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Academic Interpretations of Ayn Rand

Academic Interpretations of Ayn Rand

10 Mins
January 25, 2012

REVIEW: The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies . Volume 1, Number 1. Fall 1999.

November, 1999 -- Objectivists have long hoped to see a high-quality academic journal focusing on Objectivism. Last month's publication of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, "a nonpartisan journal devoted to the study of Ayn Rand and her times," signals a promising step in that direction. The Journal is edited by R.W. Bradford (editor and publisher of Liberty magazine), Stephen Cox (professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego), and Chris Matthew Sciabarra (visiting scholar in the Department of Politics at New York University). They declare JOARS to be a "fully refereed" and "nonpartisan" periodical that "aims to foster dialogue through a respectful exchange of ideas."

By design, the editors have cast a wide net, looking to publish literary studies of Rand's fiction, historical studies of her life and thought, and philosophical essays on Objectivism. The results are evident in the Journal's first issue, which features two essays on the historical context of Rand's thought, three treatments of philosophical issues, and one piece of literary criticism. Because the Journal is not organized according to a unifying theme, a reviewer must approach it topic by topic. We begin with the historical studies.


Editor Chris Matthew Sciabarra opens his Journal with "The Rand Transcript" (1-26). This discursive essay takes the reader on a tour of Rand's transcript from the University of Leningrad, 1921-24. Then Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, Rand took her degree in three years in the "Department of Social Pedagogy ... which had united the existing schools of history, philology, and law" (1). Sciabarra discusses what is known of the content of each of Rand's courses and speculates as to the likely identity and interests of her instructors. He also brings in new information about Rand's girlhood social circle and, in particular, her connection to the sisters of Vladimir Nabokov.

What did Rand study? Introductory logic, psychology, and biology, as well as a great deal of European history, including the history of thought. Sciabarra notes that, although Rand took no literature classes, "literary works were integrated into her history and philosophy studies" (10). Rand also attended courses infused with the state ideology of Marxism-Leninism, such as "Political Economy" and "Methodology of the Social Sciences." Sciabarra comments that "it was this kind of 'dialectical materialism' that Rand rejected unequivocally" (16).

In Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Sciabarra advanced the hypothesis that Rand's background in "Silver Age" Russian philosophy had stamped her into the mold of a "dialectical" thinker. This claim was controversial on two grounds. The first difficulty lay in Sciabarra's attempt to explain "dialectics" as a methodology opposed to "dualism," terms of dubious use for analyzing intellectual history. This claim, though repeated, receives no further support in "The Rand Transcript." The second point of controversy was Sciabarra's transformation of speculations about Rand's intellectual influences into certainties over the course of his book, without providing additional evidence. This practice received a rebuke from reviewer James Lennox in the pages of IOS Journal ( Nov. 1995: 1, 6-9 ). In Rand's transcript, Sciabarra uncovers new facts that give far greater warrant to his historical hypothesis.

Although he cannot positively identify Rand's professors, owing to the illegibility of their signatures on her transcript, Sciabarra draws on other recent studies of the University of Leningrad in the 1920s to reconstruct her intellectual milieu. To this reviewer's mind, Sciabarra successfully exploits that line of research and bolsters his key claim of a link between Russian philosopher N.O. Lossky, his followers, and the young Rand. One need not sign on with Sciabarra's theory of the dialectic to find it plausible that Rand was influenced by philosophy instructors who were committed to "a system ... developing interconnections among metaphysics, logic, philosophical psychology, epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, and philosophy of religion"; and by thinkers "who saw the world in terms of universal interconnections" and "as an instrument of action" (9). These characteristics do broadly characterize Rand's thought in its systematicity and sweep of vision, and they amount to a very different conception of the aims and means of philosophy from that of twentieth-century Analytic philosophy and the British Empiricist tradition out of which it emerged.


Where Sciabarra addresses Rand's early years, Robert Campbell, professor of psychology at Clemson University and a past IOS summer seminar speaker, looks at her later thought in "Ayn Rand and the Cognitive Revolution in Psychology" (107-34). Campbell's central point is that developments in psychology and related fields during the 1950s and 1960s influenced the direction of Rand's epistemology, "despite her limited knowledge of psychology, her marked distrust of the discipline, and her declaration that philosophy in no way depends on psychological theories or findings."

Campbell writes that "the cognitive revolution massively altered the direction of American academic psychology" by ushering in a new appreciation for the mind as a subject of study. He observes that "from 1930 to 1950, the American psychology of perception and learning had been solidly under behavioristic dominion," exemplified by the work of B.F. Skinner, which denied the existence of any phenomenon not amenable to direct, physical observation (107). However, by the 1960s behaviorism was in retreat owing to new developments in such fields as "information theory, linguistics, computer science, and human factors research (the study of human beings' interactions with complex machinery ...)" (108). The cognitive revolution revived interest in the mind as a subject of direct inquiry, albeit at the price of modeling the mind as a computational device while reviving the idea of innate knowledge. The point man of the attack on behaviorism, Campbell argues, was linguist Noam Chomsky. "While Rand interpreted [Skinner's 1971] Beyond Freedom and Dignity as proof that the world was headed toward hell in a handbasket, Chomsky knew full well that ... [Skinner] was losing the war of ideas" (117).

Rand's contact with the "cognitive revolution" flowed from her discussions with then-psychology student Nathaniel Branden and from what she picked up in the popular press. For example, in the seventh chapter of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand discusses an experiment on the cognitive capacity of crows, one that she learned of from Branden. This experiment, which is the origin of the phrase "crow epistemology" in the Objectivist oral tradition, was part of an extensive research program in the 1950s and 1960s to identify the capacity of human consciousness to hold information. Rand also expressed interest in the sensory deprivation experiments of Jerome Bruner, "a cognitive psychologist who was an active participant in several phases of the Cognitive Revolution," Campbell notes. In her 1966 talk "Our Cultural Value Deprivation," Rand employed Bruner's sensory deprivation experiments as metaphors for the effects of pop nihilism. But it is symptomatic of the unfocused nature of this essay that Campbell suddenly digresses at this point to deny that pop culture has been universally nihilistic, offering as prima facie evidence a detailed list of "complex, challenging, and emotionally fulfilling" jazz works from the years between 1957 and 1966. Did no referee point out that Campbell's topic is not Rand's knowledge of contemporary music or her aesthetic judgment of it?

Turning to Rand's differences from the psychologists of the "Cognitive Revolution," Campbell writes that she and Branden rejected the common model of the mind as a computational device, except in a sense that "went against the grain": they made the computer a metaphor, not for the conscious exercise of reason, but for emotion and the subconscious (118).

Rand was somewhat in advance of her contemporaries in psychology in emphasizing developmental issues, such as how a child forms concepts. And, Campbell says, Rand went "beyond virtually all" psychologists, who "even today ... are burdened by mistaken notions of what it means to be scientific: most cling to grossly inadequate presentations of psychological measurement, and few dare to question determinism" (120). In particular, Rand recognized that to grasp internal mental phenomena "measurement requires an appropriate standard" (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 38), a standard based on introspective evidence. Not least, while "psychologists suppose science must be deterministic" (122), Rand staunchly refused to ignore the fact of free will in her account of the mind.

In his conclusion, Campbell changes course to address a basic issue in philosophy: its relation to the specialized sciences. "Rand," he notes, " insisted that philosophy in no way depends on the theories or findings of psychology" (124). Campbell muses that Rand's antipathy toward psychology may have arisen because she equated it with the study of madness and he takes issue with her fundamental claim, arguing that "epistemology [cannot] be successfully walled off from the relevant subdisciplines within psychology" (126).

No doubt an objective philosophy will find confirmation in the sciences, but does epistemology-or philosophy itself-depend on the findings of science? According to Campbell, the influence of the cognitive revolution on Rand's thought shows that it does. Perhaps the resolution of this debate lies in recognizing that when philosophy addresses the widest context, as it does in identifying axioms of knowledge or the fact of free will, then it does and must precede science in a logical sense. But developmentally, science and philosophy grow together. To the extent that philosophy addresses the particulars of human nature, it stands to be enriched and refined by advances in the human sciences.


The connection between philosophy and the broader context of human knowledge is a theme that anchors "Liberty and Nature: The Missing Link" (135-66), an extensive critique by philosophical consultant Gregory Johnson. Rand held that political rights to liberty derive from a theory of value based in the nature of human life. Johnson claims that Rand's actual argument for this connection rests on a "reductionist and excessively intellectual account of human nature." His complaint is that Rand focuses on rationality at the expense of other, important human attributes. An ethical/political project truly rooted in human nature, Johnson argues, would start by "cataloguing in detail all the conditions of human life and flourishing" and would produce "a comprehensive art of living, much like ancient Greek ethics" (152). Thus, a satisfactory ethics must be "'holistic' or 'ecological'" (153), a code of principles at all levels that is integrated with the full context of knowledge in the sciences and humanities.

This reviewer is at work on a new systematic treatment of Objectivism and sympathizes with the spirit of these recommendations. To say that man is the rational animal is not to say that man is not physical, is not sexual, and is not social. Rather, our rationality is our means of survival and the characteristic that explains our most distinctive needs, such as those for love and art. Further, an objective philosophy must be consonant with our broader context of knowledge. However, Johnson seems to demand that every ethical treatise be an encyclopedia, and this is absurd.

The larger part of Johnson's critique of Rand, however, addresses a much narrower issue. After a competent summary of Rand's argument for life as the standard of value and of the intrinsic-objective-subjective distinction, he criticizes Rand's view that human values are a species of objective knowledge. He notes her statement in "What is Capitalism?" that "[the good is] an evaluation of the facts of reality by man's consciousness according to a rational standard of value," that is, man's life (Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, 22). "The heart of my critique," Johnson responds, "is ... that something can be of value to a particular person, regardless of whether he evaluated it as such." Suppose you are blindsided by a car while crossing the street: the injury is harmful even if you don't recognize it when it happens.

This raises an interesting question about ethics, one that Johnson neglects to pursue in his eagerness to criticize Rand and sympathetic philosophers Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen. It also presents us with an important issue of methodology.

The interesting question is how one resolves what we might call the first-person and third-person perspectives on values. Acting for values is impossible without identifying them firsthand; even non-conscious organisms rely on organs of detection and selection. Furthermore, it is only from the first-person perspective that one is aware of many facts that are relevant to an evaluation, such as one's tastes, abilities, purposes, and so on. On the other hand, as Ayn Rand noted, "the good is ... determined by the nature of reality" (CUI, 23). Thus, one can judge a situation from a third-person perspective, if one has enough information. Especially blatant threats to life -such as being run over by a car- seem easy enough to evaluate from the outside, although even here there might be questions: Could one know from the outside whether or not a person wishes to live? Johnson uses his position to reject the idea that individual rights derive from man's need to use his mind freely if he is to pursue values. His criticisms are well posed and suggest the need for a fresh Objectivist analysis of rights.

A less polemical look at the issues might have constituted such an analysis. However, the method Johnson brings to reading Rand is fundamentally shaped by the prevailing academic tendency to read philosophy narrowly and to equate critique with analysis. Because Rand never wrote philosophy in terms of detailed treatises, scholars reading her essays need to relate her phrases or arguments to her system as a whole -and imagine how that system might have been further articulated. Johnson goes further in this direction than most critics and even recognizes that "a merely negative critique is ... bound to remain unsatisfying if no concrete alternative is in the offing." However, his effort at pointing out an alternative consists principally in averring that "Hegel's Philosophy of Right is a promising model" (161) in view of its comprehensive character. This comment is itself unsatisfying. Hegel would surely stand up poorly to Johnson's style of criticism, to say nothing of Johnson's demand for an ethics that is objective as well as comprehensive.


The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies is not, primarily, a venue for the expansion of Objectivism. However, one essay in particular represents a substantial attempt to extend Objectivism into a neglected area. This is Roger Bissell's "Music and Perceptual Cognition" (59-86).

Ayn Rand treated music sketchily in her writings on aesthetics, seeing it as an art form that worked on the senses to cause certain emotional responses in listeners. Bissell, a musician and psychology graduate student, explores the relationship between hearing as a mode of perception and music as an art form. Bissell argues that "even for the problematic case of music, Rand got it right" (59) and that Rand's aesthetics, as outlined in her essay "Art and Cognition" (in The Romantic Manifesto, 45-79), applies quite directly to music. The challenge is how music can be a "re-creation of reality" (RM, 45). It is obvious how visual arts such as sculpture or painting re-create reality. But if we think of perceiving musical notes as an awareness of isolated sense data, detached from objects and restricted in time, then while such sounds may be shaped or designed, it is unclear how they can convey a world.

Bissell's first step is to clear up a confusion about the nature of musical tones. Rand draws on Hermann von Helmholtz when she writes that "musical tones are not percepts but pure sensations" (RM, 59). Bissell points out that a "sensation" is not to Helmholtz what it is to Rand. Rand, following William James, uses that term to refer to the isolated data -for example, the effect of a photon on the eye or air vibration on the eardrum- that the senses automatically integrate into percepts. Despite characterizing musical tones as "sensations," Helmholtz nonetheless describes tones much as Rand describes percepts.

More generally, Bissell argues that we perceive musical tones as automatically integrated wholes, and that this is what allows us to listen to a symphony. We use hearing, he says, much as we use sight: to be aware of events around us, such as a footfall or a door closing. We can perceive as wholes musical tones that incorporate several different sounds as overtones. We can perceive harmony among different tones, and melody as the development of a tone. Bissell goes on to analyze music in terms of spatial characteristics, endeavoring to explain how we regard some notes as "high" and some as "low." He argues, rather murkily, that our spatial awareness of music makes it possible for music to present an emotion-like "sense of life."

Bissell treats several key topics summarily, citing eight other articles by himself in a manner that more suggests a circular web of references than a full theoretical edifice. Nevertheless, his essay does shed light on the place of music in the Objectivist aesthetics and on hearing in the Objectivist theory of perception. In that sense it constitutes a noteworthy step forward.


A final philosophical essay is "Rand, Anarchy, and Taxes" (87-106) by Sul Ross State University economist and past summer seminar faculty member Larry Sechrest. Sechrest discusses the classic issue of financing a free government. He considers Ayn Rand's brief writings on this issue and meditates on recent pro-taxation arguments by law professor and former IOS trustee Murray Franck. While unwilling to argue in favor of anarchism, Sechrest offers various reasons to doubt that government could be financed effectively through a lottery or through seals on contracts-methods that Rand suggests in her essay "Government Financing in a Free Society" ( The Virtue of Selfishness , 116-20).

Some of Sechrest's criticisms are old hat: For example, in a free market the government could not monopolize gambling as it does in many states today and therefore could not earn high returns on a lottery. Others are bizarre: He speculates about the effects of disconnecting police service from payment, but does not integrate his speculation with the fact that police service is offered at zero marginal cost almost everywhere in the world. When was the last time you paid a police service bill? Taxation and anarchism are familiar ground to anyone who has participated in Objectivist e-mail discussions or late-night bull sessions. Sechrest might have treated some of the financing schemes that have cropped up in those venues, or proffered alternatives of his own devising. Instead, he turns to Murray Franck's position that rights are meaningless without government to enforce them and so taxation is to some extent justified. Against Franck, Sechrest marshals the economic truism that any tax distorts the free behavior that would otherwise occur in the marketplace. But, because this criticism assumes that free behavior could occur in the absence of government, it simply begs the question.

The topic of anarchism and governance in the Objectivist politics is one desperately in need of a fresh discussion and an integrating perspective. Sechrest seems to recognize the facts that would lead one to look beyond the sterile "anarchy" vs. "minarchy" debate. For instance, he notes that government "is not a monolithic whole" (91) and points out that "no one has as yet uncovered a clear-cut historical example of a minarchy whose functions remained strictly limited to rights-protection ... or of a society ... that was entirely devoid of government and yet survived" (101). But he does not use these facts to suggest fresh theoretical insights, and his criticisms of Rand and Franck do not amount to a well-developed argument.


In addition to essays on history and philosophy, the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies also presents itself as a venue for literary scholarship on Rand. In this first issue, Journal editor Stephen Cox offers an essay of his own in this category: "Outsides and Insides: Reimagin-ing American Capitalism" (27-58).

"Reimagining" is a term characteristic of postmodernist literary criticism, but here Cox's usage is entirely apt. One of the striking characteristics of Ayn Rand's fiction is the extent to which she takes figures such as a kindly architectural critic (Ellsworth Toohey) or a cold business executive (Dagny Taggart) and recasts their moral and political significance. Cox reflects on Rand as "the most pronounced outsider of all" (31), because of her Russian background and her individualist, pro-reason views; and he explores how she inverted many standard American depictions of morality and business.

For instance, in The Fountainhead "Rand inverts the cliché of capitalist conformity" and "reimagines capitalism as a set of ideas and practices best understood by eccentric people." Capitalism is not best represented by insiders like Peter Keating, but by outsiders like Howard Roark "who care nothing whatever about ... what is oxymoronically called 'corporate culture'" (33). The contrast of an arbitrary outside with an utilitarian inside is a theme Cox develops in terms of Rand's admiration of sound engineering and contempt for form without function.

Where The Fountainhead focuses "more on . . . psychology than . . . economics" (43), Atlas Shrugged represents an "elaborately economic reimagination of America." In this novel, Cox sees the putative "insiders" of business contrasted with the notional "outsiders" of academia and government. From this, Rand develops "a more unsettling argument" as the businessmen discover their own alienation from the community of the politically influential, while the "spiritual outsiders of the American economy"-those who do not support it by their work and don't understand it in their theories-"... become the literal insiders" (46). Of course, Atlas ends with the heroes "going back to the world" from Galt's Gulch (Atlas Shrugged, 1168), and "the secret insiders" of the economy "reclaim the great outside" (53). Pursuing such themes, Cox uses the contrast of outsiders and insiders to give us a thoughtful and interesting survey of Rand's re-creation of America in light of her pro-capitalist values.


Objectivists have long hoped to see Rand's work and philosophy discussed in the mainstream, more or less on their own terms. One of the difficulties in achieving this goal has been that scholars approach Rand without being familiar with her method or thought. This has led, at times, to critiques of Rand that substantially distort her. On the other hand, scholars have been wary or contemptuous of Rand because of her hostility, her lack of an academic demeanor, and her systematic approach to philosophy. The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies promises to extend a bridge over this gulf. The style of the Journal should be acceptable to academia, and if it garners attention it may provide a window on Objectivism for the academy, despite its lack of reputation or disciplinary focus. The contributors to this first issue all seem knowledgeable about Objectivism. No central point of the philosophy is radically misrepresented, although certainly some of their interpretations are open to question. Objectivists will find analyses in these essays that to varying degrees shed new light on the philosophy, while non-Objectivists will encounter fair representations of what Ayn Rand stood for.

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