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Ayn Rand at West Point: ‘Philosophy: Who Needs It’

Fifty years ago, Rand explained to young people why philosophy is essential in everyone’s life.

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Fifty years ago, Ayn Rand took the stage at West Point to address hundreds of cadets who would soon graduate from the United States Military Academy. Her theme: the radically provocative idea that philosophy is a crucial, practical necessity in everyone’s life.

That speech, later published as an essay titled “Philosophy: Who Needs It,” was a tour de force that only Ayn Rand could have delivered. It opened with a story about a space traveler lost on an unknown planet. It continued with an explanation of why man necessarily acts on abstract ideas, and why his basic choice is whether or not to rationally evaluate those ideas.

In a series of examples, Rand showed how philosophic ideas saturate our thinking, often embedded in catchphrases such as “nobody is perfect in this world” or “this may be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” A key passage:

You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious, rational convictions—or a grab-bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, context and consequences you do not know, notions which, more often than not, you would drop like a hot potato if you knew.

In contrast to the widespread view that philosophy is an arcane subject of interest only to ivory-tower scholars, Rand argued that philosophy is an indispensable, practical science. Her answer to the implied question “Who needs philosophy?” was: everyone. The speech ended with a recommendation to read Atlas Shrugged and a personal salute to the military and to the cadets.

If the fervent ovation from the standing-room-only audience was any indication, Rand was offering the kind of guidance and advice that ambitious graduating seniors hunger for.1 Now, on the half-century anniversary of Rand’s speech, the collections housed in the Ayn Rand Archives offer interesting background on how it all came to pass.

The Invitation

Almost a year earlier, Rand had received a letter from the head of West Point’s English department. Col. Edwin Sutherland explained that all graduating cadets attend a course called “Readings in Philosophy,” which encourages them to “reexamine their premises as they prepare to take their commissions and embark upon a military life.” He invited Rand as one of “a few distinguished speakers” to “stimulate our cadets to set their views in perspective.”

At this point in her career, Rand had become a prominent figure in popular culture. As the bestselling author of Atlas Shrugged and controversial nonfiction such as The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, she had been interviewed in major newspapers and magazines (Playboy) and on radio and television (The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson). Sutherland, citing Rand’s “eminence as a critic of cultural values” and her “popularity among the cadets as an exciting author,” offered her an honorarium, full expenses paid, and “a responsive audience of over four hundred young future leaders of our country.”2 Rand promptly accepted and inquired further about the format.3

Rand’s next correspondence was with Lt. Col. Herman Ivey, the director and principal architect of the “Readings in Philosophy” course. Ivey told Rand that while her talk should be educational, “the inspirational aspect of the experience is at least as important as the academic aspect,” adding: “We sought you out because we think you can fire a young man’s imagination as well as kindle his thoughts.”4

In September Rand received a course syllabus and was told that her lecture would take place at the course’s transition from consideration of philosophical issues to consideration of cultural institutions. Ivey then suggested an esthetic theme for her talk, referencing theory she had recently offered in a book, The Romantic Manifesto, but he left the choice of topic and content entirely up to her.5 She declined the invitation to focus on esthetics and instead, in her words, decided to sell the audience not on her philosophy, Objectivism, “but on philosophy as such.”6 Ivey later declared Rand’s address “perfectly suited to the occasion.”7

Regarding the question-and-answer session to follow her lecture, Rand was given a choice between an informal gathering around the lectern after the talk was over or a formal question period within the hearing of everyone assembled. Rand chose the latter.8 The stage was set for a unique meeting of minds.

Standing Room Only

March 6, 1974, began for Rand with a car trip from New York City to West Point, accompanied by her husband and several friends, including her long-time associate Leonard Peikoff. After arriving on campus at the Hotel Thayer, where she would spend the night, Rand was given a tour and introduced to Gen. William Knowlton, commandant of West Point. There followed a cocktail hour and dinner at the officers’ club, after which Rand made her way to the lecture venue, the South Auditorium of Thayer Hall (renamed Robinson Auditorium in 2000).9

Not only were students in the course required to attend, but the event was advertised in advance to the entire Academy community and the public at large. According to Ivey, the hall was filled to its fifteen-hundred-seat capacity with a hundred people standing in the back.10 Leonard Peikoff later wrote in an eyewitness report that “when Miss Rand reached the podium, they greeted her with a standing ovation. Throughout the talk, attentive silence alternated with bursts of laughter or applause, at appropriate points. At the end, after her solemn tribute to the Army of the United States, as Miss Rand raised her hand in a military salute, the audience rose in a body, offering a longer, more tumultuous ovation.”11 "'At the end, after her solemn tribute to the Army of the United States, as Miss Rand raised her hand in a military salute, the audience rose in a body, offering a longer, more tumultuous ovation.'" Click To Tweet

During the question period in the lecture hall, Peikoff reported, Rand’s answers on political and philosophical subjects “evoked stormy cheers.” At the reception that followed in the officers’ club, Peikoff recalled, “The place was jammed with cadets struggling to break a path to Miss Rand, bombarding her with questions. A distinguished colonel, a senior faculty member, told me: ‘Usually these receptions consist of a handful of people seated in a corner. I’ve never seen anything like this.’”

Ivey described the post-lecture reception this way:

The place was packed with scores of young men who were there to talk to her personally, and there was a lot of philosophy talked there. It was not idle talk. . . . There were easily fifty, a hundred people—they were coming and going. Of course, the cadets only had so many minutes they could devote to this, but because of that it was very impressive to see them come over and spend additional study time talking to her, when they knew that they were going to be hurting for adequate study time when they got back to their rooms.

The next morning, before departing, Rand told Ivey that the event was all she had wanted it to be.12

The Impact

The next day, Sutherland wrote Rand to thank her for the “magnificent lecture” and for “the sincere interest you showed in our students, answering their questions late into the evening.”

Your eloquence and wit captivated the cadets, forcing them to plumb the unexplored depths of their philosophical consciousness. Considering their remarks afterwards and the invigorating debate going on in our classrooms today, it is quite obvious that you successfully motivated them to commit themselves to the very important task of examining their basic metaphysical and ethical premises before moving out into the world of action. And in the course of that inspirational effort, you perceptively outlined and supported our academic efforts in that regard.13

Responding to Sutherland’s letter, Rand wrote: “as for me, it was the most interesting and enjoyable of my lecture appearances.”14

Just a few days later, West Point asked Rand’s permission to include her talk in the course textbook they were preparing for the coming year (1974–75). Rand granted permission, and the talk was reproduced just as she had recently published it in the Ayn Rand Letter. It was given utmost prominence as the first selection following the Introduction; later selections were from philosophers such Plato and Aristotle, Hume and Kant, Nietzsche and Russell.

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A few weeks after her lecture, Col. Jack L. Capps, deputy head of the department of English, wrote to Rand, saying: “I can recall few lecturers who have so enlivened the intellectual scene—and the discussions have not yet subsided.”15

Half a century later, Rand’s message endures, and the discussions worldwide have given no signs of subsiding.

You can read the essay “Philosophy: Who Needs It” here, or listen to this recording as it was delivered at West Point:

For those reading this article prior to June 13, 2024, there’s still time to register for OCON, ARI’s Objectivist summer conference in Anaheim, California, where Prof. Shoshana Milgram will deliver a talk devoted to the full story of Ayn Rand’s West Point appearance.

Image credit: United Press International (interior of Thayer Hall, South Auditorium, 1963).


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  1. Indeed, Rand’s 1974 talk so closely resembled a graduation speech that some of Rand’s admirers were confused when, in 2023, Vice President Kamala Harris was reported to have been the first woman to deliver a commencement address at West Point. That reporting was accurate — Rand’s talk was a guest lecture in a particular course, given two months prior to graduation — but the confusion was understandable. A commencement speech traditionally offers guidance from an older and wiser individual, one who has accomplished much, to guide and inspire graduates as they embark upon their life journey. But Rand could not have been invited to give the West Point commencement address to graduating seniors without breaking a long tradition. According to practices stretching back more than a century, the West Point commencement speaker must be an individual in the cadets’ chain of command, either civilian or military. (West Point public affairs office, telephone conversation with the author, September 5, 2023.) So, Ayn Rand would not have been eligible, even if the school’s administration had deemed her the most desirable candidate. (A recording of Harris’s May 27, 2023, commencement address discloses what the graduates were actually told.)
  2. Letter from Edwin Sutherland to Ayn Rand dated May 24, 1973, Ayn Rand Papers, 089_05x_025_001.
  3. Letter from Ayn Rand to Edwin Sutherland dated June 1, 1973, Ayn Rand Papers, 089_05x_027_001.
  4. Letter from Herman Ivey to Ayn Rand dated July 3, 1973, Ayn Rand Papers, 001_01B_009_001. It was two years later before the first female cadets arrived at West Point in 1976.
  5. Letter from Herman Ivey to Ayn Rand dated September 27, 1973, Ayn Rand Papers, 001_01B_006_001.
  6. Ayn Rand, “Philosophy: Who Needs It,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1982), 10.
  7. Scott McConnell, 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand (New York: New American Library, 2010), 485.
  8. Letter from John Bergen to Ayn Rand dated July 27, 1973, Ayn Rand Papers, 001_01B_005_001.
  9. United Press International, photograph of Thayer Hall interior dated October 24, 1963, information on reverse; McConnell, 100 Voices, 490. The photograph accompanies this article on New Ideal.
  10. McConnell, 100 Voices, 490.
  11. Ayn Rand Letter, vol. III no. 10 (February 11, 1974). A word of clarification may be useful concerning Rand’s tribute to the military. She spoke as the Vietnam War was winding down. In previous commentary, she had distinguished between the disastrous policies that embroiled America in Southeast Asia and the brave military who followed orders from civilian authorities. In “The Lessons of Vietnam,” she referred to the “heroism of thousands of American soldiers” (140) and to Vietnam as a “moral failure, a diplomatic failure, a political failure, a philosophical failure”—but emphatically not a military failure, as it was a war “they should never have had to fight” and “a war they had never been allowed to fight.” (143) Thus her face-to-face tribute honoring future military leaders was consistent with her condemnation of the Vietnam War.
  12. McConnell, 100 Voices, 491.
  13. Letter from Edwin Sutherland to Ayn Rand dated March 7, 1974, Ayn Rand Papers, 001_01B_020_001.
  14. Letter from Ayn Rand to Herman Ivey dated March 20, 1974, Ayn Rand Papers, 001_01B_018_001.
  15. Letter from Jack Capps to Ayn Rand dated April 1, 1974, Ayn Rand Papers, 001­_01B_022_001.
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Tom Bowden

Tom Bowden, JD and former civil litigator, is a research fellow and publishing manager at the Ayn Rand Institute. He is also a coeditor of Illuminating Ayn Rand (2022) and a contributing editor of New Ideal.

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