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Peikoff's Summa

Peikoff's Summa

7 Mins
March 1, 1992

Most of the great philosophers in history never set out their entire system of ideas in a single treatise. They were explorers; their mission was to discover and describe new regions beyond the frontiers of settled thought. They left it to their followers to survey and map the new region, revealing the internal order and coherence of what they had found. Ayn Rand is no exception to this pattern. Though she was certainly conscious of having developed a new philosophical system, she never presented it in writing as a unified whole (except for the summary contained in Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged).Many of her insights were never published in any form. Leonard Peikoff's new book is the first comprehensive and generally accurate map of the Objectivist terrain.

Objectivism is not intended as an introduction to Ayn Rand's philosophy. Peikoff assumes that the reader is familiar with her novels, and has a fairly high tolerance for abstraction. Throughout the book, his focus is on abstract principles and their connections: The examples he discusses serve to illustrate the principles, and do not provide much guidance on the concrete issues of politics, art, or everyday life. There is also the occasional out-of-context insult—e.g., against academics (xiv), against progressive education (403)—that will seem bewildering to the uninitiated.

Nor, on the other hand, is the book intended for specialists in philosophy. There are a great many detailed, technical questions that can be raised about the Objectivist position on issues such as free will, the contextual theory of knowledge, the basis of values, the derivation of rights, the necessity of government. These questions have been raised as objections by academic philosophers, and they have been debated for years within the Objectivist movement as well. Peikoff's analyses will not satisfy either group, though he does offer some important new leads on how to approach such issues.

What the book does do, brilliantly for the most part, is to present the central principles of Objectivism, with clear explanations of their meaning and derivation. Peikoff covers every area of philosophy, every major principle, and all the major logical relationships among these principles. Given the limits set by the project of stating an entire worldview in a single volume, it is comprehensive. In all these ways, it far surpasses any other work that has attempted to portray the philosophy as a whole (such as Ronald Merrill's recent The Ideas of Ayn Rand).

The book is based on a lecture series, "The Philosophy of Objectivism," which Peikoff gave in 1976. It covers essentially the same material as the lectures, often with the same formulations and examples. But Peikoff has improved the organization considerably, increasing both the economy and power of his argument. Many important ideas that have been part of the "oral tradition" of Objectivism—discussed in lectures and seminars but never published—are set out here in print for the first time. And where he discusses material that Rand did write about, he does so with a clarity and thoroughness that complement her flashing penetration. His discussion of life as a fundamental value (207-213), of the evil of coercion (310-324), and of the function of art (414-428) are especially good.

Peikoff notes in his Preface that Ayn Rand attended the lectures and approved of their content as an accurate presentation of her views. As her designated heir, he suggests somewhat defensively, he is best qualified to write "the definitive statement" of her philosophy. Peikoff's relationship with Rand does put him in a special position as an interpreter of her thinking, especially on issues she did not write about. But his book is not written as a scholarly analysis of Rand's thought. He writes in his own voice, and puts philosophical propositions forth as true of reality; his writing is therefore properly subject to the customary standards of clarity, rigor, and truth by which a work in philosophy must be judged. And the book certainly does have its flaws. On certain issues, as we shall see, Peikoff emphasizes one aspect of Objectivism at the expense of others. Some of the material is presented in a vague or confused way, and there are a few outright errors.

In order to get a fuller picture of the strengths and weaknesses of Objectivism, let us take a closer look at the way Peikoff deals with specific issues. There is much to praise and much to criticize in every chapter, and a complete inventory is beyond the scope of a review. So I want to focus on a theme that Peikoff regards as central to the book: epistemological self-awareness. Peikoff has attempted to lay out the entire system of Objectivism, as a body of knowledge, in a way that is fully consistent with the Objectivist epistemology.

Human knowledge, on the Objectivist view, is both hierarchical and contextual. Knowledge is hierarchical because perception is our only direct contact with reality. Our ability to integrate percepts into concepts, and concepts into propositional thoughts, and thoughts into chains of inference, vastly extends our knowledge beyond the range of what is given to our senses. But our cognitive edifice must have its foundation in perception, and the place of any item in the hierarchy is measured by its distance from the perceptual base. A further consequence is that knowledge is contextual. The content of any concept or conclusion is determined by its context: the sum of the integrative steps by which it is tied to reality. And because we arrive at these higher levels by complex chains of reasoning, we must continue to integrate our conclusions in order to advance our knowledge and avoid contradictions.

Peikoff presents Objectivism with careful attention to its hierarchical structure, proceeding from the axioms of metaphysics and epistemology; to the issues of sense-perception, concept-formation, and the nature of knowledge; to the values and virtues of the Objectivist ethics; to political philosophy and aesthetics. At many points along the way, he comments on the reasons why one principle is epistemologically prior to another. He also comments on the logical relationships among principles in different areas—between the primacy of existence and man's need for art, between the law of causality and the mixed economy, between subjectivism and sex, to pick a few of many examples. In this way, he puts each point in the widest possible context.

In light of the importance Peikoff places on hierarchy and context, it is unfortunate that his discussion of these epistemological principles is inadequate. The contextual theory of knowledge is much less developed than other aspects of the Objectivist epistemology, such as sense-perception or concept-formation. The general principle is that because we always operate within a specific context of knowledge, certainty must be understood contextually; we cannot demand omniscience of a faculty that has a definite, finite nature. But Peikoff does not go much beyond this level of generality. He says, for example, that "A conclusion is 'certain' when the evidence in its favor is conclusive." (179) When is the evidence conclusive? When it adds up to a proof. When does the evidence add up to a proof? He says nothing on this subject beyond alluding to the standards employed in particular areas of knowledge, such as the legal requirements for proof of criminal guilt.

Nor does he deal with hard cases for the contextual theory. It does happen in murder trials, for example, that the available evidence meets the legal requirements of proof, and the suspect is convicted accordingly, but evidence later discovered demonstrates that he could not have committed the crime. Peikoff says that "knowledge at one stage is not contradicted by later discoveries" (173), but he does not say how this applies to such cases. To hold that the jury's verdict is not later contradicted, we must formulate that verdict with a qualification: "Within the context of the circumstances known, S is guilty." But the suspect's guilt or innocence is a fact of the matter - either he committed the act or he didn't - and it is not dependent on anyone's context of knowledge. The verdict simply did not correspond to the facts, and was therefore false, no matter how rational it may have been in the circumstances. Peikoff does not face up to the difficulties of integrating the contextual theory of knowledge with the correspondence theory of truth.

Peikoff's discussion of the hierarchical theory of knowledge is even more seriously flawed. Because our knowledge is hierarchical, we must establish the validity of a concept or the truth of a propositional conclusion by reducing it to sensory evidence. Unfortunately, the one example he offers of such reduction - an analysis of the concept "friend" - is incoherent. (Sidebar: What is a Friend? .)

Peikoff defines proof as "the process of establishing truth by reducing a proposition to axioms, i.e., ultimately, to sensory evidence." (120) This definition suggests that our knowledge has the following structure: Sensory evidence tells us that something exists, that it is what it is, and that we are aware of it (the axioms of existence, identity, and consciousness); from these axiomatic propositions we then infer everything else that we know. This picture is wildly inaccurate. Axioms are involved in any proof, since they underlie the canons of logical inference. But the substance of any conclusion is derived from sensory observation of particular objects and events, from which we form generalizations by induction and scientific hypothesis.

Peikoff recognizes the crucial role of induction, in philosophy as well as science. With few exceptions, he says (the exceptions he has in mind are presumably the axioms), fundamental principles are supported by induction (218). But elsewhere he speaks as if the entire philosophy of Objectivism were a deduction from first principles. For example: "Capitalism is a corollary of the fundamentals of philosophy. Whoever understands capitalism sees it as the social system flowing from the axiom that "Existence exists" - just as whoever understands the axiom sees it ultimately as the principle entailing capitalism." (406) Comments of this kind lend credence to the common misconception that Objectivism is a form of rationalism in the manner of Descartes or Spinoza.

The rationalist strain in Peikoff's understanding of hierarchy is combined with an extremely holistic conception of context. He has set himself the goal of integrating the principles of Objectivism so thoroughly that the entire system can be grasped as a single unit of thought. "The True is the Whole," he says, quoting Hegel. The central integrating theme of the book is a parallel he develops between epistemology and ethics.

In the realm of knowledge, the basic goal is the identification of what exists, and the basic means is being objective, which Peikoff describes as volitionally adhering to reality in every aspect of one's mental operations (117). In the realm of action, on the Objectivist view, the basic goal is one's own life, and the basic means is moral virtue. Peikoff unifies these two realms by noting that an organism's life is its existence; by choosing to live, we are adhering to reality in the same way that we are when we choose to think. "Philosophically speaking, the essence of self-preservation is: accepting the realm of reality." (211)

Thus truth and life are analogous as goals: one is the grasp of existence, the other is the maintenance of (one's own) existence. The primary means to these ends—objectivity in the one case, moral virtue in the other—are analogous as well. They involve the same basic relationship between consciousness and existence, the same voluntary commitment to what is real (395). Peikoff goes on to show why capitalism, by banning the initiation of force and protecting individual rights, is the only social system consistent with objectivity and virtue.

I found these connections illuminating. Indeed, as they emerge from Peikoff's detailed analyses of the particular virtues, values, and political principles of Objectivism, they are quite arresting. But they also lead to a one-sided view of the ethics.

Ayn Rand showed that values arise from the need of living organisms to maintain themselves by acting in specific ways in the face of the constant alternative of life or death. In the case of man, who has free will, moral values depend on his choice to accept and pursue life as an ultimate goal. As she says in Galt's speech, "My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live." The choice to live therefore precedes all morality, as Peikoff notes. It is the foundation of all normative claims, and so cannot itself be morally evaluated.

Yet Peikoff does not hesitate to condemn a person for failing to choose life. Except for cases of justifiable suicide, he asserts, "A man who would throw away his life without cause ...would belong on the lowest rung of hell." (248) The reason for this inconsistency is that he does not really regard the choice to live as a moral primary. Since life is existence, the choice to live is subsumed under the wider principle of adhering to existence, which Peikoff implicitly seems to regard as a kind of higher-order duty.

The problem here is of more than theoretical significance. The duality which Rand identified at the base of ethics runs throughout her moral code. The choice to live is the fundamental source of motivation, the axiom of existence the fundamental principle of cognition. The choice sets our goal-seeking nature in motion; the axiom directs us to look to reality for guidance, to identify the natures of things, including our own human nature and needs, and to identify the types of actions required to achieve our goals. The choice to live is the fountainhead of that passionate energy, that love of life, which characterizes Rand's heroes. The commitment to reason and reality is the source of their confident command of themselves and their world. In his quest for theoretical unity, Peikoff collapses the choice into the axiom, with effects that are evident throughout his presentation of the Objectivist ethics. He tends to elevate principles over goals, virtues over values, in a way that gives the flavor of a duty ethic.

The tendency comes to the surface now and again. In discussing justice, for example, he says that "morality is man's motive power" (284). Since morality is a code of values accepted by choice, and a code in turn is a system of principles, Peikoff's statement suggests that we are motivated not by the desire to achieve our goals, but by the desire to conform to our principles. But one's motivation flows from one's purpose. One does not live for the sake of being moral; one acts morally in order to make the most out of his life. We obey nature in order to command it. Ayn Rand sometimes emphasized this priority by creating characters of great elan vital, like Bjorn Faulkner in The Night of January 16th, who conspicuously violated moral principles.

More often, however, the tendency is implicit, a matter of tone and emphasis. In the chapter on virtue, which is far and away the longest chapter in the book, the virtues are presented primarily as forms of rationality and as constraints on the ends we can choose, rather than as means for living a happy life. Peikoff does not deny the latter point; on the contrary, he devotes a section of the chapter on happiness to it. But he doesn't give it primacy.

For example, Peikoff describes productive work as a requirement of rationality, since reason allows us to create what we need instead of having to find it already existing in the world. All this is true, of course. But only at the end of the section, as a kind of afterthought, does he try to capture the passionate commitment to a productive purpose, the joy of creating value, that is so evident in Rand's fictional characters, and so important to a happy life. In the activity of work, as Peikoff presents it, one is not so much pulled forward by his purposes as pushed from behind by the necessity of conforming to his rational nature. By the manner and tone of his discussion, he seems to be affirming the converse of Francis Bacon's dictum: nature, to be obeyed, must be commanded.

The net effect of this basic tendency is a somewhat uninviting picture of a life in accordance with the Objectivist code. That is one reason I would not recommend this book to anyone unfamiliar with Objectivism. But I highly recommend it for those who are familiar with Objectivism. The flaws I have described do not invalidate the book, or compromise all that is good in it. They mean only that one should read it critically and with caution, making up one's own mind on every point. But that should go without saying.

Originally Published in IOS Journal Volume 1 Number 2 • Summer 1992

David Kelley


David Kelley

David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.

David Kelley Ph.D
About the author:
David Kelley Ph.D

David Kelley founded The Atlas Society (TAS) in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Kelley is a professional philosopher, teacher, and writer. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, he joined the philosophy department of Vassar College, where he taught a wide variety of courses at all levels. He has also taught philosophy at Brandeis University and lectured frequently on other campuses.

Kelley's philosophical writings include original works in ethics, epistemology, and politics, many of them developing Objectivist ideas in new depth and new directions. He is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology; Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, on issues in the Objectivist movement; Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used textbook for introductory logic, now in its 5th edition.

Kelley has lectured and published on a wide range of political and cultural topics. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle, and elsewhere. During the 1980s, he wrote frequently for Barrons Financial and Business Magazine on such issues as egalitarianism, immigration, minimum wage laws, and Social Security.

His book A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State is a critique of the moral premises of the welfare state and defense of private alternatives that preserve individual autonomy, responsibility, and dignity. His appearance on John Stossel’s ABC/TV special "Greed" in 1998 stirred a national debate on the ethics of capitalism.

An internationally-recognized expert on Objectivism, he has lectured widely on Ayn Rand, her ideas, and her works. He was a consultant to the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and editor of Atlas Shrugged: The Novel, the Films, the Philosophy.


Major Work (selected):

Concepts and Natures: A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl),” Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021); This review of a recent book includes a deep dive into the ontology and epistemology of concepts.

The Foundations of Knowledge. Six lectures on the Objectivist epistemology.

The Primacy of Existence” and “The Epistemology of Perception,” The Jefferson School, San Diego, July 1985

Universals and Induction,” two lectures at GKRH conferences, Dallas and Ann Arbor, March 1989

Skepticism,” York University, Toronto, 1987

The Nature of Free Will,” two lectures at The Portland Institute, October 1986

The Party of Modernity,” Cato Policy Report, May/June 2003;and Navigator, Nov 2003; A widely cited article on the cultural divisions among pre-modern, modern (Enlightenment) and postmodern views.

"I Don't Have To" (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996) and “I Can and I Will” (The New Individualist, Fall/Winter 2011); Companion pieces on making real the control we have over our lives as individuals.