Friday, 22 April 2011

Objective: Objectivism - What's it got to do with objects?

Given that I know a lot of people in my part of the world aren't terribly familiar with Ayn Rand, I'm going to kick off this series with a brief sketch of her basic ideas. With this post, I'm focussing on the bits where I agree with Rand, which are mainly on the metaphysical/abstract side. We need to start by putting Rand in her historical/philosophical context

Rand called her philosophy 'objectivism', which may sound like a buzzword, but it does mean something and it's actually a pretty well-chosen label (much better than, say, neomodernism >.>). In philosophy, if something is 'objective' then it's not dependent on human beings - this is simplifying a bit, but bear with me. Rand's philosophy is a reaction against various kinds of subjectivism which were prevalent, particularly in Europe, during her lifetime. Among these kinds were postmodern relativism and existentialism, if you're interested.

The mid-20th-century subjectivisms all involved some sort of belief that the world we commonly experience is not objective - that in some way, it depends on human beings or human consciousness. The subjectivists had various reasons for this, all of which are complicated and obscure (if you really want to know, I'll send you a copy of my PhD thesis when it's done; most of my research is into a couple of progenitors of modern subjectivism). The upshot of this kind of subjectivism is the theoretical possibility of changing the world by changing the way you think about it.

Rand was dead set against this (her hatred of Kant can be traced to pretty much exactly this point). Her objectivism asserts that the world is as it is and no mere thought can change it. Rand believed that attempts to do this were at the root of the socialist mind-set, because socialism, she thought, was out of touch with reality.

Sidebar: Rand was in the bad habit of referring to this fundamental premise with Aristotle's formulation of the law of identity, 'A is A'. She never formally studied philosophy, and as a result seems to have rather got the wrong end of the stick on 'A is A' - the law of identity is a logical tool only, and pretty much trivial most of the time. Rand's point is good, but her invocation of Aristotle is not, and it set my philosophy-grad-student teeth grinding right through John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged.

Anyway, to all intents and purposes, I agree with Rand that there is an objective reality which we can't change by power of thought (and, hard as it may be to believe, lots of academics have disagreed, some with pretty good reasons). Rand says that the purpose of thought is not to change reality, but to understand it and learn how it may be changed.

Thought - rational thought - is the defining activity of the human species, according to Rand (and even given the growing body of evidence about the higher mental faculties in other species, the human capacity to reason remains unique at least in degree). Rand and I disagree about the role of emotion in thought, but that's a debate for another time.

If, as Aristotle said, man is a rational animal, then our ultimate fulfilment should come from the correct use of reason. That is to say, a good human being is one who approaches and solves all his problems through the use of reason, and said good human being will take his highest pleasures from doing so. It may sound a little implausible, but remember we're only talking about highest pleasure; other stuff can still be pleasant, it's just that the most pleasant experiences will be those in which a pleasant object is approached rationally. For example, Rand thinks that the highest musical pleasure comes from listening to music whose driving concepts one grasps and agrees with, as well as liking the sound (I won't get into her slightly distasteful views on sex).

There's another important consequence of the twin objectivist premises of objectivity and rationality, and it's a moral one; if human beings are definitively rational creatures, there is a moral obligation on us to be rational. It is immoral, Rand thinks, to lose oneself in irrational sentiment or waste time on unearned emotion. It's an austere, ascetic position rather at odds with Rand's own life story, but there's a grain of truth in it, and it lends her system a symmetrical beauty; rationality is in our best interests, and rationality is a moral obligation. It's an alignment of the practical and the principled which is a feature of all the best anti-subjectivism (because if there is an objective reality, principles derived from it will always be practical).

In summation, then, Rand argues:
1> There is an objective reality, independent of human beings
2> Human beings are inherently rational (for some appropriate definition of 'rational')
3> It is in our best interests to be rational, because this will best equip us to master objective reality
4> There is a moral obligation on us not to suppress our rationality, which stems from <2>

The conclusion of this argument is that we should be left as free as possible to engage in rational activity, which is where her small-government libertarianism kicks in (I gather she hated to be called a libertarian, but if the shoe fits...). There are all sorts of practical - and some theoretical - problems with that half of Rand's philosophy, but this 'first' or fundamental half is actually pretty plausible and systematic. I'll get into the particular problems I want to highlight over the coming months, but I needed to write this first so I've got it here to refer back to.

Your feedback is welcome - do you agree with my reading of Rand's philosophy? It's based mainly on Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged, and I haven't read any of her non-fiction.

PS. I realise I haven't actually explained what it's all got to do with objects; but then neither did Rand, so I blame her.

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