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Ayn Rand's Philosophic Achievement

Ayn Rand’s Philosophic Achievement (Part 3)

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2

Having surveyed Ayn Rand’s philosophic achievement, let us consider whether there is some integrating theme that underlies the major breakthroughs I have covered.

A philosophic system cannot of course be condensed into one principle; if it could be, there would be no need for such a discipline as philosophy. But if one considers Objectivism as a whole, it is apparent that all the distinctively Objectivist identifications depend upon, reflect, or embody a new view of the relationship of consciousness to existence.

This new understanding of consciousness has been eloquently summarized by Leonard Peikoff: “Consciousness is metaphysically passive but epistemologically active.”1

Consciousness does not create or alter the object of which one is aware (consciousness is metaphysically passive). But the faculty of consciousness must engage in certain processes in order to achieve and maintain the state of awareness (consciousness is epistemologically active).

“The attack on man’s consciousness and particularly on his conceptual faculty has rested on the unchallenged premise that any knowledge acquired by a process of consciousness is necessarily subjective and cannot correspond to the facts of reality, since it is ‘processed knowledge.’”2 But, in actuality, “All knowledge is processed knowledge — whether on the sensory, perceptual or conceptual level. An ‘unprocessed’ knowledge would be a knowledge acquired without means of cognition. Consciousness (as I said in the first sentence of this work) is not a passive state, but an active process.”3

Take, for example, sensory perception. The earliest philosophers were not aware of the influence of the means of perception — the action of sense organs and nervous system — upon perception. When this influence began to be recognized, it seemed to shake the foundations of knowledge. The Greek Sophists were the first of a horde of skeptics who argued that the actions of man’s senses cut him off from reality. From the fact that perception depends upon our sensory apparatus, they concluded that perception is relative to the observer.

Neither the skeptics nor those who sought to defend the validity of the mind realized that the means of perception determines only the form of one’s awareness, not its object. How we perceive (e.g., visually, in the form of shape and color) is a consequence of the nature of our senses, but what we perceive, no matter how, is the object in reality.

Thus, “Perception is relative” is ambiguous. It can either mean “The object perceived depends upon us” or “The form in which we perceive the object depends upon us.” Only the latter is true, but no skeptical conclusions follow from it. All forms of sensory perception are causally necessitated by the means of perception, and thus all are equally valid.

On the sensory-perceptual level of awareness, man’s cognition is immediate, automatic, and unchallengeable. On this level, man’s link to reality is physical-physiological: his percepts register the direct, physical stimulation by the objects of which he is aware.

This means that the possibility of error or “misinterpretation” does not arise on the purely perceptual level, for no judgment or interpretation is involved. Man’s “senses cannot deceive him . . . his organs of perception are physical and have no volition, no power to invent or to distort.”4

But the situation is fundamentally different on the conceptual level. Abstractions are not physical objects in the external world, and conceptual knowledge does not imprint itself upon man’s intellect. Gazing at three pairs of shoes will not force one’s brain to grasp that 3 x 2 = 6. The belief that there is some automatic means of gaining conceptual knowledge is precisely the essence of mysticism.

In order to gain conceptual knowledge, man must choose to initiate and sustain cognitive contact with the object(s) in reality he is seeking to understand. He must identify and strictly follow the reality-based method of thinking — logic — if he is to know that he has correctly identified reality. Doing this, i.e., choosing to adhere to the object in reality, is being objective. Forming conclusions on the basis of irrelevant factors, factors not relating to the object (i.e., on the basis of feelings), is being subjective.5

Thus it is no accident that Objectivism takes its name from the concept of “objectivity.” The concept of “objectivity” as used by Ayn Rand represents her integration of the what and the how of cognition — i.e., the recognition that consciousness is conscious of some object by some means and in some form — i.e., the integration of consciousness and identity.

Ayn Rand’s concept of the objective can best be explained by contrasting it to the intrinsic and the subjective approaches. Here is her explanation, in regard to concepts:

The extreme realist (Platonist) and the moderate realist (Aristotelian) schools of thought regard the referents of concepts as intrinsic, i.e., as ‘universals’ inherent in things (either as archetypes or as metaphysical essences), as special existents unrelated to man’s consciousness — to be perceived by man directly, like any other kind of concrete existents, but perceived by some non-sensory or extrasensory means.

The nominalist and the conceptualist schools regard concepts as subjective, i.e., as products of man’s consciousness, unrelated to the facts of reality, as mere ‘names’ or notions arbitrarily assigned to arbitrary groupings of concretes on the ground of vague, inexplicable resemblances. . . .

None of these schools 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.”6

Intrinsicism is associated with mysticism, since some non-sensory, non-rational means of cognition is required to grasp the supposed universals. Subjectivism is associated with skepticism: realizing that no universal archetype or essence is to be found in metaphysical reality, the subjectivist, still regarding this as the only possible means of conceptual knowledge, concludes that concepts, absolutes, principles are fantasy creations, and that “anything goes” is the motto of enlightenment. The essence of the subjectivist attitude is that expressed by one of Dostoevsky’s characters: “Since God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

Ayn Rand’s objective theory of knowledge makes it possible for the first time fully to escape both mysticism and skepticism and to uphold the absolutism of reason. The concept of objectivity is the theme that underlies every aspect of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Observe how this concept is involved in all the major breakthroughs listed at the start of this series.

1. The primacy of existence.

The primacy of existence states that reality is what it is independently of consciousness. By thus integrating and summarizing the axioms of existence, identity, and consciousness, the primacy of existence provides the basis of the concept of “objectivity.”7

“It is axiomatic concepts that identify the precondition of knowledge: the distinction between existence and consciousness, between reality and the awareness of reality, between the object and the subject of cognition. Axiomatic concepts are the foundation of objectivity.”8

2. The theory of concepts.

By her theory of measurement-omission, Ayn Rand explained how concepts are neither elements of metaphysical reality nor arbitrary constructs. Concepts are tools of cognition proceeding from the recognition of facts of reality in a form dictated by the identity of man’s consciousness — i.e., concepts are neither intrinsic nor subjective, but objective.

3. The theory of free will.

Given the primacy of existence, it is the fact that man is a being of volitional consciousness that makes the concept of objectivity possible and necessary. A deterministic mind would not be capable of error; its conceptual conclusions would be, like perceptual data, automatic and infallible. Conceptual knowledge would then be attained, as in the intrinsic theory, by merely gazing upon The Truth with one’s “intellectual eyes.” Denying the volitional nature of thought, the mystic advances the intrinsic theory of knowledge in “a desperate quest for escape from the responsibility of a volitional consciousness — a quest for automatic knowledge, for instinctive action, for intuitive certainty.”9

Equally unable to grasp the actual nature of volition, the skeptic equates the volitional with the causeless. He takes free will to mean “freedom” from reality, and, assuming that only ideas forced upon us by reality could be valid, he concludes that volition makes knowledge of reality impossible. But in fact man’s free will is his choice to think or not to think — i.e., to base his convictions and conduct upon his perception of reality or upon his arbitrary feelings — i.e., to be objective or subjective.

4. Man’s life as the standard of value.

Ethics, Ayn Rand showed, is the province neither of mystic commandments (intrinsicism) nor of whim (subjectivism). Man’s life is the standard of the good, but only if one chooses to live; even life is not an intrinsic value (remembering that the alternative is not some other set of values, but death). “No, you do not have to live; it is your basic act of choice; but if you choose to live, you must live as a man — by the work and the judgment of your mind.”10

More explicitly, “The intrinsic theory holds that the good resides in some sort of reality, independent of man’s consciousness; the subjectivist theory holds that the good resides in man’s consciousness, independent of reality. The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of ‘things in themselves’ nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value. (Rational, in this context, means: derived from the facts of reality and validated by a process of reason.)”11

5. The moral basis of individual rights.

“The source of man’s rights is not divine law [intrinsicism] or congressional law [social subjectivism], but the law of identity, A is A — and Man is Man.”12

Ayn Rand has written in detail on the political implications of her objective theory of the good (see “What Is Capitalism?” and “The Nature of Government”). She has demonstrated that “The objective theory of values is the only moral theory incompatible with rule by force.”13

As the objective theory rules out the use of force on whim (subjectivism), so it rules out the attempt to force a man to act to achieve any alleged intrinsic value. According to an objective theory, nothing can be a value to a man unless his own mind has grasped the reasons for it in the context of his own hierarchy of values. “An attempt to achieve the good by physical force is a monstrous contradiction which negates morality at its root by destroying man’s capacity to recognize the good, i.e., his capacity to value. Force invalidates and paralyzes a man’s judgment, demanding that he act against it, thus rendering him morally impotent. A value which one is forced to accept at the price of surrendering one’s mind, is not a value to anyone.”14

6. The psycho-epistemology of art.

As with ethics, art deals neither with reality apart from man nor with man’s emotional states apart from reality, but with reality as evaluated by man. “An artist does not fake reality — he stylizes it. He selects those aspects of existence which he regards as metaphysically significant — and by isolating and stressing them, by omitting the insignificant and accidental, he presents his view of existence.”15

The credo of the Romantic school of art is Aristotle’s principle that art presents life as it “could be and ought to be.” Romantic art presents what “could be” as opposed to what is impossible, contradictory, cut off from reality — i.e., as opposed to the subjective. And it presents a universal ideal, that which “ought to be,” as opposed to a Naturalistic copy of “real life” — i.e., as opposed to intrinsicism.

“Readers have asked me whether my characters are ‘copies of real people in public life’ or ‘not human beings at all, but symbols.’ Neither is true. . . . What I did was to observe real life, analyze the reasons which make people such as they are, draw an abstraction and then create my own characters out of that abstraction. My characters are persons in whom certain human attributes are focused more sharply and consistently than in average human beings.”16

Concluded in Part 4

This article originally appeared in The Objectivist Forum, a bimonthly journal of ideas edited and published by Harry Binswanger, between June and December 1982. Copyright © 1982 by TOF Publications, Inc.; republished by permission.

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  1. [Author’s 2020 update: Dr. Peikoff has said that he got this formulation from Ayn Rand.]
  2. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 108.
  3. Ibid., p. 109.
  4. Atlas Shrugged, p. 966.
  5. The alternative of subjective vs. objective does not apply on the purely perceptual level: one simply perceives or does not perceive something; there is no such thing as a “subjective sense-perception” — the nearest thing to that would be hallucination, which is not perception at all.
  6. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 69–71.
  7. It could be said that the primacy of existence states that reality is objective. This statement, however, uses the term “objective” in its metaphysical sense, not in the epistemological sense discussed herein. “Metaphysically, [objectivity] is the recognition of the fact that reality exists independent of any perceiver’s consciousness. Epistemologically, it is the recognition of the fact that a perceiver’s (man’s) consciousness must acquire knowledge of reality by certain means (reason) in accordance with certain rules (logic).” (Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Newsletter, Feb., 1965, p. 7)
  8. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 76.
  9. Atlas Shrugged, p. 982.
  10. Ibid., p. 941.
  11. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 22.
  12. Atlas Shrugged, p. 985.
  13. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 23.
  14. Ibid.
  15. The Romantic Manifesto, p. 36.
  16. The Objectivist Forum, June, 1982, p. 6.

Harry Binswanger

Harry Binswanger, Ph.D. in philosophy and formerly an associate of Ayn Rand, is the author of How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation. He is a member of the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute.

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