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Academia and Objectivism

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William O

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Academic philosophy is mired in controversy and rarely arrives at a definite consensus. In addition, only a minority of philosophers, albeit a significant and growing minority, pay attention to Objectivism. Objectivists need a way of integrating these facts, since academic philosophy is often considered an authority on philosophy.

One way of integrating these facts is to conclude that, since academic philosophers resist or are not aware of Rand's arguments, academic philosophy is not worth paying attention to. This conclusion requires nuancing, however, for several reasons.

First, many academic philosophers produce work that is either true, as in the case of Boghossian's recent attack on relativism in his book Fear of Knowledge, or interesting, as in Bloomfield's recent collection of essays Morality and Self-Interest. It is true that these contributions almost never appeal to Ayn Rand in particular, but sometimes philosophers arrive at positions and arguments similar to Rand's or make points about ideas like hers that are worth thinking about.

Second, academic philosophy is influential. In particular, it is the main source that philosophically inclined people outside of Objectivism will get their terminology from, and it will also shape the framing that such people use for philosophical debates. Having some understanding of how philosophical issues are discussed in academia will make it easier to find common ground with people who were introduced to philosophy through academic philosophy.

Third, academic philosophy produces a lot of good work in history of philosophy. There are good companions to Aristotle, Hume, Mill, and many other philosophers that come from academic philosophy.

As a result of these considerations, I think it is best to take a practical approach to academic philosophy. An Objectivist should not usually treat an academic philosopher as an authority on philosophy the same way they might treat a physicist as an authority on physics, but particular works produced by academic philosophers can be beneficial and useful, and these can be identified by careful discrimination.

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