Archives - Literature: Page 25
Author: Beverly Bennet (Thu Nov 03, 2005 4:06 pm)
The name of Ayn Rand is usually mentioned in discussions of philosophy in the U.S. This is bizarre because Rand was not really a philosopher. Among academic philosophers there is intense disagreement about the merits of her work. She is much admired by some far Right luminaries (who now wish to be called "neo-conservatives") and disliked by almost everybody else, yet she continues to be a popular writer for many people throughout the world.
I thought it appropriate, therefore, to examine one of her essays in detail and then to publish my reactions to it. Anyone who wishes to respond to what I say is welcome to do so. I have selected a fairly typical essay entitled: "From the Horse's Mouth" dating from 1975, which appeared in her collection Philosophy: Who Needs It? (New York: MacMillan, 1982), at p. 77. This brief work is highly representative of her method and conclusions. There are, literally, hundreds -- and even thousands -- of pages written by Ms. Rand on roughly the same level of competence and analysis concerning basic philosophical issues. To know this essay is to have a pretty good idea of the quality of her philosophical writings.
Before turning to my criticisms of that essay, I should acknowledge what I consider to be Ayn Rand's very real talents and achievements. She writes well, for one thing, with clarity and elegance, vividly, while displaying a gift for metaphor and imagery which is rare among writers of philosophical prose. In a person whose first language is not English, this is even more remarkable. Not surprisingly, she is first and foremost a novelist. While I do not consider her a great novelist -- a novelist on a par with, say, Tolstoy or Dickens, Cervantes or Melville, she is certainly a competent literary artist. Literary skills are a virtue in a would-be philosopher or in anyone who feels a need to communicate by means of the written word and are not to be underestimated. The literary talents of thinkers such as Plato, Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, or of Iris Murdoch in our own day, accounts for a great part of their success.
Regrettably, literary skills alone are not sufficient for a philosopher. A powerful intellect is also needed to do original philosophical work. Even with both of those qualities, a thinker who lacks a thorough and accurate knowledge of the history of philosophy (and knowldge of a great deal more besides), simply cannot produce philosophical work at the highest levels in the twentieth century and beyond. This is because of the great technicality and complexity of the subject.
Philosophy is impossibly difficult, Iris Murdoch says: "Philosophy, unless one is a genius, is a mug's game." Some of us, who are quite ordinary in our talents and aptitudes, have no choice in the matter and find ourselves drawn to the subject, to this "mug's game," and to writing on philosophical topics just as a matter of being human. We have to think "philosophically" and sometimes resort to writing stories out of frustration -- as did Murdoch and Rand, along with Sartre and Camus -- often discovering our best philosophical ideas, in altered form, in those stories. Writing what Truman Capote called "non-fiction" stories and novels can also be a way of coping with painful trauma in our lives.
Not many of us will be great philosophers, but all of us will benefit from philosophical study and effort, especially those of us concerned to examine fundamental political and legal ideas. I do agree with Ms. Rand's famous response to her own question. After asking: "Who needs philosophy?" She answered: "We all do."
Ms. Rand's greatest deficiency, however, is that there are obvious and visible gaps in her knowledge of the writings of the great philosophers which no amount of literary talent can conceal even from the alert student (like me), let alone from the professionals. She has no formal training in philosophy and has not read enough independently -- or maybe, not systematically enough -- to compensate for this, so as to master the subtleties of philosophical doctrine at a highly sophisticated level. When examining the writings of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, for example, she is simply out of her depth.
Ms. Rand begins her essay by remarking that, during a period of illness, she came to read Friedrich Paulsen's 1898 work Immanuel Kant: His Life and Doctrine -- "I saw the long, dismal, slithering disintegration of the twentieth century held implicitly in a few sentences. I wanted to scream a warning, but it was too late." Naturally, this sounds dramatic. But I want to focus on what is actually being said and whether it makes any sense.
Friedrich Paulsen was a dry nineteenth century commentator on Kant. He is hardly worthy of being deemed a "threat" to a century that has mostly ignored his work. To lay the great crimes of a bloody century at his doorstep is absurdly excessive. Ms. Rand really wishes to attack Kant himself (the man she loves to hate), but abdicates her responsibility to actually read Kant, all of Kant or most of the important texts. Although her essay is entitled "From the Horse's Mouth," she has concentrated on the wrong horse. Only after having read at least some of Kant's writings, should she turn to the commentators, like Paulsen, as well as any of the others since, who have agreed or disagreed with Paulsen's once influential interpretations.
Kant is criticized and admired by thinkers from both ends of the political spectrum. This is a tribute to his achievement.
To initiate a discussion of the highly difficult ideas of Immanuel Kant -- possibly the most important philosopher of the last 200 years and one of the most difficult -- with a sweeping generalization based on a casual reading of the introduction to a commentator's book from the last century, is simply not acceptable scholarly practice. If you want to fake it, something all of us who were college students have done at some point, then at least read a number of commentaries on Kant's work. Much can be learned about the richness in Kant's writings just from the disagreements among commentators about the meaning and value of his ideas.
I am now in the midst of reading one of Kant's most famous essays and find it surprising how much more accessible he is than I remembered. (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals.)
Best of all, why not actually quote the words of Kant to which one objects? My guess is that Kant simply does not say or believe the things that Rand thinks he does, but that she refuses to be deterred by this fact from ventilating her hostility to a set of despised ideas that, for some reason, she believes are derived from Kant. One of the major disadvantages of not having read Kant, or even much about him, is that one is likely to be mistaken about what he actually said and believed or advocated.
We all make mistakes in reading difficult thinkers, but there are ways to minimize the risk of this. My policy is to quote the offending passage from a text that I wish to attack. That way, if I am mistaken in my interpretation, someone can point this out to me or can direct me to a text that does so. The Rand method of not reading your adversary's work at all, and not even quoting from it, is unwise for many reasons: for one thing, one is apt to find oneself arguing with a strawman, constructed by oneself, on the basis of platitudes and half-truths. In fact, this is what I think Ayn Rand does for the most part. Also, there is no excuse for failing to supply footnotes that might help the reader to identify interpretations and/or verify their accuracy. Significantly, again, in an essay that turns into a total rejection of "Kant's" ideas, there is not a single quotation from or reference to Kant's published works. The reader is expected to accept Ms. Rand's oracular comments about what Kant allegedly "believed."
Ms. Rand's substantive argument begins: "Existentially (i.e., in regard to the conditions of living, scale of achievement, and rapidity of progress), the nineteenth century was the best in Western history. Philosophically, it was one of the worst." (p. 78.) This is a startling thing to say about the century of Hegel, Bentham, Mill, Niezsche, Schopenhauer, Compte, Bergson, James and many others. One of the worst? As compared with, for instance, the sixth or ninth centuries? I doubt it. The sheer explosive production of ideas in the nineteenth century -- agree with them or not -- should preclude such a judgment. At the very least, Ms. Rand should explain why this is so.
She goes on to say: "People thought they had entered an era of inexhaustible radiance; but it was merely the sunset of Aristotle's influence, which the philosophers were extinguishing." (p. 78.) In fact, the "sunset of Aristotle's influence" dates from no later than the seventeenth century. But there is more: "If you have felt an occasional touch of wistful envy at the thought that there was a time when men went to the opening of a new play, and what they saw was not 'Hair' or 'Grease,' but 'Cyrano de Bergerac,' which opened in 1897 -- take a wider look. I wish that borrowing from Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris, someone had pointed to the Paulsen book, then the play and said: 'This will kill that.' ..." (p. 78.)
To suggest that poor Professor Paulsen (or even Kant), from their respective armchairs, are responsible for the decline in aesthetic standards since the nineteenth century is controversial and wildly speculative, but it is not even argued for by Rand; rather, it is simply anounced as fact. While it is true that "Cyrano de Bergerac" opened in 1897, so did quite a few terrible plays. Worse, the terrible plays were usually far more popular than the good ones, just as in our own time. One has only to think of the potboilers of William Somerset Maugham for the London stage of the Edwardian period to relish the prospect of a performance of "Grease."
In our time, plays by Miller, Williams, O'neil and Beckett have opened alongside middle-brow trash like Lloyd-Weber's glitzy (but fun!) "Phantom of the Opera" and pop rip-offs of Puccini's La Boheme, like "Rent." Are these works by great contemporary authors and composers not every bit as good as what was available in 1897 in New York or London? I think so, but Ms. Rand's method is not to argue the point on the basis of the available evidence or a close reading of a text, but only to offer a startling and sweeping generalization, or to throw out a value judgment that appeals to the emotions of the reader, and then to assume that her generalization is established. None of these generalizations are even adequately stated and defended, let alone proven.
At last she is ready to attack Kant directly: "Kant gave to science the entire material world (which, however, was to be regarded as 'unreal'), and left ('conserved') one thing to faith: morality. If you are not sure which side would win in a division of that kind, look around you today." (p. 79.) Nowhere does Kant suggest that the phenomenal world is "unreal." On the contrary, he regards it as the very real source of sense data for the categories of the understanding. See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ed., (1787), Introduction, Part I. It was Ms. Rand's next statement that took my breath away: "The Kantian division allows man's reason to conquer the material world, but eliminates reason from the choice of goals for which material achievements are to be used. Man's goals, actions, choices and values -- according to Kant -- are to be determined irrationally, i.e., by faith." (p. 79.)
This is simply false. Kant is the ultimate Enlightenment thinker who celebrates freedom and the ubiquity of reason. For Kant, morality is very much a matter of practical reason, it is a necessary inference from the fact that we know ourselves to be free, so that to suggest that he regards morality as a matter of "faith" or "eliminates reason" from moral life is simply totally inaccurate. Here is one sample of what Kant has to say on this subject:
"But inasmuch as reason has been imparted to us as a practical faculty, i.e., as one which is to have an influence on the will, its true function must be to produce a will which is not merely good as a means to some further end, but is good in itself. To produce a will good in itself reason was absolutely necessary, inasmuch as nature in distributing her capacities has everywhere gone to work in a purposive manner." Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 9.
Kant insists also that rationality or reason dictates the necessary framework for experience and ethics. We simply know ourselves to be free, again, and this is to accept ourselves as moral subjects, necessarily, who are responsible for their actions. In its emphasis on intention and duty, Kant's ethics reveals Chritianity's influence on him, and in its attempt to ground duty in reason, Kant's theory showed him to be a thinker of the Enlightenment. By positing freedom as if it were based on a "synthetic a priori truth" (for without freedom, there can be no ethics), one can derive an ethical structure from Kant's minimalist foundations in reason.
Notice that Kant is referring to the unimpaired rational agent capable of reasoning. Kant is well-aware that not everyone is equally free, nor is everyone free in the same way. He certainly understands that some people are mentally impaired or otherwise constrained in the exercise of freedom.
Being a rule-guided activity, for instance, reasoning itself is based on a respect for law and rules. The rules of logic dictate that A = A. One cannot claim to disregard such rules and yet continue to reason logically. By the same token, from a comparable respect for the requirements of "practical" rationality, Kant deduced his ultimate moral command, the categorical imperative: "So act that the maxim of your action can be willed as a universal law." (Groundwork) In the Critique of Practical Reason, the formulation is slightly different: "So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means."
Notice that this involves two distinct principles: (1) the "universalization principle"; and (2) the "principle of ends." The first says that all moral acts can be derived from principles that can be generalized rationally without contradiction. The second insists on the dignity of each person and demands that you not use people as a means to your ends. "We are all sovereigns," Kant says, "in the kingdom of ends."
Kant's work, thus, represents a remarkable intellectual achievement and one with unequaled influence on subsequent humanistic reforms -- reforms having to do with the recognition of the dignity of every person, with concepts such as equality before the law, with the notion of the universality of human rights. These ideas bear no resemblance to the caricature constructed by Ayn Rand, only so that she might tear it down. Incidentally, I find the recent Leftist critiques of rights equally unsatisfying. We need the concept of rights that are fundamental and universal attributes of human nature, now more than ever. The very people who criticize "rights-talk," will then complain (rightly!) of the violations of human "rights" by torturers and dictators.
"In Kant's ethical system," writes Rand, "morality has nothing to do with this world, nor with reason, nor with science ... " (p.79.) Well, I have no idea what she means by claiming that Kantian ethics "have nothing to do with the world," but it seems pretty clear to me that Kant's ethics is all about reason. The Kantian system has everything to do with reason, as I have indicated in my summary, so that one does not know where to begin to correct these misimpressions. Rand, once again, offers no citations to support her claim because she is in her "guru" mode.
When such a statement appears in print under the name of a writer one otherwise respects, but who wishes to be taken seriously as a philosopher, the result is only embarassment for intelligent readers and students of philosophy. However, for readers whose understanding of the subject is even more nonexistent than hers, Rand's pontifical pronouncements may seem profound. They sure sound good, even if they do not amount to much.
Rand concludes her essay with this remark: "[Kant] sets philosophy against reason, i.e., against man's power of cognition, to turn philosophy into an apologist for and a protector of superstition." (p. 82.) She still does not quote the passage from Kant's writings in which he supposedly does this. In fact, once again, the opposite of her conclusion is true: Kant's work was an attack on traditional forms of speculative metaphysics and a plea for the application of reason to matters traditionally clouded in superstition.
Kant is a symbol of everything that Rand wishes to be.
Finally, it occurs to me that the most important question for the reader to consider today is not how such an ill-informed and poorly argued essay gets into print and how its author manages to be taken seriously by so many people, but how it is possible that the educational system in the U.S. can fail to provide most people with the modicum of philosophical learning necessary to identify such an essay for what it is. Prominent American politicians and others continue to invoke the name of Ayn Rand as an important philosopher of the twentieth century, something that I do not think can be plausibly maintained, as opposed to a polemicist or a novelist of influence. Ayn Rand is simply not a great philosopher.
Maybe there can be no hope for moral progress and genuine social justice in U.S. society until we do something about our appalling and prevalent philosophical ignorance, even among university graduates in related fields, like politics and history, real philosophy is a non-subject. If I am right about this, then a sound critique of Ms. Rand's essay may be a good place to start to build an awareness of the difference between what is truly philosophically respectable and what is the opposite. There is so much fascinating philosophical work being done right now, much of it by American thinkers, that the thought that most people will know only the name of one "philosopher" and that it will be "Ayn Rand," is frustrating and depressing for me.
Read Ayn Rand, if you must, but you will be much better off reading her novels than her philosophical works -- and neither will be as good as anything written by, or about, Kant. As for contemporary American and British philosophers, here is a partial list of my favorites: Richard Rorty (often wrong, but fun and fascinating to read); Martha Nussbaum (literary sensibility combined with philosophical rigor); Cornel West (excellent and provides a much needed perspective in America and a keen synthesizing intellect); Hilary Putnam (writes exactly as a surgeon uses a scalpel, except that he is apt to change his mind at any moment, performing an appedectomy instead of the planned vasectomy on the unsuspecting patient-reader); Robert C. Solomon (existentialist-phenomenologist, witty, clear, prolific, often agreeing with me and hence, right about most things); Camille Paglia (literary theorist, crazy, but fun and sexy, because she is not afraid of sex as a topic); Roger Scruton (usually fox hunting when not doing philosophy, but the best teacher or "tutor" of the subject out there); Bryan Magee (very readable); Bernard Williams (genius); Rick Roderick (wonderful lecturer, makes Habermas comprehensible); Iris Murdoch (superb writer, great novelist, British and an existentialist, but somehow still made it to the National Portrait Gallery in the UK); Paul Ricoeur (elegant, almost superhumanly learned, the philosopher from "Central Casting").
Any one of these people, and lots of others too, offer a much better reading experience than Ayn Rand. Read, study, write about philosophers and philosophy. "Know yourself."
I couldn’t agree more with you Ayn Rand’s philosophy is incomplete an superficial although because of its simplicity and because it rest in commonsense it attracts many non-philosophers who might find in Rand’s philosophical ideas (objectivism) a simple and practical system that they probably believe could take them to have an understanding of the complexities of the universe (including the social and political dimensions of human live). Ayn Rand’s ideas could make one feel that the ground we are standing on is solid and firm when in reality is not. Some of the axioms of objectivism might be worthwhile saving but the philosophical system in general at best is inchoate.
Nevertheless as you have already said Rand’s literary work is superior to her philosophy.