How (not) to approach philosophy

Followers of Ayn Rand’s philosophy have a reputation for being very hostile to anyone who disagrees with them on any philosophical issues. Rand herself showed this hostility on a number of occasions. This would seem to be strange behavior on the part of people who claim to be advocates of reason above all else, but it very often happens.

A question I’ve considered for a long time is whether this is a flaw in the philosophy or simply a personality trait that’s filtered down to her followers. Her personality was certainly a factor, but if that were all there was to it, they should have calmed down over the years. However, the treatment of the Institute for Objectivist Studies (now the Atlas Society) by the Ayn Rand Institute not too many years ago exhibited lots of vitriol, and I haven’t seen any indications of change since then.

I think the key is in the way Rand and many of her followers approach philosophy, rather than its particular content. You might think of this as a matter of meta-philosophical premises. Rand held that her philosophy had to be accepted or rejected as an integrated whole, that rejecting any part of it meant rejecting it as a philosophy. This makes for a very fragile edifice; knock out any part of it and the whole thing collapses. It’s no wonder that people who think that way react to any dispute as a fundamental threat.

A related premise is the persistent attribution of “hidden premises” to opponents. Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged does this repeatedly: “The purpose of your struggle is not to know, not to grasp or name or hear the things I shall now state to your hearing: that yours is the Morality of Death.” “But you know the unadmitted answer, refusing to acknowledge what you see, what hidden premise moves your world.” “There is no honest revolt again reason — and when you accept any part of their creed, your motive is to get away with something your reason would not permit you to attempt.” If opposing views are the product of hidden evil, any consideration you give them could be a sign of corruption on your own part.

There is huge value in Rand’s philosophy, but these problems in the meta-philosophical approach have very often kept it from being taken as seriously as it deserves. There are people who approach it without this baggage, but they suffer the additional burden of being denounced by the orthodox. It looked for a while as if the IOS / Atlas Society would bring about a shift in the public understanding of Objectivism, but it has shifted its focus away from addressing basic philosophical issues to focusing on current issues and popular culture, and so isn’t doing nearly as much as it could. Something more is needed.

4 Responses to “How (not) to approach philosophy”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    In trying to understand the attitudes of Rand’s followers, there’s a central question that you have completely neglected: how do the attitudes of Rand’s followers compare to those of the followers of other important thinkers? How do they compare to the followers of important historical intellectual movements, such as Christianity or Marxism? And how do they compare to the followers of other popular intellectuals today, such as Richard Dawkins or Paul Krugman?

    I think the facts show that the worst of Rand’s followers behave similarly to the average of the followers of other movements. If you look for fanatics who approach all disagreement with hostility and vitriolic condemnation, you will find a lot of them In every important intellectual movement, throughout history and today, and Objectivism is no exception. However, if you look for rational supporters of a thinker, able to approach disagreement with reasoned and civil debate, these are much more common among Objectivists than in any other movement.

    This was brought home to me 7-8 years ago, after I published a negative review of Daniel Dennet’s Freedom Evolves. Looking at the reactions to my review on various internet sites by supporters of Dennet, they showed exactly the same degree of fanatical denunciation you would expect from the worst of the ARI followers; in fact they had exactly the same tone that I saw 13 years earlier, in the reactions to my negative review of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. The difference, however, that the reactions to my Peikoff review included many angry denunciations and also some reasoned and civil criticisms; the reactions to my Dennett review consisted exclusively of angry denunciations. Not one supporter of Dennett made even an attempt to answer my arguments rationally; all supporters of Dennett who reacted to my Dennett review reacted in the same tone as the worst of the Peikoff supporters’ reaction to my Peikoff review.

    This is of course only one experience, but all my observations, and everything I’ve learned about the history of intellectual movements, suggests that this is generally true.

    So in trying to answer the question in your post – why do so many of Rand’s followers display such fanaticism and such hostility to disagreement – it makes no sense to look to anything specific in Rand’s philosophy or approach or personality for an explanation; the explanation has to be based on universal human attributes, to explain why so many of the followers of all intellectual movements behave this way.

    A perhaps more interesting question is: why are rational supporters of Rand, capable of approaching disagreements with reasoned and civil debate, so much more common than similar supporters of other popular thinkers? On this, the explanation would have to turn on specific aspects of Rand’s philosophy, most importantly on her emphasis on the virtue of rationality.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      Objectivism should have a much higher standard than movements based on faith or violence.

      • Eyal Mozes Says:

        If you look at historical intellectual movements based on basically pro-reason, pro-freedom ideas; for example, at the 18th-century French Enlightenment; you would still find bitter in-fighting and hostility towards any disagreement, much worse than you see in Objectivists today.

  2. twwells Says:

    Gary’s point, if I understand him correctly, is that some Objectivists are irrationally hostile to those who disagree with them, with various negative consequences. Eyal’s rejoinder seems to be that this hasn’t anything to do with Objectivism, it’s an irrationality that infects many adherents of pretty much every belief system.

    There are two answers to Eyal.

    First, it’s not an either/or; some Objectivists may be hostile because they’re no different from other true believers but others may be hostile because of particular defects in how they have assimilated Objectivism.

    Second, Objectivism itself is distinguishable from other belief systems by its relentless elevation of reason over…everything. It seems odd that any Objectivist could react with such irrationality as one sees from some. How do those people evade the inconsistency between their actions and their philosophy? That’s a specifically Objectivist issue.

    I think it is this last point that is critical. Objectivism wouldn’t be harmed by its true believers, because Objectivism itself can say that such people are not rational.

    But what *does* harm Objectivism is that many of its adherents are not true believers yet are irrational in their rhetoric. It is important to be able to identify the specific errors that these people make so that outsiders can be shown those errors. Only by doing that can reasonable non-Objectivists be persuaded that these people are not representative of Objectivism and that the hostility they display is not inherent in Objectivism.

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