Critics of our criminal justice system sometimes try to exculpate vicious criminals by claiming that they were victims of poverty or trauma when they were younger. Likewise, critics of Ayn Rand claim that she formed her philosophy only because she was traumatized as a child by witnessing the Soviets’ seizure of her father’s pharmacy. Each critic commits the same error, which is common to much contemporary cultural commentary: excusing or condemning individuals on the ground of alleged psychological problems, in the absence of or contrary to the evidence.
Ayn Rand called this practice of relying on arbitrary speculation to evade rational evaluation “psychologizing.” She analyzed and criticized the practice in a 1971 article, “The Psychology of Psychologizing.” Yet as Onkar Ghate argued in a talk at the 2023 Objectivist Summer Conference in Miami, many fans of Rand who’ve read this article misinterpret its lesson. They treat the advice against psychologizing to rule out any and all thinking about another’s psychology, even when it is informed by evidence.
According to Ghate, Rand’s own work promoting the power of philosophy is replete with psychological commentary. Even the article in question is about the psychology of psychologizing. This means that the common interpretation of her article is not only mistaken but deprives us of important guidance we need to navigate our dealings with other people and to better know ourselves.
In the second half of the talk in particular, Ghate draws out the range of ways in which Objectivist philosophical commentary relies on an understanding of subconscious processing (from the concepts of “sense of life” and “psycho-epistemology” to understanding evil philosophies as systems of rationalization and the role of philosophy in history). In the Q&A, Ghate also addresses questions on the following topics, among others:
- Why the “Islamophobia” charge is an instance of psychologizing;
- The role of ad hominem attacks in the practice of psychologizing;
- How to judge others in light of trauma you don’t understand;
- The best way to broach the subject of someone else’s psychologizing;
- How to judge the failure to update moral knowledge.
You can now watch a recording of Ghate’s talk online: