Shayne Wissler
“… to understand is, above all, to unify.” – Albert Camus

The problem with Objectivism

February 10 2017

draft; not perfect yet

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” -– Vince Lombardi

It’s a reasonably obvious tenet that, for human beings, perfection is a path, not a destination.

Ayn Rand, aghast by what she saw as bumbling incompetents presuming to be able to speak for her, did the equivalent of dynamiting Cortlandt (see The Fountainhead) to her “philosophy of reason”, particularly qua movement (The Objectivist Forum, 1980):

If you wonder why I am so particular about protecting the integrity of the term “Objectivism,” my reason is that “Objectivism” is the name I have given to my philosophy – therefore, anyone using that name for some philosophical hodgepodge of his own, without my knowledge or consent, is guilty of the fraudulent presumption of trying to put thoughts into my brain (or of trying to pass his thinking off as mine – an attempt which fails, for obvious reasons). … If you agree with some tenets of Objectivism, but disagree with others, do not call yourself an Objectivist; give proper authorship credit for the parts you agree with – and then indulge any flights of fancy you wish, on your own.

I submit that this is hysterical and neurotic, and incredibly damaging to anyone who actually prostrates themselves to it.

It is hysterical and neurotic, because in the real world, nobody is going to honestly confuse Ayn Rand’s literal words with someone enunciating his own interpretation of what she had to say. It is true that when someone is reporting on what you said and then gets it wrong, it can be incredibly frustrating. It can be an outright injustice – they might be purposefully misrepresenting you. However it is an available fact to anyone that this happens all the time, and that in any given case, if you want to know what was really said then you have to go to the source.

Who is actually going to take Ayn Rand’s advice and not speak on their own belief of what she said? Certainly not her opponents. So she’s gagging her friends and leaving her opponents free to speak. This is only damaging to the spreading of her own ideas.

Note well the implication of “philosophical hodgepodge of his own” or “flights of fancy you wish.” What this implicitly claims is that Objectivism is true and final, and if anyone in the future thinks they have found an error, they are preemptively wrong and are only creating a “hodgepodge.” This is insulting and denigrating to all authentic thinkers. So then all the authentic thinkers leave her. Again, this is only damaging to Objectivism.

Compare Ayn Rand’s foolish attitude to the wise words of Thomas Jefferson:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

— Jefferson Memorial

Ayn Rand, nobody is trying to put their thoughts in your brain or corrupt the identity of what you wrote. It’s still there, being accurately printed for everyone to see, like it always has been. If people start publishing words you didn’t write, then we should all be outraged. But as of this writing, people are simply either speaking their sincere opinion about what they thought you thought, or they are purposefully misrepresenting you. Attacking the former as if they are the latter is not only unjust it is foolish.

Furthermore, in Objectivism, on the one hand we have a philosophy that wants to integrate itself to human institution (it would like to tell culture, university, government how they ought to function), but on the other, in effect refuses to accept the fact that it is a human creation and therefore in need of continuous improvement, and must face and not evade rational criticism. Indeed, the word we would use for a set of beliefs that is not open to criticism is not “philosophy” but rather “cult.” Objectivism can decide it wants to be a cult if it wants to, but then it should not use the term “philosophy of reason” to describe itself. An authentic philosophy of reason is open to rational criticism and dynamically strives to become the best version of itself. Institutionally, this means that all scholars are not merely reporters but are critical analysts of the philosophy, seeking to find the philosophy’s limitations and errors, and then fix them.

Some might claim that that’s not what they mean by “Objectivism”, that for them Objectivism is the static set of ideas that Ayn Rand set forth. Fine, but then it is not philosophy, it is history. You should stop inaccurately characterizing it as philosophy and only describe it as “ideas Ayn Rand developed in her lifetime.” Again, if you are doing rational philosophy, then you are forever open to rational criticism; and more importantly, if the criticism succeeds, then revising your institutions accordingly. Show me the channels the institutions of Objectivism have left open, whereby we can submit this criticism for review, because I have plenty.

Again from The Objectivist Forum:

If you should ask why I take all these precautions, while other philosophers do not, I shall answer: today – when modern philosophers reject the concepts of reason, existence, reality, logic, proof, knowledge, integration, system, and regard philosophy as a verb, not a noun (they are not studying or creating philosophy they are “doing” it) – mine is the only philosophic system that holds consistency as a necessary virtue.

Ayn Rand writes elsewhere that:

Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action.

She defines life as action, and then objects that her philosophy is not an action. What then does her philosophy have to do with life? Ideas don’t live in books they live in the mind. Ayn Rand is dead, so quite literally, her philosophy is dead. It’s up to us to carry our own philosophy forward. It is wise to take from Ayn Rand’s writing what withstands rational scrutiny, leaving the rest to history.

For her, “consistency” is – evidently – not logical consistency, but compliance with her own unchanging dogmas. A static philosophy such as this can only be good in a relative sense: for the individual coming from an even worse viewpoint, it might lift them up. But once they get what Objectivism has to offer, should they keep moving in a positive direction or should they become sclerotic dogmatists like Ayn Rand was? Any real, living philosophy of reason has to be put to work by real interpreting human beings, and so cannot be written in stone[1]. We cannot solve the problem that incompetents do screw things up by putting everyone – competent and incompetent alike – in a mental straight-jacket.

  1. For the dim-witted and the trolls: No that doesn’t mean that there aren’t eternal truths. It doesn’t mean that our formulations won’t withstand all rational criticism and remain, eternally (“A is A” comes to mind). What it means is that in principle we are open to hearing the case that we as fallible human beings might have made an error, or may be able to further improve something that was already good.