Why is it that people say Ayn Rand isn't a "real" philosopher?
I have been asked, both online and in person, about why I haven’t listed Ayn Rand on any of the lists of philosophers you should know. This is the answer: Ayn Rand’s philosophical work is not taken seriously by academia because it isn’t very good, and I was focusing on philosophers you need to know.
Before the flame war starts, let me explain why.
Ayn Rand’s fundamental problem is that her arguments aren’t great. They often don’t support the conclusions she wants them to, or they reach conclusions that seem incoherent. Well-reasoned arguments are the critical difference between a person giving their opinion and a philosopher, and she often failed to provide them.
This isn't to say that a person cannot be a respected philosopher while not working at a university and primarily writing books that are fun to read. Albert Camus stands out as an example of it being very possible.
in his essay 'On the Randian Argument' libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick pointed out that Rand's meta-ethical arguments were unsound and didn't resolve the is-ought problem as she'd hoped. Libertarian philosopher Michael Huemer has suggested that her ethics are incoherent. Her arguments for what the chief goal of human life is all use changing definitions constantly and seem to drive towards three incompatible ends rather than the one she said she was driving at.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy argues that her arguments so often fail to support her conclusions that, “It is not surprising, then, that she is either mentioned in passing, or not mentioned at all, in the entries that discuss current philosophical thought about virtue ethics, egoism, rights, libertarianism, or markets.”
In literary circles, however, her work still invites great interest.
More generally, her philosophy can be viewed as her making polemical assertions that aren't particularly well argued, or even defended against potential criticisms in many cases. This tendency is a rather substantial problem with her work that makes it more difficult to take seriously.
Being aware of and accepting towards potential objections to your work is philosophy 101. Even Plato, who was very bad at it, did it from time to time. But any outside observer would think that Rand found disagreement to be objectionable in itself.
American television personality Dick Cavett once withdrew an invitation for her to appear on his talk show after discovering her terms included that he promise not to disagree with her philosophy. She did appear on Phil Donahue’s show, however, and didn’t quite convince some audience members that she wasn’t a personality cult.
Many people have written on how her followers regarded her every word as truth, and how little tolerance she had for disagreement. Most prominent among these criticisms are those of anarcho-capitalist philosopher Murray Rothbard, who discussed the cult-like behavior of both Rand and her followers back in 1972.
It also isn't the case that her ideas are so radical or politically incorrect that she is censored by left-wing academics who disagree with her. The highly regarded American philosopher Robert Nozick came to very similar conclusions on capitalism, the state, and society but did so with much better arguments. Likewise, even philosophers looking to argue for ethical egoism rarely make reference to her. The idea that she isn’t taken seriously because her ideas are of the “wrong sort” is easily refuted by the number of libertarians, ethical egoists, and free-market capitalists that still hold esteem in the academic community.
Popular interest in her ideas continues, although this interest is, as suggested by libertarian philosopher Michael Huemer, geared more towards her skills as an author than as a philosopher. While she does have merit as an author, she does not have similar merit as a serious philosopher.
I'll leave you with the stance of The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which phrases it best:
"She developed some of her views in response to questions from her readers, but never took the time to defend them against possible objections or to reconcile them with the views expressed in her novels. Her philosophical essays lack the self-critical, detailed style of analytic philosophy, or any serious attempt to consider possible objections to her views. Her polemical style, often contemptuous tone, and the dogmatism and cult-like behavior of many of her fans also suggest that her work is not worth taking seriously."
Americans are, often with justification, regarded as not being versed in philosophy. This is a shame, as the United States and the colonies that proceeded it have produced many great thinkers
Americans are, often with justification, regarded as being poorly versed in philosophy. This is a shame, as the United States and the colonies that proceeded it have produced many great thinkers. Here is a list of ten of the greatest philosophers the United States has given the world.
Please note, several great American thinkers, such as Martha Nussbaum or Noam Chomsky, have made it to our other lists of thinkers, and the members of this list were selected in part as not to overlap with the others.
1. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
A Calvinist minister who was part of the “Great Awakening”, a revivalist movement in Protestant Europe and British North America that focused less on ritual and more on personal experience. Edwards argued in Freedom of the Will that God’s supreme sovereignty, his foreknowledge, and the requirement that events have causes prohibits our having much free will.
He toured extensively at the height of the movement, giving sermons on the grace of God, personal religious involvement, and religious fervor. Shortly before his death he replaced his grandson Aaron Burr as president of Princeton University.
You have reason to wonder that you are not already in hell.- A line from his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
2. Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
He was a philosopher, poor excuse for a solder, and author of one of the most widely read documents in American history. Thomas Paine was one of the more radical members of the intellectuals behind the American revolution, calling for independence in Common Sense long before anyone else was by using enlightenment notions of the rights of the ruled.
After the American revolution he moved to France, where he served in the national convention and helped to draft the first constitution of the French Republic-despite not speaking French. He published the book Agrarian Justice, which re-introduced the idea of the basic income to western thought. He also defended the French Revolution against Burke in the book The Rights of Man, in which he also proposed a state funded old age pension.
“A statue of gold should be erected to you in every city in the universe”- Told to Paine by his one-time revolutionary ally Napoleon Bonaparte, who claimed to have slept with a copy of The Rights of Man under his pillow.
3. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
The greatest of the Transcendentalist philosophers, though he is often considered as much an author as a philosopher. Emerson began his career as a minister, but left the pulpit after the death of his wife. His writings cover many topics, including education, self-improvement, nature, and the dignity of the ordinary. A pantheist, he held that the divine was manifest in all of us, and that we therefore had a divine duty to be ourselves.
He gave woodlands he owned to his friend and fellow thinker Henry David Thoreau, who used the land to build the cabin where he wrote Walden. Nietzsche claimed his as an influence. An overview of his ideas can be watched here. He was also the godfather to our next entry.
“It is easy to live for others; everybody does. I call on you to live for yourselves.”- Journal entry for May 3, 1845
4. William James (1842-1910)
A young James in Brazil
A physician, psychologist, and philosopher of the Pragmatic school, James' work covers topics stretching from education and epistemology to metaphysics and mysticism.
His book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, foreshadowed his pragmatic philosophy. In it, he argues that religious experiences are human experiences and discusses the possible causes of mystical events. His long-outdated text Principles of Psychology was immensely popular and influential in shaping early American psychology. When measuring by citations, James was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.
The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook. – from The Principles of Psychology
5. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935)
Feminist philosopher, social reformer, and author of several novels and stories, her work focused on the problems of women prevented from reaching their full potential. In Women and Economics, she argues that women work just as much as men do but have been sidelined into domestic roles and made dependent on men as a result. She also noted that gaining the vote would be insufficient for true progress. Her novel Herland envisions a world free of men, where women, freed of domestic work and gender roles, have built a utopian society.
You probably read one of her stories in high school, The Yellow Wallpaper. Written after a doctor tried to cure her Postpartum psychosis by means of a useless “rest cure”, she mailed him a copy of the story in hopes he would reconsider the validity of the treatment.
Only as we live, think, feel, and work outside the home, do we become humanly developed, civilized, socialized.- Women and economics.
6. John Dewey (1859-1952)
Philosopher, psychologist, and founder of a highly successful experimental school, Dewey is one of the most influential philosophers you have never heard of.
He formalized the concept of Learning-by-doing and founded The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools to experiment in progressive education. By viewing education as the means for learning how to live, he developed methods for interactive learning and a well-rounded curriculum. Problem based learning and experimental learning today owe large debts to his thought. A secular humanist, he was one of the signatories on the first humanist manifesto.
Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination. - The Quest for Certainty
7. W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
A sociologist, historian, author, activist, and the first African American to receive a Ph.D from Harvard University, Du Bois was a busy man. Many of his writings, especially The Philadelphia Negro and The Souls of Black Folk are viewed as seminal texts in the history of sociology. His works mark the first time racial prejudice was sighted as the cause of subpar living conditions for African Americans, a radical notion at the time.
His essay collection The Souls of Black Folk examined race issues in the southern United States, introduced the idea of double-consciousness, and was noted as an influence on later civil rights leaders. His Magnum Opus Black Reconstruction in America explored the failures of reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and racial politics. When not writing and teaching he found time to cofound the NAACP. An overview of his ideas can be seen here.
There is but one coward on earth, and that is the coward that dare not know.- from The Study of Negro Problems
8. Martin Luther King (1929-1968)
Remembered as the face of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. kept busy when he wasn’t leading marches. His written work focused on many topics and was often related to civil rights. In Letter from Birmingham Jail he restates the right of the governed to protest and takes it a step further-to posit a moral obligation to protest in the face of injustice.In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? he analyzed the tactics of the civil rights movement and argued for the basic income.
Of course, he was a minister first and returned to religion whenever he could. In his (slightly plagiarized) doctoral thesis he compared and contrasted conceptions of God between differing theologians. In his sermons, many of which were published, he expressed his support for absolute laws of morality, the need to exemplify the words of Christ, and warned against living for the sake of our material desires.
I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. – “The Other America” speech at Grosse Point High School.
9.Robert Nozick (1938-2002)
A philosopher at Harvard known for his unique writing style and stunning good looks. He worked in many fields, including ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics. He is perhaps most famous for his single venture into political philosophy: Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which argues for a minimalist state and against both anarcho-capitalism and socialism.
In that book he also devised two enduring arguments against utilitarianism, the virtual reality argument and the utility monster problem. His book Philosophical Explanations examines ideas of knowledge and critiques the method of basing large systems of thought on a few axioms- comparing it to building a house by piling bricks directly on top of one another.
You can't satisfy everybody; especially if there are those who will be dissatisfied unless not everybody is satisfied. - Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
10. John Rawls (1921-2002)
A political philosopher out of Harvard who is often considered the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century. His Magnum Opus, A Theory of Justice, introduced the idea of “Justice as Fairness”, asking us what kind of world we would build if we didn’t know what our place in it would be. In Political Liberalism he discusses the limits of legitimate use of state power and how to keep a democracy stable in the face of bickering factions.
While he avoided the spotlight, he did meet regularly with president Bill Clinton, who sought his council. His work inspired his fellow Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick to write a libertarian answer to his social liberal philosophy. A fantastic overview of his ideas can be viewed here.
Justice is happiness according to virtue. - A theory of Justice
Everybody wants to be happy, right? Who wouldn't try to get as many pleasurable experiences as they could? Well, if this philosopher is right. You wouldn't.
What is the key to the good life? Is it something we all want? Everybody wants to be happy, right? But what is happiness? How do we get it?
That question has puzzled people for ages. But one answer that comes up often is pleasure. Of course, what “pleasure” means is another debate itself. For some philosophers, this is the only true good in life, all other things are only part of the good life as they give pleasure to the individual. Such an belief is referred to as Hedonism, and is as ancient as ideas come, with a history going back to the earliest civilizations.
After all, when we do something we enjoy, or otherwise encounter something good, does it not bring us pleasure? Sure, there are other things we might say we like: religion, virtue, beauty, or something else. But hedonists say these things are only good because they bring us pleasure. The only true good, and the vital key to a good human life; they say.
Hedonism is both scorned and loved, some view it as a poor way to live, marked by vice and indulgence. Others see it as the honest way of looking at things. Some, like Epicurus, were hedonists who viewed temperance and moderation as the keys to pleasure. And then there are those who just love pleasure, and seek to maximize the pleasure they experience however they can.
But if you agree with Hedonism, think about this.
Suppose tomorrow you were told that a new machine had been built: the experience machine. This machine is capable of generating a virtual reality for you; one so real you could not tell the difference between reality and fantasy. The machine is fail-safe, and will never suffer an error or a mechanical failure.
The only setting is to “paradise”, and you would experience endless pleasure if you enter. No real experience could possibly compete with the machine in terms pleasure gained. All you need to do is sign a form or two, and get plugged into the machine. They can even preset the machine to give certain experiences, or to include certain people if you wish.
Do you get in?
The author of the problem, American philosopher Robert Nozick, says you won’t. Pointing out that most people value having experiences in reality, or that the person that gets in will only be thinking that they do anything, when in fact they are merely sitting down all the time. They instead desire to be a certain kind of person, which requires actually doing things.
Nozick claims that because we value something other than pleasure, evidenced by rational people deciding not to get into the machine, the idea that pleasure is the only good must be false.
Even if you suppose that we derive pleasure from the reality of something, remember: it can’t compete with going into the machine. We must value it for its own sake rather than as a path to pleasure if we reject the machine. So much for Hedonism then, if we agree with Nozick.
However, some philosophers say we would, and should, get into the machine. The founder of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, believed firmly that there was only one good, pleasure, and one evil, which is pain. With his early version of utilitarianism, going into the machine becomes a no brainer. The math is clear. The fact that the experiences aren’t real is no concern of his.
There are, of course, other ideas and experience to support and reject hedonistic ideas other than the machine. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is often interpreted as a rejection of the Hedonistic Utopia, while Infinite Jest shows the absurdity of creating the perfect pleasure-causing film—people would do nothing but watch it to death.
In support of Hedonism, the first novel ever written, The Epic of Gilgamesh, has an argument for it, making this perhaps the oldest philosophy known. Some authors have even proposed moving civilization into a Matrioshka brain. If well built and placed, this would allow for a perfect world to be created in a computer simulation and run for trillions of years.
The idea of the experience machine makes us ask ourselves what we value. If we only value pleasure, then we should agree to go in. If don’t want to get in, then we must value something else. Even the most devoted hedonists might pause to wonder if they value their pleasure being “real” before entering the machine. Those who suppose there are other valuable parts of a good life other than pleasure would have less trouble deciding.
So, ready to get in? Or would you rather suffer out here with us?