Ayn Rand: Critique

Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality: A Critique of Ayn Rand’s Epistemology, by Scott Ryan, New York: Writer’s Club Press, 2003.

Reviewed by Vern Crisler, Copyright 2017

Both the late Scott Ryan and Ayn Rand shared something in common: neither one had any academic training in philosophy.  Rand was a Hollywood script writer and novelist, yet went on to promote a philosophy she called “Objectivism.”  Ryan, on the other hand, was a mathematician who apparently never wrote anything other than the above book prior to his untimely death.  And yet, if you were to ask me who the better philosopher was, I would have to say it was Scott Ryan hands down.

His book Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality was written over several years, so it is not a slapdash production.  One can tell that Ryan really thought through the issues he discusses.  Most professional philosophers are not going to spend any time analyzing the thought of Ayn Rand any more than they would spend time analyzing the thought of L. Ron Hubbard.  The reason is that they are simply too busy thinking and writing about the main thinkers and philosophers of history — Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and numerous others — and so they have little time to devote to analyzing the thought of popular writers.  Thus, it is left to informed amateurs to take up the slack.  As someone who admits to no training in philosophy, Ryan has written a book that is fairly well up to professional standards in philosophy, and I can see how philosophy professors could assign it to students who ask about Rand’s philosophical views.

There are some problems with the book.  Ryan was, at the time of writing his book, an Idealist and pantheist after the manner of Spinoza, and his religious affiliation was Judaism.  However, in the period prior to his death, he appears to have been making strides to become a Catholic.  In any case, since the days of Russell and Moore most philosophers have little use for Idealism, but fortunately Ryan’s critique of Rand does not depend on his Idealism.  Another problem is that Ryan makes endless parenthetical remarks.  These would be okay every once in a while but Ryan makes them practically every page.  It’s not as bad as (say) the French philosopher Maritain, who makes parenthetical remarks in the midst of his main points, but too many parenthetical comments suggest a lack of proper organization of the book.

Nevertheless, despite these problems, Ryan provides an excellent discussion of the ideas of Rand and some of her followers, and he does so in an easy to follow style of writing.  In reading this book, you will learn not only about Ayn Rand’s views, but also you will learn some good philosophy.  (The only area where I think Ryan’s views are not up to par is in his discussion of David Kelley and the issue of perception.  Kelley was excommunicated from the main Randian fold, but is a fine philosopher in his own right.)

The book is organized into 13 chapters.  The first few chapters deal with Rand’s less than adequate account of the problem of universals, or of the problems involved with perception and knowledge, and in the last couple of chapters, with Rand’s ethical views.  Most who’ve bothered to read a little bit of Rand have noticed her underlying Nietzchean philosophy, along with an admixture of Aristotle and pro-capitalist thought.  Rand and her followers disclaimed that they were vulgar Nietzscheans but Ryan does not think Rand ever changed her early Nietzscheanism in any substantive manner.  Her hostility to religion along with many other aspects of her thought are in line with Nietzsche’s views.

Most of us who have some knowledge of philosophy have little patience with Rand’s forays into philosophy.  That’s also true of her fiction.  I know that some say her fiction is great, but I for one have not been able to read her novels.  William F. Buckley Jr., once said somewhere that he had to flog himself to read Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  I can well understand the feeling, but I could never force myself to get past the first 90 or so pages.  It was sheer torture.  However, with respect to her ventures into philosophy, Ryan has had the patience to unravel Rand’s confused ideas and critique them thoroughly.

I highly recommend Ryan’s book, and at the same time I mourn the passing of such an intelligent individual, who if he had lived might have favored us with some thought-provoking discussions of more important and worthier thinkers than Rand or her followers.  Ah well, at least he was seeking the Lord at the end.