Happy Ayn Rand Centenary!

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

I plan to celebrate Ayn Rand's 100th by watching the Oscar-award winning documentary, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, but the celebration will be delayed. There's a backlog for the DVD on Netflix due to strong interest. The good news makes the wait worthwhile.

Where in the World...

Well, if I weren't using a nom de plume, I'd describe in detail my appearance on the local news tonight, barring a date with the cutting room floor. For once, the "man on the street" being interviewed was an Objectivist!

According to my wife, who is not an Objectivist, I seemed nervous on camera and would probably put off lots of people with my "extreme" views on ... the matter at hand. Giving me a hard time, she said that I sounded like a crackpot, but at least an intelligent one!

Or maybe she was being nice, and tomorrow I'll be glad I blog anonymously!

UPDATE: Little of what I said made it to the news, but the essential point did, for which I was glad. I came across OK, but have to admit that I reminded myself a little of Dubya with my verbal pauses. NOBODY at work or at my brew club meeting had seen me, though! At least I taped it.

The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics

Martin Lindeskog gives the following heads-up over at Ego.

The Book of the Month is James Stevens Valliant's book, The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics. The book is published by Durban House Publishing.

Read the whole post, and follow the link he supplies to Debunking the Debunkers over at Reclaim your Brain. And more on the subject of that post below.

I'll Second that Emotion

A friend of mine, after reading my post on the latest smear against Ayn Rand at National Review, pointed me to some articles about Rand in Reason magazine, which they have published online without their normal after print delay. I read these yesterday, pondering whether I should rip them, too, into shreds. Sarah Beth does a pretty good job already, and I think I'll briefly join the scrum in a moment. But I want to explain why, first.

It was fun and cathartic giving Andrew Stuttaford back what he dished out the other day, but something about my post made me a bit hesitant to discuss the Reason pieces. Why dignify this kind of mealy-mouthed garbage with a response -- or even the merest acknowledgement of its existence? As I have said before, I enjoy writing a good polemic, and if I can toss in a few zingers, all the better. But beyond a certain point, it's a real chore to spend any amount of time rooting through someone else's intellectual garbage.

Nevertheless, I'll quote from Reason before some hippie rips out the page to roll a joint, because it leads me to a couple of good points. According to Reason's Cathy Young:

Yet there is a reason Objectivism remains, for most people, a way station on a journey to some wider outlook. Even Nathaniel Branden, who still espouses most Objectivist tenets, has been severely critical of Rand’s judgmental and contemptuous attitude toward all emotions she deemed “irrational,” her tendency to glorify emotional repression [italics added], and her lukewarm support even for voluntary, non-self-sacrificing mutual aid.

According to Ayn Rand, emotions are instantaneous, subconsciously-made evaluations of what one is experiencing or thinking about at any given moment. Emotions are also experienced, much like percepts. However, what one feels about something will ultimately be based on one's philosophical premises. The concept of rationality doesn't apply to emotions as such, although it certainly does to the thought processes that led someone to adopt the premises underlying the emotion. This is a profound and very important insight that neither Cathy Young nor, apparently, Nathaniel Branden appreciate. Let's explore this a bit, shall we?

First, this insight can help us interpret the reactions of others. Did you shout with glee and pass candy around like a savage on September 11, 2001? Or did you cry because you saw fellow human beings jumping out of windows? These differing emotions reveal opposite judgments of that event and of the value of human life. (In many cases, one's own: which philosophy led to nineteen men immolating themselves that day?) Were you angry? At America as the "world aggressor" or at the terrorists? Same emotion, different underlying philosophical premises. Interesting, isn't it? I got my start learning how to understand emotions this way from Ayn Rand. Certainly, she would have felt, as I feel, contempt for the Islamofascists and the home-grown America-haters whose emotions I just described, but to say Ayn Rand felt "contempt" for emotion as such is ridiculous.

Second, Rand's insight can help us to use emotions to understand ourselves. Emotions help us do this through the process of introspection. (And to say that Rand advocated "repression" is farcical, and for more than just this reason, and at more than one level.) You hear that a party you were about to attend is cancelled. To your surprise, you're happy about the news, though you'd been planning to go. You have enough control over your emotions not to express your happiness with the hostess, with whom you're a good friend. But you don't repress your emotions, so you definitely recognize the fact that you're happy. Fortunately, you realize the nature of emotions and understand that you might want to figure out why the cancellation was actually good news. You make a mental note to try to figure out what about the cancellation made you glad of it. At some point later on, you think of the cancellation and your surprise at being glad about it. The happiness was actually relief, but at what? There were going to be lots of strangers there from your friend's new job. You're shy and the prospect of having to meet new people frightens you. You then realize that you've allowed yourself to settle into a small "comfort zone" of close friends because of your shyness. What you do about that depends on your particular situation. I faced something like that awhile back while I was newly divorced and realized that I'd better get more comfortable meeting people fast or I'd die a bachelor. I'm still nervous about meeting people, but I am married.

Third, Rand didn't just talk about emotions. She talked about values. Two emotions that many philosophically unsophisticated people consider opposites, love and hate, are understood better with Rand's insight. To love is to value. Hatred is an emotional response to something that is the opposite of, or a threat to, that which we love. Why is this important? Because values motivate us as living beings. In order to survive, to prosper, and to be happy, we must identify, attain, and sometimes protect our values. What do you like to do? Exploring your emotional responses to certain activities can help you identify the right career, rewarding hobbies, and potential friends or romantic partners among those who share your interests. When I was younger, I repressed my emotions, thanks in part to my Catholic upbringing. A divorce and two dud careers later, I really wish I'd been more aware of my emotions a lot sooner. I'd probably be experiencing a lot more positive ones, and a lot more often by now.

And this brings me full circle back to my contemplation of the Reason magazine articles. Recall that I enjoyed ripping Andrew Sutttaford a new "review" the other day, but that I also wondered why I should go through the chore of intellectual dumpster diving at the likes of Reason or National Review. My main emotional response to seeing the Stuttaford piece was anger. Indeed, part of my enjoyment writing the rebuttal stemmed from seeing some small measure of justice done, but that was really a small reward. I was unsatisfied. What had I accomplished besides catharsis? (Not to belittle its worth.) Why do I write mostly about current events and their philosophical implications?

Because I care about ideas. And I care about ideas because, thanks to Ayn Rand, I understand their paramount importance in shaping the world that I live in. I'd like to improve that world by helping others understand the many profound insights that Ayn Rand left us with. Loving my own life, I'd be thrilled if, on top of making the world better for me to live in, what I had to say might help someone else live life more fully -- and at an earlier age than myself. I learned via the Martin Lindeskog post I referenced above, that Sarah Beth, the author of "Debunking the Debunkers," is young and relatively new to Objectivism. Seeing her article reminded me of when I was younger and first became interested in Objectivism. I was reminded of the feeling of infinite promise that comes with youth. More importantly, I was reminded of the idealism that so many jaded, dying "adults" like Cathy Young dismiss as being "of youth," as if it were some kind of passing phase to be outgrown. Some people say that you're only as old as you think you are. They're right. Those of us who keep that "inner spark" (as I think Ayn Rand called it) alive never grow old in the sense of becoming tired of being alive. I think that's why I enjoy blogging so much. Thanks for helping me realize that, Sarah! You're beginning a fascinating journey and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't at least a little bit jealous!

Final Note

I didn't anticipate a full-blown discussion on emotions when I began this post, but that's where I went. One issue about Reason that I didn't bring up, but think important enough to touch on here is this. It is important to discuss some of their criticisms about Rand, but mostly in the sense of philosophical detection. Many of the criticisms are dishonest (or ill-informed at best), like the assertion that Rand advocated repressing emotions. It is important from the perspective of grasping one's own ideas to understand what is wrong with such "criticisms" and from the perspective of intellectual activism to address them from time to time, but ultimately, one's energy is better spent making a positive case for Rand's ideas. How do they help you live your own life? How will they appeal to others?

Ultimately, it is this, and not paying too much attention to the Nick Gillespies and Cathy Youngs of the world that will improve your life and the world you live in.

-- CAV

PS (added 2-4-05): One thing I didn't mention is that Rand made it clear that she did not regard emotions as "tools of cognition." Unlike percepts or logic, they cannot provide us with valid knowledge without the kind of examination I briefly outlined above.

Also, my example of introspection was not an example of unearthing a hitherto unknown or unacknowledged philosophical premise, but of a characteristic of my psycho-epistemology. Of course, it is also possible to discover the hold of ideas one explicitly rejects, too. Using myself as an example again, I sometimes find myself reacting to things based on religious ideas from my childhood. While I explicitly disagree with them, they are occasionally "still there" to an extent. Typically, this happens with issues I haven't thought much about.

My main point is this, and it could be made with any number of the other blatant falsehoods in the Reason piece. Rand's thought has far more depth and subtlety than many people give it credit for.


2-4-05: Corrected wording on TV appearance and gave update. Fixed some typos. Added PS.
11-26-07: Added hypertext anchor.


Sarah Beth said...

"Those of us who keep that "inner spark" (as I think Ayn Rand called it) alive never grow old in the sense of becoming tired of being alive. I think that's why I enjoy blogging so much. Thanks for helping me realize that, Sarah!"

That quote you reference, is my favorite of hers :)

("Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won. It exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours." - Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)

"It is important from the perspective of grasping one's own ideas to understand what is wrong with such "criticisms" and from the perspective of intellectual activism to address them from time to time, but ultimately, one's energy is better spent making a positive case for Rand's ideas."

I think you are absolutely right. I'm wading back and forth, trying to positively espouse and occasionally denounce, in order to get my head around the ideas that have influenced me so recently. I appreciate your commentary and thought your article was great. I'll be checking out your blog here more often :)

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the kind words and for supplying the quote I wasn't able to dredge up from memory.

All the best.