The Structure of Objectivism

Logically, Objectivism starts with a set of axioms, which are the self-evident preconditions of all knowledge. The axioms must be accepted in any attempt to prove them either true or false, so they are below the ability or the necessity of proof. One can show that the axioms are axioms by showing how all claims of knowledge of any kind presuppose them. This validates them, but one cannot prove them from more fundamental premises, since there are no premises more fundamental. (1)

For Objectivism, the axioms are preconditions of all knowledge, but they are not the starting points of a deductive chain that defines the rest of the philosophy. The rest of the philosophy–its (non-axiomatic) epistemology, ethics, politics and esthetics–are all proved essentially through induction. The principles are arrived at through observation of reality and integration of observed instances into general principles, with the axioms and more fundamental principles serving as reference points for the derivation of narrower, less fundamental principles.

The structure of Objectivism is like a skyscraper shaped like an X. The axioms form the foundation on which everything else rests. Metaphysics and epistemology are the lower legs of the X, ethics is the center of the X, politics and esthetics are the upper arms of the X. At every step beyond the axioms and their corollaries, the structure of the philosophy is built out of new observations of reality, as the skyscraper would be built out of new material from its surroundings. But the upper levels are dependent on the lower levels. If we remove load-bearing members (principles) from the base of the philosophy, the structure above them comes crashing down. (2)

So, if someone says, “I don’t see how you can get from “Existence exists” (the basic axiom) to “Rational egoism is the proper ethics for man.” The answer is that you can’t, deductively. But deduction is not a method of generalization. You cannot get general principles that are based on reality strictly from deduction. If we want to reach general statements that correspond to reality, the method we must use is induction. This is the method Ayn Rand employed to reach Objectivist principles. (3)

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(1) The axioms are identified conceptually by the broadest possible generalization from observation, but they can’t be proven using any principles more fundamental. See Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff.

(2) See YouTube Intro to Objectivism and Understanding Objectivism by Leonard Peikoff.

(3) Yes, I am aware of David Hume’s alleged disproof of induction. The refutation of his view essentially consists of referring to the Objectivist axioms and their validation, (specifically, the Law of Identity and its corollary, the Law of Causality) along with identification of the contextual nature of inductive generalizations.

The Proper Intellectual Attitude of an Objectivist

“No matter how vast your knowledge or how modest, it is your own mind that has to acquire it. It is only with your own knowledge that you can deal. It is only your own knowledge that you can claim to possess or ask others to consider. Your mind is your only judge of truth—and if others dissent from your verdict, reality is the court of final appeal.”
–John Galt in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

The fundamental intellectual attitude proper to an Objectivist is that of being an independent thinker first, and an Objectivist second. Any so-called Objectivist that accepts anyone as an authority over his mind is violating the philosophy of Objectivism at its root. An individual can learn concepts, methods and principles from others and obtain factual information from others, but if he is to be successful in finding truths and living happily, it is he who must judge for himself what is true and false by means of his own reasoning. He should not take anyone else’s word on faith, including Ayn Rand’s.

An individual should consider himself an Objectivist, not because he takes Ayn Rand’s ideas on faith, but because he has come to an intellectual agreement with Rand through his own observation and thought. He may have learned a lot from her writings, but a part of actual, conceptual learning is thinking critically about what one is learning and comparing it to reality, thus making it one’s own knowledge.

A student of Objectivism may suspend final judgment on the overall correctness of Rand’s ideas, due to his incomplete understanding of them, while learning about her philosophy and its arguments. Learning about Objectivism is a long process, (years) so in some issues, the student may suspend final disagreements for a significant period of time, based on his understanding and agreement with major principles he has already learned from the philosophy. (1) At every point along the way, however, the student should always act on his own best judgment at the time. He should never just assume Rand was correct and act on what he thinks Objectivism advocates, when he hasn’t seen a rational justification for it. If the student finds some tenet in the philosophy that, after an extended consideration of the evidence and arguments, he still would judge as incorrect, then he should make that judgment and regard Objectivism as wrong on that point. This attitude is inherent in being an independent thinker, and Objectivism wouldn’t have him anyway, if he weren’t (so to speak.)

To quote Atlas Shrugged again:
“Accept the fact that you are not omniscient, but playing a zombie will not give you omniscience—that your mind is fallible, but becoming mindless will not make you infallible—that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error.”

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(1) The student in this case is not putting Ayn Rand’s mind or anyone else’s before his own. He is simply taking into account the full context of his knowledge, including the fact that he regards Ayn Rand as having made brilliant, sweeping integrations in philosophy. Thus, he takes extra care to understand and objectively assess her arguments before dismissing them.

[Edited: 5-11-12]

Objectivism Resources: Books and Links

Resources for learning about Objectivism:

Books

Metaphysics and Overview of Philosophy:

Epistemology:

Ethics and Human Nature, Overview:

Meta-ethics, Detailed:

Normative Ethics, Detailed:

Politics:

Esthetics:

Philosophical Methods / Applied Epistemology:

Applications / Political and Cultural Analysis:

Ayn Rand’s Philosophical Fiction:

Websites

Ayn Rand Lexicon (Philosophical terms defined and explained by Ayn Rand and other sources she approved.)

Introduction to Objectivism on YouTube

Ayn Rand Institute

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ayn Rand (Entry describing Rand’s philosophy.)

Objectivist Answers (Philosophical questions answered by self-described Objectivists. Answers are user-moderated, and may or may not agree with Objectivism as defined by Ayn Rand and fleshed out by professional Objectivist intellectuals.)

Objectivism Online Forum (Discuss philosophy and other topics with self-described Objectivists.)

The Objective Standard (Objectivist periodical.)

Leonard Peikoff Website/Podcast (Philosophy Ph.D. and foremost authority on Objectivism answers questions.)

Objectivist Academic Center (Instruction in the principles and methods of Objectivism and in communication.)

The Ayn Rand Society (Organization affiliated with the American Philosophical Association that fosters scholarly study of Objectivism.)