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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

On Philosophers and Their “Best” Students

The most baffling line in Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand comes at the end of his Preface to the book: “To be objective, I identify the status of my work as follows: this book is the definitive statement of Ayn Rand’s philosophy—as interpreted by her best student and chosen heir.” But why did Peikoff have to boast in the Preface that he was Rand’s “best student,” and “chosen heir”? What did he expect to achieve by making such a boast? Did he really believe that people will take him and his book seriously if he declares that he is Rand’s “best student,” and “chosen heir”?

There is no connection between being a best student and a good philosopher. History of philosophy shows that it’s the “rebellious students” (the ones who disagree with their master on several issues) who often go one to prove themselves to be the inheritors of their master’s legacy.

We can consider the example of Plato and Aristotle. In his final years, Plato was disenchanted with Aristotle. He thought that Aristotle had moved away from Platonic teachings. Diogenes Laertius attributes this line to Plato, “Aristotle spurns me, as colts kick the mother who bore them.” When Plato died, Aristotle was denied the position of the scholarch of Plato’s Academy—and he went on to found his own rival school. He refuted many of the key ideas of Plato. But the world today recognizes Aristotle as the “best student” of Plato.

Even Plato, in the final years of his life, turned against his master Socrates. In his last dialogue the Laws, Plato rejects virtually everything that Socrates has preached in the Republic. He presents a version of the ideal state in which there is no Socratic philosopher king.

The schools in Ancient Greece (and in Ancient Ionia) used to encourage students to constructively criticize their master's teachings—they were tolerant of new ideas and logic. The ideas of Thales, the first philosopher of the Greek-Ionian tradition, were comprehensively refuted by his best student, Anaximander. Many ideas of Anaximander were in turn refuted by his own best student Anaximenes. Even in modern times, we find that almost every major philosopher has been refuted by his best students. How many good students of Immanuel Kant remained loyal to all his ideas? None. How many good students of Hegel remained loyal to all his ideas? None.

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