|Following Stephen's links to ObjectivistLiving, and browsing a little on that thread, I read, once again, David Kelley's description of 'What is Objectivism?' - from the section of that name, in chapter 5 of Kelley's book "The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand". It is worth re-printing here.|
What is Objectivism?
In The Objectivist Newsletter, Ayn Rand described the central tenets of her philosophy as follows:
"In metaphysics, that reality exists as an objective absolute;
In epistemology, that reason is man's only means of perceiving reality and his only means of survival;
In ethics, that man is an end in himself, with the pursuit of his own life, happiness and self-interest as his highest end;
In politics, laissez-faire capitalism."
Is this the essence of Objectivism? Certainly these four principles are essential. But they are not enough. These are extremely broad doctrines as stated. Every one of them has been defended by other philosophers, and the package as a whole is not too far from the views of many Enlightenment thinkers. If Ayn Rand had said no more than this, we could not credit her with having created a distinctive system, much less a system that provides the fundamental alternative to Kant. She would properly be regarded as a secular and individualist thinker within the Aristotelian tradition. To identify what makes Objectivism unique, we have to be more specific. We need to identify the basic insights and connections that allowed Ayn Rand to give an original defense of the four principles I stated. So let us take a closer look at each of the relevant areas.
In metaphysics, Ayn Rand's view of reality as objective, her view of facts as absolutes, is basically Aristotelian. But her formulation of this view states its essential elements with unprecedented depth and clarity. Her axiom of existence expresses the insight that existence is the primary metaphysical fact, not to be questioned or explained; that the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is meaningless; that existence does not derive from some more fundamental stratum of forms or essences. Her principle of the primacy of existence denies that reality is malleable by consciousness, even a divine consciousness. This closes off the possibility that nature has a supernatural creator—a possibility that Aristotle left open. And it distinguishes her from modern Kantian views which claim that the world we know is merely an appearance, shaped by our own concepts and conventions. Finally, she formulated the laws of identity and causality as axioms that define the realm of metaphysical facts, and that ground the operations of reason. The law of identity, which says that a thing must have a specific and non-contradictory nature, is the basis for all deductive reasoning. The law of causality, which says that a thing must act in accordance with its nature, is the basis of all inductive reasoning. In epistemology, Ayn Rand also agreed with Aristotle—up to a point. She held that reason is man's means of knowledge, that it gives us the capacity to grasp the world as it is, that the material of knowledge is provided by the senses, that the method of reason is logic, and that this method is grounded in fact. But she went far beyond this. I would say that three of her insights in epistemology are essential to Objectivism.
The first is her concept of objectivity, and her rejection of the false dichotomy between intrinsicism and subjectivism. I described this insight at the beginning of my essay, and have relied upon it throughout. It runs through every part of her epistemology, as well as her ethics and politics; it is the Archimedean point from which she overthrows the Kantian system. A second and closely related insight is her recognition that reason is the faculty of concepts, and that a concept is an integration of particulars on the basis of their similarities. A concept is an abstraction. It is not merely a name for an arbitrary collection of things we happen to classify together, but an integration of them into a new mental unit that expands the range of our knowledge. An abstraction, however, does not exist as such, over and above the concretes it integrates; it is the rule by which they are integrated. So it cannot be divorced from its perceptual basis and allowed to float free. As a result of this theory, Objectivism has a highly distinctive view about what it means to think conceptually, to think in principles—a view that avoids the classic defects of rationalism on the one hand and empiricism on the other.
The final point I would mention in epistemology is that reason is a volitional faculty: that conceptual integration, unlike sense-perception, is a cognitive function that must be initiated and directed by choice. This is the essence of our free will, and the source of our need for epistemological standards. It is also the psychological source of hostility toward reason. In analyzing the varieties of irrationalism, as I noted in Section III, Ayn Rand always traced them back to the desire for an effortless, automatic mode of cognition.
This brings us to the fields of ethics and politics, where Ayn Rand's views were most distinctive. Her most important contribution in ethics is clearly her insight that values are rooted in the phenomenon of life. Values exist because the existence of a living organism depends on its own goal-directed action; in order to survive it must treat certain things as good for it and other things as bad. This is her solution to the notorious is-ought problem in philosophy, the problem of how normative conclusions can be derived from facts about the world, and it provides the basis for an objective ethics.
If we value life, then our nature requires certain kinds of actions, which we identify as virtues. Since reason is our basic means of survival, the primary, essential virtue is rationality: the acceptance of reason as an absolute, and a commitment to the use of rational standards and methods in every issue we confront. All of the other virtues are implicit in rationality; they involve the acceptance and use of reason in specific areas such as judging others (justice) or creating value (productiveness). But the virtue of independence deserves special mention because it also involves the recognition and acceptance of the volitional character of reason. The fact that we must initiate and direct the process of thought means that we must not subordinate our judgment of the facts to the minds of others, no matter how numerous; and that the sense of efficacy that is crucial to self-esteem is ours to achieve by our own effort. In this respect, the virtue of independence is the key link between epistemology and politics. Because reason is volitional, it is a faculty of the individual, whose freedom to act independently, on his own autonomous judgment, must be protected by a system of political rights.
If these are the central virtues in Objectivism, what are the central values? Life, of course, is the fundamental value, but what about the subsidiary values, the ones we need if we are to maintain, fulfill, and enjoy our lives? What is most distinctive to Ayn Rand in this regard is her new about the central role of production in man's life. Productive work, the creation of value, is our basic means of dealing with reality and a precondition for the pursuit of any other value. Psychologically, it is a vital source of one's sense of efficacy and self-worth. Production is not merely a practical necessity; it is man's glory. Our ability to reshape the world in the image of our values, in a world open to our achievement, is the essence of her view of man as a heroic being, a view that shaped and colored everything she wrote.
Finally, we cannot omit her explicit rejection of altruism and the mind-body dichotomy. This is a negative point, but we need to include it because Ayn Rand was virtually without precedent here. Many other philosophers have adopted views that are implicitly egoistic, but few were willing to put their cards on the table, to say explicitly: altruism is wrong, self-sacrifice is a perversion of ethics. The same is true of the dichotomy between mind and body, between the material and the spiritual. Ayn Rand is distinctive in her exalted, idealistic defense of such worldly values as sex and wealth.
In politics, the essence of the Objectivist view is the principle of individual rights. The rights of the individual, not the welfare of the collective, provide the moral basis of capitalism. Of course Ayn Rand did not originate the concept of rights; she inherited it from the individualist thinkers of the Enlightenment. Her contribution was to give their political individualism an ethical basis in egoism, the right of each individual to pursue his own happiness; and an epistemological basis in the fact that reason is a faculty of the individual mind. She also identified the fact that rights can be violated only by force. A right is a right to action, not to a good like food, shelter, or medical care, and it can be violated only if someone forcibly prevents one from acting. The political implication of these views is that the government must be strictly limited: limited in function to the protection of rights, and limited in its methods to acting in accordance with objective law.
Such, in briefest outline, is the essential content of Objectivism as a philosophy. Not all of the ideas I've mentioned were discovered by Ayn Rand, but many of them were, and the integration of them into a system was hers. This outline captures the essential principles that distinguish Objectivism from every other viewpoint—no adherent of a rival philosophy would embrace all of them. Conversely, anyone who accepted all of these ideas would have to consider himself an Objectivist. But notice what I have left out. I omitted a number of points in epistemology, ethics, and politics. I omitted the entire field of aesthetics, just as Ayn Rand did in her brief summary. I haven't said anything about the role of philosophy in history, or the identification of Kant as an arch-villain.
I've omitted these things, not because I disagree with them, or because they are unimportant, but because they are not primary. Some are technical theories required to explain and defend the primary claims that I did include. Some are implications and applications of those primary claims. All of them are principles of limited range and significance for the system as a whole. They are logically connected to the points I've mentioned, and they contribute to the richness and power of Objectivism as a system of thought; if we regard them as true, we will naturally include them as elements in the system. But someone may challenge these noncentral tenets without ceasing to be an Objectivist. The outline I gave was not intended as an exhaustive presentation of Objectivism as I understand it. My purpose was to identify the boundaries of the debate and development that may take place within Objectivism as a school of thought.
It's also important to stress that the principles I have mentioned are not to be taken as a list of articles of faith. They are elements in a connected system. I have been asked whether I would consider someone to be an Objectivist if he accepted all these principles but denied some other point—e.g., that honesty is a virtue. My answer is that the question is premature. I would need to know the reason for his position. If he rejects honesty because he doesn't like it, even though he happens to like the points I've mentioned, then he would not be an adherent of the Objectivist philosophy because he is not an adherent of any philosophy. A philosophy is a logically integrated system, not a grab bag of isolated tenets adopted arbitrarily. If the person did have a reason for his position, then I would need to know what it is. I cannot imagine any argument in favor of dishonesty that does not rest on a rejection of rationality, in which case the person is outside the framework of Objectivism. But if his position is that honesty, while good, is not important enough as an issue to be considered a cardinal virtue; or that the scope of legitimate "white lies" is larger than Ayn Rand allowed; or any number of other variant positions in all such cases, I would consider him an Objectivist even if I disagreed with him, as long as he defends his view by reference to the basic principles.
Like any other philosophy, in short, Objectivism has an essential core: a set of basic doctrines that distinguishes it from other viewpoints and serves as the skeleton of the system. The implication is that anyone in substantial agreement with those doctrines is an Objectivist. I believe that a great deal of damage has been done by refusing to take this attitude. It's been thirty years since Atlas Shrugged was published, the length of an entire generation. After all that time, only a handful of philosophers are willing to identify themselves as Objectivists, and our output has been pretty thin; a complete bibliography would not amount to much. This is partly because Objectivism lies so far outside the main-stream of academic thought. But another reason is the insistence on defining Objectivism in the narrow fashion that Peikoff urges, and the atmosphere of dogmatism that accompanies it. In the name of preserving the purity and integrity of the system, Objectivists have too often relied on stereotypical formulations of Ayn Rand's ideas. They have been quick to pounce on thinkers who might have been their allies. They have greeted new extensions of the system with a timid caution that reminds me of the Council of Scholars in Anthem, who spent fifty years debating the wisdom of accepting that radical innovation, the candle. These policies have discouraged independent thinking, they have driven away creative minds, they have kept Objectivism from being the living, growing philosophy it could be.
[this is a copy from the ObjectivistLiving post by Michael Stuart Kelly at the link supplied above]