Ayn Rand's Anticipation of Postmodernism and the Antidote

Postmodernism: A Primer for Reasoning Minds | Part 10: Ayn Rand’s Anticipation of Postmodernism and the Antidote

From the simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man—the function of his reasoning mind.

Howard Roark in Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (1943)

Man’s mind is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not. His body is given to him, its sustenance is not. His mind is given to him, its content is not. To remain alive, he must act, and before he can act he must know the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot obtain his food without a knowledge of food and the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch—or build a cyclotron—without a knowledge of his aim and of the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think.

John Galt in Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957)

One of the first American intellectuals to identify the destructive and nihilistic philosophic trend of what has morphed into postmodernism was the American philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand. 

In her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, published 60+ year ago, Rand created the character of fictional Patrick Henry University philosophy professor and department head, Dr. Simon Pritchett.

Dr. Pritchett represented the new and modern rebellion against the efficacy of the human mind on the grounds that reason and human cognition are a mere ideological preference, despite the obvious evidence of our senses and our faculty of reason. Dr. Pritchett was Rand’s portrayal of the continued philosophic trend towards outright irrationalism and mysticism in philosophy as against the Aristotelian tradition of the primacy of reality and reason as the source for guidance in man’s life. This essay began with proclamations by Heidegger and Foucault that logic, reason, truth, and knowledge are essentially impotent and should be pushed aside and replaced by faith and its corollary in action: force.

In the novel, we meet Dr. Pritchett espousing his theories to guests attending an anniversary celebration party held by the successful inventor and steel-making industrialist Hank Reardon and his wife Lillian. In his professional capacity as a professor, Pritchett teaches these same ideas to his impressionable and vulnerable first-year philosophy students and graduate students.

Here is Ayn Rand’s portrayal of what we now call Postmodernism, the essence of which is captured in the words of Dr. Pritchett at the party and shared as a cautionary introduction to what is considered the height of modern and sophisticated philosophic thinking meant to form the foundation of human action.

For the reader of the novel, Dr. Pritchett’s postmodern world-view is set in contrast to the engineering achievements and scientific precision required in the work of innovators and prime-movers such as Hank Reardon, whom, after ten years of  research and development work and innovation involving applied logic, abstraction, and scientific experimentation, has discovered how to create and manufacture a radical new kind of metal that is lighter, stronger, and cheaper to manufacture than steel. Against this proven process of human achievement and the tangible demonstration of the potential of the human mind comes the essence of postmodernism from the pen of Ayn Rand.

If Dr. Pritchett were real and alive, he could easily be a leading voice in the current postmodernist crusade of government supported indoctrination of this insidious mind-destroying meme. Unfortunately, his essence is real, and alive. His message is being taught and absorbed by impressionable children, teenagers, and adults in schools and across social media platforms.

What follows are excerpts from Atlas Shrugged.

“Man? What is man? He’s just a collection of chemicals with delusions of grandeur,” said Dr. Pritchett to a group of guests across the room.

“The philosophers of the past were superficial,” Dr. Pritchett went on. “It remained for our century to redefine the purpose of philosophy. The purpose of philosophy is not to help men find the meaning of life, but to prove to them that there isn’t any.”

“It is this insistence of man upon meaning that makes him so difficult,” said Dr. Pritchett. “Once he realizes that he is of no importance whatsoever in the vast scheme of the universe, that no possible significance can be attached to his activities, that it does not matter whether he lives or dies, he will become much more…tractable.”

“We must control men in order to force them to be free.”

“Reason…is the most naïve of all superstitions. That, at least, has been generally conceded in our age.”

“You suffer from the popular delusion of believing that things can be understood. You do not grasp the fact that the universe is a solid contradiction…of itself.”

“…the duty of thinkers is not to explain, but to demonstrate that nothing can be explained. … The purpose of philosophy is not to seek knowledge, but to prove that knowledge is impossible to man.”

Once “proved” or accepted that knowledge is impossible to man, what will be left, says Dr. Pritchett, is “instinct.”

“Plot is a primitive vulgarity in literature,” said Balph Eubank contemptuously

Dr. Pritchett, on his way across the room to the bar, stopped to say, “Quite so. Just as logic is a primitive vulgarity in philosophy.”

Pritchett’s professional colleagues and friends in the novel are like-minded. They are also fearful to challenge the professional philosopher professor and thus allow his thinking to derive conclusions on their behalf. To paraphrase Gad Saad, they won’t allow themselves to believe their own lying eyes. They have become second-handers, in Rand’s parlance. They have defaulted on their own independent judgement and have become counterfeit individuals always running with the mob mentality so as not to have to accept personal responsibility for their thinking and actions.

Consider Bertram Scudder, editor of an anti-business left-wing publication called The Future. Scudder is a grieved socialist opposed to industrialization and the idea of private property. Scudder states his opinion amongst his friends: “When the masses are destitute and yet there are goods available, it’s idiotic to expect people to be stopped by some scrap of paper called a property deed. Property rights are a superstition. One holds property only by the courtesy of those who do not seize it. The people can seize it at any moment. If they can, why shouldn’t they?”

Claude Slagenhop, the president of an organization called Friends of Global Progress, pipes in: “Ideas are just hot air. … Right is whatever’s good for society.”

Rand has identified, anticipated, and exposed the philosophic foundation upon which all postmodern theory and its call for social and political chaos and instability is overlaid. The novel Atlas Shrugged was her fully developed expression of warning and the groundwork for an antidote of reason that resonates as loudly today as it did when it was published, as well as the antidote.

In a 1962 column written for the Las Angeles Times, Rand summarized the essence of each of the branches of philosophy, which she developed hierarchically and step-by-step-from axiomatic first principles:

1. Metaphysics: Objective reality

2. Epistemology: Reality

3. Ethics: Self-interest

4. Politics: Capitalism

Ayn Rand, “Ayn Rand Ties Her Beliefs to Today’s World,” Las Angeles Times, June 17, 1962

In the article, Rand elaborated briefly on each of the four components:

1. Reality exists as an objective absolute­—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

3. Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life. 

4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values by others from resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as policeman that protects man’s rights. 

Ayn Rand, “Ayn Rand Ties Her Beliefs to Today’s World,” Las Angeles Times, June 17, 1962

Postmodernists reject every one of Rand’s claims without any attempt at refuting them. It is a central tenet of postmodernism to evade and deny that they are boxed into a corner by reason itself. To attempt to refute Rand—or any other reasoned argument against postmodernism—is to tacitly acknowledge the primacy of reason, and such an admission would stand as a refutation of postmodernism itself. What is a paradox of reason for postmodernist adherents is of necessity transformed by postmodernism into an explicit act of faith.

 Peculiarly, we have arrived back where we began, and can now more fully understand the motivation, meaning, intent, and depth the introductory quote from postmodernist author Michel Foucault when he wrote: “It is meaningless to speak in the name of—or against—Reason, Truth, or Knowledge.”

Reason, Truth, and Knowledge are the perpetual tolling of the death knell for postmodernist pretension.

Next: Part 11 – Afterword: Learning About Postmodernism From The Experiences of its Victims

Some video resources for further insight about Postmodernism on the march:

1. James McConnell Interviews Ayn Rand About the New Intellectuals, 1961. https://youtu.be/IeaAC832gG4

2. Objectivism’s Essentials: Realty, Reason, Rational Self-Interest, 1959. https://youtu.be/lWjFGfLq_oQ

3. “Tribalism vs. Free Will” by Harry Binswanger, 2020. https://youtu.be/yg0XQXdqHoU

© 2021, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved

Barry Linetsky is a Partner with The Strategic Planning Group in Toronto, Canada, where he and his colleagues have been helping executives and owners define and align their business purpose with customer values since 1994. Barry is the author of the acclaimed business biography The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press). His two most recent books, Understanding and Creating Vision and Mission Statements and Understanding and Creating Strategic Performance Indicators and Business Scenarios, co-authored with Dobri Stojsic, are available from amazon. The third book in the series Understanding and Creating Critical Success Factors will be available soon. Barry’s thought-leadership articles have been published by Ivey Business Journal, Rotman Magazine, Mises Wire, and the Economist Intelligence Unit in conjunction with Harvard Business School. Barry is also a writer, researcher, analyst, photographer, and business strategy enabler. Read his blog and learn more at barrylinetsky.com. Follow him on Twitter @BizPhilosopher.

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