Is Objectivism merely a disguised materialism?

by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

Objectivist philosophers may take me to task for claiming that Objectivism appears to be simply another form of philosophical Materialism. Dr. Leonard Peikoff, the current and leading spokesman for the Objectivist movement, explicitly denies that Objectivists are Materialists. (See p. 33 in his Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.)

I challenge what Peikoff says. Objectivist metaphysics (what there is of it) seems to fall quite comfortably into the Materialistic camp. Consider the following description of Materialism by a contemporary Materialist philosopher:

Modern Materialism holds that the universe is an unlimited material entity; that the universe, including all matter and enerby (motion or force), has always existed, and will always exist; that the world is a hard, tangible, material, objective reality that man can know. It holds that matter existed before mind; that the material world is primary and that thoughts about this world are secondary. (Charles S. Seely, Modern Materialism: A Philosophy of Action.)

I don’t think there is much, if anything, in that paragraph which would be denied by Objectivists. If I am wrong, I will apologize and stand corrected.

If Objectivism is not a disguised Materialism, it is certainly not a philosophy of metaphysical Idealism (Peikoff definitely denies that it is Idealism of any sort). If Objectivism doesn’t fall into the Materialist camp and doesn’t fall into the Idealist camp, where, then, does it fall?

There seems to me to be only three possibilities for a metaphysics:

  • Materialism, which believes all reality is material and only material;
  • Idealism, which believes all reality is nothing more than an Idea or Thought or Mind (whether our thoughts or God’s thoughts);
  • moderate Realism which accepts the independent objectivity of the material world, while allowing for some sort of nonmaterial or immaterial reality as well.

So which camp does Objectivism fall into?

I suspect that Leonard Peikoff might respond: “None of them. Objectivism is its own camp.”

To which I respond: “What is the status of ideas and the intellect in Objectivist philosophy? Does the intellect and the ideas it uses, which are ‘beings’ or ‘existents,’ have material reality or nonmaterial reality?”

There seems to be only two choices here. If the intellect and ideas are material existents, along with everything else in the universe, then Objectivism would appear to fall into the Materialist camp.If, on the other hand, the intellect and ideas are nonmaterial existents, and everything else in the universe is Idea or Thought or Mind, then Objectivism fall into the Idealist camp.
But Objectivism is clearly not an Idealist philosophy. Since it claims (or seems to claim) that nothing exists but matter (whether in different forms or not is irrelevant since it is still basically material), this would seem to include the intellect and ideas. This would place Objectivism solidly in the Materialist camp, in spite of its claims to the contrary.

What about the third alternative? Could Objectivism be a moderate Realism? But then it would allow for both material and nonmaterial reality, and also, heaven forbid!, the possibility OF GOD or a UNIVERSAL MIND or NONMATERIAL CREATOR. Objectivism is, alas, an atheistic philosophy and does not admit the possibility of a First Cause or Creator of any sort. I submit, then, Objectivism cannot be a moderate Realism.

So I go back to my original question. Is Objectivism merely a disguised Materialism? And, if this is what Objectivism really is, then on what metaphysical grounds does it claim to be fundamentally different from traditional mechanistic Materialism or, my God!, the Dialectical Materialism of Karl Marx?

NOTE: My criticism of Objectivism should not be construed to be a total rejection of that philosophy. There are many points of agreement between Objectivism and my conception of moderate philosophical Realism, especially on many epistemological principles and in ethical and political theory.

Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. The Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.