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.

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A Critique of Kant on the Noumenal World / Phenomenal World Distinction (“Thing-in-Itself” vs “Appearance”)

Portrait of Immanuel Kant. The German philosopher and writer of the Critique of Pure Reason, whose philosophy is under discussion.

Immanuel Kant

Another reddit user with an interest in Ayn Rand and Objectivism, /u/Abstract_Atheist, posted a “Quick and Easy Refutation of the Noumenal Realm” on reddit. (The “noumenal realm” is commonly described to be Immanuel Kant’s term for the universe “as it is in itself,” apart from human perception. According to Kant, the human apparatus of perception renders the “things-in-themselves” as “appearances,” or roughly synonymously, as “phenomena.”)

Abstract_Atheist’s supposed refutation was to say that, for example, the noumenal realm is either yellow or non-yellow. If it is yellow, then one of our concepts applies to it, (“yellow.”) If it is not yellow, then one of our concepts still applies to it, (“non-yellow.”) In either case, a human concept applies to it, thus (supposedly) negating the noumenal realm’s defining status as outside human cognition.

I, however, do not consider this a good refutation for a reason I outline below. In this, I loosely agree with a comment made by another user (/u/drunkentune.)

My own refutation of Kant’s distinction between “appearance” and “thing-in-itself,” along with my defense of it against /u/wokeupabug, is the subject of my comments below. (I am Sword_of_Apollo):

Sword_of_Apollo:

/u/drunkentune has a point. Non-axiomatic concepts are contextual and can’t generally be said to divide all of existence between themselves and their antitheses. I make this point in my discussion of fairness and justice.

I think the real quick and easy refutation of the “noumenal realm” is a statement of the axioms:

1. Existence exists.

2. An existent is itself.

3. Consciousness perceives existence.

This last axiom directly eliminates any distinction between a “noumenal” and “phenomenal” realm. I discussed this with /u/ReallyNicole in a thread, here.

Also, as a side-note, have you listened to or read Understanding Objectivism and/or Objectivism Through Induction?

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The Arbitrary (from The Objectivism Seminar)

The Objectivism Seminar is a podcast series that features informal discussions of the works of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, and others, (mostly Objectivist intellectuals.) It takes the form of a conference call between a number of Objectivists/Students of Objectivism, where they summarize, discuss and mull over the ideas presented.

This episode features a nice discussion of the section of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism (OPAR), titled “The Arbitrary as Neither True Nor False.”

The Objectivism Seminar: The Arbitrary

Here’s the TalkShoe page for the podcast.

Here’s the Ayn Rand Lexicon page on the Arbitrary.

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Related Posts:

Objectivism vs. Intrinsicism vs. Subjectivism: A Short Summary

The Bible (New Testament) as Evidence

A Refutation of the Argument from Design

The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes