One-sided thinker: Ayn Rand


I’ve been meaning for a while to respond to Jacob’s nomination of Ayn Rand as the greatest thinker ever. You notice that Rand did not make it into my roster of great thinkers, and I want to explain why.

First, you have to understand where I’m coming from. In my twenties, I had an extreme Objectivist phase. For me, as for many of her fans, her radical and uncompromising individualism had as much romance–yes, romance–as the diametrical opposite ethic, socialism, had for other young people. And that is what young people need above all in a philosophy: romance. The time for nuance is old age; the time for bold clarity is youth.

So there we were, the young’uns. Some had Che Guevara posters on their walls (sexy, romantic, idealistic). Others were curled up with Atlas Shrugged and pictured John Galt (sexy, romantic, idealistic). Oh, and yes, they stood for opposite ways of looking at the world. But we were all revolutionaries in our ways, and happily so.

My type went on to become libertarians (properly called liberals), which I am. We reveled in our individualism, as I did and do. It was a great party.

Later in life, when I got to Silicon Valley, I had flash-backs of nostalgia. A lot of the geeks there still call themselves Objectivists. I remember a fun conversation I had with Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia and a Rand enthusiast. Indeed, some of us are still at it.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that Rand’s philosophy and, worse, her characters do not age. They are caricatures. Howard Roark, the über-architect in The Fountainhead, John Galt, the über-entrepreneur in Atlas Shrugged, are sketches of square-jawed action heroes as a girl who had escaped from Soviet Russia (ie, Rand) would draw them. They have no complexity, no nuance, no contradictions; they are, in short, not human. As you get older and put more life behind you, you lose interest.

Unfair? Not at all. Because Rand chose to deliver her philosophy through these characters, through narrative, through stories. And, as someone fascinated by storytelling, I think she got that part right. But her stories do not cut it.

I am still an invidualist today. But what Rand offered us was not individualism but atomism, the misguided and rather naive view that individuals exist discretely of one another and their surroundings and do not interact in patterns that reflect back on them.

She wrote at a time when Objectivism (the notion that there is one objective and observable reality) should already have been seen as untenable, given that Heisenberg had given us his uncertainty principle. Everything we have learned since should make us even more humble about our ability to observe reality. If I see red and the dog sees grey, thanks to the way photons form different patterns in his neurons and mine, what is the objective part?

Regarding individualism, it was always a distortion to deny collective patterns. Ask E.O. Wilson about his ants! Just as our cells do not run around bragging about their individualism but (usually) work together in our bodies, insects form colonies that come close to having their own consciousness.

If I were to nominate an individualist and libertarian for great thinker, it would not be Ayn Rand but Friedrich von Hayek, who thought about freedom and individuals holistically.

Finally, I cannot forgive Rand for making no allowance for humor. And don’t any of you Galtians pretend that there was any. Here, remind yourself:

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