The Generalist

Ayn Rand on Descartes

From The Ayn Rand Lexicon:

Prior Certainty of Consciousness:

Descartes began with the basic epistemological premise of every Witch Doctor (a premise he shared explicitly with Augustine): “the prior certainty of consciousness,” the belief that the existence of an external world is not self-evident, but must be proved by deduction from the contents of one’s consciousness —which means: the concept of consciousness as some faculty other than the faculty of perception—which means: the indiscriminate contents of one’s consciousness as the irreducible primary and absolute, to which reality has to conform. What followed was the grotesquely tragic spectacle of philosophers struggling to prove the existence of an external world by staring, with the Witch Doctor’s blind, inward stare, at the random twists of their conceptions—then of perceptions—then of sensations.

When the medieval Witch Doctor had merely ordered men to doubt the validity of their mind, the philosophers’ rebellion against him consisted of proclaiming that they doubted whether man was conscious at all and whether anything existed for him to be conscious of.

In a recent post I mentioned that I am reading René Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. As I was reading, I vaguely remembered a passage from Rand’s For the New Intellectual (which also appears in The Ayn Rand Lexicon) where Rand was critical of Descartes. Now that I am reading Descartes for myself, I decided to go back and look up that criticism to see if I agreed with it.

Well, it seems pretty clear to me that Rand is wrong here. (Gasp!) It seems to me that without consciousness the external world can exist all it wants; I’m certainly not going to know it. Rand does not explain with what faculty she discovers that existence exists, she simply accepts it as a given or “self-evident” but I suspect that Rand herself would tell you that nothing is self-evident (except maybe that if I’m thinking I must exist!) And if in fact Descartes starts from the same point as “every witch doctor” he certainly doesn’t end up there. On the contrary, at least as far as I can see in my readings thus far, he ends up right where Rand begins – Existence Exists. In this regard I think Descartes is clearly more complete.

As far as Rand’s defining consciousness as being solely the perception of an external world, I think Descartes makes it perfectly clear that perception is useless without the faculty of understanding.

…the sense of sight assures us no less of the truth of its objects than do the senses of smell or hearing, whereas neither our imagination nor our senses could ever assure of us anything if our understanding did not intervene.

If perception were all that was involved we would have no means of deducing anything at all and would essentially be unconscious machines.

Now I do expect a disagreement with Rand will bring out either a lot of complaints or a lot of hallelujahs, nevertheless, if you are not familiar with Ayn Rand’s works, I do suggest you read them. (And read them yourself. One thing I’ve discovered when it comes to philosophy is that you cannot rely on anyone else to get it right for you!) Where Rand really makes her mark is in the understanding of ethics, and as far as I know at this point she is really one of the only philosophers that properly defines ethics as being in relation solely to the individual himself. She is so obviously correct on this matter that I am still amazed to see how much more prevalent the opposing view is. So although I find her incomplete in her understanding of epistemology and metaphysics, at least as far as how the axioms that she chooses came to be deduced, she begins her ethics with the right axiom nonetheless and is really unparalleled in this area.

I’ll have more to say on Descartes as I continue my readings. I’ll be sure to link back here, so check the comments for pingbacks.

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  1. Ardsgaine

    11 Apr 2009 - 11:40 pm

    Are you saying that Rand denies the existence of consciousness? You need to go back and read her again, because that is emphatically not what she believed. Have you read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology?

  2. Jerry

    12 Apr 2009 - 5:24 am

    Actually, having studied Descartes in college–and being highly influenced by Cartesian and platonic philosophies–I can say, finally, that Descartes has it wrong.

    See, the point Rand is driving home is that you can’t reach the conclusion “I think, therefore I am” before having an external world that “fills” contents for your consciousness to be aware of and to think about. In other words, the primacy is of existence–not of consciousness. Rand correctly rectifies this by saying “I am, therefore I think.” In other words, without the “I am” –a statement of existence, there cannot be the “I think”–a statement made in response to contents of consciousness derived from existence.

    Rand’s metaphysics is, therefore, actually more complete because it starts at an irreducible primary–existence.

  3. Richard

    12 Apr 2009 - 8:12 am

    What you remember, of Rand’s Primacy of Existence position, was just insufficient for one to make a proper evaluation. I can’t speak for Rand, but here is, I think, why Descartes was very wrong indeed.

    It is important to grasp that consciousness is not an object or substantive of any kind, it is an action. Consciousness is awareness, and one cannot be aware without something of which to be aware. As Rand puts it, a consciousness conscious of nothing is a contradiction.

    To offer a more concrete example: when an athlete is running he is performing an action. Could one remark, about a gym with no one in it, “there is a lot of running in there“? Clearly not. For running to exist, there must be a runner.

    The same is true of consciousness. It is not some mystical force, and nor is it something that can exist without the kind of matter (neural systems of ‘higher’ animals) that possesses the capability of performing the actions of consciousness.

    To be conscious there must be something to be conscious of, and there must be something being conscious! Both instances of the word “something”, in that statement, indicate that existence necessarily precedes consciousness. It makes no statement about the nature of existence other than there is something about it (to be learned).

    In the precision typical of Rand: “Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.Galt’s Speech

    By itself, that statement could be used to accuse Rand of a tautology. However, it is a summation of all the issues surrounding consciousness and existence. My few paragraphs indicate some of the issues, a bit more can be read at the link.. I suggest reading Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Leonard Peikoff.

  4. Lisa

    12 Apr 2009 - 8:43 am

    Hi Ardsgaine,

    Yes, I have read her Intro to Objectivist Epsitemology and pretty much agreed with it. And I do not mean to imply that Rand is denying the existence of consciousness at all. Of course she isn’t. My problem really is only with what she is saying here about the starting point of knowledge. Knowing is part of being conscious, so I don’t see any way to escape that being the start of an epistemology.

  5. Lisa

    12 Apr 2009 - 8:59 am

    Hi Jerry,

    I’m afraid that no matter how I slice it, I’m not seeing how you can know about the existence of an external world until you are conscious. I understand Rand thinks you need to be conscious OF something, but as far as I know, I’m conscious when I’m dreaming despite the fact that later it appears to me that there was nothing there at all. If I am considered unconscious when I’m dreaming and day-dreaming, than what exactly am I?

    I don’t think that at this point we are disagreeing on the metaphysics (that consciousness is dependent on existence) but only on the epistemology (how do I know it?). My knowledge of the existence of an external world has to start with realizing that I’m capable of knowledge. Later I can realize that rocks ARE, but they don’t think.

    Nevertheless, I will grant you that I am still very much studying Descartes and I reserve the right to change my opinions at a later date if warranted. This is where I stand at the moment.

  6. Lisa

    12 Apr 2009 - 9:06 am

    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the reply. You are right, what I remembered of Rand’s position was limited. Nevertheless, again, I see the problem here as epistemology vs. metaphysics. I might discover that existence comes before consciousness, but I still have to discover that. How do I do it? When I open my eyes for the first time I might say to myself (if I knew how to speak!) I exist – but how do I know it? This is where Descartes fills me in.

    Again, I really appreciate the comments and I hope the discussion continues because it’s very helpful. I’m going to think for awhile on all the comments so far. I will be posting on the topic again at a later date with an updated view.

  7. Jerry

    14 Apr 2009 - 4:39 am

    Even dreams require contents–which are ultimately traced to experiences–however rudimentary–in reality. By definition, a tabula rasa mind is not conscious, therefore it does not exist as a faculty, and therefore cannot dream.

  8. Richard

    14 Apr 2009 - 11:21 am


    You wrote, “as far as I know, I’m conscious when I’m dreaming despite the fact that later it appears to me that there was nothing there at all

    But you KNEW you were dreaming, as opposed to observing reality. And everything you dreamed of was based on things you had sensed from external reality (including imagined distortions of that reality that use reality to start). In a sense, dreams are ‘woolgathering’ of your perceptual and conceptual material.

    External Reality (Existence) has to come first, for consciousness to even occur.

    Then: “My knowledge of the existence of an external world has to start with realizing that I’m capable of knowledge.



    When I open my eyes for the first time I might say to myself (if I knew how to speak!) I exist – but how do I know it? This is where Descartes fills me in.

    I think you can grasp that that statement is false. An animal, and a newborn baby, has no idea that it exists, let alone that it is capable of knowledge. The baby begins by observing the coming and going of (visual) things, of sounds, and other sensations. The baby reacts, as some indicate comfort, and others indicate discomfort, and gradually organizes those things in his conscious mind, slowly storing them in memory.

    As he gets older he learns that he has a presence in his surroundings, by hitting and throwing things and deliberately crying or laughing for attention. He still does not KNOW that he has knowledge, or is capable of such a thing. He certainly has no idea about consciousness.

    Consciousness, is simply an action, no different from that of a baby suckling at its mother’s breast. To give the action of consciousness metaphysical primacy, and NOT to give suckling (or a fetal heartbeat) metaphysical primacy is rather odd.

    The key point is that metaphysically, existence must be primary. Then, through epistemology, we see that one must indeed be conscious to be able to know, but that does NOT justify giving consciousness metaphysical primacy. Yet that is what Descartes was doing when he wrote: “I think, therefore I am”. As Ayn Rand corrected it, the truth of metaphysics is, “I am, therefore I will think”. Of course, such thinking comes much later in human development, as I think I have shown.

    The difficulty in all this, is that epistemology is extremely integrated with metaphysics, and Rand has teased apart some very baffling combinations that other philosophers could not. I could go on, but it is much better laid out in Objectivist literature. Even then, it can take considerable related reading, such as the efforts by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff to further explain what Rand was actually saying.

  9. Anthony Martino

    15 Apr 2009 - 8:56 am

    Rand accuses Descartes of being a proponent of the Primacy of Consciousness, a whim worshipping witchdoctor but her argument is little more than a strawman. In fact Descartes would completely agree with Rand that whim worshipping could never be the basis of epistemology. That is precisely why he used the word “think” and not the word “consciousness”. Thinking or reasoning implies the ability to identify contradictions, something to be avoided — hardly whim-worshipping.

    Rand has subtly shifted the language of the entire debate. The epistemological controversy should not be whether the external world or consciousness comes first but whether the external world or thinking comes first.

    As Richard aptly points out the choice is ultimately between these two epistemological systems:

    Randian: I am therefore I think. The axiomatic starting point would be an external world. Notice as an aside that “I am” could even be construed to be the Primacy of Consciousness that Rand is against.

    Descartes: I think therefore I am. The axiomatic starting point would be thinking or reasoning — the ability to identify contradictions.

    The key point of an epistemology is to avoid the existence of “unknowables”. A notion Kant was fond of and Rand so eloquently railed against.
    Now ask yourself in which of the two epistemologies listed above can “unknowables” potentially exist? Amazingly enough, it is precisely in the Randian epistemological system because if I can assume there is an external world that comes before my power of Reason, why can I not equally assume the possibility that an “unknowable” exists? The only epistemology where unknowables can never exist is where there is a Primacy of Reasoning (thinking).

  10. Lisa

    15 Apr 2009 - 11:00 am


    Your comment makes a great point. All the comments to this post have helped me to tease out the important differences between metaphysics and epistemology (how things ARE versus how I KNOW it) and your comment takes this a step further by teasing out a distinction between consciousness and reasoning, which I think is extremely important. Rocks are NOT conscious, but animals ARE and not all animals can reason. As I mentioned in my post, Descartes makes this very clear. He is not replying on sensing an external universe, he is reasoning that one exists.

    Again, I think one of the biggest problems in understanding philosophy is parsing language – equivocations are everywhere – even when you think you know your argument, you can be tripped up by the fact that others are not speaking the same language. Thanks for the great comment.

  11. Havezethario

    2 Jan 2013 - 3:38 am

    I like the idea of the existence before conciousness, but anyway, I think that the theory of Descartes wasn’t that crazy, because neither Ayn Rand nor the Objectivists had ever formulated a logical rejection to Solipsism or the “barin in a vat” theory. It’s all about axioms and tautologies.

    Both Objectivists and Subjectivists parte from different, opposed axioms, and I don’t know anything any of them can prove to the other.

  12. Lisa

    9 Jan 2013 - 9:42 am

    I think Descartes would say, if he could answer the “brain in a vat” notion, that it hardly matters if you’re a brain in a vat in the sense that you are experiencing something and therefore there are resources at your disposal for discovering the truth. 1+1 is still 2 to a brain in a vat. Even in the Matrix, there were clues as to nature of the environment that reason could uncover. I think it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between the two types of reasoning – deductive and inductive. Discovering you are a brain in a vat is an inductive process. Discovering you exist is not.

    As far as I can tell, regarding the difference between Objectivisits and Subjectivists, the axioms are not opposed at all. The Subjectivists make a mistake here, in my opinion, only in that they believe their axiom is irreducible. If, for example, we take the most prominent of the two that I personally know of, Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises, Mises would argue that morality is subjective and Rand would argue it’s objective. But Mises’ argument boils down to his considering the context, i.e., the makeup, experiences, and perceptions of the individual as an irreducible axiom and hence his point of departure, while Rand simply sees them as part of the context. I agree with Rand here because her point of view allows me to reason more deeply. Mises’ reasoning has to stop at that point.

    So, in a sense, Rand is right here for the same reason she is wrong with regard to Descartes. Descartes reasons from an irreducible axiom – I think – while Rand’s point of departure is existence exists. She gives no explanation about how she’s determined that. Descartes provides the answer.

  13. Andre

    15 Mar 2013 - 7:03 am

    @ Anthony: You say: why can I not equally assume the possibility that an “unknowable” exists?
    Well, what is an unknowable then? It is something which can not be proved by the facts of reality. Therefore, it is not based on reality being existence. So you can assume that an unknowable exists (God or whatever) but unless it has been proven in reality it is not a valid claim. Thats Rand’s point of view. I agree.

    @ Lisa and HAVEZETHARIO
    Proving the axiom “existence exists” requires very ordinary common sense. A very “sophisticated and intellectual” philosopher has often more difficulties in explaining this axiom than Mike Tyson. Mike Tyson will just punch you in the head and you would know that existence exists.

    Dopey philosophers would Richard Feynman say.

    My apologies for my English, I am from The Netherlands.

    Greetings Andre

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