Is it fair to characterise Ayn Rands philosophy 'Objectivism' as a blending of Nietzsche's Übermensch and American individualism?

5

I said this to a friend once, but told her to keep it quiet as I couldn't back it up as I haven't read any of her works, nor even a solid introduction. I formed my snap judgement on the basis of a synopsis of 'Atlas Shrugged', one of her novels. Is my judgement a fair characterisation or am I making a philosophical faux-pas?

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2012-06-10T20:47:55.260

Reputation: 1

Neitzsche's Ubermensch is individualistic too. – Ron Maimon – 2012-07-15T08:54:53.303

Answers

1

I think I can contribute some points even though I have to admit limited knowledge about Nietzsches philosophy.

What I do know from biographical information ("Godess of the market" by Jennifer Burns) is that she was familiar and quite sympathetic to Nietzsche in her younger years.

From that biography I also have the following quotation:

[...]as when she wondered, if perhaps "the rational faculty is the dominant characteristic of the better species, the Superman."

(The text before the double quotes is by Burns and she gives the sources as Journals, 291, 281 and 285.)

As someone who is extremely appreciative of Rand and at least superficially familiar with Nietzsche I venture to guess that they indeed both understood by that the same (and to me rather obvious) idea: That only very few people achieve great things while a majority likes telenovelas.

A more well-known connection to Nietzsche can be found in the foreword of "The Fountainhead", where Rand admits to have considered putting the following quotation in her novel:

It is not the works, but the BELIEF which is here decisive and determines the order of rank--to employ once more an old religious formula with a new and deeper meaning--it is some fundamental certainty which a noble soul has about itself, something which is not to be sought, is not to be found, and perhaps, also, is not to be lost.--THE NOBLE SOUL HAS REVERENCE FOR ITSELF.

(From beyond Good and Evil by Nietzsche.)

Rand tells us that she decided against using the quotation because it "proclaims psychological determinism" - something she abhorred.

I believe that the quotation might be a key commonality between Nietzsche and Rand in contrast to most philosophers and intellectuals: To give one's own life importance rather than sacrifice it to something or someone else.

In the foreword she goes on to say about the quotation:

This view of man has rarely been expressed in human history. Today, it is virtually non-existent. Yet this is the view with which—in various degrees of longing, wistfulness, passion and agonized confusion—the best of mankind’s youth start out in life. It is not even a view, for most of them, but a foggy, groping, undefined sense made of raw pain and incommunicable happiness. It is a sense of enormous expectation, the sense that one’s life is important, that great achievements are within one’s capacity, and that great things lie ahead.

This view might be one of the crucial intersection of Nietzsche with Rand and thus give the impression of her being a blend of Nietzsche with something else.

These points of contact nonwithstanding, the claim of Rand's philosophy being a blend of Nietzsche with American individualism is wrong. Since American individualism isn't an actual philosophy, it suffices to show philosophical work that has no precedence in Nietzsche.

I've picked three articles that together spread over a range of fields in philosophy and should be comprehensible and intriguing. They should show that there are numerous gems of ideas in Rand's philosophical work - gems that (to my knowledge) are not of Nietzschean origin.

I also made sure to pick unusual ones (as opposed to writings dealing with selfishness, capitalism and reason, which are the usual suspects when it comes to Rand).

  • 'The anatomy of compromise' in 'Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal'
  • 'Art and moral treason' in 'The Romantic Manifesto'
  • 'The establishing of an establishment' in 'Philosophy, who needs it?'

I strongly recommend reading these articles.

John

Posted 2012-06-10T20:47:55.260

Reputation: 190

Individualism isn't an academic philosophy, but it is a folk philosophy. One of Rands aims was to give it academic backing. – Mozibur Ullah – 2013-12-30T10:20:09.983

@MoziburUllah Far from folk philosophy, Individualism has had a strong presence in economic philosophy for hundreds of years, which integrates into a broader political philosophy. Political philosophies are often justified through Ethics. Rand's goal was to provide the ethical justification for individualism. – Lucretius – 2015-04-08T20:23:07.357

@lucretius: perhaps; Hume distinguished between the easy and philosophy; and I'd say she was an easy philosopher; a polemicist in style of Paine or Arundhoti. – Mozibur Ullah – 2015-04-09T09:26:41.390

I (and Rand by the way) don't think that there is any kind of "folk-only" philosophy without roots in leading intellectuals - although maybe some of the origins may be unknown for the really old, religious ones. What exactly "American individualism" is really rooted in is a difficult question with a complicated answer I believe - and that's also because it is, like so many labels for ideologies, more than just one single thing. – John – 2015-04-09T10:22:34.157

@john: sure; and Hume makes exactly the same point; and the same goes for any other writer - from Charles Handy to Naipaul, or further back Cicero; but one can't place her at the same conceptual scale as Aristotle or Kant. – Mozibur Ullah – 2015-04-09T13:25:40.647

In the same way that any serious mathematician wouldn't mistake accountancy for mathematics, though 'folks' do; or computer science or even programming for messing around with configuration settings, though again 'folks' do... – Mozibur Ullah – 2015-04-09T13:28:50.220

One might argue that these - Mathematics and Computer Science are specialist subjects, but so is Philosophy with a long tradition rooted in Greece but she shows little sign of this in her own writing; but then again, to be charitable this might have been done deliberately to not scare her audience, or go over their heads. – Mozibur Ullah – 2015-04-09T13:40:27.197

I agree with you that American Individualism is a many-faceted thing; and it's easier to position her within that tradition with a little exotic East European glamour. – Mozibur Ullah – 2015-04-09T13:42:00.587

2

No, it would be wrong to interpret Objectivism as a blending of Nietzsche's Übermensch because Objectivism covers several areas of philosophy. (I'll leave aside American individualism because that's too vague a concept for my point.) Even if Objectivist ethics were¹ identical to Nietzsche's Übermensch's, Objectivism covers metaphysics, epistemology and politics too. In other words, these are not comparable simply because of the difference in the breadth of concepts covered under each. "Ayn Rand" and "Friedrich Nietzsche" are comparable in that they are both concepts of equal breadth, but it makes no sense to contrast Ayn Rand's views on music and the entire body of Postmodernism.

Some philosophers have seen a similarity between Ayn Rand's individualism and that of Nietzsche. I quote the article The Transformation of Nietzschean Ideas in The Fountainhead by Lester H. Hunt:

Though Rand's spirited disclaimer serves to remind us of her deep differences with Nietzsche, the quotation itself suggests that there might be an interesting philosophical, not merely literary or emotional, connection between The Fountainhead and Nietzsche's ideas. What I would like to show here is that this connection merits a much closer look than it has ever been given heretofore. Not only is the presence of Nietzschean themes in Rand's novel deep and pervasive, but the book actually contains a very interesting and powerful internal critique of one of Nietzsche's most characteristic ideas, a criticism based in large part on values and assumptions that he shares.

For a detailed contrast of Rand's and Nietzsche's views on individualism, I refer you to the aforementioned article by Prof. Hunt's that, humorously, treats The Fountainhead as a critique of the work of Nietzsche.

¹ - it isn't.

prash

Posted 2012-06-10T20:47:55.260

Reputation: 884

1Well crafted answer! This is probably as good an answer as one can expect without getting granular in ones analysis. I think it would be fair to say "there are some vague similarities between Ayn Rand and Nietzsche." When you "look under the hood" they are in two completely different worlds. – Lucretius – 2014-08-15T19:27:51.293

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Obviously you are making assumptions from a small amount of information and know it. You need to read her original material, but no its not a blending, it is a unique philosophy. Nietchze still believed in sacrafice in reverse, sacrificing others to yourself.

Ayn Rand in brief: Every value has to be produced. If you are not producing values, you are not rationally selfish. Therefore a thief is not selfish and a beggar is not selfish. Goods come from working. It doesn't support violating rights.

It is influenced by the American founding fathers whom didn't express such a philosophy explicity. In Ayn Rand's opinion America failed because of this, because it didn't have its own philosophy and instead fell under the influence of European philosophy. Individual rights were forgotten, and the Constitution continually misunderstood.

John Tate

Posted 2012-06-10T20:47:55.260

Reputation: 299

I would suggest everyone without exception has synthesiszes values from the world of values that they imbibe both conciously & unconciously. Rational self-interest exists only in an anaemic mathematical universe, not in the human here & now, we live, if one must put it this way, in a world of extreme information asymmetries, better, a world of apparitions taken as realities as we have no other. We navigate by instinct, by feeling and divination; by our contemporaries and by exalted ancestors. Reason is just codified excreta of these more fundamental processes. – Mozibur Ullah – 2012-06-13T04:35:27.920

Philosophy can be expressed through action, though one expects in a highly literate culture, a gesture towards explication. Given the history of the Americas (the annihilation of the indigenous culture), one can only expect variations on European themes. Had they engaged on equal terms, a more distinctive philosophy could have emerged. Looking at the early history of greek philosophy, one notes that it developed in the colonies, and I suspect it was the friction/engagement/assimilation between cultures that drove this. – Mozibur Ullah – 2012-06-13T04:44:27.857

@MoziburUllah, peruse the online Ayn Rand Lexicon if, if (that's a big if) you're genuinely interested in answers to questions regarding her philosophy. – Alfred Centauri – 2012-07-13T23:57:16.067

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It is clear from Rand's writing and recorded talks (as well as bibliographic works about her) that she was influenced by Nietzsche in her youth, and had a detailed knowledge of his philosophy and works. However, it is incorrect to regard her philosophy as a blending of his work with individualist philosophy. Though Rand was clearly influenced by Nietzsche in certain respects, her philosophy is contrary to his on all major points in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Rand addressed the differences between her own philosophy of Objectivism, and the philosophy of Nietzsche, in detail in a recorded talk in 1967 at Columbia University. She speaks in detail on Nietzsche's views in these fields, and the divergence of his views from her own.

Like Nietzsche (and perhaps partly due to his influence), Rand rejected the moral philosophy of altruism as evil. She uses similar terminology to Nietzsche here, referring to it as the "philosophy of death" and explaining her rejection of altruism in a way that is reminiscent of the way Nietzsche wrote about it. (In her talk in the link she makes the point that Nietzsche has some very wise quotes on these matters, and so it appears that she has been influenced by him at least stylistically, in the manner in which she portrays altruism as evil.) Although Rand agrees with Nietzsche that this is a false and evil moral philosophy, and she adopts certain stylistic similarities to him, they disagree profoundly on what the correct moral philosophy is. Nietzsche regards it as good for man to evolve into the "overman" by pursuing the will to power, whereas Rand argues that man should pursue rational egoism, under which man does not sacrifice himself to others or others to himself (for a more details comparison, see e.g., Hicks 2000).


Here is some of what Rand says about Nietzsche in the linked talk:

The idea that reality consists of a "will" contradicts everything about Objectivist epistemology and the Objectivist method. That is, you do not start with wide undefined floating abstractions devoid of any rationally defensible or demonstrable meaning. The idea of a will representing reality is just as bad and of the same order as the idea of any philosophical idealist who claims that reality consists of an "idea"; not somebody's idea, but just an idea. ... This is why I regard Nietzsche, philosophically, as a mystic. Because reality to him is not real; he does not recognise the objectivity of reality. He is a subjectivist to that extent... If the ultimate reality is a will then it means the subjective will, or in fact whim, of any particular individual. (3:50-4:56 minutes)

In Nietzschean philosophy is this mystical undefined concept of "will" without any definition of what that will is, nor what it is to achieve. It is a mystical package-deal. Incidentally, this is why existentialists, which are the living mystical philosophy of today, classify Nietzsche as one of their ancestors.... They are right in doing that; he does belong in their category. They also advocate commitment to some kind of values for no reason but an arbitrary choice of the individual. (16:00-16:46 minutes)


Hick, S.R.C. (2000) Egoism in Nietzsche and Rand. Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 10(2), pp. 249-291.

Ben

Posted 2012-06-10T20:47:55.260

Reputation: 1 508

-1

Ayn Rand was not a Philosopher. If you look through some college philosophy department listings, you will not find 'Objectivism.' In the course of getting my B.A. in Philosophy, the only time I heard her name mentioned was in crude jokes. She failed philosophy classes as a student. She is not qualified to speak about Nietzsche, and it is clear from her writing that she did not understand whatever it is that she read. American Individualism has always included responsibilities and social justice to go along with rights, but Rand refutes this.

Tim Suliman

Posted 2012-06-10T20:47:55.260

Reputation: 49

5Downvote for "Ayn Rand was not a philosopher". You (and your philosophy department) may consider Ayn Rand to be a nutcase, a crank, an idiot, incoherent or just incompetent, but none of those things preclude Ayn Rand from being a philosopher. The practice of philosophy doesn't require a license, permission, or acceptance by any specific group. – philosodad – 2013-05-19T23:39:05.840

2In you look through some college department listings you also won't find references to Theano II, Hypatia, Aesara of Lucania, Heloise, Emile du Chatelet, Simone de Beauvior, or well any women philosophers. You won't hear their names mentioned in many departments also. That doesn't imply them as not philosophers, as they did deal with philosophical topics and do so on the basis of reason. The same goes for Ayn Rand. That doesn't imply her philosophical ideas as great or profound or worth reading. But, she's still a philosopher. – Doug Spoonwood – 2013-05-21T01:10:49.020

The way this answer is phrase suggests that their is a connection between the last sentence about her having refuted something and her status as a philosopher. This makes Tim look as if he questions her status because he doesn't like her attitudes rather than whether she actually did philosophy. – John – 2013-12-12T11:00:52.663

"She failed philosophy classes as a student." [Citation Needed] Also is there not a contradiction between referencing her writing, "it is clear from her writing that she did not understand whatever it is that she read" and simultaneously admitting a lack of expertise on her work when you admit, " the only time I heard her name mentioned was in crude jokes?" – Lucretius – 2015-01-11T20:20:45.957

1Hi Tim, I down-voted because, evidently, your B.A. in Philosophy taught you nothing. – Alfred Centauri – 2012-08-07T21:01:19.363

1I thought this was helpful and earnest. +1 to counter – Joseph Weissman – 2012-08-07T22:47:22.853

@suliman: ditto. Would you classify her as a cult or as some kind of social movement, I gather she is quite popular in the states. – Mozibur Ullah – 2012-08-08T03:00:59.627

5@JosephWeissman, Tim Suliman makes the claim that AR was not a philosopher. As first evidence to support this claim, Tim offers that "Objectivism" is not in philosophy department listings and that her name is mentioned in crude jokes. Are you seriously suggesting that such "reasoning" is proper? Do you believe that Tim has genuinely supported his claim? Do you believe that this kind of "reasoning" is in any way proper, philosophically speaking? Do you believe that a person with a B.A. in Philosophy should "think" in this way at all? – Alfred Centauri – 2012-08-09T02:36:43.553

2

See this, and this as a genuine evidence contrary to the unsupported claim "Ayn Rand was not a Philosopher".

– Alfred Centauri – 2012-08-09T02:44:57.850

1@Centauri: Borges writes philosophical stories, but he doesn't claim to be a philosopher. – Mozibur Ullah – 2012-08-09T06:41:23.607

1@MoziburUllah, are you seriously suggesting that this fact supports the claim "Ayn Rand was not a Philosopher"? – Alfred Centauri – 2012-08-10T00:58:19.443

1@Centauri: I think it helps a bit. Its not the whole case. – Mozibur Ullah – 2012-08-10T19:47:30.380

Regrettably, the university I attended did offer a number of classes every semester on Objectivism. I did not take any of them, nor did I earn a philosophy degree from said university. – Cody Gray – 2017-01-18T18:28:28.007