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Hook/Branden 1961

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New York Times - Book Reviews

Sunday, April 9, 1961



For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. 242 pp.

New York: Random House. $3.95.

By Sidney Hook


It is a daring writer who uses the novel primarily as a vehicle for philosophical ideas. Ayn Rand, author of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” regards herself as much a philosopher as a novelist. This is not her only distinction. A dissenter among our current hosts of dissenters, she has made them gag, and shocked them into a healthy awareness that dissent as such has no more virtue than assent. Her ideas have enraged many and at the same time won her a devoted following who are less critical than one would expect of worshipers of reason.

Miss Rand’s new book is made up of philosophical excerpts from her novels and a long essay on a new philosophy for the New Intellectual. She defines the New Intellectual as “any man or woman who is willing to think,” and offers this outline of her “objectivist” system for their consideration.

Pruned of its repetitions, her philosophy reduces itself to three main contentions. The first is that “all the disasters that have wrecked the world” can be traced to a disregard of the Aristotelian laws of logic, especially the law of identity, A is A. This law is not only the cornerstone of reason but the rule of all knowledge. The second thesis locates the poisoned premise of all modern ethical theory and practice in the principle of altruism, in the belief that “man exists for the pleasure of others.” The third is that capitalism and the free market are the highest expression of human reason and justice; any limitation upon them opens the floodgates of irrationalism, mysticism and force. The book is written with passionate fervor, more in the style of a prophetess of a cult than in the analytic vein of a philosopher. Despite the great play with the word “Reason,” one is struck by the absence of any serious argument in this unique combination of tautology and extravagant absurdity.

Since his baptism in medieval times, Aristotle has served many strange purposes. None have been odder than this sacramental alliance, so to speak, of Aristotle with Adam Smith. The extraordinary virtues Miss Rand finds in the law that A is A suggests the she is unaware that logical principles by themselves can test only consistency. They cannot establish truth. Inconsistency is a sign of falsity, but as the existence of consistent liars and paranoiacs indicates, non-consistency is never a sufficient condition of truth. Swearing fidelity to Aristotle, Miss Rand claims to deduce not only matters of fact from logic but with as little warranty ethical rules and economic truths as well. As she understands them, the laws of logic license her in proclaiming “existence exists,” which is vey much like saying that the law of gravitation is heavy and the formula of sugar sweet.

After singing Aristotle’s praises as the world’s first intellectual, whose thought is the source of all our freedom, Miss Rand is capable of writing—and in italics, too—“a free mind and a free market are corollaries”—which would locate Aristotle in limbo rather than in Athens. To do her justice, Miss Rand is resolutely opposed to a free market in which human beings are chattels, although she fails to see that this is perfectly compatible with the laws of logic, physics and biology. She is also opposed to the initial use of physical force in human affairs, but sees nothing wrong in the use of economic power to coerce men by starving them.

In places Miss Rand suggests that all human beings are by nature inescapably egoistic—a psychological proposition which if true would make her ethical principle pointless. If man by his very nature always seeks his own interest, there is not much point in urging this course of action upon him as a moral duty (though he might be encouraged to improve upon nature and act more selfishly). But as psychology it is clearly false. It rests upon confusing the satisfaction one gets in gratifying any desire, selfish or unselfish, with the object or end of the desire which gives an act its moral quality.

As for the ethical theory of egoism, Miss Rand does not really mean that anything desired by any self is good or that others should be sacrificed to oneself. She advocates “a rational egoism” directed not to mean and vulgar goals, but as affecting others, only to persons recognized as ends. Here Miss Rand does herself an injustice by the vehement unclarity of her writing. Her egoism is not lax and hedonistic but instead severe. “Happiness is possible only to rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goods, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.”

In the ordinary sense of these words, the statement is simply false. It is truer to say that in much wisdom there is much grief. But Miss Rand rarely uses words in their ordinary sense. She makes the rational man sound like a calculating monster or a perpetual trader, even in the realm of the spirit. She is unaware of the ambiguities of the term “rational,” and her most frequent use is more consonant with the superstitions of faculty psychology than with modern scientific thought.

In some quarters Miss Rand has created a terrifying public image of herself because of her condemnation of unselfishness. But what she really means is that one should not sacrifice oneself for anyone or anything that is morally unworthy or degrading—to which none can object but saints. When we do act to relieve the distress of others or to help them, if our reason does not veto the action, Miss Rand refuses by semantic fiat to call the action altruistic or unselfish. I am confident that even at some danger to herself Miss Rand would not rush out of a burning building and leave a helpless child behind. Nor would she give the child and intelligence test before she sought to rescue it. But she reuses to call such an action unselfish because she falls back on the truism that every voluntary choice is a choice of the self, which she mistakes as an act for oneself. Despite her ferocious tone on this point, Miss Rand is a paper tigress. She is a principled opponent of Hitler and all totalitarians on the ground that it is they who expect men to sacrifice themselves to an abstraction.

Logically there is little difference between always recommending a policy of rational selfishness and one of rational unselfishness. Ethically both are inadequate because commitments of this general sort cannot function as guides in choosing conflicting goods and rights. It is enough to settle, in John Erskine’s phrase, for the moral obligation to be intelligent.

Ayn Rand’s third proposition about the high morality of capitalism is defended by a very old gambit: like Christianity, capitalism has never been tried! “All the evils popularly ascribed to capitalism were caused, necessitated and made possible only by government controls imposed on the economy.” Disregarding the scandalous looseness of the language, one is appalled by the reckless disregard of historic fact. For example, the horrible forms of child labor which sprang up with the industrial revolution were certainly not caused by government controls. On the contrary, they were eliminated by government controls.

Miss Rand’s conception of free enterprise is so extreme that it is safe to predict she will be a serious embarrassment to many of its defenders. Her notions of the proper function of government would turn over even our roads and schools to private hands, abolish all health services, and let the unemployed rot. She has no use for historical materialism but invokes its dogmas in her claim that all public ownership necessarily is destructive of political and cultural freedom, which is logically a non sequitur and historically false. Marx’ indictment of capitalism, that “it has degraded personal dignity to the level of exchange value,” she hails as its chief moral virtue, and sees justice, not degradation, in putting a money value on all things.

One does not have to be a professional philosopher to write an interesting book on philosophy, but it cannot be done by substituting denunciation for analysis and mouthing slogans instead of considering problems. Just as not all who cry “Peace! Peace!” mean it, not all who cry “Reason! Reason!” use it. The language of reason does not justify references to economists with whom one disagrees as “frantic cowards,” or to philosophers as “intellectual hoodlums who pose as professors.” This is the way philosophy is written in the Soviet Union. In a free culture there must always be room for vigorous polemic and controversy but civility of mind is integral to the concept of a civilized society.

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New York Times

Sunday, May 28, 1961


Nathaniel Branden


In his review of Ayn Rand’s “For the New Intellectual” (Times Book Review, April 9), Professor Sidney Hook has had the courage to do that which few, if any of Miss Rand’s opponents have done in the past: he attempts to state what Miss Rand’s ideas are and to argue against them. Unfortunately, he is less than equal to his task. After his opening summary, his discussion of Miss Rand’s position bears almost no relation to her actual philosophy, and, in certain instances, represents its exact opposite.

For example, he writes: “Swearing fidelity to Aristotle, Miss Rand claims to deduce not only matters of fact from logic but, with as little warrant, ethical rules and economic truths as well.” This assertion is unequivocally false; there is not a single sentence in any of Miss Rand’s books that would support it. What Ayn Rand does state in “For the New Intellectual” is: (a) that man’s mind is competent to achieve knowledge of reality; )b) that reason (as distinguished from faith, feeling or revelation) is man’s exclusive means of knowledge; (c) that “reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by [man’s]senses”; (d) that logic, the tool of reason, “the art of non-contradictory identification”; (e) that matters of fact, ethical rules and economic truths are, therefore, to be derived from one’s observations of reality (not from logic) by means of logical inference (pp. 9, 10, 20, 152–4, 157, 184–6). If it is this Prof. Hook challenges, does he wish us to understand that his conclusions, ethical rules and economic beliefs were arrived at by means other than logic?

In presenting Miss Rand’s ethics, Prof. Hook has chosen to omit the as and the validation, to discuss only some of the consequences and to misstate most of them—and then to offer his disconnected fragments as a summary of her position, thus imputing to her his own chaos.

Thus, he either ignores or evades the most radical, original and philosophically important aspects of her ethics: the derivation of the need for values from the nature of living organisms; the demonstration that “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible”; the explanation of why man, specifically, needs a code of moral values; the solution to the question of how normative propositions are to be derived from factual propositions; the proof of why man’s life (meaning: man’s survival qua man, qua rational being) is the standard by which moral values should be chosen; the delineation of what man’s survival in fact requires; and the explanation of why thinking and productive work are man’s highest virtues (pp. 146–161). If Prof. Hook will refer to the extensive library of ethical literature, (of which incredibly, he accuses Miss Rand of being ignorant), and if he considers the questions on which past ethical systems have foundered, he will perhaps discover the importance of the above concepts and why they are the place to begin an appraisal of Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy.

Prof. Hook rebukes Miss Rand for the importance she attaches to logic and he proceeds to declare that treating human beings like chattels “is perfectly compatible” with the laws of logic and biology. The superficiality of his approach to ethics permits him to disregard the fact that the belief in such “compatibility” is precisely what she refutes. By analyzing the logical and genetic roots of the concept of “value,” she shows that not to hold man’s life as one’s standard of moral values is a logical contradiction—and by identifying what man’s life depends on, she demonstrates that, logically and biologically, man’s survival is not compatible with serfdom. Let Prof. Hook tell some poor wretch dying of starvation or malnutrition in Soviet Russia, chained, choked, forbidden to think or to act, that his state of existence is “perfectly compatible” with logic and biology, and that if the wretch refuses to perceive this he reveals his ignorance of the fact that all analytic propositions are mere linguistic tautologies.

When Prof. Hook proceeds to discuss Ayn Rand’s concept of selfishness or rational self-interest, he ignores her definition of it, as well as her entire presentation of the subject, then he swings between several conflicting interpretations of her theory, all of them wrong—almost as if he were thinking aloud, trying to speculate what her position might be, as if no book existed to tell him. First, he declares that “In places, Miss Rand suggests that all human beings are inescapably egoistic”—in defiance of the fact that she explicitly and consistently maintains the opposite. Then he declares that “what she really means” in her condemnation of unselfishness is only what virtual everyone would agree with—“to which none could object but saints.” Then he declares that her concept of selfishness is merely a tautological truism. Having misrepresented her view, in every possible way, and having tried in vain to translate her theory into something he has heard before by attributing to her arguments she has not uttered—he announces that she is guilty of “confusion” in her concept of selfishness.

The essence of her position, as several hundred thousand of her readers will be glad to inform Prof. Hook, is this: that man is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; that he has the right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose; that he can achieve neither happiness nor survival by renouncing his intellect and stumbling through reality as an irresponsible whim-worshipper or a mindless brute; that man can achieve happiness and survival only to the extent that he lives by the guidance of reason, choosing values and goals that clash neither with reality nor with one another nor with his own nature and needs (pp. 73–75, 77–81, 89–101, 149–50, 156–61, 172–183).

Prof. Hook is certainly aware that in all the dominant ethical systems of the world, man has always been the victim, twisted against himself and commanded to be “unselfish” in sacrificial service to some allegedly higher value called God, Society, the State, the Race, the Proletariat. It was scarcely a “truism” in Nazi Germany that man has the right to exist for his own sake. It is scarcely a “truism” in Soviet Russia. And neither is it a “truism” in the philosophy of the “welfare state,” which Prof. Hook upholds and which demands that the wealth of one man be expropriated for the unearned benefit of another. His suggestion that Ayn Rand’s condemnation of unselfishness would be agreed to by virtually everyone is therefore rash, to say the least.

When Ayn Rand propounds her concept of justice, when she states that one must not grant or demand the unearned, neither in matter nor in spirit, when she states that just as a rational man “does not give his work except in trade for material values, so he does not give the values of his sprit—his love, his friendship, his esteem—except in payment and in trade for human virtues, in payment for his own selfish pleasure, which he receives from men he can respect”—Prof. Hook refers to this as the attitude of a “calculating monster.” May one take it, then, that in his philosophy one should desire and value unearned love, friendship and esteem?

He concludes his discussion of morality by asserting that to recommend a policy of rational selfishness is insufficiently specific as a guide to action, and that it is more instructive to enjoin men “to be intelligent.” This, evidently, is his concept of moral profundity, clarity and specificity.

When he comes to politics, Prof. Hook must be credited with reporting one fact correctly: he states that Miss Rand is an advocate of capitalism, and she is. He charges her, however, with “disregard for historical fact” and cites the example of child labor as one of he evils of the industrial revolution. Which government controls corrected. The “historical fact” he does not choose to acknowledge is that it was the industrial revolution that saved those children from starvation, by offering them their one chance at survival, and that child labor was finally made unnecessary, not by government controls, but by increased capital accumulation and a concomitant rise in the standard of living. His remarks suggest that he is not too conversant with the last thirty-five years of historiographic research on British economic history; may I therefore recommend to his attention the words of such writers and Professors W. H. Hutt, T. S. Ashton, M. C. Buer, L. v. Mises, J. H. Clapham, C. W. Daniels, Jr., H. Heaton, M. D. George, L. C. A. Knowles and J. D. Chambers. If he wishes to challenge Miss Rand on the history of capitalism , he will find himself on very unfortunate ground.

Curiously, Prof. Hook declines to answer or discuss the most important social-political principle in “For the New Intellectual”—that no man or group of men has the right to initiate the use of physical force against others, that “no advocate of the free mind can claim the right to force the minds of others.” Doubtless, Professor Hook has his reasons.

When one considers the scrupulous precision of Ayn Rand’s writing, the care and consistency with which every key term is defined and used, and the systematic manner in which she builds her case—the most irresponsible and disgraceful of Prof. Hook’s accusations is that she does not offer “serious argument “ to support her conclusions What he means, of course, is that she does not argue on his terms, nor by his definitions, nor in his context: she does not oblige him by providing him with a case he has heard before. What he objects to is that her book is written for the new intellectual.

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Stephen, thanks for posting those articles (written 48 years ago!). Part of both are about the concept of selfishness and how it differs in meaning between Objectivism and others. I wrote two articles now in JARS that address this difference – “The Beneficiary Statement and Beyond” (link to abstract) and “Egoism and Others” (link to abstract). Both are too recent to be read for free on JSTOR.

In the articles I address the different meanings. I didn’t explicitly say so in the articles, but a key difference is the broad categories to which they primarily belong. The common meaning of “selfishness” is primarily about an action. The Objectivist meaning is primarily about a psychological trait or motivation. Also, the actions per the common meaning are ones that happen occasionally, whereas the psychological trait or motivation per the Objectivist meaning has a role during most of one’s life while awake.

It’s no wonder to me that these different meanings create such different reactions to them by different people.

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Thanks, Merlin, for connecting this exchange between Hook and Branden to your hefty work in those two JARS articles. I have them hardcopy. I hope they can receive attention online and be remarked on once people who do not subscribe to JARS (or who do not have full JSTOR access at a university library) are able to study them through JSTOR when it is available in due course to the general public.

On your second paragraph here, I’d have two qualms. There seems to be a strand in Rand’s works which puts the point of character on effective action, though of course, the concept of human action is ends-directed by a mind, so not really a thing independent of character. Secondly, I’m unsure in Rand’s picture, whether motivations and their valence of selfishness can sometimes be undercover, not manifest, until they are analyzed and shown to be selfish (or counter-self or . . .). The visibility principle that Branden laid out, with Rand’s concordance, seems to be a selfishness analysis of occasions that on the surface show only one’s (and another’s) enjoyment.


I thought it would be nice to set the spring 1961 Hook/Branden exchange in its sequence of Objectivist disseminations and social connections to Hook.

The Objectivist Newsletter would not begin publication until January 1962. According to Branden’s 1999 memoir My Years with Ayn Rand, he and Rand decided in August 1961 to create The Objectivist Newsletter. Rand had delivered her lecture “The Objectivist Ethics” in Madison in February 1961, but that would not appear in print until 1964, when The Virtue of Selfishness was published.

Barbara Branden had taken several courses under Sidney Hook, and he was the director of her Master’s thesis in philosophy at NYU in the 1950’s. Hook, as readers here know, was the Ph.D. dissertation advisor for Leonard Peikoff, whose dissertation was a work in progress at the time of Hook’s critical NYT review of Rand’s book For the New Intellectual and her philosophy set forth therein. Nathaniel Branden had taken a philosophy course (also at NYU) under William Barrett, none under Hook.

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  • 4 weeks later...
On 12/10/2019 at 1:41 PM, Boydstun said:

On your second paragraph here, I’d have two qualms. There seems to be a strand in Rand’s works which puts the point of character on effective action, though of course, the concept of human action is ends-directed by a mind, so not really a thing independent of character. Secondly, I’m unsure in Rand’s picture, whether motivations and their valence of selfishness can sometimes be undercover, not manifest, until they are analyzed and shown to be selfish (or counter-self or . . .).

It wasn't clear to me what your qualms were. Anyway, as for Rand's meaning of "selfishness" being psychological, see "Selfishness Without a Self" in Philosophy: Who Needs It. An excerpt: "A man's self is his mind[.]" (hb p. 60).

Also,  the two meanings of "selfishness" I addressed belong primarily to different broad categories.  Each affords inferences to the other's category.

Edited by merjet
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  • 1 year later...

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