Subjectivist Objectivists

By Lance Manion

The problem Checking Premises confronts is the Subjectivist Objectivists. John Kagebein analyzes one such example in "An Open Letter to Objectivists and Students of Objectivism Regarding Diana Hsieh." In fact, Dr. Hsieh seems to be the central one, as her various blogs and podcasts, and Facebook commentaries, attract many other Subjectivist Objectivists. Many of her colleagues who lecture along with her at regional Objectivist conferences, and who moderate her website's discussion groups, are also examples.

For the past year and a half, I have been troubled by not only Dr. Hsieh's positions covered in Mr. Kagebein's letter, but the online conversations around them. The conversations regularly had these components: Hsieh's misguided commentary, laced with insults against Dr. Peikoff; even more egregious commentary and insults that Hsieh either supports or lets go unchallenged; someone pointing out Hsieh's error or objecting to the offensive statements against Peikoff; Hsieh insulting the defender, often with profanity, and then usually deleting the challenging commentary and blocking the challenger. As one can imagine, this pattern of behavior attracts worse and worse comments, and repels those who disagree.

I vigorously opposed Hsieh's misguided positions, as well as her and her supporters' attacks against Dr. Peikoff. I gradually became familiar with many others who were doing what I was doing, and who were as concerned as I was about what was happening within the Objectivist movement. Ultimately, some of us decided we had to do something about it. What eventually became apparent to us is that Objectivism has always had the same problem in one form or another, and the problem was caused by the same kind of people. They want to claim a part of Objectivism and to discard the rest, and oftentimes they want to capitalize on the movement while at the same time disparaging it. (It is also noteworthy that Hsieh has quite a history in this regard: she worked with the Brandens and then David Kelley, before publicly repudiating them several years ago.)*

This type of Objectivist used to argue that Objectivism is whatever they wish it to be (à la David Kelley) and that did not work well for them. So now they mouth acceptance of the point expressed in “Fact and Value” (Peikoff, 1989) that Objectivism is a “closed system," thinking that as long as Ayn Rand did not write anything contrary on a given topic, they can claim any belief as being an "application" of Objectivism. Effectively, whether they are aware of it or not, this type of person accepts the tenets of Objectivist but discards its method of objectivity. Hence, the Subjectivist Objectivist.

The reason they attack Dr. Leonard Peikoff is that he asserts an authority on judging what is and is not a proper application of Objectivist principles and methodologies to a topic. They believe, or wish to believe, he and they are equal in terms of having any opinions outside what Ayn Rand wrote. They give him respect, begrudgingly at times, for his commentary on Rand's writings, but think he is wholly unqualified (or, at best, no better qualified than they are) to apply Objectivism to other topics. 

This is the reason for their apparent conflict over Peikoff: respecting him at times and ridiculing him at other times. They know they cannot get away with ridiculing his Rand-approved works, but they think they can get away with ridiculing him on anything else.

The Subjectivist Objectivist, in a bizarre way, has created a dichotomy of Dr. Peikoff: the "respected" one versus the "ridiculous" one, a notion which they are perfectly comfortable to hold and to present to the world. It is a psychological tool to rationalize their subjectivism.

Dr. Peikoff is what they fear and resent, fundamentally. For he is the person most competent to judge them for their subjectivist approach to applying Objectivism.

The bitter truth, for the Subjectivist Objectivists, is that they need Dr. Peikoff and his authority pertaining to Objectivism, just as the looters needed Hank Rearden. Objectivism, as both a systematized philosophy and a movement, exists because of Dr. Peikoff. The only reason there is a possibility to profess to be an "Objectivist"-whatever and to hang a shingle, is because of him. They also know they need his sanction, for as long as he is alive.

Have you wondered why some Subjectivist Objectivists, who claim to respect Peikoff, have said they hope he dies soon (or at least fades away)—and why many more silently agree? They want to get him out of their way so they can be free to be subjectivists while riding on Objectivism's coattails. They would happily mouth their respect to a deceased Peikoff who can no longer judge them.

Furthermore, what they hope to have from the rest of us is that we can all get along if we simply tick the boxes about agreeing that Rand is great, Objectivism is a closed system, and all that--and then have an unspoken truce regarding all other intellectual matters. Let the shingle-hanging begin, there’s room for each and every Subjectivist Objectivist. “Think for oneself!” they proclaim, and immediately spout off and post to the Internet any superficial take on any topic. “Isn’t it fun doing philosophy?”

Leonard Peikoff took months, years, and even decades to formulate his thoughts before presenting them to the public. How passé.

For the Internet empowers Subjectivist Objectivist shingle-hangers. Rather than a measly newsletter or community club, these “Objectivist”-whatevers now have the ability to create a following in a way that Kelley, for example, had a much more difficult time doing. No longer does one need millionaire backers. Suddenly, not only with little to offer, but with little skill and money, anyone can have a following.

Who are the followers? Other Subjectivist Objectivists, of course. Anyone who kind-of-sort-of likes Ayn Rand, in addition to whatever else they kind-of-sort-of like, is welcome. No judgments, as long as you tick the boxes and get the paperwork out of the way. In fact, you can even be granted your own discussion group to moderate. "Isn't it fun doing philosophy?"

The Subjectivist Objectivist is timely, if nothing more. For it is exactly what the narcissistic "you're all winners!" trophy collecting twenty-somethings appreciate: without any effort at all, any and all of your opinions are fantastic and equal to everyone else, Dr. Peikoff included, as long as you remember those boxes you ticked.

The great offense of Checking Premises is that we have violated the Subjectivist Objectivist's unspoken truce.

Well, the game is up: we are onto you, and we are not going to let this go unnoticed and without a fight.

(Lance Manion was in the first graduating class of the Ayn Rand Insitute's Objectivist Graduate Center, where he studied full-time under the professorships of Dr. Leonard Peikoff, Dr. Harry Binswanger, and Mr. Peter Schwartz. He has studied Objectivism since 1987.)

 * The introduction has been updated, following the publication of Mr. Kagebein's letter.

(DISCLAIMER: The expressed opinion is not necessarily endorsed by members of Checking Premises.)

Copyright © 2012 Lance Manion, All Rights Reserved.