Any theory saying of a given subject-matter that it contains objects existing independently of human beliefs or attitudes, or that there are similarly independent truths in the area, or that there are methods of studying the area and arriving at truths within it which are not arbitrary and do not depend on the approach adopted or convenience of application and so on.
The contrast term is subjectivism. A halfway house exists when intersubjective agreement is possible; that is, agreement which does not depend on the position or attitudes of those in dispute, but does presuppose the existence of conscious experience.
There may be, for example, standard methods for establishing what color something is, even if without sighted creatures things might have no color (in the ordinary sense) at all.
Rand originally expressed her philosophical ideas in her novels – most notably, in both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She further elaborated on them in her periodicals The Objectivist Newsletter, The Objectivist, and The Ayn Rand Letter, and in non-fiction books such as Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and The Virtue of Selfishness.
The name “Objectivism” derives from the idea that human knowledge and values are objective: they exist and are determined by the nature of reality, to be discovered by one’s mind, and are not created by the thoughts one has. Rand stated that she chose the name because her preferred term for a philosophy based on the primacy of existence—”existentialism”—had already been taken.
Rand characterized Objectivism as “a philosophy for living on earth”, based on reality, and intended as a method of defining human nature and the nature of the world in which we live.
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.— Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Metaphysics: objective reality
Rand’s philosophy begins with three axioms: existence, consciousness, and identity. Rand defined an axiom as “a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.” As Objectivist philosopher Leonard Peikoff argued, Rand’s argument for axioms “is not a proof that the axioms of existence, consciousness, and identity are true. It is proof that they are axioms, that they are at the base of knowledge and thus inescapable.”
Rand said that existence is the perceptually self-evident fact at the base of all other knowledge, i.e., that “existence exists”. She further said that to be is to be something, that “existence is identity”. That is, to be is to be “an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes”. That which has no nature or attributes does not and cannot exist. The axiom of existence is conceptualized as differentiating something from nothing, while the law of identity is conceptualized as differentiating one thing from another, i.e., one’s first awareness of the law of non-contradiction, another crucial base for the rest of knowledge. As Rand wrote, “A leaf … cannot be all red and green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time… A is A.” Objectivism rejects belief in anything alleged to transcend existence.
Rand argued that consciousness is “the faculty of perceiving that which exists”. As she put it, “to be conscious is to be conscious of something“, that is consciousness itself cannot be distinguished or conceptualized except in relation to an independent reality. “It cannot be aware only of itself—there is no ‘itself’ until it is aware of something.” Thus, Objectivism posits that the mind does not create reality, but rather, it is a means of discovering reality. Expressed differently, existence has “primacy” over consciousness, which must conform to it. Any other type of argument Rand termed “the primacy of consciousness”, including any variant of metaphysical subjectivism or theism.
Objectivist philosophy derives its explanations of action and causation from the axiom of identity, referring to causation as “the law of identity applied to action”. According to Rand, it is entities that act, and every action is the action of an entity. The way entities act is caused by the specific nature (or “identity”) of those entities; if they were different they would act differently. As with the other axioms, an implicit understanding of causation is derived from one’s primary observations of causal connections among entities even before it is verbally identified, and serves as the basis of further knowledge.
According to Rand, attaining knowledge beyond what is given by perception requires both volition (or the exercise of free will) and performing a specific method of validation by observation, concept-formation, and the application of inductive and deductive reasoning. For example, a belief in dragons, however sincere, does not mean that reality includes dragons. A process of proof identifying the basis in reality of a claimed item of knowledge is necessary to establish its truth.
Objectivist epistemology begins with the principle that “consciousness is identification”. This is understood to be a direct consequence of the metaphysical principle that “existence is identity”. Rand defined “reason” as “the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses”. Rand wrote “The fundamental concept of method, the one on which all the others depend, is logic. The distinguishing characteristic of logic (the art of non-contradictory identification) indicates the nature of the actions (actions of consciousness required to achieve a correct identification) and their goal (knowledge)—while omitting the length, complexity or specific steps of the process of logical inference, as well as the nature of the particular cognitive problem involved in any given instance of using logic.”
According to Rand, consciousness possesses a specific and finite identity, just like everything else that exists; therefore, it must operate by a specific method of validation. An item of knowledge cannot be “disqualified” by being arrived at by a specific process in a particular form. Thus, for Rand, the fact that consciousness must itself possess identity implies the rejection of both universal skepticism based on the “limits” of consciousness, as well as any claim to revelation, emotion or faith based belief.
Objectivist epistemology maintains that all knowledge is ultimately based on perception. “Percepts, not sensations, are the given, the self-evident.” Rand considered the validity of the senses to be axiomatic, and said that purported arguments to the contrary all commit the fallacy of the “stolen concept” by presupposing the validity of concepts that, in turn, presuppose the validity of the senses. She said that perception, being determined physiologically, is incapable of error. For example, optical illusions are errors in the conceptual identification of what is seen, not errors of sight itself. The validity of sense perception, therefore, is not susceptible to proof (because it is presupposed by all proof as proof is only a matter of adducing sensory evidence) nor should its validity be denied (since the conceptual tools one would have to use to do this are derived from sensory data). Perceptual error, therefore, is not possible. Rand consequently rejected epistemological skepticism, as she said that the skeptics’ claim to knowledge “distorted” by the form or the means of perception is impossible.
The Objectivist theory of perception distinguishes between the form and object. The form in which an organism perceives is determined by the physiology of its sensory systems. Whatever form the organism perceives it in, what it perceives—the object of perception—is reality. Rand consequently rejected the Kantian dichotomy between “things as we perceive them” and “things as they are in themselves”. Rand wrote
The attack on man’s consciousness and particularly on his conceptual faculty has rested on the unchallenged premise that any knowledge acquired by a process of consciousness is necessarily subjective and cannot correspond to the facts of reality, since it is processed knowledge … [but] all knowledge is processed knowledge—whether on the sensory, perceptual or conceptual level. An “unprocessed” knowledge would be a knowledge acquired without means of cognition.
The aspect of epistemology given the most elaboration by Rand is the theory of concept-formation, which she presented in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. She argued that concepts are formed by a process of measurement omission. Peikoff described this as follows:
To form a concept, one mentally isolates a group of concretes (of distinct perceptual units), on the basis of observed similarities which distinguish them from all other known concretes (similarity is ‘the relationship between two or more existents which possess the same characteristic(s), but in different measure or degree’); then, by a process of omitting the particular measurements of these concretes, one integrates them into a single new mental unit: the concept, which subsumes all concretes of this kind (a potentially unlimited number). The integration is completed and retained by the selection of a perceptual symbol (a word) to designate it. “A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted.”
According to Rand, “the term ‘measurements omitted’ does not mean, in this context, that measurements are regarded as non-existent; it means that measurements exist, but are not specified. That measurements must exist is an essential part of the process. The principle is: the relevant measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity.”
Rand argued that concepts are organized hierarchically. Concepts such as ‘dog,’ which bring together “concretes” available in perception, can be differentiated (into the concepts of ‘dachshund,’ ‘poodle,’ etc.) or integrated (along with ‘cat,’ etc., into the concept of ‘animal’). Abstract concepts such as ‘animal’ can be further integrated, via “abstraction from abstractions”, into such concepts as ‘living thing.’ Concepts are formed in the context of knowledge available. A young child differentiates dogs from cats and chickens, but need not explicitly differentiate them from deep-sea tube worms, or from other types of animals not yet known to him, to form a concept ‘dog’.
Because of its characterization of concepts as “open-ended” classifications that go well beyond the characteristics included in their past or current definitions, Objectivist epistemology rejects the analytic-synthetic distinction as a false dichotomy and denies the possibility of a priori knowledge.
Rand rejected “feeling” as sources of knowledge. Rand acknowledged the importance of emotion for human beings, but she maintained that emotions are a consequence of the conscious or subconscious ideas that a person already accepts, not a means of achieving awareness of reality. “Emotions are not tools of cognition.” Rand also rejected all forms of faith or mysticism, terms that she used synonymously. She defined faith as “the acceptance of allegations without evidence or proof, either apart from or against the evidence of one’s senses and reason… Mysticism is the claim to some non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifiable means of knowledge, such as ‘instinct,’ ‘intuition,’ ‘revelation,’ or any form of ‘just knowing.'” Reliance on revelation is like reliance on a Ouija board; it bypasses the need to show how it connects its results to reality. Faith, for Rand, is not a “short-cut” to knowledge, but a “short-circuit” destroying it.
Objectivism acknowledges the facts that human beings have limited knowledge, are vulnerable to error, and do not instantly understand all of the implications of their knowledge. According to Peikoff, one can be certain of a proposition if all of the available evidence verifies it, i.e., it can be logically integrated with the rest of one’s knowledge; one is then certain within the context of the evidence.
Rand rejected the traditional rationalist/empiricist dichotomy, arguing that it embodies a false alternative: conceptually-based knowledge independent of perception (rationalism) versus perceptually-based knowledge independent of concepts (empiricism). Rand argued that neither is possible because the senses provide the material of knowledge while conceptual processing is also needed to establish knowable propositions.