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Allan Gotthelf

Follow Reason

An Objectivist viewpont

"It was nice doing a Rand reading, it was all so clear," says Carl Lisberger, a first-year Pitt student whose glasses and briefcase make him look older. Lisberger’s professor, Allan Gotthelf, smiles from the front of the classroom. Students embracing the work of Ayn Rand always puts a smile on his face.

Gotthelf came to Pitt this year specifically to research and teach the philosophy of Rand. He is something of a Rand expert. He even met and talked with her in the late ’60s and ’70s. During those meetings, the two had some late night philosophy conversations, one lasting until 4 a.m. Her influence helped spur him into a life as a philosopher. Before coming to Pitt as a visiting professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, he taught at several universities and is widely recognized for his contributions to the study of ancient Greek philosophy.

In the same class that enlightened Lisberger, another student is wearing a "Follow Reason" sweatshirt—two words that succinctly describe Objectivism, a philosophy invariably linked to Rand. It turns out that some of the students already have a background in Rand culled from her critically acclaimed novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

Certainly, Rand is well known as a popular writer and thinker. Nowhere is that more evident than in a survey of lifetime reading habits conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book. Those surveyed were asked to name a book that had made a difference in their lives. When all the responses were tallied, only the Bible ranked ahead of Atlas Shrugged.

Yet, notes Gotthelf, many academic philosophers dismiss Rand’s thought or even actively dislike her because of her emphasis on individualism and the virtue of capitalism. "Professors often think of her as philosophy lite," he says. "They think that she has a view that’s light and superficially attractive, especially to young people." Too often, he believes, serious thinkers dismiss Rand with the thought: It’s just a popular writer saying, ‘Be your own person.’ He fears that many philosophers don’t recognize her complicated, innovative ideas about the most basic philosophical problems:

What is real?

How do we know it?

Gotthelf’s copy of For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand features a personal note from Rand herself.

By teaching courses like HPS/PHIL 1690, Topics in Philosophy of Science, Gotthelf is doing his part to change the lack of academic respect given to Rand. In his Cathedral of Learning classroom, he focuses on Rand’s understanding of concepts. Absorbed in explaining her thoughts, he stares up, just above the heads of students. Light glints on his square eyeglasses. In a sonorous voice, he explains that Rand’s thought is most akin to Aristotle’s. She believed that the world exists and is what it is, independent of the human mind. To illustrate his point, he looks through a window and focuses on a tree. Rand, he explains, would say the tree exists, no matter what we call it, or how we perceive it. While listening to the example, students scrawl notes on pads of paper and in the margins of their texts. They then learn what Rand told their professor during one of his conversations with her when he was approximately their age:

"What I love about five is that it’s five, not somewhere between 4.7 and 5.2." In other words, says Gotthelf, "Her goal is that all concepts have the precision of five."

Gotthelf was introduced to Rand’s theories when he was an 18-year-old student at Brooklyn College, working at the local post office. His mother gave him a copy of Atlas Shrugged, and he found himself squeezing in reading time whenever he could—on work breaks, late at night. The book impressed on him the importance of the rational human mind.

"The word mind was floating over the book in a glow," he recollects enthusiastically, creating the image with his hands. Before that book, he says, he loved philosophy but was frustrated by philosophers who argued but couldn’t really prove their ideas.

"I thought, ‘Who wants to spend his life banging his head against a wall?’" Rand convinced him to become a philosopher by showing him that philosophy has a rational method and can reach truth, he says. He spent a lot of time discussing philosophy with her and, also, was among a small coterie of professors and students invited to workshops she gave in New York from 1969 to 1971.

Thirty years later, Gotthelf has earned a prodigious reputation as a scholar of Aristotle. That’s not surprising because Rand starts from the same place as Aristotle, that the world exists independent of the human mind.

Recently retired from his professorship at the College of New Jersey, Gotthelf has accepted a fellowship at Pitt to further his goal of carrying Rand’s work beyond student Objectivism clubs and private institutes; he wants the teachings of Rand to be a part of mainstream university curriculum. To help make that happen, Gotthelf will research and teach at Pitt for the next three years. His fellowship is funded by the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship, an organization that supports studies of Rand. James G. Lennox, director of the University’s Center for Philosophy of Science, is another Rand devotee and helped recruit Gotthelf to the University.

Gotthelf acknowledges that he isn’t sure if Rand will ever be considered a major philosophical figure. Then again, one of the students in his class, senior Doug Vensel, actually returned to Pitt after a several-year hiatus, in part to take Gotthelf’s class and learn more about Rand.

—Erika Fricke



Notes from Novak

Al Novak

Having a job that requires traveling might seem appealing to many. For me, though, living out of a suitcase, scrambling to make flights, and being away from my family aren’t what I would call perks. Yet, it’s because of my travels that I experience the best part of my job, which is meeting Pitt people living throughout the country.

In San Diego this past spring, Mark Nordenberg and I had the pleasure of meeting with William "Bill" Patrick (CAS ’41), who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, the world-renowned architect of Western Pennsylvania’s Fallingwater. We had a great visit together—in his Wright-designed home. Not only did Bill have a significant impact on architectural history, but also U.S. history. After he graduated from Pitt in 1941, he served in World War II as an officer leading African American troops. We are so proud and honored that alumni like Bill have left their mark on the pages of history books.

Pitt grads are also making an impact today. I recently had the chance to meet with David Wannstedt (EDUC ’76G, ’74), head coach of the Miami Dolphins. While we were talking at dinner, a young fan asked David for an autograph. Not only did David take the time for an autograph, but he also took a few minutes to talk to him. As they talked football, I was so proud that David is a Pitt alumnus.

Not only do I meet with alumni and friends across the nation, but I also visit with Pitt alumni and friends in the University’s backyard. Recently, Jim Duratz made a leadership-level gift to the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Law to create the James J. Duratz Courtroom Technology Center, a network of technology systems that will facilitate presentations and improve communication among judges, attorneys, witnesses, and jurors. Jim’s gift shows how friends of the University of Pittsburgh are making an impact on the University’s future. Jim is a member of the Barco Family, for whom the School of Law’s building was named last year. I look forward to catching up with Jim again soon.

I never grow tired of learning about the University of Pittsburgh through the experiences of our devoted and outstanding alumni and friends. Where do you fit into Pitt’s past, present, and future? I hope the next time I am in your area, I’ll have a chance to get together with you to hear your story.

Campaign Watch
Institutional Advancement is working hard to reach the goal of $1 billion, and Pitt’s alumni and friends are responding.We are now nearly three-fourths of the way there: $705 million! (Campaign total is based on estimated gifts and pledges as of June 30, 2004.)

—Al Novak


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