Ayn Rand on World War I: (In)Decisive Arguments and the Lessons of History

I’ve been prepping to teach a course on international relations this term. In the course of doing so, I decided, on a lark, to re-read Ayn Rand’s essay “The Roots of War,” which I hadn’t read in awhile. On re-reading it, I was startled at how crazy it seemed since the last time that I’d read it–baffling, misleading, exasperating, and confusing.

Here is one of the baffling claims she makes, about the origins of World War I:

Observe that the major wars of history were started by the more controlled economies of the time against the freer ones. For instance, World War I was started by monarchist Germany and Czarist Russia, who dragged in their freer allies (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 33 in the Centennial Edition).

The first sentence is debatable, but the second sentence strikes me as bizarre. Can anyone think of a plausible interpretation of the origins of World War I that holds Germany and Russia jointly responsible for starting it? I’m not questioning the abstract possibility that two antagonists can separately and simultaneously initiate force against one another. That’s odd, but can in principle happen (and does happen). What I find puzzling is why Rand thinks Russia can be saddled with having started this particular war.

She doesn’t say, but my speculation is that she must think one or both of the following:

1. Russia started the war because Russia supported Serbian nationalism. Serbian nationalists assassinated the Austro-Hungarian archduke and his wife, the force-initiation that started the war; Russia’s support for Serbian terrorism entails culpability for Serbian terrorism, hence for the act that started the war.

2. Russia started the war because Russian mobilization was simultaneous with Austro-Hungarian-German mobilization,* and mobilization is (or at the time was, or was understood to be) tantamount to an act of initiated aggression, particularly in the context of claim (1) above. (The historian Michael Howard likens mobilization, within the context of then-contemporary military assumptions, to a person’s drawing a weapon and aiming it at someone.) Germany (and/or Serbia) was responsible for Austro-Hungarian mobilization, and Russia was responsible for its own mobilization. Hence Germany and Russia were jointly responsible for starting the war.

Both claims are problematic, but they’re the best that I can come up with. I wonder if anyone reading this can come up with anything better?

Rand’s claim strikes me as so implausible that I’m led to suspect, uncharitably, that she’s really just engaged in a kind of crude a priori/coherentist argumentation: since Germany and Russia were (on her view) the most controlled economies in 1914, it “follows” that they had to have started World War I.

Interestingly, in  his 2010 book, Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History, the late Objectivist historian John Lewis dispenses with Rand’s reference to Russia and saddles Germany with having started the war (p. 190). Though Lewis quotes approvingly from Rand’s essay, he makes no reference to Rand’s interpretation of the outset of World War I. I guess in war historiography as in warfare itself, it pays to choose one’s allies with care.

*Strictly speaking, the Austro-Hungarian Empire mobilized (and attacked) either just before the Russians mobilized, or as they mobilized, on July 28, 1914; both actions took place before the Germans mobilized. But since the Austro-Hungarian mobilization was instigated by the Germans, and was part of a German war plan that long preceded the mobilization of any non-German party (and since interpretive charity to Rand requires a reference to Germans), I’ve taken some liberties with chronology and precision in describing the argument (that I’ve charitably ascribed to her). My point, after all, is that Rand’s claims are both underargued and problematic.

40 thoughts on “Ayn Rand on World War I: (In)Decisive Arguments and the Lessons of History

  1. Can you explain why Point 1 in the Russian arguments is wrong? It strikes me as plausible. It seems analogous to another country backing the Taliban after 9/11 to aid and abet terrorists against a foreign nation. I suppose Serbia is just as culpable in that sense, but given Russia’s status as a Great Power, only its entry into the war caused the escalation into a full-blown World War.

    Also, if I recall correctly from reading the Wikipedia summary of the July Crisis a while ago, a significant portion of the German government and military high command wanted the war to happen from day 1, and actively sabotaged diplomatic peace efforts. Maybe I’m remembering, but there didn’t seem to be any other country who wanted the conflict to erupt into a massive war, except for maybe Serbia which figured a larger war was it’s only chance of survival.

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    • Claim (1) is what Rand would need in order to support her claim that the Russians started the war. But as stated, it’s not true. Or put differently, the evidence for it is lacking.

      It’s true in a very general sense that Russia supported Serbia, and that Serbia supported Serbian nationalism. There is some evidence that low-level members of the Serbian military supported the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. But there is no evidence that the Serbian government was behind the assassination, much less that the Russian government was. I would have to do more reading than I have to know the extent of Serbian or Russian support for Serbian terrorism, or for the more questionable aspects of Serbian nationalism, but I know this much: the evidence of Russian involvement is equivocal; it does not clearly support what Rand needs for her argument to go through. In other words, you’d need to do some real work to make a plausible argument for (1). But she says literally nothing in support of it. She tosses it off as though it was self-evident.

      It’s worth remembering that the Serbian government accepted a great deal of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum over the Ferdinand assassination, and was willing to negotiate over it with the Dual Monarchy (i.e., the Austro-Hungarians). And bear in mind that the terrorists were Austro-Hungarian citizens who had perpetrated an act in Sarajevo (which is not in Serbia, and which was controlled by the Dual Monarchy). Finally, it’s clear that the Dual Monarchy was desperately looking for a pretext to destroy Serbia. Rand mentions literally none of this, but all of it cuts against the idea that Russia started the war. In the most literal sense, either the Serbs started the war or the Dual Monarchy did. All that the Russians did was mobilize against the German threat that arose as a result of the Dual Monarchy’s (pretextual) response to the Ferdinand assassination. But the point is, there was a German threat. So mobilizing against it (on one’s own soil, in fits and starts, while trying to avoid war) hardly seems like starting a war.

      I wouldn’t completely close the door on Rand’s interpretation. Someone might argue that the Dual Monarchy was justified in wanting to destroy Serbia over Serbian terrorism in a sense that went beyond the narrow issue of providing logistical support for the Ferdinand assassination. They might concede the fact that Russia was uninvolved in the specifics of the assassination, but insist that Russia was, in a more general sense, sufficiently pro-terrorist to make it fair game for an attack. In other words, they’d say that Russian support for the Serbs amounted to an initiation of force because it was a kind of ongoing background condition of aggression.

      Fair enough, but it’s one thing to say that, and another thing to argue for it. I’d need to see a plausible argument before I judged her claim a success. Rand doesn’t provide an argument, and it’s not the consensus view of contemporary English-speaking scholarship on World War I. Granted, claims about Russian culpability for starting the war may have been more plausible when Rand wrote, in 1966. In his 1951 Walgreen Lectures (collected in American Diplomacy), George Kennan says that the “Austrians and Russians” were “no doubt in first place” for having started the war, with the Germans in second place (p. 58 of the 1984 edition). Like Rand, Kennan was ready to blame the Russians. But ultimately, his view is pretty different from Rand’s, because his larger claim was that no one started the war; the war was, in effect, an accident. That was the consensus view for a long time. But it isn’t Rand’s view, doesn’t really support Rand’s view, and in my opinion, isn’t true.

      I don’t think the Serbian situation is analogous to the Taliban after 9/11. It’s a bit more analogous to the relationship between the current Pakistani government and the Taliban. The current Pakistani (civilian) government is opposed to the Taliban, but the civilian government is weak and faces a military with rogue elements that supports the Taliban. It would be inaccurate even to say that the military as such supports the Taliban, though some officers surely do. But you couldn’t legitimately have started a full-scale war against Pakistan after 9/11 if, after being confronted over its rogue support for the Taliban, it had groveled before you and said, “OK, OK, we’ll cooperate with you in fighting terrorism.” Even if its cooperation was grudging, grudging cooperation in fighting terrorism is not a justification for war.

      It would make things worse if we had wanted to destroy Pakistan all along, then used 9/11 as a pretext for it–starting a world war in the process. But that’s effectively what Germany and the Dual Monarchy did. The relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaida was much tighter than that between either Russia or Serbia and the Black Hand (the Serbian terrorist group). And it’s a little known fact that the United States (under both Clinton and Bush) spent about a year before 9/11 negotiating with the Taliban to induce them to stop their support for Al Qaida and hand over bin Laden, which they (the Taliban) consistently (and dishonestly) refused to do. There’s no comparable analogue to that in the Austro-Hungarian/Serbian case.

      It’s true that the Germans wanted war from day 1, and sabotaged peace efforts, but that proves that the Germans started the war, not that the Russians did. There was no country that wanted the conflict to erupt into a larger war but Germany.

      The book I’d recommend reading on this is David Fromkin’s Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? Clear as a bell, and compulsively readable. It also gives a nice summary of the more recent scholarship, which overturns a lot of the things I was taught when I studied World War I in college. (The text I read in college was A.J.P. Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History.) I’d assign Fromkin to my students if they were up to it, but I don’t think they are, so I assign Michael Howard’s The First World War: A Very Short Introduction, which isn’t nearly as good. Here, by the way, is the website for the course I’m teaching, in case you want to follow along. Feel free to join in, as I think my students could use the input of a former history major.

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      • Though I don’t think it’s persuasive, I just re-read a paper that offers an argument for a Rand-like interpretation of the beginning of World War I, attributing it simultaneously to Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Germany. It refines options (1) and (2) from my original post and combines them (Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., “The Origins of World War I,” in Rotberg & Rabb, The Origin and Prevention of Major Wars).

        1* St. Petersburg played mid-wife to the Balkan League, a pact signed in the spring of 1912 and directed against both the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg monarchy. Vigorous Russian diplomatic support, along with shipments of military supplies during the Balkan wars, buttressed the ties [between Russia and Serbia]. (p. 228)

        2*. Though he concedes that “the first steps toward war began in Vienna,” he regards the Russian moves toward mobilization (“pre-mobilization”) as “belligerent, provocative, and ill-designed to keep the crisis in check” (p. 242), and says that “Russia’s general mobilization made containment of the crisis an impossibility” (p. 244).

        That has some plausibility, but it’s a long way from conclusive. Claim (1) presupposes an analysis of the Balkan Wars, and claim (2) needs an argument that mobilization is a force-initiation. Michael Howard’s analogy of mobilization to drawing a weapon might do the trick, but we need an argument for the analogy itself.


    • One more postscript on this, inspired by my re-reading John Keegan’s account in The First World War, which kinda sorta offers a version of argument (2) above:

      One thing that makes the “origin of World War I” confusing is that historians seem to rely on several different conceptions of what it is to “start” a war:

      (a) War begins with the first initiation of force by some party to a conflict, regardless of its severity or scope.
      (b) War begins with the first warlike initiation of force by some party to a conflict, i.e., force-initiation that crosses a certain threshold of severity or scope.
      (c) War begins when some party takes action that makes warlike conflict “inevitable,” whether that action initiates force or not, and regardless of its severity or scope (though typically the action would be relatively large scale).

      Keegan has an interpretation of the beginning moves of the war that sounds as though it saddles Russia with co-responsibility for starting the war, but doesn’t quite come out and do so. To the extent that Keegan saddles Russia with co-responsibility, he’s endorsing something like (c), but his interpretation doesn’t support (a) or (b), and doesn’t even clearly endorse (c).

      In partial support of (c):

      (i) The German ambassador in St. Petersburg was told to say that the [Russian] measures, unless discontinued, would force Germany to mobilise which “would mean war.” (p. 58)

      (ii) Buchanan [the British ambassador to Russia] had already warned the Russians, as he reported to the Foreign Office, that a Russian mobilisation would push the Germans not into a responsive mobilisation but a declaration of war. (p. 59)

      (iii) This decision to order general mobilisation “was perhaps the most important…taken in the history of Imperial Russia and it effectively shattered any prospect of averting a great European war.” It was also unnecessary. (p. 62)

      (iv) General mobilisation [by Russia], including that of the military districts bordering Germany, would mean general war. (p. 63)

      (v) German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg: “Russian mobilisation measures would compel us to mobilise and…then European war could scarcely be prevented” (p. 63)

      (vii) It was the events of 31 July, therefore, the dissemination of the news of Russian general mobilisation, and the German ultimata to Russia and France, which made the issue one of peace or war. (p. 67)

      But even if that amounts to (c), Keegan goes out of his way to insist that it doesn’t amount to (a) or (b) (pp. 60-61, 66-67). The Serbs started the war in sense (a), and the Austrians started it in sense (b). Either the Russians by themselves or the Russians and Germans jointly started it in sense (c). Though it’s a stretch, it’s conceivable to say that the French started the war against Germany in sense (a), since the Germans alleged that German airspace was violated by the French on August 3, and that violation was the pretext for the invasion of Belgium (p. 69).

      At one point, Keegan sounds like he’s denying (c) itself:

      A Russian mobilisation would harden attitudes everywhere, even though it was not thought to entail that of other armies, and certainly not the consequence of war. (p. 57)

      No matter how you slice it, though, Keegan’s interpretation doesn’t support Rand’s. On Rand’s view, a war has to begin with a force-initiation in either sense (a) or (b)–and she’s not clear which. It’s not clear that Rand’s metaphysics allows her to say that sense (c) is possible–arguably the sense of inevitability involved violates free will–but even if (or when) it is possible, a defensive action that makes war inevitable is not a force-initiation, and is therefore not what starts a war in the Objectivist sense.


      • Not that anyone cares, but I just came up with a third argument for the claim that Russia started World War I. It’s a little convoluted, but it has a certain plausibility, and is at least prima facie consistent with Objectivism.

        Start by stipulating that the Dual Monarchy declared war on Serbia before Russia declared war on anyone, and was first to engage in a war-like boundary-crossing by opening fire on Belgrade. Both events took place on July 28, 1914. Since Serbia was in a mutual defense pact with Russia, an attack on Serbia was an attack on Russia. So in that sense, unless we construe the Dual Monarchy’s actions as justified retaliation for a prior force-initiation, it looks like the Dual Monarchy initiated force against both Serbia and Russia.

        Now, the Dual Monarchy’s Governor Potiorek invaded Serbia, arguably committing some serious atrocities along the way (Hew Strachan, The First World War: A New Illustrated History, pp. 27-28). The Dual Monarchy’s General Conrad then faced down Russia in Galicia. Unfortunately for Conrad, the Russians routed his army; ex hypothesi, we can stipulate that the Russian “rout” of Conrad was a counter-attack or retaliation by Russia against the Dual Monarchy.

        In routing Conrad, however, the Russians then committed a series of atrocities in Galicia, maybe in response to Potiorek’s in Serbia, maybe not:

        [Russian] reactionaries saw Galicia as part of Russia, and persuaded the governor-general appointed to run it that it should be subject to Russification and racial cleansing. This meant that Russian was to be the only language in schools, that the churches should convert to Orthodoxy, and that the Russian army was licensed to loot. The ingrained anti-Semitism of the Russian army meant that Jews were driven from their homes, either forward towards Austria-Hungary or back into the Russian interior. (Strachan, First World War, p. 30).

        Ex hypothesi, the Russian actions were a counter-attack against the Austro-Hungarian force-initiation. But perhaps it’s open to Rand (or an Objectivist) to argue that this sort of counter-attack, disproportionate to the original attack and targeting civilians unrelated to it, amounts to a force-initiation of its own. In other words, wrongful retaliations involving force (whether disproportionate to the original offense, or insufficiently responsive to that offense) are the moral equivalent of force initiations.

        Example: If you violate the local noise ordinance (a force initiation) and I shoot you in response, it may be true that you’ve initiated force (assuming the reasonableness of the ordinance) but my response is too draconian to count as a genuine instance of retaliation to that initiation. Hence, morally speaking, it’s an initiation of its own. The “quantity” of force that I deploy that exceeds what’s required to respond to your initiation is itself an initiation.

        I say it’s “open” to Rand to argue this way, but in fact, she doesn’t. She doesn’t make the historical case for the view I’ve sketched, and doesn’t, as a philosophical matter, discuss proportionality or responsiveness in retaliation. In practice, she prescribes retaliations that seem disproportionate and unresponsive to the initiations they supposedly target. But an Objectivist could in principle save her thesis about World War I by appealing to norms of that sort, whether he ended up ascribing them to her or not.

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      • I’m glad someone else is saying it. I’m especially glad that Alison is saying it.

        I am not so glad to read the dig at coherentism, though. Coherentism does not license Procrusteanism, dammit! What you’re describing is reasoning of the form: X would fit with my antecedent commitment to Y; therefore X and I will neither require further support for X nor, heaven forbid, countenance any objections to X, even when X is an empirical claim that is eminently falsifiable. I won’t say that no coherentists ever argue that way, but that’s not how it’s supposed to work. Granted, it’s especially not how Rand is supposed to work, because she thinks we’re supposed to justify all of our beliefs by tracing them back down to the infallible evidence of the senses. So she loses extra points for inconsistency. But there is no justification by appeal to the evidence of the senses that is not itself ultimately coherentist — there is just bad coherentist argument and good coherentist argument. (Well, ok, there’s also forms of coherentism presented as forms of foundationalism via linguistic wizardry, but…).

        Mainly I am impressed that you know enough about WWI history to assess the claim. I have forgotten most of whatever I learned about WWI long ago. I used to think that going to a fundamentalist Pentecostal high school mostly harmed my science education and left everything else intact, but the more I reflect on it the more I realize that most of my knowledge of history not acquired as a result of studying Classics is extremely vague. Just more stuff to read, I guess.

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        • I hadn’t meant to be targeting coherentists as such–hence the slightly cryptic reference to “a kind of crude a priori/coherentist argumentation.” I wasn’t going after champions of a priori knowledge, either! Unfortunately, there is no term in common use for the specific misuse of coherentism that both of us have in mind. Theories often have shadow versions that are very common, but fall short of ideal (or even minimally correct) instances of the theory. If only there was a word for that phenomenon–“vulgar Marxism,” “crude coherentism,” “caricatural foundationalism,” “malign egoism,” etc. I know what you mean by “Procrusteanism,” but it isn’t a term in common enough use to refer to a messed-up form of coherentism.

          As for reading Ayn Rand, someone has to do it, right? (OK, maybe not.) The thing is, once you’ve read a lot of Rand and internalized it, you end up having to re-read a lot of Rand to get it out of your system. But when you do, you find yourself aghast at two problematically related facts: (a) people still take this stuff seriously, and (b) I was one of the people who did.

          And yet, you also find that she is a smart and tricky enough writer so that refuting her is never an easy task, even when she’s saying something ridiculous or outrageous. It’s often easy enough to pick off the throw-away claims that are least central to the main point she’s making, but never easy to kill off the main point she’s making: she’s always on to something, even if, strictly speaking she’s failed to make her case.


          • Well, there is “non-bullshit Marxism,” and hence, by implication, “bullshit Marxism.” Maybe we should just distinguish between “non-bullshit coherentism” and “bullshit coherentism,” and between “non-bullshit apriorism” and “bullshit apriorism.” Basically let’s just start using “bullshit” as a standard philosophical term.

            As someone who learned about Rand only after becoming a pretty convinced Aristotelian, I have always been left wondering, “why bother with Rand when you’ve got Aristotle?” I know how some Randians answer that question; i.e., on important issues where they differ, Rand is right and Aristotle is wrong. That just seems mostly wrong to me. Granted, I haven’t gone and read all of Rand’s philosophical work, and I’m probably, from an Objectivist point of view, excessively influenced by Roderick Long and you in how I understand Objectivism. But life is short, and there’s already more that I want to read than I’ll ever have time to read, so I’m not going to go read more Rand. After all, I still haven’t finished MacIntyre’s new book (which I hope you will read and comment on, by the way!).

            I will, however, happily concede that there is more to Rand than most philosophers think. But that’s not very hard, given that most philosophers think there is less than nothing to Rand. So…


          • Well, care of Frankfurt, “bullshit” is a standard philosophical term, as (care of Aaron James) is “asshole.” Colin McGinn made an abortive attempt to bring “mindfucking” into vogue, but with less success. And “bitch” and “slut” have had, or are having, their day. Meanwhile, over at BHL, Kevin Vallier is advertising a paper on “grandstanding” (just published in Philosophy & Public Affairs) that casually notes that grandstanding is not the same as bullshitting. I’m guessing that when a referee asks, “So how does your analysis relate to Frankfurt on bullshit?” the term has become normalized–even professionalized.

            I like profanity as much as the next guy, but I think we need something besides “bullshit X” for the concept at hand: “bullshit” is (for better or worse) now a Frankfurtian term of art, and it implies indifference to the truth. But indifference to the truth doesn’t really work for the relevant range of cases I have in mind. I think it was Jonathan Bennett who came up with the idea of “shadow history of philosophy.” “Shadow X” is closer to what I have in mind, e.g., “shadow coherentism,” or for other sorts of cases, “popular coherentism.”

            On “why bother with Rand if you’ve got Aristotle,” I think the answer turns on how anachronistic and/or wrongheaded you take Aristotle to be. Even if you thought Aristotle was right about everything fundamental, it’d be a major project (to put it mildly) to bring Aristotelianism up to date. I couldn’t begin to tell you how Aristotle’s Physics relates to high school chemistry, how the claims of the Politics bear on the welfare state, or how Nicomachean X.7-8 bears on DSM-5, or for that matter, my life. I know that they are relevant, but no one’s really worked out how.

            And then you might think Aristotle got some of the fundamentals wrong. (As you know, I agree in a backhanded way here with Randians, but from the “left,” so to speak.) All you need to motivate an interest in Rand is (a) the conviction that Aristotle is wrong on a lot of things, (b) the justified belief that serious errors reach deep into the Aristotelian system (or texts), and that (c) it’s at least possible that Ayn Rand is Aristotle Updated for the Modern Age.

            Of course, if you fasten on (c) before you know very much about the world (including Aristotle and the history of philosophy), you’ll be apt to think that you’ve discovered the Holy Grail. Once you’ll (eventually) figure things out (decades later), you discover that you’re reading the Aristotle via Richard McKeon, as filtered through Bacon, Locke, Marx, Nietzsche, Victor Hugo, Lenin, Isabel Paterson, Leonard Peikoff, and Allan Gotthelf (maybe throw Aquinas and Spinoza in the mix as well)–as interpreted by a traumatized victim of the USSR who just happens to be dependent on Benzadrine. Eventually, you’ll discover not just that the filters are there, but that they’re a problem. And then people will start interviewing you for books titled Why I Left Objectivism: Apostates Speak Out.

            At this point, if I encountered a student who had beliefs (a)-(c), and was tempted by Rand, I’d do what I could to steer her in a different direction on the premise, “Do as I say, not as I’ve done.” As it happens, in 22 years of teaching, I don’t think I ever steered a student toward Rand (at least not one who wasn’t already there), but I don’t know for sure.

            I wasn’t even aware of MacIntyre’s new book until I’d read your comment, so thanks.

            Incidentally, if you want a painless way of reviewing your knowledge of World War I, I’d recommend watching the British documentary, Trenches: Battleground World War I, which draws on the work of the major British historians, Keegan, Howard et al. It’s a lot better than its American competitor, World War I: The Complete Story.

            But honestly, forget the historiography: if you want to revisit World War I, nothing beats All Quiet on the Western Front. I hadn’t read it since ninth grade, and had somehow gotten the impression over the years that it was intended for readers of that age. I took it off the shelf and re-read it the other day for the first time in more than thirty years. I’m glad I did. I don’t know if they still assign it in high school, but they should. At the Pentagon and West Point, too.


          • Yes, I quickly remembered that we already have “bullshit” via Frankfurt, and what we’re talking about here isn’t Frankfurtian bullshit. I’m not sure “shadow” is quite right, either; it suggests something happening but hidden, and I seem to have encountered the bad version of coherentism, at least, quite out in the open. Let’s just go with “bad.”

            I suppose I occupy a somewhat unusual position among Aristotelians because I see it as an ungoing tradition despite not being a Thomist; in my experience most fans of Aristotle who aren’t Thomists think that there’s just Aristotle and modern philosophy with a giant gap in between. But I wouldn’t be able to see it that way if I thought that Thomism were a fundamental distortion of Aristotle, so the Thomistic stuff is important for me, and while I part company with most Thomists on a number of issues — not coincidentally, I suspect, primarily on issues that are a matter of Roman Catholic doctrine, where I’m sure they would also agree that it’s not a coincidence — I think they’ve done quite a lot to develop Aristotle quite well for our contemporary context. On Aristotle and high school chemistry, for instance, I think Eleanor Stump’s “Emergence, Causal Powers, and Aristotelianism in Metaphysics” does a good job showing that hylomorphism makes good sense of basic chemistry; chemistry gets along just fine without Aristotelian concepts — though it may be using their functional equivalents nonetheless — but then I think there is little reason to expect empirical scientific theories to be good guides to ontology, and certainly most metaphysicians seem committed to agreeing with that, since chemistry is prima facie consistent with a number of rival metaphysical views if not in fact prima facie inconsistent with some of the more fashionable ones. Others have worked out even more elaborate Aristotelian accounts of modern science: William Wallace’s The Modeling of Nature, Benedict Ashley’s The Way Toward Wisdom, and Judge Dougherty’s The Nature of Scientific Explanation are good examples that seem to me to be plausible and fruitful in their basic approach, despite some potential missteps driven by certain sorts of Thomistic commitments and a frustrating lack of engagement with rival views – but I freely admit that I am not really well positioned to make strong judgments about the philosophy of science. In political theory, I’ve come to think that the basic framework of Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights is basically right, despite a number of disagreements with him about foundational questions (to say nothing of the concrete moral positions for which he is, alas, more (in)famous), disagreements that I think are best stated from a very similar Aristotelian point of view — and many of which are in fact worked out in Mark Murphy’s work. Psychology seems to me — though perhaps in part due to my ignorance of the literature — to be an area in need of more work, but the relationship between psychology and philosophy seems complicated no matter what sort of philosophy we find most congenial, and certainly a great deal of what I’ve read in psychology is either just about what an Aristotelian would expect to find or limited by methodological and/or dubious philosophical assumptions. Aristotelian approaches in the philosophy of mind, however, seem to me to be at least as defensible as their best rivals.

            Really, though, I don’t want to claim that Aristotelianism is some sort of adequately developed, consistent philosophical system. In every area, there seems to me to be at least as much, and usually more, to do as there is that’s been done, and Aristotelians disagree about a lot in every area, too. Even if we thought, absurdly, that everything in Aristotle’s texts is basically right, a whole lot of it leaves whole important areas highly underdetermined. In that way, I think of it very differently than a lot of traditional Thomists, who seem to suppose that the tradition is basically a completed system that just needs to be continually kept in good order by occasionally sweeping up debris left over from visits by modern developments. I was comparing Aristotle to Rand and Objectivism. As Roderick Long has put it, and as I think you’ve agreed somewhere, what Rand offered was, at most, a kind of blueprint for a full philosophical theory. Some Objectivists seem to have done some work to develop that theory and actually start building the structure, but for the most part Objectivist literature is closer to self-help lit than it is to philosophy. Unless I’m just completely unaware of whole swaths of literature out there, there is just no comparison in terms of detail and sophistication between Objectivist political philosophy and contemporary Thomistic political philosophy, for example; and I think of politics as an area in which Aristotelians have not done nearly enough (in part because the non-Thomists have been too content to leave it to the Thomists). Aristotle doesn’t offer a system, let alone a complete system, or anything one could reasonably mistake for a complete system. He offers a framework, one that thinkers have continued to work within fruitfully and which seems to me to be the most plausible and promising one available.

            Then again, maybe I can convince myself of that only because that framework turns out to be compatible with almost anything. Certainly I don’t see many of the Thomists who are sympathetic to Finnis or Murphy being comfortable with the strong Marxist strand in MacIntyre’s new book. Ultimately I’m happy to regard Objectivism as a kind of Aristotelianism, albeit a sort of weird cousin in the family. It just seems to me that there’s much more to learn from Aristotle, his commentators, and the best recent Aristotelian philosophers than there is from Rand. But then, perhaps I’m just a bad learner.

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          • Why bother refuting her? There’s no point to even paying attention to her. If you’re done with her, move on to those who have more to offer. Expand your knowledge rather than going BACK to nodda (or it that spelled “notta”).


          • Why bother refuting Rand? A bunch of reasons, my lovely.

            First, I spent a couple of decades marinating in Objectivism. It soaked into my psyche through my pores, so it’s still there contaminating me. Refuting her helps me clarify what I accepted without realizing it. I’m not really done with her. (Neither are you, by the way–for the same exact reason.)

            Second, engaging with her does expand my knowledge. In this post, I was studying the beginnings of World War I (and thinking about war generally). I wasn’t primarily studying Rand for its own sake. But though some of what she says is crazy, and much of it is badly argued, Rand wasn’t dumb. Engaging with her takes work and helps clarify one’s knowledge of any subject she’s discussing. (I disagree slightly with Riesbeck on this. I think she’s a better theorist than he gives her credit for being, and there’s more to be said for her views than is at first obvious, even if she doesn’t say it.)

            Third, it’s been two generations since her death, and (believe it or not) Objectivists are now starting to become real contenders in the marketplace of ideas. Unfortunately, the market for writing on Rand is divided between partisans (mostly associated with ARI) and critics (mostly on the left, but some on the right). Even her libertarian critics or fellow travelers get her thought desperately wrong: this paper, published in a top journal, is a perfect example. It gives the impression of getting Rand right, and offering some judicious criticisms, but it does neither. I know it doesn’t exactly sound humble, but: I have a view of Rand that doesn’t fit any conventional category. I think it deserves to be heard, because it gives a fuller and truer account of what she said, as well as what parts of it make sense, and what parts don’t.

            Three reasons, as usual. It wasn’t a yes or no question.


          • I think he bothers refuting her because of the thing about how “she’s always on to something, even if, strictly speaking she’s failed to make her case.” I can’t say that I agree that she’s always on to something, but it’s not as though my own philosophical sympathies are of a wholly different sort (roughly, in those areas where she is more or less Aristotelian, I sympathize; on most areas where she is not, I don’t). So one might be especially inclined to work on refuting somebody that is only kinda wrong. I, at least, find it more interesting to argue with thinkers that are closer to my sympathies than with those that are entirely outside of it — hence why I prefer to read and think about, say, Bernard Williams rather than Foucault, or Martha Nussbaum rather than Peter Singer. In Rand’s case, I’ve never found any of the arguments sufficiently challenging; I don’t even think she offers very good arguments for the things I agree with her about — like the claim that we directly perceive external objects rather than mental images, or the claim that an ethics fundamentally based on duty is unsustainable — so I’ve preferred to spend my time elsewhere (like writing blog posts in a desperate attempt to procrastinate instead of doing work). Irfan evidently feels differently. Of course, one might still wonder why he still bothers refuting her instead of working on refuting, say, Alasdair MacIntyre’s new book. I indeed wonder such things.

            I think a girlfriend who has no time for Objectivism might be the last thing Irfan needs to finally break free from his dark, dirty past. Those of us who like Irfan but not Objectivism are in your debt.


          • Of course, one might still wonder why he still bothers refuting her instead of working on refuting, say, Alasdair MacIntyre’s new book. I indeed wonder such things.

            In short, the answer is: path-dependency.


          • Hey, I didn’t say she was never an Objectivist, I just said she has no time for it! And that seems clear. She has time only for saying that you shouldn’t have time for it. This is a good thing, I think.

            Liked by 1 person

    Frank C. Zagare (Michigan 2011)

    I appreciate discussion that includes Rand’s writings. Errors and corrections need to be precisely, knowledgeably articulated. I know that Rand’s work is not, and likely will not, entrain a major wave of serious scholars in professional philosophy. But I think Rand’s philosophy and her writings on her world view are the top vista taken up by philosophically minded secular folk in this country who make a living outside academia. The brush-offs or shamings they receive, concerning their interest in Rand, from their Professors, end pretty much like water of the duck’s back. Many such non-academics are after intellectual growth in their philosophy and world view.

    I have recently linked this blog, as well as Merlin’s blog and the ARS blog as resources at a posting site called “Objectivism Online Forum.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stephen,

      Thank you for that book reference, and also for linking Policy of Truth to the Objectivism Online Forum. I appreciate it.

      On Rand, I think I’ve just come to a much more negative view of Rand, of Objectivism, and of the Objectivist movement than you have. As you know, for years I regarded myself as a kind of heterodox Objectivist, but in the last decade or so, that’s changed pretty dramatically. I had originally thought of myself as committed to the “top of the hierarchy,” so to speak–to the broad fundamental claims that Rand had made about epistemology and ethics, with some very generic agreement in politics and aesthetics. But I was always skeptical of Rand’s politics. By the mid-2000s the skepticism turned to something like rejection. I say “something like” because I still agree with Rand at the most abstract level even on politics, but find the rest of her views either so vague or so misleading or so wrongheaded (it’s hard to know which) that ultimately, “rejection” is where I end up.

      The turning point, for me, was a reading of Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A in the summer of 2006, not long after the book came out. I found (and still find) that book shocking in its irrationality, injustice, and sheer disrespect for its audience. There are a couple of nice passages in it here and there, but on the whole, the book strikes me, in all candor, as moral and intellectual trash. Reading it was a crisis-inducing experience that inspired me to go back and re-read almost all of Rand’s works, in an effort to understand how the author of the books I had read could possibly have said the ludicrous things that I’d encountered in Ayn Rand Answers.

      And the ludicrous things were not a matter of Rand’s having a bad day at this or that Ford Hall Forum, or being out of it during her personal crisis over Nathaniel Branden, or during her illness due to cancer in the 1970s. Ludicrousness is a consistent feature of almost everything she says in the book, from 1962 to 1980. If this was the “best” of her Q&A, God knows what the worst was like. But in many respects, the Rand of Ayn Rand Answers prefigures the Donald Trump of 2017. What she says, and the recklessness with which she says it, bear obvious affinities with Trump’s current rhetoric.

      When I go back and re-read Rand’s non-fiction in this light, I’m struck by how awful it is. It’s not just that one can’t hold it to academic standards, though one can’t. Nor is it that there is a factual mistake here and a logical mistake there in need of correction. The problem with it is much deeper. Her writing practically radiates disrespect for reason. Ironically, Rand was the one to coin “the argument from intimidation,” but virtually everything she says in that essay is projection: every ascription of that fallacy that she makes to others applies in spades to her own writing. Whether her claims are true or false, all of Rand’s writings–all of it, without significant exception–is an exercise in authorial intimidation. She provides almost no arguments for any claim she ever makes, inductive or deductive. The inductive evidence she offers for her most far-reaching claims is laughable. There are very few deductive arguments in her works that go much beyond an exercise in an elementary logic textbook, and precious few that genuinely prove anything of significance.

      To be sure, there are some startling insights in her work, and some arresting interpretations of this or that phenomenon; there are some interesting, possibly revolutionary hypotheses, and some brilliant leads to future discoveries and arguments. But that is a far cry from what she claimed to have offered, and more to the point, it’s a far cry from an expression of the value she claimed to valorize–reason. Her writings are not an exercise in reason. They are an exercise in intimidation by someone willing to use every expedient short of coercion to suborn your agreement to her claims.

      As someone interested in the history of philosophy, ask yourself if you would ever indulge in the kind of writing that typifies the title essay of For the New Intellectual. The problem with the essay is not that she gets Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, the American Revolution, and/or Zen Buddhism wrong (or right); it’s that her whole approach to the subject is wrong, both substantively and in spirit. You can’t write about philosophical texts without quoting them. You can’t write about philosophical arguments by insulting the authors of those arguments. You can’t taunt philosophers for failing to build philosophical systems when you yourself haven’t even begun to build one (and you never will). You can’t write about political history by substituting “archetypes” like “Attila” and “the Witch Doctor” for a serious historiographical discussion of actual people and events. But Rand did all of that and more, inducing generations of followers–non-academics who didn’t know better, led by academics who did–to continue the conversation in exactly the same key.

      The result, the Objectivist movement, has been a decades-long expression of collective insanity–the Frankensteinian monsters of her moral and intellectual creation. Rand’s homophobia has now become Ron Pisaturo’s Masculine Power, Feminine Beauty. Her hatred of “the primitive” has now become an untrammeled, unending war against Muslims. The populist strain in her work is now morphing into sympathy for Donald Trump. And so on. I could repeat the examples at length. And these aren’t merely heterodox deviations from Rand’s views. They’re a perfectly accurate expression of those views. It takes special pleading to get Rand off the hook for the most reactionary writings of her contemporary adherents.

      I have plenty of friends who answer to the description of being “philosophically minded secular folk in this country who make a living outside academia.” Many of them have had a one-time brush with Rand, but most of them have by now (in their 40s or 50s) come to the conclusion that wisdom and insight lie elsewhere. Like historians and social scientists, contemporary academic philosophers are learning how to write sophisticated books for a general readership. (I just happened to read Harry Frankfurt’s On Truth the other day–a perfect example of the literature I have in mind.) Rand has less of a contribution to make in this respect than, say, Charles Taylor, Bernard Williams, Harry Frankfurt, Martha Nussbaum, Carlos Fraenkel, Alasdair MacIntyre, Jonathan Lear, or even Jason Brennan. (Even Jason Brennan.) Even Mortimer Adler is preferable to Rand on the issues that interest would-be Objectivists.

      I’m not saying that there is nothing to learn from Ayn Rand. I’m not even denying that there are elements of genius in what she says. Nor am I saying that her fans and adherents should be shamed. I’m saying: given the effort involved in getting something valuable out of her work, given her faults as against her virtues as a philosopher, most people would be advised to avoid Rand and look elsewhere for philosophical insight.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “You can’t write about philosophical arguments by insulting the authors of those arguments.”

        So which is it: were the arguments you criticized in the previous paragraphs not philosophical arguments or not arguments at all? Or were you not insulting Rand?

        What you say here certainly coheres with my limited impressions. Even where Rand says some things that I think are right or kinda-sorta right, it’s the argumentative style that turns me off, and especially given that she says very little that I think is right and is not said better by someone else, it’s never seemed worth the time to read her more fully and carefully.

        And yes, even Jason Brennan.

        And I quite like Mortimer Adler as a popular philosophical writer, actually. Ten Philosophical Mistakes is a book I might recommend to a general reader interested in the topics it discusses. If nothing else, it has one of the most hilariously misleading titles ever.


        • So which is it: were the arguments you criticized in the previous paragraphs not philosophical arguments or not arguments at all? Or were you not insulting Rand?

          A bit of both. The material in Ayn Rand Answers doesn’t qualify as argument or philosophical argument. It’s at the level of one of Donald Trump’s tweets.

          Example: Someone asks Rand the (poorly worded) question, “Should this country return some of the lands that were seized from the Indians under the guise of a contractual relationship?” Here is part of her response:

          We owe nothing to the Indians, except the memory of the monstrous evils done by them. But suppose there is evidence of white people treating Indians badly. That’s too bad; I’d regret it. But in the history of this country, it’s an exception. It wouldn’t give the Indians any kind of rights. Look at their history, look at their culture, look at their treatment of their own people. Those who do not recognize individual rights cannot expect to have any rights, or to have them respected. (p. 104).

          I don’t consider that a philosophical argument that deserves respectful treatment. The “principle” here is: if X doesn’t “recognize” a principle, the principle doesn’t apply to X. It’s not clear whether she’s restricting that to normative principles or all principles. Either way, it’s a pretty stupid claim. But in “charity” to her, let’s restrict it normative principles–or for that matter, just to rights.

          So if infants don’t “recognize” individual rights, is infanticide OK? That seems a pretty clear implication of her “principle.” How about people in a coma? Or just asleep? Or just not very bright? Or not very well educated? Or…(etc.) Kill ’em all!

          In other words, she’s just casually deprived large swatches of humanity of their basic rights, up to and including their right not to be killed gratuitously. That sounds crazy, but I’ve come to learn that Rand’s advice for interpreting a philosophical claim is helpful in interpreting Ayn Rand herself: Take the claim literally. Don’t translate it, don’t glamorize it, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it doesn’t say exactly what it does say, and doesn’t entail exactly what it does entail. Take it straight, for what it does say and mean (“Philosophical Detection,” p. 21 in Philosophy: Who Needs It).

          I can just hear the apologetic response: “You’re being uncharitable! Infants aren’t the kind of case she has in mind! That’s not what she means by ‘recognize’! She means that people who reject the legitimacy of a principle can’t claim its protection.”

          That is itself a claim that requires an argument she doesn’t provide. But my interpretive principle is: if an author says something outrageous, and doesn’t herself clarify what she means, you can read her as saying the outrageous thing that, at face value, she seems to be saying; you can also attribute the outrageous implications of her claim to her as a reductio, unless she makes an effort to avoid the reductio. You can especially do it if doing so is her own fucking interpretive principle for reading a text! And it is.

          So insulting dismissal is fair game for the shit in Ayn Rand Answers. There is no other word for what one finds in that book. Some of it is written at the level of Mein Kampf, and justifies every accusation ever made that Rand was a fascist. “Would you be civil to Hitler?” No. Who would? But when Rand sounds like Hitler or Julius Streicher, the same principle applies.

          The arguments in her “official” published work are (usually) of a different caliber, and (usually) demand different treatment. I reserved the insults for Ayn Rand Answers, and the plain old criticisms for the rest.

          I’m probably taking your question more seriously than you intended it, but after 20+ years of involvement with Objectivism, I’ve come to take the issue pretty seriously. I think philosophical historians made a serious mistake when, in confronting the works of highly polemical philosophers like Marx and Nietzsche, they charitably decided to look for what was “philosophically interesting” and overlook what was straightforwardly pathological. Mutatis mutandis, the same problem has now come to afflict scholarly discussion of Rand, which is now dominated by ARI-affiliated people. Their interpretive principle is: “Present Rand in the best light possible so that she gains widespread acceptance, ignoring or downplaying anything she said that doesn’t serve that end.” That’s an interpretive principle for propagandists, not scholars. Which is what so many of them are.

          Marx may not have been Lenin or Stalin, but there’s not that much distance between them. Nietzsche may not have been a Nazi or an anti-Semite, but the affinities between Nietzsche and the Nazis are neither insignificant nor accidental. The same thing is true of the relationship between Rand and Trump. Objectivism may not be a form of nationalist xenophobia, but it’s not an accident that Trump & Co. admire Ayn Rand, and that many Objectivists have expressed cautious, if grudging admiration for Trump et al.

          I probably should not have said “Even Mortimer Adler…” I actually like Adler’s stuff, and have gotten a lot out of it. Ironically, the anti-Adler prejudice is probably one I inherited from Objectivist intellectual culture, which is very ambivalent about him. On the one hand, his populist Aristotelianism elicits praise; on the other, his metaphysical realism and commitment to theism elicits derision (for its “dogmatism”).


          • I would like to keep baiting you into doing more of this, because I am enjoying it so much. Since we’re talking about polemicists, I should note that you’re a damn fine one, but part of what I’ve always liked about you in polemic mode is that you actually say things of substance. I’ll understand, though, if you just get tired of the dead horse.

            But once again you’ve hit on something that I dislike in what I’ve read of Rand. I haven’t read much that rises to that level of badness, but there is a serious mismatch between the animosity and certitude of her tone and the utter lack of philosophical care that she displays. I might be more inclined to charity than you are; I take it to be fairly obvious, for example, that “those who do not recognize individual rights” refers to grown adults of ordinary cognitive capacity whose lack of recognition of rights manifests itself in their violation of rights. It is not implausible to suppose that such people lose their rights to be similarly respected. To my mind what is wrong there is not so much that she doesn’t provide the kind of argument that we’d need to go beyond vague plausibility, or that she does not explicitly clarify just what kinds of rights people are supposed to lose when they violate the rights of others — which is, I think, the most immediate obstacle to even begin assessing the claim, which will be more or less plausible and defensible depending on what exactly we take it to mean. Rather, it’s the brazenly overconfident disregard for care or precision that she couples with it, particularly in the context of dismissing an entire culture, which is prima facie not the kind of dismissal that anyone is in an epistemic position to make, and prima facie not one that anyone should be quite so happy as she seems to make. It’s an incredibly strong claim and not one that anyone should make lightly or without due care to avoid making a mistake even if it is defensible. The certainty is bad enough, but the pretense that she has earned that certainty through some kind of philosophical insight is especially worrying; I’m not a skeptic, but it’s hard not to suspect that anyone who pretends to such certainty doesn’t have the philosophical support that it would require.

            Marx and Nietzsche strike me as different cases than Rand. I haven’t read much Marx, so I’ll leave him alone. I repudiate more or less everything in Nietzsche, but I think in his case that, setting aside some of his rather late writings from the period in which he was probably actually out of his mind, the relationship between his views and Nazism is tenuous at best. It takes no imagination to see why some Nazis thought otherwise, and nobody would accuse Nietzsche of being an especially clear writer. But it’s not ultimately his problem what people used his work to justify; it’s theirs. I have a higher esteem for Nietzsche than I do for many other philosophers, and I would assign some of his stuff. I think the scholarly attention he has been receiving is well deserved. I will concede, however, that it certainly does seem that people are too often willing to overlook or whitewash some of the actual implications of what he says. I remember once reading somewhere that by ‘power,’ all Nietzsche meant was the power to live happily and achieve good things. Not entirely false; ‘power’ for Nietzsche is not necessarily power over other people. But probably no less misleading; it’s not as though Nietzsche endorses, or allows room for endorsing, any sort of principled objections to exercising power over others. But mainly I think of Nietzsche as the exact opposite of Rand, certain philosophical similarities notwithstanding: reading Nietzsche is almost always engaging because it is so rarely clear where the insights stop and the absurdities begin. It is no accident that it took so long for Nietzsche to be taken seriously by academic philosophers; it’s hard to take such outrageous polemic seriously in someone who can be regarded as a contemporary. But I doubt Rand will ever be taken so seriously, because even if your qualified praise of her insights is deserved, the proportion of insight to absurdity seems to be of a wholly different order. Had Nietzsche been in the habit of offering non-ironic policy advice, perhaps their cases would be more parallel. As it is, I think Rand might have done well to read more Nietzsche; she could have benefited from taking to heart his claim, for instance, that “convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

            As for Adler, his theism is about as tame and non-dogmatic as any I’ve encountered. I’ve never read anything of his that gave me a clear idea of what he thinks metaphysical realism involves exactly, but I don’t recall having to struggle to figure out whether it was actually nominalism pretending to be something other than nominalism, which is about as far as I’ve made it with Rand’s treatment of the problem of universals as an epistemic problem (I assume we’re talking about realism in the sense of realism about universals here, and not about the mind’s access to the world; otherwise, I’ve no idea what business Objectivists would have complaining about Adler’s realism). I can’t say I’ve ever found Adler very satisfying, but he’s not a bad place to start. But I think almost everyone has an anti-Adler prejudice. I think among Aristotle scholars he has something like the status of He Who Must Not Be Named.


          • Thank you for calling me a “damn fine polemicist,” but I’m not going to take the bait, because I actually turned my computer on to set out some brilliant thoughts on the Russian contribution to World War I, and I’ve now written like four comments about Ayn Rand in response to a pair of interlocutors who keep wondering why I bother writing about Ayn Rand. I’m only writing about her because you’re forcing me to write about her! You’re the ones who keep writing about her! I’m trying to write about World War I, goddammit! Worst of all, you’ve formed an alliance against me. I feel like Serbia here, facing Germany and the Dual Monarchy.

            On Rand’s recognition of rights argument: one certainly could read the argument as you do, but that isn’t the one “obvious” way to read it. It’s a charitable way of reading it. It would be the only way of reading it if she thought that, when dealing with Indians–i.e., subjugating them and seizing “their” lands–white men (her phrase) ought to make provision for not harming Indian infants/children, whose failure to recognize rights is presumably not culpable. But it’s not clear she cares or has ever thought about that. So I don’t mind saddling her (so to speak) with the more uncharitable reading.

            She is very insistent in her “official” writings that rights-holders are those capable of exercising reason (see “Man’s Rights”). But infants aren’t capable of exercising reason. Neither are people with certain mental disabilities. In Ayn Rand Answers, she is asked whether the “severely retarded” have rights (p. 4). Her answer is a mess, but ultimately she says that the “rights” they have are a “courtesy” we extend them. In other words, no, they don’t have rights.

            Well, what if a severely retarded child fails to recognize the norms of courtesy? If application of norm N to person P presupposes P’s “recognition” of N, then I guess we don’t have to show the retarded child any courtesy. So if their “rights” are a matter of courtesy, we don’t have to respect their rights. In other words, if a retarded child acts out, feel free to drown it, or smash its head in with a baseball bat. This is a pickle she’s gotten herself into, and it bears a clear relation to the claims about the rights of Indians. So as a first resort, I’d opt for saddling her with the least charitable reading that comfortably fits all of the texts. If she (or one of her partisans) can find a way out of the jam, fine. Then we move to the more charitable Riesbeckian reading. But not as a first resort. It’s not as obvious as all that.

            As for the Rand/Nietzsche comparison, I disagree with it, but a proper discussion would take me too far afield (“field” = would-be Russian contribution to the beginning of World War I).

            On Adler, yes, I meant realism about universals, not realism about cognitive access to the world. The book I have in mind is The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes. Nathaniel Branden praises it in one of his books, but it defends a sort of metaphysical realism about universals that Objectivists reject. Adler’s How to Think About God strikes me as a pretty dogmatic and unconvincing book. I’ve always meant to read his Capitalist Manifesto and Common Sense of Politics, but have never managed to get to it. Somehow, I’m guessing he didn’t write anything about the Russian contribution to the opening of World War I, but if he had, I’d read it.


          • Well, Rand would hardly be the only philosopher whose theory of rights is a mess when it comes to children and especially to the mentally disabled. That such people do not fall fully within the scope of justice is not such an unusual view, or such a strange one really. That we should treat them however we damn well please would be more unusual and strange. I don’t mind when a philosopher’s view doesn’t already answer all the important questions. I just don’t like it when that same philosopher pretends that she has discovered all the essential truths necessary to answer all the important questions of life.

            I don’t find How to Think About God especially convincing, but I don’t find it dogmatic either, so I wonder whether we’re thinking of dogmatism differently. He sure doesn’t address all the relevant objections or adequately defend all of the important premises. But he doesn’t strike me as just insisting that he’s right and that his opponents are all fools in the way that, say, Rand does. I am indeed surprised that Branden would praise the Difference book given its defense of the immateriality of the intellect and the dependence of his argument for it on a strong form of realism. But then, I find that line of argument more plausible than many do, at least insofar as attempts to identify the mind with material entities or processes or to reduce it to a set of functional states of such entities seem wholly unconvincing to me, and in part because they seem incapable of adequately accounting for abstract conceptual thought. If I could make more sense of immaterial substances, I’d probably accept the views Adler defends in both of those books. But that’s not to say that I’d find his arguments satisfying. I never find him satisfying. (coincidentally, his argument for rights in The Time of Our Lives is one of the worst arguments for rights I’ve ever encountered, though it helpfully makes the same mistakes that others do more clearly than they do, and hence helps to diagnose the problems; for what it’s worth, I found The Common Sense of Politics so disappointing that I never finished it; as often, I sympathize with the general view, but the arguments aren’t good enough).

            I like it when you write about Rand. I’m celebrating your distance from her. Perhaps in part because I’m not an apostate like Alison, but a mere gentile, I have no desire to shut you up about it. But then, you already said you weren’t going to take the bait.


          • That’s so ridiculous. I mean, it’s four years old!

            Hell, it’s five years old. I keep forgetting it’s 2017. Denial, no doubt.


      • “I’m not saying that there is nothing to learn from Ayn Rand. I’m not even denying that there are elements of genius in what she says. Nor am I saying that her fans and adherents should be shamed. I’m saying: given the effort involved in getting something valuable out of her work, given her faults as against her virtues as a philosopher, most people would be advised to avoid Rand and look elsewhere for philosophical insight.”

        Threw it on the ground!!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Irfan, I just now read your remarks in response to my note, and I thank you for them. My book in progress sets out a philosophy indebted to Rand in some metaphysics, epistemology, and theory of moral value, but significantly at odds with hers, and on some points, extending hers (as with my JARS paper ‘Universals and Measurement’). Concerning her philosophy in those areas (no political philosophy or cultural matters in this book), I just dig into the substance and her profound errors or rightness. I’m churning out the deepest attack and replacement of her philosophy in those areas, with attendance to her fiction and to setting of her philosophy and mine in the history of philosophy (my grasp of that history, not hers) ancient to modern. One important book I expect yet to appear from Objectivists is the ARS book on Aristotle and Rand. I don’t expect it to be out before 2019, but I expect it to be the most important book they have or will compose in that series. I’m three years into writing my own book, and expect it will take at least three years more to complete. These past few days, I’ve been studying Peikoff’s PhD dissertation (which fed into some Randian ’60’s metaphysics and epistemology developments). As an example of my digging, I study, among other things in this dissertation, his discussion and assessments of options on APo II 19, alongside what others such as Barnes and Touminen have written. And the point is getting to and setting out the right way with the issues Aristotle was there engaging, regardless of how far or near he (or Rand or her scholarly associates) got to that right way. Spot of some publicly shared digging: http://forum.objectivismonline.com/index.php?/forum/119-books-to-mind-%E2%80%93-stephen-boydstun/

        For many years, I’ve told my readers that I’m not an Objectivist (they tend to be surprised because I’ve devoted serious attention to Rand and clearly aimed at accurate representation of her attempts in my areas and because I’ve found some grain, not only chaff) and have done at least a standing-on-one-foot spiel for them: Metaphysics – Rand’s is overly deterministic. Epistemology – Rand’s is overly subjectivist. Ethics – Rand’s is overly egoist. But by now, decades of study and reflection and development later, those are only tips of the icebergs. Problem for my communication of my vistas is that I’ve no academic toehold or audience with time for Rand or me there (I was professionally an engineer) and a rather limited interest from Objectivists in studies so scholarly bearing on their philosophy. But I’ll continue these explorations, nonetheless, and hope for enough years to reach the finished-book vista.

        I learn a lot at the APA meetings, and the recent one in Baltimore was great for me. (I could not attend the ARS session this time as I had an overriding one in the same time slot.) I bought another 14 books. Just what I needed, but seriously, my personal library is a vast and delicious thing.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Stephen,

          Thanks for your comment. I didn’t intend my criticisms of Rand as criticisms of your work or project. I’ve admired and enjoyed your Rand-influenced work over the many years you’ve been producing it. And as I said to Alison above, I’m not one to stop reading or engaging with Rand altogether. In fact, to both Alison’s and David’s consternation, I feel the urgent need to come to grips with Rand’s work. I was powerfully influenced by it in my 20s and 30s, and am still influenced by it into my 40s, but had always had strong reservations with it from the outset, and now have much stronger ones.

          I guess I would make a few distinctions here.

          1. There is a distinction to be made between (a) advising someone for or against reading Rand at the outset of their intellectual career (e.g., an intellectually curious high school or college student in their teens), and (b) deciding (or advising someone) whether or not to engage Rand given decades of prior engagement with Rand (in their 30s and beyond). I’d advise the person in situation (a) not to read Rand, but would advise someone in situation (b) to go out of his way to engage Rand. My young nephews (ages 8 and 3) will in a few years be in situation (a). You and I are in situation (b). I wouldn’t want my nephews to get involved with Objectivism any more than I’d want them to get hooked on Ritalin. Both are stimulants, but neither is very good for you. That said, having been involved in Objectivism myself, I have a lot to learn from engaging with it: it’s interesting.

          2. There’s also a distinction to be drawn between the interest of a philosopher’s writings, and the virtues of that philosopher as a writer. Rand’s writings are (to my mind) interesting, in part for the reasons you give, but sometimes for reasons she didn’t intend. But she is, in my view, a terrible writer. By “terrible,” I don’t mean inept; I mean she is a terribly manipulative writer. Marcia Baron was profoundly right to begin her famous paper on manipulativeness with an anecdote about Ayn Rand’s affair with Nathaniel Branden. What Baron says about the affair could with equal justice be said about Rand’s prose. It’s as though it was written, not for rational and independent inquirers, but for an insular, self-nominated moral elite, interested only in speaking to one another.

          To be fair to her, she’s not unique in being like this. The same criticism might be made of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, Hannah Arendt, Richard Rorty, and others. But it can be made of her, and because (like Marx and Freud but unlike the others) she was the inspiration behind a (lasting) movement, I find that particularly problematic. The worst features of the movement mirror the worst features of her writing.

          That said, I understand the problematic situation you’re in. Here you are, having labored for decades on a book based on Objectivist insights, and here I am, seemingly at war with the very idea of engagement with Objectivism. But I’m not at war with it. I’m engaged in it myself. In some ways, I may have a more “orthodox” Objectivist outlook than you: I don’t think Rand’s metaphysics is overly determinist, don’t think her epistemology is overly subjectivist, and don’t think she’s overly egoistic. I think she can be worth discussing and engaging with, but I also think one has to call the shots as one sees them, even if it means that she has to take her lumps as she earns them.


          • I just want to suggest that you might be undervaluing Ritalin in much the way that you underestimate Nietzsche. I’m not on either right now, and have never been on Ritalin, but it’s just a suggestion.


  3. David, Irfan and I are reading this and we don’t understand what you were referring to when you said:

    “That’s so ridiculous. I mean, it’s four years old!

    Hell, it’s five years old. I keep forgetting it’s 2017. Denial, no doubt.”




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