Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Ayn Rand - a public philosopher?

Yesterday a grad student sent me a link to Ayn Rand's 1974 commencement address to West Point entitled, "What is Philosophy?"  This student, who I had suspected was a lot more conservative in his politics than he was willing to admit in class, wanted to know what I thought about Rand's take on philosophy.  As I read the piece, I was struck by a few observations regarding public philosophy and work of publicly-engaged scholars.

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.


Brian Burtt said...

Ayn Rand's writings exerted a strong attraction to a lot of the intelligent high-school student and undergraduates I hung around with. After surviving the perversity that high school presents to gifted students, seeming to stunt their talents and ambitions at every turn, libertarianism comes as a welcome and bracing tonic.

Now, being smart, they have also grwon beyond what they recognized as Rand's oversimplifications. But I think there's a lot to be learned from her style of communication. She wanted to communicate with *people*, not *academics*. Her writing is not loaded with jargon. And her writing is infused with the rhetorical passion of someone who felt the goal of writing was to save the world, not to secure tenure.

One of the big forces that shaped my own adolescent interest in philosophy was Bertrand Russell. In his more popular writings, his style shares some of these same virtues.


I suspect that, even among those interested in "public philosophy" or "public intellectuals," that most miss how much can be accomplished by writing and communicating to intelligent adolescents and young adults, those who are just realizing that there's a whole world of ideas beyond the often constrictive communities they have grown up in.

leonard waks said...

This is a very thought provoking essay. Thanks Kathleen.

Brian's comment is very thoughtful. Like him, I was an avid reader and seeker in high school, and much that I read then (Alan Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, John Steinbeck) shaped my overall philosophic sensibility as much as (about two years later) Kant and Mill.

Brian's reference to Russell is also relevant. I remember Peter Ungar at 22 saying that while he might aspire to being as good a professional philosopher as Russell, he could never aspire to being as good a person. He had read Russells popular books in high school. 44 years later Peter is making a valiant effort at following in Russell's popular philosophy shoes, with "Living High and Letting Die". And he appears to be influencing the ethical practices of some people (judging by an article last year in The New Yorker).

Michael M said...

" As Rand states, 'Philosophy studies the fundamental nature of existence, of man, and of man's relationship to existence.' "

"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. "

The basic unit of the subject of philosophy is the human being. The public is a heterogeneous group of humans, and as such, does not qualify as a fundamental unit of man for the philosophical purposes of defining man's nature. Hence, there is no such thing as a public philosophical problem.

And what is the epistemological status of your required commitment to questions over answers? What kind of truth is this supposed to be. Truth is by definition a set of fixed answers. If your A can be A and B and C, etc. all at the same time in the same way and in the same context, you have rejected the axiomatic concept of identity, a cornerstone of Rand's entire philosophy. Consequently, there is no way you could ever agree with her on anything she ever wrote or said without contradicting yourself.

Kathleen Knight-Abowitz said...

I respectfully disagree that man/human is something like a "fundamental unit" for philosophical thinking.

To my mind, a public philosophical problem is an unanswered question regarding meaning, value, or purpose that is consciously shared by a group of people.

My commitment to questions is not to offer a theory of truth; it is to suggest that philosophical thinking resists the easy certainty of pat answers and unquestioned truths, irrespective of shifting contexts.

Joe said...

Thank you for your RESPECTFUL post disagreeing with Ayn Rand. Too many of her critics deem it enough to name call her, despite her many salient ideas.

The point of Miss Rand's talk is that everyone needs a philosophy whether they know it or not.

For example your statement that there are no pat answers IS a pat answer. Your admonition to question more than conclude IS a conclusion. It rests on a certain epistemology and ethics.

And on what basis do you call Miss Rand's lauding the military "foolish?" And what conclusive ethics impels you to criticize the American effort in Vietnam?

These too are conclusions.

All of your points rest on philosophical conclusions. All of our points do too. This is the essence of the West Point talk.

Ernie Welcker said...

Coming from the John Dewey society page, I'm not surprised at this hatchet job. Ayn Rand made a much stronger case on the influence of John Dewey in regard to the sorry state of education in public schools. Plus I believe Ms. Rands uncompromising stance on the concept of 'reason' is too rigorous for weak minds to fully comprehend.

Anonymous said...

It was not a commencement address. She was speaking to the senior class. They wouldn't have graduated until June.