Check Your Premises

the blog of the Ayn Rand Society

Comments on R.P. Wolff on Rand's Metaphysics

Dr. Jason G. Rheins

On his popular blog, Brian Leiter (U Chicago) recently posted a link to another blog post by Robert Paul Wolff (UNC, Chapel Hill). Leiter's tongue-in-cheek title, "The Profundity of Ayn Rand," is one of many dismissive treatments of Rand he's posted over the years.

Even so, Leiter has not always been dismissive of scholars of Rand. I hope, therefore, that in this same spirit of academic collegiality, he is open to linking to our reaction to Wolff's piece.

Wolff notes the widely discussed fact that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has at times claimed to have been influenced by Rand's thinking on politics. [At other times Ryan has disavowed her in favor of more faith-friendly philosophers such as Aquinas.] Tongue firmly in cheek, Wolff feigns to "encourage you to delve more deeply into the corpus of her writings, so that you will gain insight into the sources of the power of Paul Ryan’s thought." He offers his readers a sample from Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged, in which Galt describes Rand's formula of the Law of Identity, "A is A." Wolff responds:

And there it is: A is A. Who would be so foolish as to deny it? A is A. From there it is mere elaboration to derive the Republican health bill, “a task that is more an amusement than a labour,” as Kant says in the Preface to the First Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.

I suspect that this post was, at least in part, Wolff blowing off steam over the AHCA. I can relate to his frustrations. It is both easy and entirely appropriate to have contempt for Paul Ryan and something far beneath contempt for Donald Trump. But I am confident that Rand would share those sentiments of disdain and disgust were she alive today.

Wolff does not seem to want to seriously critique Rand. He wants to tarnish her by association with Ryan and tarnish Ryan by association with a caricature of her. Apoplexy over the current “administration” is scarcely avoidable for any one with sense, but it in no way excuses shoddy thinking. The problem is that we diminish ourselves and the quality of our public discourse when we throw out intellectual standards for the cheap thrill of thrashing a straw man.

It's fine for a philosopher to criticize Rand—or any other author—harshly, even if only so as to be justified in subsequently dismissing her works despite their popularity and influence. But philosophers who do this owe it to themselves to exercise the same kind of intellectual honesty and integrity that we would expect from any other scholar talking about any other philosopher. That would imply the following as bare minima:

  1. Don't judge the merits of her philosophy strictly or even primarily on the basis of the statements, actions, and policies of political figures who are said to be influenced by her. One has to prove that the politicians in question and their policies actually are influenced by a non-specious understanding of the philosophy/philosopher. Certainly one shouldn’t try to reconstruct what that philosopher's views were based on what those politicians say or do! Wolff mentions the profundities of Marx and Hegel. Would he claim to understand or judge their philosophies based on the actions and pronouncements of Stalin and Mao? Of course not. The point is not to deny the influence of any of these philosophers, including Rand, on at least some of the leaders—good, bad, or monstrous—who claim to be inspired by them. If (and only if) you can show that that influence is more than the accidental result of the philosopher being misunderstood and misappropriated, then you can attribute some of the credit or blame to her for the policies that she inspired.

  2. Don't resort to cheap insults and insinuations. In the comments section on Wolff’s post, Warren Goldfarb (Harvard U.) wrote, "Of course no professional philosopher takes Rand seriously..." This is an appeal to authority or an ad hominem, both of which are beneath a distinguished logician such as Goldfarb. So is trading on anecdote rather than argument. The Objectivist students at MIT whom Goldfarb mentions as having regarded Quine as insufficiently "objective" may have been objecting to his radical holism and relativistic ontologies that can result therefrom (e.g. his infamous comparison of physical objects to the Homeric gods). That, incidentally, is a criticism of Quine which many professional philosophers have been party to. And in any case, since when did we judge a thinker based on what undergraduate admirers of her think or say?

  3. Take some effort to know what you speak of. Wolff writes: "Rand, like all great philosophers, is known for a single core proposition from which she seeks to derive the particulars of her theories." Rather few great philosophers try to derive their entire systems from a single core proposition. Rand certainly doesn't. But if that were actually true about them and her, then you couldn't say that she was in poor company. In fact, though, Rand does not try to deduce her substantive claims in ethics or politics from the laws of logic. She derided such deductivist approaches to knowledge as "Rationalistic," in 'honor' of the Continental Rationalists whom she judged among the worst offenders in this regard. Anyway, Rand simply thinks that her metaphysical "axioms" are the most fundamental facts and that all specific facts are instances of the laws of identity and non-contradiction, such that it behooves us to always try to remember that things are what they are and not what they aren't. "Who wouldn't do that?!" you ask. Well, at the moment several prominent Republican politicians leap (or lurch) to mind.

Philosophers who want to know what Rand said and thought about the 'axioms' and their relations to the rest of knowledge and values and whether it was substantially different from Continental Rationalists (it was!) might be interested in my chapter on Rand's metaphysics in the Blackwell Companion to Ayn Rand. Many will not be interested, which is fine; but those who do not take the time to learn about her positions would do themselves more credit if they then practiced a touch more of the Socratic wisdom and intellectual civility that they expect with regard to other authors. For example, they might restrict themselves to credible comments such as the following:

The Ryan health care bill seemed cruel to me insofar as it failed to adequately recognize and meet what I and many others consider a moral obligation that we have to help those in need. Maybe some of that comes from Ayn Rand, since she defended ethical egoism and criticized altruism and the social welfare state. I don't know why she thought such things, and I don't know what she would make of the AHCA specifically, but I regard the general sentiment (such as I understand it) as shocking, and find it hard to imagine that she could have had good arguments for it.

Admittedly, this is a less self-indulgent—and thus probably less cathartic—response. It's not much of a political-intellectual shibboleth, either. But it is reasonable, intellectually responsible, and it could be a contribution to a mutually enlightening conversation in which philosophers more knowledgeable about Rand (whatever their opinions of her) might participate.

For instance, I would recognize that many Republicans do read or refer to Rand, and that she has influenced them. However, I also think that we need to distinguish between what Rand thought, in toto, from the parts of her thought that conservatives like to borrow piecemeal when it becomes convenient for them in their polemics against the left. (Don Watkins, at the Ayn Rand Institute, has a useful piece on how Rand's influence on the right is exaggerated by some and minimized by others.)

Still, the current Republican agenda is nothing that Ayn Rand would agree with. Today's GOP backs a system of crony capitalism and Christian religious infringement, not a laissez-faire system of free markets and free minds. Rather than pursuing thoughtful and responsible deregulation, they prefer back room deals with would-be oligarchs or simply creating chaos as a political strategy of "let's break it and hope that the Democrats have to buy it." Also, unlike today's GOP, Rand wanted to eliminate rather than exacerbate the sources of pressure group warfare (including racism). Rand advocated the pursuit of self-interest and rejected the idea that the need of one person constitutes a moral claim on the values of another (in the absence of voluntarily created obligations between them). However, human self-interest for her was not the pursuit of whims by any means and at the expense of anyone else. She regarded justice as a crucial component of rationality and essential to human flourishing. In other words, Rand neither wanted the "haves" sacrificed to the "have-nots" nor the reverse. Absolutely no one benefits, in her view, from behaving or being treated either like a butcher or like a sacrificial lamb.

More than anything, though, Rand would be appalled by the propaganda-culture of "alternative facts" and the elevation of religious dogma within the Right today, no less than she was incensed by the anti-rational, relativistic, and social-constructivist themes of the New Left. Rand would whole-heartedly agree with the following lines from yesterday's editorial in the LA Times (where she once had a column) "Our civilization is premised on the conviction that such a thing as truth exists, that it is knowable, that it is verifiable, that it exists independently of authority or popularity and that at some point — and preferably sooner rather than later—it will prevail." ('Why Trump Lies', The Times Editorial Board, APRIL 3, 2017) This sentiment comes immeasurably closer to the actual meaning and the sociopolitical implications of Rand’s "A is A" than does a silly and specious deduction of Trumpcare from first principles such as Prof. Wolff attributes to her.

Philosophers more than anyone should be promoting the "epistemic hygiene” of our society. Here too we face an epidemic of obesity and preventable disease. So by all means, let's speak our minds and vent our spleens, but let's not lose ourselves in the process. Rationality and intellectual rigor themselves are currently under attack and someone needs to be setting a healthy example.

[My thanks to Ben Bayer and Greg Salmieri for significant help in revising this post.]

Share this post: