Ayn Rand’s Philosophic Achievement: Guest Post by Dr. Harry Binswanger


This article is reprinted with permission from the Harry Binswanger Letter, a paid discussion forum for Objectivists, moderated by Dr. Binswanger. For more information or to sign up for a free trial, visit: http://www.hbletter.com

Ayn Rand’s achievement in philosophy is so immense that to do it justice in an article would take an Ayn Rand.

From “existence exists” to a new definition of Romanticism in art; from the theory of universals to the nature of self-esteem; from the role of the mind in production to the esthetics of music; from the metaphysical status of sensory qualities to the need for objective law-like a philosophical Midas, any area she touched turned to knowledge. And all this from a novelist, a novelist who found that to define her concept of an ideal man she had to answer basic philosophical questions, and that each answer she reached confirmed, strengthened, and added to her previous answers, until she had formulated an invincible philosophic system.

That system, Objectivism, has many distinctions: its originality, its independence of philosophic tradition, its integration—but these aspects become irrelevant in light of what is most distinctive about Ayn Rand’s philosophy: it is true.

One of the greatest and rarest of philosophic achievements is to add a valid concept to the language. Ayn Rand left us a whole vocabulary. She formed new concepts—e.g., “psycho-epistemology,” “sense of life,” “concept-stealing.” She took traditional terms, gave them rational definitions, and transformed then into the solid girders of her intellectual structure—e.g., “reason,” “essence,” “selfishness,” “rights,” “art.” Then there were the floating abstractions, the package-deals, and the anti-concepts (three more of her terms) that she demolished—e.g., “duty,” “extremism,” “the public interest.”

Blasting away false alternatives, she drew her own distinctions in terms of essentials: “the primacy of existence vs. the primacy of consciousness,” “the intrinsic and the subjective vs. the objective,” “the metaphysical vs. the man-made,” “selfishness vs. sacrifice,” “errors of knowledge vs. breaches of morality,” “economic power vs. political power. ”

In an age that scorns consistency and integration, Ayn Rand created a unified, hierarchically ordered system. Consider, for example, her definition of capitalism: “Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.”  Supporting that definition is a theory of individual rights: “A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”

Supporting that, in turn, is a theory of morality, of the nature of principles and their role in human life, of man’s nature, of freedom, and of society. And supporting each of these elements there are further principles—e.g., supporting her concept of freedom is the distinction between initiated and retaliatory physical force, the connection between voluntary action and free will, the relationship of free will to the law of causality, the basis of causality in the law of identity, and the relationship of the axiom of identity to the axiom of existence. Such is the power, and the glory, of Ayn Rand’s thought.

Words are the tools of thought. Today, when philosophers are staring blankly at these tools, while the best among them are trying to use saws as hammers and the average ones are “proving” that saws do not exist, Ayn Rand created the intellectual equivalents of the electron microscope and the computerized laser drill.

In the explosion of philosophical knowledge Ayn Rand produced, I would single out six landmarks—six breakthroughs representing the major turning points in philosophy:

  1. The primacy of existence
  2. The theory of concepts
  3. The theory of free will
  4. Man’s Life as the standard of morality
  5. The moral basis of individual rights
  6. The psycho-epistemology of art…

To continue reading, visit the blog Value for Value.

Creative commons licensed image courtesy of Flickr user david_jones.

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