John Hospers vs. Rand

Discussing the break between Ayn Rand & John Hospers

I was reading about John Hospers. He was a philosopher who was apparently friendly with Rand but then stopped being friendly.

I came across this description of their interaction from Wikipedia:

During the period he taught philosophy at Brooklyn College, Hospers was very interested in Objectivism. He appeared on radio shows with Ayn Rand, and devoted considerable attention to her ideas in his ethics textbook Human Conduct.
According to Rand's biographer, Barbara Branden, Hospers met Rand when she addressed the student body at Brooklyn College. They became friends, and had lengthy philosophical conversations. Rand's discussions with Hospers contributed to her decision to write nonfiction. Hospers read Atlas Shrugged (1957), which he considered an aesthetic triumph. Although Hospers became convinced of the validity of Rand's moral and political views, he disagreed with her about issues of epistemology, the subject of their extensive correspondence. Rand broke with Hospers after he, in his position as moderator, critiqued her address, and she felt he had criticized her talk on "Art and Sense of Life" before the American Society of Aesthetics at Harvard.

The last sentence makes it sound like Rand got mad about some criticism from someone trying to be a neutral moderator. The source cited is “Branden, Barbara, The Passion of Ayn Rand. ibid. p. 324.” I don’t think Barbara Branden is a good source. Regardless, what does she say? After talking about Rand and Hospers’ relationship and areas of agreement, Branden says:

Their major area of disagreement was on issues of epistemology. The disagreements were often heated, and Ayn easily grew angry.

“Ayn easily grew angry” is framing to make Ayn seem unreasonable.

“Her sudden anger was bewildering,” John said.

A definition for “bewildering”: “confusing or perplexing: there is a bewildering array of holidays to choose from.” If John admits he was confused or perplexed by her anger, then that means that he didn’t understand its cause or source, which means he shouldn’t assume that Rand became angry easily (I’m guessing he claimed, or would agree with, Branden’s description of the anger as coming easily).

“She was like a different person. But I was always totally fascinated. . . . those compelling eyes that you can’t get away from and don’t want to get away from—they could be completely benign and benevolent, and a moment later totally merciless. . . .

Hospers supposedly likes Rand, but then criticizes her for not showing mercy. Atlas Shrugged:

You want unearned love, as if love, the effect, could give you personal value, the cause—you want unearned admiration, as if admiration, the effect, could give you virtue, the cause—you want unearned wealth, as if wealth, the effect, could give you ability, the cause—you plead for mercy, mercy, not justice, as if an unearned forgiveness could wipe out the cause of your plea.

And another Atlas Shrugged quote:

What you’ll receive from men will not be alms, or pity, or mercy, or forgiveness of sins, but a single value: justice.

Objectivism is not really into mercy . . . anyways, more quotes from Branden’s book:

She had a marvelous smile, which melted me many times. . . . I would see this towering intellect, and then, at times, a vulnerable little girl. . . . I loved her, very much. . . . Now, although more than twenty years have passed, it still seems like yesterday, and I can’t imagine my life without that experience—it was an emotional and intellectual high which never abated. . . . She gave me a renewed faith in my own profession, when she made it clear that it’s not military or political leaders who make history, it’s the men of ideas. I missed her enormously . . . I still do.”

So what happened?

As with so many of the people who were important in her life, Ayn broke with John Hospers.

“As with so many of the people who were important in her life” is framing by Branden trying to portray Rand as someone who just serially breaks with people as part of a pattern. We’re being asked to fill in the gaps and think that Rand’s behavior here must be unreasonable.

At his invitation, she gave a talk at a meeting of the American Society of Aesthetics at Harvard, for which he was Program Chairman; her subject was "Art as Sense of Life." John's assignment, as commentator on her speech, was to present a critical analysis. Ayn took violent exception to his criticisms and he never saw her again.

Nothing about the substance of the criticisms?!

Also “John's assignment, as commentator on her speech” is trying to indicate that Hospers was merely trying to reasonably serve out his role. Then Rand got super mad (“violent exception”), which Branden wants us to think is unreasonable.

I found a different account of what happened from Harry Binswanger, one of Rand’s close associates. He wrote it while refuting a different Rand-bashing account of the same event:

The November-December 2009 issue of Harvard Magazine had a story on Ayn Rand by Jennifer Burns, the author of one of the two (bad) biographies on Ayn Rand published in 2009.
The article’s topic is Ayn Rand’s appearance in October of 1962 at Harvard, where she gave “Art as Sense of Life” to the American Society for Aesthetics. The commentator for her talk was John Hospers, who at that time Ayn Rand was friendly with. Here is Burns’ presentation in the article, which I will correct afterwards.
“What happened next [after she delivered her talk] is a matter of some dispute. As the designated commentator, Hospers rose and delivered some remarks on Rand’s presentation. At least one of her entourage remembered his words as surprisingly sarcastic and harsh. Hospers himself thought his comments, while critical, were entirely typical. ‘I could not simply say how great her remarks were and then sit down,’ he recalled.“But there was no mistaking Rand’s reaction. She lashed out at him immediately from the dais, raising eyebrows in the crowd.”

Note that even this defense from Hospers is problematic. “I could not simply say how great her remarks were and then sit down,” sounds like an excuse for attacking Rand’s remarks, though it’s ambiguous. Does he mean he couldn’t just sit down socially (because his role demanded he be contrary and critical) or intellectually (because he actually had disagreements he felt he needed to express)? If he means socially, then that basically becomes a confession of what Binswanger is about to accuse him of. If he means intellectually, it should have been possible to express his disagreement or criticism in a respectful way that Rand would not have taken exception to, so I’m suspicious of Hospers. Anyways Binswanger gives his first-hand account now:

Well, as it happens, I was present at that talk. I was 18 years old, had only been introduced to Objectivism 7 months earlier, and was entirely unfamiliar with ideas about decorum and moral sanction. Nonetheless, I was stunned by the hostile manner of Hospers’ comments. I remember, verbatim how he began one of his “comments”: “Surely,” he said in a really sneering way, “Miss Rand doesn’t expect us to believe that a painting of a landscape can [here I’m unsure of the exact wording] convey a view about man’s relation to existence.”

I find Binswanger’s account credible partially because he remembers enough detail to remember which parts he doesn’t exactly remember (as indicated by “[here I’m unsure of the exact wording]”).

Tangent: this sounds like a disagreement between Hospers and Rand about an important thing besides epistemology, contrary to what some sources claim.

Hospers concluded his attack, then stepped down from the dais, and, as is the academic fashion, Ayn Rand went up to give her response.
As you know, Ayn Rand could get intensely angry and fry a questioner with both her moral intensity and her logic. But, completely contrary to Burns’ report, she was on this occasion more than calm–she was gentle and earnest. She answered Hospers’ attack, including the landscape example, so gently and earnestly that I was a little uncomfortable, feeling: “Doesn’t she know what he just did to her?” I knew from The Objectivist Newsletter that Hospers was supposed to be very friendly to Objectivism–I think he even gave part of a lecture once in the NBI series “Basic Principles of Objectivism.”

“gentle and earnest” is a big contrast to other framings of the event!

Another thing struck me. During her response, Ayn Rand was looking straight at where Hospers was seated (in the front row on her far left). But I could see Hospers, and the whole time he was turned in his seat away from Ayn Rand, facing toward the wall, in an awkward pose that seemed to say, “I’m not interested in whatever you have to say.” He wouldn’t look at her; he stared at the wall. I’m not a great believer in “body language,” but in this case, his was loud and clear.
I left the event surprised and bothered by Hospers’ behavior. I concluded, immediately and without difficulty, that he had just sold her out in order to maintain “face” with his academic buddies.

This sounds plausible. 🙁

Apparently, Ayn Rand got the message, too, because she broke with Hospers afterwards, and I’m pretty sure it was over this betrayal.

This is a very different picture than “Hospers offered some criticisms while serving in the role of a moderator and Rand unreasonably went nuclear and cut him off.” Binswanger’s account strikes me as the true one. I wish we had some video or recording of the event though, because I’d like to judge for myself!