On Taking A Philosopher Seriously

ARS co-secretary Gregory Salmieri has been interviewed by the student publication The Undercurrent about the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Ayn Rand (which is now available as an E-Book). In the first of a two-part series, Salmieri first summarizes a theme he touches on in the introductory chapter to the volume, which is why and how academia ought to take Rand seriously as a philosopher:

The Undercurrent: Early in your new book, A Companion to Ayn Rand, you lament the fact that two generations of academics didn’t take Rand’s work seriously. You frame the book, at least in part, as an attempt to remediate that attitude. In basic terms, why wasn’t Rand taken seriously in the academy, and why would she be?

Dr. Salmieri: What I mean by “taking an author seriously” is engaging intellectually with her positions and arguments, rather than just emotionally reacting for or against them. Academics have been slow to do this with Rand for a number of reasons. She’s a figure who really cuts against the grain, challenging deeply many of the ideas we are brought up to take for granted and on which we are taught to base our lives and our self-esteem. It takes intellectual courage to give a thinker like that a serious hearing. On top of that, she was easy for academics to dismiss because she didn’t come through the channels they’re used to. She wasn’t someone’s graduate student who respectfully criticized his and his colleagues’ ideas in the journals they all contributed to and read. She was an outsider in every respect, inveighing against the intellectual establishment in novels and in her own periodicals addressed to an audience she built. And, of course, politics is a factor. Academia has long been a preserve of leftist ideas, so someone who opposes them as radically as Rand does is anathema.

But it’s now almost 60 years after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, and Rand hasn’t gone away. In each generation, more students are inspired by her distinctive vision of what human life could and should be. To a greater or lesser extent, this vision and the philosophy behind it exerts an influence on their thinking, reinforcing some of their convictions and pushing them to rethink others. She’s become a fixture of American thought in a way that only a powerful artist and thinker could, and many people, whether they’re sympathetic to her vision not, are beginning to see her as a figure with whom they need to contend.

The Companion is meant to help them. Allan and I gathered some of the people who know Rand’s work best, and thought it time to produce a reference book that could serve as a starting-point for philosophers, literature students, historians, political scientists, journalists, and others who want to engage with Rand in an intellectually responsible manner. Our goal wasn’t to present or defend Rand’s ideas, as she herself did, and as Leonard Peikoff has done. Many of us have written as advocates of Objectivism (her philosophy) elsewhere, and we’ll do so again in the future. But our aim in the Companion is simply to orient new, intellectually-active readers to her corpus and her key ideas. By doing so, we hope to raise the intellectual level of discussions about Rand, both among academics and, ultimately, among the public at large.

Salmieri goes on in the interview to summarize some of Rand’s distinctive ideas that are elucidated in the Companion. These include Rand’s concept of “valuing,” her concept of “objective values,” the material and spiritual dimensions of valuing, Rand’s “trader principle,” as well as her understanding of individual rights and of selfishness.

But I’d like to take this opportunity to recommend to readers Salmieri’s introductory chapter to the volume, which elaborates on what it is to take a philosopher seriously. The introductory chapter is now available as a free sample from Wiley-Blackwell here. The following passage captures not only the challenging attitude toward scholarship that Gotthelf and Salmieri brought to their task in editing the volume, but also the connection the volume has to the spirit of a blog named “Check Your Premises.” Notice how Salmieri urges not only critics but also fans of Rand to check their premises:

To take an author seriously means to read her, not with an eye toward confirming one’s prejudices (whether favorable or unfavorable), but simply with an eye to understanding what she thinks and why. If one finds her approach unfamiliar and difficult, it means working to overcome that. If one finds what she says implausible or unmotivated, it means taking the time to consider why it seems otherwise to her and to the readers who find her convincing—and it means giving thought to the question of whether it is you or she who is mistaken. By the same token, if she strikes you as obviously correct with respect to an issue where you know many people find her views counterintuitive, it means working to identify the premises that you share with her and not with them, and then figuring out how to determine whether those premises are true.

This approach is especially important in the case of Rand, because she is (as Playboy put it) “brimming” with “explosively unpopular ideas.” In particular, she maintained that our society is unjust in deep and pervasive ways, and that at the heart of this corruption are the moral ideals by which we are taught to live our lives, and on which we are taught to base our self-esteem. Rand is thus a radical critic of society. In this respect she is analogous to other radical thinkers of various stripes—nineteenth-century abolitionists, twentieth-century Marxists, and those who inveigh against what they see as the inherent racism, sexism, or imperialism of Western culture.

As with many such thinkers, Rand’s writing often has a confrontational character. For example, she explains, in the introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, that she gave the work the title she did “For the reason that makes you afraid of it” (VOS vii). The title is frightening. It challenges our fundamental moral beliefs—beliefs that are central to all of our goals, to our sense of self-esteem. It takes courage and a commitment to introspective honesty to consider challenges to such beliefs. When one’s sense of self-worth is threatened, there is always a temptation to seize upon any convenient rationalization for rejecting the challenge (and the challenger) rather than taking the time, and putting forth the effort, required to understand and evaluate it. On the other hand, if one feels alienated from or unappreciated by one’s fellow human beings, a radical criticism of one’s society can serve as a rationalization for these feelings and a weapon with which one can lash out against others. Whether one finds Rand appealing or repugnant, the sorts of issues that she raises are fraught with temptations for intellectual dishonesty, and one will find no shortage of facile reasons to dismiss or embrace her ideas too quickly. (Companion 5-6)

In addition to the introductory chapter, readers can also consult the table of contents, and also the Companion’s extensive index. Full disclosure: I was actively involved in creating the index with Salmieri.

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