What Rationality Means in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Objectivism

Ayn Rand, novelist and philosopher of Objectivism, a philosophy for living on Earth.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand’s idea of rationality is one of the most misunderstood concepts in her Objectivist philosophy. It seems that almost everyone just assumes they know exactly what rationality means. Then, upon learning that Rand advocates consistent rationality, tend to judge Rand’s philosophy by their preconceived notion of rationality, without realizing their understanding is deeply flawed.

Here I’ll explain what rationality means in Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I’ll quote Rand for a brief, positive explanation of her concept of rationality. Then, because misconceptions are so prevalent, my further explanation will largely take the form of a series of myths about rationality, with genuine rationality explained in contrast to the myths.

In her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand describes rationality:

Rationality is man’s basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues. …

The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means one’s total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours. It means a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power and to the constant, active expansion of one’s perception, i.e., of one’s knowledge. It means a commitment to the reality of one’s own existence, i.e., to the principle that all of one’s goals, values and actions take place in reality and, therefore, that one must never place any value or consideration whatsoever above one’s perception of reality.  It means a commitment to the principle that all of one’s convictions, values, goals, desires and actions must be based on, derived from, chosen and validated by a process of thought—as precise and scrupulous a process of thought, directed by as ruthlessly strict an application of logic, as one’s fullest capacity permits.

So rationality consists of two components: a mental component and a physical component. It involves both thought and action. The thinking portion can be described as the rigorous application of objectivity in one’s own life. So when I discuss the myths about rationality, you should understand that what I say about the mental aspect of it applies to Ayn Rand’s concept of objectivity, as well. (Objectivity is frequently mischaracterized, along with rationality.)

Now to the myths:

Myth: Rationality means not making errors about facts.

Truth: Rationality means judging facts to the best of your ability on the basis of observation, rather than going by faith or feelings. Doing this is not a guarantee that you won’t make mistakes. Rational thought can still result in major errors about what the facts are.

The evidence may seem to point to one conclusion, because of limitations in what evidence you have access to. But there may be other evidence you’re not aware of that would lead you to a different conclusion. So long as you’re continually thinking and following the evidence to the best of your ability, you are acting rationally in regard to the facts.

Continue reading

The Proper Intellectual Attitude of an Objectivist

“No matter how vast your knowledge or how modest, it is your own mind that has to acquire it. It is only with your own knowledge that you can deal. It is only your own knowledge that you can claim to possess or ask others to consider. Your mind is your only judge of truth—and if others dissent from your verdict, reality is the court of final appeal.”
–John Galt in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

The fundamental intellectual attitude proper to an Objectivist is that of being an independent thinker first, and an Objectivist second. Any so-called Objectivist that accepts anyone as an authority over his mind is violating the philosophy of Objectivism at its root. An individual can learn concepts, methods and principles from others and obtain factual information from others, but if he is to be successful in finding truths and living happily, it is he who must judge for himself what is true and false by means of his own reasoning. He should not take anyone else’s word on faith, including Ayn Rand’s.

An individual should consider himself an Objectivist, not because he takes Ayn Rand’s ideas on faith, but because he has come to an intellectual agreement with Rand through his own observation and thought. He may have learned a lot from her writings, but a part of actual, conceptual learning is thinking critically about what one is learning and comparing it to reality, thus making it one’s own knowledge.

A student of Objectivism may suspend final judgment on the overall correctness of Rand’s ideas, due to his incomplete understanding of them, while learning about her philosophy and its arguments. Learning about Objectivism is a long process, (years) so in some issues, the student may suspend final disagreements for a significant period of time, based on his understanding and agreement with major principles he has already learned from the philosophy. (1) At every point along the way, however, the student should always act on his own best judgment at the time. He should never just assume Rand was correct and act on what he thinks Objectivism advocates, when he hasn’t seen a rational justification for it. If the student finds some tenet in the philosophy that, after an extended consideration of the evidence and arguments, he still would judge as incorrect, then he should make that judgment and regard Objectivism as wrong on that point. This attitude is inherent in being an independent thinker, and Objectivism wouldn’t have him anyway, if he weren’t (so to speak.)

To quote Atlas Shrugged again:
“Accept the fact that you are not omniscient, but playing a zombie will not give you omniscience—that your mind is fallible, but becoming mindless will not make you infallible—that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error.”


(1) The student in this case is not putting Ayn Rand’s mind or anyone else’s before his own. He is simply taking into account the full context of his knowledge, including the fact that he regards Ayn Rand as having made brilliant, sweeping integrations in philosophy. Thus, he takes extra care to understand and objectively assess her arguments before dismissing them.

[Edited: 5-11-12]