Following up on my recent post skeptical of a strong formulation of the difference between philosophy and science, I’ve been thinking about the character of many philosophical claims, particularly in light of my current reading of Rand.
In addition to the readings for the podcast proper (which I’ll post about within the next week, but I can tell you right now that we’re covering these two books), I’ve been choking down as an audiobook The Fountainhead, the earlier (and shorter) of her two main novels; she wrote it in the late 30s/early 40s (published 1943) before Atlas Shrugged or her expository philosophical pieces.
No where in that book have I seen the word “objectivism,” and in fact there’s a very clear influence of the rhetorical side of Nietzsche, talking about Man’s greatness and contrasting the Übermensch who breathes excellence with the “last man” who just wants comfort and safety without exertion. Rand doesn’t use those words either, but according to Wikipedia, she’d originally planned to lead off every chapter with a Nietzsche quote. So it’s worth asking in what spirit we should take that kind of talk by Nietzsche, and without going into the disputes in the secondary literature about this, I can say that as modern readers, the natural way of taking it is with many giant heaps of salt.
Nietzsche was one of Deleuze’s main models, and Nietzsche’s use of characters like the abovementioned (and Zarathustra, and Zaratustra’s ape, and even the master and slave serve something like this purpose) helps in understanding Deleuze’s notion of conceptual personae. When Nietzsche expresses values by creating characters in that way, it strikes me less like a shorthand or illustration of some point just as easily made through regular philosophical discourse and more like how a good novel presents characters for our moral consideration, as discussed in our Cormac McCarthy episode. Good literature will bring ideas about living to life; a fully fleshed out character is always going to reveal how ideas can’t really be mapped onto people… if the villain is merely a villain, then the story is oversimplifying and not really taking villainy seriously.
Most of Rand’s characters are very one-dimensional, and presumably by design: she wanted to demonstrate some particularly awful lines of thinking that were going on in her society at the time. The fact that this is intentional doesn’t make it any less irritating to read, and brings up the question of what exactly constitutes a straw man? There likely were (are?) people Rand had met that were intellectually vapid in exactly the way she depicts her many minor villains (the major ones being the ones who see Randian virtue and are perversely against it; these to me are more obviously thoroughly Randian straw man inventions), but there’s some quality requisite to satire (like, say, Catch 22) that is just missing here (besides not being funny).
In any case, as with any philosophical novel, we see characters expressing philosophical sentiments, and moreso than with most philosophical novels, we know very clearly which sentiments voiced are ones that Rand agrees with and which aren’t. A few of the characters are basically heroic but are victims of an imperfect philosophy that makes them do irrational things, but even in those cases, it’s crystal clear what messages Rand wants us to come away with.
And what justifies these claims? Largely, as for Nietzsche, something aesthetic. Rand praises what she takes to be the glorious and is disgusted by the low. Now, according to her ethics (which you’ll have to wait for the episode to hear much from me about), these divisions are given right in the nature of Man himself, which is something any rational person can figure out. But it’s obvious–moreso I expect given the cultural shifts since the novel was written–that these are not simply obvious to any rational person, but come from the same bullshitty place that much of what for people who haven’t read much philosophy passes for philosophy.
For instance, at one point, one of the hero characters talks about the phenomena of people looking up at the night sky and feeling very small. He says that feeling is bullshit. Instead, he likes looking on the skyline of a city and thinking “such is the greatness of Man!” This is very obviously in line with Randian sentiments: Feeling small is for sucks; it’s tantamount to calling yourself small and implicitly trying to drag the rest of us down with you into your tiny, unambitious life. Self-esteem is healthy and life-affirming for Rand, so interpreting your experience in ways that express this is also life-affirming.
I don’t, however, see this connection between the two experiences and psychological health as that tight. Feeling like I need to adapt my emotional reactions to some externally imposed standard, chanting some mantra about self-esteem or somesuch, is neither necessary nor sufficient for good sanity, and both the experiences as described can be perfectly legitimate parts of an aesthetic, life-affirming attitude. To my modern ears, praising “the greatness of Man” seems pretty goofy, but that doesn’t mean I’m denying my own agency or all the great technological advances that human civilization has made. I’m willing to admit that which experience might seem more authentic to me or another reader is largely a matter of the prevalent zeitgeist: the plane of immanence in Deleuze’s term. Expressing and evaluating such images is part of the role of both the philosopher and the literature major, and Deleuze’s point about how they seem like “mere opinion” when translated into stark claims for analytic dissection seems right on the money when applied to this case.
I’ve made this point in a previous rant about philosophic content in literature: the kinds of messages “argued” for in literature are often gooey enough that they wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny in the way we analyze the arguments of Descartes or Kant. My position there betrays my basically analytic viewpoint. Insofar as philosophy is one of the humanities and doesn’t aspire to be scientific, it too evaluates gooey positions, and Rand’s version of Nietzsche definitely qualifies as one of these despite her claims to the contrary. The choice is not between cut-and-dried standards for deciding between them as would be the case in deciding a matter in logic or maybe math or science and “it’s all good, man” lack of any criteria for evaluating them. It’s instead a matter of making up criteria as we go, drawing on whatever we’ve learned from philosophical history and our own experiences trying to make sense of this complex thing we call experience. In this case, I think Rand is displaying misplaced obsessive compulsion if she really thinks that all virtuous people should eradicate the experience of the feeling of smallness in the face of vastness. Nothing about this feeling logically or psychologically entails a hatred for life of the sort that Nietzsche so raged against.