Although Ayn Rand defined a full philosophic system, which she called Objectivism, she never wrote a comprehensive, nonfiction presentation of it. Rand’s interest in philosophy stemmed originally from her desire to create heroic fictional characters for her novels, especially Atlas Shrugged, whose final philosophic speech she called Objectivism’s “briefest summary.”
In 1976, philosopher Leonard Peikoff, her longtime student and associate, gave a lecture course that Rand described as “the only authorized presentation of the entire theoretical structure of Objectivism, i.e., the only one that I know of my own knowledge to be fully accurate.”
Following Rand’s death, Peikoff edited and reorganized those lectures to produce Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, the first comprehensive statement of her philosophy. Published in 1991, this book presents Rand’s entire philosophy — metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and esthetics — in essentialized and systematic form.
— Ayn Rand, “A Last Survey,” The Ayn Rand Letter
In his preface, Leonard Peikoff explains: “I have presented the ideas of Objectivism, their validation, and their interrelationships. . . . I have covered every branch of philosophy recognized by Miss Rand and every philosophic topic . . . which she regarded as important.”
A listing of all twelve chapter titles conveys the breadth of this work and of Rand’s philosophy: Reality, Sense Perception and Volition, Concept-Formation, Objectivity, Reason, Man, The Good, Virtue, Happiness, Government, Capitalism, and Art.
Among the book’s many values are the many fascinating connections it traces among Objectivism’s principles and its extensive discussions of subjects that Rand published little or nothing about, such as the validity of the senses and the nature of certainty. Peikoff explains that he acquired this knowledge of Rand’s ideas from extensive private philosophic discussions with her. “Our discussions were not a collaboration: I asked questions; she answered them.”
“All philosophic questions are interrelated. . . . Suppose . . . , you read an article by Ayn Rand and glean from it only one general idea . . . man should be selfish. How, you must soon ask, is this generality to be applied to concrete situations? What is selfishness? Does it mean doing whatever you feel like doing? What if your feelings are irrational? But who is to say what’s rational or irrational? And who is Ayn Rand to say what a man should do, anyway? Maybe what’s true for her isn’t true for you, or what’s true in theory isn’t true in practice. What is truth? Can it vary from one person or realm to another? And, come to think of it, aren’t we all bound together? Can anyone ever really achieve private goals in this world? If not, there’s no point in being selfish. What kind of world is it? And if people followed Ayn Rand, wouldn’t that lead to monopolies or cutthroat competition, as the socialists say? And how does anyone know the answers to all these (and many similar) questions? What method of knowledge should a man use? And how does one know that?”
— Leonard Peikoff, “Reality,” Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand called her philosophy “Objectivism” because central to it is a new conception of objectivity. Traditionally, objectivity has meant the attempt to efface the knower out of existence, so that consciousness can “mirror” or “copy” reality, “untainted” by any processing. Skeptics then bewail the possibility of man knowing reality, since any attempt to do so must make use of his senses and/or rational faculty, both of which engage in processing.
Rand challenges this whole approach. The “satisfaction of every need of a living organism,” she writes, “requires an act of processing by that organism, be it the need of air, of food or of knowledge.” Objectivity consists in a mind grasping the facts by the correct mental processes. As Peikoff formulates her view: “To be objective in one’s conceptual activities is volitionally to adhere to reality by following certain rules of method, a method based on facts and appropriate to man’s form of cognition.”
According to Ayn Rand, explains Leonard Peikoff, man conceptualizes the requirements of human survival by forming principles. A moral principle “is a type of scientific principle, identifying the relationship to man’s survival of the various basic human choices.”
One who acts on moral principle, therefore, is “neither a martyr, a zealot, nor a prig; he is a person guided by man’s distinctive faculty of cognition. For a rational being, principled action is the only effective kind of action. To be principled is the only way to achieve a long-range goal. . . . In the Objectivist view, moral principles are not luxuries reserved for ‘higher’ souls or duties owed to the supernatural. They are a practical, earthly necessity to anyone concerned with self-preservation.”
And the importance of principled action extends far beyond moral issues. “Every science and every field of thought,” Peikoff states, “involves the discovery and application of principles.”
“Philosophy is a human need as real as the need of food,” Leonard Peikoff writes in explaining Ayn Rand’s view. “It is a need of the mind, without which man cannot obtain his food or anything else his life requires. To satisfy this need, one must recognize that philosophy is a system of ideas.”
In modern times, the very idea of a philosophic system has fallen into disrepute, even among philosophers. But according to Peikoff, a systematic approach is not an option that can be dispensed with. “All philosophic questions are interrelated,” he states. “One may not, therefore, raise any such questions at random, without the requisite context. If one tries the random approach, then questions (which one has no means of answering) simply proliferate in all directions.”
In this book, Peikoff not only identifies the principles of Objectivism but also explains how they form an integrated system.
The issue of man’s free will has occupied philosophers for centuries. In the debate over free will vs. determinism, Objectivism holds that determinism is self-contradictory, undercutting the validity of all knowledge.
But what is the nature of free will? Rand’s view, summarized here by Peikoff, is that man’s primary choice is “the one that makes conceptual activity possible,” namely, “the choice to focus one’s consciousness.”
“In regard to thought, as to vision, the same alternative exists: clear awareness or a state of blur, haze, fog, in which relatively little can be discriminated.” The difference is that in the case of thought one’s particular state of consciousness is willed, ranging on a spectrum from a mental state akin to a “drunk who has not yet passed out” to the “active mind intent on understanding whatever it deals with.”
Focus identifies “a quality of purposeful alertness,” Peikoff writes, “the state of a goal-directed mind committed to attaining full awareness of reality.”
In the conclusion of the book, Leonard Peikoff places Ayn Rand’s philosophy in historical context. In his epilogue, “The Duel Between Plato and Aristotle,” Peikoff argues that philosophy is the prime mover of history, and that the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle have shaped Western civilization.
To Plato’s influence he ascribes the rise of mysticism, the Dark Ages and the growth of virulent statism in modern times. To Aristotle’s influence he ascribes the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the United States of America.
Just as Plato’s premises found their purest expression in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Aristotle’s find their purest expression in the philosophy of Ayn Rand. “Kant’s philosophy is Platonism without paganism,” Peikoff writes. “Ayn Rand’s philosophy is Aristotelianism without Platonism.”
Mankind’s future hangs in the balance: “The only man who can stave off another Dark Ages,” Peikoff writes, “is the Father of the Enlightenment.”