I'm continuing to try to get some Rand thoughts related to The Fountainhead out of my system so that I won't feel the need to bring them up while on the episode devoted to her more straightforwardly philosophical works. I also feel the periodic need for synthesis, to try to recap some ongoing themes in our episodes in a way that would require an overly long monologue if I tried to do this on the podcast itself. We've had a number of episodes now that weigh in on the development of the self. What I've often called the naive view of self is that advocated by Hobbes, who claimed that everyone is selfish, that all actions proceed from selfish motives.
On first blush, this seems plausible: animals fight for survival, we are motivated by pleasure and run from pain. However, as Pat Churchland pointed out, animals do exhibit selfless behavior. Moreover, saying a motive is selfish attributes to the actor an intended beneficiary, implicit or explicit, of an action, and it's not clear that animals have this. An objection we've considered extensively that may seem more baffling to this view is that the notion of a "self" is problematic, that the self is not just a physical organism, but an abstraction that requires calling some parts associated with this organism "me" and some "not me."
So if I have cancer, the cancer cells are part of me, but they are not my self and not acting in my self-interest. In fact, there are several distinct teleological processes going on physiologically within me that don't always harmonize, e.g. allergies are the result of the internal logic of a physiological process. The sex drive has its physiological and evolutionary explanations, and its rewards in terms of pleasure, but can feel foreign, and certainly doesn't always urge what's in my best interests. "My interests" is a phrase denoting a complex, socially constructed abstraction that, like many abstractions of this sort, is underdetermined by experience: it cannot simply be read off of experience by a mind that is a blank slate. What's naive about the view that everyone is selfish is the idea that the self and our interests are both clear ideas that we all understand, so that whatever culture you're in, you'll get more or less the same list of actions that will count as beneficial toward you. Of course there are some. Cutting off a limb is generally not going to be one of them no matter what your sensibilities, or making you homeless, or leaving you bereft of human affection, but beyond that: Is getting a "good job" in your interest? Entering into a "good marriage?" Getting a lot of money?
Still, you might say, yes, marriage, money, and employment are all social constructions, meaning that they'd all be practically meaningless terms if you were by yourself on an island, but given that we do live where we do, we do accept these as contributing to an ideal, so can't we then call them part of our self-interest? Well, "part," probably. But there are many variations in how the pieces can appear and fit together to form something that someone might honestly consider happiness (see our discussion with Owen Flanagan about different cultural and philosophical conceptions of happiness). There's enough commonality that you can't justify obnoxious behavior towards someone by saying they don't really have any clear "interests" that you can understand anyway, but there's enough divergence that it's very possible that even actions you take that you think to be in your interest may not really be in your interest, not just because you lack relevant knowledge of the scientific or social facts (e.g. you don't know that cigarettes will kill you, that someone you want to love is untrustworthy, or that the investment you're considering is actually worthless) but because you don't understand yourself.
Even the phrase "don't understand yourself" betrays a linguistic prejudice that there is a clear self already formed there that you just have to understand, but it's notoriously hard to justify a claim like this. If you "find yourself," did you really find something, or did you create it? And if you created it, did you do it "freely," as in you could have chosen to create any kind of self you set out to, or is the kind of self you create constrained in ways not apparent to consciousness? By virtue of our epistemic position, we can't really know this: we can only, through experience and literature and philosophy, come to understand some of the mechanics of how the care and building of a self is achieved.
Closely related to this is the phenomenology of desire. Part of identifying your self-interest is picking which desires are "you" and which are foreign incursions. If I take a drug that makes me homicidal, then from the point of view of my long-term, non-drugged self, the desire to kill would not be my own. Listeners to our Lacan episode will have an idea of how complicated this desire-claiming can be; we of course don't want to be in "bad faith" and deny that part of what is us really isn't, and we don't want to over-simplify like Plato and say that the appetitive parts of us are, if not actually foreign, the parts that need to be subjugated by reason, because reason itself then wouldn't have any motivating power: it would just be recognition of truths and relations between them without any actual desire behind it to give us "interests" we want to pursue at all.
My undergrad mentor and Nietzsche scholar Frithjof Bergmann said that as a culture, we're subject to the "poverty of desire." (Read more about Bergmann's views here and how they fit into his project here.) The passion to create a particular kind of art, for instance, needs cultivation. We need to work to get addicted to artistic creation, to get good enough at it that we're not frustrated and can tolerate and mitigate the false starts and writer's block and other creative dead ends that go with the endeavor. Many people will be familiar with this phenomenon when it comes to exercise: your body craves a good work-out only after you've gotten in the habit. Before that, you'll have lots of aches and ailments, but those won't by themselves induce the desire to exercise to address them... they're more likely to get you to eat or masturbate or go back to sleep.
In The Fountainhead, Rand seems to have successfully gotten much of this Nietzschean picture. She says that unreflective people don't have a sense of self at all and don't have any desires that are authentically theirs. Her picture of artistic creation is also appropriately arduous: it's not just a matter of "expressing yourself," but of cultivating a talent and an original vision, and that these in turn bring the desire to do it.
However, this insight is skewed by her personal vendettas. The point of the book is to complain about how society doesn't recognize and respect genius. Society, according to Rand, does put people on pedestals, but it's the wrong people; it's the ones who play to the least common denominator (this being ironic in that Rand's work itself is often accused of that same sin: it flatters the individual reader, whipping up his resentment against those masses brainwashed by altruism who get all the breaks through their lack of integrity). When we get into specifics re. who she considers genius and who is just overrated, it becomes more clear that her preferences are idiosyncratic and not just a matter of true quality vs. pretentious bullshit. Now, The Fountainhead mostly steers clear of specifics. She talks a lot about clean, economical forms in architecture being beautiful vs. useless ornamentation only there because of tradition, but I wonder if even assenting to this in the abstract we might not disagree about what buildings actually commit this aesthetic crime. I feel like she picked architecture, which most people don't know much about, and was vague in this way to let people's imaginations fill in the details.
This trait is exhibited elsewhere in the book: for instance, on several occasions characters that are supposed to be friends are described as "talking effortlessly," as having comfortable, familiar conversation or laughing together, but Rand's actual dialogue never actually shows us comfortable speech: the comfort is always people who understand each other so well that they don't have to talk. In both this and in the case of depiction of high art, telling and not showing saves her the trouble of having to excel in the thing depicted. This is often a problem in media: if you have a story about a genius writer (like in Californication) or brilliant comedy show (I don't suppose many other people watched Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) or composer (Mr. Holland's Opus), then you eventually have to show what this brilliant creation is, and the reality will fall short of the brilliance you're trying to depict. All this aside, still, her picture of what makes art good is very much in line with Santayana's: well-constructed forms are, even if hard to discern by the untrained eye, deeply appealing, and far superior to mere sentimentality where its not the work but what it connotes that's actually appealing, or a focus on surface aspects (the "matter" for Santayana, the ornamentation for Rand; note that Santayana isn't actually against ornamentation or matter, but sees it as the lesser part of great artistic effect).
By focusing on genius in talking about self-development, Rand gives the impression that the rest of us are just a bunch of sheep that can at best be honest with ourselves and recognize genius. One missing point here is that (as she recognizes) genius is individual, idiosyncratic, and so why would you think that being able to recognize genius in one area makes you able to recognize it in another? And I don't just mean in architecture vs. music, but even among creators in the same field, the intent and aesthetic will be different for different accomplished individuals. So from other things she wrote, we know she didn't like Shakespeare or James Joyce, two idiosyncratic geniuses often dismissed by the uncomprehending masses. There is something fake, of course, in the way that reverence for these two is passed down by academia so that those of us who haven't really invested the time into understanding them are likely to still admit their greatness without really feeling it. But the quality is there to be delved into by any that try, as is not the case for the overrated, faux artists that Rand depicts in The Fountainhead (my favorite is the guy she mentioned that wrote a whole long book without ever using the letter "o."). I have found, in general, that anything that other people honestly connect with probably has something going for it (yes, The Fountainhead included, which is part of why I'm bothering to engage Rand in this way). At this point, that's a guiding aesthetic principle for me, which means neither that I will affirm someone's greatness based on someone else's authoritative opinion nor will I discount someone because many people don't get it, though of course there are limits to the amount of time I have, and so many things that I can only look into a little bit, form what opinion I have even if it's pretty dismissive, but still state it while admitting the possibility that I might change my mind given further exposure.
Focusing on genius also defeats the purpose of making a general psychological point applicable to everyone. For an alternate model, my wife has recently made me aware of "The Happiness Project," a book and associated media that have inspired meet-ups around the country where people evaluate what makes them happy by trying different things and sharing experiences, e.g. re. exercise, food choices, job choices, time management, relationship management... really anything. This sounds like (I can't personally vouch for it) a very concrete form of self-building: figuring out what it is you actually want or, equivalently, refining those wants, that conception of your interest, by looking closely at what is actually working for you and what isn't. So while developing an original artistic vision may be one way to get addicted to life-affirming activity (and note that this certainly doesn't seem to have worked out for all our artistic geniuses, but Rand would doubtless have some diagnosis within her system for the many exceptions), it's certainly not necessary. At one point in The Fountainhead, the intellectually bankrupt frenemy of the hero of the story stops pouring his energy into his architecture, which he never liked anyway and just got into because of his mother's pressure, and spends a bunch of time painting (like George W. Bush?). In real life, finding this kind of outlet would be psychologically beneficial for the guy, no matter that he waited until late in life and doesn't have a lot of technical skill or any of that other cultivated material. The activity itself, given that he felt compelled to go do it repeatedly, would likely be rewarding and rejuvinating. But Rand pictures this activity as all hinging on the question, "Is this any good?" and when he shows his paintings to the hero, who tells him they're crap, then that's that. Rand does have a few characters, like a building foreman who works with the hero, who are neither geniuses nor corrupted by counterproductive philosophies, but there are pretty underdeveloped and by implication uninteresting.
I have on many occasions in the podcast expressed some skepticism about genius itself. My point there has not been to equivocate among all thinkers or anything like that, but to say that there just aren't magnitudes of difference between people who have put a lot of energy and time and training into thinking when they work through similar problems. What we call genius can be someone who sees a little clearly than most the next step in the dialectic, e.g. the problem with the conception of the problem itself (the "plane of immanence"), or who expresses himself with particular elegance, and/or who had the political skills to get himself in the canon or happened to be in tune with the zeitgeist either of his own time or of some time more recently when that person was rediscovered. Geniuses (artistic or philosophic ones anyway; I don't have a strong opinion about scientific or mathematical ones) aren't fundamentally different than other thinkers. The more key difference is between thinkers and non-thinkers. But even this latter difference is overrated by us academic snobs. Pretty much, if you start a conversation with anyone of reasonable intelligence, and really get into talking about what they care about, you'll find that they're not just mindlessly doing what was expected of them but have agonized a lot about what works and doesn't work for them, why they have made the choices they have, and what they think gives their lives meaning. You can still appreciate the value of philosophy without thinking everyone who doesn't explicitly pursue philosophy or a comparable intellectual pursuit is an idiot, much less doesn't have a self or any authentic desires.
This willful disregard for the humanity of the many people around her infects Rand's picture of self-development. Like Hegel/Buber/Lacan, etc., Rand thinks the self is built, but she marginalizes the role of other people in how this is built. She thinks personal relations--friendships and love--are only possible among those who already have a firm sense of self, who already know who they are and what they want. While I think there's some juice to that picture, in that you can have some pretty yucky co-dependent or thoroughly one-sided relationships when one or both of the participants is too weak, it's pretty silly to say that this is the norm, that other kinds of bonding are tainted. For the other figures we've talked about, seeing yourself through the other's eyes is not just an initial stage in getting a self in the first place that every infant goes through (though it is that), and it's not just a trap that can set you on a path of just fulfilling others' expectations (though it certainly can be), but it's a vital part of what we need as people, of how we develop throughout our lives, of how we can have any objectivity and thus honesty about ourselves at all. Because of this fundamentally social nature (discussed in our Aristotle on politics episode, among other places), our self-interest, our individual good, is inextricably intertwined with others'. We don't just help others out of some calculation that doing so makes us happy or is otherwise in our personal interest, but just because "the self" itself is defined to not just encompass this individual organism with its brain and body but a wider and necessarily indistinct field that at various points brings in family, community, and even humanity (and then some) as a whole.
For a vivid picture of how this might work (that doesn't refer to Hegel or Buber or any of them), I'll point back to Doug Hofstadter's idea that for everyone we meet, we get a low-fi version of that person's self living in our brain. This is not just an image of someone else, but a structure that's not fundamentally different than the way we encode our own sense of self, so that we can see things from that other person's point of view (if we know the person enough). Rand would say we should just banish all such others from our brains and be self-sufficient, but if consciousness is a matter of activating not only our identified self-self but also the many other-selves we've got stored in there, so that "consciousness" itself is not actually equivalent to either of these but is rather a process that happens involving all of them, then that's going to be first of all impossible, and second, according to Hofstadter immoral: for him, morality is the ability to enlarge oneself, to empathize as much as possible.
Whether or not Hofstader is even close to correct in his specific account, I think once you allow as Rand does that the self is built (or found only with difficult soul searching and trying things out), then you're going to have a picture of self-interest that is quite different than anything Hobbes pictured. Though Rand in The Fountainhead describes selfishness (acting according to self-interest), and hence ethical action, in terms of doing what you deep down really want, which I agree with in broad strokes. I would add that this only counts as a basis for ethics of you're not a sociopath; Rand notably seems to disagree with this proviso, and in fact the hero of The Fountainhead displays an emotional range that, if not simply unrealistic/contrived, can only be described as f'ed up. However, as the notion of self-interest gets used politically by self-proclaimed Randians, e.g. in saying that taxes are immoral because they violate the social contract by not being a good deal for the rich that pay them (in other words, the rich have implicitly agreed only to be in a society only insofar as they're receiving services like military and police protection and so only have agreed to pay up to receive those services and not ones like Medicare, unemployment, etc.). Even though building a true self is such a rare and miraculous achievement for Rand, we can apparently forget about that for political purposes and talk about self-interest in a simple, straightforward way without even bringing up complications with the notion of self. In this sense, Randians repeat Hobbes's naive mistake even though they do not (as I have wrongly attributed this to them at some points) believe his initial doctrine that everyone is selfish. What Randians do say is that Man is such that his teleology, his nature, inclines toward selfishness, such that if he's actually acting according to his nature, as Man, then he will be selfish. It's just that apparently acting like Man--according to Man's true rational nature--is in fact rare for Man, which should tell you that something weird is going on in the use of "Man's nature" here: it's talking about a potential, an ideal, and not just describing Man, and yet per Rand's epistemology, a careful observer should be able to just read this "fact" off of experience.
I'll modify the sentiment in my previous post about the bullshittiness of philosophy to recast it in way I heard long ago in the context of some kind of Eastern philosophy but have forgotten the source of. Much of philosophy is about giving advice for living. This is largely done not by coming up with always applicable criteria for living, a recipe book that anyone can pick up and follow to learn how to live, but by the advice-giver's being like a therapist or mentor: understanding where the the one seeking enlightenment is going wrong and then steering him away from the error. It's much easier to see where some pitfall lies and preach against it than to defend a central principle, whether it be Rand's or Christianity's or anyone else's, and judge all "errors" based on whether or not the person is acting according to that principle. Rand, like Nietzsche, correctly saw that a life of asceticism, of self-sacrifice, in most cases is unhealthy. People that try to be nice all the time are usually repressing stuff that will the bubble up and make them horrible. But she in turn (according to her former follower Nathanial Branden, anyway, the founder of the self-esteem movement in psychotherapy) advocated other kinds of repression: insisting too much that all of the emotions you allow must have certain kinds of motivations and rationales. Neither is the solution to demand that no repression occur at all, nor can we define a priori what kinds of repression are healthy and which or not. Philosophy on this model is a techne, an art for living and instructing each other and learning from each other, much like and hopefully a useful component to the art of constructing a coherent and livable self.