The Frontiers of Open Objectivism
I wrote a few months ago about the controversy over “open” versus “closed” Objectivism. At the end, I promised to come up with a list of areas that I thought needed further exploration and elaboration in Objectivist theory—in effect, a description of the frontiers of “Open Objectivism.” I know others have provided such lists before, but I wanted to provide my own, updated suggestions.
Some of these are about correcting (small) errors, others are about filling in gaps, pursuing unexplored areas of the philosophy, drawing out what might be implicit but not yet explicit, reconciling statements that are inconsistent, and taking on new issues or questions that have arisen in light of new events and cultural changes.
I have since discovered that we have Ayn Rand’s explicit sanction for doing this. Someone recently directed me to a 1976 interview with Ayn Rand—after she had produced virtually all of her philosophical work—in which she ends by saying, “I haven’t said everything yet. I do have a complete philosophical system, but the elaboration of a system is a job that no philosopher can finish in his lifetime... There is an awful lot of work yet to be done.” It is clear from this that when she described her philosophy as “complete,” she did not mean that nothing could be added to it. And she explicitly anticipated that others would contribute to her philosophy after her lifetime.
That adds urgency to our task. She asked us to continue the elaboration of her system, so it’s important to identify specifically where this work is required. I have also noted below where I think Objectivist thinkers have already made some progress.
So here’s my “to-do list” for Open Objectivism.
Final causation: How does final causation—i.e., goal-directed action—work? How does it connect to efficient causation? Does it, as Ayn Rand said several times, apply only to conscious beings, i.e., only to purposive action? Or is goal-directed action possible for non-conscious beings like plants? (I think Harry Binswanger’s work on this, published in 1990, has answered many of these questions. But it’s definitely an addition to Objectivism, whether he would accept that description or not.)
Perception: There is a need to add more detail and substance to the case for the validity of the senses by looking at the science of perception and analyzing rival theories of perception. (David Kelley did this in The Evidence of the Senses, and I’ve recently picked up Harry Binswanger’s How We Know, which seems to cover much of the same ground. But this is a very active field in both science and philosophy, so I expect continual updates will be needed to either incorporate or refute the latest developments.)
AI and “theory of mind”: With all the recent frenzy over advances in AI, there is new urgency to the question of whether computers can be conscious and think, and this gives more relevance to the basic question of what consciousness is and how it works, which is usually called the “theory of mind.” I’ve dabbled a bit in talking about this question, but you can get a lot more technical and detailed. To my knowledge, this is a relatively untouched field in Objectivism.
Induction: Leonard Peikoff has offered a theory for how valid new generalizations can be induced from observation, and a few people criticized it, and then the issue was just kind of dropped—maybe because of how the critics were treated. But this is important enough to require more attention.
Propositions: For a long time, Objectivists have talked about the need to do for propositions what Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology did for concepts. It was, after all, an introduction, and this is one of the issues that naturally falls under a fuller treatment of epistemology.
Implicit knowledge: People rely all the time on knowledge that they have never explicitly examined or formally proved. But what is the status of that knowledge, and how can knowledge be available for use when it is not (yet) explicitly identified? There are those who claim that our everyday reliance on implicit knowledge means we can never really know anything for certain, so what’s the answer to that? I’ve done a little work on this, but I have also recommended it to the attention of others.
Contextual certainty: Objectivism has addressed this but only very briefly. There is a lot more that can be done, particularly in the context of the growth of scientific knowledge—e.g., what is the status of Newtonian physics after the discoveries of Einstein? I recently happened across some interesting comments on this in Carlo Rovelli’s book about Anaximander and found his thoughts both surprisingly consistent with the Objectivist view and also more detailed and intriguing, making me realize how much more can be said on this question.
Darwin and evolution: Ayn Rand was very cagey about Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution by natural selection, perhaps because of that theory’s association in her era with philosophical determinism. So there is no definitive discussion of how her ideas connect to his. On the one hand, I think it’s clear that Darwin had an indirect influence on Ayn Rand, both in her epistemology and in her ethics, simply because his theory so clearly defines a species by its means of survival, as opposed to some Platonic archetype handed down by God. On the other hand, Objectivists would interpret this very differently from the “evolutionary psychology” crowd, which continues the old determinist tradition.
Free Will: This is another case where there’s a standard Objectivist answer on this, but it’s relatively short, and my sense is that there is a lot more work that can be done relating to neurology and philosophy of mind and issues like “emergent properties.”
Family: What is the status of family relationships in a philosophy of individualism? As a devoted family man myself, I don’t think this is all that difficult an issue to tackle—but this is an issue that necessarily applies to everyone. Ayn Rand never wrote more than a few stray comments about it, and to my knowledge, no other Objectivist has written anything definitive on the topic.
Property Rights: When I went looking at Ayn Rand’s theory of property and particularly how it is different from John Locke’s, I found that her discussion of this is surprisingly spare—perhaps two paragraphs of material spread out over four or five different places. I’ve done some work trying to draw out what I think is implicit there, but that’s my interpretation, so it’s new, and I expect there is more that could be done.
Democracy: Ayn Rand frequently declared her love for the US Constitution, but she tended to de-emphasize voting and political freedom in order to focus on economic freedom. That made sense in the context of the New Deal and mid-20th Century (pseudo-) ”liberalism,” which sought to impose total government control by “democratic” means. But the Cold War is over, and the global ideological contest of today is much less about economics and more about authoritarian rule versus political freedom. Objectivism needs to have more to say about the case for voting and political freedom—and whether or not “democracy” is an acceptable word for that.
Progress: How is human progress defined and what has caused it? What are the political causes—but also what are the epistemological, moral, and psychological causes? Ayn Rand’s novels tended more toward predictions of imminent decline, but now there is a whole field of “progress studies,” in which some Objectivists are active. (See Jason Crawford’s Roots of Progress.) Ayn Rand’s philosophy was entirely built around her admiration of independent thinkers, innovators, and creators, so we sure ought to have a lot to say about this.
Philosophy of history: Relating to the issue of progress, I have made my own attempt to revise and expand the usual interpretation of the Objectivist philosophy of history, which I view as excessively “top-down” and therefore incapable of accounting for the actual course of human progress. But again, we see that this is an area where Ayn Rand left a relatively small number of statements which require far more elaboration (and debate) by others.
Art: This is probably the most wide-open area, the great undeveloped hinterland of Objectivist philosophy. There are huge vistas waiting to be explored that have barely been touched. Note that Ayn Rand’s work on esthetics is subtitled “A Philosophy of Literature” and was based on her seminars on fiction writing. It touches on the other branches of art but usually offers only the broadest sketch or intriguing clues, not an actual theory. (See, for example, her passages on music; and The Romantic Manifesto has surprisingly little to say about architecture, coming from the author of The Fountainhead.) Plus, the book contains a lot of opinions about art that seem to be her personal views and preferences, but for which she does not attempt any kind of formal, detailed argument. So there is some work to be done in differentiating what is a statement of personal preferences from what is an actual philosophical position.
Sex: Someone just suggested to me that the philosophical theory of sex is an area that requires further work. Ayn Rand’s ideas on this subject seem rather clear—but then again, she was largely writing before the Sexual Revolution, before the recent insanity on the issue of gender, and before wider acceptance of homosexuality. I’ll have to give this more thought, but I think there are issues to add or clear up, and certainly room to differentiate the Objectivist view from other contemporary theories about sex.
Masculinity and femininity: We live in an age of ridiculous dogmas about “gender,” and anyone who has read Ayn Rand’s novels knows that she liked men to be real men. Then again, she is hardly a traditionalist when it comes to sexual morality and gender roles. There is a lot implicit in her writings that could be drawn out more explicitly and also illuminated by insights from psychology.
How a “sense of life” is formed: In reading Ayn Rand’s discussion of “sense of life” in The Romantic Manifesto, I noticed that she gives several slightly different formulations in describing how a sense of life is formed: one that implies the process is more emotional, the other that it is more cognitive. I think there’s room for further elaboration, again with help from psychology.
Philosophy as a way of life: I think we’ve all observed that it is relatively easy to adopt Objectivist ideas in theory while not acting on them in practice. It is easy to adopt a devotion to reason while still being pushed around by your emotions or failing to respect other people’s process of reasoning. Ayn Rand offered us a literary projection of what it means to live by her ideas, but Objectivism could use a lot more elaboration on the psychology and everyday practice of philosophy as a way of life.
That’s my list, but I am sure it’s not complete. One final item on the list has to be that we should always be looking for more items for the list.
Please send me your comments and suggestions on items for further study, and also places where you think these questions may have been addressed by later thinkers.
As you can see, a number of items on this list have been issues of particular professional interest to me, and it’s clear that Objectivist philosophers won’t be running out of interesting new things to do for a very long time to come.