Barbara's lectures on the Principles of Efficient Thinking


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A quick note, everyone: the two posts following (unless someone quickly jumps in with comments while I'm in process) will be the text of reviews by Joan Kennedy Taylor and Jeff Riggenbach of Barbara's efficient thinking lectures. Joan (may she rest in peace) wrote a much more unequivocally positive review, while Jeff's curmudgeonly attitude shines forth clearly in his own review -- but I think they both have valuable things to say about Barbara's contribution to Objectivism and, of course, to efficient thinking.

I should add that Jeff winced (as much as one can via email, that is) when he re-read the review he had written over 30 years ago, but he graciously allowed it to be shared, anyway. Now is a good time to announce that, sometime this fall, I will be typing up and posting Jeff's multi-part Libertarian Review series on imaginative literature. He was a bit squirmy about these essays, too, but he has consented to their republication, warts and all, so I am happy to announce that we will have yet additional "value-added" material from the great Objectivist-Libertarian period of the 1970s. I also intend to continue posting Nathaniel's and Barbara's review essays from AA Book News, The Objectivist, The Objectivist Newsletter, and Libertarian Review. So, stay tuned!

Best always,

REB

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Principles of Efficient Thinking by Barbara Branden

reviewed by Joan Kennedy Taylor

Those who know of Barbara Branden primarily as the author of the best-selling The Passion of Ayn Rand may not realize that she received a graduate philosophy degree from New York University (where she was one of Sidney Hook's prize pupils) and taught philosophy at Long Island University before she immersed herself in running the Nathaniel Branden Institute in the 1960s. This course on efficient thinking, originally given at NBI and re-recorded some years later, shows Branden's philosophical mind in action. It was—and still is—one of the highlights of what NBI offered.

This brilliantly original course doesn't just explicate and apply tenets of Objectivist theory (although there is reference to Objectivist formulations and some examples are drawn from Objectivist writings) but discusses how to understand your own thinking. It asks and answers questions such as: What should you expect of your mind? How can you identify your thinking errors and those of others? What mental practices lead to what sorts of errors? When you find errors in your thinking, how can you correct them?

"We are taught," says Barbara Branden, "to walk, to write, to read, to play baseball—but not to think." She deals both with epistemology—what is the standard of knowledge: the laws of logic, irreducible primaries, induction and deduction—and with "psycho-epistemology." That is, with how the mind functions to process knowledge, with such issues as the relation between conscious and subconscious, how knowledge is stored and under what circumstances it is retrieved, how inspiration works, the importance of focus, the dangers of confusing associational connections with reasoning, the necessity of formulating concepts in words. Above all, she deals with "cognitive self-sabotage," in the form both of mechanical errors and motivational errors, and how to reverse it. And she does this in a completely non-blaming way that encourages the student to change.

In listening to these lectures again, I am struck with how many of these ideas I have made my own, in the process sometimes forgetting that Barbara Branden was the one who originally taught them to me. I have adopted terms like "floating abstractions," "front- and back-seat driving" and "cue words." I had forgotten that this was where I first heard of one of my favorite books, E. Hutchinson's How to Think Creatively. I often use the illustration of no longer wanting to fly once one realizes that flying by flapping one's arms is not possible, as a metaphor for the fact that if you know that something you want is in fact impossible, you will no longer want it; emotions are in fact rational and appropriate. One enormously helpful concept that I always did remember to credit her with is the idea of not Thinking in the Square—being willing to question the assumed boundaries of a problem to be solved. And there are so many more.

What a pleasure to have this treasure-trove available again! I envy those of you who will be hearing and applying it for the first time.

[This review was written by the late Joan Kennedy Taylor for Laissez-Faire Books, and the text also appears on Barbara Branden's website.

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Principles of Efficient Thinking by Barbara Branden

Reviewed by Jeff Riggenbach

Gertrude Stein, one of the most remarkable intellectuals of this or any other era, is dying. At her bedside is Alice B. Toklas, friend, companion, lover. Stein opens her eyes briefly, looks at Toklas and asks, “What is the answer?” A moment passes—a moment of silence. Again, for the last time, Stein speaks. “In that case, what is the question?”

The story is often told, seldom analyzed. In fact, though it was mentioned in nearly all the major reviews of James R. Mellow’s recent Stein biography, it was subjected to interpretive scrutiny in none of them. This does not mean that no one understands the story, or even that none of the reviewers of Mellow’s book understood it. On the contrary, it is likely that the story is widely understood. But few people have much facility at translating an idea from presentational to discursive symbols (to borrow terms from Susanne Langer), which is why few people—book reviewers not excepted—are satisfactory literary critics, and also why few people who understand the story of Gertrude Stein’s last words can say just what it is they understand.

Barbara Branden, whether or not she knows the story, can say and has said what is significant about it:

Thinking requires question-asking, a constant process of question-asking. One must ask oneself, “What questions must I answer in order to answer my primary question? What are the sub-questions that will lead me to the answers I seek?” It is the process of question-asking, the raising and answering of relevant questions, the assignment of sub-problems, that keep one’s main purpose always functioning as a directing agent. Either the asking of the right questions will give you the answer, if you already possess the necessary knowledge, or the questions will tell you what it is that you have to find out.

Put even more simply, all conceptual knowledge is the result of asking and answering questions. It is the result of posing problems, cognitive problems, and solving them through a process called thinking.

If all this sounds dreadfully prosaic when compared to the genuinely poetic, if somewhat ambiguous, profundity of the original anecdote, it is not because Branden’s reformulation is inadequate to the original; it is because too few people fully realize the implications of either the original or the reformulation. It is precisely the exploration of these implications, the detailed description of cases in point, which is the proper work of a course or textbook in thinking. But such courses and textbooks are few and far between. Though almost every contemporary college catalog declares its institution’s intention to teach its students to think, one can look through those catalogs in vain for any listing of a course in thinking.

And though books on thinking date back at least as far as Descartes’ Discourse on Method, few of those currently available rise far above the level of the intellectually pretentious pep-talk offered by such writers as Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill. But thinking, the purposive use of the mind to gain conceptual information about reality, is a skill of a specific kind, and while it may be learned through exposure to the thoughts of other men, just as football may be learned by watching the games played by other men, the learner, in such instances, is educating himself. He is generalizing, from a number of individual acts of thought, or from a number of individual football games, and arriving at principles of thought or principles of football.

It is an eloquent symptom of the state of human civilization that professional educators take the trouble to teach football but leave the learning of thinking up to the individual student. Of course, many people do learn to think quite well by teaching themselves. But the value of systematizing a branch of knowledge is that each generation of students is thereby able to build on the last, effecting an ever higher level of attainment in that field, and establishing an ever higher standard of adequacy for attainment in that field. In this way, physical educators have made it possible for contemporary athletes to attain greater proficiency at their sports than was possible to the athletes of a century ago. But, because most educators believe that the way to learn thinking is to live, similar progress has been much slower among thinkers.

As is perhaps evident by now, I believe systematic instruction in thinking to be the antidote to this intellectual malaise—the malaise which enables people to correctly intuit the meaning of the Stein anecdote while not recognizing that meaning when it is reformulated in the more exact discursive symbols of theoretical psychology; the malaise which enables people to believe that they can and should be taught to think about specific subjects, but that they cannot or should not be taught to think; the malaise which enables us to study football but does not enable us to study how we study football.

Barbara Branden’s course of lectures on the Principles of Efficient Thinking, first offered during the 1960s under the auspices of the Nathaniel Branden Institute and now available on cassette tapes, is an excellent place to begin the systematic study of thought—if for no other reason than because it stresses the fundamental importance of two key psycho-epistemological concepts: purpose and context. Branden emphasizes and re-emphasizes the importance of these ideas and provides highly detailed and exhaustively analyzed examples of their roles in actual cognitive situations.

The first half of the course is largely theoretical, discussing the nature of thought, the philosophical presuppositions required for efficient thinking, the importance of purpose and context, and the nature of concept-formation. The second half is oriented toward the practical goal of improving one’s own thinking processes, mostly by eliminating inefficient methods of thought. These five lectures consider the improper use of emotion, language, definitions, and logical structures (including a guest lecture by Nathaniel Branden on “The Fallacy of the Stolen Concept”) as well as a discussion of the psychological cause of such inefficient methods.

Unfortunately, there are all sorts of things wrong with these lectures: they were originally written to complement the Basic Principles of Objectivism course on the philosophy of Ayn Rand; they offer a healthy (or should that be “unhealthy”?) dose of the polemic approach to philosophy which is typical of Rand and most of her apologists; they presuppose a certain familiarity with Rand’s ideas, though they generally refer the unfamiliar listener to the primary sources (many of which, like the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, are certainly to be recommended); they even argue for the somewhat naïve view of perception associated with Rand’s epistemology, as much because of Rand’s errors in thinking about the subject as because of her reluctance to learn from such more considered approaches as the one outlined in Moore’s Some Main Problems of Philosophy; and, at times, they include curious failures to exemplify the principles they espouse, that is, to exemplify efficient thinking.

At one point Branden tells us that the familiar scene of a woman ending an argument by rushing from a room in tears is an instance of allowing one’s wishes to supersede one’s rational faculty, an instance of declaring, in effect, “If the world persists in being so frustrating, I’ll throw a temper fit.” But could it not equally be a confession that the woman has become too emotional to argue cogently or even to admit as much calmly, so that she runs from the scene of the trauma to regain her self-control in private? Branden also remarks that this sort of scene occurs “in movie and in bad novels,” a remark I find simply incomprehensible, unless Branden really believes that a novel is to be judged on the efficient thinking of its characters, or, somewhat less fantastically, that the conventional wisdom about clichés in literature is true.

Later, her interpretation of a TV drama is simply unsupported by her synopsis of its events, though, of course, it may have been borne out by the actual events on the screen. Still, I confess that when Branden tells me, as she did recently in a published film review, that among the considerations in an artistic evaluation of a director are such grossly affective ones as “tempo” and “pace,” I suspect I am in the presence of a critic who does not think efficiently about art.

Harsh as this criticism may seem (and I feel harshly about some of it and wish I had the space to make it more specific), the course is what I said it was a few hundred words ago: an excellent one, particularly for those who wish to begin a study of thinking. It makes the right general points and it makes them well. Once they have been learned, such more advanced works as those of William James, Charles Peirce, Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Langer, Alfred Korzybski, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the so-called logical positivists, Edward de Bono—the list is much, much longer—will prove of much greater benefit to the student who seeks a comprehensive, integrated understanding of the human thinking process.

[This review was first published in Libertarian Review, Vol. IX, No. 2 (February 1974) and appears with the permission of the author.]

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  • 1 year later...
IMO, these lectures should be transcribed and sold as a book!! Perhaps updated, expanded, or whatever -- but definitely offered in written form. They're part of our Objectivist heritage!

I know, they're available (still, I hope, aren't they?) from Laissez-Faire Books as tapes or CDs. If they're not, then maybe we could approach The Objectivist Center (who sell Nathaniel's Basic Principles lectures on CD), perhaps as a combined recorded/printed version.

I purchased a copy recently from Laissez-Faire Books in CD format (what did happen to those old cassettes...?), so they are still available.

Any word on possible progress on these lectures coming out in transcription format? I'd purchase a copy.

Alfonso

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  • 8 months later...

Jeff Riggenbach: "Unfortunately, there are all sorts of things wrong with these lectures: they were originally written to complement the Basic Principles of Objectivism course on the philosophy of Ayn Rand; they offer a healthy (or should that be “unhealthy”?) dose of the polemic approach to philosophy which is typical of Rand and most of her apologists; they presuppose a certain familiarity with Rand’s ideas, though they generally refer the unfamiliar listener to the primary sources (many of which, like the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, are certainly to be recommended); they even argue for the somewhat naïve view of perception associated with Rand’s epistemology, as much because of Rand’s errors in thinking about the subject as because of her reluctance to learn from such more considered approaches as the one outlined in Moore’s Some Main Problems of Philosophy; and, at times, they include curious failures to exemplify the principles they espouse, that is, to exemplify efficient thinking."

What can I say to a man when he's right? -- except "You're right, Jeff."

I don't agree -- but this is a minor issue -- with Jeff's objection to my example of the woman rushing from the room in tears during an argument. I'll make my point more clearly in the new version.

Barbara

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Roger: The news about Basic and POET is all good news. Thank you again for all you have done for Objectivism.

Chris, you're welcome, and I'm sure you'll understand that my reasons for taking on these projects were entirely selfish.

1. There is a strong tactile-kinesthetic component to my learning/studying. When I'm delving into ideas in a book or magazine, I mark it up, both in the margins and by underlining and/or circling important points or things I disagree with. When the ideas are on a tape or CD, the next best thing is to type them up as I (slowly, laboriously) listen to them -- after which I can mark them up. :-)

2. It is a strong conviction of mine that the aural/oral tradition of the Objectivist movement has seriously impeded the progress and development and dissemination of the philosophy, not to mention its study by scholars. Making transcripts of NB's 20 lectures and BB's 10 lectures is an important first step to getting these historical documents published in book form. Taking the initiative to have these transcripts made is my way of keeping faith with that conviction. (I.e., of maintaining my integrity -- for those who might wonder why "faith" has any relation to selfishness. :) )

3. I highly respect and admire Barbara and Nathaniel, and I want to honor them and the high value they represent for me by doing this task for them. Trading spiritual value for spiritual value, with a little concrete embodiment thrown in. In other words, it's a labor of love.

As for whatever else I may have done for Objectivism, I have done it not because I regard myself as either a "True Objectivist" or a "heretical maverick" or any other such thing. Instead, I have done it because I regard Objectivism as the best philosophical vehicle to carry me on my path toward truth and happiness, and it is in my best interest to clarify (and sometimes correct) that framework and extend it as far as I can in the directions that fascinate me. That way, Objectivism (as I understand it) continues to serve ~my~ interest. If that also sometimes serves the interests of Objectivists in general, or those in charge of the chief outlets for my ideas, in particular -- well, I can't help that. :)

REB

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(snip)

There is a strong tactile-kinesthetic component to my learning/studying. When I'm delving into ideas in a book or magazine, I mark it up, both in the margins and by underlining and/or circling important points or things I disagree with. When the ideas are on a tape or CD, the next best thing is to type them up as I (slowly, laboriously) listen to them -- after which I can mark them up. :-)

(snip)

Roger -

I agree with your preference for written documents. I find that LISTENING (even with active note-taking, etc) is a much more passive activity, at least for me, than reading. Perhaps if I were to frequently pause the audio and argue out loud with what has been said, or discuss what is said (which would surely alarm fellow passengers on the airplanes on which I seem to spend so much of my life!) then the listening mode could be more active.

Do others likewise find reading to be much more active than listening? Or have useful techniques for more active listening?

Bill P (Alfonso)

Edited by Bill P
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(snip)

There is a strong tactile-kinesthetic component to my learning/studying. When I'm delving into ideas in a book or magazine, I mark it up, both in the margins and by underlining and/or circling important points or things I disagree with. When the ideas are on a tape or CD, the next best thing is to type them up as I (slowly, laboriously) listen to them -- after which I can mark them up. :-)

(snip)

Roger -

I agree with your preference for written documents. I find that LISTENING (even with active note-taking, etc) is a much more passive activity, at least for me, than reading. Perhaps if I were to frequently pause the audio and argue out loud with what has been said, or discuss what is said (which would surely alarm fellow passengers on the airplanes on which I seem to spend so much of my life!) then the listening mode could be more active.

Do others likewise find reading to be much more active than listening? Or have useful techniques for more active listening?

Bill P (Alfonso)

I found lectures very hard to take, especially in college. College was especially hard for the prof expected you to remember and reguritate his stuff no matter how crappy I thought it was. Reading, I can just take the best and discard the rest. Lecturing in college in the social sciences was for me something of a torture. Primarily I need to read, write and think. Everything else constitutes an attenuation. When I studied acting I appreciated the total involvement and focus on the craft, but when I studied filmmaking I was dismayed at all the to me wasted time setting up cameras and lighting and sets and directing actors, as if a small fraction of my brain was being used. This doesn't mean there haven't been or even now aren't filmmaking geniuses, only my basic mental involvement was/is elsewhere.

--Brant

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Roger; I agree about the use of spoken lectures in Objectivism. I note that both ARI and TAS are bringing out more books which most case are the reprintings of lectures. In the early years I think it believed that Ayn Rand should be doing the writing of these books.

I also suspect that in the early years of NBI the lectures were a great sucess holding off the writing of books on these courses.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Well, sound the trumpets! Last night (actually about 1am today), I finished transcribing the 10th and final lecture of Barbara's efficient thinking course.

What a trip it was, to slowly and carefully muse on all this material, getting insights and new implications -- aha moments galore! I can hardly wait to see the "new, improved" version Barbara is going to make of this marvelous and historical material!

Onward!

REB

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Well, sound the trumpets! Last night (actually about 1am today), I finished transcribing the 10th and final lecture of Barbara's efficient thinking course.

What a trip it was, to slowly and carefully muse on all this material, getting insights and new implications -- aha moments galore! I can hardly wait to see the "new, improved" version Barbara is going to make of this marvelous and historical material!

Onward!

REB

Roger; This is good news! Bells should be rung, fireworks set off, dancing in the streets. All and more of the above.
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  • 2 months later...

Becky and I have been "chewing" our way through the transcribed "efficient thinking" lectures, and we got together with Barbara this past Sunday night to offer our comments on lectures 1-3. But first, we went to the World Famous Hamburger Hamlet to chew on some yummy food there (Becky and I had Caesar salads and wine) and to talk about politics and the Objectivist movement. Amazingly, we didn't lose our appetites! ;)

Then we retired to Barbara's nearby abode, where we nibbled on grapes, petted Barbara's kittycat, and chatted for a while about POET. Barbara diligently took notes and indicated changes and additions she was planning to make in the forthcoming book. It will be less movement-oriented, but should be at least as hard-hitting and useful as the lecture (IMO).

We're hoping to get together again soon to knock out the next three lectures, then again (maybe before the end of the year, though I have a busy fall) to cover the last four lectures.

I personally think it would be fun to do an online "cyber" seminar, on ~either~ the existing lectures or (once it's done) the book. It's really a great way to share thoughts and be stimulated to come up with new insights.

More later.

REB

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Congratualations on the progress you're making on these, Roger. For the Record, I was able to supply Nathaniel with all 48 of his seminar LPs and he and Leigh have had them digitalized and as soon as Leigh finishes checking the work this month, they should be available on NB's Web Site. I also sent them quite a few other LPs going back as early as 65-66. I sent them 38 lbs of records and they all came back on one CD! Amazing.

--Brant

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Congratualations on the progress you're making on these, Roger. For the Record, I was able to supply Nathaniel with all 48 of his seminar LPs and he and Leigh have had them digitalized and as soon as Leigh finishes checking the work this month, they should be available on NB's Web Site. I also sent them quite a few other LPs going back as early as 65-66. I sent them 38 lbs of records and they all came back on one CD! Amazing.

--Brant

Brant, that's fabulous! We'll actually be able to go to his website, click on a link, and hear the Seminar sessions? Awesome! Thanks for providing those LPs to Nathaniel. We are in your debt!

REB

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Congratualations on the progress you're making on these, Roger. For the Record, I was able to supply Nathaniel with all 48 of his seminar LPs and he and Leigh have had them digitalized and as soon as Leigh finishes checking the work this month, they should be available on NB's Web Site. I also sent them quite a few other LPs going back as early as 65-66. I sent them 38 lbs of records and they all came back on one CD! Amazing.

--Brant

Brant, that's fabulous! We'll actually be able to go to his website, click on a link, and hear the Seminar sessions? Awesome! Thanks for providing those LPs to Nathaniel. We are in your debt!

REB

I think there'll be a charge. Why not ask Leigh if you could get the CD direct?

--Brant

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Congratualations on the progress you're making on these, Roger. For the Record, I was able to supply Nathaniel with all 48 of his seminar LPs and he and Leigh have had them digitalized and as soon as Leigh finishes checking the work this month, they should be available on NB's Web Site. I also sent them quite a few other LPs going back as early as 65-66. I sent them 38 lbs of records and they all came back on one CD! Amazing.

--Brant

Brant, that's fabulous! We'll actually be able to go to his website, click on a link, and hear the Seminar sessions? Awesome! Thanks for providing those LPs to Nathaniel. We are in your debt!

REB

I think there'll be a charge. Why not ask Leigh if you could get the CD direct?

--Brant

Sure, I'll do that. But I'm wondering -- how in the world did they get all 48 seminar LPs and the other ones you sent onto one CD? It sounds ~beyond~ amazing, come to think of it. In all my digitizing efforts, I've never been able to get more than one or two LPs onto a CD. Am I doing something wrong?

REB

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Roger,

When the time comes, we could think about a paid membership site to present the series with teleconferences with Barbara for Q&A as enticement (as just one idea I have cooking in my Internet marketing studies). Ditto for NB.

Michael

I think that both relatively spontaneous teleconference Q&A and structured cyberseminars are great possibilities. I guess we'll see what Barbara and Nathaniel are interested in doing -- and what the market will bear.

REB

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Congratualations on the progress you're making on these, Roger. For the Record, I was able to supply Nathaniel with all 48 of his seminar LPs and he and Leigh have had them digitalized and as soon as Leigh finishes checking the work this month, they should be available on NB's Web Site. I also sent them quite a few other LPs going back as early as 65-66. I sent them 38 lbs of records and they all came back on one CD! Amazing.

--Brant

Brant, that's fabulous! We'll actually be able to go to his website, click on a link, and hear the Seminar sessions? Awesome! Thanks for providing those LPs to Nathaniel. We are in your debt!

REB

I think there'll be a charge. Why not ask Leigh if you could get the CD direct?

--Brant

Sure, I'll do that. But I'm wondering -- how in the world did they get all 48 seminar LPs and the other ones you sent onto one CD? It sounds ~beyond~ amazing, come to think of it. In all my digitizing efforts, I've never been able to get more than one or two LPs onto a CD. Am I doing something wrong?

Leigh sent me the CD, but I've only sampled it lightly. It was done by a professional they've worked with before. I've never seen a CD like this one.

--Brant

edit: I've just checked and it seems that there are about sixty records on one CD. Please understand that this CD is not going to be made available to the public. The public will download the material. I think Leigh will be sending me another one after she has listened and checked everything. I also have most of it on my computer through emails. When I get the actual records back I'll put them back into storage. I think they are the most durable medium available. Both Nathaniel and Barbara were amazed there were so many Seminars (48). They had forgotten. Nathaniel gave away all his records years ago. He had completely forgotten about his NBI records. I was talking to him on my cell phone last March and I said, "Oh, by the way Nathaniel, I've also got your NBI records, at least all that NBI had for sale in 1967 or 68." "Good Lord!"

Edited by Brant Gaede
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  • 3 weeks later...
Blumenthals' lectures on music

Where can I find these? I am looking for as many original audio-lectures that were given at NBI as possible! I heard that Alan Greenspan lectured on economics, if this is true are they on tape?

Does anyone have a list of all the lectures that were given at NBI?

DA

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I have the feeling that the lectures Alan Greenspan gave at NBI are the last things he would want out today.

I would have to look at the Objectivist calendar but I suspect that these lectures were rarely given in the last years of NBI.

Barbara or someone who has copies of the magazine can correct me.

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