LuxAeterna

The Aesthetic Qualifier

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It has often been said Rand's aesthetic theory is her least developed. Admittedly, I would have to agree. I am looking for the clearest definition of what qualifies art to be art.

From there, I question what makes good art?

As a self-proclaimed aesthete, my personal view is that art concretizes the artists' perception of reality (or lack thereof), and that the qualifier is that the artist simply presents some view of reality, no matter how skewed or wrong it may be.

Good art would then be something that satisfies one's personal view of reality. For Objectivists, this art would be realistic, heroic, and attainable. Bad art would defy those principles.

Is this view acceptable? Is it fundamentally lacking? Feedback is welcomed and elicited.

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It has often been said Rand's aesthetic theory is her least developed.

By WHOM? Ayn Rand wrote many articles and a whole book about art.

Admittedly, I would have to agree. I am looking for the clearest definition of what qualifies art to be art.

I would start with what Ayn Rand's definition of art in The Romantic Manifesto and the examples she gave in the various arts. Have you done that? If so, what about it do you agree or disagree with?

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It has often been said Rand's aesthetic theory is her least developed. Admittedly, I would have to agree. I am looking for the clearest definition of what qualifies art to be art.

Have your read Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto, and/or The Art of Fiction? There is a lot of material there, and elsewhere in other writings.

You will find the following definition of art sprinkled throughout. For instance, in "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art" in The Romantic Manifesto, p. 19.

Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments.
From there, I question what makes good art?

As a self-proclaimed aesthete, my personal view is that art concretizes the artists' perception of reality (or lack thereof), and that the qualifier is that the artist simply presents some view of reality, no matter how skewed or wrong it may be.

Good art would then be something that satisfies one's personal view of reality. For Objectivists, this art would be realistic, heroic, and attainable. Bad art would defy those principles.

Is this view acceptable? Is it fundamentally lacking? Feedback is welcomed and elicited.

I think it very important to distinguish the particular metaphysical values and sense of life that we ourselves possess, from our assessment of artistic merit qua art. To be judged as art the only criteria is how well the artist has used the proper tools of his discipline to communicate values, not the particular values and sense of life that are communicated. It is one thing to place personal value on art -- towards those works that you choose to experience for the enjoyment and emotional fuel they give to you -- but you cannot limit art to only that which expresses values that reflect your own.

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Have your read Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto, and/or The Art of Fiction? There is a lot of material there, and elsewhere in other writings.

You will find the following definition of art sprinkled throughout. For instance, in "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art" in The Romantic Manifesto, p. 19.

I think it very important to distinguish the particular metaphysical values and sense of life that we ourselves possess, from our assessment of artistic merit qua art. To be judged as art the only criteria is how well the artist has used the proper tools of his discipline to communicate values, not the particular values and sense of life that are communicated. It is one thing to place personal value on art -- towards those works that you choose to experience for the enjoyment and emotional fuel they give to you -- but you cannot limit art to only that which expresses values that reflect your own.

I have not read the Romantic Manifesto or The Art of Fiction as I have chosen first to read The Virtue of Selfishness. As such, I was simply looking for a succinct and simple definition of what posters on this forum believe qualifies as art. I understand and agree that art is a "selective re-creation of an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." Rand, however, is not infallible, nor unable to be collaborated upon, so I'd like to see what other Objectivists see art as.

I don't limit art to that which pleases my view of existence -- that is what makes good art. But consider this: if some painter lay out a bleak and dreary view of existence in a novel, but wrote it with good style (such as Victor Hugo), I would consider it okay art. This works well for novels and pretty well for fine arts, but what about music?

I cannot fathom why I enjoy the music I listen to. I completely disagree with the lyrics, and even resent that I enjoy the music sometimes because the message is so vile. The music is often dissonant, not terribly difficult to play, and unrhythmical. But it continues to satisfy some audio-cognitive function inside of me. I cannot discern why. Are some preferences simply innate and specific to each person?

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I have not read the Romantic Manifesto or The Art of Fiction as I have chosen first to read The Virtue of Selfishness.

Ethics is a fine place to start. Over the years I have observed, generally speaking, that those who are initially attracted to Objectivism because of its ethics and epistemology tend to become long-term Objectivists, as compared to those who are drawn to Objectivism primarily because of its politics and later wander off into libertarianism or some pseudo-Objectivist cult.

As such, I was simply looking for a succinct and simple definition of what posters on this forum believe qualifies as art. I understand and agree that art is a "selective re-creation of an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." Rand, however, is not infallible, nor unable to be collaborated upon, so I'd like to see what other Objectivists see art as.

Well, yes, no one is infallible, and I do encourage you to question and think deeply about the many well-integrated ideas of which Objectivism is comprised. But note that it is not possible to be an Objectivist and disagree with fundamentals of the philosophy. Objectivism is a totally integrated philosophy and it is not possible to pick and choose ideas as one would do from a menu, and still call oneself an Objectivist. There are some people who accept many aspects of Objectivism but disagree with others, and the honest ones among them refer to themselves as Objectivist sympathizers or the like. But it would be wrong to appropriate the name which embodies the philosophical achievements of Ayn Rand, while disowning some essentials of that philosophy. When just starting out, as you seem to be doing, it is proper to refer to yourself as a student of Objectivism, which essentially means that you have a serious interest in studying the philosophy and agree with most all of what you currently understand.

I don't limit art to that which pleases my view of existence --  that is what makes good art. But consider this: if some painter lay out a bleak and dreary view of existence in a novel, but wrote it with good style (such as Victor Hugo), I would consider it okay art.

To underscore what I said in my previous post, it is important and proper to distinguish between the artistic merit of a creation and the personal value and meaning it has for you. If by "good" art you mean that which has both artistic merit and reflects your own sense of life, then that is fine as long as you make clear what you mean. But if you mean that an artist's creation is somehow diminished because it does not project your own metaphysical values, then I think that is entirely mistaken, as I previously discussed.

This works well for novels and pretty well for fine arts, but what about music?

I cannot fathom why I enjoy the music I listen to. I completely disagree with the lyrics, and even resent that I enjoy the music sometimes because the message is so vile. The music is often dissonant, not terribly difficult to play, and unrhythmical. But it continues to satisfy some audio-cognitive function inside of me. I cannot discern why. Are some preferences simply innate and specific to each person?

We are fortunate to have a number of people here on THE FORUM who have expertise in music. You might want to start a separate thread, succinctly outlining your questions. Note, however, on the subject of the nature of our response to music, Ayn Rand was only able to offer an hypothesis, not a fully articulated and validated theory. (This is discussed on p. 57 of The Romantic Manifesto.)

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Ethics is a fine place to start. Over the years I have observed, generally speaking,  that those who are initially attracted to Objectivism because of its ethics and epistemology tend to become long-term Objectivists, as compared to those who are drawn to Objectivism primarily because of its politics and later wander off into libertarianism or some pseudo-Objectivist cult.

 

Well, yes, no one is infallible, and I do encourage you to question and think deeply about the many well-integrated ideas of which Objectivism is comprised. But note that it is not possible to be an Objectivist and disagree with fundamentals of the philosophy. Objectivism is a totally integrated philosophy and it is not possible to pick and choose ideas as one would do from a menu, and still call oneself an Objectivist. There are some people who accept many aspects of Objectivism but disagree with others, and the honest ones among them refer to themselves as Objectivist sympathizers or the like. But it would be wrong to appropriate the name  which embodies the philosophical achievements of Ayn Rand, while disowning some essentials of that philosophy. When just starting out, as you seem to be doing, it is proper to refer to yourself as a student of Objectivism, which essentially means that you have a serious interest in studying the philosophy and agree with most all of what you currently understand. 

To underscore what I said in my previous post, it is important and proper to distinguish between the artistic merit of a creation and the personal value and meaning it has for you. If by "good" art you mean that which has both artistic merit and reflects your own sense of life, then that is fine as long as you make clear what you mean. But if you mean that an artist's creation is somehow diminished because it does not project your own metaphysical values, then I think that is entirely mistaken, as I previously discussed.

We are fortunate to have a number of people here on THE FORUM who have expertise in music. You might want to start a separate thread, succinctly outlining your questions. Note, however, on the subject of the nature of our response to music, Ayn Rand was only able to offer an hypothesis, not a fully articulated and validated theory. (This is discussed on p. 57 of The Romantic Manifesto.)

Alright. I am sorry not to have made the distinction that I am a student of Objectivism. I suppose I will have to read the full works of Rand and digest them before I can see whether I have any dissenting opinions. For now, I'll just observe until I have something to offer. I felt sort of obligated to post when I joined, honestly, and had an interest in her esthetics, which I won't be able to read for a while, so I decided to post. I've already read AS, TF, and Anthem, though so I'm not a complete n00b. :o

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Alright. I am sorry not to have made the distinction that I am a student of Objectivism. I suppose I will have to read the full works of Rand and digest them before I can see whether I have any dissenting opinions. For now, I'll just observe until I have something to offer. I felt sort of obligated to post when I joined, honestly, and had an interest in her esthetics, which I won't be able to read for a while, so I decided to post. I've already read AS, TF, and Anthem, though so I'm not a complete n00b.  :o

Oh, I'm sorry, I did not mean to imply that you should remain silent. In fact, I would encourage you to speak up and make your thinking known. There are many here who will be happy to answer your questions as best they can. Sometimes some of the most interesting discussions are started by those in the process of delving into Miss Rand's ideas for the first time. Intelligent, thoughtful, and often challenging questions make for great posts.

So, by all means, please stay involved.

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I teach a course on philosophy of art here at Texas A&M, and let me tell you the hardest thing I've ever done as a teacher is trying to get any of my students to take seriously the idea that you can define art, let alone to argue for any particular definition.

AR's definition of art is an especially clear instance of her methodological genius. The pitfall in any definition of art is the problem of circularity: you have to know what the units of the concept are, before you can define it, but you have to have the definition before you can determine what the units are.

Ayn Rand solved this problem with her justly famous question, with which she begins any philosophical inquiry: "What facts of reality give rise to the need for this concept?" She does not begin, like other philosophers, from the top down, imposing a pre-conceived theory on the facts. Instead, she begins with the question of what, in reality, makes a given concept necessary, and then can discuss what kinds of things, in fact, satisfy that need.

In brief (very brief), Rand holds (and I agree) that there is a certain "problem" inherent in the nature of a rational mind: we live by means of abstractions -- many of the most important ones *very* abstract -- but only concretes exist in the world. To hold these enormously complex concepts in mind, we need to bring them down to reality, in some perceptible form. AR referred to this as a "concretization," and she thought art was uniquely able to serve this function. Art is unlike history, in that every aspect of it is selected by the artist, and therefore he can present only those aspects of the world that concretize his metaphysical value judgments.

Whew! That was a mouthful.

Given all that, the criterion for esthetic judgment is: how well does the artist convey his MVJ's? If he does so well, then esthetically, he has produced a good work of art. Whether or not you happen to like it is a different question.

As for what kinds of things in fact satisfy AR's definition of art, obviously the standard art forms do (representational painting, sculpture, literature). Music and architecture require separate discussions, but she brings them in as well. Non-representational "art," she argues, does not. It may satisfy some other need in some cases, for instance as decoration, but it isn't the same kind of thing as art. Likewise, photography, which she considered to be more like history because it was not sufficiently selective.

Robert Garmong, Ph.D.

Department of Philosophy

Texas A&M University :)

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I teach a course on philosophy of art here at Texas A&M ...

I find that to be fascinating, and heartening. I have so rarely heard of philosophy of art courses in academia. Was this influenced by the Objectivist presence at that university?

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Hi Stephen,

Most universities have at least one philosophy of art class, maybe not offered every year. Esthetics isn't really my area of study, which is political philosophy, but it's an enjoyable class to teach. It's a major uphill battle, though, to get students to reason about art, which they almost to a man consider to be subjective. One student actually implicitly accused me of being a fascist for suggesting that some things artists call "art" really don't qualify.

On the other hand, I've had more students thank me for including Ayn Rand in the syllabus than I ever have before. One student came to my office the first week of class, almost shyly, and asked: "So you really think Ayn Rand is a serious philosopher?" I told him to google me! He had asked the same question of two or three other faculty members, and gotten the usual dismissive answers.

As for whether course is the result of the Objectivist presence at A&M, I'm sorry to say that I *am* the Objectivist presence here -- and I keep it in the closet, at least when talking to other faculty. Perhaps you're confusing Texas A&M with the UT, where there is a fellowship for the study of O'ism.

RG

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Robert, I hope enough of your Philosophy of Art students appreciate the unique perspective you offer them on the subject. I have been at six universities over the years and only one offered a course on Philosophy of Art. The others throw in a little philosophy when teaching the History of Art classes. Just for fun -- certainly not scientific -- I did a google.com search and it confirmed my impression of the lack of philosophy in art as compared to, say, science.

"Philosophy of Science" - 744,000

"Philosophy of Art" - 93,700

"Department of Philosophy of Science" - 232

"Department of Philosophy of Art" - 15

And, sorry about the A&M /UT mixup. Texas is a big place. :)

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Hi Stephen,

My students always respond well to my approach. This is largely because I teach philosophy as if it really mattered. I like to say in class that I am interested in *issues*, not *puzzles*. That, of course, is part of the legacy of my background in O'ism.

Esthetics is definitely regarded as the ugly step-child of philosophy, no question about it. As the well-known esthetician Arthur Danto wrote, esthetics through most of the 20th century was considered "the dim, retarded offspring of two glamorous parents, its discipline and its subject." It's almost never covered in intro to philosophy classes. And, yes, philosophy of art tends to be taught every couple of years, while there may be one or more offerings on philosophy of science each semester. (This is a bit misleading, because there are cognate courses, such as "philosophy and visual media," which I also teach, but the point stands.)

This is partly because the professors (especially those of an "analytic" bent) agree with my students that you cannot reason about art. It's partly because esthetics is in some ways the most "humanistic" branch of philosophy -- even more so than ethics. Whereas ethics covers values as such, esthetics deals specifically with those values that make up one's basic soul or identity. Thus it belongs to another era, before philosophers tried to turn philosophy into a branch of mathematics.

RG

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This is partly because the professors (especially those of an "analytic" bent) agree with my students that you cannot reason about art. It's partly because esthetics is in some ways the most "humanistic" branch of philosophy -- even more so than ethics. Whereas ethics covers values as such, esthetics deals specifically with those values that make up one's basic soul or identity. Thus it belongs to another era, before philosophers tried to turn philosophy into a branch of mathematics.

Very nicely put, Robert. But, I wonder (out of ignorance): Are there no decent philosophers of art in academia? I have heard from several young philosophy students how pleasantly surprised they were to find some professors with an Aristotelian bent, and others who, in certain areas, reflected at least some classical sense. But that was primarily in ethics and politics. Have you come across any (fairly recent) interesting academic papers on the philosophy of art?

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Are there no decent philosophers of art in academia? ... Have you come across any (fairly recent) interesting academic papers on the philosophy of art?

I have not read a single one. They may be out there -- as I mentioned, esthetics is not my area of specialization -- but the dominant view in esthetics is some variant of the view that "art is whatever artists do." It was a major water change, thirty years ago or so, when philosophers started to think there could even be a definition of art. But the best-known attempts to define it have been so broad as to encompass anything.

Arthur C. Danto, for instance, is one of the two or three most prominent philosophers of art. He has proposed several definitions of art over the years, roughly centering on the idea that art is "an embodied representation of some meaning." This sounds okay, but that embodied representation can take essentially any form (including Andy Warhol's Brillo Pad Boxes or Jackson Pollock's paint drippings).

George Dickie, another of the most prominent, defines art as any artifact upon which any society or sub-group within society has conferred the status of a candidate for "appreciation." What are the limits on what kinds of objects produce esthetic appreciation? They are entirely historical: whatever a given age has determined to be an object of esthetic appreciation, counts. So instead of "art is whatever artists do,' it is now "art is whatever the art world says is art." Not much of an improvement.

So no -- whereas my view of the philosophical profession as a whole is optimistic, my view of esthetics sadly is not.

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Arthur C. Danto, for instance, is one of the two or three most prominent philosophers of art.

Ha! I remember him all too well from my days at Columbia University. I once had a talk with him together with Mario Salvadori, the venerated head of architecture and engineering. Salvadori has the most beautiful commonsensical philosophy towards architecture, a joyous man who really appreciated ideas. (Salvadori was responsible for bringing me to Columbia, but that is another story.) The difference between Danto and Salvadori was like night and day. The only good thing I can note about Danto is at least he was an artist at one point, which I suspect is why he treats the 60s as the end of art.

So no -- whereas my view of the philosophical profession as a whole is optimistic, my view of esthetics sadly is not.

I guess in a way that makes perfect sense. The widest integrator, the one that depends on so much else, is the last.

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Ha! I remember him all too well from my days at Columbia University. I once had a talk with him together with Mario Salvadori, the venerated head of architecture and engineering. Salvadori has the most beautiful commonsensical philosophy towards architecture, a joyous man who really appreciated ideas. (Salvadori was responsible for bringing me to Columbia, but that is another story.)

Stephen - I'd be interested in hearing your Salvadori story! His books are a great intro to structural engineering -- a must read for both engineers and non-engineers :

1. Mario Salvadori and R Heller, Structure in Architecture, Prentice-Hall, 1963.

2. Mario Salvadori: Why Buildings Stand Up, 1980. (but I disagree with much of the chapter that discuses esthetics)

3. M. Levy and Mario Salvadori: Why Buildings Fall Down, 1992

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Stephen - I'd be interested in hearing your Salvadori story! His books are a great intro to structural engineering -- a must read for both engineers and non-engineers : ... 

And the mention of a few of his 15 books hardly captures the genius and soul of that great man. Mario Salvadori had one PhD in engineering and another in mathematics, and he integrated them both into a shining life in engineering and applied science. His knowledge was encyclopedic, and he knew how to apply his vast knowledge very well. He loved his own life and the work that he did, and he found great enjoyment in teaching others.

My first meeting with Mario Salvadori is a storybook-like tale, the kind of experience you read about in novels but rarely see in real life. I was much, much younger at the time, studying at another school in New York. In all our texts I could not find an existing way to solve a problem I had chosen for a class project, so I developed a mathematical technique to solve the problem on my own. My professor agreed that the solution generally seemed okay, but he could not understand the technique. He sent me to a more senior professor who also had difficulty following along, so he set up an appointment for us with his old teacher at the consulting company which the teacher also ran.

That man was Mario Salvadori, and the company was Weidlinger Associates, a most respected consulting firm in engineering and applied science. At that time Salvadori was a partner in the firm, later to become its chairman. He greeted me and my professor warmly, but quickly asked for what I had done. He looked it over for some time, asked a few questions, made a few notes, thought some more, and then said "Yes!" He called in the man who headed his technical department, and we three spoke for a while about the idea of making the technique more general. We were probably rather rude to the professor, since I think we all just forgot that he was there.

Mario took me aside and told me I was wasting my time where I was, and asked if I would come to Columbia. He didn't have to ask twice. We said our goodbyes to the others and drove uptown to Columbia University. Salvadori introduced me to the department head, in words that followed me through my years at Columbia. He said: "This is Stephen Speicher. He does not need us, but we need him. Let him do what he wants." He then left us and went back to work. That was my first meeting with Mario Salvadori.

Everything seemed to happen so naturally that the import did not fully hit me till the following day. But not so with the department head, who was clearly stunned for some time after Salvadori left. He must have privately relayed the introduction to the rest of the faculty, since most of them always treated me differently and expected more from me. The greatest part, to me, was dispensing with the garbage courses and exploring courses on my own. I made my way through engineering and applied science, and then discovered the mathematics and physics buildings. It was like letting a sweet-toothed kid loose in a candy store.

I remained in touch with Mario Salvadori until he died at age 90, the last years more through his wife Carol. I owe a debt to him that I can never repay; the one person aside from myself most responsible for shaping my interest in science. I miss him.

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Wonderful story! Thank you for putting my gas tank back to "Full!"

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He said: "This is Stephen Speicher. He does not need us, but we need him. Let him do what he wants." He then left us and went back to work.

Wow. Thanks for sharing; that line is like dialogue straight from Ayn Rand!

Story book, indeed.

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I have not read a single one. They may be out there -- as I mentioned, esthetics is not my area of specialization -- but the dominant view in esthetics is some variant of the view that "art is whatever artists do."

[snip]

So no -- whereas my view of the philosophical profession as a whole is optimistic, my view of esthetics sadly is not.

I have to say I share Robert's pessimism regarding the state of philosophy of art. A year or two I joined the listserv of the American Society for Aesthetics and lo and behold, a thread had just started about the book What Art Is, which purports to explain Ayn Rand's theory of aesthetics. One of the authors was on the list. In the space of about a week I saw more vitriolic personal invective flung both at her and at Ayn Rand than I ever wanted or expected to, especially by one guy (professor-cum-"artist") at a New York university – solely because the idea had been floated that some things are art and some are not! I departed that particular sewer posthaste, of course, but I think it's a reliable indicator (if perhaps an especially nasty one) of the kind of discourse you can expect in the arena of aesthetics.

That's one reason I, in pursuit of my interest in aesthetics, majored in art history rather than philosophy – at least in the former, I get to look at nice things! But it's interesting that art history has a palpable rift between two schools: the old school, derided as the "connoisseurship" approach, whose adherents take the artworks as primary, and study them closely, but aren't particularly interested in approaching them philosophically; and the "New Art History," whose adherents are gung ho for "theory" (from Marxism to postmodernism) but who end up ignorant of the actual objects themselves and are occasionally caught in pretty embarrassing errors. IOW, intrinsicists vs. subjectivists. My own department (Harvard) was torn particularly bitterly by this rift a few years before I got there, and the aftereffects were still in the air when I arrived. (You can read about the whole messy affair in one chapter of a book called Exhibitionism by Lynne Munson, in which I am quoted as the disgruntled grad student.)

Some of us can see the big honkin' gap crying out for an explicit theory which values both object AND "context," but to promote it one has to have the stomach for interaction with entities like those on the ASA listserv. Any takers? :excl:

Barry

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Some of us can see the big honkin' gap crying out for an explicit theory which values both object AND "context," but to promote it one has to have the stomach for interaction with entities like those on the ASA listserv.

Maybe not. Maybe there's another alternative. Maybe we can bypass The Establishment rather than winning them over.

Ayn Rand didn't win over the old intellectuals but she wrote her own books and gave her own lectures and spawned a generation of New Intellectuals. The New Intellectuals are making their way into Academia (with the moral and financial support of Objectivists worldwide) and they are not winning over the tenured Establishment professors. They are replacing them. New Intellectuals are also writing their own books and giving their own lectures AND promoting their ideas on web sites, forums, and blogs.

Once there was only one Objectivist, but she had enormous influence because she was right. Now there are many, many more with even greater access to thinking people. Ignore The Establishment. Their days are numbered.

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... so I developed a mathematical technique to solve the problem on my own.

Reminds me of a certain young man from South America, in Atlas Shrugged, fiddling with pulleys and inventing a rough version of a differential equation! :excl:

What was the problem? And what was the technique? I'll bet a lot of us would find at least a general answer interesting! Thanks!

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