Certainly Not Philosophy-lite
Posted by Jerry on September 4, 2007
While responding to an e-mail from one of my blog readers, I happened to get carried away with my reflections upon the reasons for why Ayn Rand was an easy target of criticism among the regular garden-variety intellectuals. Here is my speculative take on the matter, some of which became part of that e-mail I sent to my reader:
It is my belief that Rand is an easy target of smears and insults by psuedo-intellectuals because she brought philosophy out of the ivory towers and made it accessible to the understanding of common folk. Even though she had to deal with some of the most complex and widest abstractions to lay the case out for her philosophy, she managed to do it in terms and concepts that would be in the grasp of most intelligent lay readers–the exception to this being her formation of the epistemological theory of concepts, an area of philosophy for which she had to maintain the highest level of technical rigor and precision.
Therefore, since Rand wrote mostly in terms that required little to no technical knowledge of philosophy, every random reader of her works thinks himself competent enough to understand her philosophy and readily offer a criticism of it. Most people who read her books, believe that they have understood her philosophy entirely the first time, and that they have integrated all the basic principles and grasped all the necessary contexts. This is common even among those sympathetic to her philosophy. Indeed, I, too, had once believed that I had a good grasp of Objectivism after having read only her major fictional books and a few non-fictional essays. Now, however, I still find myself being surprised by the new integrations and implications I make as my studies in Objectivism continues–this has often led me to radically re-evaluate my positions on many issues and resolve some of the earlier questions I had about the philosophy.*
Further, “[Rand] was a master at what one of my colleagues calls reductio ad claritatem, “reduction to clarity”— i.e., the method of refuting a position by stating it clearly—as when she wrote that “if some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor,” or when she summarized the view that human perception is unreliable because limited by the nature of our sensory organs as: “man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears.”
This ability, known as Rand’s razor, threw light on some of the most obscure and bizarre philosophical viewpoints advocated in history and made it accessible to the honest evaluation of the intelligent lay man. This, of course, was an integral part of her endeavor to rescue philosophy from the platonic or the noumenal realm and restore its place in the context of human beings and reality.
Notice how you seldom hear criticisms of Wittgenstein, Hegel, Levinas, or Kierkegaard from common bloggers, readers, friends, etc. It’s because these philosophers did not write for the lay person; most of the philosophy they wrote was for their academic peers, and they engaged other philosophers in a dialog that would be termed esoteric and irrelevant for most common men. Philosophy was an academician’s engagement–a puzzlement–and philosophers confined philosophies to the misty hallways of their universities.
Hence, few lay people have been able to read the philosophical works of these men and criticize them intelligently. In that sense, Rand’s legacy and philosophy is paying the price for bringing philosophy down to the most intimate domain of every man’s life. Being both reality-oriented and value-oriented at its core, Objectivism is thoroughly a philosophy for every human being in this life and on this Earth.
Frankly, I am incredibly grateful to her for this, and this in itself is an incredible accomplishment—because now we know how pertinent ideas and philosophy are in directing the goals of man’s life and giving it some purpose; because now we know that our nature as conceptual beings make it impossible for us to escape the need for a philosophy; because now we know that there need not be any dichotomy between the ideal and the practical; because now we know that ideas matter and can have real consequences; because now we know that our happiness and self-interest can be rationally identified, objectively defended, and practically pursued without any sense of moral guilt, that we all can live free, rational, and productive lives with the acceptance of a rational philosophy; because now we know how much we need philosophy.
* For example, I used to believe that Objectivism did not take into account the subjective contributions of each individual to the overall body of human knowledge, which to me meant that Objectivism ignored the fact that human knowledge was dynamic and constantly changing, not absolute and static. Consequently, I used to reason, certainty was theoretically unachievable contra Objectivism. I now know that I was wrong.