Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

What Ayn Rand got wrong in “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology”

February 26 2023

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

— Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1872)

This is a brief overview of some of the things Rand got wrong in her most basic philosophical treatise, “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.”[1].

(1) Her understanding of the history of philosophy is wrong at various points. In particular irony, she equates nominalism with subjectivism, but that isn’t what the term means. Sure, nominalism does include some philosophies that are subjective, but nominalism doesn’t stipulate subjectivism. It is not nominalism’s “Conceptual Common Denominator” or “distinguishing characteristic” (to use her phrases). Indeed, Rand is being very “concrete bound” in her definition of nominalism, and her own theory is arguably nominalist.

(2) Rand claims that percepts are “the given.” This is really a horrendously bogus point: we can and must question our percepts, and for good reason: sometimes they are false! Indeed, a great way to create a dogmatic cult would be to claim that percepts are “the given,” i.e. not-to-be-questioned. (And for the chattering peanut gallery: no, I am not in any way implying here that the senses are invalid.)

(3) Rand claims that adults have lost the ability they had as infants to process sensory information except in terms of their automatic bundling as percepts. And yet, adults are able to learn how to paint realistic portraits, i.e. to disregard what they think they see and paint what is actually there, precisely by disregarding their percepts and via certain techniques identifying the sensations instead.

(4) Rand claims to have hit upon the key difference between man and animal: man’s ability to regard things as a unit. And yet it’s plainly obvious that other animals can do that as well. A dog has no problem identifying differently shaped bones as bones, a chimpanzee can manage to recognize one species of banana as food one day, and then a different species as food the next. (The real difference between man and animal is identified here.)

(5) Rand’s incessant consulting of how infants/children allegedly think only distracts and detracts from her theory. Even if she were correct, it’s completely irrelevant to adult epistemology: adults do not need to consult children in order to validate their own knowledge, and anyone who claims that they do is probably selling you a childish epistemology. As far as I know, this procedure is completely novel to Objectivism; no serious philosophers in history do any such thing, but only Rand and her acolytes.

(6) Rand claims “concepts cannot be formed at random.” At this point, her theory becomes ambiguous, and Objectivists will probably split about 50/50 in addressing the following:

Supposing that I do pick some random items to refer to by some name, and supposing I constantly refer to them by that name (so there is no inherent contradiction in my use of the term) then what exactly is that? For those who claim that that’s not a concept, then supposing that an Objectivist had thought they formed a concept by following Rand’s rules, and then much later they found that they had broken a rule, then since it had allegedly never been a concept the whole time, what sort of thing was it really?

In other words, normal adults clearly have the freedom and ability to mean whatever they want by a given term, even “at random.” And such referring isn’t meaningless so long as the law of non-contradiction is followed. You don’t get to legitimately say “you didn’t follow Rand’s rules, ergo your statements that use your random but well-defined term are meaningless.” This critical capacity – what we might term “meaning” in its most basic sense – subsumes Rand’s theory of concepts, yet she makes no reference to it. Even while it’s in plain sight and has direct relevance to her own “theory.”

I predict that some Objectivists will insist that “at random” is inherently wrong and meaningless and that they can ignore anyone who does that, and that the less-dogmatic sort of Objectivist will accept the procedure but claim that Rand intended not to address it, even though it is a basic capacity that is highly relevant to her theory.

(None of this should be construed as denying the importance and validity of the classical form of many concepts, including definition by genus and differentia and the law of excluded middle. But such form goes back to at least Aristotle, it is not unique to Rand. So in spite of her detailed articulation of it, such aspect of her theory does not belong to her.)

(7) Rand introduces her “measurement omission” theory of concept formation by (allegedly) walking us through how a child grasps the concept “length.” In one of the more silly moments in the history of philosophy, Rand answers this interesting question by baldly stating that he simply “observes that length is the [sic] attribute they have in common, but their specific lengths differ” and “Length must exist in some quantity, but it may exist in any quantity.” In other words, Rand has omitted the interesting question of how we come to understand length in the first place, assumed such understanding (i.e. she begged the question), and then blithely moved on to her “measurement omission” articulation of the fact that different lengths differ.


While I could continue dissecting her errors I think the foregoing is quite sufficient.

In spite of her critics, Rand was a brilliant novelist and we can respect her on those grounds, even in spite of some dangerous ideas in her novels – such as blowing up buildings as if it were a reasonable remedy for intellectual property theft, or giving up on your creative craft (“shrugging”) and therefore your own best personal identity, rather than suffering injustice for it, as did Galileo.

But she was not a good philosopher. Indeed, some of the bad ideas in her novels happened precisely because she wasn’t a good philosopher. Compounding this problem is that she is a very good dogmatist and has inspired such trait in her fans, which has created a minor-scale intellectual plague.

  1. A version of this review is posted at Amazon