Who is an Objectivist?

A Prologue to the Debate

For some time, there has been dispute over the question of whether Objectivism is an “open system” or a “closed system.” More specifically, the debate has been whether Objectivism is a philosophical system that can be refined, expanded on, amplified, and applied in new directions by those who share its basic premises or whether Objectivism is confined exclusively to the positions propounded by Ayn Rand during her lifetime.

Perhaps the following recollections can contribute to this debate.

In the winter and spring of 1958, I gave the first course of lectures entitled “The Basic Principles of Objectivism” which, although I did not fully realize it at the time, was to launch the Objectivist movement. These lectures included a lengthy discussion of the psychology of self-esteem and my theory of social metaphysics. This was work on psychology done not by Rand, but by me. Another lecture by me was entitled “Why Human Beings Repress and Drive Underground not the Worst Within them, but the Best.” Again, a psychological contribution made by me. Then, in addition, Barbara Branden created and gave a lecture entitled “Basic Principles of Efficient Thinking.”

However, the point is, the entire series of 20 lectures was presented to the world as “Objectivism.” This was understood to mean not that Rand was the originator of every thought propounded, but that all of it, whether developed by her, by me, or by Barbara Branden, had Rand’s complete agreement.

The Philosophy of Objectivism

Later, I was to offer through the Nathaniel Branden Institute additional courses on what we then called “Objectivist Psychology.” It was called “Objectivist” because it was perceived by Rand to be entirely compatible with her philosophy, and, in some instances, an application of her philosophy. (Later I would drop the name “Objectivist Psychology” because such a designation made little sense to me and I began calling my work “Biocentric Psyhology.” Later still, I decided I did not like using any such name and dropped “Biocentric Psychology” too.)

After the break, Rand became suspicious of any intellectual affiliation with anyone and thereafter “Objectivism” meant either work originated by Rand herself or works, such as Leonard Peikoff’s, that had Rand’s knowledge and full sanction.

Now, in retrospect, it is clear to me that calling work in psychology “Objectivism” was inappropriate, inasmuch as Objectivism is a philosophy. Just the same, the evidence makes clear that Rand herself saw Objectivism as an open system in the sense that it was open to new identifications, new discoveries, and new principles (provided, of course, this new material did not stand in contradiction to what had already been established).

Had Leonard Peikoff been a generative figure, more intellectually productive, I dare say that Rand would have regarded his contributions as “Objectivism.”

An Open System

I might mention, in conclusion, that the fact that I wrote my first articles on psychology in an Objectivist publication, and the material was offered to the world as an aspect of “Objectivism” made it possible, years later, when I had become persona non grata, for Leonard Peikoff and his followers to talk about “The Objectivist Theory of Self-Esteem” and to use my theory of social metaphysics as if these ideas had originated in the mind of Rand. The truth is, there is no Objectivist theory of self-esteem. In her whole life, Rand wrote maybe no more than seven or eight sentences on the subject. I have written volumes. That is a story for another day.

Here, my purpose is to draw attention to the historical evidence that lends support to the claim of David Kelley and others that Objectivism is and must be “an open system.”

Were Rand alive, obviously she would have the right to say, “Do not describe as ‘Objectivism’ any viewpoint I disagree with.” But when her agreement or disagreement is no longer possible, we are on our own to judge what is or is not compatible with Objectivism… and that could include even challenging some position of Rand’s which we believe to be in conflict with her more fundamental premises.

Objectivism and Ayn Rand

David Kelley drew to my attention something I wrote in the Objectivist in April, 1965 — “A Message to Our Readers.” I wrote:

“In the future, when Objectivism has become an intellectual and cultural movement on a wider scale, when a variety of authors have written books dealing with some aspect of the Objectivist philosophy – it could be appropriate for those in agreement to describe themselves as ‘Objectivists.’ However, at present, when the name is so intimately associated with Rand and me, it is not. At present, a person who is in agreement with our philosophy should describe himself, not as an Objectivist, but as a student or supporter of Objectivism.”

Today I regret that second sentence as inappropriate and stultifying, but note the implications of the first sentence, which, I assure you, had Rand’s full knowledge and approval. (Everything in our publication was edited by her.) We were clearly projecting a future when “Objectivism” would cover far more than the writings of Rand.

If, later, Rand pulled back from that vision, it was for reasons more emotional than philosophical, and one can feel compassion for her suffering, but still… she was right the first time and wrong the second.