Sunday, August 21, 2005

Column on Ayn Rand & Philosophy (sans typo)

Ayn Rand and Philosophy

Tibor R. Machan

Over the years I have endured a lot of shunning and derision from
colleagues because I have admired Ayn Rand?s philosophical contributions.
Rand, who was widely know for her novels, mainly The Fountainhead and
Atlas Shrugged, sketched an ambitious philosophical system, Objectivism,
but she has never presented her ideas in the customary forums of academic
philosophy, namely, the peer reviewed journals and in books published by
prestigious publishers of books in the field. Rand was also way ahead of
everyone else in American culture in identifying the Soviet system as
vicious and vile, so she alienated nearly everyone on the Left, while
because of her lack of religious faith most on the Right also have given
her the back of their hands.

Yet she is a very popular novelist and has in time inspired a good many
scholars to explore her ideas in the various branches of philosophy and
political economy. And she has also made some novel and radical
contributions to the discipline the practitioners of which have mostly
shown disdain toward her. One, especially, is extremely vital. This is
Rand?s novel understanding of the nature of human knowledge.

A fatal flaw of much of philosophical reflection about what it is to know
has been, from Plato to our own time, that knowledge requires timeless
certainty. If you know, the story has gone, then it must be impossible to
even conceive that you are wrong. Knowledge must be absolute, perfect,
incorrigible, finished, and, as it is sometimes put, "in the final

But this view of knowledge is an impossible ideal. Given, however, its
prevalence, the result has been a great deal of skepticism. Mostly the
prominent view is that we cannot really know, actually, or if we can,
perhaps, it?s just an approximation; maybe all we can have is probable
knowledge; and so the story goes.

And this has been especially influential with regard to knowledge about
right and wrong, good and evil. Most erudite thinkers shy from claiming
any such thing?what we think of right and wrong, good and evil, is mostly
bias, prejudice, the viewpoint of our gang, no better or worse than the
viewpoint of some other gang.

What Rand has proposed is that human beings, if they do the hard work,
can obtain knowledge just fine and dandy. And there is, of course, ample
evidence of this throughout the sciences, in technology and, let?s not
forget it, ordinary life. But what is this human knowledge?

As the name of her system makes evident, the key to knowledge is
objectivity. As Rand herself puts the point, in her book Introduction to
Objectivist Epistemology,

Objective validity is determined by reference to the facts of reality. But
it is man who has to identify the facts; objectivity requires discovery by
man?and cannot precede man's knowledge, i.e., cannot require omniscience.
Man cannot know more than he has discovered?and he may not know less than
the evidence indicates, if his concepts and definitions are to be
objectively valid.

No, I cannot establish my claim here that Rand did make a major
contribution to philosophy, specifically to the theory of knowledge. But I
can testify that this contention is very plausibly arguable, in light of
what I know of her work in this area of the discipline. And Rand herself
knew quite well that she was making such a contribution.

Ayn Rand was and is mostly known for her championing of capitalism, of
ethical egoism, of a naturalist understanding of the world, and her
romantic realism in literature. But she has always insisted that the most
vital contribution to the field of ideas has been her understanding of the
relationship between the human mind and reality, namely, of human
knowledge. What she has achieved is to establish, firmly?to quote another
philosopher, Gilbert Harman, on this topic, one who, I believe, expressed
well the spirit of Rand?s notion?that we must ?take care not to adopt a
very skeptical attitude nor become too lenient about what is to count as

Only one other contemporary philosophers I know of has advance this
understanding of human knowledge, namely, J. L. Austin, in his essay
?Other Minds.? And it is an extremely vital point to make, indeed, for
without a clear grasp of what it is to know, human beings are vulnerable
to all kinds of charlatanism.

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