Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical

Of Fundamentals and Fidelity
by Lindsay Perigo

In a current thread on the SOLOHQ site, a supporter of the Ayn Rand Institute accuses SOLOists of being dishonest in wanting to rewrite Objectivism while continuing to call themselves "Objectivists." An example offered is a description by that favourite whipping boy of the orthodoxy, Chris Sciabarra, of someone (Murray Franck) who advocates compulsory taxation as an "Objectivist." Now, Franck, apparently, is an Objectivist who couches his argument for compulsory taxation in Objectivist terms (on its face, a tricky feat, yet not impossible: I once put precisely the same argument as Franck's directly to Leonard Peikoff & was told I'd better "raise that one with Peter Schwartz"). For Sciabarra to accept - & only in passing, at that - Franck's description of himself as an Objectivist scarcely constitutes a "rewriting" of Objectivism. The issue is too prosaic, for one thing. But my main concern here is to correct any impression that may exist anywhere that SOLO does indeed claim unto itself the right to rewrite Objectivism & still call itself Objectivist. As SOLO's founder, let me say categorically: it does not. If we were in the business of rewriting Objectivism while continuing to use the label, I would agree that we would be guilty of dishonesty.

I now propose to frighten the horses. I am going to state that I agree with Leonard Peikoff that Objectivism is a "closed" system.

I agree with Leonard Peikoff that Objectivism is a closed system.

There. I stated it, just as I said I would.

But before you reach for the smelling salts, dear reader - or after, if you prefer - consider Peikoff's remark in its totality:


In his last paragraph, Kelley states that Ayn Rand's philosophy, though magnificent, "is not a closed system." Yes, it is. Philosophy, as Ayn Rand often observed, deals only with the kinds of issues available to men in any era; it does not change with the growth of human knowledge, since it is the base and precondition of that growth. Every philosophy, by the nature of the subject, is immutable. New implications, applications, integrations can always be discovered; but the essence of the system - its fundamental principles and their consequences in every branch - is laid down once and for all by the philosophy's author.


I agree with that claim. (This is not to say, to anticipate one objection immediately, that one can't call oneself, for instance, "Aristotelian" & disagree with Aristotle on some points. "Aristotelian" is a much more generic term than "Objectivist." Aristotle didn't produce an equivalent of "Objectivism.") The reason I agree is what I infer from Peikoff's qualification of "closed system": "New implications, applications, integrations can always be discovered; but the essence of the system - its fundamental principles & their consequences in every branch - is laid down once & for all by the philosophy's author." What I infer from this is that it is the fundamentals that are "closed" while their application remains open. Thus, at minimum, I would assume we are expected to treat reality, reason, rational egoism, freedom, capitalism & romantic realism as "closed" if we want to call ourselves "Objectivists" (& if we didn't accept these things why would we want to call ourselves "Objectivists"?), while remaining at liberty to discover "new implications, applications & integrations" thereof. I have no problem with this approach whatsoever, & I would defy anyone to find anything in the writings of SOLOists that tries to "rewrite" these fundamentals.

A huge problem arises, of course, because this is not actually the approach that Peikoff & the Ayn Rand Institute have practised in reality. The effect of the article, "Fact & Value" from which the above quotation is extracted is to scare the bejeesus out of anyone who might be tempted to engage in original thought & actually come up with some "new implications, applications & integrations." What Peikovians really mean by "closed" - as opposed to what Peikoff says he means, above - is that it's the whole kit & kaboodle or it's nothing. "Objectivism" is simply everything Ayn Rand wrote; nothing more, nothing less. When challenged about some of her sillier utterances, such as those about a woman in the White House, they will grudgingly concede that "that's not part of Objectivism," but to make such a concession causes their hair to fall out. And having made it, they go right on behaving as though Objectivism were whatever Ayn Rand said, period.

Take, for instance, their treatment of Sciabarra. As a scholar of intellectual history, Sciabarra has concluded that Rand was a dialectician, in the same sense that he says Aristotle was ... someone who grasped the importance of both logic & context & treated the acquisition of knowledge as a dynamic, ongoing exercise in the discovery of the interconnectedness of things. To say that Rand was a dialectician in this sense is a far cry from claiming that she was a Hegelian who believed that the world is moving inexorably, by a process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, toward fulfillment of the Absolute, or a Marxist who believed that the world is moving inexorably by the same process toward a classless Utopia. Yet that is what the ARI have accused Sciabarra of claiming. Instead of pausing to ask, "Might this guy be on to something here?"; instead of acknowledging that by "dialectics" Sciabarra means a tool of reasoning which might thus qualify as a hitherto unappreciated "application" of Objectivist epistemology ... they misrepresent & denounce him, sight unseen. "Dialectics" = Hegel & Marx = evil = end of story.

It is precisely because of this mindset that the Peikovians have not come up with one single new "implication, application or integration" of Objectivist principles since Ayn Rand died. They're all too damned scared even to try, lest they be denounced, excommunicated & shunned.

Now it's true of course that Sciabarra is not an Objectivist. (It's also true that I've always realised this. A couple of years back, when SOLO was merely a gleam in my eye, I was discussing the concept of it with Sciabarra. He said he might be interested in participating. I said, "No, no, Chris - it's for Objectivists.") But the reason he is not an Objectivist is not that he argues that Rand was a dialectician. It's because he writes sentences such as, "In a dialectical approach, the aspects of a totality are understood systemically - that is, according to their spatial, or synchronic, interconnections - and dynamically - that is, according to their temporal, or diachronic, interconnections." No self-respecting Objectivist, even one in academia, would write a sentence like that, any more than he would own a yapping dog, ride a bicycle, listen to jazz or abstain from alcohol. Sciabarra does all of these things, & so is clearly beyond the pale. But let us get our reasons for excommunicating him right!

Latterly - seriously, now - Sciabarra has been the one to bring to fruition one of SOLO's inaugural ambitions: to drag Objectivist homophobia out of the closet, in his sterling five-part series, "Objectivism & Homosexuality." This was a long-overdue enterprise, something that the breakaway TOC should have done but was, typically, too timorous to do. Many of the Objectivists who offered their testimonies to Chris were ARIans, who, afraid still of the consequences of coming out, testified anonymously. Rand's view was that homosexuality was "disgusting." Is that part of Objectivism? Push the Peikovians on the subject & they will, again grudgingly, concede that it is not. Yet not one of them has ever dared to say so of his own initiative. Rather than come out & say that Rand's attitude was not only not part of Objectivism but also utterly irrational, the Peikovians' true attitude remains that, at best, homosexuality is a sign of something having gone horribly wrong - one ought not to be condemned for it any longer, but rather, pitied. (The fact that people who are themselves in the closet spout this condescending rubbish is especially reprehensible.) Sciabarra's series could have been an opportunity for the ARI to redeem itself, for those heading the orthodoxy to say, "Thank you! We needed that." But no ... this was new, & it was not what Ayn Rand said. Worse, it contradicted what Ayn Rand said.

Was it, however, a "rewriting" of Objectivist fundamentals? Most assuredly not!

Interestingly, Peikoff has never himself attempted to lay down formally what he considers fundamental & what he considers optional in Objectivism. This leaves him free, of course, to denounce anyone he likes for any reasons he chooses - if the line to be crossed is only in Peikoff's mind, how can one know that one has crossed it? Safest thing is simply to go along with everything! For instance, don't say the words, "Nathaniel Branden." If Ayn Rand herself said the words "Nathaniel" or "Barbara" on tape, edit them out. You've heard of "Don't mention the war"? Well, don't mention The Affair. Don't stop there. Agree that Beethoven had a malevolent sense of life. Go on, do it. Think of this as a test of your faith, Objectivism's equivalent of Tertullian's, "I believe it because it's absurd." Write a scathing denunciation of The Ninth as the torrent of malevolence it so clearly isn't. Go on, you can do it! More to the point, you'd better do it ...

(Ahem. Perhaps I am getting carried away here. I seem to remember one of those question & answer sessions where Lenny kindly let Beethoven off the hook. Phew!)

For the record, let me say that I would regard disagreement with Ayn Rand on any of the following as a breach of fundamentals that would disqualify the dissenter from calling himself an Objectivist. I don't claim, however, that this list is definitive or exhaustive:

- The reality of reality.

- The primacy of existence.

- The axiomatic status of existence, identity & consciousness.

- The laws of identity & causality.

- The validity of the senses.

- The efficacy of reason, including logic & concept-formation.

- Objectivity as opposed to intrinsicism or subjectivism, rationalism or empiricism.

- The reality of free will (the choice to focus & think).

- Freedom as an imperative of man's nature; the prohibition of the initiation of force.

- Individualism & rational self-interest as the appropriate ethics for man (entailing the repudiation of the traditional ethics of self-sacrifice).

- Capitalism/limited constitutional government as man's appropriate economic/political system.

- Art as a requirement of man's existence & Romantic Realism as his appropriate kind of art.

Now, you won't find SOLOists denying any of these things, though you may find some "chewing" of some of them, the last two in particular. (Of course, you will find folk on SOLOHQ denying, or challenging them - that's because there's an open Forum there where non- & anti-Objectivists can come & take us on. Perish the thought that we should engage those who don't agree with us!)

SOLO does not seek to "rewrite Objectivism." It does seek to change the culture of Objectivism that the ARI has imposed for too long now. Nietzsche said that one must forgive a philosopher his [her] first generation of disciples. It's hard to forgive the ARI for its bullying, its intimidation, its malevolence, its dishonesty, its blackballing of Titans like Sciabarra & Machan & Kelley & Walsh, its cultivation of subservience & mediocrity; perhaps, instead, one should remind oneself of the positive side to ARI ... & move on to create something better entirely. To paraphrase SOLO's Credo:

"We want to help Objectivism become the living, breathing, growing, vibrant, reality-orientated, life-affirming phenomenon that it really is."

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