Rethinking the Essence of Objectivism
by Dave Saum
Date: 16 Oct 97
Copyright: Dave Saum
How can we learn to think as clearly and insightfully as Ayn Rand? Her amazing ability to penetrate to the heart of an issue and to reveal new insights would be invaluable if we could emulate it. Part of this ability was her unique genius, but how much of it is contained in a method of thought that can be studied and incorporated into our mental processes? Unfortunately the subject of Rand's method has not been a primary interest of most Objectivist scholars, perhaps because Rand herself did not write much about it. This essay will attempt to understand Rand's method by analyzing her views on the essence of Objectivism.
Although the identification of the essence of Objectivism has been dealt with by Rand, Peikoff, Kelley and others; I believe that further analysis of this subject can yield deeper insights into Rand's methodology. This is not just an abstract question of academic interest since its answer determines who is an Objectivist and what constitutes new Objectivist thought.
Rand's View of Essence
Although Rand did not leave us a detailed analysis of the concept "essence" or of Objectivism's essence, we do have some insightful comments. When she was asked if she could present the essence of Objectivism while standing on one foot, she answered:
"Metaphysics: Objective RealityLater she expanded this:
Politics: Capitalism" (1)
"My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:
1. Reality exists as an objective absolute: "facts are facts, independent of man's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses) is man's only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
3. Man "every man" is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others....
4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez faire capitalism...." (1)
However she also identified the essence of Objectivism as the method of reason or objectivity:
"I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily and advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows. This, the supremacy of reason was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism." (2)
In summary, Rand wrote only briefly on the essence of Objectivism and identified it either as the fundamentals of her positions in the major branches of philosophy, or as the method of reason. At the risk of reading a lot more into these passages than she intended, I will attempt a critical analysis of her views, and propose a resolution to these criticisms. I think that this critique of Rand's views on essence is warranted because her ideas on essence form the basis for extensions by philosophers David Kelley and Leonard Peikoff, and the general topic of the essence of Objectivism has hardly been discussed in the 1990s. In a subsequent essay I intend to discuss the work of Kelley and Peikoff in this area.
I see at least four types of interrelated arguments that can be brought against Rand's views on the essence of Objectivism. These arguments arise from considerations of science, objectivity, definition and the Enlightenment.
1. Argument from Science
Suppose we try to generalize Rand's analysis of essence and apply the same line of argument to another objective system of ideas: e.g., physics. Following her example we would identify the major branches of physics and identify the most fundamental objective proposition that has been established in each branch. Therefore we might propose the following essence of physics:
Mechanics: the conservation of momentum and energy
Electrodynamics: Maxwell's equations
Quantum mechanics: Schrodinger's equation
A major problem with this type of approach becomes apparent if we try to use our new essence of physics to determine who is a physicist and what constitutes valid work in physics. Do all physicists have to swear allegiance to Schrodinger's equation and Maxwell's equation? And are all new theories that contest these truths ruled out of bounds, ipso facto? Hardly! In fact, we know that controversies between established theories in physics and new theories based on new facts are the historical basis that led to the development of modern science. The scientific method is based on the primacy of facts and the continual questioning of existing theories. The essence of physics is not to be found in existing laws, but in the objective method that led to those laws and which subjects them to continuing reverification. Objectivity does not appear to permit physics to have a system essence similar to Rand's essence of Objectivism. But doesn't objectivity impose the same constraints on Objectivism?
The example of science suggests that objective systems of knowledge differ in kind from non-objective systems. In fact they are sui generis. There are no competing objective systems, because an objective system by its nature incorporates any truths that are discovered in its domain. Only its objectivity remains constant. Objective systems are the end of the significance of systems as such in their domain of knowledge. After objective methods are accepted as the criterion in a domain, the comparison of systems of ideas then becomes relevant only for the previous non objective systems, and this becomes a task for historians. The predominant intellectual action is in discovering new truths to extend the system.
This may seem radical when applied to philosophy, but we see it everyday around us in the activities of modern science. In this sense, the first truly objective philosophy is the end of philosophy considered as a system. Shouldn't Objectivism be this endpoint?
2. Argument from Objectivity
Although Rand does not explicitly mention the concept of objectivity in her essence, it is certainly a central idea of the system and basis of the name of the philosophy. Peikoff has identified it as "the central guiding norm of epistemology." Unfortunately, in Objectivist discussion today it is quite common for weeks or months to pass without significant discussion of this concept, and there appears to be a general view that it is synonymous with reason and logic. There also seems to be the notion that Rand's distinction between objectivity, subjectivism and intrinsicism provides an adequate explanation of objectivity. This appears to me to be equivalent to the notion that one can understand logic by understanding the fallacies. There also seems to be a notion in Objectivism that being objective is equivalent in some way to being logical. Peikoff appears to be the extreme advocate of this view, and I will attempt to address his arguments in a future essay.
Surprisingly few attempts have been made to define objectivity within Objectivism. Even Rand did not leave us an explicit definition of objectivity, but she gave us several descriptions. For instance:
Objectivity: "Epistemologically, it is the recognition of the fact that a perceiver's (man's) consciousness must acquire knowledge of reality by certain means (reason) in accordance with certain rules (logic)." (3)
While I believe that this is true, it is not sufficiently precise for our purposes here. We need to clearly distinguish objectivity from reason and logic in order to understand its importance in the essence of Objectivism. Luckily Rand provided some guidance as to how to go about analyzing abstract concepts like objectivity:
"When in doubt about the meaning of the concepts one is using, one must know their correct definitions, one must be able to retrace the specific (logical, not chronological) steps by which they were formed, and one must be able to demonstrate their connection to their base in perceptual reality.
When in doubt about the meaning of the definition of a concept, the best method of clarification is to look for its referents, i.e., to ask oneself: What fact or facts of reality gave rise to this concept? What distinguishes it from all other concepts?" (4)
Rand's use of the question "What fact or facts of reality gave rise to this concept?" is so persuasive in her work that I have previously suggested that it be termed "Rand's Question". For example, she used it in her analysis of concepts like ethics, art, justice and rights; and Kelley has extended it to concepts like toleration and benevolence. Note that this procedure requires a "reduction" of the concept to the facts that give rise to it before a definition can be determined. This reduction is then the source of the definition, and so any characteristically Objectivist definition must be preceded by a reduction. I will give a brief "standing on one foot" analysis of this type in order to distinguish logic, reason, and objectivity.
Logic: In order to survive we must use our minds to process sense data so that we can determine the facts of reality (truth) that we can act on. We observe that there is a common structure in our valid arguments and this structure is violated by invalid arguments. When we abstract all content from our arguments, we can isolate these structures and determine their properties and rules. We need a concept to identify this procedure. So we define logic as the science or art of the forms of valid reasoning.
Reason: Is logic and sense data all we need to determine the facts? If we consider the simple act of looking out the window to determine if it is raining, we can introspect that there is something deeper involved. In evaluating any proposition about reality we must make certain underlying fundamental assumptions in order to interpret the data: we exist, an external world exists, everything that exists has identity, we are conscious, and we have free will. You will of course recognize these root facts as Rand's axioms. Given this understanding, we define reason as the "non contradictory integration of experience" or in Rand's words "the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses". Note that reason incorporates logic as a tool.
Objectivity: Why do we need more than logic and reason in our quest for truth? One hint is found in the everyday use of objective as synonymous with unbiased or unprejudiced. Reason requires us to focus logically on the facts, but the question of just which facts, is not entirely clear by reason alone. Mankind accomplished an amazing amount primarily with reason, but the progress of science has shown just how powerful the addition of objectivity has been in one domain of knowledge, our understanding of the physical world. We need a concept to identify the importance of focusing on ALL the facts, and ONLY on the facts. Therefore we can define objectivity as "a commitment to thinking in accordance with the facts and interpreting them logically, without bias or prejudice." (6) Note that objectivity incorporates both reason and logic.
You can criticize my analysis above as simplistic, and rightly so, but my point is as much in the form of the arguments, as in their comprehensiveness. The use of Rand's Question sets an objective criterion for what constitutes an explanation of an abstract concept. Similarly, you might imagine that the scientific revolution began with the criterion that answers to questions about physical phenomena must be in the form of answers to what we might call Newton's Question: "What are the facts that give rise to this phenomena?". In both cases, the questions serve to force the explanation back on all the facts, and only the facts. In this sense, Rand's application of objectivity to the world of concepts within our heads can be seen as a completion of the revolution in objectivity that began in the seventeenth century when objectivity provided a revolutionary new criterion for the explanation for the external world.
Unfortunately, none of this is explicit in Rand's essence of Objectivism. It is all too easy to miss the fact that objectivity provides the source and validation of all the points in Rand's essence.
3. Argument from Definition
One of the facts that we must consider in the analysis of any concept is the common usage of the term. This may help us understand ambiguities in the usage of the term that could be confusing, and I believe that this is one of the problems with Rand's use of the concept essence. One major dictionary includes the following definition of essence:
"Essence: ...of a conceptual entity - The totality of the properties, constituent elements, etc. without which it would cease to be the same thing; the indispensable attributes of a thing as opposed to those which it may have or not. Also, in a narrower sense, those among the indispensable attributes which involve all the rest by logical consequence, and are sufficient for a valid definition..." (5)
Rand's statement of the essence of Objectivism appears to be a "wide essence" because it proposes a list of indispensable attributes. It cannot be a "narrow essence" because it is not an attempt to include only the indispensable attributes which involve the rest by logical conclusion. For instance, a narrow essence of Objectivism could not include politics and economics which are derived from ethics, epistemology and metaphysics.
Which type of essence should be important to us? If we want an outline of the system, then the wide essence will certainly serve our purpose. But the wide essence fails to show us the "glue" that holds the system together. This suggests an answer as to why Rand appears to hold simultaneously that the essence of Objectivism is both a system and a method (reason). She recognizes that there must be a glue, but she is focused on the system, as such, in her analysis of essence.
If we want a fundamental understanding of the system, or if we want to judge whether a new idea falls within it, or we want to evaluate who is a member of the intellectual movement, then it is necessary to understand the narrow essence. Simply having a checklist of fundamental conclusions (wide essence) that have arisen from the application of objectivity (narrow essence) will not produce a fundamental understanding.
4. Argument from the 18th Century Enlightenment
The conflict between the primacy of method or system has a long history in philosophy, and I think that it is instructive to review the status of the argument in the 17th and 18 centuries. Consider this summary of the period by Ernst Cassirer:
"...The seventeenth century had seen the real task of philosophy in the construction of the philosophical 'system." Truly "philosophical" knowledge had seemed attainable only when thought, starting from a highest being and from highest, intuitively grasped certainty, succeeded in spreading the light of this certainty over all derived being and all derived knowledge. This was done by the method of proof and rigorous inference, which added other propositions to the first original certainty and in this way pieced out and linked together the whole chain of possible knowledge. No link of this chain could be removed from the whole; none was explicable by itself. The only real explanation possible consisted of its "derivation" in the strict systematic deduction by which any link might be traced back to the source of being and certainty, by which its distance from this source might be determined, and by which the number of intermediate links separating a given link from its source might be specified. The eighteenth century abandoned this kind of deduction and proof. It no longer vies with Descartes and Malebranche, with Leibniz and Spinoza for the prize of systematic rigor and completeness. It seeks another concept of truth and philosophy whose function is to extend the boundaries of both and make them more elastic, concrete, and vital. The Enlightenment does not take the ideal of this mode of thinking from the philosophical doctrines of the past; on the contrary, it constructs its ideal according to the model and pattern of contemporary natural science.
....The procedure is thus not from concepts and axioms to phenomena, but vice versa.
...The value of system, the "esprit systematique" is neither underestimated nor neglected; but it is sharply distinguished from the love of system for its own sake, the "esprit de systeme". The whole theory of knowledge of the eighteenth century strives to confirm this distinction. D'Alembert in his "Preliminary Discourse" to the French "Encyclopedia" makes this distinction the central point of his arguments, and Condillac in his 'treatise on Systems" gives it explicit form and justification. Condillac tries to subject the great systems of the seventeenth century to historical criticism. He tries to show that each of them failed because, instead of sticking to the facts and developing its concepts from them, it raised some individual concept to the status of a dogma." (7)
A major problem with identifying a philosophy with its system has always been that the conclusions tend to become more important than the method by which they were derived. Objectivism does not appear to be an exception to this rule. I wonder if the Enlightenment philosophers would recognize today's Objectivism as their child?
The focus on method by the 18th century Enlightenment must have seemed natural since the 17th century had been consumed by questions of method (e.g., Bacon and Descartes followed by Newton). Perhaps the problems I am describing in Objectivism arise from the fact that we had our Newton (Rand) before we had a thorough discussion of objective method?
5. Argument from the New Enlightenment
If you think that one of our most important goals is the establishment of a New Enlightenment, as I do, then it is important to consider the intellectual conditions under which it could flourish. Therefore we should look closely at the previous Enlightenment. Again Cassirer is insightful:
....The thought of the Enlightenment again and again breaks through the rigid barriers of system and tries, especially among it greatest and most original minds, to escape this strict systematic discipline. The true nature of Enlightenment thinking cannot be seen in its purest and clearest form where it is formulated into particular doctrines, axioms, and theorems; but rather where it is in process, where it is doubting and seeking, tearing down and building up. All this constantly fluctuating activity cannot be resolved into a mere summation of individual teachings. The real philosophy of the Enlightenment is not simply the sum total of what its leading thinkers--Voltaire and Montesquieu, Hume or Condillac, d'Alembert or Diderot, Wolff or Lambert--thought or taught. It cannot be presented in a summation of the views of these men, nor in the temporal sequence of their views; for it consists less in certain individual doctrines than in the form and manner of intellectual activity in general.(8)
When I combine this view of the Enlightenment as a process with my understanding of the concept of objectivity, I see the Enlightenment as a period in which many thinkers felt emboldened by the demonstrations of objectivity's power in the domain of science (e.g., Newton), and they attempted in myriad ways to apply it to problems in other fields. It was this intellectual excitement created by the discovery of a new tool of thought that provided the fuel for the Enlightenment. This suggests that a New Enlightenment could be powered by thinkers who appreciate the power of Rand's method and were stimulated to apply to it other areas. Conversely, the present emphasis within Objectivism on Rand's system rather than her method does not appear to be the basis for anything similar to the Enlightenment. Rand's essence of Objectivism is a problem here because it appears to emphasize system over method.
With 30 years of hindsight, and both feet planted firmly on the ground, is it possible to revise Rand's essence of Objectivism to answer all of the criticisms that I have thrown at it? I think so. Consider the following minor revision:
The essence of Objectivism is objectivity applied to concepts, and this gives rise to the following system of philosophy:
Metaphysics: Objective Reality
I believe that this simple change answers all the criticisms that I have made. The "argument from science" is defused because objectivity is clearly not the primary criteria in deciding who is an Objectivist and what constitutes new Objectivist thought. The "argument from objectivity" is a non-problem because objectivity now calls the terms for Objectivism and its application to the domain of concepts is explicit. The "argument from definition" is resolved because the new wording employs both the wide and narrow meanings of essence. And the "arguments from the Enlightenment" are answered because the system of Objectivism is presented a subservient to the method of objectivity.
In addition, several other nagging problems presented by Rand's essence of Objectivism are resolved. How can the essence be both a system and a method? The new formulation shows the relationship explicitly. What about the status of other areas of philosophy, like esthetics, that are not mentioned by Rand? Since the listing of branches of philosophy in the revision is in the form of examples, it does not have to be comprehensive. Why is politics included when it is dependent on her ethics? The connection between the branches in now explained by objectivity. And why is reason mentioned, but not objectivity? Now objectivity is mentioned.
I think that the arguments presented in this essay are strong enough to provide the foundations for a new interpretation of Objectivism that is different enough from the previous interpretations (Peikoff's orthodox-Objectivism and Kelley's neo-Objectivism) to require a new name, at the very least to facilitate discussion of these ideas. I propose the name "meta-Objectivism" for the view that Objectivism is essentially an objective method of analyzing concepts, and not essentially a philosophic system. In closing I offer some observations as to what a meta Objectivist approach might entail:
a. Meta-Objectivism does not deny the existence or importance of Rand's philosophic system, but it does deny that the system or its fundamentals in the major branches of philosophy can be its essence.
b. Meta-Objectivists are those who practice an objective method when dealing with concepts, and not those in agreement with all or a subset of Rand's philosophic conclusions.
c. Meta-Objectivists are at least as concerned with the argument behind a conclusion (Rand's or otherwise) than with the conclusion itself.
d. Meta-Objectivists view the main concern of spreading Objectivism as spreading objectivity rather than the major philosophic conclusions of Ayn Rand.
e. Meta-Objectivism suggests new Objectivist work must first and foremost be characterized by some application of Rand's objective method.
f. Meta-Objectivism regards the study and exposition of objectivity as the most important task in today's Objectivism.
This essay would probably not have been written without the encouragement of many people over a number of years whom I met through IOS and on the Net discussions like this. Friends like Kirez Korgan, Diana Brickell, Jimbo Wales, David Ross, Samantha Johnston, Eyal Moses, and many others too numerous to mention have always been willing to listen to my latest formulations and offer critiques and words of encouragement. If there is any enlightenment in this essay, they share in the credit. I take all credit for the errors since I was too blockheaded to take all their advice.
1. Ayn Rand, "Introducing Objectivism", Objectivist Newsletter I, (Aug.1962), 35.
2. Ayn Rand, "Brief Summary", The Objectivist, Sept. 1971, 1.
3 Ayn Rand, "Who is the Final Authority in Ethics", The Objectivist Newsletter, February 1965.
4. Ayn Rand, "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology", 1970, 48.
5. Oxford English Dictionary, 1917.
6. David Kelley, "the Art of Reasoning", W. W. Norton, 1990, 110.
7. Ernst Cassirer, "The Philosophy of the Enlightenment" Princeton, 1951, 6-7.
8. Ibid., ix.
This essay is Copyright 1997 by David Saum - Unlimited use is allowed for the purposes of the current Objectivism-L discussion, but publication requires permission of the author. DSaum_OF_aol.com
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