Our History and Mission

Note: The Institute for Objectivist Studies ceased to exist as an active organization as of October 23, 2013.

This much is true: the most selfish of all things is the independent mind that recognizes no authority higher than its own and no value higher than its judgment of truth.

–Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The website you’re now reading, and the organization behind it, were founded in March 2013 by Irfan Khawaja and Carrie-Ann Biondi, professors of philosophy at New York City-area institutions with long-standing interests in Objectivism.[1] As some readers may remember, the name “Institute for Objectivist Studies” (IOS) harks back to an older organization of the same name, founded in 1990 by David Kelley and George Walsh. The creation of this older IOS (call it “IOS-1990”) was a response to what has come to be called “the Kelley-Peikoff split”—a euphemism for the disgraceful anathematization and expulsion from the Objectivist movement of David Kelley by Leonard Peikoff and Peter Schwartz, supported in turn by the rank and file of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI).[2]

As the phrase “Institute for Objectivist Studies” suggests, IOS-1990 concentrated its efforts on the academic or quasi-academic study of Objectivism as a philosophical system rather than on its applications to activist concerns. In fact, in its early years, the annual IOS-1990 Summer Seminar in Philosophy was indistinguishable in style and format from the seminars we attended as philosophy graduate students at Notre Dame and Bowling Green. For the most part, the IOS-1990 Summer Seminars differed from our graduate school seminars only by subject matter: where the big names in graduate school were John Rawls, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Allan Gibbard, the big name at IOS-1990 was Ayn Rand.[3] But the faculty at IOS-1990 could just as well have been the faculty at any mainstream philosophy department—and in many cases, were faculty from mainstream philosophy departments.[4]

In 1999, IOS-1990 underwent an organizational transformation, first changing its name to “The Objectivist Center” (TOC), and then, in 2004, changing its name to “The Atlas Society” (TAS), which remains its name today.  The changes of name coincided with significant changes in both personnel and mission. Where IOS-1990, especially in its early years, was modeled on a traditional graduate seminar, TAS is modeled instead on the MOOC (“massive open online course”). A graduate seminar is a small-scale affair, relatively insulated from activist concerns, where advanced students engage in an open-ended way with their mentors over relatively complex technical issues. A MOOC, by contrast, is a large-scale affair, designed to cover the basic elements of a given subject-matter at an introductory level. Where a graduate seminar is designed to train its members to produce publishable scholarship in peer-reviewed outlets, a MOOC is designed to produce satisfaction in consumers with diverse interests who intend to operationalize what they learn for their own purposes, be it political activism, continuing education, everyday moral guidance, or self-help.[5]

These two things—seminars and MOOCs—need not be at odds with one another, but given scarce resources, often are. Graduate seminars typically produce cutting-edge research, but no revenue stream; MOOCs typically do the reverse. An educational institution interested in having both things may well use its MOOCs to fund its graduate program, and use its graduate program to confer prestige on its MOOCs. But that strategy only works if the MOOCs in question are truly massive, and the graduate programs genuinely prestigious. Decrease the size of the one, and the prestige of the other, and the result is budgetary competition between them—competition that (like all such competitions) leads to bewilderment and resentment on all sides. From the perspective of a serious graduate program, a MOOC looks like a high-revenue circus masquerading as an educational endeavor. From the perspective of a MOOC, a graduate seminar looks like an expensive playground in which spoiled children (“grad students”), led by a pied piper with ulterior motives (“research faculty”), chase theoretical pies in the sky and call it “academic mentoring.” Both of us know enough about the political economy of higher education to know the dynamic—and enough about the dynamic to know that it can’t easily be bypassed.

The new IOS, the IOS of 2013, is an attempt to bypass that dynamic, aiming to revive the spirit—and restore the name—of the older IOS without literally recreating its structure, personnel, or activities. In that sense, it hopes to pick up where the earliest versions of IOS-1990 left off, recreating the intense, graduate-seminar-like feel that many participants associate with the first five years of that organization.[6]  But IOS differs from IOS-1990 in at least one significant way. Like many organizations, whether profit-based or non-profit, IOS-1990 was to some extent driven by “the organizational imperative”: it had to keep growing, and demonstrate growth to its donors, or perish.[7] Those donors were not about to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in an organization designed to stay a graduate seminar, much less one designed to flout their demands for accountability (a.k.a., “performance metrics,” “outcome-based assessment,” etc.), at least as accountability is typically understood in business and educational circles.

The new IOS is an attempt to create an institution immune to the organizational imperative. We really do intend to stay a graduate seminar, and we couldn’t care less about current bureaucratic conceptions of success. We have our own conception of the outcomes that matter, and we’re confident that an organization like ours can attract a constituency of the kind of supporters who matter. To put such a conception into practice, however, an organization like ours has to cultivate total independence from donors or “supporters” of the wrong kind, however deep-pocketed or ostensibly generous. The only way to do that is to create an organization that hovers somewhere between low budget and no budget—that is, an organization that (for the foreseeable future, anyway) not only lacks outside funders but forswears them. For that reason, IOS’s “programs” are, by design, limited to activities and events that cost next to nothing. IOS “faculty” get no perks—no salaries, stipends, sabbaticals, course releases, or expense accounts. Its participants pay no tuition, and get no scholarships or college credit. Its activities involve no expensive facilities or logistical arrangements, and do not, alas, take place in fancy hotels or at exotic resort locations. In consequence, we forswear in advance the hope of economies of scale, of indefinite growth, and of large-scale influence. On the bright side, however, we also dispense with the need for funds, funders, and fund-raising, as well as the budgetary politics that comes with them.

The only payment we demand of our co-participants in the IOS enterprise is conformity with Rand’s trader principle—that they take the enterprise as seriously as we do. As Rand has her protagonist John Galt explicate the trader principle in Atlas Shrugged: “The only value men can offer me is the work of their mind. When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both will profit.”[8] That is payment enough for us, and we’re betting, payment enough for some of you. With that proviso, we should add that the activities of IOS are open to anyone—Objectivist or not—willing to pay the price of the ticket: a sincere interest in Objectivism, and an honest willingness to engage it.

For now, we envision the following roster of activities, all offered free of charge, albeit on a selective basis in the first two cases:

  • An intense day-long seminar each fall on a topic of relevance to Objectivism, intended primarily for a small, select group of advanced undergraduates and graduate students. Our plan is to spend the first few years on topics in epistemology—starting in 2013 with concepts, moving in 2014 to axioms and corollaries, and proceeding from there in 2015 to advanced topics at the frontiers of Objectivist epistemology. For more information on this year’s seminar, visit the 2013 IOS Fall Seminar page.
  • Ongoing academic mentoring with select students in philosophy graduate programs, and for select undergraduate philosophy majors going on to graduate school. (We eventually hope to branch out beyond philosophy to other disciplines as well.) For more information on academic mentoring, visit the Academic Mentoring page (under construction).
  • The construction of what we intend to be a comprehensive open-access bibliography on Objectivist-relevant scholarship.
  • Ongoing commentaries on and reviews of past and recent work in philosophy and allied fields—Objectivist, analytic, and otherwise—along with analyses of important trends within those fields, and opportunities for scholarship.
  • Ongoing commentary on the relationship between Objectivism as philosophy and as movement.
Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field (1865)

Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field (1865)

“Productive work,” Rand wrote in “The Objectivist Ethics,” “is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of productive work—pride is the result.”[9] In essence, that set of claim states the raison d’etre of IOS. To paraphrase and apply them more specifically to the present context: the production of scholarship about Objectivism is our central purpose, the value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of everything else we do. The search for truth is the source and precondition of that purpose, and knowledge is the intended result.

If this sounds attractive, we invite you to take a look around our site (much of it still under construction), and tell us what you think. If you’re a student, you might apply to attend the fall seminar, or just drop us a line about your academic interests or career plans. Otherwise, you might contribute an entry to our bibliography, write a review of a trend or thesis in current scholarship worth discussing, or write a commentary on the relation between Objectivism as a philosophy and as a movement. We’re hoping that those of you who remember the earnest intensity of the original IOS will look here to rekindle that intensity. If you’re new to Objectivism, we hope to convince you that our talk of “earnest intensity” is more than gauzy nostalgia for the Objectivist seminars of our youth. And if you regard yourself as a critic of Objectivism, we’d like to think that we can function as a worthy adversary for you—and vice versa. To quote the manifesto of our namesake organization:”Above all, let us encourage independent thought among ourselves. Let us welcome dissent, and the restless ways of the explorers among us. Nine out of ten new ideas will be mistaken, but the tenth will let in the light.”[10]

Those words ring as true today as they did when we first read them as graduate students in philosophy almost a quarter of a century ago. The new IOS is our attempt, in gratitude to David Kelley and the other founders of the original IOS, to continue the work that they began all those years ago. The structure, personnel, and methods may have changed, but the name remains the same—as does the desire for truth, the sense of moral rectitude, and the hope for the future.[11]

            Irfan Khawaja

Felician College

Lodi, NJ

Carrie-Ann Biondi

Marymount Manhattan College

New York, NY

instituteforobjectiviststudies@gmail.com


[1] For our bios and IOS’s Board of Advisors, see our About page.

[2] Those unfamiliar with this dispute, or who need a refresher on it, are advised to read or listen to the following items, in chronological order:

  • David Kelley, “Life, Liberty, and Property,” Social Philosophy & Policy 1:2 (1984), pp. 108-118 [full essay is behind a paywall];
  • Peter Schwartz, “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty,” first published in The Intellectual Activist 3:19-20, 4:1, 4:3 (May 10, July 25, December 4 1989), reprinted as a booklet, and reprinted in abridged form in Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (Signet, 1989);
  • Peter Schwartz, “On Sanctioning the Sanctioners,” The Intellectual Activist 4:20 (Feb. 27, 1989) [scroll down to post #23];
  • David Kelley, “A Question of Sanction,” Appendix A in The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand (1989);
  • Leonard Peikoff, “Fact and Value,” and Peter Schwartz, “On Moral Sanctions,” The Intellectual Activist 5:1 (May 18, 1989);
  • George Walsh, “A Statement,” and Peter Schwartz, “Editor’s Note” [response to Walsh], The Intellectual Activist 5:3 (Nov. 17, 1989);
  • David Kelley, “Truth and Toleration” (1990), in Contested Legacy;
  • David Kelley, “Better Things to Do,” Appendix B in Contested Legacy (1994);
  • David Kelley, “Preface to the Second Edition,” and “Postscript,” Contested Legacy (2000);
  • Leonard Peikoff podcast, “Is it a moral crime to purchase the work of artists who oppose your core values?” (January 22, 2008) [the relevant material begins at about 2:15 into the podcast]
  • Correspondence: Irfan Khawaja to Ayn Rand Institute website and Leonard Peikoff; Yaron Brook to Irfan Khawaja; Irfan Khawaja to Yaron Brook; Debi Ghate to Irfan Khawaja; Irfan Khawaja to Debi Ghate (January-February 2008, and March-April 2012);
  • David Kelley online lecture, “Truth and Toleration Twenty Years Later” (2010) [52 minute lecture];
  • Updated Ayn Rand Institute FAQ on libertarianism (2012);
  • Correspondence: Irfan Khawaja to Leonard Peikoff; Leonard Peikoff to Irfan Khawaja; Irfan Khawaja to Leonard Peikoff; Leonard Peikoff to Irfan Khawaja; Irfan Khawaja to Leonard Peikoff (2012-2013). [A link to this material is forthcoming.]

Some of the preceding material is at this point hard to acquire–perhaps deliberately so. The Walsh-Schwartz exchange in the sixth bulleted item above was first published in the now-defunct Objectivist periodical, The Intellectual Activist, later re-named The Tracinski Letter, and (to the best of our knowledge) currently owned/edited by Robert Tracinski. It is unclear whether or how back issues of The Intellectual Activist can be acquired, or whether Tracinski owns the copyright in the Walsh-Schwartz exchange. An email we sent to Tracinski has gone unanswered for several months now. A comprehensive list of back issues of The Intellectual Activist is available at Richard Lawrence’s Objectivist Reference Center. We own all back issues of The Intellectual Activist we cite here.

[3] For stylistic reasons, we use the first-person plural throughout this essay, but in fact the two of us had somewhat different experiences. Khawaja was actively involved in IOS-1990, having attended five summer seminars (1991-94 and 1997), and having presented papers at two of them (1994, 1997). Biondi, though uninvolved with the organization per se, was a student of Fred D. Miller, Jr., then Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University, and a member of IOS-1990’s Advisory Board. As Miller’s Acknowledgements in the first issue of IOS-1990’s Objectivist Studies series make clear (p. 81), IOS-1990 sponsored scholarship was very much a part of the curriculum at Bowling Green’s Philosophy Department in the 1990s.

[4] Among the philosophers who appeared at IOS-1990 (probably not an exhaustive list): Neera K. Badhwar (then at the University of Oklahoma, now at George Mason), Jurgis Brakas (Marist), James G. Lennox (Pittsburgh), Roderick T. Long (then at UNC Chapel Hill, now at Auburn), Tibor Machan (then at Auburn, now at Chapman), Eric Mack (Tulane), Fred D. Miller, Jr. (then at Bowling Green, now at Arizona), Kelly Rogers (University of Florida), Fred Sommers (Brandeis), and David Schmidtz (then at Yale, now at Arizona). Before they formed IOS, David Kelley taught at Vassar and Brandeis, and George Walsh taught at Salisbury State University (Salisbury, MD).

[5] This is not to say that IOS was exclusively concerned with scholarship, or that TAS is not concerned with it. The difference is one of relative emphasis and priorities: scholarship was more central to IOS-1990’s mission than it is to TAS’s.

[6] The new IOS is not formally affiliated with TAS or with any other organization.

[7] Khawaja owes this insight to a series of conversations with Peter Saint-Andre in the 1990s, but Saint-Andre is not responsible for the way we put things in our essay above. For a quick summary of Saint-Andre’s view in his own words, see this journal entry on his blog.

[8] Atlas Shrugged, p. 949.

[9] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, fifth printing, p. 25.

[10] David Kelley, The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand, p. 117.

[11] Both authors would like to thank the following for helpful conversations on the issues of this essay: Robert Campbell, Alexander Cohen, Marsha Enright, David Kelley, Roderick Long, Kirsti Minsaas, Rick Minto, Ole Martin Moen, Eyal Mozes, David Potts, Peter Saint-Andre, Chris Sciabarra, Will Thomas, and Michael Young. None of the preceding necessarily agrees with the essay.

Header illustration: Sanford Gifford, “Hook Mountain, Near Nyack, on Hudson” (1866), Yale University Art Museum. Our use of this image is intended to be strictly for educational purposes under Fair Use, and is not intended as a commercial solicitation of any kind. This site takes in no advertisements and no sponsors, does not charge a fee for services, and does not offer any product or service for sale.

Substantive revision: October 23, 2013 (IK).

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