Ayn Rand, philosopher-novelist
In the later part of her life, Ayn Rand described herself as a "philosopher-novelist". Professional philosophers have not taken the first part of that designation very seriously. Perhaps this is not to be wondered at, for Rand's view of professional philosophers is largely in the same spirit as J. R. R. Tolkien's opinion of his critics:
Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.J. R. R. Tolkien
Nonetheless, it's legitimate to ask if they are doing Rand justice. Is she really the intellectual lightweight they suppose, or is she doing something that properly deserves the name of philosophy?
Rand's critics disagree with her not only on her conclusions, but also, and more fundamentally, on her methods. To be sure, they often reject the philosophical positions she takes. But even those who share some of those positions, as Robert Nozick did in "On the Randian Argument", usually find her arguments for them unsatisfactory, and her methods of arguing bizarre. And this is nowhere more true than in her claim to found her philosophy on axioms. "Existence exists," Rand asserts, or "consciousness is consciousness," or "A is A," and academic philosophers point out that she is putting forth tautologies, and object that nothing of substance can be proved from them.
This is a natural way for a contemporary British or American philosopher to think. The English-speaking world's approach to philosophy has been profoundly influenced by mathematical logic, a discipline in which logic is thought of as the formal manipulation of symbol strings, by techniques that are independent of what how those strings are interpreted. In the words of Robert A. Heinlein,
In this tradition, logical necessity is considered to apply to propositions in formal systems, which start out with undefined primitive terms and unproven postulates, and then use them to define other terms and prove other assertions. We may choose to apply such systems to the world we observe, but that application is not logically necessary; nor does the logical necessity of any proposition transfer over to the logical necessity of any state of affairs in the physical world to which that proposition might be applied.
Now, Rand does not share this assumption! Indeed, one of her key formulations is "existence is identity; consciousness is identification." Identity, here, is as in "the Law of Identity," the foundation of Aristotle's logic; Rand asserts that the real world, the world we live in, is made up of things that have identities and are subject to logic. She believes in the ontological status of the Law of Identity. And, at a minimum, for philosophers who reject this to say "Ayn Rand believes in the ontological status of the Law of Identity, therefore her philosophy is wrong" is assuming the invalidity of her position, rather than establishing it through serious criticism.
But it can also be said that Rand is not unique or freakish in adhering to this view. She is, in fact, following a well-known philosophical tradition, one that originates in thinkers who are taken quite seriously by philosophers. It may be astonishing to present-day philosophers to encounter a philosopher who actually adheres to Aristotle's views, rather than simply treating them with antiquarian respect. But surely, even if Aristotle is wrong, philosophers who regard him as one of the great figures in philosophy ought to be able to make a reasoned case as to why his ideas are wrong, and willing to take them seriously enough to put that case forward; and then the same case ought to be made against Rand.
On the other hand, perhaps Aristotle is right.
Perhaps the first philosopher to assert that existence exists was Parmenides (early fifth century B.C.). In On Nature, he distinguishes three paths, of which he recommends the first:
He asserts, in other words, that it is the nature of what exists to exist. Conversely, it is the nature of what does not exist not to exist. What exists is something; what does not exist is nothing. But this invalidates his second path, the path of what does not exist; because thinking must be thinking of something, but thinking of the second path is thinking of nothing, which is impossible.
Readers of Ayn Rand should recognize some of these assertions:
On the other hand, Rand departs from Parmenides on one key point: her reference to perception. For Rand, sensory perception is the starting point of all knowledge. For Parmenides, knowledge necessarily involves the rejection of sensory perception. For sensory perception shows a changing world; but Parmenides says,
That is, in Parmenides' view, the third way is a confusion of existence and nonexistence, of something and nothing. At one time, say, Zeus does not exist; then Rhea gives birth, and he exists. But this is to say that he was nothing, and now is something; and nothing is not and cannot become something. Anything that exists always has existed and always will exist. Since our senses show us a changing world, our senses are contrary to reason and cannot be trusted.
This is the point where Aristotle disagrees. (This analysis of Aristotle's position comes from Christopher Shields's Aristotle, Section 2.4; the application to Rand is entirely mine.) In the Physics, Aristotle says,
In other words, for Aristotle, there is an underlying stratum of being that never turns into nonbeing. But that stratum can be embodied in a being of one kind, or of another kind. And what distinguishes those two kinds is that they have different forms. The form can change; the matter can't. In Rand's phrasing, "Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist" (Rand, Atlas Shrugged). The change of form is what is actually involved in the coming-to-be or ceasing-to-be of particular entities. Change is possible because there is this distinction of matter and form.
In fact, Aristotle goes a step further, to a position technically called hylomorphism: the theory that matter and form always go together. And this is precisely what Rand means by saying that "existence is identity." Or, in a more informal phrasing,
The phrasing is informal, but "everything is something" is a perfect statement of hylomorphism. And Rand's study of ancient Greek philosophy has been documented (notably in Chris Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and of course in Rand's own statements); she certainly knew where the idea came from. In other words, Rand was reaffirming Aristotle's view of the world, as one where visible change is based on underlying continuity. Her position is not a naïve fallacy, though it's presented in simple language; it's a restatement of a respectable school of philosophical thought, though one that isn't currently in fashion.
Of course, that doesn't prove that it's right. But to show that it's wrong, it's necessary to do more than simply appeal to the assumptions of one's own school as if they were universally acknowledged truths.
Further, the very idea of formalism in logic and mathematics is itself questionable. It treats logical systems as made up of terms and propositions whose meaning is ultimately defined solely in relation to other terms and propositions; any application to the physical world, the world revealed by the senses, is an arbitrary convention that can never be known to be true, valid, or right. They are indeed formal, in the Aristotelian sense: pure form that cannot be embodied in matter.
Aristotle, in opposition to Plato, rejected pure form in metaphysics. A case can be made for rejecting it in epistemology as well: For saying that an expression in an arbitrary symbolic language, a symbol string defined only in relation to other symbol strings, is not a concept at all. At best, it's a notation that can be used to represent a concept, for the purpose of checking the steps of an argument. Actual concepts have meaning only insofar as they relate to sensory perception — which, again, is a proper Aristotelian position: Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses, as the medievals put it.
The formalism so common in present-day philosophy is based on logic, and therefore on identity. But it conceives identity as applying only to syntactic relations within a formal theory. The application of any formal theory to any actual observation can never be proven right, in its view; it's purely a convenience or a convention. Anything that has a definite identity cannot have existence.
Rand's approach is rather different! For her, any meaningful concept refers to things that actually exist, and that are known to the senses. Her entire philosophical practice reflects this: it emphasizes, not formal rigor as such, but logic as a tool for making sure that concepts apply to reality. Her philosophical practice grows naturally out of her Aristotelian realism, in the same way that her critics' grows out of a Platonic fascination with abstractions and formalism. Her reaction to any philosophical position is always, "What does this mean if you apply it to the real world?" Her very axiom "Existence exists" is, by her own statement (in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology), not a premise for logical deductions or a basis for formal proofs, but a device for underscoring the necessity of paying attention to what's in front of us. Criticisms of this device for tautology miss the point that she's trying to make.
© 2010 William H. Stoddard
Existence and Consciousness
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
Ronald E. Merrill's
Philosophy at Troynovant