Ayn Rand and Objectivism: An Overview

What follows is a revised version of the entry on Ayn Rand by Gregory Salmieri and Allan Gotthelf in the Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers (Thoemmes Continuum, 2005). It is reproduced in this form with the permission of the authors and publisher.

Ayn Rand was born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum on 2 February 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia, to middle-class, cultured, largely non-observant Jewish parents. At age 16 she entered Petrograd University, graduating three years later, in 1924; history was her major subject and philosophy her special interest. She subsequently studied for a year at the State Technicum for Screen Arts. In early 1926 she emigrated to the United States, and eventually took up residence in Hollywood, where she changed her name to Ayn Rand. She worked initially as a screen writer for the Cecil B. DeMille studios. Her first play, Night of January 16th, was produced on Broadway in 1935, and the first of her four novels, We the Living, was published in 1936. Anthem followed in 1938, The Fountainhead in 1943, and Atlas Shrugged, her magnum opus, in 1957.

In 1951, Rand moved permanently to New York City. After the publication of Atlas Shrugged, she turned to nonfiction, elaborating on the philosophy expounded in the novels and applying it to current cultural and political issues. She lectured widely at universities and colleges and to private groups throughout the U.S., and wrote numerous essays, many published in periodicals she edited or co-edited: The Objectivist Newsletter (1962–65), The Objectivist (1966–71), and The Ayn Rand Letter (1971–76). The philosophical speeches from her novels, and her philosophic essays and lectures, became the basis for a series of seven books collections, starting in 1961. Rand died on 6 March 1982 in New York City.

Original manuscripts of Rand’s novels are in the Library of Congress. Most of her surviving papers and documents are held in the Ayn Rand Archives, a department of the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, California. Rand’s books have sold over twenty million copies; readers often speak of her novels as having changed their lives. A growing number of academic philosophers are taking an interest in her work.

In an afterword to Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand said: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” We start from this essentialized statement, then work back to the fundamentals of her entire philosophic system, then forward to an integrated overview of the whole.

Rand’s concept of man as a heroic being – her vision of human beings as able to achieve great things, and of the universe as open to their efforts – is a hallmark of her thought, and certainly a significant part of her widespread appeal. Happiness she holds to be the emotional state that results from the achievement of objective values. Such values and the means to them can only be identified by reason, and Rand holds that they cannot be achieved without such virtues as independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride.

Rand’s virtue-focused rational egoism differs from traditional eudaimonism in that Rand regards ethics as an exact science. Rather than deriving her virtues from a vaguely defined human function, she takes “Man’s Life” – i.e. that which is required for the survival of a rational animal across its lifespan – as her standard of value. This accounts for the nobility she ascribes to production – “the application of reason to the problem of survival” (1966, p. 9). For Rand, reason is man’s means of survival, and even the most theoretical and spiritual functions – science, philosophy, art, love, and reverence for the human potential, among others – are for the sake of life-sustaining action. This, for her, does not demean the spiritual by “bringing it down” to the level of the material; rather, it elevates the material and grounds the spiritual.

The foundation of Rand’s philosophy is a thesis which has often been called “metaphysical realism,” and which she callsthe primacy of existence. It states that “reality, the external world, exists independent of man’s consciousness…this means that A is A, that facts are facts, that things are what they are – and the task of man’s consciousness is to perceive reality not to create or invent it.” Rand argues that this metaphysics is axiomatic – that it is contained in all knowledge and so presupposed in any attempt to deny it.

Following Aristotle, Rand views the world as made up of individual entities, and understands causality as the relationship between an entity and the actions necessitated by its nature. Choice is a type of causality. It is the nature of reason, our distinctive form of consciousness, to be volitional; its operation is up to us.

Rand draws a sharp distinction between that which is caused by human choice – “the man-made,” and that which is not – “the metaphysically given.” Metaphysically given facts cannot be judged and man-made phenomena must be. Epistemology and ethics are concerned with providing standards for the man-made in their respective realms, viz. knowledge and action.

Rand’s epistemology rests on a distinction between the automatic, metaphysically given knowledge of sense-perception, and the volitional, man-made, products of reason. Perception is a form of awareness that results inexorably from a causal interaction of the perceiver with his environment. As such, it cannot be judged and serves as an epistemological given on which conceptual knowledge will be built. Epistemology for Rand is a normative discipline describing how to build conceptual knowledge on perceptual. The basic principle of her epistemology is that “the rules of cognition must be derived from the nature of existence and the nature, the identity, of [man’s] cognitive faculty.” (ITOE, 1990, p. 82)

Rand defines reason as “the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses” (VOS hb edn. 1965, p. 13). With our senses we perceive entities (including their attributes). Reason identifies these existents by interrelating them. For example, Newtonian physics interrelates the perceived motions of falling apples and wandering planets. To grasp such far-flung connections we need to deal with a vast quantity of information. However, Rand observes, we are only able to hold a limited number of discrete items in mind at once. This limitation creates a need for “unit economy,” which is fulfilled by concepts, the basic units of thought.

A concept, Rand holds, is a man-made integration of similar existents in the form of a single mental entity – a unitary awareness of indefinitely many existents of the same kind. The concept “man,” for example, enables us to think and learn about all men (past, present and future) at once; and to call someone a man is to bring the whole of our knowledge about men (medical, psychological, philosophical, etc.) to bear on him.

Rand presents her theory of concept formation in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE), published first as a multi-part series in The Objectivist in 1966–67, and then as a monograph in 1967. Properly formed concepts unit-economize by integrating similar existents. Rand analyses similarity as a matter of variation in degree or measurement along a quantitative axis. Two items are similar, relative to a third, when their differences in measurement are comparatively insignificant. We form concepts by isolating a group of similar existents (or “units”) by differentiating them from foils, and then integrating the units by omitting their particular measurements. In omitting these measurements we do not turn our attention away from their differences to some underlying sameness. Rather, we interrelate the units (and a potential infinity of other units) by projecting a range along the quantitative axis. The integration is retained by means of a word, and the units’ differentiation from all other existents is maintained by a definition in traditional genus-differentia form.

Our first concepts are formed by integrating perceived entities or their attributes. These concepts then form the basis for wider integrations and more precise differentiations, resulting in a complex conceptual hierarchy. In ITOE, Rand lays out the process of concept formation in detail, and explains how it applies to various sorts of concepts including concepts of entities, actions, attributes, materials, conscious phenomena and philosophical axioms. She describes the methods of proper definition and discusses when it is valid to form a new concept. A 1979 reprinting of ITOE includes an essay by Leonard Peikoff, written from the standpoint of Rand’s theory of concepts, that attacks the analytic-synthetic dichotomy. An expanded second edition, published in 1990, includes extensive excerpts from epistemology workshops Rand gave during 1969–71 for a group of philosophers and graduate students.

Rand argues that traditional theories of concepts either reify concepts (realism), or else make concepts arbitrary (conceptualism and nominalism). On her view, concepts are man-made, but they are made in order to apprehend reality, and so must be formed in the specific manner demanded by the nature of consciousness and of its objects. When so formed, concepts are neither intrinsic features of reality nor subjective creations of consciousness. They are objective “products of a cognitive method of classification whose processes must be performed by man, but whose content is dictated by reality.” (1990, p. 54)

The very integration of a concept’s units depends on knowledge of the contrasting foils. And the similarities on which abstract concepts are based can only be grasped on the basis of a chain of prior concepts (terminating with ones formed directly from perception). Because of these facts, concepts are only meaningful in the context of a vast hierarchical system. If we don’t define our concepts properly, there is a danger of “stealing” concepts – of using them in disregard for their place in the hierarchy, rendering them cognitively meaningless.

Rand’s ethics is founded on an argument that the concept “value” depends on the concept “life” and so is only meaningful in the context of an organism pursuing its life as its ultimate value. Animals automatically desire what they need to survive, but human desires are based on volitional thinking. So, each person must adopt his life as his ultimate value, and then choose to discover and enact the means necessary to achieve it. Someone who does not value his life can have no values at all, and so  ethics has no guidance to offer him.

Because of the quantity of information involved, we cannot assess the survival impact of actions considered as isolated particulars. We need to proceed conceptually, discovering the broad categories of values man’s survival requires, and what virtues are necessary to achieve them. We need a code of values with “man’s life” as its standard.

Rand identifies three cardinal values: Reason, Purpose, and Self-esteem, with the corresponding virtues of Rationality, Productiveness, and Pride. Reason is our means of survival. Rationality is the acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge and guide to action. Rationality requires a person to do his own thinking (independence) and stay true to it inaction (integrity). It requires honesty – the refusal to fake reality – because the unreal does not exist and can be of no value. It requires justice – the moral evaluation of others – because rational, productive people are good for us, while irrational parasites are worthless or dangerous.

Survival requires an all-encompassing purposefulness, with all of one’s other purposes integrated to a central productive purpose. Productiveness is the application of reason to the creation of the products and services necessary for survival. To define and achieve rational purposes, a person must be certain of his competence and worth – he must achieve self-esteem. This requires the virtue of pride – a commitment to living up to the highest rational standards. Thus Rand calls pride “moral ambitiousness.” It is, in effect, productiveness applied to one’s character: “as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul” (1957, p. 1020).

The knowledge one man discovers and the goods or services he produces can be of great benefit to another, and the character a man cultivates in himself can make him of profound spiritual value as a friend or romantic partner. Rational men, says Rand, approach one another as traders, offering values they have created in exchange for the values they seek, each appealing to the rationality and self-interest of the other. (What one offers to a friend or romantic partner is one’s own character and one’s admiration or love for his.) By contrast, parasites, who seek or seize the unearned, give the men from whom they might have benefited every reason to turn away from them or to turn against them. Parasitism is never in one’s interest. When men recognize this and formulate their goals accordingly, their interests do not conflict and all the benefits of social existence are possible.

The values that each individual seeks from social existence are valuable only as means to his own life, and these values exist only because someone else created them to further his life. Society must therefore be organized so as to leave each man free to create and enjoy the values his life requires. This requires the identification of rights—“moral principle[s] defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.” (VOS hb edn.1965, p. 124). The basic right is the right to life—i.e., the right “to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life.” The right to life entails rights to liberty (the freedom to act on the basis of one’s own reasoning) and property (the freedom to exclusive use and disposal of the values one has produced). The only means by which one man (or group of men) can deprive another of his life, liberty, or property is physical force; the initiation of such force must therefore be prohibited. The function of government is to protect rights by enforcing this prohibition. Any other governmental action would constitute an initiation of force, from which it follows that the only moral political system is laissez-faire capitalism. Rand’s politics is thus inseparable from her ethics.

Rand criticizes prior ethicists for conceiving of values as either intrinsic (as in Plato, Moore, and religious traditions) or as subjective (hedonism, utilitarianism, Nietzsche, pragmatism, etc.). On her view values are objective. Values (like concepts) are formed by a consciousness in accordance with the facts of reality. To be a value something must be identified by an agent as furthering his life. The identification is man-made, as is the choice to live that gives it meaning. But the relationship between the value and the agent’s life is metaphysically given, as is the need to identify this relationship conceptually.

Rand thus conceives of objectivity as the relationship between a volitional consciousness and mind-independent reality when that consciousness adheres to the methods required by its nature and the nature of its objects if it is to know, and live in, reality. This new conception of objectivity shapes not only her view of concepts and values, but through them her entire epistemology and ethics, and the whole of her philosophic system. For this reason she called the system Objectivism.