Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff


Philosophy is not a bauble of the intellect, but a power from which no man can abstain. Anyone can say that he dispenses with a view of reality, knowledge, the good, but no one can implement this credo. The reason is that man, by his nature as a conceptual being, cannot function at all without some form of philosophy to serve as his guide.

Ayn Rand discusses the role of philosophy in her West Point lecture “Philosophy:Who Needs It.” Without abstract ideas, she says,
“you would not be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems. You would be in the position of a new born infant, to whom every object is a unique, unprecedented phenomenon. The difference between his mental state and yours lies in the number of conceptual integrations your mind has performed.

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, she continues, is whether your principles are true or false, rational or irrational, consistent or contradictory. The only way to know which they are is to integrate your principles.

“What integrates them? Philosophy. A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind's wings should have grown.”

Philosophy, in Ayn Rand's view, is the fundamental force shaping every man and culture. It is the science that guides men's conceptual faculty, and thus every field of endeavor that counts on this faculty. The deepest issues of philosophy are the deepest root of men's thought (see chapter 4), their action (see chapter 12), their history (see the Epilogue)--and, therefore, of their triumphs, their disasters, their future.

Philosophy is a human need as real as the need of food. It is a need of the mind, without which man cannot obtain his food or anything else his life requires.

To satisfy this need, one must recognize that philosophy is a system of ideas. By its nature as an integrating science, it cannot be a grab bag of isolated issues. All philosophic questions are interrelated. One may not, therefore, raise any such questions at random, without the requisite context. If one tries the random approach, then questions (which one has no means of answering) simply proliferate in all directions.

Suppose, for example, that you read an article by Ayn Rand and glean from it only one general idea, with which, you decide, you agree: man should be selfish. How, you must soon ask, is this generally to be applied to concrete situations? What is selfishness? Does it mean doing whatever you feel like doing? What if your feeling are irrational? But who is to say what's rational or irrational? And who is Ayn Rand to say what a man should do, anyway? Maybe what's true for her isn't true for you, or what's true in theory isn't true in practice. What is truth? Can it vary from one person or realm to another? And, come to think of it, aren't we all bound together? Can anyone ever really achieve private goals in this world? If not, there's no point in being selfish. What kind of world is it? And if people followed Ayn Rand, wouldn't that lead to monopolies or cutthroat competition, as the socialists says? And how does anyone know the answers to all these (and many similar) questions? What method of knowledge should a man use? And how does one know that?

For a philosophic idea to function properly as guide, one must know the full system to which it belongs. An idea plucked from the middle is of no value, cannot be validated, and will not work. One must know the idea's relationship to all the other ideas that give it context, definition, application, proof. One must know all this not as a theoretical end in itself, but for practical purposes; one must know it to be able to rely on an idea, to make rational use of it, and, ultimately, to live.

In order to approach philosophy systematically, one must begin with its basic branches. Philosophy, according to Objectivism, consist of five branches. Two basic ones are metaphysics and epistemology. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of the universe as a whole. (The Objectivist metaphysics is covered in the present chapter on “Reality.”) Epistemology is the branch that studies the nature and means of human knowledge (chapter 2-5). These two branches make possible a view of the nature of man (chapter 6).

Flowing from the above are the three evaluative branches of philosophy. Ethics, the broadest of these, provides a code of values to guide human choices and actions (chapters 7-9). Politics studies the nature of a social system and defines the proper functions of government (chapters 10 and 11). Esthetics stuides the nature of art and defines the standards by which an art work should be judged (chapter 12).

In presenting Objectivism, I shall cover the five branches in essential terms, developing each in hierarchical order, and offering the validation of each principle or theory when I first explain it.

The True, said Hegel, is the Whole. At the end of our discussion, to borrow these terms, you will see a unique Whole, the Whole which is Ayn Rand's philosophic achievement. You may then judge for yourself whether it is an important achievement—and whether it it True.

* * * *

Every philosophy builds on its starting points. Where, then, does one start? What ideas qualify as primaries?

By the time men begin to philosophize, they are adults who have acquired a complex set of concepts. The first task of the philosopher is to separate the fundamental from the rest. He must determine which concepts are at the base of human knowledge and which are farther up the structure—which are the irreducible principles of cognition and which are derivatives.

Objectivism begins by naming and validating its primaries. Ayn Rand does not select questions at random; she does not plunge in by caprice. She begins deliberately at the beginning—at what she can prove is the beginning, and the root of all the rest.


We begin as philosopher where we began as babies, at the place there is to begin: by looking at the world. As philosophers, however, we know enough to state, as we look at anything: it is. This ( I am pointing to a table) is. That (pointing to a person seated at it) is. These things (sweeping an arm to indicate the contents of the whole room) are. Something exists.

We start with the irreducible fact and concept of existence—that which is.

The first thing to say about that which is is simply: it is. As Parmenides in ancient Greece formulated the principle: what is, is. Or, in Ayn Rand's words: existence exists. (“Existence” here is a collective noun, denoting the sum of existents.) This axiom does not tell us anything about the nature of existents; it merely underscores the fact that they exist.

This axiom must be the foundation of everything else. Before one can consider any other issue, before one can ask what things there are or what problems men face in learning about them, before one can discuss what one knows or how one knows it—first , there must be something, and one must grasp that there is. If not, there is nothing to consider or to know.

The concept of “existence” is the widest of all concepts. It subsumes everything—every entity, action, attribute, relationship (including every state of consciousness)--everything which is, was, or will be. The concept does not specify that a physical world exists. As the first concept at the base of knowledge, it covers only what is known, implicitly if not explicitly, by the gamut of the human race, from the newborn baby or the lowest savage on through the greatest scientist and the most erudite sage. All of these know equally the fundamental fact that there is something, something as against nothing.

You the reader have now grasped the first axiom of philosophy. This act implies a second axiom: that you exist possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists. Consciousness is not inherent in the fact of existence as such; a world without conscious organisms is possible. But consciousness is inherent in your grasp of existence. Inherent in saying “There is something—of which I am aware” is: “There is something—of which I am aware.”

The fact of consciousness is also a fundamental starting point. Even if biologists or physicists were someday to give us a scientific analysis of the conditions of consciousness (in terms of physical structures or energy quanta or something now unknown), this would not alter the fact that consciousness is an axiom. Before one can raise any questions pertaining to knowledge, whether of content or of method (including the question of the conditions of consciousness), one must first be conscious of something and recognize that one is. All questions presuppose that one has a faculty of knowledge, i.e., the attribute of consciousness. One ignorant of this attribute must perforce be ignorant of the whole field of cognition (and of philosophy).

Consciousness, to repeat, is the faculty of perceiving that which exists. (“Perceiving” is used here in its widest sense, equivalent to “being aware of.”) To be conscious is to be conscious of something.

Here is Ayn Rand's crucial passage in regard to the above:

“Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.

If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.

Whatever the degree of your knowledge, these two existence and consciousness—are axioms you cannot escape, these two are the irreducible primaries implied in any action you undertake, in any part of your knowledge and in its sum, from the first ray of light you perceive at the start of your life to the widest erudition you might acquire at its end. Whether you know the shape of a pebble or the structure of a solar system, the axioms remain the same: that it exists and that you know it.”

A third and final basic axiom is implicit in the first two. It is the law of identity: to be is to be something, to have a nature, to possess identity. A thing is itself; or, in the traditional formula, A is A. The “identity” of an existent means that which it is, the sum of its attributes or characteristics.

“Whatever you choose to consider, be it an object, an attribute or an action, the law of identity remains the same [writes Ayn Rand]. A leaf cannot be a stone at the same time, it cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A. Or, if you wish it stated in simpler language: You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.”

Ayn Rand offers a new formulation of this axiom: existence is identity.” She does not say “existence has identity”--which might suggest that identity is a feature separable from existence (as a coat of paint is separable from the house that has it). The point is that to be is to be something. Existence and identity are indivisible; either implies the other. If something exists, then something exist; and if there is a something, then there is a something. The fundamental fact cannot be broken in two.

Why, one migh ask, use two concepts to identify one fact? This procedure is common in philosophy and in other fields as well. When men have several perspective on a single fact, when they consider it from different aspects or in different contexts, it is often essential to form concepts that identify the various perspective.

“Existence” differentiates a thing from nothing, from the absence of the thing. This is the primary identification, on which all others depend; it is the recognition in conceptual terms that the thing is. “Identity” indicates not that it is, but that it is. This differentiate one thing from another, which is a distinguishable step in cognition. The perspective here is not: it is (vs. it is not), but: it is this (vs. it is that). Thus the context and purpose of the two concepts differ, although the fact both concepts name is indivisible.

Like existence and consciousness, identify is also a fundamental starting pint of knowledge. Before one can ask what any existent is, it must be something, and one must know this. If not, then there is nothing to investigate—or to exist.

Inherent in a man's grasp of any object is the recognition, in some form, that: there is something I am aware of. There is—existence; something—identity; I am aware of—consciousness. These three are the basic axiomatic concepts recognized by the philosophy of Objectivism.

An axiomatic concept, writes Ayn Rand, is “the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be analyzed, i.e., reduced to other facts or broken into component parts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. It is the fundamentally given and directly perceived or experienced, which requires no proof or explanation, but on which all proofs and explanation rest.”

Axiomatic concepts are not subject to the process of definition. Their referents can be specified only ostensively, by pointing to instances. Everything to be grasped about these facts is implicit in any act of adult cognition; indeed, it is implicit much earlies. “After the first discriminated sensation (or percept),” Miss Rand observes, “man's subsequent knowledge adds nothing to the basic facts designated by the terms 'existence,' 'identity,' 'consciousness,'...” Subsequent knowledge makes the explicit, conceptual identification of these facts possible. But the facts themselves—which are the data or constituents later to be integrated into the concepts—are present to and from the first such awareness. It is in this sense that a knowledge of axioms is “implicit' from the beginning. “It is this implicit knowledge,” Miss Rand holds, “that permits [man's] consciousness to develop further.”

Being implicit from the beginning, existence, consciousness, and identity are outside the province of proof. Proof is the derivation of a conclusion from antecedent knowledge, and nothing is antecedent to axioms. Axioms are the starting points of cognition, on which all proofs depend.

One knows that the axioms are true not by inference of any kind, but by sense perception. When one perceives a tomato, for example, there is no evidence that it exists, beyond the fact that one perceives it; there is no evidence that it is something, beyond the fact that one perceive it; and there is no evidence that one is aware, beyond the fact that one is perceiving it. Axioms are perceptual self-evidencies. There is nothing to be said in their behalf except: look at reality.

What is true of tomatoes applies equally to ranges, buildings, people, musics, and stars. What philosophy does is to give an abstract statement of such self-evident facts. Philosophy states these facts in universal form. Whatever exists, exists. Whatever exists is what it is. In whatever form one is aware, one is aware.

The above is the validation of the Objectivist axioms. “Validation” I take to be a broader term than “proof,” one that subsumes any process of establishing an idea's relationship to reality, whether deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, or perceptual self-evidence. In this sense, one can and must validate every item of knowledge, including axioms. The validation of axioms, however, is the simplest of all: sense perception.

The fact that axioms are available to perception does not mean that all human beings accept or even grasp axioms in conscious, conceptual terms. Vast numbers of men, such as primitives, never progress beyond implicit knowledge of the axioms. Lacking explicit philosophic identification of this knowledge, they have no way to adhere to the axioms consistently and typically fall into some from of contradicting the self-evident, as in the various magical world views, which (implicitly) deny the law of identity. Such men stunt their minds by subjecting themselves to an undeclared epistemological civil war. The war pits their professed outlook on the world against the implicit knowledge on which they are actually counting in order to survive.

Even lower are the men of an advanced civilization who—thanks to the work of a genius such as Aristotle—know the explicit identification of axioms, then consciously reject them. A declared inner war—i.e., deliberate, systematic self-contradiction—is the essence of the intellectual life of such individuals. Examples include those philosophers of the past centuries who reject the very idea of the self-evident as the base of knowledge, and who then repudiate all three of the basic axioms, attacking them as “arbitrary postulates,” “linguistic conventions,” or “Western prejudice.”

The three axioms I have been discussing have a built-in protection against all attacks: they must be used and accepted by everyone, including those who attack them and those who attack the concept of the self-evident. Let me illustrate this point by considering a typical charge leveled by opponents of philosophic axioms.

“People disagree about axioms,” we often hear. “What is self-evident to one may not be self-evident to another. How then can a man know that his axioms are objectively true? How can he ever be sure he is right?”

This argument starts by accepting the concept of “disagreement,” which it uses to challenge the objectivity of any axioms, including existence, consciousness, and identity. The following condensed dialogue suggests one strategy by which to reveal the argument's contradictions. The strategy begins with A, the defender of axioms, purporting to reject outright the concept of “disagreement.”

A. “Your objections to the self-evident has no validity. There is no such thing as disagreement. People agree about everything.”

B. “That's absurd. People disagree constantly, about all kinds of things.”

A. “How can they? There's nothing to disagree about, no subject matter. After all, nothing exists.”

B. “Nonsense. All kinds of things exist. You know that as well as I do.”

A. “That's one. You must accept the existence axiom even to utter the term 'disagreement.' But, to continue, I still claim that disagreement is unreal. How can people disagree, since they are unconscious beings who are unable to hold ideas at all?”

B. “Of course people hold ideas. They are conscious beings—you know that.”

A. “There's another axiom. But even so, why is disagreement about ideas a problem? Why should it suggest that one or more of the parties is mistaken? Perhaps all of the people who disagree about the very same point are equally, objectively right.”

B. “That's impossible. If two ideas contradict each other they can't both be right. Contradictions can't exist in reality. After all, things are what they are. A is A.”

Existence, consciousness, identity are presupposed by every statement and by every concept, including that of “disagreement.” (They are presupposed even by invalid concepts, such as “ghost” or analytic” truth.) In the act of voicing his objection, therefore, the objector has conceded the case. In any act of challenging or denying the three axioms, a man reaffirms them, no matter what the particular content of his challenge. The axioms are invulnerable.

The opponents of these axioms pose as defenders of truth, but it is only a pose. Their attack on the self-evident amounts to the charge: “Your belief in an idea doesn't necessarily make it true; you must prove it, because facts are what they are independent of your beliefs.” Every element of this charge relies on the very axioms that these people are questioning and supposedly setting aside. I quote Ayn Rand:

“You cannot prove that you exist or that you're conscious,” they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.

When a savage who has not learned to speak declares that existence must be proved, he is asking you to prove it by means of non-existence—when he declares that your consciousness must be proved, he is asking you to prove it by means of unconsciousness—he is asking you to step into a void outside of existence and consciousness to give him proof of both—he is asking you to become a zero gaining knowledge about a zero.

When he declares that an axiom is a matter of arbitrary choice and he doesn't choose to accept the axiom that he exists, he blanks out the fact that he has accepted it by uttering that sentence, that the only way to reject it is to shut one's mouth, expound no theories and die.

An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identity it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.”

The foregoing is not a proof that the axioms of existence, consciousness, and identity are true. It is a proof that they are axioms, that they are at the base of knowledge and thus inescapable. This proof itself, however, relies on the axioms. Even in showing that no opponent can escape them, Ayn Rand too has to make use of them. All argument presupposes these axioms, including the argument that ll argument presupposes them.

If so, one might ask, how does one answer an opponent who says: “You've demonstrated that I must rests on your axioms, which I don't choose to accept. Tell me why I should. Why can't I contradict myself?”

There is only one answer to this: stop the discussion. Axioms are self-evident; no argument can coerce a person who chooses to evade them. You can show a man that identity is inescapable, but only by first accepting the fact that A is A. You can shoe that existence is inescapable, but only by accepting and referring to existence. You can show that consciousness is inescapable, but only by accepting and using your consciousness. Relying on these three axioms, you can establish their position as the foundation of all knowledge. But you cannot convince another person of this or anything until he accepts the axioms himself, on the basis of his own perception of reality. If he denies them, it is a mistake to argue about or even discuss the issue with him.

No one can think or perceive for another man. If reality, without you help, does not convince a person of the self-evident, he has abdicated reason and cannot be dealt with any further.

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