Credit where it's due, Philosophy, Rhetoric

Being “reasonable”: what’s worth salvaging from Rand’s epistemology?

Given the critical tone of my last two posts, the main motive for my overview of the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology would seem to be scorn. On the negative side, as well as a the expected deep inconsistencies I was genuinely surprised to find how many straight-up contradictions I found when I started to tabulate Ayn’s claims against different types of philosophical system (a particularly perplexing one is her attitude to measurement, which she simultaneously suggests is unnecessary and the only way essential characteristics can be compared – but this will make a post in its own right).

But I maintain that we need to give credit when it’s due, and try to find the sensible equivalents of Rand’s positions – she is after all mimicking the greats.

Rand – not a racist

Let’s start with something we can all get behind – Rand presents her definition of man as anti-racist:

There is no difference between [things she dislikes] and those chosen by individuals who define man as “a Christian (or Jewish or Mohammedan) animal” or “a white-skinned animal” or “an animal of exclusively Aryan descent”

It’s important to note that while this value may be laudable, Rand is smuggling it into her epistemology. There’s nothing to stop someone creating an objectivist racist definition of “man”, or simply denying that people of some other race are the ideal “rational animals”. This subtle passing in of values – from entirely unrelated sources – is a pattern that will become very obvious when we start to look at Rand’s ethics. Nonetheless, Rand (rather unwittingly) aligns herself with a great tradition of assuming a common human state or nature renders us all morally equivalent – a very sympathetic position.


I am also generally very sympathetic towards pragmatic approaches to gaining knowledge. A central pragmatic theme is that epistemological approaches should be adopted according to how much intellectual work they can perform, with less emphasis on the thing-in-itself. Several years of struggling with rather basic attempts to induce scientific knowledge from observed natural phenomenon have left me with a great caution in interpreting data from instruments, balanced by the need to make decisions on evidence rather than (excessive) theoretical speculation.

Oftentimes Rand sounds very pragmatic in the Epistemology. She isn’t particularly worried about the intermediate cases when one natural kind blurs into another:

In the case of existents whose characteristics are equally balanced between the referents of two different concepts … there is no cognitive necessity to classify them under either (or any) concept

Is concerned about how practically useful concepts are:

For example, there is no concept to designate “Beautiful blondes with blue eyes, 5’5” tall and 24 years old.” … If such a special concept existed, it would lead to senseless duplication of cognitive effort (and to conceptual chaos)

and has little patience for philosophical thought-experiments (the David Bowie-esque “Spider from Mars”).

I can sympathise with the frustration in each of these, though of course Rand has no nuance and is absolutist. Obsessive classification can be a nerdy means of escapism, or it can lead to the great unifying theory of biology; refusing to generalise can lead to difficulty in thinking analytically, but is great for more lateral thinking; and thought experiments can be misleading, but also incredibly revealing. Likewise, her lack of patience with any ontology other than realism can be seen to be borne of pragmatism.

Filthy relativists?!

Rand rails with great vigour and spittle against evil subjectivists, relativists, and a host of others she (usually unfairly) lumps in with them. The kind of position she is attacking is a straw man, and is rarely seriously encountered in academia or elsewhere. On the other hand, every so often popular culture will latch onto this, and the results are indeed annoying. The irony is that Rand’s position (“there is an objective definition of justice, which you can perceive if you are rational enough”) is no less risible, and has gained more middlebrow traction than any of these.