On Studying Objectivism

 Posted by on 24 February 2005 at 12:09 am  Uncategorized
Feb 242005

For the third time this week (!), I’ve been asked for my recommendations regarding particularly worthwhile material available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore. Since the most recent request was public (in the comments on a random post), let me make some public recommendations. (Note that links are to CDs rather than tapes where possible. If you want tapes, just search for the title and/or author.)

In perusing my recommendations, please keep in mind that my interests tend toward more academic philosophy. I have little interest in work that is primarily “inspirational” or “practical” in nature; I don’t tend to buy or listen to it. (I regard good technical philosophy as supremely inspirational and eminently practical!) Also, I’m going to focus on lecture courses here, although I’ll mention books as they become relevant. Then I’ll have some more general personal recommendations on studying Objectivism toward the end.

All of Leonard Peikoff’s big lecture courses are consistently interesting and excellent, but the three which strike me as of greatest general significance are Understanding Objectivism, The Art of Thinking, and Unity in Epistemology and Ethics.

Eventually, anyone with a serious interest in studying Objectivism ought to listen to all of Peikoff’s major lecture courses. Those who don’t are necessarily limited to an unnecessarily incomplete and inadequate understanding of Objectivism. I’ve listened to almost all of them in the past year and a half — and it’s been quite an education, to say the least.

The urgency and order of listening to Peikoff’s other lectures will depend upon a person’s particular interests. I was particularly entranced by Philosophy of Education. (For those interested in the topic, Lisa VanDamme’s various lectures provide a very interesting set of real-life appendices.) The History of Philosophy series is excellent; it is particularly critical for anyone in or near a philosophy department. I also very much enjoyed and benefited from Introduction to Logic and Objective Communication. (I’ve only heard part of Induction in Physics and Philosophy, none of Objectivism Through Induction, and none of The DIM Hypothesis.)

This year, I’ve also been slowly and carefully re-reading Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR). Hearing Peikoff’s various lectures related to the book has been enormously helpful in fully understanding that work. I’ve listened to The Philosophy of Objectivism (the original lectures upon which OPAR is based), Objectivism: The State of the Art (great stuff on hierarchy), and Moral Virtue. I’m currently listening to his Advanced Seminars on Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, a fascinating series of observations about and answers to questions on the Galley Proofs of OPAR. Although I still have a a few personal complaints and confusions about the book, my appreciation for the clarity and depth of the book has grown enormously through the course of these studies. The work really is a tremendous and important achievement.

Clearly, Leonard Peikoff is The Man. But thankfully, he’s not The Only Man. In no particular order:

Those interested in ancient philosophy will certainly profit from the work of both Robert Mayhew and Greg Salmieri. I learned more in Mayhew’s uber-clear and essentialized course on Aristotle’s Metaphysics than in two unhappy semesters of Aristotle classes at Boulder. (He has other courses on Aristotle, but I haven’t heard those yet. Paul and I both enjoyed his course Ayn Rand on Humor, which we listened to while running.) Salmieri’s courses are excellent, although Platonism doesn’t seem to be available yet. Also, I should mention that Mayhew’s anthology, Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living, is a fine example of what Objectivist scholarship might and ought to be. I’m very much looking forward to his forthcoming anthologies on Ayn Rand’s later novels.

Tara Smith has a substantial collection of always-good lectures on ethics available. Her ability to thoughtfully integrate the theoretical with the practical is particularly valuable to both academic and regular folks. (Really, it’s no wonder that she was a huge hit at FROST this past weekend!) Given my longstanding interest in moral development, I particularly enjoyed her lectures on Perfection and Pride. Her recent lecture on Kindness, Generosity, and Charity was a noteworthy contrast to Kelley’s elevation of benevolence to a major virtue in his Barely-Objectivish-Philosophy. I’d also very much recommend Smith’s second book, Viable Values, as well as the multitude of journal articles that she’s written over the years. (The topics of those articles will be of greater or lesser interest to particular people depending upon their degree of interest in technical philosophy. I haven’t read them all, but those that I have are interesting, thoughtful, and clear.)

Harry Binswanger has a host of lectures available on a variety of technical and fascinating topics, such as psycho-epistemology, consciousness, and the emotions. I don’t always agree with his arguments and conclusions, but I do generally enjoy his ground-breaking explorations.

The depth, substance, and detail of Darryl Wright’s course Advanced Topics in Ethics was a particular delight for me. As I was listening to it, I was desperate to listen to it again immediately so as to take copious notes. (To my great frustration, I haven’t been able to do that yet due to time constraints.) His course on Reason and Freedom was also very interesting. I’m glad to see that he has various lectures that I haven’t heard yet.

Onkar Ghate’s characteristic thoughtfulness, thoroughness, and thorough knowledge of Objectivism is quite apparent in his lecture course analyzing Galt’s Speech. (I’m not alone in being a huge Onkar fan.)

Also, I should mention a few Objectivist intellectuals that generally lecture outside my limited sphere of philosophic interest, but whom I’ve very much enjoyed: John Lewis, Eric Daniels, and Yaron Brook.

Before I move on, I should make a few qualifying remarks. First, I’ve omitted some ARI speakers for totally innocuous reasons, either because I haven’t heard them lecture or because I’m not so interested in their topics. However, I do actively avoid a few for various reasons related to both style and substance. In any case, please don’t jump to conclusions just because I didn’t mention someone. Second, my evaluations of lectures often change upon a second hearing, when I have time to more fully absorb and evaluate the material. So don’t treat my comments here as set in stone.

Now let me offer a bit of advice about studying Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. People relatively new to the philosophy might want to check out ARI’s suggested reading list. For those of you interested in seriously studying Objectivism again, perhaps after a few years of inactivity, here’s what I’ve found useful.

First, reacquaint yourself with Ayn Rand’s writings. Re-read her novels. Re-read her major anthologies. You might want to jot down some interesting ideas here and there, but don’t impose the burden of taking copious notes upon yourself. The goal is simply to help you get your bearings again. You don’t want to make the process so hard that you don’t do it at all.

Next, explore the more promising up-until-now or for-a-long-time neglected Objectivist work. Listen to the lecture courses of most interest to you offered by the Ayn Rand Bookstore, particularly The Big Ones by Leonard Peikoff. Read Ayn Rand’s Letters and Journals. Read the Art of Fiction and The Art of Non-Fiction. Read Viable Values and Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living. You will be delighted by the unexpected philosophic gems you find in these works. Again, I wouldn’t recommend burdening yourself with the chore of copious notes. You can’t possibly absorb it all at once anyway, so you may as well plan to spiral back upon the better material later.

Meanwhile, re-read OPAR, carefully and actively, perhaps with those related lectures mentioned above. In this case, I would recommend taking two particular kinds of notes. First, within the structure of the chapters and sections, condense each paragraph into a single essentialized sentence. Also, write down any questions on the text that you have, whether concerning confusions, interesting leads, or whatnot. (It’s very easy to structure those notes that in MS Word’s outline mode.) Also, I’d recommend reading a chapter once straight through before reading again to condense and question. (I got the general idea of condensing from Harry Binswanger’s lecture How to Study Ayn Rand’s Writings.)

I started this general process about a year and a half ago (i.e. the summer of 2003). I’m presently in the “next” and the “meanwhile” stages. I’m not in any great hurry, but I am working steadily within the constraints on my time imposed by graduate school. (Given my long commutes, I have lots of time for lectures, but little time for books.) As I move through the material, I do two helpful things. First, I keep track of what I read when, both by marking the date on the material itself somewhere and by noting the date in a darn big spreadsheet. Given the scope of my project, it’s important to know if and when I last read some book or heard some lecture. (I also note the “importance” and “value” of each source in the spreadsheet, to help me decide when and whether to review it.) Also, it’s a lovely feeling of accomplishment to peruse the ever-growing list on occasion. Second, I make a point of talking with Paul about the more noteworthy issues raised in my sources, as that greatly helps me integrate and retain the material. (Paul says that he’s only available for intra-spousal conversations. Sorry!) I’ve also benefited enormously from various other sources of discussion and conversation.

I have some general ideas about what I’d like to do next, after I’m (mostly) done with those two phases. I’d like to listen to the better lecture courses again, taking notes if possible. (If I can’t afford the sit-down time to take notes, I’ll listen to them in my car, pausing to take notes on my digital voice recorder as necessary.) I’d like to read and condense all of the writings in the bound volumes of The Objectivist Newsletter, The Objectivist, and The Ayn Rand Letter. I’d like to work through the methods described in Understanding Objectivism and elsewhere for critical issues and concepts in Objectivism. I’d like to read the bound volume of The Objectivist Forum. I’d like to make a careful study of Ayn Rand’s novels.

As I move forward, I expect that those plans will shift and change in various ways. Despite my Platonic tendency for Excessive Planning, I’ve given up all hope of Rationalistically Plotting a Course of Study That I Must Follow No Matter What Because It Is the Only Right Way to Do It. I also try not to focus too much on all that I have left to do, as it quickly becomes overwhelming. Every once in a while though, I do allow myself the luxury of amazement at all that I have learned in the past year and a half on all fronts: content, method, theory, practice. Those are nice moments, I have to say.

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