Brimming with Insight

Monday, February 11, 2008

Some years ago -- I think it was part of my reading material for a trip to Australia -- I read most of Ayn Rand's The Art of Nonfiction. I remember it being quite good, but if I was stunned by its brilliance at any point then, I don't remember feeling that way.

Well, then. It's time to chalk another one up to the spiral theory of learning!

I'll illustrate by example.

Near the beginning of the second chapter ("Choosing a Subject and Theme"), Rand makes the following ingenious integration:

Some people commit the error of trying to present all they know by writing an unanswerable article. This is a mistake on at least two counts. First, it is impossible, because if the theme is important, it would take a book to prove it. In an article, you do not prove your theme, you demonstrate it. These are almost synonymous, but here is the distinction. "Proof" applies mainly to theoretical subjects. But when you write about merely an aspect of a subject, such as a cultural or philosophical issue that is part of a cluster of issues, you do not try to prove some point. That would require a much broader and longer piece. Instead, you demonstrate your point, i.e., present it and indicate its proof (which is not the same as giving the proof). ...

The second reason why trying to write an unanswerable article is a mistake is that the author is assuming his readers do not possess free will. He is assuming he must present, by some undefined means, a case no one could resist. But clearly such an assumption is false. People can evade the most obvious logical connections. Therefore, if you try to write such an article, you are defeated at the outset, because you are asking the impossible of yourself. As a result, either you will be unable to write (and will not know why), or you will write endlessly, following sidelines, each of which leads to further sidelines. Instead of being unanswerable, you will raise more questions than you answer. (This is an eloquent illustration of the fact that acting on a wrong premise achieves the opposite of your intention.) (8-9) [bold added]
The whole passage is worthwhile, but let's focus on just the parts in bold. Were I to reformulate the rationale for writing The Unanswerable Article, it would be, "If I only get out all the facts and make all the right arguments, anyone who reads this will have to agree with it."

I think that this type of error is very, very common in our culture, as manifested by the common practice of dismissing opponents as merely unintelligent (else they'd understand and admit the truth), and by the common acceptance by libertarians and many neoconservatives of the notion that everyone wants to be free (regardless of whether they even know what freedom is or what its existence requires). Indeed, this error reaches its full, anti-ideological fruition in Glenn Reynolds' An Army of Davids, which wrongly portrays mere technology and "fact-checking" as the saviors of the free world.

Not only does Ayn Rand manage to see an implicit misconception of the nature of man's consciousness in a common writer's error, but she pops it like the business end of a pin directly and forcefully hitting an overinflated balloon: "People can evade the most obvious logical connections." Or, in practical terms, "Don't beat yourself up trying to get a dishonest man to express agreement."

How many writers cripple themselves with self-doubt because they wrongly think they can "make" someone agree with them? How many dishonest commentators and interlocutors out there prey on such a misconception? And how many aspiring writers have been choked off prematurely by the practical consequences of a popular misconception about a highly abstract issue?

Who else but Ayn Rand could even conceive of some abstract issue like determinism (which has no obvious connection to writing) having anything to do with self-confidence in general and writing block in particular? That is an ingenious connection, and I am very grateful to the person who got me to crack that book open again. I highly recommend this book to anyone serious about writing any type of non-fiction.

To end on a somewhat amusing and instructive note, I ran across these comments (HT: Randex) by one Larry Wilson on a list of books favored by college students across the country. With no justification, he slams Atlas Shrugged, one of the greatest novels ever written, as "just awful" as he gratuitously insults the young part of its audience for the virtue of thinking:
[T]he more you recall that doing well on standardized tests doesn't mean you're intelligent - it means you test well. And that books liked by kids who test well at 17 can be just awful - case in point being No. 6 on the smart side, Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." (Objectivism, like its opposite, communism, is most embraced by those entirely new to thinking.)
As someone not "entirely new to thinking" and who has admired Ayn Rand for over twenty years now, all I can say to that is that if you want an example of the kind of dishonest person you shouldn't waste your energy trying to convince, here's your man.

Many intelligent youths lack social graces and good taste, to be sure, but that does not make a love of Atlas Shrugged into a personality flaw or an aesthetic lapse. And as for the fact that "newness to thinking" can make one vulnerable to the errors of Marxism, that does not somehow make embracing "its opposite" automatically wrong. (Logically, one would suspect the opposite.) Indeed, I will even stretch my neck out and defend a few youthful communists: At least the ones who, as Mr. Wilson condescends, are "new to thinking", are giving "thinking" a try.

In the game of achieving happiness in life, I'll place my bets on a youthful, mistaken, but idealistic communist over a sneering, cynical hack any day. (Wasn't there a commercial some time back about people like this guy? I recall the phrase, "Don't be like me!") Happy reading and happy thinking, fellow Ayn Rand fans!

-- CAV


Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for highlighting this passage in The Art of Nonfiction.

The subject of proof is what I have focused on in a recent Making Progress weblog entry (, "How much proof must a historian offer?"

About five years ago, a local Objectivist writers' group (three members at that time) met monthly to discuss texts on writing and writing issues. We spent six months (about one month per chapter, for the ones most relevant to us) studying and discussing The Art of Nonfiction. It is an excellent investment of time for those who know how to read objectively. I say that because most people I meet do not. They race through books, toss them aside at the end, and say, "Well, that was nice."

A thoughtful reading--and, as you know, a rereading--of TAN reveals the vast array of integrations about writing which Ayn Rand discovered in her two-phased career and explained in her original TAN lectures to a small group in her home. (See Jeff Britting, Ayn Rand, p. 105.) Equally stunning is her performance which the TAN book reproduces (in edited form). With only a brief outline in hand (see Rand, TAN, p. xi, Robert Mayhew's editorial preface), she was able to lecture on the essentials as well as particular "tricks" of the writer's trade.

My most fondly remembered item in TAN is her discussion of subject and theme as the two essentials which a writer must identify and state before he can even begin to outline, much less write a draft. It dawned on me much later that Subject (the area you want to write about) and Theme (what you want to say about that area) are analogous to the genus and differentia in a definition-- such as "Man is a rational animal." They are also analogous to the X and Y coordinates on a graph. Subject and Theme tell the writer where he is in his vast hierarchy of knowledge. He writes about what is at that spot.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the thoughtful ceomment and for directing my attention to that post.

Adrian Hester said...

Yo, Gus, you write: "I remember it being quite good, but if I was stunned by its brilliance at any point then, I don't remember feeling that way." My response was a little different, but in essence I wholly agree here: "It's time to chalk another one up to the spiral theory of learning!"

The particular passage you quote I remember actually saying "A-ha!" about when I read it, but I didn't follow through all its ramifications. My implicit response was something like, "Nonetheless, that's no excuse not to write your best, of course." Later I realized, "of course"? Your best for which audience? All audiences, even the loutish thugs who'll beat you or sneer at you as soon as hear your voice? Better put, of course, to write as well as the audience deserves. For professional colleagues or an audience worth the effort, then yes, it's incumbent on you writing for them to do everything in your abilities to address the rational objections you can see arising within the scope of the essay or talk, even minor ones.

For a general audience, no. You cannot expect them to see the force of all the objections you yourself or your specialized colleagues might see, and instead you should focus on common fallacies as clearly as possible. For still other audiences who might well not be innocent victims of rather subtle fallacies, it probably is not even be worth your while lifting your pen or typing fingers unless you're going after blood for a large undecided audience.

It's in your selfish interest to suit the scale of your labors to the worth to you of the audience, just as in any other field. And even at your best and theirs they might disagree with you for good reasons--the best all come from different contexts of knowledge and might not find what you say convincing, just as in any other realm your product might not be acceptable to any given buyer on the market. But you're not responsible for that--and any attempt to short-circuit your own judgment in favor of what others might think is not in your interest. It was some time before I saw how this tied in so naturally with Objectivist ethics in its usual, more "economic" statements--it's far too easy to elide the question of which audience you're writing for and end up damaging your own interests, if only in wasted effort and irritation at the outsome.

Gus Van Horn said...

"[I]t's far too easy to elide the question of which audience you're writing for and end up damaging your own interests...."

I have a half-baked, but interesting thought here as a result of your comment.

Social metaphysicians place too much (or at least inappropriate) importance to what others think, and authors who fail to gauge their audience place too little importance on what (or how?) others think.

In each case, you have someone opening himself up to injury of some kind by failing to properly account for the judgement of other people.

Jim May said...

Two notes:

First, your point on not making the error of assuming that enough good arguments mean that someone *must* agree: this harkens back to something that Harry Binswanger supposedly said according to a commenter on this blog: when he realized that Ayn Rand's ideas weren't sweeping people up as he first thought they should, he siad that "they must not be reading the same Ayn Rand I did."

So I have to wonder: if the resistance to Objectivist ideas is willful in so many cases, are there enough cases left over for us to reach, to make a difference? If the answer is "no", then what?

Secondly, regarding unconvinceable twits like Larry Wilson, it is IMO helpful to target that sort of individual, where applicable (on a blog or news site with comments) with short, sharp comebacks such as the one you did here.

The reason why I think it helps to do that is not to convince anyone of anything, but to ensure that the enemy and their followers (and victims) can see that there are independent minds paying attention.

It is also important to shatter the "echo chamber effect", especially in smaller fora and social situations (as opposed to, say, Daily Kos). This is where someone of an aggressive bent will become progressively louder about their views in an otherwise non-political venue, with the intentions of turning that venue into their own little political fiefdom. They rely on the resulting discomfort of dissenters to keep them silent, to give the impression that there isn't any dissent, and that this is because "everyone knows" that he is right. The point is to shatter the spell they can cast over that forum, to embolden others to make their dissent known.

You know that this is the phenomenon you are dealing with if the individual thus targeted just about explodes, because you've just blown his little game sky-high.

I learned about this phenomenon via a friend, who was on a mailing list pertaining to new Internet media; there was this blowhard on that list who just kept going on and on about the fact that nothing of value came from individuals, only from collectives. My friend kept sending me samples, because he liked to see how I'd rip them apart. Well, I remarked offhand one day that he ought to post one of my fiskings to the list, and he did; the resulting explosion was awesome to behold, and this guy lost all his credibility and aura of power as dissent and "STFU already"s rained down on his rantings. I've since observed the same phenomenon at parties and other smaller gatherings and fora.

Gus Van Horn said...


"If the answer is "no", then what?"

Based on historical precedent (e.g., America around the time of the Revolution), I would say that there's no reason the culture *can't* become predominantly rational. This doesn't (and didn't) mean that everyone was an Objectivist. I don't think the goal of cultural change is necessarily to make everyone full-blown Objectivists. It's just to reestablish rationality (rather than emotionalism) as the norm.

And the consequences if the cultural tide is not turned? Well, since reason is man's tool for survival, I think you know the answer to that.

Regarding your analysis of my slap at Larry Wilson, showing that his kind will not go unchallenged was precisely my point!


Grant Williams said...

I liked your comments about Larry Wilson's article. I came across that same article via Randex, read it, constructed about 2 sentences worth of a comment, before I thought to myself "gosh, there's just so much wrong here... I can't even bring myself to get into it."

The main thing that bothered me about his article is that he smugly implies that all truly educated people, to paraphrase Socrates, know that they know nothing. Not only did he imply it when he belittled Objectivism by comparing it's reverence for consistency and certainty with the discredited doctrines of Communism, but he also demonstrated it in the very structure of his article! He spends multiple paragraphs explaining, analyzing, reviewing, and commenting on the topic of the correlation between intelligence and literature choices, only to throw up his hands at the end and declare that, after all, none of this means anything because, as we all know, one's ability to think, as well as one's literary choices, are purely the result of socio-economic status. I immediately thought: Why bother to write anything then?

Anyways, thanks for giving me an opportunity to express, precisely and to a reader I know would understand (and agree with) where I'm coming from before I found myself entangled in a long, infuriating debate with Larry Wilson and his refusal-to-see-essentials ilk.


An ex-youthful communist, now mature Objectivist.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, sir for your comment, and especially for enlarging on the attack against reason in general of which Wilson is guilty of, but which I did not focus on.

Tom Rowland said...


Thanks so much for highlighting this particular passage. Boy, have I been guilty of this 'sin of non-omission," particularly back in the days when I was posting on SOLO. But the real sin at that site was that the owner and his cohorts demanded it and then substituted invective if the opposition didn't immediately write the book required.

Glad to have those days behind me. Thanks again.

Gus Van Horn said...

You're welcome, Tom!

You indirectly remind me of another dishonest debating tactic: People who slap you down for not having, say, read the Koran, should you have the temerity to criticize Islam. They seize the moral high ground by claiming to be sick of people who don't know what the hell they're talking about -- something that is quite a legitimate beef in the right context -- but then demand omniscience or silence.

(Actually, as I think more about this, it strikes me as perhaps a species of the same thing.)

Perhaps we should call this tactic "demanding the universe as context"!

Andrew Dalton said...

Gus, I've even heard the argument that unless you've read the Koran in Arabic, then you can't criticize Islam. This anti-conceptual argument is even more outrageous than what fundamentalist Christians claim regarding the Bible.

Gus Van Horn said...


And -- correct me if I'm wrong -- we're talking about lefties, and not Moslems. After all, with that lot, you just can't criticize Islam, period.

Of course, when you attack reason like a leftist, and go far enough, the end result is the same....