INTERVIEWS AND NOTICES
FULL CONTEXT 8, no. 1 (September 1995): 1, 3-9.
By Karen Reedstrom
In September-October 2000, Full Context interviewed Chris Matthew Sciabarra on the occasion of the publication of his new book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (Penn State Press). Below is the full transcript of his first Full Context interview, published in September 1995. It was conducted by Karen Reedstrom (now, Karen Minto).
Dr. Sciabarra was born in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York. He earned all three college degrees from New York University, graduated Phi Beta Kappa and earned his B.A., magna cum laude, in History (with honors), Politics, and Economics in June 1981. His History honors thesis was in American labor history. It was directed by Daniel Walkowitz, and was entitled: "The Implications of Interventionism: An Analysis of the Pullman Strike." His M.A. was in Politics in February 1983; the thesis was directed by Bertell Ollman and Israel Kirzner and was entitled: "A Brief Survey in Methodological Integration: Dialectics, Praxeology and their Implications." In June 1988, he earned a Ph.D in political philosophy, theory, and methodology. He passed his comprehensive examinations with distinction, and defended his dissertation with distinction as well. His mentor was Bertell Ollman, the celebrated Marxist theoretician, author of Alienation and Dialectical Investigations. His doctoral dissertation was entitled: "Toward a Radical Critique of Utopianism: Dialectics and Dualism in the works of Friedrich Hayek, Murray Rothbard, and Karl Marx."
Dr. Sciabarra has just published two books, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and Marx, Hayek, and Utopia.
Q: Briefly, tell us where you grew up and what were your early influences?
Sciabarra: I am a native and life-long resident of Brooklyn, New York, and have had a love/hate relationship with the city ever since birth. It is a great town, but it is a city of extremes. Influences? Well, one of my earliest high school teachers had a big influence on me; his name was Ira Zornberg. He was a faculty advisor of a social studies newspaper called "Gadfly" that I edited. He was the first teacher to bring the study of the Holocaust to high school students. He very much encouraged me in my somewhat conservative politics. But I was never completely comfortable with the conservative social agenda, issues of abortion and sexuality. Of course it wasn't until I read Ayn Rand in my senior year in high school that I was able to sort those issues out.
Q: How did you find out about Rand? What impact did her work have on you?
Sciabarra: I was an outspoken political type in high school. I had been involved in some pretty terrific battles with the Young Socialists of America who had buried the school in their propaganda. My sister-in-law had been reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and she said, "I think you ought to read this woman, you'll find some similarities between what you're saying and what she advocates." I wasn't a big fiction reader, so I started reading Ayn Rand's non-fiction first--Capitalism the Unknown Ideal, The Virtue of Selfishness--and it was as if I had found a whole new world. At the time I was in an advanced placement course in American history, with another great teacher, Larry Pero, and I was able to bring to that class so many of the insights that Rand had on the history of capitalism. Rand also helped me deal with some pretty difficult personal health problems I'd been experiencing. Here was a woman who talked about heroism and potentials rather than limitations. It was an articulated philosophy that gave me encouragement not to wallow in self-pity and dismay, but to make the most of my potentialities. So on a personal level, her writings had a tremendous impact on my life.
Q: How did your parents react to your liking Rand and the atheism issue?
Sciabarra: My mom, who was the daughter of a Greek Orthodox priest, was never an Ayatollah type. She very much encouraged her children to individualism and to trust the judgment of their own minds. So I feel in many ways that Rand put, in articulated form, the things that we had been taught to practice as children. So there was no great antagonism that developed over any of those issues.
Q: Why did you choose philosophy as a career?
Sciabarra: It is really more social theory than philosophy. I was very interested in fighting injustice politically, and more than that I was drawn to try and understand what was wrong with society. To quote Marx, I think that there is "a link between critique and revolution." And so that was one of the things that most preoccupied me.
Q: With whom did you study at New York University?
Sciabarra: As an undergraduate, my majors were in economics, politics, and history, so I had a lot of great teachers. In economics, I took many electives with those who were in Austrian theory and enjoyed courses and lectures with people like Gerald O'Driscoll, Roger Garrison, Stephen Littlechild, Israel Kirzner, and Mario Rizzo. I interacted with many of the newer generation of Austrian theorists, including Don Lavoie. In history, where I did my senior honor's thesis as an undergraduate, I studied with the great business historian Vincent Carosso and also a labor historian, Dan Walkowitz. In politics, on the undergraduate, graduate, and eventually the doctoral level, I studied with Gisbert Flanz, and, of course, most important, my mentor, Bertell Ollman who is an internationally-known Marxist scholar, author of such books as Alienation, and Dialectical Investigations.
Q: What was it like to have a Marxist as a mentor?
Sciabarra: He was great! He had a tremendous passion for ideas and for searching out roots and fundamentals, and I think he greatly encouraged me in my own libertarian predilections. This is a man who actually knew Murray Rothbard, and was with him in the Peace and Freedom Party in the 1960's. He also encouraged me in my early student radicalism. I was involved with Students for a Libertarian Society at the time Carter brought back registration. There were a lot of anti-draft activities. On an intellectual level, here was a man [Ollman] just fascinated by the work I was doing on Marx, Hayek, and Rothbard at the time, and that became the basis of my dissertation, which he oversaw as my thesis advisor.
Q: Some Objectivists say that academic Marxists are just as evil as Stalin because they hold the same ideas that Stalin used to kill millions of people. Working with academic Marxists do you find this true? Can there be any "innocent, honest" Marxists?
Sciabarra: Some Marxists are, in fact, apologists for Stalin, and they do bear some moral culpability. There's no doubt about that. But I think to make such a blanket statement is absurd. A person like Ollman, and other academic Marxists I've known, I think are intellectually honest, even if I believe they are mistaken on some very important issues. For the most part, they have been very critical of the Soviet Union and other 20th century manifestations of socialism. I think that anyone who would equate Stalinism and academic Marxism without those qualifications is talking nonsense.
Q: Are these Marxists living in some academic ivory tower where they don't analyze what is going on? A lot of people don't understand how one can be a Marxist and not see the effects of Marxism and what has happened to Soviet Russia. Are these professors Platonists, just waiting for some utopia to happen?
Sciabarra: Well, they distinguish between Marxism as an ideology and Marxism as an intellectual project. As an intellectual project, it is basically the theories of Karl Marx or theories derived from Karl Marx for understanding the workings of the so-called capitalist mode of production. They retain Marxism as an intellectual project because this is the mode of analysis that they use to understand how capitalism works and where it's been, where it is, and where it might be tending. Now Marxism as an ideology is a bit different. That basically has been used by various statist groups to justify their own achievement of what they believe is socialism. Many academic Marxists would maintain that this is not socialism, since, according to Marx, socialism had to arise out of a very advanced state of capitalism. What has usually happened is that the socialist states of the 20th century have been built on a quasi-feudal foundation rather than any advanced state of capitalism. Do I believe that academic Marxists are living in an ivory tower? Well, on the basis of Austrian theory, there is no doubt in my mind that Marxists have never been able to solve the calculation problem. For many of the epistemological reasons that Hayek points to, namely that we can never really know enough to centrally plan and control social order, I think that, whether we're talking about now or some distant millennium, the goals that they are trying to achieve are just unreachable.
Q: Which thinkers have had the greatest influence on your intellectual development?
Sciabarra: Not in any particular order, there's Ayn Rand (obviously), Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek, Von Mises, and also Karl Marx and Bertell Ollman.
Q: Do you consider yourself an Objectivist?
Sciabarra: Well, it depends on what we mean by Objectivism. I definitely accept much of what Ayn Rand taught, that is, the broad fundamentals of her philosophy, but I do not fall under the more orthodox rubric in the sense that I believe that there is a lot to be learned from other traditions and schools of thought and that it is possible to integrate these to gain a greater or a richer understanding of society. Beyond that I consider myself a scholar of Objectivism and Rand's thought.
Q: On that subject why did you write Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical?
Sciabarra: I thought it needed to be done. From a scholarly perspective, I had become quite tired of those who thought, especially within the Left academy, that they had a monopoly on radicalism. I believed that there was a different kind of radicalism that could be proposed which was thoroughly non-Marxist but just as integrated and multi-dimensional as what the Marxists were offering. And that's one of the reasons why I wrote this book.
Q: Tell us about the detective work for your book on Ayn Rand.
Sciabarra: Ironically, speaking about Leftists and academic Marxists, if it were not for two academic Marxists, the book probably would never have been written. Bertell Ollman and Wolf Heydebrand, back in 1984, encouraged me to do a paper on what I believed were "dialectical themes in Rand's thought." Ollman felt that I'd found a very real dialectical pattern in Objectivism, and thought that maybe I should look at her Russian upbringing for the roots of such a perspective.
Q: Why does a Marxist encourage someone who espouses capitalism?
Sciabarra: I think he has a real passion for ideas and for the interplay of ideas. I also think he thinks that maybe someday, I'll "see the light." I am now co-editing with him a volume of non-Marxist dialectical thought. He has found dialectical approaches even in Judaism which he is bringing into this volume. At the time, he had offered me encouragement in ways that far exceeded any I was receiving from Objectivist sources. However, I did receive some excellent advice and wonderful encouragement from Doug Rasmussen, who had read my 1984 paper. On the basis of this encouragement, I started to read a little more about Rand's upbringing in Russia. I had discovered a lot about her teacher, Nicholas Lossky. I learned that he had, in fact, taught at St. Vladimir's here in New York City. In terms of detective work I found myself getting in touch with the Dean at St. Vladimir's who eventually put me in touch with Andrew Lossky (Lossky's son, now a historian emeritus at UCLA) [ed. note: Andrew subsequently passed away; see Sciabarra's "In Search of the Rand Transcript."], also Boris Lossky (an art historian living in Paris), and Nicholas Lossky, N.O. Lossky's grandson. I also had the good fortune to contact George Kline, a philosopher, and Bernice Rosenthal, a historian, both of whom are experts in Russian philosophy and culture. It was through these various contacts that I was able to reconstruct the entire intellectual and cultural context of Rand's upbringing. Boris in particular led me to many of Lossky's writings and lectures. Eventually the dossier of Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, Ayn Rand, was sent to me by the Leningard archivists. It was fascinating stuff [ed. note: Sciabarra's subsequent analysis of the college transcript of Ayn Rand was published in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies].
Q: Briefly, who was Lossky?
Sciabarra: He was one of the foremost Russian philosophers of the early 20th century who was a great teacher and professor at Petrograd University. Interestingly, Rand thought of him as a Platonic philosophical adversary and in many ways he is a neo-idealist religious philosopher who brings together some deeply religious themes with some of the most profound concepts in philosophy. But he was perhaps more influenced by Aristotle and Hegel than he was by Plato. While Rand may have been justified in thinking of him as an idealist or Platonic adversary, as I said, there is more richness to his philosophy than merely the mystical. He basically sought to transcend all the dichotomies that Kant had defined, including the a priori versus the a posteriori, rationalism versus empiricism, and sought to establish some kind of realist basis for objective truth and knowledge, though his resolution is what Rand would have called, "intrinsicism."
Q: Any interesting anecdotes you can relate to us about your quest for early information on Rand? It must have been difficult.
Sciabarra: It was very difficult. Two quick anecdotes. If it wasn't for a Russian Orthodox priest I probably would not have been put in touch with the people at St. Vladimir's. Father Makarios Rigo in New York put me in touch with them, and it was through St. Vladimir's that I was able to get all of Lossky's writings that have been out of print for a very long time. Ironically, many priests and religious thinkers were very instrumental in the genesis of this study. Through Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov's biographer, I was put in touch with Helene Sikorski, Nabokov's sister and a contemporary of Ayn Rand. I was able to reconstruct some of the documentation regarding Rand's gymnasium studies at the Stoiunin School which nobody had really known about before. The Stoiunin School was established by Lossky's in-laws, and Lossky in fact taught in the gymnasium.
Q: Did you find records on Rand such as what kind of grades she received?
Sciabarra: Unfortunately, there was nothing available on that. There may be somewhere, but you know Russia is currently in a state of almost total chaos, so it is miraculous that I was able to get anything substantial [ed. note: see Rand's college transcript for more information on this topic]. Nevertheless, there was far more available than at the time Barbara Branden wrote her biography.
There are a lot of ironies involved. Lossky migrated to the U.S., and eventually settled in New York City. Of course, he would never have known that Ayn Rand was the girl he knew as Alissa Rosenbaum. So they lived in the same city some 30 years after their initial encounters. Interestingly, Lossky was the foreign advisory editor of The Personalist, which was the first journal to deal with Rand in any academic way. Also, Lossky was taught by Windelband whose History of Philosophy was praised by both Rand and Peikoff in later years.
Q: You mention the "Silver Age" and it's influence on Rand. Didn't she grow up during the Russian Revolution and the ideas of Marxism? Wouldn't that be a more prevalent influence than the ideas popular before the revolution?
Sciabarra: Silver Age thought extends from the end of the 19th Century to about 1924. It was the Silver Age that shaped, in many ways, the Russian Revolution. It caused, what Rosenthal has called, a "revolution of the spirit." The Silver Age also influenced many key Marxists. The Nietzschean Marxists, Trotsky, Gorky and the like, were all basically outgrowths of the Silver Age. In addition to that, the Bolsheviks were always big on synthesis, which is a theme that one finds in the Symbolist poets in the Silver Age as well, one of whom, Aleksandr Blok, Ayn Rand cites as among her favorite poets.
Q: What basically is the Silver Age?
Sciabarra: There was basically a lot of renewed interest in religion, mysticism, and the occult. A lot of the thinkers of the Silver Age strongly reacted against the tides of Western positivism and materialism. At this time, they engaged in a full-fledged analysis of the nature of human beings, the dignity of the individual, beauty, freedom, truth, justice, etcetera. There was a burst of creativity in the literary arts as I state in my book. It was a kind of philosophical and cultural renaissance.
Q: Were Western ideas having an effect at that time?
Sciabarra: There is a kind of confluence of Western and Eastern influences in Russia, and actually throughout the history of Russia. You have this intermingling of Western, especially German thought, and endemic Russian philosophy. And the influence of Nietzsche was tremendous in the Silver Age. Bernice Rosenthal has edited a volume called Nietzsche in Russia and also a new book called Nietzsche and Soviet Culture. It is amazing to see the impact that Fredrich Nietzsche's thought made on Symbolist poets, intellectuals, and Marxists during that era.
Q: You have another book that has just been published by SUNY Press, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia. What do you see as the major contribution of that book?
Sciabarra: It engages the Marxian and Hayekian traditions of thought to show their commonality in the critique of utopianism. I think that these thinkers together help us to distinguish between the utopian and the radical. I make the distinction between utopianism and radicalism. A Utopian way of looking at the world is basically an a-contextual, a-historical quest for human ideals with no understanding of the limits or nature of reason. It is as if people can step outside the bounds of culture and society and re-create the world overnight. A Radical understanding of change is one that seeks a transcendence or social transformation out of the context, out of the conditions that exist. It has a fuller, richer understanding of what reason can and cannot do. Both Marx and Hayek are good on this issue and help us to have a clearer understanding of the pitfalls of Utopianism. Of course, Marx eventually falls victim to such utopianism because he believes that historically, human beings can transcend human epistemic strictures, and somehow at a later date reconstruct society from the ground up.
Q: What do you see as the major contribution of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical?
Sciabarra: There are several. First, I think it is obviously the first comprehensive historical study, including some healthy doses of historical speculation, on her intellectual roots and the environment from which she emerged. It's also the first book-length scholarly analysis of her philosophy and its radical implications. It is also the first study to link her to radical dialectical methods of understanding society. To this degree, it celebrates her distinction as being the first thinker to defend the free society in a multi-dimensional, dialectical, integrated fashion. And finally I think it is the first study to take into account the entire history of Objectivism, both the written works and the oral lectures and courses. Also it is the first study to reintegrate the contributions of those, such as the Brandens, who are persona-non-grata according to the "orthodoxy."
Q: What is the relationship between your two books?
Sciabarra: Overall, it's part of a trilogy of works. I plan to start another book [ed. note: Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism] soon which we can talk about later. It is a concerted effort to define a new non-Marxist radicalism--one that is fully radical in its understanding of society and its proposals for change, but one that transcends the more statist political implications of so much Marxist theory.
Q: Wow! Sounds like we need it! How difficult was it to get your book on Ayn Rand published? Were publishers hostile toward the project?
Sciabarra: You bet! Oh God! I think I queried well over 30 to 35 publishers, most of whom rejected the query out-of-hand. A few commercial presses actually rejected the book because they thought it was too scholarly, and a few university presses rejected the book because they thought Rand wasn't scholarly enough. So I was falling between the cracks for a while. Fortunately in the end I had a choice between two presses.
Q: Why did they want you? What was their reasoning?
Sciabarra: I think that they were genuinely convinced that it was the first time that anyone had taken a serious enough interest in Ayn Rand and her thought. They also recognized that Rand, for better or for worse in their view, had made a huge impact on American culture and thought. Fortunately, as I said, I received two offers, and decided to go with Penn State Press under the direction of Sandy Thatcher who is my Archie Ogden. It is a great press.
Q: Did you face any other kinds of opposition?
Sciabarra: Without naming any names, there was a least one Objectivist professor who had recommended against publishing my book unless I took out the Russian and dialectical themes.
Q: Suggesting you take the backbone out of it?
Sciabarra: Yes, the title would have been: Ayn Rand: The. Fortunately, the Press had accepted my defense of the project over the objections of that professor, though some of his criticisms were well-taken, and they helped me to strengthen my arguments.
Q: Tell us how you came to choose the rather original title and the basic outline?
Sciabarra: Originally, I had thought I was going to concentrate exclusively on Rand's methods of critiquing society, a kind of expansion of an earlier article I had done called "Ayn Rand's Critique of Ideology." That article, published in Reason Papers, focused on Rand's critique of the anti-conceptual mentality. The book eventually took a historical turn, and on the basis of that, I just came up with a title that I thought captured the themes in a very provocative way, enticing people perhaps who would not ordinarily pick up a book on Rand, to at least pick it up and say "Hmmm, interesting..."
Q: How did you outline the book?
Sciabarra: My book is divided into three segments deliberately. Whereas Rand divides Atlas Shrugged according to three Aristotelian "catch-phrases," I've chosen three typically dialectical "catch-phrases." Part One is "The Process of Becoming," Part Two is "The Revolt against Dualism," and Part Three is "The Radical Rand." By first discussing Rand's philosophy as it emerges from a "process" of intellectual discovery, development, and evolution, I place the entire project in its proper historical context. While genuine Objectivists know that Rand never deduced her philosophy from the axiom, "A is A," many critics and fans of Rand suggest that such was the case. My first part shows that Rand emerged in a historical context, which must be grasped if one is to appreciate the originality of her system (which I discuss in part two) or the radical implications of her social critique (which I examine in part three). This order shows that Rand was a figure of historical importance, one who emerged from a real laboratory of sorts that made it much easier for her to reach the kinds of grand generalizations for which she is most famous.
Q: In Objectivist circles your book has seen some controversy. Particularly on your thesis of Ayn Rand's use of "dialectics." Usually we think of this term in reference to Marxists. What do you mean by saying Rand was a "dialectical thinker"?
Sciabarra: First, we need to understand what "dialectics" is. You would think that people would have learned from Ayn Rand that we should never be afraid of words. Here is a woman who championed "selfishness" and "capitalism" with an in-your-face moral rectitude, even though people feared those words. So, let's not be afraid of the way in which I use the word "dialectics," a tradition which reaches back to ancient Greece and Aristotle. I'd like to say that dialectics is a method of analysis, a mode of inquiry, but in a sense, it is a kind of meta-methodological orientation that has several basic characteristics. I say "meta-methodological" because it is not to be confused with such things as logic, induction, deduction, statistical inference, all of which, in various contexts, dialectical thinkers have used. I also want to mention that dialectics is NOT the affirmation of logical contradictions, or the view that A is NOT A. Also, let's not confuse dialectics with historical materialism or economic determinism. The way I use the word, dialectics is a fundamental methodological orientation or set of assumptions about how we approach the object of our study. Dialectics, in essence, demands that one adopt a critical, integrated stance. It has 5 basic characteristics:
The first is Holism. Dialectics preserves the analytical integrity of the whole, which is conceived not as the sum of atomized units, but as an organic unity or totality.
The second is a necessity for both Abstraction and Integration. Dialectics demands that one grasp the whole through its abstracted parts, but it also demands that we not reify these parts as separate from the whole. The study of the whole demands abstraction simply because none of us can have, what Hayek once called, a synoptic vantage point on the whole. So we are compelled to study it from different vantage points and on different levels of generality, and we integrate these perspectives to get a richer understanding of the whole and its constituents.
The third basic characteristic is an emphasis on Internal Relations within a systemic context. Dialectics grasps the parts as parts within a system. These parts frequently enter into organic relationships of reciprocal interaction and reciprocal causation. In other words, each part implies and influences the other parts, and each part reflects and perpetuates the system that the parts jointly constitute.
Fourth, there is an emphasis on Internal Relations within an historical context. Dialectical study grasps that the whole is constituted by parts that are in dynamic interrelationships with one another, and that the system which we are studying develops over time. So, we can say that the whole is constituted by a process, that it has a past, a present, and a future, or several possible futures.
And finally, fifth, as a consequence of all of this, dialectics rejects formal dualism. Dualism, by the way, as I define it, is also a kind of meta-methodological orientation, one that stresses not integration and organic unity, but separation and opposition between spheres, and external relations between parts. Dialectics rejects such opposition because, by varying the level of generality or the vantage point of our analysis, one can find that opposing principles are sometimes intimately connected with one another, internally related so-to-speak. Thus, we might discover that apparent opposites are actually false alternatives sharing a common error, or simply relational opposites in need of integration. Hence, dialectical inquiry generally rejects such distinctions as that between materialism and idealism, rationalism and empiricism. It aims also for an integrated understanding of mind and body, fact and value, reason and emotion, morality and prudence, theory and practice, and, as Marx emphasized, critique and revolution [ed. note: For an expanded discussion of dialectics, see Sciabarra's reply to David MacGregor and Jeffrey Friedman published in Critical Review].
Now, given this understanding of dialectics, I believe that Rand is profoundly dialectical in her sensibility, in her basic orientation, on every level of her thought: in her literary methods, where she sees her own novels as "organic wholes" with characters, plot progression, and principles integrated to a central theme, expressed in each of its units; in her philosophy, where she refuses to disconnect any branch from the totality, or from its related branches; and in her social critique, where she is eminently radical, tracing the internal relationships between and among many disparate factors. Everything from politics and pedagogy to sex and economics becomes expressive of the system which she is both criticizing and seeking to change fundamentally.
Q: How much of Rand's method can your dialectic theory explain?
Sciabarra: Basically, I think it explains Rand's whole orientation, her way of DOING philosophy, and of DOING critical social theory. It DOESN'T explain the specific substantive theories that she offers as objective alternatives to the dualities that she confronts. What makes her revolutionary is that she's the first thinker to merge a dialectical sensibility with a defense of capitalism, the unknown ideal. Too many libertarian or classical liberal thinkers have reduced the study of freedom to economics or philosophy, with no understanding of the interconnections between culture, tacit moral practices, psychology, psycho-epistemology, race, sex, etc. Hayek is one exception; even if I disagree with some of his substantive theories, it is clear that he does understand the need for cultural prerequisites in the battle for a free society.
Q: Given the paucity of hard historical evidence about the real intellectual influences on Rand, I want to be clear about the status of your thesis that Rand employed a "hybridized" dialectical method which she in turn learned from Lossky. Are you offering it as a conjecture or hypothesis on the one hand, or as a claim that you regard as established beyond a reasonable doubt on the other?
Sciabarra: I regard it as a speculative historical endeavor. Certainly not established beyond any reasonable doubt. However, my claim is that even if we minimize the Lossky-Rand connection, the dialectical sensibility that I speak of was in the very intellectual air that Rand breathed. It was in the culture. It was taught in every course, in every text. Anywhere she would have turned, these themes would have appeared. My first few chapters show that this organic, integrated methodology was in fact endemic to Russian culture and philosophy. It was inescapable. So even if we can't say for certain that Lossky actually taught this to Rand, there is no doubt that she learned quite a bit about how to look at the world from her Russian background. Basically I have hypothesized Lossky as a possible transmission belt for that experience.
Q: If dialectical thinking was as prevalent as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches why didn't Ayn Rand call herself a dialectical thinker? Why did she not like that term?
Sciabarra: There are many ways in which one can think of the word dialectics and the one which she was used to hearing was dialectical materialism, which is another word for historical materialism or economic determinism, and, on that basis, if I were her, I would have rejected the term dialectics as well. But dialectics has a much more illustrious history than historical materialism; it refers primarily to a method or a meta-methodological orientation. To that degree it stretches back to Aristotle and beyond.
Q: But if the term was so common back then, why would she not have understood its meaning? She certainly refuted the contemporary meaning of selfishness and clarified that issue. Why wouldn't she with a term, dialectic thought, that she grew up with? If it was a valid method of thought, she would have defended it.
Sciabarra: You have to understand that the use of dialectics as method, in the manner that I have described, was very much a tacit practice of Russian philosophers, literary artists, and social critics. It was, in Russian culture, a fairly uncontroversial, obvious way of doing social theory. Unfortunately, the term "dialectics" in Russia was made part of a "package-deal" with historical materialism and determinism, or in the case of the neo-Idealists, like Lossky, it was part of a "package-deal" with mysticism. I think that Rand was so thoroughly disgusted with that term and its Marxist and mystical overtones, that she would have done everything in her power to distance herself from it. Once again, we cannot be ahistorical here; Rand was as much a creature of history, of her historical context, as she was a creator. For her, "dialectics" WAS "dialectical materialism," and as Barbara Branden tells us in her autobiography, she had on her body the scars to prove it. I'd go one further---the scars went deep into her consciousness as well.
Q: In Ron Merrill's review of your book he points out that: "...the idea of anti-Dualism as a philosophical position is not useful...when we are told that the premise of anti-Dualism was common to Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Lenin, and Rand---well, that practically establishes a "prima facie" case that the concept is unconstitutionally vague...we soon find ourselves sinking into a quick sand of ambiguity and nebulous distinctions." How do you respond?
Sciabarra: Well, anti-dualism may in fact be common to many thinkers, but so is the defense of individual rights, realist epistemology, egoism, and capitalism. On the basis of substantive theories, we can link Rand to Aristotle, Nietzsche, the classical liberals, and such twentieth century individualists as Isabel Paterson. But by concentrating only on the substantive similarities, and not the methodological ones, we lose so much of what makes Rand radical. Merrill doesn't quite grasp the richness of the dialectical approach. It is not merely anti-dualism, as I've described it. And in the final analysis, it is not Rand's anti-dualism that is "essential"; it is that she is a revolutionary amongst libertarian and neoliberal thinkers, because she has merged her defense of the free society with a thoroughly integrated, dialectical sensibility. No one has done this with such consistency, not even Hayek. Rand is about the most "holistic" individualist I've ever encountered. Her understanding of the nature of power and her defense of freedom takes place on a variety of internally-related levels: the ethical, the psycho-epistemological, the linguistic, the cultural, the political, the economic. And this is no strictly linear causality here; while Rand understands the necessity for objective foundations, she grasps that each level influences and has reciprocal effects on the other levels. Statism requires docility, helplessness, an attack on human efficacy, a subversion of language through the use of anti-concepts, an anti-rational culture, and of course, government intervention in the economy. It requires groupism and tribalism, but it is also a reciprocally, reinforcing cause of social fragmentation and intergroup warfare. Each of these factors is a prerequisite of the others. Each perpetuates the larger system of statism, even as each is a microcosm of the irrationality of that system. Consequently, for Rand, the fight for freedom is just as multi-dimensional. It requires reason, self-esteem, intellectual, political, economic, personal, and moral autonomy. Her analysis is exhaustive, organic, dialectical, radical. It is simply breathtaking.
Q: Wouldn't Rand say that her method is objectivity and that the dialectic is too narrow or vague? Why didn't you spend more time on analyzing objectivity?
Sciabarra: I don't doubt Rand's objectivity, but this is somewhat external to the central focus of my book. Ultimately, Rand's "objectivity" pertains to how she validates her positions. My book is less concerned with validating her ideas, which is a separate scholarly endeavor, and more concerned with grasping how she looks at the world in all of its integrated complexity.
Q: Isn't Rand's philosophy best bounded by the fact that on many issues she is responding to Kant: perception as a form, the axioms, rejection of the categorical imperative, rejection of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, as well as the notion of the a-priori?
Sciabarra: Well, first of all, in the history of Russian philosophy, many of the Russian thinkers, Lossky included, responded to Kant. Part of their own integrations of Aristotelian and Hegelian themes saw Kant as an arch foil, so there was a very real Russian bias against Kant. So, just from the historical perspective, she certainly is united in this endeavor with many previous Russian philosophers. But on another level, she responded to Kant and tried to integrate all of those antimonies that Kant had identified and in many respects perpetuated.
Q: If a "dialectic" method really characterizes Rand's fundamental method, what do we make of items such as the "intrinsic-Objective-subjective" trichotomy, for example, where Rand added to the number of distinctions?
Sciabarra: Dialectics is opposed to false alternatives. Rand's trichotomy shows that the intrinsic and the subjective are false alternatives, and that the only real alternative is truth or falsity. So her objective alternative she explains, is truth. A mutual exclusivity of false alternatives in Rand's view doesn't exhaust the possibilities. There is a valid integrated alternative to both falsehoods that she claims is both objective and true. So I don't see any problems with the trichotomy. Please remember that dialectics is interested in grasping relational opposition between APPARENT opposites, poles that are in need of integration. Dialectics is not a rejection of logical contradiction. Dialectical method does not seek to integrate REAL opposites, like truth and falsity. But think about how valuable Rand's relational analysis is even in her grasp of the dynamic between good and evil. Rand was no dualist here, no Manichaean; for her, even good and evil must be understood not as co-equal principles. She believed that evil was a parasite on good, essentially powerless without the sanction of the victim. That's a powerful, liberating insight.
Q: Objectivists recognize that an idea's primary relation is to reality. The referents of concepts are real existents, the truth or falsity of a proposition is determined by its correspondence with facts; logical relations among ideas are expressions of real relations among their referents. In the book, when you discuss the dialectical method in which one idea stands in a relation you call "transcendence" to two others ideas, you seem to say that Rand's objective theory of concepts stands in this relation to intrincism and subjectivism. How is "transcendence" based in facts?
Sciabarra: Again, I'm merely underscoring the fact that Rand seeks to provide an integrated answer to a false alternative. Her "transcendence," if you will, emerges because she seeks to capture what is true from each of these alternatives, while rejecting what is false from each. She doesn't necessarily construct her alternative out of the previous dualities. Rather, she provides an integrated, objective resolution, which is ultimately validated by the facts of reality. What is dialectical here is her overall orientation, her constant, critical impulse to understand and overturn the dualities which people often tacitly accept. What is dialectical is her impulse to integrate, to synthesize, to preserve the organic unity of the whole.
Q: You use the terms "internalism" and "externalism" in ways that are foreign to contemporary analytic epistemology and philosophy of mind. How are you using these terms? What is the issue at stake here?
Sciabarra: I am not an analytic philosopher, and I do not pretend to understand fully the analytic approach to philosophy. My own approach to the issues is primarily influenced by the Continental tradition, which has long debated the significance of relations. Brand Blanshard and others explain that there are important distinctions to be made between internal and external relations. An internal relation is such that something could not be what it is in the absence of that relation. An external relation is one in which the thing is what it is regardless of its relationships to other things or to its context. The internalists view the whole as organic and integrated, such that the whole constitutes and is constituted by the parts. Each of the parts is internally related to the others and to the system as a whole. Strict internalism however, degenerates into a kind of strict organicity, a pitfall of Hegelianism, such that one needs to know everything (the Absolute) in order to analyze anything. By contrast, the externalists view the parts as externally related, independent of one another. They are much more apt to compartmentalize, dis-integrate, fragment, atomize, analyze without synthesis.
There are several issues at stake here: What is the most legitimate way to study something? In the area of definition, how do we define something? And most importantly, in social theory, what is the most legitimate way to understand society, and by extension, to alter it as well? Rand resolves the issue, I believe, by grasping the necessity of both abstraction and integration, the necessity also, to delimit a CONTEXT. Once a context is established, we can understand internal relationships within that context. We can define things as contextually absolute, that is, conditioned by a context within which one can grasp meaning. And once we understand the context and its limitations, we also emerge with a better picture of the real potential for change. This, by the way, is a key lesson to be learned from Hayek: We are internal to social and historical conditions, and change must proceed immanently, not external to the social whole. Nobody can achieve a synoptic vantage point on the whole and reconstruct it entirely, external to context.
Q: By labeling Rand a "Russian Radical" and by saying she is a dialectical thinker, are you trying to "market" Rand to Marxists and other mainstream academics?
Sciabarra: Well, that is definitely part of the effect of what I'm doing. I can't say that it never crossed my mind. David Brown stated that I'd adopted a "diabolical" plan to use the terms of the radical left to undermine those terms and to show that one can be just as radical but of course far more humanistic and libertarian. And to a certain degree that is what this book does achieve; it deals with the radical left on its terms in many ways, but it also seeks to rescue the dialectical approach from its statist practitioners, and to use that organic method in defense of freedom.
Q: Since Marxists are also atheists, do you think they became Marxists because they were looking for an atheistic world view and Marxism was all they found? And perhaps if they read Rand they would rethink their position?
Sciabarra: I don't think that what motivates them fundamentally is the atheism, though it may be the case in some circumstances. I think that many Marxists do look out and see a lot of injustices in the society, and they define the society as capitalist. So they think that Marxism can provide them with an answer to understanding that system so as to change it. They have a dialectical sensibility. It's just that their substantive theories proceed on different and, in my view, fundamentally wrong assumptions. It's going to take a little bit more than having them read Rand. They need to re-orient themselves in terms of substantive theory. But at the very least I think that Rand is potentially a more attractive thinker for Marxists simply because she IS so multi-dimensional and integrated. She did not reduce the defense of freedom to economic man, or other such abstractions, that Marxists rightfully condemn and ridicule.
Q: What do you think of Rand's Jewish background? You don't mention much of that. Some Objectivists contend that Objectivism is a secular form of Judaism with its merchant-capitalist bent and its encouragement to question. Why didn't you include these in your analysis of her development?
Sciabarra: It's just that I thought I was engaging in enough historical speculation, and didn't really want to delve too deeply into things I didn't have much evidence for. I understand that her father was a non-practicing Jew. George Walsh told me a very interesting anecdote. He said that Rand was less aware of Judaism and more aware of Russian Orthodox Christianity. She had apparently corrected George's pronunciation of a word in a Russian Orthodox prayer, which is rather revealing since she must have gotten that from somewhere.
Q: I think that George said that her governess took her to the church, and that she knew the prayers by heart or something.
Sciabarra: Isn't that something. There is a larger point here that I think needs to be clarified. I use the term "hermeneutics" in my book. What I basically say is that I take a hermeneutical approach. That's another red flag word, but all it means, in my view, is that one can find many layers of meaning in Rand's works. One of the tasks of scholarship is to uncover those layers of meaning. And that's a valid scholarly endeavor, to trace the historical significance of an idea to the conditions in which it was formulated and to trace the implications of those ideas, as understood not only by Ayn Rand but her successors. This doesn't mean that ideas don't have any independent, objective validity. By using the word "hermeneutics," however I have been accused of being some kind of subjective deconstructionist. I'm not. I do believe that there is such a thing as objectivity and truth. I'm just saying that a hermeneutical approach can be worthwhile. It also helps us to understand the truly radical originality of Rand. That's one of the major contributions of my study.
Q: You discuss Rand's view of love and sex. In a recent article in the New Yorker the author characterizes Rand's view of men as influenced by Nietzschean ideas, that she looked for the heroic "superman" to worship. In your research, do you see this as a possible influence?
Sciabarra: There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that those themes were extremely prevalent in the Russian culture of Rand's youth. They influenced even Trotsky's view of the "new communist man." In my book I make some comparisons between Trotsky and Rand, especially Rand's conception of the New Intellectual and Trotsky's conception of the new communist man. I think Nietzschean themes can be detected in both.
Q: Why should people read your book?
Sciabarra: It offers a fresh, new perspective on a person who has been the subject of much controversy through the years. Just on the basis of that alone, it's worth the price of admission.
Q: You don't think it will be too technical for the typical Objectivist who only know of philosophy from the Peikoff courses?
Sciabarra: Well, some of it is technical. I try my best to be as clear as I can, but in some cases I no doubt fall over into the precipice of academic jargon. All I can say is that some chapters are easier than others. If the reader sticks with it, he or she might be rewarded.
Q: Your book will make people look at Objectivism from a different perspective. Do you think Objectivists should read other philosophers, not just Aristotle and such? Are there truths to be discovered even in "enemy camps"?
Sciabarra: Well, it would be very difficult for me to say no. That's what I've done. I really do believe that there's a lot to be learned from so-called enemy camps. From my own graduate and doctoral studies, I think that Marxist literature can be very revealing and very instructive, especially if one wishes to attain a radical understanding of society. Marxists, like Objectivists, have a tendency to think on many different levels of generality and many different vantage points. To that extent, even if you disagree with the substantive theories that the Marxists offer, you can still marvel at their ability to integrate. Now, true, you can get those lessons from Ayn Rand, but you might find that there are some things that Marxists say which add to your understanding of Ayn Rand or of the world.
Q: What effect do you think "Radical" will have on your career within academia when the mere mention of Rand is usually the kiss of death?
Sciabarra: I think it depends on how it is received. My approach is a very scholarly approach, so that might redeem it in the eyes of those who might look at it with suspicion. Who knows, I might convince somebody to actually read Rand, instead of merely smirking at the mere mention of her name. Fortunately, as a Visiting Scholar to the university, I am not in a tenure track position. I don't have to worry about this book being an obstacle to that process.
Q: You do an in-depth comparison between Marx and Rand. Do you see the comparison as more than a useful expository device? Do you think that Rand's influence will be as sweeping and profound, and in as short a time, as that of Marx?
Sciabarra: I think it's definitely more than a possibility. She is, like Marx, profoundly radical. If we could understand the pregnant possibilities, so to speak, for a radical analysis of society that are inherent in Rand's approach, then I think we'll have a very powerful engine of integration, one that is just as far-reaching as anything the Marxists have to offer. When I say "pregnant possibilities," I don't mean to imply that Rand is not radical enough. But Part Three of my book tries to draw out in much fuller detail, the broad implications of Rand's approach for a radical analysis of society. More work needs to be done. Remember that the Marxists have had a century or so of a head-start on us, and they definitely are among the major players in the dominant paradigm that has engulfed the social science departments across this country. So it's not a question of emulating the Marxists. It's a question of facing them on terms that are fundamental.
Q: I was following your discussion on the internet with this fellow who was rather hostile at first and you were very patient and explained things; you just answered questions and treated him respectfully, and he came around to wanting to read your book. Do you think this is an attitude we should really strive for?
Sciabarra: I really do think that there just is not enough civility in public dialogue. This is not just something I adopt professionally. It's an attitude I've adopted personally. I really give the other person the benefit of the doubt, unless of course they enter the discussion with an out-right personal attack, in which case I still might want to explore the reason for that. I think if you just deal with people honestly and openly, and answer questions, and engage them in a critical and constructive dialogue, you might get some results. I have found that even amongst Marxists. I do not just subscribe to Objectivist internet boards. I am a very major player on one of the Marxist internet boards.
Q: How have you been received there?
Sciabarra: In the initial stages when I mentioned Rand, I got all the smirks, suspicious jabs that you could possibly imagine. They treated me a little bit better with my Hayek book because they do believe that Hayek is a major foil and a major influence right now in the Eastern European movements away from socialism. Nevertheless, after about a year or so of debating them and bringing up Rand, many of them have come to respect her as a social thinker. Some of them are inclined to pick up my book, and I think that's a major development. But it was because I dealt with them in a constructive, honest and open way, and that's very important. You have to have respect for one another in order to enter into such dialogue.
Q: Maybe someone should write a book on how to discuss things with people rather than saying you're wrong, I'm right and that's it.
Sciabarra: Mind you, I was also attacked by people who thought I was being too nice. I'm in a very difficult position in many ways and it's not just with the Rand book. It's also with the Marx/Hayek book. I very much straddle a couple of traditions, and I have to speak to both traditions. In some cases, I need to address the interests and concerns of each tradition. So my exposition will be different depending upon the audience that I'm addressing. You've just got to basically know "where" people are coming from.
Q: Many would say that Rand tried to write "The Great American Novel," but would you say that her approach was typically Russian: big book, lots of ideas and long speeches?
Sciabarra: Well, she was both American and Russian. Her approach is typically organic and filled with the clash of ideas as the Russians would have it. But the ideas are distinctly and always American. It's a kind of very nice dialectical synthesis if you will.
Q: What are your future book plans?
Sciabarra: Well, I'm hoping for some grant money to bring out a comparative study of rationalistic and non-rationalistic defenses of liberty. I'm aiming for a synthesis ultimately, but primarily it will be a critique of what I call libertarian dualism, the penchant of some libertarians to oppose state and market, to separate economics, politics, culture, psychology, ethics, etcetera. The book [ed. note: Total Freedom] will basically study the resolutions of many libertarian thinkers including Rand, Rothbard, Mises, Hoppe, Den Uyl, Rasmussen, and Hayek. I think Hayek has a better grasp of what is utopian in neo-liberal and libertarian theory than any other thinker. Hayek tells us that we are always part of the world that we seek to change and that this should humble us on how long it will take to change it, and what is open to change. I state in both recently published books that we are creatures of history and society as much as we are its creators, and that's a lesson we should never forget. When people forget that lesson, they often manufacture plans to MAKE people different. In the end, they produce nothing but brutality and oppression. People can change, but change is a complex historical development, and ultimately, people must choose to and want to change their tacit beliefs, thoughts, psychological factors, existential circumstances. They also have to be wise enough to distinguish between what is open to change and what is not open to change.
Q: As an Ayn Rand scholar how do you feel about the Ayn Rand Institute setting up their own library of Ayn Rand's papers. These were originally supposed to go to the Library of Congress. Do you think that there's going to be a problem with people being denied access?
Sciabarra: There will always be suspicion regarding institutions that try to act as "keepers of the flame." I, myself, didn't even have access to Rand's letters while I was writing my book. But I did correspond briefly with Peikoff who told me that if the estate found any information regarding the relationship of Lossky and Rand, he would share it with me. So I think that this is a positive sign. I would hope that this attitude carries into their library if they do in fact establish it.
Q: Do you think that there is a possibility that they might sanitize the library, get rid of some things that might make Rand look bad? How much of a danger is that?
Sciabarra: Outside of opening up a letter and making it look like a piece of Swiss cheese, there's really nothing they can do. Unless they're actually cutting out sentences, there's no way they can sanitize them. Either all the letters will be available or only some of them. There's no way to know. I understand this concern. Most estates do like to retain some control on what is publicly available. They have a vested interest in how that thinker and innovator is perceived. But they cannot stop the growth of knowledge or the interpretations that will radically diverge from their own. One can only imagine what interpretations may emerge if scholars do have access to all of Rand's papers. I might have to do a second edition of my own book!
Q: What do you do for fun when you are not writing serious philosophical works?
Sciabarra: Aside from playing with my dog Blondie, I love watching movies. I have a lot of musical interests. I used to be a mobile disc-jockey, playing sweet sixteen and retirement parties. I have a huge record collection that covers everything from jazz and pop to classical music. I go to discos occasionally to dance. Oh, and with my Greek and Sicilian family roots, I love to cook, and I love to eat! I've got good friends and a great family to keep me busy!
Q: Are you teaching anywhere right now?
Sciabarra: No, the Visiting Scholar appointment that I have at New York University is a research position which allows me to receive grants to conduct independent research and to write. Unfortunately a chronic health problem prevents me from teaching on any regular basis. But who knows what the future will bring; the internet has connected me to the world in ways that I could never have dreamed years ago.
Q: In writing these books and your struggle to get them published, what important lesson have you learned?
Sciabarra: First to persevere and never to give up. But this period has been kind of bitter-sweet for me. Recently, I lost both my mother and my uncle Sam, who was like a second father to me. Both were sick, and eventually died from cancer during a very difficult time when the books were under preparation or on the verge of publication. I've dedicated a book apiece to each of them. It's very easy to get discouraged and frustrated, but when people have respect for what you are doing--as they did--that gift is absolutely invaluable. On a broader level, I can't tell you how many people I thank in both of my books. I'm so proud to have known so many giving and caring people whom I really consider to be my friends. They have shown me a lot of love and support, and in keeping with Rand's "trader" principle, I have always returned that affection, admiration and respect with deep gratitude.
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