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Objectivist and/vs. academic intellectual culture, part 2 of a series


In an earlier post, I suggested that Objectivist intellectual culture is dysfunctional. Too many Objectivists (I suggested there) operate with negative stereotypes and over-generalizations about academics and the academic enterprise, often generalizing from tiny and unrepresentative samples of widely publicized academic malfeasances, and concluding from them that academia is itself a corrupt and irrational place. In consequence, too many see Objectivism’s relationship to academia as analogous to a form of warfare, whether overt or covert. Too many think of academics as corrupt, dysfunctional “zombies” (Rand’s word) who deserve some discursive equivalent of destruction. Worse yet, too many put Objectivist academics in the role of commanders in chief in the Objectivist Intellectual Army, see themselves as commissioned officers in that army, take for granted that “the American people” are on their side, and long for a day when Objectivism will take academia by storm, replacing its undeserving ruling class with the New Intellectuals who will, at last, bring a “rational culture” into existence.

Every one of these ideas finds expression somewhere in Ayn Rand’s own writings. It was Rand who began the trend of stereotyping and over-generalizing about “modern intellectuals.” It was Rand who began the trend of generalizing from samples built predominantly on “Horror File” anecdotes. It was Rand who insisted on the analogy of intellectual life to warfare, of philosophers to generals, and of scientists and businessmen to commissioned officers. It was Rand who came up with the strategy of exploiting the “breach” between “the intellectuals” and “the American people,” singing the supposed praises of the latter, and suggesting that they were to be enlisted in a jihad against the former. It was Rand who, in the original Introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, derided the very idea of intellectual debate with adversarial interlocutors. She seemed not to grasp the self-defeating character of this approach to intellectual life.

Leon Trotsky, philosopher as general

Leon Trotsky, philosopher as general

In truth, many Objectivist academics know all this, but would prefer to stay “prudently” silent about it. Some agree with Rand. Others disagree, but would rather not “hurt the cause” by saying anything critical of her. Still others would rather not hurt their donors’ feelings by saying anything that might be construed as disloyal to Objectivism, and decrease the expected revenue flow. Few of them have dealt very assiduously with the incoherence that arises from simultaneous adoption of four common Objectivist commitments:

  • wanting collegial relations with one’s academic colleagues,
  • wanting to convince those academic colleagues of the truth and importance of Objectivism,
  • advocating the need for close and careful readings of Randian texts, and
  • refusing to reject the embarrassing, over-the-top denunciations of “modern intellectuals” that persistently crop up in those same texts, denunciations that target the very colleagues that Objectivist academics are supposed to be trying to court.

It can be tempting, while focusing on the first item to pretend that the fourth item doesn’t exist.[1] Unless you’re cognitively in focus.

Frankly, it may well be naïve to have particularly elevated expectations of this brand of Objectivist, given the Machiavellian attitudes that so many of them have about academic life.[2] Concealment and double standards have now become a modus operandi for them. The hard truth is that in certain Objectivist quarters at least, the desire not to air dirty laundry has become a desire not to wash it.

It’s time—I’m suggesting—for a wholesale change of attitude and policy among Objectivists. It’s time, in other words, for a new generation of Objectivist academics and intellectuals who are willing to stand “in full sunlight,” without the need “for the murky fog of the hidden, the secret, the unnamed, the furtively evocative, for any code of signals from the psycho-epistemology of guilt.”[3] Put yet another way: it’s time for visible signs of self-assertion by Objectivists who know their way around Objectivism, who are willing to self-identify as Objectivists, but who know when to throw Ayn Rand under the bus (and when not to). It’s an interesting question how many Objectivist academics fit this description. But the time has come for a pointed rejection of the ones who don’t.

Having put things this way, a critic might wonder what point there is to being an Objectivist if one is periodically going to throw Miss Rand under the bus. The best sustained answer to that question is, in my view, to be found in David Kelley’s Truth and Toleration,[4] but in abbreviated form, I’d put things like this: Objectivism is a hierarchical system of principles. That formulation implies three things: (a) that Objectivism is a system constituted by principles, (b) that some of its principles are foundational (and basic), while others are superstructural (and derived from the foundation), and (c) that the more foundational/basic principles regulate and can in principle correct the superstructural/derived ones, but not vice versa. If that’s so, an Objectivist can throw Ayn Rand under the bus—and remain an Objectivist—in any case in which she said something wrongheaded, the wrongheadedness is superstructural, the error is revisable by more foundational principles, the foundational principles in question are distinctively Objectivist, and a non-trivial foundational core remains intact.[5] The reasonable question is not whether such correction is necessary, but how much is.

Yo You Ma, Western musician or "Oriental" noisemaker?

Yo Yo Ma, Western musician or “Oriental” noisemaker?

Most Objectivists, even proponents of the so-called “closed system” approach, have come to grasp the need for revisionary correction of this kind, at least in narrow, highly circumscribed cases (especially cases in which their own oxen might be gored by something Rand said). They’re willing to reject Ayn Rand’s disgust for homosexuality, or her claim that a woman ought not to aspire to become President of the United States. In a more theoretical vein, some are willing to say out loud that Rand probably exaggerated the differences between her solution to the problem of universals and Aristotle’s. Coming to biographical issues, they may cautiously describe her affair with Nathaniel Branden as “very strange” (as one ARI-affiliated Objectivist did in conversation with me) They may dislike cats, enjoy “Dionysian” (or “Oriental”) music, or even regard yellow-red as their favorite color. They may lack Ayn Rand’s vehement enthusiasms for tap dancing, stamp collecting, or the paintings of Salvador Dali, and be willing to say (out loud) that those enthusiasms were idiosyncratic to Rand the (idiosyncratic) individual, not principled commitments that bind the rest of us. The prospect of being morally and aesthetically required to festoon one’s walls with the likes of “Eggs on the Plate without the Plate” is perhaps more than can reasonably be asked of anyone, whatever his doctrinal zeal.

But in my experience, closed-system Objectivists in particular angrily, defensively, and resentfully reject the possibility that Objectivism requires systematic revision, that Rand’s views on a wide range of subjects were not just wrong (sometimes downright immoral or stupid), but incompatible with the best applications of her best principles. A surprising number of them agree with what might be called Leonard Peikoff’s Directive 5-89:  “…let those of us who are Objectivists at least make sure that what we are spreading is Ayn Rand’s actual ideas, not some distorted hash of them.” The italics are in the original, as is the implicit comparison of Objectivism to a jar of peanut butter (or a disease vector).

Salvador Dali, Eggs on the Plate without the Plate

Salvador Dali, Eggs on the Plate without the Plate

One of the ironies of this Directive is that while Peikoff has denounced people for failing to live up to it, he himself has never lived up to it, and never professed to. None of the books he has written since Rand’s death claims with certainty that its contents are “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas.” It’s telling that his first book, written during Ayn Rand’s lifetime and recommended by her, is absolutely silent on this issue.[6] And every book he’s published since her death opens with convoluted professions of fallibility on its relation to “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas.”

It’s a mistake, as Ayn Rand once put it, to think that a tyranny is consistent about the directives it promulgates. The same may be said of intellectual tyrannies like ARI and intellectual tyrants like Leonard Peikoff. When Peikoff is in directive-making mood, he demands that others be certain of the difference between “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas” and the presumptive “hash” they must be making of things, on pain of being denounced by him as “monsters.” When he is in book-writing mood, however, an agnostic fog enwraps Ayn Rand’s “best student and chosen heir.”[7] Suddenly, this beneficiary of thirty years’ apprenticeship to the master becomes unsure whether Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand is really a presentation of Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand; it could, he admits, be a series of “misstatements of her views.”[8] Caveat lector. He asserts with apparent modesty that we’re not to give him too much credit for the contents of his recent book Understanding Objectivism, because after the blank check he handed his editor for revising it, he has “no idea” what its contents are.[9] As for the DIM Hypothesis, it opens with what Peikoff himself calls a “wild” guess about the overlap between its contents and Ayn Rand’s counterfactual ideas, concluding that there is a 5-15% chance that Ayn Rand would have regarded the book as garbage.[10] Wisely, he offers no probabilistic estimates on the book’s agreement with “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas.” In putting things so candidly, however, Ayn Rand’s “best student and chosen heir” seems temporarily to have forgotten Ayn Rand’s comment about the “Attila-ism” of those who don’t trouble themselves “with such questions as how one calculates percentages of the unknowable.”[11]. But questions only trouble those who ask them.

In my view, a twenty-first century Objectivist intellectual should sweep such Directives aside with the contempt that they, and their exponents, deserve. He or she should actively aspire to become the next Edward Bernstein of Objectivism, doing explicitly and self-consciously for Objectivism what Bernstein did for Marxism. The movement, alas, is already rich in its aspiring Lenins and Trotskys; it has a Gang of Four, and it has a Comrade Sonia. It doesn’t need any more of them. Nor should such an aspiring Objectivist “Bernstein” worry too much that some self-designated authority figure intends to take the “Objectivist” label from him or her. The final authority on such questions is not some raving hypocrite in southern California—or an office building full of them—but those who can prove what they want you to believe. It’s time to put reality back in its place, and displace from authority those who would put their Directives between it and us.

Still, a problem remains—one that harks back to the topic with which I began this series. What should Objectivists be trying to accomplish in academia, and how? Suppose that one insists on self-identifying as an Objectivist. If so, one is committed to thinking that Objectivism is, at some level of abstraction, true. But however one slices things, if Objectivism is true, then much of what is taken for granted in academia (and certainly in academic philosophy) is false. If it’s false, Objectivists actively have to contest it; the virtues of independence, integrity, honesty, and justice (among others) demand as much, and preclude the disavowal (or concealment) of one’s Objectivist commitments simply to have an easier time in academia or to advance one’s career. Even silence is a form of cowardice under some circumstances, and is incompatible with Rand’s principle of sanction. One can reject Rand’s rhetoric, and ratchet one’s philosophical and/or political commitments back to the barest fundamentals, but at some point, dialectical push must come to shove. What then?

That’s what I’d like to spend the next several posts discussing (with occasional digressions for other topics that come up in the interim). Ironically, I think the answer is implicit in the very essay of Rand’s that I criticized in the first post in this series, “For the New Intellectual.” As I’ve suggested, “For the New Intellectual” gives us a highly problematic conception of intellectual life that Objectivists ought to reject. The same essay, however, offers a different conception of intellectual life—a profound one similar to the one Mill defends in “On Liberty,” but with a distinctively Randian set of moral and epistemic twists not found in Mill. This better account lies buried between the stereotypes, denunciations, and bad history in Rand’s essay, but it’s there, and Objectivists would do well to recover and act on it. More on that in future posts.


[1] Those interested in a direct confrontation with reality might consider the following suggestion. Yaron Brook has been invited by the Ayn Rand Society to speak at its December 2014 meeting in Baltimore on “The Moral Basis of Capitalism.” I am not suggesting that anyone ask him irrelevant questions during the ARS session, but he might, before or after the ARS session, legitimately be asked some questions about the following set of claims he made in the Q&A session of a lecture he gave at the University of California at Irvine on December 12, 2002.

It is the intellectuals that are at root the problem and at root biased. Why? Well, because they hate the West. Because they reject the notion of the superiority of the West. I mean, what is multiculturalism all about? It’s about ‘we’re the same as savage tribes in Africa.’ It’s the same thing, there’s no difference. ‘There’s no difference between slavery and freedom, right? There’s no difference between capitalism and communism. There’s no difference between America and Saudi Arabia. Right? We’re all the same. Multiculturalism: all cultures are equal.’ Well, we have to reject that concept. And our intellectuals are motivated by hatred of what the West stands for.  And ultimately, fundamentally, they are motivated by hatred of reason. Our intellectuals are whim-worshippers. And they reject the notion of reason as the only means of gaining knowledge about the world. And once you reject reason, anything goes. (“The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What is the Solution?” The Ayn Rand Institute Lecture Series 2002, Vol. 3, audio cassette 2B, about 2/3rds of the way through).

This crude and insulting set of claims expresses Brook’s estimate of contemporary intellectuals. It is preceded by similar material before the passage I’ve excerpted, and continues in the same vein for several minutes past it. But if Brook believes that our intellectuals “are motivated by hatred of reason,” what exactly is he doing at the APA? Why would the organizers invite someone so hostile to academia to speak to an academic audience at an academic conference? The members of the Society’s Steering Committee are careful not to talk like this. Why then do they tolerate and invite someone who does? Are such attitudes really consistent with the mission of the Anthem Foundation, of which Brook is a Board Member, and whose purpose is outreach to intellectuals? Do the relevant intellectuals in the APA (or ARS audience) know what Yaron Brook thinks of them? In a claim prior the one I’ve excerpted, Brook muses out loud that he “can only imagine” what kind of intellectuals work at the University of California at Irvine, where he was speaking. I think it’s fair to ask: what part of Brook’s generalizations about academia are based on factual knowledge, and what part on imagination?

[2] In the 1990s, ARI-affiliated academics endorsed ARI’s expulsion and denunciation of David Kelley and his sympathizers in the very act of affiliation with that organization. They regarded this as a matter of “principle,” which some of them loudly defended (and others furtively whispered) at every opportunity. And they still do, almost a quarter of a century after the initiatory events. This supposedly principled moral stand did not extend, however, to IOS-affiliated academics with the power to promote the careers of ARI-affiliated academics. Thus a typically ad hoc exception to ARI’s anti-Kelley dispensation was carved out for Fred Miller, who was on the Advisory Board of Kelley’s IOS (the old IOS), but also ran the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University. As is common knowledge, ARI-affiliated academics—Darryl Wright, Tara Smith, John Lewis, Robert Mayhew—were visitors to (and beneficiaries of) the Policy Center (and/or its journal) despite their endorsement of ARI’s anti-IOS strictures. Apparently, Miller’s otherwise unsanctionable connection to IOS was OK because the price of denouncing him was the loss of precious sabbatical or conference time at Bowling Green. No one has ever offered a public justification for this behavior. It needs one.

Another ad hoc exception was carved out for Douglas Rasmussen of St. John’s University, who guest-edited an issue of the Monist (vol. 75, no. 1, January 1992). Rasmussen’s well-known support for Kelley and IOS were evaded by ARI so as to enable Harry Binswanger to publish a paper under Rasmussen’s editorship, thereby giving Binswanger’s scholarship the imprimatur of academic respectability (“Life-Based Teleology and the Foundations of Ethics”). Games of this sort have been par for the course in Objectivist academic culture, hidden from scrutiny only by the self-imposed veil of ignorance under which so much of it operates, and by the collegial form of mutual self-deception that demands that no one draw attention to the obvious. (It should go without saying that my criticism here is aimed at ARI and its affiliated academics, not Miller or Rasmussen.)

[3] Ayn Rand, “For the  New Intellectual,” p. 42.

[4] The view I defend throughout the present essay is mine, not Kelley’s. He’s not responsible for anything I say, including any use I make of his views.

[5] I don’t mean to be denying that the Objectivist principles will invariably have to work in concert with background knowledge that is not distinctively Objectivist.

[6] Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (Mentor, 1982). In the book’s Introduction, Ayn Rand says twice that she recommends the book. She doesn’t say anything about “endorsing” it, whatever that word is supposed to mean or entail.

[7] The quoted phrase comes from Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Meridian, 1993), p. xv.  The phrase is Peikoff’s, not Rand’s.

[8] Peikoff, Objectivism, pp. xiii-xv. It would take a separate essay to unravel the circumlocutions of Peikoff’s Preface to this book, but suffice it to say that I stand by the formulation I use in the text.

[9] Leonard Peikoff, Understanding Objectivism: A Guide to Learning Ayn Rand’s Philosophy (New American Library, 2012), p. x. Peikoff tells us that he didn’t so much as “glance” at his editor’s work, since “[e]ven a glance might reveal errors” (p. ix). But if Peikoff’s glance might have revealed errors, so might a glance by Ayn Rand. She didn’t see the book, either. It follows that she couldn’t endorse the book in its present form. It also follows on the ARI definition of Objectivism that the book does not contain “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas.” If “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas” and actual endorsements are the criteria for the content of Objectivism, and the book involves neither, then how can the book claim to be a presentation of Objectivism, as its title implies? If it is our moral obligation to “spread Ayn Rand’s actual ideas,” how does this book live up to that obligation? If Peikoff merely meant in “Fact and Value” that we ought to be careful when describing Rand’s ideas to be faithful to her actual claims, what gives him the certainty that people he has never met are not so unless they pledge allegiance to his edicts?

[10] Leonard Peikoff, The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out (New American Library 2012), pp. xv-xvi. “Garbage” is my word, but compatible with Peikoff actually says.

[11] Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual,” p. 35.



  1. “her claim that a woman ought not to aspire to become President of the United States”

    Actually I think she was right about that, but for the wrong reasons. My reasons for thinking that a woman ought not to aspire to become President are similar to Spooner’s reasons for opposing women’s suffrage:

  2. So Objectivism needed an Eduard Bernstein — and got an Andrew Bernstein instead?

  3. irfankhawaja says:

    Yes. But hell, beggars can’t be choosers. If we could replace Andrew Bernstein with the Berenstain Bears, I’d settle.

  4. I have failed to properly use my paws.

  5. emozes says:

    Irfan, my main reaction to your post is that I very much hope you have failed to make yourself clear because of how carelessly you wrote this post, and that it doesn’t actually represent your plans for how IOS is going to approach Rand’s ideas.

    I have no idea what to make of your ridicule of Peikoff’s call to “make sure that what we are spreading is Ayn Rand’s actual ideas, not some distorted hash of them.” Of everything Peikoff said in “Fact and Value”, you chose to pick on the one valid statement; it is a call for taking care to present Rand’s ideas accurately. I find it hard to believe that you really mean your contemptuous rejection of such a call (and if you do reject it, and think being accurate in presenting Rand’s ideas is unimportant, then you should apply the same standard to other philosophers, and not criticize Rand for inaccuracies in her presentation of other philosophers’ ideas in For The New Intellectual).

    In my view, the most important principle in approaching Rand’s ideas is that understanding and presenting Rand’s ideas accurately has to be the top priority. Where you think Rand is right, present her ideas accurately and then defend them; where you think she is wrong, present her ideas accurately and then criticize them; but either way, accuracy about what her ideas actually are is of paramount importance. In deciding whether an allegedly Objectivist organization is worth associating with, the central question should be to what extent they are committed to this principle.

    The main thing that has been wrong with Peikoff and ARI is precisely their complete failure to practice what you call “Peikoff’s directive”; and the main thing that was great about IOS-1990 was precisely their commitment to it. So much of Peikoff’s writings, and so much writing by ARI-affiliated and ARI-trained authors, does in fact present a distorted hash of Rand’s ideas (as it happens, in just one month you’ll be publishing in Reason papers my note demonstrating this regarding Tara Smith’s “Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics”); whereas in IOS’s seminars and publications, careful attention to Rand’s actual ideas was always central. The most essential difference between these two organizations was IOS’s commitment to what you call “Peikoff’s directive”, and consequently the time and effort they put into understanding and presenting Rand’s ideas accurately, as against ARI’s lack of any such commitment. Disagreements over tolerance and over open-system vs. closed-system were relatively minor consequences of this, much more fundamental difference. (Sadly, what I say here of IOS has not been true of TAS for the past decade.)

    I was also frankly highly disappointed by your talking about Rand’s aesthetic tastes as if they were somehow a part of Objectivism, and as if Objectivists who have different tastes “have come to grasp the need for revisionary correction”. This pointless, senseless digression (made worse by the fact that you seem to attach so much importance to it that it accounts for two of the three images accompanying your post) buys into a common, ignorant straw man regarding Objectivism, promoted by those who have no understanding of the concept of a philosophical system; you surely know better than that.

    You then say that “closed-system Objectivists in particular angrily, defensively, and resentfully reject the possibility that Objectivism requires systematic revision”. I don’t see how you can possibly have a basis for saying that. The only reasonable evidence I can imagine for your statement, would be if someone presented some strong, rational arguments demonstrating that there is some problem in Objectivism requiring “systematic revision”, and if “closed-system Objectivists” then reacted to these arguments in the way you claim they do. If this has ever been tested, by someone actually presenting such arguments without glaring fallacies and that are not ridiculously easy to answer, I am certainly not aware of it (disagreement with Rand’s accounts of other philosophers’ views in For The New Intellectual is not relevant here, it doesn’t remotely qualify as a call for “systematic revision of Objectivism”).

    Usually people who talk about “Objectivism needing revision” are those who reject Rand’s views on some particular subject, but don’t want to make any serious attempt to rationally defend their own view (for example determinism/compatibilism, or anarcho-capitalism) or answer the other side’s arguments. So instead they assert that Objectivism should be “revised” to substitute their view for Rand’s, and accuse anyone who disagrees with them of slavishly accepting everything Rand said and of being unwilling to revise Objectivism. Has the reaction of Objectivists to such “calls for systematic revision” been “angry, defensive and resentful”? I’d suggest that “justifiably impatient and annoyed” would be a much more accurate description.

    As I said, the most important principle in approaching Rand’s ideas is to do our best to present them accurately, whether we agree with them or not. Another crucial principle is that any debate, on whether Rand was right or wrong on some issue, should be settled by rational arguments and evidence on the specific issue, not by general claims about the need to be willing to revise Objectivism. IOS-1990 did in fact practice both of these principles, and that’s the main reason I enthusiastically supported it. I very much hope you intend for IOS-2013 to practice these principles as well.

  6. In fairness, I think Rand’s enthusiasm for Dali was probably based more on stuff like this, this, this, and this than “Eggs on the Plate.”

  7. irfankhawaja says:

    As a matter of biographical fact, I’m sure that’s right. But when she discusses Dali in The Romantic Manifesto about Dali (p. 41), she offers no examples of her claims, and nothing she says there rules out the possibility that she might prefer “Eggs on the Plate” to any of Dali’s crucifixion paintings. As for “Woman at the Window…” she might plausibly prefer it to “Eggs on the Plate” without rejecting “Eggs.” And while we happen to know as a matter of biographical fact that she loved “Crucifixion,” that’s not a clear inference from the text of RM. One could, after all, make a prima facie Objectivist case for preferring an outre depiction of Sunday breakfast like “Eggs” to mystical depictions of Christ’s crucifixion. At worst, eggs off the plate produce high cholesterol (and a mess), whereas at best crucifixions produce excruciating pain followed by death (and a bigger mess). The benevolent universe premise seems to point us in the direction of “Eggs,” not Christ. It seems highly problematic on Rand’s view of art to dwell on Christ’s crucifixion in the way that art requires of us. It should come–and I think does come–as a real surprise to us that Rand loved Dali’s depiction of Christ as much as she did. She admired the painting (she says) because it expresses a glorified view of man, and of his relationship to existence (Objectively Speaking, p. 115). But she might with equal justification have found it despicable because it expresses the desire to flout the primacy of existence about causal relations. Frankly, had she said the latter (and she could have), I have no doubt that Dali’s stock in Objectivist circles would be as low as, say, Monet’s.

    I make heavy weather of all this because I don’t think your comment is really a case of “fairness” to her. It’s a case of hermeneutical over-generosity. Her verdict on specific paintings is not clear from she “officially” said (from Peikoff’s version of “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas”). Armed with background knowledge, your examples make her views clear on her behalf. And you’re almost certainly right. But that doesn’t eliminate the defects in her exposition, and doesn’t change the fact that you’re doing her a favor.

  8. I don’t think I need much background knowledge to know that she would prefer “Crucifixion” to “Eggs.” What’d be harder to predict is whether she would like “Crucifixion” or not, since she often failed to like things one would expect her to like (e.g., Maxfield Parrish). But the possibility of her liking it is supported by, for example, Red Pawn, which I think Peikoff gets utterly wrong; see

  9. irfankhawaja says:


    I’d like to take my response to your comment in stages, asking for a few clarifications and responding a bit at a time. You’ve made some very large claims here, and there is no way to respond to all of them at once, short of spending a few days on the task. I can only spend days on the task if I distribute them over several different days.

    My summary response to you, however, is this: I don’t think I wrote my post carelessly, and I don’t think you’ve established that I have. In fact, I don’t think you’ve actually found a single defect in my argument, mostly because you’ve read what I’ve written in such a careless manner that you haven’t actually understood it. Beyond that, your claims involve such wild exaggerations that it’s hard to believe that you mean what you write. So I’ve made some queries about that below. But I can tell you that the view I defended does represent my plans for how I intend to approach Rand’s ideas. I can’t speak for anyone else, including Carrie-Ann, but since I’m one of two founding directors of IOS, what I said in the post will obviously influence IOS’s approach to Rand’s ideas.

    You begin by saying that you have “no idea” what to make of my comments on Peikoff. If you really had “no idea,” you wouldn’t have written a lengthy post on that very subject. At the outset, then, a reader is confronted with the problem of ascertaining what relation your words bear to what you actually intend to say. You say one thing, and then write in a way that flouts what you just said. In fact, the problem has no clear resolution, and crops up in every paragraph.

    You then say “of everything Peikoff said in ‘Fact and Value’,’ I “chose to pick on the one valid statement.” Doesn’t that imply that every statement but that one in “Fact and Value” is false? Do you really mean that? “Objectivism,” Peikoff tells us in his summary of Obectivist doctrine, “holds that value is objective (not intrinsic or subjective).” Is that false? In fact, many thinks [things] Peikoff says in “Fact and Value,” are, by my lights, entirely true. Are you saying that none of them are true but the one directive I pick on? In that case, a relatively uncontroversial summary of Objectivism would be false, but the directive would turn out to be true. In other words, Ayn Rand’s actual ideas are false–but we must “spread Ayn Rand’s actual ideas.” That makes no sense. Perhaps you didn’t really mean “of everything…the one” but it’s what you actually said. And since you say elsewhere that Peikoff and ARI-affiliated scholars ubiquitously distort Ayn Rand’s ideas, one is left wondering whether you mean that Peikoff’s uncontroversial summaries of Objectivism are in fact distortions. If that is your conception of a “distortion,” I have no idea what you mean by a “distortion.”

    What I called Peikoff’s directive implies that an Objectivist has only two options: “spread Ayn Rand’s actual ideas” or spread “some distorted hash of them.” Is it your view that these are the only two options an Objectivist intellectual has? You say that Peikoff’s directive is “a call for taking care to present Rand’s ideas accurately.” No, it is NOT. It is a call to accept two mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive tasks as possibilities,* and to choose the first of them. The one task is “spread Ayn Rand’s ideas.” The other is make a hash of Ayn Rand’s ideas. I am objecting to the false dichotomy involved in this prescription. Sometimes Ayn Rand’s actual ideas are false, and need correction or rejection in the name of Objectivism. Peikoff’s directive implies that no Objectivist can (qua Objectivist) do this. Do you agree with him?

    I am not calling on people to present Ayn Rand’s ideas in an inaccurate way, and no fair reading of my post could yield that claim. Since you think I am making it, I’d like you (in your response to this, assuming you write one) to copy and paste the exact passage that led you to think I was making that suggestion. I’ve read what I’ve written, and am confident that no such passage exists. I’ll defend my claims once you identify what claims I’m obliged to defend. But I can’t, on my own initiative, find any passage that plausibly fits the bill.

    You say that “the main thing that was great about IOS-1990 was precisely their commitment to” Peikoff’s directive. That is not only not “precisely” right, but flatly contradicts “Truth and Toleration.” In it, David Kelley himself took issue with Peikoff’s directive, and in this respect, I’m merely agreeing with him: “Notice that Peikoff is concerned, not with spreading the truth, but with spreading Ayn Rand’s actual ideas; this is his criterion for the integrity of the philosophy. The attitude is typical of an intellectual tribe” (p. 89 of Contested Legacy). So the description of IOS-1990 that you regard as “precisely” correct is precisely the one that the organization’s founder explicitly rejected as a prelude to founding it. It also fails to explain why it is that IOS-1990 was so friendly to people who had no particular interest in “spreading Ayn Rand’s actual ideas,” e.g., Ken Livingston, Robert Campbell, Roderick Long, Fred Sommers, Neera Badhwar, and so on. I was active in IOS-1990 for years, and participated in any number of workshops, seminars etc. with David Kelley. Not once did he ever express the suggestion that we “spreadAyn Rand’s actual ideas.” Where you have gotten this interpretation of IOS-1990’s activities I don’t know, but it contradicts every fact I know about IOS-1990, and corresponds to nothing I ever encountered there. Suffice it to say that if what was great about IOS-1990 was what you say it was, I would have left after my first five minutes, and would not now be singing my praises of the place decades after my involvement. You object to my account of revisionary correction, but what you have come up with is a case of revisionary falsification.

    Since you include the verb “spreading” within your endorsement, I assume that you mean by it what Peikoff means by it. You ignore the fact that I objected to the use of the “spreading” metaphor (albeit in a sarcastic aside: but you don’t otherwise ignore my sarcasm). It’s extremely misleading to describe philosophical conversation by analogy with “spreading” something. When you spread something, it’s pre-fabricated and complete. Philosophies are not pre-fabricated in the way that (say) peanut butter or jelly are, and Objectivism is not at present complete. When you spread something, you do so on a passive, absorptive surface. But passive absorption bears no relation to the task of persuading someone of the truth of a philosophical proposition. The metaphor of “spreading,” in my view is a harmful one, and has done actual harm by oversimplifying what is involved of [in] persuading people of the truth of Objectivism. I wonder if you yourself object to Peikoff’s metaphor, because later, you drop it. From “spreading” you change the formulation: “do our best to present [Rand’s ideas] accurately.” Nothing I said disputes that we should do that, and not just with respect to Rand’s ideas, but with respect to anyone’s. But do you agree that “spreading” is a problematic metaphor, or do you accept its legitimacy?

    I don’t want to use this space to discuss unpublished manuscripts in Reason Papers, but after your critique of Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics comes out this summer, we can discuss the success of your claim that she’s made a “distorted hash of Rand’s ideas.” For now, I’ll just say that I don’t find your argument plausible, and even if it had turned out to be true of Smith’s views, that’s a long, long way from the claim that distortion of Rand’s actual views is the defining feature of scholarship by ARI-affiliated people. In my experience, many of them have a very good grasp of Rand’s views. The problems lie elsewhere.

    That’s a response to the first four paragraphs of what you’ve written. I’ll save the rest for a later date.

    *I originally omitted the phrase “as possibilities,” but corrected the sentence about a minute after publishing this post.
    **I’ve corrected two typos in this post in brackets: [things] and [in].

  10. Hypothesis: by “spread” Eyal understands something like “present (without necessarily endorsing)” while by “spread” Irfan means something like “present with endorsement” (which seems the more natural reading, in context).

  11. irfankhawaja says:

    By “spread,” I’m taking Peikoff to mean “present with endorsement.” I myself don’t ever claim to “spread” philosophy.

    But I’m going further than that. The phrasing of what I call the directive suggests that (for Peikoff) an Objectivist can, in a basic way, only be governed by one of two tasks in life: presenting, endorsing, and defending “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas,” or else making a confused hash of those ideas. Peikoff implies that since the latter is obviously problematic, the former is the only defensible option. As I think you’re suggesting, this disjunctive reading of the directive is suggested by the very way he words it. The word “what” in the phrase “make sure that what we are spreading” implies a certain fundamentality: it’s not a description of some discrete or short-term intellectual task, but of a long-term project that governs a whole career or lifetime. So it’s either: spread her actual ideas as stated or spread a hash. No other possibilities.

    I’ll grant that Peikoff later discovered that things were more complicated than his directive had suggested. The directive was for him less a prescription to be taken seriously than a rhetorical bludgeon with which to intimidate Kelley & Co. (Same with Schwartz’s anti-libertarian directives.) In fact, things turned out to be so complicated in his own case that he had to invent all sorts of convoluted descriptions of his own work so as simultaneously to give it authoritative standing (effective for excommunications), while denying that it was “official” Objectivist doctrine (restricted to Ayn Rand’s writings and “endorsements”). A study of the paradoxes of the ARI conception of Objectivism is an undertaking of its own. But taking what he says in “Fact and Value” at face value (so to speak), I think my reading above is the right one.

    All of this is in my view made obvious by the fact that Peikoff was (in the directive) criticizing David Kelley for making a hash of things precisely because he’d defended a virtue of “tolerance” (etc.) that was not among “Ayn Rand’s actual ideas.” That’s why Kelley responded to the directive as he did, by explicitly rejecting it. As I do, and for the same reason. My point is not (and has never been) that one ought to feel free to re-write Ayn Rand’s ideas in presenting them–as Eyal interprets me–but that one’s basic cognitive task in life ought not to be governed by one’s relation to someone else’s mind, because the virtue of independence rules that out. But at this point, I feel like I’m taking coals to Newcastle.

  12. Right — and I wasn’t suggesting that the disagreement between you and Eyal was purely terminological.

  13. emozes says:

    Irfan, your response to Roderick confirms what I noted earlier: you evidently attach great importance to Rand’s aesthetic tastes.

    I regard the attention you are devoting to this as totally unwarranted. If you don’t like Dali’s Crucifixion painting, and are interested in discussing with your friends your reasons for not liking it, fine. But why should it bother you that Rand focused on other aspects of the painting and did like it?

    Rand’s published “discussions” of Dali consisted of one sentence illustrating a minor point in one essay. Other than that, she discussed specifically his Crucifixion painting for a couple of minutes in one interview. Why should we expect Rand’s aesthetic reactions to every specific Dali painting to be clear from such brief statements? What makes her reactions to specific paintings so important that if she didn’t tell us what they are, that is a “defect in her exposition”?

    In all my years of involvement with the Objectivist movement, I have often encountered the claim that Rand’s specific aesthetic tastes are essential to Objectivism, and that being a good Objectivist requires sharing these tastes; but whenever I heard or read this claim, it was always as a criticism of Rand or of Objectivism. Never, not even once, did I hear or read this expressed as a view that the speaker or writer actually holds. This is not addressing a problem that actually exists among any Objectivists; it is a straw man, set up by those who can’t grasp what it means that Objectivism is a philosophy.

    I don’t see anything positive that you accomplish by making such a big deal about Rand’s liking for Dali, or anything else regarding her aesthetic tastes. Arguments about whether Rand was right to like Dali are not the sort of thing that I hope IOS would devote time to.

  14. emozes says:

    My comment on your post was not a polished essay that I spent several days editing. The time I was willing to spend on writing it was limited, I have no problem acknowledging that some of my formulations were careless, I have no interest in spending time now on dissecting the literal meaning of my every choice of a single word, and I see no useful purpose that would be served by doing so.

    We evidently understand Peikoff’s statement differently. I don’t think Roderick’s hypothesis is correct; I do understand the “spread” metaphor as referring to presenting ideas with endorsement. The key difference is whether Peikoff implied that the two possibilities he lists are “jointly exhaustive”; you did not say in your original post that you saw this implication in Peikoff’s statement, let alone make clear that the implication of joint exhaustiveness is your central objection. Given how big a deal you made out of rejecting “Peikoff’s Directive”, it shouldn’t be up to your readers to guess what your understanding is of the statement you are rejecting and what you objection to it is; it was your job to make that clear. I certainly agree that these two possibilities are not jointly exhaustive; and now that you’ve stated this as your understanding, I am still puzzled as to where in Peikoff’s statement you found that implication. Not do I see anything in Peikoff’s statement as suggesting that we should endorse Rand’s ideas whether or not we rationally agree with them.

    Peikoff’s statement was made in the context of his attack on Kelley’s letter, and Kelley’s letter clearly did imply that the ideas he was presenting – specifically his endorsement of tolerance – are consistent with Rand’s ideas. Of course Kelley was right; his endorsement of tolerance is consistent with, and logically implied by, Rand’s ideas. What was wrong with Peikoff’s attack on Kelley was his gross misrepresentation of Kelley’s statements. Had Kelley actually expressed the vicious ideas that Peikoff attributes to him, while implying that he agrees with Rand, then “spreading a distorted hash of Rand’s ideas” would have been a reasonable accusation.

    I do stand by my claim that much of Peikoff’s work, and other work from ARI, contains such serious misrepresentations of Rand’s ideas that “distorted hash of her ideas” is a reasonable characterization of it. This was true for Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy Of Ayn Rand, and has continued since then. In contrast, care about understanding and presenting Rand’s ideas accurately always has been a characteristic of IOS-1990. My experience is that all the people speaking at the IOS summer seminar (prior to and not including Nathaniel Branden), and all the writers who wrote in the IOS Journal, took seriously the importance of being accurate about what Rand’s ideas were, whether they agreed with them or not; and I think ARI’s publications demonstrate that the same was not true for them. I stand by my claim that of the differences between the two organizations, this was the most fundamental one.

    After stating that “a twenty-first century Objectivist intellectual should sweep such Directives aside with the contempt that they, and their exponents, deserve”, you immediately followed that by stating that “He or she should actively aspire to become the next Edward Bernstein of Objectivism, doing explicitly and self-consciously for Objectivism what Bernstein did for Marxism”. My understanding of what you meant by your rejection of “Peikoff’s Directive” was influenced by this juxtaposition. The only reasonable meaning I can see to “becoming the Bernstein of Objectivism” necessarily involves having some fundamental disagreements with Rand. So does rejecting “Peikoff’s directive” mean actively aspiring to find fundamental disagreements with Rand? Does it mean approaching Rand’s ideas with the thought that if you find you think Rand was right on everything except very superficial issues, you’d have failed in your aspirations; and with the goal of finding fundamental disagreements as a higher priority than advocating ideas that are true, and a higher priority than accurately understanding what Rand’s ideas actually are? I certainly hope that that is not what you meant, and what I know of you makes that unlikely; but I don’t see any other reasonable interpretation of your statement. And when, after making such statements, you then deny that you wrote your post carelessly, and insist that your post does represent your intentions regarding IOS’s approach to Rand’s ideas, that gives your readers reasonable cause for concern.

    The main reason I wrote my comment is that I was concerned about what your statements in your post imply regarding how IOS will be approaching Rand’s ideas. Given this, the two paragraphs of my comment that I regard as the most important are the third one

    In my view, the most important principle in approaching Rand’s ideas is that understanding and presenting Rand’s ideas accurately has to be the top priority. Where you think Rand is right, present her ideas accurately and then defend them; where you think she is wrong, present her ideas accurately and then criticize them; but either way, accuracy about what her ideas actually are is of paramount importance. In deciding whether an allegedly Objectivist organization is worth associating with, the central question should be to what extent they are committed to this principle.

    And the final one

    As I said, the most important principle in approaching Rand’s ideas is to do our best to present them accurately, whether we agree with them or not. Another crucial principle is that any debate, on whether Rand was right or wrong on some issue, should be settled by rational arguments and evidence on the specific issue, not by general claims about the need to be willing to revise Objectivism. IOS-1990 did in fact practice both of these principles, and that’s the main reason I enthusiastically supported it. I very much hope you intend for IOS-2013 to practice these principles as well.

    I’d very much like to be clear about to what extent you agree with the principles I stated here; to what extent you intend IOS-2013’s activities to practice them; and if you don’t completely agree, just where our disagreements are. I’m interested in your responses to everything else in my comment as well; but if lack of time is going to make you respond to only some parts of my comment, then I do very much ask that these two paragraphs be included.

  15. irfankhawaja says:


    Here is a response to the second half of your comment of a few days ago. Since much of it takes issue with what I said about revisionary correction, let me begin with a contrivedly clear and simple case of revisionary correction, just to make clear what it is. Along the way, I clarify one sentence of mine that was confusing.

    Imagine that there’s a brilliant, conscientious, virtuous philosopher named Professor Jones. Assume that Jones is now deceased. Professor Jones has produced a philosophical system we’ll call X, which is spread across Professor Jones’s ten books (referred to here as Books 1, 2, 3, etc.) Book 1 is a sustained exposition and defense of an Aristotelian account of logical consistency, including the axiomatic status of the law of non-contradiction, analyses of the concept of ‘coherence’, and so on. Book 10 is a discussion of aesthetics. In between these, there are discussions of epistemology, ethics, politics, language, mind, history, science, etc. Everything Jones says is true and (thus) consistent with everything else he says, except for a puzzling passage on p. 100 of Book 10. Here we confront Jones asserting both p and ~p. Let’s stipulate that there is no textual doubt that he really is asserting both; it’s not a mistake of any kind on the reader’s part (or the printer, publisher, etc.)

    This (p & ~p) assertion contradicts the thesis of Book 1, so we’re obliged by the strictures of X itself to resolve it. We go through Jones’s books and discover that every book includes a brief discussion of p from some different angle. We look more closely and we discover that in Books 1-9 and even most of Book 10, Jones is committed to p. On reflection, ~p not only doesn’t cohere with anything else that Jones wrote, but is independently an implausible claim. In fact, ~p is not just implausible but immoral, despite the fact that every other normative claim of X defends virtue.

    Let’s say that we’re adherents of X. So we’re faced with a choice. Are we (a) to admit that X is a logically flawed system with respect to p, or (b) are we to correct Jones’s mistake by asserting that p is part of the system and ~p is not? Option (b) is a case of revisionary correction. In choosing it, we’re not misrepresenting Jones’s actual claims: we’re not saying or pretending that Jones somehow did not assert ~p. We need not even minimize the fact that he asserted it; we can make a separate study of Jones’s odd error in Book 10 of his system, and try to explain how it got there. We’re saying that while ~p is one of Jones’s actual ideas, it is not part of X qua system. No true philosophical system integrates contradictions, and in this case, there is no need to concede that X involves inconsistency. The error is Jones’s; it’s not intrinsic to X. (Mutatis mutandis, what I’ve just said about adherents also applies to non-adherent interpreters of Jones’s work, but the case of adherents is clearer.) The fundamental issue doesn’t change if we discover ten contradictions in Jones’s ten books, or 100 contradictions in ten books, or even one contradiction on every page of Jones’s ten books. Revisionary correction remains possible as long as there is enough left of X after the correction, and it is more fundamental than what was corrected. Exactly how much has to be left is a difficult question that can’t be resolved in the comments section of a blog. But revisionary correction is always correction OF some particular statement(s) by Jones BY the fundamental claims of X.

    The example I’ve given of revisionary correction is obviously oversimplified. Few revisionary corrections in real life are as clear and obvious as this. But that doesn’t change the fundamental issue, either.

    Now let me bring things back to your comment. You object to the idea that *Objectivism* requires systematic revision. I agree with that, and I see that one sentence of mine involves an unclarity that’s created the confusion on this topic. The full sentence as originally written is: “But in my experience, closed-system Objectivists in particular angrily, defensively, and resentfully reject the possibility that Objectivism requires systematic revision, that Rand’s views on a wide range of subjects were not just wrong (sometimes downright immoral or stupid), but incompatible with the best applications of her best principles.” What I meant was: “But in my experience, closed-system Objectivists in particular angrily, defensively, and resentfully reject the possibility that Objectivism *as they define it* requires systematic revision…” What’s confusing about the sentence is that some cognate of “Objectivism” appears twice in it but in two different senses, one of which I’m rejecting and the other of which I’m endorsing. So perhaps I should have put it like this: “But in my experience, closed-system Objectivists in particular angrily, defensively, and resentfully reject the possibility that Ayn Rand’s actual ideas and endorsements require systematic revision in the name of Objectivism.” I didn’t mean that Objectivism (as I understand it) was to be revised, much less that Objectivism is to be revised by Objectivism, which makes no sense. I meant that Rand’s particular claims are to be revised by fundamental principles of Objectivism (as I understand it). And I meant that Objectivism by the ARI definition is to be revised (by Objectivism as I understand it). But I see the basis for confusion here in what I originally wrote, so let me stop there and see whether that clears it up.

    I wrote the preceding before you posted your comments this morning (the 8th).

  16. irfankhawaja says:

    I’m responding here to Eyal’s comment of May 8, 9:54 am about Dali, etc. An IOU: I probably should reconfigure the comments section of the site so that it allows comments to go “deeper.”

    I actually don’t have any strong opinions on Dali’s paintings. I never said that I don’t like them, much less that I don’t like “Crucifixion.” I brought Dali up to illustrate a point about revisionary correction. A person can be an Objectivist and love, like, or dislike Dali’s paintings. The principles of Objectivism as so far stated are not determinate enough to decide which of those three attitudes a person should or must adopt. At this point, most Objectivists realize that, but confine the realization to topics like aesthetics or sexuality. it doesn’t occur to them that the same basic issue applies to what Rand said about (say) poverty or modern intellectuals. In fact, it applies across the board. Anyone (Objectivist or not) who reads Rand critically will find problematic statements in her writings. Instead of ignoring them, we should actively correct them.

    You (Eyal) describe Rand’s views on aesthetics as a matter of “taste.” That may be true of her views on music (RM, p. 56), but it is not true of her views on the other arts. She doesn’t describe her judgments about them merely as a matter of taste. She thinks she’s expressing objective judgments. (Even in the case of music there are legitimate questions to be asked about which claims of hers were intended merely as a matter of taste and which were not.) To the extent that she regarded her claims about aesthetics as true and rational, and worthy of publication and discussion, why is it wrong for anyone to dispute what she said, to whatever extent he finds interesting? Putting aside the imperatives of expressing solidarity with the Objectivist movement, or being deeply worried about seeing Rand publicly criticized–both of which require us to be stinting in our criticisms of Rand–what principle dictates what parts of Rand should receive attention and what parts should not? If some parts are wrong, why not pay special attention to them to diagnose the error? As it happens, I agree to this degree with Peikoff in “Fact and Value” that an Objectivist should strive to reach evaluative verdicts on all of the facts in his sphere of action. This applies to Rand’s claims as much as to anyone else’s.

    My point is not that Rand’s aesthetic claims are essential to Objectivism, but that they are not. (Again, I would dispute the claim that every aesthetic claim she made was merely an expression of subjective “taste.”) The defect in Rand’s exposition is the failure to provide examples, and it is ubiquitous in The Romantic Manifesto. It is simply wrong of a writer to make strong aesthetic judgments in a book and then offer hand-waving one-line examples to illustrate the points she’s making. You seem to regard Rand’s claims about Dali as relatively unimportant. Are you sure she did? The discussion of style is prefaced by discussions of its relation to psycho-epistemology (RM, p. 41). The claim about Dali is intended as an illustration of these points. That suggests that she regarded the whole discussion as important. So do I. Putting aside issues about Dali himself, I don’t agree with the way she discussed it. What value is there in an illustration that isn’t clear about what it’s supposed to illustrate? Anyway, aesthetic judgments have to be based on inductions on particular cases. Isn’t it important to figure out how to make aesthetic judgments in particular cases, then? (Compare this issue with the debate about the Peikoff-Harriman book on induction in physics. We’re having an aesthetic version of the same argument.)

    The positive value here is that we need to admit that there’s a problem here and rectify it in our own work. An Objectivist aesthetician should not write about aesthetics by offering one-line judgments about a painter with a large corpus of work, be it Dali, Vermeer, or Rembrandt. Even if Rand was right about all three, the argument has to be put a different way.

  17. irfankhawaja says:

    Here I’m replying to Eyal’s May 8 9:56 am post. I’ll try to be brief.

    I think the exclusive disjunction in Peikoff’s claim is obvious from the context. I can’t make that point clearer than I have in my comment to Roderick.

    Kelley’s defense of “tolerance” may be consistent with Objectivism, but it is not one of Rand’s actual ideas. Rand doesn’t offer a defense of tolerance, much less call it a virtue, and at times, she is critical of over-tolerance, whether cognitive or practical. Peikoff was taking this fact to imply that Kelley was making a hash of Objectivism. I should add that in defending Kelley against ARI, I don’t necessarily agree with everything he said in Truth and Toleration, and I actually don’t fully agree with his defense of tolerance. I think there’s a subtle element of moral agnosticism in Kelley’s defense, and an overly circumspect view of the requirements of moral judgment. On this particular point, I agree with Peikoff though I wouldn’t put my criticisms of Kelley the way he did, much less reach the practical conclusions he did.

    People at IOS may have been careful about how they presented Rand’s ideas, but they did not accept Peikoff’s directive as I’ve interpreted it. They did not define their career purposes in terms of the “spread of Ayn Rand’s ideas,” as though they were missionaries evangelizing for ideas in a holy text. Incidentally, I agree with Eyal’s implicit criticism of Nathaniel Branden.

    My Bernstein comment was not intended to suggest that a person should actively *look* for disagreements, but should actively deal with any [dis]agreements* he may have. I think an objective look through Ayn Rand’s writings reveals a huge number of things to disagree with. The disagreements may not be (will not be) fundamental to Objectivism as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that they’re unimportant. Here is one example: go through her writings and line up everything she said about the relationship between luck, virtue, and poverty. Much of it could be wrong and yet Objectivism might remain in tact. What she said on that topic (or those topics) is not fundamental to the system but hardly unimportant. Here is another. Go through and read (or listen to) what she said about “primitive cultures.” This is a highly derivative topic relative to the fundamentals. But it’s not unimportant. Is it more important than defending what’s true? No. But it’s still not unimportant and there is no need to be reticent about one’s criticisms.

    I don’t agree with your generalization about work by ARI scholars, including Peikoff. It’s a massive over-statement. I think we should distinguish sharply between our moral judgment on ARI as an institution and the merits or demerits of the intellectual work they do. There is no clear a priori connection between the one and the other. I think ARI scholars have done some excellent work and should get credit for it.

    As for the quoted statements on which you’re asking for my view, I agree with both with one minor (in a sense) exception. The top priority and most important principle is always to get at the truth (see the epigraph on our home page). It’s a corollary of that commitment that we should understand and present not just Rand’s, but anyone’s views accurately, whether we agree with them or not. I agree with the rest without modification. Or reservation.

    *Sorry, a typo! I meant disagreements, not agreements.

  18. “line up everything she said about the relationship between luck, virtue, and poverty”

    Not all of which will be consistent. Rand’s line here doesn’t fit so well with what she says elsewhere.

  19. emozes says:

    This is a response to Irfan’s comment of May 8, 11:42am.

    I’m not sure what you mean by your statement that “She doesn’t describe her judgments about [aesthetics] merely as a matter of taste. She thinks she’s expressing objective judgments”. Certainly there are many statements Rand made about aesthetics that are objective judgments; but just as clearly, there are many other statements she made that were an expression of taste. And I completely disagree with your statement that “Even in the case of music there are legitimate questions to be asked about which claims of hers were intended merely as a matter of taste and which were not”. I don’t see that there’s any difficulty about telling which is which, in her statements on music or on any other subject in aesthetics.

    Some of Rand’s statements about aesthetics – for example about the relation of artistic style to psycho-epistemology – are general philosophical claims. Certainly these are objective judgments, not matters of taste. Since these are philosophical statements, paying attention to them and debating whether or not she was right about them is of course a legitimate part of a study of Objectivism.

    It is only in regard to this category of statements that the Peikoff/Kelley debate over open-system vs. closed-system is relevant. The Peikoff/ARI view is that all general philosophical claims Rand made should be regarded as equally essential to Objectivism, and anyone who disputes any of them cannot be regarded as an Objectivist. I completely agree with Kelley, and with you, in rejecting this idea. We should differentiate between those of Rand’s philosophical statements thar are fundamental and those that are not. If you wanted to illustrate the issue of open-system vs. closed-system and its implications, then you’d have made yourself much clearer by choosing examples from this category.

    A second category of Rand’s statements are objective judgments in regard to concretes. Her claims that Dali’s painting style expresses a very rational psycho-epistemology; that the subjects of most of his paintings, but not all of them, express an irrational metaphysics; and that Crucifixion expresses the theme of man’s triumph over pain; are in this category. Outside of aesthetics, her statements regarding the Middle East, in the video you link to in your post, are also in this category. In regard to statements in this category, their non-essentiality to Objectivism is completely non-controversial; Peikoff and ARI don’t regard them as essential to Objectivism, and neither do any other Objectivists.

    Since statements in this second category are objective judgments, there’s nothing wrong with paying attention to them and debating whether Rand was right about them. But there is something wrong with arguing that they are not essential to Objectivism; since no one believes that they are, arguing that they are not is an attack on a straw man.

    A third category of Rand’s statements are statements in which she expressed love or like or dislike for certain forms of art or for the work of certain artists or for specific works, and in which she identified her favorites. These are expressions of taste. Her statement that Dali’s Crucifixion is her favorite painting is clearly in this category. On this category of statements, I regard debates about whether Rand was right or wrong, or about whether her tastes should come as a surprise, as completely pointless. I also regard them as harmful, in that they create confusion between objective judgments and matters of taste.

    There is also a fourth category of statements that Rand is often criticized for: statements that are attributed to her and that she in fact never made or even remotely implied. It is certainly important for IOS to avoid spending time on criticizing Rand for that category of statement; if any time is devoted to such statements at all, it should be only for pointing out the misrepresentation of Rand. You should acknowledge that some of the statements for which you criticize Rand in your original post – such as the claim that people are “morally and aesthetically required to festoon one’s walls with the likes of “Eggs on the Plate without the Plate”” – are in this category.

  20. “An IOU: I probably should reconfigure the comments section of the site so that it allows comments to go ‘deeper.’”

    Related point: in order to reply to a particular comment I (usually) have to add it at the bottom of the page, since the only way to reply to specific comments is to “Log in to reply.”

  21. irfankhawaja says:

    I’ve just fixed both things (I think). And changed the settings to allow previously approved commenters to post without further moderation. Carrie-Ann tends to want heavy moderation on the comments section to make sure that everyone behaves. But since I’m the one moderating the comments, and I’m one of the people whose behavior worries her, there’s something slightly self-defeating about that policy.

  22. Thanks! I intend to abuse my privilege mightily, you whim-worshipping looter.

  23. irfankhawaja says:

    Until just now, all I knew of you was that you were a strange man. Knowing nothing of you, I granted you the unearned. This was a serious error on my part. I was irresponsible in not researching you and identifying your nature. The fault is entirely my own. You do not hide what you are. Your contents are available for all to see.

    I have failed to properly use my paws. I must now suffer the consequences of my failure. You are the consequence of my failure. Therefore I must suffer you.

    Seriously, I’m backed up on grading final exams, so I’ll respond to Eyal as soon as I can manage to get done with them.

  24. irfankhawaja says:

    In your initial comment on my post, you described the paragraph we’re now discussing as a pointless and senseless digression. (I’m referring to the paragraph in my original post that starts with “Most Objectivists” and ends with “doctrinal zeal.”) I now think you’re giving it a point and meaning that I hadn’t intended, and that you’re refuting a strawman that has little to do with what I was talking about there. So let me agree with your initial assessment that I’ve failed to make myself clear, and try to clarify. This is a very long response, so it’ll probably be my last word on this topic.

    Let me start with an agreement. Whatever term we use for it, I think we now agree that “revisionary correction” is a necessary and legitimate enterprise, at least if understood in the following way. There’s a distinction to be drawn between the fundamental principles of Objectivism (on the one hand) and the particular claims that Ayn Rand made on various topics (on the other). One can draw that distinction, reject the particular claims, and remain an Objectivist. Further, there’s a distinction to be drawn between the fundamental principles of Objectivism (on the one hand) and (on the other) various interpretations or extensions of those principles offered by professed Objectivists besides Rand, regardless of their presumed authority or status within the Objectivist movement. One can draw this distinction, reject the various interpretations, and remain an Objectivist.

    I would go slightly further than just this. The point of revisionary correction is not merely that we can draw a distinction between the fundamental principles and non-fundamental claims, but that we can use the fundamental principles to correct the non-fundamental claims. The fundamental principles tell us whether the non-fundamental claims (whoever makes them) are, as stated, true or false, and in the latter case, whether they can be revised in the direction of truth (as well as how to do so), or simply have to be rejected altogether. The fundamental principles also tell us whether the non-fundamental are moral or immoral, and thus yield moral verdicts about them. I don’t think you disagree.

    The basic point I was making in the disputed paragraph is that while 99.99% of Objectivists today profess to accept the legitimacy of “revisionary correction,” they have a great deal of difficulty putting that idea into practice in a consistent way. They’re content to adopt revisionary correction in an ad hoc way, but not in a consistent or wholehearted one. If they are sensitive to anti-gay animus, they will reject the anti-gay texts in Rand. If they are sensitive to sexism, they will reject the sexist claims in Rand. If they are Aristotle scholars, they may question Rand’s interpretation of Aristotle’s essentialism. If they like rock music, they may reject the criticisms of Dionysian culture in “Apollo and Dionsyius.” If they like Asian music, they will reject Rand’s claim in The Romantic Manifesto that Oriental music sounds like noise. If they dislike Salvador Dali, they will ignore Rand’s praise for him. And so on. But if you defend the principle underlying all of these particular judgments, they take great offense. Apparently, the principle is acceptable if applied in an ad hoc way, but not if applied on principle.

    My point about “Eggs on the Plate” was intended as a reductio ad absurdum of this mentality, not as a criticism of Ayn Rand. Clearly, Rand liked Dali’s paintings, and articulated some reasons why. But “Crucifixion” aside, she was not explicit about which paintings she had in mind, and not explicit about how to identify the relevant paintings. To a certain mentality, the very indeterminacy of her praise for Dali creates an intolerable dilemma. He knows that Dali is approved by Ayn Rand, and thinks that this requires him to demonstrate his own approval. Yet given the indeterminacy of her approval, he doesn’t know how to implement his own dogma. Suppose he decorates one wall of his house with “Crucifixion”; he’s now left with the question of what Dali paintings should adorn the other walls. Should it be “Eggs on the Plate”? For all he knows by reading Rand, it could be. But given the sheer ugliness of that particular painting, the prospect of having to live with “Eggs” on the wall would induce even the most dogmatic mentality to rethink his dogmas—if only because his own wall is at stake.

    Unfortunately, while a person may grasp that he need not put “Eggs” on his wall, the very same person may well insist that we’re all obliged to celebrate Columbus Day. Ayn Rand didn’t explicitly recommend either thing, but Objectivist intellectual culture has now reached a level of tribalism at which people will routinely pay lip service to revisionary correction in the cases that concern them (like the paintings on their walls), but then insist on outright dogmatism in cases that are not fundamentally different (like Columbus Day). In fact, they take righteous pride in doing so, and feel righteous indignation at anyone who points out the inconsistency involved. I’ve been on the receiving end of this righteous indignation for almost two decades. It’s not a strawman.

    In my view, the fundamental principles of Objectivism demand that every Objectivist (or at least every Objectivist intellectual) evaluate all of Rand’s public claims (i.e., all of those claims she made to or for public audiences) and come to a verdict not only on her articulation of the fundamental principles of Objectivism, but on the relation between those articulations and the non-fundamental inferences she drew from them about particulars.

    In “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand gives this description of a rational person’s attitude toward inquiry:

    It is an actively sustained process of identifying one’s impressions in conceptual terms, of integrating every event and every observation into a conceptual context, of grasping relationships, differences, similarities in one’s perceptual material and of abstracting them into new concepts, of drawing inferences, of making deductions, of reaching conclusions, of asking new questions and discovering new answers and expanding one’s knowledge into an ever-growing sum. (VS, p. 22).

    Applied to Rand’s texts, this passage makes a subtle suggestion that is easy to miss. It requires the active reader to seek an explanation for why the correct parts of Rand’s texts are correct, and why the erroneous parts are erroneous. Suppose that the fundamental principles of Objectivism are true. Suppose that some of Rand’s derivative applications are false. In that case, what explains the falsity of the derivative applications? Why would someone who had discovered the fundamental principles get the derivative applications wrong—even egregiously wrong? The short answer is, of course, “fallibility.” But that answer is not very explanatory. What kind of fallibility? Fallibility operating in what way, and from what causes?

    Someone who fails to ask and answer such questions is not seeking integration in a sufficiently active way. In the extreme case, he’s closing himself off to integration altogether. He’s ignoring Ayn Rand’s distinctive way of making inductions from concretes to general principles—what she got right about it, and what she got wrong. If her distinctive inductions involved systematic errors, he is blinding himself to those errors, and increasing the likelihood of committing them in his own case.

    It is not enough merely to note that some things Rand said were fundamental, and others were not, as you do. Nor is it consistent with the requirements of integration to treat the non-fundamental as something to be ignored, or to treat inquiries into it as “pointless.” “Non-fundamental” doesn’t mean “unimportant.” What the active, integration-minded reader needs to know is: supposing that all of Rand’s fundamental claims are true, what explains why her non-fundamental claims ever turned out to be false? What liability to error explains their falsity? Is there a common pattern to the misinferences or factual errors? If so, what is that common pattern, and what explains it? Are there claims that are dubious but not obviously false? Do they bear any relation to the clearly false claims? Etc.

    Now consider what she says about moral judgment. A rational person’s policy, she says, is to judge and be prepared to be judged. In practice, that policy

    means: (a) that one must know clearly, in full, verbally identified form, one own moral evaluation of person, issue, and event with which one deals, and act accordingly; (b) that one must make one’s moral evaluations known to others, when it is rationally appropriate to do so.

    She adds that one must make one’s moral evaluations public in any case where one’s silence can “objectively be taken to mean agreement with or sanction of evil” (VS, p. 84). The latter principle applies most clearly to sanction of evil, but it also applies to sanction of things that are utterly wrongheaded, unfair, or unjust.

    Suppose that we apply these principles to Rand’s own work. In that case, claim (a) requires that any Objectivist (at least any professional intellectual) know clearly, in full, verbally identified form, his or her moral evaluation of every claim in Ayn Rand’s “public” work (i.e., excluding her Journals, Marginalia, etc.). The principle applies not just to fundamental principles but to literally everything she said for public consumption. If a claim of hers is right (whether general or particular), such a person should know it, and know why. If a claim is wrong (general or particular), he should know that as well, and know why. He should also have an account of the relation between fundamental principles and particular applications. Did she apply her own principles correctly to concretes or not? I see no justification for excluding certain categories of judgments from this inquiry. What Rand said about axiomatic concepts is just as worthy of investigation as what she said about the property claims of Native Americans, or about the aesthetic merits of Salvador Dali—and just as much a candidate for judgment. So far, I think you’re still agreeing with this.

    As for claim (b), it has two sets of applications—to the good parts of Rand, and to the bad. I’m hardly disputing that we should defend what’s good in Rand. I’ve done it, and have consistently been accused of “dogmatism” and worse for doing it. But there are cases in which Rand’s views and her methods of exposition actually violate fundamental principles of the Objectivist ethics. These are cases in which she indulges in arguments from intimidation, in which she gratuitously insults her would-be readers, and in which she over-generalizes about people or trends to the point of perpetuating false and harmful stereotypes about them (e.g., about “primitive people,” about “savages,” about the poor, about “losers,” and so on). I think it’s crucial for Objectivists to come out and disown these parts of Rand. (That’s what I meant by “throwing Rand under the bus.”) We should cultivate a habit and reputation for rejecting fallacious argumentation, whether it is aimed at us, or comes from “us” (i.e., comes from other Objectivists, including Rand). Unfortunately, I have met too many Objectivist academics who would rather keep quiet than cultivate such a habit. In fact, I’ve met too many who think that the habit in question is a vice.

    My call for an “Edward Bernstein of Objectivism” was a call for people willing to undertake this effort in a long-term, sustained way. It was not a call to go out and “look for” disagreements while ignoring agreements. It’s a call to be more systematic about identifying the disagreements that exist and explaining why they’re there. What I’m saying here is (I think) inconsistent with your suggestion that we shut down whole categories of inquiry out of the fear that such inquiries will cause “confusion” in other people’s minds. No one can directly control the causes of other people’s confusion, and no one can be a successful inquirer while worrying about other people’s confusions.

    Now let me respond more directly to your comment in terms of the four categories you mention. I’ll adopt these categories for the discussion, but I don’t find them very useful for the actual task of inquiry. They abstract too much from issues of content, and focus too much on the relatively unimportant issue of generality and particularity.

    I agree with much of what you say about the nature of category 1 judgments. But on one important point, I think you’re mistaken. You say “the Peikoff/ARI view is that all general philosophical claims Rand made should be regarded as equally essential to Objectivism.” That’s not Peikoff’s view. This is what Peikoff actually says in “Fact and Value”:

    IN HIS LAST PARAGRAPH, Kelley states that Ayn Rand’s philosophy, though magnificent, “is not a closed system.” Yes, it is. Philosophy, as Ayn Rand often observed, deals only with the kinds of issues available to men in any era; it does not change with the growth of human knowledge, since it is the base and precondition of that growth. Every philosophy, by the nature of the subject, is immutable. New implications, applications, integrations can always be discovered; but the essence of the system—its fundamental principles and their consequences in every branch—is laid down once and for all by the philosophy’s author. If this applies to any philosophy, think how much more obviously it applies to Objectivism. Objectivism holds that every truth is an absolute, and that a proper philosophy is an integrated whole, any change in any element of which would destroy the entire system.

    Like so much that Peikoff writes, this passage involves a clever set of ambiguities that seems designed to frustrate the reader who wants to pin down what he is saying. You might at first be tempted to conclude that Peikoff is merely saying that “the essence of a system” is “closed,” and then interpret “essence” to be “general philosophical claims Rand made.” But that isn’t what he says. By “essence” he means “fundamental principles and their consequences in every branch.” Which consequences, exactly? All of them or some of them?

    The sentence in question carefully dodges that question. But look carefully at the implication of what follows. Nothing in his article rules out the implication that the “essence” of Objectivism is its fundamental principles and every single consequence in every branch of philosophy, no matter how concrete, as long as those consequences are “laid down once and for all by the philosophy’s author.” The very next sentence tells us that what applies to most philosophies applies in a more radical way to Objectivism. Well, the “every single consequence” interpretation is certainly more radical than usual. So is that what Peikoff is endorsing? Possibly.

    Finally, we get to the last sentence in the paragraph. Our question is whether we’re obliged to regard every last claim of Ayn Rand’s as part of the essence of Objectivism. He begins by telling us, irrelevantly, that every truth is an absolute. Then he says that every philosophy is an integrated whole. Of course, the question is: which items, when integrated, are part of the whole? Is it just the general philosophical propositions, or is it those propositions plus every last judgment about particulars? The last clause of the last sentence is supposed to answer this question. It says that “any change in any element” of the system destroys the whole system. Is every “element” a synonym for every “proposition” stated by the author? If so, rejection of any proposition stated by Ayn Rand (at least in her published work) would entail rejection of all of Objectivism. That seems crazy, but let’s not assume a priori that Leonard Peikoff is sane. The text neither explicitly affirms nor denies the crazy interpretation, but the sentence is perfectly compatible with the crazy interpretation, and the crazy interpretation is in the spirit of both the passage in question, and of the document as a whole. Further, the text neither explicitly affirms nor denies any determinate interpretation, but the actions Peikoff prescribes are best explained by a commitment to the crazy interpretation. Since David Kelley would agree with a non-crazy interpretation of Peikoff’s claim, and Peikoff was anathematizing Kelley, I would say that the crazy interpretation offers the best explanation of the claims of the text. And since Peikoff claims to be laying down his position “once and for all,” refusing to clarify or modify anything he says, I conclude that we owe him nothing in the way of interpretive charity.

    So I conclude that Peikoff’s position is: Objectivism consists of all and only the claims that Ayn Rand explicitly stated in her published works regardless of their generality or level of abstraction. I’ll admit that this is a very uncharitable reading of Peikoff. But he has thoroughly earned it.

    Consider what Peikoff’s definition of Objectivism implies. The last line of IOE says “the rules of cognition must be derived from the nature of existence and the nature, the identity, of [man’s] cognitive faculty.” Meanwhile, on p. 175 of “The Age of Envy,” Rand describes “spiritual sisterhood with lesbians” as being one of “so repulsive a set of premises from so loathsome a sense of life that an accurate commentary would require the kind of language I do not like to see in print.” On Peikoff’s interpretation, both claims are equally part of Objectivism, and both are equally fundamental to it.

    Yes, the IOE claim is a matter of epistemology and philosophy of mind, and is therefore “higher up” in the hierarchy of principles. Yes, the anti-lesbian claim is a highly particular ethical judgment, and therefore more derivative. But (according to Peikoff) if Objectivism is an integrated whole, the anti-lesbian claim is a consequence of everything higher up in the hierarchy. In that case, rejection of the anti-lesbian claim would imply rejection of something higher up in the hierarchy. Rejection of the higher-up claim would entail rejection of Objectivism, and revisionary correction of the anti-lesbian claim would entail re-writing Objectivism as a distorted hash. For how else did Rand make the anti-lesbian judgment but by depending on claims about lesbian minds? And how did she make claims about lesbian minds except by presupposing some claims about the human mind as such? On Peikoff’s view, we can only admit error in the case of anti-lesbian judgments if we admit that Ayn Rand was somehow capable of radically misunderstanding the application of her own principles in specific cases. But once we admit that, what is left of Peikoff’s position?

    On Peikoff’s view, if you reject what Rand said about lesbians, you are ultimately rejecting what she said about the mind. As far as essentiality to Objectivism is concerned, then, there is therefore no significant between “derive cognitive rules from the nature of the cognitive faculty” and “regard lesbianianism as a repulsive propensity.” Ayn Rand wrote both. Ayn Rand published both. An Objectivist intellectual qua Objectivist is obliged to spread both. If a would-be Objectivist balks at this duty–if he thinks that Rand’s claims about cognition and identity are more fundamental than her claims about lesbians, and thus rejects the anti-lesbian claim–he is opening the door to the dangerous possibility that the anti-lesbian claim is not anomalous, but is merely one of a long list of similar (non-fundamental but still important) problems in the Randian texts. But that is precisely the possibility I am emphasizing.

    That brings us to category 2, “objective judgments in regard to concretes.” With respect to category 2, you think “there is something wrong with arguing that they are not essential to Objectivism; since no one believes that they are, arguing that they are not is an attack on a straw man.” On my interpretation of Peikoff, Peikoff is committed to believing that category 2 judgments are essential to Objectivism, as are his most fanatical followers. So there’s no strawman there.

    But I think there’s a deeper problem lurking. We both agree that we can judge/debate the rightness or wrongness of both category 1 and category 2 judgments. “Racism is wrong” is a category 1 judgment. By contrast, “The persecution of Negroes in the South was and is truly disgraceful,” is a category 2 judgment (VS, p. 152). Both are open to debate, but on your view, we ought not to discuss or debate whether the latter judgment is essential to Objectivism.

    I’ll grant that the category 2 judgment above is not literally “essential” to Objectivism. But I would admit an element of truth in Peikoff’s view at this point. Every fundamental principle is itself an induction from particulars, and some disagreements about particulars indicate not just disagreement about the proper application of a general principle, but disagreement about the very meaning of the principle. If someone said, “I am an Objectivist; I’m an egoist, I believe in virtue and in justice, and I reject racism,” we could easily agree with him; that’s a set of category 1 judgments. But if he then said, “As it happens, I disagree with Rand about the persecution of black people in the South in 1963; frankly, I think they were treated quite well,” we would have to dismiss his earlier “agreement” with us as a sham, no matter how many supposed “agreements with Objectivism” it involved on “fundamental principles.” In this case, a category 2 judgment serves as a litmus test for someone’s commitment to a category 1 judgment.

    If so, even if it’s true, it’s misleading to say that the category 2 judgment is not “essential” to Objectivism. It may not be essential in the strict sense, but the relevant point is that a person who disagreed with Rand about this particular judgment couldn’t really be said to agree with her about ethics, no matter how much he protested that he did. The “blacks were treated well” judgment is too clear a violation of the general principle—too wild a departure from reality—to allow for reasonable agreement on both the principle and the particular judgment. Here the categorical distinction you insist on making is irrelevant to the important issue.

    The Jim Crow example is probably overly simple, but in complex cases, there is value in having discussions about which concrete judgments an Objectivist must make to qualify as being committed to a particular category 1 principle. Many of these clear judgments will be Rand’s own, and we can legitimately debate which ones are “clear cases” of a commitment to Objectivism and which are not. The discussion may not be whether category 2 judgments are “essential” to Objectivism; they are debates about the exact evidential relation between category 1 and 2 judgments. In some cases, category 2 judgments may be so closely related to a category 1 principle that no rational person could deny the connection. In some cases, one of Rand’s category 2 judgments may be so wildly off-base that we might feel the need to insist that it bears no relation to any category 1 principle within Objectivism.

    On category 3 I have several different kinds of disagreements with you.

    Part of our disagreement here is one about the status of aesthetic judgments about concretes. You write as though claims of “taste” were somehow outside of the scope of rational discussion. I really don’t see why. A claim of taste is a cognitive assertion accompanied by some affective response. As an assertion, it makes a claim on the reader’s credence, especially if it’s laid out in a book on the nature of aesthetic judgments. The fact that a claim is an expression of the speaker’s tastes does not by itself put the claim outside of the realm of rational discussion, any more than the fact that a claim is an expression of someone’s emotions would. “I love Mozart” is not much different from “I’m angry at you.” In both cases, we can ask “why” and expect an answer that provides reasons. It’s only by treating all tastes as visceral tastes—tastes produced by biological mechanisms operating in a deterministic fashion—that one treats “taste” as a totally non-rational phenomenon.

    But I also find the distinction you draw between categories 2 and 3 rather arbitrary. Category 2 judgments are objective. Category 3 judgments are subjective. Why would that be, if category 3 judgments are merely applications of category 2 judgments to particular cases? What point would there be to the capacity to make objective judgments at the category 2 level if we couldn’t apply them to anything in particular? Since category 2 judgments are reached by induction from category 3, how could category 3 be a matter of taste while category 2 was objective?

    The one (and I think only) place where Rand insisted that here claims were “merely” a matter of taste was her discussion of music in RM. Let’s take this step by step.

    On p. 54 of RM, Rand says that Western man can understand and enjoy Oriental painting but finds Oriental music unintelligible and noise-like. Is that statement taken as a whole a matter of taste? It can’t be. It’s not a statement about Ayn Rand’s tastes at all. It’s a general statement about “Western man’s” reactions to “Oriental” music. So we’re at category 1.

    But take it further. Is the distinction between “Western” and “Oriental” a matter of taste? Again, it can’t be. “Western” and “Oriental” are not tastes. They’re supposed to be objective categories denoting certain kinds of thing in the world. In the language of IOE, they’re “composite concepts” (p. 36). The account she gives of the formation of a composite concept is not compatible with describing their formation as a matter of taste. Once again, we’re at category 1.

    Take it yet further. Yo-Yo Ma seems like a counterexample to Rand’s claim about Western man and Oriental music. Arguably, he’s a Western man who enjoys (and makes) Oriental music. Yo-Yo Ma’s status as a counterexample to her claim is not a matter of taste. This is a judgment at the category 2 level.

    On p. 56, Rand says that the study of music is at the material-gathering stage. But if one’s ultimate aim is truth, there is a right and wrong way to gather material in an inquiry, and that is not a matter of taste. In my view, it’s a mistake to start an inquiry into musicology by relying on the concepts of the “Western” and “Oriental.” Both judgments are category 1.

    Imagine now that we go to the Ayn Rand Archives and discover the names of the pieces of Oriental music Ayn Rand actually listened to while writing RM, plus her judgments on those pieces. There are ten pieces, let’s say, and she regarded all ten as “noise.” This is a category 3 judgment. Here, you insist, we’re discussing tastes that it’s pointless and harmful to debate. But how can it be pointless and harmful to debate her category 3 judgments if they constitute her inductive evidence for all of the other claims in our inquiry? To gather material for our inquiry, we will ultimately have to make some category 3 judgments of our own. If it’s OK to make those judgments in our own case, why is it wrong to debate the judgments she made in hers?

    Another example: On p. 55 of RM, she starts by saying that no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgment is yet possible in the field of music (category 1). On p. 57 she announces a hypothesis about music, insisting that it hasn’t yet been proven (category 1). By p. 59, she is concluding that pretentious people like broken and random music, whereas lethargic people like jumbled music (category 2). Obviously, the evidence for the category 2 judgment must come from category 3 judgments. If we can discuss the category 2 judgment, why can’t we discuss the evidence for it?

    It’s worth asking, incidentally, why Rand would insist on putting so many claims of purely subjective taste in a book on the nature of objective aesthetic judgment. If you find it confusing and harmful to discuss objective judgments and matters of taste at the same time, you should be criticizing Rand, not me. She started the trend; I’m merely responding to it.

    Granted, music may be a special case. But if we set music aside, I don’t see any reason for describing Rand’s aesthetic judgments about particulars as matters of mere taste in a sense that makes them entirely subjective. Her general ethical and aesthetic principles all derive from judgments about particulars. If she made errors at the particular level, those errors might have been integrated–sometimes subtly–into the general principles. So debates about the particular judgments are far from pointless. We need to debate her category 3 judgments to avoid making any mistakes she made at that level.

    Further, if someone professed to agree with her general principles (whether ethical or aesthetic) but found himself in disagreement with all of her particular ones (ethical and/or aesthetic) he would need an explanation for the apparent anomaly. And the task of explanation would itself require debating whether she was right or wrong in particular cases.

    Your account of category 3 statements implies that it’s wrong to discuss Rand’s judgment on particular works of fiction for fear of creating confusion in other people’s minds about the distinction between objective judgments and tastes. Thus when she says that

    “the composite picture of man that emerges from the art of our time is the gigantic figure of an aborted embryo whose limbs suggest a vaguely anthropoid shape, who twists his upper extremity in a frantic quest for a light that cannot penetrate its empty sockets…” (p. 130),

    this is a category 2 judgment which we must somehow evaluate without debating particular instances of “the art of our time.” I don’t think that’s possible. Perhaps you’re saying we should ignore such claims altogether. But then you’re demanding that we ignore parts of the text without evaluation.

    Ultimately, I don’t understand your rationale for erecting some kind of internalized prohibition against inquiry into a certain class of judgments or claims like category 3. You say that such debates are harmful, but the inhibitions created by such a barrier are bound to be more harmful than any confusions that may arise from discussion. Confusions can be clarified by the very process of discussion, but an internalized barrier to inquiry into a certain category of statements is like an unstated standing order that says: “Don’t integrate!” That seems to me like an ipso facto harm. Refusing to debate it would not only subvert our understanding of category 3 judgments, but eventually of category 1 and 2 judgments. My own advice to a reader of Rand’s texts would be to dispense with the whole apparatus of category 1-3 judgments altogether and judge every claim in the text.

    Finally as to category 4: I agree that Rand is often attacked for things she never said, and that such attacks are wrong. But in the case of “Eggs on the Plate,” I wasn’t attacking her at all. I’ve already discussed this above, so I won’t belabor it.

    On a separate topic that you raised elsewhere: though I criticized Rand’s comments on “modern intellectuals,” it’s worth noting that I didn’t take issue with her substantive claims about the various philosophers she attacks in “For the New Intellectual” (Descartes, Hume, Kant, etc.). My point was that it was wrong of Rand to discuss their views in the abusive, psychologizing way in which she did. I wasn’t saying that her claims about those philosophers were necessarily wrong.

    Rand’s claims about the philosophical tradition have struck many people as implausible or ridiculous but in the one case where scholars have done the relevant textual work—Aristotle studies—the interpretations they’ve produced are remarkably consistent with Rand’s claims on the subject. In fact, treated as predictions about the future course of scholarship, Rand’s claims about Aristotle have the quality of genius about them. No one can rule out the possibility that her claims about Descartes, Hume, Kant, and so on might be predictive in the same way. But that is too complex a topic either for an essay like hers or a blog like mine. I left it alone; I wish she had.

  25. emozes says:

    Irfan, I agree with some parts of your response here, and certainly don’t have the time to respond to your entire comment. So let me confine my response only to your discussion of aesthetic tastes. I find your discussion on this badly muddled. Either you’ve once again completely failed to make yourself clear, or this is one issue on which your thinking is totally irrational; I find the first possibility more likely.

    You make two claims regarding the relation of objective judgments about concretes (category 2) to aesthetic tastes (category 3): first, that “category 3 judgments are merely applications of category 2 judgments to particular cases”; second, that “category 2 judgments are reached by induction from category 3”. The first claim is true, but with important qualifications that I’m not sure if you’re keeping in mind. The second claim is just nonsense, and I can’t find any way to interpret it that makes it in any way reasonable.

    The examples you discuss are confusing. For example, you say Rand’s claim, that Oriental music sounds to Western ears like noise, is a “category 2 judgment”; but had she said this about a list of ten specific Oriental works, it would have been “category 3”. This is very confused. Saying that a specific piece of music, or ten specific works, sound to Western ears like noise, would clearly be an objective factual claim, not an expression of taste.

    Let’s go back instead to the examples I used in my last comment:

    Examples of category 2, objective judgments about concretes:

    A. Dali’s painting style expresses a very rational psycho-epistemology.

    B. The subjects of most of Dali’s paintings, but not all of them, express an irrational metaphysics.

    C. Crucifixion expresses the theme of man’s triumph over pain.

    Example of category 3, aesthetic taste:

    D. Crucifixion was Rand’s favorite painting.

    Were judgments A, B and C reached by induction from D, and other statements like it? That’s just silly.

    Is D an application of B? Obviously not.

    Is D an application of A and C? Yes, but with important qualifications. A and C are part of the explanation for D. But they are necessarily only part of the explanation. It’s possible to completely agree with A and C and still not feel much enthusiasm for Crucifixion. Aesthetic responses are based not only on objective judgments regarding a work of art, but also on deeply personal factors that decide which aspects of a work of art the person would focus on when aesthetically responding to it.

    You may expect someone who expresses an aesthetic taste to point out the objective facts that are the basis for this taste; Rand was certainly much more articulate than most people in giving such explanations. You may then debate whether the objective factual claims, offered as an explanation for the aesthetic taste, are correct. But you can’t expect the person to also explain why their aesthetic response focused on these facts rather than on other facts regarding the same work. And that makes debates, over whether someone is right or wrong to have an aesthetic response, completely pointless.

    In your response to Roderick on May 7, 4pm, you argued that the Eggs painting projects a more benevolent-universe view than Crucifixion, and that Crucifixion expresses a desire to flout the primacy of existence about causal relations. If your point had been that you personally don’t like Crucifixion, or that you prefer Eggs to Crucifixion; and these were your explanations for why this is your taste; then I wouldn’t have criticized you for these statements, any more than I would criticize Rand for sharing some of her own tastes with the readers of RM and explaining them. But that wasn’t your point; you presented these as arguments demonstrating that Rand was wrong to enthusiastically respond to Crucifixion, or at least that her response should come as a surprise. Arguments that someone’s aesthetic tastes are wrong or should come as a surprise are certainly not a trend that Rand started in RM; so your defense that “She started the trend; I’m merely responding to it” fails.

    There is, of course, the common myth, spread by the Brandens through the technique of the Big Lie, to the effect that Rand did start this trend; not in RM or in any other published writings, but in her personal dealings with friends and associates. As the myth goes, Rand demanded that everyone respond aesthetically to the same art works as she did, continually argued with anyone who liked works that she disliked or vice versa, trying to convince them to change their tastes, and often got angry at those who were not convinced. If we check the facts behind this story, we find that it is indeed a myth, with no factual support. But what you are apparently saying now is that if Rand actually had treated differing aesthetic tastes the way the Brandens say she did, she would have been right to do so. It was wrong for her to tolerate aesthetic tastes that differed from her own and to not see the need to argue with people for having different tastes; this represented “an internalized barrier to inquiry into a certain category of statements [which] is like an unstated standing order that says: “Don’t integrate!””. So we should not repeat Rand’s mistake, we should treat differences in aesthetic tastes as a matter that needs to be debated, and not only debate the aesthetic tastes of living people when they differ from ours, but also posthomously judge and debate every aesthetic taste of Rand’s.

    I find it hard to believe that this really is what you mean, I hope it isn’t, and I certainly hope that this isn’t what IOS will devote time to in its activities. But I can’t find any other way to read your statements.

  26. irfankhawaja says:


    I can’t respond to everything you’ve written, either (May 16, 10:05 am). So I’m just going to focus on the most obvious problems with your claims on aesthetics.

    You write: “Aesthetic responses are based not only on objective judgments regarding a work of art, but also on deeply personal factors that decide which aspects of a work of art the person would focus on when aesthetically responding to it.”

    Question(s): where do the “deeply personal factors” come from? What is it about those factors that implies that “you can’t expect the person to also explain why their aesthetic response focused on these facts rather than on other facts regarding the same work”? Suppose that “deeply personal factors” induce you to read half of a certain novel, whereas “deeply personal factors” induce me to read the whole of it. You conclude that it’s a terrible novel; I insist that it’s great. We get to talking about it, and along the way I ask: did you read the whole novel? You say “no,” you only read the odd-numbered pages. Now I ask you to explain why your aesthetic response focused on the odd pages rather than the evens. The view you’ve defended implies that my demand is unreasonable. What’s unreasonable about it?

    You write: “Arguments that someone’s aesthetic tastes are wrong or should come as a surprise are certainly not a trend that Rand started in RM; so your defense that “She started the trend; I’m merely responding to it” fails.”

    I wasn’t arguing that Rand’s tastes were wrong (or right), merely that they were surprising. The “trend” I was referring to was not a trend of arguing that someone’s aesthetic tastes are surprising. The sentence to which “the trend” refers is: “If you find it confusing and harmful to discuss objective judgments and matters of taste at the same time, you should be criticizing Rand, not me.” The sentence says nothing about the surprising nature of her tastes, and has nothing to do with that topic. These are two separate points–the trend she began and the surprises involved in some of what she said–and I don’t understand how you’ve managed to combine them. That she did discuss both objective judgments and matters of taste in RM is obvious to any reader of the book.

    As Roderick pointed out somewhere, it comes as a surprise to some people that Rand regarded the paintings of Maxfield Parrish as “trash.” Your view implies that the person who publicly says, “I’m surprised about Rand’s view on Maxfield Parris[‘s paintings]. I would have thought that she’d like them…” has committed some kind of infraction. When his interlocutor says, “Well, it’s no surprise, really. The reason she thought they were trash is…” the two of them are engaging in a “pointless” and “harmful” conversation which they should stop having. So far, it is totally unclear to me what the infraction is, and why it is one. (I’m also unclear whether the problem concerns the private vs. public nature of the conversation, and if so, what difference private/public should make to the underlying aesthetic issue.)

    I realize that it’s polemically convenient for you to raise the issue of the Brandens, to give my views their rationale, and then to discuss my views by intertwining theirs with mine. For the record: I haven’t invoked the Brandens, or anyone else’s private anecdotes or testimony about Rand. My argument has been based on publicly-available material, not anecdotes. I do agree with the latter part of the last sentence of your paragraph, however: “…we should treat differences in aesthetic tastes as a matter that needs to be debated, and not only debate the aesthetic tastes of living people when they differ from ours, but also posthomously judge and debate every aesthetic taste of Rand’s.”

    It doesn’t follow that the ensuing disagreements should become a matter of intolerance. But that her aesthetic judgments, when publicly available and intended for public consumption, should be debated and posthumously judged, I regard as a very worthwhile project–as worthwhile in aesthetics as the comparable tasks are in ethics and politics. I see that you vehemently disagree, but still don’t see why.

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