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Ayn Rand Through Two Lenses

Ayn Rand Through Two Lenses

10 Min.
January 25, 2012

DOUBLE BOOK REVIEW: On Ayn Rand, by Allan Gotthelf (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2000, 100 pp. $12.95)

Ayn Rand, by Tibor Machan (New York: Peter Lang, 1999, 163 pp. $23.99)

April, 2000 -- How do you like your Objectivism? Liberal: freshly phrased (but loosely represented), full of new connections (but disorganized and erratic), engaged with current thinkers and trends? Or Conservative: faithful (but unoriginal), slick and professional (but reduced to bare essentials), suspicious of innovation?

Two short new books, both introductions to Ayn Rand's thought, provide you with such a choice. The "liberal" is peripatetic philosophy professor (and now Hoover Institution Fellow) Tibor Machan. Machan's Ayn Rand is part of a new series entitled "Masterworks in the Western Tradition," from Peter Lang Publishing. The "conservative" is College of New Jersey professor and notable Aristotle scholar Allan Gotthelf, whose On Ayn Rand has recently been added to the extensive "Wadsworth Philosophers Series." Unfortunately, each of these books presents us with an infelicitous admixture: one wishes for an account of Objectivism that shares the virtues of the liberal and the conservative modes, and that partakes of none of their vices.


Allan Gotthelf's On Ayn Rand is a brief systematic survey of Rand's philosophic thought, employing extensive quotes from Rand's essays and novels and drawing faithfully on the analysis in Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. In fact, On Ayn Rand reads like nothing so much as a précis of that work. The well-known academic publisher Wadsworth produces the series of which it is part to introduce students and others to the work of major philosophers. Books in the series are meant to "empower the reader when analyzing and discussing original works" by the thinker in question. Each book is no more than 100 pages long. This presents even the best of writers (and Gotthelf is a good one) with a significant challenge of condensation. Though Gotthelf lets Rand speak for herself as much as possible, he also employs precise language and careful organization to pack the essentials of Objectivism into those hundred pages.

He begins with a scene from Atlas Shrugged: Dagny Taggart's first sight of John Galt. Dagny's examination of Galt's face, and what she sees there, provides Gotthelf with the "hallmarks of Ayn Rand's philosophic vision." These are "the heroic view of man" and "the benevolent universe premise," which Gotthelf uses both to introduce the tone of Rand's thought and to summarize it in a final coda. This is an excellent choice, establishing Rand in the reader's mind as an idealistic, benevolent, optimistic thinker. Isolating these themes as central to Rand's thought is the one real interpretive element in the book. Rand does not herself state things this way in the canonical formulations of her ideas that she wrote or approved (that is, Galt's speech, Nathaniel Branden's original NBI course, Peikoff's lecture course); it is Gotthelf's interpretation as a philosopher who has mastered her system. As with other fresh formulations in this book, however, Gotthelf's interpretation squares easily with the canonical formulations of Objectivism, which establish bounds beyond which he is careful not to stray.

Gotthelf proceeds with a short biography, sketching Rand's career as a philosopher. The remainder of the book is a systematic exposition of Objectivism. Gotthelf first explains Rand's conception of "a philosophy for living on earth" through a summary of her speech "Philosophy: Who Needs It." This provides a bridge to his discussion of metaphysics. Gotthelf competently summarizes the point that "an axiom's truth needs no proof, " (37) and he takes the reader smoothly through to the principle of the "primacy of existence." Wrapping up his discussion of metaphysics, he illustrates how Rand's metaphysical axioms cause her to reject the mind-body dichotomy and any idea of the "supernatural."

Rand's epistemology receives the most detailed exposition in the book. In the space of seventeen pages, Gotthelf covers the Objectivism's understanding of sense perception, its arguments against skepticism about the senses, the measurement-omission theory of concepts, the nature of objectivity, and the theory of definitions. It is at this point that the shortage of space begins to exact a palpable cost, as Gotthelf sacrifices examples, comparisons with other theories, and physiological evidence for his points. As Gotthelf's exposition becomes increasingly abstract and hurried, it is doubtful a reader unfamiliar with Objectivism would find it easy to integrate Rand's ideas with his personal experience and knowledge of philosophy.

This leaves Gotthelf with twenty-three pages for Rand's theory of human nature and all of her ethics, with "a brief look at Politics and Esthetics." (86) As is the case throughout this elegantly constructed volume, he manages to convey the essential structure and key points of Rand's thought in this area with clarity and compressed precision. Rand's life-based theory of value is especially well presented, as are the cardinal values of Reason, Purpose, and Self-esteem. The virtues and "Love and Sex" receive brief, essentialistic sketches, as do the principle of harmony of rational interests; politics; and esthetics. The book closes with a nice flourish, returning to the theses with which it opened: the benevolent universe premise and the heroic view of human potential.

It is curious that Gotthelf devotes almost thirteen pages to Rand's theory of concepts (57-70), as against fifteen to her entire ethics and 1 each to her politics and aesthetics, going into much more technical detail about concepts than about any other topic. In most introductory works, the author tries to keep a uniform level of technicality, apportioning space in accordance with the importance of topics. It seems most likely that Gotthelf spends more time on concepts because Rand happened to write her one technical work on this subject, and perhaps because Leonard Peikoff emphasizes the epistemology in his exposition. Alternatively, Gotthelf may have given so much attention to concepts (and to metaphysics and epistemology in general) because his aim is to make Rand appealing to contemporary analytic philosophers and their students. He does include notes that suggest this goal, such as a reference to Fregean and direct-reference theories of meaning (69 n. 13). But these references are much too abbreviated to bridge the gulf between Rand's context and the analytic one.


Tibor Machan's Ayn Rand has a structure roughly similar to Gotthelf's -not surprisingly, since the book was written in the format of a roughly similar series. The Lang "Masterworks in the Western Tradition" series "is intended to exhibit for the intelligent reader why certain authors, texts, and ideas are the key to understanding ourselves and our relation to the world as well as each other." The Lang series permits works of greater length than does the Wadsworth series.

Allowing up to 150 pages, it demands a "focus on a major work of the author" in question, as well as "moral and political implications, the influence of the author on subsequent thought, the major issues... left unresolved, and the ongoing importance of the author's ideas." Simply to fulfill these tasks, Machan must take on a wider range of issues than does Gotthelf.

In his preface, Machan notes that "this project is neither hostile nor fawning," that it is "more an introduction" than "a comprehensive critical assessment," and that "epistemology is the core of the book." (xi) The book continues by fits and starts. There is an "introduction" of Ayn Rand's professional work, including a professional biography and brief summaries of her four novels. The summaries convey the themes of the novels and invite a comparison of Rand with figures such as Orwell, Hugo, and Dostoevsky. This useful introductory material is wrapped up with an extended quotation from an e-mail by philosopher J. Roger Lee, apparently for the sake of his remarks "(1) she was always a lot more technically integrated than she was given credit for, and (2) there was a lot going on, of commitments in technical philosophy that is not to be found in the published journals." (5) Here we see Machan's tendency towards free-association, as the desire for a fresh quotation approving Rand overcomes the facts that Lee's remarks are too garbled to summarize Machan's purpose in this book and that Lee's focus is in any case much narrower than Machan's.

In his first chapter, Machan treats the general character of Rand's thought. After sketching Objectivism in contrast to current philosophical trends, he discusses Rand as an "intellectual iconoclast" and provides a competent seventeen-page summary of her philosophy that is strongest in treating metaphysics and weakest in presenting her ethics.

The most carefully thought-out chapter is the second: "Rand on Axiomatic Concepts," (31-56) which is a revised version of an essay "Evidence of Necessary Existence" that appeared in Objectivity (Vol. 1, No. 4). It is a relatively technical discussion of Rand's metaphysics, relating it to Aristotle. Machan discusses the axiomatic concepts of existence, consciousness, and identity, and explains "Rand's use of language" (41) in tautological expressions such as "existence exists." Rand is contrasted with Descartes but equated with Heidegger (as a user of metaphysical tautologies).

Chapter 3 concerns "Rand's Moral Philosophy." After a summary of Rand's theory of value (and her basic approach to ethics), Machan proceeds with an extended rebuttal, on Objectivist grounds, of two famous positions in ethics: G.E. Moore's "naturalistic fallacy" and David Hume's assertion of an "is-ought gap." (59) Both theses concern how man knows moral facts, so the discussion turns largely on epistemological issues, including the relationship of deduction to Rand's conception of "rational identification" (62, 65-67) and "Rand versus Moore" on definitions (63-65). Machan affirms Rand's inductive, naturalistic approach to ethics by noting that science and engineering-paragons of objective knowledge-are fundamentally inductive in character, and he scatters a discussion of Rand's theory of knowledge throughout the chapter in support of the possibility of objective values.

The next three chapters discuss Rand's ethical and political thought in contrast to other thinkers and cultural themes. Machan asserts that for Rand, human nature "gives rise to the potential of . . . self-directedness, self-governance, personal responsibility, creativity, originality, novelty." -an idiosyncratic selection of traits-and he avers that Rand "projects a conception of human life that accords with the highest yet realistic standards of human living." (79) Those familiar with Machan's work will not be surprised to find that he is hostile to "Hobbesian" instrumental rationality and egoism and at pains to strike blows against the "atomistic," "subjective" individualism of economic theory. (105) He also discusses several forms of conservative hostility to capitalism (Solzhenitsyn and Isaiah Berlin, [83], Michael Novak and Leo Strauss [87-88]). In contrast to these views, Machan stridently advances Rand's distinctive moral defense of trade and capitalism.

This section of the book concludes with one short chapter on "Rand versus Marx" (Chapter 5, 103-14) and one-even shorter- on Rand's hostility to Kant. In that chapter, entitled "Rand's Moriarty" (115-120), Machan explains: "The reason Rand detested that [his] is the most thorough, brilliant, devastating critique of human reason ever advanced in Western thought." Rand's objections to Kant's moral theories, on the other hand, go unmentioned.

The final chapter of Ayn Rand (Chapter 7, 121-51) considers an assortment of objections to Rand and to ideas she defended. Acknowledging that "Rand was no academic philosopher," Machan steps forward to fill the breach. There is an extended discussion of Norman Barry's criticisms of Rand in his Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism. Machan emphasizes, as against Barry, that Rand is not a rationalist and does not deduce her philosophy from first principles and that Rand does not advocate a God's-eye-view conception of certainty that equates knowledge with infallibility.

Objections to the principle of noncontradiction are considered, and then Machan wanders through an assortment of "problems left for Objectivism" (134-44). It is not always clear what "problem" Machan associates with a given topic, but he believes that some of the outstanding issues for further development by Objectivists include: how does change come about? (135); emotion and more generally "the mind-body problem" (137-39); "philosophically objective value" (141); and the "'obligation' to respect rights" (144). There are also "classic philosophical problems" that Machan believes Objectivism should address. These include: "the problem of induction" (144); "masculinity and femininity" (145); anarchism; and "a serious treatment of parenthood." (146)

Machan's book closes with an out-of-context discussion of Ayn Rand's appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, followed by an epilogue that muses about the nature of philosophy and the idea that its questions are always open to discussion. This disorganization at the close is symptomatic of a condition that pervades his Ayn Rand. There is a great unevenness in the degree of sophistication with which various ideas and points are treated. Throughout the book, the text is choppy and poorly edited. Redundancies and typographical errors are ubiquitous. The result is a survey that is far more difficult to follow and much less insightful than it might have been.


We are examining two books, then, that appear to undertake roughly the same task, that of writing a brief introduction to Ayn Rand's philosophy for an audience primarily of undergraduates, with a secondary aim of generating interest among academics more generally. But how different they are!

It should be evident from the above summaries why I have dubbed Machan the "liberal" and Gotthelf the "conservative." Superficially, the style of the two books evokes this distinction. Imagine, on the one hand, a bohemian poet discussing the meaning of life over coffee, and, on the other, a Jesuit theologian laying out Thomas Aquinas's arguments for God: that is how the two books read. It is a comparison we can carry out point-by-point.

Take style, for example. Machan's prose is all over the map, whereas Gotthelf's is polished and exact. Typographical errors are so ubiquitous in Machan's book that he mis-writes the title of a key citation (The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand) both times it appears (acknowledgements and 26). He also omits a key negative term in two crucial locations: he avers that "we 'climb out of our minds' to make sure the mind's contents match reality" (7), although the context makes clear his denial of this absurd idea; and he writes that concepts like "human being" are "unlike" "the concept of A," which "isn't finally closed," although elsewhere in the text he shows that the two are very much the same in this respect. (66) This disrespect for the basic craft of the writer is also disrespectful to the reader. In contrast, there are virtually no errors of this kind in Gotthelf's book.

The distinction also applies when we look more deeply at these books. Machan is liberal in the sense of being open-minded. He ranges over a wide variety of issues and seeks out comparisons and contact with other philosophers wherever doing so can shed light on Objectivism. He cites literature from within and outside of the Objectivist movement and puts forward intriguing comparisons of Ayn Rand with other thinkers. For example, he provides two separate citations of sources from circa 1950 that employ "altruism" in just the sense Ayn Rand attacks (28 nn. 3-4). Later, he quotes Adam Smith at length to endorse Rand's view that Christian theology corrupted Western moral thought and to show how Rand is a modern exemplar of an ancient Greek attitude toward ethics (86). In a different context, he proposes that Rand's use of the term "nature" is similar to that of Hilary Kornblith, a contemporary philosopher who has worked on the natural basis of induction. (77) But mentioning such a connection without explaining it may raise more questions than it resolves.

By contrast, Gotthelf approaches his bibliography narrowly. He makes a decision to focus exclusively on Rand's own ideas and not to comment on any other Objectivist thinkers. Accordingly, he cites only Rand's works and Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism, which he includes on the grounds that it is derived from an approved lecture series and can be trusted to state accurately ideas Rand never wrote down. This is a valid choice, at least as regards the primary focus of the book, since it must be so very condensed. But an introduction should also provide bibliographical references pointing students to additional reading about Rand's ideas. The result of Gotthelf's policy is that curious students and scholars will find no mention of the burgeoning secondary literature on Rand. For example, there is no mention of David Kelley's The Evidence of the Senses in the notes to the discussion of sensory perception and neither is there any mention of Harry Binswanger's The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts when Gotthelf turns to the theory of value. Yet no scholar or inquisitive student will be satisfied with less than the detail these books provide.

It is sad to note that this apparently principled policy of deprivation reflects more than scholarly considerations. For not only does he avoid citing any of the secondary literature, he makes the claim (27, n. 12) that "there is not much of serious interpretive value among the secondary literature." This blanket judgment is out of place if he is not actually going to cite and criticize such works. Even worse, Gotthelf offers a harsh, denunciatory comment plainly aimed at Chris Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (18, n. 6), again without citing the work by name. He has obviously let a spirit of intra-Objectivist partisanship affect his scholarly treatment.

This partisanship is evident in other places as well. Gotthelf disparages Barbara Branden's "biography/memoir" (that is, The Passion of Ayn Rand [27, n. 8]) as insufficiently accurate to rely on for scholarly evidence on Rand's life, but then lauds the hagiographic film and book Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life. In the same vein, he mentions the Ayn Rand Institute and the Ayn Rand Society of the American Philosophical Association as organizations carrying on her work. The first is an understandable reference, since he has to cite ARI's archives for scholarly purposes. But to mention the Ayn Rand Society as "fostering the scholarly study... of the philosophic thought... of Ayn Rand," while ignoring The Objectivist Center (the quondam Institute for Objectivist Studies) is again obviously partisan, since IOS/TOC has in fact sponsored vastly more philosophical work than has the ARS. And although Gotthelf states that he "helped found the Ayn Rand Society," he neglects to mention that the primary founders of that group were David Kelley and George Walsh.

The contrast between the two books extends to their presentation of Objectivism. Gotthelf has clearly mastered Objectivism at a systematic level. Not only does he cover all the key points, but he carefully ensures that each idea is presented in the proper evidentiary order. Anyone familiar with Objectivism can marvel at the precision and economy with which Gotthelf covers canonical points and conveys relatively technical material.

Since I have been working with David Kelley on our forthcoming exposition The Logical Structure of Objectivism, I was especially pleased to have in hand this new, systematic treatment of the philosophy. Gotthelf quotes extensively from Rand, but weaves those quotations smoothly into his own prose. He concretizes several key points with fresh examples: a laudable practice, given the lamentable tendency in Objectivist circles to recycle Ayn Rand's examples endlessly. (Alas, concept formation still appears as a process that applies primarily to furniture.) He also offers an intriguing short discussion of the nature of the cardinal values, one that is rather different from Peikoff's treatment and that hints at a line of argument we develop more fully in The Logical Structure.

Some of Gotthelf's fresh formulations advance somewhat dubious technical claims without sufficient explanation. For example, he states that the convergent look of a stretch of railroad tracks allows us to determine distance (55). In fact, this does not appear to be the main stimulus determinant of perceived depth, and in any case one cannot tell what gives rise to depth perception except by doing careful experiments.

Further on, in a move that is something of an innovation, he extends the concept of "form" from perception to concepts, which Rand never does. (64-67) It is not clear what gain there is in extending the idea of a "form" to concepts, and one wonders whether this issue could have been set aside to spare more room for ethics. In this same section, he seems to equivocate on the nature of a concept, describing it as "an integration of retained characteristics" on one page -seeming to equate the concept with its differentia- (64) but soon after calling it an "integrated grasp of particulars possessing the same distinguishing characteristics" The latter is the better expression of Rand's view. These shortcomings weaken his exposition at the point where it tends to be most satisfactory in terms of the thoroughness of exposition.

Machan for his part shows nothing like Gotthelf's sure, systematic grasp of Objectivism. He understands the most basic structure in a rough-and-ready way, and latches on to key terms or phrases, such as the "choice to think" and Rand's idea of axiomatic concepts. His presentation is disorganized, with arguments that demand an integrated treatment presented in bits and pieces as he goes along (this is especially true of the ethics). He omits certain important elements and even misrepresents a few. The most egregious example of this is his description of the virtues: They are, he says, "abstract guidelines for how we ought to act (honestly, courageously, prudently, productively, and, most of all, rationally)." (20) In no place does Machan accurately state Rand's seven virtues, nor does he explain how the foregoing hodgepodge of neo-Aristotelian principles corresponds to the ethical thought of Ayn Rand. The absence of Rand's virtues of pride, independence, and justice is especially glaring, as these are unmistakably egoist principles, whereas courage, honesty, and prudence, which Machan mentions, are widely praised in traditional ethics. Rand's discussion of the virtues takes account of the personal and social contexts separately, while Machan's laundry list does not. Taken altogether, the passages in which Machan makes a dubious or murky argument, or imprecisely formulates a point that Rand and other Objectivists have stated clearly, are too numerous to survey.

That said, there are also many places where the virtues of a liberal mind shine through. For example, Machan's discussion of Rand's metaphysical axioms relates them to Aristotle's two forms of "first principles," clarifying Rand's meaning in a context with which many scholars are familiar. (34-36) Here he states succinctly the point that the axioms, while grounding all knowledge, "do not refer to the specific content of our knowledge, but to the form that our knowledge must take." (35) Thus "Rand... is only surveying and staking out the site upon which human knowledge is built. The edifice of knowledge rests on experience, not upon philosophical axioms." (38) Passages like these may invite further inquiry by interested scholars and speak to their context clearly enough to be understood.


Given its weaknesses, Machan's Ayn Rand is of dubious value as an introductory text. As we have seen, Machan does provide a sketch of the philosophy, and he insists on Rand's importance as an original thinker in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Yet he ventures so often into technical and scholarly territory that his book is not really all that appropriate to the introductory level. On the other hand, his technical work is not often detailed or precise enough to merit extensive examination on its own account. Yet I would hazard a guess that his book, of the two, will be most successful at engendering scholarly interest in Rand, since Machan makes a much greater effort to connect Objectivism with ideas and thinkers that non-Objectivist philosophers are familiar with.

Allan Gotthelf's On Ayn Rand, by contrast, is a book that only Objectivists are likely to love. The clarity and logic of his exposition will surely prove an aid to the non-Objectivist reader, but the relative lack of examples and of opposing views to serve as contrast objects means that he provides his reader with a slick intellectual edifice, one that is hard to grasp hold of. I find it difficult to believe that any presentation of Objectivism can succeed in the marketplace of ideas if it refers to the history of philosophy only with sweeping generalizations and fails to show how Rand's thought fits into a wider tradition -if only by opposition. Thus I think it unlikely that Gotthelf will, with this book, open the doors of the academy to the discussion of Rand. But I hope I am wrong.

I think in the context of a course that would include further explanation and examples, especially from Rand's fiction, On Ayn Rand would serve as valuable survey of the basic principles of the philosophy. In effect, it is a primer on the key points of the structure. In this respect, Gotthelf's exposition, with its careful formulations and precise stages of argument, is superior to Peikoff's survey. One can only wish that Gotthelf had been given a larger canvas.

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