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. There is an article in there called "The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy" written by Peikoff that states the objectivist position on all this stuff.

I'm going to transcribe what I think is the key part of that essay:

"A major source of confusion, in this issue, is the failure to distinguish *metaphysical* facts from *man-made* facts - i.e., facts which are inherent in the identifies of that which exists, from facts which depend upon the exercise of human volition. because man has free will, no human choice - and no phenomenon which is a product of human choice - is metaphysically necessary. In regard to any man-made fact, it is valid to claim that man *has* chosen thus, but it was not inherent in the nature of existence to have done so; so he could have chosen otherwise. For instance, the U.S. did not have to consist of 50 states. Men could have subdivided the larger ones or consolidated the smaller ones, etc...

Only in regard to the man-made is it valid to claim: "It happens to be, but it could have been otherwise." Even here, the term "contingent" is highly misleading. Historically, that term has been used to designate a metaphysical category of much wider scope than the realm of human action; and it has always been associated with a metaphysics which, in one form or another, denies the facts of Identity and Causality. The "necessary-contingent" terminology serves only to introduce confusion, and should be abandoned. What is required in this context is the distinction between the *metaphysical* and the *man-made*."


So, as should be clear, this is not the view that there is nothing that is contingent.

Anonymous said...



Matt Burstein said...

Anonymous@10:52's: You'll note I didn't say this was Rand's view, rather that I was replying to the way I thought it had been spelled out by Tenure. Peikoff's paragraph makes "objectivism" only slightly less insane (though the thought that the metaphysical/man-made dualism can do any real philosophical work is a sham, of course).

Don't worry, I won't tell anyone that you did something not in your self interest. I mean, you could have been out conquering the economy, and instead you were quoting Peikoff anonymously . . . indeed, dare I say *altruistically*.

Anonymous said...

Dear some kind of Randian,

Just wanted to say something on behalf of Matt Burstein. His comment started with an "if". He was pointing out an implication of a view someone else foisted on Rand. Not to pick on Tenure, it takes guts to post non-anonymously (esp. on behalf of Rand), but if anyone made the mistake about necessity and contingency, wasn't it him?

Anyway, thanks for the reference to secondary literature. Send more.

Some kind of Randian said...


As 2:40 rightly notes, your comment started with "if". I apologize for not acknowledging the conditional nature of what you were saying. I didn't think I was being nasty or disrespectful though, so I don't think you had to reply with your sarcastic remark about self-interest.

About the metaphysical/man-made distinction - maybe you're right that it can't do "real philosophical work". But it is worth noting, I think, that this distinction was influential in ancient greek philosophy. They called it the phusis-nomos distinction.

Also - as 2:40 also noted - Tenure should be commended for putting himself out there non-anonymously. I freely admit that I am afraid to do so on this forum, given that I am, as I say, some kind of Randian.

Anonymous said...


Isn't it at least somewhat strange that everyone except for objectivists make such elementary errors in reasoning? For example, if we (uncritically; unthinkingly) accept what Rand & Peikoff say, most philosophers accept "a metaphysics which, in one form or another, denies the facts of Identity". Really? Are you telling me that Saul Kripke (for example), to whom we owe quite a lot of our current thinking about necessity & contingency has ever denied that 'A is A'? Has Kant? Has anyone?

Do you remember what the texture of your mind was like before your "conversion" to Randianism? There was a certain uncertainty there, a chaos; this feeling of chaos is very similar to what it feels like to *learn* something new. This feeling, not the unearned certainty of Rand, is what is great about the "human spirit".

Mr. Zero said...

I found the passage from Peikoff to be more perplexing than illuminating. Peikoff claims that "A major source of confusion... is the failure to distinguish *metaphysical* facts from *man-made* facts". I don't believe that this is a major source of confusion. I don't believe that any serious person has ever failed to distinguish between what Peikoff calls "man-made facts" ("facts which depend upon the exercise of human volition", so (I presume) actions and their (direct?) consequences?) from "facts which [sic] are inherent in the identifies of that which exists" (???; is this a nod to Aristotelian essentialism? Is this a criterion for metaphysical necessity?). I want to see some evidence that people are making this mistake and that this mistake is leading to philosophical errors.

Peikoff also says that "Only in regard to the man-made is it valid to claim: 'It happens to be, but it could have been otherwise'." This suggests that all non-man-made facts are inherent in the identities of that which exists, which entails that, e.g. it is metaphysically necessary that Mt. St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. And that an eruption on that date is inherent in its identity. Why would I ever consider believing these things? Why isn't this a major confusion whose source is Peikoff's failure to distinguish between the essential and the accidental?

There's some other stuff in the second paragraph that evidently requires background and contextual data that I lack in order to be understood. I have no idea what "facts of Identity and Causality" would be ruled out by supposing that there are contingent but non-man-made facts.

Also, it's pretty clear that these views involve a radical departure from those of Aquinas and Aristotle.

Bobcat said...

I can't really figure out the man-made vs. metaphysical stuff either, but here's an attempt:

"t. St Helen erupted in 1980. It did not erupt because of anyone's choices, but because of natural necessity. Now, some people ask the question, "is there a possible world with the same history as ours but in which Mt St Helen did not erupt?" This is a bad question, though, because it's of no practical significance: regardless of whether Mt St Helen's eruption is deterministic or indeterministic, we have no control over whether it happens, so we ought to treat it, for practical purposes, as though it must be the way it is and cannot change."

Maybe that's what Peikoff means? I hope it's not, because that would be silly, but I can't figure out any other way to interpret him such that he's not attacking a straw man.

Maybe I should think harder about him, though?

Anonymous said...

5:48 -- thank you; thank you for what you said about learning, chaos, the texture of the mind. a nice reminder of the real difference is between certainty paddlers and those who buy it and what the rest of us do, and why we do it. sometimes it's good to be reminded. and so nicely put, too.

Anonymous said...

The Rand thing...

I think her impact is a very mixed bag, but I agree that she should be taken seriously in some fashion, if for no other reason than her influence and aspects of her model. On the influence: yes, I think lots of people come to philosophy by way of an adolescent or a bit older intoxication with Rand. I did (I'm of two minds about anonymity here) and went on to a PhD, an Oxbridge book on Nietzsche with some good reviews, and ultimately some jobs and tenure. I think at the end of the day I became a passable "analytic" philosopher with lots of healthy interests, but I do owe a debt of some kind to Howard Roark's laugh.

I think it's a mistake to judge her on her nonfiction, as it really conveys a misleading impression of her strengths and weaknesses. I would call _Process and Reality_ a valuable book too, but it's strength is not in its precision or its arguments, but in its attempt to paint a certain orienting picture. Rand's personality is maddening, and her attempt to distill her thinking into nonfiction prose disappointing, and her art is not to everyone's taste, but she is nonetheless a useful philosopher in something like the way Kierkegaard or Nietzsche are, no comparison of stature intended. I think that it would be useful if the academy did more to approach her on her own terms because it would call into question certain assumptions we've made at least since Russell about the professionalization of philosophy, its severing from both art and, um, "care of the self," and it would go a long way toward undermining a certain paranoid narrative that circulates in Objectivist circles which does not promote trust in young Rand fans of other philosophical resources outside their community. Everyone would be better served by responding to students who present enthusiasm for Rand by saying things like "very nice; if you'd like to pursue this interest you have in the nature of concepts, here's a great book by Ruth Millikan you might like too; if you are interested in deepening your understanding of the arguments for the minimal state, you might find Nozick helpful, etc." By failing to situate her properly as a literary thinker, and by trying to crush the interest right away, well, this drives the budding young philosophy student into a kind of dittohead isolation (they are unlikely to embrace their analytic oppressors instead of their own resentment, and Objectivism is so thoroughly an Enlightenment ideology that the prospects of going Continental are pretty low too). As far as I can tell, every argument I've ever been able to parse in Kierkegaard is pathetic or insane. But that hasn't induced a crusade to prevent people from studying or reading him. I suspect the source of this is our own anxiety to avoid discrediting ourselves, coupled with (deep breath) political bias.