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Context Matters

The discussion of Rand's intellectual beginnings continues at SOLO HQ (previous comments are here and here). In response to various comments by Rick Giles, I reproduce my post below. Its theme: Context matters.

Rick asks: "We know what a philosopher believes, and why he claims to believe it, so why give a damn for who else besides ourselves believe it?"

In essence, if you want to change a society, you better care "who else besides ourselves believe it." :)

Now, you can get away with calling Romano a sissy—I don't agree with his article in general—but you're lucky you didn't call me one! I'm from Brooklyn. Enough said. :)

In truth, all that Romano says boils down to his conclusion: "When philosophers share the details of their lives, the impact extends to the reader." I do think that when we grasp the struggles of an Ayn Rand or the struggles of a Thomas Paine or the struggles of a Martin Luther King, Jr., it does help to contextualize "where they were coming from." And to that extent, at the very least, it does help us to appreciate where they may triumph, and where they may fail.

Rick states that in intellectual matters:

'Reasoning' is the final word on arriving at those conclusions. No further means are required or desired. ... Philosophical investigations do not require philosophical transactions with other thinkers nor extractions from the peculiar human conditions of one's lifetime. The 3 axioms of Objectivism are self-evident, at least in so far as we can transcend the distractions of our own personal life. All you have to do to grasp them is think for about 2 seconds. Trouble is, it can take hours or days of 'soul-searching' before one is rewarded with those life-changing 2 seconds. Likewise, the remainder of Objectivism may be derived from these axioms without inspiration from social or biological circumstances. It doesn't matter what galaxy you come from, what race you are, where in the timeline you come from—all that matters is that you have body and soul (though an ivory tower, armchair and some coke needn't be refused if available). Objectivism is the birthright of all rational animals everywhere and everywhen who are 'big enough' to claim it.

Then why didn't people prior to 1957 grasp it? In the wide scheme of human history, were human beings in the dark prior to 1957?

Even Ayn Rand herself argued that Objectivism would not have been possible without the Industrial Revolution—because it took that revolution to demonstrate the practical efficacy of the human mind, and to smash entirely the notion that philosophy was the realm of mere contemplation. Moreover, while what you say makes sense from a logical point of view—who here would argue fundamentally with the "logical structure of Objectivism"—it does lay waste to the whole inductive side of philosophy. Objectivism is most definitely not a Leibnizian deductive system, whatever logical connections one may find among its principles.

Understand too that I nowhere and never claim that "philosophical transactions with other thinkers nor extractions from the peculiar human conditions of one's lifetime" are the basis of philosophical truth. But I do think historian Andrew Collier is right when he says: "No philosophy exists in a vacuum; there are always particular opposing philosophies which coexist in any historical period, and every philosophy engages, implicitly or explicitly, in controversy with its opponents. Philosophy may seek truth, but it seeks it in an adversarial as well as in an investigative manner." From the time of Socratic and Platonic dialogue in ancient Greece through the engagement of Aristotle with his critics, and all the way up through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and modern philosophy, this "adversarial" process coexists with the "investigative" one, and they are not mutually exclusive.

As original as Rand was, she was still responding to the context in which she lived, hence her comment that she was "challenging the cultural tradition of two and a half thousand years." That doesn't mean you have to study every nook and cranny of those two and a half thousand years. But knowing something about it, and about the context in which she was born, and over which she triumphed, does help us to appreciate, I think, the depth and breadth of her accomplishment.

Rand claimed, in essence, that context matters. Well. It matters no less in the study of intellectual history.

Comments welcome, but readers are encouraged to read the full discussion at SOLO HQ.

Update (1): I made an additional comment at SOLO HQ here. I state:

In response to my question, Mike wrote:

The writings of Ayn Rand resonate VERY strongly with a percentage of people, numbering in the millions, on the first read. While not being able to explicitly state their philosophy before reading AR, these people are already objectivists, don't you think? How does one account for human progress up to the twentieth century without attributing it to an undercurrent of belief, in certain people, in the very principles explicated by Ayn Rand and objectivism?

I think that one could make an argument, as Ayn Rand did, that there was an implicit Aristotelianism in that progress, and on this, I would agree wholeheartedly. But it's quite a different proposition to claim that those who participated in human progress were Objectivists. Objectivism, as such, didn't exist prior to Rand's explication of it, even if certain ideas connected to Objectivism (realism, egoism, individualism, capitalism) existed in some form as part of other systems of thought. One can argue that many people, prior to Rand's explication of the philosophy, had a certain tacit adherence to some "Objectivist" principles. And, in the 20th century, those who had that tacit adherence may have been predisposed toward her work.

But all of this is fundamentally different from saying that people were "Objectivists" in the specific way that Rand meant it. If anything, I'd say most people---prior to 1957 and even today---are people of mixed premises. The only difference is that now, we have the benefit of having in Rand a philosopher who checked those premises fundamentally and who pointed to a thoroughly integrated and radical alternative.

Update (2): I made an additional comment at SOLO HQ here. I state:

Before this veers off-topic in a consideration of Linz's blasphemy :) ... just a quick note. Mike said:

Evidence for the fact that Ayn truly expressed man's nature is the attraction of Ayn Rand across the whole ethnic and cultural spectrum. People of intelligence are drawn to Ayn Rand's philosophy regardless of their background. The underlying nature of man, made explicit by Ayn Rand, has driven human progress from the very beginning.

There is evidence that Rand is gaining in popularity in the United States and maybe a few other countries (primarily in the West), but she is still primarily an American writer appealing to an American audience. I don't see her as being especially known or popular in, say, the Middle East or Russia or Asia or Africa, where, Lord knows, her influence is sorely needed.

That said, I'm not entirely sure one can also make the claim that "[t]he underlying nature of man, made explicit by Ayn Rand, has driven human progress from the very beginning," except in the implicit Aristotelian sense that I've suggested. And to a certain extent, that's pretty much what Rand herself claimed in For the New Intellectual:

If we consider the fact that to this day everything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value that we possess---including the birth of science, the industrial revolution, the creation of the United States, even the structure of our language—is the result of Aristotle's influence, of the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men accepted his epistemological principles, we would have to say: never have so many owed so much to one man.

I have made additional comments at SOLO HQ here, here, here, and here, where I state the following:

Rick says: "On the contrary sir, concerning human understanding there is only one judgement that matters and only one mind charged with the responsibility for that judgement- one's own."

You'll get no argument from me about the need to rely on the judgment of one's own mind as a primary responsibility. But Objectivism is not solipsism. There's a world out there, and much injustice, as I'm sure you would agree. And that's a "concrete" that very much calls out for understanding, application, and alteration.

I think we're talking over each other's heads here on the issue of appreciating biography. I agree with you that the conclusions have a life of rightness or wrongness independent of the biography of the person who formed them. But ideas are not disembodied creations. And history is not the unfolding of a Hegelian Idea. It is made by real flesh and blood, thinking individuals. All I've said is that we can enrich our appreciation of an idea if we situate it within the context in which it was born, and to which it speaks. And on one level, this is a crucially important aspect of our analysis, because it will tell us if the idea is relevant only to that context, or if it can be celebrated for its universal character.

In addition, the adversarial process that you believe is mere stimulus has also compelled philosophers and scientists alike to "go back to the drawing board" because the process itself revealed certain weaknesses in the logical implications of their arguments. I don't see why we need to place the adversarial and investigative processes in mutually exclusive, hermetically sealed, containers. Nothing exists in a vacuum.

Mike, I agree with you completely that there are properties in "Human Nature that have allowed individuals to overcome the mistakes of whatever culture they are born into and advance human progress, at least in their own lives." No disagreement on this at all. My point is that it is illegitimate to impute "Objectivism"---which has very specific philosophical implications for metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics---to those people in the past who have exercised their rational faculties and, in so doing, have advanced human progress. I agree completely that there is an implicit pro-life standard entailed in their actions, and that pro-life standard has been apparent from the very earliest steps in the evolution of the human species. But that doesn't make those who exercised their rational faculties into "Objectivists" in the way that Rand identified it. These same people who thought and produced may not have relied on the tenets of mysticism to flourish, but many of them thanked the gods for bestowing such blessings. And even though they may have implicitly accepted a rational standard of value, they often embraced an explicitly irrational ethos of altruistic duty or service to justify their actions. One of Rand's achievements is that she checked the mixed premises at work, seeking to make apparent the contradictions of moral convention, so that she might overturn them once and for all.

Finally, and most importantly, to Rick: Brooklyn may not have won a Super 12, but it's only because uttering "Brooklyn" and "rugby" in the same sentence is an oxymoron.

Update (3): See additional Notablog comments here.


I've begun to think that for some people, if you want to start them on Rand, the book to read is "We The Living", before Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I think that first book really established the context for the other two.

You make an interesting point, Stan.

For me, I think a lot depends on the particular person who wishes to read her. I'd say the same thing in recommending books by Rothbard, Hayek, or even Marx: Take the context of the reader into account first and foremost.