This book should be required reading for all university graduates–especially those of liberal arts and humanities.
The essential thesis of this book is:
The failure of epistemology made postmodernism possible, and the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary.
Dr. Hicks has an incredibly lucid, engaging style of writing–and the expansiveness of the topics he covers with such ease–going from Kant to Rousseau to Marx and Rorty and then back to Plato–is astounding.
Reading his account of the philosophical drama that played across centuries and which gave rise to the anti-intellectual movement that we call Postmodernism today, one is reminded of a fact that is often forgotten: that philosopher need not all be wise just because they got published and are famous today; and that what they preach need not always originate from honest and true intentions; that philosophers, like anyone else, can almost stubbornly and petulantly defend a viewpoint in order to save face, score a brownie point, or wage a war of words for its own sake. Hegel, Fichte, Marcusse, and others fit this description.
Take the following excerpts, for instance:
Immanuel Kant is the most significant thinker of the Counter-Enlightenment. His philosophy, more than any other thinker’s, buttressed the pre-modern worldview of faith and duty against the inroads of the Enlightenment. Kant firmly chose religion. And so, he stated famously in the Second Preface to the first Critique, “I here therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.”
And another philosopher Schleiermacher, a Kantian in approach, said: “The essence of religion is the feeling of absolute dependence. I repudiated rational thought in favor of a theology of feeling.”
Then Fichte, who wanted to create a superior race of German automatons through socialized education, preached, like Kant, a dedication to pure duty and an abdication of all self-interest:
“in place of that love of self, with which nothing for our good can be connected any longer, we must set up and establish in the hearts of all those whom we wish to reckon among our nation that other kind of love, which is concerned directly with the good, simply as such and for its own sake. The pupil of this education is not merely a member of human society here on earth and for the short span of life which is permitted to him. He is also, and is undoubtedly acknowledged by education to be, a link in the eternal chain of spiritual life in a higher social order. A training which has undertaken to include the whole of his being should undoubtedly lead him to a knowledge of this higher order also. [The German] “alone above all other European nations, [has] the capacity of responding to such an education.”
And among the most outrageous ideas, we have Hegel–who inspired Marx–creating a Divinity out of the Government. He said:
“It must further be understood that all the worth which human being possesses–all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the State. The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth.” The State has as its final end the self-realization of the Absolute, and thus “this final end has supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the state.” “One must worship the State as a terrestrial divinity.”
People have agendas–and philosophers are not exempt from this. And philosophers in particular can be incredibly evil–in that they intentionally develop, defend, and promulgate ideas that are horrific in practice.
I am reminded of Ayn Rand’s brilliant analysis of the history of Counter-Enlightenment philosophy in her dramatic speech for John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, in which she correctly identifies and summarizes the key themes of Kant (the mystic of spirit) and his successors (the mystics of muscle). You can read the relevant excerpts from the Ayn Rand Lexicon here.
The discovery of truths is in sifting through the layers of detritus and engaging one’s own honest intellect with the evidence provided by our senses. Surely, geniuses can help illuminate the path along the way, but it’s up to us to figure out which path will lead us to the Enlightenment world, and which, to the one of nihilism.
I cannot recommend Dr. Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism enough.
Professor Mugdha Karnik from the University of Mumbai had undertaken the monumental task of translating Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged into Marathi — the regional language of the state of Maharashtra–one of the most populous states in the country.
I have personally heard Prof. Karnik read an excerpt from her translation during one of the Atlas Sunday Club Philosophy Salon’s I organize in Mumbai. She read the passage in which Hank Rearden is holding the dying young wet nurse in his arms. It is a stirring scene in the original novel–and listening to Prof. Karnik read it out in Marathi was equally moving.
I remember telling her at that time that I believe she did not just translate the language of Atlas Shrugged but also managed to translate the spirit of the novel.
Anyway, all of this is in preamble to the reason for this post. The new Marathi version of Atlas Shrugged is being released officially in the city. The following are details. All who are in Mumbai or can travel to the city are urged to attend:
Saturday, Feb 26, 2011
7 pm to 8.30 pm
Shivaji Mandir Dadar, Mumbai
GUEST SPEAKERS Veena Gavankar and Sharad Joshi
Dhananjay Karnik will introduce Sharad Joshi
For more details and information about the book, you can reach out to Professor Karnik at the following address:
Mugdha D. Karnik,
Centre for Extra-Mural Studies, University of Mumbai,
Vidyanagari, Kalina, Santacruz (E),
“Proposals should outline at least two educational events or activities designed to achieve the goals of the proposed program. This can be translation and/or distribution of the book, events such as book launch, reception, discussion forum, seminars, courses, press conferences, or any creative form of educational outreach such as a movie, interviews, contests, etc.
Proposals should include a draft budget of how the money would be spent and a timeline of how the project would be executed.
Grant proposals are due in English by October 15, 2008. Proposals should be submitted by e-mail to Ms. Yiqiao Xu at email@example.com.”
The grant is made possible by the BB&T Bank.
I am working with the Liberty Institute to secure this grant and here’s the preliminary set of ideas I have come up with. I’m posting these up here to get feedback and additional ideas on how best to promote the ideas of Atlas Shrugged in India. Please note that the deadline for submitting the proposal is very near.
Essay contest on Atlas Shrugged—across Indian colleges—with cash prizes for 3 winners.
Create professionally designed brochures and pamphlets of key ideas from Atlas Shrugged:
Francisco’s Money speech
Excerpts from John Galt’s speech
Other excerpts that highlight philosophical and artistic integration Leverage these brochures on all events, activities, cross-country trips, bookstores, etc.
Create and distribute large-sized posters of Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand across large-chain bookstores in India–to raise the visibility and sales of the novel.
Discussion seminars across various locations in India on themes from the Atlas Shrugged–moderated by me or representatives from the Liberty Institute
Philosophical themes for college professors from philosophy departments
The artistic merits of Atlas Shrugged—for students, artists, and professors from theaters, art institutes, and colleges
Panel of experts session on the moral theory of Atlas Shrugged versus other moral theories:
Panel of clerics, NGO representatives, journalists, doctors, scientists, etc.
Screening of the documentary film Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life on a cross-country tour across major movie chains such as PVR Cinemas–perhaps with the additional help and sponsorship of the American Center in Mumbai, tied-in with promotions of Atlas Shrugged—distributing brochures, books on sale, etc.
Buy media space (in newspapers and online media such as emails, etc.) for promotions of the above-mentioned events and activities
Practically everyone I know at work has read at least one of the major works of Ayn Rand. They seem to regard her primarily as a literary figure, and I think, they mostly don’t much agree with (or understand) her philosophy. Rand’s novels, to them, are just that–novels; not a dramatization of a true philosophy of life, just an unusual and radical storyline.
This Friday, I will be conducting an informal discussion session with my colleagues on Objectivism in general and The Fountainhead in particular, since that is the book most of them have read. Also, since they learned that I have studied Objectivism in some detail for so many years now, they were very eager to hear me make the case for the philosophy. I am happy to do it.
Rand continues to be a polarizing figure; and she still manages to get people involved in animated discussions. My colleagues have been excitedly talking about the Friday session all this week–everytime we gather in the cafeteria for a meal or snack or hang beside each other’s cubicles. I’ve already heard some of the usual criticisms carelessly thrown about: “she was too extreme. It’s too rigid.” But I resist the urge to engage them in full-on discussion because I want to make a proper, prepared, and well-organized presentation on the philosophy. However, I’m not going to be lecturing or doing most of the talking; I’d rather prefer to facilitate the discussion–offer some guideposts, introduce some new ideas, elicit opinions and reactions, ask them to probe deeper into their questions and reactions, etc.
Anyway, if this goes well, I expect to hold additional sessions on the philosophy. I am quite certain that people will want to have more things to say and hear about Rand. After these sessions, I would be eager to get them started on We The Living, because it is my favorite novel and which I have read three times now.
So, cheers for personal activism! Hip hip Hurray! 🙂
I have created a new group–primarily for people in Mumbai, but also open to all fans of Ayn Rand’s novels and philosophy around the world. You are welcome to join and participate in the group. Occassionally, there might be events and socials organized in Mumbai, the details of which will be posted here. A tentative upcoming event I am planning is an Ayn Rand movie festival, showcasing the Oscar nominated documentary “Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life” and the Italian movie “We The Living.
I intend this to be a place for fans of Ayn Rand’s novels and philosophy to meet, network, socialize, and be updated on city events related to the activities of this group.
I intentionally avoided making the group exclusive to Objectivists because I do not want this to be primarily and fundamentally a philosophy group, although the common interest here is largely philosophical–or intellectual. The group is also open to those who admire Rand’s novels but do not have a philosophical bent of mind, including those who properly do not call themselves Objectivists until they fully understand what subscribing to the philosophy entails.
I have played a significant part in introducing my friend L’Innommable to the ideas of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. In fact, I think I have done the same with most (all?) of my close friends, who have now read the major works of Ayn Rand and agree with at least some of her ideas to some extent.
I think it comes with the territory: out of happenstance, if I befriend someone, they are bound to be exposed to my value-system; indeed, I am certain that my values play a role in the kind of people I keep and value as friends.
As a matter of fact, I know that simply running this blog and writing the occasional article on Objectivism here has introduced several people to Ayn Rand and helped them get a more mature grasp of her ideas. I am happy of these consequences–and they are an added perk because they are not wholly intended. I write on my blog simply because I like setting my thoughts into words, and I derive a serene sense of pride from my writings. That my blog has resulted in some positive–and hopefully, challenging–intellectual experiences for some is a delight to learn about.
Anyway, L’Innommable is in the midst of reading Atlas Shrugged and he has written of his impressions of the book so far. I liked what he had to say. Here’s just an excerpt of his post:
“[Atlas Shrugged] reminds me of a symphony… I see hints, suggestions, undertones, and allusions to what is to come; an exposition on the philosophy of Objectivism. The thing is, it starts out as any good symphony would, not giving too much away in the beginning, but enticing the listener to continue listening for his enjoyment and edification, climbing ever higher to a crescendo that seems inevitable.”
The book Facets of Ayn Rand is now available online for free! Published by the Ayn Rand Institute Press, the book is a personal memoir of Mary Ann and Charles Sures, who were both friends of Ayn Rand for more than 20 years.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction by Leonard Peikoff:
Mary Ann and Charles Sures were longtime personal friends of Ayn Rand—Mary Ann for twenty-eight years, Charles for almost twenty. Their recollections in this delightful memoir make vividly real the Ayn Rand they knew so well.
I realize I haven’t been blogging at all lately. I find that I have very little free time to myself; and the precious little that I do have, I must choose between spending it on finishing a book that I’m reading, watching something on TV to just relax blankly, or typing up my thoughts on innumberable things on my blog. Invariably, I end up choosing from the first two options.
I just finished reading Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It’s an explosive book!–what a fascinating story, a heroic life, an incredible journey of a real heroic giant of a woman! It should be compulsory reading for every crazy multiculturalist and Islamic fundamentalist out there. In fact, everyone should read it, and be inspired by it. Ayaan Hirsi Ali defies cultural determinism, cultural bonds, traditions, religious injunctions, the threat to life and soul, family, clan, nation–practically everything that an average mediocrity finds as constituents of his self-identity. Rising from the tribal muck of primitive Somalia and the backwardness of Islamic traditions, Ayaan charts her own course, explicitly based on reason, individualism, and enlightenment ideals. Infidel is the autobiography of this strong, young, and heroic woman. It’s the story of a woman that exemplifies Ayn Rand’s words: “man is a being of self-made soul.”
Then, I plodded through a terribly clunky, horribly-written book on Poincare’s Conjecture in the mathematical field of Topology. The book is about the story of an unknown Russian mathematician Greg Perelman, who suddenly shot to fame after quietly submitting a paper on the Internet in which he had written up a proof for Poincare’s Conjecture—a problem that had remained unsolved until then for several centuries. This incident had happened on a few years ago, and at that time (sometime in 2001, I think), I remember reading about a Russian man solving a centuries-old problem in the newspaper. I still recollect being intrigued by the story and wondering what the details of this solution and the mathematical problem was.
Now, I love reading books on mathematics, although I am terribly weak in the subject myself. I have never been good with numbers: we are as mutually repelling as opposite poles of a magnet. However, I am fascinated by the story of mathematical achievements, geniuses, mathematical research, inventions, explorations, thoughts, etc. I had immensely enjoyed reading about Godel’s theorems and Fermat’s proofs. And the more I read about the field of mathematics, the more I understood it, because each new book contains several references to similar themes, ideas, topics, problems, and personalities–and they approach it from different angles; and when you identify these similarity and begin making integrations in your mind based on these vantage points, the feeling of awe and wonder is more than gratifying.
However, as I was reading Poincare’s Prize, I thought to myself that the contributors to Wikipedia write far superior articles, and they are more captivating as well! The author of Poincare’s Prize seems completely scattered in his organization, overwhelmed by the complexity of the subject matter he’s tackling, and unsure of how to simply progress from one paragraph to the next. His transitions are clunky and distracting. He dwells on irrelevant–almost encyclopedic–details of personalities that add little to the progression of the storyline.
In any case, all of these deficiencies can be overlooked as nothing more than mild annoyance. However, what I found most egregious is the author’s gall to inject his sense of morality and judgment on the actions of the mathematicians he discusses. Instead of staying clear of such moral evaluations in a topic dealing with objective facts and dry logic–or at least letting the reader make his own moral judgements of the characters, the author generously indulges in moralizing. It should go without saying that my heightened senstivity to this aspect of the book is primarily because I deeply disagree and detest the author’s moral evaluations.
Anyway. Moving on to something unrelated. For my recent birthday, I was gifted a Nikon CoolPix L11 digital camera. I decided to tinker around with it in the privacy of my room. Here are some short videos of my room.
If you want to look really crazy, you should go up to a doctor and say, “I understand that if I consume poison, I will die; but I don’t understand why I ought not to have poison just because I choose to live.”
Go tell an architect who is constructing a skyscraper, “just because of the fact that constructing a skyscraper requires steel, concrete, and building materials, it does not mean that you ought to use steel, concrete, and building materials to construct your skyscraper.”
Is it really hard to grasp that values are a species of facts? If the architect has identified the fact that constructing a building requires certain specific methods, tools, and materials, then the architect has to (ought to) obtain, acquire, and use those specific methods, tools, and materials to meet his purpose. The identification of the first factual premise necessitates the identification of the second: if you choose to build, you ought to get your tools and materials ready; both statements have the force and quality of stating a fact about how reality functions–in equal magnitude.
The fact that you are a living entity, determines a series of facts pertinent to your survival: the fact that you are, determines what you ought to do–or how reality factually functions in relation to your existence, i.e., matters of facts. For example, your immune system cannot withstand the fatal effects of poisonous venom; therefore, the fact of the matter is, if you consume it, you will die; or, staying alive requires–by force of fact–that you ought not to consume the venom.
The concept of value applies only to living beings–and in greater pertinence, to rational beings–because goal-directed action toward an ultimate end is only possible to living entities. Thus, values (which are a species of facts applicable to living beings) are inextricably linked to living entities and to the specific facts pertinent to their survival.
It is hard to believe that there’s so much nonsense permitted in philosophy. When you begin to understand ethics as a science–as a subject dealing with very fundamental and clearly bounded facts about human existence and all that makes such existence possible–you begin to realize that you cannot permit any of the philosophical nonsense that is commonly accepted today, such as consciousness invalidates itself as a tool of awareness, the mind is wholly separate and distinct from the body, values are mystical, non-rational, not factual, and non-objective, etc.
The applied and physical sciences are fully dependent on the philosophical framework it chooses to work within. If philosophy itself is so incoherent, chaotic, irrational, and subjective, then how can it possibly provide a coherent, rational, and logical framework for the applied and physical sciences?
If an engineer cannot permit his crew to be subjective about their notions of numbers, measurements, laws of physics, motion, gravity, the existence of steel, the fragility of glass, the identity and nature of physical elements, then how can he be comfortable with a philosophy that preaches that there is no absolute truth, certainty is impossible to human cognitive tools, the noumenal realm is forever beyond our direct perception, the evidence of the senses is illusory, that a bridge ought not require certain methods of construction, etc.?
As Rand said:
“It is not the special sciences that teach man to think; it is philosophy that lays down the epistemological criteria of all special sciences.”
But if such irrationality passes as philosophical thought today, then Wittgenstein was right in insisting that nothing but nonsense can be said about philosophy and vehemently disparaging philosophers as foolish men entangled in a confused web of their own making.
You know that the state of modern philosophy is not healthy when philosopher Quee Nelson has to present her defense of objective reality under the name “naive realism” in her new book The Slightest Philosophy, because, apparently, it is “naive” in philosophical circles to hold that there is an objective reality and that we have direct perception of it.
Aptly enough, therefore, the voice in defense of naive realism in Nelson’s book is that of a young student engaged in a dialog with a more erudite and sophisticate professor. Here’s an excerpt (taken from John Enright’s article on The Atlasphere), where the sophisticate professor wonders whether we really see apples or only patches of the color red; the student replies:
Student: “I wonder why you don’t switch it the other way around, and say that you can only perceive sense data like colors by means of physical objects? Why does the ‘redness’ get the place of pride, instead of the apple? Why don’t you put things the other way around, and say that ‘redness’ is merely derivative, since it is obtained by a secondary process of intellectual abstraction from the apple, which is epistemologically more primary?”
I’ve long been a big fan. I think his criticisms of Hume had real merit. But hardly anyone seems to have read him, so I never get a chance to talk about him with anybody!
Thereafter, in a rather succinct series of rhymes, John hints at the substance of Reid’s philosophy:
“I saw an apple.”
That’s what I said.
Could it have been
A mere patch of red?
It tasted the apple,
I bit through its peel.
Could it be true
That it’s not really real?
I tossed the apple
In the sky.
Doubt its existence?
Please tell me why.
So now I was intrigued and wanted to discover more about the philosophy of Thomas Reid. I doubt that I’ll find any books by or about him in bookstores here; I read up his entry on the SEP and was really impressed with the account of his arguments against Humean and Lockean epistemologies. Reid does a brilliant job of shifting the burden of proof on to the skeptics and the idealists, and in doing so, reveals how incredibly contorted their theories actually are.
Reid was a staunch defender of the common sense method in philosophy; his epistemology can be described as direct realism, i.e., the mind can acquire direct knowledge of the external world via the interaction of the sense organs and external objects, which are the causes of mental acts or events.
Reid’s account of perception caught my interest in particular:
Colors, sounds, tastes and smells are powers to produce certain characteristic sensations in us in normal conditions; to ascribe such a quality to an object is not to perceive any intrinsic qualities of the object, but is, rather, to perceive that the object bears a certain relation to something else: namely, ourselves. So, for instance, say that the skin of the apple in front of me has a certain molecular structure that results in its reflecting light at a certain wavelength which in turn causes in me a certain characteristic visual sensation of red. If I am speaking correctly when I say, “That apple is red”, I am reporting the fact that I conceive of the apple as possessing a particular relational property: I am aware that the apple has the property of being-such-as-to-cause-in-me-sensations-of-red-in-normal-conditions.
Objectivity is both a metaphysical and an epistemological concept. It pertains to the relationship of consciousness to existence. Metaphysically, it is the recognition of the fact that reality exists independent of any perceiver’s consciousness. Epistemologically, it is the recognition of the fact that a perceiver’s (man’s) consciousness must acquire knowledge of reality by certain means (reason) in accordance with certain rules (logic).
Thus, while Kant and others argued that it is impossible to have direct knowledge of the external world precisely because we are conscious of it and since our consciousness has identity, Objectivism turns this challenge on its head: direct knowledge of the external world is possible precisely because our consciousness has an identity and the specific means by which to grasp existence, and that without a consciousness of a specific sort, there can be no concept of objectivity.
Reid illustrates the principle of objectivity with reference to colors by noting that the apple is red objectively precisely because it has initself the objective properties that cause sensations of redness in the perceiver, who has in himself the properties of responding to such sensations with the awareness of the color red. Objectivity, like all other concepts (including the concept of the absolute) and the rest of human knowledge, is relational.
Philosopher and academic bully Colin McGinn has gotten into yet another public feud with a philosopher (and ex-colleague) over the latter’s book on a theory of consciousness.
In an article published in the Philosophical Review, McGinn wrote a bitter and scathing review of Ted Honderich’s new book.
Apparently, Colin McGinn is no stranger to academic bullying, as he himself admits:
“People have complained about my tone in reviews for the past 30 years,” says McGinn proudly. “I’ve made definite enemies in the past 30 years in important departments.”
But on the blogosphere, professorial authority has little traction, and McGinn comes off looking like just a cheap weasel.
A while ago, I had posted on McGinn’s poor intellectual manners after he had made the preposterous claim of having “dispatched” with the “terrible theory” of ethical egoism and had prodigiously heaped scorn on all who challenged his argument on his blog. At that time, the substance of his responses were slurs, ad hominem attacks, and outlandish charges of ineptness.
Reading about his review of Honderich’s book, I see that very little has changed since.
Capitalism Magazine has an excerpt from a collection of essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Written by Michael Berliner, the article is a strong piece of philosophic detection that unravels the contradictions, lies, distortions, and malicious intent behind Whittaker Chamber’s 1957 review of Rand’s last novel, which was published repeatedly by the National Review.
Rand’s approach to ethics is not to Chambers’s liking, because “everybody [in Atlas Shrugged] is either all good or all bad.” Of course, perhaps employing some dialectical logic from his past, he also claimed that her heroes were presented as being “beyond [my italics] good and evil.” Nevertheless, he is obviously opposed to Rand’s moral absolutism. He is also unsympathetic to her individualism, because it leaves “no other nexus between man and man other than naked self-interest,” a view he claims allies her with Marxism, although his criticism is almost identical to that leveled by Marx against individualism: “The concern of the French Constitution of 1793,” wrote Marx, “is with the freedom of man as an isolated monad withdrawing into itself. . . . The human right of freedom is not based on the connection of man with man but rather on the separation of man from man. It is this right of separation, the right of the limited individual, limited unto himself. . . .”
I really like this beautiful opinion piece written by Maggie Gallagher on the 50th anniversary of Atlas Shrugged. Since it is on Yahoo! News, I’m afraid the link might become inactive in a few days when the page will be moved. So, I’m including the entire article here.
THREE CHEERS FOR AYN RAND
“Atlas Shrugged,” Ayn Rand‘s monumental 1,000-plus-page valentine to the America of her dreams, turns 50 this year.
The occasion has been marked by nerdy paeans to her philosophy, and grudging acknowledgements by sophisticates that Rand’s novels may not be so very bad, after all. For the latter ersatz tribute, see, for example, the famous art critic (and my friend) Terry Teachout’s essay on Rand at 50 in the current issue of National Review.
Ayn Rand deserves better.
Fifty years after it was published, “Atlas Shrugged” lives on like no other book outside of, well, the Bible. Eight percent of Americans have read it, according to a 2007 Zogby poll. Yet a 1991 Library of Congress and Book of the Month Club poll found that, next to the Bible, it is the book that had most frequently “made a difference” in people’s lives. I just checked on Amazon.com: “Atlas Shrugged” was the No. 1-selling book in the category of “literature and fiction-classics” and No. 310 on the overall Amazon list.
Most novelists would kill for an audience this big on the day they appear on the “Today” show, much less more than 25 years after they’re dead. Among reading Americans, no other novel has ever generated any response remotely like this.
And “Atlas Shrugged” became a genuine American classic without ever making it into the official “canon” of great, near-great or even so-so novels — all of which guarantees a certain number of mandatory sales and reads among bored high school students and eager undergraduates.
Why? Teachout concludes that Rand writes a pretty good potboiler, a plot “complete with sex scenes and a shoot-’em-up finale. No wonder that it has sold like soap for half a century.”
Really? Let’s consider sales among three popular authors with whom Teachout compares Rand: John Grisham’s “The Firm” is No. 71,739, Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” is currently No. 148,043 and Zane Grey’s “Ranger of the Lone Star” is No. 28,965 on the Amazon list.
Novels, even page-turning potboilers with lots of sex and gunplay, do not typically sell like soap, year-in and year-out, for half a century.
Like Terry, I first read and fell in love with “Atlas Shrugged” when I was 16. At 47, I see her as a great artist in somewhat the same way that I so acknowledge Theodore Dreiser: Despite the obvious flaws in the prose, the whole adds up to a genuinely unique achievement.
The key to Ayn Rand is that she pictured America largely from early films from Hollywood. As a young girl growing up in the grim world of communist Russia, she saw America as we dreamed ourselves to be, and she longed her whole life with a child’s intensity to make this vision real, to live in it. We respond to her novels because they offer us one deep strand of American self-identity — as individualists, yes, but individualists who together dream big dreams, conquer wild frontiers, invent the future, remake our very selves.
She understood, the way so many pampered Hollywood artists don’t, that much of the romance of America is in business — in our dreams of making it, by making big new things, things no man has ever made before. Rand is virtually alone in seeing businessmen as fellow artists: makers, creators, inventors. In her novels, the greatness of the artist was matched by the greatness of the architect, the scientist, the entrepreneur and the railroad executive. The Homer of our era, she sang the song by which so many Americans live our lives.
I gave up being a Randian (as I called it) at 22, when I had my first baby.
For the first time, I saw the limits of the grand myth of the self-made man. I saw how completely life itself depends on a love that cannot be rationalized, but is pure gift.
Grace entered my life, and I submitted to the necessity of gratitude — including gratitude for the stubborn, peculiar, determined, brilliant little Russian girl who, virtually unassisted, remade herself into one of the best-selling American novelists of all time.
There appears to be a particular affinity for Ayn Rand–or at least for the individualistic passion of her classic hero Howard Roark–among many people in the IT/software industry.
I assume we all know that Jimmy Wales, the famous creator of the Wikipedia, is an explicit Objectivist (I think Diana from Noodlefood is even friends with him). He describes himself as an “Objectivist to the core” and has even named his daughter Kira–after Ayn Rand’s heroine in We The Living.
But Michael Berliner of the Ayn Rand Institute revealed some additional names from the software industry who seem like Ayn Rand admirers, in an article titled Ayn Rand Inspired High-Tech Capitalism:
“I know that T.J. Rogers [of Cypress Semiconductors] loves Atlas Shrugged,” says Michael Berliner, the director of the Ayn Rand Institute in Marina del Rey, Calif. “Both Gates and [Michael] Milken have read it. But they’re afraid of what it has to say.
The 1997 article goes on to discuss the popularity of Ayn Rand in the Silicon Valley:
If a decade ago students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could be seen lugging around copies of Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, today many of the same guys are pulling down million-dollar-a-year salaries in a tiny pocket of economic affluence known as Silicon Valley.
… in the meritocratic manner in which they run their companies, many high-tech business leaders would be more at home with architect Howard Roark, Rand’s heroic iconoclast who propelled The Fountainhead to the top of the best-seller lists, than Ben and Jerry, who sell heart disease by the pint all the while claiming that their “1 percent for peace” philosophy is rooted in something deeper than the bottom line.
Rogers lambasted a group of Roman Catholic nuns who, owning 7,000 shares of stock in Cypress, felt compelled to tell him they thought he should place women and racial minorities on its board of directors. Rogers, after telling the letter’s author, Sister Doris Gormely, to get off her “moral high horse,” went on to say that it would be immoral for him to heed to the nun’s request, especially since there are few women with the engineering or business experience to qualify them to sit on the Cypress board.
Then there is this recent post by Yahoo! Web Developer Isaac Schlueter, who considers The Fountainhead as one of his favorite books. He writes about a Howard Roark residing in each web developer:
Yahoo’s internal web developer mailing list flares up in these delightful debates once or twice a month, and it always warms my heart to be reminded that there’s an intransigent little Roark inside each one of us. Some 50 years before the Internet was even a spark in TBL’s eye, Ayn Rand managed to capture the timeless essence of a web developer in the character of Howard Roark.
If you’re wondering what is it about web developers and people in the software business that find such an appeal in Ayn Rand’s intransigently individualistic philosophy, I’ll venture to offer that the clue lies in the individualistic nature of their work, the uncompromising demand for personal merit and skill on the job, the inventiveness and imaginativeness of their products, the intimacy between the creator and the emergence of the product being created, and in the privately creative process of their production.
Over the weekend, I caught up on so much reading. I was reading Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. It’s an intriguing book with a very compelling hypothesis, a kind of materialism. I haven’t finished reading the book yet. However, with regard to philosophers of the mind, I find that John Searle’s biological naturalism is more sensible than Dennett’s account of the consciousness.
From Dennett’s book, I get the impression that philosophers really take this notion seriously: that consciousness dismisses itself as the faculty of awareness and perception precisely because it is aware and it perceives.
I suspect this wall of seperation between man’s consciousness and reality began with Descartes but was truly reinforced by Kant, and has been accepted ever since.
Throughout the book, the idea of “objectivity” inherently requires the exclusion or negation of consciousness, because, philosopher’s argue, consciousness is by definition “subjective.”
It’s really strange. Think about it in this way: our organs have certain functions. For example, the heart pumps blood; the liver purifies it; the lungs are used to absorb oxygen; our eyes are used to see; our ears are used to hear.
Now, would it make sense to say that because our heart pumps blood we cannot really be certain that it indeed does pump blood, or that it is indeed blood that it is pumping–could it be that it’s pumping something else? But that’s essentially what philosophers have been insisting about the brain.
The brain is the organ that perceives: that is its function. It integrates the data from the sense organs into percepts and processes the data conceptually. It does this in a phenomena we call awareness or consciousness. Philosophers argue that because our brains perform a certain function, i.e., the function of awareness, it is inherently flawed: that the brain is not doing its job right–it is only fabricating images of the external world (things-as-they-appear), and we can never have access to things-as-they-are so long as we are conscious. In other words, we are stuck in our box of consciousness–our organ of perception is the very thing that hampers our perception of the world.
It is just as Rand had described the premise of these philosophers: they argue that because we have eyes we cannot see; because we have ears we cannot hear.
The following are the questions posed by the reporter from The Telegraph (TT) and my e-mailed responses to them. I have slightly edited only my responses at some places for stylistic reasons; in the question about the response of young readers to Ayn Rand’s books, I have added a few additional points to expand upon my original thoughts.
TT: What drew you to Ayn Rand?
JJ: I was first introduced to Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead by a friend of mine. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel as a work of art, the philosophical ideas in it disturbed me greatly. They were radical and completely alien to everything I had been taught as moral. My response to this cognitive dissonance was to shut out Rand’s ideas from my mind and continue to live the way I was used to. A couple of years later, I happened to pick up a copy of Atlas Shrugged. My life was never the same after that. I could no longer just ignore the radical ideas in the book. This pushed me to investigate further, ask “why?” to every single premise and belief I currently held, dig deep to the roots and trace out the ideological contradictions in my belief; in essence, from that point on, I embarked on a critical evaluation and a massive upheaval of my belief systems. It was a challenging and confusing period of time, but I was open to the experience.
TT: There are successive generations of readers who discover Rand in their youth and then move away. What are the elements in Rand that you continue to revisit or discover over the years?
JJ: There are several reasons why young readers become zealots of Rand’s ideas and then move away as they grow into adulthood: Rand’s philosophy is tremendously complex and radical. Every principle in the system is internally related with every other, non-contradictorily. Therefore, there are two approaches to dealing with this philosophy: first, one honestly wrestles with the ideas of the philosophy and attempts to follow all its logically connected chain of thoughts to integrate them in one’s own mind, or second, one can take the shortcut approach and memorize the key fundamental principles, learn a few choice quotes from Ayn Rand and the novel’s heroes, and then claim to be an Objectivist.
Unfortunately, the young readers who have not yet achieved the intellectual capacity (due to their age or intellectual training) required for such massive integrations across philosophical levels tend to adopt the second–easier and shorthand–approach to express and feed their emotional excitement from having read the novels. The reason is that one can simply not read these emotionally stirring and philosophically challenging novels and remain passive or wait over years for intellectually maturity to set in: one is compelled to feed this immediate emotional experience by retaining key slogans or quotes from the books that express an emotional truth, then they seek out answers from wherever they can–even if it may be from Google searches or the Wikipedia.
Consequently, an intellectually pre-mature and overwhelmingly emotional introduction to the radical Objectivist premises of individualism, egoism, and self-interest often leads young people to hold an undigested, unintegrated, contortion of dogmatic beliefs–identical to religious beliefs held on faith, emotional need, repeated memorizations, and acceptance from authority. Eventually, such a person may literally “grow out” of their memorized philosophy and regard it as his foolish and juvenile indulgence in youth.
For me, Rand’s works continue to reveal whole new integrations, different perspectives, unique approaches, and various applications of a principle to reality. For example, my recent discovery was the integration of the Objectivist position on charity with the issue of cultural activism for change in society. While I won’t go into the details of this integration here, I will only say that the elegant nature of Objectivism’s non-contradictory system of principles can give amazing insights into any and all aspects of reality: since there is only one reality, it necessarily means that all of reality is a totality of interrelated facts and relationships. Therefore, it is simply an incredible experience to discover new relationships among seemingly unrelated existents in this one reality.
TT: Would you say Rand’s time has come in India?
JJ: I would say that Rand’s ideas have long been pervasive among Indians–both abroad and here in India. After the United States, India is cited as the nation with the most Ayn Rand fans. Further, Rand’s ideas have a particular relevance to the history of Indian politics and economics. One can actually argue that many from our parent’s and grandparent’s generation “Shrugged” in the intellectual sense in response to the repressive Socialist policies of Nehru and the License Raj. Free minds cannot function under oppressive regimes. That generation chose to withdraw their minds and the products of their minds from this society in search of free societies in the West; the government of India called it the “brain-drain”–Ayn Rand would have called it “Atlas Shrugged.”
Notice how with the opening of the Indian borders, the gradual acceptance of free markets, and the loosening of government regulations, not only is tremendous wealth flowing into this country but also the minds who create such wealth are choosing to return to make their fortunes here.
TT: In what way is Rand’s work, particularly Atlas Shrugged, relevant in India today?
JJ: [I think the answer to this question is the same as above.]
TT: What are the common misconceptions, if any, that you find people bear about Rand’s philosophy?
JJ: Rand’s philosophy is only about 25 to 30 years old. It is only now being studied seriously in the philosophy departments of 30 universities in the United States. As an intellectual movement, Objectivism–the philosophy of Ayn Rand–is only beginning; most movements take centuries to merge into the mainstream mindset. Until that happens, Objectivism is prime target for misrepresentations and outright distortions. Some examples of such are as follows: some people claim that Ayn Rand advocated that man is an island, that individualism means isolationism, that to be independent is to never ask the help of anyone else on principle.
Any substantial study into the actual ideas of Ayn Rand will reveal that such a notion of individualism and independence is contrary to Objectivism. Among other things, Objectivism champions laissez-faire capitalism. The crucial and practical tenet of capitalism is the division of labor society: that individual men engage in the mutual trade of products that they have gained an expertise in producing. A division of labor society–that is, a capitalist society–necessitates a society of individual men who need each other in the rational–non-sacrifical–sense of traders–traders who voluntarily exchange a value for another. In simplistic terms, this ensures a steady supply of products out in the market for exchange and a market of consumers eager to exchange their own products or values for that which they have not produced.
Therefore, it is contradictory to claim that Objectivism preaches isolationism or that independence means man is an island. Quite the opposite, it is only the rational man who can foster a benevolent society of individuals who engage in voluntary transactions that mutually benefit each other’s lives immensely!
TT: What is your personal favourite AR writing?
JJ: We The Living–for its incredibly moving portrayal of a rational life struggling to exist in an oppressive and irrational society. It is also the closest to an autobiography of Ayn Rand–in terms of its ideas, themes, and values, not in terms of the concretes.
Also, Taylor–one of my blog readers–visited Guatemala, where the Universidad Francisco Marroquín (UFM) unveiled the new Atlas high-relief sculpture in conjunction with anniversary celebration events. Taylor has some lovely close-up pictures of the sculpture and of the book release of the 50th Anniversary Edition of Atlas Shrugged. Thanks, Taylor! 🙂
Read my post on this Latin American university’s celebrations here.
The writer of the article e-mailed me to express her regret that her original piece was “severely truncated” for space issues. I can see that the intent of the article is very positive towards Ayn Rand. However, as with all such cases of articles on Ayn Rand’s philosophy written and edited by people who are not properly familiar with it, this article contains at least three major factual errors. It is highly unfortunate. I immediately e-mailed the writer and pointed out the inaccuracies, asking that she either revoke the article or rectify the errors quickly. I offered some suggestions on how those errors may be rectified. I’m not sure what will come out of it.
P.S. For copyright issues, I was told not to post the article on my site. So visit the link to read it in full.
UPDATE: I was just informed that prominent Indian actor Shammi Kapoor’s quote in the article (about AS’s thesis that money is the root of all evil) is verbatim. This means either the entire book went right above the man’s head, he has an incredibly weak memory of what he read, or Kapoor was just very sloppy in talking with the reporter. In any case, all of this merely underscores the case that he shouldn’t even be mentioned in the article.
I encourage all of you to send Letters to the Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org) pointing out this error and raising more points to get a discussion going. I’ll be writing one myself. Feel free to post your LTE’s here in the comments.
UPDATE: My entire interview with the reporter, which was excluded from the article for space reasons, is posted here.
Ari Armstrong writes a brief post on the success of Harry Potter books. He identifies the reason behind the book’s phenomenal success, and I agree.
The main reason that Rowling has had and will continue to have such profound cultural influence is that she is reaching millions of children when they are first exploring ideas and first thinking about moral choices. Harry and his best friends belong to the school house of Gryffindor, the house of the brave, and Rowling presents an inspiring image of moral courage.
But perhaps the best thing about Rowling’s books is that they have encouraged children to grapple with a complex story and difficult themes. The children who have graduated from those books will be prepared to read — and eager to find — other great and inspiring works of literature, such as Rand’s novels.
My own post on how ideas can be spread among little children offers the same suggestion: engage children at the sense-of-life level; offer them an emotional experience of the ideas you wish them to understand; present those ideas in the form of art–literary, dramatic, visual, and musical; over time, prod them to think critically, explore the reasons behind their emotional experiences, and encourage them to ask many “why” questions.
However, remember that all of these efforts require an adult mentor: therefore, the adult has to be convinced of these ideas–explicitly and in philosophical form–before they can choose to impart those ideas in emotional or dramatic form to the children in their care. Properly, children should never be converted to or cultivated into a philosophy; that works only with religion and doctrines. Children can be given an experience of possibilities, a moral lesson in dramatic form, a show of principle in practice, of how the world can be to a person who makes certain choices. Children can be taught how to think well and the consequences of thoughts, but should not be taught what to think. Only adults can be converted to a philosophy–insofar as the conversion is the result of intellectual persuasion and rational understanding.
There is some debate on the exact date of the Atlas Shrugged 50th Anniversary; some argue it’s on October 10. We in Mumbai celebrated the event on October 12, 2007. Given that I had only 10 days to prepare and organize the event from scratch–all by myself–I am extremely proud of what I managed to accomplish and of the experience I was able to give the 22 to 25 Ayn Rand fans who attended.
We watched the 1974 interview of Ayn Rand by James Day; during the interview, Rand was at her characteristic wit and precision–repeatedly insisting on Day to clarify his terms: “concern is such a loose term, what do you mean by it?” “I will begin with romantic love because I don’t know what other love you mean”, “the perpetrators of [abstract art] say that they don’t know what they’re doing, and neither do we, and I’m inclined to take their word for it.”
The discussion following the video wasn’t up to the expectations I had; at one point, someone floated a confused interpretation of acting on self-interest. I took pains to clarify that the sanction of your actions is not egoism but reason; egoism is the nature of your actions–and there’s a difference.
Thankfully, this open-floor discussion didn’t last very long. I decided to have everyone come up to the table and join me in cutting the anniversary cake: a chocolate truffle. While I cut the cake to a round of applause, filmmaker Mukarram Khan graciously offered me the first slice. From then on, everyone was free to mingle and congregate in groups to have their own private discussions.
There was a high school boy who said that Atlas Shrugged was required reading in his class. He said that after having read the novel, he couldn’t wait to get his hands on The Fountainhead, which also he read soon enough. This was a young man just discovering the philosophical premises underlying the sense of youth, aspiration, possibilities, and greatness. I felt a strong sense of concern for him, hoping that his discovery of such a radiantly youthful philosophy would not be dimmed by the fog over contemporary adulthood and the greyness of what passess today as “sophisticated nuance.” I expressed this concern to him; I told him that hopefully he would continue to educate himself on the philosophy and rely only on his best judgment of its premises.
Many who attended were eager to have Rand’s ideas spread quickly in the Indian culture. Concerns were raised that not enough is being done–that Objectivism has been around for 25 to 30 years now and there is very little to show in terms of cultural change. I pointed out that for a philosophy, Objectivism is relatively young and it is unreasonable to expect dramatic changes in such a short amount of time. Despite that, I do believe that the efforts of the Ayn Rand Institute is bearing visible results in the American intellectual scene. Speakers and writers from the ARI are gaining increasing prominence in the mainstream media: Dr. Yaron Brook has regular speaking engagements and television appearances. With the introduction of The Objective Standard (the inauguration of which I attended in Washington D.C.), Craig Biddle is actively engaging the political and economic thought-leaders of America with a rational alternative. ARI writers are constantly featured in guest columns and editorials of prestigious media channels across the nation. The ARI’s Objectivist Academic Center is preparing a new generation of Objectivist intellectuals to enter mainstream academia and produce serious Ayn Rand scholarship. The Anthem Foundation is funding much of these ventures into philosophy departments. Departments in 30 universities are already taking Ayn Rand’s ideas seriously and studying Objectivism as part of its curriculum. The Ayn Rand Society is doing its laudatory share of organizing symposia and conferences with Objectivist and non-Objectivist philosophers, which are often covered by the media.
With regard to India, I pointed out that ARI neither has the obligation nor the resources to make it feasible to focus on influencing the Indian cultural scene. If one wishes to do something about this country here, one of us must make the intiative and do it–not point at the ARI and complain that they are ignoring this country. Yes, they are, and they are fully within their moral right in doing so; it is immoral of us to complain.
India is entrenched in irrationalism and mysticism. While the efforts in the United States is focused on *rescuing* the nation from the rise of Christian fundamentalism and re-aligning the culture to its founding premises of individual rights, liberty, and the selfish pursuit of happiness, the efforts in India would have to be more than Herculean–it requires a total upheaval of everything currently cherished as a value, a custom, a tradition, or the way things ought to be. If this upheaval is not from the root, then only Objectivism stands to lose: in any compromise in the principles of this philosophy with the mixed-bag premises of the Indian culture, only Objectivism will be adulterated, distorted, mutilated, and eventually, rendered impotent.
So what can be done? First, remember that as Objectivists, we are not out to change the world–nor must we pursue that goal as our primary purpose: we are out to selfishly pursue our own happiness. If this pursuit involves having to agitate in our society for a change in order that we can gain our desired values without hindrance during our lifetimes, then yes, acting to change our society is rational and consistent with our pursuit of happiness. However, if the change required is too daunting, overwhelming, almost impossible–or if there are other avenues to achieving one’s values without having to agitate for societal change–then properly, an Objectivist should ignore the society and pursue those alternative means to achieving one’s happiness: often, this means leaving your society or your country–if such an option is more attainable than hoping for a change to materialize.
You are not called to be martyrs to Objectivism or to an irrational society. This is a rational philosophy for living life on this earth, presently; it is not a religion demanding that you sacrifice the life you have for the realization of some principles in your society in the future after your death! Your concern is not the generations who will come after you or the country of an unknown billion who currently live with you. Properly, your only moral concern should be whether you can achieve and protect your values presently so long as you are alive: if the task seems possible, then agitate for change in your current circumstances; if the task seems almost impossible, then work diligently to get yourself out of that society and let it head to its own ruin.
A society that is inherently corrupt and irrational will collapse from within. You are in no obligation to struggle to rescue it from the inevitable: that would be immoral on your part.
It is ironic that this most central message of Atlas Shrugged was rather overlooked at the celebration of its 50th Anniversary. There is one other major issue that was asked of me during the event, about which I had grave concerns. I tried my best to persuade him to change his views, but I am not sure if I was able to convince him thoroughly. That will be the topic of my next post.