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


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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.

Posted by on October 26, 2016. Filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
  • Peter Reidy

    The claim that Rand coined “psycho-epistemology” is open to debate; the evidence I’m aware of suggests that Barbara Branden did.
    The first piece of evidence is that she said so (on one of the Objectivist web forums – Rebirth of Reason as memory serves) – and she was there, as we were not. The second is that she was giving a multi-lecture course on the topic (Principles of Efficient Thinking) at NBI some months before Rand used the term in passing in “For the New Intellectual”.

  • Albionic American

    Solve for Objectivism:

    Objectivism + Man ≈ Man

    In other words: What “achievement”? If you view Ayn Rand’s philosophy as a product Rand introduced into the market nearly 60 years ago when she published Atlas Shrugged, then it has failed in the market by objective standards.

    And don’t argue otherwise from the artificial sales figures of her novels. The Ayn Rand Institute buys bulk quantities of Rand’s novels and gives them away to captives in high schools as part of its essay contests, whether these youngsters want to read them or not. This practice sends bad price signals about the value of Rand’s works, distorts the market and misallocates resources, as Ludwig von Mises would have pointed out. Without the Ayn Rand Institute’s interference into the market, people would have mostly forgotten her by now.

    As for her alleged influence, our elites just ignore her, even if they’ve read her works, because they already accept a lot of her world view regarding sexual freedom, feminist degeneracy, open borders, selfishness, self-esteem and the accumulation of most of society’s wealth by a handful of people because they allegedly “deserve” it. They have just arrived at these doctrines via routes different from hers.

    The rest of Rand’s philosophy they reject because they find it unworkable or uninteresting. I doubt any elite individual has lost sleep because Rand’s philosophical works like The Romantic Manifesto challenged his beliefs.

    And this makes sense in a way. Rand came from a background in theater and cinema – she worked in Hollywood for part of her life, like many Jewish immigrants in her generation. In other words, she made a living presenting dreams and fantasies for audiences. This led her to view the philosophical life as a matter of looking and acting in certain ways for spectators – in other words, as a kind of theater – instead of doing practical things to reform the abuses of the state. We can see this clearly in the accounts of Rand’s life where she stages a lot of dramatic action that accomplishes nothing to make Americans’ lives better.

    And we can also see the uselessness of Rand’s philosophy when you consider that she had a relatively easy life in the U.S., apart from the problems she created for herself in her later years. She could publish and say whatever she wanted about government regulations, taxation, fiat money and central banking, yet no one in authority retaliated against her by censoring her writings, causing her to lose work or making her humiliate herself publicly by retracting her statements and disavowing her beliefs. You have to target our elites at a quite different area if you want to get that kind of response from them. But that requires a different discussion.