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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.
It’s been a year since Stephen Moore’s article, “Atlas Shrugged: from Fiction to Fact in 52 Years,”seemed to ignite an explosion of interest in Ayn Rand. Sales of this prescient novel tripled; two Rand biographies have been selling like hotcakes; and references to her in the media have skyrocketed.
Yet, some free-market defenders continue to repudiate her and her ideas, as they have for decades. It used to be conservatives such as William F. Buckley of National Review trashing “Atlas Shrugged;” now the critics include libertarians, such as Heather Wilhelm of the Illinois Public Policy Institute, who penned “Is Ayn Rand Bad for the Market?”.
But in their rush to distance themselves from Rand, they succumb to a deadly philosophic trap. It results from their anxious desire to apologize for the individualistic, self-interested motives that actually drive free markets. This anxiety prompts them to defend capitalism on the opposite premise: that capitalism is good only because it is “other-directed”—i.e., that it grants certain groups, such as the poor, opportunities to acquire wealth and power.
Over the decades, this has led such apologists to launch unpersuasive and futile crusades, such as “compassionate conservatism” and “bleeding-heart libertarianism,” which are not defenses of capitalism, but embodiments of its opposite. For example, conservatives and some libertarians plunged headlong into the moral and logical pitfalls of collectivism when, led by “compassionate conservative” Republican president George W. Bush, they created Medicare Part D, then the biggest-ever addition to welfare entitlements.
Likewise, Wilhelm summed up what too many on the right think, when she writes that free markets are best “sold” on the premise that, above all else, they help society’s neediest. She adds that “Rand’s insistence on the folly of altruism, however, tends to overshadow and even invalidate this message.”
You bet it does—and with good reason. That’s because no one can defend capitalism and free markets logically and consistently without a moral validation of enlightened self-interest as the highest good.
After all, the left didn’t rise to power because they had facts and rational arguments on their side. The empirical case for the superiority of capitalism in bringing a better life to the poor is overwhelming, whether we compare Chile to Cuba, Hong Kong to communist China, or the fully communist China of the past to itself today. So, one has to ask: Why haven’t these arguments won over all those who claim to want to help the poor?
The answer is that the left’s ascendance to power wasn’t driven by economic fact but by a moral vision thinly covered with economic claims. This vision was accepted by millions only because of the moral philosophy of self-sacrifice that dominates our culture.
That morality claims that the highest good for each individual is to live for the sake of others—for society or the collective. Ultimately, it implies that each of us is a moral slave to someone else. Whether it’s Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” or Hitler’s admonition to live for the German Volk, or Pol Pot’s belief that “since he [the individual] is of no use anymore, there is no gain if he lives and no loss if he dies,” the morality of self-sacrifice kills liberty because it subordinates the individual’s life to the group.
This is the morality that brought us the carnage of the 20th century.
The arguments of “compassionate” libertarians and “bleeding-heart” conservatives do nothing to challenge this ethic. They merely try to slip capitalism in under the tent of collectivist moral philosophy, telling everybody, in effect: “Don’t worry; even though sinful, individualistic self-interest drives capitalism, it is good because it can be harnessed to serve groups, such as the poor.”
In other words, these would-be defenders of capitalism merely “me-too” the collectivist moral claim that our primary ethical responsibility should be the welfare of other people. In this view, they march lockstep with those on the left who revile individualism and capitalism as being anti-poor, anti-caring.
Their view couldn’t be further from the truth. Free-market capitalism arises from a social vision that cares about the smallest minority of all: the individual. That vision recognizes the moral superiority of the right of the individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—the very vision identified by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and fought for by the Founding Fathers.
What is this right, if not the right of each person to pursue his or her own highest self-interest? Remember, the slogan of the American Revolution was “Don’t tread on me.”
Yet, that “selfish” American Revolution established a social system that created the most productive nation the world has ever seen, with the highest level and broadest distribution of wealth. It was a system based on individual rights, limited government, and equal justice under the law, in which everyone could keep and enjoy the fruits of his or her own efforts.
This system was fair because it gave each person the equal opportunity—and the pride-enhancing challenge—to make the most of his or her life, poor and rich alike. In fact, only a capitalist society can truly serve the interests of the poor and the disadvantaged, as well as the rich and the capable, because it is at root based on justice for the individual. And justice for the individual is justice for all.
This is what makes capitalism morally superior to collectivism.
Ironically, given the prevailing presumptions about self-interest, capitalist societies such as the U.S. are also the most charitable. Our individualistic system created a nation of magnanimity due to our unimpeded productivity, overflowing abundance, and benevolent sympathy for other individuals struggling for their own lives, liberty, and happiness.
It’s amazing that in all their talk of Rand’s “harsh message” and “confrontational language,” many free-market defenders haven’t asked themselves why her writings have inspired millions to become advocates of capitalism. They don’t understand that she completes the 18th century vision of the American Revolution by presenting a morality that fully justifies capitalism and individual freedom.
Rand’s morality of rational, enlightened self-interest defends the individual’s right to his own life, the power of his own liberty, and the glory of his pursuit of his own happiness. She said: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive work as his noblest achievement, and reason as his only absolute.” Her message—that “man’s proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads”—is a message of the glory of the individual, unshackled and free.
We urgently need Rand’s vision of the moral nobility and greatness of a social system based on enlightened self-interest if we, the 21st century advocates of freedom, are to finally free the world from the death grip of collectivism. And that is a vision we must defend with “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Marsha Familaro Enright is president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the Foundation for the College of the United States. Gen LaGreca is the author of Noble Vision, an award-winning novel about the struggle for liberty in health care today.
Copyright © 2010 by Marsha Familaro Enright and Gen LaGreca. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the authors and inclusion of their byline.
Originally published at:
College students today face an ideological onslaught from educators who are more concerned with creating “good citizens” than teaching them real knowledge. And it’s time for a new approach.
I’m running a program for high school and college students this summer because of a first grade perplexity — and Ayn Rand.
When I was kid in the late 1950s, I looked forward to the exciting new things I was learning every day at school. I was amused at the class clown, Mike, who nearly gave our teacher a heart attack by putting fake ink on her grade book. But I was also annoyed by his antics, and by the distractions of students who talked out of order, threw paper airplanes, and noisily dropped pencils while we were studying.
Why didn’t they find the challenge of learning as riveting as I did?
Slowly, it dawned on me that they were not happy in school. It bored them, or made them feel frustrated, or belittled. Lashing out at others was a consequence, and I was a frequent victim, with humiliating names thrown in as a bonus.
I vowed that none of this would happen to my children. I wanted to ensure their days were filled with the joy of learning, not the dread of school. This set me on a quest to find a different form of education.
Years later I came across Beatrice Hessen’s articles “The Montessori Method” in The Objectivist. Wow, this seemed like the educational method for me! It individualized learning, followed the child’s psychological development, and provided a peaceful, respectful, and orderly environment in which the child could exercise his or her abilities and choices while learning — a great way to learn how to live in a free society.
But I needed more proof than a few articles — and I got it in dozens of books by Maria Montessori in which she described her scientific approach and its results. I followed this with dozens of first-hand observations in Montessori classrooms all over the country and abroad. I also founded Council Oak Montessori School in 1990 which runs to eighth grade, where my own children flourished.
In the meantime, I was worrying about college. Back in the ’70s I attended Northwestern University where my organic chemistry classes were interrupted regularly by Vietnam War protesters. It made no sense to me — how was taking over a class in the Krebs cycle going to stop the war? Then I read Ayn Rand’s “The Anti-industrial Revolution” and understood the collectivist philosophy and anti-mind tactics behind the New Left.
Her article about Progressive education in lower schools, “The Comprachicos,” proved just as revelatory. Today, we’re seeing the consequences of 40 years in which the Progressive Left’s collectivist emphasis on socialization over mastery of knowledge has left many elementary school students ignorant and deficient in learning skills.
And it gets worse. The 1970s leaders of the New Left who destroyed property and bombed government buildings, such as Bill Ayers, are now influential intellectuals shaping the minds of the young. Ayers is celebrated as “Senior Professor of Education and University Scholar” at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He and many like him are in charge of teacher training programs all over the nation. They’ve transformed the national teacher accrediting agencies into nurseries of the New Left by requiring study of such works as Paolo Freire’s political tract, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, at most teacher education programs.
By Freire’s theory, schooling is not the conveyance of objective knowledge through the development of rational, individual thought. Rather, it is always a political process, subjectively biased to the benefit of those in power. Teachers are urged to develop, not reason, but “critical thinking” skills, i.e. critical of Western civilization. Classic books such as John Locke’s or Adam Smith’s mold students to submit to an oppressive, capitalist society, in this view. Freire and his cohorts had a different power structure in mind — represented most notably by a society he admired, Maoist China.
However, collectivist indoctrination is not limited to education schools. The dominant collectivist left professoriate dismisses great works of Western civilization as the product of the white elite. The consequence: research by The Association of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) finds that many college graduates in 2009 know less than high school graduates 50 years ago.
Knowledge of American history and civics is frighteningly depleted. Studies by the University of Connecticut Department of Public Policy found that 81% of seniors from the top 55 colleges failed a high school U.S. history exam. For example, over one-third could not identify the Constitution as establishing the separation of powers in our government. Thirty-seven percent thought Ulysses S. Grant was the general at the battle of Yorktown.
These are students at colleges ranked “best” by U.S. News & World Report.
If that’s not bad enough, consider what’s happening to free speech on campus. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) litigates many campus restrictions on free speech. But did you know that FIRE is fighting a battle against Purdue University which literally revolves around judging a book by its cover?
A student employee, Kenneth Sampson, was found guilty of racial harassment because he offended another student by reading Notre Dame vs the Klan: How the fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan. The cover shows a Klan hanging, and that was enough for a university administrator to reprimand Sampson. No matter that the book, in fact, is written as an indictment of the Klan!
Not surprisingly, for decades Ayn Rand’s books have been excluded from the curriculum at most colleges and universities, despite the fact that they are some of the best-selling and most enduring works of the 20th Century. Many academicians belittle her literary and philosophical value — while cartoons are studied in UCLA literature classes and feminist authors of every collectivist stripe are lauded in the Ivy League. Her academic critics don’t usually present “arguments,” so much as misrepresentations of her views, or fallacious ad hominen andad majorum attacks.
What does this imply? When people find it necessary to call names instead of make rational arguments, they’re often afraid of the ideas they are confronting. And no wonder: when readers apply reason and facts, her philosophy of reason, individualism, capitalism, and heroic achievement wins many of their minds and hearts and inoculates them against collectivist indoctrination.
Don’t Ayn Rand and Henry Hazlitt deserve to be included in the curriculum, along with Marx and Engels? Shouldn’t Ludwig von Mises be taught beside John Maynard Keynes? Only then will students fully understand the world around them and how it got that way. Only then will they have a real choice of ideas.
I’m convinced it’s time to offer an alternative to balance the current direction of higher education. For this purpose, I have been working with an accomplished group of trustees and advisors to establish a new college, the College of the United States. Of course one doesn’t start a new college overnight. Which brings me to why I’m running a seminar for high school and college students this summer.
Students need mental ammunition to withstand the ideological onslaught at college. They need to learn the great ideas which have formed our remarkable civilization. This means studying the classics along with modern science. This means developing students’ objective reasoning skills to counterbalance the classes in politicized “critical thinking.”
This coming July, we’ve planned a week-long introduction to our College program that will be both a live demonstration of our approach, and a way of giving students the tools and skills they will need, regardless of which college they attend.
And that’s how my perplexity in grade school led me to a seminar this summer.
“I came here with no friends, an old typewriter, and look what I achieved. It would have been impossible to achieve this in England.”
So said James Clavell, an Australian immigrant to America who learned the fundamentals of the American outlook on life in a horrific Japanese prisoner of war camp. In over four decades as a novelist, screenwriter, poet, playwright, director, and producer, Clavell added one lushly romantic, gripping story after another to his accomplishments. What’s even more surprising in this day and age, his heroes were often businessmen.
An English-educated Aussie, Clavell was born in 1924 as Charles Edmund DuMaresq de Clavelle. He became a captain with the British Royal Artillery in Southeast Asia during World War II. This position landed Clavell at the infamous Changi Japanese prisoner of war camp near Singapore for half of World War II, where he “collected material” for what would become his first novel, King Rat (1962).
Clavell had planned to be a Naval officer, like his ancestors going back at least to John Clavelle who fought at Trafalgar. But a motorcycle accident left him with a limp and out of the navy. After a stint as a salesman, he wrote a TV pilot that brought him to the U.S. in 1953, and launched a long career in the movie industry. His first screenplay was the 1958 version of The Fly. Watusi followed, along with Five Gates to Hell, which Clavell wrote, directed, and produced.
His remarkable range as a writer-director first revealed itself with Sidney Poitier’s 1967 film hit To Sir, With Love (also made into a TV movie in 1974). The Poitier film was nominated for three major awards, including the Directors Guild of America’s Outstanding Directorial Achievement. He penned the screenplay for The Great Escape, a factually based movie of Allied prisoners’ daring plans to get out of a Nazi prisoner of war camp, which starred Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, David McCallum, and Charles Bronson. Clavell’s script was nominated for the Writers Guild of America’s award for Best Written American Drama in 1968.
Clavell finally won an award, a 1981 Emmy, for his TV mini-series Shogun. (I remember being so excited about seeing it that I ran out and bought my first color TV!) A later novel,Noble House, also was made into a mini-series starring Pierce Brosnan and Tia Carrera, along with many notables like Denholm Elliott and John Houseman.
But Clavell remains best known for his work as a novelist, which began during a Hollywood writer’s strike in the early 1960s. Almost twenty years after his release from Changi, he had just started talking about his experience when his wife said, “Why don’t you write a novel about it?” Unsure how to write novels, he seized upon Othello’s resentful, envious Iago as an inspiration, and King Rat’s first line spilled out. “‘I’m going to get that bloody bastard.’ And so, once I started, it came out in a tremendous rush.”
King Rat (1962)
In a 1986 interview, Clavell said that his experience in Changi was “as close as you can get to being dead and still be alive.” King Rat recounts life—so to speak—in this place between life and death:
- Changi was set like a pearl on the eastern tip of Singapore Island, iridescent under the bowl of tropical skies…[C]loser, Changi lost its beauty and became what it was—an obscene forbidding prison…[N]ow, in the cells and in the passageways and in every nook and cranny lived some eight thousand men… These men too were criminals. Their crime was vast. They had lost a war. And they had lived.
As are all his later books, King Rat is excellently plotted and highly suspenseful, its characters sharply and colorfully drawn, the details exact and realistic. What makes it singularly fascinating is Clavell’s picture of how different men faced this gruesome experience.
Clavell vividly depicts the squalid conditions and brutal treatment meted out by the Japanese. Preserving their dignity and refusing to be cowed by their captors are the British officers’ primary motives—in the face of awful enfeeblement from chronic dysentery, malaria, and a host of other ailments. Repeated conflicts between the Allied soldiers and their Japanese keepers, resulting in incomprehensible prisoner punishments, dramatize the clash between Anglo and Japanese values.
Also, through Peter Marlowe, a British flight lieutenant and stand-in for Clavell, the author explores British discomfort with the American entrepreneurial spirit, embodied by the book’s title character, Corporal King:
- They always shared what they could find or steal or make. Max and Dino were a unit. And it was the same throughout the world of Changi. Men ate and trusted in units. Twos, threes, rarely fours. One man could never cover enough ground, or find something and build a fire and cook it and eat it—not by himself….Only by mutual effort did you survive. To withhold from the unit was fatal, for if you were expelled from a unit, the word got around. And it was impossible to survive alone. But the King didn’t have a unit. He was sufficient unto himself.
Marlowe comes from a purely military English family. He knows almost nothing about trade and business; his life has revolved around duty and honor. So he finds “the King” fascinating. He’s not sure what to make of the American’s expert trading with the Korean guards and Chinese suppliers, offering Mount Blanc pens and diamond rings in exchange for the food, clothes, and medicine the prisoners desperately need. Without envy, but with growing wonder, he tries to understand King’s outlook and learn from it.
Is his wheeling and dealing in this “lifeboat” situation taking unfair advantage of the others? Or is King a life-saver, able to motivate others and cleverly acquire what they all need to survive? Is it wrong that he believes in making a profit in the process?
While Marlowe ponders the King’s ethics, he comes to respect the man’s ability to seize opportunities and make things happen while everyone else struggles on the edge of survival. “‘Damned if I know how you do it,’ Peter Marlowe said. ‘You work so fast.’ The King replied: ‘You got something to do and you do it. That’s the American style.’”
For his part, the King recognizes Marlowe’s difference from the first moment. “His face was craggy, and though he was Changi-thin, there was a grace to his movements and a sparkle about him…[The King] listened to the rich laugh and knew it was a rare thing. When this man was laughing, you could see that the laugh came from inside. This was very rare. Priceless.”
By contrast, Lieutenant Robin Grey, provost marshal of Changi, despises Corporal King, the American who somehow manages to be healthy, well-fed, and clothed while everyone around him can barely hang on: “‘I’m going to get that bloody bastard if I die in the attempt.’ Lieutenant Grey was glad that at last he had spoken aloud what had so long been twisting his guts into a knot.”
“Nobody gives me nothing,” King objects. “What I have is mine and I made it.” But Grey dogs the King incessantly, with bilious hatred for his rule-bending and his overflowing vitality—hoping, planning, scheming to catch him breaking this rule or that, so he can throw King in the Japanese jail and see him rot.
Unsurprisingly, Grey hates Marlowe as well. Coming from the lower classes, Grey personifies English class envy and social ambition, mistaking Marlowe’s self-confidence for mere upper class snobbery, yet secretly, jealously wishing to be like him. For his part, Marlowe despises the small-minded, vindictive, and senselessly bureaucratic Grey. “You’re such a goddam snob, Grey, when it comes down to it…[The Americans] think that one man’s as good as another.”
King Rat was made into a 1965 movie starring George Segal as Corporal King and James Fox as Peter Marlowe.
Clavell followed King Rat with his blockbuster Tai Pan (1966), the next in his “Asian Saga.” That series included Shogun (1975), Noble House (1981), Whirlwind (1986), and Gai-Jin(1993). I also found a book called Escape, which appears to be the love story from Whirlwindas a stand-alone novel. Before he died in 1994, Clavell wrote two children’s books, The Children’s Story (1981) and Thrump-o-Moto (1986).
Except for the children’s stories and King Rat, these are all enormous novels, most over 1,000 pages long, and offering heaps of factual detail about the countries and cultures in which they are set. To achieve that level of accuracy, Clavell spent about a year researching each, reading histories and sociological accounts, and living in the settings. Many of his main characters are based on real people. The reader rips through Clavell’s stories, yet comes away educated and interested in knowing more about the cultures he reveals.
“I write short stories, they may appear big in size, but they’re four or five novels in one,” he explained. “In return for picking up one of my books, I’m trying to give [readers] value for their money. The goal of writing any novel is creating the illusion that you are reading reality and you are part of it.”
Tai-Pan follows the adventures of the British merchant Dirk Struan during the establishment of Hong Kong as a British Colony in 1841. By means of a blockade and other, more devious means, envious Chinese rulers had effectively curtailed the vast fortunes that British companies, using swift sailing ships, were amassing in China by trading Indian-raised opium. Inventively, the merchants enlist the British government and military to establish the empty, swampy, pestilent island of Hong Kong as British soil and a free trade port.
- As Struan walked along the main deck [of the 74-gun ship Vengeance], he glanced at the shore and excitement swarmed over him. The war with China had gone as he had planned…the prize—the island—was something he had coveted for twenty years. And now he was going ashore to witness the formality of taking possession, to watch a Chinese island become a jewel in the crown of Her Britannic Majesty, Queen Victoria…Hong Kong contained the greatest harbor on earth. And it was Struan’s stepping-stone into China….
Against the machinations of his life-time rival, Tyler Brock, Struan struggles to develop his business into the greatest trading company in the East. “In a company or army or fleet or nation there is only one such man—he who wields the real power…[Struan] was Tai-Pan of The Noble House.” “Tai-Pan” means “Supreme Leader,” and The Noble House is based on a real firm, Jardine-Matheson Holdings Limited, a multinational company based in Bermuda.
Struan not only navigates the South China Seas but the alien culture and cut-throat trading habits of the Chinese. Through him, his Chinese lover May-May, and their son Gordon Chen, the reader’s understanding of China and its relation to the West grows.
Clavell developed a fascination for the East, especially Japan, through his experience at Changi. Apparently, his family’s military background enabled him to respect the Japanese Samurai outlook and what some consider the ultimate warrior philosophy of Bushido, in which honor and duty reign supreme.
In Shogun, based on the real adventures of British navigator Will Adams, Dutch sailors searching for new trading opportunities and riches find themselves shipwrecked and then held captive in a small village on the main island of Japan. The sailors are squirreled away with low-caste prostitutes, remaining as filthy and vulgar as ever—all except the ship’s pilot, John Blackthorne, or “Anjin-san” as the Japanese call him. He is taken in by the Kasigi Samurai clan, where he begins his education in Japanese culture and values.
From the first, the Japanese are impressed by his moxie. Blackthorne is introduced to Yabu,daimyo or feudal lord of the region. An antagonistic Portuguese priest, Father Sebastio, translates while Blackthorne considers the situation:
- Look, the Jesuit’s very deferential and sweating a lot. I’ll bet the daimyo’s not a Catholic…you’ll get no quarter from him!
“The daimyo says hurry up and answer his questions” [said the priest].
“Yes. Of course, I’m sorry. My name’s John Blackthorne. I’m English, Pilot-Major of a Netherlands fleet.”
“Fleet? What fleet? You’re lying. There’s no fleet. Why is an Englishman pilot of a Dutch ship?”
Blackthorne decided to gamble. His voice abruptly hardened and it cut through the morning warmth. “Que va! First translate what I said, Spaniard! Now!”
The priest flushed. “I’m Portuguese. I’ve told you before. Answer the question.”
“I’m here to talk to the daimyo, not to you. Translate what I said, you motherless offal!” Blackthorne saw the priest redden even more and felt that this had not gone unnoticed by the daimyo. Be cautious, he warned himself. That yellow bastard will carve you into pieces quicker than a school of sharks if you overreach yourself.
“Tell the lord daimyo!” Blackthorne deliberately bowed low to the platform and felt the chill sweat beginning to pearl as he committed himself irrevocably to his course of action.
Unbeknownst to the Anjin-San, he is caught up in the epic conflict of rival Samurai clans which resulted in the domination of Japan by the Tokugawa Shogunate for centuries. The novel’s Toranaga is a thinly veiled, romanticized version of the real samurai Tokugawa, whose Shogunate remained in control from 1603 to the Meiji Restoration in 1865. As in all Clavell novels except for King Rat, a powerful, beautiful, brilliant love interest deeply figures in the plot. In this case, it is Mariko, a high-born Samurai lady turned Christian who interprets the Anjin-San’s speech while she captures his heart. In addition to valuing her translating skills, Toranaga finds her useful for her deep strategic wisdom, integrity, and bravery as well.
I came across Shogun after having made a brief study of Japan by reading such sociological classics as Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture and Arthur Koestler’s The Lotus and the Robot. Shogun helped me understand far more about Japanese culture and values than anything I’ve read before or since. Not only does Clavell jam-pack his novels with information, he is an unusually clever teacher, as well.
During the first part of the book, I thought the main hero was the Anjin-San. Only about half-way through did I realize that Clavell had educated me about Japanese values through the eyes of the Anjin-San so that I could understand and appreciate Toranaga. For example, in one of the first scenes, Blackthorne encounters the violently bizarre ways of the Japanese when Omi-san, the samurai in charge of the village, interviews him. A Jesuit priest interprets:
- “Wakarimasu ka?” Omi said directly to Blackthorne.
“He says, ‘Do you understand?’”
“What’s ‘yes’ in Japanese?”
Father Sebastio said to the samurai, “Wakarimasu.”
Omi disdainfully waved them away. They all bowed low. Except one man who rose deliberately, without bowing.
With blinding speed the killing sword made a hissing silver arc and the man’s head toppled off his shoulders and a fountain of blood sprayed the earth. The body rippled a few times and was still. Involuntarily, the priest had backed off a pace. No one else in the street moved a muscle. Their heads remained low and motionless. Blackthorne was rigid, in shock.
Omi put his foot carelessly on the corpse.
“Ikinasai!” he said, motioning them away.
The men in front of him bowed again, to the earth. Then they got up and went away impassively.
By page five hundred, I understood Omi-san’s motives implicitly. When I finally “met” Lord Toranaga, the central hero of the book, I could sympathize with him instead of despising him. Had I been introduced to him in the beginning, I think I would have been revolted by his actions rather than appreciate his integrity to his own code of values.
I was so swept up in the tale, which I often read while commuting to and from Manhattan, that I frequently found myself muttering Japanese words on the Penn Station platform. And I haven’t been alone. In the Sunday New York Times Book Review section, a writer said:
- Shogun is irresistible…I can’t remember when a novel has seized my mind like this one…It’s almost impossible not to continue to read Shogun once having opened it. Yet it is not only something that you read—you live it…possessed by the Englishman Blackthorne, the Japanese lord Toranaga and medieval Japan…People, customs, settings, needs and desires all become so enveloping you forget who and where you are.
Noble House (1981)
While his other novels dramatize the clash between authoritarian cultures and individualist, Anglo-world heroes, Noble House most directly depicts the conflict between individualism and collectivism. The madly raucous markets and remarkable culture of Hong Kong’s unfettered capitalism during the 1960s contrasts sharply with the devious, totalitarian world of the Red Chinese and ruthless Soviet spies. A rush on gold, a wildly swinging, unregulated stock market, and opportunities galore abound for Ian Dunross, the sharp trader-descendant of Dirk Struan (depicted in Tai Pan)—as well as for people at every level of Hong Kong society, from cleaning ladies to jockeys and military officers.
“Dunross juggles international concerns for profit and protects free enterprise from the Soviets and the British Labour Party,” literary analyst Gina MacDonald summarizes. “He supports dependents, friends, and relatives, assures ‘Old Friends’ status with the mainland Chinese, and fulfills obligations assumed by Noble House a century before.”
Not only relatives from previous stories, but even Peter Marlowe and Robin Grey from King Rat return as substantial characters. Clavell also introduces formidable American entrepreneurs Linc Bartlett and gorgeous Casey Tcholok, who figure in Dunross’s struggle against perennial rival Tyler Brock, descendant of the original Noble House nemesis.
Of the thirty intricate plotlines in Noble House, one leads to Whirlwind, Clavell’s novel of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Descendants of Dirk Struan are once again at the center of the strife as they desperately work to protect the people and property of their branch of the Noble House, S-G Helicopters, which services the oil fields. Simultaneously, trading descendants of Shogun’s Toranaga strive to gain oil and gas concessions in the Persian Gulf. “Whirlwind” is the code name for S-G’s escape plan, taken from “whirlybird,” English slang for helicopters.
Whirlwind can deeply educate the reader about world events as much today as it did after the Iranian Revolution. However, where Japanese and Chinese readers were astounded at how accurately and positively Clavell portrayed their cultures, Clavell was not able to make the culture, values, and Islamic mind-set of Iran as comprehensible and sympathetic.
Regardless, it is still a worthwhile tale and garnered Clavell a $5 million dollar fee, selling four million copies in the U.S. alone. As in all his novels, Clavell expertly creates a complex, multi-layered plot, combining action, romance, heroism, brutality, tumultuous historical events, and a great descriptive style—all in the great tradition of the nineteenth-century romantic novel.
Clavell brings together elements of Shogun and Tai Pan, as well as King Rat, in his last novel.
Gai-Jin opens in 1862 with the shocking attack on a group of Europeans by zealous ronin—rogue, clanless, displaced Samurai—near the European settlement in Yokohama. The roninoppose the massive social change wrought by Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan to the West in 1854, and fanatically uphold the static, highly structured society of the previous 300 years. They seek to expel the detested “gai-jin”—foreigners.
Malcolm Struan, heir to the Noble House, struggles to keep his leadership while steering his company on a treacherous but exciting voyage through Japanese society. He strives to take advantage of the enormous trade opportunities between Hong Kong, China, Japan, and the West. Ultimately, his fate rests in the hands of a beautiful young French woman, Angelique Richaud.
Amidst terrorism, espionage, romance, and trade, Gai-Jin depicts the Japanese quandary at encountering Western culture. Since the Japanese had long believed themselves descended from the Sun god, and the highest culture on earth, they are shocked to find out that the rough, uncivil, filthy Europeans are their technological superiors. But they don’t waste time. Many ambitiously learn from the West so they can again dominate—especially the Shogun, Toranaga Yoshi, descendant of the original Toranaga. The reader of Shogun has an advantage here, being intimately familiar with Japanese culture, values, and thinking, while readers of Tai-Pan and King Rat will enjoy the way Clavell interweaves elements and characters from those books into this one.
Clavell in Context
Modern in many respects, James Clavell’s work echoes British adventure classics likeTreasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines, Robinson Crusoe, and Two Years Before the Mast,but with greater depth of character and lavish historical details. He specializes in the clash of cultures, while his individualist heroes learn deeply from their encounters by independently experiencing and judging foreign situations and people.
Business people are heroes of every Clavell novel. For that reason, I wondered for years whether he had been influenced by that famous literary champion of capitalism, Ayn Rand, who romanticized the lives and careers of business people.
Then one day I came across an online auction of books from Rand’s personal library. Inside a copy of his newly published novel Noble House, according to the auction description page, James Clavell had written this inscription to the author of Atlas Shrugged:
“This is for Ayn Rand/ –one of the real, true talents on this earth for which many, many thanks/ James C/ New York / 2 Sept 81.”
Further on the auction page, I found that Clavell’s editor had sent Rand a copy of The Children’s Story, also printed in 1981, with a note on the letterhead of Delacorte Press asking her to read the book and share her response.
So much made sense now!
Clavell’s genius at revealing the Eastern mind—and the similarity of some of his themes to Rand’s—has not gone unnoticed in academe. In 1996, Loyola University professor Gina MacDonald published James Clavell, A Critical Companion as part of Greenwood Publishers’ “Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers” series. Intended as a teacher’s guide for high school and college courses, the book analyzes his novels in multi-leveled literary detail and includes a well-researched biographical section. MacDonald even compares Noble House to Rand’s Anthem and notes that Clavell’s books are not only adventures and romances but novels of ideas as well—through their repeated exposition of clashes between the individual and the collective and the conflict between capitalism and authoritarianism. I found the book to be a valuable resource, and I hope that it is used frequently in schools, which would bring more readers to Clavell.
That is important because far too many contemporary books for young people revolve around dysfunction, personal disaster, and ineptitude—if they have much of a story at all. Wouldn’t projections of life as a thrilling drama, with conflict, struggle, and triumph, offer far better food for their inchoate souls?
Meanwhile, here’s hoping that someone in the movie industry turns Whirlwind or Gai-Jininto a film, helping to re-ignite broader interest in this marvelous author.
originally published in Montessori Leadership
“Help me to do it myself,” self-responsibility, peace: these are fundamentals of the Montessori philosophy. How many of you know that another, highly influential thinker with these same beliefs has had a huge influence on the Montessori movement: Ayn Rand? Today, there are thousands of parents, teachers and heads of school who came to Montessori through her.
Novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand is most famous for her books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. According to a 1999 survey by the Book of the Month Club, Atlas Shrugged ranked second in influence with readers, after the Bible. Rand’s books have sold over 100 million copies and sell over 100,000 copies a year to this day – she has obviously affected a lot of people.
However, Rand wrote many other works, including an essay on education called “The Comprachicos,” now available in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. In it, she discussed the Montessori Method at some length. She also published an article by the late Beatrice Hessen, “The Montessori Method,” in The Objectivist magazine, which article is now reprinted in John Chattin-McNichols’ Montessori Schools in America: Historical, Philosophical and Empirical Research Perspectives.
These two articles introduced millions of Rand’s readers to the Montessori Method and movement – and many of them stayed. I, for one, had been searching since I was a child for a way of schooling which kept the joy in life while guiding students in learning. The Rand and Hessen articles intrigued me and led me to a life-long love for the Method, which included founding Council Oak Montessori school in Chicago. Currently, I am working on a new college using the Method (see www.collegeunitedstates.org).
I do not think I am an exception. You will find Rand’s influence in Montessori schools all around North America, from North Carolina and Pennsylvania to Illinois and Colorado; from Toronto to Texas – and I’m sure almost anywhere you look. In California, there are a group of Fountainhead Montessori schools.
Why was Ayn Rand interested in Montessori? Ayn Rand dearly wanted peace, freedom, happiness and achievement for all the individuals of the world, having lived through the death and destruction of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. She knew that only through strong independence of judgment would our children avoid the mob madness and mass murder of Communism, Fascism, Nazism or, today, Islamic terrorism, which have been responsible for over 100 million deaths (Rummel, 1994). Only independence and respect for other individuals’ rights to make up their own minds and live their own lives would prevent any further killing fields and keep us out of war.
As she had hoped, the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957 ignited a revival of interest in Classical Liberalism and free-market thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith, Ludwig Von Mises and Frederick Hayek, nurturing and triggering a huge movement to achieve freedom and prosperity throughout the world. Last year at the centenary of her birth, many groups and publications paid homage to her vital role in this revival and its exciting consequences, such as the fall of the Soviet Union and the spread of freedom around the world.
The Social Entrepreneurship movement is also a result of this change in thinking, in this case, specifically applied to helping the poorest around the globe, and it is a huge engine of social change. Rather than centralized government programs, thousands of micro-entrepreneurship projects are spreading wealth through the world by helping individuals create their own jobs. For example, in Bangladesh, Mohammed Yunnus created Grameen Bank to provide micro-credit loans all over the third world. Mark Frazier, a Rand fan, created the Internet site Openworld through which young people from developing countries can get quality information and training inexpensively. If needed, he helps them obtain computers and Internet hook-ups.
However, Rand’s similarity to Montessori went well beyond their common desire for peace. In “The Comprachicos,” Rand lauded the Montessori Method as exactly what children needed to develop properly. “The purposeful, disciplined use of his intelligence is the highest achievement possible to man: it is that which makes him human.” “[the best development of intelligence is what] Dr. Montessori had in mind…when she wrote the following about her method: ‘The didactic material, in fact, does not offer to the child the ‘content’ of the mind, but the order for that ‘content.’…The mind has formed itself by a special exercise of attention, observing, comparing, and classifying…which leads them to become active and intelligent explorers instead of wandering wayfarers in an unknown land.’” (Rand, 1970, 196)
Rand recognized that the Montessori Method is superb at developing a child’s thinking skills, independent judgment and inner self-confidence, while maintaining his or her love of learning. She also applauded the sensitive, individual approach to each child’s personality and development, and the respect for order, property and other people nurtured by the Method – all important elements for a happy, productive life.
Like Montessori, Rand believed judging others by their individual actions and achievements, not their group membership, race or any other feature outside of their control, was the basis of real respect. She realized that the road to peace was through educating individuals in the importance of thinking well and respecting the individual rights of others.
R.J. Rummel, Death by Government (Transaction 1994). Rummel is a now-retired political science professor. He has extensively researched forms of government and war, summarized in his charts, available at
He found that no democracy has made war on another democracy since 1816 (democracy defined as government by the people either directly or through elected representatives).
Chattin-McNichols, John, ed. 1981. Montessori Schools in America: Historical, Philosophical and Empirical Research Perspectives. Lexington: Ginn Custom Publishing.
Rand, Ayn. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
Rand, Ayn. 1970. The Comprachicos in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. New York: Signet, 187-239..
Rand, Ayn. 1943. The Fountainhead. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
Rummel, R.J. 1994. Death by Government, New York: Transaction Publishers
Copyright © 2007 by Marsha Familaro Enright. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the author and inclusion of her byline.
Imagine a novel whose mysterious main character you do not meet until page 236. He is reviled by some for his greed and destructiveness, revered by others for his generosity and remarkable creativity. The plot revolves around discovering who he is and what he stands for. Toward the end of the story, he makes a speech about the meaning and glory of business.
No, this isn’t Atlas Shrugged. It’s Cash McCall, published in 1955—two years before Atlas. Post Tags
Its remarkable author, Cameron Hawley, was a business executive for many years before he published his first novel. Born in 1905 to a frontier family in South Dakota—his grandfather was an Indian scout who wore buffalo skins—Hawley began writing state-wide syndicated columns in high school. He worked his way through the South Dakota State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts as a sports and magazine writer, as well as working in carnivals and tent shows.
After graduation, Hawley was an advertising executive in Minneapolis for a few years before a twenty-four-year stint with the Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He lived there on a family farm, “Buttonwood,” known for its Aberdeen-Angus breeding herd. According to an old Cash McCall jacket cover, his wide-ranging interests included “good food, field dogs, saltwater cruising, and duck shooting on Chesapeake Bay.”
At Armstrong, Hawley gained an intensive knowledge of business and industry by working in diverse areas of the company, from product development and testing to marketing. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, he penned numerous short stories and nonfiction pieces in his spare time for top publications, such as the Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, and McCall’s.
After retiring from Armstrong and business in 1951, he published his most famous business novel, Executive Suite, the following year. Over the course of two decades, Hawley published three more: Cash McCall (1955), The Lincoln Lords (1960), and The Hurricane Years (1969, the year he died)—all of them about the drama of business.
Cameron Hawley’s books are realistic page-turners about the romance and drama of business, and were favorite business school texts as recently as 1986. His stories vitally intertwine sharp-eyed detail about executive life with a remarkably vivid descriptive style, whether he’s sculpting the form of a restored seventeenth-century plantation or detailing the social and emotional interplay between characters. His beautifully, intricately drawn characters give his tales depth. He cleverly divides his stories into subplots about their lives, passions, and ambitions, then weaves them back together for the climax. Love and romance are seamlessly blended with business as essential elements in each story.
Executive Suite opens with a gut-wrenching, theme-setting scene that propels the plot into motion. During a trip to New York City in search of a second-in-command, Tredway Corporation’s president, Avery Bullard, dies unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage, leaving five vice presidents and no one in charge. Thereafter, the engaging, suspenseful story depicts the conflicts, the collaborations, and the jostling for power among the vice presidents over two days while exploring the question: What type of person should be president of the company?
Intrigue, blackmail, and plot twists galore keep the reader riveted until the climax in the Tredway Corporation boardroom, where the characters argue over the meaning and purpose of business. Don Walling, the hotheaded young vice president for design and development, enlightens all with his recollections of Avery Bullard, a man who
- was never much concerned about money for its own sake. I remember his saying once that dollars were just a way of keeping score. I don’t think he was too much concerned about personal power, either—just power for power’s sake. I know that’s the easy way to explain the drive that any great man has—the lust for power—but…the thing that kept him going was his terrific pride in himself—the driving urge to do things that no other man on earth could do. He saved the company when everyone else had given up. He built a big corporation in an industry where everyone said that only small companies could succeed. He was only happy when he was doing the impossible…. [H]e never asked for applause and appreciation—or even understanding. He was a lonely man but I don’t think his loneliness ever bothered him very much. He was the man at the top of the tower…that’s what it took to satisfy his pride. . . . The force behind a great company has to be more than the pride of one man; it has to be the pride of thousands. You can’t make men work for money alone—you starve their souls when you try it, and you can starve a company to death the same way.
Hawley’s second novel, Cash McCall, stirred great public interest when it was published in 1955. Featured in a special presentation of Life magazine, it was also a Literary Guild Selection. In the story, a mysterious figure roams the land, buying up failing enterprises and turning them around to make a fat profit. “[I]s he really the sharp-dealing vulture that rumor makes him? Or is he only exercising the right of free enterprise that we all say is the very foundation of our American way of life?” asks the dust jacket on my 1955 copy. Although it does not have Executive Suite’s breathtaking opening, it’s just as spellbinding a story, with the suspense of its mysterious hero to boot.
Once again, Hawley’s soul-searching characters ride a wave of personal development through exciting action set in the world of business and love. He skillfully blends the business and the personal, the abstract and the particular. For example, here he examines the relation between law and morality:
- “Yes, the practice of law would be much more pleasant these days if there were a few more gentlemen of the Cash McCall stripe—and I use the word gentleman in its true meaning. They’re becoming rare, you know, men who recognize the difference between a thing being morally right and legally right.… [I]t does seem to me that more and more we find the viewpoint that legality is synonymous with morality. You don’t agree?”“No, I do agree. I’m just surprised to hear you make the distinction… I didn’t suppose a member of the legal profession would acknowledge it.”
Although Cash McCall was published before Atlas Shrugged, the parallels are eerie. In addition to its mysterious hero—the force behind important changes in the world and the book’s deeply informed pro-business stance—the novel also has a remarkably similar panoply of good and bad characters.
Hawley’s last two books are not quite as Romantic in the stature of their characters, but are excellent reads, nonetheless.
Published in 1960, The Lincoln Lords follows an out-of-work older executive and his wife who are struggling to maintain the appearance of money and status while desperately searching for a new opportunity. Here Hawley examines the psychology of leadership and its effect on organizations.
He starts by artfully delving into universals about the distressed mentality of a man out of work. Lincoln Lord is a man at loose ends; he hardly knows what to do with himself or how to keep his sense of self together without his job. Lord isn’t a creative dynamo as is the hero in Executive Suite. In fact, some would find him distastefully pandering to social convention. However, during the course of the story, the reader discovers Lord’s special abilities as an organizer and manager, which redeem him when the opportunity arises:
- But there was no need for concern. He had something to say to everyone. And his simplest words seemed a magical incantation. Even those who had already been introduced still stood closely bunched around him, magnetically held, their eyes so firmly fixed upon him that she could stare directly at them without being noticed. This was no new phenomenon, she had seen it happen before; yet it was still difficult to understand why so many people would instantly pledge their loyalty and support to a man about whom they knew nothing except that he had recognized their names and offered some scrap of information about them. Their faces were charged with hope, with expectancy, with the promise of good fortune that everyone always seemed to find in Lincoln Lord’s very presence.
Yet Lord is a realistic man: he knows he’s no creative genius, and even doubts his own value. His talents lie elsewhere:
- As Lincoln Lord practiced it, corporate management had been far more a matter of selection than of creation. He had never been, nor tried to be, a source of imaginative thinking. He could, perhaps, have trained his mind to work more naturally in that direction had he not noticed, as early as his student days at Chesapeake College, that the man of ideas usually had difficulty getting along with his associates. Later he had been warned by observation that a general management executive was rarely capable of fairly judging the work of another man’s idea when it had to be weighed against a brain child of his own. Thus he had come to accept the presidential function as that of a judge and arbiter who solved any given problem by selecting from all of the ideas that flowed up to his desk the one that promised to be the most practical and surely productive. It was a workable system and, applied with the skill that he had developed, a highly effective one. Its employment was, however, dependent upon one prime requirement—there had to be that flow of ideas. Without it, he was a craftsman with nothing to work upon, an arbiter with nothing to decide, a judge with no case before the court.
Hawley shows Lord’s genius at recognizing value in other men and ideas, and integrating them to creative, productive purposes. Knowing how to put great ideas to work is one of the supreme values of the executive, as celebrated by the proclamation of Lord’s African-American cook: “You know what Lizzie Pearl does when that call comes ’bout Big Charley [going back to work]?…‘Glory be to the God Jehovah!’ And what I says to ’em is that they better be singing ‘Glory be to Mr. Lord!’”
The Lincoln Lords also contains the most autobiographical character in Hawley’s corpus, down to his red hair: Brick Mitchell. Mitchell is the idea man, the creative writer who observes the actions and interplay of those around him in exquisite detail, but who needs a Lincoln Lord to rein in and direct his wild imagination.
The Hurricane Years, Hawley’s final novel, opens with a gripping description of a heart attack—from the executive-victim’s point of view. It explores the physical and emotional effects of executive Judd Wilder’s dedication to his high-stress job. Laid flat on his back for weeks by the illness, Wilder is forced to look at who he is and reconsider what is important in his life. Meanwhile, having run away to Paris from her discontent, loneliness, and alienation, Wilder’s wife, Kay, takes an emotional journey to a new life on her way back to the States to care for Judd.
Although the lion’s share of the story transpires while Judd is in the hospital, the action eventually snakes back to where it started, with the drama of business—but with a twist. Kay becomes intimately tied to Judd Wilder’s business world, thereby gaining entrance to his deepest personal self. Once again, Hawley provides an engrossing read, with plenty of drama and character detail.
In all his books, Cameron Hawley frames business as a vital, creative activity that by its nature demands—but does not always get—the best.
In the first pages of Executive Suite, Hawley diagnoses a problem creeping into business in the 1940s and ’50s: the rise of materialism. The reader is allowed to share Avery Bullard’s inner thoughts about Pilcher, a candidate from a competing company whom he’s considering for the recently vacant position of executive vice president:
- Yes, Pilcher was a money-man. They were a type. It was easy to spot them. You could always tell one by that cold fire in his eyes. It was not the hot fire of the man who would never interrupt a dream to calculate the risk, but the cold fire of the man whose mind was geared to the rules of the money game. It was a game that was played with numbers on pieces of paper…. Nothing else mattered. A factory wasn’t a living, breathing organism. It was only a dollar sign…. Their guts didn’t tighten when they heard a big Number Nine bandsaw sink its whining teeth into hard maple…. When they saw a production line they looked with blind eyes, not feeling the counterpoint beat of their hearts or the pulsing flow of hot blood or the trigger-set tenseness of lungs that were poised to miss a breath with every lost beat on the line.
Although materialistic, status-driven characters show up from Hawley’s first novel, they reach new prominence in the last two. Perhaps this was a natural evolution in the themes he explored, but I have to wonder whether something else was at play. Had Hawley noticed a change in the culture, away from the more idealistic view of businesses as engines of greatness, and toward one casting them as mere money machines? Did the New Left’s drumbeat during the sixties wear down businessmen’s self-image so that, by the decade’s end, they too had swallowed the idea that business was nothing but materialistic greed?
Surely, Hawley’s hawk-like eye for social and cultural detail would have noticed such a trend, and a 1952 Time article reveals Hawley’s thoughts about it: “Some of his reviewers, he says, were baffled by Executive Suite: they were so accustomed to caricatured businessmen that they kept looking for the tongue in Hawley’s cheek. Hawley is not discouraged; he is now working on another business novel, and thinks that ‘it will take four novels to break down the feeling that any book about business must necessarily be satire.’” But even theTime article acknowledges the conflict between the “money men” and the entrepreneurial type, ever looking for new frontiers to conquer.
In contrast to the materialists, Hawley emphasizes the importance of the creative individual, spotlighted in the following exchange from Executive Suite. Pilcher, the “money man,” considers taking over Tredway with his boss, Steigel, a septuagenarian who built their company from nothing.
- [Says Pilcher:] “A lot could be done…excellent production facilities but inadequate management. The real trouble, of course, is that Bullard’s running a completely one-man show.”[Replies Steigel:] “My boy, you are a good lawyer—you know the law. Also you are a good financial man—you know stocks and bonds. I know something, too. I know companies. All my life I watch companies. I want to know why they are a success. Always it is the same answer. You hear, always the same answer—always one man. You remember that, Mr. Pilcher. Always when you find a good company it is what you call a one-man show.”
Hawley’s individualism runs deep, typified by Lincoln Lord’s comment, “It’s always the man that counts, not the label you put on him.” And dollars, as Avery Bullard used to say, “were just a way of keeping score.” The thing that kept him going was “his terrific pride in himself…. He was only happy when he was doing the impossible—and he did that only to satisfy his own pride….”
Or consider the passage in The Lincoln Lords where Brick Mitchell discusses entrepreneur Adam Quincy with financier Anderson Phelps:
- “It was 1936…there was the AAA. That was a setup where the government collected processing taxes from food manufacturers and used the money for agricultural relief.”“Yes, I recall that.”
“Well, all of those Washington schemes were red flags to Mr. Quincy—he hated Roosevelt as if he were the devil himself—and so he fought anything and everything that came along.”
“A rugged individualist, I take it.”
“As rugged as they came.”
At one time, I was convinced that Hawley must have been influenced by Rand, perhaps through The Fountainhead. On the hunt for clues, I called his widow, Elaine Hawley, who still lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I asked whether she knew if Mr. Hawley had been a fan of The Fountainhead, and I found out: Not as far as she knew, and she didn’t even remember seeing the book around!
Yet the parallels are intriguing: the speeches lauding businesses as great creative endeavors; the lionizing of the “great man” of business by the good characters; the envy and sniping toward him by the evil ones; the ideological and psychological content of specific scenes. Hawley even has a character named “Kira” in The Lincoln Lords. Is it the logic of Hawley’s and Rand’s shared ideas, or is it something more?
Hawley was a master at exquisite description, whether of a physical setting, or a character’s inner state, or the way one character observes another. “Maggie Lord noticed that the blue sky of the morning had lost its pristine polish, scummed to grayness by a cirrus film,” he writes in a typical passage. Likewise, his great ear for stylized dialogue with a realistic tone conveyed so much about the first half of the twentieth century. Watch him capture the starry-eyed admiration people had in that day and age for remarkable businessmen: “Sure, honey, that’s old Bullard himself up there right now. They say he never goes home. Some nights he works right through. You know what? The other day I saw him getting out of his car. I swear to God I was so close to him I coulda reached out and touched him!”
What a difference from today!
Moreover, Hawley peoples his stories with an array of interesting characters. In Executive Suite, they range from Bullard himself to his “best friend,” the Italian immigrant who operates the executive elevator at Tredway. Luigi bursts with pride at his job and, the consummate Latin, cries at Bullard’s funeral. Erica Martin, Bullard’s executive secretary, illustrates the curious position of the highly intelligent woman of the time, embodying the changing views of women and work.
His main characters are remarkably purposeful, honest, and responsible, carefully considering the right thing to do, and often commenting on inappropriate behavior—like Steigel, who rebukes Pilcher for considering a shady stock scheme with the words, “There are some ways it don’t seem right to make money.” And women like Maggie Lord and Mary Walling stand not behind but beside the executives, sharing in their struggles and their triumphs; they are major forces in every story.
Hawley deeply grasped and conveyed the special abilities of the great, creative entrepreneur. Consider a passage in which a college dean, expert in seventeenth-century history, speaks of a food baron who decided to restore his property to the plantation it once was:
- What had so impressed him about Adam Quincy was that in two short years the old man had made himself, by driving application and an extraordinarily intense concentration of interest, a first class authority on seventeenth century life, so well informed that he could rarely if ever be bested in an argument.
He draws portraits of great businessmen as more than mere money-grubbers—from his pen they emerge as remarkable, many-sided, capable geniuses whom no one completely understands, but many love:
- “Don’t worry about it, my dear,” Julia said. “You’ll never understand him completely. Don’t try. You’ll be happier if you don’t. He’ll be happier, too. Not understanding will make you very lonely sometimes, Mary—when he shuts you away behind a closed door—when you think he’s forgotten you—but then the door will open and he’ll come back and you’ll know how fortunate you were to have been his wife.”
Hawley’s novels so speak to the reality as well as the romance of business that they often have been used in business school courses, even as they have appealed to a wide public.
And they still can make an impact. A few years ago, I gave Cash McCall as a gift to a couple hosting me on a trip to Atlanta. Little did I know what its effect could be. The book so vividly reinforced the value and effectiveness of character in business, it inspired my hosts to seek out good businesses ruined by unethical practices that they could buy and turn around.
Since publication, Executive Suite has been translated into fourteen languages. My 1986 copy was published as part of the Dell Publishing “Delta-Diamond Library Gems of American Fiction with Enduring Appeal.” Executive Suite was made into a 1954 movie as well, with a huge cast of notables: William Holden, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Nina Foch, and Dean Jagger star; Robert Wise directed and John Houseman produced this MGM classic, which recently aired on American Movie Classics. It is also available on video. Holden is great as the firebrand Don Walling, and the script sticks closely to the story and to Hawley’s actual words. Warner Brothers made Cash McCall into a movie in 1960, also now available on video. Produced by Henry Blanke and directed by Joseph Pevney, it stars James Garner and Natalie Wood, and among its other stars includes Dean Jagger once again and Edward G. Marshall.
Unfortunately, all of Hawley’s books are currently out of print, although available inexpensively through used-book sources. Perhaps republishing them is an opportunity waiting to happen?
Cameron Hawley made the life-and-death drama of business palpable. Sharing the fears, frustrations, and achievements of executives and factory workers alike, readers come away from his works experiencing the importance and romance of business. Having reread many selections from his books for this article, I am bitten anew by the Hawley bug and plan to immerse myself in his novels again.
Copyright © 2006 by Marsha Familaro Enright. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the author and inclusion of her byline.
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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