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Tuesday, January 13, 2009


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Thanks for this. Enjoyable reading.

Your assertion that Ayn Rand brought people to philosophy is certainly true of me. She's a fine example of pitfalls to avoid. Very, very big pitfalls. I personally avoid them by remaining an amateur student of philosophy, and not an amateur philosopher.

A quibble: I wouldn't class Nietzsche as an "amateur" philosopher, or demean him with being in the same class as Ayn Rand. Wouldn't he fit better with the "wisdom" literature, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, etc.?

You're welcome, Court. I figured someone would object to a comparison of Rand and Nietzsche. It is obvious -- which is why I didn't state it -- that Nietzsche's cultural significance is far, far greater than Rand's. And the same goes for his literary merit. He is one of the great German stylists despite his excesses. He also towers over Rand in the originality of his ideas. But neither is a professional philosopher and so both are amateurs. N's professional training was in philology. 'Amateur' need not carry a pejorative connotation. An amateur is one who engages in an activity but does not meet professional standards of performance. I am an amateur chessplayer but there is nothing pejorative in pointing that out. Even if I made a living from chess by giving lessons or writing books I would still be an amateur as I am using 'amateur.'

To compare N with Marcus, e.g., would require a separate post. But Marcus is solid where N rants and raves. Marcus is working from a professionally articulated system of Stoic ideas -- their dogmas as they call them -- whence their wisdom precepts flow. There is a Stoic school which many philosophers took part in building. There is Stoic logic, ethics, epistemology, etc. In N there is no coherent system of ideas and little by way of wisdom. Central doctrines such as perspectivism are nonsense. But unargued nonsense can be very instructive! And fascinating from aesthetic and psychological points of view.

Rand, that stalwart defender of rationality, ‘reasons’ as follows:
A. If some facts are not necessary, but contingent,
Then, B. No fact is necessary. Therefore, C. Nothing is certain.
Therefore, D. Anything goes.

For all I know, Rand is a bad philosopher. I have no opinion on it, though her style of arguing certainly invites criticism. Still, something sounds familiar in the quoted argument she too-casually presents. She might be getting at an argument van Inwagen offered that the principle of sufficient reason entails that there are no contingent events, facts, etc. (cf. Peter van lnwagen, An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) pp. 202-204. There's a similar argument in William Rowe, The Cosmological Argument (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975) ch. 2). So, restricting her quantification over facts in this argument to quantification over what we would ordinarily take to be clear-cut contingent facts, what she says here might be closer to the truth. Either there is contingency all the way up, or there is necessity all the way up (beginning with God's necessity). Needless to say, I couldn't tell you that this is just what she had in mind.

"Surely it is highly implausible to maintain that our solar system’s having nine planets is necessary."

You seem to have missed her point. Rand rejects the necessary/contingent dichotomy. She does not say that the nine planets are "necessary"; she says that they ARE, that it is a metaphysically given fact.

I take your point about Marcus A's wisdom flowing from a system. Fascinating that wisdom can come from such a flawed system (from our perspective). But if wisdom can come from a flawed system, couldn't it also come from no-system? N, of course, was opposed to system on principle, as it were.

I guess what I'm asking is, what makes wisdom?

Happy New Year, Mike. Interesting comment. I have thought about the van Inwagen argument you mention. Jonathan Bennett also endorses a version of it as I explain in my most recent post. How exactly this connects with Rand, though, is none too clear.


I'm not following you. If 'planet' is defined a certain way, then there are 9 planets in our solar system. If you are telling me that Rand's view is that the proposition that there are 9 planets is neither necessarily true nor contingently true, then I submit that her view is incoherent. It has to be one or the other. Either the fact that there are 9 planets could have been otherwise or it could not have been otherwise. In the first case the truth is contingent, in the second it is necessary.


As I said, Ayn Rand does not accept the validity of dividing up facts like that. All facts not caused by the choice of a being possessing free will are simply facts. There is no justification for, and no insight to be gained from, saying some facts had to be and some didn't. According to Rand's view of metaphysics and epistemology, it is just as logically wrong to say that there are 17 planets in the solar system as it is to say that 2 + 2 = 5.

Leonard Peikoff has written on this topic:


As far as metaphysical reality is concerned (omitting human actions from consideration, for the moment), there are no “facts which happen to be but could have been otherwise” as against “facts which must be.” There are only: facts which are . . . Since things are what they are, since everything that exists possesses a specific identity, nothing in reality can occur causelessly or by chance. The nature of an entity determines what it can do and, in any given set of circumstances, dictates what it will do. The Law of Causality is entailed by the Law of Identity. Entities follow certain laws of action in consequence of their identity, and have no alternative to doing so. Metaphysically, all facts are inherent in the identities of the entities that exist; i.e., all facts are “necessary.” In this sense, to be is to be “necessary.” The concept of “necessity,” in a metaphysical context, is superfluous.

More here:


If the genus of philosophy is deep and fundamental questions, then its differentia is its rigorous and logical approach, accepting nothing that is not either self-evident and clear, or derived from it. That is what differentiates philosophy from other approaches to those same questions such as mysticism, beliefs taken on authority, pseudoscience or (in this case) pseudo-philosophy, i.e. an approach which borrows the big words of philosophy, and may superfically have appearance of logic and rigour, but which isn't either logical or rigorous.
You and I may disagree on whether philosophy is ultimately nothing more than logic. I think we both accept the need for a logical, rigorous and highly self-critical approach.

I, too, was brought to philosophy by Rand, and quite refused to read outside of objectivism for a good year or so. Is she good for amateurs to read? If they are brought to the world of philosophy, then that is an argument for her. My experience, though, is that she so badly misrepresents many philosophical problems, and thinkers, that it may simply be best to avoid her.

While it has been a long time since I've read anything she's written, all I can remember is that in her, and Peikoff's work, the amount of things that are either submitted to be self-evident but were not, and were assumed to follow necessarily from "premises" when they did not NECESSARILY follow were quite staggering. (I only realized this after reading other thinkers.)


You write, "If the genus of philosophy is deep and fundamental questions, then its differentia is its rigorous and logical approach, accepting nothing that is not either self-evident and clear, or derived from it." That sounds good, but let me raise a difficulty.

Suppose I agree that the genus of philosophy is what you say it is. The genus is inquiry into deep and fundamental questions. Among the species of this genus we find theology based on revelation (as opposed to natural theology which is a branch of philosophy) and mysticism. But also natural science and mathematics. Surely mathematics treats of deep and fundamental questions. But the differentia you specify is common to both philosophy and mathematics, is it not?

"I think we both accept the need for a logical, rigorous and highly self-critical approach." On this we certainly agree.

"As I said, Ayn Rand does not accept the validity of dividing up facts like that."

The problem is with the basis on which she rejects it, which is stated by Peikoff as follows:
"Since things are what they are, since everything that exists possesses a specific identity, nothing in reality can occur causelessly or by chance. The nature of an entity determines what it can do and, in any given set of circumstances, dictates what it will do. The Law of Causality is entailed by the Law of Identity."

At best this is begging the question as against Dr. Vallicella's position. It asserts that the nature of a thing (viz., its necessary properties) is nothing different than all of the things properties, which would be a controversial assumption in any case and which is exactly what is in dispute in this one.


Good to hear from you again. I recall some of your excellent comments on my old blog. Funny you should mention that passage from Peikoff. I was reading it just this morning. It's on pp. 108-109 of Intro to Objectivist Epistemology. Even more bizarre is the sentence immediately preceding: "The view that facts are contingent -- that the way things are is only one among a number of alternative possibilities, that things could have been different metaphysically -- represents a failure to grasp the Law of Identity." (108)

I should write a separate post about this. For now I will content myself with the quip that Rand sure packs a lot into the Law of Identity!

An interesting point about natural science and mathematics. I have heard this objection before. My usual reply is that the words 'deep' and 'fundamental' and 'principle' are all capturing the same idea, which is of a beginning point (the literal and original meaning of 'principle'). Philosophy is primarily interested in these 'principles'. Mathematicians in my experience are not. E.g. they assume the notion of a set without question, as an assumption, whereas philosophers seize on it.

Natural scientists are beginning to talk about explaining things like consciousness, intentionality and such things using a standard 'scientific' approach though I think they either make a hopeless mess of it (like Penrose in my view) or they start sounding more like philosophers. If the latter, my case is proven.


You made a plausible response, but it may recoil on your suggestion that philosophy is one among several species of the genus inquiry into deep and fundamental questions. If you mean the deepest principles, those common to every special science, then philosophy is identical to the genus and is not a species of it.

These are fascinating and very difficult questions that ought to be pursued in separate posts.


I rather liked this post, Bill, since I've felt similar irritation with Rand's sloppiness, particularly as pertains to her abuse of the Law of Identity. Still, I must somewhat echo Mark's point that I think you misunderstood her intention in the package-deal quote. From what I can tell, Rand gives the imaginary professor's argument precisely as an example of fallacious reasoning, not as a vehicle for her own views. So criticizing the strength of this argument doesn't really demonstrate poor reasoning on her part, since she criticizes the very same argument herself.

Now, whether professors of philosophy actually do argue that poorly is another issue all together, and it may be a grievous indicator of Rand's ineptitude that she attributes it to them. More importantly, we can question Rand's own reasons for thinking that the professor's argument is fallacious, and I do suspect you have a much better understanding of its foibles than she does.

But I get the impression that you just shot down a reasoning process she did not commit to, then rebuked her for it; either that or I myself have horribly misunderstood your post?

Anyway, cheers, and keep up the good work.

Rand never said that nothing is certain. It's the other way around. Thing is what it is, A is A and A is not non-A. New things can't come into existence, but they can change their shape and properties due to their interaction. I can make a cube of clay from a ball of clay due to clay's interaction with my hands. People here do not understand Ayn Rand's philosophy at all. They clearly haven't read even Objectivist Wiki ound on www.objectivismonline.com . This specific article has one critical mistake among others. Ayn Rand never thought of neccesary/unneccesary, but man-made/metaphysically given. Sun can't be blue or green because I want it that way or because sun is so complex. Sun is of golden color because it is that way, no matter what we think it is. Ice melts on 0 degrees Celsius on normal atmospheric pressuse. You can't make it melt faster by your though only. Because ice is what it is...

There's too much here to keep up with. But let me choose my shots.

1. What happened to good manners? What's up with such attacks as: "A pathologist would have a field day with this tissue of confusion" and "... sprinkled with a sizeable admixture of ranting and raving." (BTW, there's no ranting or raving in AR's writings--unless, by your lights, moral judgment per se counts as "ranting and raving").

2. Bill: >>she gives arguments so porous that one could drive a Mack truck through them. Suppose we turn to p. 24 of Philosophy: Who Needs It (ed. Peikoff, Signet, 1982). There, in an article entitled “The Metaphysical and the Man-Made,” (1973) Rand states “...the basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy: the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness.” To contrast existence and consciousness in this way is dubious since consciousness, if it is not nothing, exists. But I won’t pursue this line of critique . . . <<

Please read more carefully. The Mack truck may be , uh, on the other foot. The issue here is the primacy of existence vs. the primacy of consciousness. Which comes first? Which is independent and which dependent? I think this is an absolutely fundamental issue, and helpful way of classifying philosophic systems.

In Consciousness, the book I'm writing, I explain the primacy of existence this way:

The fact that consciousness has an object means that consciousness cannot be self-contained. Consciousness is inherently something that points outside itself, to something else.

This leads to the principle Ayn Rand named "the primacy of existence": existence has primacy over consciousness. Consciousness is a secondary phenomenon: in order for an organism to be conscious of something, that something first has to exist.

The primacy of existence is the recognition that existence is independent of consciousness; things exist and are what they are whether or not any organism is conscious of them. By the same token, consciousness is dependent on existence: consciousness has to have an object rather than being purely self-contained.

(The contrary position, "the primacy of consciousness," consists in treating consciousness as the independent, self-subsisting primary, with existence regarded as dependent on consciousness. An example of the primacy of consciousness is the religious notion of a disembodied spirit who wished the universe into being. Another example is Descartes' hypothesis that the whole of reality could be a dream or delusion--i.e., exist only in one's mind.)

From one's first grasp in early childhood of any action of one's consciousness, one learns that existence, the object of awareness, is independent of that awareness. Leonard Peikoff writes:

"From the outset, consciousness presents itself as something specific--as a faculty of perceiving an object, not of creating or changing it. For instance, a child may hate the food set in front of him and refuse even to look at it. But his inner state does not erase his dinner. Leaving aside physical action, the food is impervious; it is unaffected by a process of consciousness as such."

The primacy of existence is implicit in grasping the concept of "consciousness"--i.e., grasping that awareness is awareness of something. To form the concept of "consciousness," one has to distinguish between the object and one's awareness of it, and the only means of doing that is by grasping what changes and what is unchanged in varying conditions of perception (e.g., most simply, by closing and opening one's eyes).
The primacy of existence recognizes that consciousness can turn back on itself to make itself into an object. One can be conscious of one's consciousness, through introspection. But introspection presupposes extrospection. One can introspect only after one has perceived existence; until then, one is not conscious and there is nothing to introspect. Consciousness precedes self-consciousness.

"A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something."

To "identify itself as consciousness" requires making the distinction between subject and object, between self and the world, which presupposes that there is a world.

The opposite view, the primacy of consciousness, was injected into post-Renaissance philosophy by Descartes. He recognized that consciousness must have an object, but raised the possibility that this object might itself be mental, not external. "What if," he asked, in effect, "all that I am ever aware of are experiences inside my own mind, not external reality? How do I even know that there is an external reality?" He considered the existence of his consciousness to be axiomatic, but the existence of existence to be non-axiomatic, problematical.

But to identify something as "an experience in my mind," I have to contrast my mental experiences with something else. Without the contrast between the internal and the external, "internal" loses its meaning. "Everything is internal" is an incoherent statement, one that contains an implicit contradiction. "Everything is in my mind" likewise renders "my mind" meaningless. It is only the contrast between existence and consciousness that makes the concept "consciousness" possible.

The logical fallacy of attempting to retain and use a concept while denying one or more of its presuppositions is worth pausing to consider, because the fallacy is rampant in the history of philosophy. First identified by Ayn Rand, and called by her "the fallacy of the 'stolen concept," it consists of a certain kind of violation of the hierarchy of concepts.

In teaching the primacy of existence vs. the primacy of consciousness, I put it in the form of a table, whose format, with numbered points, should appeal to you:

The PoE View:
In metaphysics:
1. Existence is independent of consciousness
2. Consciousness is dependent on existence
In epistemology:
1. Existence must be known before consciousness can be known
2. The existence and identity of the external world is known by extrospection, based on sensory perception

The PoC View:
In metaphysics:
1. Consciousness is independent of existence
2. Existence is dependent on consciousness
In epistemology:
1. Consciousness can be known before existence can be known
2. The existence and identity of the external world is known by introspection and deduction (as in Descartes "proof" of the existence of the world)

3. Jonathan Prejean: >>At best this is begging the question as against Dr. Vallicella's position. It asserts that the nature of a thing (viz., its necessary properties) is nothing different than all of the things properties, which would be a controversial assumption in any case and which is exactly what is in dispute in this one.<<

Whether it constitutes Begging the Question or not, yes this is exactly what Objectivism holds: a thing is its properties. "Existence is Identity." There is no Lockean "substratum." And existence is not a property. To be is to have a specific identity; and to have a specific identity is to be. (Obviously this plays into the familiar criticism of the Ontological Argument--but I have a new, additional critique of it, which maybe I should post.)

Dr. Binswanger,

I'm only an amateur when it comes to the history of philosophy, but is it really the case that Ayn Rand was the first to identify the "stolen concept fallacy"? I believe philosophers use it all the time to refute skepticism and the how-do-I-know-I'm-not-dreaming claim, among other things.

I hope this isn't off-topic, but the claims of Ayn Rand's originality seem vastly overstated as I've discussed:




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