Objectivism is the philosophy enunciated by the Russian-born American novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand (1905–1982).
Rand’s philosophical system begins with a realist premise: Reality is what it is, independent of what people think or feel. The concept of “objectivity” is central to Rand’s theory of knowledge. A knowing subject can acquire objective knowledge of reality only through reason, a distinctively human faculty, which integrates the inductive evidence of the senses, in accordance with logical principles.
Because reason is a basic means of acquiring human knowledge and, hence, a basic tool of human survival, Rand places it at the center of her conception of ethics. In Rand’s view, reason enables human beings to discover those principles and practices necessary to their sustenance as rational animals. Rand’s ethical egoism proclaims the “virtue of selfishness,” that it is morally right for individuals to pursue their own rational self-interests, voluntarily exchanging spiritual and material values.
Rand argues that the only social system consonant with this “trader principle” is laissez-faire capitalism, wherein individuals constitute free-market relationships. These relationships depend upon a structure of individual rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Rights can only be violated, Rand maintains, if an individual or group of individuals initiates force against others.
Rand supports a libertarian nonaggression principle that allows for the retaliatory use of force against those who initiate it. This principle informs Rand’s defense of government as an institution with a monopoly on such retaliatory uses. In keeping with a classical liberal or libertarian conception of politics, Rand restricts government institutions to the role of defending individual rights, through the police, the armed forces, and the judiciary.
That such a defender of capitalism and limited government was born and raised in Russia during the period in which the Bolsheviks came to power is ironic. Rand would publicly reject what she saw as the mysticism of Russia’s religious culture and the collectivism and statism of its politics. But some scholars have argued that aspects of her approach to philosophical and social problems echo some of her early Russian influences. Born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum in Saint Petersburg to a middle-class family, Rand witnessed a reign of Communist terror that led her to a virulent rejection of totalitarianism in all its forms. She was educated, however, during a cultural period known as the Russian Silver Age. Central to Silver Age thought, and to Rand’s thought as well, is a rejection of conventional dichotomies: mind versus body, fact versus value, theory versus practice, and so forth. During this period, the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was also substantial; Nietzsche’s writings had a significant effect on the young Rand’s early thinking. Having graduated from the University of Leningrad in 1924, Rand had been exposed additionally to the teachings of prominent professors in both the dialectical idealist and Marxist traditions—those who emphasized, like Rand, the importance of grasping the full context of any problem as a prerequisite to its resolution.
In 1926 Rand immigrated to the United States, fully committed to pursuing a career as a writer. Her first novel, We the Living (1936), details communism’s violent subjugation of social life. Rand said that this novel was as close to an autobiography as she would ever write. Its focus is on the individual versus the state, that is, how an oppressive state ultimately creates an “airtight” environment that must destroy individual human lives. The novel was later adapted by Italian filmmakers, who produced an unauthorized, though largely faithful, film version during World War II (1939–1945).
Rand also wrote a novella called Anthem (1938) that projects a primitive collectivist society of the future in which personal pronouns—and independent thinking— are prohibited. Despite that society’s best efforts to stamp out individual identity, the protagonist (known as Equality 7–2521) rediscovers the “I” and, in so doing, heralds the rebirth of individualism.
In The Fountainhead (1943), Rand tells the story of architect Howard Roark, a trader, entrepreneur, and creator, who is a man of integrity struggling mightily against the collectivist culture and statist politics of the age. The novel enabled Rand to explore the soul of the individualist, those qualities of rationality, productiveness, independence, and authenticity that are essential to people’s survival and flourishing. Adapted for the screen in 1949, directed by King Vidor (1894–1982), and starring Gary Cooper (1901–1961) as Roark, the novel was Rand’s first major commercial success.
But it was in Atlas Shrugged (1957) that Rand first presented the philosophy of objectivism. With three parts named after the Aristotelian laws of logic—it was Aristotle (384–322 BCE) whom Rand credited as having had the greatest impact on her thought—the novel is an epic mystery, part science fiction, part fantasy. With the world on the verge of collapse, strangled by political interference with economic and social life, the productive “men of the mind” go on strike. By refusing to sanction their own victimization, and by withdrawing from the world, the strikers bring down the system of exploitation. It is only with their return to the world that a free society becomes possible.
In this novel, Rand presents her image of ideal men and women, people who are “new intellectuals,” men and women of thought, who are also men and women of action. Such individuals reject the mind-body dichotomy and all of its insidious consequences—reason versus emotion, thought versus action, morality versus prudence— which fragment human existence.
This stand on the integrated individual also underlies much of the work that Rand wrote during her years as a public philosopher. Her nonfiction works, such as The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966), repudiate all modernist “false alternatives,” including idealism versus materialism, rationalism versus empiricism, religious conservatism versus welfare liberalism, fascism versus communism, anarchism versus statism, and so forth. Though her political stance is libertarian, insofar as it rejects any government intervention in the economy or in people’s personal lives, Rand was profoundly critical of contemporary libertarianism because many of its adherents focused on economics without regard for the larger philosophic and cultural context that would nourish the triumph of human freedom. In Rand’s view, though human freedom entails free trade, it can only be fully achieved when people are free to think and to act on the basis of their own rational, independent judgment. This requires their psychological and moral liberation from exploitative ideologies that demand human sacrifice. As Rand argues in For the New Intellectual (1961), “intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom; political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom; a free mind and a free market are corollaries ” (p. 25).
Rand, Ayn. 1943. The Fountainhead. Indianapolis, IN; New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
Rand, Ayn. 1946. Anthem. New York: New American Library.
Rand, Ayn. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
Rand, Ayn. 1959. We the Living. New York: Random House.
Rand, Ayn. 1961. For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Random House.
Rand, Ayn. 1966. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: New American Library.
Rand, Ayn, and Nathaniel Branden. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness, a New Concept of Egoism. New York: New American Library.
Binswanger, Harry, ed. 1986. The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z. New York: New American Library.
Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. 1999. The New Ayn Rand Companion. Enl. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Peikoff, Leonard. 1991. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton.
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. 1995. Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Chris Matthew Sciabarra
"Objectivism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/objectivism
"Objectivism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved January 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/objectivism
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OBJECTIVISM, the philosophy based on writings of novelist and ideologue Ayn Rand (1905–1982), has generated controversy since its organized emergence in the 1950s. Rand, born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, passed her childhood in volatile St. Petersburg, Russia, where Bolshevik revolutionaries nationalized her family's small business in 1917. After studying history and philosophy at the University of Leningrad, Alissa Rosenbaum obtained a Soviet passport in 1926 and arrived in Chicago for a "visit" with sponsoring relatives. By 1927 she had changed her name to Ayn Rand and found work as a Hollywood scriptwriter. Throughout her life Rand would identify publicly with the self-made geniuses celebrated in her popular though critically censured works.
Beginning with We the Living in 1936, Rand's fiction—including Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943), and Atlas Shrugged (1957)—depicts ideal protagonists who refuse to compromise their core principles of egotism, atheism, and rationality to placate religious and socialist opponents. Rand's works of nonfiction—including The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966), and The Romantic Manifesto (1969)—elaborated these core principles, which show the combined influence of (among others) Aristotle and Friedrich Nietzsche. Rand held that both facts and values were "objective" realities, extrinsic and independent of the preferences of the thinker, who can grasp them through a disciplined application of reason. According to Rand, perceptions were truthful if sanctioned by logic, and actions were ethical if they aimed to fulfill the agent's needs as a rational being. Reason, then, was the only correct basis for intellectual and moral judgments: Rand rejected faith, divine revelation, and subjective feeling as false epistemologies. Conscious and individual life, she believed, formed the standard of all values, and "rational selfishness" was a living being's appropriate motive. In addition, Rand advocated laissez-faire capitalism as the only truly moral economic system and argued that art and literature instantiated the deepest values of their creator.
In 1952, Rand's followers, including the psychology student Nathaniel Branden (formerly Nathan Blumenthal) and philosophy student Leonard Peikoff, formed a study group that adopted Rand as its teacher and personal ideal. In 1958, Branden established the Nathaniel Bran-den Institute, where for ten years he and Rand lectured on objectivist dogma to enthusiastic audiences, mainly of young adults. However, in 1968 the movement divided as Branden—also Rand's lover, by permission of her spouse, Frank O'Connor—revealed his attachment to another woman, prompting Rand to permanently ostracize him from her official circle. After Rand's death in 1982 the objectivist movement split again due to a dispute between Peikoff and the philosopher David Kelley over the boundaries of objectivist doctrine. Today the Ayn Rand Institute, founded by Peikoff in 1985, maintains that the objectivist system is complete as stated by Rand, while neoobjectivists at David Kelley's Objectivist Center (founded in 1990) distance themselves from Rand's "cult of personality," arguing for continued inquiry and reinterpretation. Both groups have yet to establish themselves among academics, who generally are skeptical of objectivists' claims to freethinking and original insight. Meanwhile, the works of Rand and other objectivists continue to sell roughly 400,000 copies each year and inspire equally passionate support and opposition. The Libertarian political movement shows objectivist influence.
Kelley, David. The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Objectivist Center, 2000.
Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton, 1991.
Walker, Jeff. The Ayn Rand Cult. Chicago: Open Court, 1999.
"Objectivism." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/objectivism
"Objectivism." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved January 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/objectivism