Thursday, August 7, 2014

Atlas Shrugged?: A Korzybskian Look at Ayn Rand

I wrote this piece many years ago in a journal notebook after struggling as best I could to get through Ayn Rand's epic novel of ideas, Atlas Shrugged. I didn't find it at all compelling as a novel. Her square-jawed, steely grey-eyed, and singularly humorless heroes and heroines had too little human glow and complexity to make them believable to me. It was not her character's seriousness I didn't like but what seemed to me then and now as their over-extended, overly-confident certainties, which reflected Ayn Rand's own views but which I didn't see as so certain. For what it's worth here's my evaluation from 1979 of her views. My assessment 2014 remains pretty much the same: in some ways admiring but ultimately appalled. So here, my youthful review—with some emendation—of Atlas Shrugged: 

Ayn Rand's story in Atlas Shrugged tells what happens in a society when all the competent people leave. Her purpose: to paint a picture and philosophy of what she calls the "heroic man" and of the opposite whom she calls the "mystic". 

What does her philosophy consist of? In broad strokes: in its emphasis on reason, the lone individual, criticism of religious values and social conformity; it has a certain nietzschean flavor which I do admire. But Rand (not only in Atlas Shrugged) lacked the all-important grace and humor of expression and the complexity of distinctions that often relieved Nietzsche's work for me. In a way, her work seems like a shadow puppet of Nietzsche's views, overgeneralized and lacking in Nietzsche's essential saving graces. Indeed, Rand's philosophy has the flavor of the worst of Nietzsche: the adolescent trumpeting of cartoonish romanticism in the most tedious parts of his Zarathustra

Rand may have gotten some direct inspiration from Nietzsche, but in an epilogue to her book, she acknowledged her main debt to Aristotle. Her unabashed aristotelianism—and I specifically refer here to her elevation of 'the laws of thought' (Aristotle's epistemology, as it were) and underlying structural assumptions (his metaphysics) formalized by him and his followers—puts her more in cahoots with medieval scholasticism than she would probably have cared to admit and makes her philosophy, though on the surface free-thinking and libertarian, ultimately a reactionary one.  

As with Korzybski, Rand is interested in the question, 'what is man?' [the usage 'man' referring to both male and female humans]. Rand answers that man is a being of volitional consciousness. Matter simply exists. Non-existence is a null set. The existence of living things as living things is not so unconditional. There is even for plants and animals the alternative of non-existence as a living thing. Plants and animals have for the most part fairly automatic programs of activity for their continuation of life. However, man requires the making of choices. Proper choices for the continued survival of a human being are not automatically programmed but call for thought.  According to Rand then, for living things the basic alternative is to live or not to live (shades of Hamlet). And for man this choice boils down to the choice: to think or not to think. Thinking and to think well, for Rand, is the primary moral commandment. 

Rand outlines a trilogy of values for human life. A value consists of "that which one acts to gain and keep", what one holds dear, one's standard of behavior. And Rand's trilogy of human values consists of: First, Reason, the use of the mind to enhance one's existence as a living thing; Second, Purpose, the development of the proper goals for a reasonable life; and Third, Self-Esteem, the confidence one has in one's abilities to solve the problems and confront the challenges of one's life. 

Virtue, for Rand, consists of those sort of actions in which one gains and keeps those values of life. The virtuous actions include honesty, independence, integrity, rationality, justice, productivity. Honesty consists of not faking existence, not pretending that something is so that isn't so. Independence is the insistence on using one's own thinking apparatus to come to conclusions, i.e., "I know what I know." Integrity consists of not faking one's consciousness, i.e., not agreeing on an opposing viewpoint just to be sociable. Rationality is the insistent use of one's thinking apparatus as opposed to blanking out, e.g., depending on one's wishes to guide one's view of reality.  Justice consists of judging other men and valuing them according to their nature, not in loving indiscriminately those who don't deserve it. Productivity is shaping reality, ones life, the earth, through the application of one's reason. 

Rand emphasizes the importance of productivity and it serves as the basis for her idea that capitalism is the most reasonable politico-economic relationship. In this regard it seems significant that she labels the ideal man of her system of thought, the trader. The trader produces things, ideas, with the practice of the virtues in the service of the values  mentioned before. He does not demand that the products and property of another man are his due or that he is obligated to turn to anyone else. His only right is to be allowed to follow and use his own reason. To coerce another to do as he would like is to demand that the other choose between life and reason, which is really anti-life no matter which he chooses. Therefore the use of physical violence except in self-defense is immoral in Ayn Rand's eyes. 

The ideal relationship between people is rather one that is entered into contractually, as serving the self-interest of both parties, i.e., exchange for trade. Any ideology that demands self-sacrifice and downgrades selfishness is evil in Rand's eyes. 

She sees two schools of Western thought that are in this anti-life, anti-reason vein. One, the spirit mystics, are represented by the Church. In this school, the nature of man is considered sinful (original sin) and self-sacrifice is encouraged. The other school, the muscle mystics, claim that society is more important than the individual and that individual desires must be sacrificed for the good of the entire system. She sees a large number of intellectual trends supporting this latter view. The two schools of mystics though apparently far apart are brothers under the skin and have supported oppressive governments since the long ago ages. 

Rand is a minimalist in her view of government's role: a police function should exist to protect individuals from coercion and violence of others. An army should exist to protect citizens from foreign invasion and coercion. Courts should exist where people can settle disputes. Beyond that, nothing else—government should be kept to a bare minimum. So far so good?

Not exactly.
 Rand cut her heroes from a cartoonish mold where, just as with the fabled politician, they built with their own two hands the log cabin they were born in. She elevates to sacred doctrine an extreme individualism that takes little to no account, even scorns, the social matrix upon which any individual human accomplishment is based. Her version of individuality, is embodied in the title of one of her books The Virtue of Selfishness. She has no place for altruism, as she defines it, at all, at all.  

In response to this sort of view, Korzybski told the following story to his seminar students. at his 1948-1949 Winter Intensive Seminar: 
…some friends gave a dinner for my wife and me, and they invited also an Oxford graduate,…very wealthy, educated, Oxford and so on. He was extremely British in what is definitely known—it is seldom believed in America but they believe in it—that’s the British theory of selfishness. And he was nagging me all through the dinner—I had of course to tell them some development in [my work]; naturally they all expected me to say something. Well, I did. He was nagging, interrupting, and I was trying to explain to him time-binding, how we are not like animals, every one for himself and all of that, but we are interdependent. We build upon the work of the dead, and we depend on the work of every one else in our civilization and so on. And I was telling how I worked to get my formulations, to deal with human messes all around.

Then he began to pick at me: ‘why was I so ‘altruistic’, doing all this work for my fellow men?’—I don’t know what not. ‘Oh, this ‘altruism’ would not work, there is no sense in it, a selfish outlook is the only workable one’, and so on and so on, picking at me with his theories about ‘selfishness’. And ultimately I got annoyed with that petty criticism, that picking at me. I just shut him up—successfully. I said, ‘You want me to be selfish? I am selfish! I work the way I work because I don’t want to live in a world made by men like you!’ That shut him up alright.

In a way—this is serious—remember there is no sense talking whether I am selfish or not, because that argument remains valid that I am say ‘altruistic’ because I eventually want a better world for me to live in. But you see the argument: ‘selfish’-‘unselfish’ is actually useless. It is a good place for quarreling. … 
[This quote comes from the CD audio record of Korzybski’s 1948-1949 Winter Intensive Seminar (available for purchase from the Institute of General Semantics) combined with material (missing in the recording) from the unpublished transcript of the seminar.]

Ayn Rand's  downplay of the social, time-binding nature of human existence is cemented by her view of rationality. The essence of rationality lies in submission to the aristotelian "laws of thought".  The law of identity states that A is A. In Rand's words "Existence exists...existence is identity." That is a stone and cannot turn into water whatever a thirsty man in the desert may wish. Reason consists of integrating and identifying the identities (essence or what is) of existence. 

The tool of reason is logic; logic being the art of non-contradictory identification. Contradiction cannot be tolerated. The law of causality is the law of identity applied to action. Any action implies an entity, an actor. The notion that
activity and process can go on in its own right as some modern philosopher suggest is irrational, for it implies that these activities are caused by nothing. According to Rand, there are two sides to any argument, the right side, and the wrong side including the fence straddling side. She sees as fence straddling and denial of the law of identity to find, for instance, good qualities in a rotter. A man is either a rotter or he isn't and cannot be both a rotter and a non-rotter at the same time. Can you see now that Rand follows her premises of thought to the letter. Admirable. But, it is not her espousal of reason, various virtues and values that I disagree with but rather with her characterization of reason. 

I do not deny that an 'objective' world exists, external to our senses. But I dispute Rand's fundamental premise that existence is 'identity' and the role of reason as identification. 'Whatever I say something is, it is not', said Korzybski—and so do I. 

Yes, the function of reason to integrate the evidence of our senses and verbally formulate our notions of what is going on seems very important for intelligent advancement in life. But to believe that we have thereby discovered and pinned down the 'identity' or exact unchanging nature of what we are talking about does not seem intelligent or reasonable to me, especially in light of what is now known in neurology and in physics. The word is not the thing, the map is not the territory. And a reasonable, rational use of one's reason seems to me to require that one always be on vigil against the temptation to identify one's classifications with non-verbal reality. Logic, the art of 'non-contradictory identifications' as Rand puts it, appears necessary but not sufficient as a guide to one's reason. As a tool for deriving conclusions from premises it is needed; as a guide to reality it is faulty. For it seems very much possible that a person can 'be' both a "son of a bitch" and a wonderful person at the same time. 

I have little doubt that Ayn Rand, though an atheist, would have responded to Korzybski's views with as much horror as did the Jesuit professor of mathematics, who met Korzybski at a A. A. A. S. (American Association for the Advancement of Science) conference they both attended in 1931. After Korzybski's presentation on "A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics" (published as Supplement III in Science and Sanity), the Jesuit professor, came up to him to protest. As Korzybski later described it, the professor told him: 
…I destroy the very foundation of ‘religion’ and I should abandon it or I will get in trouble with the church and get on the index. Among others he said “You certainly will not deny that everything is identical with itself.” I asked him if he ever heard of modern physics, and as he admitted that he teaches it, I said “I certainly will deny that a submicroscopic process is ever ‘identical’ with itself.” He said nothing to that, but on his face he exhibited the most bewildered and horrified attitude. (AK to William Morton Wheeler, 7/16/1933. Alfred Korzybski Digital Archives, 24.78)

Yes, Aristotle’s logic may still remain useful—where it applies as a limited set of guidelines for discourse. But as the overarching basis for human ‘rationality’ and ‘reason’, as Ayn Rand interpreted it, the essentialist structural assumptions or metaphysics which Aristotle’s logic embodies no longer hold.

To conclude, both her view of humanity (in it's undervaluing of human time-binding inter-dependence) and her view of rationality (with its over-valuing of aristotelian logic), make Ayn Rand's views seriously deficient and unreliable guides to reason or life. 


Bruce Marr said...
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Bruce Marr said...
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Bruce Marr said...

I appreciated reading your straightforward and intelligible comments on Rand's philosophy, as opposed to the unreasoning animosity and willful distortions I usually encounter on the Internet. I am just beginning to investigate Korzybski myself, having just read a popularization of his semantics in S.I. Hayakawa's Language in Action, so will refrain from any comments on his philosophy.

I take issue with two of your statements about Rand's philosophy. First, you claim that, "She elevates to sacred doctrine an extreme individualism that takes little to no account, even scorns, the social matrix upon which any individual human accomplishment is based." Quite the opposite is the case, and I would challenge you to find any statement or incident in her novels which supports this view. Atlas Shrugged consistently dramatizes and champions the interdependence of rational people based on voluntary cooperation. Dagney Taggart, for instance, acknowledges her debt to the scientists and engineers whose theoretical work makes her railroad possible, just as Rand acknowledged her debt to Aristotle. What Rand's philosophy opposes is involuntary interdependence, where individual accomplishment is assumed to be a societal asset regardless of the will of its originator. This assumption is what causes the strike in the novel.

Secondly, your characterization of identity contains a dogmatism that Rand explicitly eschewed. She understood that a concept (which a word represents)is based on man's potentially fallible and incomplete perception of reality, and therefore is always subject to correction. I quote from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (a must if you haven't read it): "Concepts stand for specific kinds of existents, including all the characteristics of these existents, observed and not-yet-observed, known and unknown. It is crucially important to grasp the fact that a concept is an 'open-end' classification which includes the yet-to-be-discovered characteristics of a given group of existents. All of man's knowledge rests on that fact." (pp. 65-66 of the expanded second edition, 1990).

One criticism I had of Hayakawa's account of semantics is the lack of any discussion of concepts as opposed to words. As I read Korzybksi, I shall be on the lookout for his theory of concepts and their validity.

Bruce Marr

Bruce Kodish said...

I sincerely appreciate your critical comments and corrections.

As time has passed, since I published this piece, my respect for Ayn Rand and her work has grown and taken on a greater and greater importance to me.

What appears as a vast divergence of views between Rand and Korzybski, is not so.

I will be writing more in the future about the convergence and intersection of those two great formulators as well as their differences.

Thanks again for you comments.

Bruce Marr said...

Glad you got my comments -- I wasn't sure if you were still around. I look forward to your future writing. Can you put my on some list (not sure what that would be) to ensure I get a notification when you post something new?

Thanks -- Bruce