All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 1984

Book Review: The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand edited by Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen

(University of Illinois Press, 54 East Gregory Drive, Champaign, IL 61820), 1984 • 235 pages • $21.95 cloth

Ayn Rand has inspired thousands of young people to further study of economic and political liberty—and to professional careers in philosophy and other disciplines. Her novels gave readers examples of real heroes in a time when the heroic in man was being disparaged, and set up standards of truth and right in an age of relativism. Her philosophic thought, as expressed in both her novels and her essays, provided her readers with intellectual tools for analyzing social problems and for understanding the individual’s place in the world.

Partly because of Rand’s extremely forceful, often polemical style, and partly because in her time she stood so much alone, many who have admired Rand have absorbed too little of the substance, and too much of the form of her work. They have concentrated on Rand herself and on her defiant manner, rather than on the principles and ideas she championed. For similar reasons, other serious philosophers have paid very little—often studiously little—attention to her work. But as one of the contributors to the present volume says, “Rand is too interesting a thinker to be left to herself. The mainstream of thought needs her contribution.” The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand deals with the substance of Rand’s thought. It is a valuable beginning by serious phi losophers at the important task of evaluating, describing, and developing Rand’s philosophy, in a dispassionate, objective manner.

The book is divided into three sections, on Rand’s metaphysics and epistemology, her ethics, and her politics. Each section begins with an introductory essay by the editors, which gives a brief overview of Rand’s thought and significant contributions in that area. Then follow two or three essays in which the other contributors take up some particular aspect of Randian philosophy in that area.

The different contributors vary significantly in the treatment they give their subjects. Some provide straightforward analysis, explicating and developing Rand’s thought. Others make more or less direct criticism, pointing out what they believe to be errors and suggesting ways in which these errors might be rectified (usually quite easily). Others relate Rand’s work to the philo sophical tradition, especially the thought of Aristotle, to which Rand’s thought is explicitly indebted (and indeed, according to one contributor, more similar than Rand realized or acknowledged). Still others relate Rand’s thought to other disciplines, such as the economics of Adam Smith, or show the potential for Rand’s thought to provide a rational morality and individualist moral vision that is spiritually uplifting.

While all the contributors admire Rand and believe she has made a valuable contribution to philosophy, the book is not without criticism of Rand’s ideas. Most of these criticisms are thoughtful and well-sup-ported, but a few are rather glib and poorly documented. On the whole, however, the criticisms should be welcomed by students of Rand’s work, allowing them to refine and enlarge their understanding, and to consider some potential improvements in Randian philosophy.

In discussing epistemology, Rand always emphasized the importance of context. One of the very welcome aspects of this book is that it provides a broader, richer context for Rand’s ideas, allowing the reader to look at and understand many aspects of Rand’s philosophic thought in a fresh and more complete way.

  • Howard Baetjer Jr. is a lecturer in the department of economics at Towson University and a faculty member for seminars of the Institute for Humane Studies. He is the author of Free Our Markets: A Citizens’ Guide to Essential Economics.

  • Ayn Rand (1905–1982) was a Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter. She is known for her two best-selling novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and for developing a philosophical system she called Objectivism. She corresponded with FEE's founder Leonard Read and provided a meaningful intellectual influence over free-market thought in the second half of the twentieth century. Her influence continues to expand through her fiction and nonfiction works and the educational work being done on Objectivism.