Equivocating on Dialectics

Chris Matthew Sciabarra has achieved some herostratic fame by claiming that Ayn Rand – her own protestations to the contrary notwithstanding – was a “dialectical thinker”. What does he mean by “dialectical” here? I will let him speak for himself:

Throughout the history of philosophy the term “dialectics” has been used in many different senses. Aristotle recognized dialectic and rhetoric as counterparts of each other; for him, rhetoric was the art of public speaking, or the “faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion”, whereas dialectic was the art of logical discussion and argumentation. In dialectic, the interlocutor proceeds from accepted (or specific) propositions and argues toward a more basic (or general) conclusion. Although mastery of this dialectic technique was the hallmark of Socratic and Platonic philosophy, Aristotle argued that it was insufficient for establishing scientific truth. Nevertheless, he valued the dialectic because it demanded the study of questions from multiple vantage points. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Marx, Engels, and Lenin recognized Aristotle as the father of dialectical inquiry. Engels, in fact, called Aristotle “the Hegel of the ancient world”, who “had already analyzed the most essential forms of dialectic thought”. And Lenin argued that within Aristotle lies “the living germs of dialectics and inquiries about it”. (Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, p. 15f.)

Now, Plato’s philosophy is called “dialectic” simply because it was presented in the form of dialogues. And Sciabarra immediately forgets the truth he spoke in the first sentence: that the term “dialectics” has been used in many different senses – or else, he thinks that all those different senses are actually the very same sense. He continues:

More than two thousand years after Aristotle’s death, Hegel developed a conception of dialectics as an ontological and historical process. Hegel’s dialectical method affirms the impossibility of logical contradiction and focuses instead on relational “contradictions” or paradoxes revealed in the dynamism of history. For Hegel, opposing concepts could be identified as merely partial views whose apparent contradictions could be transcended by exhibiting them as internally related within a larger whole. From pairs of opposing theses, elements of truth could be extracted and integrated into a third position. Other philosophers saw this form of dialectics as a triadic movement in which the conflict of “thesis” and “antithesis” is resolved through “synthesis”. Dialectical materialists place this process on an economic foundation and used it as the basis for a philosophy of history. (Ibidem, p. 16.)

Now, this is a widely different sense from both Plato’s and Aristotle’s.

Hegel begins his dialectics by analyzing the widest possible of all concepts, namely “being”. To be is to be something: a thing may be red or blue or some other color; it may be quiet or noisy; it may be large – such as a solar system, a galaxy or the entire universe; or it may be small – as a speck of dust, an atom or an elementary particle; etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum. When we form the concept “being” – says Hegel – we abstract away from all those qualifications, until there is nothing left. Then the concept “being” turns into its opposite, the concept “nothing”. And then – lo and behold! – those concepts merge into the concept “becoming” – where “nothing” turns into “something” (or “something” turns into “nothing”).[1]

And what on earth does this have in common with Aristotle?

Aristotle called an argument, or a line of reasoning, demonstrative, when the premises are certain, and dialectical, when the premises are uncertain or disputed. In his own words:

Now a deduction is an argument in which, certain things being laid down, something other than these necessarily comes about through them. It is a demonstration, when the premisses from which the deduction starts are true and primitive,[2] or are such that our knowledge of them has originally come through premisses which are primitive and true; and it is a dialectical deductions, if it reasons from reputable opinions. Things are true and primitive which are convincing on the strength not of anything else but themselves; for in regard to the first principles of science it is improper to ask any further for the why and wherefore of them; each of the first principles should command belief in and by itself. On the other hand, those opinions are reputable which are accepted by everyone or by the majority or by the wise – i.e. by all, or by the majority, or by the most notable and reputable of them. Again, a deduction is contentious if it starts from opinions that seem to be reputable, but are not really such, or again if it merely seems to reason from opinions that are or seem to be reputable. For not every opinion which we call reputable actually is reputable. (The very beginning of Topics, p. 167 in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. by Jonathan Barnes, Vol. 1; translated by W.A. Pickard-Cambridge; also available on the web.)

Aristotle being a reputable philosopher, we can at least argue dialectically with him! Hegelians ­– and Marxists – on the other hand are impossible to argue with, since they will turn everything one says into its exact opposite; hoping – I presume – for some synthesis to come out of it.

But the point is that Aristotle’s dialectics and Hegel’s have only the name in common. Sciabarra’s whole reasoning is based on an enormous equivocation or package deal.

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What, then, did Ayn Rand herself have to say about dialectics? Not much. The only thing that comes to my mind is that Floyd Ferris, in Atlas Shrugged, once accused Fred Kinnan of being unable to think dialectically. And – in case you have not read the book – Floyd Ferris is one of the worst villains, while Fred Kinnan is the best of the villains.

She certainly opposed Hegel’s philosophy – this is almost a “true and primitive” statement.. Not that she ever read him – she once wrote:

And no one has ever read Hegel (even though many have looked at every word on his every page). (Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 143; italics mine.)

Well, I have not looked at every word on his every page; but I have read what he wrote about “being”, “nothing” and “becoming”.[3]

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I have not thought about Sciabarra for ages. The reason I do it now is a couple of Facebook discussions about a comment on his book, written by Anoop Verma.

My Swedish readers may recall that I wrote some criticisms of Sciabarra in the late 90s. If you happen to know Swedish, you may read Nattväktaren, årgång 2, nr 6, årgång 2, nr 9, årgång 3, nr 7 och årgång 3, nr 10–11.

For another critical appraisal, read James G. Lennox’s review. John Ridpath also wrote a highly critical review in The Intellectual Activist, but only a short summary is available on the web.

And here is a comment on Facebook by Brad Aisa, with which I concur:

That book is intellectual claptrap. The first, largely biographical section was interesting. But once he gets into the meat of his thesis it breaks down utterly. His entire schtick is taking two things with an inessential common attribute, then trying to claim fundamental parity. The sundry ideologies he tries to claim formed a basis for Rand’s own ideas are utterly opposite of Objectivism in every important way.

[1] In case you wonder what is wrong with this reasoning, I refer you to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

A widespread error […] holds that the wider the concept, the less its cognitive content – on the ground that its distinguishing characteristic is more generalized. The error lies in assuming that a concept consists of nothing but its distinguishing characteristic. (P. 26 in the expanded second edition)

[2] ”Primitive” here means ”primary”.

[3] You can read what he writes in an English translation here.


Concepts – formed or found?

The other day I found the following in a debate on Facebook:

Forming new concepts requires the active, volitional use of measurement-omission (remember that forming concepts is literally a volitional, not automatic process).

This was part of an answer to the following paragraph from David Kelley’s book The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism:

If someone claimed to have evidence against the law of non- contradiction, we could be sure in advance that the evidence is mistaken. If that law is not an absolute, then there is no such thing as evidence, truth, or facts. One cannot claim to know that a principle presupposed by any possible knowledge is false. Suppose, by contrast, that we found certain concepts to which the theory of measurement-omission seemed inapplicable. Here we could not take the same approach. Because the theory explains so much, we would not give it up lightly. We would first try to show that the evidence is mistaken. But we could not be certain of this in advance, as we were with the law of non-contradiction. As an inductive hypothesis about the functioning of a natural object—the human mind— the theory of measurement-omission is open to the possibility of revision in the same way that Newton’s theory of gravity was. And the same is true for the other principles of Objectivism. [My italics.]

And here is the full rejoinder:

I’d like to ask him how on earth would he “find” (pay attention to his wording, he doesn’t say “form”, he says “find”) any concept to which measurement-omission “doesn’t apply”.

Does he think that one learns about measurement-omission and goes about in life trying to “see how it fits” with already formed concepts? As if it was some hypothetical prediction that for confirmation requires us to go around and try to make it “fit in” with concepts out there in nature??

If that’s what he thinks, he’s utterly wrong. Forming new concepts requires the active, volitional use of measurement-omission (remember that forming concepts is literally a volitional, not automatic process) . We might even say that it’s presupposed by all subsequent forming (not finding) of concepts, just as he says it’s not.

Now, let me see if I can get heads or tails of this controversy.

The picture I get is David Kelley – or anybody who has read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology – facing a bunch of scattered concepts. He picks one of them up and says: “This concept must have been formed by measurement omission.” He does the same with a second and a third and a forth and an n-th concept and says the same. But since every language contains literally millions of concepts (or words denoting concepts), it is hard to be sure that one will not encounter some concept that is formed by another method than measurement omission.

The upshot of this is that David Kelley does not know how to form concepts, since he has never formed one himself. He merely investigates concepts formed by others. With regard to concept formation, he is an abject second-hander. Ayn Rand had to tell him how concepts are formed.

But aren’t we all in the same predicament as Kelley here? None of us knew about measurement omission until we read ITOE. (If you did know, raise your hand and go to the head of the class.)

Speaking for myself. I have no slightest recollection of how I formed my first concepts as a young child. This may be because I, like David Kelley, is an abject second-hander with regard to concept formation, but somehow, I doubt it. (Again, raise your hand if you aren’t, and go to the head of the class.) Nevertheless, I managed to become quite proficient in Swedish (and fairly proficient in English). I learned and came to use one concept after another without giving a single thought to the measurements I omitted; and I did it quite effortlessly.

Now recall the first quote I gave:

Forming new concepts requires the active, volitional use of measurement-omission (remember that forming concepts is literally a volitional, not automatic process). [Emphasis added.]

How on earth did I learn to speak and write, if I did not actively and volitionally omit measurements? Yet, this very text proves that I did learn to speak and write.

One striking feature of man’s language development is the immense speed with which a child learns his first language – and also, how fast it moves from one level of abstraction to the next. Just one example:

Very young children do not use pronouns like “I” – they refer to themselves by their given name. But this is a very short transitional stage. And if you study children, you can certainly find more examples of this. (For example, using Ayn Rand’s own example, how long does it take for a child to move from the first level concepts “table”, “chair”, “bed”, etcetera, to the second level concept “furniture”?)

Learning a second language later in life (or a third or an umpty-first) takes more of a conscious, volitional effort. It takes more time. Some people do it with greater ease than others, but no one does it as easily as they learn their first language. Again, taking myself as an example, I took English for eight years in school; but those eight years did not make me master the language. If I master it now, it is because I have read many books in English, I have lived among English speaking people, I have written quite a lot in English, and I have made translations from English into Swedish. Now I know English well enough to see the shades of difference between English and Swedish.[1]

(I also took German, French, Latin and ancient Greek in school, and later I learned a smattering of Spanish. But I certainly do not master those languages. It is a matter of actually using the languages.)[2]

But back to measurement omission.

That concepts are formed by some characteristics being retained and others omitted is not new with Ayn Rand – what is new is that it is specifically measurements that are omitted. The “pre-Randian” idea is that the essential characteristics are retained and the non-essential or accidental ones are omitted. “Essential” here means those characteristics that make a thing what it is and separates it from all other things.

Take for example the concept “coffee”[3]. What are the essential characteristics of coffee? Well, its color – black or dark brown –, its taste – which distinguishes it from tea, milk, sugar, etcetera –, and the fact that you have to make it by pouring water, preferably boiling water.[4] What is omitted are such things as whether the beans were grown in Brazil or some other country (on the principle that they have to be grown somewhere but may be grown anywhere, within certain climatological limits). We also omit that some people take it straight, while others add sugar, milk or cream: it is still coffee, although the color may change. But the only measurement omitted is whether it is strong, weak, or something in-between.

But on Ayn Rand’s theory, only the strongness/weakness of the coffee would be significant. Or?

Let us see how Ayn Rand derives her theory:

Let us now examine the process of forming the simplest concept, the concept of a single attribute (chronologically, this is not the first concept that a child would grasp, but it is the simplest one epistemologically) – for instance, the concept “length”. If a child considers a match, a pencil and a stick, he observes that length is the attribute they have in common, but their specific lengths differ. The difference is one of measurement. In order to form the concept “length”, the child’s mind retains the attribute and omits its particular measurements. Or, more precisely, if the process were identified in words, it would consist of the following: “Length must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity. I shall identify as ‘length’ that attribute of any existent possessing it which can be quantitatively related to a unit of length, without specifying the quantity.”

But no child goes through this rigmarole – certainly not with every new concept it forms or encounters. Ayn Rand, of course, is aware of this, so she continues:

The child does not think in such words (he has, as yet, no knowledge of words), but that is the nature of the process which his mind performs wordlessly. And that is the principle which his mind follows, when, having grasped the concept “length” by observing the three objects, he uses it to identify the attribute of length in a piece of string, a ribbon, a belt, a corridor or a street. (ITOE, p. 11 in the expanded second edition.)

Fair enough. But how could this wordless process (which I think would take place in a split second[5]) be an active, volitional process, requiring some conscious effort – as my first quote suggests?

Chronologically, this is not the first concept a child learns (or forms, or grasps). Children learn the names (or forms or grasps the concepts) of entities first. And I think a child would learn (form, grasp) the concepts “long” and “short” before the slightly more abstract “length”.[6]

But one thing should be noted: “length” is itself a measurement concept. So of course measurements are omitted when it is formed. What else is there to omit?

But Ayn Rand’s theory is that this applies to all concepts. Her next example, with which you are certainly familiar, is the concept “table”. This is formed by noticing its shape: “a flat, level surface and support(s)”. But is “shape” a measurement? Well, one could say that a common rectangular table has four side and four corners, a triangular table has three sides and three corners, and a circular or oval table has only one side and no corners at all. And most tables have four legs or supports, but they may actually have any number of legs/supports without ceasing being tables. Tables are also distinguished from other objects by their function: “to support other, smaller objects”, but it does not matter what number of other objects.

There are countless concepts to which measurement omission certainly applies. Take emotions: the concept “anger” covers everything from mild irritation to complete rage; the concept “fear” everything from mild nervousness to dreadful anxiety, etcetera. Or take thought processes: one may think hard about a subject or barely give it a thought. Love and hatred may be more or less intense; friendships more or less close; and you may think of more examples (many, or just a few).

Or take social (or political) systems: capitalism is characterized by private property, socialism by public property. But since, in today’s world, we have neither, but mixed economies of various mixtures, there is a graduated scale from “pure capitalism” to “pure socialism”, and we speak of more or less capitalism, more or less socialism.

Now some cases that at first glance appear to be hard:

“Here” and “now”, “there” and “then” are concepts that nobody has the slightest difficulty understanding.[7] But those are either–or concepts: an event happens here and now, or it happens there and then; there is no third possibility. So unless you count “one” and “zero” (or “yes” and “no”) as a measurement, there seems to be no measurements omitted or retained.

Concepts are often compared to file folders. Ayn Rand herself writes:

Concepts represent a system of mental filing and cross-filing, so complex that the largest electronic computer is a child’s toy by comparison. (ITOE, p. 69.)

The idea is that once you encounter (for example) horses, you make a file folder marked “horse” (or “häst”, “Pferd”, “cheval”, etc., depending on your native language). All the information you will ever acquire about horses then gets stuffed into this folder. If you are a hippologist, or work professionally with horses, the folder will be quite voluminous; but – since the folder is mental – there are no physical limitations to be considered. Everything that has ever been known, or will ever be known, about horses will fit into the folder. And the folder, or concept, itself will remain the same.

Now you encounter mules, so a new folder will be created. But, since quite a lot of what we know about horses and donkeys will also apply to mules, information will be copied from their folders and stuffed into the “mule” folder. And now you encounter centaurs (highly unlikely in real life, but they exist in mythology): you will copy information from the “horse” folder and the “man” folder and stuff it into this new folder.

Neither, since the folders are mental, does it pose any problem to stuff the folders into larger folders, such as “mammal” or “animal” or “organism” or “entity”.

And an orderly filing system means an orderly mind; a filing system in disarray means a mind in disarray.

But what about the folders marked “here” and “now”? Everything that happens at some point happens here and now, so those folders would literally contain everything. Or else, those folders would be immediately emptied and all their content moved over to the opposite folders, those marked “there” and “then” – and then, those folders would literally contain everything.

But having given it some further thought (and after a good night’s sleep), I came up with the following:

When I say “here”, I can mean: here, in front of my computer (as opposed to the bedroom, the living room, the kitchen or the bathroom); or here, in my apartment (as opposed to the street outside), or here in town (as opposed to out of town), or here in Sweden (as opposed to all other countries) or here on earth. Or even here in the Solar System, here in the Milky Way, here in the universe. (Only in this last case, there is no “there” to oppose it, since there is nothing outside the universe.)

Similarly with “now”. I could mean now, this moment, or now, today, this week, this year, this century.[8]

Another hard case I thought about is prepositions. Expressions like “the cup is on the table” or “I am sitting in the room” appear to be either–or propositions: either the cup is on the table, or it is not. But what is omitted here is where on the table the cup is situated, and where in the room I am sitting. It has to be somewhere, but it may be anywhere. “To” and “from” have to be to or from somewhere, but may be to or from anywhere. “Above” and “below” do not specify the distance, but it has to be some distance. (And you can go through the rest of the prepositions yourself.)

Another hard case it interjections. What measurements do we omit, when we say “ouch!” or “hooray!” or greet someone with a “hello”. I really don’t know. But Ayn Rand states:

Every word we use (with the exception of proper names) is a symbol that denotes a concept, i.e. that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind. (ITOE, p. 10.)

Every word, mind you. And interjections are not proper names!

Concepts perform the function of condensing information. So it may be said that “ouch!” condenses the information “it hurts”, “hooray!” condenses “I have achieved a value and fell happy about it”, and that “hello” condenses “I have recognized you and want to communicate this fact to you”. But where are the measurements omitted? Or are we to call it a measurement omitted that we have to say “hello” to some person, but may say it to any person?

And what about conjunctions – words that join clauses together in a sentence? I see no measurement in the word (or concept) “that”; all the measurements are in the clauses joined together. And what about the infinitive mark – “to” in English? It merely serves to indicate that the verb that follows is in the infinitive form. There is no “more or less” involved here. And what about the definite and indefinite articles?[9]

Verbs (which denote concepts of actions/motions or states) do involve measurements omitted – for example, “walk”, “run”, “swim”, “fly”, which do not specify the speed; or “sit”, “stand”, “lie”, which do not specify the length of time. But what about auxiliary verbs – such as “do” in this very paragraph[10], or “have” in “I have said it before”, or “is” in “he is running” – which perform only a grammatical function?

And do those words – that have a merely grammatical function and have no meaning outside their grammatical context – stand for concepts? Well, Ayn Rand said that every word (except proper names) stands for a concept. But – as Craig Biddle has pointed out – “Ayn Rand said” is not an argument.

The upshot of all this is that “measurement omission” is virtually self-evident with a concept like “length” (or “width” or “weight”), which is already in itself a measurement concept. But it becomes harder and harder with other concepts, and with some concepts it is virtually impossible.

And finally: If measurement omission is “active and volitional”, then what about all those millennia that have passed from pre-historic times, when the first man formed the first concept, up to 1966–1967, when ITOE was first published? Everybody who has formed (or grasped or learned) a concept would simply know what had been going on – so why did Ayn Rand have to write a book about it? It would be like writing a treatise on how children learn to walk – interesting, but it would add very little to our knowledge.

Ayn Rand was not the first one to write about concepts, but she was the first one to give serious attention to the formation of concepts. At least, to my knowledge.[11]

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More on concept formation in What comes First, the Concept or the Word? Or search the tag concept formation. Scandinavian speaking readers may also read Vad ska vi med begrepp till? (i.e. What are Concepts For?).

[1] One such difference is that we do not use the expression “make heads or tails of”; we use expressions such as “make some sense of”. For other examples, see my blog post on the subject.

[2] There are some people – comparatively very few – who speak around thirty or more languages fluently. One of them was HS Nyberg, who was a professor of Semitic languages at the University of Uppsala. He was reportedly speaking 28 different languages – until somebody reported that he also spoke Yiddish to his barber. Another one was Ferdinand de Saussure, the famous linguist. A third one was another Swedish linguist, Björn Collinder, who was a professor of Finno-Ugric languages. And I once met a person, who is not famous and whose name I have forgotten, who told me that if he spent two weeks in a foreign country, he managed to learn the language. To me, who can only master two languages, this sounds like magic. But there has to be an explanation of the phenomenon, although I don’t know it.

[3] I thought of this when I poured my first mug of coffee this morning (or early afternoon, rather). If you drink tea, it would not change much.

[4] I have never tried making coffee by pouring cold or lukewarm water; but something tells me it is not advisable.

[5] I assume it is instantaneous or almost instantaneous, because if a child goes through this procedure with every new concept he encounters, he would not have the time to learn very many concepts, and language development would be very slow, which it certainly is not.

[6] I think this can be verified by closely studying the language development of children.

[7] An exception is St. Augustine, who famously claimed that as long as he does not think about time, he understands it, but as soon as he starts thinking about it, or explaining it, he has no clue. (Book 11 in Confessions.)

[8] St. Augustine, by the way, got into his trouble with time by only considering the fleeting moment as “now” – a “now” that immediately passes into the past..

[9] Some languages, like Latin, do not even have those parts of speech. “To be” in Latin is just “esse”, and Latin makes no distinction between “a house” and “the house”. Ancient Greek at least has a definite article. But the modern languages with which I am familiar do have them.

[10] The “do-construction”, by the way, does not exist in other languages than English. The “have-construction”, on the other hand, is common to many languages. Latin and ancient Greek don’t have them, but use inflections instead.

[11] Plato had the idea that our concepts are recollections of a former existence in the “world of forms”. Aristotle, I believe, was the father of the distinction between “essential” and “accidental” characteristics. The medieval scholastics did write about concepts, and so did John Locke. Immanuel Kant merely pressed all concepts into his scheme of twelve categories. But no philosopher before Ayn Rand, as far as I know, addressed the issue of how concepts are actually formed.

On the Origin of Ethics

Facebook note from September 2010.

What is the central concept of ethics? There are two answers to this question: Immanuel Kant makes “duty” the central concept; Ayn Rand makes “value” the central concept. This, in a nutshell, explains why Objectivists cannot stand Kant; it also explains why so many people cannot stand Ayn Rand; they are simply too steeped in a deontological view of ethics (and Kant was not the only deontologist in the history of philosophy).

How do Rand and Kant arrive at those widely diverging fundamental concepts? I do not know about Kant – he seems to have simply taken it for granted – but Ayn Rand tells us. I won’t repeat her derivation of “value” from “life”, because you are already familiar with it. But she also has something to say about the formation of the concept “value” in a child:

Now, in what manner does a human being discover the concept of “value”? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of “good or evil” in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain. Just as sensations are the first step of the development of a human consciousness in the realm of cognition, so they are the first step in the realm of evaluation. (From “The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness.)

Does this sound like hedonism? Well, we know Ayn Rand was “profoundly opposed to the philosophy of hedonism”. And we know why: pleasure could not possibly be a standard of value. Neither could happiness: one’s own happiness is the proper goal of morality, but it is not the standard.

But “life as the standard” is too abstract for a small child to grasp. For one thing, the child does not yet know about death, and so cannot grasp the fundamental alternative of “life or death”. It only knows “pleasure or pain” and can then proceed to the slightly more abstract “happiness or suffering”.

An implication of this is that a child starts out as a hedonist: “pleasure” is the implicit standard. As his knowledge grows, he becomes an eudaemonist: “happiness” becomes the implicit standard. And finally, when he grasps that it all has its roots in the alternative of “life or death”, he becomes an Objectivist. (But he probably would have to read Ayn Rand to arrive at this stage.) And from this it would also seem that hedonism is closer to the truth than a deontological ethics.

How would a child form a deontological or “duty-centered” ethics?

What is “duty”? Essentially it is obedience to some authority. For a small child, the authority would be his parents, so it is his duty to obey them. Later come the duty to one’s country, or to God, or whatever. (Immanuel Kant would object to this and say it is a matter of obeying one’s own conscience – but to untangle this, I would have to write an essay on Kant’s distinction between the “noumenal” and the “phenomenal” self.)

Now, children do obey their parents (and later their school teachers) to a large extent. And so long as parents and teachers are rational, I see no harm in this. To use a phrase from Cesar Millan (“the dog whisperer”), children, as well as dogs, need “rules, boundaries and limitations”. The child will discover on his own the reasons for those rules, boundaries and limitations; and he will object to them only if and when he finds something wrong with them. (Of course, this last point is not applicable to dogs.) (And it goes without saying that the matter is very different, if or when parents and teachers are irrational.)

The reason I started thinking about this is that somebody recommended that I read Jean Piaget. I have read one of his essays, though unfortunately in a Swedish translation, so I cannot give any quotes. But the point is that Piaget writes that “pleasures” and “duties” sometimes conflict; and if I understand him correctly, he thinks that “duty” takes precedence over “pleasure”; it is a sign of maturity in a child when he subordinates a temporary pleasure to some duty. This is hardly the Objectivist view…

Piaget spent most of his life studying the cognitive development of children and adolescents and developed an extensive and rather complex theory about it. It was based, as all good theories should, on observation. This “pleasure/duty” clash is one such observation. But it is hard to reconcile with Ayn Rand’s view. But she might answer that it is actually a clash between “short-term pleasure” and “long-term happiness”. An example of this is that it may be painful to go to the dentist; but we do it anyway, since not doing it will impede our future happiness.

Some further observations

(Added 2016.)

In the period preceding Kant, it was customary among rights philosophers to distinguish between three kinds of duties: duties to God, to society (or one’s fellow human beings) and to oneself.[1] Immanuel Kant, to the best of my knowledge, makes no such distinction.

Kant famously argued that man has a duty to preserve his life, even (and especially) when life has become so painful as to be unbearable. Is this a duty to God? Why should God even care, unless he were a sadist? Is it a duty to one’s fellow men? But why would they want you to suffer? Is it a duty to oneself? Hardly. No, it is just duty for the sake of duty, with no visible beneficiary.

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A famous Objectivist once said in a courtroom speech:

Man’s first duty is to himself.

He obviously had not read Ayn Rand’s essay “Causality versus Duty”, where she dismisses the very concept of duty.[2]

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Aristotle’s ethics if of course value-centered, in that it has a specific aim: the achievement of ευδαιμονια, i.e. happiness or flourishing. There is no talk in Aristotle about obedience to some authority, whether outer or inner. The same of course is true about any form of eudaemonism or hedonism.

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Once a long time ago I saw the objection to Objectivism, from an academic philosopher, that there is no duty to act egoistically, just as there is no duty to act altruistically. Abysmal ignorance about Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Or are we to assume that there is a duty to pursue values? That we should pursue them because some outer or inner authority has commanded us to pursue them?

[1] See for example Samuel Pufendorf, De officio hominis et civis juxta legem naturalem (or On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law  in English), published in 1673.

[2] I am referring of course to Howard Roark. Don’t take the words “famous Objectivist” too seriously!

Esthetic Values

In my essay Objectivism versus “Austrian” Economics on Value (in the second preamble) I made the point that there are non-economic values as well as economic ones. For example, family and friends are values, but no one would dream about putting them up for sale in the market. A pet is a value, but it has market value only when you first buy it; if for some reason – illness or whatever – you can no longer take care of your pet and you do not want to put it down, you have no choice but giving it away for free. I also made a comparison between Human Action and Das Kapital, which may cost approximately the same in the bookstore but are of totally different value – the first one you buy to learn something about economics, the second one just to study the enemy. But I wrote nothing about esthetic values, so let me elaborate a little on them.

Esthetic products do have a market value, since people are willing to spend money on them: they buy novels or poetry collections, paintings or reproductions, gramophone records or CDs, theater or concert tickets, etc. But is the value of a novel, a painting or a musical composition really equivalent to its market value or price?

Well, take an obvious example: The value to me of Ayn Rand’s novels has nothing whatsoever to do with how many copies of them have been sold or to what price. I would not think less of them, if there were only one copy in existence and I were the only one to have read it. (This is of course an impossible scenario, but I think you get my point.) And for those of you who do not care for Ayn Rand’s novels but prefer Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake (or whatever), the point would be the same.

The same holds true for music. To me, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (or any of the great classical composers) is far more valuable than, say, modern rap or hip-hop. Yet, the price of the records is approximately the same, and for number of records sold, the moderns might out-number the classics.

Sometimes the discrepancy is dramatic. I do not know whether Vincent van Gogh sold any of his paintings while alive, but if he did, it must have been for pocket money. Today, one will have to pay millions to acquire a van Gogh. (Fortunately, there are good reproductions.)

And this is just a particularly dramatic example. It is also true of old masters whose greatness was discovered in their own life times. For example, I am sure that Leonardo da Vinci was paid for painting Mona Lisa; but how much do you think art collectors would pay for it today, if it were ever put up for sale at an auction?

I cannot claim originality for those observations. In her essay “What is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Ayn Rand makes the distinction between “philosophically objective value” – i.e. “value estimated from the standpoint of the best possible to man” – and “socially objective value” – where the last stands for market value. She was too modest to use her own novels as examples, so she wrote:

For instance, it can be rationally proved […] that the works of Victor Hugo are objectively of immeasurably greater value than true-confession magazines.[1] But if a given man’s intellectual potential can barely manage to enjoy true confessions, there is no reason why his meager earnings, the product of his effort, should be spent on books he cannot read […] (P. 24 in the paperback edition.)

Neither is there any reason why a person who can only enjoy rap and hip-hop – or the European song contest – should pay for my enjoyment of the Brandenburg Concertos or Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin.

And in fact it is a good and valuable thing that this “discrepancy” exists. If Atlas Shrugged were priced according to its “philosophically objective value”[2], who could afford to buy it? And if only millionaires could afford to buy it, how could the man in the street discover its actual, non-commercial, value?

[1] I don’t dispute this; but I would like to see the rational proof.

[2] Assuming this could be estimated in monetary terms.

Ayn Rand’s Philosophical Achievement

Recently, Anoop Verma wrote a blog post, Ayn Rand’s Copernican Revolution in Philosophy, and then privately asked for my feedback. I have very little to criticize in his post; but it gives me an opportunity to present my own view.

In my view, the most fundamental thing about Ayn Rand’s philosophy is the insight that all knowledge is the result of the interaction between existence and consciousness, between the external world and our minds.

Sensation and perception are the result of the interaction between the external world and our senses. Concept formation are the result of our identification of the facts of reality. And values are a matter of relating what we value (or disvalue) to our life and well-being. (Politics is about applying ethics to our social life.)

This is even true about esthetics; her definition of art is

a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgements. (“Art and Cognition” in The Romantic Manifesto.)

A re-creation of reality, not of something outside of reality.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive presentation of her philosophy, but it is something that has always struck me. With the partial exception of Aristotle (and his followers), I don’t think other philosophers have even come close to this insight. Platonism, for example, is clearly about our “interaction” with a mystical realm; and Kant’s philosophy is a variation on this theme.

In ethics, there are basically two views:

  1. That ethics is a matter of obeying divine commandments, or duties, as they are often called.

  2. That they are a matter of what we feel is right or wrong, and that those feelings are not connected to reality – that there is an unbridgeable gulf between “is” and “ought” and all that kind of jazz.[1]

And in politics the idea that we have to choose between tyranny (totalitarianism) and anarchy.

Immanuel Kant’s Philosophical Non-Achievements

The philosophy of Ayn Rand is commonly contrasted with that of Immanuel Kant; Ayn Rand herself did:

On every fundamental issue, Kant’s philosophy is the exact opposite of Objectivism. (“Brief Summary”, The Objectivist, September 1971.)

She also wrote:

[Kant’s] argument, in essence, ran as follows: […] man is blind, because he has eyes – deaf, because he has ears – deluded, because he has a mind – and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them. (The title essay in For the New Intellectual.)

It is often forgotten (or so it seems to me) that those are not Immanuel Kant’s own words; they are Ayn Rand’s summary of his epistemology. Objectivists take this description ad notam; they do not bother to read Kant and verify it.[2]

It is a common misunderstanding that Kant denied the evidence of the senses; in fact, he defended the senses, and he even gave proper arguments.[3]

Kant makes three points about the senses:

  1. The senses do not confuse us. If we are confused, it is our understanding of what the senses provide us with that is confused.
  2. The senses do not rule over the understanding; they are rather the servants of the understanding.
  3. The senses do not deceive or betray us. Again, it is only our understanding that may be mistaken.

He does however say that what the senses provide us with is “appearances”, not true (“noumenal”) reality.

Also, Kant did believe in the existence of an external world, although he claimed that it is inaccessible to us. His argument ran as follows: We live in a world of appearances; but there cannot be appearances without things that appear; thus those things must exist somewhere and somehow; but we can never know where or how.

But Kant would not be Kant, if he thought this was all there is to it. Although the senses give us valid information, he thought that space and time do not come to us through the senses; they are, as he called them, “form of appearance” (“Anschauungsformen” in German), through which the sense data are “filtered”. Rather than being part of our experience of the world, space and time are supplied by our own mind and are necessary “a priori” conditions for having experience at all.

I regard this view as ridiculous. We form the concepts “space” and “time” by observing a variety of special and temporal relationships (“the book is on the table”, “it happened yesterday”, etc. etc.) “Space” and “time” refer to the sum of those relationships.[4]

This should be enough for now (an “ought” and a temporal specification).

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(See also Rand Debating Kant and Evil Thoughts?. – Unfortunately (for most of you), almost everything I have written about Kant is in Swedish.)

Update March 29: I have now written a fairly extensive English blog post about Kant.

[1] Scandinavian speaking readers may read my recent blog posts about Axel Hägerström. Or Gastronomi och moral.

[2] There may be exceptions; if you are such an exception, I apologize.

[3] I found this out by perusing (I worked in a library of old books) Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View). Unfortunately, I cannot find an English translation of this passage in the book.

[4] Neither, by the way, did Kant ever say things like ”it is true, because I feel it’s true” – quite the contrary! In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, he goes to some length explaining that the categorical imperative is not a matter of emotion but of reasoning. And in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, one will find – buried among all the talk of selfishness or self-love being the “radical evil” of human nature – the short and simple sentence: “Emotions are not knowledge”.

Implicit versus Explicit Knowledge

A Facebook note I wrote in August 2010.

I don’t know if this is of general interest; it is about my own personal struggle with some issues in Objectivism. Those who already have a perfect understanding of Objectivism might think I’m just stupid.[1]

I have a question: does “implicit knowledge” qualify as knowledge?

To give an example: the axioms of “existence” and “consciousness” are implicit in all knowledge. A child possesses this implicit knowledge from the day it is born. But he cannot express it in explicit terms until much later. The axiom of “identity” (which is actually a corollary of “existence”) is soon learned by a baby: he cannot help noticing that everything around him “is what it is and not something else” or that “everything that exists has a specific nature”. But the child cannot express this knowledge in those slightly ponderous terms. So: is it really knowledge at this early state?

Another example is concept-formation. I have been struggling lately with a puzzle: ITOE is not – or, at least not primarily – about how concepts should be formed, but about how concepts are actually formed. They are formed by observing similarities and differences between various entities, attributes and actions, and then by omitting the specific measurements (on the principles that those measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity).

That is pretty straightforward, so (you may ask) what is the problem here?

Well, I have tried to introspect, because if this is how concepts are formed, I should have some recollection that confirms the theory. But I don’t. I cannot remember having formed any concepts as child, much less then that I formed them by a process of measurement omission. Still, I do have concepts, and I actually (most of the time, at least) use them correctly. But I simply do not remember how I formed them in the first place. Did I form them myself, or did I simply take over concepts formed by others? (And then, how did those others – my parents and other adults – get their concepts?)

And I might ask any of you: do you actually remember how you formed your first concepts in your own early childhood?

Now, there are a couple of reasons why this recollection is so hard. One is that a man’s memory doesn’t reach that far into the past. This may vary from individual to individual – but who has clear memories from before two years of age? But the process of concept-formation and of learning one’s language begins already before this age.

But there is another reason that is perhaps even more important: consider how fast a child actually learns to speak. It does not take the child long to learn literally hundreds, maybe thousands of words (all of them standing for concepts) and to integrate them into sentences, expressing thoughts. This is very different to the fairly slow process of later in life learning a foreign language. How is it possible for a small child to painstakingly go through the process of measurement omission for each and every one of those hundreds, maybe thousands, of concepts? That is the question I asked myself without being able to supply a satisfactory answer. (I even, at one point, thought that this was “the final refutation of Objectivism”).

But, in fact, my doubts were unfounded.

No, children do not consciously and explicitly go through this painstaking process. It takes place implicitly, wordlessly and largely automatically. What Ayn Rand does in ITOE is, metaphorically speaking, putting the process under a magnifying glass.

To go back to the original question: does this implicit knowledge (with regard to both axioms and concept-formation) qualify as knowledge? The best way to put it is that it is not knowledge, but rather the starting point of knowledge.

Or is this simply unnecessary hair-splitting?

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The comments I got were fairly good, so I will quote some of them.

Carl Svanberg: What about the knowledge of how we form concepts? Is this implicit knowledge? Here I think it depends on whether you make a distinction between a skill and knowledge. You can know how to do things without being able to explain why it works. I know how to use a computer, but do not ask me to explain how the computer works because that is beyond me. I know how to cook food, but do not ask me to explain the chemistry, because that is also beyond me. I know how to use my hands, but do not ask me to explain how the consciousness, the brain, the nerves all interact and make my arms move like I want them to when I want them to. Obviously that is way beyond me as well. You can probably think of many other examples of your own.

I think this is a valid distinction. Another example is a child learning to walk. The child, of course, knows nothing of the mechanics of walking (or crawling or running); it is in the same position as the proverbial humble-bee who does not know that humble-bees cannot fly and doesn’t bother; it just flies, nevertheless.

Likewise, a small child learns the skill of talking and of thinking (inasmuch as thinking requires words) without first reading Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology in order to learn how to talk and to think.[2]

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Magnus Kempe: I think there are several distinct issues involved in your questions.

The one aspect I’m currently interested in is how a toddler is forming concepts. My 18-month daughter has recently started to use the word “sock” to designate “things we put on feet” – i.e. both what we think of as socks and shoes. She also recognizes and points at “bug” – little things that crawl or fly (and which adults try to keep out of the house? she’s a keen observer). In both cases, she’s perceived similarities (shapes, sizes, our actions with them) and differences (bugs are not large and don’t bark, nor do they belong to our supply of food; socks don’t fit on the head, nor do we drink from them) and she’s omitting a wide range of attributes or their measurements. She doesn’t know she’s doing that, but she knows what a “sock” or “bug” are. Soon enough, she’ll build on these concepts – she already knows “ant” as a species of “bug”– and she may even leave behind the first concept she formed so she can use more specific and delineated ones. None of her current knowledge is explicit; she’s not yet able to reflect on her conscious processes, but it’s still knowledge. To grasp axiomatic knowledge requires advanced generalizations and specializations, as well as introspection –so it remains implicit until all necessary epistemological steps are complete (I’m curious to see how many years it will take). […]

As a side note, learning a foreign language (as an adult) is not primarily a task of concept-formation, but understanding and automating: new words/symbols/sounds for already known concepts, somewhat different grammar rules, and idiomatic expressions. It’s not similar to how a child develops to understand the world and think.

Thanks for those observations, Magnus!

One thing I am interested in is how early in life concept-formation starts. Some years ago, I had a discussion with an Objectivist who was a grandmother [Ellen Moore]; and she told me that her grandchild at the age of 10 months could point to a dog and say “daw”. Earlier, I had thought that concept-formation starts approximately at the age of 2, when children utter their first primitive sentences. But obviously, it starts earlier than that. (Since I have no children of my own, I haven’t been able to study this in detail.)

We’ve strived to record our observations every day. I’m convinced she was forming concepts within months of birth, but it’s hard to tell what’s going on inside their mind for the first few months… We’re raising her bilingually[3] so we’ve noticed some developments and events that would possibly escape observers of a monolingual infant. I’ll try to add some notes from my records tomorrow.

I suspect that the lack of recall of memories before about 3 years old has something to do with a transition in how our mind holds concepts when we start to develop abstractions from abstractions. Until then conceptualization is intimately tied to perceived entities and their visible actions, they may not involve a visual-auditory symbol.

Thanks again, Magnus. Yes, what happens with a bilingually raised child is really interesting. They have to form (or grasp) the same concepts in two languages. And they would have to learn, at a very early stage, all the subtle differences in grammar between two languages.[4]

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Another thing that is largely implicit is the “choice to live”. You may remember this quote from “Galt’s speech”:

My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists – and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these.

But, except in the rare case of considering suicide and refraining from it, the “choice to live” is an implicit choice.

To take a mundane example: choosing to have breakfast in the morning. One does not explicitly go through the following reasoning: “Well, do I want to live today? Yes, I do. What do I have to do to remain alive till the evening? Well, I do need to eat something; otherwise I’ll starve. And since it is still morning, I’ll start with having breakfast.” Such thoughts are implicit in the choice to have breakfast; but one does not have to repeat them to oneself every morning.

One can make up more dramatic examples. One that I have used myself is this: You’re driving your car, and suddenly you encounter a ravine. You immediately put the brakes on. Obviously, the implicit premise behind this is that you don’t want to die. But equally obviously, you don’t go through a whole chain of reasoning, starting with the question: “Do I want to live or die?” If you did, it would be too late to put the brakes on, when you have reached the end of the reasoning![5]

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Bob Gifford: Regarding remembering how you formed concepts, have you formed any concepts recently? I mean, is it necessary to remember childhood experiences to see the measurement-omitted process work? As we go on learning, isn’t that process still going on? Part of the problem at this point is the question of measurement, I mean that in most higher level concepts, which is what intelligent, rational adults would be mostly focused upon, what the measurement is would not be obvious. You would have to dig a little, but if the concept was valid, it would be there somewhere.

The amazing thing about AR is that when she was asked about how she formed concepts she thought about it briefly and gave this answer (as I remember the story). She not only quickly recognized what she was doing but what that meant. That was the clarity of her mind.[6]

Well, I have a confession to make: I haven’t formed a single concept on my own in my whole life. I have merely taken over concepts already formed by others. Yet, I have a vast vocabulary or words, standing for concepts, in two languages (Swedish and English).

But I don’t think this is a problem for Ayn Rand’s theory of concept formation. Grasping a concept already formed by others cannot be too different from forming a totally new concept.

One of my Swedish friends [Filip Björner] recently suggested an exercise in forming a new concept. The example he chose was “blankcoin”, meaning simply a coin that is blank. But I rejected this on two counts:

  1. This “new concept” is merely a combination of two old concepts that I already understand perfectly well (“blank” and “coin”).
  2. The concept “blankcoin” is totally useless. It wouldn’t enhance my understanding of economics (or any subject) one bit.

Consider: The function and value of a coin has nothing whatsoever to do with whether it is smooth or rough to the touch. It has everything whatsoever to do with two things:

  1. The metal content of the coin. Gold, silver, copper or iron? How many carats of gold? And, of course, how large or small is the coin?
  2. The relation between the value of the coin and the value of what one wishes to exchange it for.

As Ayn Rand writes:

concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessitynor are they to be integrated in disregard of necessity. (ITOE, p. 72.)[7]

There is no necessity about the concept of “blankcoin” (or the corollary concept of “roughcoin”) – except the alleged necessity of teaching me how to form concepts.

New concepts are formed from time to time, but they are formed by geniuses. For example, Newton had to form the concept “gravity” in order to arrive at his theory of universal gravitation. And one example from Ayn Rand (there are certainly more) is the concept “second-hander”. This, of course, uses the old concepts of “second” and “hand”; but it is still a new concept that does enhance our understanding of “what makes people tick”.

Bob Gifford: I understand your feeling that you have never formed a new concept in your life, I have felt the same way. But I don’t think it really is an issue of originality or creativity. If your knowledge is valid, that is, if you can relate it to reality, then you have personally formed those concepts and they are all new to you. It is true that for a child there may be some first time stuff, but even then, the child is learning from his parents and other people. No, if you learned a concept and integrated it into your knowledge, meaning that you have knowledge of the real world, then you have formed the concept and you have used the measurement-omitted technique. […] When you find two instances of something, important or not, make a concept, give it a name, and enjoy the experience.

I see nothing I could dispute in this comment.[8] A concept, of course, is new to the child when he grasps it. And that concept-formation is speeded up by learning from parents and other adults is a point mentioned in ITOE:

… a child does not have to perform the feat of genius performed by some mind or minds in the prehistorical infancy of the human race: the invention of language … (P. 19.)

And yes, at least two instances are needed to form a concept. In the unlikely case of a child having observed only one table, it would stand in his mind as a proper noun (“the Table”). Or take a more likely case: a child grows up in a town and has as yet no experience of other towns, or cities, or villages. In this case, he would form a proper name, “the Town” and only later proceed to form the concept “town” and distinguish it from “city” and “village”.

By the way, in the Appendix to ITOE Ayn Rand mentioned that the concept “God” (in monotheistic religions) is not even an “invalid concept”, since there is only one of them. So I thought of calling this, not an “invalid concept” but an “improper proper name”. But this is more in the nature of joke. It follows, of course, that in order to form the concept “god”, you have to be a polytheist.

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Jakob Meijling: One more thing. How does the omitting of measurements work? It works by subtraction. A child forms concepts by identifying objects and having these objects named by an adult. The child tries to memorize the name of the object. Every time a similar object is identified by the same name by the adult, the child will add this to the “concept folder” in the relevant part of the brain, and notice the differences. The differences will then be omitted, leaving only the significant characteristics needed for the concept. And this “subtraction process” will go on until your brains stop working, and you die. You can experience this process anywhere: seeing new designs at a furniture trade fair; watching birds or cars or typefaces; visiting a foreign country where all artifacts look slightly different from at home.

I’m not sure I understand this. Do you mean that the differences are subtracted? Then this is just another way of saying they are omitted. For example: A child observes two tables that are different in size; then this difference in size is omitted when the concept is formed. Or one table has a round surface, the other a square surface; then this difference in shape is omitted. Or one table has four legs and the other three legs; then the number of legs is omitted. What is retained is what makes it a table: “a flat, level surface with support(s), intended to support other, smaller objects”.

It is indeed just another way of saying they are omitted, but it says something about the process. When adults form concepts consciously, they will omit the irrelevant characteristics by logic; a child will add tens and hundreds of instances of e.g. a table, and slowly arrive at the clear concept, without ever stating explicitly what Ayn Rand did.

OK, I get it.

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Time to stop wrecking my brain on this issue and think about something else.

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See also What Comes First, the Concept or the Word? and Two Observations on Definitions.

[1] Tongue in cheek.

[2] This paragraph of course is jocular.

[3] Magnus is fluent in Swedish, English and French.

[4] Once (a very long time ago) I lived in an English-speaking community in Copenhagen. The children went to Danish schools and had no difficulty switching between English and Danish. A couple of them had German and French parents, and they easily switched between all three languages.

[5] The point I mention here is taken up by Tara Smith in Viable Values, p. 105.I quote her in my own blog post The Choice to Live. Apart from that, I have not seen it discussed by Objectivists.

[6] The story is at the tail end of the Appendix to ITOE (p. 307).

[7] Ayn Rand calls this an ”epistemological razor”. It of course bears resemblance to “Occam’s razor” – the difference being that Occam said that “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity”. For example, one should not assume there is such an entity as God, if one can explain the world without him. (This, however, is hardly an example that Occam himself gave.)

On a more personal level, I have invented an entity called “the girl in the closet”, who is supposed to perform the household chores for me and my lady-friend. So if the bed isn’t made, or the potatoes not peeled, I blame this entity, when the simple explanation is that I was absent-minded and forgot all about it,

[8] Except that he calls it a feeling. It wasn’t a feeling, it was a thought.

My Review of We the Living

“The year 1923, like any other, had a spring.”

“If they ask you, in America”, he said, “tell them that Russia is a huge cemetery, and that we are all dying slowly”. – “I’ll tell them”, she promised.

These lines may sound like a quotation from a work of fiction, but are in actuality a piece of real-life dialog which has been preserved for eternity. The dialog took place in Leningrad in the fall of 1925, at a farewell party for a young girl about to escape permanently – on a six-month visa – from Soviet Russia.

The girl kept her promise. She wrote a book about it.

The name of this girl was Ayn Rand.[1] Eleven years before, she had made a firm decision that she was going to be a writer. Eleven years later. in 1936, her first novel, We the Living, was published by the Macmillan Company.

The novel was unfavorably received by the book reviewers, who did not like to hear their workers’ paradise described as a cemetery. It did not really reach the broad public until many years later, after its author had achieved world fame.

Yet We the Living ranks among the great novels of world literature. And possibly, one day, when the Communist state has withered away (as it is bound to do, one way or the other) a small plaque will be put up on the house of Ayn Rand’s birth in Leningrad [now again St. Petersburg] to celebrate the memory of this book and this writer.

I have a special reason, apart for my admiration of Ayn Rand, to select this particular novel for reviewing: it has recently been translated into Swedish.[2] It is the first of Ayn Rand’s books to appear in Swedish, and this is an opportunity to make a literary acquaintance which I want only my worst enemies to miss. Therefore I hope that this review, at least in a small way, will prove itself worthy of the book.

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We the Living is a novel set in Soviet Russia in the early twenties. The Civil war against the Whites has just ended; Russia is entering the period of the “New Economic Policy”, Lenin’s great compromise, which gave free enterprise a small, precarious leeway. Lenin’s strokes and eventual death form part of the background; closer to the foreground we see party purges, the activities of the GPU (the secret police) and the still unobtrusive beginnings of the Gulag Archipelago.

But it is not on the tangible horrors of labor camps, torture chambers or firing squads that Ayn Rand concentrates; it is on the incredible squalor and dreariness of everyday life under a dictatorship: the hours-long waiting lines to get a loaf of bread or a piece of soap, the leisure hours drained away in “voluntary” social activities, the incessant plotting and power struggle in the lower party ranks, the corruption flourishing under the “NEP” system.

The book has an explicitly stated theme:

The individual against the state; the supreme value of a human life and the evil of the totalitarian state that claims the right to sacrifice it.

The author wants to show in what way the various characters in the book are all destroyed by the system; how the totalitarian society destroys, not only its opponents, but the best of its own adherents (while, parenthetically, preserving the worst elements). In this book every virtuous character meets a tragic end: the young couple sent to Siberia, to camps thousands of miles apart, with the sight of the moon as their only bond; the old revolutionary who sees the revolution betrayed, and who blasts a corrupt business scheme as his last act before dying; the aristocrat who escapes the firing squad only to be killed spiritually; the idealistic young Communist whose world crumbles when he discovers the actual nature of the ideology he has fought for and bled for; the heroine of the book who fights in vain for the man she loves, and who never escapes the cemetery to tell the world about it.

This is not a joyous book, and in Ayn Rand’s production it stands out as the only novel which does not have a triumphant ending; it is as though the theme and the setting forbid triumph. But another hallmark of an Ayn Rand novel is very much present: the sense of drama, the ability to carry the reader away with sheer suspension, the ability to take an abstract philosophical theme and turn it into a cliff-hanger which would make any writer of popular thrillers green with envy. (I think it is apropos here to mention that her own favorite among fiction writers was Victor Hugo.)

Nor does this book lack poetry: a wistful poetry, born out of the characters’ refusal to submit and forbid themselves to live. There is one short and simple line at the end of one of the early chapters which, to me, sums this up eloquently:

The year 1923, like any other, had a spring.

This may sound trivial, even sentimental – but I hope that if you read this line in the context of the whole book, you will find, as I do, that this is one of the most beautiful – and one of the saddest – lines in world literature.

I wrote this as part of a university course in “Creative writing” that I took in the late 70s. – In the seminar, I was asked whether the book did not give a very black-and-white view of Communism. I answered: “I think one should take a black-and-white view of Communism.” The whole class burst out laughing.


[1]) Yes, I know. Her name at that time was still Alissa Rosenbaum.

[2]) Not by me, though.