Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature review: Introduction

Over the years several authors have written book-length critiques of Ayn Rand’s philosophy: With Charity Toward None by William F. O’Neil, Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality: A Critique of Ayn Rand's Epistemology by Scott Ryan, Answer to Ayn Rand: a critique of the philosophy of Objectivism by John Robbins and The Ayn Rand Cult by Jeff Walker. After reading these books I felt that the authors either misrepresented Rand’s ideas in order to set up easily refuted straw men or they just offered specious counter-arguments. I also felt that all of these books did not start out neutrally with a “let’s see where our analysis takes us” approach but had a case to prove. These books also drip with disdain for Rand.


Greg Nyquist’s Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature (henceforth referred to as ARCHN) also takes Rand to task and at times harshly criticizes her. To be fair Nyquist admits in the preface that “there is quite a bit of truth in Objectivism.” The following sentence best captures Nyquist’s attitude towards Rand: “Despite my low opinion of Rand’s philosophical expertise, I nevertheless regard Rand as an important and perhaps even a great thinker.” Nonetheless, after a constant litany of Rand’s alleged errors by the end of the book I wondered what was left of Objectivism! While I don’t agree with all of Nyquist’s arguments I also believe some of his criticisms merit serious consideration. If Rand’s admirers approach this book with a truly open mind I think they’re likely to learn some important lessons even if they ultimately don’t change any of their beliefs.


A common theme runs through ARCHN: the lack of empirical data to support many of Rand’s claims.


My goal is to cover the main points of each chapter in installments, to lay out Nyquist’s key points and to indicate where I agree or disagree with him. I’ll probably resort to using bulleted lists to capture Nyquist’s key points. It also will take less time for me to write each installment. I ask anyone who visits this blog to be patient. The pressure of work and other commitments affects how often I can write posts. ;-)


The next post will start with ARCHN’s first chapter on Rand’s theory of human nature.


Tenure said...

As far as emperical data goes, I'm not quite sure what the 'Contra' guys mean by that (after having had a few arguments with them on their blog).

In psychology, Ayn Rand did no great studies of men, she *gasp* relied on introspection.

In history, well, it's often over looked that her major was not philosophy, but in fact history. One of the major sources for her induction of Objectivism came from what she learnt from the great wealth of information in the historical record.

In human behaviour in general and in herself, again, she observed other people and used introspection.

Again, I don't understand what these guys mean by Ayn Rand lacking empirical data.

Henry Scuoteguazza said...

I plan to get into the charges about the lack of empirical data. I agree with Nyquist to a degree on this subject.

As for introspection, even Rand did rely on it are we going to accept her conclusions without empirical support? Would we accept someone else’s philosophy based soley on their introspection? We would look askance at someone who tried to convince us to buy a different philosophy because they looked internally. This comes close to intuitionism! We would ask this person for the facts that prove their case. I believe we should do the same with Rand.

Tenure said...

Of course. If someone has proved something introspectively, this means that given the same basic starting points, we should be able to introspect the same truths.

By basic starting points, I should clarify that this means that you don't need to have thought every thought and held every bit of knowledge that the other person did when they introspected.
It means that we are all humans and our brains function in pretty much the same way (at the very least, we all are subject to the laws of logic) and we can all understand the same things.

So, yes, we should examine Rand critically, but that means examining our own process of understanding the material as much as what she said - but to determine whether what she said was true, requires a rigorous process for understanding anyway, because it's the only way by which we can determine whether what she said was true.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Henry

Looking forward to your critique.


tombr said...

It is a pity that you did not give a review of this book, which needs to be given serious treatment. In my readings of Nyquist's website I have been rather disappointed by the angry tone which suggests to me that Nyquist's take on Rand is unfair. But I may be wrong about that.

David M. Brown said...

I am surprised by this statement of Scotty's, by way of disparaging introspection as a source of Rand's concept theory: "We would look askance at someone who tried to convince us to buy a different philosophy because they looked internally." That would all depend on what they were reporting, whether their report matches what we find ourselves when we introspect, and what inferences were being drawn. Introspection is a form of perception. Of course it can be done badly. It can also be done conscientiously and objectively. How do we check someone else's report on his introspection and what he infers from them with respect to aspects of human nature that he claims are universal? We inspect our own consciousness. If introspection is not a valid means of discovering features of our own consciousness, no derivative or secondary means elaborated in complex studies reported in psychology journals could possibly be valid.

Concepts are products of consciousness; when they are validly formed, concepts are a form of awareness of reality. Both the facts of reality we're trying to be aware of and consciousness itself have identity, a nature that can be observed. Extrospection and introspection are both valid, though not automatically. One's observations about consciousness can be either objective or subjective.

What alternative does Scotty propose for investigating the nature of concepts that would not involve directly inspecting concepts and how they are formed or mis-formed? We can infer what other people are doing, and that is extremely important. But we would not be able to say even the simplest thing about the nature of human awareness if the data provided by introspection were rightly dismissed as some kind of fallacious subjectivism or "intuitionism."

In addition to Rand's IOE, I would recommend reviewing the transcription of Rand's workshop on epistemology, published in the second edition edited by Binswanger, and Peikoff's course "Objectivism Through Induction," now available at dirt-cheap prices from the eStore. Peikoff's book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand is a comprehensive and hierarchical view of the philosophy that elaborates several aspects that Rand treated only in conversation, not in writing. Binswanger's new book How We Know is also useful.