Introduction to Active Objectivism

“There is a dangerous little catch phrase which advises you to keep an “open mind.” This is a very ambiguous term — as demonstrated by a man who once accused a famous politician of having “a wide open mind.” That term is an anti-concept: it is usually taken to mean an objective, unbiased approach to ideas, but it is used as a call for perpetual skepticism, for holding no firm convictions and granting plausibility to anything. A “closed mind” is usually taken to mean the attitude of a man impervious to ideas, arguments, facts and logic, who clings stubbornly to some mixture of unwarranted assumptions, fashionable catch phrases, tribal prejudices — and emotions. But this is not a “closed” mind, it is a passive one. It is a mind that has dispensed with (or never acquired) the practice of thinking or judging, and feels threatened by any request to consider anything.

What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an “open mind,” but an active mind — a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically. An active mind does not grant equal status to truth and falsehood; it does not remain floating forever in a stagnant vacuum of neutrality and uncertainty; by assuming the responsibility of judgment, it reaches firm convictions and holds to them. Since it is able to prove its convictions, an active mind achieves an unassailable certainty in confrontations with assailants — a certainty untainted by spots of blind faith, approximation, evasion and fear.”

“Philosophical Detection,”
Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It?, 21

I want to start by referring largely to the article “Questions and Comments on the Closed System” By Diana Hsieh [2]. Note that her article itself refers largely to another article, “Fact and Value” By Leonard Peikoff [1]. I fully agree with Peikoff’s rejection of “Open Objectivism” as he argues in his article. However, I also reject his counter-position of “Closed Objectivism”, as argued by Diana Hsieh in her article, with some caveats and extensions that I will explain here:

“First, in “Fact and Value,” Peikoff says that the “the essence of the system [of Objectivism]–its fundamental principles and their consequences in every branch–is laid down once and for all by the philosophy’s author.” I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. Contra Kelley, to reject or revise some principles of Objectivism is to depart from Objectivism. The philosophy is not some loose family of views generated within a school of thought, but a specific system developed by a single person. It necessarily includes many principles regarded as derivative and hence optional by Kelley, such as the axiom of consciousness, the virtues of pride, honesty, and integrity, knowledge as hierarchical and contextual, the form/content distinction in perception, the benevolent universe premise, the value of romantic love, the whole of aesthetics, and so much more. In my view, the claim that Objectivism is an open system is not merely wrong, but disastrous as implemented in both academics and activism at TOC.”

I do of course agree with Hsieh that “The philosophy is not some loose family of views generated within a school of thought”, and also that the philosophy of Objectivism happened to have been largely developed initially by one person. I also further agree that the essence of the philosophy cannot ever be contradicted and the result still be referred to as “Objectivism”. And I also further agree that the positions of Ayn Rand on many of the derivative principles of Objectivism are integral and non-optional. However, and here is where I make a caveat to my agreement with Hsieh’s article, I strongly disagree with the statement in general that, “…their consequences in every branch–is laid down once and for all by the philosophy’s author”. She continues in the next paragraph:

“I also agree with Peikoff that “if anyone wants to reject Ayn Rand’s ideas and invent a new viewpoint, he is free to do so–but he cannot, as a matter of honesty, label his new ideas or himself ‘Objectivist’.””

My main contention here is that only disagreement on the essence of the idea, or any idea soundly derived from that essence, disqualifies an idea from being “Objectivist”. If it so happens that one of the derivative ideas, even if advocated by Ayn Rand herself, is in fact in contradiction to the whole essence of the philosophy she set out to define, and someone comes along later to straighten that point out, their fix is rightfully part of Objectivism, and not something separate.

It is important here for me to point out that I am not advocating any unusual notion of “the essence of Objectivism”. Ayn Rand was once asked to explain the fundamentals of Objectivism standing on one foot. Her response was as follows [3]:

1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality.

2. Epistemology: Reason.

3. Ethics: Self-Interest.

4. Politics: Laissez-Faire Capitalism.

However, it is also important to point out here a distinction between the essence of an idea, as contrasted with a set of fundamentals. The essence of an idea is singular, it can’t be a list of things, like some set of positions which make up some abstract particular. An essence is never a collection. The essence of Objectivism, I would say, is simply the philosophy of being objective. That is, having respect for reality, truth, logic, beauty, the good, and so on, and not to compromise or sacrifice these things for any reason. This is the essence or nature of the philosophy Ayn Rand set out to define, and any of her derivative positions, even some of the fundamental tenets of her metaphysical or epistemological philosophy, if they are found to be in contradiction to the basic idea of her philosophy – objectivity – then they ought to be corrected as well.

I am more or less in full agreement with the remainder of Hsieh’s article, where she proceeds to illuminate all of the undesirable consequences of taking a “closed system” position on Objectivism:

“So my question is really whether such is its only possible meaning. In other words, are there contexts in which a slightly broader term — one which includes later philosophic developments deeply and thoroughly consistent with the core principles of Objectivism — would be appropriate? From my perspective, it seems that Objectivists, including advocates of the closed system, appeal to this broader meaning rather frequently — and rightfully so. For example:

  • Objectivists commonly claim that “the Objectivist view on X is Y,” even though Y is a later application of the core principles established by Ayn Rand rather than one of those principles themselves. So if an analytic philosopher invents some new object allegedly demanding our sacrifice (such as bacteria, alien invaders, or household pets), we would not be shocked or dismayed to hear Objectivist scholars say that Objectivism rejects that view entirely, even though such a rejection is, strictly speaking, an application of the general Objectivist view on self-sacrifice to this new case.

  • As far as I recall, Leonard Peikoff’s lecture course, “Objectivism: The State of the Art,” primarily concerns material he learned while writing Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. On the strict and narrow meaning of “Objectivism,” this title seems baffling to me. How could such material fall under the title “Objectivism”? How could Objectivism have a “state of the art” after Ayn Rand’s death? Yet such is perfectly comprehensible under a slightly broader meaning of the term.

  • In his excellent course Understanding Objectivism, Peikoff breaks new ground in his detailed discussions of the rationalist and empiricist methodologies, particularly their relationship to the mind-body dichotomy. Such elaboration upon and integrations of already-established Objectivist principles are apparently not part of Objectivism, narrowly construed. Yet the deep connection to Objectivism is undeniable. One of the primary values of such work is that it provides us with the means to substantially enrich our concepts, e.g. those of rationalism, empiricism, and the mind-body dichotomy. Since such concepts refer to all that we might ever learn about their referents and such concepts compose various principles of Objectivism, in what sense can Objectivism exclude such new insights? We might think of many such insights as implicit in the system and thus part of it, even if not explicitly identified until after Ayn Rand’s death.

  • In Ayn Rand’s writings, some principles of Objectivism were merely asserted, but not explained or justified. For example, she claims that reason, purpose, and self-esteem are the cardinal values, but does not tell us what that means or why that is. Without a good explanation of the meaning and justification of this claim, it stands alone, without any connection to the rest of the system. When a good, deeply Objectivist explanation and justification is offered, should we continue to allow those cardinal values to stand outside the system? Or should we integrate them by incorporating this new understanding into our understanding of Objectivism? The latter seems like the right approach to me, but it also seems incompatible with the strictly closed system.”

The only thing I would add to her outstanding argument is to stress that a broader notion of Objectivism does not merely include “new implications, applications, integrations”, but corrections as well, under the strict condition that those corrections maintain complete logical fidelity to the essence of the philosophy.

Finally, one of Hsieh’s comments on the epistemology of the “closed system” position in particular deserves special attention:

“In any case, unit economy seems to demand a single word to designate the philosophy developed by Ayn Rand plus the valid and consistent “new implications, applications, integrations” of that philosophy.”

In fact, the following quote from Ayn Rand cuts to the core of the issue and explains why the “closed system” position is truly a grave epistemological error:

“None of the traditional theories of concepts regards concepts as objective, i.e., as neither revealed nor invented, but as produced by man’s consciousness in accordance with the facts of reality, as mental integrations of factual data computed by man — as the products of a cognitive method of classification whose processes must be performed by man, but whose content is dictated by reality.” [4] (ITOE p. 54)

As Kelley correctly argues [5]:

This brings us to a final argument for Objectivism as a closed system, an argument that lies close to the surface in Peikoff’s essay, and has been put forward explicitly by some Objectivists. The argument is that Ayn Rand’s relationship to the philosophy is the same as her relationship to her literary works: she is the author of Objectivism in the same sense that she is the author of Atlas Shrugged. She is accordingly free to stipulate the content of the term. Objectivism includes all and only the philosophical doctrines she embraced, and the system was closed with her death. No one may add to these doctrines, or abandon or revise any of them, and still call himself an Objectivist—just as no one can alter the content of her novels. The attempt to do so, some might add, is like the efforts of the mediocrities in The Fountainhead who claimed the right to disfigure Roark’s buildings.

This view is radically mistaken. A literary work is a creation, the concrete embodiment of an idea by a specific author. A philosophy, by contrast, is a body of theoretical knowledge about reality. That is why, as Ayn Rand herself pointed out, a philosophical discovery cannot be copyrighted. [6] The discovery itself, as distinct from a specific text in which it is conveyed, is not the property of the discoverer. Property must be concrete, but a philosophy is a viewpoint that may be held by an open-ended number of people. Moreover, as a body of knowledge, a grasp of certain facts in reality, its content is determined by the nature of those facts, including their relationships and implications, not by anyone’s stipulation. Had Ayn Rand omitted the character of Francisco D’Anconia from Atlas Shrugged, no one would be free to invent that character and rewrite the novel without her permission, even if such a revision would represent an improvement. But had she died before she discovered that rights may be violated only by physical force, and had someone else discovered this principle, it would have to be included in Objectivism. The system demands it; the issue of who discovered it is irrelevant.

In light of Peikoff’s excellent rejection of Kelley’s “Open Objectivism”, and Hsieh’s and Kelley’s excellent rejection of Peikoff’s “Closed Objectivism”, I offer up a third alternative which I think carries on the noble tradition of Objectivism in dissolving false alternatives, namely the idea of Active Objectivism.

Active Objectivism is the recognition that any idea that disagrees with the essence or nature of the philosophy of Objectivism, or any idea soundly derived from that essence, is disqualified from being “Objectivist”, but also that the philosophy of Objectivism, while having been largely initially developed by Ayn Rand, must nevertheless be regarded as an objective concept, i.e., as neither revealed nor invented, but as produced by man’s consciousness in accordance with the facts of reality, and as such, it includes all yet-to-be-discovered new characteristics including implications, applications, integrations, and corrections, under the strict condition that those new characteristics maintain complete logical fidelity to essence of the philosophy.

[1] FACT AND VALUE By Leonard Peikoff, Ph.D. from The Intellectual Activist, Volume V, Number 1

[2] Questions and Comments on the Closed System By Diana Hsieh WEDNESDAY, APRIL 21, 2004

[3] Introducing Objectivism by Ayn Rand

[4] Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology by Ayn Rand

[5] Objectivism, Chapter 5 of Truth and Toleration by David Kelley–40-Objectivism_Chapter_5_Truth_Toleration.aspx

[6] “Patents and Copyrights,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand (New York: New American Library, 1967) p. 22.

One thought on “Introduction to Active Objectivism”

  1. It’s an interesting idea.

    However, I think these kind of questions are irrelevant if you focus on the question “what is true?”, and not “what is Objectivism?”.

    The first question on any given issue should be:

    “What is the truth on this issue? (And how do I know it?)”

    It’s a separate question to ask:

    “What exactly does Objectivism say on this issue?”

    Then you can judge if any given truth is part of Objectivism, not part of Objectivism but consistent with it, or inconsistent with Objectivism.

    The first question is the important one. The second is only important in the context of Objectivist scholarship.

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