Objectivism is a philosophical system developed by Russian-American writer Ayn Rand. Rand first expressed Objectivism in her fiction, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and later in non-fiction essays and books.
Leonard Peikoff, a professional philosopher and Rand’s designated intellectual heir, later gave it a more formal structure.
Rand described Objectivism as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”.
Peikoff characterizes Objectivism as a “closed system” insofar as its “fundamental principles” were set out by Rand and are not subject to change. However, he stated that “new implications, applications and integrations can always be discovered”.
Aspects of the Philosophy
Rand originally expressed her philosophical ideas in her novels – most notably, in both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She further elaborated on them in her periodicals The Objectivist Newsletter, The Objectivist, and The Ayn Rand Letter, and in non-fiction books such as Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and The Virtue of Selfishness.
The name “Objectivism” derives from the idea that human knowledge and values are objective: they exist and are determined by the nature of reality, to be discovered by one’s mind, and are not created by the thoughts one has. Rand stated that she chose the name because her preferred term for a philosophy based on the primacy of existence—”existentialism”—had already been taken.
Rand characterized Objectivism as “a philosophy for living on earth”, based on reality, and intended as a method of defining human nature and the nature of the world in which we live.
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.Ayn Rand
Metaphysics: objective reality
Rand’s philosophy begins with three axioms: existence, consciousness, and identity. Rand defined an axiom as “a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.” As Objectivist philosopher Leonard Peikoff argued, Rand’s argument for axioms “is not a proof that the axioms of existence, consciousness, and identity are true. It is proof that they are axioms, that they are at the base of knowledge and thus inescapable.”
Rand said that existence is the perceptually self-evident fact at the base of all other knowledge, i.e., that “existence exists”. She further said that to be is to be something, that “existence is identity”. That is, to be is to be “an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes”. That which has no nature or attributes does not and cannot exist. The axiom of existence is conceptualized as differentiating something from nothing, while the law of identity is conceptualized as differentiating one thing from another, i.e., one’s first awareness of the law of non-contradiction, another crucial base for the rest of knowledge. As Rand wrote, “A leaf … cannot be all red and green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time… A is A.” Objectivism rejects belief in anything alleged to transcend existence.
According to Rand, attaining knowledge beyond what is given by perception requires both volition (or the exercise of free will) and performing a specific method of validation by observation, concept-formation, and the application of inductive and deductive reasoning. For example, a belief in dragons, however sincere, does not mean that reality includes dragons. A process of proof identifying the basis in reality of a claimed item of knowledge is necessary to establish its truth.
Objectivist epistemology begins with the principle that “consciousness is identification”. This is understood to be a direct consequence of the metaphysical principle that “existence is identity”. Rand defined “reason” as “the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses”. Rand wrote “The fundamental concept of method, the one on which all the others depend, is logic. The distinguishing characteristic of logic (the art of non-contradictory identification) indicates the nature of the actions (actions of consciousness required to achieve a correct identification) and their goal (knowledge)—while omitting the length, complexity or specific steps of the process of logical inference, as well as the nature of the particular cognitive problem involved in any given instance of using logic.”
According to Rand, consciousness possesses a specific and finite identity, just like everything else that exists; therefore, it must operate by a specific method of validation. An item of knowledge cannot be “disqualified” by being arrived at by a specific process in a particular form. Thus, for Rand, the fact that consciousness must itself possess identity implies the rejection of both universal skepticism based on the “limits” of consciousness, as well as any claim to revelation, emotion or faith based belief.
Development by other authors
Several authors have developed and applied Rand’s ideas in their own work. Rand described Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels (1982), as “the first book by an Objectivist philosopher other than myself”. During 1991, Peikoff published Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, a comprehensive exposition of Rand’s philosophy. Chris Matthew Sciabarra discusses Rand’s ideas and theorizes about their intellectual origins in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995). Surveys such as On Ayn Rand by Allan Gotthelf (1999), Ayn Rand by Tibor R. Machan (2000), and Objectivism in One Lesson by Andrew Bernstein (2009) provide briefer introductions to Rand’s ideas.
Some scholars have emphasized applying Objectivism to more specific areas. Machan has developed Rand’s contextual conception of human knowledge (while also drawing on the insights of J. L. Austin and Gilbert Harman) in works such as Objectivity (2004), and David Kelley has explicated Rand’s epistemological ideas in works such as The Evidence of the Senses (1986) and A Theory of Abstraction (2001). Regarding the topic of ethics, Kelley has argued in works such as Unrugged Individualism (1996) and The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand (2000) that Objectivists should pay more attention to the virtue of benevolence and place less emphasis on issues of moral sanction.
Kelley’s claims have been controversial, and critics Peikoff and Peter Schwartz have argued that he contradicts important principles of Objectivism. Kelley has used the term “Open Objectivism” for a version of Objectivism that involves “a commitment to reasoned, non-dogmatic discussion and debate”, “the recognition that Objectivism is open to expansion, refinement, and revision”, and “a policy of benevolence toward others, including fellow-travelers and critics”. Arguing against Kelley, Peikoff characterized Objectivism as a “closed system” that is not subject to change.
One Rand biographer says most people who read Rand’s works for the first time do it in their “formative years”. Rand’s former protégé Nathaniel Branden referred to Rand’s “especially powerful appeal to the young”, while Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute said Rand “appeals to the idealism of youth”.
This appeal has alarmed a number of critics of the philosophy. Many of these young people later abandon their positive opinion of Rand and are often said to have “outgrown” her ideas. Endorsers of Rand’s work recognize the phenomenon, but attribute it to the loss of youthful idealism and inability to resist social pressures for intellectual conformity. In contrast, historian Jennifer Burns, writing in Goddess of the Market (2009), writes some critics “dismiss Rand as a shallow thinker appealing only to adolescents”, although she thinks the critics “miss her significance” as a “gateway drug” to right-wing politics.
Academic philosophers have generally dismissed Objectivism since Rand first presented it. Objectivism has been termed “fiercely anti-academic” because of Rand’s criticism of contemporary intellectuals. David Sidorsky, a professor of moral and political philosophy at Columbia University, writes that Rand’s work is “outside the mainstream” and is more of an ideology than a comprehensive philosophy. British philosopher Ted Honderich notes that he deliberately excluded an article on Rand from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Rand is, however, mentioned in the article on popular philosophy by Anthony Quinton).
Rand is the subject of entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Routledge Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Political Thinkers, and The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy. Chandran Kukathas writes in an entry about Rand in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The influence of Rand’s ideas was strongest among college students in the USA but attracted little attention from academic philosophers.” Kukathas also writes that her defenses of capitalism and selfishness “kept her out of the intellectual mainstream”.