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Ayn Rand Explained

From Tyranny to Tea Party

Ronald E. Merrill, author

Marsha Familaro Enright, editor

(2012 Open Court)

Description at Amazon

Ayn Rand Explained is an engrossing account of the life, work, and influence of Ayn Rand: her career, from youth in Soviet Russia to Hollywood screenwriter and then to ideological guru; her novels and other fiction writings, including the perennial best-sellers, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged; her forays into ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics; her influence on—and personal animosity toward—both conservatism and libertarianism.

Merrill and Enright describe Rand’s early infatuation with Nietzsche, her first fiction writings, the developments behind her record-breaking blockbuster novels of 1943 and 1957, her increasing involvement in politics in the 1950s and 1960s, including her support for the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater.

Rand’s Objectivist movement was first promoted through the Nathaniel Branden Institute, headed by her young protégé and anointed heir. The Institute advocated a complete worldview, encompassing Rand’s views on politics, economics, religion, art, music, epistemology, ethics (“The Virtue of Selfishness”), and sexual relationships. For several years the Institute grew rapidly, though there were ominous signs as some leading members were ‘put on trial’ for their heretical ideas, and ignominiously drummed out of the movement.

In 1969, Branden was expelled by Rand for ‘immorality’, the Institute was shut down, and all members who questioned this ruling were themselves excommunicated and shunned by Rand and her disciples. Branden became a best-selling author of psychotherapy books, with a following of Objectivists who had dissociated from the official organization headed by Rand, and after her death in 1982, by Leonard Peikoff. One of Rand’s inner circle, Alan Greenspan, later went on to get his hands on the steering wheel of the American economy.

Objectivism offers a comprehensive package of beliefs encompassing the ethics of rational egoism, rejection of all religion and outright atheism, the arts as expressions of good or bad metaphysical and ethical values, personal freedom from political interference, laissez-faire capitalism, and limited government. The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of Objectivism, with a jump in sales of Rand’s novels and the influence of Rand’s ideas in the Tea Party movement and the Republican primaries. While gaining membership, the Objectivist movement continues to be sharply divided into warring factions, the two major groupings led by the Ayn Rand Institute (Leonard Peikoff) and the Objectivist Center (David Kelley).

Ayn Rand Explained is a completely revised and updated edition of The Ideas of Ayn Rand, by the late Ronald E. Merrill, first published by Open Court in 1991.

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I got The Ideas of Ayn Rand when it first came out, I think it was the first independent survey of Rand's life and work that I read. I thought it was terrific, it was the right book at the right time, though I haven't picked it up again in a long time. I'd have to excavate for it, and that's assuming I didn't lend it out to someone who failed to return it. I wonder how much revision there has been to it. Amazon doesn't have a sample. Merrill died years ago. Nathaniel Branden republished his memoir, but acknowledged that it was 95% the same, so I didn't bother getting it since I already had Judgement Day. In any event, I certainly recommend Merrill's book, and I expect this new version is at least as good as the original, having read plenty of good material by Marsha Enright over the years.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I had never gotten around to reading Ronald Merrill’s original The Ideas of Ayn Rand until now, in parallel with Marsha Enright’s expanded version Ayn Rand Explained. Enright has expanded Ideas considerably in Explained, beyond the three new chapters. For example, Merrill wrote in Ideas: “Rand’s predilection for paradox and her pleasure in surprising and shocking the reader probably owed much to the influence of O. Henry and Oscar Wilde.” That statement, its paragraph, and its section remain in Explained. But the element of paradox and six others (mostly additional to those remarked by Merrill) in Rand’s literature receive fresh and delightful notice and discussion from Enright.

One of the hazards Nathaniel Branden had attended to in “The Benefits and Hazards of Ayn Rand’s Philosophy” (1984) is perhaps more a psychological hazard than a philosophical one: repression.* As I mentioned in another thread,* his lectures The Basic Principles of Objectivism, as transcribed in The Vision of Ayn Rand, contain much more psychology than does Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. As readers here know, Branden published quite a bit of psychology in The Objectivist Newsletter and The Objectivist. In recent years, he has allowed that the psychology he propounded then as well as his later corrections and extensions to it are not part of the philosophy of Objectivism, and he has acknowledged that Peikoff’s OPAR is an accurate representation of Rand’s philosophy.

The divide between philosophical psychology (as my Thomist first philosophy professor called it) and what we call cognitive psychology* or therapeutic psychology* is not sharp. For example, Rand would not have gotten far in posing her view of the nature and role of reason in human life without saying things about the nature of perception and emotions and their relations with reason. Theory of perception and emotions at some level of outline has to be part of a philosophy such as hers.

Moreover, emotional dynamics figure into film, such as Love Letters,* and novels, such as Fountainhead and Atlas. It is in connection with Rand’s literature that Branden came to see a hazard in the “philosophy” of Ayn Rand. He wrote:

If, in page after page of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, you show someone being heroic by ruthlessly setting feelings aside, and if you show someone being rotten and depraved by, in effect, diving headlong into his feelings and emotions, and if that is one of your dominant methods of characterization, repeated again and again, then it doesn't matter what you profess, in abstract philosophy, about the relationship of reason and emotion. You have taught people: repress, repress, repress.

No such lesson took on me as a young person reading those books. In Fountainhead again and again Roark is shown to be the character not evasive about himself, the character most not evasive about himself. In Atlas Dagny, Rearden, and Galt are shown as kin of Roark in that respect. Rand was no Doris Lessing when it came to space devoted to self-reflection in characters. Lessing is no Rand when it comes to space devoted to the glory of sustained productive achievement. The two authors had different aspects of human existence, both of them important, that they especially wanted to embroidery.

The view that Rand’s protagonists are emotionally and introspectively inept has become a cliché. It was a pleasant surprise to find that in Ayn Rand Explained that cliché is challenged. This work counters that image, specifically with respect to Branden’s contentions about emotions and repression as portrayed in Atlas (pp. 120–25 in Explained; 79–84 in Ideas).

Edited by Boydstun
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  • 9 years later...
  • 9 months later...


The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies,  Vol. 23, Nos. 1–2, (2023), pp. 218–79.



ABSTRACT: Due to a widespread belief in mechano-reductionism, most intellectuals reject the idea that nonconscious living beings act toward goals. Proposing otherwise is mostly rejected as unscientific anthropomorphizing or necessitating appeals to a supernatural power. This false dichotomy has stymied biology and its related sciences. Herein, I present a new naturalistic gestalt on the nature of life—one based on facts and evidence. It incorporates Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s and Arthur Koestler’s theories of systems and hierarchies with the ideas of Aristotle, Hans Jonas, and Ayn Rand, to identify fundamental formulations on the nature of life, consciousness, free will, and meaning.

~Comment by me on core of Marsha's paper:

In the natural formation of the first cell, the potentials of the physical factors going into that formation are not, singly or together, ends-directed to getting that formation. Enright concurs in that. That unicellular organisms have self-directing behaviors (without intentionality, but directive all the same) would seem then to be the result purely of physical factors not having self-directing behaviors. And, as Enright acknowledges to some extent, the ongoing research on how that first natural formation happened would seem to be an important part of explaining how life, with its self-directing characteristics, has come to be. (That is, as well, how value came into the world.) At Objectivism Online, we have a thread that accumulates research on the origin of life.

Clastic sedimentary rocks, such as sandstone, are formed from other types of rock already present and by certain physical conditions on the surface of the planet. It is an ends-free series of events that there comes to be clastic sedimentary rocks. It seem to me credible that the first natural cell could be formed by ends-free series of events. Once living things have appeared, ends-free series of events can continue to occur to them and within them, which may be detrimental to continuing that form of life or may be harmless or advantageous. To the result of successor life, because there are numerous single-cell individuals and colonies and multicellular organisms, such organism-rennovations upon novel events are never purely series of accidents. I don’t think that would be a fair way to characterize them in contrast to self-direction. Rather, they are ends-free incidents popping up under the follow-on crushing circumstance of natural selection. Like engineering something under a lot of trial and error and keep trying. Only with nature, there is no trying, only novel occurrence and its continuance within life or not. Explaining life-continuing vegetative behaviors such as response of gravitropic roots on occasion of uprooting in terms of physical and chemical sequences is explanation (only partial if without the larger evolutionary context) of self-directive behavior, but it is no denial or making small of the fact it explains.

There are old notions in organismic biology that did need to be radically reduced, or explained away. Meaning we could and should stop using them. Just as the use of the phrase and idea “natural selection” as a force, which Enright mentions. Or, perhaps, for that matter, thinking of a concentration gradient as a driver of diffusion. Most famously for biology I gather was the notion of “vital force” (as in the vitalism history Enright addresses). I have a solid modern science book titled The Vital Force: A Study of Bioenergetics. The notion of a vital force was such a cover for ignorance and warrant for intellectual laziness and often magical accounting of life, that it is best by now to boot it and replace it with the bioenergetic account.

I suggest, as does Enright, that that is unlike the situation of the phenomena of directedness in living systems, including in vegetative systems. Although one states the function of a part in a machine (a part such as a spark plug) at the level of system design for such a machine—cf. schematic diagrams v. wiring diagrams of electrical appliances—one nevertheless thinks of the part in its function as a cause. This suggest that, similarly, it is sensible to think of function of an organism part, such as ribosomes or mitochondria, as actual causes (function-driven ones), but causes requiring implementation by the structured physics and chemistry which underlies their operation. The circumstance that the schematic diagram in the natural organism case has been drawn only after the appearance of organisms themselves is no impairment to the effectiveness of the analytic parallel.

Enright’s ample layout on Harry Binswanger’s book The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts is nice, and I think it gives the reader of her paper who has not read him a pretty fair picture of what he was up to. I do not concur in Enright’s particular criticisms of his account. And more generally, I do not concur in Enright’s statement of a contemporary intellectual problem in biology—seeing actions of survival and reproduction as “just inanimate chemical and physical actions” (219)—and need of any remedy for such a thing.

Enright has good information on relation of life to thermodynamics. Although, I’d stress that living things do not violate conservation of energy or the second law of thermodynamics. Utilities came into existence only with the advent of life in the universe, Rand and I and Marsha affirm. The utilization of energy and the storage of energy for utility are processes due to life and its nature, but perfectly in tune with all the physics of energy. Also, as Enright mentions, living systems are open systems, thermodynamically speaking. I’d stress with that that living processes are fully in accord with the laws of thermodynamics; life is not cheating them or getting around them. The perpetual production of entropy by life or any operations of organized matter is compensated for in a living system by the infusion of energy or energy-rich matter preserving the living organization. Metabolism is no affront to thermodynamics. Metabolism is the turnover of free energy—a thermodynamic concept important for some important engineering—for use in life.

Edited by Boydstun
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  • 4 weeks later...

Marsha Enright’s representation of Harry Binswanger’s situation of teleological concepts within modern biology and modern physical science more generally is erroneous, as I said above. I’ll be writing more about his book shortly, and post it in a pre-existing thread: https://forum.objectivismonline.com/index.php?/topic/3614-biological-basis-of-teleological-concepts/#comment-83343. (Beginning is here: https://forum.objectivismonline.com/index.php?/topic/38490-theory-of-mind/&page=3#comment-393337).

There is another important error, which is in her treatment of Aristotle’s four causes (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/#FourCaus). The error is in her conception of formal causality. She treats it as “shape or configuration (such as a helix or a feedback system," and on that error, she concludes that modern science recognizes Aristotelian formal causation as at work in nature outside the operations of consciousness. That picture is incorrect. Aristotle’s formal causality is intimately related to final causality. Neither is put to work in the course of contemporary physics, chemistry, geology, or other sciences outside of biology and psychology.

“Substance is on the one hand, matter, on the other hand, form, that is, activity” (Metaph. 1043a27–28, A. Kosman translator)  Shape, such as shape of a bronze statue, is not all Aristotle means here by form. For Aristotle explanation of substance (which is most fundamental thing among beings) requires both matter and form in his sense, not in common sense or in scientific knowledge. Like most all moderns, and certainly all modern science, Rand and Peikoff reject Aristotle’s fundamental form/matter division of all beings. (See chapter 5 “Aristotle’s Theory of Form” in D. Bostock’s Space, Time, Matter, and Form – Essays on Aristotle’s Physics; chapter 3 “Form” in K Koslicki’s Form, Matter, Substance; Michael Frerejohn’s Formal Causes: Definition, Explanation, and Primacy in Socratic and Aristotelian Thought; J.G. Lennox’s “Form as Cause and the Formal Cause – Aristotle’s Answer” in Neo-Arisrtotelian Perspectives on Formal Causation.)

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