Rebirth of Reason


Machan's Musings - Ayn Rand and Philosophy
by Tibor R. Machan

Over the years I have endured a lot of shunning and derision from colleagues because I admire Ayn Rand’s philosophical contributions. Rand—who was widely know for her novels, chiefly The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged—sketched an ambitious philosophical system, Objectivism, but she never presented her ideas in the customary forums of academic philosophy, namely, the peer-reviewed journals and books published by prestigious printing houses in the field. Rand was also way ahead of everyone else in American culture in identifying the Soviet system as vicious and vile, and so alienated nearly everyone on the Left. Meanwhile, because of her lack of religious faith, most on the Right also have given her the back of their hands.

Yet she is a very popular novelist and has in time inspired a good many scholars to explore her ideas in the various branches of philosophy and political economy. And she also made some novel and radical contributions to the discipline of philosophy, even as its practitioners mostly showed her disdain. One contribution in particular is extremely vital. This is Rand’s novel understanding of the nature of human knowledge.

A fatal error in much philosophical reflection about knowledge—from Plato to our own time—has been the belief that knowledge requires timeless certainty. If you know, the story has gone, then it must be impossible to even conceive that you are wrong. Knowledge must be absolute, perfect, incorrigible, finished, and, as it is sometimes put, "in the final analysis."

But this view of knowledge is an impossible ideal. Given, however, its prevalence, the result has been a great deal of skepticism. Mostly, the prominent view is that we cannot really know; or, if we can, "perhaps" it’s just an approximation; "maybe" all we can have is "probable" knowledge; and so the story goes.

This view has been especially influential with regard to knowledge about right and wrong, good and evil. Most erudite thinkers shy from claiming any such knowledge—instead they posit that what we think of right and wrong, good and evil, is mostly bias, prejudice, the viewpoint of our gang, and no better or worse than the viewpoint of some other gang.

What Rand proposed is that human beings, if they do the hard work, can obtain knowledge just fine and dandy. And there is, of course, ample evidence of this in the sciences, in technology and—let’s not forget—ordinary life. But what is this human knowledge?

As the name of her system makes evident, the key to knowledge is objectivity. As Rand herself puts the point in her book, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology,

Objective validity is determined by reference to the facts of reality. But it is man who has to identify the facts; objectivity requires discovery by man—and cannot precede man's knowledge, i.e., cannot require omniscience. Man cannot know more than he has discovered—and he may not know less than the evidence indicates, if his concepts and definitions are to be objectively valid.

No, I cannot establish my claim here that Rand did make a major contribution to philosophy, specifically to the theory of knowledge. But I can attest that this contention is quite plausible, in light of what I know of her work in this area of the discipline. And Rand herself knew quite well that she was making such a contribution.

Ayn Rand was and is mostly known for championing capitalism, ethical egoism, a naturalist understanding of the world, and romantic realism in literature. But she always insisted that the most vital contribution to the field of ideas was her understanding of the relationship between the human mind and reality ... namely, of human knowledge. What she achieved was to establish, firmly (to quote another philosopher, Gilbert Harman, who I believe expressed quite well the spirit of Rand’s position on this subject), that we must "take care not to adopt a very skeptical attitude nor become too lenient about what is to count as knowledge."

Only one other contemporary philosopher I know of has advanced this understanding of human knowledge, namely, J. L. Austin, in his essay "Other Minds." And it is an extremely vital point to make, indeed. For without a clear grasp of what it is to know, human beings are vulnerable to all kinds of charlatanism.
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