Philosophy 101

Ayn Rand had a great many things to say … and write them she did. Most people who are familiar with Rand will say that they have read Atlas Shrugged (or, more honestly, started Atlas Shrugged but never finished it) or perhaps, The Fountainhead. But beyond this they have read little and studied even less this amazing woman’s non-fiction. Ayn Rand is, without any doubt, America’s greatest defender, philosophically, and we all should revel in the logic, reason and rationale that this brilliant philosopher provided to us in defense of individual rights, capitalism …. freedom.

In its essence, Atlas Shrugged is a book about and dealing with philosophy. On a profoundly superficial level, it is a fictional novel about the struggle of the producers in society in dealing with the looting elements. On an even more superficial level it is discarded because it dares to challenge the supernatural by reference to reality and the writings of one single man – Aristotle.

In 1974, Ms Rand gave an address to the United States Military Academy at West Point. From time to time I pull this up and re-read it because in it there is, just as in Atlas, some things that make you think in profoundly abstract ways. The degree to which you are able to contemplate the importance of these abstractions is dependent upon the fundamental concretes you have incorporated – your frame of reference.

Below is a passage from that address, the full speech is included as a pdf down below. One cannot read this without coming away with a sense of utter despair for the intellectual development of a nation that would seriously entertain people such as Barak Obama and ideas spewed by the likes of Al Gore. The appeal of such intellectual misfits should not be surprising if one considers the philosophical war to which Ms Rand alludes in this address of hers some 34 years ago…

Most men spend their days struggling to evade three questions, the answers to which underlie man’s every thought, feeling and action, whether he is consciously aware of it or not: Where am I? How do I know it? What should I do?

By the time they are old enough to understand these questions, men believe that they know the answers. Where am I? Say, in New York City. How do I know it? It’s self-evident. What should I do? Here, they are not too sure — but the usual answer is: whatever everybody does. The only trouble seems to be that they are not very active, not very confident, not very happy — and they experience, at times, a causeless fear and an undefined guilt, which they cannot explain or get rid of.

They have never discovered the fact that the trouble comes from the three unanswered questions — and that there is only one science that can answer them: philosophy.

. . .

Now some of you might say, as many people do: “Aw, I never think in such abstract terms — I want to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems — what do I need philosophy for?” My answer is: In order to be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems — i.e., in order to be able to live on earth.

You might claim — as most people do — that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? “Don’t be so sure — nobody can be certain of anything.” You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: “This may be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” You got that from Plato. Or: “That was a rotten thing to do, but it’s only human, nobody is perfect in this world.” You got that from Augustine. Or: “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” You got it from William James. Or: “I couldn’t help it! Nobody can help anything he does.” You got it from Hegel. Or: “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s evil, because it’s selfish.” You got it from Kant. Have you heard the modern activists say: “Act first, think afterward”? They got it from John Dewey.

Some people might answer: “Sure, I’ve said those things at different times, but I don’t have to believe that stuff all of the time. It may have been true yesterday, but it’s not true today.” They got it from Hegel. They might say: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” They got it from a very little mind, Emerson. They might say: “But can’t one compromise and borrow different ideas from different philosophies according to the expediency of the moment?” They got it from Richard Nixon — who got it from William James.

Now ask yourself: if you are not interested in abstract ideas, why do you (and all men) feel compelled to use them? The fact is that abstract ideas are conceptual integrations which subsume an incalculable number of concretes — and that without abstract ideas you would not be able to deal with concrete, particular, real-life problems. You would be in the position of a newborn infant, to whom every object is a unique, unprecedented phenomenon. The difference between his mental state and yours lies in the number of conceptual integrations your mind has performed.

Philsophy: Who Needs It

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