Philosophy: Who Needs It by Ayn Rand

At first glance, the title of this book could easily be misunderstood as a statement about the pointlessness of philosophy. But the true meaning is the complete opposite; notice the curious absence of a question mark. This is a book about who needs philosophy, not a question of whether or not we do.

The opening chapter was excellent. It was a clear, rational discussion of why an interest in philosophy is important for everyone. Every person has a philosophy, whether they think they do or not. It is the driving force behind your actions. The question is not whether you possess a personal philosophy, but whether you are conscious of it. And if you are unconscious of it – if you have never asked yourself, “Why do I believe what I believe?” – then it is driving your life without you realising it.

I had high hopes for this book, because Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism was highly influential on Anton LaVey (author of The Satanic Bible), who was highly influential on me. But after the first chapter, things became a bit of a mixed bag throughout the book. What I had hoped would follow was a thorough dissection of the important philosophical bases, such as whether the universe is all mind or all matter (idealism versus materialism). Instead, very little time is devoted to this, and the book becomes a collection of random essays with little in the way of common structure or logical direction.

Rand is definitely a highly rational person, but her brevity and preachy tone sometimes made her arguments difficult to follow. A recurring message throughout the book is anti-altuism, to the degree that it is portrayed as something close to the greatest evil of the current age. Her chief enemy, who is referenced often and somewhat obsessively, is Immanuel Kant. She makes good points, but it’s hard to get on board with all of her thinking, because she never stops to properly explain what it is that Kant asserts.

Rand denounces “idealism” (the view that mind is the primary reality and matter an illusion) far too quickly and unconvincingly. She is a materialist; she’s big on industrialisation and capitalism; has an alarmingly low view of those who take an interest in ecology. I couldn’t understand how anyone could malign those who are interested in saving the planet. There’s a lot of political philosophy in the book.

On epistemology, Rand asserts that man’s grasp of truth is objective – that, once found, a perceived truth is absolute. As such, she has little appreciation of the forward motion of knowledge throughout history, and the manner in which newly discovered contexts of enquiry (like quantum theory in the present age) make us reassess our notions about what we once thought was objectively true.

Another downside of the book was that several chapters were written as responses to influental books that were published around the time of writing. For a contemporary reader, who has little interest in past battles, these chapters would perhaps have been better written with a postitive voice directed at the reader, rather than an antagonistic voice directed at another writer.

On the plus side, it’s clear that Rand is a very rational person, and much as I disagree with some of the bases of her philosophy, I know I got something good out of reading this volume.

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