Rebirth of Reason


Ayn Rand and Apriorism
by Neil Parille


Throughout the history of philosophy, most philosophers have defended the claim that there is a certain type of knowledge that may be known simply by thinking and is independent of any experience.  This type of knowledge is called a priori knowledge.  The most common candidates for a priori knowledge are mathematics and logic. 

Historically, both empiricist and rationalist philosophers accepted a priori knowledge.  [BonJour, In Defense of Pure Reason, pp. 1-17.]  However, empiricists limited the number of truths that are known a priori whereas rationalists tended to increase the number. In addition, rationalists often deduced extensive metaphysical and cosmological systems from these truths.  Hume and the tradition that developed from him (such as logical positivism) rejected a priori knowledge.

Professor Barry Smith, in his article “The Question of Apriorism” makes a helpful distinction between two types of apriorist views.  Both forms agree that a priori knowledge is possible, but they disagree in their accounts of where this knowledge comes from.  The first group Professor Smith calls the “impositionists.”  Impositionists contend that a priori knowledge is possible because there is a structure of the human mind that “imposes” on the knowledge of reality.  Such a view is anti-realist in tenor and the most common example is the popular understanding of Kant.  The second position Professor Smith calls the “reflectionist” view.  According to reflectionists, the human mind is constituted in such a way that in thinking about the world, its structures reflect the way the world actually is.  The reflectionist approach finds as a principal advocate Aristotle and is more congenial to a realist epistemology.

Ayn Rand emphatically rejected the concept of a priori knowledge.  In her posthumously published Marginalia, she critiqued Ludwig von Mises’s Kantian epistemology.  She states explicitly: “There is no a priori knowledge.  There is no knowledge not derived from experience . . . .”  [Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand’s Marginalia, pp. 113-14.]  In her published writings, Rand was likewise clear that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. 

Ayn Rand and Empiricism

Rand stated in 1960 that philosophers could be divided into two camps, rationalists and empiricists.  Empiricists “claimed that man obtained his knowledge from experience, which was held to mean: by direct perception of immediate facts, with no recourse to concepts. . . . " [FNI, p. 30.]  Leonard Peikoff put it in somewhat more balanced form in his article “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy”  - empiricists minimize the role of reason in the acquisition of knowledge, while rationalists minimize the role of experience.  On the other hand, because Rand rejected a priori justification and asserted that all knowledge must be based on experience, it seems fair to say that Rand fits more comfortably in the empiricist tradition.  Critics of Objectivism have generally understood Rand’s epistemology as a version of empiricism. However, Tibor Machan argues that Rand’s view of axioms places her outside the empiricist camp.  “Existence, identity, and consciousness are simply not on the same level of abstraction as this-here patch of red or this-here tomato.  [Machan, Ayn Rand, p. 37.]

In rejecting a priori knowledge, Rand maintained consistently that the principles of logic must be discovered.  As Peikoff put it: “Man is born tabula rasa; all his knowledge is based on and derived from the evidence of his senses. . . . Man needs to discover a method to guide this process, if it is to yield to conclusions which correspond to the facts of reality . . . .” [ITO, p. 112.] 

The obvious question is: How can a blank slate “discover” a method for thinking?  The ability to discover a method presupposes the existence of basic structures of thought, such as the ability to observe contradictions, make generalizations and the like.[1]  It isn’t clear that Rand provides a direct answer, but perhaps we can get some insight into this from Rand’s discussion of logic and grammar.

Logic and Grammar

According to Rand, there are three axioms that form the foundation of all thought.    These axioms are identity, existence, and consciousness.  [Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (“ITO”), p. 55.]  Reason operates by the application of these three axioms to experience.  [Gotthelf, On Ayn Rand, p. 43 n.17.]  Man may think logically because the principles of logic correspond to the facts of reality.  As Rand puts it in her 1974 essay “Philosophical Detection”:

"Logic has a single law, the Law of Identity, and its various corollaries.  If logic has nothing to do with reality, it means that the Law of Identity is inapplicable to reality.  If so, then: a. things are not what they are; b. things can be and not be at the same time, in the same respect, i.e., reality is made up of contradictions."  [Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 15.][2]

Although Rand has argued that logic must be discovered from sensory experience, she takes something of a rationalistic tack when discussing how the mind recognizes whether a concept is axiomatic.

[T]here is a way to ascertain whether a given concept is axiomatic or not: one ascertains it by observing the fact that an axiomatic concept cannot be escaped, that it is implicit in all knowledge, that it has to be accepted and used even in the process of any attempt to deny it.  [ITO, p. 59.]

This is a curious argument for someone who is an empiricist in outlook to make.  Rationalists often assert that empiricists ultimately rely upon a priori insight to justify any knowledge at all, and this is what Rand appears to be doing here.  [Ryan, Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality, pp. 213-14.]  In fact, Peikoff argues that the axioms (although validated by sense perception) are “self-evident.”  [Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, pp. 8-9.]

Rand’s approach to grammar is somewhat different and is more consistent with her empiricism. Rand asserts that we can derive the conjunctions “and” and “but” from the “facts of reality.”  For example, we observe three people (Smith, Jones, Brown) walking.  We are able to derive “and” from this occurrence.  (Smith, Jones and Brown are walking.)  With respect to “but,” Rand proceeds as follows: If I say “I work Monday,” “I work Tuesday,” and so forth yet “I do not work Sunday” we can derive the concept “but.”  (I work everyday but Sunday.)  In this way, Rand believes that she has shown that conjunctions may be derived from experience.  [ITO, pp. 37-38.] 

Rand’s view of logic is particularly striking in that that she holds two positions that are often seen in tension.  First, she wants to demonstrate that the principles of logic can be justified exclusively on empirical grounds.  Second, she wants to show that they are absolute and unchanging.  It is probably fair to say that most philosophers would consider this impossible.  Consistent empiricists such as J. S. Mill were only able to demonstrate that principles of logic were most likely unchanging.  [Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 8, pp. 60-62.]

These difficulties could be resolved by a reflectionist view of the a priori, yet there is no indication that Rand seriously entertained such an approach.  One reason might be that a reflectionist approach is consistent with a theistic worldview.  Many theologians hold that man’s rationality is a reflection if his being created in the image of God.  [Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (2d. Ed.), pp. 521-22.]  Interestingly, the reflectionist position can also be defended on evolutionary grounds.  Some evolutionists argue that because of natural selection, only those species that developed the ability to reason in accord with the “facts of reality” survived.[3]  Rand, however, was hesitant about evolution.[4]

Bertrand Russell and Ayn Rand

Rand’s opposition to rationalism was not limited to her rejection of the a priori. More fundamentally, she believed that rationalists had the tendency to create elaborate systems of metaphysics and cosmology.  [Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, pp. 141-42.]

The only thing that concerns philosophy is that we can say: whatever it is, it will have to be what it is, and no contradictions about it will be valid – as for instance, the current theories about a particle that goes from one place to another without crossing the places in between. . . . But for a philosopher to attempt to define what kind of particle it has to be, or how we will determine its properties, that is unwarranted and Rationalistic.  That is the province of science, not philosophy.  [ITO, p. 293.]

Curiously, there are certain parallels between Rand’s critique of rationalism and that of the moderate empiricist Bertrand Russell.  Russell shared Rand’s concern that rationalists had mistakenly attempted to create grandiose systems. On the other hand, unlike Rand, Russell saw no need to jettison a priori reasoning in order to develop minimalist metaphysics.  He argued the truths that may be known a priori are relatively few and general. 

Significantly, Russell states that it is inappropriate to call the law of contradiction a “law of thought.”  The law of contradiction is “about things.”  A priori knowledge applies to whatever the world may contain.  [Russell, Problems of Philosophy, p. 65.]


Ayn Rand sought to preserve the best elements of empiricism and rationalism.  Nonetheless, her commitment to empiricism and rejection of a priori insight make it difficult to justify any knowledge at all.  A reflectionist view of the apriori is compatible with her metaphysics and should be considered.

[1]   There are statements within the “Official Objectivist” literature that indicate that the mind is not quite so “tabula rasa” as these statements imply.  For example, Leonard Peikoff goes so far as to say that “[t]he process of measurement-omission is performed for us by the nature of our mental faculty, whether anyone identifies it or not.”  [Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 85.]  Rand spoke of the “mechanism” behind consciousness and emotions.  [See, Binswanger, ed., The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 491.]
[2]   Rand’s view is not without precedent in the history of philosophy.  As H. B. Joseph put it in his work Introduction to Logic

We cannot think contradictory propositions, because we see that a thing cannot have at once and not have the same character; and a necessity of thought is really the apprehension of a necessity in the being of things. . . . The Law of Contradiction then is metaphysical or ontological.

[Quoted in Brand Blanshard, The Nature of Thought, Vol. 2, p. 422; emphasis in original.]  Chris Sciabarra calls this the “ontological conception” of logic and notes that Aristotle and Rand’s philosophy professor, Nicholas Lossky, advocated this view.  [Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, p. 139.]
[3]   Ludwig von Mises took a similar position.  Although he believed that certain categories of thought are “innate,” he argued that the evolutionary process resulted in their being in “accordance with reality.” [Von Mises, The Ultimate Foundations of Economic Science, p. 15.]  F. A. Hayek stressed the importance of evolution on human thought in his final work, The Fatal Conceit.
[4]  See my essay “Ayn Rand and Evolution” for documentation.
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