Sunday, March 04, 2007

Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, Objectivist Heretics, Part I

One of the central sub themes of PARC is that not only that the Brandens’ books are untrustworthy, but also that the Brandens have so departed from Objectivism that they view Rand from their new perspective, often distorting Rand as result. At times, Valliant also hints that their alleged departures from Objectivism are so severe as to render anything they say suspect. However, even Valliant must concede that by all accounts the Brandens remain quite favorable toward Objectivism and their departures are principally in the areas of psychology and moral judgment. (PARC, p. 27.)

Turning to Nathaniel Branden, Valliant argues that there are “significant” philosophical differences between Branden’s current views and Objectivism. (PARC, p. 27.) First, he argues that Branden rejects the term “validate” with regard to metaphysical axioms. Valliant’s source for this contention is a conversation recounted in JD between Branden and Alan Greenspan, apparently from the 1950s.

“Can you prove you exist?” he would ask, and I would respond, “Shall I send you my answer from nonexistence?” “Validate the laws of logic,” he would insist, and I would reply, “’Validate’ is a concept that presupposes your acceptance of logic; otherwise, what does it mean?” (JD, p. 133.)

Valliant is obviously reaching here. A conversation (or summary of conversations) from the 1950s doesn’t appear to have much relevancy to what Branden believed in 1989 (the year JD was published). And this conversation doesn’t support his claim that Branden rejects to the idea that one can validate axioms. While I no more profess to be an expert on Objectivism than Valliant does, Branden appears to be employing the “stolen concept” argument.

Valliant also contends that Branden’s approval of child psychologist Haim Ginott’s phrase “labeling is disabling” is another example of his departure from Objectivism. Valliant suggests ominously that “Branden seems to have veered sharply away from the author of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, if not the necessity and objectivity of concepts themselves.” (PARC, p. 28.) Branden’s favorable quotation of Ginott’s phrase is in the context of a discussion of the term “social metaphysician.” Branden says that he no longer use that term and instead he prefers to focus on one's “growing in autonomy and self-trust.” (My Years With Ayn Rand, [“MYWAR”], p. 111.) Branden does not deny that social metaphysician remains a valid concept, but its use circa 1960 presupposed a level of independence and autonomy which he no longer believes exists in the average person.

Valliant’s next example concerns Branden’s distancing himself from some of what Rand said in her introductory essay in For the New Intellectual. In that essay Rand surveys the history of philosophy, briefly summarizing the ideas of central philosophers such as Plato, Kant, Hegel and Spencer, drawing broad conclusions about their influence on history. Valliant says that “Branden does not argue with Rand’s evaluations, but he nonetheless claims Rand’s approach unnecessarily alienates intellectuals.” (PARC, p. 28.) This is another very poor summary. Branden says that many philosophy professors, in commenting on the essay at the time it was published, told him that they thought that Rand’s treatment of philosophers “oversimplified, in some respects erroneous” notwithstanding the “valid points” Rand made.” Branden says that while he didn’t agree with this criticism at the time, he now sees they were “right.” Thus, Branden does disagree with Rand’s evaluations (at least in part) and his reason is not that it alienates intellectuals. (JD, p. 281.)

Valliant’s final example concerns Branden’s claim that Rand’s moralism reflected a remnant of religious thinking. According to Valliant, Branden now prefers to see things as “harmful” or “beneficial” rather than “bad” or “good.” Valliant concludes that Branden “appears” to embrace the current view that moral evaluations are non-objective and unscientific.” (PARC, p. 28.) Valliant again misrepresents Branden’s views, although he is perhaps a bit more in the “ball park” this time. Branden writes that, even during his years with Rand, he tended to see “good and evil” in the context of an individual’s spiritual and psychological well-being. He believed Rand was too quick to condemn people with stern moral pronouncements such as “evil.” On the other hand, he was more inclined to ask “what is this person trying to accomplish?” (JD, p. 296.) Branden does not deny that there are actions that may appropriately be called “good” and “evil” much less deny that ethics is objective and scientific. Indeed he evidently believes his approach to ethics is more objective and scientific than Rand’s.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Nathaniel Branden's conversation with Alan Greenspan uses the exact same techniques of argument as Leonard Peikoff does in various taped lectures on Objectivism.

Jim Valliant is claiming to find a philosophical difference where there is none.

Robert Campbell