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Why Massimo Pigliucci Gets Ayn Rand Wrong

Massimo Pigliucci’s essay on Ayn Rand displays a shocking lack of concern for truth and objectivity.

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In an essay on Ayn Rand and Aristotle, Massimo Pigliucci, a prominent voice in the Modern Stoicism movement, bends over backward to assure his readers that unlike critics who mischaracterize Rand, he is going to engage with her ideas seriously. And he is well positioned to live up to that: Pigliucci is a widely published public intellectual, a professor of philosophy at The City College of New York, a scholar with doctorates in genetics, evolutionary biology, and philosophy. But in his engagement with Rand, Pigliucci displays a shocking lack of concern for truth and objectivity.

Pigliucci begins his essay, “How Ayn Rand Misunderstood Aristotle,” with anecdotes suggesting that he is “open-minded” — indeed, objective — about Rand, and willing to read and engage with her work even though he objects to her ideas. Decades ago, he tells us, a friend and fellow graduate student, who was an Objectivist, loaned him a collection of essays by Rand.

What I understood of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy was highly repugnant to me. . . . Nevertheless, I resisted the temptation to jettison the book . . . and kept reading. Many years later, I moved to New York City and became close friend[s] with yet another Objectivist. Well, at least I cannot be accused of close-mindedness!

He even assures his readers that he will be mindful not to mischaracterize Rand.

My experience is that Rand’s followers are very touchy whenever her [sic; “their”?] leader is scrutinized, and often accuse her critics of mischaracterizing what she said. So I’m going to present Objectivism mostly through Rand’s own words. (Of course, her supporters will then likely say that I quoted selectively and misleadingly. Whatever.)

Dubious reassurances in place, he proceeds to his subject: the relationship Rand notes between her philosophy and Aristotle’s. He writes:

One especially puzzling aspect of Rand’s philosophy is her claim to be influenced first and foremost by Aristotle. As she wrote: “The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle. . . . There is no future for the world except through a rebirth of the Aristotelian approach to philosophy.” (Review of J. H. Randall’s Aristotle, The Objectivist Newsletter, May 1963, 18).

The indifference to accuracy is evident from the quoted material above, which mashes together a statement from Rand (from the appendix to Atlas Shrugged,“About the Author”) with a statement (after an ellipsis) by a different author, Leonard Peikoff (from his book The Ominous Parallels). Pigliucci then wrongly attributes both quotes to Rand’s “Review of J. H. Randall’s Aristotle,” which he doesn’t seem to have read (or read with any attention).

Pigliucci continues: “And yet, if one is even superficially acquainted with both Rand and Aristotle one can hardly imagine what possible points of contact the two may have.”

If you are a professional philosopher, like Pigliucci, or even a decent college freshman writing on this topic, you wouldn’t need to try to imagine what those points of contact might be, you would look up Rand’s own statements about the matter — for example, her “Review of J. H. Randall’s Aristotle” or any number of other easily and freely available sources. A professional of Pigliucci’s standing is not only trained to do this, he has a responsibility to do so.

READ ALSO:  The False Promise of Stoicism

But, apparently, Pigliucci did not do this. In fact, surprisingly, he tells his readers nothing of what Rand had to say about Aristotle’s influence on her philosophy. Instead, he proceeds to assume (falsely) that Rand thought her primary connection to Aristotle was in ethics.1 As a result, he spends the bulk of the essay making the following argument: (1) Rand claimed that her philosophy was “inspired” by Aristotle’s. (2) But there are major differences in their views on self-interest and friendship. (3) Therefore, Rand just didn’t know what she was talking about. As he puts it in his essay’s subtitle: “The founder of Objectivism claimed her philosophy was inspired by the sage from Stagira. Boy, was she mistaken.”

'Pigliucci, surprisingly, tells his readers nothing of what Rand had to say about Aristotle's influence on her philosophy.' Share on X

The argument is surprisingly lame. First, contrary to Pigliucci’s assertion, Rand never claimed that her philosophy was “inspired” by Aristotle’s (more on this below). Second, even if Pigliucci were right in his account of the differences between Rand and Aristotle on self-interest and friendship, it would show only that the two philosophers diverge in important ways in ethics (something Rand was aware of and wrote about); it would not show that Rand was confused about Aristotle’s philosophy or its relation to hers.

The lameness of Pigliucci’s argument flows from the fact that he makes no effort to get Rand’s views right. No scholar could read with any attention what Rand had to say about Aristotle and compose the essay Pigliucci composed.2 This becomes clear if we step back from Pigliucci’s essay and read what Rand wrote about her connection to Aristotle. What emerges is a very different picture — one that contradicts Pigliucci’s. Let us begin with the sentence that Pigliucci quotes out of context, this time in its original context.

The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle. I most emphatically disagree with a great many parts of his philosophy — but his definition of the laws of logic and of the means of human knowledge is so great an achievement that his errors are irrelevant by comparison.3

If Rand “most emphatically disagrees with a great many parts of his philosophy,” some obvious questions to ask would include: What did Rand take her philosophical debt to Aristotle to be? What did she think were the essential similarities between her philosophy and Aristotle’s? Which parts of his philosophy did she agree or disagree with, or find influential on her thinking? Pigliucci does not pose or attempt to answer these questions.

'The lameness of Pigliucci’s argument flows from the fact that he makes no effort to get Rand’s views right.' Share on X

In her essay “For the New Intellectual,” Rand elaborates:

Aristotle’s philosophy was the intellect’s Declaration of Independence. . . . his incomparable achievement lay in the fact that he defined the basic principles of a rational view of existence and of man’s consciousness: that there is only one reality, the one which man perceives — that it exists as an objective absolute (which means: independently of the consciousness, the wishes or the feelings of any perceiver) — that the task of man’s consciousness is to perceive, not to create, reality — that abstractions are man’s method of integrating his sensory material — that man’s mind is his only tool of knowledge — that A is A.4

As these passages indicate, Rand’s fundamental agreement with Aristotle (and the first place to look for influence on her thought) is not in ethics, as Pigliucci assumes, but in epistemology and metaphysics — areas Pigliucci’s essay leaves unexplored.5 The net result of his essay: a mangled straw man and his readers deeply misled about the very subject he pretends to address.

If an undergraduate wrote a paper on Epictetus, Hume, or Darwin that exhibited the same lack of concern for truth and objectivity as Pigliucci’s essay on Rand, it would deserve a failing grade. How much worse is it when a scholar, who knows better, does it? And what does it say about our intellectual culture when highly trained professional philosophers offer this kind of treatment of Rand, and think it’s okay?

Objectivity and the pursuit of truth are standards any professional intellectual should want, and be expected, to uphold. To deliberately flout both, while posturing at objectivity and concern for truth, is nothing short of philosophical malpractice.


*Note: Since this article’s publication, Pigliucci has published a revised version of his essay correcting some of the flaws noted above. The revised essay, titled “On Ayn Rand and Aristotle” can be found here.

Image credit: “Massimo Pigliucci” by  Tim Deschaumes is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Color image, rendered in black and white.

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Endnotes

  1. There are certainly connections (and significant differences) between Rand’s ethics and Aristotle’s that are worth exploring. But it’s worth noting that Rand said little about Aristotle’s ethics, and what she said about it was mostly critical. For example, in her “Review of J. H. Randall’s Aristotle,” she writes: “It is astonishing to read the assertion: ‘Aristotle’s ethics and politics are actually his supreme achievement.’ They are not, even in their original form—let alone in Professor Randall’s version.” In her essay “The Objectivist Ethics,” she remarks (critically) that Aristotle “based his ethical system on what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise.”
  2. In addition to Rand’s own work, there is an ample body of serious literature on her philosophy for anyone interested. Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Dutton (1991), offers an invaluable presentation of Rand’s philosophy as a systematic whole. Recent scholarly work on Rand includes: Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy, Gregory Salmieri and Robert Mayhew (eds.), University of Pittsburgh Press (2019); A Companion to Ayn Rand, Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri (eds.), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (2016); Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge: Reflections on Objectivist Epistemology, Allan Gotthelf (ed.) and James G. Lennox (assoc. ed.), University of Pittsburgh Press (2013); Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue: Studies in Ayn Rand’s Normative Theory, Allan Gotthelf (ed.) and James G. Lennox (assoc. ed.), University of Pittsburgh Press (2011); Tara Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist, Cambridge University Press (2006) and Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Ethics, Rowman & Littlefield (2000); Robert Mayhew’s edited collections for Lexington Press: Essays on Ayn Rand’s “We the Living, 2nd ed. (2012); Essays on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged, (2009); Essays on Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead (2007); and Essays on Ayn Rand’s “Anthem (2005).
  3. Ayn Rand, Appendix to Atlas Shrugged, “About the Author” (1957). Regarding her debt to Aristotle, Rand makes a similar point in her 1959 interview with Mike Wallace. In response to Wallace’s question “Whence did this philosophy of yours come?” Rand replies: “Out of my own mind, with the sole acknowledgement of a debt to Aristotle, who is the only philosopher that ever influenced me. I devised the rest of my philosophy myself.”
  4. Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual,” in For the New Intellectual, Signet (1961).
  5. Pigliucci does mention that Rand values rationality, but he doesn’t seem to know, and doesn’t present, what her view of rationality is. He writes that “she also values rationality or, to be more precise, rational self-interest.” This is both unclear and misleading. (Is he claiming that Rand doesn’t value rationality, but, rather, only values rational self-interest?) Rand is explicit in valuing both rationality and rational self-interest, but she (rightly) doesn’t equate or conflate the two. So, Pigliucci’s strange attempt to narrow the former to the latter doesn’t add precision, it evades and distorts her view of rationality.
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Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith, PhD in philosophy, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute where he lectures and develops educational content for the Institute’s intellectual training and outreach programs. He is a member of the Ayn Rand University faculty.

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