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History Matters

Rather than clutter up previous Notablog posts (here, here, and here) with endless updates, I'm republishing today's SOLO HQ comments (from here) as a separate entry.

This has been an interesting discussion for me, because I'm in the midst of writing quite a few articles on the occasion of the tenth anniversary not only of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, but of Marx, Hayek, and Utopia as well. Both books were published in August 1995, and revisiting these themes, which touch upon important issues in historiography, has been refreshing for me. The anniversary material will extend into the Spring of 2006, when I publish in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies an article revisiting the issue of Rand's college transcript based on ongoing archival research (which I have not yet completed).

Read on...

From SOLO HQ ...

A couple of points in reply:

1. To Michael Montagna: Precisely. Rand says it and said it better than I ever could.

2. Adam [Reed] is, of course, entirely correct about the Hellenistic impact on the Arab world—the impact of Averroes and Avicenna, and others—a lost legacy in many ways, I'm afraid.

3. Rick Out: J Lo is from Da BRONX. NOT Brooklyn. Some good things come from the Bronx... like, say, the New York Yankees, the winningest sports franchise in history. But we've had many other stars born in Brooklyn and the vast bulk of Americans who trace their lineage to immigration—trace their lineage to Brooklyn. So have some respect for Brooklyn, or I'll have to do my De Niro impression!

As for this larger issue: It's not a question of giving philosophical value to biography. It's all a question of placing ideas in a larger context, which is not merely biographical, but historical. It's just another vantage point from which to understand the relevance of an idea. For example, there are all sorts of things that are utterly illogical in the Bible. But Bible studies don't begin and end with the illogic of its text. Now, you might say: "Oh, yes it does." Fine. But we do have an intellectual division of labor; nobody is holding a gun to your head to delve more deeply into history. Those of us who find it interesting, however, pursue it. The Bible can be understood as an extension of a certain culture, and studying its teachings in that context gives us important clues into the nature of that culture and the possible relevance of those ideas to that culture.

As a student of history, Rand herself understood this without falling into the abyss of cultural relativism. For example, in her essay "Requiem for Man," she quotes the anti-wealth views of Saint Ambrose. She concludes: "St. Ambrose lived in the fourth century, when such views of property could conceivably have been explicable, if not justifiable. From the nineteenth century on, they can be neither." In terms of the pure logic of Ambrose's argument, Rand most assuredly would have dismissed it. But she chose, instead, to place Ambrose in an historical and cultural context to help explain the origin and relevance of his ideas.

I've done the same for Ayn Rand in my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. But in Russian Radical, there are 13 chapters. Exactly one chapter (Ch. 4) centers on Rand's biography, but that chapter is in the four-chapter arc of Part I—which focuses more generally on the historical and cultural context within which Rand was born and which had an impact on her early intellectual development. Part II moves away from historical exposition into a structured exposition of Objectivism as an integrated whole. Part III focuses on Rand's radical social critique. So, clearly, even for a student of history like myself, biography plays a part in the formulation of an idea, but it is quite apart from an exploration of the inner logic of the ideas themselves.

Biography can be hagiography but it doesn't have to be. Biography can be focused on prurient interests, and the study of Rand's sex life is no aberration (you mention Wittgenstein, Rick... nowadays, Queer Wittgenstein studies are almost as voluminous as studies of his philosophy proper). And cultural studies can be reduced to "determinism," but they don't have to be.

I learned from Ayn Rand the importance of context to everything. I have applied those lessons to the study of the development of Rand's ideas in one quarter of Russian Radical. But my book and my work didn't begin and end with that development. The bulk of the book is, in fact, a study of the ideas themselves. And in the end, the essence of my work is methodological: an exploration of what I take to be the "dialectical" (context-keeping) methods at work in Rand's philosophy, and in classical liberalism and libertarianism more generally.

Comments welcome, but readers are encouraged to read the full discussion at SOLO HQ.

Update: In reply to comments by Michael Stuart Kelly, I state here:

Michael, thanks very much for your comments. In all truth, I am currently working on many articles (and giving a few interviews as well) dealing with the tenth anniversary of Russian Radical and Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, which both came out in the same week of August 1995. If I had been preoccupied with work not connected to the current thread, I probably would have made one or two comments and left it at that. But this thread has had its utility because it got me into "1995 Mode" once again... perfectly in sync with the essays and interviews I'm currently involved with. So, in a way, it's been a bit refreshing revisiting some of the controversies that surrounded the publication of my books back then. At this stage, with all honesty, I think the interlocutors here will probably have to agree to disagree. :) I'm sure we'll revisit some of these themes again soon enough.

Update: Check out my follow-up post here at SOLO HQ, wherein I recommend Stephen Cox's superb book, The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America.