Will PEL Ever Do an Ayn Rand Episode?

We get this question often enough that I thought a general announcement that I could refer back to in the future might be in order. What's said here is my take and shouldn't be taken to speak for Wes, Seth, or Dylan.

I recognize the cultural influence of Ayn Rand and that it would be a public service to have an episode at some point explaining, at least, why most academic philosophers think she's so bad. I think this has likely been done already, and much more thoroughly than we would do, by others (I'm not even going to hazard to link to anything right now, as the whole point in not doing the topic is not wanting to take the time to adequately research it; just do a fricking Google search yourself). My sense is that her readings of other philosophers is so superficial, and her arguments are so overly simplistic, that the proper antidote to her influence is just getting a philosophical education. In other words, you can take (if you like) every episode we've recorded as a response to Ayn Rand, and if you can really hold on to her doctrines (e.g. that Kant and all epistemology after him is just a matter of denying "simple and self-evident axioms") after immersing yourself in these difficult debates then, well... I will be very surprised.

I read both her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and The Virtue of Selfishness in college and did give them some serious thought at the time. I would personally be open to doing an episode where we cover these works, but I think only after we've already covered the main ideas in their more sophisticated forms given by other philosophers. We've already done some of this work, and some more of it is planned. Here's a non-exhaustive list (and perhaps those more in the know about this than I am can correct any mischaracterizations that may creep in to my account):

1. Rand is both a psychological and ethical egoist: people always do what they perceive to be in their interest, and they should do this. Her innovation is in the latter portion of this, but if the psychological egoism part is untenable, then there's little hope for ethical egoism. Psychological egoism was very much a live issue with Hobbes and those reacting against him. In our Hobbes episode, we brought this up briefly but didn't give it a serious shake. By the time of Hume's ethics, the issue was more or less dead; Pat Churchland also went into the science of it with us. Perhaps most seriously, these types of egoism assume a pre-made self, whereas on episodes like those on Hegel and Sartre, we've argued that there's no such thing.

2. The main gist of her epistemology is that unless we can clearly define a word, we don't know what it means. This comes out of Aristotle (not a part of him that we've read so far), but in our recent Wittgenstein episodes, we've gone in depth into what's wrong with it: words arise out of concrete situations of use. To come up with a definition in the sense of a set of necessary and sufficient conditions is to rip the word out of its actual uses and more or less stipulate conditions for its application across the board. In some cases (e.g. with mathematical terms) this is justified, and in some cases (e.g. with "good") it does violence to our complex intuitions on the matter. Positing a definition for "good" or "truth" or any of your other heavy duty philosophical terms is a matter of asserting a positive philosophical theory, not just of getting clear about these words that we all already understand.

3. Rand claims that much of her philosophy comes from Reason itself. We've done some work, as in our Schopenhauer episode on the principle of sufficient reason, to explain why this is nonsense. Reason in the sense of logical truths just gets you from premises to conclusions; it doesn't provide the premises, and the number of "self-evident propositions" is minuscule. The philosophy of logic is an area that we surely owe some episodes to (not soon, though), but you can listen to our many epistemology episodes for more discussion of what self-evidence might consist of.

4. Her main appeal is in her anti-conformity, as in The Fountainhead where the architect protagonist rejects the shallow and nonsensical expectations of his peers, teachers, customers, etc. I think there's an interesting conversation to be had here, and I'm not sure that we've had it yet. MacIntyre and Aristotle argue pretty convincingly that the kind of radical independence from your fellows that Rand recommends is impossible and/or pathological, but there's a also a strain of existentialism from Nietzsche's "Übermensch" to Kierkegaard on "the crowd" to Heidegger on "Das Man" ("the one") that recommends a similar rejection, so some more detailed discussion of this topic from us at some point would be nice.

5. Of course it's her libertarianism that's most at stake in today's debates. We are planning an episode on Robert Nozick, who better presents the philosophical foundations of this view. Our Locke episode does take a crack at analyzing one attempt to derive property rights from self-evident principles ("the law of nature").

After we've completed #5 along with the rest of our current batch of long-planned political episodes (Rawls, Marx, Adam Smith), then I'll bring up with the guys the idea of treating Rand much like we handled the New Atheists; there's plenty that's interesting about the fact that Rand has had such an influence for us to talk about, even if we feel like we can deal with many of her arguments by summarizing the discussions of earlier episodes as I've done above.

It's definitely hard to motivate ourselves to spend time on works we know to be bad when there are so many great works out there. One idea we thought up is having a pledge drive such that we'll cover her if we receive some amount in donations dedicated specifically to that end. However, I'm not sure why fans of Rand would be particularly eager to pay us to deliver what they will doubtlessly take to be an unfair portrayal of their idol. I can say that given the approach of the show, it would likely not be appropriate for us to get a Rand defender on with us for a debate. Again, I'm sure you can get enough unhelpful back-and-forth of that sort elsewhere on the web.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Bruce Adam says

    I’ve always been wary of Heideggerisms but thought I was safe in assuming that Dasein meant “number one” and that Das Man meant “The Man” in sixties vernacular.
    I’m equally wary of mentioning this to a philosopher who apparently disagrees with me.

    • Bruce Adam says

      I just followed the link to clarify this and discovered that I was wrong about Das Man and Dasein but right to be wary of cryptic Heideggerisms. I shall try to resist the urge to scratch them until I develop a better understanding of them.

  2. says

    More important than Rand, when will you do an episode on Fight Club? If you listen to the commentary tracks, the director and Edward Norton characterize Fight Club as the product of people that read a little Nietzsche in college and ran with it.

    I’ll kick in $5 towards two hours of you guys tearing apart the movie – $10 if you get Jim Uhls on board with being your fourth.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      You know, while we certainly wouldn’t do that as a primary topic for an episode, should we ever do Thus Spake Zarathustra, I think it would be fun to plan to bring up some popular culture appearances of Nietzsche like this one. Nice.

  3. Michael Caution says

    1. Rand’s egoism (selfishness) is not both but solely ethical egoism. She very much wrote against the idea that ppl will always be selfish given the knowledge of the good. For Rand man is a being of self-made soul, that his self-esteem and pride come from the virtues he adheres to.

    2. Her view on definition is that definitions are not formed at the beginning of concept formation but is only the last thing after we’ve observed reality and formed a concept. Also she pointed out that definitions are open-ended. The analogy often used is that concepts are like file folders and definitions are only the essentialized portion that are used to label those folders.

    3. For Rand logic is not sysnonomous with deductive logic. There is deductive and then there is inductive which informs most of our knowledge. That’s why I’m a little thrown when you say that much of her philosophy is comes from reason itself. She stated that reason is man’s only means of knowledge. So it is only through the use of one’s reason (used properly) that one can come to truth.

    4. By anti-conformity I think you mean independence (as you use two sentences later). Rand spoke out against conformity as well as non-conformity for the same of non-conformity.

    5. Rand very explicitly said that she was not a libertarian. She did give specific reasons for this and I think they are not trivial as most people dismiss then or don’t bother to learn the difference between her philosophy and libertarianism. As to Robert Nozick specifically you may wish to contact Harry Binswanger (HBList.com) an Objectivist philosopher and friend of Rand. He’s written a paper on Nozick’s critique of Objectivism but I don’t think it’s published anywhere.

      • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

        Re. Selfishness, I think the point still applies. If the self is a social construct, then determining our “real” interests is no easy task. Simply wanting something is certainly not enough, and stipulating some quantifiable interest like material wealth is even more off base. The big insight of Hegel and Nietzsche is that our self knowledge is poor, and the way we achieve it necessarily involves other people, which doesn’t preclude independence; we need not fall prey to any particular attribution inflicted by another. It would be very strange if a view cognizant of this whole conception would still go by the name “egoism,” which historically connotes the idea of an inborn, determinate self that comes with a fixed set of interests a la Hobbes.

        Re. Reason, adding induction doesn’t help. It still only gets one from premises to conclusions, and adds beyond that the vagueness of what constitutes a valid inductive rule. If the purpose is just to say we need to think instead of just feel, well, that’s obvious. In the recent Nietzsche ep, our whipping boy post-modernist who thinks that there is no truth would be about the only one to fall afoul of this general prescription to use reason.

        Rand’s critique is much more sweeping, and is good evidence that she’s caricatured much of modem philosophy. Her version of Kant, for instance, bears little resemblance to Kant himself, and insofar as she may have gotten an intro to philosophy summary of his project in the Critique of Pure Reason, she fails to respond to any of his actual arguments. E.g., Kant has no problem with the objectivity of science, but what objectivity means is that the results stay the same when we go back and check them. They work pragmatically; they have a systematic and predictable relation to experience. Kant (and Nietzsche, at the time of that early essay) would still admit skeptical arguments in applying the findings of science to the world in-itself apart from our experiences of it. As Hegel, Husserl, Sartre and others argued, there are problems with this notion of the world in-itself, such that if our knowledge as Kant said can’t give us any info about it, then we can’t legitimately say anything about it, i.e. we should just leave it out of our theory, but this doesn’t lead to a return to naive realism or exclude Kant’s idea that we as perceivers contribute through our interests, our bodies, our minds, our senses, and especially the vagaries of language to the makeup of the world as we know it.

        Re. definitions, if Wittgenstein is right, then coming up with definitions for our philosophically important terms without arbitrary stipulations will be impossible. We tested this in our humor episode, and it’s my position that this is definitely the case for ethical terms.

        • Michael Caution says

          Rand would say that determining our real interests, i.e., that which is in out rational long-term self-interest, is not easy. Not because the self is constructed socially by other people’s evaluation of ourselves, because as you say we have the capacity for independence and independent judgment of ourselves through introspection, but that it is constructed by the individual. A man’s evaluation of himself ultimately comes down to his own estimation of his worth. Whether or not he accepts the evaluation of others it is ultimately his choice to evade the responsibility and passively go by what others think or actively think and judge the merits of their reaction and then make a judgment on his own actions. Self knowledge can involve other people (I don’t think you could say it will involve other people; I’m thinking of a man on a deserted island) but what ultimately determines a person’s self-esteem or view of themselves is their choice to think or not, to focus or evade. And it is precisely this requirement, that one has to choose to focus the mind, their volitional consciousness, that makes determining what is in our rational self-interest so hard. Man is not given innate knowledge. He has to acquire everything he knows through a rigorous process of validation that requires evidence and proof. Rand’s attempt in “The Objectivist Ethics” was to show that our self-interest is based upon man’s identity qua man using the concept “life” as the objective standard off value and that what our self-interest is is validated by our essential characteristic: rationality. So it’s not a matter of desires or whim. It’s not a simple matter of it’s right because I desire it, she wasn’t a hedonist. She’s saying that we should seek values that enhance our lives as rational beings. What it is each individual seeks to attain may vary widely depending upon his on context and set hierarchy of values and any optional values (such as gardening, biking, or chess) that he chooses, but so long as it enhances his life qua rational being and he is the beneficiary it is good. From my understanding of the concept this is an egoistic ethics because it places the individual as the beneficiary of value.

          As regards her epistemology without going too much into details I would just say that it’s not possible to define her approach within the context of contemporary philosophical traditions. Rand did not rely solely on deductive logic. She understood logic to mean deductive and inductive logic. And where we get our premises from is by first observing reality and forming our first concepts then abstractions and from these we form generalizations and gradually build our knowledge up. Also I think her concept of objectivity is unique. She is also not a rationalist or an empiricist and she rejected the analytic-synthetic distinction, as presented in Leonard Peikoff’s essay “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy” in Intro to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE). This in part led her to reject Kant’s philosophy. From her essay “For the New Intellectual”, she summarizes, “His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.” http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/kant,_immanuel.html Some may say this is simply great polemics but doesn’t do justice to Kant because she didn’t offer a full proof or dissection of his thesis. It is true that Rand only refers to Kant and others in passing and this is unfortunate since I’m sure it would have made for great reading to find out what Rand thought of specific philosophers in detail. But I don’t think Rand was that kind of writer. Her proof or refutation was the presentation of her own positive philosophy. She could have spent millions of words deconstructing other people’s writings but I don’t think she found that a productive use of her own time and ability. It may leave readers with a harder task but it is up to them to read, analyze, and digest Rand’s philosophy and then reconcile it with other philosophies to see where they match up or diverge.

          Besides all this you have given me much to check up on regarding your previous podcasts and I’ll have look into them further.

  4. Paul Harris says

    If we can put the technicalities of precisely *why* there won’t be an episode of PEL on Rand on hold. Notably, putting her (in my opinion) hollow ideologies and ideas under the kind of microscope which is usually done would simply result in 2 hours of Rand being slagged off and discussion of that which most of us already know, that Radical Conservatism is bad etc. I’m not overly qualified to rally against Rand as I haven’t (yet) read anything by her and my judgements are based only on extracts which I’ve read, the times when she has been cited in News articles and the reaction I garnered from my friends at the mention of her name.

    However, I’d be happy to read some of Rand’s work in preparation for a discussion of it either on here or on Facebook, although this blog post would probably allow all bases to be covered. I do appreciate though, that Mark has essentially killed the idea of PEL covering Rand, or more precisely the need for it to be done by pointing out just how much ‘unhelpful back-and-forth of that sort elsewhere on the web’. I value PEL because of it’s tendency to cover that which is less widely available. Then again, that is simply my opinion. I’d still listen to an episode on Rand, even if I’d have to read the prep in isolation in case of enraged outburst.

    I don’t want to be thought of as closed-minded when it comes to philosophy, but given the fact that academia seems unanimous (highly unusual) on the poor quality of Rand’s work it seems unlikely to be worth the time.

  5. Matthew Schmitz says

    I think there is one main reason why you should do an episode on Ayn Rand; her outright rejection of selfless ethics. One of the biggest assumptions many people make is that because someone is acting selflessly they are automatically good. This idea is ingrained into our society. Think about these examples: some one donating their time or money, non-profit organizations, pay what you can type restaurants, activists trying to limit corporations for ‘public good’, etc. For some reason these people and groups get an elevated amount of admiration and respect because they are acting selflessly. The fact that this is rarely questioned by anyone is a problem. The blind acceptance of selflessness as a virtue has led to perhaps some of the darkest times in human history. Christianity in the middle ages, fascism in Germany, Communism in Russia and hippie communes* in the 60’s are all examples of when the prevalent philosophy was that of self sacrifice for your fellow man or country. I think you can see the monster forming that Ayn Rand was trying to fight.

    Many people have rejected the idea of God with out rejecting his ethics, a point Nietzsche makes. I think Ayn Rand is unique in that she is one of the few people who has done this.

    *Joke of course

  6. Adam says

    I really would love a Rand podcast. It would definitely be a guilty pleasure though. It would just be fun to listen to a good ol’ kantian rant from Wes and an attempt to find anything at all poetic in Rand’s writing by the sad one with the calm voice. I very much doubt there are many, if any, Objectivists who listen to the podcasts, what with all the love that Kant gets in so many of them.

    Rand’s philosophy is clearly nonsense, but it is obviously a particularly catchy kind of nonsense, a bit like Justin Bieber. The problem is, if Rand is your first introduction to philosophy, by the time you reach a point where you are capable of really understanding what is going on you have likely become too emotionally invested in it to give it up, a bit like Justin Bieber. But there really aren’t than many good skeptical discussions of her philosophy. Nozick’s is decent, and Rothbard’s is fun but I can’t think of any decent ones by anyone whose philosophy I don’t find to be nearly as bizarre as Rand’s. Most of the critiques from my fellow lefties seem to align her with Nietzsche and then attack an entirely fictional version of some vague form of Nietzschean ethics, misrepresenting both Rand and Nietzsche in the process. I guess most philosophers on the left just feel content to ignore her and it’s the ones on the right who feel the need to distance themselves from her. But there are obviously some pretty contentious areas that right ring critiques of Rand don’t touch, because, well, they agree with a lot of what she says. Although all that fun stuff might be better left for discussions of dudes like Nozick and maybe a more general economics episode (there are really interesting philosophical questions about the methodology and status of economics and its relationship to psychology and ethics, which could make for a good episode).

    The Maverick Philosopher has some pretty good posts on Rand on his Blog, I would suggest anybody who is interested in critiques of Obejectivism should check them out:


    • Michael Caution says

      As an Objectivist I have read the maverick philosopher’s posts on Rand and find them very uncharitable. I don’t find them serious at all since his criticisms are usually out of context and purposefully attempt to make Rand or Peikoff seem foolish. Objectivist philosopher Harry Binswanger attempted to engage him in the comments section on several posts and offered serious defenses for the Objectivist position. You may wish to read those. Adam, I also appreciate your comment in general. You state your disagreement with Rand while also complaining about the lack of serious criticism of Rand on the part of others. That is a rare combination.

      • Adam says

        Thankyou for the pointer. I’ve had a look, and I must say, I think the guy does an admirable job of replying to Dr Binswanger, he certainly makes a much greater effort to engage with a commenter than pretty much any other blog I have ever read. Perhaps he is being uncharitable, as you say, but I don’t really see it, and Dr. Binswanger seems happy enough with most of the characterisations of his positions. I thought he was being really uncharitable at one point, but then Mr. Binswanger agreed that Objectivists really do believe that: “the existence of nature is logically necessary and nothing about nature is logically contingent.” Apparently this is derivable from the fact that A is A. This is where I get completely lost by Objectivism. Maybe I’m a fool, but I just don’t get how you can derive a metaphysical system from a law of logic. And this is why I want a PEL Rand podcast.

  7. Michael Caution says

    @Mark Yes there is a lot that can be said regarding the perceived similarities between Nietzsche and Rand. I remember reading Zarathustra and being able to pick out quotes that I found very good that at first glance could appear to coincide with Objectivism. Rand herself mentioned her former influence by Nietzsche in the Introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition of The Fountainhead. Stating her disagreement with him she explains that she was going to place an epigraph but removed it. Quoting from Beyond Good and Evil, “It is not the works, but the belief which is here decisive and determines the order of rank – to employ once more an old religious formula with a new and deeper meaning – it is some fundamental certainty which a noble soul has about itself, something which is not to be sought, is not to be found, and perhaps, also, is not to be lost.- The noble soul has reverence for itself.-”

    So yes while it’s possible to find similarities between the two I think if you dig deep enough you’ll find that these are merely superficial or non-essential. Taken as a whole Nietzsche’s philosophy advocates completely antithetical views to that of Rand. Oddly enough I came across this paper looking up the previous quote. http://philosophy.wisc.edu/hunt/nietzsche&fountainhead.htm

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Yes, I looked at the beginning of that link and recall reading essentially the same point about her opposition to Nietzsche elsewhere. She dismisses him as an “irrationalist,” and my post yesterday about reason was intended to defuse this claim in part: per our ep. 61 guest Jessica, N. did not reject “truth” (and I take in this case the rejection of truth to be tantamount to rejecting reason/logic; we discussed on the episode the case of someone who rejects the law of non-contradiction as comparable to a vegetable).

      But yes, N. does critique the kind of dogmatic arrogance about our powers of knowing that Rand displays consistently.

      Strictly as a matter of comparing their ethical claims, Rand is no farther off Nietzsche’s ubermensch ideal than many other historical writers and/or miscreants (and she was writing before we had a lot of great N. scholarship in the English-speaking world; MacIntyre didn’t get him right either as late as the early 80s). Her way of summarizing her point of disagreement–she’s like Nietzsche except rational, which for the most part amounts to obeying the harm principle (from Locke) whereas all the psycho ubermensch wanna-be’s don’t do that–again doesn’t demonstrate much understanding of Nietzsche, but I hear you when you say that just wasn’t her aim.

      As I’ve argued at some length in my Pirsig posts on this blog, I think any philosophy is enriched by studying other philosophies, and I don’t think Rand’s position was strengthened by her decision to not bother to read others’ carefully. Your comment that it’s not possible to define her position with reference to others’ positions is I think wrong, and pointing to her rejecting empiricism/rationalism and the analytic-synthetic distinction is just repeating her talking points without (so far as I can tell) knowing much about the current landscape… those two bifurcations have been under attack or actually dismissed by many strains in philosophy since Kant.

      Pretty much, as soon as you say “I’m an objectivist” as opposed to “I think Ayn Rand has a lot of good things to say,” you’ve given up some important part of your soul. As independent thinkers, we should be searching for truth in as many corners as we have the time and energy for, and as an inductive argument corollary to the one I made in the other post about the principle of charity, it’s extremely likely that even your biggest idols got something terribly wrong.

      So I’ve decided to stop being snotty about scholars who think Ayn Rand was great, even though I haven’t seen much there that appeals to me in any sense, but I will continue to chide cultists of any stripe as insufficiently skeptical and too ready to buy a prepackaged philosophy product when there are inevitably compelling problems and insights that will by necessity entirely evade anyone who’s defined himself in that way.

  8. Jesse says

    Contact Roderick Long at The University of Auburn.

    He would be a tremendously fascinating guest for this topic (as well as the proposed Nozick episode). He’s a serious Rand scholar who isn’t opposed to vetting out her errors; a left-libertarian (whom you guys may have a lot to learn); a professor of philosophy; and an all-round fair thinker who could potentially offer an interesting and undiscovered perspective on the subject you seem to be very apprehensively avoiding.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Thanks for the reference, but if we do this (and actually, this post has ignited some conversation among the guys about potentially doing this sooner rather than later), we’re just going to engage the texts directly.

      That’s in general better keeping with our mission and method overall. After we’ve done an episode or two already on someone, I think it’s more fair game to introduce a scholarly voice, and for stuff like Eastern philosophy where we’re really pretty incompetent, I think having a guest right off the bat is a good idea, but I don’t think this is a case where it’s called for, as many great people out there as there might be for us to learn from.

      • Doug Pinkard says

        Roderick Long is a very good idea as a person who thinks seriously about ideas swirling around both Randian and Libertarian philosophies. As a left-libertarian, he appears 100% free of the stink of those on the right who see “freeing” corporations as about the sole moral cause worth fighting for, even as they ignore such pesky issues of genuine human slavery as states’ rights vs. African-American bondage of the 18-19th centuries, or today’s sex-trade (or “white”) slavery: human conditions that freedom loving conservatives often don’t seem to think rate as problems of “liberty” worth getting very excited over (Don’t get them started on the subject of the graduated income tax, though). Walter Block would be another such person. As I’ve said in other posts, I think that for a future podcast Ludwig von Mises’ “Human Action” is the book to read for serious discussions of questions concerning philosophical economics and ethics (Economics was long taught in departments of Moral Philosophy at places such as Oxford and Cambridge, y’know). Murray Rothbard’s “Man, Economy, and State,” an elucidation and expansion on Mises’ magnum opus, would be the other. Both are enormously-fat tomes befitting both the subject and you guys’ intellects.

  9. qapla says

    “5. Of course it’s her libertarianism that’s most at stake in today’s debates. We are planning an episode on Robert Nozick, who better presents the philosophical foundations of this view.”

    This would a big, although common, mistake to confuse Ayn Rand’s position as a Classiacl Liberal with Libertarianism which she rejected.

    Ayn Rand: A Leading Lady of the Classical Liberal Tradition


    Why Objectivism disowns Libertarianism


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