Scott Hambrick, founder of Online Great Books, discusses education, meeting Ayn Rand, and a new course to help participants read more easily in the Online Great Books courses with Marsha in his podcast here.
by Marsha Familaro Enright
Ayn Rand argued that “selfish” is the correct designation for a person living according to the Objectivist Ethics, that selfishness is a virtue.
The accuracy of this claim is examined along with the meaning of “selfish,” the wider implications for the Objectivist Ethics, and ethics in general. Alternatives to the term are suggested.
Originally published in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Volume 14, No. 1 (July 2014), pp. 38-54, this paper is available on Academia.edu at
Written by Ronald Merrill and Marsha Familaro Enright, and edited by Enright, Ayn Rand Explained is now available at Open Court Books, Amazon, on Kindle, and in bookstores everywhere.
Ayn Rand and her ideas are in the news more than ever – 50+ years after her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was published. What’s driving this rising interest and influence – even politicians like Paul Ryan and Barack Obama talk about her?
Who was this Russian fireball? Why do her ideas speak to the hearts of Americans generation after generation? How are her ideas giving courage to people of all walks of life, from business to art?
Ayn Rand Explained is an engrossing account of the life, work, and influence of Ayn Rand: her career, from youth in Soviet Russia to Hollywood screenwriter and then to ideological guru; her novels and other fiction writings, including the perennial best-sellers, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged; her work in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics; her influence on—and personal animosity toward—both conservatism and libertarianism.
Merrill and Enright describe Rand’s early infatuation with Nietzsche, her first fiction writings, the developments behind her record-breaking blockbuster novels of 1943 and 1957, her increasing involvement in politics in the 1950s and 1960s, including her support for the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater.
Rand’s Objectivist movement was first promoted through the Nathaniel Branden Institute, headed by her young protégé and designated heir. The Institute advocated a complete worldview on politics, economics, religion, art, music, epistemology, ethics (“The Virtue of Selfishness”), and sexual relationships. For several years the Institute grew rapidly, though there were ominous signs as some leading members were ‘put on trial’ for their heretical ideas, and ignominiously drummed out of the movement.
In 1969, Branden himself was expelled by Rand, the Institute was shut down, and all members who questioned this ruling were themselves excommunicated and shunned by Rand and her disciples. Branden became a best-selling author of psychotherapy books, with a following of Objectivists who had dissociated from the official organization headed by Rand, and after her death in 1982, by Leonard Peikoff. One of Rand’s inner circle, Alan Greenspan, later went on to get his hands on the steering wheel of the American economy.
Objectivism offers a comprehensive package of beliefs encompassing the ethics of rational egoism and dedication to a consistently rational method of thinking and acting. This includes a rejection of all religion and outright atheism and a view of the arts as expressions of deeply held, mostly subconscious, philosophical views of the world. It also advocates personal freedom from political interference, a moral defense of laissez-faire capitalism, and radically limited government as a protection of the individual, positions deeply aligned with the project of the American Founders.
The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of Objectivism, with a jump in sales of Rand’s novels and the influence of Rand’s ideas in the Tea Party movement and the Republican party. While gaining membership, the Objectivist movement continues to be divided into warring factions, the two major groupings led by the Ayn Rand Institute (Yaron Brook) and the Atlas Society (David Kelley).
Ayn Rand Explained is a completely revised and updated edition of The Ideas of Ayn Rand, by the late Ronald E. Merrill, first published by Open Court in 1991. It includes not only new information about Rand’s rocketing influence, but new stories about her personal relationships, and new analysis of her life and ideas.
Here’s what people are saying about it:
“Ayn Rand is in the news now more than ever—but the media consistently misunderstands her. Read Ayn Rand Explained for a thorough and clear introduction to her ideas!”—JIMMY WALES, founder of Wikipedia
“Ayn Rand Explained takes us on an exciting exploration of Rand’s provocative worldview and expertly traces its huge contemporary impact on politics, economics, art, and culture. Marsha Familaro Enright provides much new information and probing, in-depth analysis. A surprising, intriguing take on a controversial writer.”—CHRIS MATTHEW SCIABARRA, author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical
“I immensely enjoyed reading Ayn Rand Explained. Packed with fascinating information, much of it new, the book is a real page turner—and a reminder of why Rand’s novels are continuously making their way onto best-seller lists.”—VERONIQUE DE RUGY, Senior Research Fellow, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University
“Co-authored by two thoughtful admirers of Rand’s, Ronald Merrill and Marsha Familaro Enright, this modest volume is full of new tidbits about her life, the evolution of her thought, under-recognized aspects of her ideas, the ongoing development of the Objectivist movement, and Rand’s influence on society. An updated revision of late entrepreneur Merrill’s “The Ideas of Ayn Rand”, educator-author Enright adds biographical details, sociological updating, and thoughtful summaries of Rand’s ideas to this little gem.
“Ayn Rand has penetrated our societal conscience. Deceased since 1982, her books continue to be best-sellers, decades after their original appearance. She is known to have inspired VP candidate Paul Ryan; a second movie based on her 1,000+ page magnum opus is currently in theaters; and she is even discussed in a current Rolling Stone magazine interview with the President. Her cultural presence is remarkably polarizing – she seems to inspire either deep-seated admiration or equally passionate resentment. The opinion-less commentator is as rare as the proverbial black swan or an independent voter. Love her or hate her, Rand continues to draw widespread attention for her passionate defense of rationality, self-interest, capitalism and atheism.
“For those interested in what “all the fuss is” about Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism — especially those afraid to commit to her ultralong novels — will find this concise summary of her life, ideas, and influence a godsend. Those who are already familiar with her life and work, but who are looking for a fresh perspective, will find that here, too.
“Enright is responsible for bringing novel material with the brand new first three chapters. They add excellent material on Rand’s life, her thought, and her impact on our society. This is especially helpful given that Merrill’s original book was published in 1991, so updating is welcomed. Also, Enright’s own experiences with the Objectivist movement from the beginning, including personal interactions with Rand herself, add intriguing material, interweaving these up-close observations with the development of the wider movement. The remainder of the book is a thoughtfully edited version of Merrill’s thoughts, intertwined clearly with Enright’s own insights, especially at points of disagreement, which are clearly delineated. It is a model of even-handedness.
“One welcomed aspect of this book, given the subject matter, is its consistent tone of critical admiration of Rand, her life, and her ideas. Too many books are either fawning, sycophantic cheerleading for Rand or harsh, condemning diatribes against her. This supportive volume, with a critical, independent touch where needed, is a welcome addition to the growing literature surrounding this unique Russian immigrant to America.” — William Dale, M.D., Ph.D.
Marsha Familaro Enright has been attracted by the pleasures and problems of education since the third grade. Trained in biology and psychology, she has written research articles on psychology, neuropsychology, development, and education for a number of publications. She founded the Council Oak Montessori School near Chicago in 1990 and has served as its president since then. Recently, as founder and president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, Marsha and her colleagues have been developing a new college informed by the Montessori Method, the Great Books, Ayn Rand’s ideas, and classical liberalism. Information about that project can be found at its website, www.rifinst.org. Marsha also contributes articles and reviews to The New Individualist, including popular profiles of famous authors such as James Clavell, Cameron Hawley, and Tom Wolfe. Recently, she spent time with TNI contributing writer Sara Pentz to discuss the state of modern education, the prospects for its reform, and her own college project.
TNI: How did you get into the field of education?
Marsha Enright: When I was a kid, I loved school and I loved to learn. I looked forward to it everyday. But I was frustrated by the many kids around me who were miserable in school and often disrupted things. There was a lot of teasing and ridicule. I did not understand why that was happening, especially why the smart kids were not interested in learning. I vowed to myself that I would find a system of education that would really support kids in their learning and be a good environment for my own kids when I grew up. That is how I got interested in education.
But, ironically, that is not what I decided to go into when I went to college. At first, I wanted to be a doctor, like my dad. I was a biology undergraduate. After a while, I got interested in psychology, and toward the end of my college years, I decided that that was really where most of my interest lay. So I went on to graduate school and got a Masters in psychology at the New School for Social Research.
In high school, I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and got very interested in her ideas. And in one of her journals, The Objectivist, there were some articles about the system of education called the Montessori Method. They were by a woman named Beatrice Hessen; I think she owned her own Montessori school. When I read those articles, I said, “Wow, this sounds like a fantastic system.” I read all the books that I could get my hands on about the Montessori Method, and I visited many Montessori schools to observe how they worked. I determined that that was what I wanted for my children.
So, when I started having my children in the early 1980s, I looked around for a Montessori school. There was one in the neighborhood for pre-school, three- to six-year-olds. I put my kids there, and I was very happy with it. When it came time for elementary school for my son, I found a Montessori school in a nearby suburb that he went to for three years, but then it closed. I wanted to make sure that he and my other children could continue in Montessori, so I organized some of the other parents to open a Montessori school in our neighborhood. And that is how I got started as an educator, running Council Oak Montessori School in Chicago.
TNI: What interested you about Maria Montessori and her approach?
Enright: Montessori was a great scientist. She was trained as a medical doctor, the first woman doctor in Italy, and she approached human learning as a scientist, observing in great detail what children did and trying out different materials and activities with them to see what would work best.
Her method is very concerned with the individual child. She started out working with retarded and autistic children. And she became almost instantly famous around the world in the early part of the twentieth century because, after working with these children for a year and applying her observations and her methods, they were able to pass the exam for normal children.
But while everyone thought this was wonderful, she was thinking, “My gosh, if my poor retarded children can pass the exam for normal children, what is happening if normal children are only being asked to learn up to that level?” That is when she started working with normal children. And there, again, her results were so phenomenal that she gained even more fame.
Because motivation is so important in learning, she focused on the proper conditions to keep that fire burning. If you look at children who are one or two or three, you can see that they have tremendous motivation to learn everything they can—crawling around the floor, putting things in their mouths, looking at every book, following what their moms are doing, imitating. They are just balls of energy when it comes to learning everything they can about the world, about objects in the world, about how to move, how things taste, smell, look, about what people are doing with each other.
Montessori noticed, for example, that if she could get a child to concentrate on an activity and really be involved in it, when the child eventually stopped the activity he would be happy; he would be calm; he would be tired, but in a very contented way. And that would keep him interested. The next day, the child would want to learn and do more. So it became a self-feeding process.
TNI: What, besides motivation, is really important to learning?
Enright: Well, I see learning as acquiring the knowledge and skills that you need to function in the world—to be productive, happy, and successful. Just like a flower: If you put a flower under a rock, it is going to struggle around that rock to try to reach the sun and water, but it is going to become deformed. But if you put it in the right kind of soil with plenty of water and sunshine, it is going to be beautiful and flourishing. A child is like that, too. Montessori called the child “the spiritual embryo.”
TNI: What did she do to nurture that “embryo”?
Enright: Her method became famous in 1907 in Rome when she set up what she called the House of Children—Casa de Bambini—where she worked with slum children. It was a wonderful environment for learning that respected the individual child’s interests and his natural learning tendencies. It used the teacher as a guide to learning and had the children collaborate with each other, but very respectfully.
Their behavior changed so markedly that people came from all over the world to train with her, and soon her method started spreading globally. Alexander Graham Bell’s wife became interested and opened the first Montessori school in the United States in 1912.
TNI: That’s remarkable.
Enright: It was remarkable, because she was able to get three and four year olds to concentrate for long periods of time.
She had a famous example of a little girl working on what is called the knobbed cylinders. It is made of a bar of wood with cylindrical pieces of different widths in it. Each cylinder has a knob on it for grasping, and the child has to take all the cylinders out of the bar and then put them back into the right-sized holes. If they do not put them in all the right-sized holes, then one cylinder is left over, and the child knows that he made a mistake.
This is what we call, in Montessori education, a “self-correcting” material. The goal, as much as possible, is to help the child see for himself if he achieved the goal or not, if he “got the right answer.”
TNI: So they are not constantly being corrected by someone else?
Enright: Exactly. If you want the child to be an independent individual when he reaches adulthood, he has to be able to know on his own when he has achieved something or when he has failed—to judge that independently.
In this example, the girl working on the cylinders was so engrossed in her work that it did not matter that Maria had a crowd of children around her singing, or that she moved her seat around or anything; the child just kept focusing on the cylinders for forty-five minutes.
TNI: That’s impressive.
Enright: You see this in Montessori schools all the time—this incredible concentration, which, interestingly, Montessori figured out back at the turn of the century, was a key to learning and self-motivation. More recent psychological research by professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, on the optimal conditions for the most enjoyable kinds of experiences, independently and completely supports her original observations and conclusions. Csikszentmihalyi called this kind of experience of engrossing activity “flow,” because when he first discovered it, he was studying artists in the ’60s who would be totally engaged in what they were doing. And they said, “I’m just in the flow.” They would forget where they were, they would forget what time it was, and they totally enjoyed what they were doing. In sports, it’s “getting in the zone.” When the Montessori people read his books and contacted him, he recognized what was going on in the Montessori classroom—that Maria had created this optimal flow environment for learning.
TNI: And the focus was on the individual.
Enright: Exactly—that we are all individual human beings with human wants and needs.
Montessori schools spread all over the States, and they were spreading all over the world, too, when along came this very influential professor from Columbia University Teachers’ College, William Heard Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick decided to “scientifically” analyze the Montessori Method. He went to some schools, he interviewed her, and he wrote a book called The Montessori System Examined. His book basically gutted the Montessori Method, discrediting it with the academics.
You see, Kilpatrick was a staunch advocate of John Dewey’s “progressive” method of education. Dewey’s method, if you look at its basic principles, is actually almost the opposite of Montessori—although a lot of people think that it is very similar because it emphasizes experiential, “hands on” learning.
For one thing, Dewey opposed the development of the intellect when a child is young; he considered it stifling to the imagination. Whereas Maria said, “Well, you cannot really do imaginative work until your mind has some content.” So, the imaginative work goes hand-in-hand with learning about the world.
In addition, Dewey focused on the socialization of the child. For him, the school was about teaching the child how to get along with other people and be a part of society—this was the crux of his “pedagogic creed.” You can see it in his famous declaration about the purpose of education, first published in The School Journal in January 1897. Dewey wrote, “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling, and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.”
TNI: At that time, there was a big push for socialism in all aspects of our society. Anybody who promoted individualism was in the minority.
Enright: Exactly. Even Montessori herself was, politically, a socialist. I mean, it was generally believed that socialism was the most advanced political point of view. She understandably would have been seduced by all those ideas. That was not her field.
Now Maria Montessori’s method does teach social skills as a conscious element in the curriculum. We call it “the grace and courtesy aspects” of the curriculum. But contrary to Dewey’s approach, hers is about how people properly interact with each other to be productive and happy individuals, in the course of developing their minds.
You can see this in the whole system, starting with the very way that children are allowed to work with the materials in the classroom. They can go to the shelf where the materials are, select something, bring it to their own space defined by a rug or a desk or a table or wherever they wish to sit, and work on it. They can work by themselves with the material as long as they want; the children are taught to try not to disturb each other. They can share the material with the other children if they want to, but they are not forced to. Consequently, what happens is that they tend to be very happy to collaborate with other children.
TNI: How interesting.
Enright: And when they are done, they are required to take the material and put it back on the shelf where it was so that the next child can use it. To me, all of these principles taught in the Montessori classroom train children how to behave in a free society with other responsible individuals.
TNI: I can see that.
Enright: Montessori’s is not a focus on “You must get along with other people no matter what.” The focus is very much on intellectual development, on the individual trying to learn, to develop himself, and to interact in a respectful way. In some respects that is the opposite of the collectivist idea that Dewey had of how we should interact. One result is the consistent reports we get from upper-level teachers and employers that Montessori students stand tall in what they think is right.
Anyway, Kilpatrick said that the Montessori Method was based on an old-fashioned theory of faculty psychology. Now, at that time, 1918, the ascendant theory—the so-called “scientific theory of psychology”—was behaviorism, whose basic tenet is that you cannot scientifically say that there is a mind, because you cannot see it; you can only study behavior.
As a consequence of Kilpatrick’s books, the Montessori schools started closing down. Only a few remained over the long haul, and they were quite small. Students going to teachers’ colleges were discouraged from going into Montessori because it was considered old-fashioned—too much focus on the intellect, not enough on imagination; too individualistic, not the proper kind of socialization.
But the Method was rediscovered in Europe in the ’50s by a mother, Nancy McCormick Rambusch, who was very dissatisfied with education in the United States. She brought it back to the U.S. and eventually started the American Montessori Society. Ever since, it has been a grassroots, parent-driven movement, not an approach promoted out of the universities.
TNI: At that point, education was inundated by the ideas promoted by Dewey. Is that correct?
Enright: Right. You have to remember that traditional education was mostly either self-education or education of the wealthy, who could afford to hire tutors. The problem of mass education arose because a republic like ours needed an educated populace. But because not all parents could pay for school, public education started with the basic problem of how to educate so many people on a limited budget. To solve that, they came up with the factory model, which is to have everybody in one room doing the same thing at the same time. The teacher is the one lecturing or directing everything that the children are doing.
TNI: Sort of like mass production.
Enright: Right. And in some respects, it worked. I do not think it would have worked so well if not for the fact that many children going into this system were highly motivated immigrants—because motivation is the key to learning. Even today, as bad as some of our public schools are, you will find reports about immigrants from Somalia, Serbia, Poland, China, all doing fantastically in public schools where other children are failing.
People look back at nineteenth-century traditional education and early parts of the twentieth century and say, “Look at how well people were educated then, compared to now.” Yes, we have many examples of remarkably high-achieving people from all levels of society at that time, but what proportion of the population were they?
Actually, discontent with public education runs back a long way. There is a book from the ’60s by Richard Hofstadter called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. He has a chapter called “The School and the Teacher,” in which he talks about the American dedication to education, how it is the “American religion,” and the concern, going back to statements of Washington and Jefferson, that we have an educated populace. He documents that objections to the kind of education received in public schools goes back to 1832—objections by Horace Mann in Boston, among others—and the complaints sound remarkably similar to what you hear today! Complaints such as: Not enough money being spent on students or teachers; teachers not getting the kind of social recognition they should for their important work; too many people apathetic about what was happening in the public schools.
So there were serious criticisms of traditional, factory-model education early on. But today there are serious problems with education as a result of the mass influence of Dewey’s philosophy of education and the ideas of leftists so deeply incorporated into the system of learning.
TNI: How do the ideas of leftists undermine education?
Enright: Well, the most serious problem is caused by the philosophical ideas of egalitarianism that became embedded in the system starting about thirty years ago. Egalitarianism is basically just a new variation on the socialist ideas which drove Dewey’s educational philosophy.
In the United States, we believe that people should have equality of opportunity. In other words, they should not be hampered by unequal treatment under the law, or by other people forcibly preventing them from pursuing what they want to do. Egalitarianism, however, takes the view that everybody should be made actually equal—not equal before the law, but materially and personally equal—that everybody should have the same amount of money, everybody should have the same abilities—
TNI: And opportunities.
Enright: Yes, and opportunities, regardless of their own effort. That these opportunities should be provided for them. This socialist permutation of Marxism was incorporated into the educational system in the way we spend public education money. Nowadays, we cannot spend more money on students of superior intelligence or talent than we do on students who have a lot of problems. We must focus instead on lifting kids with problems to the same level as everybody else. So a lot of money has been poured into “special education”—euphemistic code words for the education of poorly functioning children—and it is sold to the American public with the argument that we should give these kids an even break. In other words, it’s sold with an individualist spin: Since it’s government money, and since the government should be promoting equal opportunity, we should give problem kids extra help so that they can get on par with everyone else.
TNI: It’s easy to see how people can agree with that view of equal opportunity.
Enright: And it is true that we do need an educated populace. But there is a disjunction between the customer and the person paying, because public education is paid through government. So you have all of this conflict over what is going to be taught in the schools; and you end up having political pressure brought to bear by whoever has the dominant philosophy, influences the teacher’s colleges and education departments, or controls the local governments that run the educational programs.
There are two obvious consequences of introducing egalitarianism into the system. One is this idea that we must spend all kinds of money to raise the level of children with problems. As a result, a lot of money has been taken away from programs for what are called “gifted” children; after all, they’re already at a high level, so it’s not “equitable” to spend more to raise them higher.
The other consequence is the multiculturalism movement. That’s the idea that everybody should be considered equal no matter what their beliefs, or their racial, cultural, family, or ethnic background. Of course, as Americans, we think that you should not judge somebody based on his background or race, whatever group he is in, or anything like that, right? We think we should judge people as individuals. So, multiculturalism was floated in American society with an individualist twist.
But it is not about individuals. It categorizes everybody according to what social and cultural group he belongs to. And with egalitarianism comes cultural relativism: Every culture is equal to every other, none is better than any other. You throw out objective standards of what is good and what is bad.
So now, we are supposed to respect everybody regardless of what his culture or background brings to the table. If your culture believes in cutting off heads and ripping out hearts—well, it’s all relative!
TNI: And you have to be so careful about what you say, where you say it, and how you say it, in terms of being politically correct.
Enright: Exactly. And why is that? The egalitarians do not want anybody’s feelings to be hurt. They do not want people’s self-image to be hurt by the fact that they are not a white male, an Olympic athlete, or something like that. They have elevated a person’s self-image to being the main consideration, instead of what the person has actually achieved: We’re going to make everybody feel equal, even if they are not. Whereas our usual American approach to equality is: We do not care what your background is. If you have achieved something great, we are going to recognize and reward that.
TNI: We see the effects of this kind of philosophy, for example, in the “No Child Left Behind Act.”
Enright: Yes. No Child Left Behind is a way that conservative policymakers have tried to deal with the bad effects of egalitarianism in public education. They said, “See what this egalitarian approach to education, where everybody is worrying about hurting somebody’s feelings, has done to education. It has gotten teachers to give kids social promotions, which means that even though they have not mastered third-grade material, they are still promoted to fourth grade. We need to impose standards on public schools to make sure children are being educated to a certain level.”
So they imposed a centralized, top-down testing system for all schools, to try to make sure everybody was up to the same standards. This reflects the traditional way education is organized, because it is all about making everybody do the same thing at the same time.
TNI: And advance through the grades.
Enright: Right, advance through the grades. The other use of the term “grades” has to do with the evaluation of the child’s work on a task, essay, or project. Did you know that the use of the term “grades” came from the idea of grading shoes and saying that “this group of shoes is the best group, this group is just okay, this group is not too good, and that group must be thrown out”? What’s bothersome about this is that, as educators, our job should be to craft an environment to help each child, whatever his ability or background, so that he can learn and achieve as much as he can, so he can fulfill his best potential as a unique individual.
But in the grading system, you are thinking about how to decide whom to pass and whom to fail. In the traditional view, failing was the child’s fault, not the educational system’s—the child just didn’t try hard enough. One thing that traditional education was criticized for, and one reason why these newer methods were incorporated, was that we were losing all this human potential. But that truth was twisted through egalitarianism.
TNI: Then, at some point, there are classes where no grades are given at all, so nobody gets his feelings hurt? Or like the Little League where no score is kept?
Enright: Right. Nobody is labeled a winner or a loser.
I think that for young children, this is not always a bad idea, because grades and scores focus on competing with other people. In Montessori schools, we do not generally keep grades. We focus on whether or not the child is mastering the material. And each child is evaluated separately. A child also learns how to evaluate himself. “Have I mastered this material? Can I go on to the next level?”
TNI: And this is easily determined by the teacher?
Enright: Easily. Because the teacher knows the curriculum well; she knows what the child should be working on. And we have a general idea, from the scientific study of development, at what level children usually should be functioning at a given age. Not everybody will fall into the statistically normal sequence of development, because there is so much individual variation in human development and potential. We use a very broad category of what is objectively normal development.
TNI: This is also based on the biology of the child?
Enright: Exactly. One of the reasons we do not use grades in Montessori is that we recognize that education is, at root, self-education. Our job is to guide children in their self-education; we are very concerned that each child be concerned with doing his best and challenging himself. This only happens in the right educational environment because, you see, human beings are naturally very competitive. That, I think, comes from our nature as social animals competing in the social hierarchy, and it is very easy to let that trump the desire to learn.
So, when you introduce grades and all those comparisons in the early ages, children tend to focus on comparing themselves to each other and determining who is on the top of the heap and who is not. Their focus tends to be, “What is my grade? Am I pleasing the teacher? And am I better than the next guy?” They do not tend to focus on “What am I actually learning? Am I understanding what I’m doing? Do I know how to use it?”
TNI: That can be very dangerous. And it can undercut their self-esteem.
Enright: In the sense of undercutting their real self-esteem, their deepest sense of self-confidence. “I’m not good at math—I can’t do it as well as Johnny.” But maybe he’s just a late bloomer. Einstein was supposed to be a mediocre math student in the early grades. Being constantly compared to others can cut a child’s motivation to persevere and keep learning something, even if it’s difficult. So, we are very concerned to downplay that kind of competition. Competition happens anyway, but to a reduced degree. A child will look at what another is doing and say, “Hmm, I want to be able to do that.” If there is not a lot ofpressure to compete, this natural tendency will actually motivate him in a good way.
TNI: It’s more of a healthy, inner competition—
Enright: —than something externally directed. You want to encourage this intrinsic motivation to learn and achieve that we see in the two year old, because when you become an adult, you want to be self-motivated—to achieve things yourself and to know what you enjoy doing, in order to be happy.
TNI: Why do conservatives not like the Montessori Method?
Enright: Well, I do not know if I can speak about all conservatives. Some send their children to Montessori schools. But, politically, the conservative approach is, “Let’s go back to what was done before.” They tend to think in the paradigm of what was done traditionally in education. That ends up being the factory method.
And they want to reintroduce standards, since egalitarians following the Dewey method took standards and mastery out of the picture because they did not want to hurt anybody’s feelings. So, since nobody is learning or acquiring the skills needed to succeed, the conservatives’ response is, “Well, let’s reintroduce standards.” Their way of doing it is by using these tests. It is ironic that conservatives, who seem to want a more free-market approach to things, should introduce the federal Education Department’s top-down, one-standard idea about what everybody in the whole country should be doing.
My teacher friends now call it the “No Child Left Standing Act,” because of the tremendous focus on producing higher test scores at all costs. The money that schools get is so tied to the test scores that the focus of teachers and administrations is almost solely on whether the children are passing these tests at the designated levels—not whether the children are really learning things. As we all know, it is very easy for many kids to learn only what they must for the short–term, to pass the test, but in the end they know very little about the subject.
TNI: It’s the old practice of “cramming for the test” until the last moment, taking the test, and then forgetting everything.
Enright: Exactly. Whereas real learning is about gaining the knowledge and skills that you need, relating these to other things you know, figuring out how you can use it all in your own life, and understanding how it affects the world.
The conservatives wanted to revert to traditional testing to assess what the child was learning. But, unfortunately, a test is not generally an authentic measure of what the child understands. Many smart kids are encouraged to compete to get good grades and learn to “game the system.” The kids who succeed the most in school oftentimes are the best at doing whatever the teacher tells them. They know what they need to do to get good grades, to get into the good high school and college. We see students who do fantastically on the SAT and may even do well in college, but they do not know how to think well. They just know how to play along by other people’s rules. When they get out into the real world, they are not necessarily especially successful or great employees.
TNI: They don’t succeed in reality.
Enright: No. Sometimes they are tremendous failures.
There was interesting research done on millionaires by Thomas J. Stanley. He discovered that quite a few of them got under 950, total, on their SAT scores, and yet they are fantastically successful in business. Obviously, their talents were not served or assessed well in school.
TNI: So, it is ultimately an issue of learning how to think, is it not?
TNI: And that is never taught, is it?
TNI: What about the kids of single parents or kids from minority homes lacking the usual advantages—kids who may not be instilled with much motivation to learn? Also, why do children from some ethnic groups, such as kids from India, seem to be more motivated to learn?
Enright: Indian culture really emphasizes education.
TNI: As does the Chinese culture.
Enright: Yes. So your question is: What can we do to motivate children who come from less-supportive backgrounds? Well, for one thing, research finds these children tend to do very well in Montessori classrooms.
Also, speaking of motivation—I remember a John Stossel TV special some years ago. There was a segment about Steve Marriotti, a former businessman who decided to teach in a Harlem high school. And he just had an awful time. Almost the whole year, the kids made fun of him and caused trouble.
Just before the end of the year, as he was about to quit, he asked his class, “If I did one thing right, what was it? If one thing I did was interesting, what was it?” And he said, “A fellow at the back of the class, a gang leader, raised his hand and said, ‘Well, when you talked about how you ran this import/export business and how you made it successful.’” Right there, this gang leader basically reconstructed Marriotti’s income statement for him. Obviously, he was an intelligent student—he had absorbed all the facts about the economics of Marriotti’s business.
It dawned on Marriotti that what would really motivate these kids to rise out of poverty was to learn how to become entrepreneurs. So he instituted a program that is now worldwide, to teach kids how to be entrepreneurs—the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. One thing he found is that children from these backgrounds are used to tolerating uncertainty and risk, which you must be able to do to be a good entrepreneur.
Enright: But people from a very stable background will not easily have that ability. In fact, we have an opposite kind of problem nowadays. We have so many kids from wealthy families that they lack the motivation to make money, and they do not have any direction. Their parents do not instill in them enough sense of purpose and drive. They end up being profligate, drunks and drug addicts, just spending money—Paris Hilton or whatever.
Because we are such a wealthy society, that is another reason why teaching our children in ways that nurture their intrinsic motivation right from the get-go is so important.
TNI: Back to an earlier point. If conservatives don’t have the right approach to education, what about libertarians?
Enright: The libertarians have mostly been encouraging school choice—the idea that parents should have a right to decide where their child goes to school. Encouraging school choice is a good idea; it is certainly a step away from this monolithic public education system we now have and towards a more individualized educational market.
TNI: That means supporting the voucher system, right?
Enright: I have to say, the voucher system scares me, in this respect. With the government paying for private-school education through vouchers, on the scale of money we’re talking about, there will inevitably be corruption. And then political people will say, “Well, if these private schools are going to take government money, we have to have government oversight and control.” It is a real, dangerous possibility that the government will step in and standardize everything, and that will be the opposite of a free market in education. It’s what happened in the Netherlands.
TNI: Is that where libertarian educators are moving?
Enright: What I understand is that libertarians originally were encouraging tax credits for education. Milton Friedman talked about that, years ago. Individuals could take money off what they had to pay in taxes in order to use it for private-school tuition. Also, non-parents and organizations could give money to educate others, like poor children, and get tax credits. If there weren’t enough monies that way, I imagine that you could set things up so that children whose parents did not pay enough taxes would get some kind of voucher.
But, at some point, many libertarians decided that that was not going to fly, politically, and so they turned instead toward vouchers for everybody. But the politicians will end up regulating private schools that use vouchers, maybe saying that all voucher-accepting schools have to have state-certified teachers or curricula.
TNI: So this may put Montessori out of business.
Enright: Yes. Because once the government begins to issue vouchers, the schools are going to have to accept them—except, perhaps, for the schools of the very wealthy. All the other private schools, where middle-class and lower-middle-class students go, will either have to accept them, or they will go out of business.
TNI: Ah, yes.
Enright: So, the libertarians are encouraging a free market in education, which is a good thing. The thing I do not hear from them, however, is much talk about what kind of education is objectively best for human beings. That is because most libertarians believe in a free market, which is the political end of things, but they think that your moral standards and ethical beliefs are entirely private and subjective.
Okay, I do not think that the government should be regulating morals, either. However, although I think that what is right and wrong is often a complex question, I also think that you can look at human nature and reality and say, “Just as certain things are good for human health, certain actions are good for human education.” It is a matter of science and experience to figure out what is objectively good in education. But libertarians do not discuss objective standards of education very much; it is something they leave by the wayside.
TNI: I know that standards and discipline in education are important to you.
Enright: They are. But there is a good side to them and a bad side. The conservative view of education tends to be that children need to learn certain things, and we must make them learn them because they are not necessarily interested in learning those things right now. I call this the “Original Sin” view of education, because it fits many conservatives’ ethical views: They think children tend to be naughty and would rather play, so you have to discipline them to make them learn.
TNI: Force them.
Enright: Force them to learn, right. And what Maria Montessori discovered was that theylove to learn, if you give them the right environment, and they will do it of their own free will. You, as the adult, just have to be clever enough to give them what they need at the right time. You have to be the right kind of guide in their learning process, in their self-education. So, what tends to happen in the well-run Montessori school—and this is one of the things that is remarkably different about them—is that the children are very well-behaved of their own accord.
TNI: Because they are focused on learning and their own self-fulfillment—on intrinsic competition, as opposed to getting the best grade, fighting with others, and worrying about their self-images.
Enright: Exactly, exactly. What is so striking when you enter a Montessori classroom is this busy hum of all these children doing their own individual work all around the classroom. They are working on things; they are excited about what they are doing and sharing it with each other, but quietly. They are allowed to talk to each other. Maria said, “We learn so much through conversation as adults. Why do we stop children from talking to each other?” Well, that happens in traditional education because children end up talking about things that are different from what the teacher is directing them to pay attention to, right?
Enright: People often ask me, “How do you know that a Montessori school is better than other schools?” And here is some of my proof: Over the years at my school, I cannot tell you how many children have lied to their parents, saying that they are not sick when they really were, because they do not want to miss school! We get notes from parents all the time about this.
TNI: That’s fascinating. It’s also fascinating that you have taken these concepts and have decided to put together a college for young adults. Why did you decide to do that, and how it is going to work?
Enright: It is well known that leftist philosophy dominates academia. Stories about how people with conservative or libertarian views are kept out of the academy are common. Furthermore, on campuses you have a proliferation of anti-cognitive, anti-free-inquiry ideas, like political correctness. The kids are not allowed to talk about things in certain ways because it might offend somebody. If they hold politically incorrect views and express them, they are ridiculed. In many instances students are punished with bad grades by professors who do not like what they write—not because it is poorly done, but simply because the teachers do not like the content. Well, that strangles debate. That strangles the reasoning mind. That strangles independent judgment.
TNI: It’s all too common.
Enright: Plus, it concerns me that the many students coming out of college are not able to think well. These people will take over the leadership of our society; yet they cannot think for themselves, and they have been encouraged to strangle their minds with political correctness.
So, I thought to myself, maybe it is time to start another kind of college, one consciously devoted to reason, to individualism, and to encouraging students to learn how to think for themselves—not only by the ideas that we’d teach, but by the very methods that we’d use to teach those ideas. A school where the teachers are not authority figures telling you what the truth is, and you are just absorbing it and spitting it back to them on the tests. Instead, a school where the teachers are expert guides to the best knowledge and ideas in the world—where reasoning skills are emphasized in every classroom, whether it is science or art, whether it is mathematics or history.
TNI: And you are going to find teachers able to do this—and wanting to do it?
Enright: Yes. I do not think it is going to be a problem to find teachers, because I have so many highly qualified people approaching me, saying they would be interested. It would be a matter of finding those with the right combination of skills, attitudes, and knowledge to properly implement the curriculum we have created.
TNI: Talk a little about that curriculum.
Enright: It is going to use what are called “The Great Books” as its foundation. These are group of classics first identified in the late 1920s and ’30s. Robert Hutchins, a far-seeing president of University of Chicago, was concerned, back in the ’20s, that college was getting too professionalized—that everybody was focusing on just getting a job, and that they were not being educated well enough in the great ideas of our world to understand what was going on around them.
So, he put together this committee of experts in ideas, works, and education—Mortimer Adler, a philosopher at U.C.; Richard McKeon and Mark Van Doren from Columbia; Stringfellow Barr from the University of Virginia—a number of people. They picked a group of books that they thought were the most influential, the best-reasoned, the most important works in Western civilization, and they called these “The Great Books.” Since then, the list has been expanded to include titles from civilizations around the world.
A person educated in these books knows a tremendous amount about the ideas, history, and people who have influenced the world we live in today. So, we are going to use that list of books, plus a select group of more contemporary ones, such as the works of Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Richard Feynman, and others. These will form the basis of our curriculum.
We will also incorporate philosophical questions in all classes—very reality-oriented philosophical questions. When the student is learning mathematics, he will also learn, “Why am I learning mathematics? What does it teach me about how to think? How can I use it in the way I live? How does it affect our society? What place does mathematics have in the marketplace?” So, when he graduates, he will have a firm grasp of the relationship between what he learned in school, and the workforce, and his life, and history, and political goings-on—all of these things. We will give him much stronger, more integrated knowledge of the world than does the usual curriculum.
TNI: And he will be independent.
Enright: And he will be independent. He will consciously know how to question and analyze. Through encouragement, reasoning skills, excellent philosophical knowledge, and the way the teachers will guide him, his independence will be highly nurtured. He will be much more confident of his own point of view because he will have thought it through so well. And whatever work he chooses, he will be able to be a confident leader promoting freedom.
Since I’ll bring Montessori principles up to the adult level in this school, a large component of the curriculum will be a “practical life component,” where the student not only intellectually grasps relationships between ideas and what is going on in the world but gains practical experience with that, too. We’ll give students an opportunity from their freshman year on to get involved in outside internships, research projects, and other activities where they can learn about whatever they might be interested in doing. They can try different kinds of work—
TNI: —actually working alongside business people, or interning with scientists?
Enright: Yes, precisely. The internship program will also demonstrate to people how well the students are doing, as they display their excellent thinking skills, their work ethic—all the kinds of things we are going to encourage and nurture.
TNI: Do you know for a fact that people out there would be willing to bring these interns into their environment?
Enright: Oh, yes. I know quite a few businessmen who are involved with me in this project, and they are very excited about the idea. You know, businesses today have a great deal of trouble with employees who are not prepared to work in the right way.
TNI: So, is this college going to be a reality?
Enright: If I have anything to do about it.
TNI: How are academics throughout the country responding?
Enright: I have quite a group of enthusiastic academics on my advisory board. When I go to conferences of the Liberty Fund and the National Association of Scholars and tell them about the college, many people are extremely interested. And, as I said, there is a lot of interest from professors who would like to work there.
TNI: You sound like an educational optimist.
Enright: I am. I think the basic principles of education—and educational reform—are now well-established. You have to remember that when Maria Montessori started, she basically taught slum children.
TNI: And proved that, given the right kind of education, these kids could rise out of poverty and become successful.
Enright: Absolutely. Every day, through a combination of factors, including drive and their own free will, people emerge from the worst of backgrounds and succeed. But what you want to do, of course, is to make it possible for more of them to succeed. And that is what education should be about: crafting a learning environment that allows the greatest number of children to develop themselves.
TNI: Well, it is a fascinating subject—and as your own project develops, I’m sure that we will talk with you about it again. Best wishes, Marsha.
Enright: Thank you, Sara.
Philosophy & Psychology
If “Emotions Are Not Tools of Cognition,” What Are They?:
An Exploration of the Relationship
Between Reason and Emotion
Marsha Familaro Enright
A Conversation with Ayn Rand
“Emotions are not tools of cognition,” Ayn Rand said on more than one occasion (1961, 55; 1964, 6; 1974, 6).
An emotion as such tells you nothing about reality, beyond the fact that something makes you feel something. Without a ruthlessly honest commitment to introspection—to the conceptual identification of your inner states—you will not discover what you feel, what arouses the feeling, and whether your feeling is an appropriate response to the facts of reality, or a mistaken response, or a vicious illusion produced by years of self-deception . . . (Rand 1984, 17)
The apparent meaning of these statements has reverberated among Objectivists for years. For some, they have cast a suspicion on emotion as such. Many take them to mean that feelings should always be ignored when reasoning. Why? On the premise that they do not give any evidence about reality, and distort our reasoning, giving a kind of positive bias (Kahneman, Slovic and Tversky 1982) to whatever is felt most strongly.
Of course, emotional bias and distortion of judgment are common in everyday experience: Andrew really dislikes Scott as a person, his cocky attitude, his condescending stance—so much so that Andrew seems to notice anything wrong with what Scott does or says, but rarely anything right. Worse, he often incorrectly understands what Scott does and says. The fact that Scott is a superb basketball player and knowledgeable about the game is discounted, even the kind words Scott has for a child who fell down are ignored: Andrew has a very hard time creating and maintaining a reasonable and objective evaluation of Scott. Surely, Andrew’s feelings are biasing his cognition towards Scott. And this seems to have been the kind of thing Rand was worried about.
However, I was never sure that Rand’s position exactly described the facts of experience about reason and emotion. And, over the years, I had noticed certain discrepancies in Rand’s writings about emotions (also in the
characterizations in her fiction).[i] In the 1970s, I was attending some lectures given by Leonard Peikoff in New York City. Rand was in the audience and accessible to students with questions. I took the opportunity to ask Rand about her statement “emotions are not tools of cognition, and negative emotions less so than any others” in her essay “Ideas versus Men” (1974, 6). I asked her how negative emotions could be less so, if emotions weren’t tools in the first place?
Her first response was to make sure I understood what she meant, which I did: that she made this paradoxical statement as a matter of emphasis. Then, she explained herself: She said that negative emotions were particularly dangerous cognitively because they tended to drive you away from things, from looking at the facts and reality, from thinking about the objects of the feelings, while positive emotions at least draw you to things. She said that negative feelings are variations of fear; therefore they make you less able to think about the thing evoking the feeling.
A rather interesting, psychologically observant, and reasonable position, I thought. However, the reader may have noticed that it didn’t address my original question, viz. “How can negative emotions be “less so,” if emotions aren’t tools of cognition in the first place? For one thing, I wanted to know what she meant by the metaphor of “tool.” Unfortunately, I became distracted from pressing the issue. So we must go back to the drawing board—or the writing tablet, as it may be—to examine some of the passages in which she discusses emotions in order to further determine what she meant.[i]
In the following, I will not only examine Rand’s writings on the relationship of reason and emotion, I will also delve into current neurological and psychological research relevant to the topic, endeavoring to discern their true relationship.
The Discussion of Emotion in Rand’s Corpus
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand indicated her abstract view of reason and its relation to emotion:
“Just as your body has two fundamental sensations, pleasure and pain, as signs of its welfare or injury, as a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death, so your consciousness has two fundamental emotions, joy and suffering, in answer to the same alternative. Your emotions are estimates of that which furthers your life or threatens it, lightning calculators giving you a sum of your profit or loss. You have no choice about your capacity to feel that something is good for you or evil, but what you will consider good or evil, what will give you joy or pain, what you will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on your standard of value. Emotions are inherent in your nature, but their content is dictated by your mind. Your emotional capacity is an empty motor, and your values are the fuel with which your mind fills it. If you choose a mix of contradictions, it will clog your motor, corrode your transmission and wreck you on your first attempt to move with a machine which you, the driver, have corrupted.” (1957, 947; boldfaced emphasis mine)
An emotion that clashes with your reason, an emotion that you cannot explain or control, is only the carcass of that stale thinking which you forbade your mind to revise. (962)
Later, in her interview with Playboy, she said:
“Reason is man’s tool of knowledge, the faculty that enables him to perceive the facts of reality. To act rationally means to act in accordance with the facts of reality. Emotions are not tools of cognition. What you feel tells you nothing about the facts; it merely tells you something about your estimate of the facts. Emotions are the result of your value judgments; they are caused by your basic premises, which you may hold consciously or subconsciously, which may be right or wrong.” (Rand 1964, 6)
Then, in The Virtue of Selfishness, she speaks in more detail about the nature of emotion and its relation to reason and knowledge:
Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is an automatic indicator of his body’s welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death—so the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function . . . Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them . . .
But while the standard of value operating the physical pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is automatic and innate, determined by the nature of his body—the standard of value operating his emotional mechanism, is not. Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments.
Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both. . . . But since the work of man’s mind is not automatic, his values, like all his premises, are the product either of his thinking or of his evasions: man chooses his values by a conscious process of thought—or accepts them by default, by subconscious associations, on faith, on someone’s authority, by some form of social osmosis or blind imitation. Emotions are produced by man’s premises, held consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly. (1964, 27–28; boldfaced emphasis mine)[i]
Since he was the original theoretical psychologist in the Objectivist movement, Nathaniel Branden’s views were a significant presentation of Objectivist thinking in this area. His early views in articles in The Objectivist and in his book The Psychology of Self-Esteem were much in alignment with Rand’s. In the book, he defines emotion as “the psychosomatic form in which man experiences his estimate of the beneficial or harmful relationship of some aspect of reality to himself” (Branden 1969, 64).[i] He emphasizes the same series of mental steps as Rand, from perception to cognition to estimation to emotion, and the view that man is not born with built-in values but must choose them. Like Rand, he declares:
Emotions are not tools of cognition. To treat them as such is to put one’s life and well-being in the gravest danger. What one feels in regard to any fact or issue is irrelevant to the question of whether one’s judgment is true or false. It is not by means of one’s emotions that one apprehends reality. . . . Reason and emotion are not antagonists; what may seem like a struggle between them is only a struggle between two opposing ideas, one of which is not conscious and manifests itself only in the form of a feeling. (66–68; boldfaced emphasis mine)
Branden’s early views had much influence on Objectivist thought, although he later changed some of his positions.
However, in “The Comprachicos,” Rand revealed a somewhat different approach to emotions:
“Animals, infants and small children are exceedingly sensitive to emotional vibrations: it is their chief means of cognition. A small child senses whether an adult’s emotions are genuine, and grasps instantly the vibrations of hypocrisy.” (Rand 1971, 197; boldfaced emphasis mine)
Later in the essay, she discusses the experiences of a hypothetical young child in a Progressive nursery school:[i]
“He gets the nature of the game—wordlessly, by repetition, imitation and emotional osmosis, long before he can form the concepts to identify it.
“He learns not to question the supremacy of the pack. He discovers that such questions are taboo in some frightening, supernatural way; the answer is an incantation vibrating with the overtones of a damning indictment, suggesting that he is guilty of some innate, incorrigible evil: “Don’t be selfish.” Thus he acquires self-doubt, before he is fully aware of a self.
“He has neither the means nor the courage to grasp that it is not his bad feelings, but the good ones, that he wants to protect from the pack: his feelings about anything important to him, about anything he loves—i.e., the first, vague rudiments of his values. (198–200)
“Even though the major part of the guilt belongs to his teachers, the little manipulator is not entirely innocent. He is too young to understand the immorality of his course, but nature gives him an emotional warning: he does not like himself when he engages in deception, he feels dirty, unworthy, unclean. This protest of a violated consciousness serves the same purpose as physical pain: it is the warning of a dangerous malfunction or injury. ” (206; boldfaced emphasis mine)
Another quote that points to emotions as evidence is this line from Atlas Shrugged: “[T]he proof of an achieved self-esteem is your soul’s shudder of contempt and rebellion against the role of a sacrificial animal . . .” (1957,947; emphasis mine).
How do we reconcile all these thoughts with one another? On the one hand, Rand maintains that we are born tabula rasa for values and estimations. She asserts that emotions are automatic reactions resulting from our estimations and values, and that our estimations and values result only from our knowledge. Therefore, emotions can only result from our knowledge of the world. She reasons that our knowledge is a result of our conscious awareness and reasoning. Therefore, what we find good or bad, what we value, results only from the work of our reasoning minds after we are born.
On the other hand, she acknowledges both that animals and infants use their emotions to figure out things about the world (“chief means of cognition”). By her own theory, how can this be? Don’t our emotions stem from our chosen values and premises? Don’t we choose values and premises with our reasoning minds? What if we don’t have a reasoning mind yet? Further, she holds that emotions aren’t tools of cognition, but she also says that feelings of contempt and rebellion are proof of self-esteem—proof of our judgment that we are valuable, competent and worthy persons.
And, if there is no inherent standard of value implicitly operating his emotional mechanism, because we are tabula rasa for value, how can a young child’s consciousness warn him of a malfunction? How can he have some sense that what he is doing is wrong? Note that she thinks it serves the same purpose as physical pain—to protect his life.
Also, although she several times says that our feelings are the result of what we have thought and learned, by careful conscious thinking, she also says several times that they can result from undirected subconscious integrations. If you don’t do the necessary conscious thinking to choose your values properly, your subconscious makes integrations on its own that automatically result in values. They get chosen by default? How and by whom? Doesn’t Rand hold that choice is an act of the conscious, reasoning mind?
Further, she speaks of someone accepting ideas by a process of “social osmosis.” What is that? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “osmosis” is “the tendency of fluids separated by porous septa to pass through these and mix with each other.” Obviously, Rand uses the term metaphorically here, but by what literal process would a person get ideas and values passed to them from other people without conscious awareness? And, if the content of one’s subconscious is determined by one’s reasoning, how does that reconcile with the process of social osmosis? How does one accept ideas by imitation? Is this a process of reason? If not, then how do the ideas result in one’s subconscious and cause emotions?
Let me stress that I am not disputing that some people do accept ideas by imitation, because human beings are a highly imitative species. I am disputing how some people accept ideas by imitation if all ideas are accepted by conscious choice. I am trying to see how these statements relate to Rand’s theory of the roots and cause of emotions.
Notice in the discussion of the nursery school child, Rand comments on his awareness of doing wrong, of his acting in a destructive way against his consciousness—and his emotions indicate this to him by making him feel bad. Remember, she’s speaking here about a three-year-old child, that is, one just beginning to form higher abstractions and concepts. At this level of development, most of the child’s conscious reasoning and cognition is directed at mastering sensory/perceptual and motor information (Montessori 1967; Boydstun 1990). He has just the beginnings of conscious reasoning, although there is a lot of evidence that his subconscious mind is a repository of lots of information and integrations—sensory, perceptual, motor and social. The latter isindicated by his complex abilities to work, discover, interact with others, and engage in imaginary play (Baron-Cohen 1996; 2000; Gardner 1991; Montessori 1936; 1964; Perner 1991; Piaget 2000; Tulving and Craik 2000).
I think it is abundantly clear from the unanswered questions and implications of these passages that Rand’s—and Branden’s—early thinking on the relation of reason and emotion, although rich with information and insight, is incomplete. At this point, I think it would behoove us to look at the bigger picture of the scientific evidence regarding the process of reasoning and the biological function and nature of emotions. At the end of this essay, I will return to Objectivist theory on reason and emotion and examine it in light of the following information.
Evidence on the Relation of Emotion and Cognition
To clarify our exploration, let’s examine the meaning of “cognition.” I have not been able to find a straight definition of this idea in Rand’s work.[i] The closest I can cobble together is this: “Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses” (Rand 1971, 20). And: “The ability to regard entities as units is man’s distinctive method of cognition” (Rand 1967, 12). In The Psychology of Self-Esteem, Branden (1969, 91) says: “The basic function of man’s consciousness is cognition, i.e., awareness and knowledge of the facts of reality.” In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, knowledge is described as “a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation” (Rand 1967, 45).
Rand’s conception of the process of knowledge seems to be of steps in a series, not just aspects of one integrated process: First, perceptually identify existents. Second, regard the various existents as units. Third, integrate this information with other facts and ideas. The product is knowledge. For Rand, the distinctive feature of cognition seems to be identification of the facts: “. . . the awareness of specific, particular things which he can recognize and distinguish from the rest of his perceptual field—which represents the (implicit) concept ‘identity’ (6). The awareness and identification of facts, either perceptual or conceptual, seems to be the mental act performed in cognition. This is distinguished from evaluation, which is the mental act of judging the helpful or harmful relationship that some aspect of reality has to living things and their pursuits.
On Rand’s account, evaluation, and therefore emotions, involve an extra step beyond cognition—a subconscious evaluation and response. What is evaluated is the relationship of some fact to oneself; evaluation, in turn, leads to emotion. However, to determine whether emotions are or are not tools (means or instruments) of cognition, we need to examine their ongoing relationship with cognitive functioning. We need to examine how reasoning works to achieve goals—in particular, cognitive goals— and whether emotions play any part in facilitating the best use of reason. Let’s keep in mind that all cognitive operations are the goal-oriented actions of living beings.
Are emotions involved in tasks that seem purely cognitive? For this, I have something to offer from my own experience: Here’s something that happened to me one day while I was trying to make dinner. I was making a special chicken salad, but I couldn’t find the recipe so I prepared the food from memory: a seemingly straightforward cognitive task. I pictured the list of ingredients in my head, from the recipe page in the book that I couldn’t find. Some parts of the list weren’t perfectly clear in visual memory. So I kept going over it in my head, trying to get a clearer mental picture of the list. I started to add the spices, and, as I went into the spice cabinet, the dry mustard drew my attention—I felt a kind of questioning, a kind of half-feeling, half-thought, meaning: Is it in the recipe? No, I thought, it goes in something else, potato salad or macaroni and cheese. So I left it on the shelf. But—I still felt an uncertainty.
I finished the salad and ate dinner without having shaken the feeling of doubt that I had. Later, as I put the dishes in the dishwasher, I noticed that the dressing on the salad wasn’t the same color as usual: it was brown, like the balsamic vinegar I had put in it, instead of . . . yellow! I then realized that I had left out regular mustard, and I felt a eureka of discovery, a feeling of satisfaction and completion. I had solved the problem.
I must admit that, although this task may seem largely cognitive, there were strong motivations driving it, which affected what I felt. For example, there was personal frustration at not being able to accomplish my task, and a desire to continue to try to reconstruct the correct list, because I wanted to taste that good salad. But there was also a more purely cognition-related motivation: the doubt that I had made the recipe correctly, along with a strong desire to know the truth, and these caused my subconscious to continue working on the problem even after I finished eating, until the problem was solved.
What seems clear to me in this experience is the extent to which my feelings about what I was trying to figure out both indicated the state of, and helped direct, my cognition. They indicated whether I had fully identified the facts of the recipe. My goal, searching for the right ingredients, directed the scanning of my memory. My emotional evaluation of the information that came out, followed by my thoughts (dry mustard? No, that didn’t feel right—ah, I use it in macaroni and cheese) then re-directed my search.
Psychologist/philosopher Eugene T. Gendlin has been exploring similar experiences for some years. He uses a method he calls “focusing” to get at the meaning and nature of the implicit.[i] Here is an example from a recent essay:
“Suppose you have an oddly gnawing feeling. Then you realize —oh, it’s that you forgot something—it’s now Monday afternoon—what was it? You don’t know, and yet it is there, in that gnawing body-tension. You think of many things you ought to have done today, but no; none of them are “it.” How do you know that none of these is what you forgot? The gnawing knows. It won’t release. You burrow into this gnawing. Then suddenly—you remember: Yes, someone was waiting for you for lunch. Too late now! This might make you quite tense. But what about the gnawing? That particular tension has eased. The easing is the easing of that gnawing. Its easing is how you know that you have remembered. Remembering is something experienced, and the term “remembered” is used in direct reference to experience.” (Gendlin 1995)
By “experience,” Gendlin means the direct awareness you have of what you are feeling, perceiving, thinking, remembering, imagining— of all your awareness at the moment, as opposed to a statement about it, or some other symbolized formulation. “The gnawing knows” seems to be a poetic way of saying that some part of one’s subconscious knows and this is experienced through a feeling of gnawing. This is an awfully common experience, which I’m sure almost any reader recognizes. What does this experience tell us about the relation of knowing and feeling?
For one thing, it tells us that a large component of certainty and uncertainty are feelings about the state of our knowledge, as well as a set of reasoned, consciously held premises. They are feelings which reflect the subconscious evaluation that we have recognized the facts, or not. This evaluation occurs along with a particular and distinct psychosomatic component of pleasure (satisfaction, closure, comfort),in the case of certainty, or displeasure (dissatisfaction, discomfort, anxiety), in the case of uncertainty. These feelings tend to indicate the extent to which we have attained the relevant knowledge regarding the theory or premise or fact, from correctly identified facts, and from their proper integration with the body of evidence and reasoning. The feelings have a distinct psychosomatic character that allows us to recognize them as certainty or uncertainty rather than love, hate, etc.
Certainty and uncertainty are feelings?? Aren’t they the essence of cognition—of knowing when you have correctly identified the facts? Yes but . . . conscious reasoning and logic usually require the backing of myriad facts, and concepts, and chains of logic held in the subconscious. The conscious mind simply cannot hold enough information at once to alone make a determination of truth. This is one of the reasons it takes a long time to change a person’s mind about philosophy, or goals and values, or any abstract position: he or she may be able to follow chains of reasoning about abstract ideas, but simply cannot simultaneously review the enormous amount of facts and ideas relevant to the abstractions. The process of changing our minds on a complex set of ideas involves going back and forth between what is considered consciously and conclusions and facts held in memory (and faced afresh in life). We must continually apply the idea to the previously known and newly discovered to check its correctness against the facts, as well as its ability to integrate with our other ideas.
The fact that we can hold a drastically limited amount of information in our conscious minds has been informally recognized in Objectivism with the concept of the “crow epistemology.” Rand (1967, 62) mentions an observation that crows are only able to recognize a limited number of units—three to be exact (Campbell 1999; Shedenhelm 2000). Hence the term “crow epistemology,” which recognizes that there is a limit to the number of items or units that the conscious mind can hold in awareness at once. (There is also a limit to the number of items that human beings can subitize, or recognize the number of without counting, which, for most adults, is 4 items.) Experimental psychology shows that human beings can generally do better than crows; on a wider range of tasks, human beings can hold approximately seven-plus-or-minus-two units in conscious awareness. This set of facts has long been recognized in experimental psychology, going back to a famous review article by George Miller (1956).
The fact that we can hold a limited number of units in conscious awareness is the reason why long sentences are so difficult to understand. It is why we have to make lists to remember all the errands we have to do. It’s why we use concepts and words to reason. Concepts and words allow us to gather up all the information we have on some aspect of reality and have it available to our conscious mind by means of a single unit. The visual or auditory symbol is a single perceptual unit that triggers the conscious awareness of the information residing in the subconscious about that concept.
There is some evidence that every word may have a feeling attached to it. At the least, it may be the feeling that we are using the right word. For example, we may mean to speak of “a” boat rather than “the” boat. But more often, we have numerous variations of feeling attached to words, depending on our purpose in using them. Since we are always speaking for a purpose (otherwise, we are speaking gibberish), it is logical that a subconscious evaluation of the success of our purpose (e.g., that we have spoken the right word to express our meaning and purpose), should accompany every utterance, and be experienced as a feeling.
Further, we often consider what words to use through the feelings of their connotations. Words without much reference to facts and experience, which do not have much feeling related to them, are much more difficult to keep in mind. The symbols used in symbolic logic are an example of this latter, as are any neologisms that we haven’t yet fully grasped.[i] The meaning of ‘hermeneutics’ is much harder to keep in mind than the meaning of ‘cat.’ Future neuropsychological research would be required to fully test the idea that every word has a feeling attached to it.
We hold the referents for our concepts, our theories, our ideas and our values in our subconscious minds. The state of our feelings indicates to us the state of connection and integration between our subconscious ideas and the facts and ideas we are considering consciously, as illustrated by the chicken salad episode. In the case of certainty, a feeling of rightness, of on-target identification indicates to our conscious mind that what we are thinking and doing integrates appropriately with the identifications in our subconscious. This kind of psychological function is a result of the fact that we cannot hold all the facts and chains of inference in conscious attention at once.
In problem-solving and creative thinking, a hunch, i.e., “a strong intuitive feeling concerning especially a future event or result” (Merriam-Webster 2001) is often the first clue to a new line of thought, a discovery or a relevant fact we had not considered. In terms of psychological experience, a hunch seems to be the mirror image of the gnawing sense that we have forgotten something mentioned by Gendlin (1995).
This evidence suggests that even the most rigorous, explicit chain of syllogisms must be subconsciously evaluated by us for its completeness and correct explication of the facts.
Let me suggest the following observational evidence: Have you ever had the experience of carefully going over a complex theory, examining each part of the argument and the evidence for it over and over, and, even though it all seems quite logical and well argued—you just don’t feel convinced by it? You may even attribute your lack of certainty to your own irrationality, depending on the content of the theory and your state of self-doubt. But later you may have found that it was some aspect lacking in the theory that you had not yet recognized consciously —but your subconscious had! Your subconscious may have had in it a counterexample, some fact of experience that you had not consciously remembered, but which contradicted or required qualification from the theory in order for it to be correct. When you finally recognized the cause of the contradiction, you understood why you were uneasy with the theory.
Here is another example from my own experience. Back in 1970, I read The Psychology of Self-Esteem. In it, Branden relates the story of the events that led to his identification of the “Visibility Theory” of love. One day, he was playing with his dog, Muttnik, and enjoying it immensely. He realized that much of his enjoyment came from Muttnik’s understanding of his intentions, and her appropriate responses. He thought that he enjoyed such responses because they allowed him to “see” himself psychologically. That is, the appropriate feedback from Muttnik gave him the experience of perceiving himself, as in a mirror—he felt psychologically visible. He asked himself why this was of such great value to him (and most humans)? And he answered: “Since man is the motor of his own actions, since his concept of himself, of the person he has created, plays a cardinal role in his motivation—he desires and needs the fullest possible experience of the reality and objectivity of that person, of his self. . . . Man is able, alone, to know himself conceptually. What another consciousness can offer is the opportunity for man to experience himself perceptually” (1969, 186). In other words, man’s highest value is himself, but he can only usually grasp his self conceptually. Feedback from another living thing gives him the opportunity to experience himself as a concrete, individual person, as a value in reality, in real time.
I always thought this theory went far to explain the deep value we experience in enjoyable interactions with others and animals. I thought so much of what he said was excellent theoretically . . . except something kept bothering me about it, like a pebble in my shoe, or sand in my swimsuit—some small thing just didn’t seem right. And the discomfort—experienced as unease or a bothersome thing, nagging at the corners of my mind—continued for years and years, until about 12 years ago, when I realized what it was.
The visibility theory as described by Branden accounts for the pleasure and value of the perceptual experience of self brought to a conceptual being. But then, why would Muttnik enjoy the interaction so much? Muttnik lacks a conception of self. Yet, she clearly enjoyed playing with Branden. Why would visibility be valuable to her? Does that mean there is more to the desire for interaction with other beings than the desire for visibility? Are there other motives, which operate on the perceptual level? When I realized this, I felt relieved—and vindicated for doubting the theory. (The gnawing tension released!)
I ultimately came to an expansion of Branden’s Visibility Theory to explain Muttnik’s response (Enright 1990), which I won’t describe here. Instead, my point is to illustrate how a problem with integrating all the material was experienced as almost a physical discomfort, a question mark of uncertainty, relieved only by a correct identification of the facts.
To reiterate my point: the evaluations of certainty and uncertainty must include feelings because so much of the relevant information is held subconsciously. When making a complex conclusion, we cannot hold all the relevant information, premises, connections, etc. in our conscious minds at once. Therefore, part of our judgment regarding our certainty or uncertainty is performed by the subconscious and experienced as a feeling, which is the result of an evaluation by our subconscious that the conclusions fit or don’t fit all the relevant facts.
Of course, we can have a feeling of certainty and be wrong; the feeling by itself is not the proof. We need the conscious, reasoned facts and arguments, also. But we can only go over these through time, not all at once. Thus, our feeling can be wrong—but so can our conscious judgment. What we want is that state in which our conscious minds, our knowledge and our subconscious integrations and information are in perfect agreement. “And only the guiding hand of reason can enable individuals to articulate their subconscious premises and achieve a more integrated union with their conscious beliefs and actions. When this integration occurs, it is, according to Rand, ‘the most exultant form of certainty one can ever experience’” (Sciabarra 1995, 192).
Cognition and Artistic Thinking
In artistic work, emotions are essential: first, because the purpose is primarily evaluative, and second, because the selection task is simply too huge and complex to perform by acts of conscious, syllogistic, linear reasoning. The artist must allow himself to follow his emotions and select what is to be included: the beautiful, the dramatic, the thrilling, the poignant, the tragic. Then, consequently, the artist can review his selections and see whether they are well integrated with his ideas and the facts, adding or omitting things as necessary.[i]
Some might object that artistic work is radically different from cognition. But I think they would be wrong, and I offer the evidence of Arthur Koestler’s book The Act of Creation. In it, he persuasively argues that the mental activities involved in the creation of artwork, the comprehension of humor and the discovery of scientific theory are largely the same, although their purposes are different. Artwork does not literally identify the facts of reality as a scientific theory does. Yet, it requires many of the same processes of knowledge and identification of truth for its product.[i] The point is: many of the same principles and problems of the interaction of the conscious mind with the subconscious and conscious mind apply to artistic as to cognitive work, for similar reasons. And they result in the inclusion of emotions as indicators of subconscious information.
Regarding the creation of artistic work, Gendlin once again, has a lovely example:
“Consider a poet, stuck in midst of an unfinished poem. How to go on? The already written lines want something more, but what?
“The poet reads the written lines over and over, listens, and senses what these lines need (want, demand, imply . . . ). Now the poet’s hand rotates in the air. The gesture says that. Many good lines offer themselves; they try to say, but do not say—that. The blank is more precise. Although some are good lines, the poet rejects them.
“That . . . seems to lack words, but no: It knows the language, since it understands—and rejects—these lines that came. So it is not pre-verbal; rather, it knows what must be said, and knows that these lines don’t precisely say that. It knows like a gnawing knows what was forgotten, but it is new in the poet, and perhaps new in the history of the world.
“. . . the blank is not just the already written lines, but rather the felt sense from re-reading them, and that performs a function needed to lead to the next lines. A second function: if that stuck blank is still there after a line comes, the line is rejected. Thirdly, the blank tells when at last a line does explicate—it releases.
“. . . How can a set of words be at all like a blank? Rather, what was implicit is changed by explicating it. But it is not just any change. The explication releases that tension, which was the ____. But what the blank was is not just lost or altered; rather, that tension is carried forward by the words. Of course the new phrases were not already in the blank. They did not yet exist at all.” (Gendlin 1995)
This is a situation to which most of us can relate—not being able to think of the right word to express our thoughts, but knowing when the words we come up with are wrong. It is a particularly interesting example because it shows how much our judgment of our thinking’s effectiveness occurs in constant conjunction with the subconscious level. It is a feedback process between that of which we are consciously aware and the knowledge, evidence and ideas held in the subconscious, indicated to us by a feeling.
In the example, the poet knows for sure what words he doesn’t want, which don’t fulfill the thought he wishes to express. And he knows he’s found the right word when he experiences that sense of released tension, of fulfillment. Perhaps later, he will change the word when editing—but often not, if it was a word so hard to find.
The Biological Role of Emotions
But can we say that feeling is always intertwined with the process of cognition? One might argue: Could not the relevant data merely be available when the idea enters the conscious mind, without a feeling? And some might argue that they do not think they experience feelings at all times. Must there be feeling along with every thought? What is the relation of the conscious reasoning mind to the subconscious reasoning mind that causes feelings?
Part of the answer to these questions lies in the biological reason for the existence of mind: the function of mind is to maintain and enhance life (Rand 1957; 1967; Damasio 1999, 346). Mind and its abilities are ineluctably tied to goals and values, for its function is to achieve and promote them in order to serve life. Rand identifies this in The Virtue of Selfishness (1964, 25),as well as in her argument for rights in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1967, 322). It is the source of the “rationality of emotions,” as DeSousa calls it (1987). To fully appreciate this context, we must remember that even the most abstract cognition, for example, the identification of an idea of pure math, or symbolic logic, is an action of a living organism, taken to fulfill some need or desire. If it is not a goal-oriented action, we do not usually consider it an action of the organism but rather a physical side-effect, an accidental motion. Consequently, every moment of life is accompanied, at the least, by a complex background feeling regarding oneself and the world in general, and oneself, the world and what to do in particular (Damasio 1999, 117). Because the function of mind is life—our ultimate value—every mental act has a goal or purpose, conscious or subconscious. Every thought has a desire driving it. It is in this sense that reason is the servant of desire and need: not in the search for truth, for in that it should be the master— but in the fulfillment of the needs of life. Our ideal should be that described by John Herman Randall: “A passionate search for a passionless truth” (1960, 1).
The idea that we have constant background feelings isn’t exactly a new concept in Objectivism. As Rand (1975, 25) states, “a constant, basic emotion—an emotion which is part of all his other emotions and underlies all his experiences . . . is a sense of life.” Rand is speaking of a constant feeling about oneself and the world, which doesn’t change much; Damasio is speaking of a constant flow of feelings, as background to conscious experience, which is ever changing in response to what happens externally and internally. Both agree that feeling is an ever-present constant in normal humans.
Consider even now, as you read this essay: What thoughts are coming to mind as you read? Is there any relationship between the kinds of feelings you have and the kinds of thoughts, memories, questions, or objections coming to mind? Boredom, doubtfulness, interest, excitement?
What is the state of your body? Are you utterly relaxed, barely paying attention, focused and energized, or somewhere in-between— or are you feeling very anxious because you know in the back of your mind that your girlfriend is coming over soon and you’re afraid you’re going to have a fight with her?
The mind is constantly evaluating the state of fulfillment of our goals relative to all of our information, and this is communicated to conscious awareness through emotions.
In the passage from The Virtue of Selfishness discussed at the beginning of this essay, Rand indicates one of the functions of emotions: to give us automatic and timely feedback on some aspect of the world to ourselves. “Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is an automatic indicator of his body’s welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death—so the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering” (1964, 27). In this passage, she seems to characterize their function as sheerly evaluative: they let us know how we’re doing, whether things are going well or poorly for us.
According to her, we are not supposed to use their implications to act upon, because they are not tools of cognition, i.e., able to identify facts. However, it is a fact that pleasure and pain are the psychological indicators of furtherance or damage to life. From a functional view, we can’t live well without them, and it’s difficult to live very long without them. The fundamental truth of this is driven home in a book called The Gift Nobody Wants.
Pain as the Gift Nobody Wants
In this fascinating book, Dr. Paul Brand relates his odyssey of scientific discovery about the nature of leprosy. What was particularly puzzling about the nature of the disease was the disfigurement that its victims kept suffering well after they had received medicine to kill the bacteria that caused it. He determined that the bacteria had destroyed the neurons that transmitted the sensation of touch and therefore of pain to the brain in those parts of the body that were the coolest, like the extremities and parts of the face. The loss of the sense of touch, and the automatic protection of pain, caused the lepers to lose a sense of selfhood about these parts of their bodies. “My hands and feet don’t feel part of me. They are like tools I can use. But they aren’t really me. I can see them, but in my mind they are dead” (Brand 1993, 126). Because they couldn’t feel pain, the leprosy victims would unknowingly injure themselves—again and again and again, until the tissues were so damaged that they died. This was why they were most prone to lose fingertips, noses, toes, feet—all the parts of their bodies that would be most used to contact the world.
To combat this disfigurement, Brand established “consciousness-raising” group therapy for the young boys living in an orphanage for lepers in India. They needed to somehow experience these parts of their bodies as parts of themselves in order to be motivated to protect them. So, every day, these boys recounted to each other how they had acquired their latest injuries. “[S]ome of the boys had developed ugly sores between their fingers. We discovered that soap suds tend to get trapped in the crevices between partially paralyzed fingers and toes; the skin softens, macerates, and eventually cracks open” (126–27). After some time, “the patients learned to account for 90 percent of spontaneous wounds.” Walking too long in the same shoes, inadvertently touching a hot light bulb, or twisting a screw too hard were all opportunities to get hurt, for which they had to become vigilant. These boys had to focus a tremendous amount of attention, time and energy on what was happening to them, on their every activity, simply to protect their bodies from disfiguring harm.
My point here is to highlight the way in which bodily feedback (in this case of motion and pain) is absolutely necessary for human beings to experience a part of their own body as a value, to have a feeling that their body is a value, and to be able to protect it without enormous conscious attention. The normal process of acting in a self-protecting way—without thinking about it, with very little conscious attention —is totally short-circuited without the ability to feel what’s going on. To evaluate even simple physical damage without feelings of pleasure and pain is extremely difficult. An arduous reasoning process is necessary to protect against obvious physical damage and problems.
The leprosy victims’ experience is not unique. Brand also relates the case of a child who was born without the natural ability to feel pain. By the time she was eleven, she had to have her leg amputated below the knee. She had damaged it so extensively, by running around on her foot when it was already injured, that it simply wouldn’t heal and the whole leg risked developing gangrene. Although the damage was terribly obvious to the child, by sight and rational knowledge, and she faced the prospect of an operation of amputation and the consequent crippling, she apparently couldn’t stop herself from continuing to damage her leg without being able to feel the leg as part of herself.
In A Leg to Stand On (1984), neurologist Oliver Sacks relates his strange psychological experience following an injury to his leg that left him unable to feel it. In Descartes’ Error, neurologist Antonio Damasio (1994, 62) relates the psychological state of people with anosognosia—“the inability to acknowledge disease itself.” These people are often victims of a major stroke or injury to the right side of their brain, usually in the parietal lobe. The brain damage often leaves the left side of the body paralyzed. However, they seem to be totally unaware that anything is wrong. When asked how they feel, they answer “fine.” Damasio explains:
“No less dramatic than the oblivion that anosognosic patients have regarding their sick limbs is the lack of concern they show for their overall situation, the lack of emotion they exhibit, the lack of feeling they report when questioned about it. The news that there was a major stroke, that the risk of further trouble in brain or heart looms large, or the news that they are suffering from an invasive cancer that has now spread to the brain . . . is usually received with equanimity, sometimes with gallows humor, but never with anguish or sadness, tears or anger, despair or panic . . . if you give a comparable set of bad news to a patient with mirror image damage in the left hemisphere the reaction is entirely normal. Emotion and feeling are nowhere to be found in anosognosic patients . . . perhaps it is no surprise that these patients’ planning for the future, their personal and social decision making, is profoundly impaired. Paralysis is perhaps the least of their troubles.” (64)
The experience of these patients seems to be more evidence of the essential importance of emotion to normal functioning, to using reason in the service of life. But some would object that perhaps these patients have suffered damage to their very ability to reason itself.
To address this problem, Damasio investigated the situation of yet another patient. Elliot’s damage had been caused by a brain tumor in the ventromedial portion of the pre-frontal area. An operation had removed damaged frontal lobe tissue along with the tumor; this operation changed Elliot’s life forever.
Whereas he had been an extremely successful businessman and father, and was a role model for others, his life completely unraveled after the operation. His subsequent behavior caused him to lose his job and thousands of dollars in savings because of poor financial judgments, and it destroyed his marriage. Unable to adequately care for himself, he ended up incapable of holding a job and in the custody of a sibling.
The really unusual feature of this patient was how normal he seemed in so many respects.
“For all the world to see, Elliot was an intelligent, skilled and able-bodied man who ought to come to his senses and return to work. Several professionals had declared that his mental faculties were intact—meaning that at the very best Elliot was lazy, and at the worst a malingerer.” (34)
But Damasio noticed immediately a strange emotional disconnectedness:
“. . . he struck me as pleasant and intriguing, thoroughly charming but emotionally contained. He had a respectful, diplomatic composure, belied by an ironic smile implying superior wisdom and a faint condescension with the follies of the world. He was cool, detached, unperturbed even by a potentially embarrassing discussion of personal events. . . . Not only was Elliot coherent and smart, but clearly he knew what was occurring in the world around him. He discussed political affairs with the humor they often deserve and seemed to grasp the situation of the economy. His knowledge of the business realm he had worked in remained strong. I had been told his skills were unchanged, and that appeared plausible. He had a flawless memory for his life story, including the most recent, strange events.” (34–35)
And this assessment of his retained knowledge and abilities was confirmed by extensive neuropsychological testing. He even breezed through the tests that usually catch frontal lobe damage (for example, Wisconsin Card Sorting). He was easily able to make estimates on the basis of incomplete knowledge—a function normally compromised with frontal lobe damage. He even tested normal on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.
Further, he was not only able to reason very well in domains concerning objects, space, numbers and words, but even in the personal, moral and social domains. These latter domains are so complex that abnormal frontal lobe function easily compromises a person’s ability to reason about them. Yet, given many, many problems to reason through, even social and personal ones, he could respond with completely correct strings of logic about what to do. His logic and knowledge seemed perfectly intact. Why, then, did he have such a huge deficit in his ability to live? One clue lay in his comment: “And after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!” (Damasio 1994, 49).
Another lay in his detachment from the magnitude of his tragedy. In any discussion about it, he did not show any effort to control or contain emotion—he didn’t seem to need to because he was perfectly calm and relaxed talking about the most disturbing material. Damasio found himself suffering more while listening to Elliot’s stories than Elliot seemed to be suffering.
Damasio’s perception that Elliot lacked inner turmoil and feeling was supported by further testing, in which he was shown emotionally charged pictures, like people about to drown, the human devastation of an earthquake, gory accidents. “[Elliot] told me without equivocation that his own feelings had changed from before his illness. He could sense how topics that once had evoked a strong emotion no longer caused any reaction, positive or negative. . . . We might summarize Elliot’s predicament as . . . to know but not to feel” (45).
It became clear from Damasio’s extensive further testing of any possible subtle difficulty in intellectual tasks, that this was, indeed, the source of Elliot’s decision-making failures. A gambling game in particular revealed what kinds of errors in judgment he tended to make. Consistently, he and others like him tended to ignore information indicating future possible losses, in favor of immediate gains. The same pattern of bias had shown up in the bad business judgments he made that led to thousands of lost dollars. Damasio proposed that in normal individuals “a covert, nonconscious estimate precedes any cognitive process” (221). This covert estimate brings to bear many subconscious factors in their decision-making, and is experienced as a feeling to do one thing rather than the other. For example, normal people playing the gambling game would naturally become averse to picking cards from the pile that tended to have high losses. They wouldn’t necessarily know why, but they would just feel averse to that pile. Apparently, they had developed nonconscious learning and motivations, a fairly typical situation (Lewicki and Czyzewska 1992; Damasio 1999). Damasio calls these feelings “somatic markers,” because they, in effect, mark which way to act. He proposes that the patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are disconnected from this process.
We might summarize Elliot’s problem not as a deficiency in intelligence or logic, but as an inability to live normally because he could not make good judgments for himself. His reasoning process was apparently clear, but the disconnection from his feelings resulted in the inability to pay attention to important features of future events in making judgments; his attention seemed to be on the immediate end only, the plausibility of making a quick buck. He couldn’t keep his attention on assessing the dangers and feasibility of future endeavors. Thus, he chose means that didn’t work.
This kind of judgment error is very similar to that made by highly intelligent criminals and psychopaths who ignore the likely future negative consequences of their actions in favor of immediate satisfactions. Whether the cause of this disconnection in the criminals is environmental, a series of prior choices, neuropsychological, or a mix of these factors is up for debate in the psychological community (Raine 1999; Livingston 1999).
From Damasio’s experiments on normals in danger, it seems that people’s feelings are essential to helping them make appropriate judgments. But Elliot wasn’t sufficiently connected to his subconscious feelings to fully experience his predicament. This finding is typical with ventromedial frontal lobe lesions (Bechara, Tranel, Damasio and Damasio 1996).
Emotion in the Service of Life
Seriously impaired individuals like Elliot show us what happens when we are cut off from so much experiential evidence. People like him need the constant help of normal people in order to exist without further damage. In addition to his discussion of the lepers, Brand (1993) describes children who had no pain receptors from birth and thus are cut off from much experiential evidence. They damage themselves constantly; this results in amputations and early deaths. Rand (1964, 18) in fact mentions this condition in The Virtue of Selfishness. Without the proper connection between the reasoning, conscious mind and the subconscious that is afforded by our feelings, protecting our very lives becomes nearly impossible.
I have no doubt that a person without feelings from birth would hardly be able to function. In normal functioning, it is a long-term disadvantage to be cut off from one’s feelings. But at times there are advantages to directing action solely by conscious sequence and plan and suppressing immediate feelings. For example, when I am trying to tax my body to the max as I exercise, my body feels like stopping, cries out “enough” and I feel exhausted and sometimes completely unmotivated to go on. But my mind knows it is only for a few more minutes and that it will achieve my much-desired long-term goal of increased fitness. So I ignore those feelings and make myself keep running. Reason still prevails as the ultimate identifier.
In more dire circumstances, a soldier in combat may think that sneaking around behind the enemy in a carefully orchestrated ambush with his unit will most likely achieve his objective, and protect his life in the long run. He may need to strongly suppress his fast-rising desire to flee or vomit during an extremely dangerous combat situation. The flexibility of reason and free will allows him to override his subconsciously formulated estimations experienced through his emotions.
There are other times in life when it may be good to follow one’s feelings. For instance, with momentary dangers: you see a truck bearing down on you and you jump out the way in fear; you have an uneasy feeling about someone riding in the elevator with you and you step out on the next floor; you are alarmed by the sound of your baby’s cry and you run out to see her head stuck between the porch railings. At these times, it is good to act on those feelings—although, of course, you can be mistaken. Your subconscious may have calculated the situation faster than you could consciously comprehend, and protected your values.
Fully functioning individuals develop high consciousness about feelings and responses (Rogers 1961, 187). Conscious reason validates the truth of their information and conclusions in a highly iterative process. They consciously refer back and forth between the world and personal memories and experience, and the generalizations formed from these. Being highly sensitive and aware of all the pieces of information and nuances of feeling about an issue, they use emotions as a tool by which to recognize their needs and access subconscious information. This allows them to be more successful in arriving at the complete, and completely useful, truth.
As Sciabarra (1995, 188) argues, Branden’s later works have taken a more qualified approach to the relation of reason and emotion, which represents an approach reflecting these truths:
“. . . we should recognize that it is an error to cast reason and emotion as adversaries. What may appear as a conflict between them is in actuality a conflict between two ideas (or sets of ideas), one of which is not conscious and manifest only on the level of emotion. And it is not a foregone conclusion which idea is right. Sometimes our emotions reflect distorted perceptions and interpretations, but sometimes emotions reflect a deeper and more accurate assessment of reality. . . . We do not follow emotions unthinkingly, but neither do we ignore or repress them. We strive to understand their meaning—to learn from them. We strive for the alignment of thought and feeling. We strive for integration. But without the power of consciousness brought to our emotional life, without respectful self-observation, integration is not possible . . . I . . . had on too many occasions sacrificed my emotions to what I had thought was “the reasonable” . . . but [a] new awareness [led] me to be more careful about what I was calling “the reasonable” and to put more effort into understanding what my feelings were trying to tell me. “(Branden 1997, 155–56)
An Eminently Reasonable Position
Damasio’s patient Elliot had a fundamental, neurological problem with integration. He knew the facts and rules of logic, grammar and appropriate word choices, even the rules of social logic (e.g. , ‘if you go to eat at someone’s house, then you bring a gift for the hostess’). He could reason to answers for a given problem presented to him. But which answer was right would depend on what his desires, goals and purposes were. He couldn’t pick out what to do because he was no longer connected to the experience of his organism. Elliot didn’t have “the feeling of who he was” (Rogers 1961, 191) or “the feeling of what happens” (Damasio 1999).
Damasio argues that Elliot’s problem resulted from an inability of the pre-frontal cortices to get important information about his needs, values and preferences. Being an adult, he had had a long time to develop as a well-integrated human being before becoming ill— he’d had lots of experience. Consequently, he knew the “rules of the game” (as Koestler calls them) extremely well. This is why he could logically reason about even complex social situations. But once he was cut off from the personal meaning of situations because of the destruction caused by the tumor, he could no longer apply his reasoning to his choices and actions. Hence, the complete disaster of his subsequent life.
Recent research on the developing brain suggests that a related condition may be why adolescents typically have problems in judgment: they develop new cells in the frontal and parietal areas of their cerebral cortex and may not know how to use them! (Sowell 1999; Giedd 1999). They may be just learning how to use new tissue for decisions and social judgments.
As Damasio (1994, 181) says: “The innate preferences of the organism related to its survival—its biological value system, so to speak—is conveyed to prefrontal cortices by such signals and is thus part and parcel of the reasoning and decision-making apparatus.” Damasio’s comments echo the Randian sentiment that the function of mind is to further life. Damasio, however, also asks: “[W]hat drives basic attention and working memory? The answer can only be basic value, the collection of basic preferences inherent in biological regulation” (197). He appears to be at odds with Rand by implying that we have innate values. Is he wrong?
Inherent Needs and Conscious Values: Resolving Rand’s Conflicting Statements
In The Virtue of Selfishness and elsewhere, Rand argues that we choose our values. She contends that our minds have no content—no innate ideas—at birth, and that all ideas are acquired by perception, interaction, and reasoned understanding of the world. What we act to gain or keep derives from our knowledge of the world. Therefore, our goals and values are not innate either.
There is a more extreme argument I have heard often in Objectivist circles: Because we have free will, we have total freedom in choosing our values. This is evidenced, so it is argued, by the wildly varying, sometimes life-enhancing, sometimes life-threatening specific values people choose—e.g., from romantic love to sadomasochistic acts, from clowning to entertain children, like Bozo, to clowning to kill them, like John Wayne Gacy. This view seems to imply that free will doesn’t just give our nature a huge flexibility, it results in no specific nature at all—we can choose our values ex nihilo.
But this is not a full and exact description of what we do. We don’t choose our values by dry reason alone or from every possible thing with no standard. We are born with needs, specific to us as animals, as humans and as the particular individuals we are. These needs require certain values for their fulfillment—for our fulfillment, our health and our happiness. How do we begin to discover what we need, and what values we should seek to gain? We do it through our emotions—through what gives us pleasure and pain, joy and suffering. “The emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function [as physical pain or pleasure ] as a barometer that registers the same alternative [life or death] by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering” (Rand 1964, 27). Emotions help us discover our needs and help us pick what specific values to choose; they are a large part of the evidence that philosophers, psychologists and thinkers have used to determine what is the nature and what are the needs of Man.
In the following, Rand strongly acknowledges this view, and the view that some values are inherent, especially the value of life itself.
‘The standard [of value] is the organism’s life, or: that which is required for the organism’s survival. No choice is open to an organism in the issue: that which is required for its survival is determined by its nature by the kind of entity it is. . . . Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism’s life. . . . Now in what manner does a human being discover the concept of “value”? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of “good or evil” in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain. Just as sensations are the first stepof the development of cognition, so they are its first step in the realm of evaluation. . . .
“The capacity to experience pleasure or pain is innate in a man’s body; it is part of his nature, part of the kind of entity he is. He has no choice about it, and he has no choice about the standard that determines what will make him experience the physical sensation of pleasure or of pain. What is that standard? His life. ” (16–17)
I think, here, Rand’s position is very close to mine. And I think perhaps a major confusion in this issue comes from two meanings of the word “value.” Value can mean the fundamental, abstract things we act to gain or keep, like self-esteem or love or competence: things needed by every human being to thrive, because of human nature. Or, value can mean the specific, particular things we act to gain or keep to fulfill those needs, like standing up for the excellence of the painting we made in the face of criticism or loving a particular individual or practicing the piano. Human beings are usually acting to fulfill their psychological needs— but they can be very wrong about exactly what will do that. To avoid this confusion, we could speak of, for example, Reason, Purpose and Self-Esteem as the fundamental needs to sustain life, and the specific actions, relationships and objects a man pursues to fulfill those needs as his values.[i]
We need to know what to value, what to act to gain or keep. How do we find that out? By a process of learning and reasoning about what protects and advances our lives and what deteriorates and destroys them, about what we need to stay alive and flourish. How do we go about reasoning and learning these things? For one thing, we recognize and identify what gives us pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow—and the implications of that. We may be born tabula rasa for ideas, but we are not born tabula rasa for needs. We are beings with a specific nature: we are rational animals. Pleasure and pain are the signals by which we recognize our needs, and discover our natures. When we are born, we don’t know what things will fulfill our needs. But in our interaction with the world, what gives us pleasure and pain and what we enjoy or what makes us suffer, can indicate to us which specific things fulfill our needs—and our reason can then identify those things.
To sum this up: We are born with a biological set of needs, and goals, to fulfill those needs. We discover what values fulfill them through observation and experience of the world, and observation and understanding of what things give us long term pleasure, enjoyment and health.
The conscious mind can choose and set specific goals—“purposes” as Rand calls them, “values” or “metavalues” as Campbell (2002) calls them—for which the subconscious then supplies a flow of relevant information by which to achieve these goals. In this process, the aim of the subconscious then becomes a constant question (what Rand called a “standing order”): “Do you know anything about that? Got any useful information, conclusions about that?” The conscious mind can perform feats of logic, but cannot relate the logical conclusion to personal needs and goals without emotions and feelings. This is why the lives of highly rationalistic and repressed individuals become a mess of mistaken choices and values, not dissimilar to Elliot’s.
An important practice in a flourishing life is to develop a sensitivity to our feelings, and an ability to infer their meaning. Being aware of the needs and goals they represent, the implicit ‘conclusions’ drawn, the important information they point to in order to achieve goals or flexibly redirect efforts, we can be more successful in actually achieving that which makes us happy.
Acquiring Values through “Social Osmosis”
As discussed earlier, Rand claimed that values and ideas can be acquired by “social osmosis,” and I wondered about the means of this process. There is a huge amount of evidence for a species of memory called “procedural” or “implicit” memory, which results from perceptual awareness and action alone, without any conscious conceptual awareness. That is, we can acquire memories of how to do things, without being able to consciously recollect how to do them —we are just able to do them. In contrast, consciously recollected memories are called “declarative.” The process of forming procedural memories is a process of implicit learning. It can operate in the acquisition of attitudes and sets of ideas—intellectual procedures as it were—as well as simpler physical kinds of processes, such as riding a bike (Damasio 1999). Experimental evidence on amnesiacs shows that they can “learn some complicated rule-based strategies required to solve certain mathematical problems or puzzles” (LeDoux 1996, 195) like the Tower of Hanoi. They were conscious of the game and playing it while doing so, but became unconscious of these facts later due to their memory deficits. Even though they will later have no recollection of playing the game, they will know how to do it.
If we stop to think about normal cognitive experience, this is no surprise: how often is a person able to name the strategy he uses to play a game? He may know parts of his method, but often he develops a number of tactics and only later may analyze what he does when he’s winning, thereby turning it into a self-conscious strategy. The entire development of native language works exactly this way: none of us knows most of the rules we use or the strategies we employ to speak grammatically and meaningfully. Many human beings acquire knowledge and values through implicit learning (Campbell 2002). Becoming completely self-aware, reflective and in touch with one’s complete needs, ideas and values is a hugely difficult task. “Social osmosis” is a name for a kind of implicit learning. Consequently, it is no surprise that many people arrive at their values and ideas through “social osmosis.” Rand (1964, 28) states:
“man chooses his values by a conscious process of thought— or accepts them by default, by subconscious associations, on faith, on someone’s authority, by some form of social osmosis or blind imitation. Emotions are produced by man’s premises, held consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly.” [boldfaced emphasis mine]
Notice Rand’s comment on accepting values by default. To me, a major question this comment raises is: How does an idea get in your brain by default? Can food get into your stomach by default, that is, by a kind of automatic process? No, food can’t: We have to actively seek it and shove it in. But a child, and often an adult, can get ideas/conclusions/premises in his mind without reflective awareness of what he is doing. Why does this happen? I believe the answer is: because the person needs the idea and one of the functions of our imitative tendencies is to quickly acquire skills of value, whether procedurally or explicitly. I don’t mean that we need every specific idea and every specific value that we may come across and incorporate into our thinking. I mean that there are a lot of specific things we need to know in order to stay alive and fulfill our needs—from which foods to eat to how to care for infants to what activities give us a sense of fulfillment. If we don’t learn the right ideas consciously, our minds grab on to the ideas and values of those around us that seem to fulfill those needs. This is how values get accepted, as Rand says, “by default.”
And this is a process that happens often during childhood and keeps on happening because of the need for mental economy. Most of us have the experience of discovering ideas, attitudes and habits that we somehow acquired in childhood would like to get rid of now. The process of implicitly accepting ideas and attitudes can continue into adulthood if we don’t develop the ability to introspect and reflect on the contents of our minds for quality control purposes. It is largely through the process of procedural or implicit learning and emotional recognition that children and animals operate. This is why Rand says that “emotional vibrations are their chief means of cognition” (197).
The Survival Function of Emotions in Relation to Reason
Emotions have at least the following functions for life:
1. They facilitate action choices, especially when there’s no time to think.
2. They are motivators—how we feel about things facilitates our actions to acquire them or to get away from them. Without such motivation—as in depression, wherein the individual feels helpless and hopeless, i.e., purposeless (Seligman 1991; Simon 1993)—humans do not act.
3. They motivate us to think. Behind every thought, there is the driving force of passion, of desire, no matter how subtle.
4. Further, they connect our conscious reasoning minds to our basic biological needs. If we were completely tabula rasa for the source of emotions, we wouldn’t recognize what was good for us or bad—we wouldn’t have enough information to evaluate that by reason alone.
5. Reason, in the sense of explicit, conscious logical processing, cannot work properly without access to the complex contents and connections held in the subconscious. The conscious mind simply cannot hold enough in attention at once to make complex decisions. This includes what seem to be strictly epistemological aspects of reason, such as certainty. Personal experience as well as neuropsychological research shows that conscious reason can gain access to these contents through emotion. Emotion directs attention to data in ourselves and the world, relevant to our purposes(James 1884; Izard 1977; Damasio 1994; 1999; LeDoux 1996; Mack and Rock 2000; Siminov 1986).
We are born with certain definite needs of our human and our individual natures. We have some ability to recognize values in the world that fulfill those needs (DeSousa 1987, 200; McDougall 1908, 29). Pleasure, enjoyment, a sense of efficacy in certain objects, relationships and activities are the signs that we have found such values. Pleasure or pain from something is a kind of recognition of its value or disvalue, accompanied by a disposition to act for or against it. This capacity is inherent in each human when he is born, as a vital survival function. In former times, this capacity was called “instinct,” or, as William McDougall (1908, 29) defined it: “[A]n inherited or innate psycho-physical disposition which determines its possessor to perceive, and to pay attention to, objects of a certain class, to experience an emotional excitement of a particular quality upon perceiving such an object, and to act in regard to it in a particular manner or at least to experience an impulse to such action.”
This is indicated by the emotional capacity of infants and young children. In this respect, emotions are evidence of our psychological and biological needs, as well as our implicit conclusions. Emotions are tools of recognition. They provide direct information about one’s own state, nature and needs. As direct perception is to the world, so emotions are to our own natures. For the most successful functioning, this information needs to be consciously examined and related to the other things one knows because, just as in the case of direct perception, we cannot understand the meaning of what we see, hear, smell or taste without the development of rational knowledge.
How we develop the knowledge and ideas that result in our complex emotions is a multifaceted matter. Our more complex emotions are a result of what we learn and do with our needs and our lives, by our implicit and explicit premises. These latter are built on our inherent biological and psychological needs and values, what we learn about them and what we do with them. Contrary to her comment in Atlas Shrugged that “emotions which clash with your thinking are the carcass of stale thinking” sometimes they are the signal that your thinking is wrong. The amount of our self-conscious reflection on these matters is extremely important to actually achieve understanding (Berkowitz 2000, 132–33). In fact, Rand’s characterization of Hank Rearden shows just that (Sciabarra 1995, 187).
In the various quotes from Rand, it appears to me that she acknowledges two levels of emotions. The first is the basic level of inherent, automatic recognition and response to what is good or bad for us, which capacity adults share with animals and young children. The desire to see interesting things or to feel good about ourselves fall into this category. The second is a more complex level that is the consequence of the relationship between these basic value recognitions and our knowledge and experience. In other words, the more complex emotions are a result of our experiences, thoughts and ideas, which are integrated in our subconscious into judgments and premises. The love of Betty or the outrage at the evil of Hitler fall into his category.
If we wish to maintain and promote objectivity, our task is to learn how to use the access to our subconscious through our emotions in the most efficient and ultimately objective manner. By becoming expert at being aware of our feelings about things, we can bring subconscious information to light and examine it in conscious attention, by logic, while identifying the facts.
Rand (2001) endorses this approach in The Art of Nonfiction:
“If you write something at all complex, you will experience the squirms in one form or another. [Note: The “squirms”are a state in which a writer suddenly is paralyzed and can’t continue writing.] The main reason for it is a subconscious contradiction. On the conscious level, in my case, I would create an outline, and my subject and theme would be perfectly clear to me. Only there were so many possibilities of which I was not aware—so many different ways of executing the theme—that my conscious mind in fact had not chosen clearly. Because of the complexity of the theme, I could not select clearly, in advance, from the many possibilities; hence there were problems for my subconscious.” (64)
You must learn to trust the signals your subconscious gives you. If you order yourself to do more reading for a given article, but feel boredom and an enormous reluctance, it is likely that your subconscious already has what you need, and that further research is redundant or irrelevant. (79)
In Descartes’ Error, Damasio (1994, 189) says that because of emotions, “[y]ou do not have to apply reasoning to the entire field of options. A preselection is carved out for you, sometimes correctly, sometimes not.” Thus, through the process of controlling and directing attention, subconscious evaluation can direct the process of reasoning. By making oneself more aware of one’s implicit preselection (premises), one gains control of one’s mind, makes it more definitely in line with the facts, more accurately reflecting reality and therefore more efficacious.
I agree with Sciabarra (1995, 166–68) that we need to broaden our understanding of the processes that constitute “reason” as the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the senses. Emotions seem fundamental to the integration of knowledge and of values, as a means by which to be aware of knowledge and a signal of integration. Evidence shows that emotions are a fundamental part of the operation of cognition and judgment:
$ Emotion indicates whether something fulfills or frustrates human needs, and is an essential part of the development of values in children.
$ Emotion cannot identify the facts as such, but emotion helps reason identify them by drawing attention to relevant information, both in reality and in one’s subconscious.
$ Emotion supplies signals as to whether something integrates or fails to integrate with all the other information and conclusions one has already stored.
Skill at recognizing the nature of our emotions and their causes, and consciously evaluating their meaning is essential to successful functioning. We need to pay attention to our feelings, especially when they contradict our conscious conclusions, to make sure that we are not missing some vital and important piece of information or context that would qualify or redirect conscious thinking.
Rand’s comment that “emotions aren’t tools of cognition,” is, in some respects, right and in some respects wrong—an unfortunate consequence of the metaphor used. The evidence shows that, indeed, emotions are a means of effecting identification of the facts—by bringing relevant information to conscious attention. In this respect, emotions are tools, very useful tools, of conscious reason. However, only conscious reason has the capacity to identify the facts as such. To truly validate our ideas and verify our identifications, we must apply conscious reason and logic.
In a fully functioning mind, reason and emotion work hand-in-hand to achieve the values and fulfill the needs of the individual person. Conscious reasoning verifies the data of the subconscious as it interacts and identifies the facts of the world; emotion notifies reason of relevant information and integration to be considered in reason’s quest to gain value for each living person.
A flourishing life requires sensitivity to our feelings and the ability to infer their meaning, i.e., the needs, values and goals they represent, the implicit “conclusions” they’ve drawn, and the important information to consider in order to achieve goals, or flexibly redirect efforts. Ayn Rand’s own statements about the creative process and the evidence of her work show that she was a master at this. Let us follow her example, rather than merely the apparent meaning of her nonfiction statements, to achieve the kind of vision of life she projected in her art—and the most happiness and fulfillment possible to each of us.
Much thanks to all those who have generously helped me with this work, by talking, reading and commenting: Robert Campbell, Murray Franck, Louis James, Chris Matthew Sciabarra, the members of the New Intellectual Forum, and the members of the New York Objectivist Salon. Foremost, however, thanks goes to my husband, John Enright, for his unflagging willingness to read the work . . . over and over and over, and for his excellent editorship.
1. Chris Matthew Sciabarra (1995) offers an extensive, well-researched and thoughtful examination of Rand’s views on reason and emotion, as well as her views on the psychoepistemology of art. Neera Badhwar (2001) has succinctly commented on many of the same difficulties and discrepancies—and research issues—regarding the relation between reason and emotion as I do in this paper.
2. I want to state for the record that my intention is not to be derogatory to Rand’s thinking in the least, for I have the greatest respect for it. I have learned too much from her, and benefited from her wisdom and insight far too often to complain that she erred, she didn’t have all the answers, or that her answers were less than complete! These days there seems to be a wave of whining about the negative effects of Rand’s ideas on those who once accepted them. While I’m sorry for any bad effects her ideas, or her errors, may have had on my life, it behooves me to take responsibility for having accepted and used them.
3. For a long and interesting discussion on the subconscious and implicit premises, see Campbell 2002.
4. Branden’s definition seems to owe much to the work of Magda Arnold (whom he referenced in The Psychology of Self-Esteem). She defines emotion as “the felt tendency toward anything intuitively appraised as good (beneficial), or away from anything intuitively appraised as bad (harmful). This attraction or aversion is accompanied by a pattern of physiological changes organized toward approach or withdrawal. The patterns differ for different emotions” (1960, 182).
5. Sciabarra (1995, 328) points out that Rand had experience with the results of the Progressive Method, which she saw implemented at the University of Petrograd. Rand also studied Progressive pedagogy in college in a course called “History of Pedagogical Doctrines.” See Sciabarra 1999, 16.
6. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us:
Cognition: 1. The action or faculty of knowing; knowledge, consciousness; acquaintance with a subject. 2. Philos. The action or faculty of knowing taken in its widest sense, including sensation, perception, conception, etc., as distinguished from feeling and volition; also, more specifically, the action of cognizing an object in perception proper.
The OED definition, in turn, is consonant with classic philosophical definitions, such as the one in the Dictionary of Philosophy:
Cognition — knowledge in its widest sense, including: (a) non-propositional apprehension (perception, memory, introspection, etc.) as well as (b) propositions or judgments expressive of such apprehension. Cognition, along with conation and affection, are the three basic aspects or functions of consciousness. (Runes 1960)
After a fair amount of searching (at least 20 books), I have not been able to find a precise definition of “cognition” or “knowledge” in cognitive science. Robert Campbell suggests the definition that Ulric Neisser (1967, 4) offered in his classic book, Cognitive Psychology: “Cognitive psychology refers to all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used.” However, Neisser’s definition presupposes that our minds process sensory inputs and that such inputs take the form of symbolic representations, or are readily converted into symbols. And, if taken literally, it indicates that everything a mind does is cognitive—without ever saying what constitutes knowledge.
Campbell suggests this formulation: “Cognition pertains to the mental processes involved in acquiring, modifying, and using knowledge.” But this proposed definition would still not distinguish perception from cognition (as some psychologists still want to do) or emotions and the will from cognition (as the classic philosophical definitions did, and as most psychologists still want to do). It virtually equates “cognition” with “what a mind does,” and does not explicate “knowledge.” According to Campbell, what most psychologists actually seem to mean by “cognition” is: “whatever the (human) mind does that isn’t perception and doesn’t involve emotions—roughly, what used to be called ‘the higher mental powers,’ such as memory, attention, problem-solving, reasoning, decision-making and language use.” These are the topics typically covered by books and research articles in cognitive psychology.
7. See also Campbell 2002, for an extensive discussion of the implicit.
8. However, the ability to hold very abstracted symbols in mind varies considerably from person to person, and between the sexes (Kimura 1999; and private communication with Jerre Levy, neuropsychology researcher at the University of Chicago).
9. Rand mentioned these facts in The Romantic Manifesto, and talked about the artistic process of selection in her fiction-writing course, now incompletely summarized in The Art of Fiction (Rand 2000).
10. For those interested, Kathleen Touchstone (1993) examined Rand’s views on intuition and knowledge in relation to Koestler’s ideas, along with further scientific evidence.
11. To relieve this confusion, Campbell (2002) proposes an interesting distinction between goals (which include biological ends), values (ends of which we are conscious) and metavalues (conscious ends about our ends).
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Q: How did the ideas of Ayn Rand impact your life?
Marsha: I read through Atlas the summer following The Fountainhead, and all the books and essays I could get my hands on after that, over the next few years. This included Nathaniel Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem, which greatly influenced my thinking in psychology, directly, and, indirectly, by introducing me to the works of Arthur Koestler in a footnote. I have been immensely influenced by Koestler’s ideas in both biology and psychology and, when it comes to writing science well, he is my hero.
It’s funny, a discussion I had recently made me reflect on how I went about accepting Rand’s ideas. Some friends were arguing that it was the practical arguments about capitalism that finally convince people about the truth and value of a free society, but I know that’s not what convinced me: it was the argument for the value and necessity of freedom for the reasoning mind. I guess I always sharply felt the oppression of others trying to tell me what to do—especially because of the stupid things they would want me to do! I experience the value of freedom in a very strong, personal way, even though I’ve never been the victim of political repression. This deep attachment to freedom makes me an absolute basket case when I hear the Star Spangled Banner or read about what Jaroslav Romanchuck is going through!
I remember that the biggest question in my mind after reading the novels was: was I fundamentally a person like Roark or Dagny? I knew I wasn’t like them in many ways, and it seemed difficult to know what personality characteristics were essential to be like a Randian hero. For one thing, Dagny and Roark seem to have been born the way they are—popping full-blown from Athena’s head, so there weren’t many clues as to how to get from there to here. And for another thing, Rand’s characters all seemed to be very little affected by other people’s negative judgments and feelings towards them. And in the characterizations, this seemed to be mixed up with being independent in judgment.
So, did you have to be both in order to be a Randian hero? I knew I wasn’t exactly like that because, even though you’d have to kill me before I’d stop arguing what I thought was right, I also knew that the kindness or meanness of others and the way other people felt and acted towards me could really affect me—it could make me feel wonderful or awful. I’ve spent many years thinking about the psychology involved, and my article “Why Man Needs Approval” in Objectivity examines this issue at length and in light of scientific research. I reached the conclusion that these characteristics—independence of judgement and sensitivity to the feelings of others—are two separate issues, the one an issue of character and the other of temperament. I ultimately decided that Rand, for personal reasons, had chosen to make her characters have the two characteristics together.
And I also had some personal interactions with Rand that I found really interesting in regard to this issue of the essential qualities of her heroes, because I got to see what the author of these books was like as a person. You know, her personality and temperament weren’t very much like her heroes’: she wasn’t a serene, cool, calm person rather indifferent to the feelings of those around her—she was a wildly passionate, hot-headed woman who reacted sharply to negative criticism or feedback. And she was on an intensely felt mission to save the world.
In the seventies when I was about 25, I attended almost all the lectures given by Leonard Peikoff and Allan Blumenthal in New York City. My best learning experience and most vivid memories from those lectures were conversations which I had with Ayn Rand. I would go up to her at the breaks and after the lectures and ply her with all kinds of questions—about the nature of free will or how to cast the movie Atlas Shrugged—and I was usually delighted to get her typically unique answers. I even got her talking about cats—between lectures I had left a little pin of a cat arched and hissing at her office for her birthday. When I saw her wearing it one day, I asked her if she liked it and she said “Oh yes—it is ze essence of cat!” I even humorously threatened to bring my cats for her to see—at which she said “Oh no, dahlink, you can’t do that!” Sometimes I think she thought I was about 16 years old!
Once I mentioned to her that I had noticed where she got the name Danneskjold: from Victor Hugo’s first novel, Hans of Iceland in which the hero becomes the first of the Counts of Danneskjold! I thought this was a great tribute to him, but she worriedly said to me “Oh yes, but it wasn’t plagiarism because there really were counts of Danneskjold!”
You see, if you can picture this, Ayn Rand was worried that she would be perceived as trading on Victor Hugo’s ability and glory!
The most striking thing that happened to me during these conversations is that Ayn Rand once asked my forgiveness. I wanted to bring this experience up because it was so different from the experiences of Rand related by so many other people, perhaps it gives a different side of her. […]
Q: Did your family or friends give you a hard time over Objectivism?
Marsha: I remember trying to interest several of my friends, but failing. I did get my father interested and it seemed to change a lot in his life, although he came under the distorting influence of Lonnie Leonard. My mother hated the books, because she saw how it liberated my father and me from her moral grip—ugh! And my brothers hated the books without reading them because they thought they caused my parents to get divorced!
Q: Quite a few Objectivists seem to feel alienated in a society that does not seem to share their values and have trouble making friends or finding romantic partners. Have you found this to be true for yourself or do you think there is something fundamentally wrong with their viewpoint?
Marsha: I did feel alienated from others for many years. It started long before I read Rand, but the sense of it was probably sharpened by the lens of her explanations, by knowing how different I was. I was always intellectual and outspoken, and these didn’t endear me to other kids or grown ups. But, what I only realized later was that I was also the victim of an inordinate amount of envy, and this is something that aggravated the alienation—and this was something Rand helped me to see. When I read The Fountainhead I immediately recognized the social-climbing characters and their ways—because that went on all the time where I lived and in my schools. Unbeknownst to me, as a doctor my father was on the high end of the social pyramid, which apparently many of the other families resented, given the kind of cruel remarks and treatment I experienced from their children. These experiences contributed to my sense of alienation.
I guess Rand’s ideas also made the alienation worse by the view that most other people were “the masses” and that they were this social-climbing bunch who were untouchable by reason. In some respects, this idea jived with my own personal experience. It was the novels’ non-developmental slant that was a problem, the idea that so many people just chose to be like this and were, in a sense, irredeemably evil. It took me some years to examine the truth of this view—which loomed large in my mind because, as an educator and psychological theorist, I wanted to know why. I came to understand that it’s not a simple matter of choice on the part of most people—ability matters in grasping the philosophical, like it matters in everything else. It is very difficult for many people to be intellectual enough and self-aware enough of the ideas and feelings that influence their thinking, feeling and action to easily recognize what’s right and wrong. They often labor under a blindingly complex set of ideas that they’ve unknowingly accepted, and which they can’t untangle themselves. They don’t even realize that these things are important to think about. And their lack of ability leads to a lack of the knowledge and experience necessary to deal with the issues. All these things make it difficult for them to even think about, no less think through, the philosophical issues involved and see the rightness and importance of what Rand wrote.
The experience I’ve had working with amazingly rational, intelligent and sensitive people at my school especially helped me overcome my alienation. I learned that there are many people in the world who are motivated by the truth and the right, so they really aren’t that different from me as it might first appear. But its my job to learn how to communicate with them if I want to convince them of Rand’s ideas. And now I feel very relaxed about my relationships with others, very socially integrated and in fact socially capable and powerful.
Q: How did you get involved with Montessori?
Marsha: Psychology and development were always interests of mine (not that I had the names for those interests until I was much older!) I’ve been interested in education since I was a little girl, because I always disliked how miserable the other students were in class. I personally loved school and got along great with my teachers but terrible with the other students, and their disruptions drove me crazy—they were such a distraction from the learning I was hot to do. I was especially impressed with how miserable some of the smart kids were in school, and I vowed that when I had kids I would make sure they got an education that wasn’t frustrating, that didn’t turn them off from learning and that was fun.
So when I read Beatrice Hessen’s articles in The Objectivist about the Montessori Method I was hooked. I followed up by reading all of Montessori’s books, and anything else about her and her method I could find. I knew then that that was the kind of education I wanted for my kids.
What most attracted me to Montessori was her biological approach to the psychology and development of the child and her deep, deep respect for individuals and the fantastic power of self-creation they have within them. She was the first woman doctor in Italy at the turn of the century, and an amazingly careful scientific observer. Because of her genius she was able to recognize, through observation, many things currently touted as the “new” discoveries of experimental research and cognitive psychology. Sensitive periods of development, the need for sensorial and motor materials as teaching tools for proper development, the variety of cognitive abilities and styles among people (made popular by Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” theory), the advantages of multi-age classrooms, the need for guided learning in the social and emotional realms as well as the intellectual (much discussed recently as “emotional intelligence”) and the need to maximize “flow” in the classroom to keep students motivated are a few of the “recently discovered” things which are principles of her system.
Well, perhaps it’s not a coincidence, considering the influence of Piaget in developmental psychology. I remember a funny experience I had in graduate school when I was studying Piaget: his ideas struck me as awfully similar to Montessori’s, but in the language of German philosophy. Years later, I discovered that he had been a trained Montessorian, the head of the Swiss Montessori society and that he had done his observations for Language and Thought of the Child in the Jean Jacques Rousseau Montessori school in Geneva.
When I actually had my kids, I was charged and prepared to find the right school for them. Fortunately for us, a wonderful Montessori primary school (what others would call pre-school) had existed in the neighborhood for many years, so that’s where my children went until elementary. To make a long story short, I found there was a need and desire for elementary Montessori education in my area of the city, and I wanted it done right for my own kids. So, in conjunction with a few other mothers and one teacher, I started up Council Oak Montessori Elementary school in 1990 with 17 children, and its going into its tenth anniversary this year.
Q: If someone wanted to become a Montessori teacher what sort of training would they need?
Marsha: Anyone who wants to become a Montessori teacher needs to go to one of the special Montessori training courses given by the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori Internationale (the original and most famous of which is given in Bergamo, Italy). These courses go into the philosophy and the method in immense detail, including exactly how to use the materials to give lessons in all the subject areas, manage a classroom and handle individual children. To give you an idea of the fullness of their content: one of our teachers was an education major in college and had gone for Montessori training. She had a thin, 20 page booklet which she had been given in one education course for the teaching of all arithmetic to all grades! From her Montessori training, she had a packed three-ring binder called an “album,” which contained the detailed methods and instructions for teaching arithmetic to 6 to 9 year olds alone!
These courses are given at training centers all over the nation and around the world, and they vary greatly in quality and somewhat in content. The best ones are incredibly loaded with important and useful information. For example, the AMS course given by the Institute for Advanced Montessori Studies is given in 10 weeks in the summer, with a year internship, a week of exams 6 months later and a year long project presented the next summer. Its one of the most un-Montessori ways of learning I’ve ever seen, given all the information crammed into 10 weeks, but I guess that was the only practically feasible way most adults could afford to take the course.
Q: You wrote an article in the IOS Journal Navigator about starting an Objectivist Salon. I have attended a few of your Salon meetings and was very impressed by the quality of both the topics and the people attending. What problems do you think many Objectivist groups have in getting a good group together?
Marsha: Thanks for the compliment! First, of course, you have the problem of overcoming the bad memories and bad habits of Objectivist events in former years, which were so unpleasant. So, the person organizing the group has to be skilled at making people feel comfortable, being very friendly and inviting and insuring that the discussions are extremely reasonable and respectful of all participants. This can be difficult because some people in Objectivist and Libertarian circles have developed very bad habits of argument—they can be condemnatory, contemptuous and impatient; they don’t carefully listen to what the other person is saying and think about what he or she means before they answer in some knee-jerk way, or they know only how to lecture to others rather than have a conversation. But a good organizer or moderator can set the tone by the way they talk and by interfering, moderating, when things get out of hand. You tell people that they need to let someone else talk, or you say “we really want to deal with the facts, reasons and issues about the ideas here, so can you give us the basis for your arguments?”—that kind of thing.
The other thing is to make the situation very social and inviting, so people have a chance to get to know each other in a relaxed way, not just during a formal event or discussion. And I try as much as possible to elicit the topics and the speakers from within the group, rather than use tapes or lectures, to get everyone to be active participants instead of passive receptacles of information from the chosen.
Q: If an Objectivist is interested in changing the culture, what are some of the things he/she should be doing that are most effective?
Marsha: I’m assuming you want to hear some ways besides giving out Rand’s books, writing letters to the editor, becoming a philosophy professor or organizing a political party? First and foremost, I think being the best, and most intelligent, understanding and reasonable in your profession and your personal life, whatever it is, can go far in affecting the culture. And here’s why—because, by the example of your person, you can interest the people you interact with in your ideas—they want to know what makes you so special, so different.
And that leads into the other thing I think is extremely important in changing the culture: like I said before, go out of your way to understand other people. Don’t jump all over somebody you disagree with, but try to listen to their exact concerns, and agree with them where you can. Then introduce the ways in which you disagree and why—but try to do it in language and vocabulary from the other person’s context. Don’t use special vocabulary unless you absolutely have to—and then carefully explain your meaning. These are all ways I’ve found to actually communicate my ideas to other people and change their minds.
Q: What kinds of projects are you planning for the future?
Marsha: I want to do an end-run around the educational establishment, which continues to be inhospitable to Objectivism and good education. I am developing an institution which takes the principles of Objectivism as its grounding philosophy and applies the Montessori method to the teaching of adults. Although I want to teach courses on Objectivism (in fact, I plan to start with an introductory course in January), I want more than that. I want a liberal arts institution which uses Objectivism to inform but not confine the way all subjects are approached, especially through standards of reason, objectivity and importance to life.
I’m working on the curriculum and organization, and searching for someone who would like to be the operations director and a founding partner. By the way, I’d love to ask any of your readers who might be interested in working on such a project to drop me a note: my e-mail address is email@example.com.
(Christmas carols celebrate the Nativity as being, above all else, an event that brings hope to mankind. “O Holy Night,” one of the most beautiful carols, makes the point explicitly: “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” But I suspect that Christmas is not unique among winter festivals in this emphasis on hope. The Winter Solstice, after all, is the moment of greatest darkness and, also, necessarily, the moment when the Sun begins to return to the world.
With that in mind, I asked Marsha Enright if she would adapt for the DecemberNavigator her talk on “the habit of hope,” which was so well received at the 1999 summer seminar. I am pleased indeed that she agreed to do so. – Roger Donway)
For most of man’s existence on Earth, the universe has been anything but benevolent. Famines, floods, and earthquakes have destroyed whole populations. The plague ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages. Even in the nineteenth century, two out of three people died as children. On the frontier, starvation was not that uncommon after a long winter or a drought.
And these horrors do not even begin to take account of man’s inhumanity to man.
What is my point? That for most of man’s existence, he has had only a tenuous power over his life, physically and politically. Life was full of uncertainties and anxieties, which helped to give rise to religions promising happiness in this life or an afterlife. Religion gave people a much-needed sense of hope.
Power versus a Sense of Power
That largely unchanging situation underwent a revolution after the Renaissance. The rediscovery of the power of reason and the development of technology enabled men to bring about a vast expansion in their power over their lives, and they came to expect that the future would see still further increases. And, in fact that is what happened. In the twentieth century, medical technology lengthened the average life-span from four decades to seven. Today, in the free world, men are able to control much of the impact of natural disasters. From an economic and technological perspective, no one in a capitalist society need go hungry.
At the same time, however, the Enlightenment took away religion’s assurance that a benevolent force would look over men in times of helplessness and hopelessness and would compensate them hereafter for their sufferings. We became responsible for our own happiness.
And what has been the upshot? Evidence indicates that for many, man’s increase in power has not brought a sense of efficacy. If we consider those women born before World War I, those born around 1925, and those born in the Fifties (the Baby Boomers), we find that there is a quadrupling in depression from the first group to the second, and a doubling from the second to the third. Why should this be, if people have continued to acquire more control than ever over their lives in the twentieth century?
One reason, I suspect, is the nihilism of modern philosophy: the lack of answers about the meaning of life and human purposes; the moral relativity that says it doesn’t matter what you do; the draining away of the sense that human beings are capable and worthy. I think these ideas have infiltrated the culture to such an extent that they are affecting the psychological outlook of a lot of people. In this respect, you maypersonally have experienced Rand’s ideas as a great antidote. Rand tell us that life has meaning and purpose and that living as a human being can be a noble activity. Through the story of The Fountainhead, Rand gives us one long argument against Dominique’s belief in the triumph of power-lust and toadyism over the true, the rational, and the beautiful.
Rand’s ideas, such as the efficacy of reason and the successful nature of life, certainly help us to be hopeful about our lives. But is there a specific technology of the soul that can increase our hopefulness and thus our motivation and our success? If so, how can we implement it in our daily lives? Are there specific psychological processes that we can adopt? Are there methods we can apply? And are there ways we can make those methods more permanent in our minds? I think there are, and I think the research of psychologist Martin Seligman, at University of Pennsylvania, helps provide some of that technology.
Seligman did some interesting experiments back in the seventies on what he called “learned helplessness.” He worked with two sets of dogs. One he put in a cage that they could not get out of. The other he put in a cage that they could jump out of. And then he shocked both of these sets of dogs. The ones that could escape their cages did so, and got away from the shocks. The ones that could do nothing to escape the shock became passive; after a while, they just lay down and took it.
Then, when he took the dogs who could not escape the shock in the first experiment and put them in a cage where they could get away from the shock, they still did nothing. And when he tried to teach them to get out of the cage, he had to spend a lot of time showing them they could escape. To be accurate, there were always some dogs who did hardly anything once they found themselves trapped, and there were some dogs who had been trapped but quickly learned later to escape. But the results I am talking about were averages.
Seligman was fascinated with these results, because he thought the dogs had learned to be helpless, and a sense of helplessness is a key component of depression. So he asked if he could “immunize” dogs from this learned helplessness. He took a group of dogs and let them hear a tone before the shock went off. And he gave these dogs the opportunity to jump out of the cage when they heard the tone. The fascinating result was: these dogs never became passive. When they were put in a cage from which they could not escape, they never stopped trying, and they escaped immediately when they could. Why? They had acquired a sense of efficacy with regard to the shocks.
Seligman thought this was an interesting model to apply to human beings because of the common feeling in depression that there is nothing that can be done that will make a difference. So, he asked: Could humans likewise be immunized against feelings of helplessness and hopelessness? To test this, Seligman put human beings in situations similar to that of the dogs: The subjects would get shocked, but some did not have control over it and some did. Fascinatingly, he found that some people always tried to get control and some did not. Seligman posited that the difference lay in the way the people explained the cause of their failure: whether they blamed it on themselves or on circumstances.
Out of this, Seligman developed a theory of explanatory styles. According to this theory, there are three dimensions to an explanatory style: the permanence with which you think a cause exists; the pervasiveness of the cause, in other words, how universally true or how limited it is; and whether the cause lies within you or outside. (See the chart on this page for more detail.) Seligman argues that these explanatory styles give rise to what we conventionally call optimists and pessimists. And he has developed an Attributional Style Questionnaire by which to test people.
In terms of the dimensions on the chart, I think Howard Roark is a model of the optimistic attributional style. He does not believe that evil is permanent. He doesbelieve that there are people he can reach by persuasion and by demonstrating what is good in his buildings. And he certainly does not think that failure is his fault.
But I would like to examine one other aspect of the research in relation to the psychology of hope. In some experiments, people rated optimists and pessimists have been given tests in which they sometimes are and sometimes are not in control of an event, such as a light’s turning on. Pessimists, and depressed people in particular, tend to have a very accurate sense about whether they are actually in control. Optimists, however, consistently overrate their control. If the light does not turn on, they have some explanation for it; if the light does turn on, they think they did it. This suggests that optimists, if they are going to be rational optimists, must guard against a temperamental disposition to over-optimism.
On the other hand, I believe there is clearly a sense in which pessimists are also unrealistic. They may make accurate judgments about when they do and do not have control over an event, but I believe they make inaccurate judgments about when they could and could not get control over an uncontrolled event, because of their belief that their helplessness is permanent, pervasive, and personal. Unfortunately, I do not know of any laboratory experiments that have attempted to test this hypothesis.
The Real and the Possible
This brings me to the heart of my lecture. What can we do to sustain a rational optimism?
I think that fundamentally there is one important fact that offers us two keys. The important fact is that you cannot directly change your emotions but you can change what you pay attention to, at least to a large extent. This enables you to make yourself more alert for opportunity.
Thus, the first key is: You can carefully focus on the facts about your situation and yourself. Is this the way things have to be or is it just the way they happen to be? Is this the way of the world or just the way things are in my immediate surroundings?
The second key is: You can pay attention to your possibilities. Is this something you can change or not? You can take an entrepreneurial attitude towards your life.
To me, these are the two elements involved in having a habit of hope. Make it your habit to pay attention to exactly what is the case and what is not; what is good in your life and what is not. And make it a habit to ask: What are my possibilities? Be especially alert to whether there are possibilities for change which you failed to see before.
People can have a lot of limitations when it comes to what we would consider leading a normal life and yet have a very hopeful attitude. That has to do with what they are paying attention to. Are they looking at what they cannot do or at what they can do? Are they looking at what they do not control or at what they do control? In this respect, I think that success is: functioning up to your fullest capacity and being alert to all the facts and possibilities within your personal context. This means recognizing the barriers to your control: Are you a healthy human being or not? Are you living in a relatively free society or a relatively unfree society? In judging your success, you need to take these contexts into account.
To be sure, the conditions of success can be very complex. It is often hard to know what is possible, both positively and negatively. And this is one of the things that optimists and pessimists disagree about the most: the realm of the possible. The optimist says “I’m going to keep looking. I’ve got this idea and I think I can do it.” The pessimist has a million reasons why something isn’t going to work.
To say that is not to declare that the optimistic attitude is always the right one. As much as we want to have control and want to know that we can do things, it may be that we do not know-after all, we cannot know everything. But we can turn that truth around and make it an optimistic statement: “Well, yeah, I don’t know everything and I don’t know for sure I can do it. But I don’t know for sure that I can’t do it. And I know forsure that if I don’t try, nothing’s going to happen.”
Ten Habits of Hope
Following are some suggestions to help you develop a habit of hope:
1. Check your generalizations about the world for an “explanatory style” that is pessimistic, or unjustifiably optimistic.
2. Remember that, ultimately, you are in control of how you act.
3. When trying to determine a course of action, ask: What is the range of the possible? This is the most difficult judgment to make, especially when one is attempting something new. If the range is too restricted by one’s conception of the world, your hopes will be too few and too small, and your imagination and motivation curtailed: you won’t adequately explore the possible. If the range is too unrestricted by facts and reason, your hopes will be impossible and time will be wasted.
4. Do not accept impossibility without overwhelming evidence. For many, many situations, we do not and cannot have complete certainty about the outcome. But that alone is not reason to give up on a course of action. Develop a habit of looking for alternative means of achieving your goals.
5. Be alert to when you do not have control over external events, so that you can think of ways to get control.
6. Once you have a specific goal, identify obstacles to your success and the possibilities of overcoming them. Ask: What is the adversity here? What are my premises? Are they true? Am I making a pessimistic judgment or an unjustifiably optimistic judgment? Do not rule out a judgment just because it sounds pessimistic. Remember that you want to be “rationally optimistic,” not Pollyana-ish.
7. If you find yourself giving up, ask: What is my reason? Am I sure it is a good reason?
8. But ask about the chances of failure, too: What would be the true cost of failure? Can I bear it? Be sure to ask these questions early, before you have invested too much emotion in success.
9. De-catastrophize. Learn to judge the facts of your situation precisely and to take into account the available alternatives rather than leaping to the conclusion that all is lost.
10. Stop ruminating. If you fail, sit down purposefully and learn the lessons of the failure. Decide how to do things better. Then put the failure behind you.
–Marsha Enright earned her B.A. in biology from Northwestern, and an M.A. in psychology from The New School for Social Research. In 1990, Mrs. Enright cofounded the Council Oak Montessori Elementary School and served as its executive director.
Aspects of Explanatory Style
Pessimist: Temporary: “It’s my lucky day.” “Something finally worked.” “My rival got tired.”
Optimist: Permanent: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” “I am really talented.” “I’m just better than he is.”
Pessimist: Permanent: “I’m all washed up.” “The boss is irrational.” “You never talk to me.”
Optimist: Temporary: “I’m tired.” “The boss is in a bad mood.” “You didn’t feel like talking to me today.”
Pessimist: Specific. “What do you know, I got the one decent teacher.” “I’ll never meet anyone like her again.” “Well, somebody who actually knows something!”
Optimist: Universal. “This is a pretty good school.” “There are lots of great people in this world.” “What a wealth of information there is out there!”
Pessimist: Universal: “Teachers are unfair.” “Everybody rejects me.” “Books never tell you what you want to know.”
Optimist: Specific: “Professor Smith is unfair.” “I guess I’m not his type.” “This isn’t the right book.”
Pessimist: Internal. “I must be stupid.” “I misplay every hand.” “I’m hopeless in social situations.”
Optimist: External: “That was a tough problem.” “The cards weren’t with me tonight.” “What a bunch of dull people they were.”
Pessimist: External: “Well, that was a stroke of luck.” “I guess you can’t lose them all.” “My teammates really came through.”
Optimist: Internal: “I took advantage of that opportunity.” “I did everything right.” “We really came through.”
In the following, I plan to summarize the essence of Binswanger’s argument on goal-causation, and then expand on the issues he brings up and discuss any problems or objections I have with his arguments. Time has not permitted me to be as complete and persuasive in my objections as I might like – I only hope to stimulate discussion of the issues.
In this chapter, Binswanger outlines his theory of how non- conscious actions can be teleologically caused. He defines an action as teleological when the goal causes the action for the sake of achieving the goal. This is what he calls “goal- causation.”
The fundamental question is: how can non-conscious action, i.e. vegetative action, occur for the sake of a condition – the goal – which exists later in time than the action?; without consciousness, by what means does the action move toward the goal?
Purposeful action of conscious beings is Binswanger’s paradigm case for teleological action. Binswanger thinks that, ontologically, our idea of teleological action derives from our direct introspective experience. We know that we can imagine an end or value, desire it and put in motion the actions to obtain it. In purposeful action, the awareness of a desire or value causes the agent to undertake the action towards the goal. This is how a future condition can motivate a present action.
Vegetative action has no awareness of values by which to cause it, therefore, how is the benefit of the goal a cause of the action, by what means is the value of a future state causing present action?
Once again, Binswanger looks to purposeful action to get his cue in regard to the vegetative: he claims that all purposeful action is based on past experience, whether it be memories or perceptions, ideas, imaginings or associations. Men imagine the future by recalling past experiences, valuable objects and conditions achieved, and projecting them as occurring again, although perhaps rearranged somewhat.
Likewise, he claims that current vegetative action is entirely dependent on the forms and organization of the organism already in place, as a result of previous value- seeking activity of the organism or its ancestors. Binswanger claims there are three elements, or proximate causes, to any vegetative action: the fuel which allows the action to be self-generated; the “directive mechanism” which controls the utilization of that fuel; and the triggering stimulus which initiates the use of the fuel.
“On the vegetative level, the stimulus is able to trigger the action because of the way the mechanism for the action is organized. The mechanism has certain _terms of operation_ dictated by the nature of its directive mechanism(s). The way in which the mechanism is organized determines what will or will not trigger its behavior.” (p. 81)
According to Binswanger, the _ultimate_ cause of vegetative action is that which causes the fuel and the directive mechanism to exist, thereby enabling the organism to take the action. The ultimate cause is the explanation for the proximate causes. In Binswanger’s view, there is no means and therefore no possibility for a traditionally conceived final cause to draw the organism’s action to the future in vegetative action; in reality, the final cause must be a different kind of efficient cause.
He proposes that, for any vegetative action, the value- significance of _past_ goals, which has shaped and determined the nature of the fuel used, the directive mechanisms and the response to triggers, is the goal towards which present action is aimed. Just as past conscious experience serves to motivate the goal-seeking behavior of humans, so past vegetative experience determines the goal-seeking activity of vegetative action.
“Putting all these points together, we can say that a vegetative action will qualify as telelogical if it can be shown to be a self-generated action caused by a mechanism whose existence, organization, fuel, and terms of operation result from the survival benefit that past instances of the goal have provided the organism in similar previous circumstances.” (p. 88).
Put in simpler terms, Binswanger’s argument becomes: organisms act like they do because that’s what they did before. In his view, organisms are not pursuing current goals for their own sake, but because they are similar to past goals, and because pursuing such goals has worked in the past.
I don’t think so.
According to Binswanger, a current vegetative action is goal- directed because the organism took this action before – _somehow_ – and the action resulted in a value for the organism. Once taken, the action became an individual or evolutionary habit, and we can call the organism’s actions _goal-directed_ because it is aimed at the past goal.
The organism and its descendents may have been “smart” enough to learn from their actions – but how did the first organism manage to take those actions the first time? Was it completely random, an accident, or what? Does he mean to imply that the whole history of life is one long series of felicitous accidents?
While I appreciate the problem which Binswanger is addressing, viz., how can a non-conscious organism be moved by the future, I find that his theory does not sit well with my knowledge of the nature of living things. What is distinctive about life as opposed to the actions of inanimate matter? It’s _goal-directedness_ – “a process of self- maintained and self-generated action” – it acts to maintain its existence – the goal of its actions is the perpetuation of life. And the essence of my difficulty lies in what I know to be the enormous creative power of life to fulfill that goal. His theory gives no explanation, other than the usual suggestions of accident or chance, as to how _new_ adaptive actions arise. Without the answer to that question, I don’t think Binswanger has solved the “problem” of vegetative action.
The history of life is the history of ever-changing forms, new ways of fulfilling life’s goal of self-perpetuation. Its history is replete with the coming into existence of new forms, new characteristics, new abilities. Certainly, like the knowledge of a conscious being, these are not created _ex nihilo_, i.e. there must be some relationship between the new forms and abilities and the old ones. But, the mere repetition of old forms of action is _not_ an adequate description of living action.
Ultimately, I believe Binswanger takes a too-reductionistic approach to biology, as he takes a too-behavioristic view of psychology. For example, he says “A dog’s desire for an affectionate pat from its master is a consequence of its memory of similar past instances of affection.” (p. 77)
These statements imply an associationist view of dog action. Surely, once the dog has received and enjoyed pats, the memory serves as motivation. But, for one thing, his explanation gives no consideration as to why the dog sought pats _in the first place_. And yet, anyone who has observed animals knows that they initiate all kinds of actions – they seek, they explore, they try things out long before they know what the consequences will be. Purposeful behavior can be self-initiated in a way that doesn’t necessarily depend _solely_ on past experience, either personal or evolutionary.
And in his discussion of proximate causes, he frequently uses the word “mechanism” to describe living action. I think this use, and in general the mechanist approach to living action, is unfortunate. Machines operate automatically to achieve ends set by men. Generally, they act in a straight line to their ends, very unlike the behavior of life.
Organic behavior is characterized by its variability in the face of obstacles, in order to reach its goals. A plant will grow in one direction, and then another and another in its attempts to go around a rock and reach the sun. Ludwig Von Bertalaanfy, who wrote extensively on general systems theory, called this characteristic the “equifinality” of living action: the means vary, the end remains the same.
In fact, exploration of conscious beings is like the multiple attempts of vegetative organisms to reach goals. The constant in the actions is the attempt on the part of the organism to fulfill its needs; its pursuit of values.
Binswanger only touches on the issue of creativity in his comments on purposeful behaviour: “In the case of novel goals conceived by human beings, the cause of the goal-idea is to be found in the psychological effects of the previously perceived constituents of the novel goal.” (p. 79) Note how, in this explanation, he avoids the problem of the generation of the new, by his hand-waving phrase “psychological effects,” and how he attributes the creation of the novel to previous perception alone. While creative thinking is certainly _dependent_ on previous experience, that alone does not account for it. Internally generated needs and values play just as important a role in the existence of creative ideas.
Let’s look back at the nature of conscious action to see if we can understand how vegetative action operates. When an animal is born, it has an internally generated set of needs, and of actions it can take to fulfill those needs. It moves and acts in attempts to fulfill its needs. Often, the more intelligent animals try all kinds of things without apparent ends in mind, but with, apparently, the need to find out about the world in order to learn how to live in it – they explore. During their explorations, they discover that certain actions cause certain desirable, need-fulfilling results – like getting a pat on the head from their master. Consequently, they repeat these actions because they now know that they will have valuable results.
In my analysis of this sequence, the animal’s original actions were _not_ random or accidental in origin or _intent_ – they were taken for the purpose of finding out how some need could be fulfilled. The exploratory actions were quite goal-oriented, that is, to the _internal_ goal of fulfilling a need of the organism. Once the animal discovered by what means it could fulfill that need, it learned to take that series of actions again – it’s apparent goal became the pat on the head. But, ultimately, it’s goal still remains the fulfillment of its needs – in the process of self-maintenance and self-generation.
This applies in a parallel manner to vegetative action. The organism (whether it be a plant or the vegetative levels of an animal’s being) has a set of internally generated needs to fulfill, and of abilities or actions it can take to fulfill those needs. It moves and acts to fulfill those needs, it grows one direction to reach the sun, then another, then another, until it finds the direction of sunlight and gets around that rock. The fulfillment of its internal needs are the goal towards which it is acting, until it achieves the values which fulfill those needs. That is the nature of life.
Thus, the problem of the means by which vegetative action is directed to a future goal evaporates – because the goal of vegetative action is always the fulfillment of the present needs of the organism.
As far as the creation of new modes of action, just as organisms continuously rearrange the sequences of actions which they take to reach external goals, so I think they rearrange their internal sets of abilities to create new modes of action and new values. This is certainly the case in the development of creative thinking. And on the biological level, the origin of such complex systems as the eye are too unlikely to happen by a long series of chance mutations, and are too obviously functional _as a whole system_ in promoting the well-being of the organism, to have been caused by accident.
Binswanger began his argument by saying that purposeful action was the paradigm case from which we get our idea of teleology. In his discussion of vegetative action, he even tended to use concepts of consciousness, such as “value_significance_” and “_terms_ of operation.” Ironically, I think that, in fact, purposeful action is just another expression of life’s basic nature – its ability to act towards goals. It may be that in the ontology of concepts, teleology comes from purpose, but in the ontology of being, purpose comes from teleology.
Interestingly, in the arguments in which he attempts to _explain_ the goal-directedness of vegetative action, his very description of the proximate causes _assumes_ the existence of goal-directedness. On page 39, Binswanger says “Likewise, on the vegetative level, teleological explanation, I will argue, is not an irreducibly separate kind of explanation, but is rather a less detailed form of ordinary mechanical explanation in terms of efficient causes.” And on page 86, he says “The view I am defending, on the other hand, _assigns causal efficacy only to efficient causes_, but distinguishes between two kinds of efficient cause: proximate and ultimate.”
But he then describes the proximate causes as:
1. the fuel and
2. the _directive_ mechanism “whose existence, organization, fuel, and terms of operation result from the survival benefit that past instances of the goal have provided the organism in similar previous circumstances.” (p. 88). And Binswanger quotes Simpson as saying “To understand organisms, one must explain their organization.” (p. 82)
_How_ is the mechanism directive? What does “organization” mean? The Oxford English Dictionary defines “organization” as “The action of organizing or condition of being organized as a living being; connection or coordination of parts for vital functioning…” What do the terms “directive” and “organization” imply but goal-oriented functioning? This makes the proximate causes _already_ goal-directed in themselves, apart from any consideration of any ultimate goals towards which they may be directed. It seems as if final causation, “ultimate” causation, is included in his very concept of proximate cause. And that is not surprising, because I don’t think that one can, in fact, reduce the proximate causes to mere mechanical causation. Life isn’t like that.
Copyright © 1995 by Marsha Familaro Enright. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the author and inclusion of her byline.
Music is an art without an apparent object – there are no scenes to look at, no
sculptured marbles to touch, no stories to follow – and yet it can cause some of the most
passionate and intense feelings possible. How does this happen – how can sounds from
resonant bodies produce emotion (1) in man?
Music is experienced as if it had the power to reach man’s emotions directly…Music communicates emotions, which one grasps, but does not actually feel; what one feels is a suggestion, a kind of distant, dissociated, depersonalized emotion — until and unless it unites with one’s own sense of life. But since the music’s emotional content is not communicated conceptually or evoked existentially, one does feel it in some peculiar, subterranean way…How can sounds reach man’s emotions directly, in a manner that seems to by-pass his intellect? What does a certain combination of sounds do to man’s consciousness to make him identify it as gay or sad?…The nature of musical perception has not been discovered because the key to the secret of music is physiological — it lies in the nature of the process by which man perceives sounds –and the answer would require the joint effort of a physiologist, a psychologist and a philosopher (an esthetician). (Rand 1971, 52-56)
Further, what is the possible biological function and evolutionary origin of this
process by which sound elicits feeling? As Ray Jackendorff says “there is no obvious
ecological pressure for the species to have a musical faculty, as there is for vision and
language” (1987, 211). In other words, there is no immediate and obvious biological
function for music, as there is for vision or language. One researcher in the psychology of
music aptly summarized the problem as follows:
Musical messages seem to convey no biologically relevant information, as do speech, animal utterances and environmental sounds – yet people from all cultures do react to musical messages. What in human evolution could have led to this? Is there, or has there been, a survival value for the human race in music? (Roederer 1984, 351).
One might object to this characterization with the question “But you are comparing
apples and oranges when you compare music to vision and language. Instead, you should
be comparing hearing to vision, and music to painting; you should be asking: What is the
biological function of art?”
I first wondered about the biological function and evolutionary origin of music over
twenty years ago, while I was reading Ayn Rand’s article on esthetics,
“Art and Cognition.” In that article, Rand gives an answer to
the question “What is the biological function of art?” in
general, but is only able to suggest an hypothesis about
music’s biological function. The problem lies, as I
mentioned at the start of this article, with the fact that
music does not, apparently, involve the perception of
entities. In the following, I shall attempt a fuller answer and thereby shed some light on
the question of how sounds from resonant bodies produce emotions in man. My attempt
is made possible by recent scientific research into the nature of the brain.
Unlike many twentieth century theorists, Rand’s esthetics is integrated with her
complex and persuasive philosophy of reason, reality and
man’s nature and I think her esthetics deserves special
attention as part of my examination of the nature of music.
I will examine some of the historical theories of musical
meaning, then the more recent scientific investigations into
the nature of music, including some of the current theories
of music’s biological function. I shall review some theories
of the nature of emotion and the relation of music to
emotion. I shall then offer my theory of the biological
origin of music. Subsequently, I shall consider Rand’s
hypothesis about the nature of music, in light of the
research evidence. Lastly, I shall suggest some possible
research which might confirm or disconfirm my theory.
I have gathered evidence from several areas of the
research literature in search of an answer to the question of
music’s evolutionary origin and biological function. I
believe this evidence indicates that music evolved out of the
sonority and prosody (2) of vocal communication and that
musical elaboration of those elements has a special
biological communication function. Prosody evidently
facilitates linguistic syntax – that is, the sound of language helps us understand the
meaning of what’s said (Shapiro and Nagel 1995).
Furthermore, some aspects of one’s pitch (3) perceptions in
music are evidently influenced by one’s native language and
dialect (Deutsch 1992).
More neuropsychological knowledge is needed to prove my
thesis – but I leave the reader to turning over the evidence
I have assembled, along with his own knowledge of music, in
considering the question: Why does man make music?
Brief History on the Theories of Music’s Nature
From the ancient world to the nineteenth century, men
theorized about music based on their experience of it, and
only a little scientific knowledge about the physics of
music which was first examined by the Pythagoreans. Two key
ideas have been repeated down through the ages:
1. Music is a form of communication, a kind of
language; in particular, the language of feeling.
2. Music can form or inform one’s feeling or
The Ancient Greek “idea of music as essentially one with
the spoken word has reappeared in diverse forms throughout
the history of music” (Grout 1973,7). The Greeks “were
familiar with the idea that music can alter the disposition
of those who hear it. They acknowledge its power to soothe,
to console, to distract, to cheer, to excite, to inflame, to
madden” (West 1992, 31). Aristotle believed that “music has
a power of forming the character, and should therefore be
introduced into the education of the young” (Politics 1340b,
10-15). In one way or another, music touched everyone in
Greek civilization (West 1992).
The Greeks seemed to implicitly acknowledge music’s
connection to language in their refusal to create or accept
purely instrumental music. The early Middle-Age Europeans
did likewise, but eventually divorced music from voice, so
that by Hegel’s time, instrumental, wordless music was
considered a superior form (Bowie 1990, 183)
A connection of music to language was mentioned
frequently in late nineteenth century examinations of music’s
meaning. There are many, including Schopenhauer, Hegel, and
Tolstoy, who subscribed to the idea that music is “another
language,” the language of feeling.
Hegel relates music to “primitive” expressions, such as bird-song or wordless cries. Schleiermacher suggests the ambiguous status of music in relation to natural sound and to speech: “For neither the expression of a momentary sensation by a…speechless natural sound, nor speaking which approaches song are music, but only the transition to it” (Bowie 1990, 183).
Langer (1957) points out that music fails to qualify as
a language because it does not have fixed denotation.
And Nietzsche, in an 1871 fragment, took issue with the view
that music represents feeling:
What we call feelings are…already penetrated and saturated with conscious and unconscious representations and thus not directly the object of music, let alone able to produce music out of themselves (1980, 364, quoted in Bowie 1990, 230-31).
Feelings, Nietzsche claims, are actually only symbols of music, which has a prior ontological status. This opposes the commonplace in some Romantic thinking that music is the language, in the sense of the “representation”, the substitute, for feeling…Nietzsche’s view makes some sense if one ponders the fact that music can lead to the genesis of feelings which one had never had before hearing the music. (Bowie 1990, 231).
The modern scientific investigation of music began with
Hermann von Helmholtz’s study of the physics and
psychological effects of the tones and keys of music (1954
). Helmholtz argues that music does not use all types
of sound, only those “due to a rapid periodic motion of the
sonorous body; the sensation of a noise to non-periodic
motions.” (Helmholtz 1863, 9). Most researchers do not
question what sounds make music, but write with the
assumption that they are referring to sounds caused by
periodic vibrations (Aiello, Molfese, Sloboda, Stiller,
Lange, Schopenhauer, Trehub, Zatorre, etc.). “Tonal
stimulation is a constant factor of all musical stimulus”
(Meyer 1994, 13). The neurophysiological musical research
often revolves around contrasting responses of subjects to
periodic (tonal) versus nonperiodic (noise) sounds. Warren,
Obusek, and Farmer (1969) found the interesting fact that
subjects could not accurately perceive the temporal order of
four nonspeech, nonmusical sounds.
John Sloboda (1985) has examined various contemporary
scientific theories of musical meaning, among them the idea
that music mimics environmental sounds. The mimickry theory
is intriguing, but it seems to have a problem sufficiently
explaining the depth and range of meaning in music. Indeed,
music can aptly imitate some natural sounds, as did Saint-
Saens, in his “Carnival of the Animals.” But, even in music
considered to be as programmatic as Berlioz’ “Symphonie
Fantastique,” we cannot find environmental sounds of which
the music would be an imitation. To this point, Helmholtz
“In music one does not aim at representation of nature; rather, tones and tone sensations exist just for their own purpose and function independently of their relationship to any environmental object” (1863, 370).
Other theorists suggest that music has its effects by
expressing tension and its resolution (Schenker 1935;
Bernstein 1976). Tension and resolution are certainly a
large part of the musical experience, but they name only very
general qualities of it and do not seem to address the vast,
varied, and subtle ways music can make us feel.
Manfred Clynes sees music as the embodiment of the forms of emotion, “emotionally
expressive dynamic forms which we have called essentic forms”
(1986, 169). Clynes (1974, 1986) theory of music seems to parallel, for sound,
what Ekman proposed for facial expression. Ekman (1977) found that there is a
systematic relation between emotion and facial expression, and suggested that
this is a result of inborn “affect programmes” (automatically
triggered sequences of emotion), an idea also accepted by
by Tomkins (1962) and Izard (1971). Clynes thinks the essentic forms are biologically
determined expressions of emotion, experienced the same way
across cultures, which idea seems similar to “inborn affect
Essentic forms are specific spatio-temporal forms biologically programmed into the central nervous system for the expressive communication and generation of emotional qualities (1986, 169).
Clynes seems to be using the word “form” metaphorically. It
usually refers to the three-dimensional, spatial aspects of
things. He seems to be saying that the physiological nature,
intensity, and timing of music-evoked emotions have great
similarity among individuals. Just as, typically, one’s pulse raises, one’s muscles tighten
and one’s breath seems to become more ragged when one is angry, so there are typical
bodily changes due to the feelings which music evokes. This typicality is illustrated
and represented by the shape of the graph produced by
subjects’ fingers during experiments with Clynes’ sentograph.
The graph’s shape thereby represents the “form” of the
emotion. He has interesting data showing that the same music
will evoke similar motor responses in people of vastly
different cultures. His sentograph, which measures motor
response, attaches to the subject’s finger and records, on a
graph, subtle movements of the digit upon exposure to music.
Clynes found remarkable similarity among individual’s
responses to a given composer and between the responses of
different individuals to the same composer’s music, as
represented by the forms on the recording graphs. De Vries’
research confirms Clynes’ hypothesis that emotional responses
are similar among subjects and showed that responses to music
were “not affected by a subject’s familiarity with or
evaluation of a piece” (De Vries 1991, 46).
In a view which seems consonant with Clynes’,
Jackendorff points out that dance is closely related to
music, and that
going beyond crude rhythmic correspondences, we have undeniable and detailed intuitions concerning whether the character of dance movements suit or fail to suit the music. Such intuitions are patently not the result of deliberate training…This suggests that…a cognitive structure can be placed into close correspondence with musical structure…[which] might encode dance movements…[which can be] provisionally called body representation -essentially a body-specific encoding of the internal sense of the states of the muscles, limbs, and joints. Such a structure, in addition to representing the position of the body, would represent the dynamic forces present within the body, such as whether a position is being held in a state of relaxation or in a state of balanced tension….There is every reason to believe that such a representation is independently necessary for everyday tasks. …It would likely be involved as well in correspondences between emotional and muscular states -for instance, one carries oneself differently in states of joy, anger, depression, elation, or fear. (1987, 238-9)
Consonant with this view, Hevner (1936) found that
individuals show general agreement about the emotional
content of pieces of music and that there is broad agreement
among members of a culture about the musical mood of a piece,
even among children as young as three years of age (Kastner
and Crowder 1990). And Stiller notes that
a number of important musical universals have been identified: Melodies worldwide are made mostly of major seconds; all musics employ dynamic accents, and notes of varying lengths; and all display extensive use of variation and repetition…the universality of music suggests that there may be a biological basis for its existence. (1987, 13)
Research confirms the everyday experience that music
causes emotional states which can seriously affect our
actions. Konecni (1982) found that subjects who had been
insulted by confederates working for the experimenter were
quite aggressive about shocking those confederates. But
subjects who had merely been exposed to loud, complex music
were almost as aggressive about shocking confederates as the
insulted subjects had been! In another experiment subjects
were able to shape their moods by their musical choices, and
thereby optimize their moods. Depending on the way they felt
when they came to the experimental session (anxious or angry
or happy), and how they wanted to feel afterwards, they could
pick music that changed the way they felt entirely – once
again supporting the idea that the sounds of music have a
direct effect on emotions.
In many respects, mood is a better concept than
emotion to describe the results of music. Giomo says “This
affective meaning, labelled ‘mood’, is of an individual and
nameless nature, not truly describable using emotion labels”
(Giomo 1993, 143). Sloboda points out that “the ability to
judge mood is logically and empirically separable from the
ability to feel emotion in response to music. It is quite
possible to judge a piece of music to represent extreme
grief, yet be totally unmoved by it” (1991, 111). DeVries
(1991) suggested that there are two steps in reacting to
music: one in which music directly activates “programmes”
which trigger emotions and a second in which a person allows
themselves to experience the emotion or suppresses it,
depending on the congruity of the emotion with, among other
things, their personality and cultural background.
In searching for an evolutionary origin to music,
Konecni, as does Roederer (1984), posits that music helps to
synchronize the emotional states necessary for collective
action, such as the excitement needed for the hunt or battle.
Many primitive tribes seem to use music in this way (as do
college bands during football games). And, indeed, a few
other species, such as birds and cetaceans, have music-
like behaviors (4), wherein they produce sounds of periodic
vibrations and which are intimately tied to intra-species
communication and collective action. Stiller claims that
“Music helps to insure…cooperation — indeed, must
play an important role in that regard, or there would have
been no need to evolve such a unique form of emotional
communication” (1987, 14). He quotes Alan Lomax to the
effect that music organizes the mood, the feelings, the
general attitude of a group of people. This seems to echo
the Ancient Greek view that music teaches men how to feel
like warriors or like lovers.
…there may be a certain cultural advantage in having some rudimentary form of music to help synchronize collective rhythmic activity or to serve some ceremonial aspect of social life, no particular reason is evident for the efflorescence of musical complexity that appears in so many cultures (Jackendorff 1987, 214).
The socio-biological theory of musical meaning may
explain some of the psychological roots of music’s evolutionary origins but what
determines the kinds of sounds which can cause the experience
of emotion, i.e. the neurological roots? And why do we have so many kinds of music
which we listen to for its own sake?
The Neuropsychological Data on Language and Music
Why should certain kinds of sounds be able to directly
evoke feeling? By what means, what neuropsychological
As have so many in the history of music theory, Roederer
(1984) wonders whether the answer lies in the unique human
capacity for language. Human infants have high motivation to
acquire language, as evidenced by the assiduous way they
attend to, imitate, and practice language. Language
activities are very pleasurable; if they were not, human
infants would not be motivated to perform language-related
activities as much as they do. On this evidence, I venture
to say that humans have built-in developmental pleasure/pain
processes for producing and listening to language. Language
acquisition is a cognitive activity that is highly motivated
and important to survival. Are the emotions aroused for
language acquisition the evolutionary link between sound and
emotion? That is, are humans moved by sound as a result of a biological need to be
interested in acquiring language?
Experiments show that there are strong similarities in the way in which people perceive structure in music and in language…[but] overall, the syntax of music has much more latitude than that of language. Thus, in the syntaxes of music and language, we must remember that music is far more flexible and ambiguous than language (Aiello 1994, 46-9).
Furthermore, neuropsychological evidence seems to be a
odds with the proposal that language is the basis of music.
The areas of the brain which primarily process speech are,
apparently, mostly different from those which process music
(5). Investigations into the brain areas which process
speech and music have turned up the interesting finding that,
in most infants, the left hemisphere responds more to speech
sounds and the right to musical tones, as indicated by a type
of EEG called auditory evoked potentials, (Molfese 1977).
Measures of how much attention a neonate paid to left or
right ear stimuli (as indicated by “high amplitude non-
nutritive sucking”) indicated that most infants responded
more to language sounds presented to their right ears (left
hemispheres) and to musical sounds presented to their left
ears (right hemispheres) (Entus 1977; Glanville, Best, and
Levenson 1977), although Vargha-Khadem and Corbellis (1979)
were not able to replicate Entus’ findings. Best, Hoffman,
and Glanville (1982) found a right ear advantage for speech
in infants older than two months during tasks in which
infants had to remember and discriminate phonetic sounds and
musical timbres. Infants younger than two months showed an
ear advantage only for musical notes, and that advantage was
for the left ear. In older children and adult non-musicians,
damage to the left hemisphere usually impairs language
functions but tends to spare musical abilities, including
singing. Damage to the right hemisphere, particularly the
right temporal lobe, tends to leave language functions
intact, but impairs musical abilities and the production and
comprehension of language tone and of emotion expressed
through language or other sounds (Joanette, Goulet, and
Zatorre (1979) found a left ear advantage for the
discrimination of melodies versus speech in a dichotic (6)
listening task with both musicians and nonmusicians. He
found cerebral-blood-flow evidence that right temporal lobe
neurons are particularly important in melodic and pitch
discriminations (Zatorre, Evans, and Meyer 1994). Tramo and
Bharucha (1991), following the work of Gordon (1970), found
that the right hemisphere seems to process the perception of
harmonics (tested by the detection of complex relationships
among simultaneous musical sounds). Damage to the right
temporal lobe impairs the ability to recognize timbre (7),
and time cues within tones that determine the recognition of
timbre (Samson and Zatorre 1993). These authors suggest that
“the same acoustical cues involved in perception of musical
timbre may also serve as linguistic cues under certain
circumstances” (Ibid., 239). There are now indications that
timbre and phonetic information are processed through some
common stage beyond peripheral acoustic processing. Research
is underway to determine whether voice identification also
proceeds through this same timbre-phoneme nonperipheral stage
In a critical review, Zatorre (1984) notes that right-
sided damage can produce deficits in tasks that process
patterns of pitch and timbre differences. Adults with
partial or complete excisions of the right temporal lobe were
found to be significantly impaired in the perception of pitch
(Zatorre 1988). Kester et. al (1991) found that musical
processing was most affected by right temporal lobectomy. In
a review of the literature on the infant’s perception of tone
sequences, or melodies, Trehub (1990) found that human
infants do not use local pitch strategies characteristic of
nonhuman species, that is, they do not depend on the
recognition of particular, or absolute pitches, to identify
tone sequences. Rather, like human adults, they use global
and relational means to encode and retain contours of
melodies, with little attention to absolute pitch. (Although,
interestingly, Kessen, Leving and Wendrich (1979) found that
infants paid very close attention to experimenters’ singing
and could imitate pitch quite well.) In other words, human
infants have the ability to recognize exact pitches, but the
exact key in which a melody is played makes little difference
for human recognition of melody, while animals depend on the
particular pitch in which their “song” is sung to recognize
it. This seems to imply that even human infants are
extracting the abstract pattern of the sounds, rather than
using the sounds as signs, specific perceptual markers, of
In reviewing the research on infants’ perception of
music, Trehub (1987) suggests that infants have the skills
for analyzing complex auditory stimuli. These skills may
correspond to musical universals, as indicated by infants’
preference for major triadic chord structures.
The evidence indicates that human infants have the
ability to recognize and process music in a fairly complex
way, at a very early age. Furthermore, music processing in
most infants and adults seems to occur primarily in the right
And infants, like adults, appear to find music
interesting: they tend to pay attention to it, they like to
engage in imitations of adult pitches and, they learn to sing
as soon as they learn to speak (Cook 1994).
The Neuropsychological Data on Emotions
How does the data on the neuropsychological processes
involved in music relate to the data on the
neuropsychological processes involved in emotions? It is
well-established that for most people, right hemisphere
damage causes difficulties with the communication and
comprehension of emotion (Bear 1983; Ross 1984). Apparently,
the right hemisphere mediates the processing of many types of
emotionally-laden information: visual, facial, gestural,
bodily, and auditory.
The evidence suggests that the right hemisphere has a
special relationship with the emotional functions of the
human mind, specifically in being able to process and project
emotional meaning through perceptual information (Kolb and
Whishaw 1990). For most people, the right hemisphere
performs integrative visual functions, such as grasping
visual gestalts and comprehending visual and architectural
wholes; the inability to recognize faces is sometimes the
consequence of right temporal lobe damage. (Kolb and
Whishaw, 1990) Right hemisphere damage can often lead to the
inability to be aware of whole areas of space in relation to
oneself, called perceptual neglect. (See A. Luria’s The Man
With A Shattered World for an agonizing description of what
the world seems like when one’s brain cannot perform these
visual and kinesthetic integrations.) Neglect of half of
perceived space, called hemi-neglect, is a frequent result of
extensive right parietal damage. The right hemisphere is
fundamentally involved in comprehending the connotative
meanings of language, metaphors and nonliteral implications
of stories; and the right hemisphere seems to be involved in
the comprehension of meaning commmunicated through sound,
especially voice. Oliver Sacks discusses patients with
For such patients, typically, the expressive qualities of voices disappear – their tone, their timbre, their feeling, their entire character – while words (and grammatical constructions) are perfectly understood. Such tonal agnosias (or ‘aprosodias’) are associated with disorders of the right temporal lobe, whereas aphasias go with disorders of the left temporal lobe (1987, 83).
He also describes aphasics (9) who are not able to grasp the
denotative meaning of words and yet are able to follow many
conversations by the emotional tone of the speakers.
With the most sensitive patients, it was only with [grossly artificial mechanical speech from a computerised voice synthesizer] that one could be wholly sure of their aphasia (Ibid., 80-1).
The patients would use all kinds of extraverbal clues to
understand what another was saying to them. He claimed that
a roomful of them laughed uproariously over a speech given by
Ronald Reagan because of the patent insincerity of it.
Rate, amplitude, pitch, inflection, timbre, melody, and
stress contours of the voice are means by which emotion is
communicated (in nonhuman as well as human species), and the
right hemisphere is superior in the interpretation of these
features of voice (Joseph 1988). Samson and Zatorre (1993)
found similar cortical areas responding to pitch and timbre
in humans and animals. In dichotic listening tasks, Zurif
and Mendelsohn (1972) found a right ear advantage for
correctly matching meaningless, syntactically organized
sentences with meaningful ones by the way the sentence was
emotionally intoned. The subjects could apparently match
such nonsense sentences as: “Dey ovya ta ransch?” with “How
do you do?” by the intonation the speaker gave the sentence.
Heilman, Scholes, and Watson (1975) found that subjects with
right temporal-parietal lesions tended to be impaired at
judging the mood of a speaker. Heilman et. al (1984) also
compared subjects with right temporal lobe-damage to both
normals and aphasics (4) in discriminating the emotional
content of speech. He presented all three types of subjects
with sentences wherein the verbal content of the speakers was
filtered out and only the emotional tone was left, and found
those with temporal lobe damage to be impaired in their
emotional discriminations. In a similar study, Tompkins and
Flowers (1985) found that the tonal memory scores (how well
the subjects could remember specific tones) for right
braindamaged subjects were lower than those of other
subjects, implying that right braindamage leads to a problem
with the perceptual encoding of sound, put not necessarily
with the comprehension of emotional meaning per se.
The human voice conveys varied, complex, and subtle
meaning through timbre, pitch, stress contour, tempo, and so
forth and thereby communicates emotion.
What is clear is that the rhythmic and the musical are not contingent additions to language….The “musical” aspect of language emphasizes the way that all communication has an irreducibly particular aspect which cannot be substracted (Bowie 1990, 174).
Best, Hoffman, and Glanville found that the ability to
process timbre appears in neonates and very young infants,
apparently before the ability to process phonetic stimuli
Through the “music” in voice, we comprehend the feelings
of others and we communicate ours to them. This is an
important ability for the well-being of the human infant, who
has not yet developed other human tools for communicating its
needs and comprehending the world around it – a world in
which the actions and feelings of its caretakers are of
immense importance to its survival. Emotion is conveyed
through language in at least two ways: through the
specifically verbal content of what is said, and through the
“musical” elements in voice, which are processed by the right
hemisphere. One of the characteristic features of
traditional poetry is the dense combination of the meaning of
words with the way they sound, which, when done well, results
in emotionally moving artworks (Enright 1989). Mothers
throughout the world use nursery rhymes, a type of poetry, to
amuse and soothe infants and young children, that is, to
arouse emotions they find desirable in the children. “Music
can articulate the ‘unsayable’, which is not representable by
concepts or verbal language” (Bowie, 1990, 184). “Men have not found the words for it
nor the deed nor the thought, but they have found the music” (Rand 1943, 544) .
Was nature being functionally logical and parsimonious
to combine, in the right hemisphere, those functions which
communicate emotion with those that comprehend emotion?
As social animals, humans have many ways of
communicating and comprehending emotions: facial expression,
gesture, body language, and voice tone. I propose that
music’s biopsychological origins lie in the ability to
recognize and respond directly to the feelings of another
through tone of voice, an important ability for infant and
adult survival. (The tone of voice of an angry and menacing
person has a very different implication than that of a sweet
and kind person.)
If inflection and nuance enhance the effect of spoken language, in music they create the meaning of the notes. Unlike words, notes and rests do not point to ideas beyond themselves; their meaning lies precisely in the quality of the sounds and silences, so that the exact renderings of the notes, the nuances, the inflection, the intensity and energy with which notes are performed become their musical meaning. (J. M. Lewers, quoted in Aiello 1994, 55)
Furthermore, I propose that the sound literally triggers
those physiological processes which cause the corresponding
emotion “action programmes,” “essentic forms,” or whatever
one wishes to call these processes. This would explain the
uniquely automatic quality in our response to music.
I am proposing that the biopsychological basis of the
ability of sound to cause emotions in man originates in man’s
ability to emotionally respond to the sounds of another’s
voice. Theoretically, this ability lies in the potential for
certain kinds of sounds to set off a series of neurological
processes resulting in emotions, which events are similar to
those occurring during the usual production of emotions.
As so many in the history of musical theory have conjectured,
music does result from language – but not language’s abstract,
However, I should posit that it is not the ontogeny of
language per se that caused the development of music in
humans. Many nonhuman animals communicate emotion and
subsequently direct and orchestrate actions of their species
through voice tone, and there is considerable evidence that
humans do likewise, which argues that this ability arose
before the emergence of language.
Returning to my earlier
discussion of motivation in the infant acquisition of
language, it seems more likely that the pleasures and
emotions communicated through voice (which motivate the
acquisition of language) are another biological application
of the ability of voice tone to emotionally affect us, rather
than an initial cause of emotion in voice. Human’s were
already set to be affected by voice tone when we acquired the
ability to speak. Pleasure associated with vocalizing likely
developed into pleasure in language acquisition.
However, music, especially modern Western music, has
gone far beyond the kinds of auditory perceptions and
responses involved in simple tone of voice alone. The
ability to emotionally recognize and respond to tone of voice
was developed early on in the evolution of Homo sapiens, as
evidenced by the same ability in our closest animal
relatives, the great apes. The history of music seems to
show that humans greatly expanded on the use of voice tone
through their ability to abstract. It appears that men
created instruments, learned how to distill and extract the
essence of tones and their relationships, rearranged and
expanded the range, timbre, and rhythm of sounds used both by
voice and by instruments, and thereby created a new, artistic
means of expressing a huge range of emotions.
The evidence found by Clynes and others indicates that
there is a special pattern of sound for each emotion or mood,
which pattern humans are able to recognize in various voices,
both human and instrumental. Helmholtz noted that the major
well suited for all frames of mind which are completely formed and clearly understood, for strong resolve, and for soft and gentle or even for sorrowing feelings, when the sorrow has passed into the condition of dreamy and yielding regret. But it is quite unsuited for indistinct, obscure, unformed frames of mind, or for the expressing of the dismal, the dreary, the enigmatic, the mysterious, the rude…[and it is] precisely for these …[that] we require the minor mode (1954 , 302)
The implication of the evidence is that humans have learned
how to abstract the sound pattern evoking, for example
triumph, and then re-present this pattern in its
essential form in a musical composition, giving the listener
an experience of the emotion of triumph rarely possible in
life. Through abstraction, the emotion-provoking sounds have
been rendered essential and rearranged into new patterns and
combinations, thereby enabling humans to have an emotion-
evoking artistic experience far greater than that possible
from the sounds of the spoken voice alone. Many theories of
music, to some extent, recognize that music makers take the
fundamental qualities of music and rearrange them to invent
new ways of feeling – see any number of essays in Philip
Alperson’s book What is Music?
In relation to this theory, it is noteworthy that only
the sounds of periodic vibrations can be integrated so as to
evoke emotion because the voice produces periodic vibrations
in its normal operation. (Despite the best efforts of modern
musical theorists, all else is experienced as meaningless
noise.) In the history of music theory, thinkers have placed
most of their emphasis on the relations and perceptions of
harmonies (Grout 1973; Lang 1941). My proposal for the
biological basis of music concerns a system generally without
harmony – the human voice (there are some harmonic overtones
in any voice or instrument). How do these factors relate to
one another? Historically, music began as plainsong without
accompaniment and as simple melodies.
The fact that music could achieve simultaneity, that it could have vertical as well as horizontal events, was a revolutionary discovery….Now music had a new kind of interest, the accidental or contrived vertical combination of two or more pitches” (Aiello 1994, 44)
Although polyphony (10) was created some time during the
Middle Ages, apparently the conscious use of harmonic chords
was developed even later.
Helmholtz mentions that
A favourite assertion that “melody is resolved harmony,” on which musicians do not hesitate to form musical systems without staying to inquire how harmonies had either never been heard, or were, after hearing, repudiated. According to our explanation, at least, the same physical peculiarities in the composition of musical tones, which determined consonances for tones struck simultaneously, would also determine melodic relations for tones struck in sucession. The former then would not be the reason for the latter, as the above phrase suggests, but both would have a common cause in the natural formation of musical tones (1954 , 289).
In other words, harmony and melody complement each other,
using the same mathematical relationships of tones and their
perception. Harmony does this simultaneously, melody does
this over time. However, harmony is not an equal partner in the creation of music,
because we can make music without harmony and because harmony does not make
music on its own: music requires a sequence of sounds and silences through
time. Harmony developed as man abstracted musical
qualities in sound, rearranged them, and used them
simultaneously. It is likely that theoreticians have focused
on harmony in their analysis of music because complex
harmonies are a major part of modern western music and
because melodies are more difficult to analyze due to the the
element of time. Given the historical development of music,
I believe the emphasis on harmony is an artifact of human
analytical ability. Moreover, an harmonic chord on its own
is not music – it is always necessary to have a sequence of
tones to have music.
Beyond Neuropsychology to Music as Art
I have posited a biological/evolutionary origin to music, but I have not, as yet,
proposed a survival function for it. Before I do that, I would like to address the wider
issue of the biological function of art per se. In her article “Art and Cognition,” Rand
(1971) presented her theory on the cognitive foundations of art.
This theory is of particular interest to me, not only because
it is founded on and well-integrated with her revolutionary
philosophy of Objectivism, but because it is specifically
based on man’s cognitive and motivational nature, on what she
called his “psycho-epistemological needs” (11), and thereby posits gives an answer to the
question of art’s biological roots. Her hypothesis in no way addresses or accounts for my
original question, What is the evolutionary basis of the ability to respond to sound? With
her hypothesis, the question remains unanswered. But her theory
is worth addressing because she asked and attempted to answer
many of the fundamental questions about music’s nature.
Rand argued that art is a means of making
conceptual yet concrete the information of the senses, which,
thereby, makes that information more meaningful to us.
The visual arts do not deal with the sensory field of awareness as such, but with the sensory field as perceived by a conceptual consciousness.
The sensory-perceptual awareness of an adult does not consist of mere sense data (as it did in his infancy), but of automatized integrations that combine sense data with a vast context of conceptual knowledge. The visual arts refine and direct the sensory elements of these integrations. By means of selectivity, of emphasis and omission, these arts lead man’s sight to the conceptual context intended by the artist. They teach man to see more precisely and to find deeper meaning in the field of vision. (Rand 1971, 47)
Painting makes conceptual the sense of sight, sculpture the
sense of sight and touch, dance the sense of body motion, or
kinesthesia, and music the sense of hearing.
But Rand argued that music does not follow exactly the
same psycho-epistemological process as the other arts.
According to Rand, the art of music embodies man’s sense of
life by abstracting how man uses his mind.
The other arts create a physical object,…and the psycho-epistemological process goes from the perception of the object to the conceptual grasp of its meaning, to an appraisal in terms of one’s basic values, to a consequent emotion. The pattern is: from perception – to conceptual understanding – to appraisal – to emotion.
The pattern of the process involved in music is: from perception – to emotion – to appraisal – to conceptual understanding.
Music is experienced as if it had the power to reach man’s emotions directly (Rand 1971, 50)
In other words, upon listening to music, it can cause us to
experience feelings which we subsequently appraise. Whether
we like or dislike the feelings caused by the music (or have
some complex reaction to it), helps determine what kinds of
music we individually favor. An interesting facet of the
musical experience is the fact that many unrelated images
tend to come to mind when we listen to music, imagery which
seems to correspond to the emotions. It is as if our minds
find it illogical to have feelings with no existential
objects to evoke them, so our minds provide images of an
appropriate nature. This process seems reminiscent of others, such as the way in which
we “see” faces in myriad visual images, or think we hear voices in the sound of the wind.
The common thread between them is the mind’s automatic attempt to make sense of the
world, both external and internal.
According to Rand, how might sound evoke these emotions?
If man experiences an emotion without existential object, its only other possible object is the state or actions of his own consciousness. What is the mental action involved in the perception of music? (I am not referring to the emotional reaction, which is the consequence, but to the process of perception.)…The automatic processes of sensory integration are completed in his infancy and closed to an adult.
The single exception is in the field of sounds produced by periodic vibrations, i.e., music…musical tones heard in a certain kind of succession produce a different result -the human ear and brain integrate them into a new cognitive experience, into what may be called an auditory entity; a melody. The integration is a physiological process; it is performed unconsciously and automatically. Man is aware of the process only by means of its results.
Helmholtz has demonstrated that the essence of musical perception is mathematical; the consonance or dissonance of harmonies depends on the ratios of the frequencies of their tones…[There is] the possibility that the same principles apply to the process of hearing and integrating a succession of musical tones, i.e., a melody — and that the psycho-epistemological meaning of a given composition lies in the kind of work it demands of a listener’s ear and brain (Rand 1971, 57-8)
Music gives man’s consciousness the same experience as the other arts: a concretization of his sense of life. But the abstraction being concretized is primarily epistemological, rather than metaphysical; the abstraction is man’s consciousness, i.e., his method of cognitive functioning, which he experiences in the concrete form of hearing a specific piece of music. A man’s acceptance or rejection of that music depends on whether it calls upon or clashes with, confirms or contradicts, his mind’s way of working. The metaphysical aspect of the experience is the sense of a world which he is able to grasp, to which his mind’s working is appropriate….A man who has an active mind…will feel a mixture of boredom and resentment when he hears a series of random bits with which his mind can do nothing. He will feel anger, revulsion and rebellion against the process of hearing jumbled musical sounds; he will experience it as an attempt to destroy the integrating capacity of his mind.” (Rand 1971, 58) 1971)
In other words, she proposed that the arrangement of sounds
in music causes one’s brain to perform a sensory/perceptual
integration similar to those performed during the solution of
an existential problem, and that one emotionally reacts to
the kind of cognitive work which the music makes one perform
through the integration.
In line with the assumptions of musical research, she
notes that only sounds caused by periodic vibrations can be
integrated by the human brain. We can analyze the sounds of
music as follows: simultaneous sounds into harmonies,
successions of sounds into melodies, or what Rand called
“auditory entities” and percussions into rhythms.
According to Rand’s hypothesis, musical sounds are
physiologically integrated by the brain and our emotions are
in response to the type of integration performed. She
proposed that the musical integration parallels perceptual
integration in nonmusical cognitive activities, and that we
respond emotionally to the type of integrating work music
causes us to perform. Her hypothesis assumes no direct
physiological induction of emotion, but proposes that the
emotion is a response to the kind of cognitive work caused by
the integration of the sounds.
Is this view consonant with the scientific facts?
Rand’s hypothesis supposes that a perceptual integration
results in emotions such as joy, delight, triumph, which are
normally generated in humans by a complex conceptual
cognitive activity. I am not aware of any other purely
perceptual integrations in other sense modalities which
result in such emotions (although there may be some visual
stimuli, such as a beautiful sunset or graceful human
proportions, for which we have in-built pleasurable
responses). In this respect, sound seems to be unique.
Idiot-savants and some individuals with IQ’s in the
teens, respond fully to music, as well as
A man whom childhood meningitis had left mentally retarded as well as behaviorally and emotionally crippled, but who…was so familiar with… all the Bach cantatas, as well as a staggering amount of other music)…evincing a full understanding and appreciation of these highly intellectual scores. Clearly, whatever had happened to the rest of his brain, his musical intelligence remained a separate – and unimpaired – function (Stiller 1987, 13).
Under Rand’s theory, is this possible? Such cognitively
impaired individuals would not normally perform many complex
conceptual mental integrations, nor experience the feelings
accompanying those integrations. One might infer that these
mental cripples, unable to self-generate cognitive activities
which would allow them the pleasures of deep feelings, are
enabled the life-giving experience of such feelings through
music (hence, some of them completely devote themselves to
music). That is, their cognitions are not complex enought to produce many profound and
pleasurable feelings on their own, but they are able to pleasurably shape their emotional
world with music. Presumably, if their perceptual abilities are
intact, their brains could still perform the integrations
necessary under Rand’s hypothesis. But how could their
psycho-epistemological sense of life respond to the
activities, in that they are not capable of much in the way
of conceptual activity?
However, consider the following:
If a given process of musical integration taking place in a man’s brain resembles the cognitive processes that produce and/or accompany a certain emotional state, he will recognize it, in effect, physiologically, then intellectually. Whether he will accept that particular emotional state, and experience it fully, depends on his sense-of-life evaluation of its significance.” (Rand 1971, 61)
Here, she seemed to say that the processing and integrating
of the sounds are very similar to the physiological processes
involved in the existential evocations of emotions. In other
words, her statement seems to imply that she thinks the music
physiologically induces the emotion, which is subsequently
evaluated and accepted or rejected.
It seems to me that Rand was not perfectly clear as to
the exact nature of music’s production of emotions. On the
one hand, she seemed to say that the emotions are a reaction
to the kind of cognitive work the music causes us to perform.
On the other hand, she seemed to say that the music
physiologically induces the emotion.
Parsimony inclines me to take this analysis one step
further and propose that musical sounds induce the
neurological processes that cause the emotions; then we react
to the feeling of those emotions. Instead of proposing, like
Rand, that the essence of music is epistemological – we react
to the kind of cognitive work music causes – I would like to
maintain that the essence is metaphysical, like the other
arts – we react to the way the music makes us feel. That
is, by neurologically inducing emotions, music shapes our
feelings about the world. If painting is the concretization
of sight, music is the concretization of feeling.
Rand recognizes this to some extent, “How can sounds
reach man’s emotions directly in a manner that seems to by-
pass his intellect?” (1971, 54) This question seems to imply
that she thinks the musical sensory integration affects
It is relevant to the issue that there are direct
sensory projections from the ear to the amygdala, a nuclei of
cells at the base of the temporal lobe (where so much music
processing seems to occur). The amygdala is part of the
limbic system, considered essential to the production and
processing of emotion. Although part of the temporal lobe,
the amygdala is not considered to be part of the cortical
sensory analysis systems that process the objective
properties of an experience. Instead the amygdala is
believed to process our feeling or subjective sense of an
experience (Kolb and Whishaw 1990) – that is, how we feel
about an experience, such as the warm cozy feelings we might
get at the smell of turkey and apple pie. It seems possible
that the sounds of music could be directly processed by the
amygdala, resulting directly in emotion, without going
through the usual “objective-properties” processing of the
other cortical areas. This might be how they “reach man’s
emotions directly in a manner that seems to by-pass his
intellect?” (Rand 1971,)
However, we might find a resolution to the seeming
duality of Rand’s musical hypothesis by further reflecting on
music’s nature. I believe the key lies in the complexity of
music. There are large elements of cognitive understanding
and processing involved in more complex music, e.g., there is
a definite process involved in learning to listen to
classical music, or any kind for that matter.
Musicians are much more sensitive to and analytical
about music, and, interestingly, apparently use different
areas of their brains than do nonmusicians when processing
music. Musicians do quite a bit of processing in the left
hemisphere, in areas that apparently process in a
logical/analytical manner. Some music triggers some emotion
in almost everyone, although I think that perhaps mood, as
suggested by Giomo, would be a better term to describe much
of the psychophysical state that music induces. We can
listen to music, know what emotion it represents, but not
want or like that emotion. In this way, Rand seems right
that music causes our minds to go through the cognitive steps
which result in various emotions. However, in line with the
arguments made by many, not everyone can follow the cognitive
steps necessary in listening to all music: there is a certain
amount of learning involved in the appreciation of music and
it seems to be related, for example, to learning the forms,
context, and style of the music of a culture. Beyond that,
there is learning involved in absorbing and responding to
music of different genres: jazz, blues, celtic folk, african
folk, classical. One gets to understand the ways and the
patterns of each genre such that one’s mind can better follow
the musical thoughts and respond to them with feeling
Music can take on a cognitive life entirely its own,
apart from and different from the kinds of thoughts and
feelings resulting from life or the other arts. As the
Greeks thought, it can teach us new things to think and feel.
Certainly, the kind of utterly intense emotion felt through
exalted music is rare, if possible at all, through other
events of life. Listening to contemporary music such as the
Drovers (Celtic style), I realized that it made me feel all
kinds of wonderful and unusual bodily feelings, which had no
regular emotional names, although they were similar to other
emotions. This might explain why we like to listen to the
same piece of music over and over. “Wittengenstein’s
paradox: the puzzle is that when we are familiar with a piece
of music, there can be no more surprises. Hence, if
‘expectancy violation’ is aesthetically important, a piece
would lose this quality as it becomes familiar”
(Bharucha 1994, 215). We do not particularly like to think
about the same things over and over, but we generally like to
feel certain ways over and over. We listen to the same piece
over and over because we enjoy the mood, the frame of mind,
into which it puts us. Of what else does the end of life consist, but good experience, in
whatever form one can find it? Thinking is the means by which we maintain and
advance life, but feeling happy is an end in itself.
To resolve Rand’s duality: the basis of music is the
neurological induction of mood through sound (made
possible, in my view, by our ability to respond to the
emotional meaning of voice); however, humans have taken that
basic ability and elaborated it greatly, abstracting and
rearranging sound in many, many different ways in all the
different kinds of music. Responding to more complex music
requires more elaborate, specifically musical understanding
of the sounds and their interrelationships. This
understanding requires learning on the part of the listener
and complex cognitive work – to which the listener responds
Hence, there are two emotional levels on which we
respond to music which correspond to the two aspects of
Rand’s hypothesis: the basic neurological level and the more
complex cognitive level.
My hypothesis on the evolutionary basis of music in our
ability to respond to emotion in tone of voice would need a
vast array of experiments to be proved, including further
inquiry into the neurological structures which process voice
tone and music. Presumably, if the hypothesis is true, a
significant overlap would be found in the the areas that
process voice tone and the areas that process music.
Particular care would be needed to discover which neocortical
structures are involved in these functions, including an
examination of such structures as the associative areas
including the temporal lobe, and the limbic structures. And
subcortical areas such as the hypothalamus and brain stem,
presumed to be involved in emotional processing
(Siminov 1986), would need to be examined as well.
A technique such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET)
(12) might be useful in such an inquiry. Experiments
indicating that this overlap exists in young infants would
show that this was an inborn, and not a learned ability.
Care would need to be taken in arranging several experimental
conditions for comparison. Techniques such as the one
described earlier in this essay, wherein the verbal content
was filtered out of sentences, would be useful. Comparisons
of the response to (1) voice with no verbal content or music,
(2) music with no voice, (3) voice with music, with and
without verbal content and (4) nonemotionally meaningful
sounds made without voice would be important.
Also, it might be found that voice with no music, voice
with music, and music with no voice are each processed in a
different set of areas. Alternatively, it is possible that
no subcortical emotional effects would be found from voice or
music. Or, perhaps, the processing of the voice and/or the
music would be found to be spread over both hemispheres of
the brain in a way which did not become evident in the evoked
potentials. Some of the brain damage studies found that
right hemisphere damage did not universally cause amusia or
failure to comprehend or express emotional tone, and that
some subjects recovered their abilities to express or grasp
emotion through language. Furthermore, it is difficult to
know how varying individual brain organization might express
itself in the processing of these tasks.
Interesting and observable differences might be found
across languages or language groups. The relation, if any,
of a language to it’s folk music would be fascinating (13).
Here I’d like to recall Jackendorff’s comments. He
remarked on the ability of music to make us feel like moving,
and that there are specific ways we seem to feel like moving
to specific kinds of music.
Ultimately, if we learn enough to specify exactly the relationships between the
elements of music and what feelings are evoked, we will be able to decipher music as
“the language of feeling.” I look forward to the research which will resolve these
questions on the biopsychology of music.
Again and Again
Rachmaninoff’s sighs, Haydn’s Surprise, Joplin’s glad cries — Make poetry pale.
–John Enright NOTES
1. “An emotion is the psychosomatic form in which man experiences his estimate of the beneficial or harmful relationship of some aspect of reality to himself.” (Branden 1966, 64). This definition is echoed in Carroll Izard’s work Human Emotions (1977) “A complete definition of emotion must take into account all… of these aspects or components: (a) the experience or conscious feeling of emotion, (b) the processes that occur in the brain and nervous system, and (c) the observable expressive patterns of emotion, particularly those on the face…scientists do not agree on precisely how an emotion comes about. Some maintain that emotion is a joint function of a physiologically arousing situation and the person’s evaluation or appraisal of the situation” (1977, 4).
2. “Prosody” is pitch, change of pitch, and duration of intonations and rests in speech.
3. “Pitch – 23. Acoustics. the apparent predominant frequenc sounded by an acoustical source.” (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, New York: Random House Publishing Co., 1968)
4. The activites are “music-like” because they employ sequences of sounds made by periodic vibrations. However, because of the cognitive levels of the animals involved, the “songs” are not abstracted, arrayed and integrated into an artwork and thus are not music. It is even likely that the animals experience their “songs” as integrated perceptual experiences, which communicate valuable information to them, or trigger a series of valuable actions in them. Because our physiology is so different from that of birds and cetaceans, we may not experience the “songs” as perceptually integrated units, but the respective animals might. Regardless of whether the “songs” are perceptually integrated or not to the birds, dolphins or whales involved, the “songs” are still not artworks, because they are not conceptually organized (Nottebohm 1989). Likewise, animals usually seem indifferent to human music. There are at least two reasons for this: their physiologies are different, thus they do not hear and perceptually integrate sound the same way humans do; and they do not have the power to abstract patterns from percepts the way humans do. Trehub (1987) found that, unlike animals, even human infants process music by relational means and do not rely on absolute pitch the way animals do.
5. In brain research, investigators have found evidence for the same general types of brain processes in the same areas for 95% of the subjects. I am reporting the kinds of functional asymmetries which have been discovered for those 95%. Thus, when I note that “language functions are in the left hemisphere and musical tone recognition in the right,” I am referring to this 95% of the population.
6. In a dichotic listening task, the subject is presented with two different stimuli to his different ears, simultaneously. Whichever stimuli the subject tends to notice indicates that the ear to which it was presented has an advantage for that kind of stimuli.
7. “Timbre – 1. Acoustics, Phonet. the characteristic quality of a sound, independent of pitch and loudness but dependent on the relative strengths of the components of different fequencies, determined by resonance. 2. Music. the characteristic quality of sound produced by a particular instrument or voice; one color.” (Random House Dictionary of the English Language, New York: Random House Publishing Co., 1968)
8. There is evidence that musicians in particular do what appears to be more logico-analytical processing of music in the left hemisphere (Bever and Chiarello 1974). Messerli, Pegna, and Sordet (1995) found musicians superior in identifying melody with their right ear. Schlaug and Steinmetz found that professional musicians, especially those who have perfect pitch, have far larger planum temporales on their left side (Nowak 1995).
9. Aphasia is a condition in which a person has difficulty in producing and/or comprehending language due to neurological conditions.
10. Polyphony is a type of music where multiple voices sing independent melodies. Often, the melodies selected do harmonize beautifully, but polyphony is not considered harmonic in the ususal sense, because it does not use harmonic chords in its composition, but relies on the incidental harmonization of the tones of the multiple melodies into chords.
11. “Psycho-epistemology is the study of man’s cognitive processes from the aspect of the interaction between the conscious mind and the automatic functions of the subconscious.” (Rand 1971, 20)
12. Positron Emission Tomography is a technique which measures the rate of glucose metabolism in neurological structures during tasks. The brain uses a tremendous amount of glucose whenever it works. It is inferred that brain structures using the most glucose during a given task are the ones performing the neurological processes necessary for that task.
13. My thanks to Mr. Peter Saint-Andre for pointing out these possibilities.
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Navigator: Perhaps you could begin by telling us something of the history of the New Intellectual Forum. Who started it, and when?
Enright: In 1985, a listing in The Objectivist Forum led me to contact Mike McCarthy of the Chicagoland Objectivist Principles Organization (COPO). My husband John and I began going to meetings of COPO at Mike’s apartment, where we met many Objectivists and libertarians. But because so many of the participants were interested only in libertarianism, the discussions tended to revolve around economics and politics. Attempts to move onto topics of ethics, esthetics, epistemology, or metaphysics disintegrated into arguments over the justification for the Objectivist point of view on these topics. This got boring. So, in 1987, I called up a number of the more clearly Objectivist participants and asked them if they wanted to start a discussion group that would presume a certain level of understanding and agreement with Rand’s ideas, and would build discussions from there. At first, the get-togethers were strictly by invitation only, because we were concerned about maintaining the level of the discussion. But we relaxed after a few years, when we saw that the participation of those who were not as Objectivist as the core group posed no problem. I think that our topics and the fact that the majority of the participants discussed matters using Rand’s ideas as a take-off point set the tone of the discussions. Also, I moderated the discussions, and politely discouraged getting off-topic.
Navigator: Could you sketch very quickly what a Forum evening is like now?
Enright: The purpose of the evening is to present ideas, information, and knowledge, often new identifications in Objectivism or other related areas. Our members share information about new fields of interest or findings, examining the theories and ideas of all kinds of thinkers in the culture. Typically, someone begins the discussion by giving a short talk on a topic of interest. In practice, this can range from throwing out a few questions for discussion to reading a paper. I try to discourage the latter, however, as it usually does not lead to the most interesting and lively discussions. To this extent, the New Intellectual Forum is pretty much what any Objectivist discussion group will be.
Where NIF may differ is that we have tried to surround the core discussion with some practices that, we feel, create the sense of an intellectuals’ and artists’ salon. And we believe that has contributed to the Forum’s success.
We get together once a month on Saturday night. Those who wish meet for dinner at a designated restaurant and then adjourn to a member’s home for the meeting. The remainder of the group goes directly to the meeting. About fifteen people usually show up for dinner, and twenty to twenty-five for the meeting, but we’ve had as few as twelve and as many as thirty-five. We always have a hostess or moderator or both to insure that the atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable, and also to see that the discussion proceeds respectfully and remains on topic for the formal part of the evening. And we always show our appreciation to the presenter by clapping. Members are expected to bring something: a snack or dessert for the refreshment table, or maybe fresh flowers. About half bring something to any particular meeting. And the hostess insures that the table and tableware are pleasing.
Navigator: How important is this “salon” ideal, in your eyes?
Enright: I believe it is fundamental to the organization’s success. Ideas are the heart of NIF, but our attitude towards ideas—and each other—is no less important. All participants are treated with civility and respect, regardless of their level of knowledge and their agreement with Rand’s philosophy. Someone may vigorously disagree with another’s remarks, but no one tries to shoot down the person’s points and no one, ever, says or implies any criticism of anyone’s character because of his ideas. I have dropped out of Objectivist discussion groups because I couldn’t tolerate the intolerance!
However, I don’t want to give the impression that we are merely civil to each other, in a cold, impersonal way—there is a warm, fun atmosphere to every meeting. We’re interested in each other, eager to see one another and talk about personal events and achievements, as well as ideas. We have a lot of people who know the philosophy in depth and first-hand, but are not out to impress each other. When they disagree with someone, they don’t recite chapter and verse, but really try to explain why they think the person is wrong. At NIF, everyone’s ideas are examined according to facts and reasoning, and no one is ever “tested” on his knowledge of Objectivism and “accepted” or received opinions.
The discussions tend to be exploratory rather than adversarial and we don’t all come to one conclusion. As one member put it, “you feel like you have allies in finding truth—that our first loyalty is to the truth.” We also have a great appreciation of the variety of personalities among us, and the wide range of points of view, which can be especially helpful to finding the truth. As David Axel said: “It’s a club for individualism where individuals matter.”
A relaxed atmosphere is another part of the “salon” ideal. Although we have set topics and the presenter has an idea of where he wants to go, we don’t have a highly structured agenda.
Then, too, humor is used liberally during formal and informal discussions, but it is never sarcastic, put-down humor and rarely ironical. Rather, it tends to be silly, light-hearted, irreverent, and congenial; it adds an element of fun to the discussion that puts people at ease and keeps the tone of discussion friendly. Actually, John’s skill in the use of humor set the tone for its use from the beginning.
Navigator: What sorts of topics are discussed at NIF, and what have been some of the most popular topics?
Enright: Well, we’ve discussed the foundations of mathematics, the nature of beauty, hypnosis, Montessori education, and poetry, to name a few topics. But we especially like controversial topics. In preparation for this interview, I asked the group to recall some outstanding lectures and a few of those mentioned were: “The Ethics of Rational Risk,” “Children’s Rights,” “The Logic of Rhetoric,” “The Literary Art of Atlas Shrugged,” “Deontological and Consequentialist Ethics,” “The Right to Privacy,” and “A Rugged Challenge for Unrugged Individualism.” Of course, that’s a very partial list.
Navigator: Does the Forum insist that talks be accessible to those unfamiliar with the subject? Or would it allow a speaker to focus on a topic that is principally of interest to, say, professional philosophers?
Enright: We encourage presenters to frame their talks in a way accessible to the intelligent Objectivist layman, but no, we have no special restrictions and we have in fact had discussions principally of interest to professional philosophers. We’ve been told that the typically high level of discussion is intimidating to some people, especially those new to the philosophy. But the respectful and friendly way everyone is treated counterbalances that. And the level of a topic, quite frankly, does not greatly affect the number of people who attend, because they’re a lively bunch, always willing to learn something new. However, if people find the discussion completely beyond them, there is a chance to seek out other fare. After the formal presentation or discussion, we break for refreshments and members may or may not return to the principal discussion. They may remain in another room to discuss other matters of interest with those who wish to remain there too.
Navigator: Is there a formal or informal framework of belief that attendees are expected to have? Specifically, is Objectivism presumed to be the standard of discussion?
Enright: Yes. Objectivism’s basic principles are the taking-off point and the standard for our discussions. At the same time, we have gotten into some lengthy discussions of Objectivism’s ideas, and we frequently bring up and think over Ayn Rand’s fundamental premises to see whether they accurately conceptualize the issue at hand. But people are not coming in order to challenge Objectivism across the board.
Navigator: Many people have difficulty speaking in public. What percentage of the regular membership, would you estimate, has given a talk? And does the Forum ever invite nonmembers to speak?
Enright: Unfortunately, it’s true that people are reluctant to speak in public. As a result only about one-quarter of our members have been presenters. Nevertheless, we rely on volunteers for future presentations and we rarely have trouble filling future spots.
A practice I have developed helps find and encourage people to lead a session: When I hear people talking enthusiastically about a subject or issue, I suggest it would make a good topic; when they say they don’t know enough to give a talk, I urge them just to lead the discussion with a few questions.
We rarely use speakers outside the membership, although we’ve had David Kelley, Bob Bidinotto, Murray Franck, and Dario Fernandez-Morera come to talk. And we don’t rely on audiotapes or videotapes. We may discuss tapes that most of us have heard or seen prior to the evening. But our members really seem to enjoy the live give-and-take with each other, which is also one of the reasons they seem to prefer short talks.
Navigator: What would you say to people who are interested in starting a group but do not feel confident about lecturing on Objectivism?
Enright: That they don’t need to! People are more interested in discussing issues than in hearing someone else talk. In fact, we have found that, as often as not, a meeting that begins with someone’s posing a few questions will end up being among the more interesting.
Navigator: You’ve said Forum discussions have a moderator to keep things on track. Is this just to keep the group from wandering? Or does it include curbing someone who brings an obsession to the topic?
Enright: Well, I usually function as the moderator, so let me speak from that perspective. I do try to keep things on topic. But I don’t wield a gavel, and at times the discussion has wandered pretty far: I try to judge audience interest in the wandering by the amount of participation.
As for the second part of your question: We have never really had a problem with such people dominating our discussions, for several reasons. In the beginning, membership was by invitation only and thus we were able to weed out those not seriously interested in Objectivism. Secondly, if someone brings up issues or points of view too far afield from the discussion, for whatever reason, they are politely asked to defer their points until later, and they may take them up at the end of the formal presentation, or privately with those who wish. The judgment of the moderator, both ideologically and socially, is very important in this respect.
Navigator: Let’s talk about your membership if we may. How large is it and how can it be characterized?
Enright: The mailing list has fifty names. About ten people have been attending for ten years, and another ten have been with us for five years. The remainder are relatively new. The membership is about two-to-one male; 25 percent married or “attached,” many never married, some divorced. Many are serious intellectuals and pursue ideas as a major avocation, though they are also serious about using the ideas. But many members are very bright people who do little philosophical reading or writing, yet want to know how to employ the ideas in their lives. The discussions give both groups a lot to chew on.
Navigator: How do you find the names of potential new members, and how do you recruit them?
Enright: The first members were people I met at COPO; later on, regular members began inviting friends and acquaintances. At that stage, we got two or three new people a year. But about three years ago, our member Timothy Shell created a Web site and it has been our most effective means of recruiting new people. It offers information and pictures, a message center, and a link to the IOS Web site, among other things. I get several inquiries a month from the site and, since its inception, we’ve been adding seven to ten members a year.
As for turning new people into regulars: They come to us eager to find others with an interest in Rand’s ideas, and a friendly forum in which to discuss them. We give them such a forum. Newcomers are welcomed and are introduced to the other participants, invited to partake freely of the food and drink, and included in the discussion. Someone engages new people in conversation and makes them feel included. After participating in a few meetings, newcomers are asked whether they would like to give a presentation themselves. In all, I’d say that 25 percent of the people who attend in a year are new members, and, of them, half become regulars.
Navigator: Do you have a problem with drop-outs?
Enright: Not really. About two or three people leave every year, usually due to moving or life changes, such as the birth of a child. Very few people quit the club over ideological disagreements, even though we regularly have in-depth philosophical discussions.
Navigator: Doubtless there is more to running a salon than scheduling a series of lectures, so let’s discuss what it takes to make such an organization go. How many members would you say a club must have to start; and how do you retain new members?
Enright: If the people are intellectually serious and interested, I don’t think you need a minimum number. And as for retaining new members: Our experience shows that the most effective way is to offer lively, interesting, and reasonable discussions, held in a friendly atmosphere.
Navigator: What are some of the practical tasks that people must keep in mind when starting a group?
Enright: Well, running the group is not cost-free, so we charge members an annual fee of $20 per individual, $30 per couple, which covers mailing and refreshment costs, such as hot and cold soft drinks and paper goods.
Then you need a place to meet. For more than half of the past ten years, the meetings were usually held at Lynn and Richard Latimer’s house. Their generosity in offering the use of their home and Lynn’s graciousness as a hostess and her skill as a decorative artist created a lovely and special setting for our meetings, which I believe fostered conviviality. In recent years, the meetings have mostly been at my house because Lynn has been busy taking care of her elderly parents. You also have to decide on a time: We find that meeting on a Saturday night allows the members to stay as late as they (or the host) would like, and that this facilitates many more possible discussions and many more opportunities for people to get to know one another.
And then you have to keep people informed about forthcoming meetings. I have maintained a mailing list and been a center for information. Every month, I send out notices specifying the restaurant, times, meeting place, topic, and other items of importance and interest.
Navigator: Some groups meet at restaurants, so that no one has to be talked into hosting the event. What is your experience with public meeting places?
Enright: We think that meeting at a home rather than a restaurant is a crucial element. The home is less formal and more comfortable. The several rooms in a home allow participants to mingle more freely than in other settings. If a participant becomes bored or unable to follow the discussion, he or she can quietly and gracefully leave the room and retire to the refreshment table for a rest or to mix with other group members, thereby keeping all entertained without disrupting the main discussion. Finally, meeting at a home keeps the costs down for students and others on a budget.
Navigator: How many “key” people does a club need and how can it persuade people to take up the main chores?
Enright: We haven’t really faced this problem, because I have done a good deal of the organizing over the years, with major help from Lynn Latimer and others off and on. But I do think you need at least one person who has an executive bent, that is, someone who can figure out what needs to be done, how to organize people and ask them to do things, and can follow through-someone who is regularly going to get the jobs done: sending out notices, recruiting presenters, and so forth. It has to be someone for whom these activities come easily, because running the club is “extracurricular.” Of course, the club could try to parcel out parts of the task to a number of people: however, that arrangement would probably still need a person to oversee it, unless the people were particularly good at coordination. For many years when my children were young, I sent out the notices and arranged for the speakers, but the meetings were usually held at the Latimers’ house.
How to retain such people? On the one hand, a good club is its own reward, especially for people who really enjoy the company of others with similar interests and a taste for discussion. Knowing that others are getting a lot out of what you’re doing can be inspiring, too. Still, it’s important for the other members to be supportive of the executive’s and hostess’s efforts: volunteering to help with problems, working for and at the meetings, and expressing their pleasure and gratitude for the work done by the organizers. Our club has given presents and plaques of appreciation to the hostesses and organizers.
Navigator: If your group needed to convince members to take on some major roles, what would you mention to demonstrate “It’s worth it”?
Enright: I would rely on their own experience. That is, I would just go and ask people who I know really value the club, assuming they were also people who had the talents needed for the particular roles. Perhaps I would need to explain to them why I was asking them to do something, or give them some advice about how to get the job done—but their own enjoyment of the club would be the most persuasive argument possible.
However, to start a club and make it run successfully, you need at least one person who thinks such an endeavor will be valuable, and who can create the right atmosphere: Only after that is done will participants be convinced by experience. One thing I’m attempting to do with this interview is to communicate how enjoyable and successful a club can be, to people who have not yet had the experience. Anyone in search of more information can reach me at 773-233-8684 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit our Web site athttp://www.bomis.com/nif.
Navigator: Have you seen signs of an Objectivist community emerging from the Forum?
Enright: Absolutely! Many participants go on to become close personal friends. In fact, the friendships, networking, and encouragement that we have afforded to each other over the years have been quite energizing to our members. The journal Objectivity was born from these relationships, and many members have turned their NIF presentations into articles or lectures at the IOS summer seminar. I believe Objectivists need a lot more organizations like NIF to serve their social and emotional as well as intellectual needs. In the long run, this kind of activity will expand the presence of Objectivism in the culture.
Navigator: At the 1997 IOS Summer Seminar, Bob Bidinotto spoke about what Objectivism can learn from religion. Are there holiday-like occasions that the Forum celebrates regularly? If so, what are they?
Enright: We have parties at least twice a year: an anniversary barbecue or picnic, which is usually held close to the Fourth of July—although last year we had our anniversary party in the fall, at Montrose harbor on Lake Michigan, where we had a gorgeous view of downtown Chicago. The other event is a Christmas party (or Solstice Supper to those who really detest religion). There, we play a delightful present-guessing game that teaches the members a lot about each other. I would be happy to explain the game to anyone who is interested.
Navigator: By way of closing: What would you say to those thinking of starting a club?
Enright: I have eagerly looked forward to the Forum’s get-togethers every month for the last ten years: the presentations have ranged from at least interesting to fascinating, usually full of delightful information, and the discussions have been invariably stimulating. It has been an opportunity to stretch my intellectual muscles once a month. It’s a great place to learn about other, utterly unique points of view and have my mind changed-for the better. So, my comment to Navigator’s readers: If you want something like this in your life, make it!
This interview was conducted for Navigator by IOS editorial director Roger Donway. All photos courtesy of Marsha Enright.