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Nathaniel Branden: "The Vision of Ayn Rand: The Basic Principles of Objectivism" — a review
Submitted by Ted Keer on Tue, 2009-12-22 00:34
With all the news this year about Ayn Rand — the record-smashing sales of her decades-old novels, her name on placards at the Tea Party protests, the publication of her collected speeches and interviews, and not just one but two mainstream biographies — perhaps the most exciting is the publication of this book which contains, for the first time in print, the lecture series Rand authorized Nathaniel Branden to disseminate to teach her philosophy.
While the two recent Rand biographies describe her from an outside viewpoint — her place on the American Right and among libertarians worldwide, the popularity of her fiction, and the extreme reactions, positive and negative, she provokes in readers — neither memoir actually delves into the details and the essence of her philosophical system. Yes, you may know that she stood for "reality, reason, enlightened self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism." But if you don't know what she meant by the "fallacy of the stolen concept," or if you can't explain the meta-ethical "indestructible robot" thought-experiment on which she grounds her argument for the secular objectivity of ethical truths then you do not understand her philosophy. Christopher Hitchens holds that you cannot refute an argument which you have not stated in its own strongest form. Nathaniel Branden says, "One does not know a philosophy if ones knows merely its conclusions, but not the reasoning that led to them." Whether you want to attack or defend or merely learn Ayn Rand's philosophy, this book will provide you with all the essential points upon which to base your judgments and enough concrete examples to make sure your understanding is well grounded.
Yet, for all its value, the book does have its complications. As printed, the work is a faithful transcription of the actual taped lecture series distributed with Rand's express approval as it was in the late 1960's. Unmodified, its contemporary cultural references are dated. That it is a spoken rather than a strictly scripted lecture is evident from the occasional run-on sentence and awkward or inappropriate word choice. The trade off, though, is that we know we have an accurate historical document. This is not a bowdlerized text such as we have in so many of Ayn Rand's posthumously published works, like her Journals, in which "nearly every page," says biographer Jennifer Burns, shows "an unacknowledged change" by the editor.
There are criticisms to be made. As with most early Objectivst works, the book suffers from its overuse of Rand's novels as source material. As one might expect from a raw transcript of spoken lectures it lacks citations and scholarly references. It suffers from a stilted overuse of Objectivist jargon such as "mystics" and "looters." And much of the work overlaps with subsequently published material. There has been a troubling history among supposedly "facts-first" Objectivists of rewriting history and rewriting the essays of former associates of Rand who were at some point expelled from her orbit or that of her heir, Leonard Peikoff. Publication of this work shows just how derivative and secondhand is Peikoff's own manual, which was written to supersede it in the catalog once, after the end of their affair, Branden was "permanently repudiated" by Rand. But interest in this work will not at all be limited to historians. There are more than enough tidbits, like Nathaniel Branden's discussion of perceptual form in connection with the validity of sense-perception (expanded at length in David Kelley's Evidence of the Senses), and Barbara Branden's lucid examples of just what does and does not amount to actual thought in her lecture on efficient thinking, to make this book of interest to all readers, no matter what their familiarity with philosophy in general or Objectivism in particular.
As for the format of the book, it consists of a brief dramatic introduction by Barbara Branden which quotes both Rand and the Rand-scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra as to the canonicity of the work. Roger Bissell, who spearheaded the project, and Roger Campbell and Patrecia and Jerry Biggers who helped Bissell transcribe the taped lectures are thanked in a brief acknowledgment. Then the main text of the work fills 527 pages in 20 chapters. This is followed by a revised reprint of Nathaniel Branden's 1984 apologia, The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. The book ends with indices of terms and names comprising 31 pages. The table of contents mirrors the chapter heads (the chapters have no breaks for subsections) as follows:
1. The Role of Philosophy. What is philosophy?—The historical role of reason—The bankruptcy of today’s culture—Objectivism—Objectivism vs. subjectivism.
As it stands, this work is one that will have an immediate place in the Objectivist canon. Yet I can't help but express my hope that it undergoes a second edition while Nathaniel Branden is still with us. The layout itself is visually uninspired. Other than paragraph breaks, the chapters have no substructure. The relatively large print and nondescript typesetting remind you of a pamphlet, and make the reading seem more tedious than the fascinating subject matter would suggest. The epilogue, a reprint of what, except for his memoir, is the longest statement of Branden's history with and later opinion of Rand, is oddly out of place. Those who already suspect Branden's motives will not be convinced. Even those who are sympathetic or have no opinion on his break with Rand will find odd such comments as this:
"There are certain difficulties inherent in discussing Rand's philosophy. One is the necessary task of separating her basic ideas from her style of presentation. She could be abrasive; she could make sweeping generalizations that needed explanations that she did not provide; she made very little effort to understand other intellectual contexts and to build bridges from those contexts to hers."
Haven't we just read 527 pages in that very same style by the master's most apt pupil, Branden himself?
In a second edition, one could hope for a remedy to the layout issues. One could hope to find, rather than a co-opted epilogue, a scholarly prologue that comments on the nature of the text, that remarks how it inspired subsequent Objectivist works that copied or expanded upon it, that describes how the lectures changed over the decade they were offered, and, perhaps, that provides some hints of the corrections that Branden's current epilogue suggests are needed. The text could certainly be carefully referenced and annotated, if not by Branden, then by some scholar he trusts, to provide just those bridges to contexts outside Rand's own that would make this work an undeniable part of the academic mainstream.
Until then this book remains a fascinating and invaluable work, one that ranks no lower in interest and value than Rand's own non-fiction. It is of value not just because it presents the Objectivist stand on so many issues, but because it shows the method of thought that results in those stands. For good or bad it documents Branden's central place in the history of Objectivism. It will appeal equally on their own levels to scholars, critics, Rand aficionados and those simply interested in learning about Objectivism. Rand readers will only wish for more.
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