Monday, August 9, 2010

Ayn Rand: Effing Genius

I am firmly of the conviction that Ayn Rand's place in the philosophical pantheon is only a matter of time. The fact of her greatness is, at this point, obvious to someone such as myself, someone who has put in the effort at mental integration necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff of the Western intellectual tradition.

Now, I am not saying that her greatness is obvious in the sense that just anyone can pick up her books and realize right off that they are encountering the writings of the greatest philosopher since Aristotle. If that were the case, we'd be enjoying the benefits of full-fledged reason, individualism and capitalism all around the world today, rather than being on a worldwide course of drift and evasion. Hell, if only Aristotle's greatness were obvious to everyone, we'd be in a capitalistic paradise by now: Galt's Gulch would be the norm rather than the exception. We wouldn't be wondering "what is to be done about the poor," as everyone would be realizing their full potentials, their inner geniuses.

(In a Q&A session, Ayn Rand was asked if she would write a version of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology for those of 110 IQ instead of for those of 150 IQ. Her supremely benevolent view of human potential is revealed in her answer: "I'd prefer that people raise their IQ from 110 to 150. It can be done." [Ayn Rand Answers, p. 179] What the fuck do the likes of John Rawls and Thomas Nagel have to offer in comparison to this? And why the fuck is Rand constantly tarred as an elitist whose philosophy is only for a select few? It is as if her critics are pathologically, awesomely committed to misconceptions about her [to borrow a phrase from Michael Herr's delightful little memoir, Kubrick].)

Part of this reason this isn't so obvious is that Rand's style was very plainspoken. Actually, this should be taken as evidence that she is a great thinker, not a shallow one. But the inversion accepted by so many is that a deep thinker should philosophize and write in the mode of Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, or any number of their genuflecting emulators in academia. If you want a style that is truly elitist, try slogging through their writings. (Rand also had things to say about English being her language of choice due to its precision and clarity. ["Global Balkanization"]) Ayn Rand was writing for people as such, and as such, her writings have an eminently practical character to them. This goes especially for her epistemology.

Speaking of her epistemology, it is her greatest contribution to philosophy, and arguably on par with Aristotle's writings on metaphysics and logic. And if there is any doubt as to whether Rand is a genuinely deep thinker, one need only have a look at the appendix of the 2nd edition of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. That she didn't work out all the specialized sub-branches of epistemology (e.g. philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics) is quite irrelevant to this; her task was to set the ground rules for any of the specialized sub-disciplines in any area of thought - to provide a guidebook as to how to think independently - and she succeeded admirably. If these methods were automatized and integrated into every thinking person's life, the world's troubles would be over in no time. A world full of Ayn Rand-caliber thinkers - with the resulting moral character - wouldn't even think of going to war, committing crimes, wallowing in self-pity, aching for some meaning or purpose in their lives, etc. That this point is lost on her critics is quite telling.

As for her critics, it is only a matter of time before they have to reckon with Ayn Rand - to accept and work within the system she laid out, or to explain why not. And to do that, they also have to reckon at long last with Aristotle. It is a fact - one that people throughout the ages have struggled mightily to evade, distort, or subvert - that the Aristotelian influence on the West is chiefly responsible for its intellectual, scientific, cultural and moral progress. In attacking Ayn Rand - in shooting the messenger - it is Aristotle these people are implicitly attacking.

Making the non-obvious obvious at last is the chief aim of my current book project (which will be completed soon). When all is said and done, I expect her name to be amongst a new Big Three of philosophy along with Aristotle and perhaps David L. Norton (whose conscientious and systematic rigor in Personal Destinies is second to none). I would like to make a note about Wittgenstein in this context. I am not a Wittgenstein specialist by the remotest stretch; this is not to say that I won't be in the future. But based on my cursory investigations, I find one chief intellectual virtue in him: his commonsensical, non-rationalistic, non-elitist approach. I am not saying that his method and answers are as good as Rand's, but there is a conscientiousness about his approach that leaves those of his contemporaries in the dust. Part of this has to do, I think, with Wittgenstein's extensive experience with ordinary people in the real world. It makes him psycho-epistemologically healthier already (even if his approach is still stymied by aspects of psycho-epistemological rationalism - or perhaps even an over-empiricism). I'll also mention this: As with Aristotle and Ayn Rand, Wittgenstein in his mode as philosopher of mathematics rejected actual or completed infinities, contra the pretentious twats who pretend that actual infinities had been "proven" by this mathematician or that, as if mathematics could substitute for metaphysics. My inkling, though, is that an Aristotelian-Randian conceptual framework is ultimately the most sound basis for a philosophy of mathematics; I only point out a conclusion that the consensus favorite for "greatest philosopher of the 20th century" reached, which happens to be correct.

To be continued . . .

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for your thoughts re: Wittgenstein and Rand.

    I agree with your general direction that Rand's caliber as a philosopher is yet to be fully realized in the canon of philosophy.

    If Objectivism is to be understood and embraced by culture it needs a modern philosopher that can dictate it to the injured minds, like Rearden's wet nurse.

    Objectivism needs a Billy Graham plain and simple.

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  2. I also find some interest in seeing some coherence between Rand and Wittgenstein. I think actually that Wittgenstein in his later philosophy (particularly On Certainty) was starting to move towards something that's in a similar area to some aspects of Objectivism, specifically in its anti-sceptical musings. One can look at some of the things Wittgenstein says in his later philosophy as quite akin to Rand's "fallacy of the stolen concept".

    Another area of interest I think is that Kant has been greatly misunderstood, and still isn't very well understood, and that rightly understood he's more aligned with Objectivism (and with the later Wittgenstein) than a superficial reading might suggest. The key to it is that most interpretations of Kant, including Rand's (which she obviously took over in part from her philosophical education), take him to be a methodological solipsist in the tradition of Descartes, Lebiniz, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. If you do that, then the transition to Hegel and from Hegel through to the modern mess of "continental" philosophy via Kojeve is pretty clear, and Rand is largely correct on the baneful influence of this "Kant".

    But actually I think he was one of the first philosophers to try to get out of the spell of Cartesian methodological solipsism - the problem was he was using a lot of jargon derived from it (partly via Leibniz) and mixing it with hangovers from Schools jargon. That makes it quite hard to see what he was really getting at, and makes it easy to slip into interpreting him (contrary to his repeated insistence) as a kind of Idealist (he often lamented his choice of the misleading name of his system, although in terms of how he develops it it does make sense). I take my interpretation from Kant from Arthur Collins' excellent book "Possible Experience".

    To put this in a nutshell, philosophy was misled by the Cartesian project of presuppositionless methodological solipsism ("What can I, without any presuppositions, know for certain?") It turns out that with that starting point, and without any presuppositions, you don't get very far (you just get the cogito, which is absolutely indubitable, but leads nowhere).

    This can be distinguished from two other possible philosophical questions: "What can we (as a community of inquirers) know for certain?", and "What can I (as a human being living in an objectively real, physical world) know for certain?"

    These questions are much more fruitful. The former is the question of the philosophy of science, essentially, whereas the latter is the broader question and more about psycho-epistemology. (It's also the ancient form of philosophy, which Rand is more in the tradition of, via Aristotle ofc.)

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