Using Great Books for Objectivism



by Luke Setzer

To understand Objectivism thoroughly requires understanding its origins in Western thought since ancient Greece. Ayn Rand received extensive training in this thought when she earned her dual degree in history and philosophy in Russia before fleeing in 1926. She formed her explicit philosophy out of necessity to endow the elements of her novels with objectively justifiable qualities: a comprehensible style, life-affirming themes, virtuous and vicious characters, and spellbinding plots involving monumental clashes between good and evil.

Ayn Rand often lamented that the universities have abandoned rational thought and especially a dedication to mastery of the great Western thinkers. She had good company in this lamentation. The Aristotelian philosopher and scholar Mortimer Adler saw this trend near the middle of the twentieth century and sought to rectify it within the universities and in the culture at large. To that end, in 1947 he teamed with his colleague Robert Maynard Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, to form the Great Books Foundation.

The Foundation is an independent, nonprofit educational organization whose mission is to provide people of all ages with the opportunity to read, discuss, and learn from outstanding works of literature. It encourages lifelong learning for all citizens. As part of a grassroots movement to promote continuing education beyond the classroom, the Foundation aims to provide opportunities for all Americans to participate in a "Great Conversation" of some of the world's best writing through “Shared Inquiry”.

Adler summarized “Shared Inquiry” in three words: “Read and discuss.” A moderator leads the discussion and asks the reading group two types of questions in this order:

  1. Interpretive questions seek to extract valid meaning from more difficult passages of the selection. The ensuing conversations stay on topic with the moderator’s guidance. An exchange of interpretations seeks to clarify the meaning of the author’s words.

  2. Evaluative questions ask, “Now that we understand thoroughly the author’s article, what of it? Do you agree or disagree with it?” The moderator strives to help participants to identify their own unique individual values and then contrast them with those of the author.

Today, hundreds of reading groups across the globe employ Adler’s methodology to feed their minds with selections from “Great Books of the Western World”. Spanning well over two millennia of Western thought, these manageable selections expose readers to the great philosophical influencers who have shaped our planet’s cultures for better or for worse, such as Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

Many Objectivists will gain value from participating in Great Books discussions. More importantly, persons seeking to win the “War for Men’s Minds” would serve that cause well by starting and running their own Great Books discussion groups. The Central Florida Objectivists meet monthly on International Ayn Rand Meetup Day in a large bookstore to discuss a Great Books selection, engage in Shared Inquiry using the pre-conceived questions included with the moderator’s guide, and contrast these with a comparable selection from the Objectivist literature.

These “Feed Your Mind” sessions accomplish several worthwhile goals:

  1. We enhance our knowledge and thus our reasoning by learning of ideas that have shaped our culture.

  2. We understand how they compare and contrast with the central tenets of Objectivism.

  3. We gain “psychological visibility” as we learn to understand each other’s optional values.

  4. We learn, with the help of Objectivism, to identify “loaded” questions that sometimes infect the moderator’s guide.

  5. We gain a public presence as we advertise our group through the Web site of the Great Books Foundation, the local newspaper, and the bookstore itself.

  6. We expose intellectually active persons already interested in the Great Books Foundation to Objectivism.

Objectivists may have some concerns about “Shared Inquiry” being a variant of either subjectivism or intrinsicism. I shall quote Adler’s own refutation of these concerns with a passage from his book Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind combined with my own bracketed comments:

"Those who have one particular doctrine which they would like to see propagated [intrinsicism] fear that the great books discussion groups tend toward a kind of shallow eclecticism -- the mere play of opinion rather than the pursuit of the truth. Those who espouse no doctrine at all, except perhaps the doctrine that no doctrine should be espoused [subjectivism], fear that great books discussion groups may try to discover the truth by a dialectical process of dealing with and clarifying opinions. Both fears are justified; but the fact that the great books program is criticized from these opposite extremes is some evidence that it tries to hold the middle ground [objectivity] between dogmatism and sophistry."

Since January 2002, our Objectivist Club has opted to employ Shared Inquiry as the discussion method of choice for assuring that Ayn Rand's ideas get a thorough integration with all participants' real world experience. I encourage all Objectivists to give the Great Books program an honest effort. The payoffs can be substantial.


Objectivism 101
Objectivism 101