Monday, October 08, 2007

Shrugged off

Like Vernunft, my exposure to Rand has been less than satisfactory. Unlike him, though, I managed to avoid her until I was in college. I don't recall hearing of her or her philosophy while young, and none of my high school courses involved one of her books (from what I understand, many people read The Fountainhead in a high school course). I remember hearing about Atlas Shrugged in high school, but only to the extent of admiring the title.

My first major exposure occurred during my junior year of undergrad. I had finally begun to self-identify as a libertarian (which, in retrospect, was a place I had been headed towards for some time), and I kept hearing about Rand from other libertarians. The majority of them disliked her and her books, but claimed her books were important anyway. The Objectivists in the libertarian groups asserted that Atlas Shrugged was her greatest work, so I decided to see what the fuss was about.

As it turned out, the fuss was about an overly long book filled with unsympathetic characters, wooden dialogue, gold fetishism, and ridiculous happenings in settings where characters proclaimed the existence of an objective reality. Every character was identifiable as either Good or Bad, and any character that wasn't pure Good was a moocher and anti-life. To top it off is the infamous John Galt speech that if actually given would take three hours. In short, not a good book by any account.

However, I could see the value of some of her ideas. At that point, I had not encountered anyone who claimed selfishness was morally good, and her belief that capitalism was the only economic system compatible with human freedom was refreshing (especially when surrounded by college-age lefties). I decided to read some of her philosophy in the hope she was a better philosopher than novelist.

I read a number of her philosophical tracts available on the internet, and I reached several conclusions. First, she never actually read anything written by Kant. Her attacks on him were nonsensical, either because she was attacking something that actually supported her position or because she was attacking something he never claimed (many of her critiques seemed to address points made by Hume, not Kant). Second, she borrowed heavily from Nietzsche. While understandable to the extent they were both egoists, there's something very amusing about a person incorporating Nietszche's work when trying to prove the existence of objective morality. Finally, the reason most philosophers ignore her work is because it's contradictory and incoherent.

On that last point, I decided to make one more attempt to understand her philosophy by attending some Objectivist meetings. I hoped that adherents to her philosophy could clarify her beliefs. Instead, I found people who refused to acknowledge any shortcomings in her work, claimed there was a massive philosophical conspiracy against her by people afraid of the truth, and who doubted quantum mechanics because it conflicted with the notion of an objective reality. They even believed Rand was correct in proclaiming the existence of objective aesthetics. I attended several meetings, but it was no use. They were devoted to Rand, and any questioning of her works meant I was too dim to truly grasp the material.

From talking to other libertarians, apparently my experience is fairly common. In some ways, it's a shame. Libertarianism does owe Rand a debt for attempting to create a moral underpinning for minarchism, but it's hard to rationally explain that to the average individual whose only exposure to Rand usually involves an asshole Objectivist (which is a somewhat redundant description). Like many true believers, the Objectivists have managed to drive away those interested in rationally discussing ideas and thereby marginalize the object of their worship.

I do disagree with Vernunft on the marginalization of Rand by university professors, though. First, it gives the Objectivists material for their claims of an anti-Rand conspiracy. Second, I think her work would be ideal material for critique by philosophy classes. Evaluating a flawed philosophy seems like it would help develop the critical thinking skills that higher education is supposed to instill in students.

Then again, when I consider the critical thinking I encounter in many educated people, assigning Rand to undergrads would probably convert them to Objectivism. Maybe ignoring her is for the best.


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