An Interview with Shoshana Milgram Knapp: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand Lives On

Feb 9, 2010 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Eastern New Mexico University

Portales, New Mexico


1)    Professor Knapp, I understand you will be participating in an event regarding Ayn Rand. When, and where will it take place?


            I’ll be presenting “Ayn Rand: A Philosopher Who Lived Objectively” on Saturday, March 20, 2010 (9:30 A.M.-4:30 P.M.) at the Ripley Center of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.


            The seminar examines the development of her philosophy through the course of her colorful and heroic life, including a Russian childhood blighted by the Bolshevik Revolution; her experiences as a Broadway playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, and political campaigner; the composition of her best-selling books; her world-renown as a lecturer and writer on her system of thought, and a wide range of friends and admirers, from thriller-writer Mickey Spillane to actor Robert Stack and atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer.


2) In terms of philosophy, what, in brief, is Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism?


            If I’m asked to answer the question “in brief,” I cannot improve on Ayn Rand’s own answer.  As she said on “Introducing Objectivism” (1962):

At a sales conference at Random House, preceding the publication of Atlas Shrugged, one of the book salesmen asked me whether I could present the essence of my philosophy while standing on one foot. I did as follows:

1.    Metaphysics Objective Reality

2.    Epistemology Reason

3.    Ethics Self-interest

4.    Politics Capitalism

If you want this translated into simple language, it would read: 1. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” or “Wishing won’t make it so.” 2. “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.” 3. “Man is an end in himself.” 4. “Give me liberty or give me death.”


            She also said that the essence of her philosophy is “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”


3) Can you describe your experiences in teaching Ayn Rand’s writings?


            I’ve taught all of her major fiction, as well as some of her plays and non-fiction.  In my courses, I try to do what Ayn Rand called “giving full conscious value” to the texts we study: to understand the whole by paying attention to the integration of the parts.  Howard Roark, the protagonist of The Fountainhead (1943), told his former Dean that an architect gives a building its soul, and every wall, window, and stairway to express it. Where Ayn Rand’s art is concerned, the closer we get, the better it looks.   By exploring all aspects of Ayn Rand’s achievement, we become what Henry James advised us all to be: active readers, readers on whom nothing is lost.


In a course on expository writing, I’ve often assigned Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982) and asked students to apply the technique of “philosophical detection” to the essays in our anthology, A World of Ideas (edited by Lee Jacobus). She explains the need to identify philosophical principles, the conceptual integrations of one’s observations, experiences, and knowledge. She shows how to search for the fundamental principles or premises underlying any system, or any statement. Students can work to identify and evaluate the basic premises of what they hear and what they read, separating the fundamental from the derivative.


         In a course in detective fiction, students read Think Twice–and indeed they had to think at least twice to see why the murder victim, a self-styled humanitarian, was a villain. I’ve taught We the Living (1936), along with its cinematic adaptation, in a course on Literature and Film, in which we also study such works as Frank Borzage’s film of Phyllis Bottome’s novel The Mortal Storm (three young people choosing their lives–and deaths– in Austria during the rise of Nazi Germany).  I’ve included Anthem (1938) in a course on dystopian literature, “The Future as Nightmare” (a title borrowed from Mark Hillegas), where we contrast it with such works as Swastika Night, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and “The Machine Stops.” The Fountainhead was a key text in a seminar on “The Novel of Vocation,” along with Arrowsmith and Jean-Christophe.

            This semester, I am again teaching Atlas Shrugged (1957), which is a timely—and timeless—novel.  It is, of course, frequently in the news. Its name is more likely to be familiar to our students than was the case, say, ten years ago. More than 50 years after its initial publication, Atlas Shrugged is again a best-seller, setting an all-time annual sales record in 2008 and  exceeding that record, in 2009. But being “timely” does not mean that its interest and significance are limited to the contemporary political and economic scene. “Timely” means “in the right time,” and it is not necessarily a restrictive term. Viewed as a literary text, this book is “in the right time” because it is timeless, a book for all seasons. It is timeless because of its merits, because of its scope, and its scale, and its skill.  As a teacher of literature, I am concerned with exploring the art and craft of classic fiction: we are interested in appreciating the writer’s expression of wide-scale values, the creation of a fictional world, and the skillful integration of the elements of writing. That’s why I’m a teacher of literature, and that’s why I love teaching Atlas Shrugged.

4) What sort of responses have your students had to Ayn Rand?

         It’s been said that a novel such as Atlas Shrugged can change your life–and not merely because it requires a large part of your life to read it!  Some students, inspired and intrigued by the fictional portrayals of integrity and independence, tell me that the Ayn Rand novel we have read together is the best book they have ever read, and they go on to read the rest. But almost all students, even those who do not express themselves in similar superlatives, admire and relish the characterizations. Students typically respond well to her dramatic plots, her eloquent style, and her unconventional ideas, especially her uncompromising advocacy of rationality and individualism

         I’ve observed, too, that reading Ayn Rand often makes students better readers in general. They learn that it’s worth slowing down, when necessary to seek answers to questions–about, say, the motives for a character’s actions or the consequences of the writer’s specific word choice. They see that they gain more when they work to own the whole text. With many other writers, answers to such questions are absent or frustrating; for example, sometimes the meaning is unclear because a writer has been careless, indecisive, or deliberately ambiguous. But with Ayn Rand, it’s a safe bet to assume that she knows what she is doing and that, if you read carefully, you can know, too.

         She has described her books as “written in layers,” with values and understanding to be sought and earned at different levels. Her novels have more for readers who will bring more to them. The phenomenon reminds me of what even Peter Keating experienced in the presence of Howard Roark: a “command to rise.” These novels are a command to rise, for students, and of course also for me as teacher.


4) I am often amazed that her books continue to sell and influence college students and serious readers. Why do you think this is?


I am pleased, but not amazed. It’s said that Oscar Wilde, when asked if he expected his new play to be a success, replied: “I know that the play is a success. The only question is whether the audience will be a success.”



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