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BRUCE GOLDBERG: Ayn Rand’s “ For the New Intellectual ” - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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Ayn Rand’s “For the New Intellectual”
SURELY ONE OF the singularly most exciting intellectual occurrences of the last few years is that libertarianism has found a dynamic spokesman, a philosopher who seeks to discover the key to man’s survival in the undeniable truth that A is A, an economist who seeks to demonstrate the superiority of capitalism by deducing it from that same truth, a moralist who defines the path to virtue as following from a single axiom—existence exists, and, in addition to all this, a novelist who makes the best-seller list of the New York Times. Her influence, especially on the college campus, cannot be denied, even by those who, whether on the left or the right, regard her as a knot on the tree of knowledge. Ayn Rand is unquestionably a figure to be reckoned with Though her novels have contained philosophical passages, it has not been altogether easy to see how the various threads join. Now, her latest publication, For the New Intellectual, offers a selection of those passages, with an overtly philosophical introduction which places the rest of the system in perspective. At last the eager student can get some sort of overview of the intellectual edifice which is presented for his acceptance. I must say at the outset that I have not found the offering very palatable. Not, let me hasten to add, because I disagree with the conclusions—free trade, a minimum of governmental interference in the economy, the immorality of altruism, are, I think, eminently justifiable intellectual positions. Rather it is the paucity of rational arguments, the frequency with which nonsense is offered as self-evident truth, the hysterical ranting against opponents who have had their views distorted beyond recognition, the amateurish psychologizing—in a word, the sloppiness of the whole thing, which forces me to regard it as a paradigm of philosophical incompetence. The temptation is to see it as a huge joke, a farce by means of which its creator can laugh at the gullible. But at the risk of being taken in I shall treat this book seriously, with perhaps only the popularity of the doctrine to justify the enterprise. My method shall be the following—I shall quote, sometimes at length, from the book, and then comment on the material presented.
The following passage contains, in an important sense, the core of Ayn Rand’s “theory of man,” i.e., a statement of the characteristics by virtue of which man is a moral agent. It is on the basis of this theory, together with certain other epistemological “truths” (which I shall consider later) that she hopes to construct a system of morality. For this reason, what Miss Rand says on this matter seems to me to deserve careful examination.
Man’s consciousness shares with animals the first two stages of its development: sensations and perceptions; but it is the third stage, conceptions, that make him man. Sensations are integrated into perceptions automatically, by the brain of a man or of an animal. But to integrate perceptions into conceptions by a process of abstraction, is a feat that man alone has the power to perform—and he has to perform it by choice. The process of abstraction and of concept-formation is a process of reason, of thought; it is not automatic nor instinctive nor involuntary nor infallible. Man has to initiate it, to sustain it and to bear responsibility for its results. The pre-conceptual level of consciousness is non-volitional; volition begins with the first syllogism.1
In the first place, what are sensations and perceptions as the expressions are used here? On p. 153 the author says that “reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by [man’s] senses.” But if perception is a function of reason then presumably if animals share with man the ability to perceive they too must be possessed of that faculty. Or does reason perform the perceptual function with regard to the material provided by an entity’s senses if and only if that entity is a man? In this case it would seem that human and animal perception are significantly different since the former is rational while the latter is not. If this is so, then in what way are they similar? Is the similarity sufficient to call them a single stage which both animals and men go through? Briefly, either perception is a single stage which both men and animals go through or it is not. If it is then it is either rational or not. If it is a single stage which they go through and it is rational then animals are (to an extent which Ayn Rand would certainly be unwilling to admit) rational. On the other hand if it is a single stage and is not rational then the statement on p. 153 is false. Finally, if it is not a single stage (the only way out of the above dilemma) then it is not a stage which men and animals share, and the first sentence I have quoted from p. 9 is false.
A similar problem arises with the second sentence from p. 9. There it is held that sensations are integrated into perceptions automatically. But if reason is necessary for perception then reason is an automatic process (something the author repeatedly denies). However, if reason is not an automatic process and sensations are integrated into perceptions automatically then reason does not enter and again the statement on p. 153 which says it does is false.
Perhaps we can get Miss Rand out of this muddle by a terminological adjustment, using the paragraph on p. 9 to provide the clue. There it is said that reason (abstraction) enters when perceptions are integrated into conceptions. If we now identify the conceptions of p. 9 with the perceptions of p. 153 and regard “perception” on p. 9 as referring to something else entirely, the internal contradiction in Miss Rand’s psychological theory (sic) is no more. With the hope that my house-cleaning has been of some help I let this matter rest.
Abstraction, we are told, is a process of thought which must be initiated by man. I take this to mean that an act of abstraction is volitionally produced. Since volition begins with the first syllogism it should be safe to assume that until one has gone through one’s first syllogism one cannot abstract. This conclusion, I submit, is downright stupid. Often children are not able to see how the conclusion of a syllogism follows from its premisses and, as anyone who has taught logic in college knows, some very mature students are not able to reason syllogistically at all. Are we to say that these latter are unable to abstract? Or even more absurdly, that they have no power of volition? As if this were not enough the author refers, on p. 152, to the first ray of light that one perceives (conceives) at the start of one’s life as part of one’s knowledge. Presumably what is meant is conceptual knowledge since the passage indicates that the first ray of light is regarded as on a continuum with the widest erudition one acquires in a lifetime. But how could it be conceptual knowledge? This is volitional and surely new-born infants cannot reason syllogistically. Apparently we must say either that babies can reason syllogistically or that the first ray of light one perceives at the start of one’s life is not part of one’s knowledge, in which case the statement on p. 152 is false. The choice between these two alternatives I leave as an exercise for the reader.
Miss Rand informs us that one has to choose to abstract. But on her own showing it should be impossible to do this. How can one choose to abstract if prior to abstracting one is not even able to form a single concept? In this pre-conceptual stage of development what reasons could there be either for abstracting or for abstaining from abstracting? Clearly there could be none. Reasons cannot be weighed by an entity which is not possessed of any concepts at all. What factors are involved in a person’s choosing to abstract? Does he engage in a mental monologue like “Abstracting is really more rational than not abstracting, therefore I’ll abstract”? But this is preposterous. Such a train of thought is inconceivable in an entity which does not already possess the power to abstract. The following should be patently obvious. One cannot choose to do anything until one has some notion of what it is that one is choosing to do. But such a notion could not be formed unless one could already form general concepts, i.e., until one has the ability to abstract. Apparently then, one must think (abstract) before one chooses to think and the prior act of thinking cannot (logically) be the product of a choice. From this dialectical mess I see no escape.
My detailed examination of this paragraph has not been without point. I hope to have illustrated, at least in part, the sloppy use of (undefined) technical terms, the lack of even a semblance of consistency, and above all, the shoddy reasoning that characterizes the writings of this lady. How ghastly must a philosophy be which is based in large measure on a paragraph such as this of which not a single sentence, not even a phrase, is true.
Miss Rand conceives herself to be warring against almost every philosophical system, past and present—and indeed she is. The enemy she regards as essentially two, designated with a dashing insight reminiscent of Harry Golden, as Attila and the Witch Doctor.2 The former is
the man who rules by brute force, acts on the range of the moment, is concerned with nothing but the physical reality immediately before him, respects nothing but man’s muscles, and regards a fist, a club or a gun as the only answer to any problem.3
The latter is
the man who dreads physical reality, dreads the necessity of practical action, and escapes into his emotions, into visions of some mystic realm where his wishes enjoy a supernatural power unlimited by the absolute of nature.4
Employing these “concepts” Miss Rand surveys a bit of history and the history of philosophy with an abandon and lack of concern for truth that is embarrassing. A few examples will serve to indicate what I mean.
Plato’s system was a monument to the Witch Doctor’s metaphysics—with its two realities, with the physical world as a semi-illusory, imperfect, inferior realm, subordinated to a realm of abstractions (which means in fact, though not in Plato’s statement: subordinated to man’s consciousness) . . .5
Without condescending to discuss the relationship between Plato and Miss Rand’s Witch Doctor, let us merely ask why, if the physical world is subordinated to the world of Forms (abstractions) does it follow that it is subordinated to man’s consciousness. What is the justification for this statement which Miss Rand cavalierly tosses off with her characteristic disdain for logical argument? Suppose I say (and this is certainly part of what Plato meant) that the physical world is inferior to the world of abstractions in the sense that in order to understand the nature of any physical entity one must subsume it under a universal concept. In order to understand what this object before me is I must subsume it under the general concept “table,” a concept which applies not only to this object but to all other tables as well. (This, by the way, is an important part of the epistemology of Miss Rand’s beloved Aristotle, whom she seems to understand no better than any of the other philosophers with whom she deals). In this sense then, the physical object, the table, is subordinated to the concept “table.” Does it follow then that it is subordinated to human consciousness (an expression I take to mean dependent for its existence on some human beings perceiving it)? How does one get to the conclusion Miss Rand has drawn? I must confess that the connection remains a mystery to me. Perhaps it was an oversight, a slip, a free association . . . but I move on.
Philosophy (in the Middle Ages) existed as a “handmaiden of theology,” and the dominant influence was, appropriately, Plato’s in the form of Plotinus and Augustine. Aristotle’s works were lost to the scholars of Europe for centuries. The prelude to the Renaissance was the return of Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas.6
Miss Rand is either misinformed or else has allowed the demands of simplicity to take precedence over those of truth. The passage I have quoted gives the impression that Aristotle was unknown to or at least had no influence on medieval philosophers before St. Thomas. The slightest acquaintance with the writings of Boethius or Abelard or St. Thomas’ teacher Albertus Magnus, would be sufficient to convince one of the falsity of Miss Rand’s historical reporting. Again, she seems to attribute the doctrine that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology to the influence of Plato. But St. Thomas, in whom the influence of Aristotle was certainly greater than that of Plato, preached precisely this doctrine. As an historian I am admittedly a layman, but even my unpracticed eye can detect that Miss Rand’s historical writing is, not to be unkind, in need of improvement.
I pass over the offensive attack on Descartes with its irritating equivocations and groundless conclusions. Miss Rand’s technique of vilification is most apparent when she turns to Hume, who is dismissed, without any rational argument at all, in two malicious paragraphs. A sample:
When Hume declared that the apparent existence of an object did not guarantee that it would not vanish spontaneously next moment, and the sunrise of today did not prove that the sun would rise tomorrow . . . what men were hearing was the manifesto of a philosophical movement that can be designated only as Attila-ism.7
Does Miss Rand think that the apparent existence of an object guarantees that it will not vanish in the next moment? Does the fact that there is apparently a pink rat in the path of a drunkard guarantee that there will continue to be a pink rat in that path? Not only Hume but every sane person would answer this question negatively. And yet Miss Rand regards this as part of the manifesto of Attila-ism. And yet perhaps not. I do want to be fair to this lady. There seems to be, in the next phrase, a way out of the absurdity at which we have just arrived. Suppose we attribute the argument about apparent existence to sloppy formulation or something of the sort. The remark about the sunrise seems to be of sterner stuff so let us remain a moment with it. The problem toward which Miss Rand seems to be fumbling is the traditional philosophical problem of induction and it is Hume’s view on this problem that she regards as evil. What is his view? Briefly, without introducing too much technical philosophical terminology, it is this. Hume distinguished between two sorts of propositions, those which express relations of ideas and those which express matters of fact. An example of the former is “A bachelor is an unmarried man.” Such a statement cannot possibly be false. As soon as one understands the meaning of the constituent expressions one understands that the statement is necessarily true. Its truth is absolutely certain. On the other hand, a statement expressing a matter of fact, such as “There is a table in the next room” can never be known with absolute certainty. (What I have just said is not a completely accurate rendering of Hume’s view—of his distinction between philosophical and unphilosophical probability—but it will suffice here.) What Hume means by saying that propositions expressing matters of fact can never be known with absolute certainty is that their denial is not self-contradictory. There is no contradiction in either affirming or denying the statement “There is a table in the next room” while there is in affirming “A bachelor is a married man.” Now he asks, is there a contradiction involved in saying “The sun rose today but it will not rise tomorrow.” Since there is none, the fact that the sun rose today does not entail that it will rise tomorrow. Consider: A. The sun rose today; B. The sun will rise tomorrow. The first could be true while the second is false—therefore the truth of the first does not prove the truth of the second. Whatever one thinks of this argument, and I personally do not think it is correct, it is certainly not morally evil. But even further—and this is what irritates—what reasons does Miss Rand bring forth to persuade the reader that Hume is wrong? Not a one. Instead we are treated to still another of her nasty snears: “If it were possible for an animal to describe the content of his consciousness the result would be a transcript of Hume’s philosophy.”8 This is indeed the very zenith of intellectual putrefaction. It might be worthwhile at this point to contrast Miss Rand’s opinion of the great Scottish philosopher with that of a man who does occupy an important place in the libertarian tradition. Adam Smith, the philosopher’s great friend, said this of him after his death: “Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime, and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit.”9
Miss Rand’s discussion of Kant is too puerile to be worthy of much discussion. The following is characteristic:
His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.10
Where is the support for this sickening display of ill-concealed fabrication? Where did this hate blinded woman find Kant saying anything like what she attributes to him? One can only conclude that she either has never read Kant or else is deliberately misrepresenting him for her own ends. Again and again, in reading Ayn Rand, suffocating in her invective, one feels like crying out “Disagree if you want to, if you must, disagree even if you don’t understand—but be honest!”
Again, in discussing Kant’s morality Miss Rand is guilty of misinterpretation. She argues that, according to Kant, an action is moral only if one has no desire to perform it. This is simply false, though it must be admitted here that even some philosophers have made the same mistake Miss Rand makes (although none, I should add, have made it in quite so nasty a way).11
Hegel, Marx, Comte, Spencer, Nietzsche, and Bentham share similar fates at Miss Rand’s hands. (If ever I felt sympathetic to Marx it was when I read her account of his philosophy—no one, not even Marx, deserves this.) Finally we come to “the combined neo-mystic Witch-Doctory and Attila-ism of the Logical Positivists.”12 One turns the page expecting to find another victim in the tragical-comical-historical-pastoral existentialists but no such luck. The mood has changed and we are now instructed as eager aspirants to the club of New Intellectuals as to what to do to overcome the legacy of our wretched past, whose ills have been paraded before us.
I WANT TO TURN my attention now from the introduction to the last hundred pages of For the New Intellectual which, Miss Rand indicates, contain the essentials of her philosophy. Here, one hopes, will be a reasonably integrated set of arguments. But again the expectant reader is disappointed, for this section of the book, too, is filled with the same sort of fustian tirades against the enemy concerning which I have already commented. Here though, it must be admitted, it is decidedly more difficult to prove that the author is guilty of distortion, for while the introduction at least contained proper names which made Miss Rand’s errors apparent, the enemy here remains anonymous. The mention of alien doctrines is generally prefaced by “you are told” or “they proclaim,” the “they’s” being “cheap little hypocrites” (p. 175), “college professors” (p. 196), “grotesque little atavists” (p. 208), “mystics” (two varieties—muscle and spirit passim.), “parasites” (p. 202), “sniveling neurotics” (p. 180), and “zero-worshippers” (p. 166). On occasion, though, there are clues as to who “they” really are and the interested reader might hazard a guess here and there.13 If this exercise fails to make the arguments any more cogent it does provide a bit of much needed diversion.
For the present I want to ignore the assault on the enemy and examine very briefly selected doctrines which Miss Rand regards as essential ingredients in her own philosophy. An important word of qualification is necessary. The section of For the New Intellectual under consideration here is excerpted from Miss Rand’s most recent novel Atlas Shrugged. With this in mind it is difficult for a reviewer to decide on the proper standards to employ in its criticism. On the one hand one may acknowledge that it is, after all, from a novel and regard it as a kind of literary exercise, a bit of mals-lettres. On the other hand, it is explicitly represented by its author as a presentation of her philosophy. Viewing it in this light would necessitate a critique employing the same standards which are proper to the examination of any other work of philosophy. I have chosen the latter alternative.
Man’s life is the standard of morality, but your own life is its purpose. . . . every man is an end in itself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.
It is for the purpose of self-preservation that man needs a code of morality.
His own happiness is man’s only moral purpose . . .14
What is one to conclude from these four statements? The first and third tell us that life (self-preservation) is the purpose of morality, while the second and fourth tell us that man’s happiness is. Perhaps the contradiction has only an apparent existence and we can make it vanish semi-spontaneously by saying that life and happiness are the same thing. But this cannot be, for on p. 161 the author states that “happiness is the goal and the reward of life.” Happiness and life then are different. Which is the purpose of morality? Are they both? This would be consistent with the statement from p. 150 which says only that happiness is the highest moral purpose. Certainly it could be the highest moral purpose with life playing the role of a secondary, lower order purpose. But this won’t do, since the statement on p. 161 expresses the “truth” that happiness is man’s only moral purpose. One final attempt. Perhaps happiness is man’s only moral purpose and life is morality’s purpose. But this would be at best a sophistical solution. Surely to say that morality has a purpose is only an elliptical way of saying what human purposes morality serves. Morality is not the name of an entity which has purposes of its own. But if the purpose of morality is to keep people alive then presumably the purpose of a human being in being moral is life, which may lead to, but is certainly a different thing from, happiness. I cannot but regard Ayn Rand’s pronouncements on the purpose of morality as hopelessly muddled. A parenthetical remark—generally when one says that a given thing is the highest of its type there are other things of that type which have a lower status. But if happiness is man’s only moral purpose how can it also be man’s highest moral purpose?
The root of Ayn Rand’s moral code is to be found on p. 152. It is “the axiom that existence exists.” How a moral code can rest on this “axiom” must surely be one of the sublimer truths of nature. This statement, unlike most of the others in the book, does not even have the merit of being false for, like “The Nothing noughts” of Heidegger fame, it is a patent piece of nonsense. Tables exist, people exist, but what sense does it make to say that existence exists? Is existence another thing, like tables and people which exists in its own right in addition to them? To say that existence exists is like saying that length is long or that circularity is round or that the truth is true.15 The expression “existence exists” is a meaningless piece of verbiage which cannot be the root of anything. Yet this is what we are offered as the foundation of a moral code, this is what justified the spiteful insults hurled at Hume and Kant—but I must hold my tongue.
Even with all the irrationality contained in these pages it is, I think, most depressing of all when Miss Rand sets up a straw-man and then, by her ignorance of the most elementary logical principles, fails even to damage the caricature she has constructed.
If you search your code for guidance, for an answer to the question: “What is the good?”—the only answer you will find is “The good of others.” . . . Your standard of virtue is not an object, not an act, not a principle, but an intention. You need no proof, no reasons, no success, you need not achieve in fact the good of others,—all you need to know is that your motive was the good of others, not your own. Your only definition of the good is a negation the good is the “non-good for me.”16
Miss Rand has transformed the principle “The good of others” which is itself hardly an accurate rendering of the utilitarian principle, into the non-good for me. These two expressions are not at all synonymous nor are they logically equivalent. “X is good for non-me” does not mean the same as “X is non-good for me.” The first doesn’t even imply the second. Isn’t it obvious that something can be both good for non-me and good for me—a free enterprise economy for example.
The rest of these hundred pages contains more of the same. I say in all honesty that I have never read a book (and I am not excluding The Affluent Society) which contained more contradictions and misstatements than this one. “Accept the fact that you are not omniscient . . . that your mind is fallible . . .” “Discard that unlimited license to evil which consists of claiming that man is imperfect.”17 Here I need only assure the doubters that Ayn Rand does indeed recommend both of these courses of action.
For the New Intellectual is an intolerably bad book. More than that it is a silly book; street corner rabble rousing can affect only the vulgar. That it should have come from the pen of the author of The Fountainhead, which is a genuinely fine novel, is not a little surprising. But as unfortunate as this book is, it would be even more unfortunate if it came to be regarded by anybody as a representative sample of libertarian thought. How easily the Left could shatter capitalism if this were its only defense! Fortuneately the superiority of free-enterprise can be demonstrated. But while von Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, to name only a few, make for more difficult reading and demand greater attentiveness than does Ayn Rand, the reward justifies the effort.
It is not difficult to understand the attraction Ayn Rand has for the uninstructed. She appears, I suppose, to be the spokesman for freedom, for self-esteem, and other equally noble ideals. However, patient examination reveals her pronouncements to be but a shroud beneath which lies the corpse of illogic. Those who are concerned with discovering the principles of a sound social philosophy can read and study libertarian thought at its best. The ludicrously mistitled “philosophy of Ayn Rand” is a sham. To those who are travelling her road I can only suggest its abandonment—for that way madness lies.
To those Hungarian students who gave their lives in the cause of liberty.
[* ] Bruce Goldberg received his B.A. from the City College of New York and is currently doing graduate work in philosophy at Princeton University, where he holds the Proctor Fellowship.
[1 ] p. 9. In this, and all succeeding quotations, the italics are in the text.
[2 ] In all fairness I must bring to the attention of the reader the fact that Miss Rand is not to be held responsible for thinking of these titles, only for accepting them. She tells us in a footnote that their author is Nathaniel Branden.
[3 ] p. 8.
[4 ] pp. 8-9.
[5 ] pp. 19-20.
[6 ] p. 21.
[7 ] pp. 29-30. A few other doctrines are also held to be Hume’s but their attribution to him is too silly to be worth comment.
[8 ] p. 30.
[9 ] Letter from Adam Smith to William Strahan. The entire text of the letter may be found in the Open Court Publishing Co. edition of Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding or on p. 604 of Ernest Campbell Mossner’s The Life of David Hume (Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1954).
[10 ] p. 33.
[11 ] For those who are interested in what Kant really said, a scholarly and highly critical account is contained in H. J. Paton’s The Categorical Imperative (Hutchinson’s University Library, 1946). Paton discusses Miss Rand’s error (though not, of course, with reference to the fact that she made it) on pp. 48-50.
[12 ] p. 36.
[13 ] I suggest as a start that the reader identify the mystics of muscle in this section with the Attila-people of the introduction and the mystics of the spirit with the Witch Doctors. If this results in no increase in clarity it might be tried the other way round.
[14 ] pp. 149, 150, 151, 161.
[15 ] Indeed, on p. 216 Miss Rand assures us that the truth is true.
[16 ] pp. 176-78. “Your code” here is utilitarianism, my evidence being the last sentence of the preceding paragraph in which the author speaks of a code whose major principle is the greatest good for the greatest number.
[17 ] Both of these statements occur on page 224.