Objectivism (Latin ob- out of and iacio I am throwing, and Greek -ισμος or -ismos the doing of a thing) is a school of philosophy developed by Ayn Rand that holds that things in the natural world exist independently of anyone's perception of them or efforts (or lack of effort) to understand them. Objectivism also holds that nothing is provably real that one cannot demonstrate independently of one person's perception of it.
History of Objectivism
Objectivism as a formal discipline began with Ayn Rand, a Russian-born émigrée to the United States. Ayn Rand attended The University of Petrograd where she studied philosophy and history. She graduated in 1924. In her work, showed more than a passing familiarity with the great philosophers of ancient Western civilization. The ancient philosopher she respected the most was Aristotle.
By far the most complete expression of Objectivism in a single volume is in her novel, and most famous work, Atlas Shrugged. However, her philosophy found expression in innumerable essays, whichwere published in a number of newsletters and magazines that she edited from time to time, primarily The Objectivist Newsletter, The Objectivist, and The Ayn Rand Letter, many of which have no been collected in The Letters of Ayn Rand. Many of her working notes have also been collated, edited and published in The Journals of Ayn Rand. These compilations have made it far easier for the aspiring student of philosophy to gain insight not only into Rand's revolutionary philosophy, but also into the formation of the philosophy, the question she asked and avenues she explored.
During her life she attracted as dedicated following of students, including such names as the former chairmen of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, Nathaniel Branden, a leading psychotherapist, the writer, Barbara Branden, and Leonard Peikoff, who went on to become a leading philosopher in his own right.
Since her death in 1982, other students of hers, most notably Leonard Peikoff have continued to support the development and study of Objectivism through the the Ayn Rand Institute, as well as through editing and publishing Rand's own works that would otherwise have been lost or hard to study. The Atlas Society performs a similar function, and counts Nathan Branden amongst it's most influential thinkers.
The Fundamental Tenets of Objectivism
The Central Axiom and its Corollaries
- Something exists that someone perceives.
- Someone exists who possesses consciousness, which is the faculty of perceiving what exists.
Metaphysical Axioms and Theorems
Objectivism continues with a number of other corollaries:
- A is A. This is also known as the Law of Identity and suggests a similar law in formal logic. But more than that, the Law of Identity holds that A has certain properties, or attributes, that distinguish it incontrovertibly from B or C. If a thing has no attributes, then it is a nonentity—it does not and cannot exist.
- Consciousness exists—the Law of Consciousness. But consciousness implies something independent of consciousness. What one perceives, one does not invent—and furthermore, a thing exists whether one perceives it or not.
From these axioms, several theorems necessarily follow, among them the Law of Non-Contradiction. Aristotle stated it thus: "the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject in the same respect." Objectivism states it more simply: contradictions do not exist. Therefore, if one encounters a contradiction, one should check the assumptions he has made, because at least one of them is false.
Epistemology (from Greek words roughly meaning "the word stands on something") deals with what a human being knows and how he knows it. Objectivism states that perception is only the beginning. Perception is sensation extended over time, and perception becomes knowledge only through measurement. On the other hand, one forms a concept of something by developing a list of attributes without the measurements of them. Apply the measurements, and instead of a concept one has an object that fits the concept.One important result of pure Objectivism is that what one cannot perceive, one cannot know—and what no one has perceived, no one need admit the existence of. Indeed, Branden observed that Objectivism teaches that
(A)ny form of irrationalism, supernaturalism, or mysticism, (and) any claim to a nonsensory, nonrational form of knowledge, is to be rejected.
This includes God, a Concept that almost no Objectivist has ever accepted. This might be Objectivism's greatest weakness: that it will not admit that which one cannot perceive directly, but which has affected something else that one perceives, and that in a measurable way.
EthicsEthics is about values. What is value? From Atlas Shrugged:
"Value" is what one acts to gain and/or keep; "virtue" is how one acts to gain or keep it.The central contribution of Objectivism to ethics is the definition of morality. Again from Atlas Shrugged:
"Value" presupposes an answer to the question, "Of value to whom, and to what?" "Value" presupposes a standard...A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality.
Objectivism then declares that the only moral code proper to man has man's life as its standard of value. Rand, Peikoff, and other students of Objectivism have always drawn a stark contrast between this standard and the standard of those they regarded as their opponents: "the greatest good for the greatest number."
However, most emphatically, this does not mean that Objectivism extols what most people mean by selfishness. Objectivism regards that sort of "selfishness" as shortsighted and non-rational. Objectivism requires that a person choose to be rational in his thinking, and should work to enhance his self-interest after determining what that interest is through rational and logical analysis.
Objectivism makes at least two definitions that non-adherents might find harsh and symptomatic of overgeneralization:
- "Sacrifice" is the giving away of a greater value in favor of a lesser value or a non-value.
- "Altruism" is sacrifice, as defined above, for the sake of persons other than oneself.
Actually, what Objectivism calls sacrifice, other schools of philosophy call waste. Sacrifice, according to these other schools, is actually the giving of a great value for another, still greater value. Furthermore, the definition of altruism indicates that no man should be obliged, let alone forced, to care or act for the sake of other people.
In only one context does Objectivism lay any obligation on its adherents to act for the sake of another, and that is in an emergency, that is, an immediate life-threatening casualty event or condition.
Rand, Peikoff, and other adherents to Objectivism held that their greatest objection was to the use of force in social relationships. This leads directly to the Objectivist theory of politics.
PoliticsPolitics (from the Greek πολις a city, from the organization of Greek civilization around independent city-states) is the philosophy of government—the need for it, its proper sphere, and the obligations of its subjects. The central principles of Objectivist politics are:
"The necessary consequence of man’s right to life is his right to self-defense. In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use."
If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules. ... A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control—i.e., under objectively defined laws.
Thus a government ought not compel charity—and in this context, compulsion is the application of force to induce another person toward an action he might not otherwise take. Nor should the government compel anyone to associate with those with whom he would prefer not to associate. Freedom of association is very important in Objectivist politics.
Objectivism holds that an individual has a fundamental right to life—but this "right to life" means the right to live one's life as his self-interest dictates, not the right to expect someone else either to protect his life or to guarantee his survival.
From these principles, the only economic system with which Objectivism has any sympathy is capitalism, with its emphasis on the rights of the individual. Objectivism rejects the welfare state as an improper exercise of the government's police power. (But Objectivism also would object strenuously to the body of special tax incentives and other legal provisions and regulations often called "corporate welfare." Objectivism holds that every individual, and by extension every business, must stand or fall on his, her, or its own merits.)
However, Objectivism also holds that the government ought to reserve to itself a monopoly on the exercise of force, when necessary, in retaliation against the initiators of force. As a repeated theme in Rand's novels and essays, a government ought to confine itself to three major functions:
- The police power—to protect against criminals.
- The military power—to protect against invasion from without.
- The judicial power—to protect contracts from breach or fraud, and to provide a forum for the settlement of disputes without resort to force.
From the above, one may conclude that Objectivism rejects the code duello as an improper feature of society, and even as an attribute of anarchy. In fact, Rand herself specifically stated that government must be a monopoly, because any "competitive economy" of government would inevitably lead to a state not much different from gang warfare.
Foreign PolicyUnderstanding Objectivism’s individualism and principled self-interest as applied to foreign policy provides an interesting contrast to the globalism of neo-conservatives and universal-rights policy of stateless-libertarians. For example, she repeatedly stated, in a number of essays and in at least one magazine interview, that
Just as the United States had the right to invade Nazi Germany, so the United States has the right to invade Soviet Russia or any other slave pen.She emphasized that a just nation has a right but not the duty to depose the regime of an oppressive dictatorship. To assume such a duty when self-defense doesn't require an expenditure of military might is deemed altruistic. She opposed the Vietnam War on such grounds. She describes the degree of oppression that makes a regime illegitimate:
- Execution without a proper, fair trial
- Detention without charge
- Denial of the right of dissatisfied subjects to emigrate
Of course, any country that invades or otherwise attacks another nation (one that does not initiate force against other nations or its own people) lays itself open to a counter invasion. This follows from the principle of the Law of Retaliation defined above.
In summary, she rejects the neo-conservative policy of nations-building and global policing. She also rejects the libertarian policy of respecting the sovereignty of oppressive nations. Contrary to stateless-libertarians, Rand sees the establishment of rights within the nations-state framework.
Art, according to Objectivism, serves a need to allow man to perceive directly that which normally he can only conceive. Art, in short, makes things real. An artist is any person who presents abstract concepts in concrete ways.
Objectivism's take on art is simple: art should uplift, and present uplifting things. The favorite school of art among students of Objectivism is Romantic realism, the name that Rand gave to a school of art that emphasizes human reason and ideals and primarily portrays people striving to do great deeds, rather than suffering great disasters—in short, being proactive rather than reactive. Good art, in other words, celebrates that which Objectivism itself celebrates: the ideal rational man. Forms of art that which emphasized emotion over reason, and especially anything that divorced emotion from reason, earned the consistent disdain of Rand and her colleagues. Similarly, Objectivism decries any form of art that shows human beings being reactive and slaves to emotion.
Pornography excited an interesting reaction. Objectivists detested it, on the grounds that sex was too important an activity for public display. But they feared censorship even more, on the ground that a government that stopped prurient content could stop political speech all the more easily. (Neither Ayn Rand nor any of her associates ever commented on such strictly private efforts as the Hays office.)
Nathaniel Branden, Rand's closest-ever associate and confidant, set forth in 1984 a number of defects in Objectivist philosophy, or at least Rand's theory and practice of it:
- A tendency to confuse "reason" with "the reasonable," essentially a problem in informal logic.
- The encouragement of its students to repress all emotion as somehow unworthy, all in the name of being proactive rather than reactive.
- A tendency toward "moralizing," or condemning others for not adhering to a strict emotional discipline.
- The conflation of "sacrifice" with benevolence.
- Emphasizing philosophical premises to an unhealthy degree, leading to an often unwarranted judgment of character by the criterion of belief.
- A dogmatic, inflexible approach to philosophy and its various disciplines, leading to the inability to forgive a mistake in philosophical formulation or application.
In this last context, Branden specifically decried Rand's conclusion that "no woman should aspire to be President of the United States of America." Rand did say that, and her justification of that stance flowed directly, oddly enough, from her theory of sex.
(In this context, Rand had no patience with the proponents and practitioners of feminism that were contemporary to her. She once said of them, with questionable justice, that they complained about the sexual objectification of women, when those who complained the loudest were "clearly in no such danger." Yet on the other hand, she regarded homemakers as "uninteresting women," and then suggested that some of them were "monsters" for advocating, for example, the prohibition of abortion and restrictions on contraception.)
Rand's surviving friends tend to dismiss Branden's criticism as argumentum ad hominem (or perhaps more accurately, argumentum ad feminam) arising out of the rather brutal break-up of Rand and Branden's eighteen-year association. But those arguments tend to commit the same logical fallacy whereof they accuse Branden. Branden's wife Barbara presents perhaps the most balanced treatment of the Rand-Branden Affair and the ensuing controversy.
Objectivism's unabashed advocacy of capitalism often led to repeated charges that Objectivism was the ally of "big business." (In fact, on the occasion of a 1980 political demonstration called "Big Business Day," The Objectivist Forum commented quite wryly on the irony of the spectacle of hundreds of anti-business conventioneers using the services of "big business" to attend an event intended to advocate increased regulation of the largest corporations merely because they were large.) But Branden said quite clearly that the executives of large business companies were not friendly to Objectivism, because Objectivism advocates a market completely free not only of onerous taxes but also of the myriad special protections that some businesses tended to win from Congress against their competitors.
For decades, Rand did not appear to excite much enduring controversy, mainly because those who did not hold to her philosophy, or to the political theory that flows from it, generally preferred to ignore her. An early exception was the famous (some say infamous) review of Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, by Whittaker Chambers. Chambers "panned" this novel severely and charged that Rand, and by extension Objectivism per se, owed more to the harsh, "conquering-man" philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche than to Aristotle. He also charged that Rand, in her relentless attack upon the Communist philosophy of Karl Marx, had almost become that which she professed to despise. Specifically, he suggested that while Marx advocated a socializing elite, Rand advocated a technocratic one, to which all less technically adept men must bow. Chambers' objections mirror those of Branden to the "moralizing" and dogmatic tone of much of Rand's material, in both that novel and her later essays.
But in light of the election and increasingly socialistic policy pronouncements and recommendations of Barack Obama and his administration, Rand's ideas are (as of April 2009) undergoing a serious re-examination. Tax Day Tea Party participants reported seeing signs saying, "Ayn Rand Was Right" and "Stop Spending, or Atlas Will Shrug." The Ayn Rand Institute reports that sales of Atlas Shrugged tripled in February 2009 as compared to February 2008. They attribute this brisk increase in sales directly to the recognition by many of Barack Obama and his associates as antitypes of the villains in the novel, and of his policies as antitypes of some of the more egregious policies of Mr. Thompson and some of other characters. Directive 10-289 springs especially to mind.
Can Objectivism develop further?
This question is debatable. Branden asserted that Objectivism was "flawed", but nonetheless found its emphasis on logic and of an independent reality important and beneficial. Applying the principles of Objectivist philosophy to ones own life offers undoubted advantages to physical and mental quality of life, which applying such principles to politics leads to economic growth, greater personal and economic freedoms and a more healthy society. Nonetheless, no philosophy can remain static, and with many greater American thinkers dedicated to advancing the philosophy of Objectivism, the field is extremely dynamic and constantly evolving, and the world provides new opportunities for applying Objectivist principles.
In regarding to life science, Rand correctly realised that the the theory of evolution as more than an hypothesis. She did not acept creation as a fact, due to it not being directly percieavble and measurable, but Rand also refused to endorse evolution, because she believed she did not have the required scientific knowledge to make an informed judgment.
- Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House Publishers, 1957, 1168 pages, cloth. ISBN 0394415760
- Rang, Berliner and Peikoff (1997), The Letters of Ayn Rand, Plume Publishing
- Rand, Peikoff and Harriman (1999), The Journals of Ayn Rand, Plume Publishing
- Branden, Nathaniel. The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Association for Humanistic Psychology, 1984.
- Ayn Rand. Harry Binswanger:Self Defense.
- Ayn Rand. Harry Binswanger:Government.
- Ayn Rand. Harry Binswanger:Foreign Policy.
- Ayn Rand. Harry Binswanger:Foreign Policy.
- Ayn Rand. Harry Binswanger:Self-Determination of Nations.
- Ayn Rand. Harry Binswanger:Isolationism.
- Chambers, Whittaker. Big Sister Is Watching You. National Review, December 28, 1957. Republished on National Review Online, January 5, 2005.
- Hsieh, Diana Mertz, Poisoning the Well, 24 March 2007