It was interesting to think about Rand delivering this as a commencement address in 1974 to West Point cadets. When I think of how much fluff passes today for these kind of speeches, I was pretty impressed with the depth and raw ambition of the address. To take on the question, "What is Philosophy" with a bunch of restless college grads and their families today would require real courage, which I surmise Rand did not lack. In today's sound-byte age, Rand's delivery of a substantive and challenging talk at a graduation ceremony evoked some nostalgia in me.
For those of you who are on the edge of your seats regarding the title question, "What is Philosophy?" let me put you at ease: it's the Queen of the Sciences, the foundation of everything. As Rand states, "Philosophy studies the fundamental nature of existence, of man, and of man's relationship to existence." She tutors the cadets on the branches of philosophy, starting with epistemology, moving to ethics, politics, and aesthetics. She makes a great case, I think, for why people should be interested in the abstract ideas of philosophy -- why abstractions are the stuff of thinking itself. It's a passage I may quote to my philosophy of education classes in the future.
Her argument, in the talk, is that these cadets need not just philosophy but "a philosophic system" so that their principles and actions in life can be integrated, coherent, conscious, rational, and disciplined. And guess which philosophic system she proceeds to sell? Rand's Objectivism has been at the center of her novels for many years; I remember twenty-two years ago when I read Atlas Shrugged between my junior and senior years of college, and I still see her titles in the hands of many students.
There is much to disagree with, for me, in Rand's philosophical system, but that is not really the point of this post. Rather, I'm more interested in the question: what kind of public philosopher was Rand? While Rand was not a philosopher but a novelist by profession, her books, speeches and letters seek to promote one philosophical system; the non-profit Ayn Rand Institute carries the mission on from Irvine, California. Rand did not practice philosophy, but sold a philosophy through her books, speeches, and influence. She was enormously successful in this endeavor, but it's important to distinguish between practicing philosophy in an engaged, public way, and selling a philosophy to the public.
Practicing philosophy certainly includes much of the stuff that we find in Rand's talk -- the reading, writing, and argumentation in the traditions of epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics, among others. Yet I believe that philosophy that is engaged with public problems and contexts requires that we remain committed to the questions rather than one fixed set of answers. It also requires that we stay engaged with the communities and multiple publics of our material contexts, bringing the practices of philosophy to these different arenas in the service of shared interests and common problems.
In 1974, when Rand was delivering this address, the U.S. military was in the midst of pulling out of Vietnam, facing one of its first and worst military defeats in modern history. To the cadets of West Point, Rand sought to uplift those soldiers that were facing sharp criticism in American political life. "You are attacked, not for any errors or flaws, but for your virtues. You are denounced, not for any weaknesses, but for your strength and your competence. You are penalized for being protectors of the United States." She continues:
Today's mawkish concern with and compassion for the feeble, the flawed, the suffering, the guilty, is a cover for the profoundly Kantian hatred of the innocent, the strong, the able, the successful, the virtuous, the confident, the happy. A philosophy out to destroy man's mind is necessarily a philosophy of hatred for man, for man's life, and for every human value. Hatred of the good for being the good, is the hallmark of the twentieth century. This is the enemy you are facing.
Rand offers the West Point cadets the same larger-than-life heroism that characterized all of her protagonists. As a person whose entire existence was defined by the 1917 Russian Revolution, Rand's hatred of communism was palpable and defined her life's philosophy and work. But to offer West Point graduates, the U.S. military leaders of our present generation, leaders of the most powerful military machine on earth, a greater sense of their own righteousness, virtue, and power seems terribly foolish.
A military machine like the one that stumbled and fell in Vietnam certainly did not need the smug certainty and heroism of Rand's individualist heroes, but the reflective inquiry practices of the philosophical tradition. "What is Philosophy?" mistakes a philosophical system for the practice of philosophy, called a practice because of how we must keep engaging its questions, problems, and contexts as new circumstances and problems require. Rand is a fascinating public intellectual and novelist, and an ambitious commencement speaker, but in the end, her answer to "What is Philosophy" mischaracterizes what philosophy's true gifts can be.