Tuesday, June 08, 2004

A Reader Responds Re: Rand

In a previous post, I took some critical shots at Ayn Rand. A reader responds:

Mr. Vallicella,

My name is Danny Sheives, and I'm the person who asked the AnalPhilosopher about Ayn Rand that started the discussion on his site, and consequently your response. Now, I'm a pretty well-informed and intelligent person, but as far as philosophy goes, I have no formal education, and frankly, do not understand the passages you chose to critique of Rand's, nor your responses. So I will take you at your word, that on your level of thinking, she does not rate as a good philosopher.

But the facts are, she has influenced a great many number of people,
including me, through her novels and less scholarly works, and remains a best-seller to this day. Even as a teenager (I'm 43 now) I remember having quotes of hers tacked to a bulletin board in my room. I'll never forget her account of the automobile factory in Atlas Shrugged, depicting a microcosm of the consequences of socialism.

I agree with critics of her fiction that her characters were very
exaggerated, almost cartoon characters of great heroes and evil villains, but doesn't that make for good reading? That shouldn't diminish her message.

So my question to you is, do you have anything good to say about her? Is it fair to choose 3 or 4 passages passages from any writer that you can prove wrong, while ignoring all the rest? And more importantly, ignoring all the influence that person had/have.

I would really like to read something from you that takes a broader look at her work as a whole.

Regards... DS

Dear Mr. Sheives,

Thank you for writing. You asked whether I have anything good to say about Rand. As I recall, I said in my post that she has some good insights and is worth reading. But let's not forget the context of that post. Keith Burgess-Jackson had assembled some reasons why professional philosophers look askance at Rand. I was simply adding a further reason, namely, that her work is simply not very good when judged by professional standards. (I don't know whether KB-J would agree with me on this.) Having made that assertion, the onus was on me to substantiate it, which is what I did by way of a careful analysis of one of her essays. I chose that essay because it sets forth her metaphysics, and because I am a specialist in metaphysics.

Was it fair of me to examine just one of her essays? Well, one cannot do everything in a blog post, and in any case, if a person shows herself to be a slovenly reasoner and hurler of invective in one of her published articles, then it is reasonable to expect that she will do likewise elsewhere. Having read a number of her other pieces, I have verified that for myself.

You mentioned Rand's influence. There is no denying it, and in many ways it has been salutary. She has made philosophy accessible to thousands of people, and has served as an important corrective to the Leftward drift of our times. But influence is no proof of good work. At the top of this blog you may find an add for Scientology. L. Ron Hubbard exercised and continues to exercise tremendous influence; but that fact is consistent with the worthlessness of his ideas.

I appreciate your letter since it has provoked me to re-read some of Rand's essays. Perhaps I'll post on her again.