The Rational Temper: Brand Blanshard and What Objectivists Can Learn From Him

by Scott Ryan

The entry under Brand Blanshard's name in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy [p. 96] closes on an uncharacteristically personal note: "Blanshard's personal demeanour," writes Peter H. Hare, "was one of extraordinary graciousness."

So far as I have been able to determine, Blanshard's entry is the only one to remark on the personal comportment of a philosopher. And the comments of Blanshard's friends, colleagues, and former students echo Prof. Hare's brief and telling statement.

As a longtime reader of Blanshard, I would like to explore why this is. Though I never met Blanshard personally, I feel safe in saying that his bearing and conduct, as described by those who knew him, exemplified his views on the nature of reason and the importance of the rational temper. I know at least that his own style of writing and thinking is a seamless embodiment of those views.

As I am also a longtime reader of Ayn Rand, a libertarian, and a somewhat sympathetic critic of Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, I shall also contrast Blanshard's views of reason with those of Rand and try to say what Objectivists can learn from Blanshard.

There is a historical basis for connecting Blanshard and Objectivism. Ayn Rand admired Blanshard's approach to philosophy, as indicated by a letter she wrote to Blanshard upon receipt of a complimentary copy of Reason and Goodness (Letters of Ayn Rand, pp. 629-630). The Objectivist Newsletter (which introduced me to Blanshard in the first place, by the way) recommended Reason and Analysis as a solid reply to logical positivism (though rejecting Blanshard's positive theory of universals). And former Objectivist Roy A. Childs, Jr., described Blanshard as "my favorite stylist in all of philosophy" and "one of the twentieth century's great advocates of reason" (in his review of David Kelley's The Evidence of the Senses).

The influence of Blanshard on Objectivism has not yet been properly traced (though Chris Matthew Sciabarra has made a good beginning in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical; see pp. 58-62). Nor shall I be undertaking that task here. My present purpose is to describe what I have personally found valuable in Blanshard and why I believe Objectivists can benefit from reading him.

First I must give a brief and highly incomplete summary of Blanshard's philosophical outlook.

Blanshard's philosophical career was at bottom a long meditation on the question, "What, exactly, are we doing when we think?" He found himself driven to rationalism by an empirical inquiry into "the nature of thought"; his work of that title records the process. His conclusion: the immanent end of thought is intelligible, coherent system; its transcendent end, identification with that overarching intelligible, coherent system which is reality itself.

Blanshard studied under H.W.B. Joseph and H.H. Joachim, and his early philosophy clearly bears the imprint of British Idealism. But as his views developed over the years, he made some important modifications and corrections to the positions he set out in The Nature of Thought. Among them: he came to believe that thought need not, in the end, identify itself with its object; he modified his theory of the idea accordingly; and by the time he wrote Reason and Belief, he regarded himself as an "idealist" only in holding that the objects of immediate experience are mind-dependent. Of course there is no conflict here with the view that they are also object-dependent, and Blanshard acknowledged as much elsewhere. Perhaps owing to these and other departures from Idealism, he came to call himself simply a "rationalist."

But despite such occasional modifications, the essentials of his philosophy remained always the same. They are these: that reason is the faculty and function of grasping necessary connections; that the postulate on which thought proceeds is that the universe is a logically and causally coherent whole, shot through with relations of necessity; and that to understand something means to see it as necessitated within a system of which it is a part.

The son of a minister and always highly sympathetic to religion, he nevertheless found it necessary, in his own philosophy, to place ethics on a firmly naturalistic foundation and to abandon belief in the God of traditional Christian theism. For him, human nature is teleological through and through; taking an essentially Aristotelian approach to ethics, he concluded that the meaning of "good" was found in the fulfillment of human ends and the feelings of satisfaction that normally attend such fulfillment.

As for religion, he reconceived it as the "response of the whole man to what he regards as ultimately true and important." Finding that he could not profess belief in the God of traditional theism and agreeing with J.M.E. McTaggart that it was confusing to use the term in any other way, he nevertheless continued to believe in an Absolute, roughly akin to Spinoza's Deus-sive-Natura: the universe itself as a rational whole. (He departed from British Idealism in seeing no evidence that the Absolute is "good." But he did conceive his position, and his philosophy generally, as essentially Spinozism.)

Running like a bright thread through the entire fabric of his philosophy is his central theme of reason — and of reasonableness as the basic human virtue. For Blanshard, rationality was not a matter of sheer intellectual exercise but also of life and conduct. Reason, he held, was just as surely at work in ordering the practical affairs of life as in the most abstract speculative philosophy; a rationalist need not be an intellectualist. And true to his contention, he found admirable exemplars of the "rational temper" in all philosophical traditions: the empiricists Locke and Hume, the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, and — his own favorite — the British utilitarian Henry Sidgwick.

His regard for such strange figures as Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard was not high; in Reason and Analysis and Reason and Belief, respectively, he turned his pen to these figures and failed to find sufficient ground for the esteem in which they have been held in recent philosophy. His thorough and systematic rebuttals (one might almost say "demolitions") of behaviorism, logical positivism, existentialism, (ethical) emotivism and relativism, stand as classics in the field. Seldom in history has reason had such a sturdy defender.

But his reasonableness was perhaps most evident in his exchanges with his philosophical opponents. An acute polemicist, he nevertheless comported himself in debate with the utmost generosity and fairness; The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard records thirty such exchanges, and the volume is in effect a series of lessons on how to conduct oneself in philosophical controversy.

Undoubtedly his intellectual conduct was a straightforward application of his theory of value. For Blanshard, intrinsic value was ultimately located in the experience of sentient beings; without consciousness, there would be no values either. And it was his firm belief that in order to understand a value, one had to enter, to some degree, the experience of which the value was a necessary part. (Indeed this is simply a special case of his view that to understand anything is to grasp it in its relations to the system to which it belongs.)

Moreover, value for him is so throughly implicated with reason that reason and desire are simply inseparable. The result is an ethical objectivism that gives full place to the irreducibly subjective (subject-dependent) features of value-experiences. And the view of human nature that arises from this ethic is nearly the opposite of the doctrine of Original Sin: all human beings are at least trying seek the good, and even those who seek evil are best seen as erroneous rather than simply wicked.

In short, then, he was unwilling to dismiss an opposing position as completely valueless. For him, the fact that it was held by a fellow human being engaged in the common pursuit of truth was sufficient reason at least to take it seriously (though of course not to accept it). In consequence, he considered opposing positions carefully, trying to see what was of value in them and why their holders found them attractive, before drawing his own conclusions about whatever matter was at hand.

To a reader of Ayn Rand, any number of obvious contrasts will already have leapt to mind. We need not multiply examples; anyone familiar with Rand's work (more precisely, familiar with Rand's work and that of the philosophers she criticized) will not require evidence of her unwillingness (or inability) to enter appreciatively into positions other than her own, or to recognize points she held in common with other thinkers who could have been her comrades had she but known it, or to accept criticism good-naturedly.

The heart of this difference appears to me to lie in a perhaps unexpected place: their respective epistemologies.

I think it is possible to show — though this essay is not the place to do so — that Rand was very poor at introspection and very much inclined to reify the features of her own experience into objectively existing features of the world "out there." (In essence my critique, published elsewhere, is this: Rand expressly denied that "abstractions" existed outside the mind — and then, in her account of concept-formation, based on a whopping half an hour of introspection, she implicitly assumed that the abstractions in her own mind did exist in external reality. As a result — or perhaps her theory of concept-formation is itself only a symptom — a good deal of her philosophy occurs at what I would call the wrong level of abstraction.)

The consequences for her epistemology were minimal and are, I think, fairly easily overcome. The consequences for her theory of value were devastating.

No reader of The Romantic Manifesto will need me to point out that, whatever her contributions to aesthetic theory, Rand's essays on literature amounted to an extended "proof" that there was something wrong with anyone who failed to admire her own novels, or who admired authors that Rand happened not to like.

Here is Barbara Branden:

On another evening, we were discussing the aesthetics of literature. I was telling Ayn that I deeply loved the novels of Thomas Wolfe . . . . As I spoke, I dimly observed that Ayn's face was an expressionless mask, and that her eyes . . . were icy with disapproval. . . . When I was silent, she reminded me of our former discussions of literature. . . . Her voice had become driving and sharp as the ice of her eyes, her words followed each other with machine-gun-like rapidity. With devastating logic . . . she demonstrated Wolfe's shortcomings with regard to precisely the elements of fiction I had agreed were essential. . . . I had no answer; it seemed irrelevant to explain what he meant to me emotionally — that the majestic songs he sang had reached into my deepest being, that I often felt they were me.

I sat with my friends in a quiet room, talking in a civilized manner — and feeling a small death occurring inside me. . . .

In the weeks that followed — indeed, the years — I never learned to tear out of myself my passionate response to Thomas Wolfe's novels. Instead, I learned repression, as so many of her young friends were to learn it in later years. . . .

She convinced me, as, over the years, I would see her convince so many others, of the invalidity of their artistic tastes — the tastes and loves that so often, in fact, represented the best within them. [The Passion of Ayn Rand, pp. 242-243]

I suggest that what has gone wrong here is straightforward: Rand has failed to take account of the intensely subject-dependent nature of even the most objective values. That the novels of Thomas Wolfe were objectively valuable to Barbara Branden is surely evident from her own account; if Rand was unable to grant this fact, it seems to be because her approach to values was so utterly at odds with Blanshard's.

Blanshard recognized the intimate relationship between a subject's character, tastes, talents, and so forth, on the one hand, and the values appropriate for that same subject, on the other. As a result, and particularly as a result of keeping this relationship clearly in mind, he held that it was not possible to evaluate the "goodness" of an experience without to some extent entering into the experience and seeing what the subject found so valuable about it.

Let us be clear that Blanshard was not claiming there was no such thing as an objective ethical judgment. Far from it; he held that some experiences were more genuinely worth having than others, being more comprehensive fulfillments of human ends; in an absolute sense, poetry really is better than pushpin. But just as objectively, for a person with no appreciation for poetry and great skill at pushpin, the latter is a greater fulfillment of his or her specific capacities and goals.

I hardly need to recount the trail of withered souls Rand left in her wake in order to show that she was simply incapable of entering sympathetically into value experiences at odds with her own. She did, in a muddled passage in "What Is Capitalism?" [Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 24], come close to Blanshard's understanding of subjective value: she makes what is, for her, an exceedingly odd distinction between "philosophically objective value" and "socially objective value," the latter being the values actually produced by a free market.

This passage appears to be her sole concession to Ludwig von Mises's "subjectivism." By "socially objective value," she seems to have meant the values objectively appropriate not to the abstraction "man at his best" but to specific, concrete, individual persons given their talents, tastes, and interests. But her disdain for such values is apparent even in her theoretically favorable discussion of them.

As far as I am able to tell, she never displayed any ability to appreciate values she did not share herself. Indeed, as Barbara Branden puts it in The Passion of Ayn Rand:

To Ayn, other people were not fully real; they were moving and breathing abstractions, they were, for good or ill, the embodiments of moral and psychological principles [p. 263].

It is probably to fair to add that in many cases, they were "embodiments" only of the abstractions that Rand herself had projected onto them.

I have already suggested that her epistemology, at its very root, reveals a tendency toward uncritical acceptance of the abstractions in her own mind as accurate reflections of external reality, indeed as external reality. One may easily imagine that this tendency would hamper Rand's ability to appreciate and even to see people as they were.

I think Blanshard would have said, and I am certain I would say, that this apparent inability was a great handicap in her evaluation of "objective" values. Without the ability to grasp just what it is that others find valuable in an experience, it is hardly possible to evaluate it objectively.

Moreover, the capacity to share the joys and pains of other people simply plays no role in her ethic. If it had, she might have noticed an odd feature of that ethic.

Here, by way of introduction to the point that follows, is an excerpt from Blanshard's reply to Oliver A. Johnson (The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard, pp. 294-95) that should be of interest to Objectivists:

It must be admitted . . . that anyone who takes self-realization or self-fulfillment as the end [in ethics] is very likely to be so classified [i.e. as an egoist]. He is bound to concern himself with what will realize or fulfill a self, taking it for granted that he will be read as talking not about his own self but any and all selves.

In my own view, Rand's failure to distinguish carefully between egoism and

eudaimonism lies at the heart of Objectivism's difficulties in ethics; it is ultimately the very reason we find David Kelley (in Unrugged Individualism) offering tortured accounts of "benevolence" that reduce it without remainder to a form of enlightened self-regard.

There is a curious asymmetry in Rand's redefinition of "selfishness." Genuine selfishness, for Rand, means the pursuit of one's rational good. Altruism, we might expect, would be redefined as the pursuit of the rational good of someone other than onself.

Not so. "Altruism," for Rand, is identified with the doctrine that the good of one person requires the "sacrifice" of the interests of another.

Now, it is not quite easy to see why this doctrine should be dubbed "altruism," since on Rand's own account it is common also to those who are "selfish" in the ordinary sense. And Rand is more or less clear that what must really be given up is the principle of "sacrifice" itself — whether of self to other or of other to self.

Suppose that we do away with this principle, and take as the cardinal thesis of our ethic the doctrine that in a free society, no one's rational good requires the sacrifice of anyone else's. Do we arrive at "selfishness" in Rand's sense?

We do not. For suppose I wish to pursue your good (directly, not as a means to a further good of my own). Then, on the principle we have just adopted, it is quite impossible that this pursuit should involve the sacrifice of my own rational good. For if it did, what I would be pursuing must be, not your rational good, but something else; your rational good, we have agreed, does not require my sacrifice. And if the pursuit of your rational good does appear to require a "sacrifice" on my part, it must be only an apparent one; what I would be "sacrificing" must be something other than my rational good.

If it is in my interest to live in a free society, and if in a free society there are no conflicts of interests among rational people, then there is simply no ultimate distinction between "selfishness" and "altruism"; your real interests and mine are not at odds. More, if we are able to enter into one another's values and make them to some extent our own, our real interests may even be said to be positively coherent.

On that understanding, we could have made sense of "common good" rather than simply dismissing it as an anti-concept. If we are rational, we do have a common good: the existence of a society, a human world, in which your good and mine are coherently included and we are free to pursue them.

I have little doubt that Rand had such an ideal society in mind. It is unfortunate that her personal limitations colored her presentation to the point that many who might have been her comrades have looked on her as an enemy.

That unfortunate situation need not continue; the bare skeleton of Rand's Objectivism is fairly sound, despite some oversights and misconceptions that twisted the Objectivist movement into something more than a little cultlike. But in order to flesh out that skeleton, it would be beneficial to study the works of a rationalist and small-o objectivist philosopher who could genuinely say, as Blanshard could and Rand clearly could not, that "Nothing human is alien to me."

For Further Exploration

If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in the following (by Brand Blanshard except where noted, although the books by Blanshard are mostly out of print):