Share This on Facebook

The following is Chapter 5 from the book The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism , by David Kelley.

V. Objectivism

We have now examined all the major substantive issues I raised in "A Question of Sanction": the standards of moral judgment and sanction, the relation between error and evil, the propriety of tolerance. I have laid out my position on all these matters in a systematic way, and revealed the intrinsicism that runs systematically through the views of my opponents. But we are not quite through.

In "A Question of Sanction," I said that while Objectivism is a magnificent system of ideas, it is not a closed system. I made this point in passing, as a comment about the value of tolerance. But it has become an issue in its own right. Peikoff claims that Objectivism is closed; it is "'rigid,' 'narrow,' intolerant,' and 'closed-minded.' " He claims that those who disagree with him about the primary issues in this debate should not call themselves Objectivists. In the name of "quality-control," he urges that they leave the movement or be driven out.[1]

The issue he has raised concerns the nature of philosophy as such. But what exactly is the issue? What does it mean to say that a system of ideas is open or closed? These are metaphorical terms. What is their literal content?
A philosophy is a body of principles that add up to a fundamental and distinctive view of reality and of man's place in it. In order to give us a fundamental view, a philosophy must address a broad range of issues in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and other areas, and do so in a systematic way. This is what distinguishes a philosophical system from an isolated philosophical position in a particular area, such as egoism in ethics. In order to give us a distinctive view of reality and man, moreover, a philosophy must take a definite position on the issue it addresses, a position different from that of other philosophies. A system that tried to embrace every viewpoint, in a spirit of ecumenism, would not be a philosophy; it would be a vague and contradictory hash.
A body of principles does not exist apart from the individual minds who grasp them. Knowledge presupposes a knower, an 'ism" requires an ist." A philosophy defines a school of thought, a category of thinkers who subscribe to the same principles. In an open philosophy, members of the school may differ among themselves over many issues within the framework of the basic principles they accept. Those issues include a vast array of detailed questions in every area of philosophy, as well as the proper formulation of the basic principles themselves and their interrelationships. Over time, moreover, the philosophy develops. It grows and expands, in the way a science does, as thinkers build on the work of their predecessors. Of course there must be limits on the process if the system is to retain its identity. A system cannot embrace every point of view, nor can it develop into its Opposite. In an open system, however; these limits are set by fundamental Principles: the system is defined by the essential tenets that distinguish it from other viewpoints. A closed system, by contrast, is defined by specific articles of faith, usually laid out in some canonical text. Internal debates are highly constrained and usually short-lived; they are typically settled by a ruling from some authority.
Peikoff denies that Objectivism —or indeed any philosophy—is an open system. "Every philosophy," he says, "is immutable. New implications, applications, integrations can always be discovered; but the essence of the system —its fundamental Principles and their consequences in every branch—is laid down once and for all by the philosophy's author." In the case of Objectivism, of course, the author is Ayn Rand , and the philosophy is defined by an "official, authorized doctrine" Contained in her works. Peikoff seems to allow that some further development of her ideas is possible, as long as it is "logically consistent with what she wrote." Atlas Shrugged and her other writings are to Objectivism , he says, what the Constitution is to the legal system of the United States. A judge must accept the entire Constitution and make sure that his decisions are Consistent with every sentence in it; an Objectivist, Presumably, must take the same approach to Ayn Rand's texts. [2]
Peikoff is saying, in other words, that the philosophy is dosed in the sense of being complete: nothing essential may be added to the system, which was laid down "once and for all" by Ayn Rand . Future developments will consist only of new "implications, applications, integrations"—a list from which the term "discoveries" is conspicuously absent. And he regards Objectivism as closed in the sense of having a highly specific identity: as a philosophy, it includes every philosophical belief she expressed; as a school of thought, it excludes anyone who disagrees on any point. In sum, Objectivism is nothing less, and not much more, than the content of her works.
These extraordinary claims have no precedent and no foundation. The historic systems of philosophy, as distinct from religions and totalitarian ideologies, do not exhibit the features he ascribes to Objectivism. Nor are those features consistent with the content of Ayn Rand's philosophy , especially her theory of knowledge. Peikoffs view of Objectivism as a closed system is yet another expression of intrinsicism. And its practical import is an essentially tribal view of the movement, an attitude that breeds insularity and authoritarianism. In this section I will support this assessment of his claims, and present an alternative view of Objectivism as an open philosophy and movement.

Open and Closed Systems

It has been said that Western history is a battle between the followers of Plato and Aristotle. The great, all-encompassing debate in philosophy is between those who accept and those who deny the existence of a world beyond this one; and their champions are Plato and Aristotle. Plato believed in a realm of ideal timeless perfection, which lies beyond this perceivable world of matter and change, and which we can grasp only through a mystical transcendence of the senses. He regarded man as torn by warring elements—a body mired in this world and a soul yearning for the other—and therefore propounded an ethics of renunciation, to free the soul from earthly desires. Aristotle is the quintessential this-worldly philosopher. He denied that there is any world beyond the one we live in, the world of nature, the world we perceive with our senses and understand by reason. He rejected Plato's mysticism. He held that there is no necessary conflict between mind and body, or reason and emotion. Man in his view is an integrated being who should seek his happiness in this life, and may hope to achieve it.
What I have described in these broad terms are the two philosophical tendencies we refer to as Platonism and Aristotelianism. Perhaps it is this level of generality that Peikoff has in mind when he says that the fundamental principles of a philosophy are "laid down once and for all by the philosophy's author." In these two cases, the philosophical tendency, the broad vision, did spring from the genius of a single mind. But this is not always so. Ayn Rand identified a third broad tendency: the materialist, subjectivist, relativist approach that she represented by the symbol of Attila. [3] This philosophical system had many exponents, from the Sophists of ancient Greece to Karl Marx and a host of other thinkers in our own era, but it did not spring from a single author of the stature of Plato or Aristotle.
In any case, if this is the level at which Peikoff claims that a philosophical system is closed in the sense of being complete, he is certainly wrong in his claim about its identity. The systems I have mentioned have had many exponents in addition to Plato and Aristotle themselves, and within each camp there have been many variants. Platonists have argued with themselves, and with Plato, over issues that fall under each of the points in my description. The same is true of Aristotelians and materialists.
Medieval culture, for example, is properly described as Platonist, even though St. Augustine and the other Church Fathers transformed Plato's world of Forms into a heaven occupied by a personal God—a view that Plato himself would not have accepted. Similarly, the Aristotelian seed that Thomas Aquinas planted in the 13th century had its fullest flowering in the Enlightenment. But when we describe the Enlightenment as an Aristotelian age, we must remember that we are abstracting from a great many differences among the thinkers of the time. Many of them did not regard Aristotle as the source of their ideas, and of those who did, none would have regarded Aristotle's work as a founding document with which his own ideas had to be squared.
In our own era, the most influential system is that of Immanuel Kant, whose ideas have also gone through a great many permutations. There have in fact been very few orthodox Kantians. Most People use this term to refer to ideas that share Kant's basic epistemological view about the relation of mind to reality, or his ethical view about the relation between values and duty. Objectivists typically use the term even more broadly, to refer to virtually all our opponents: positivists and pragmatists, Freudians and behaviorists, existentialists, linguistic analysts, the entire gamut of unreason. Many of these thinkers would not agree with a word Kant wrote.
Kant's philosophy, moreover, was instrumental in the growth of modem collectivism, because of his view that reason is inefficacious and his ethical theory that we must subordinate our personal interests and happiness to duty. Most Objectivists, myself included, would say that collectivism is the political expression of Kantianism. But Kant himself was an individualist. He was a classical liberal who believed that individuals had rights, that they are ends in themselves who may not be used for social purposes. Here is a case in which the consequences of a system for an entire branch of philosophy are the exact opposite of those laid down by its author.
The philosophies I've cited are the broadest of all the historical systems. I mentioned them not only because they provide the most obvious evidence against Peikoffs claims, but also because Plato, Aristotle, and Kant are the turning points, the prime philosophical movers, in Western culture. There have been many lesser systems, such as those of Locke and Descartes, which were built around insights of lesser scope, or combined elements of the broader traditions. These systems would be more narrowly defined , because they are not distinct from one another on so fundamental a level as the epochal systems. Further along this same continuum are thinkers like F. H. Bradley and Arthur Schopenhauer whose systems were merely variants of idealism, distinguished by relatively nonessential points, At the end of the spectrum, and really outside the realm of philosophy, are doctrines like Christianity and Marxism-Leninism. These Systems have founding documents that are regarded as canonical. They have well-developed orthodoxies to which adherents are expected to swear allegiance. Each has an institution—the Church and the Party, respectively—that defines the orthodox interpretation of the system and rules on who can be admitted to the ranks of the believers. Christianity and Marxism come closest to fitting Peikoff's description of a philosophical system. But neither of them is the kind of system that Objectivism aspires to be.

Objectivism as an Open System

Ayn Rand broke new ground in every branch of philosophy; her insights exposed and challenged the deepest assumptions of her predecessors. Because she understood the importance of integration, she was a self-conscious "system-builder": her views of reality, of knowledge, of human nature, of values, and of society form an integrated whole. As a result, Objectivism is an original and distinctive philosophical system, and I think it will prove to be of historic importance.
The perennial conflict in philosophy, as I have said, is between this-worldly and other-worldly philosophers. In the ancient world, this battle was fought primarily in metaphysics. In the modern era, it has been recast in epistemological terms, with Kant as the modern Platonist. Instead of a metaphysical dichotomy between a world of matter and a world of Forms, Kant instituted a dichotomy between appearance and reality. The natural world, he claimed, is apparent only; reality lies beyond, inaccessible to our senses and our reason. For Kant, as for Plato, man is torn between warring elements: a superficial self moved by natural desires and interests, and a deeper self—the real self—which seeks moral perfection through obedience to absolute duties. Ayn Rand cut through these dichotomies. Her concept of objectivity eliminates the breach between appearance and reality: the object of knowledge is the world itself as it appears to a knower with our faculties. Her theory of rational egoism eliminates the breach between interest and idealism: our happiness is to be achieved by fidelity to moral absolutes that are grounded in mans nature as a living being. In time, I think her system will come to be seen as the fundamental alternative to Kant's, in the way that Aristotle was a fundamental alternative to Plato.
But I am speaking of a potential that has not yet been realized. Kant laid out his system in enormous detail, in volume after volume. The same is true of Plato, Aristotle, and other great systematic philosophers. Ayn Rand did not develop her ideas in the form of detailed treatises. Her philosophical essays, as distinct from her fiction and her cultural and political commentary, would fit comfortably in a single volume. [4] A philosophical system must address a wide range of specific issues—the classical problems of philosophy that arise in every branch. The great historical systems met this standard. It cannot be met in a single volume, no matter how brilliant. And of course Objectivism is a young philosophy; it hasn't had two hundred years, much less two thousand, for scholars to play out all the possible variations, to sift and explore the ideas, to develop their consequences. By historical standards, what we have is no more (though no less) than the foundation and outline of a system.
In epistemology, for example, the one issue that Ayn Rand dealt with in detail was the nature of concepts and universals. Her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is comparable in its systematic character to the writings of Aristotle or Locke on this question. Beyond a brief suggestion, however, she wrote nothing about the nature of propositions, an issue that is essential for a viable theory of truth. In regard to the senses, her distinction between what we perceive and the form in which we perceive it is the key that solves the traditional puzzles of perception, but using the key is not a trivial matter; a great many subordinate questions must be answered to formulate and validate the distinction properly. Ayn Rand identified the fact that knowledge is hierarchical and contextual, insights that I have relied upon throughout this essay, and that point to the solution of many traditional problems in epistemology. But a pointer is not a solution. Objectivism does not yet have well-developed answers to such questions as what constitutes proof; or how to draw the line between the arbitrary and the false. Nor does it have an adequate theory of induction and scientific explanation.
An analysis of other areas in philosophy would reveal the same pattern: great insights that are partially developed in some directions, not at all in others. If Objectivism is to survive and flourish as a system of thought, it must attract philosophers who will build on Ayn Rand's discoveries, using them as a base for an assault on specific problems in philosophy and drawing out their implications for other disciplines such as economics, psychology, or literary theory. And Objectivism is more than a theoretical structure; it is a philosophy to live by. Over time, the accumulated experience of those who practice it will produce a moral tradition, a body of reflection about the issues that arise in applying the principles. As this happens, the philosophic content of Objectivism will become more complex and detailed. Philosophers who specialize in various fields will address issues that Ayn Rand did not consider, and put forward ideas that were not hers.
This will not be a matter of adding blocks to a monolithic structure, with everyone in full agreement at every step. People will disagree about the proper approach to a given problem and the merits of proposed solutions. New insights and connections at this level will also lead thinkers to modify points that they previously took as settled. They may find it necessary to reformulate principles, or qualify them, or reconceive the hierarchical relations among them. And any such modification will of course be a subject of debate. All of this is part of the process of inquiry. It has been part of the brief history of Objectivism to date, and it is to be expected in light of the Objectivist theory that knowledge is contextual. When Ayn Rand urged us to check our premises, she never exempted her own.
The greatest contributions to this development will come from the most rational and independent minds, whose only concern is the truth. They will not function with double vision, as Peikoff demands, keeping one eye on reality and the other on Ayn Rand's texts. This approach would be inconsistent with any philosophy of reason. It is especially deadly for a philosophy that has so much potential yet to be realized. An Objectivist thinker must be a thinker first, an Objectivist second. He must regard Ayn Rand as he regards any great mind from whom he has learned: he gives her credit for her discoveries, and admires her accordingly, but admits no obligation to accept her as an authority. Peikoff's view that Objectivism has an authorized doctrine leaves us with two alternatives. We may treat consistency with her writings as a value to be achieved at all costs, trimming our mental sails to ensure that result. Or we may remain loyal to our perception of the facts, and be prepared to announce that we are not Objectivists, should we find ourselves in disagreement with even the least fundamental of her philosophical ideas. To be Objectivists, in other words, we must abandon rationality; to be rational, we must be ready at any moment to abandon Objectivism.
This point alone is enough to discredit Peikoff's account of the philosophy. But let us pursue the matter one step further, by examining his arguments. Philosophy, he says, is immutable: "it does not change with the growth of human knowledge." [5] Why not? One reason he offers is that philosophy "deals only with the kinds of issues available to men in any era." This is a half-truth. The issues are "available" only in the sense that the relevant facts can be grasped without specialized research. But it is intrinsicism to think that these facts reveal themselves diaphanously. An enormous intellectual context is required to form the necessary concepts, to ask the right questions, to appreciate the significance of the facts. This context is not available to men in every era. The concept of individual rights, for example, is required and validated by facts that the ancient Greeks could have observed, but even Aristotle did not form the concept. It took a long sequence of intellectual development, which was not complete until the seventeenth century, before thinkers could grasp the principle of rights.
Peikoff also argues that philosophy does not change with the growth of knowledge because "it is the base and precondition of that growth." [6] This is less than a half-truth, since it is true only of the axioms. An axiom is a self-evident principle that is implicit in all knowledge. Once it is grasped, it is not subject to further confirmation, qualification, or revision in light of new evidence, because it defines the standards by which evidence is used. Apart from the axioms, however, philosophical principles are not self-evident; and while they serve to integrate the rest of our knowledge, they do not provide its base in the way the axioms do. On the contrary, such principles rest inductively on the very body of knowledge which they integrate and explain. As a result, these principles are not acontextual; they are not evidentially closed. By the very nature of inductive knowledge, they are subject to further confirmation, qualification, or revision.
If some one claimed to have evidence against the law of non-contradiction, we could be sure in advance that the evidence is mistaken. If that law is not an absolute, then there is no such thing as evidence, truth, or facts. One cannot claim to know that a principle presupposed by any possible knowledge is false. Suppose, by contrast, that we found certain concepts to which the theory of measurement-omission seemed inapplicable. Here we could not take the same approach. Because the theory explains so much, we would not give it up lightly. We would first try to show that the evidence is mistaken. But we could not be certain of this in advance, as we were with the law of non-contradiction. As an inductive hypothesis about the functioning of a natural object—the human mind—the theory of measurement-omission is open to the possibility of revision in the same way that Newton's theory of gravity was. And the same is true for the other principles of Objectivism.
Peikoff seems to deny this possibility when he says that "a proper philosophy is an integrated whole, any change in any element of which would destroy the entire system." [7] But genuine knowledge is not so brittle. Newton's discoveries were preserved within the broader context of Einstein's theory, even though they were modified to take account of factors that Newton was not aware of. In the same way, a philosophical conclusion that is consistent with everything we know may need revision to take account of new considerations as they arise. But in philosophy as in science, these revisions do not destroy our prior knowledge; they expand and enrich it.
There is also a subtle form of intrinsicism in Peikoff's claim. A philosophy is an integrated whole, as he says. So is any form of conceptual knowledge—science, history, mathematics, or whatever. In every case, the logical relationships among the elements are essential to their meaning and validation. But these connections are not revealed. They must be discovered by a process of thought, they must be held contextually, and they are subject to debate. Suppose an Objectivist philosopher disagrees with Ayn Rand on some particular point. This does not necessarily mean that he rejects her view on all the other principles to which the point in question is logically related. It may well be that he takes the position he does because he regards it as the true implication of those principles. If we disagree with him, we must be prepared to prove him wrong. We cannot assume in advance, without argument, that his alteration would "destroy the system" merely because it is an alteration. A case in point is the present controversy. In regard to the scope of honest error, for example, both Peikoff and I appeal to the basic principles of Objectivism in defense of our respective positions, and both of us argue that the other's position is not compatible with those principles. Even if it could be shown—and I do not think it can be shown—that Ayn Rand would take Peikoff's side on this issue, the question would remain: which position is in fact consistent with the basic principles of Objectivism? That question must be decided by logic, not authority.
This brings us to a final argument for Objectivism as a closed system, an argument that lies close to the surface in Peikoff's essay, and has been put forward explicitly by some Objectivists. The argument is that Ayn Rand's relationship to the philosophy is the same as her relationship to her literary works: she is the author of Objectivism in the same sense that she is the author of Atlas Shrugged . She is accordingly free to stipulate the content of the term. Objectivism includes all and only the philosophical doctrines she embraced, and the system was closed with her death. No one may add to these doctrines, or abandon or revise any of them, and still call himself an Objectivist—just as no one can alter the content of her novels. The attempt to do so, some might add, is like the efforts of the mediocrities in The Fountainhead who claimed the right to disfigure Roark's buildings.
This view is radically mistaken. A literary work is a creation, the concrete embodiment of an idea by a specific author. A philosophy, by contrast, is a body of theoretical knowledge about reality. That is why, as Ayn Rand herself pointed out, a philosophical discovery cannot be copyrighted. [8] The discovery itself, as distinct from a specific text in which it is conveyed, is not the property of the discoverer. Property must be concrete, but a philosophy is a viewpoint that may be held by an open-ended number of people. Moreover, as a body of knowledge, a grasp of certain facts in reality, its content is determined by the nature of those facts, including their relationships and implications, not by anyone's stipulation. Had Ayn Rand omitted the character of Francisco D'Anconia from Atlas Shrugged , no one would be free to invent that character and rewrite the novel without her permission, even if such a revision would represent an improvement. But had she died before she discovered that rights may be violated only by physical force, and had someone else discovered this principle, it would have to be included in Objectivism. The system demands it; the issue of who discovered it is irrelevant.
The implication of everything I've said is that if Objectivism is to be regarded as a philosophy rather than a body of dogma, it cannot be defined in the manner Peikoff demands. The alternative is not, as he claims, the freedom to rewrite Objectivism as one wishes. The alternative is to define it objectively. He himself observes that the essence of a philosophy consists in its fundamental principles. Ayn Rand said a great many things, not all of them fundamental. Even if we restrict our attention to her philosophical statements (which is itself an act of interpretation), we will find that they cover a wide range, from the general to the specific, from the fundamental to the derivative. We need to discriminate among them. We need to ask: What is distinctive about Objectivism? At what key points does it differ from other philosophies? What are the essential principles that give it its internal structure as a system? What are the broad avenues that we keep returning to as we make our way through the philosophy?
An analysis of this kind is a delicate scholarly task. It requires extensive knowledge not only of Objectivism, but also of the other systems from which it must be distinguished. A vast number of considerations must guide one's judgment about whether to include or exclude a given principle. In this context, I cannot lay out all these considerations. Nevertheless, I want to indicate which principles I do include, in order to make it clear what I have in mind when I speak of an Objectivist movement.

What is Objectivism?

In The Objectivist Newsletter, Ayn Rand described the central tenets of her philosophy as follows:
In metaphysics, that reality exists as an objective absolute;
In epistemology, that reason is man's only means of perceiving reality and his only means of survival;
In ethics, that man is an end in himself, with the pursuit of his own life, happiness and self-interest as his highest end;
In politics, laissez-faire capitalism.[9]
Is this the essence of Objectivism? Certainly these four principles are essential. But they are not enough. These are extremely broad doctrines as stated. Every one of them has been defended by other philosophers, and the package as a whole is not too far from the views of many Enlightenment thinkers. If Ayn Rand had said no more than this, we could not credit her with having created a distinctive system, much less a system that provides the fundamental alternative to Kant. She would properly be regarded as a secular and individualist thinker within the Aristotelian tradition. To identify what makes Objectivism unique, we have to be more specific. We need to identify the basic insights and connections that allowed Ayn Rand to give an original defense of the four principles I stated. So let us take a closer look at each of the relevant areas.
In metaphysics, Ayn Rand's view of reality as objective, her view of facts as absolutes, is basically Aristotelian. But her formulation of this view states its essential elements with unprecedented depth and clarity. Her axiom of existence expresses the insight that existence is the primary metaphysical fact, not to be questioned or explained; that the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is meaningless; that existence does not derive from some more fundamental stratum of forms or essences. Her principle of the primacy of existence denies that reality is malleable by consciousness, even a divine consciousness. This closes off the possibility that nature has a supernatural creator—a possibility that Aristotle left open. And it distinguishes her from modern Kantian views which claim that the world we know is merely an appearance, shaped by our own concepts and conventions. Finally, she formulated the laws of identity and causality as axioms that define the realm of metaphysical facts, and that ground the operations of reason.
The law of identity, which says that a thing must have a specific and non-contradictory nature, is the basis for all deductive reasoning. The law of causality, which says that a thing must act in accordance with its nature, is the basis of all inductive reasoning. In epistemology, Ayn Rand also agreed with Aristotle—up to a point. She held that reason is man's means of knowledge, that it gives us the capacity to grasp the world as it is, that the material of knowledge is provided by the senses, that the method of reason is logic, and that this method is grounded in fact. But she went far beyond this. I would say that three of her insights in epistemology are essential to Objectivism.
The first is her concept of objectivity, and her rejection of the false dichotomy between intrinsicism and subjectivism. I described this insight at the beginning of my essay, and have relied upon it throughout. It runs through every part of her epistemology, as well as her ethics and politics; it is the Archimedean point from which she overthrows the Kantian system. A second and closely related insight is her recognition that reason is the faculty of concepts, and that a concept is an integration of particulars on the basis of their similarities. A concept is an abstraction. It is not merely a name for an arbitrary collection of things we happen to classify together, but an integration of them into a new mental unit that expands the range of our knowledge. An abstraction, however, does not exist as such, over and above the concretes it integrates; it is the rule by which they are integrated. So it cannot be divorced from its perceptual basis and allowed to float free. As a result of this theory, Objectivism has a highly distinctive view about what it means to think conceptually, to think in principles—a view that avoids the classic defects of rationalism on the one hand and empiricism on the other.
 
The final point I would mention in epistemology is that reason is a volitional faculty: that conceptual integration, unlike sense-perception, is a cognitive function that must be initiated and directed by choice. This is the essence of our free will, and the source of our need for epistemological standards. It is also the psychological source of hostility toward reason. In analyzing the varieties of irrationalism, as I noted in Section III, Ayn Rand always traced them back to the desire for an effortless, automatic mode of cognition.
This brings us to the fields of ethicsand politics, where Ayn Rand's views were most distinctive. Her most important contribution in ethics is clearly her insight that values are rooted in the phenomenon of life. Values exist because the existence of a living organism depends on its own goal-directed action; in order to survive it must treat certain things as good for it and other things as bad. This is her solution to the notorious is-ought problem in philosophy, the problem of how normative conclusions can be derived from facts about the world, and it provides the basis for an objective ethics.
If we value life, then our nature requires certain kinds of actions, which we identify as virtues. Since reason is our basic means of survival, the primary, essential virtue is rationality: the acceptance of reason as an absolute, and a commitment to the use of rational standards and methods in every issue we confront. All of the other virtues are implicit in rationality; they involve the acceptance and use of reason in specific areas such as judging others (justice) or creating value (productiveness). But the virtue of independence deserves special mention because it also involves the recognition and acceptance of the volitional character of reason. The fact that we must initiate and direct the process of thought means that we must not subordinate our judgment of the facts to the minds of others, no matter how numerous; and that the sense of efficacy that is crucial to self-esteem is ours to achieve by our own effort. In this respect, the virtue of independence is the key link between epistemology and politics. Because reason is volitional, it is a faculty of the individual, whose freedom to act independently, on his own autonomous judgment, must be protected by a system of political rights.
If these are the central virtues in Objectivism, what are the central values? Life, of course, is the fundamental value, but what about the subsidiary values, the ones we need if we are to maintain, fulfill, and enjoy our lives? What is most distinctive to Ayn Rand in this regard is her new about the central role of production in man's life. Productive work, the creation of value, is our basic means of dealing with reality and a precondition for the pursuit of any other value. Psychologically, it is a vital source of one's sense of efficacy and self-worth. Production is not merely a practical necessity; it is man's glory. Our ability to reshape the world in the image of our values, in a world open to our achievement, is the essence of her view of man as a heroic being, a view that shaped and colored everything she wrote.
Finally, we cannot omit her explicit rejection of altruism and the mind-body dichotomy. This is a negative point, but we need to include it because Ayn Rand was virtually without precedent here. Many other philosophers have adopted views that are implicitly egoistic, but few were willing to put their cards on the table, to say explicitly: altruism is wrong, self-sacrifice is a perversion of ethics. The same is true of the dichotomy between mind and body, between the material and the spiritual. Ayn Rand is distinctive in her exalted, idealistic defense of such worldly values as sex and wealth.
 
In politics, the essence of the Objectivist view is the principle of individual rights. The rights of the individual, not the welfare of the collective, provide the moral basis of capitalism. Of course Ayn Rand did not originate the concept of rights; she inherited it from the individualist thinkers of the Enlightenment. Her contribution was to give their political individualism an ethical basis in egoism, the right of each individual to pursue his own happiness; and an epistemological basis in the fact that reason is a faculty of the individual mind. She also identified the fact that rights can be violated only by force. A right is a right to action, not to a good like food, shelter, or medical care, and it can be violated only if someone forcibly prevents one from acting. The political implication of these views is that the government must be strictly limited: limited in function to the protection of rights, and limited in its methods to acting in accordance with objective law.
Such, in briefest outline, is the essential content of Objectivism as a philosophy. Not all of the ideas I've mentioned were discovered by Ayn Rand, but many of them were, and the integration of them into a system was hers. This outline captures the essential principles that distinguish Objectivism from every other viewpoint—no adherent of a rival philosophy would embrace all of them. Conversely, anyone who accepted all of these ideas would have to consider himself an Objectivist. But notice what I have left out. I omitted a number of points in epistemology, ethics, and politics. I omitted the entire field of aesthetics, just as Ayn Rand did in her brief summary. I haven't said anything about the role of philosophy in history, or the identification of Kant as an arch-villain.
I've omitted these things, not because I disagree with them, or because they are unimportant, but because they are not primary. Some are technical theories required to explain and defend the primary claims that I did include. Some are implications and applications of those primary claims. All of them are principles of limited range and significance for the system as a whole. They are logically connected to the points I've mentioned, and they contribute to the richness and power of Objectivism as a system of thought; if we regard them as true, we will naturally include them as elements in the system. But someone may challenge these noncentral tenets without ceasing to be an Objectivist. The outline I gave was not intended as an exhaustive presentation of Objectivism as I understand it. My purpose was to identify the boundaries of the debate and development that may take place within Objectivism as a school of thought.
It's also important to stress that the principles I have mentioned are not to be taken as a list of articles of faith. They are elements in a connected system. I have been asked whether I would consider someone to be an Objectivist if he accepted all these principles but denied some other point—e.g., that honesty is a virtue. My answer is that the question is premature. I would need to know the reason for his position. If he rejects honesty because he doesn't like it, even though he happens to like the points I've mentioned, then he would not be an adherent of the Objectivist philosophy because he is not an adherent of any philosophy. A philosophy is a logically integrated system, not a grab bag of isolated tenets adopted arbitrarily. If the person did have a reason for his position, then I would need to know what it is. I cannot imagine any argument in favor of dishonesty that does not rest on a rejection of rationality, in which case the person is outside the framework of Objectivism. But if his position is that honesty, while good, is not important enough as an issue to be considered a cardinal virtue; or that the scope of legitimate "white lies" is larger than Ayn Rand allowed; or any number of other variant positions in all such cases, I would consider him an Objectivist even if I disagreed with him, as long as he defends his view by reference to the basic principles.
Like any other philosophy, in short, Objectivism has an essential core: a set of basic doctrines that distinguishes it from other viewpoints and serves as the skeleton of the system. The implication is that anyone in substantial agreement with those doctrines is an Objectivist. I believe that a great deal of damage has been done by refusing to take this attitude. It's been thirty years since Atlas Shrugged was published, the length of an entire generation. After all that time, only a handful of philosophers are willing to identify themselves as Objectivists, and our output has been pretty thin; a complete bibliography would not amount to much. This is partly because Objectivism lies so far outside the main-stream of academic thought. But another reason is the insistence on defining Objectivism in the narrow fashion that Peikoff urges, and the atmosphere of dogmatism that accompanies it. In the name of preserving the purity and integrity of the system, Objectivists have too often relied on stereotypical formulations of Ayn Rand's ideas. They have been quick to pounce on thinkers who might have been their allies. They have greeted new extensions of the system with a timid caution that reminds me of the Council of Scholars in Anthem, who spent fifty years debating the wisdom of accepting that radical innovation, the candle. These policies have discouraged independent thinking, they have driven away creative minds, they have kept Objectivism from being the living, growing philosophy it could be.

The Objectivist Movement

The attitudes I have described are part of a larger pattern that has characterized the Objectivist movement throughout its brief history. A great deal has been written about this pattern, and I have no wish to swell the literature. I am neither an historian nor a sociologist. But we need to examine the pattern briefly because it represents the embodiment in practice of the theoretical view that the philosophy is closed.
An intellectual movement is a widescale phenomenon, involving a great many individuals, operating across a span of time and across an entire culture. In this sense it is obviously premature to call Objectivism a movement. But given our aspirations, it is worth dwelling for a moment on the characteristics of movements in general. In a particular discipline of knowledge, a movement involves many individual thinkers who share a common methodology and a common framework, but who work within that framework, exploring new connections among the ideas and extending their reach to new areas. For all the reasons I have stated, this activity requires open discussion and debate. Within the wider cultural arena, the impulse of the ideas flows through thousands of channels: literature and other forms of art, journalism and commentary, educational reform, political activism.
This activity cannot be planned and directed by a central authority, just as economic activity cannot be so planned. The issues are too complex, the cognitive needs and perspectives of the people involved are too diverse. What we have instead is a marketplace of ideas. Competition is as healthy for the production and exchange of ideas as it is for the production and exchange of material goods. So a real movement will not have a single leader. At any given time there will be a number of individuals who distinguish themselves by their work. There will be a dense network of personal relationships and organized groups. There will be rivalries and coalitions. There will be fallings-out. That's the way a movement works.
But it's not the way Objectivism has worked. The Objectivist movement has exhibited certain features that have led some people to describe it as a cult. That term is not accurate: in the literal sense, a cult is based on a religious or other nonrational doctrine, which is clearly not the case with Objectivism. A more accurate term for the phenomenon in question is "tribalism." I use this term in Ayn Rand's sense, to refer to a social and psychological syndrome that can attach to any set of ideas, even rational ones. The tribal person experiences his own identity as dependent on membership in the tribe. He feels that without the group he would be lost, he would not be the person he is, he would not recognize himself. He tends to seek friendships within the tribe, because it is only with other members that he can have a sense of shared identity. He tends to shun outsiders, viewing them with suspicion and hostility. Loyalty to the group is a cardinal value, and it is maintained partly by a sense of Us against Them. A tribalist fears nothing more than expulsion from the group. That represents a metaphysical threat, the loss of self. So he tends to avoid questioning or disagreeing with the leaders of the group over any issue where expulsion is a real possibility. Indeed, he tends to rely on those leaders generally in deciding what to think, what to do. He substitutes authority for his own independent judgment.
Within the Objectivist movement, a tribal element has long been at war with a rational one. The rational element is a real and important side of the movement. Objectivism has been a positive and liberating influence for many people. It has set them free to develop their talents, realize their dreams, achieve their happiness. But I think it's clear to any objective observer that there is a tribal element as well.
Objectivism is a philosophy of benevolence. It sees the world as an open sunlit field, where success is the norm, where we can approach others with the expectation that they will be rational. And many Objectivists have this attitude. But there's also a darker streak in the movement. Many Objectivists seem shut off from the world, profoundly alienated, seeking friends only among other Objectivists, regarding outsiders with suspicion. They speak freely of the enemies of Objectivism, often with a paranoid sense that the world is scheming to destroy us. They suspect that anyone who succeeds outside the movement must have sold his soul, as in Peikoff's dark allusion to those who "have one foot... in the Objectivist world and the rest of themselves planted firmly in the conventional world." [10] Objectivist publications have been largely negative in content, filled with horror-file items rather than positive contributions to knowledge. Objectivists sometimes seem to take perverse pleasure in contemplating the awfulness of their enemies. And some have acquired a zest for moral condemnation, an act that benevolent people experience as the occasion for sadness and disappointment.
Again, Objectivism is a philosophy of independence, but within the movement there has always been a certain pressure for conformity in thought and action. when people join an ideological group out of an antecedent and independent belief in its ideas, one expects to find agreement in basic outlook. One does not expect the degree of uniformity—down to matters of personal dress and style, aesthetic preferences, beliefs about political strategy or sexual psychology—that characterized the Objectivist movement, especially in its earlier days. Such conformity was produced in part by a fear of moral condemnation for deviant attitudes or values, a fear that was not without foundation. And in part it was produced by a willingness to substitute authority for independent judgment. In my experience it was not uncommon, especially during the various purges and schisms, to hear explicit appeals to authority: "if Ayn Rand says that so-and-so is a rotter, then he must be; could the author of Atlas Shrugged be wrong about it?"
One of the arresting things about Howard Roark, the hero of the The Fountainhead, is his contempt for cliques, status-seekers, gossip, social hierarchies and social climbing, and all the behavior of courtiers and yes-men. Yet the Objectivist movement has always had an inner circle, an extremely well-defined hierarchy whose members are ranked as much by loyalty as by merit. Many are contemptuous and condescending toward those below them, fearful and fawning toward those above. With a few notable exceptions they have not produced much original work. In "Fact and Value," Peikoff refers to those who "drift away from Ayn Rand's orbit." [11] The context suggests he thinks it better to remain in her orbit. The striking thing is his metaphor, the image of planets moving passively in the gravitational field of the sun—some nearer, some farther, but all revolving around the center. This is not an image one associates with Roark.
The roots of tribalism, as Ayn Rand explained, are psycho-epistemological: a failure to achieve a fully conceptual mode of functioning.
The anticonceptual mentality takes most things as irreducible primaries and regards them as 'self-evident.' It treats concepts as if they were (memorized) percepts; it treats abstractions as if they were perceptual concretes.
A person who functions in this way "can cope only with men who are bound by the same concretes." Because his ideas and values are not based on a rational process of conceptual integration, he has no method of applying them, and must rely on tradition or authority; for the same reason, he must regard anyone with different ideas or values as a threat. The anti-conceptual mind is thus dependent on the group.
The basic commandment of all such groups, which takes precedence over any other rules, is: loyalty to the group—not to ideas but to people; not to the group's beliefs, which are minimal and chiefly ritualistic; but to the group's members and leaders.[12]
Given the concrete-bound nature of the tribalist, the common bonds that unite most tribes are concrete: race or ethnicity, family membership, a common workplace or occupation, residence in a neighborhood, region, or nation. But their are also intellectual tribes that form around original and charismatic thinkers like Marx or Freud. Though their beliefs are not "minimal and chiefly ritualistic," these groups have the features of more primitive tribes: a feeling of shared identity, an embattled sense of hostility toward outsiders, an emphasis on loyalty to the group, and especially to its leader. But certain other features are peculiar to intellectual tribes. They derive from the fact that the abstract doctrines uniting the group are treated as perceptual concretes.
One such feature is a demand for ideological purity, and the expulsion of those who question or modify any point in the original doctrine. The distinction between essential and nonessential, between the fundamental and the derivative, applies to abstractions; it does not apply to concretes. Concretes are what they are; they are all equally real. A concrete-bound mind therefore has great difficulty with this distinction. When such a mind espouses an abstract doctrine, it treats every element in the doctrine as equally important, and any challenge as equally threatening. Hence the demand for purity—a demand to which Peikoff gives voice in the conclusion of his essay.
Invoking his authority as Ayn Rand's "intellectual and legal heir," he urges those who disagree with him to banish themselves:
...please drop out of our movement: drop Ayn rand, leave Objectivism alone. We do not want you... It is perhaps too early for their to be a mass movement of Objectivists. But let those of us who are Objectivists at least make sure that what we are spreading is Ayn Rand's actual ideas, not some distorted hash of them. Let us make sure that in the quest for a national following we are not subverting the integrity of the philosophy to which we are dedicated. [13]
Notice that Peikoff is concerned, not with spreading the truth, but with spreading Ayn Rand's actual ideas; this is his criterion for the integrity of the philosophy. The attitude is typical of an intellectual tribe. As a result, such tribes are characterized by constant purges and schisms; Objectivism has been far from unique in this regard.
A second feature is a certain method of dealing with dissent. The anti-conceptual mentality is intrinsicist: it regards concepts and principles as self-evident, as if they were concretes that could be perceived directly, without the need for integration. Any dissent, accordingly, must be a kind of blindness, a perceptual defect that is not to be answered by arguments, but explained by appeal to causes. And every tribal doctrine contains a theory designed to provide such an explanation. Marxists dismissed the objections of their opponents as expressions of bourgeois class interest. Freudians interpreted all criticism as a sign of unconscious psychological problems. These self-protective mechanisms insulate the doctrine from any challenge or counter-evidence, producing a closed system of belief. Ultimately they insulate the doctrine from evidence altogether; they are fundamentally irrational. This is why the issue of the scope of honest error has a vital significance for Objectivism. If we assume in advance that anyone who rejects our ideas must be irrational, we have started down the path that turned Marxism and Freudianism into secular religions.
All of the tribal features I've mentioned have been countered to some extent by the rational content of the philosophy, and by the many benevolent, independent, rational, nondogmatic, fully conceptual minds it has attracted. All of these features, moreover, have been identified and denounced by the leaders of the movement during various periods of reform. As a result, the Objectivist movement has never had the fully tribal, anticonceptual character of the other doctrines I have cited. It has been the intellectual equivalent of a mixed economy. But another tribal feature has never been addressed, and the failure to do so has undercut every effort at reform. This final trait—the saddest to write of—is the deification of the founder.
Ayn Rand deserves admiration for her achievements, for her independence of mind, for her courage in staying true to her vision through a firestorm of public abuse. She deserves gratitude for the knowledge she gave us. The difference between a rational school of thought and an intellectual tribe is an attitude that goes beyond such admiration and gratitude. A tribe regards the ideas uniting its members as embodied in some unique form in its founder, so that the founder's person and actions have a transcendent kind of value, his assertions have a kind of authority transcending the method used to support them, and attacks on him represent a transcendent form, the very depths, of evil. This attitude was described by religious thinkers as idolatry, or worshipping the concrete symbol in place of what it represents, and Ayn Rand has been its object. For many Objectivists, the truth, the power, the grandeur, the overriding importance of her ideas became vested in her as a person—and, through connection with her, in certain other individuals and organizations—as if there were no distinction between the abstract philosophy and these particular concretes.
 
The various breaks and excommunications provide the most striking illustration of this problem. Every case with which I am familiar involved some action that was regarded as an insult or injury to Ayn Rand as a person. These actions took place in the context of complex personal or business relationships, the details of which were often not known to those who joined in the condemnations, demonizing the offender as they had deified Ayn Rand. In many cases the actions had no bearing on the person's commitment to the philosophy, yet he was denounced as an enemy of Objectivism and no further reference could be made to his ideas or writings. In this way, personal conflicts were thus elevated to the status of public issues.
These episodes had an air of moral hysteria about them. The standards of moral judgment I described in Section I were routinely violated: little effort was made to hear the other side of the story; the worst possible motives were attributed without considering any alternative explanations; the person's prior record of achievement was ignored or explained away. The degree of animus against these offenders often seemed out of all proportion to the alleged offense. And I knew people who were more upset at what they thought was done to Ayn Rand than they would have been were it done to themselves. They seethed with borrowed anger in the most violent of these episodes, that of Nathaniel Branden, the real nature of the wrong he did Ayn Rand was not even known to most of those who denounced him as a moral monster.
The most damaging aspect of idolatry is the feeling that any flaw in Ayn Rand as a person means a flaw in the philosophy, with the implication that any evidence of such flaws is metaphysically threatening. In effect (to paraphrase Dostoyevsky), people felt that if Ayn Rand is not perfect, then everything is permitted. I'm convinced that this explains some of the virulence of the reaction to Barbara Branden's book. [14]
It is clear to me that Ayn Rand was a woman of remarkable integrity, who largely embodied the virtues she espoused. But it is also clear that she had certain other traits often found in great minds who have waged a lonely battle for their ideas: a tendency to surround herself with acolytes from whom she demanded declarations of agreement and loyalty; a growing sense of bitter isolation from the world; a quickness to anger at criticism; a tendency to judge people harshly and in haste. These faults did not outweigh her virtues; I consider them of minor significance in themselves.  But they were real, and I thought Branden's book, whatever its other shortcomings, gave a reasonably fair and perceptive account of them.
All of this is arguable, of course. But it should have been argued, and it wasn't. When the book appeared, I was shocked by the refusal of many prominent Objectivists to discuss the issues it raised, and their tendency to condemn anyone who did. Peter Schwartz spent most of his review attacking Branden's credibility by impugning her motives, but then concluded that it didn't matter if the events in the book had actually occurred, since Ayn Rand should be judged by her works. [15] Leonard Peikoff said that in deciding what to think of the book you should ask yourself: "What do you believe is possible to a man—or a woman? What kind of soul do you think it takes to write Atlas Shrugged? And what do you want to see in a historic figure?" [16] The common denominator of these arguments is their indifference to the truth. And the truth in this case was of special importance.
The Passion of Ayn Rand appeared at a time when the Objectivist movement was trying to rid itself of moralism and judgementalism, trying to restore a sense of openness, spontaneity, and benevolence. This was the theme of Peikoff's lecture series "Understanding Objectivism," and a frequent topic of discussion among Objectivists. To deal with these problems, however, we had to know their source. I do not believe that Ayn Rand herself was entirely responsible for the tribal character of the movement. Whatever role her personality played, it was surely amplified by the aims and fears of her followers. To assume a priori, however, that she had nothing to do with these problems was an act of bad faith on the part of those who professed a desire for reform.
Peikoff in particular has blinked in the face of this final recognition, and in recoil from it has now reversed the positive trend he helped initiate. This, I think, is the real meaning of "Fact and Value." The contradictions and equivocations I have pointed out at length reflect an effort to read Ayn Rand's personality into her philosophy, to twist the principles of Objectivism into a rationalization for her flaws. In the name of objectivity and a commitment to values, he is demanding that we emulate the touchy and intolerant moralism of her worst moments.
If the Objectivist movement is to have a future, it must reject this demand, and all the other tribal policies to which it leads. As Ayn Rand said, "a proper association is united by ideas, not by men, and its members are loyal and true to the ideas, not to the group." [17] Objectivism is first and foremost a philosophy. Anyone who subscribes to the philosophy is an Objectivist, and anyone who works to realize its intellectual, political, or cultural potential is part of the Objectivist movement—regardless of his relationship or personal history with any particular individual or group. Let us abandon the notion of a central authority with the power to define an orthodoxy and expel dissenters. As long as we think in such terms, what we are thinking about is not a movement but a tribe.
Since our ideas are founded on reason, let us make sure that we associate on terms consistent with the needs and standards of rationality. Rational knowledge is acquired by integrating the facts, by sifting and weighing the evidence, and a vital part of this process is open discussion and debate. We should encourage this process. Rationality means integrity, a loyalty to the conclusions of one's own mind. We should honor this, even in a person whose conclusions we disagree with. Rationality requires justice, adhering strictly to the facts in judging other people, and applying moral standards impartially. We should practice this. And a rational person is independent. Above all, as I said in "A Question of Sanction," let's encourage this virtue within our own ranks. Let us welcome dissent, and the restless ways of the explorers among us.
These are the policies appropriate to an open system, a philosophy of reason.

 NOTES: 
1 - Leonard Peikoff, "Fact and Value," The Intellectual Activist V, May 18, 1989. p. 5-6. Cited hereafter as FV.
2 - Ibid.
3 - For the New Intellectual (New York: New American Library, 1961), 14ff.
4 - I include in this assessment the whole of her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology; the whole of For the New Intellectual, which includes all the philosophical passages from her novels; all of her theoretical essays in ethics, politics, and aesthetics; and her essays about the nature of philosophy and particular philosophers.   The total comes to something under 600 pages, about the length of a standard college reader that brings together the important writings of a philosopher.
5 -FV, 5.
6 - Ibid.
7 - Ibid.
8 - Ayn Rand, "Patents and Copyrights," in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. (New York: New American Library, 1967) p. 22.
9 - Ayn Rand, "Introducing Objectivism," The Objectivist Newsletter I (Aug. 1962), 35.
10 -FV, 5.
11 - Ibid.
12 - Ayn Rand, "The Missing Link," in Philosophy: Who Needs It?. (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1982), 46, 48, 50.
13 -FV. 5-6.
14 - Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986).
15 - Peter Schwartz, Letter to readers of The Intellectual Activist, Aug. 20, 1986.
16 - Leonard Peikoff, "My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand: An Intellectual Memoir," in The Objectivist Forum 8 (1987), 15.
17 - Rand, "The Missing Links", 54.

spiderID=502

David Kelley

About The Author:

Author: David Kelley
David Kelley is the founder and executive director of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.