Philosophy against Misosophy


   Ayn Rand 1905-1982


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Nomos: Studies in Spontaneous Order, 6:2, 1988.

Rand’s use of retortion, the turning of an opponent’s argument against him, was an instance of the fallacy of begging the question: she apparently thought retortion proved the truth of her own positive claims beyond refuting certain claims of her opponents.   On February 2, 2005, the centenary of her birth, I appended links to other critical essays on her thought and its influence. 

For a study of how retortion can be used to critically ground metaphysics, epistemology, and natural theology, see Martin X. Moleski, S.J., Retortion: The Method and Metaphysics of Gaston Isaye on this site.

Anthony Flood


Ayn Rand's Use of Retortion

Anthony Flood

     In his review of James T. Baker’s Ayn Rand (Nomos, 5:5, Sep.-Oct. 1987), Howard McConnell wrote:

What is not mentioned explicitly [in Baker’s book] are the reasons for fundamental accep-tance of her basic premises . . . particularly the marvelous resolution of Existence and Consciousness as a fundamental duality.  Those words are capitalized, not to signify their deification, but rather their bedrock status. . . . One cannot disprove them without using them and the assumption of their validity in order to generate the negatives.  As such, the disproof then becomes specious.  Rand’s demonstration of this error of The Fallacy of the Stolen Concept rendered down the hogfat of much philosophy and, in my reading, has not yet been shown to be false.

Mr. McConnell apparently shares with many neo-Randian libertarians, who may other wise differ with Objectivists, confidence in the alleged unassailability of Rand’s philosophical foundation:  that the very attempt to refute Objectivism must employ Rand’s “axiomatic concepts.”  Even Objectivism’s oppo-nents will vindicate its alleged truth.  My purpose here is to show that Rand’s use of retortion, the attempt to turn an opponent’s argument against himself, was itself an instance of the more time-honored fallacy of begging the question, because she used retortion to “prove” her own theory, not just refute her opponents.

Retortion aims at showing an opponent to be presupposing the truth of one proposition that contradicts another to which he is committed.  It does not properly aim at establishing the truth of either proposition.  For example, against a Freudian who offers logical arguments for his theory, one may argue that if his view of minds were true, it would be cognitively worthless, for his “arguments” would themselves be but rationalizations of unconscious (and non-cognitive) sexual desire.  But so to argue would not thereby show the soundness of another theory unless one already knew it to be the only logical alternative to Freudianism.

To know whether one’s theory is the only coherent theory possible, and therefore “true by default,” presupposes knowledge of all possible theories, which is not admissible when one is in the process of laying down one’s axiomatic standard of knowledge.  The process of eliminating self-contradictory opposi-tion can only indicate the paths not to take: it offers only a negative, not a positive, defense.  In the beginning of the defense of a philosophical system, where one’s axioms are posited, one’s fund of critically validated knowledge is virtually empty; it certainly does not rightfully include what one believes one’s opponent “knows.”  Therefore to show that one’s opponent is implicitly affirming something he is verbally denying – “concept-stealing” – while perhaps psychologically encouraging, is logically not enough to show that one’s own view of the matter is correct.

Rand tried to justify the theory that the sense and the power of abstraction cooperate to produce knowledge of “existence,” “consciousness,” and “identity.”  If one wishes to read a detailed, critical assessment of her attempt, John W. Robbins’ Answer to Ayn Rand is preferable to the book McConnell reviewed.  Robbins noted that

Rand seems peculiarly susceptible to the idea that the self-refutation of skepticism is a theory of knowledge: it is not.  Skepticism is inadmissible precisely because it is absurd, i.e., self-contradictory.  But to make such a statement is not to show how knowledge is possible to man, only that it is possible.1

Rand charged those who questioned her epis-temology with relying on the very “validity of the sense” they denied.  Early in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, she declared that   “the arguments of those who attack the senses are merely variants of the fallacy of the stolen concept.”2 Those arguments, however, are often concerned only with denying the logical possibility of deriving universal knowledge claims from particular sensorial “data” (or with questioning the assumption that what are called “data” are truly “given”). Later in the book, she wrote that the way “to ascertain whether a given concept is axiomatic or not” is:

by observing the fact that an axiomatic concept cannot be escaped, that it is implicitly in all knowledge, that it has to be accepted and used even in the process of any attempt to deny it.  For instance, when modern philosophers . . . proceed to choose complex, derivative concepts as the alleged axioms of their alleged reasoning, one can observe that their statements imply and depend on “existence,” “consciousness,” “identity,” which they profess to negate, but which are smuggled into their arguments in the form of unacknowledged, “stolen concepts.”3

Rand dismissed the “anti-sensist” as she would the self-refuting skeptic.  But since to show how a skeptic refutes himself takes two or three sentences, one wonders why she did not spare the space, even in her short essay, to expose the predicament of “those who attack the sense.”  It would indeed have been enlightening to learn how those who question the cognitive power of the senses (1) ipso facto demonstrate that power and (2) presuppose that sense experiences plus the power of abstraction can generate universal propositions.  Rand’s talk of “observable facts” is already biased in favor of a particular epistemology and therefore has no place in the fundamental inquiry Rand’s discussion purports to be.  And to say that such “axiomatic” concepts are “implicit in all knowledge” should seem such an obvious begging of the question of what counts as knowledge as to require no further comment.

The “assertion of the validity of the senses,” Robbins wrote,

and its corollary, that all arguments opposing the validity of the sense commit the fallacy of the “stolen concept,” are quite simply gigantic petitiones principii: they assume what they should prove. . . . Questioning the “validity” of the senses . . . presupposes only knowledge of or acquaintance with the ideas of the sense, of perception, of man and of reality.  Such questioning does not “logically or genetically” presuppose that knowledge can be gained only through the sense – nor has Rand . . . ever shown that such questioning makes this latter presupposition.4

Philosophical retortion, to repeat, is but a tech-nique for demonstrating the self-contradiction of the theory of how knowledge is acquired and validated.  Rand’s curt dismissal of her anti-sensist critics begged the question of the role of sensation in know-ledge and thereby rendered her guilty of “theory-stealing” and of abandoning rigorous argumentation for the pleasures of dogmatic assertion.


1 John W. Robbins, Answer to Ayn Rand, Washington, DC: Mount Vernon Publishing Co., 1974, 19.

2 Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, New York: New American Library, 1966, 4.

3 Ibid., 73.

4 Robbins, op. cit., 2021.


Other Objectivism-related Essays

William Vallicella's Critical Observations on Rand