Whether one calls it a renaissance or a recrudescence, Rand is on a roll. The Randian resurgence doesn't please David Bentley Hart whose First Things attack piece contains the following:
And, really, what can one say about Objectivism? It isn’t so much a philosophy as what someone who has never actually encountered philosophy imagines a philosophy might look like: good hard axiomatic absolutes, a bluff attitude of intellectual superiority, lots of simple atomic premises supposedly immune to doubt, immense and inflexible conclusions, and plenty of assertions about what is “rational” or “objective” or “real.” Oh, and of course an imposing brand name ending with an “-ism.” Rand was so eerily ignorant of all the interesting problems of ontology, epistemology, or logic that she believed she could construct an irrefutable system around a collection of simple maxims like “existence is identity” and “consciousness is identification,” all gathered from the damp fenlands between vacuous tautology and catastrophic category error.
Pleonasm and bombast aside, "Maxims . . . gathered from the damp fenlands of vacuous tautology and catastrophic category error" is on the mark. I will illustrate with the famous Randianism, "Existence exists."
1. There are at least two sensible ways of construing 'Existence exists.' (a) That in virtue of which existing things exist itself exists. For example, if one thought of existence as a property of existing things, and one were a realist about properties, then it would make sense for that person to say that existence exists. He would mean by it that the property of existence exists. (b) Existing things exist. Instead of taking 'existence' as denoting that in virtue of which existing things exist, one could take it as a term that applies to whatever exists. Accordingly, existence is whatever exists. To say that existence exists would then mean that existing things exist, or whatever exists exists. But then the dictum would be a tautology. Of course existing things exist, what else would they be 'doing'? Breathing things breath. Running things run. Whatever is in orbit is in orbit.
2. From Rand's texts it is clear that she intends neither the (a) nor the (b) construal. What she is trying to say is something non-tautological: that the things that exist exist and have the attributes they have independently of us. Here we read, "The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity." Rand is advancing a version of metaphysical realism. Existence EXISTS! (Pound the lectern, stamp the foot, flare the nostrils.) In other words, the things that exist -- yonder mountain, the setting sun -- EXIST! where that means that they are real in sublime independence of our thinking and doing and talking, and indeed of any being's thinking and doing. The problem, of course, is that Rand chooses to express herself in an inept and idiosyncratic way using the ambiguous sentence, 'Existence exists.' A careful writer does not package non-tautological claims in sentences the form of which is tautological.
That whatever exists exists independently of any consciousness, including a divine consciousness if there is one, is a substantive metaphysical claim, as can be seen from the fact that it rules out every form of idealism. 'Existing things exist,' however, is a barefaced tautology that rules out nothing.
3. But the problem is not merely infelicity of expression. Even though Rand wants to advance a substantive non-tautological thesis, a thesis of metaphysical realism, she thinks she can accomplish this by either inferring it from or conflating it with the Law of Identity. The law states that for any x, x = x. As Rand puts it, "A =A." Well of course. There is nothing controversial here. But Rand thinks that one can straightaway move to a substantive thesis that is controversial, namely, metaphysical realism according to which things exist and have the natures they have independently of any consciousness. My point is not that metaphysical realism is false; my point is that denying it is not equivalent to denying the Law of Identity. The problem is that Rand packs a hell of a lot into the the law in question, a lot of stuff that doesn't belong there. She puts the following in the mouth of Galt:
To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of nonexistence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes. Centuries ago, the man who was—no matter what his errors —the greatest of your philosophers, has stated the formula defining the concept of existence and the rule of all knowledge: A is A. A thing is itself. You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it: Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.
[. . .]
Are you seeking to know what is wrong with the world? All the disasters that have wrecked your world, came from your leaders’ attempt to evade the fact that A is A. All the secret evil you dread to face within you and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the fact that A is A. The purpose of those who taught you to evade it, was to make you forget that Man is Man.
So the disasters of the 20th century originated in the evasion by people like Hitler and Stalin of the fact that A is A! This is just silly. How can the disasters of the 2oth century be laid at the door step of a miserable tautology? Suppose we grant that everything that exists is self-identical and that everything that is self-identical exists. (The first half of the assertion is uncontroversial, but the second half is not and will be contested by followers of Alexius von Meionong.) But suppose we grant it. I myself believe it is true. By what process of reasoning does one arrive at such substantive Randian claims as that (1) Whatever exists exists independently of any consciousness and (2) There is nothing antecedent to existence, nothing apart from it—and no alternative to it?
The denials of these two propositions are consistent with the Law of Identity and Rand's explication of existence in terms of this law. So the propositions cannot be validly inferred from the law.
Note finally that if there is no alternative to existence, then it is necessarily the case that something exists. For to say that there is no alternative to existence is to say that it is impossible that there be nothing at all. But 'to exist = to be self-identical' is consistent with each thing's existence being contingent, and the whole lot of them being contingent. Therefore, one cannot validly infer 'There is no alternative to existence' from 'To exist = to be self-identical.'
From this we see how slovenly the Randian/Peikoffian 'reasoning' is. The game they play is the following. They advance substantive metaphysical claims in the guise of tautologies. The self-evidence of the latter they illicitly ascribe to the former. This allows them to pass off their sayings as axioms that every rational person must accept. If you patiently expose their confusions as I just did, they resort to invective and name-calling.