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What's an Independent Objectivist Intellectual to Do?

Roger Bissell


Even apart from its 2009 brouhaha with on-again/off-again renegade speaker Lindsay Perigo, The Atlas Society has had diminishing value for me in the past few years. While I certainly appreciate TAS's hard work for the 50th anniversary of the publication of Atlas Shrugged) -- and while I fervently hope that the Atlas Shrugged Part 1 movie is as much of a blockbuster as it can and ought to be -- on the intellectual side, I think TAS is becoming irrelevant. :(

Not that I’m even faintly considering going over to “The Dark Side” and join the Ayn Rand Institute. In my opinion, both TAS and ARI think too much “in the box,” instead of fostering development of new ideas. :P

I wish I were wrong about this, but I am not encouraged by what I have seen in the Advanced and Graduate Seminars in the past few years. In this, at least (and probably, at most), Diana Hsieh was right.

But as far as I can tell (from their publications and books), ARI is only providing training in Objectivist methodology, not encouraging new ideas that can be considered Objectivist. And for my money, who wants to be certified as a methodically trained “Objectivist philosopher,” when your own best, most creative ideas, even if they are compatible with Objectivism, are not allowed to be recognized as part of closed-system Objectivism? :P

Can there be any more pitiful creature than an “Objectivist philosopher” whose own original, valid philosophizing cannot be considered part of Objectivism? Hello!? Virtue of independence, anyone?

For that matter, isn't it outrageous that David Kelley’s ideas on the virtue of benevolence are not readily acknowledged as being part of the Objectivist Ethics? I am no ethical theorist, but I can give a simple, straightforward argument, right out of “The Ethics of Emergencies,” that proves benevolence is an aspect of integrity. I can give a knock-down argument, in Rand’s own words, for when and why we should help others, complete with quoted “should’s.”

But why should I have to do this -- and why are the closed-system Randroids unable and/or unwilling to do this themselves? Because they’re thinking in the box and upholding the letter of Rand’s writings, instead of their obvious, clear meaning. And people who think inside the box ethically are not a good bet to ally oneself with intellectually. Which is why I am not inclined to emulate Ms. Hsieh’s pilgrimage to The Dark Side. <_<

On the other hand, people who think inside the box epistemologically are not a good bet to ally oneself with intellectually either. This is why I am spending more and more of my time developing and preparing my ideas for publication, with the help of a very small group of independent “Objectivists” (or whatever they are!), and to them I am eternally grateful for their encouragement and support. :)

My ideas will be disseminated and have an impact on the culture, and they will do so with or without the help (or aggravation and hindrance) of the intellectually sclerotic Movement leaders. And eventually, with or without the help of said Movement leaders, I expect that my ideas will be considered part of Objectivism, or at least consistent with Objectivism.

Not, however, with the moribund cul de sac of the closed-system so cherished by the in-group on the West Coast, but with the East Coast’s ideal of Objectivism as an open-system, Objectivism as it can and ought to be.

[i leave it to future generations whether to call my version of Rand’s philosophy “Bissellian Objectivism” or “Extrinsic Superjectivism.” ;) (This latter is a playful way of acknowledging Objectivism to be synonymous with the rejection of Intrinsicism and Subjectivism.)]


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I don't think its entirely fair to describe TAS as intellectually sclerotic.

That said, yes, there's plenty of commentary by TAS that is absolutely by-the-numbers Objectivist critique. Now, as an Objectivist myself, I often find this a touch dull. These days I read a lot more from Reason and Cato than from TAS. Reason and Cato, because of their heterogenous philosophical origins (i.e. different kinds of libertarian) often produce many interesting perspectives and ideas; ones that even if I cannot entirely agree with I can often learn from.

Take, for instance, Virginia Postrel's concepts of "Stasism" and "Dynamism." These concepts didn't originate in Objectivist philosophy but are clearly compatible with and easily integrated into it.

In many ways, I think its because I find it more interesting to connect Objectivism with other systems of ideas than simply to stick within boundaries. I've learned from many different systems of ideas and perspectives; to play "lets keep Objectivism separate from everything and burn intellectual bridges" is a massive detriment to Objectivism and to the philosophy of liberty generally.

TAS, for all its faults, provides the precondition for the kind of intellectual growth Objectivism needs. Before TAS, the false dichotomy of "orthodox Randroidism versus anti-Objectivism" was very difficult to deny, at least in a practical sense. Hatred of the Objectivist movement easily poisoned people's opinions of Objectivism as a philosophy. TAS is an absolutely crucial step in destroying this dichotomy. I don't agree or necessarily like (or dislike) everything TAS does, has done or will do, but it clearly has been a trailblazer for non-orthodox Objectivists. David Kelley is a very clear writer, especially by the standards of philosophy, and the fact that the Atlas Shrugged film is being produced by an Objectivist outside ARI and co. is a massive boon.

As for whether or not your ideas will be considered part of Objectivism... I honestly think they should at the very least be considered "Objectivist-compatible" or "a development upon/reformulation of Objectivism" (disclaimer; I've referenced one of your works in a few of my University assignments and in my Masters thesis).

I too have an intellectual project; the synthesis of Austrian and Evolutionary economics atop an Objectivist philosophical base. Would I want that to be considered "Objectivism?" Well, I'd allege its perfectly logically compatible with Ayn Rand's work and Rand's work does at times approach using social-economic analysis that would fit my Austrian-Evolutionary paradigm. But I wouldn't consider agreement with my project an "essential" component of Objectivism, primarily because I don't think you'd have to agree with it in order to be an Objectivist (I'm leaving room for honest disagreement; I believe my project is entirely consistent with Objectivism's essentials but if people disagree with me, that doesn't mean they're evading). But would I think it fair to describe it as "Objectivist-compatible" or "an application of Objectivism" or something along those lines? Certainly.

Its a very complex and delicate task to try and differentiate between "the core ideas of a specific intellectual school" and the elaborations, reformulations and revisions that are made over the course of that school's history. For instance, one could take the entire German Idealist tradition and describe its core idea as "our mental processes have a nature which shapes both the user of these processes and said user's knowledge" but there are so many different variations on this theme, from the Kantian rationalist "reason has a nature which shapes the user's knowlege" to the Fichte-esque "our nationalities influence how we think" to the Hegel-Marx "our relationship to the means of production determines how we think" to the Nietzsche-Foucault "our beliefs are ultimately a product of power relations" position.

As I'm an open-system guy, I tend to see a very wide range of ideas as at the very least 'compatible with Objectivism.' The issue of whether or not I'd CALL these ideas "objectivism" can, to me, degenerate into fighting over a word.

Do I agree that Objectivism needs to engage with other perspectives? Very much so. TAS at least try to do that on some level, and JARS is very competent in that regard. I do think the trend needs to accelerate. I think that the similarities between Rand and Hayek need to be covered (because there are many), as well as Rand and Schumpeter. I'm hoping my own work will at least begin to address this.

I'd also like to see more Objectivist analysis of pop culture. The Marxist intellectuals of the Frankfurt School have exerted massive cultural influence on a wide number of artistic movements; they expended great effort in pushing their ideas into cultural PRODUCTION. Objectivism already has the advantage of being integrated into some of the most popular, well-known and controversial novels in Western Civilization; there's phenomenal resources there. If Objectivism could, like Marxism, deeply engage with popular culture, from a constructive perspective as well as a critical one, it would be beneficial (so far, most Objectivists seem content to lie back in their armchairs and issue condemnations whilst speculating on the psychological depravity of people that enjoy a specific type of Art; this is NOT what I'm talking about).

There has to be more Objectivist Outreach, ultimately.

Sorry for the rambling, I hope this post proves stimulating.

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First, let me commend you on choosing yourself over some peer group. That speaks very well of you, IMO.

I'm not familiar with David Kelly's views. But I have long believed that being of benevolence toward others is frequently in my own self-interest. If I want a society that is compatible with my preferences, I have to do all kinds of "bank shots" on the pool table of life to make it happen. I have to accept that what I want for myself others will want for themselves. Not in the incidentals of preference and taste. I hate asparagus, George H. W. Bush hates broccoli. But I think there is common ground in the notion that it is good for a farm to produce both broccoli and asparagus.

There is a book by Robert Cialdini called Influence, and he discusses reciprocity as a major way to generate influence (which is the self-interest component). The idea is to "pay it forward" (that's the benevolence component) so that others feel a willingness to pay it back. I believe society works tends to work better when we have benevolence in the service of self-interest.

I look for win-win-win-win-win...win situations as best I can. While I often fall short, it remains my pole star.

Back to standing on your own ... When the movie Atlas Shrugged came out, the producers had a little YouTube promotion where people were asked to create a 2 second video where each (male or female) would say, "I am John Galt." I couldn't do it. I am Bal Simon. I have no aspiration to be John Galt. I have no aspiration to be "the intellectual heir" of Ayn Rand, Alfred Korzybski, Buddha, Krishnamurti, Gregory Bateson, or anyone else. I am my own intellect (for better or worse), and that's good enough for me.

I have the same trouble with the idea of "being" an Objectivist as I do with "being" a General Semanticist. Both arenas seem to have a "party line." Both seem to have "adherents," replete with organizational structures and power plays. In other words "turf" to be protected. That seems idiotic to me. That's politics, and where an allocation of resources is involved, fine... labels serve as a nice shorthand. But in the realm of intellectual inquiry? I am a BalSimonist - and sometimes not a very good one, either. I have trouble imagining a physicist saying, "I'm a relativist and not a believer in that crummy quantum mechanics crap." (Or vice versa.)

I think a good way to get a "flavor" of my point of view on this is to grok this: if I had an opportunity to rewrite part of Atlas, there is one and only one scene I would change: where Eddie Willers, defeated, stays on the train during society's crash into oblivion. In my version, Eddie would not be defeated, and would continue to look for win-win-win.... , even if ultimately he could not succeed. Why? Because his own self-interest would dictate that he do so. In my view, he (Ayn Rand) lost view of Eddie's self-interest, let it grow too constricted, and it ended for him in premature tragedy. He was a heroic character, though. I would have given him a more noble last scene, ending on an open question about what would happen to him next.

- Bal

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Bal, I sympathize with your ideal of a win-win-win-win-win philosophy. However...

Reciprocity or "pay it forward" has definite limits. I have heard of numerous instances of fiscal conservatives agreeing to tax increases as a quid pro quo to spending cuts. Surprise! The liberals got their tax increases, which they promptly used for higher spending. The spending cuts, which were really cuts in ~increases~ in spending, never happened.

So much for "benevolence" in politics. Same for "civility."


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