Rebirth of Reason


A Public Statement on The Objectivist Center
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

As many of you know, for the past ten years, I have actively been involved with and supportive of The Objectivist Center, formerly the Institute for Objectivist Studies. In that time, I attended every Summer Seminar. I recommended IOS/TOC to countless people. Early on, I often defended the ideas in Truth and Toleration in online debate and discussion. More recently, I lectured three times on ethics and twice gave the introductory course on Objectivism at the Summer Seminar. As part of my return to academic philosophy, I presented scholarly papers at the last two Advanced Seminars. My husband and I were also sponsors of TOC for many years.


With much sadness, I recently brought this era of my life to a close. A few days ago, I sent David Kelley a letter informing him that, due to a variety of significant practical and philosophical objections to TOC's basic approach to Objectivism, I could no longer support the Center.


For the sake of brevity, that letter did not delve into the details of my reasons for departure, but merely outlined the central points. This public statement is very much the same, as it is largely drawn from that letter. In a few weeks, I will be circulating a much longer, more thorough examination of the issues touched upon below.


As some of you know, I've been unhappy with TOC as both a student and sponsor for over a year. My discontent took root essentially because TOC failed to live up to my basic expectations as a graduate student committed to contributing quality scholarly work on Objectivism. I wanted and needed to understand Objectivism at a much deeper level, yet I found little help at TOC, not even a suggested curriculum of self-study. I wanted and needed to be encouraged, pushed, and challenged in my work from a strongly Objectivist perspective, but that rarely happened, not even in presenting papers at the Advanced Seminar. In my two conversations with David Kelley on the subject, he did not seem particularly interested in or committed to assisting developing Objectivist scholars in any substantial way.


So I realized that I would have to pull myself up by my philosophical bootstraps through an intensive solo study of the full Objectivist corpus. My preliminary work over the past year made my understanding of Objectivism more thorough, my approach to the philosophy more serious, and my commitment more strong. I also grew correspondingly aware of and frustrated by the weak, tepid, and not particularly Objectivist scholarly atmosphere of TOC. The uncharitable, uninformed, and unresearched interpretations and criticisms of Objectivism heard far too often from TOC students became increasingly disturbing -- and David Kelley's longstanding silent tolerance of such baffling. I wondered why he never demanded or even encouraged better from us students, particularly since such simple leadership could have made a tremendous difference to so many, myself included.


In light of my pressing concerns about TOC's academic work, I began to wonder about the state of TOC's push for cultural change. At that time, I already knew that little had been accomplished in the years since the change of name and mission, including in the flush years of the dot-com boom. No new books were published. Media appearances were relatively rare. The Atlas Society closed down for lack of interest. The circulation of and attention to the few TOC articles and op-eds published was limited. The 1998 Stossel "Greed" special was trotted out time and again for fundraising purposes. (Sadly, all of that still holds true today.) However, I had only occasionally perused TOC's cultural commentaries, as I often found what I did read to be uninteresting and superficial. So over Christmas break, I surveyed a host of previously-neglected op-eds and Navigator articles to attempt to gauge their quality. All too often, I was dismayed by the arguments offered and ideas advocated in these writings. A few examples, all from TOC staff, are worth briefly mentioning:


  Russ La Valle's February 2000 review of The Art of Fiction is repeatedly hostile towards and denigrating of Ayn Rand, failing even basic standards of charitable interpretation and context-keeping. To treat a philosophic opponent in such a fashion would be bad enough, but to do so to the originator of Objectivism in the magazine of "The Objectivist Center" is mind-boggling.


  Tim Richmond's defense of the group recitation of the modern "under God" Pledge of Allegiance in government schools in his July 2002 op-ed "One Nation Under ?" does not merely offer bad arguments; it bears no discernable relationship to Objectivism, either in substance or method. For example, the critical fact that such constitutional conflicts over religion are only possible only within the context of government control over education is ignored.


  In David Kelley's November 2003 Navigator essay "The Party of Modernity," Ayn Rand is presented as just another defender of modernist values, as simply "the most articulate" of the bunch. (Surely, Ayn Rand's writing style is not the only reason for her superiority over other modernists like Milton Friedman and John Searle!) More disturbingly, the closing paragraph of that article implies a pragmatic and superficial approach to political advocacy in which "allies and converts" to the cause of freedom need not be philosophically grounded in the modernist worldview.


  Ed Hudgins' Christmas 2003 op-ed "The Human Spirit of Christmas" repeatedly appeals to Christian ideas in such a way that a person unfamiliar with Objectivism would never guess that the philosophy is atheistic, let alone that it wholly rejects the Christian moral ideal. The basic approach to ideas in the op-ed is not only misleading and condescending, but also contrary to the Objectivist rejection of appeasement.


My survey of these and other articles showed me that TOC's vision of and approach to Objectivism is fundamentally at odds with mine. Although I've never been directly involved with TOC's cultural activism, my very public involvement with and support of TOC over the years connects me to it, much to my all-too-frequent embarrassment and dismay.


In order to ferret out any underlying philosophical causes of these systemic problems at TOC, I also re-read the founding document of TOC, David Kelley's Truth and Toleration, for the first time in 10 years. I was surprised to find myself in strong disagreement with critical elements of the arguments on almost every issue: moral judgment, tolerance, sanction, and Objectivism as an open system. None of my disagreements are minor. All seem to bear upon TOC's disturbing trajectory over the years. But I regard the last, that Objectivism is an "open system," as the most widely misunderstood, deeply flawed, and practically dangerous of the lot -- and as the basic source of my own unhappiness at TOC.


In the open system view, Objectivism is only limited by the principles Kelley cites as fundamental to the system. All the rest may be debated, refined, altered, reorganized, and even outright rejected within the bounds of Objectivism so long as a person "defends his view by reference to the basic principles" (T&T 69). The open system thus minimizes the importance of the wide range of insights, applications, principles, methods, arguments, and logical connections found in the full and rich system of philosophy developed by Ayn Rand. It downplays the necessity of a deep and thorough study of that system, promotes casual and superficial criticisms of it, and trivializes Rand's tremendous philosophic achievement. Such is why I do not regard the persistent problems at TOC as fundamentally due to poor management, insufficient funds, meager talent pool, or whatnot. Instead, I see them as the natural, practical consequences of TOC's view of Objectivism as an open system.


Some of you may wonder why I am disassociating myself from TOC in such a public fashion, rather than merely drifting away in private discontent like so many others over the years. One reason is that my disagreements are not merely practical, but also deeply philosophical. Also, my involvement with and support of TOC over the years has been so public that a similarly public departure is warranted for the sake of clarity. And finally, since my philosophical life is lived very openly through my blog and web site, it would be very strange not to mention and explain a change of this magnitude.


For many years now, my relationship with TOC has largely been sustained by Will Thomas' enthusiastic interest in and steadfast support of my work in philosophy. I would have drifted away from TOC years ago were it not for him. Sadly, my conflicts with TOC now go beyond even his capacity to mend. For these and other reasons, I am pained by the end of my ten year relationship with IOS/TOC. However, my decision was not undertaken quickly, easily, or lightly, but rather painfully determined to be the only right course of action after many months of hard deliberation. That decision was made almost two months ago. My letter to David Kelley made it official. This public statement makes it known.
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