Apr 212011

Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged saw a fitting spike in mindshare with the shift in our political landscape and the subsequent emergence of the Tea Party. Now with the release of the movie Atlas Shrugged: Part I, there is an even bigger spike in interest. So of course the knives are really coming out — not just from the Left, who see Rand’s rejection of collectivism as a signal she is on the Right, but from the Right who see Rand’s rejection of religion and altruism as odious as well.

The religious journal First Things just put out an article on Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand: “The Trouble with Ayn Rand“. Here’s a little taste of a big, wandering rant:

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. She was simply unaware that there were any genuine philosophical problems that could not be summarily solved by flatly proclaiming that this is objectivity, this is rational, this is scientific, in the peremptory tones of an Obersturmführer drilling his commandoes.

Since there weren’t that many comments yet, I chimed in with what is becoming almost a stock analysis:

There is a clear pattern in criticism of Ayn Rand, her novel Atlas Shrugged, and the philosophy of Objectivism: (1) Most critics opt for the ad-hominem route, calling Rand nasty names while trying to attack her character and painting those who do find merit in her philosophy as simpletons and sociopaths. A little investigation into the matter reveals that (2) the overwhelming majority of Rand’s critics haven’t bothered to acquaint themselves with what she actually advocated, much less why — and their level of vitriol often betrays their degree of ignorance. Finally, and most unfortunate of all, (3) on those rare occasions that Rand’s critics appear to take up her ideas, closer inspection invariably reveals that they are only knocking around a strawman and not genuinely addressing anything from her philosophy.

The present article only confirms this pattern. The ad-hominem flows as if a dam burst. And dire charges arrive in a barrage of assertions so consistently groundless that it would make any decent editor blush to have allowed it. Assertions about Rand’s supposedly atrociously horrible writings (which somehow endure as blockbusting bestsellers); about Rand having “no concept of” the existence and powers we do not give ourselves (when in fact this distinction between what she would call “the metaphysically-given” and “the man-made” is so fundamental to her thought that it plays a critical role throughout her philosophical system); about what Rand supposedly thinks “virtue” consists primarily in (when in fact the author is not merely mistaken, but categorically wrong about what Rand understood virtue to be); about what the “only important question” was to Rand (which anyone with a passing knowledge of her ethics would recognize as so wrong as to constitute an outright reversal of a cardinal virtue in her morality); her being “eerily ignorant of all the interesting problems in ontology, epistemology, or logic” (when ever-growing serious academic attention to her work in such areas doubly belies the author’s belligerent ignorance). On and on, you get the idea.

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