We never make assertions

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We never make assertions clip

That's the greatest philosopher in the world speaking, in a little book I'm reading so that I better understand the American spirit – Ayn Rand's Atlas shrugged, Random House, 1957; p. 735 in the 1992 edition.  Perhaps Rand had a really, really dry sense of humor.


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 1:12 am

    That's a good one, which I didn't notice when I read AS all those years ago. But you know he meant "We never make unsupported assertions," with a little more zing.

    I predict, however, that a certain other character is going to supply the support for this assertion by going into more detail about the support for more assertions than any novel reader should be expected to accept, except in Rand. But you know that, too.

    Anyway, give my regards to the glowing tips of the cigarettes, the golden hair, the people sitting on the base of their spine (as I am now), and the evil soybeans.

  2. Dan said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 1:37 am

    A is not A

  3. Jonathan Lundell said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 1:48 am

    Quizás, quizás, quizás.

  4. tudza said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 2:07 am

    I found The Fountainhead far more entertaining and easy to read.

    If you are short on time, you could always just listen to several Rush albums.

  5. Yuval said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 2:36 am

    Well, she wasn't a native speaker… :)
    @tudza – I actually liked Atlas better. It's more intriguing and deals with much broader issues.

  6. Tom Saylor said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 4:52 am

    The highlighted statement is not self-refuting, as "I never make assertions" would have been. Having read no more of the novel than this excerpt, I can't tell whether the statement is true or not. It's possible that the group of which Hugh Akston is a member and to which his "we" refers has never made an assertion and never will.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 5:09 am

    Hypotheses non fingo.

  8. Sili said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 5:15 am

    But do they make mistakes?

  9. David Schwartz said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 5:46 am

    She's using "assertion" to mean something merely claimed (with no support available), as opposed to a claim one can defend. He clarifies precisely what he means. And in the context, he has provided some support for this claim both before and after he makes it. It is, in fact, a description of what they have been doing and continue to do throughout that section of the novel.

    It's like I provide a proof that there can be no largest prime number and then I say "There is no largest prime number". Is this a mere assertion because it isn't grammatically accompanied by proof? All of their behavior up to that point is the evidence.

  10. James said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 6:02 am

    David, that wouldn't be mere assertion, but it would certainly be assertion.

    I wonder if the proximity to "assumption" makes "assertion" have the feel, to some people, of something unsupported.

  11. Randy Hudson said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 7:54 am


  12. Mark P said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 8:22 am

    Reading this book might help you understand one particular manifestation of the American spirit. Or, if you have the time, you could hang out in a dormitory on a Saturday night and listen to the guys who didn't get dates sitting around talking about what they would do if they ruled the world.

  13. Zubon said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    Rand re-defines some terms, although you can certainly accuse her of equivocating between her technical meanings and the common meanings of words. I would need to look up whether Rand usually defines assertion as mere assertion and otherwise unsupported statements, but that sounds about right. This kind of thing also creates the potential problem of an excluded middle, where the more narrowly defined terms no longer cover the whole range.

  14. Andy said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 9:20 am

    dictionary.reference.com has as the only substantive definition:

    "a positive statement or declaration, often without support or reason: a mere assertion; an unwarranted assertion."

    In my experience, the word does usually carry that connotation of "unsupported," so the quoted passage doesn't strike me as unusual.

  15. J. Goard said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    Yeah, the book is full of gems like that. AS is pretty amazing when you used to revere it and have long since outgrown it. Especially when you know a lot about Rand's character and life, in which case the book is a treasure trove of irony.

    Even if "assertion" wouldn't typically refer to just any old declarative statement, it certainly describes this one pretty well, since it is a serious pronouncement about a complex matter of fact.

  16. Ed Cormany said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    "…and why would we ever ask questions?"

  17. Seth Johnson said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    Obi-wan Kenobi: "Only a Sith deals in absolutes."

  18. Nick Lamb said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    This excerpt is popular enough (whether for ironic reasons or otherwise) that it's in some variants of the Unix fortune file.

    I think any philosopher who can't persuade Carroll's Tortoise that proposition (Z) is true isn't up to much. Akston doesn't stand a chance.

  19. Tom Swift said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    "I don't really care if Miss Rand's philosophy is internally inconsistent", Atlas shrugged altruistically.

  20. Bloix said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

    "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

  21. phosphorious said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    In my head, I hear Bela Lugosi speaking:

    "Ve never make. . . assertions!"

  22. anon said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

    I chuckled, but I can remember my mother saying things "we don't do that in this house," even though clearly some of us just had. Turns out it was a command, not an assertion.

  23. rpsms said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

    I laughed the whole way through the Fountainhead. I find Rush much more compelling. Certainly more artistic and creative.

  24. Jon said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    How does one "prove" or "show" without asserting? I think she means unsupported assertions.

  25. MikeP said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

    On a side note, I'm particularly tired of the snooty line that Atlas Shrugged is great "until you out grow it". (J. Goard for example )
    Is that a cocktail party line that a certain type of personality learns to use, because I've heard it a number of times about Ayn Rand's books.
    A book is a book. Its a perspective/information/etc. You may disagree, dislike, or dismiss a book, but you don't 'outgrow' it.

  26. Sam said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 8:15 pm


    This excerpt is popular enough (whether for ironic reasons or otherwise) that it's in some variants of the Unix fortune file.

    But there it also benefits from the reference to the C assert(3) macro.

  27. Seerak said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 9:36 pm

    Which edition are you citing? My bet is it's a typo. I've heard about quite a few egregious ones in certain editions.

    For those of you who don't want Occam's Razor to get in the way of some more anti-Rand juvenility, carry on.

  28. Mike Devereaux said,

    May 18, 2010 @ 11:08 pm

    I'm going to depart from the "assertion" vs "mere assertion" debate; perhaps this is allowable because others are using that debate to also throw around larger criticisms.

    Rand explores many economic issues in AS, but never inflation nor deficit spending. They're odd omissions.

    Perhaps more importantly, she presents her Utopia as an ideal civilization as well, and it hardly is. First, it's tyrannical, as Midas Mulligan retains utter control. And you must be selected as worthy to enter. There's no government, which is required for military needs, self-defense and security at a minimum. No police force of any sort? This is because her utopian society is TOTALLY homogenous. There is no dissent of any sort on any major issue. There are, therefore no elections, no votes. Etc. Rand would have been far better off describing it as a place where like-minded free individuals could go to put into practice their perfect ideals. The only such place on the entire Earth where they could! But no, she presented it as a utopian civilization. It's not.

    But really, I'm quibbling. In my opinion the major strength of AS, over the Fountainhead, is that it is completely honest. It IS Ayn Rand in every way. She was fearless and courageous in her complete honesty in presenting everything in that book. Remember, this was written approx 1950-1957, and in so many ways, the book is utterly at odds with that period of Americana. Much of what various people identify as the "warts" of AS are identifiable solely because the book is so utterly honest; in many ways it's a pseudo-autobiography in the sense that everything in it IS Ayn Rand herself.

    Also, it is a fantastic mystery, grounded in solid economics, married to philosophical discourses on the meaning and value of existence. I do think for these reasons it is one of the great books.

  29. Randroideka said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 12:08 am

    It's very clear that Hugh means unsupported assertions, both in the small context reproduced here and in the largest context of the entire novel. Why go through the effort of misinterpreting it as something different?

  30. gattsuru said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 12:28 am

    Rand's origin as a native Russian speaker and native to Russian culture shines through in her works. So, yes, very dry humor, when applicable, as well as a great many other things that aren't typical in the writing of native English speakers. A good many of those things are simple errors — the tunnel disaster is a monster of broken sequencing to most writers, but changing things to the American sense apparently breaks it to the post-Soviet one.

    The aggressive focus on specific definitions of words is, in Rand's defense, foreshadowed and stated specifically fairly early in the work. Francisco uses a variation phrase "make money" and must point out to a villain that there is a specific meaning of the word 'make', very heavily implied to be the creation-from-non-existence definition. That's a ridiculous assertion, to English speakers, but notably it's also one that the protagonists tend to obsess over.

    That may be informative in one or two ways here.

    Not necessarily useful — it's heavy-handed and lackluster writing even if do find the philosophy interesting, as I do — but informative.

  31. Randroideka said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 1:30 am

    Francisco's explanation of what it means to make money is quite clear. Wealth is created not in the magic-wand sense (!), but in the sense of being manufactured, as the ultimate result of thought, of the exercise of the rational mind.

    Rand was undeservedly smeared as an enemy of charity. And yet it's her opponents, the presumed champions of charity, who exhibit none at all when it comes to interpreting what she meant.

  32. Daniel Woelfel said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    I found three other spots where Rand used "assertion" in Atlas Shrugged. In all three instances she uses the definition Andy provided above of "unsupported declaration."

    Here are the quotes:

    "a struggle, not to assert one's own will, but to squeeze an assertion from some unwilling victim" – p 473

    "her economics consisted of the assertion that 'we've got to help the poor.'" – p 542

    "When you listen to a mystic's harangue on the impotence of the human mind and begin to doubt your consciousness, not his, when you permit your precariously semi-rational state to be shaken by any assertion and decide it is safer to trust his superior certainty and knowledge, the joke is on both of you: your sanction is the only source of certainty he has." – p 960

  33. Gunga said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 11:08 am

    Reading a book in order to better understand the American spirit is like going to a play in order to better understand molecular biology. …not to mention that Rand was about as American as apple pirogies…but why let facts get in the way of idolatry? I'm sorry..was that an assertion?

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