Paul Mawdsley on differences between Rand and Branden

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On February 18, 2006, Paul Mawdsley made a post on Nathaniel Branden’s Yahoo forum.

The views he presented are ones that taught me something important about some differences between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden. My first impression on reading these words was of beauty. I found that impression to be a strange one, but there it is.

These words sum up deep wisdom about how to use your own mind in judging issues where you rely only on the statements of others.

I asked for (and received) permission from him to present it here (slightly edited). I have eliminated references to posters and things like that.

Thank you so much for being wise, Paul, and sharing your wisdom with us.


Interpretations of Interpretations

A very strange thing to be arguing about almost forty years later.

One side says this is the truth of personal events that took place between 2 people. The other side has quite a very different version. Now we are supposed to decide which version is closer to the truth so we can decide which is the philosophically and ethically right one to follow.

Although I don't know what really happened between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden around 1968, I must admit to intuitively assuming Branden's slant to be more objective. I have no specific piece of evidence that supports this interpretation of interpretations. It's a very global assessment that is rooted in my understanding of the characters involved as I have come to understand them through their work.

When I read an authors work, to some degree I take in the perspective of that author. I consider it a type of empathic experience, looking through the lens of another's principles and values. When the author's perspective resonates with my own I tend to sink more deeply into that perspective. When I first read Rand about 20 years ago I experienced a deep resonance with my own evolving perspective and began absorbing her principles and values at a faster rate than I could properly assess their validity. I began to evaluate the world around me through the lens of Rand's Objectivism just as [one poster] has done quite proficiently.

I remember how powerful I felt exercising my rational faculty applying the principles of Objectivism. I remember how insulated and righteous I felt evaluating those around me from the values of Objectivism. I remember how vicious I could be once I declared the verdict of irrational, or anti-life, or evil. I remember how much I began to alienate those I cared about. And I remember realizing that Rand's perspective no longer resonated with my own.

The reason I assume Branden's account is more objective than Rand's is because I have tried on the principles and values of both and experienced the world through their lenses. Rand's lens tends to create greater distortion.

The root of the distortion is in her value categories and in the associated action imperatives. I found the Randian approach was to categorize an individual's behaviour in terms of rational or irrational, pro-life or anti life, good or evil. The associated action imperatives were to accept or dismiss, own or disown, respect or negate. Essentially, behaviour that was valued was embraced. Behaviour in others or oneself that was disvalued was existentially obliterated. Despite Rand's claim to hold the facts of reality in highest esteem, her values and action imperatives necessitate a disrespect for certain facts of reality.

Somewhere Branden says that if you are blind to elements of your inner world you will be blind to corresponding elements of the outer world as well. Sight works in both directions or it works in neither. I agree. Randian Objectivism actively promotes psychological blindness, or rather selective sightedness. Blindness of one's emotionally responsive self does not make those emotions disappear. It just takes consciousness out of the process in determining reactions.

Interpreting Rand's behaviour in her causal terms makes logical sense of her behaviour. What a thing is determines what it does. She was a woman who was hurt and confused by the events before her who's emotional reactions caused behaviour not processed by conscious judgement. What she was determined what she did. I don't believe she intentionally distorted the truth. The lens through which she viewed the world caused the truth to be distorted unknowingly.

Seeing the world through lens of Branden's principles and values tends to create greater clarity. The reason for this is his principles and values are based on a deeper understanding of human nature. Branden's value categories evolved into healthy vs unhealthy. His associated action imperative is to increase consciousness. If behaviour in oneself or another is considered healthy it is promoted. If behaviour is considered unhealthy it is brought into focus, accepted (not dismissed, disowned or negated), explored to increase understanding, communication or change is attempted, and progress is measured. This is a lens that really does hold the facts of reality in highest esteem.

Ultimately my assumption that Branden's view of events is the closer to reality comes down to my belief that the man who crafted this lens does not have the principles and values of a person who would knowingly distort the truth. And the lens that has been crafted greatly reduces the chance that he would unknowingly distort the truth.

In the end I do not judge the value of Rand's and Branden's work based on who's view of specific events is closest to reality. The merits of their work stands separate to the events of their personal relationship. Both have been profoundly important guides in my personal development.

It is amazing how much trouble conflicting epistemological and ethical lenses have caused people without anyone paying such lenses much attention. I find most disagreements have their roots in individual differences in interpretive lenses.


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You know what I like the best about Paul's post? He is over here in the corner, sipping a nice tall glass of iced mint tea, watching all the acrimony pass by without ever paying any real attention to it. He throws a log in the fireplace and sits down, instead.

As he stretches out his legs on the hammock and opens the book he's been reading, Getting it Right with The Wisdom of the Ages, he speaks to those passing by.

His voice is soft and melodious. Well articulated. Pleasant.

He speaks of what you see and the importance of understanding how you see it. He speaks of gazing inward with the same eyes you use for gazing out. He speaks of how short life is for anything less. He speaks of health as the good.

The storms rage all all around him, yet here he sits with his mint tea and book by the warm fire, telling his message of life to anyone who will listen.

When the storms die down and newcomers arrive, I have a feeling that this quiet voice of reason will not be the one that is silent.


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You paint a flattering picture of me. It’s fun to see myself as a romanticized character in someone else’s fiction. You made me laugh.

I wanted to make one point particularly clear. I do not assume Branden’s perspective is necessarily the authority on reality– reality at large or the reality of events between he and Rand. Psychology is complex and one’s perspective can be distorted by many factors.

When a person describes events he has witnessed, his biases colour his interpretation of events. When we talk about some past event we are actually creating and presenting a fiction that is taken from our experience, crafted in our imagination, and intended to be representative of the facts. Some people are better at identifying the facts because they bring a higher level of awareness to the events they witness. Some people are better at creating a more objective fiction because they better know their own biases. And some people do a better job of testing the representativeness of their story.

Any story has a purpose. Reality has no purpose. It just is. Any fiction in which we are the main character, the hero, we will tend to recall and present facts with our purposes, conscious and/or subconscious, through a biased lens. Certainly, Nathaniel Branden is no different.

If I am not mistaken, Branden’s book, Judgement Day, was changed in later editions to reflect the fact that he had recognized that certain subconscious motives were behind his writing that no longer were operative. He said things which could cause a harm and he no longer viewed as necessary to the story. This illustrates how subconscious motives can influence what is included and how characters are presented. It also illustrates how making such motives conscious can make the story more objective.

Awareness is the key to objectivity. When we see clearly both inwardly and outwardly, we not only see the world more clearly; we create more representative fictions. It is this commitment to awareness that I see in Branden’s work and leads me to put high stock in what he has to say about past events even though I know his story is not without bias.

Ayn Rand was great at identifying the facts before her. She brought an incredibly high level of awareness to what she witnessed, whether she were witnessing events or ideas. She was gifted at creating and presenting her fiction. The products of her imagination allowed her to create great insight into human nature and existence in general. However, reality testing the representativeness of her personal fictions was never her strong point.

Ayn Rand tried to remove Branden’s contributions from history and his existence from her awareness. This is not objectivity. This is trying to mold reality to fit one’s personal fictions. Rand’s personal fictions were distorted by an inability to bring a high level of awareness to her own motives, by an inability to reliably identify the motives of others, and by a bias against the need to test the reality of her views. The net result of these characteristics was for her to reverse one of the basic tenets of her philosophy. The “primacy of existence” was replaced by the primacy of her personal fictions of existence. It is these personal fictions that would have shaped what she wrote in her journals.

I can understand why some have said they have no desire to read her journals. Ayn Rand was a great innovative thinker. Her journals do not represent what was great. They represent her weakness.

Paul Mawdsley

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I can understand why some have said they have no desire to read her journals. Ayn Rand was a great innovative thinker. Her journals do not represent what was great. They represent her weakness.

Paul Mawdsley

I agree, Paul.

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The following statement of yours has basis in fact, but there are other places where Rand behaved a bit differently:

Ayn Rand tried to remove Branden’s contributions from history and his existence from her awareness.

The facts where this is evident are in the following (not a complete list):

  • Her essay, "To Whom It May Concern," where she distorted some of Branden’s contributions (without denying his intellectual ones to Objectivism);
  • Her rewrite of parts of previously published essays in a new compliation, The Romantic Manifesto;
  • Her attempt to block the publication of Thy Psychology of Self-Esteem after having published major portions of it in The Objectivist Newsletter and The Objectivist;
  • Her maintenance after the break of her public image of always having been monogamous; and
  • Her lack of questioning what she might have done wrong in her journal entries dealing with her romance with NB.

There are other reported acts where your statement is true.

On the other hand, she did claim that Nathaniel and Barbara's contributions before the break were a part of Objectivism, and she did not alter or eliminate NB's contributions in already published compilations (VOS, CUI and even in the footnote in FTNI).

I feel the need to point this out because your statement could be (and probably will be) misconstrued in harsh and highly irrational terms to mean something you did not intend by a very small number of people who have "lens" trouble (to use your expression).

There is a school of thought (or unthought, if you will) that holds that the only problems Rand ever had with her romance with NB was due to his efforts to hide his affair with another woman from her. The people in this school judge any attempt by anyone thinking about this issue through the lens of the old adages, "It takes two to tango," and "There are always three sides to disagreements in love, one side, the other side and the truth," as attempts to smear Rand.

There actually is an important issue here (one dealing with the nature of human beings and the efficacy of philosophy to alter that nature), but it is poorly represented by the members of this school. They get belligerent and obnoxious, as if their behavior were reasoned arguments.

Just ignore them if you come across them. Their fundamental concerns are not with truth or understanding and their noise soon fades. Anyway, you will not find them here on OL.

Your discussion of awareness (metaphorically using sight) - i.e., the fact that blindness when looking inward impacts what you see outward in the same manner since you use the same set of eyes - is brilliant.

This is very important.


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You are right. The statement should read, "Ayn Rand tried to remove some of Branden’s contributions from history and his existence from her awareness." I don't claim to be a scholar of the Objectivist movement. The point remains the same. Thank-you for pointing out my error.

Truth is, I'm not really all that interested in Ayn Rand's relationship with Nathaniel Branden. And I am not really interested in why they broke-up. I am interested in what they each said about the nature of existence and how they were able to create their perspectives. It just so happens that my introduction to this forum came via a response I had to reading other people's views and judgements on this subject. The views I have expressed are based largely on my interpretation of the two characters as I have come to understand them through their work. People's opinions of what happened are much too biased, in and of themselves, to be much value in discerning the truth.

To sort out the reality behind individual interpretations I go back to my Objectivist roots: what a thing is determines what it does. Rand and Branden’s work is an expression of who they are. One can interpret the nature of the existents (Rand and Branden) that created the ideas and tone of their works in the same way a physicist can interpret the nature of the electromagnetic field based on how the field is expressed in its environment. My interpretation of who they are is then used to create characters in my imagination who could be set in motion to see how they would act in the circumstances people are talking about. I can watch events unfold, in my mind’s eye, just as a fiction writer would see scenes unfold before them– just as Rand would create a character who acts according to the nature she has given him.

Since the characters of my fiction are generated from elements isolated and identified in reality, the characters actions are a matter of record, and causality connects the characters with their actions, a claim can be made (and tested) about the representativeness of the fiction. Since the characters are my own creation, I can see which characteristics are causally connected to what behaviours. This is how I generated the perspective that has been presented above.

If what I had done operated at a subconscious level, it would have been called intuition. When it is identified at a conscious level, it is an epistemological tool we might call causal reasoning. I find it ironic that Rand did not identify this particular tool in her epistemology. Objectivism was born in Rand’s ability to create fictional characters with specific identities and set them in motion according to identity-to-action causation. I would say her great insights about existence and human nature came from her ability to create causal models of her world in her imagination.

Now this is something I find interesting. Talking about Rand and Branden as a means to understanding their work, or as a means to understanding how they were able to create their work, is valuable. Talking about them as a means to establish one’s social positioning, for or against either one, is a waste of time, or worse. Insofar as one is arguing from the point of social positioning and loyalties, one is arguing from the orientation of “Social Metaphysics.” Reality is opinions and opinions must be altered through manipulation and bullying. What an unhealthy waste of time and energy.

There are so many more interesting things to talk about than who did what. I would much rather try to create something new from the foundations of Objectivism such as the idea of causal reasoning I have hinted about above. I would rather explore the mind/body relationship or the concept of free-will. I would rather explore the value of one’s empathic perspective from Objectivist principles. I would rather explore the influence of epistemology on the sciences. I would like to explore the idea that the identity-to-action view of causation is not yet complete and that developing it further is of fundamental importance to building our causal models of the world.

Michael, until a week ago I would have said that I am not an Objectivist. I would have said that my ideas share the same roots as Objectivism but they have evolved along their own path away from the restrictions of Objectivist’ dogma. Since you asked me for permission to reprint my views on the interpretations of the Rand/Branden break-up, I have reevaluated my relationship to Objectivism. I have come to understand that there is a movement that considers Objectivism an open system. Meaning there is still room for new existents to be identified. There is still room for Objectivism to evolve.

When a new existent is identified in an open system, it can affect the relationships between ideas throughout the whole system. This is exactly how Nathaniel Branden’s work is related to Objectivism. His views represent a change in an understanding of the elements of human nature which has lead to changes in some of the principles of how we ought to behave.

Objectivism as an open system seems to be the orientation of your site. Interpreting Objectivism this way has allowed me to consider myself an Objectivist again. I’m hoping that having your site available will give this particular rogue Objectivist a forum to reality test his strange ideas and continue to learn. I now see that an independent Objectivism is something to fight for. It’s time I joined the fight.

Paul Mawdsley

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