For the New Intellectual…

Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged:

A is A. A thing is itself. You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it….Whatever you choose to consider, be it an object, an attribute or an action, the law of identity remains the same. A leaf cannot be a stone at the same time, it cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A. Or, if you wish it stated in simpler language: You cannot have your cake and eat it, too….All the disasters that have wrecked your world, came from your leaders’ attempt to evade the fact that A is A. All the secret evil you dread to face within you and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the fact that A is A. The purpose of those who taught you to evade it, was to make you forget that Man is Man.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations:

“A thing is identical with itself.” — There is no finer example of a useless proposition.


  1. Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) October 28, 2013 at 12:23 pm | #

    Well, Wittgenstein was gay. So there you are!

    • Tom Hickey October 28, 2013 at 12:49 pm | #

      Right. And Rand was crazy. Which affected their work more? 🙂

  2. Sam B October 28, 2013 at 12:54 pm | #

    “it is what it is,” the conventional wisdom that repeats this useless randianism

    • Sam B October 28, 2013 at 12:55 pm | #

      also, Marcuse has a whole section on this in “one-dimensional man” where he takes it more seriously as a threat to dialectics. which, to be fair to rand, is probably what she was aiming it at.

      • Corey Robin October 28, 2013 at 12:56 pm | #

        Thanks, Sam, that’s interesting; I’ll check out the Marcuse, which I haven’t read since college.

      • Turkle October 28, 2013 at 1:11 pm | #

        Yes, I recently revisited that classic, and it’s well worth the read. It’s short and breezy, anyway, and the polemic against positivist philosophy at the end is a masterpiece.

      • Donald Pruden, Jr. a/k/a, The Enemy Combatant October 28, 2013 at 2:13 pm | #

        Now I have to dig up my copy of O D M and dust it off (like Corey, I haven’t read it since college). I am only guessing here — maybe someone who knows better can correct me — but I suspect that the attraction of Rand’s statement is that it is simply the strategic deployment of a tautology. Non-falsifiability has always been a bedrock feature of (uncritical) religious belief because it gives the appearance of imperviousness: “A is A, dammit; I defy you to refute that!”, or “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” (go ahead, prove otherwise). Rand is supposed to be an atheist, but her claims require — and have gotten — the reception of something that amounts to religious idolatry, pretending at hermeneutics.

        By this means, authority is granted to the statement because it is unavailable to examination without risking absurdity. My second suspicion is that the wholly singular and unproblematic self was already under severe critical review by the rising post-structuralist critics following the linguist Saussure, and their own re-deployment of psychoanalysis (particularly Lacan) within their own theories. I will admit that I barely grasped it all — and much I have forgotten. I dug up couple of old essay exam papers that I submitted as an NYU grad student in the mid 1990’s, and I am shocked that I got any of it then!

      • Sam B October 28, 2013 at 2:18 pm | #

        You bet. The details are fuzzy, because I haven’t read it in a while either, but I think there was something about iteration — the “A” on one side of the equals sign is already different from the “A” on the other side, by virtue of being the repetition rather than the original. But I may be simplifying…

  3. calling all toasters October 28, 2013 at 1:00 pm | #

    So, by Rand’s “reasoning,” evil narcissistic idiots are evil narcissistic idiots. So noted.

  4. Benjamin David Steele October 28, 2013 at 1:36 pm | #

    I’ve been fascinated by this strange way of thinking. It seems connected to an epistemological mistrust of anything outside of abstract ideology. A belief must be claimed true on its own terms without being dependent on external proof such as scientific facts. It is an idealism of a world of pure logic detached from concrete reality or rather concrete reality reduced to supposed pure logic.

    • Benjamin David Steele October 28, 2013 at 2:06 pm | #

      By the way, I sense this type of thinking is way more broad than just a specific kind of rightwing ideologue. There is a fundamentalist quality to it that is reminiscent of the more intellectual Christian apologetics.

      It is a mindset of belief where what is stated as true is assumed to be true. Of course, A is A; but that is bizarre logic to think this proves it is true. A unicorn is a unicorn. God is God. Yes. So what?

      • Chip Daniels October 29, 2013 at 10:33 am | #

        I have witnessed this with respect to ideologues, which is that they seek a self-containted faith based logic.

        This becomes incredibly appealing to amatuer political philosophers, since it provides a cheap and easy way to assume the mantle of Deep Profound thought, without the bother of actually thinking much.

        Its how Nietzche becomes the go-to guy for every social misfit on the internet, like Otto from A Fish Called Wanda, to throw a squid cloud of arcane terms at laymen, in an attempt to intimidate, or evade the consequences of empirical data.

      • Benjamin David Steele October 29, 2013 at 3:37 pm | #

        The problem with science is that all that it can offer is correlations, probabilities and statistical significances. Science doesn’t offer too many certainties.

        The danger of basing your conclusions on scientific facts is that new research regularly brings forth new facts which forces you into the position of either changing your opinion or dishonestly denying the data. Science is the most dangerous thing to an ideologue. Knowledge in general is seen with suspicion by those whose beliefs aren’t based on knowledge. If you look upon the entire field of science and academia as suspect, then you never have to worry about being intellectually challenged.

        I see this to a lesser degree even with many intelligent people who aren’t as overtly anti-intellectual and anti-scientific. Many people at some point come to some conclusion. They spend their lives looking for data supporting their opinions and ignoring all else. They want science to offer more certainty than it can and it bothers them that science can’t be turned into another ideology. I see this with some people in crowd of human biodiversity advocates (basically, another name for race realists).

        I suspect much of this comes down to personality traits. Some people are more comfortable with uncertainty and others less so. See the FFM trait of openness, MBTI function of intuition and perceiving, and Hartmann’s thin boundary type.

  5. howard October 28, 2013 at 2:07 pm | #

    Ayn Rand is far from a real philosopher. She seems an ideologist for certain types of men of action. Her statement has meaning I think in terms of the language and practice of men and women of action, who have to make decisions. I interpret it as meaning things in the world are the way they are and not the way we’d like it. I think Wittgenstein might regard the line as a special kind of language game akin to this is a slab and his other examples in the Philosophical Investigations
    I have family who are successful in the world who would see Ayn Rand’s comment as a mere truism.
    I have a humbler station so my version is ‘I have to go to work today, again another day’

  6. Roquentin October 28, 2013 at 2:17 pm | #

    I agree. Not only that, people sometimes paint Wittgenstein as apolitical, when few things could be further from the truth. He embraced communism to the point that he tried to emigrate to the USSR, but was turned away. His life was haunted by questions of wealth and privilege, even if his philosophy doesn’t seem to display this on a surface level.

    Also, I’ve never been able to bring myself to read Rand. I know I should, just to better destroy it. Still, I cringe when I see her books and the thought of being seen reading one is incredibly embarrassing. What I really want to say is this? How is this banality about “A being A” in any way compatible with Nietzsche’s ideas about truth? It isn’t. She kept a degraded portion of his ideas about ethics, but ditched the parts about epistemology. It created a “worst of both worlds” phenomenon. The ideas about ethics don’t make any sense without the ideas about truth, it’s not like you can split Nietzsche like this and be in any way faithful to his texts. Her reading is the “high school” reading, the shitty one you get when someone who glances at “Thus Spake Zarathrusta” decides she is the Ubersmench and leaves it at that. One day I might be able to work up the stomach to wade through one of Rand’s texts, but they’re all so damn long. It just adds insult to injury.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr. a/k/a, The Enemy Combatant October 28, 2013 at 2:51 pm | #

      I read Rand’s novels to see what the “big deal” was. I will admit that while I find her politics revolting, I find her stories compelling in that “tell me what happens next” way one finds in watching a cheap Hollywood melodrama. But the eye-opener for me was a scene in Atlas Shrugged that made me an Enemy Combatant to Rand, permanently. A train (one of Dagny Taggart’s) that is carrying passengers is abandoned by its workers. I forgot how it happens, but somehow that train winds up inside a mountain tunnel and the coal-fired smoke and fumes asphyxiates the passengers all to death. That train’s passengers is a collection of personality types that Rand despises. What little I recall of these characters is that as she hates them, not one has blood on his hands, not one guilty of any crime other than offending her with a belief in government or of being a poor thinker.

      She does not educate these characters (that is, give them a chance to learn and change) but instead she simply condemns them to death in a gas chamber. I was so sickened that I had a two day long depression over that sequence. But I finished the f*%king book when I recovered. Now I knew then that Rand was a libertarian, a right wing nut. But I did not see that — the gas chamber thing — coming. Because she clearly felt these inoffensive charaters deserved their fate, I have hated her ever since.

      Still do.

      Rand is an asshole.

      A is fuckin’ A!

      • Roquentin October 28, 2013 at 3:19 pm | #

        I don’t doubt it. How is it that I have no problem reading a lot of others with terrible politics? I count Louis Ferdinand-Celine among my favorite authors. I know the whole story too. The three viciously anti-semetic pamphlets he wrote, siding with Vichy France, being declared a national disgrace after the war, etc. Yet when I read one of his novels, all I get is this sense of being immersed in a world that is as crazy as it is terrible mixed with side-splitting humor. I’d also make the case he is even more important because France really wants to forget how ordinary anti-semitism was back then. There’s a version of history which ignores and whitewashes the past which I find even more dangerous, but I’m getting way off topic.

        The point is, in spite of the above I just can’t make myself read Rand. Maybe it’s too recent. Maybe it’s the association with those who consider her their guru. I can’t tell.

        • Donald Pruden, Jr. a/k/a, The Enemy Combatant October 28, 2013 at 3:31 pm | #

          You make a good point. Crappy art and crappy politics in a single work or in a body of work by this or that artist constitute an unholy crime against one with little time to waste on such stuff. There are too many artists with suspect politics (at least in their art, if not always in their lives or their openly stated beliefs) whose works are not an insult to an intelligence, whether one is esthetically sensitive or is just looking for a good story (Hemingway comes to mind). I would never ask one to read Rand (I admire compassion for others as the highest ideal; for that reason….). My only point is to offer one reason why I took up her books — to see what the big whoop was all about. Boy, did I ever find out!

    • Bill October 29, 2013 at 11:16 pm | #

      According to Wittgenstein’s cousin Friedrich Hayek, W had become disillusioned with the Soviet Union towards the end of his life. If I recall correctly, Wittgenstein was also a fan of Oswald Spengler’s cultural pessimism and had a bizarre fascination with Otto Weininger.

  7. The Raven October 28, 2013 at 5:30 pm | #


    • BarryB October 28, 2013 at 5:40 pm | #

      For some strange reason, whenever I read anything by Rand–be it a chapter of a book, a page, a paragraph–I always come away with the feeling afterwards that I’ve just witnessed a mid-teen in mid-sulk. A very pretentious, all-knowing mid-teen.

      • Alto Berto (@AltoBerto) November 9, 2013 at 11:55 pm | #

        I know the feeling, the opening to the Fountainhead is just Rand having a tantrum over how some single mom she had as a neighbor because she told her she could do well as a secretary if things don’t work out.

  8. MikeC October 28, 2013 at 6:00 pm | #

    On the off chance that my reading comprehension and memory aren’t so bad, the “a is a” refrain was directed towards those who were in denial over their actions and beliefs. One can certainly debate the utility of a tautology in a logical system, see godel, but the clear intent of the author was to describe the perfidy of the government in coercing taxes or business concessions to keep others in business and then call it charity. Sometimes she rang true because even a sight-challenged squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.

    • BarryB October 29, 2013 at 10:25 pm | #

      Mike, I’m unfamiliar with the passage you reference, at least in part because I’ve read only one “non-fictional” work by Rand (recommended me by an enthusiast, who quickly took offense when I pointed out a horde of factual errors in one chapter, alone). Is there a specific instance Rand is referring to, here, when you mention “coercing taxes or business concessions to keep others in business and then call it charity”? Just curious.

      • michael caplan October 29, 2013 at 10:44 pm | #

        “You called it selfish and cruel that men should trade value for value – you have now established an unselfish society where they trade extortion for extortion. Your system is a legal civil war, where men gang up on one another and struggle for possession of the law, which they use as a club over rivals, till another gang wrests it from their clutch and clubs them with it in their turn, all of them clamoring protestations of service to an unnamed public’s unspecified good. You had said that you saw no difference between economic power and political power, between the power of money and the power of guns – no difference between reward and punishment, between purchase and plunder, between pleasure and fear, between life and death. You are learning the difference now.”

        a running theme throughout was the coercion of business concessions (from Reardon Steel to other, less well run, steel corporations). Similar to the railroads and other industries… In many cases, the motivating factor was government threats to shut down or forcibly confiscate factories unless material or intellectual property was “donated” to the common good.

  9. BillR October 28, 2013 at 6:44 pm | #

    Reminds me of something by Derrida on the DeMan/Nazism scandal:

    Who is Paul De Man? In circumscribing this thought, we must look closely at the text. De Man. What is De Man? Some journalistic philosophy imposters want to imply that De Man is a Nazi. But how can De Man be a Nazi? After all he is De Man. On the one hand, De Man looks like a Nazi. On the other hand, he is De Man. This text is valorized already always. De Man is surely the Man. How can the Man be a Nazi? On the one hand, “the Man” refers to dictatorial oppression. But on the other hand, “the Man” is an object of admiration, as in “he’s da Man.” Dialectically, the latter wins out, as shown by American dialect. In American slang “he’s da Man” means “he’s the Dude.” The Dude. The Dude cannot be a Nazi. De Man is now seen always already to be Da Man. Da Man is The Dude.

  10. thesystemoftheworld October 28, 2013 at 10:16 pm | #

    A good illustration why the book is an insufferable 1200 pages.

  11. Nicolas McGinnis October 30, 2013 at 11:42 am | #

    Wittgenstein’s comments here should not be understood, really, under the Tractarian picture that tautologies have no representational content, but through the more radical lens of his later philosophy. In the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics he remarks on the “superstitious dread and veneration by mathematicians in the face of contradictions,” speculating that an alternative logic could “quite well call the Law of Contradiction false on the grounds that we very often make good sense of answering a question ‘yes and no.'” (RFM, III-17, 18). Wittgenstein’s hunch here has been subsequently vindicated by the development of paraconsistent logics, which deny the principle of explosion in order to countenance true contradictions ( One of the virtues of the theory is that is provides a nice resolution to the semantic paradoxes (“this sentence is false”) and a new interpretation of the incompleteness proofs.

    The law of identity bears a subtle relationship to non-contradiction (LNC); Leibniz, for instance, held that the LNC could be derived from the law of identity. But if there could be a logic without LNC, by modus tollens, identity fails. Not everyone accepts that you can get LNC from identity. The issues are subtle, there are excellent people working on them (Priest, Beall, da Costa, etc).

    Rand, of course, has nothing of substance to say on any of this, nor do her contemporary followers. In fact for all her emphasis on logic the poverty of thought of objectivist philosophy on the topic is staggering. There is no indication Rand understood, or even knew of, the great developments in logic made during the period 1870-1940, heard of intuitionistic logic, Gödel, Hilbert, Tarski, etc., etc.; and even today contemporary objectivist ‘thinkers’ like Peikoff can write, in deadly earnestness, that all non-Aristotelian logic is “inherently dishonest […] an explicit rebellion against reason and reality (and, therefore, against man and values).”

    Rand apparently believed that from tautologies alone one could, after sufficient rumination, determine monetary policy. This is, as we say, not even wrong, but incoherent. I wrote about this, and other issue in Rand, here:

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