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.

Philosophy, Rhetoric

Amateur philosophical background: the “epistemology”

“Mathematics is the science of measurement” – Ayn Rand, An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology

Before I jump (or sink) into The Fountainhead, I thought I’d put together an (amateurish) primer on Ayn Rand’s philosophy in two parts. The first will deal with what she calls her “epistemology” – something that is usually understood as a means of knowing. The second will deal with the ethics. In each case, I’ve taken most of Rand’s material from her own words – if you want to follow along here, this is all taken from her book, An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. I’m also indebted to the wonderful Partially Examined Life podcast’s episode on Rand – I’d highly recommend this for a professional touch – and the rest of their episodes too, for that matter.

Why the philosophy? Get to the point, man

I first really came across Rand from the philosophical side – and this might explain why I’m not a fan. While she has her defenders (by necessity, interpreters of her oracular pronouncements), generally Rand is regarded as a third-rate philosopher. It is revealing that the purely philosophical work dates from nearly twenty years after the success of The Fountainhead. Rand wants to give the impression that she has a holistic philosophy, starting from self-evident axioms (“axiomatic concepts”), working up to an ethics, which is expressed artistically in the novels. In practice, chronologically the reverse is true – the philosophy was produced as an ad-hoc justification of the ethics of the novels. I also strongly get the impression that Randians generally care little for the details of epistemology, and are happy that Rand produced something passable to justify the ethics.

So, this has nothing to down with The Fountainhead?

What’s interesting is, once I started to tabulate the holes and contradictory positions in the ethics and epistemology, how often exactly the same problems came up in the novel. Why are we, and all the other characters, supposed to (spoilers!) believe that Roark is the greatest of men, when to a casual observer he behaves alternatively like a manikin or a dick? Because all of mankind are supposed to possess a rational faculty that dependably tells us the definition of the good. It is supposed to be a deliberate choice, a perversion, to ignore this – so all the evil characters in the book secretly admire Roark, even as they undermine him.

Rand seems to know what she’s talking about. She uses phrases like “psycho-epistemological function”

Rand has swallowed a lot of jargon, and invented a good amount of her own, so it can be hard to cut through what she means. To get a handle on this, and put it in the long, long historic context which Rand either ignores or misrepresents, it’s good to bear a few things in mind:

  1. A division. A critical division in the history of epistemology has been between rationalism and empiricism. Empiricism is the attempt to gain knowledge through experience of the outside world (sense-data). Rationalism doesn’t mean what Ayn thinks it does here – rather it is the use of the capacities of the human mind to understand the universe. A bit of both is generally healthy. Extreme versions of both forms have existed through the history of philosophy. Generally Rand wants to align Objectivism with extreme empiricism, repeatedly insisting that all our concepts are derived from our experience of real things (“existents”). But as we shall see, Rand cannot keep out a strong form of rationalism from her argument.
  2. A little knowledge… Another extremely empiricist philosophy was that of logical positivism, but Rand repeatedly trashes this. She also believes Kant to be the fount of all “subjectivism”, and dismisses Wittgenstein in a sentence, despite his clear interest in the same subject. Rand’s insistence on her own originality and brilliance meant that she refused to test her work against the canon of philosophy. The consequences are the Dunning-Kruger effect.  I had what I thought were some pretty brilliant ideas when I was seventeen, and I was greatly dismayed to find out that they were far from original (or brilliant). Many of the ideas in the epistemology are the beginning glimmers of some more sensible version – which has been better presented elsewhere. She then proceeds to trash the same figures she was unknowingly in the shadows of.
  3. Weak and strong. A really common rhetorical technique in these sorts of arguments is to defend a broad principal on weak grounds – and then spend the rest of the time extrapolating from a much stronger form of it. For example, I might argue that mice have a different metabolism to humans, and so it can be difficult to extrapolate the toxicity of any drugs tested on mice to humans (a weak claim, in that it is not difficult to accept). I would extend this by arguing that testing drugs on mice is therefore scientifically indefensible, and we should only use computer models (a much stronger claim). When challenged with examples of success stories, the position is retractable – I simply claim to only support the weak position.

Things are things, alright?!

Rand really, really wants reality to be real. She wants what we see and hear to be a direct representation of the real. Now this might be easy to buy – it’s useful, to an extent, for getting through our lives (as long as we don’t start believing our dreams are real).

Existence exists — Consciousness is conscious — A is A. Since axiomatic concepts refer to facts of reality and are not a matter of “faith” or of man’s arbitrary choice … axiomatic concepts are the guardians of man’s mind and the foundation of reason

Rand in this mode takes a position called naive realism. The observation that consciousness is consciousness of something is highly unoriginal. Rand thinks that this is proof in itself of an outside world, but this argument is extremely weak: really, it only tells us something about the structure of being conscious. Every night I’m conscious of dreaming, but I think we can accept that those aren’t real.

What’s the basis

Beyond this there’s a problem, a very old philosophical chestnut (“the problem of universals”). This is how we form universal concepts – the idea of a table, square, man, or of justice – from what we experience. Rand also really does not want this to be based on our individual minds or brains (she hates the idea of “whim” – I’m guessing she wasn’t a fan of Monty Python). Rather she wants there to be something constant which lets us carve the world up into useful concepts. Something objective. There must be one single right answer to the question – what defines a table?

Their shapes vary, but have one characteristic in common: a flat, level surface and support(s). He forms the concept “table” by retaining that characteristic

Observe, however, that the utilitarian requirements of the table set certain limits on the omitted measurements … This rules out a ten-foot tall or a two-inch tall table (though the latter may be sub-classified as a toy or a miniature table)

Or Man?

The definition of man (“A rational animal”)

Or … justice?

For instance: what fact of reality gave rise to the concept “justice”? The fact that man must draw conclusions about the things

Or Love?

As to concepts of consciousness, we shall discuss them later and at length. (To anticipate questions such as: “Can you measure love?” — I shall permit myself the very philosophical answer: “And how!”

I challenge anyone to read these with a straight face.

But it’s fine for simple things, right?

Considering even Rand’s simple example definitions quickly raises problems (in fact she insists that the simple examples are the worst – things like “justice” are far simpler!). Who says a table can’t be 20 foot high (if the chairs are also high enough?). Ayn may pout and insist this can’t be a table, but she’s begging the question here. Or is it a separate concept? Who says which are the “essential characteristics”?

Kant, Boo!

A Kantian view of this problem is that humans possess a faculty, which is dependent on the structure of the mind or brain, which allows them to perform this useful trick. Rand explicitly rejects Kant – she doesn’t want this important role to be at all dependent on the sorts of normal variation that might be in a brain due to biology or culture.

This does not mean that conceptualization is a subjective process … The only issue open to an individual’s choice in this matter is how much knowledge he will seek to acquire

In fact,

If his grasp is non-contradictory, then even if the scope of his knowledge is modest and the content of his concepts is primitive, it will not contradict the content of the same concepts in the mind of the most advanced scientists.

Ayn thinks she knows how this happens. We use reason to find the “essential characteristic”. This is the thing which is most important to being, for example, a table:

The distinguishing characteristic … is determined by the nature of the objects from which its constituent units are being differentiated.

Rand cannot stomach any individual differences in perception changing making identification of different essential characteristics. For much of her essay, it seems like essential characteristics are a real thing we can perceive:

This method permits any number of classifications and cross-classifications: one may classify things according to their shape or colour … or atomic structure; but the criterion of classification is not invented, it is perceived in reality.

This is radically empirical. Indeed, according to Rand concept definitions really are just an aggregation of a whole bunch of experience:

A definition is the condensation of a vast body of observations—and stands or falls with the truth or falsehood of these observations. Let me repeat: a definition is a condensation.

Perception of concepts directly – sounds almost like…

Aristotle, Boo!

Despite claiming that Aristotle was her “only influence”, Rand is down on him here. For one, she doesn’t want anything that is not material to be important in making concepts. If there’s a special substance in the world we perceive that indicates what a table is, this could have existed before humans, and points to something metaphysical. In the later chapters she pedals away from the Aristotelian position and starts to sound a bit … like Kant.

Aristotle held that definitions refer to metaphysical essences … and he held that the process of concept-formation depends on a kind of direct intuition by which man’s mind grasps these essences … Aristotle regarded “essence” as metaphysical; Objectivism regards it as epistemological.

So, context becomes important too

all conceptualization is a contextual process; the context is the entire field of a mind’s awareness or knowledge

and, not just that, but what is cognitively useful

In the case of black swans, it is objectively mandatory to classify them as “swans,” because virtually all their characteristics are similar to the characteristics of the white swans, and the difference in color is of no cognitive significance. (Concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.)

This is then a claim about some function of the brain, and what is useful work for it to do to identify concepts. Rand has to sneak in a rationalist idea about what is supposed to be the action of logic on empirical data.

Objectively equivalent

So can one person’s definition of, say justice, be legitimately different from someone else’s? Rand seems confused on this. She will deny the evil subjectivism to her dying breath, and yet seems to imply that the amount of knowledge available changes what is considered a valid definition:

Remember that concept-formation is a method of cognition, man’s method, and that concepts represent classifications of observed existents according to their relationships to other observed existents. Since man is not omniscient, a definition cannot be changelessly absolute, because it cannot establish the relationship of a given group of existents to everything else in the universe, including the undiscovered and unknown


If definitions are contextual, how does one determine an objective definition valid for all men? It is determined according to the widest context of knowledge available to man … Objective validity is determined by reference to the facts of reality. But it is man who has to identify the facts; objectivity requires discovery by man

Rand wants to make a very strong claim here: that there exists a single, immutable essence to things which allows us to define concepts. But she will settle for a weak definition of “objectivity” – the discovery of facts by man, with limited knowledge. She then conveniently forgets this weaker claim when it comes to throwing invective around at people like…


The reductio ad absurdum of a long line of mini-Kantians, such as pragmatists and positivists, Linguistic Analysis holds that words are an arbitrary social product

Ultimately, Rand seems unbothered by some of these contradictions in her epistemology. Rather, she is concerned with just whether things are practical:

In the case of existents whose characteristics are equally balanced between the referents of two different concepts—such as primitive organisms, or the transitional shades of a color continuum — there is no cognitive necessity to classify them under either (or any) concept

In short, she isn’t that bothered about what is actually true, rather on what is useful. This makes her sound awfully pragmatic, and indeed she cites a history of American Pragmatism in the introduction to the book. Another philosophy that is usually hateful to Rand is…


Rand even manages to sound a lot like a utilitarian in this work. Once you’ve perceived the true value of things, you just do the maths, and

This requires that he define his particular hierarchy of values, in the order of their importance, and that he act accordingly. Thus all his actions have to be guided by a process of teleological measurement … Another man may love a woman, but may give her up, rating his fear of the disapproval of others … higher than her value.

On the other hand we’re told that

Still another man may risk his life to save the woman he loves, because all his other values would lose meaning without her.

So values change according to who your partner is now?

An eaten and an uneaten cake, in superposition

To sum up, Rand wants to have her cake and eat it too.

She wants to seem like the maverick, bravely fighting against the hordes of philosophers that have just screwed everything up; but she emulates her “enemies” and pours scorn on would-be allies more articulate than she.

She wants to put forward a strong idea of objective knowledge, one grounded entirely in empirical observation of what we sense; but slips in a weaker version of the idea involving the context of knowledge, the structure of cognition, and other rationalist notions.

She wants the factor that distinguishes concepts to be perceivable and accessible to everyone; but is unclear if it exists in the physical world, denies it being non-material, and denies it’s individually happening in people’s heads.

So where does it come from?  Ultimately, the philosophy is nostalgic, not committed to reasoned argument. Rand wants a constant, unassailable authority to hand out what the correct concepts are. Justice, love, right and wrong are to be dictated. And her followers went right to the source – Ayn Rand’s pronouncements became the source of all these values.