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I am currently reading Leonard Peikoff's "Understanding Objectivism" (and following the Objective Seminar podcast simultaneously) and a point of confusion for me is the seemingly interchangeable use of the terms. Can someone add some clarity to this?

Thank you.

asked Sep 11 '13 at 06:13

Phyxius's gravatar image


edited Sep 11 '13 at 06:17

For a thorough understanding of rationalism, I wonder if the quesioner has reached Lectures 7, 8, and 9 in the "Understanding Objectivism" lectures. They discuss rationalism (and empiricism) in great detail, in terms of many different aspects. There are also two far briefer and very concise descriptions of rationalism in earlier Objectivist literature:

  • The Ayn Rand Lexicon, topic of "Rationalism vs. Empiricism," quoting a paragraph from FNI pertaining to the history of philosophy:
[Philosophers came to be divided] into two camps: those who claimed that man obtains his knowledge of the world by deducing it exclusively from concepts, which come from inside his head and are not derived from the perception of physical facts (the Rationalists) -- and ... (the Empiricists).
  • ITOE, 2nd Ed., "The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy," subsection titled, "Logic and Experience," opening paragraph:
Throughout its history, philosophy has been torn by the conflict between the rationalists and the empiricists. The former stress the role of logic in man's acquisition of knowledge, while minimizing the role of experience....

To understand intrinsicism, refer to OPAR, Chapter 4, "Objectivity," subsection titled, "Intrinsicism and Subjectivism as the Two Forms of Rejecting Objectivity." Refer also to ITOE, Chapter 5, "Definitions," near the end of the chapter, where Ayn Rand mentions the Platonic and Aristotelian schools of thought and their underlying view of concepts:

[Intrinsicists] regard the referents of concepts as intrinsic, i.e., as "universals" inherent in things (either as archetypes [e.g., Plato] or as metaphysical essences [e.g., Aristotle]), as special existents unrelated to man's consciousness -- to be perceived by man directly, like any other kind of concrete existents, but perceived by some non-sensory or extra-sensory means.

The most striking difference between rationalism and intrinsicism that I see here is that intrinsicism starts with reality (albeit with an erroneous presupposition about the relation of abstractions to concretes), whereas rationalism starts out completely disconnected from concretes in reality and strives to gain knowledge of reality by a non-reality-based methodology.

In "Understanding Objectivism," Lecture 7 also explains that most subjectivists use rationalism, too.

Note, also, that it was Descartes, a leading rationalist, who believed that the existence of man had to be proved by some means not dependent on direct perception of reality. He concluded, "I think, therefore I am." Because man can look inward and realize that he is thinking, he allegedly can know thereby that he exists. Ayn Rand alludes to this as a "costly historical error" in Galt's Speech in Atlas Shrugged. Galt pronounces the proper conclusion: "I am, therefore I'll think." (Thinking in order to remain in existence.)

In contrast, an intrinsicist starts by looking outward at reality (and then errs in other ways). Insofar as an intrinsicist may believe that he finds abstractions in concretes merely by observing them, as "revealed truths," without any other method of cognitive integration, his concepts may, indeed, be difficult to distinguish from the concepts which a rationalist takes as "given" in man's consciousness. Still, the belief that one is looking at reality, and that one ought to do so, is a momentous premise that is crucial to rational cognitive integration.

answered Sep 13 '13 at 00:06

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

"I wonder if the questioner has reached Lectures 7, 8, and 9..." Actually I did so shortly after I posted the question. I thank you for the clarification. It was very helpful. I will continue chewing. I also find the OS podcast helpful in clarifying some of the points I find confusing. That is once you get past the "rat holing". :-)

(Sep 13 '13 at 06:03) Phyxius Phyxius's gravatar image

Rationalism is concern with logic as opposed to or above perception/reality. A rationalist finds symmetrical logical thought structures to be appealing regardless of the extent of their correspondence to reality.

Rationalism is opposed to Empiricism, which denigrates logic in favor of concrete reality/perception.

Intrinsicism is that concepts, and values, are inherent in things. Intrinsicism is easiest to understand regarding values. An intrinsicist thinks that valuable things are valuable in themselves; that there can be no rational disagreement on the value of a thing, and that the value of a thing or action does not regard potential beneficiaries; that the value of a thing implies a duty on the part of us all to protect and defend it.

For example, environmentalism is an intrinsicist doctrine regarding Earth untouched by man. It's the idea that we have a duty to leave the world alone.

Intrinsicism is opposed to subjectivism. Subjectivism (regarding values) is that the value of a thing is purely a matter of the observer's choice/opinion. Subjectivism is a radical rejection of intrinsicism.

In summary: A rationalist cares more about thought than reality. An empiricist cares more about reality than thought. An intrinsicist imbues things with values, implying a duty to them, and a subjectivist rejects that duty and asserts "anything goes" regarding values.

answered Sep 13 '13 at 16:41

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

Thank you for that clear and concise explanation. Both answers have given me a much clearer understanding of the terms and their application(s).

(Sep 13 '13 at 18:53) Phyxius Phyxius's gravatar image

Here are a few of my notes on the subject, from Peikoff's lectures:


  • Values ideas above reality.
  • Ideas are different from reality, and superior to it.
  • Ideas are not a means of knowing the world; they are separate from it.
  • Floating abstractions are common, disconnected from concretes (they love abstractions)
  • They look at ideas in relation to one another, not in relation to reality.
  • They favor deduction as the only method of knowledge, and have a large dislike of induction.
  • They resent the real self-evident -- the perceptual level.
  • Things must follow from each other; against choice; couldn't have happened differently.
  • Love to start with definitions, but just as a string of words, not attached to entities in reality.


  • Reality is crucial; that's all there is; the sole factor in cognition
  • Consciousness contributes nothing to the process; it's an empty mirror, purely passive
  • Cognition works the same way as sensory perception
  • Certain elements in reality act on our minds; we turn to them, and knowledge happens
  • There are special, non-sensory entities acting on you
  • How do you know? "I just know"
  • Reality alone tells you how to follow it
  • All you have to contribute is to not resist; if you leave yourself open, reality will sweep you to the truth
  • Purpose and context are irrelevant

answered Sep 20 '13 at 18:31

Rick's gravatar image

Rick ♦

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Asked: Sep 11 '13 at 06:13

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Last updated: Sep 20 '13 at 18:31