A Write-Up for the Blog: “Ayn Rand – India”

A note about this post: This post was actually typed at the blog called “Ayn Rand – India,” in response to their “sticky” question: “Tell us about your journey”: [^]. However, upon submitting, it turned out that I had (as usual) exceeded their space limit (4096 characters). I anyway was planning to post the write-up here, too. So, here we go. (I am inserting a link to this post at their blog). [This post was first posted on August 13, 2010, and then was also expanded and updated on August 22, 2010.]

How I discovered Ayn Rand:

It was ~29 years ago. It was 1981. I was a TE (i.e. III year engg.) student at COEP, Pune; it was the first semester in the academic year 1981–82. By this time, I had already had read quite a lot of material (mostly in Marathi), and had come to formulate quite a few specific questions that can be called only properly philosophic. In 1981, I was reading psychology and philosophy in English at random. … However, I think we are jumping here; first, a word about my reading up to that time is in order…

Actually, I probably had fully read (or at least well-browsed through) the entire library available in a taluka place, while in school. Biographies of geographical explorers and of scientists, was my favorite genre. Also, virtually any type of non-fiction. Our family had subscribed to the “Kirloskar” magazine (and also “Stree” and “Manohar”), and I would be the first in the family to finish them cover-to-cover, virtually within 2–3 days of their arrival. I would also read up any nonfiction books that I could lay my hands on—the books in the library, school seniors’ science and history books, etc. Virtually anything. I distinctly remember that I had finished all of Vivekananda’s books on yoga while still in school (around 8th standard). … So, I was well versed with philosophy as such. But all of my pre-engg. reading was mostly in Marathi.

During my 11th/12th std. (or thereabouts), in the magazine “Science Today” (no longer published by their publishers, the Times of India group), there was this series on the “Method of Science” being run by a scientist by name P. M. Bhargava who was into popularizing the Method. (It’s the same Bhargava whose Exhibition on the Method of Science had been vandalized in 1978; his write-ups in “Science Today” were based on the material from this exhibition). This series of write-ups had absorbed me a lot. So, by the time I went to engineering I already knew in explicit terms that I would want to apply the *method* of science (with the stress on the word method also right from those days) to *everything* in my life. I changed it later on, of course, after reading Ayn Rand—I realized that exercise of rationality cannot be limited to only that kind of knowledge which involves testing of hypotheses via *experiments* alone. In fact, I also knew right back then that experiments as such don’t have to be conducted. What I really meant, without having the necessary terms, was the unbreached application of Reason to every issue in Life. That’s what I actually meant when I said the *method* of science back then.

That was the background. Now, comfortably settled in and with COEP, I had once again picked up the habit of reading non-fiction books, my new interests being psychology and philosophy. But this time, I decidedly was pursuing books in English (in part because I didn’t find what I wanted in the Marathi books anymore, and in part because I wanted to improve my English anyway).

The best books were then available with the British Library (on the Fergusson College Road in Pune). But obtaining the Library’s membership was not only somewhat expensive for us students in those days, but the Library also had a long waiting list for membership. So the membership was difficult to get in those days. We usually used to borrow books on someone else’s membership card. In the first semester of TE, I remember, I had begun  sometimes accompanying a friend to the British Library;  we would use the membership card of a certain cousin brother of his (himself a BTech chemical engineer from IIT Bombay, working in Pune). I distinctly remember that I had arranged for borrowing Russell’s book, I guess may be on logic or so (I no longer remember the exact title). Randomly, I also was browsing up other authors. (Funny, however, that I still hadn’t yet bought Will Durant’s “Story of Philosophy,” which happened only a few years later!)

It was at this point that a friend of mine (a class-mate of mine at COEP), then an Objectivist, happened to recommend Ayn Rand to me. He had all her books with him. Some of these books, and some knowledge about Objectivism had come to him from *his* friend, a senior to us, a graduate of both COEP and Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management, Bombay. (I later learnt that *that* guy, in turn, had been introduced to Objectivism by some professor, probably a visiting faculty, at the JB Institute.) … Indeed, at this point of time (II half of 1981), I had also begun reading Freud, again borrowing the books by Freud from this same friend. I indeed had become an enthusiastic Freudian for some time then, something that I more deeply thought about and then disavowed only in 1984 or thereabouts.

Unlike most other readers who begin with Ayn Rand novels, I happened to begin with her non-fiction works. I no longer recall the time-period exactly, but perhaps there was a week or two of “For the New Intellectual” (FTNI) with which I began. I did not finish it. For books in English, I used to have a very very slow reading rate, something like 12–15 pages per hour. (Even today, I don’t usually exceed 20 pages/hour). I also usually don’t finish books in one go, neither do I follow the sequence given in the book during even the very first reading. So, I didn’t quite finish FTNI. But, within a couple of weeks or so, I went to her “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.” (ITOE).

It was this book which kept me engaged the most. The friend and I discussed and argued a lot, sometimes for hours. I think that unlike my usual habits, I almost fully *finished* ITOE (in any case definitely including Peikoff’s essay) before moving on to “The Romantic Manifesto.” The “Virtue of Selfishness” and “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” and “The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution” came immediately later. However, I didn’t finish all the essays from these books. Yet, I did jump at the essays having more general themes, leaving the more topical essays aside. Much, though not all, of this was already there before my final year  (1982–83) began. I guess I didn’t read the novels in full until years later—I knew the plots in general terms from my discussions with my friend. I guess I read “Atlas Shrugged” in full for the first time only while attending IIT Madras (in 1985–87).

I did not “convert” to Objectivism immediately. In fact, during the initial discussions with my friend (in 1981–82), I used to take a position completely opposite of Ayn Rand’s. ITOE still was only in the first edition back then, and its back-cover would then carry a descriptive paragraph of the kind of erroneous views of concepts that people have. The description would then add how Ayn Rand offered a fresh alternative.  When I began reading ITOE, I would often argue with my friend, always taking precisely this opposite position, e.g. that concepts are approximate, vague, with multiple meanings, etc.

But, I also had already come to accept the “*Method* of Science,” including “logic,” and so, in our arguments, I picked up the challenge to prove Ayn Rand wrong. To achieve this end, I would work through her arguments, purely in order to defeat her. I worked through each passage, each line tens of times, arguing points—either in my mind or with my friend. Even back then, I knew that if I accepted ITOE, and if Rand was consistent, then I would also accept everything else by her too.

I guess the “conversion” (i.e. conviction) had already occurred sometime by mid-1985, when I bought “Philosophy: Who Needs It” (PWNI). [The first version of this post gave the date wrongly as 1987. I then thought about it, checked out my book collection, and verified that the date of purchase of my copy of PWNI is: 14th May, 1985.]

Somewhere above, I have said that my friend and I would argue a lot, sometimes for hours. That was an understatement. We could easily chat and argue right from a morning, through lunch, through dinner, and then till late in the night up to like 2 or 3 AM in the morning. … Both of us (and many many more of my friends from hostels) had already grown to the lectures-bunking style of attending COEP. Some of these arguments did occur at COEP’s Boat Club, but it was easy to lose focus because of friends dropping by. One doesn’t want that kind of an interference if one is ought to prove an obviously intelligent philosopher wrong. Therefore, a majority of our arguments (in Marathi: “DokephoD”) occurred on cups of tea (also with cigarettes) at a small restaurant called “Cafe Helena” on the Furgusson College Road. (Helena wound up long time ago. It used to be near the Iranian Cafe Ramsar, opposite the Police Parade ground.)

Let me end this description of my early times with Objectivism, on a funny memory. During my *very* initial discussions, I remember, one argument we had was whether photography could qualify as art or not. My position was that it did; the friend’s position was that no, it didn’t. Both of us were willing to rope in *epistemological* arguments to justify our respective points (after reading up The Romantic Manifesto, of course!) In one of these discussions, I once gave some argument that I thought was very strong, and then, in closing it, I said to my friend, with a mock anger and with anticipation of victory, something like: (Marathi) “tyaa tujhyaa yeDyaa ‘Ayn Rand’ laa jaawun saang, tyaachyaa ‘argument’-madhe dam naahin mhaNun!” [English translation: Go to your stupid Ayn Rand and tell him that there is no substance in his arguments.] This friend of mine suddenly looked at me a little strangely, and, suppressing his smile, said: (Marathi) “Ajyaa, [an expletive deleted], tulaa jar tiche mudde khoDunach kaaDhaayache asatil, tar kamit kami tichi pustak_ jara niT tari waachat jaa. ‘Ayn Rand’ ‘to’ nahi, ‘tee’ aahe.” [English translation: Ajyaa, [an expletive deleted], if you have to disprove her points, then at least read her books carefully. Ayn Rand is not a “he”; it’s a “she”! She is a woman, not a man! ] LOL… The thing was that I had very little exposure to the Western things back then. I was not exposed even to the Western society, let alone the Western culture or literature. So, the first time I had heard of Ayn Rand’s name from this friend, I had imagined “Ayn” to be some kind of a variation on the name “Ian.” And so, I had taken this new strange philosopher to be a man. (I knew the name “Ian” to be a man’s name because of the Ian Fleming of the James Bond fame.) The assumption that Rand was a man had continued for at least a month or so, perhaps more.

As to the argument concerning photography,  yes, after months, eventually, we did come to settle our argument. I came to accept the absence in photography of that kind of a *recreation* of reality which would be necessary for something to qualify as art; he came to accept more deeply his point that there may be some element of art in those photographs whose elements had been “managed” carefully enough.

One reason the photography debate ended also was because, in the process, I had introduced  another debate: Does engineering graphics qualify as a language in its own right, even if only as a highly specialized kind of language? My position was that yes, it did. Words, as epistemological symbols, do not have to be expressed using the same mechanism as our usual language, a way in which, say, poetry can be composed.  Each element of engineering graphics does represent a concept, and there is sufficient complexity of combination of basic concepts that it should be taken to a language of its own sort. Thus, say the isometric view in an engineering drawing is comparable to a paragraph describing an object… We had come to this sub-debate after trying to understand Ayn Rand’s observation concerning the traditional view that a  picture conveys a thousand words. Ayn Rand had pointed out, from her unique angle, that a word stands for an infinity of concretes and thus are cognitively far more powerful. Since I had started out by being in principle against her, esp. while going through ITOE, I immediately came up this argument that engineering graphics is a language!

Even some 28/29 years later, I wouldn’t mind receiving new arguments on this matter. And, as far as I know it, this argument of mine is novel in the sense that I haven’t yet seen it mentioned in any writings by anyone, Objectivists or others!

Anyway, to resume tracing my studies of Objectivism, many pieces really fell in place for me only a few years later, in 1989–90, when I listened to Peikoff’s audio courses on “Philosophy of Objectivism” and “Understanding Objectivism.” This was at a club of some people who then were Objectivists. Tara and Govind Malkani of Bombay used to supply these cassettes.

My reaction to Ayn Rand’s writings have included everything that her admirers have ever written.

Here, the piece I like best is Peikoff’s “My 30 Years with Ayn Rand.” You might have guessed by now the reason why it would be a favorite of mine. … Come to think of it, there are two reasons. (i) The first, less important, reason is that Peikoff keeps away from discussing the concretes of her personal life except if these would honor her. (ii) The second, the really important reason is that he does not fail to highlight that it was her *method* of using her mind which was the most unique thing about her. This emphasis on “method” would tell you why I appreciate Peikoff’s piece—the reason is, this way of capturing Ayn Rand’s essence *is* (epistemologically) *right*.

However, unlike most other Objectivists, I have also sometimes thought if, stylistically speaking, she could not have been a little less passionate, a little cooler in her writings. Not that her passionate criticism of the irrationalities that she saw around, really bothered me. Nope. Not at all. (I am usually told that I have a temper myself.) But still… Let me put it this way. The tone of her later writings, say in PWNI, is definitely more mellow, more mature. The early writings (I mean non-fiction) are more full of an acute kind of a fire, and, going by the number of lines or pages alone, more concerned with polemics. Stylistically alone, I like her later writings better.

I am not much of a fictions man. In fiction, among her writings, I like her “Anthem” more than anything else. Probably, “Atlas Shrugged” would come at #2, followed by “The Fountainhead” at #3

But, again, I am a kind of a guy who rather happens to pick up Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, or Binswanger’s lexicon, rather than the fiction works. [For instance, I have wondered whether, for determining ranks of her fiction works, esp. from #2 onwards, these ranks could not be determined in reference to the direction of the net velocity vector which would be obtained if the instantaneous velocities of all fish on the planet Earth were summed up. (Incidentally, I had thought of such a vector the first time in 1994–1995, i.e. way way before Paul the Octopus. I had thought of it completely on my own, not knowing similar proposals elsewhere. (*Don’t* take this seriously!))]

Anyway, frivolities aside, let me mention a few essays by her that have remained etched in my memory for whatever odd personal reasons. I haven’t looked up her books in recent times, and am talking purely off-hand, or on-the-fly. So, the list may change after a due deliberation. But, off-hand, I would say the following list, in no particular order. (I am noting the main subject matters, the title words may not be exact): the entirety of ITOE; the “Summary” section of ITOE (which, qua summary, is the all-time best that I have ever seen in any writing—philosophic or in science/engineering); the psycho-epistemology of art; the comprachicos; the opening essay in the book The Virtue of Selfishness; the essay on philosophical detection in PWNI; The Metaphysical vs. the Man-Made; Don’t Let It Go; The essay on occasion of that chess championship match between an American and a Russian (I always have a very poor memory when it comes to names and things like that);  The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy; etc. (For the first three-four years, keeping ITOE aside, my most favorite was The Comprachicos; it still is one of the most favorites.)

How do I relate to her ideas today? Hmmm…. In my recent PhD thesis (submitted 2007, defended 2009), I explicitly acknowledged Objectivism as the general philosophy behind my research.

However, I think I do “look elsewhere” too when it comes to certain very few issues such as: reincarnation (I believe in it unlike Rand/Peikoff), some of the Indian ideas concerning soul, etc. I have been reading a lot on these matters, the “Upanishad”s being my most favorites. Recently, I have begun reading Patanjali’s writeups on Yoga too.

I think I am very clear on these matters: I am going to or already have accepted certain of such ideas, without rejecting Ayn Rand’s *axioms* and their interrelations in a general sense. Thus, I do believe in the Primacy of Existence.

But I also believe that many other supplemental observations can be made, and need to be integrated. Such a change will not be Objectivism. But it will be/is a part of my thought and outlook, and, to the extent that such ideas are philosophic matters, also of my personal philosophy. (I have no ambition whatsoever in philosophy—there, I am, and intend to remain, an amateur).

Overall, my advice to the newcomers would be to finish her books first, and then also do go through Peikoff’s courses: “Philosophy of Objectivism” and “Understanding Objectivism” (esp the latter). Another matter. His course on “History of (Western) Philosophy” also helps a lot. Of course, that is, if you are interested in her philosophy and not just her fiction (at the level of art).

BTW, one change over the years is that I no longer am very enthusiastic in discussing her ideas. There have been some bitter experiences with the so-called Objectivists, but I am sure these did not matter. I think this loss of interest has been very natural.

I wanted to understand philosophy, and after reaching a comfortable enough level over decades, I think now, naturally, there is only a mild interest in exchanging ideas. However, of course, I many times do mention her in my blog posts, if there is a need to trace the origin of ideas to her (and to other leading Objectivist philosophers like Peikoff and Binswanger).

Enough! (Even I get tired typing!!)

PS: This is the second edition of this post, considerably expanded with trivia, and updated. I am sure there would be mistakes in it, but I will let these remain. (I am very poor in English composition, and English anyway is my second language, not first.)

The reason there was a gap between my last post and this one is that, about two weeks ago, my mother fell while sitting on a chair right in our home, and broke her hip joint. There was a surgery. So, I have been away from blogging. I plan to write a few things on philosophy of mathematics and physics, and also on the nonlinear dynamics part of my hypothesis on homeopathy here soon enough. How soon, you ask? Go, figure! 🙂

* * * * *   * * * * * *   * * * * *

A Song I Like:

(Hindi) “deewaanaa kar ke cHoDoge lagataa hai…”
Singers: Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar
Music: R. D. Burman
Lyrics: [TBD]
[This post originally posted on August 13, 2010; considerably expanded and updated on August 22, 2010.]
[E&OE]

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4 thoughts on “A Write-Up for the Blog: “Ayn Rand – India”

  1. Hi Ajay,
    It was great reading your account. I identified with a lot that you have said. Though, I do have much less life experience that you, I still relate to much of the Hindu philosophy and try to co-relate both that to Rand’s ideas.
    Just also wanted to mention that, you write quite well, and perhaps you should stop calling yourself an amateur in English 🙂
    Have a great day,
    Kirti

      • Dear Kirti,

        Thanks for the comment. And, for the erratum. Though, might as well let you (and the other readers) know that COEP and other friends of those days would perhaps even today be surprised by the name Ajit—they would know me as “Ajyaa,” and, therefore, would naturally translate, for a more formal name, into “Ajay.”

        You said something about Hindu? Hmmm… No. I didn’t mean Hindu. I did say Upnishads, and Patanjali’s writeups on Yoga, also Vivekananda… But I didn’t say Hindu.

        FYI: I am in principle against BJP and the Hindu Cultural Nationalism (and also every other form of Nationalism that *they* preach). Unless they give up (is abjure the right word? (see, see, the sort of poor English I have?)) their basis in religion, and shift their advocacy of capitalism on a secular platform (and they are free to write me to ask what I mean by “secular”), my opposition remain intact.

        I don’t think, say, Upnishads, belong to them.

        Another very important matter. There *is* too much of mysticism in the Upnishads proper. But not as much as too many Westerners seem to think there is. More accurately, there are too many genuine philosophic insights into the human nature in them, often times veiled behind mysticism, sure, but, still, so transparently available to the seeker, that it should be easy—even if not damn easy—to retrieve those objective truths from the jaws of mysticsm. That’s what I intend to do. … So what if, in the process, I seem to end up being a non-Objectivist.

        Indeed, I do have some issues against not only Peikoff but also Rand. Sure. This does not mean I am going to lose my hard-won knowledge. Not at all.

        Stay tuned for more updates. Here is a rapid one (don’t reply, but think): How would you “reconcile” (i.e. non-contradictorily integrate) the premise of “tabula rasa” and, assuming it were to be true, reincarnation. Think. (Hint: It can be done.)

        One final matter. My range of life experiences also includes a heart by-pass surgery on me. This was *not* a turning point in my going to Upnishads or accepting reincarnation. … If one is brought up in India, one wouldn’t need a dramatic event of that sort; one would already be thinking of such things—that’s the point.

        Best,

        –Ajit

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