Nearly four decades after her death, many of Ayn Rand’s works remain controversial and divide people into two camps: love them or hate them. Her lesser known book on philosophy provides broad, timeless insights. Here are her thoughts on the value of philosophy.
A note on keeping an open mind:
Ayn Rand is a controversial figure. Responses to her ideas seem to land on extremes. The problem with this kind of discourse is that it prevents dialogue. We encourage taking advantage of grey thinking and trying to avoid viewing people and ideas as good/bad binaries. We can learn from people we both like and dislike. We can agree with one idea from someone without having to buy into all their ideas.
There is no doubt that Rand’s essays are polemic. Her writing, like all recorded knowledge, needs to be understood in context. The 1970s saw the height of the Cold War, when capitalism versus communism was set as a battle that would decide the fate of humanity. One need not agree with her political and economic prescriptions to get something interesting from her writing. Accepting this complexity is aligning with the complicated nature of the world. With this in mind, let’s continue!
In Philosophy: Who Needs It, Rand raises questions that dive into the heart of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that seeks to explain the nature of reality. What can be known? What are our core responsibilities as human beings? The title of the book comes from a talk she gave at the United States Military Academy in 1974. It is a collection of essays written mostly in the 1970s, and explores ideas about the requirements of living a full life and participating well in the world.
Here are two key takeaways from this book:
We All Need Philosophy
To answer the original question of who needs philosophy, Rand argues that everyone does.
She suggests we need philosophy to help develop our values, and to defend ourselves against manipulation and control. Rand posits that everyone has a personal philosophy. In her view:
[y]our only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.
She goes on to advocate for the process of learning to identify first principles in our thinking processes. This involves picking apart assumptions about the foundations of our knowledge by asking questions like, “Why?” or, “How do I know this to be true? What are the standards a statement must meet in order to be considered true?” This kind of questioning is an important component of deliberate thinking. When we avoid challenging ourselves and others, we remain vulnerable to the influence of ideas that would ultimately do us harm.
Reflection is the key to thinking well
Rand claims that reflection is a responsibility we all have, and that it is a critical step in gaining useful knowledge.
The men who scorn or dread introspection take their inner states for granted, as an irreducible and irresistible primary, and let their emotions determine their actions. This means that they choose to act without knowing the context (reality), the causes (motives), and the consequences (goals) of their actions.
Letting our emotions dictate our actions results in rationalizing experience to fit what we feel, instead of dealing with the world as it actually is.
Rand makes an interesting distinction when she says, “What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an ‘open mind,’ but an active mind—a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically.” Being willing to listen isn’t enough. We must be willing to engage with what we hear, not accepting at face value the often misinformed opinions of others.
She discusses how lazy thought processes hinder progress. Discussing the person who avoids reflection, she writes, ‘When such a man considers a goal or desire he wants to achieve, the first question in his mind is: “Can I do it?”—not “What is required to do it?”’ It’s a handy approach to keep at the forefront. When confronted with obstacles, we can first consider the conditions necessary to tackling them, not if we have the capacity to do so.
There are many philosophers and essayists that we continue to learn from, even as we gingerly pick our way around their flaws. One disappointment in the book is that Rand’s philosophy often doesn’t live up to the requirements she herself argues for. But she isn’t the first thinker whose questions are far more interesting than her answers.