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Myth: Ayn Rand Wasn't a Serious Philosopher

Myth: Ayn Rand Wasn't a Serious Philosopher

May 2, 2011

On August 2nd, 2009, The New York Times profiled BB&T’s John Allison , who put Ayn Rand’s principles to work at that bank when he was CEO. In that article, the influential blogging philosophy professor Brian Leiter was brought on as an anti-Rand voice.

Leiter had put a poll on his blog asking “Which person do you most wish the media would stop referring to as a ‘philosopher’?” The choices were:

a) postmodernist literary critic Jacques Derrida, darling of the Modern Language Association;

b) political theorist Leo Strauss, father of neo-conservativism;

c) Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand was the most despised of the group: she was chosen by 75% of the respondents (whom Leiter calls “philosophers,” although in fact they were whoever read the blog about the poll).

Ayn Rand was certainly a philosopher. She wrote on fundamental topics such as consciousness, concept-formation, and the nature of existence.  She offered distinctive arguments in ethical and political philosophy. In John Galt’s speech alone, she surveys all the fundamental areas of philosophic inquiry . Rand was neither a philosophy professor nor a scholarly writer, and she didn’t relate her views to the academic philosophy of her time in any great detail. But she systematically analyzed the essential questions of philosophy with insight and precision.

So the question becomes one of influence—yes, Rand was a philosopher, but was she significant?

By dint of sales alone, she is plainly one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The lasting popularity of her novels doesn’t just derive from their entertainment value.  When people read Rand, they are inspired, and challenged, and made to re-think what they’ve been taught. That’s because Rand offers them timeless and compelling ideas about human life and the world we live in. It’s her philosophy that keeps readers coming back.

In the Times article above, Leiter was quoted as saying “To describe [Rand] as a minor figure in the history of philosophical thinking about knowledge and reality would be a wild overstatement...She’s irrelevant.” But later on his blog, though he reaffirmed the quote, he also backtracked : “All joking aside, I do want to say there are several philosophers I respect who have a soft spot for Ayn Rand.”

Of course, for critics like Leiter, philosophy is only academic philosophy. And the measure of philosophical importance, then, is the degree to which one is cited or discussed in academic papers and books—rather than, say, whether one has engaged with the relevant questions, or whether one’s views are true.

In this respect, it is notable that Leiter slams Rand’s lack of influence in epistemology , since arguing her lack of influence on academic ethics or political thought would be much more difficult. Her ethical and political views are discussed in textbooks, have inspired members of the neo-Aristotelian school of thought and the libertarian movement generally, and were an influence on Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, one of the most celebrated philosophy books of the late twentieth century.

There isn’t a comparable body of work related to Rand’s views of reality and knowledge. Yet even there we find seminal work by TAS founder David Kelley in works such as The Evidence of the Senses and “ A Theory of Abstraction .” And the literature is growing, carried forward by noted philosophers of science James Lennox and Allan Gotthelf, among others. David Harriman’s recent The Logical Leap is a signal new Objectivist contribution to this area.

It is curious that many academic scholars love Friedrich Nietzsche, another philosophical writer whose inspiring words fire young hearts. Yet these same academics mostly loathe Ayn Rand. Nietzsche was no great scholar of philosophy, argued for really radical ideas, reviewed the history of religion and ethics in a stylized manner from 10,000 feet, and wrote in confusing, sometimes self-contradicting aphorisms. He even inspired many Nazis! Yet Nietzsche is considered a major philosopher. In that case Ayn Rand , who wrote much more clearly and directly, who had very distinctive views ( including views on Nietzsche ), and who was rigorously systematic, surely should be at least an interesting philosopher, too.

But what matters most in assessing Rand as a philosopher is not whom she influenced, but that she was right. It pays to closely read her non-fiction works, such as Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and The Virtue of Selfishness. Ultimately, the measure of a thinker is his ability to discover the truth, not whether he is popular or acknowledged by an establishment. Copernicus’s discovery that the sun was the center of the solar system was significant science—even if no one believed him. Each individual, whether a popular reader or an academic, must use his own reason to judge the merit of an idea, and objectivity should be his watchword.


William Thomas

William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.

William Thomas
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