November 2010

The Ad Hom Instinct

A Reply to Denis Dutton (The Art Instinct)

by Louis Torres

For much of the past two years, Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct has been reviewed, publicized, and translated as no other book of its kind ever has been, effectively transforming its New Zealand-based American author from a relatively obscure academic best known as the founding editor of the online Arts & Letters Daily into an international cultural superstar. My own review in these pages last April--dealing only with Dutton's chapter "What Is Art?"--was entitled "What Makes Art Art? Does Denis Dutton Know?" and concluded emphatically that he does not. (You may want to read or re-read it now before proceeding any further.)

Dutton's ostensible response to my review is posted on his book's website. It begins not with any reference to me or to my critique as one might expect, but with this invective:

So what do . . . Ayn Rand followers make of The Art Instinct? I could have predicted the result. . . . I always have the feeling that nothing short of bowing and scraping before the hallowed image of St. Ayn will ever be enough.

"Ayn Rand followers"? And who would they be? Why moi!--as one learns when Dutton's "bowing and scraping" metaphor seamlessly segues into "In the case of Louis Torres's review [link in original]."

What catches the reader's attention ahead of this unflattering opening passage, however, is a large color image of an adulatory painting. Beginnings, as it happens to be called (the title is not given), depicts six figures, one above the other, each representing a stage of man's evolution from pre-history to recent times. At the top? Rand herself, as Dutton's caption is quick to explain:

Intellectual history of Homo sapiens, Ayn Rand version. First fire, then stone tools, cave painting, writing, Aristotle, and finally, out there with Saturn, the lady herself. . .

Thus primed, the reader already knows as much about Rand's "followers" (about me in other words) as Dutton thinks he needs to. He identifies other reviewers by their title or profession and the name of the periodical in which their review is published. But this Torres fellow? Why, he's an "Ayn Rand follower."

Once past that inauspicious introduction, Dutton has little to say regarding the substance of my review. He claims that the main fault I find with his book is that he "[has] not given a definition of art that fits the criteria of 'definition' as described in the tenth edition of Patrick Hurley's A Concise Introduction to Logic." True, but only in part. Dutton fails to note that I cite that text only after a detailed critique of The Art Instinct's seven-page-long "cluster definition" of art. He also ignores that I refer to Rand's little-known Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, which includes a fifteen-page chapter on definitions, and that I quote the opening sentence of that chapter, which is itself a definition: "A definition is a statement that identifies the nature of the units subsumed under a concept"--a statement (one that includes a genus and a differentia), that is, not a rambling seven-page annotated list such as Dutton proposes.

Remarkably, Dutton claims that I ignore his entire argument "defend[ing] the use of a cluster concept [to define art]." As he should know, I concentrate on little else but that argument. What else would a critique of a chapter entitled "What Is Art?" be about? In defense of his definition, he has noted (in correspondence) that the chapter I deal with is one of the two "most enjoyed" by reviewers. But how many of them are likely to be concerned with, or know much about, the nature of concept formation or definitions? Besides, "enjoyment" hardly constitutes a critique, serious or otherwise.

Ayn Rand's Definition of Art

In response to an inquiry from Dutton asking if Rand (or I, or Hurley or Lionel Ruby) had ever formulated a definition of art that would fulfill the criteria for proper definition stipulated in my review, I sent him a copy of The Definition of Art--chapter 6 of What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (2000), which I co-authored. Of course she had formulated such a definition. If he had entered "ayn rand definition of art" at Google he would have found at the top of the first results page a link to the term "art" in the Ayn Rand Lexicon.

Dutton asserts that Rand's definition of art--"a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments" (or "fundamental values," in my revision in What Art Is)--is "absurdly limited." In what respect? He does not say, except to note that the book cites "dolls, toy cars, model ships, billboard advertisements, magazine illustrations, children's play-acting, and celebrity impersonations" as examples of non-art. Each of these examples is a "selective re-creation of reality" in which factors such as marketing or entertainment value govern the selection process, as distinct from works of art, which are based on the maker's personal values, conscious or not. This is a crucial distinction which Dutton ignores in declaring that he "would happily include any of the items on that list as potentially art." Well, of course he would. From his perspective, anything can be art, its potential realized as soon as he declares it to be so.

As further evidence that Rand's definition is ludicrous, Dutton argues, in effect, that "celebrity impersonation[s]" can be art (he discusses no other examples from the aforementioned list), citing Meryl Streep's "acted version" of Julia Child in the movie Julie & Julia [slow-loading, but worth it: at "Menu," click on "Video" then on movie still]. Not even his own alleged definition of art supports that claim, however. Streep's performance is indeed superb, but it is not (to state the obvious) a mere "celebrity impersonation." There is a distinction to be made, moreover, between the performing arts [here discussed by Rand] and performing artists, on one hand, and the major art forms they give life to (theater, music, and dance), on the other. In her essay "Art and Cognition" Rand observes that instead of re-creating reality, the performing arts each "implement the re-creation made by one of the primary arts," adding that the performing arts "translate a primary work of art [director Nora Ephron's delightful screenplay for Julie & Julia, for example] into existential action, into a concrete event open to direct awareness."

Dutton's dismissal of Rand's definition of art is no surprise. In correspondence with Michelle Kamhi three years ago he opined that there were "such deep thinkers out there--Kant and Hume, for instance." But Rand? His sense was that "ruminating on her philosophy is a comfortable dead end." Yet he gives no evidence of ever having actually read anything by her, much less any of the growing body of scholarly writing on her ideas.

Ruffled Feathers

Some might protest that my harsh assessment of Dutton's definition of art was unwarranted, that if I had nothing positive to say about it then perhaps I ought not have said anything at all. Or that I should have tempered my criticism by couching it in less contentious terms. Jeffrey Di Leo, dean of arts and sciences and professor of English and philosophy at the University of Houston at Victoria, dismisses such an approach in a recent polemic entitled "In Praise of Tough Criticism" (1) (which I first read after posting my review of Dutton's book). Di Leo views criticism as "a competition of ideas." Rather than see "critical" removed from "critical exchange," he favors "a more combative, confrontational style---even if it means ruffling a few feathers."

What readers look for in book reviews, Di Leo argues, is "honest and direct opinions," which is precisely what I have sought to convey. If I have ruffled a few of Dutton's feathers in the process, so be it.

Finally, Di Leo concludes:

Critical behavior that always results in a chorus of affirmation is nothing more than conformity . . . allowing views to persist that need to be challenged is nothing less than critical mediocrity [and] failure to tell [writers] what we truly think about their work is simple dishonesty.

Dutton cites some hundred reviews of The Art Instinct on the book's website. None of the many that I have read even hints that his "cluster definition" of art violates the rules of logic regarding a proper definition and thus calls into question the validity of his book's core thesis. Not one. With the publication of each succeeding review, the pressure to join the "chorus of affirmation" no doubt became increasingly irresistible.

The Ad Hom Fallacy

Dutton's suggestion that I am among those who worship before "the hallowed image of St. Ayn"--in lieu of any serious attempt to refute my argument that he does not know what art is--is a classic example of the logical fallacy of ad hominem (in popular parlance, "ad hom").

As defined in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a fallacy is "a kind of error in reasoning" that "may be created unintentionally, or intentionally in order to deceive other people." In the latter case, as Hurley explains, "the arguer may know full well that his . . .reasoning is defective but goes ahead with it anyway because of some benefit for himself." (2)

The Dictionary of Philosophy (Peter A. Angeles, 1981) defines ad hominem ("against the man"), in part, as an argument that rejects a person's views "by attacking . . . his character . . . qualifications, etc., as opposed to providing evidence why the views are incorrect." A usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary points out that ad hominem attacks on one's opponent are "a tried-and-true strategy for people who have a case that is weak"--or, I would add, who have no case at all. As David Kelley observes in The Art of Reasoning, the goal in such cases is "always to escape the responsibility of dealing with [an argument] logically, and the method is always to try to discredit the speaker" or writer. Hurley suggests that individuals who knowingly resort to ad hominem often do so because it is "particularly well suited" to the perceived notion that they will gain some benefit in spite of its logical flaws. I leave it to readers to judge whether these characterizations apply to Dutton.

Final Thoughts

Do I actually think that there is an "ad hom instinct"? Of course not, any more than I believe there is an "art instinct," no matter how that term is defined. Nor do I suppose that Dutton has ever knowingly resorted to ad hominem in articles published in scholarly journals or other periodicals. His use of ad hominem in the present context just seems instinctive.

Dutton posted his response to my review on the Art Instinct website around May 9 of this year, undated and buried deep in the main column between previously posted items, where repeat visitors to the site (including reviewers of the book and his fellow academic philosophers) were unlikely to ever to see it. The only other item of general interest posted in 2010, an announcement regarding publication of the book's paperback edition, appears at the very top of the column--but even it is not dated.

Just before his remarks concerning me in 2010, Dutton comments on the tenor of the critical reception that greeted the publication of his book in 2009:

The Art Instinct presents a new and complex argument unlikely to achieve easy agreement. . . . I have been frankly surprised by the agreement, even acclaim, up and down the columns on either side of this page [recall here Di Leo's reference to "critical behavior that . . . results in a chorus of affirmation"]. But there have been a few pans that are worth responding to.

He mentions, and responds to, Jackie Wullschlager's review in the Financial Times (March 21, 2009), and arts critic Jeremy McCarter's in Newsweek (March 28, 2009). (Both reviews are also cited, with links, in the left sidebar.) These are followed by an account of, and link to, a televised gig on Comedy Central's Colbert Report. Then this: "So what do the Ayn Rand followers make of The Art Instinct? . . . In the case of Louis Torres's review. . . ." Well, dear reader, you know the rest.

Addendum: On "Ayn Rand Followers"

Denis Dutton is not the first scholar or intellectual to resort to ad hominem in dealing with the ideas of Ayn Rand or those influenced by her, nor will he be the last. Typically, such individuals, out of slothful ignorance, rely entirely on caricatures of her and her thought that contain sufficient measures of truth as to seem plausible.

Since Dutton goes to so much trouble to taint me as an "Ayn Rand follower"--by which he no doubt means a doctrinaire adherent of her philosophy (the only type with which he seems acquainted)--I offer here a sampler of quotations related to that wing of the Objectivist movement, and to the one that may be characterized as independent. These are followed by published remarks by others commenting on my own standing as a Rand scholar.

See also "Principal Sources and Further Reading" and "Postscript" below.

-- L.T.

Doctrinaire (Closed) Objectivism

Statements by the leading doctrinaire followers of Rand, both philosophers:

"Now take the case of Ayn Rand, who discovered true ideas on a virtually unprecedented scale. Do any of you who agree with her philosophy respond to it by saying 'Yeah, it's true'--without evaluation, emotion, passion? Not if you are moral. A moral person (assuming he understands philosophy at all) greets the discovery of this kind of truth with admiration, awe, even love; he makes a heartfelt positive moral evaluation. He says: Objectivism is not only true, it is great! Why? Because of the volitional work a mind must have performed to reach for the first time so exalted a level of truth--and because of all the glorious effects such knowledge will have on man's life, all the possibilities of action it opens up for the future. And this latter applies whether Ayn Rand herself actualized these possibilities or left that feat (as she had to) to the generations still to come."
-- Leonard Peikoff, "Fact and Value," Intellectual Activist, May 18, 1989. (Peikoff, Rand's legal and "intellectual heir," is the founder of the The Ayn Rand Institute.)
"I do not make full agreement with Objectivism a condition of joining my list. However, I do exclude anyone who is sanctioning or supporting the enemies of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. "Enemies" include: "libertarians," moral agnostics or "tolerationists [e.g., David Kelley, on whom see below]," anarchists [some Libertarians], and those whom Ayn Rand condemned morally [e.g. Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden] or who have written books or articles attacking [or criticizing] Ayn Rand."
-- Harry Binswanger, The Harry Binswanger List, "The HBL Loyalty Oath," 2000. (Binswanger is on the board of directors of the Ayn Rand Institute.)

Independent (Open) Objectivism

Statement by the leading figure of the independent wing of Objectivism:

"For as long as there has been an Objectivist movement, its ranks have periodically been thinned by schisms and excommunications, power struggles and purges. . . .
"About a year ago, a short essay of mine called 'A Question of Sanction' circulated among Objectivists and others. It was a response to an article . . . demanding that those who speak to libertarians be ostracized from the movement. . . . In response, I argued that those who promote ideas we think are false do not automatically deserve moral censure. There's a difference between error and evil. I also observed that Objectivism is not a closed system of belief; and that we might actually learn something by talking to people we disagree with. On both counts, I said, we should practice tolerance as a virtue.
"Leonard Peikoff . . . charged that I repudiated fundamental principles of Objectivism, including the objectivity of values and the necessity of moral judgment. In most cases, he claimed, false ideas are evil, and so are the people who hold them. He added that Objectivism is a closed system, and that the movement should be closed along with it."
-- David Kelley, Introduction [full text] to The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism [publisher's comments], revised edition, 2000. See also Chapter 5 [full text], which includes sections on "Open and Closed Systems" and "Objectivism as an Open System." (Kelley is the founder and executive director of the Atlas Society, previously known as the Objectivist Center and the Institute for Objectivist Studies.)

Louis Torres: "Rand Follower" or Independent Critic?

"What Art Is . . . is no mere summary of the Randian perspective. [Torres and Kamhi] engage Rand; they are not afraid to explain their differences from her, and they often provide trenchant criticisms of some of her more ambiguous formulations. . . . That they [sometimes] disagree with Rand makes their volume a contribution to both interpretive and critical Rand studies."
-- Chris Matthew Sciabarra, "A Renaissance in Rand Scholarship," Reason Papers, No. 23 (Fall 1998), 145, emphasis in original. (Sciabarra is the author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical [1995] and founding editor of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. He was a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics at New York University from 1989 to 2009.)
"One of [Torres's and Kamhi's] concerns [in What Art Is] is the quite laudable one of pointing out Rand's rather cranky shortcomings---her tendencies to overstatement and oversimplification, her giving short shrift to other thinkers and other schools of thought, and her excessively moralistic tone---and crafting formulations of her basic theory that are free of these defects. What I eventually found a little depressing, however, was the fact that they seem to miss no opportunity to point out these foibles of hers, or to point out her lapses from rigor. . . . The sheer accumulation of these comments might give some readers the vague impression of a slight hostility toward their subject."
--Lester Hunt, "What Art Does," Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (JARS), vol. 2 no. 2 (Spring 2001). (Hunt's essay was part of a symposium on Rand's esthetics--and on What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (2000), which I co-authored with Michelle Kamhi. See our reply to Hunt in our "Preliminary Response to Symposium," and more in "What 'Rand's Aesthetics' Is, and Why It Matters" and "Scholarly Engagement: When It Is Pleasurable, and When It Is Not." Hunt is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a member of the Board of Advisors of JARS. (See "Postscript" below for Dutton's reference to Hunt and Hunt's endorsement of What Art Is.)
"We have had to limit ourselves to Rand's published work. Our request for access to unpublished materials in the archive of the Ayn Rand Institute was denied by Leonard Peikoff, the executor of Rand's estate."
-- Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi, What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand [more], p. 333, n. 86.

See also:

Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi, "C-SPAN American Writers Program on Ayn Rand a Sham, Cedes Control to Doctrinaire Rand Institute," Aristos, June 2002.
Louis Torres, "Boswell's Johnson, Branden's Rand: The Passion of Ayn Rand in Historical Perspective," Aristos, May 1987. (I was "excommunicated" from the doctrinaire wing of the Objectivist movement following the publication of this favorable review of Barbara Branden's biography The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986), which painted a not always flattering picture of its subject. Branden, who was a protege, friend, and colleague of Rand, is also persona non grata in the eyes of that group. --L.T.)

Principal Sources and Further Reading

All websites accessed November 15, 2010

Branden, Barbara. The Passion of Ayn Rand. New York: Doubleday, 1986.

Carroll, Robert T. The Skeptic's Dictionary [Logical Fallacies, Ad Hominem Fallacy, Appeal to Authority]

Dutton, Denis. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009 [website].

Free Dictionary, The. Ad hominem Argument.

Hunt, Lester. "What Art Does," Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (JARS), vol. 2 no. 2 (Spring 2001). (A review of What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand.)

Hurley, Patrick J. A Concise Introduction to Logic. Wadsworth Publishing (Cengage Learning), 10th ed., 2008; 11th ed., 2012 (available January 2011).

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fallacies.

Kelley, David. The Art of Reasoning, updated Third Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

----. Introduction [full text] to The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism [Introduction - full text] [publisher's comments], revised edition, 2000.

----. "A Theory of Abstraction [Citation and Abstract ]," Cognition and Brain Theory, vol VII, no. 3 and 4, Fall 1984. On a model of concept formation based on Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

Kingsbury, Justine. "(R)evolutionary Aesthetics: Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct."

Lawrence, Richard. "The ARI vs. IOS, TOC, TAS Dispute," Objectivist Reference Center. "ARI" refers to the Ayn Rand Institute. "IOS, TOC, TAS" refers to the successive names of a single organization: the Institute for Objectivist Studies, the Objectivist Center, and (since 2002) the Atlas Society. The Objectivist Reference Center is the most comprehensive and unbiased source of information on Ayn Rand and the philosophy of Objectivism.

McLemee, Scott. "The Heirs of Ayn Rand," Lingua Franca, September 1999.

Rand, Ayn. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology [Google Books: Search for "definitions, look for "5," and click on "Page."]. New York: New American Library, 1979.

Ruby, Lionel. Logic: An Introduction [WorldCat] [BookFinder]. Chicago: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1960, 1950.

Thomas, William. Ayn Rand's Theory of Concepts: A Brief Overview. Advanced Seminar in Objectivist Studies, Objectivist Center (now the Atlas Society).

Torres, Louis. "Scholarly Engagement: When It Is Pleasurable, and When It Is Not," Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Spring 2001.

----. "What Makes Art Art? Does Denis Dutton Know?" Aristos, April 2010.

----, and Michelle Marder Kamhi. What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. Chicago: Open Court, 2000. (See esp. Ch. 6, "The Definition of Art," which includes "The Rules of Definition" and "Rand's Definition of Art.")

Postscript: For the Record

In late April of 2010, Dutton wrote to tell me he was reading my review of The Art Instinct "with keen interest and a little bit of disagreement," as I might imagine. He wondered if Ayn Rand had ever defined art in a manner that would satisfy me and meet the standards set in the two logic texts I had cited. "Kind of need to know, so to speak," he said. Thinking he might be preparing a response, I sent him a copy of "The Definition of Art," chapter 6 of What Art Is (which includes Rand's definition), as well as the book's Introduction--both attached to a conciliatory letter. Dutton wrote back to thank me, adding that he wasn't certain that he would write a response to my review as he was preoccupied with various writing projects.

Shortly thereafter (in early May) I posted a brief comment on Dutton's book on its page, awarding it just one star. After all, if he did not know what art is, of what ultimate value was the book? Not much, I reasoned. Following a brief statement regarding what a definition is and how Dutton failed to provide one, I cited my full review in Aristos. Word of all this apparently got back to Dutton, who wrote to me. "Fair enough," he allowed, adding that he had "updated" his comments on my original review on his book's website (this was the first I learned of any response by him to what I had written). He said nothing of the single star at and even suggested that I could add a link to his comments, or append comments of my own at the end of my original review. No rancor there! Then, quite unexpectedly, this: "I must add, rather icily, that I recognize that actual dialogue [has] never been an Objectivist strong point, so I don't expect it here." (Needless to say, that statement has proved sadly ironic, coming from someone who appears to have studiously avoided a genuine exchange of ideas, the essence of true dialogue.) Nonetheless, Dutton concluded with this welcome conciliatory note: "I do appreciate your review, and the fact that I've linked to it and included mention of Lester [Hunt]'s praise of your book, shows that I mean it when I say it."

In mid-August I had occasion to write to Dutton on an entirely different matter, suggesting that he consider including a link to a provocative article I had read in Arts & Letters Daily. In his response a few days later he could not have been more appreciative, even as he explained that he had already planned to do so. Then, as before, this sudden shift in subject and tone: "I find myself in the position of being offended by your solitary stand on Amazon to rubbish my book with its only single-star rating." Why, he asked, would I "do something like that to someone like [him]" who was merely trying to rebut my criticism "in a friendly manner"? After all, he recalled, he had gone out of his way to urge people to read my review, had provided a link to What Art Is, and had quoted the praise that philosopher Lester Hunt (a mutual friend and former fellow graduate student) had given the book some years back, which is quoted on the book's page. These "tiny acts of open-mindedness," Dutton complained, were "rewarded" by me with "a single-star Amazon rating--which can even bring the average down, as it's so far off the usual." (In fact, two readers gave the book two-star ratings.)

All summer long, it seems, Dutton had stewed over that single star. In an attempt to avenge the perceived slight, he deleted both the link to What Art Is and his mention of Hunt's praise of the book from his response. "Why does everything have to go sour with trying to have a reasonable debate . . . with Rand followers?" he wrote me, still laboring under the delusion that he had engaged in meaningful debate with me. Maybe, he speculated, he ought to just "remove the Rand discussion" from his book's website altogether. Read it now, just in case.


1. The Chronicle Review, the magazine of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE), June 13, 2010. CHE is the publisher of Arts & Letters Daily, which Dutton founded and still edits.

2. A Concise Introduction to Logic, p. 173. See "Avoiding Fallacies."