Ayn Rand's Status in American Culture



[Adapted from the Introduction to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi]

As a thinker, Rand has occupied a remarkably polarized status in American culture. On one hand, her novels and collections of nonfiction essays have for decades attracted a large popular readership, worldwide. In addition, her ideas have generated a multifaceted philosophic movement, which has had a discernible influence on political and economic thought in the culture at large. She is widely credited with substantially contributing to the revival of classical liberal thought in the past two decades--a revival that has gained broad visibility and influence through such organizations as the Reason Foundation and the Cato Institute.

On the other hand, Rand is still regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by many intellectuals, including most academics. In truth, such negative feelings were, in large measure, mutual during her lifetime, for she began her career as a popular author and, like Tolstoy and other well-known Russian writers, she deliberately pursued her literary and philosophic goals from the position of an academic outsider.

Although Rand accepted invitations as a guest speaker on numerous college campuses in the 1960s (usually under student rather than faculty auspices), her status as an outsider never altered, for she was relentlessly and severely critical of the leftist tendencies of mainstream academic and intellectual thought. Both the polemical style of her presentation and the radical content of her thought set her apart. And, as we note in an article on the critical neglect of her esthetic theory, political bias often distorted assessments of her work. Nevertheless, some aspects of Rand's philosophy were debated in scholarly journals even during her lifetime, and her ideas have begun to be dealt with in the academy. In part, this is due to the maturation of a new generation of scholars who have pursued advanced academic degrees, supplementing their university coursework with nonacademic study of Objectivism. A number of them have entered the teaching ranks. Since Rand's death in 1982, her ideas have also begun to be included (if not always accurately interpreted) in widely used introductory philosophy textbooks and anthologies on ethics and politics compiled by non-Objectivist scholars.

In recent years, serious Rand studies have accelerated, beginning with the publication of Chris Matthew Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, by Penn State Press. Since then, volumes on Rand's work and thought have been added to a number prestigious series on influential literary and cultural figures, indicating that she has begun to attain a measure of "intellectual respectability" previously denied her (see Rand in the Canon). Entries on Rand have also been appearing in philosophic reference works such as the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In addition, the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies--the first peer-reviewed journal devoted to Rand's life and thought, founded in 1999--has begun, under Sciabarra's editorship, to establish a dialogue with scholars outside the sphere of Rand's philosophic influence.

Also indicative of growing interest in Rand are recent articles in national magazines and academic journals. Nonetheless, major book review media, either in print or on air, have been reluctant to deal with a serious book about Ayn Rand's ideas--though books dealing with her life and personality have received ample coverage. The first major exception is the review of What Art Is by Roger Kimball in the Spring 2001 issue of The Public Interest (see Authors' response).

Rand in the Canon

One of the most significant signs of a shift in Rand's intellectual capital is her growing inclusion in diverse series devoted to influential literary and cultural figures.

Philosophy Anthologies that Include Rand (partial listing)

Ethical Theory and Moral Problems. Ed. Howard Curzer. Wadsworth, 1999.

Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong. Ed. Louis P. Pojman. 3rd ed. Wadsworth, 1998.

This text contains a section entitled "The Ayn Rand Argument for the Virtue of Selfishness."

Ideology and Political Life. Ed. Kenneth R. Hoover. 2nd ed. Wadsworth, 1994.

The Moral Life: An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature. Ed. Louis P. Pojman. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Philosophy: The Quest for Truth. Ed. Louis P. Pojman. 4th ed. Wadsworth, 1999.

In the second edition of this anthology, Rand was cited as one of several new "imaginative and important writers."

Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy. Ed. Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau. 10th ed. Wadsworth, 1998.

This is the most widely used introductory philosophy textbook in the U.S. and Canada. The editors characterize Rand as a "widely read novelist and . . . political theorist."

Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. Ed. G. Lee Bowie, Merideth W. Michaels, and Robert C. Solomon. 3rd ed. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 2000.

The editors reprint most of Rand's Introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, and characterize her not as a novelist but as a "Russian immigrant philosopher," citing her with Plato, Epicurus, and Hobbes, among others.

Articles about Rand and Objectivism in Journals and Magazines

Chronicle of Higher Education

U. S. News & World Report

Scott McLemee, "Has Objectivism Gone Subjective?" Lingua Franca (the Review of Academic Life), September 1999.

Organizations Devoted to Rand's Ideas

Two organizations--The Ayn Rand Institute (founded in 1985) and The Objectivist Center (founded in 1990, as the Institute for Objectivist Studies)--work to promote broader appreciation of Rand's work and thought in academia, as well as by the public at large, through diverse publications, lectures, seminars, and other actitivities. Academic projects include research, courses for undergraduate and doctoral students, and publishing. (As a result of such efforts, young scholars well versed in Objectivism have been entering the academic teaching ranks in growing numbers in such fields as philosophy, history, psychology, and political science.) Though these organizations share some of the same goals and sometimes engage in similar activities, they differ substantially in their approach: The Ayn Rand Institute tolerates no criticism of Rand or her ideas, while The Objectivist Center fosters open debate and inquiry toward refining and expanding her philosophy.

On the Ayn Rand Institute, see also C-SPAN American Writers Program on Ayn Rand a Sham: Cedes Control to Doctrinaire Rand Institute (June 2002).

See also About Ayn Rand

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