The Virtue of "For the New Intellectual" (2001)

Roger Bissell

Recommended Posts

The Virtue of For the New Intellectual
by Roger Bissell, 8/15/01 (revised 12/5/14)

It is often derisively stated that the survey of Western civiliation that Ayn Rand presents in her title essay of her book For the New Intellectual is seriously flawed and disrespectable because of her sweeping use of two quite negative metaphors to characterize the views she opposes. I'm speaking, of course, of Attila and the Witch Doctor, or what she also calls "the mystics of the muscle" and the "mystics of the mind."

Because of the simplicity of this model, which was originated by her protege and publishing partner, psychologist Nathaniel Branden, it is viewed not as elegant and illuminating, but instead as simplistic and misleading -- and is taken as evidence that Rand is not a "serious" philosopher or historian. Yet, a very serious philosopher, Stephen C. Pepper, used in his classic World Hypotheses (1942) a very similar set of labels for two very similar groups of what he calls "inadequate world hypotheses."

On the one hand are the "animists," who see consciousness (one or many spirits) as running the universe, and who maintain their view as infallible and impose it with authoritarian methods -- and on the other are the "mystics," who regard consciousness (viz., an overwhelming, vivid emotion) as determining what is/is not real, and who maintain their view as indubitable and advocate it in dogmatic fashion.

Pepper also refers to these views as "animistic spiritualism" and "mystical intuitionism," respectively, and he even (in Rand-like fashion) points out that the animists and mystics (authoritarian mystics of the muscle and dogmatic mystics of the mind) have historically tried to join hands and brush aside their differences and contradictions, but that their alliances eventually break down, as "each group has tried to clean the other out."

Great stuff from Pepper -- well worth reading for this and many other reasons. (Jeff Riggenbach has said good things about Pepper's views in an essay in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, and I made some applications of Pepper's ideas in an essay in that journal as well.)

The bottom line of all this is that, despite her specific inaccuracies on this or that point about specific philosophers (and notably aided by Branden's creative ingenuity), Rand's vision, her grand sweeping view of the trend of human history, is right on the money. Her view of things is not an unscholarly aberration, but a well-established perspective, expressed in her own inimitable style. I treasure this essay, whatever other alleged flaws it may be said to have.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 weeks later...

I think that Atilla and the Witch Doctor is great. It certainly brings the key message home. It really illustrates the faith and force principles well. I'd love to see more characterizations of philosophical concepts that have that type of impact.

Thank you Nathaniel Branden for that one.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 8 years later...

Kat, thank you for reminding me of this. It's long overdue, but I've finally revised the above comments to reflect NB's vital role in the Attila/Witch Doctor metaphor, and I'm placing them elsewhere this week to celebrate this as one of his many ingenious, insightful contributions to Objectivism.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now