Ever since I was alerted to this monstrosity in January 2004, I’ve been wanting to blog it. Unsurprisingly, it pertains to The Objectivist Center (TOC), particularly to their 1998 response to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Ayn Rand. (When I learned of it, I was still in the middle of writing up my public statement disassociating myself from TOC. So I didn’t want to say anything about it at the time. Then, I forgot that I hadn’t ever blogged it — until recently, that is.)
In the October 1998 “Sightings” of Navigator, Roger Donway reported upon the Routledge Encyclopedia’s inclusion of an entry on Ayn Rand. Here’s what he wrote:
Routledge has just brought out a massive ten-volume encyclopedia of philosophy (a mere $2,500 at the special introductory price good through October 31). Writing in the New York Times Book Review (Sunday, July 5, 1998), George Steiner praised the work highly but went about the critic’s task of picking nits. He lamented that several people were missing, such as Carlo Michelstaedter, now apparently influential among Italian existentialists, and then, having displayed his learning, Steiner remarked: “Not that these men would have wished to be in the company of Ayn Rand, whose vacuous vaporings harvest a full entry!” (Exclamation point in the original.) Congratulations to Routledge for having the wisdom and courage to include Rand in their encyclopedia, though doing so has opened them to the sneers of the world’s Steiners.
Also, thanks to Routledge for informing IOS that the author of the Rand entry is Chandra Kukathas, an associate professor in the School of Politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales, Canberra, Australia. Though not an Objectivist, Kukathas is a familiar figure in libertarian circles. In a note to IOS, Kukathas observed that “a bad error” had crept into his Rand entry in some way he could not explain: “The Virtue of Selfishness is cited as a novel.” Also, its publication date is given as 1974 rather than 1964, which would make it the last of the four collections of essays published in Rand’s lifetime rather than the first. Beyond such bibliographical quibbles, however, lies the fascinating fact that Kukathas gives prominence to the concept of “despair.” Its application to many secondary figures in The Fountainhead is obvious, but is it true that Atlas Shrugged “charts the rise of those who begin in despair”? Would it not be more accurate to say the strikers begin with a refusal to despair of the world and join the strike only after they can refuse no longer? Whatever the answer, Kukathas’s focus on this emotion in Rand’s two great novels is sure to have Objectivists raising interesting questions about its place in the human landscape.
Before reading the actual entry on Ayn Rand, note that Roger Donway’s review of it is quite positive. He praises the “wisdom and courage” of the editors of the Encyclopedia. By saying that the author (Chandra Kukathas) is “not an Objectivist” but “a familiar figure in libertarian circles,” Donway suggests that he is knowledgeable of Ayn Rand and perhaps even friendly toward her. He treat Kukathas’ focus on “the concept of ‘despair’” as a legitimate and interesting question. His only complaint seems to be the (inadvertent) biographical errors in the entry.
Okay, so now read the actual entry:
Rand, Ayn (1905-82)
Ayn Rand was a Russian-born US novelist and philosopher who exerted considerable influence in the conservative and libertarian intellectual movements in the post-war USA. Rand’s ideas were expressed mainly through her novels; she set forth a view of morality as based in rational self-interest and in political philosophy defended an unrestrained form of capitalism.
Ayn Rand was born Alyssa Rosenbaum into a middle-class Jewish family in St Petersburg. Her family’s expropriation by the Bolsheviks and subsequent poverty had a profound effect on her; her first novel, We the Living (1936), describes the tragedy of a Russian student struggling against an evil society in the ‘vast prison’ that was the USSR in the 1920s. Her work was marked not only by a hostility to communism but also by a strong antipathy towards any form of compromise among competing values.
Popular success came in 1943 with the publication of her philosophical novel, The Fountainhead, the story of an architect who refuses to compromise his independence or his integrity while good people despair in the face of evil. A deeply moral work, its theme is integrity which, for Rand, was at the root of the idea of freedom. Even greater success came with Atlas Shrugged (1957), Rand’s final work of fiction. More explicitly political than her earlier work, it tells of the breakdown of a society of evil as the captains of capitalist industry withdraw from a world marked by political and moral corruption. As with her earlier works, the hero is uncompromising in his integrity and confidence in the value of the moral path; the bulk of the novel charts the rise of those who begin in despair. However, Rand also turns more explicitly to philosophical problems in ethics in an attempt to set morals on a more secure epistemological footing. The book contains many long philosophical speeches by characters speaking for Rand.
The popular success of her fiction brought discipleship and the 1960s and 1970s saw the growth of an ‘objectivist’ movement. The influence of Rand’s ideas was strongest among college students in the USA but attracted little attention from academic philosophers. Her outspoken defence of capitalism in works like Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1967), and her characterization of her position as a defence of the ‘virtue of selfishness’ in her novel of the same title (published in 1974), also brought notoriety, but kept her out of the intellectual mainstream.
The central philosophical argument of Rand’s thought is an attempt to show that the good life is itself a substantial ethical value from which may be derived important moral conclusions. In this she is self-consciously Aristotelian, although most commentators have concluded that her argument falls victim to the same difficulties, relying on a morally substantive and controversial account of human nature to generate ethical conclusions.
Rand’s political theory is of little interest. Its unremitting hostility towards the state and taxation sits inconsistently with a rejection of anarchism, and her attempts to resolve the difficulty are ill-thought out and unsystematic. Of more enduring interest is her fiction, belonging to a genre she labelled ‘romantic realism’. Despite her attack on altruism and insistence on the virtue of selfishness, her real concerns were the defence of the value of integrity (to the point of self-sacrifice) in the face of evil and moral despair.
Could a worse encyclopedia entry on Ayn Rand have been written? I suspect not. It is inaccurate, superficial, dismissive, spotty, and worse. Yet the real horror is Roger Donway’s review. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to the actual encyclopedia entry: Donway neither accurately reports its content nor properly evaluates it. The review is a monstrous injustice to both Ayn Rand and Objectivism.
I have no inside information concerning Roger Donway’s motivations for writing the review that he did. The most plausible explanation is that TOC was attempting to appeal to libertarians — and chose to do so by sucking up to Chandra Kukathas and his “libertarian circles” rather than by challenging the better libertarians to seriously engage Ayn Rand’s ideas. Such appeasement is TOC’s standard operating mode, after all.
Notably, most of Roger Donway’s readers would not have easy access to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry itself. As such, they could not possibly judge the honesty or justice of Donway’s comments upon it. I think that Donway was counting upon such ignorance. Why? Because he dramatically changed his tune in response to sharp criticism from Irfan Khawaja in the January 1999 “Sightings”:
Last October, “Sightings” mentioned that Routledge had published a massive ten-volume encyclopedia on the history of philosophy that included an article on Ayn Rand by Chandra Kukathas, who is not an Objectivist but a well-known figure in libertarian circles. Navigator’s decision to see the entry as a welcome bit of cultural recognition for Rand brought a sharp response in the form of a letter to the editor from Irfan Khawaja, who cited the entry’s numerous deficiencies. Since Navigator has no “Letters” column, the disagreement over how to treat such a deeply flawed recognition is simply noted here. Those who would like to read a brief but harsh critique of Kukathas’s article should check the Web site of the Ayn Rand Society (http://aynrandsociety.org), where there is a letter from Allan Gotthelf to the encyclopedia’s editor, Edward Craig.
Notice the backtracking: Only now does Donway mention that the encyclopedia entry was “a deeply flawed recognition” of Ayn Rand with “numerous deficiencies.” No such worries were even hinted at in the original review. Also notice the bizarre claim that it was “Navigator’s decision to see the entry as a welcome bit of cultural recognition for Rand” — as if his total evasion of the essence of the entry was merely an optional matter.
Looking back on it now, I’m not surprised that I was sick to my stomach for hours upon discovering all this material back in January of 2004. At the time, I was particularly distressed that IOS/TOC was obviously and concretely corrupt way back in 1998 — and I missed it. It was a real low point, I must say.
On a more positive note, the referenced letter from Allan Gotthelf to the editor of the Routledge Encyclopedia is a tour de force of intellectual virtue: strong, clear, principled, essentialized, detailed — and always polite. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available on the Ayn Rand Society web site. (I would love to post it here, but I haven’t asked for permission.) You can read it via the Wayback Machine — and I do strongly recommend that you do so, particularly if you are interested in a detailed analysis of the Routledge entry.