Ayn Rand as a Simplified Scheler?

A salesperson for philosophy

Professional philosophers usually get embarrassed when the name Ayn Rand comes up. Yes, she was a better writer than a thinker. Yes, she espoused political opinions which were unpopular in her time and have only become more so recently. None the less, as her “frenemy” Murray Rothbard commented, she was in some way better than a philosopher, she was a salesperson for philosophy, and many a novice who didn’t know Plato from a platypus first caught an enthusiasm for thinking by way of her novels and essays. Another difficulty with Rand was her resistance to classification or influence. Her disciples were obliged to believe that her system sprang out of her own mind without precedent, with the exception of the tolerably remote Aristotle, to whom she occasionally gave lip service.

If there were ever a genuine philosopher in bad need of a salesperson, it would be Max Scheler. Like Rand he was an embattled person who failed to live up to the high ideals of his thought, and for nearly a century he has been relegated to a second-tier position within the philosophical cannon. At first blush, Scheler and Rand would seem to inhabit opposite ends of the cognitive universe. He was a passionate personalist with mystical tendencies, and she was the cool intelectualist, willing and able to play the “atheist card” when challenged by traditionalist conservatives. Be that as it may, it seems to me that as thinkers Scheler and Rand share some basic similarities. Granted, one shouldn’t press these similarities too far. Scheler attempted to justify his philosophical claims by grounding them in methods of classic phenomenology. In contrast, Rand tended to assert her claims rhetorically, through the medium of fiction, and in spite of producing one small booklet on epistemology her promise of a new and systematic philosophy went unfulfilled.

Yet the similarities are there if anyone takes the effort to find them. Scheler might very well have called his way of thinking “Objectivism” a term which Rand would later appropriate for her work. Scheler was too nuanced in his terminology to give his system a name, and for that matter he realized up until his death in 1928 that it wasn’t even a system, but a kind of work in progress. In fact, the most hopeful attitude one can take towards Scheler’s works is to view them as ruins of some ancient colossus, either toppled or in an incomplete and interrupted state of completion. The ruins need to be brushed off and reassembled. It would also help if someone could reduce the complexity and ambiguity of Scheler to managable proportions. Manfred Frings and other Scheler scholars have done much to that end. Yet if any philosophy is to become more than a technical preocupation, if it is expected to heal the wounds of civilization, it requires popularization as well as clarification. In short, it needs a salesperson.

The parallels of good omen

Since 1928 the world has slid into exactly the kind of ideological mire that Scheler most feared. Instead of discovering and striving towards an objective system of values, civilization has been reduced to a chaos of competing subjectivities. The most compelling thinkers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have vied with each other in dividing humanity into classes, each with their preferred and incompatible ends, while at the same time continuing the drum-beat of formal ethical imperatives (equality, unity, the re-absorption of humanity into nature etc.) which can only be perfected under conditions of totalitarian control. In this regard it is helpful to put Scheler’s distain for free market economics within the context of something closer to populism than socialist economic planning, albeit towards the end of his life (in the Weimar period) he would have been tactically allied with left-socialists in response to the threat of rising German nationalism. For all that, Scheler’s belief in personal freedom was no secret, and in the preface to the second edition of his Formalism in Ethics and the Non-Formal Ethics of Values he expresses solidarity with Herbert Spencer in deploring a future state in which all morality is the outcome of coercion.

Whatever his agreement with Herbert Spencer, Scheler’s personalism is a vastly more nuanced and grounded concept than Ayn Rand’s rough and ready individualism. In fact, much of the Ethics is taken up in clarifying the distinction between person and individual. Even so, Rand and Scheler’s thought, while hardly identical, are roughly parallel in a surprising number of areas. A short list of these are as follows.

  1. concern with objective value
  2. exemplary persons as fonts of value
  3. positive appreciation of the Western tradition where it has enhanced values
  4. rejection of determinism, progressive or regressive

One is tempted to add anti-Kantianism to this list, but here the similarily is partly superficial. Scheler’s Kant-criticism is much more nuanced than Rand’s hyperbolic and near-hysterical hatred of Kant. Indeed, there are major aspects in Kantian thought which Scheler identifies as inadequate to an objective understanding of human life, even human morals. These faults are so grave that Rand may indeed be on target in identifying Kantian philosophy with the demise of the West. However she never gives a truly adequate account of what makes Kant so importantly wrong, while Scheler takes up the problem in detail and comes up with a cogent answer. Perhaps Rand was frustrated by her inability to think the problem through, even though she had a correct hunch, which might have driven her to ad hominum argumentation.

Influence?

It is hard to suppose that Rand, a well educated middle class Russian growing up in the 1920s and majoring in philosophy under N. O. Lossky in Petrograd, would have had no knowledge of Max Scheler, a rising star of philosophy in Germany. I am not aware of anything one way or the other. Did any of his ideas of objective value get transmitted to her, even in garbled form, during those troubled times?

Even without knowing the answer to that question, in many core respects Rand’s approach to philosophy resembles a simplified yet amplified version of Scheler’s vision. Again, we can hardly expect an identity between a woman who spent her life in America promoting capitalism and reason and a mystically minded German philosopher who’s life spanned the pre-and post-WWI eras. Yet while their applications and endeavors were radically different, their mentalities exhibit what Ludwig Wittgenstein would call “family resemblance.” A convenient contrast is Wittgenstein himself who represents a type of thinker completely alien to both Rand and Scheler, however odd the later two might seem when taken as a pair.

So why is this important? Because the complementarity, if not philosophically productive, is at least pedagogically instructive. Rand gives us a hint of what Scheler wanted us to see when he pointed to persons as fonts and exemplars of values. Rand claims to give us reasons, but in practice (i.e., in her writings) gives us heros. On the basis of the hero’s actions we are able to detect the purity of the value he or she expresses. Rand claims to be propagating an up-dated version of Aristotle but in fact she is transmitting a Schelerian way of looking at the world. It is a Scheler without phenomenological justification, but that isn’t what sells novels or influences society. Rand is a salesperson for philosophy, and as she frequently asserted, the world needs philosophy. As a matter of fact, she was selling a mode of thinking similar to Scheler’s.

This notion may outrage some orthodox “Schelerians” if such creatures exist in the world, which I sincerely doubt. After all, Howard Roark and John Galt may not be adequate exemplars of the heroic from everyone’s point of view. Keep in mind however that “everyone’s point of view” was not what Scheler had in mind anyway, like Rand he thought that there was a true point of view, but unlike Rand he felt that the way to arrive at the true point of view was through phenomenological investigation, rather than some alleged deduction from formal principles. Ironically Scheler would probably have chided Rand for being too close to Kant, no matter how much her animus against that sage of Konningsburg obscured the matter.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that for Scheler the hero is not the final rung on the person-value ladder. That is reserved for the saint, which brings us to a horizon far beyond that of the intrepid entrepreneur battling society on behalf of an idea or an innovation. The saint brings us into a new world entirely, but then again, each level of inspiring role-model reveals a new world, and according to Scheler the existence of the saint at the top of the ladder doesn’t abolish or disvalue the lesser types. Reflecting on the saint, it might be better to designate Rand’s objectivism a truncation rather than a simplification of Scheler’s value-objectivism. None the less reading a Randian novel can bring one further away from irrationality, resentment, and despair, and closer to such values as Rand and Scheler may have held in common. After all, compared to Scheler, Rand is popular. Popular enough to be hated. Recently a popular quarterback was ridiculed for having a copy of Atlas Shrugged on his bookshelf. When quarterbacks have Scheler on their bookshelves, then, and only then, will we sense that civilization is starting to make a comeback.

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