Interview with John Hospers, Philosopher and Associate of Ayn Rand
The Liberal Institute

JOHN HOSPERS ran for President of the United States in 1972 on the Libertarian Party ticket. He actually received one vote from the Electoral College. Mr. Hospers is the author of books on esthetics, ethics, and politics. He was an intimate intellectual colleague of revolutionary thinker Ayn Rand from 1961 to 1963. John Hospers died in June 2011 at age 93. This may be his final interview.

Liberal Institute: What made you decide to become a philosopher in the first place?

John Hospers: I was always going to become an astronomer. From early childhood I did lots of sky-watching, identifying many stars and constellations. Then as a college freshman I took over the senior astronomy class taught by the dean, which was my first semester of actual teaching experience. And who knows what would have happened had it not been for my cousin in the same Iowa town who was about to get his university degree in literature, which I also had as an undergraduate major. So I got my Masters in English at the University of Iowa, then a scholarship to Columbia University in which at my own request I asked for a change of major to my first love, philosophy. And so I got my Ph.D. in philosophy.

I was brought up pretty much in the free market tradition: government was seen as an interferer and nuisance, not benefactor. When Roosevelt won the l932 election my uncle said: "We'll never see freedom again." So when I met Ayn Rand when she lectured in New York in l960 her ideas were never entirely unfamiliar to me, but fleshed out and systematized in a way I had never done. I was not an addict of metaphysics as she was, but epistemology was my forte. And aesthetics was also my specialty in philosophy, and it was in aesthetics that I did my dissertation, which became published as the book Meaning and Truth in the Arts.

I have described in some detail my conversations with Ayn Rand in my l990 article in Liberty in Context, such as why we got along so well, i.e. as long as I was the inquirer, the student, and not the lecturer. But nevertheless the relationship was very satisfying to me, as I explained in the articles.

LI: How did Ayn Rand change your life personally and intellectually?

Hospers: Did she change my life? Yes, she drummed into me the need for total intellectual honesty, and intolerance for those who were not really serious about philosophic concepts but were good at name-dropping.

LI: How much has philosophy in general, and Objectivism in particular, made you a better and happier person?

Hospers: Am I a happier person as a result of knowing her? Yes, but not always. In our final meeting, a speech she gave to the Aesthetics Society in Boston, she insulted me and was openly angry, and never spoke to me again after that. (Other people have suffered the same fate.) This incident was not exactly happiness-producing.

LI: What are the main things today's Objectivist movement is doing wrong?

Hospers: I'd have to discuss Objectivism point by point.

LI: What are the main things the libertarian movement in general, and the US Libertarian Party in particular, are doing wrong?

But on the Libertarian Party, I think many libertarians have gone amiss. I am not an anarchist. When you have a ball game there has to be an umpire, and one strong enough to defend its values if necessary. And much of what libertarians discuss in meetings is endlessly repetitious. I think my book Libertarianism [1971] has already discussed most of what is needed. (See my article in Liberty magazine in 2007 about the original organization of the Party and why we did with it what we did.)

LI: How would you evaluate the relative merits and value of The Objectivist Center vs. The Ayn Rand Institute?

Hospers: I cannot evaluate the merits of The Ayn Rand Institute.

LI: What are the main strengths and weaknesses of Ayn Rand personally?

Hospers: Ayn herself had many strengths: TOTAL HONESTY REGARDLESS OF HOW PEOPLE FELT ABOUT WHAT SHE SAID. She was also quick to anger, and took any disagreement as a personal offense. That is why she began with many friends but alienated almost all of them in the end (except the one who inherited her estate).

LI: How would you compare Ayn Rand and Aristotle as philosophers?

Hospers: Aristotle was the greatest philosopher (along with Hume), though not in all matters, such as the doctrine of the Prime Mover. (Rand didn't believe in the Prime Mover either.)

LI: What do you consider to be your philosophic legacy -- and what do you most want to be remembered for?

John Hospers: I am most known as a writer of philosophy, in such books as Introduction to Philosophical Analysis [1967] and Human Conduct [1995]. But I always wanted to be remembered as a really good (great?) teacher. Universities, however, consider only a teacher's scholarly works and not his/her teaching ability. And they don't consider it at all when promotion time comes.

I want to be remembered as a philosophical instructor who could clarify questions, and present good ideas clearly, avoiding vagueness and confusion in the presentation of ideas. That is probably my main legacy as a teacher. And many of my students have come to remember me in just this way.