To John Hospers [Letter 457]

Item Reference Code: 141_HO1_006_001

Date(s) of creation

April 17, 1960


John Hospers


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36 East 36th Street
New York 16, N. Y.

April 17, 1960

Dear Professor Hospers:

Thank you for your very interesting letter and for the clippings you sent me [reporting on AR’s talk “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World” at Brooklyn College].

I am enclosing the copies of my four radio broadcasts, which I promised to send you, and a pamphlet on the history of capitalism [Notes on the History of American Free Enterprise by AR], which, I think, will be of interest to you. Please excuse my delay in sending these—the last of the broadcasts was not typed until yesterday.

Let me start by saying that I was extremely pleased to meet you and to know that you are interested in discussions of this kind. I am glad that you are reading “Atlas Shrugged.” For my part, I am reading your “An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis.” I believe that this will give us both a firmer base for future discussions.

I was pleased that you heard my last radio broadcast, but I am puzzled by your comments on it. I assume, however, that part of the difficulty is the absence of a full context. So I will not attempt to give you a full answer by mail—I would much prefer to do that in person. For the time being, I will mention only a few points.

1. In objecting to my description of modern classrooms, you say that you have not yet seen the beatnik poets admired in any English course. Have you seen James Joyce being admired in English courses? What literary standards taught in what courses have permitted the modern literati to hail the beatniks as a serious and significant literary movement?

2. I did not caricature Kant. Nobody can do that. He did it himself.

3. You write: “sometimes they (the teachers) seem to be concerned with minor or trivial points, especially when

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they employ technical language, as they must do to make progress in their particular field of knowledge.” You imply that this is what I would oppose. Far from it: I hold that no point is minor or trivial, in any field of knowledge—I hold that philosophers, above all, must be as meticulously precise as it is possible to be, and I am in favor of the most rigorous “hair-splitting,” where necessary—I hold that philosophy should be more precise than the strictest legal document, because much more is at stake—and I am in favor of the most technical language, to achieve such precision. But: I hold that minor or trivial points cannot be studied ahead of their major or basic antecedents—I hold that precision in the discussion of consequences is worthless, if it starts in midstream and leaves in a state of undefined, unidentified fogginess those matters which are known to be the causes of such consequences—and I hold that technical language is subject to the same rule as layman language, or slang, or anything that is to be defined as language, namely: that it must refer to reality and must denote something specific; if it does not, it is not language, but inarticulate sounds. (If, at this point, you are tempted to reply that “reality” is a “slippery” term, I will say that this is an instance of what I mean by the necessity of beginning any discussion by discussing fundamentals.)

4. This is the point (page 2 of your letter) which puzzles me most. You object to my classification of logical positivists as “witch-doctors”—and, instead of arguments, you resort to the method of calling me an “outsider” and implying my total philosophical ignorance. I assume that you did not intend to be insulting or offensive—and the reason for my assumption is the total context of my personal impression of you, of your letter and of your professional reputation. So I am acting on that assumption—and if I am wrong in assuming it, please correct me.

When I characterize or summarize any theory, I expect to be able to demonstrate the validity of my estimate to anyone in the field who cares to challenge it. Or, in colloquial terms: when I talk, I know what I’m talking about. Have I given you grounds to accuse me of ignorance or of rash judgments? If so, please name these grounds. The fact that I reach conclusions opposite to the generally accepted trend, is not one of them.

If you do not agree with me, please grill me on logical positivism—and if you prove me to be wrong, I will be glad to correct my views. But such proof will require agreement on the fundamentals of epistemology and on those

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very “criteria of verification” which, you claim, the logical positivists are studying and which, I claim, they are destroying.

If you care to discuss it, we would have to start with a discussion of Kant—since logical positivism is his epistemological descendant. I am sure you gathered from my speech at Brooklyn College that it is Kant that I am challenging, at his very root and base. I do not believe that modern philosophy can be discussed without reaching an understanding on Kant. Modern philosophy may and does depart from him on many issues, but it is his epistemological premises that have been accepted without challenge or proof. If you want to understand my philosophical position in a historical context, this is just a brief clue.

5. Now I come to the point which is the most important one for our mutual understanding. You recommend that I read “Ethical Theory” by Richard Brandt and your own forthcoming book “Human Conduct.” I will be very interested to read your book, in order to gain an understanding of your ideas. But what did you have in mind when you recommended the book by Mr. Brandt? You state that it “examines thoroughly virtually every theory of ethics ever propounded, together with detailed evaluations thereof.” I am sure that you understood me to say in my speech at Brooklyn College and in our discussion afterwards that I have defined a new theory of ethics, which is opposed to every existing one. Are you, therefore, implying that I made such a statement without any knowledge of past ethical theories? If so, what gave you grounds for it?

6. I trust that you did not conclude that “egoism” is the sum total of my ethical theory. I suppose that you probably know by now that it represents a much more radical departure from any historically accepted approach to morality. I mention this only because of the following passage on page 3 of your letter: “In philosophy, an ethical egoist is one who says, ‘I am the only person who counts. I should pursue MY OWN interests exclusively. If I could save a thousand starving people by lifting my little finger, I should not take the trouble, provided that their welfare does not affect mine.’ I am sure you are committed to no such thing: if you were, there would be no point in your caring about the fate of Western civilization, or coming to Brooklyn College without fee to address us. Thus, I conclude that your ethics belongs not under the general category of ‘egoism’ (except sometimes as to means) but is universalistic—it is concerned with all human beings, but is

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distinguished from ‘altruism’ if altruism means considering others exclusively at the expense of oneself.”

In whose philosophy? I assume you mean that this is a classification widely accepted in philosophy today. Well, I don’t accept it, because this sort of classification is what I would describe as superficial. My reasons are as follows:

a) This classification assumes hedonism as its basic premise, that is: happiness as the standard of the good—then divides ethical theories according to the recipients of the happiness: oneself, others or all. But hedonism is not a valid ethical premise; “happiness” is not an irreducible primary; it is the result, effect and consequence of a complex chain of causes. To say: “The good is that which will make me happy or that which will serve my interests,” does not indicate what will make me happy or what will serve my interests. Hedonism, of course, assumes that the standard is emotional, subjective and arbitrary: anything that makes you feel happy is the good. But a feeling is not a standard of anything.

b) This classification assumes a clash of interests among men as a basic primary, without defining what is to anyone’s interest, and yet—

c) it simultaneously presumes to dictate the specific content of one’s self-interest, by decreeing that if I were to take the trouble to save others by lifting my little finger, I would thereby place myself outside the category of “egoism” and into the category of “universalism.” By what standard?

Observe the illustrations you offer: if by caring about the fate of Western Civilization or by coming to speak at Brooklyn College without fee, I am no longer pursuing my own interests exclusively—what would my own exclusive interests consist of? Living in the Dark Ages? Surrendering the society I live in to irrationality and communism?

Now, as to your remarks about capitalism:

1. You say that you speak on politics from general observation and not as a philosopher. This is a point of difference between us: I never think or speak of anything except as a philosopher.

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2. By now, you probably know the exact nature and reasons of my views on capitalism. So I will not attempt to argue with the allegations that you make against it—I will say only that I do not agree with you.

3. I would like to ask you a question, which no critic of capitalism has ever answered: if capitalists are as evil as you say they are, what magic faculty endows a politician with virtue? If men who deal with others by means of voluntary trade are selfish monsters—how does the possession of a gun, with the right to force others, transform a man into a selfless public servant?

4. I will not state this point as an arbitrary assertion, but only as a question: doesn’t your attitude toward capitalism support the thesis of my last radio broadcast? If you who, to my knowledge, are one of the most rational minds in modern philosophy, do not choose to identify the nature and the actual working of capitalism, but reject it, offering no argument or theory except: “greed”—isn’t that an illustration of the fact that the morality of altruism has made it impossible for philosophers to evaluate capitalism? I do not want to be right, in this particular instance—and I hope that you will correct me.

As I said at the start, I would like to continue this discussion in person. May I invite you to my house on the evening of Friday, April 22 or Saturday, April 23? Would you telephone me at Murray Hill 5-4843 and let me know whether either date is convenient for you?

Until then, please accept the length of this letter as the best proof I can offer you of my serious interest.

Sincerely yours,


Ayn Rand