The Entry on Ayn Rand in the new Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
In due course this site will include a comprehensive introduction, for philosophers and students of philosophy, to the philosophical thought of Ayn Rand, and to her intellectual development, and to additional resources for the study of her philosophical system, which she termed “Objectivism”. Regrettably, the entry on Ayn Rand in the new Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (REP) is not such an introduction or resource. Visitors to this site may be interested to know that it was a letter a few years ago from our Secretary and Chairman of our Steering Committee, Allan Gotthelf (Dept of Philosophy, The College of New Jersey) to the editors of the then forthcoming Encyclopedia, making the case for inclusion of such an entry, that prompted the editor and his board to consider including an entry. What follows is a slightly edited version of Prof. Gotthelf’s letter to the editor of REP upon reading the published entry. Until we can provide more substantial essays for visitors to this site, it may serve as a brief indication of some central elements of Ayn Rand’s philosophical thought, especially for those familiar with some contemporary trends in analytic philosophy. As a letter and not an essay, it is inevitably only suggestive, but it may be enlightening to some — like, sadly, the author of the REP entry — who are insufficiently aware of the range of her thought. The Ayn Rand Society is a scholarly society and not an advocacy group; what unites members is not necessarily agreement with any aspect of Objectivism, but rather (i) the conviction that Ayn Rand’s thought is worth serious study by philosophers, and (ii) the aim of fostering that study (as is stated above, under “Purpose”). So, in this letter Prof. Gotthelf speaks for himself, but we are convinced that all or most members of the Society share his view that the Encyclopedia entry did not begin to do justice to Ayn Rand’s thought, and that all readers of that entry need to know that.
The Steering Committee
12 August 1998
Dr. Edward Craig
You will recall that it was I who first suggested to you inclusion in REP of an entry on Ayn Rand, and I was pleased to hear subsequently from you that the board had decided to accept the suggestion. I’ve now read the entry. This is a friendly letter to say that, in my view, the entry does not begin to do justice either to Rand or to the Encyclopedia.
Let’s put aside that the author describes Rand’s collection of essays, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism as a novel, and that he gives its publication date as 1974 when it is 1964.
Let’s also put aside that the bibliography omits what Rand scholars almost universally consider the most important book on her thought, L. Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (which drew on years of extensive philosophical discussion with Rand) — but includes R. Merrill’s The Ideas of Ayn Rand, which is an amateurish work by a non-philosopher. A rough parallel would be if the author of your Aristotle entry had excluded Terry Irwin’s Aristotle’s First Principles and included Mortimer Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody.
Let’s look, instead, at content. You may recall that in my letter to you, I argued for Rand’s inclusion in REP on grounds of the comprehensiveness and philosophical interest of her thought. I mentioned briefly the similarities and differences between her view of essence and Aristotle’s, I noted her insistence on the priority of epistemology (and in particular a theory of concepts) to philosophy of language, and hinted at some central similarities, notwithstanding great methodological differences, between her theory of concepts and the direct reference theories of Kripke and Putnam. I may have noted that her own rejection of any significant analytic-synthetic distinction was published way back in the ’60s. I probably also mentioned connections between her theory of concepts and her argument for the objectivity of moral value, and between the latter and her virtue-based original defense of egoism.
But your author is oblivious to all that, mentioning only a vague interest on her part in “epistemology,” and an ethical center that is “self-consciously Aristotelian”. He says nothing about either of these, and is importantly wrong about the latter. Indeed in the first essay of The Virtue of Selfishness she significantly distances herself from Aristotle on matters of ethical theory; and in the introduction to Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal she insists that the center of her thought is not ethics but epistemology and metaphysics.
Your author’s focus throughout the entry, instead, is on the ethical content of her two later novels, where he reports, usefully, the attractive character of her defense of moral integrity. But, in the case of the first of the two novels, The Fountainhead, he says nothing about the wider theoretical framework within which the defense of integrity appears — a framework which is perhaps only partially clear from the novel but is much clearer to readers of her recently published journals (not mentioned in his bibliography), in which is found her draft of the beginnings of a treatise on the foundations of ethics begun soon after publishing The Fountainhead, but put aside a year or two later. The framework becomes fully clear in the philosophical passages of her later novel, Atlas Shrugged, where her newly developed theory of concepts results in a modified approach to the concepts of value and the good. Your author is cognizant of her concern with wider philosophical issues but he says nothing about the content of that concern, other than ascribing to it, two paragraphs later, the “self-consciously Aristotelian” character I’ve just mentioned Rand denied.
Having failed to present anything substantive on the foundation of the vision of moral integrity which he does admire, your author goes on to tell us that her political theory “is of little interest”. His argument for this is less than persuasive. He speaks of her “unremitting hostility to the state”, while she insists time and again that the state has certain proper functions, which follow from certain facts about human beings as individual and social entities, together with the conception of individual rights she has derived from her ethical theory. He speaks of some undefined tension between her simultaneous rejection of anarchism and taxation — as if she had written nothing about this in two essays in The Virtue of Selfishness. (But then, as I noted at the beginning of this letter, he seems to think this is a novel.) Well, maybe he is referring to these essays in the unexplained assertion that “her attempts to resolve the difficulty are ill-thought out and unsystematic”; but this sort of subjective dismissiveness seems, to me at least, inappropriate in an encyclopedia entry, which should use every inevitably limited word to bring out content.
I showed the entry a few days ago to a graduate student, who is writing a dissertation on the foundations of Rand’s theory of value at a major American university, and consulting me on occasion. After making on his own some of the same complaints that I’ve made just above, he expressed surprise that the article had been assigned to this author, Chandran Kukathas, whom he knows, since Kukathas is not a philosopher, but a political theorist. But Kukathas is an admirer of Hayek, and we speculated that David Miller, who probably knew little about Rand’s thought or its range, felt that assigning the Rand entry to someone “on the right”, who also liked her novels, would assure fair treatment of her; and we guessed that perhaps the entry was not shown to a knowledgeable referee. But, whatever the explanation, the Encyclopedia has been saddled with an entry that is, frankly, an embarrassment to it (notwithstanding George Steiner’s pompous remark in the New York Times — indeed a more scholarly treatment of Rand would have forced Steiner to tone down his pre-existent hostility).
Although my view of the philosophical content of the entry is almost unremittingly negative, I hope my comments will be received in a friendly spirit. Indeed, it is precisely my admiration for the grand enterprise which REP is, and my certainty that the great bulk of the Encyclopedia entries will be excellent, that colors my sense that the entry is not only not worthy of Rand, but also not worthy of the Encyclopedia.
With best wishes,
Dept. of Philosophy
The College of New Jersey
Ewing, NJ 08628-0718 USA
Life member, Clare Hall, Cambridge, and
Sec’y and Chairman of the Steering Committee,
The Ayn Rand Society