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Rand et l'objectivité

Rand et l'objectivité

5 minutes
June 22, 2010

Originally published in Reason Papers 23 (Fall 1998): 83-86.

Ayn Rand was an unusually creative philosopher. In every major branch of philosophy, from metaphysics to aesthetics, she had original insights and integrations that contributed to the field. But I would say that her most important contribution was the one that gave her philosophy its name: her analysis of objectivity. Its importance lies in the fundamentality of the issue. If we cannot establish the basic objectivity of our knowledge, then all other conclusions in philosophy are in trouble.

In the history of philosophical thought about knowledge, one encounters over and over again a single problem: How can the products of the mind—percepts, concepts, statements, theories, and so forth-be objective, that is, true to reality, given that they are products of the mind, that is, given that they are the results of definite processes shaped by the nature of the mind and the activity of the knower? For example:

Rand's insight allows us to develop a rational conception of objectivity as a standard for cognition.

A long line of thinkers, going back to the Sophists, have argued that our perceptual experience of the world cannot be trusted or regarded as veridical because the way things appear to us depends on the nature of our sensory faculties and the way they interact with the physical environment. There is the stick that looks bent in water, the penny that looks elliptical from an angle, the railroad tracks that seem to converge, and so on. (See my Evidence of the Senses, chapters 3-4, for many examples of this argument.) Most philosophers have concluded that it is not the objects themselves-the stick, the penny, the tracks-that we perceive, but an inner representation of them.

A long line of thinkers, going back to Plato, have wondered how a concept like "man" could have an objective referent. After all, the concept does not stand for any particular existing man but is universal; and its content does not include the determinate features of any existing human, such as hair color or height, but is abstract. There does not appear to be anything in reality that is universal or abstract in itself, that is, apart from human cognitive operations. Some philosophers, like Plato, argued that there must be an objective referent-a "man as such"-somewhere in existence, even if it does not exist in the perceptible, spatio-temporal world. Others have argued that since there is no such referent in reality, our concepts are merely human constructs that are not constrained by the world.

Rand challenged the basic assumption that objectivity requires a diaphanous correspondence between mind and reality.

Again, many thinkers, especially in this century, have wrestled with the problem of truth. How are we to understand the truth of a statement as correspondence to a fact when the world does not appear to come already broken up into facts, any more than it comes already grouped into categories that correspond with our concepts? Snow exists, and so does its color, but there is nothing over and above these existents that could be called the fact that snow is white. In parallel with the problem of concepts and universals, this dilemma has driven some philosophers to invent a recondite ontology of facts, while other philosophers have abandoned the notion of truth as correspondence and held that the truth of a statement is determined solely by its relationship with other statements. (See Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989], pp. 4-5, 20)

There is a common pattern in these issues, a pattern found in numerous other specific issues. We start with the assumption that objectivity requires some sort of correspondence between the mind and reality, a correspondence in which the mind passively mirrors the object it purports to grasp. I have called this assumption the diaphanous model of cognition, because it likens conscious awareness to a diaphanous medium in which objects are revealed without any "distorting" coloration from the medium itself. But when we examine the case, we find that the mind is not passive after all; it actively combines, divides, abstracts from, or selects among the data at its disposal. In response, some thinkers posit a higher-order form of correspondence in order to preserve objectivity. Others, claiming that no such correspondence can plausibly be maintained, conclude that objectivity is not possible, or else redefine objectivity as intersubjectivity. (For a fuller description of this pattern, see Evidence of the Senses, pp. 36-43.)

Ayn Rand cut through all these problems by challenging the basic assumption that objectivity requires a diaphanous correspondence between mind and reality. Our cognitive faculties operate, she argued, in the same way as our faculties for digestion, respiration, and the like: they interact with the environment in various ways that are determined by their own nature. The fact that the stomach mixes its own acids with the food we ingest from outside does not invalidate nutrition. Nor is our knowledge invalidated by the fact that cognitive products such as concepts and statements reflect the cognitive processes from which they emerge. (See Ayn Rand , Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2d expanded edition [New York: NAL Books, 1990], chapter 8.)

This insight applies quite generally to all forms of cognition. It is an implication of the even more general law of causality. The nature of an entity's action is determined by the nature of the entity itself as well as by the conditions in which it acts, so the nature of cognition must be determined by our own nature as knowers as well as by the objects we come to know in the external environment. In perceptual awareness, for example, we may distinguish the perceived object and its attributes from the variable forms in which we perceive them. The penny is actually round, and we are perceptually aware of its actual shape, but because of the way our visual system responds to light, we are aware of the penny's shape in a specific form that depends on the angle from which we view it. (For a discussion of form and object in perception see Evidence of the Senses, chapters 3 and 5.)

In perception, despite the variable form in which we perceive an object, there is still a one-to-one correspondence between the perceptual awareness and the object of which we are aware; the object of perception is always a concrete, particular thing or action. At the conceptual level, however, there is no such correspondence. Rand describes the referents of a concept as "units"-a technical term she uses for things regarded as members of a class of similar objects. We are able to form and employ concepts designating open-ended categories of units only because we have the capacity to disregard the specific measurements that differ from one unit to another, and to retain the common dimension of measurement. As a result, the concept "man" designates "a man"-not any particular man in the full specificity of his nature, but every man regarded as differing from other men in a merely quantitative as opposed to qualitative way. (Rand's theory is presented in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. See also my analysis of her theory: "A Theory of Abstraction" [Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The Objectivist Center, 1995].)

There is no passive mirroring of nature here. The ability to form such a conception involves a specific process of integration and differentiation, a process that, as far as we know, only a human brain can perform. Does this mean that concepts are human constructs, that we can validly group things together in any way we wish, that we can define terms according to our subjective wishes? No, say Rand. For one thing, concepts are based on our awareness of relationships of similarity and difference in the things themselves; those relationships exist apart from us and constrain us in forming concepts. We are also constrained by the nature of our conceptual capacities, which work in certain definite ways and not in others. In accordance with her basic insight that the mind functions in a definite way as the result of its own nature, she holds that the constraints imposed by our faculties are an aspect of objectivity, not a refutation of it.

Rand's insight allows us to develop a rational conception of objectivity as a standard for cognition, a standard that takes account of the process of thought and the constraints set by our faculties rather than wishing them away. There is a great deal of work still to be done in extending the Objectivist theory to other issues in epistemology, such as the nature of propositions and their truth-conditions, the standards for rational certainty, and the problems of induction. But Rand's insight gives us a basic principle to follow and her theory of concepts gives us an example of how the principle applies to a specific form of cognition.

David Kelley


David Kelley

David Kelley est le fondateur de l'Atlas Society. Philosophe professionnel, enseignant et auteur de best-sellers, il est l'un des principaux défenseurs de l'objectivisme depuis plus de 25 ans.

David Kelley Ph.D
About the author:
David Kelley Ph.D

David Kelley founded The Atlas Society (TAS) in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Kelley est un philosophe professionnel, un enseignant et un écrivain. Après avoir obtenu un doctorat en philosophie à l'université de Princeton en 1975, il a rejoint le département de philosophie du Vassar College, où il a enseigné une grande variété de cours à tous les niveaux. Il a également enseigné la philosophie à l'université de Brandeis et a donné de nombreuses conférences sur d'autres campus.

Les écrits philosophiques de Kelley comprennent des travaux originaux sur l'éthique, l'épistémologie et la politique, dont beaucoup développent les idées objectivistes en profondeur et dans de nouvelles directions. Il est l'auteur de L'évidence des sensun traité d'épistémologie ; Vérité et tolérance dans l'objectivismesur les questions relatives au mouvement objectiviste ; Unrugged Individualism : La base égoïste de la bienveillanceet L'art du raisonnementun manuel d'introduction à la logique largement utilisé, qui en est aujourd'hui à sa cinquième édition.

M. Kelley a donné des conférences et publié sur un large éventail de sujets politiques et culturels. Ses articles sur les questions sociales et les politiques publiques ont été publiés dans Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle et ailleurs. Dans les années 1980, il a fréquemment écrit pour Barrons Financial and Business Magazine sur des sujets tels que l'égalitarisme, l'immigration, les lois sur le salaire minimum et la sécurité sociale.

Son livre A Life of One's Own : Individual Rights and the Welfare State (Une vie à soi : les droits individuels et l'État-providence) est une critique des prémisses morales de l'État-providence et une défense des alternatives privées qui préservent l'autonomie, la responsabilité et la dignité de l'individu. Son intervention dans l'émission spéciale "Greed" de John Stossel sur ABC/TV en 1998 a suscité un débat national sur l'éthique du capitalisme.

Expert internationalement reconnu de l'objectivisme, il a donné de nombreuses conférences sur Ayn Rand, ses idées et ses œuvres. Il a été consultant pour l'adaptation cinématographique de Atlas Shruggedet rédacteur en chef de Atlas Shrugged : Le roman, les films, la philosophie.


Principaux travaux (sélectionnés) :

"Concepts et natures : A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl)," Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021) ; Ce compte-rendu d'un livre récent comprend une plongée profonde dans l'ontologie et l'épistémologie des concepts.

Les fondements de la connaissance. Six conférences sur l'épistémologie objectiviste.

"La primauté de l'existence" et "L'épistémologie de la perception", The Jefferson School, San Diego, juillet 1985.

"Universals and Induction", deux conférences aux congrès du GKRH, Dallas et Ann Arbor, mars 1989

"Skepticism", Université de York, Toronto, 1987

"The Nature of Free Will", deux conférences au Portland Institute, octobre 1986

"The Party of Modernity", Cato Policy Report, mai/juin 2003 ; et Navigator, novembre 2003 ; un article largement cité sur les divisions culturelles entre les points de vue pré-moderne, moderne (Lumières) et post-moderne.

"I Don't Have To"(IOS Journal, volume 6, numéro 1, avril 1996) et "I Can and I Will"(The New Individualist, automne/hiver 2011) ; des articles d'accompagnement sur la concrétisation du contrôle que nous avons sur nos vies en tant qu'individus.