David Kelley’s Retirement and the Future of Objectivism

David Kelley, the founder and leader of the Open Objectivist movement, is retiring at the end of the year, the organization he founded has announced.

David Kelley even looks like an Ayn Rand hero. Photo by Judd Weiss.

David has had an extraordinary career as an intellectual leader. It was he who insisted that Objectivism is not a cult with a single authority who gets to say what — or who — is in or out, but a philosophy and a movement where we can think freely and build on what we learned from Ayn Rand. From its beginning, Objectivism was theoretically committed to the independent judgment of the individual mind. David put that commitment into practice.

The movement he created has been invaluable for me and probably nearly every other person, other than Rand herself, who has done worthwhile work in Objectivism. Many of us, including me, have benefited directly from his teaching. And his own intellectual work — most famously on benevolence and toleration, the bedrock of the movement — is a legacy for him to be proud of.

But under the leadership of Jennifer Anju Grossman, the organization David founded, The Atlas Society, is focusing on bringing Ayn Rand’s message to new people, not developing the philosophy. Outreach is, of course, important work. But the Ayn Rand Institute is also doing it, with more resources; even if Ms. Grossman can do it better and more creatively, it isn’t the one thing TAS is uniquely placed to do.

That one thing is: to develop the philosophy — or, more precisely, to create the context in which Objectivist intellectuals can develop the philosophy. There isn’t yet enough acceptance of Ayn Rand in the universities to encourage scholarly work on her philosophy there. And at the Ayn Rand Institute, philosophers must live in the shadow of Leonard Peikoff’s history of excommunicating people. At TAS, both Objectivism and independence are valued.

But Ms. Grossman told me Ayn Rand’s name has gone from attracting “scowls and arguments to complete blank stares.” In that context, she argues, the priority needs to be introducing people to “the epic adventure that is Ayn Rand’s world, her philosophy, her personal narrative, and her romantic literature.” And she’s focused on doing that in creative ways that suit today’s communication arena.

Introducing people to Rand’s work is also, she said, what donors are more interested in supporting — although if and when she finds the donor who wants to back graduate scholarships, she’ll be glad to host them.

TAS’s focus on outreach doesn’t mean Open Objectivism is dead. The idea that it’s open to us to keep developing the philosophy Ayn Rand founded is no one’s private property. But without TAS putting resources into philosophical work, it will be difficult to maintain a growing intellectual community, intellectually or socially. And it will be hard to find a place to do philosophical work that explicitly develops Objectivism.

But as Objectivism teaches, one’s own life is one’s purpose. As I understand him, David is a scholar at heart; he led because it served his goals. He wanted to work on his scholarship and to have people he could talk to about new ideas in Objectivism. He wanted the philosophical tradition he was working in to include people who thought independently and studied the theory seriously. His leadership work paid off: He was able to write and teach in a community of his own creation. Reducing his non-scholarly workload will allow him to spend more time on thinking and writing. His decision to step back from leadership, like his decision to get into it, embodies what Objectivism is about.

I am grateful and proud to have been one of David Kelley’s students, to have worked for him, and to be part of the community he created.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I am a freelance editor and independent writer, and I would very much like to have TAS as a client.