Interview with Douglas J. Den Uyl by Karen Minto

Q: Where did you grow up and what kinds of ideas influenced your early thinking?

Den Uyl: I grew up in a well-to-do suburb outside of Detroit (Birmingham, then Bloomfield Hills). My parents could be described as Goldwater-type conservative Republicans. My grandfather on my father’s side was a prominent businessman who was, I believe, reasonably well-known in national Republican circles. He was involved in trying to get General Douglas MacArthur to run for president. Political discussions were regular events in our family. I grew up hearing about the evils of communism, socialism, and Roosevelt. Thus unlike many libertarians, Objectivists, or other classical liberals, I did not convert from socialism (or some form of leftism) to my present political perspective. I was never really that attracted to leftist views in the first place. For me, therefore, what I needed to learn was that businesspeople can be statists too, just like every other group in society; for my prejudice was to equate everything said in the name of business as being pro-free-market, which it clearly is not.

Q: How do you pronounce your last name? Does it rhyme with “oil” or “aisle?”

Den Uyl: It rhymes with “aisle.” I’m used to all sorts of mispronunciations and misspellings and have a sense of humor about it all. No one who is introduced to me ever connects the sound of the name with the spelling, so there is no chance I’ll ever personally enjoy fame no matter what I write!

Q: How were you introduced to the ideas of Ayn Rand?

Den Uyl: Maybe like many teenagers, when I was 16 or 17, I was loafing around wasting my time. I was watching TV, playing in my rock band, or reading comic books. My mother was fed up with my choice of life style, particularly my reading habits. With respect to the latter, she became upset one day and bet me $5 (not unreasonable money back then) that I could not finish the longest book in the house. That turned out to be Atlas Shrugged. I guess I’m now supposed to say, “And the rest was history!” which is pretty much true. I would follow Rand and the organizations connected to her as best I could, but I was never an insider nor really even that close to the action. I never saw Rand speak, for example, and critical events, such as the collapse of NBI, went unknown to me for years. I was largely alone in my interest in Rand. My college campus was liberal but not activist, so although she had no respect there, I was left alone to pursue my interest in her without much harassment. Even the Philosophy department—which couldn’t have thought less of her—was mature enough to let me pursue my ideas as I saw them, so Rand did factor into my senior thesis. Tibor Machan at the close of my college years was really the first one to encourage me and to introduce me to others interested in Rand’s ideas, such as Eric Mack.

Q: Which particular ideas of Rand have enriched your understanding of philosophy and the world?

Den Uyl: My understanding of philosophy and the world just was Rand’s understanding (or what I took it to be) for a long time. I interpreted every issue through that framework until I went to graduate school. The bad things about that way of thinking and approaching things seems to me obvious. What we sometimes forget is the good side. With a framework or program of some sort, it is much easier to comprehend and integrate ideas and to see their general significance. As long as one is open to truth and self-criticism, making sense of the world through a given philosophy is as useful as learning to play an instrument by imitating someone else’s (a master’s) style—which is to say, very useful. But to answer your questions specifically, Rand’s deepest insight to me is the connection between Aristotelianism and classical liberalism. It is an insight whose connections still need to be explored in many ways, but one which is pregnant with possibilities and interesting research topics.

Q: What is Liberty Fund and how did you get involved with it?

Den Uyl: Liberty Fund is a private operating foundation that holds conferences on issues of liberty and personal responsibility mostly for college faculty. It began doing conferences like the ones done today a few years after the founder died (around 1976), and I have had some association with them since about that time. I went to my first Liberty Fund conference (as did Doug Rasmussen) in 1977. We were recommended to the organization by some of the businessmen in Milwaukee with whom we were involved in a monthly economics discussion group. Mr. Goodrich, the founder—an Indiana businessman, but with no connection to the tire company—was interested in great books as well as classical liberalism. He corresponded with Hayek and also knew quite well people like Baldy Harper and Leonard Read. Goodrich combined the reading of great books with his classical liberalism in a way that I guess has been a model for me also, judging from my work.

Q: Are you still teaching at Bellarmine?

Den Uyl: Yes. I am on an extended leave, but I will teach one course there next semester and may do so other semesters.

Q: Tell me about your books with Doug Rasmussen—Liberty and Nature and Liberty Defended. How did you come to collaborate with him?

Den Uyl: Doug and I spent time together in graduate school. Given the dearth of professional philosophers interested in Rand at the time, I suppose it only natural the two people in close physical proximity would get together and collaborate on something they both cared about. We also work well together because we understand each other and can communicate readily and quickly without having to explain everything. We also believe in each other in the sense that if one says something the other doesn’t understand or agree with, the other will pursue the matter until understanding is obtained (if not agreement), because we both assume that the other has good reasons for what he says.

Q: You and Doug Rasmussen also made a major contribution in our co-edited volume, Philosophic Thought Of Ayn Rand. Do you see any indication that Rand’s work is being taken more seriously by academics since the publication of your volume?

Den Uyl: Well there is the Ayn Rand Society that meets with the APA, and those sessions are generally well attended. People influenced by Rand are certainly in the academy, though they seldom footnote her in their works, which is understandable, if somewhat un-Randian. So Rand is taken seriously in that sense. But in a direct sort of way, I see improvement but the significance of it is questionable in my view. One can say that there could not have been an Ayn Rand Society connected to the APA 20 years ago. That would be true. But Philosophy as a discipline has splintered over the years and lots of associations are there now that may not have been so 20 years ago. There’s a kind of “catch 22” here that is hard to overcome: more serious scholarship on Rand is needed, but is not a ticket to promotion in most departments. Yet because Rand is still not acceptable, it is likely that only those who are promoted will be able to work on her. I am optimistic about the future, however, due to what I perceive as a new wave of popularity for Rand.

Q: A new wave of popularity? Among younger faculty, or undergraduates, I mean, what evidence suggests this to you?

Den Uyl: I’m not certain among who, but I’ve been asked to say more about Rand recently, and for a long time no one approached me at all. Since I am not a leading or “official” spokesman for Rand, if I’m being sought after, something is afoot. There is also the documentary and the movie on Rand’s life, so that too suggests to me a renewed interest. I do not believe there is any more official academic interest than I have indicated. But as students and the culture begin to talk about her again, the academy will have to deal with that in some fashion. It would be helpful to her cause if more decent work on her was being published today, so that she cannot simply be dismissed.

Q: Do you plan to do any more books with him in the future?

Den Uyl: Yes, we have another project planned, and next year brings us together again to work on it.

Q: Can you tell us what kind of project you two have planned?

Den Uyl: I cannot say too much about this project now, but I can say that we want to move away somewhat from the social/political and ethical issues to other areas of philosophy.

Q: When your book The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand came out, who was your target audience and what was their reaction?

Den Uyl: I suppose we thought that our audience would be academics, but I would guess it has sold mainly to people, academics or otherwise, who were already predisposed to read it. I guess then the reaction was that, for the most part, the book was ignored by academics other than those already predisposed towards it. That doesn’t necessarily mean much, however. Each generation finds new things, and that book still has a reasonable number of sales for an academic book. Moreover, its function of being an academic discussion of Rand’s philosophy is still being fulfilled even if it is not taking the academic world by storm.

Q: Tell us about the core issues in your book on Prudence. What is prudence and should it be included in the Objectivist virtues?

Den Uyl: I cannot speak about what should be on the list of Objectivist virtues, but in a way its classical sense is much like the virtue of rationality in Rand. And I may have originally wondered about prudence for somewhat Randian reasons, namely that it seems to be a virtue connected to self-interest that is not advocated much, so I wondered if an altruistic framework in ethics had driven it out. The truth, however, is rather different, as is my book. In simplest terms, prudence was the pinnacle of virtues in the classical world (recall the “four cardinal virtues” prudence, justice, temperance, and courage), but almost a non-virtue in the modern world. I wondered why that was the case, and much of the book is about that. Strangely—though this will sound a bit misleading in an interview context like this—the demotion of prudence comes in conjunction with its almost exclusive association with self-interest in modern times. There are positive parts to the book as well, and some of the rudiments of what Doug and I are interested in defending in ethics are described in that book.

Q: What did you think of Richard Kraut’s review of your book in Critical Review?

Den Uyl: I basically liked it. It was thoughtful and serious and it got some things right as well as wrong. I remember thinking at the time I read it that while some of our libertarian critics were perhaps hoping that we would be devastated by the review, it is libertarianism that takes it on the chin in that review. Even if, from Kraut’s perspective, we are wrong, we come off looking pretty sensible.

Q: Do you think Rand’s ethics needs expanding and if so, which areas would you focus on or want to change?

Den Uyl: Expanding could mean supplanting deficiencies, which would then call upon me to describe the deficiencies. What seems to me more fruitful is to say that there is more to ethics than Kant and Mill, and even Aristotle. Rand scholarship would benefit by seeing her in conjunction and comparison with other ethicists such as Smith and Hume, Spinoza, Cicero, Augustine, etc. and in light of other issues, such as the debate between the ancients and the moderns. To do this well requires, at least for a time, abandoning Rand’s gloss on the Western canon for a more sympathetic read of many of these authors. Her reading is very helpful in understanding her, but not very useful as a guide to understanding certain thinkers and doctrines. As I said earlier, it’s very useful to have a framework, provided one is not a slave to it. And one might arrive right back with that very framework after one’s search elsewhere. So much the better for the framework. But Rand to me points down a road more than leads one down it step by step. There may be many things down that road that she was unaware of, or that we are unaware of. The exploration will enrich her doctrine as well as ourselves.

Q: Which of Rand’s ideas did you disagree with? And do you still disagree with them now?

Den Uyl: As I said already, I really didn’t approach things early on in terms of what I agreed or disagreed with. Rand gave me a framework and seemed to have a lot of answers to a lot of questions I had. I’ve spent some time since then exploring the details of that framework and enlarging and enriching my understanding of many issues. So although on the one hand I was a kind of “groupie” who understood everything according to Ayn Rand, I was never comfortable with the closed character of that attitude and sought expansion, elaboration, and education as well as a need to reject anything I found wanting.

Q: What relationship does Rand’s works have to your own?

Den Uyl: Apart from work that is on Rand herself, the Aristotelian perspective, broadly understood, and her generally classical liberal orientation have informed much of what I have written in ethics and social political theory. But I have also been influenced in many ways by Leo Strauss, and have strong connections to the history of philosophy, both of which inform my work as well.

Q: Do you consider Rand as just another branch of Aristotelianism and that for scholars in the far future she will be a minor figure, or do you think she has created something entirely new and original and will be considered one of the giants in philosophic history?

Den Uyl: I don’t see her as either a minor or a major figure. I see her as analogous to Machiavelli or Bacon. They have some great insights in their own right, but they were perhaps more significant in bringing in a new perspective. For example, at one level I think Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss have done more than any two people to revive an interest in classical or ancient philosophy and its cognate subjects (e.g., virtue ethics). Neither one, Rand especially, will be given the credit they deserve for this. Rand motivates people, and she saw that the usual ways of defending certain things didn’t work. In that way I believe she will be quite important to the direction of things to come, although it is not so clear what that direction exactly will be. When people look back, however, they may see that a certain thinking was made possible because of Rand, even if the influence is not in all cases always direct.

Q: Since interest in Rand is still not acceptable in academia, what do you advise young Objectivist academics to do? Stay “in the closet” and just go under the general description of an Aristotelian, or “come out and disclose themselves” perhaps giving interest in Rand more credibility as more Objectivists “come out?”

Den Uyl: Context and personal goals will determine part of the answer to this question, and where to draw the line is difficult to state a priori. It is important to realize, however, that no one does Rand any good by not first proving they are competent to do what other professionals in their field do. Whether it be with respect to Rand or someone else, in order to convince the profession to take that person seriously, one must already have a certain degree of demonstrable professional competence. On that argument, though, Doug and I would have come out with The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand too early, for neither of us had done much by then. But the opportunity was there, and the timing was right for other reasons, and we hoped it would help build a platform upon which other scholars could stand, including ourselves. In any case, my general counsel is prudence in the ordinary sense, but if one is going to lean in one direction or the other it should be towards disclosure. The other way makes it too easy to rationalize cowardice. Finally, it would seem to follow from this advice that graduate students should be the most cautious, since almost by definition they are learning the profession. Young assistant professors facing tenure are the hardest group to advise. Will it turn out for them in the end as it does for Roark, and are they willing to pay that kind of price? In my own case, I’m sure some of my association with Rand has been costly to my career, but I do not think I acted rashly, and I could not have lived with myself easily if I had done any less.