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Reflections on "Most Harmful Lists"

With regard to my objections (here and here) to Ralph Luker's placement of works by Ayn Rand and Herbert Spencer on a list of "most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries," reader Sergio Mendez, asks in this comments thread:

Ok Chris, but then why don´t you show the same outrage with Freud´s inclusion on Ralph´s list? Was Freud a mass murderer like Hitler or Lenin? Aren´t his writtings taken VERY seriously, inspite of the hatred his works inspire on certain anglo saxon philosophic circles?

I took issue with the people and works on Ralph's original list who were from the libertarian orbit—and with whom I was familiar. In all honesty, in all my years, I have read exactly one short book by Freud: Civilization and Its Discontents, and I'd hardly have considered that among the most "harmful" books. That, however, was not among the Freud books listed by Ralph. (It occurs to me that I probably need to get crackin' on that list of books over which I am supposed to be embarrassed for not having read, as suggested by Aeon Skoble and Will Wilkinson.)

Because of my unfamiliarity with other books on his original and revised lists (see here), I didn't comment. I try to work by a certain principle... not to comment about books (or even authors) one way or the other if I've not actually read them (or read them fully ... reading excerpts or dust jackets doesn't count).

In fact, I didn't comment on the Thomas Woods book (The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History) either—which is very popular in libertarian circles—because I've not read it and had no way to offer any kind of assessment. So, clearly, my response was not "knee-jerk" in favor of all "libertarian" authors.

Still, I have a very real problem with this whole "ten most harmful books" list, as I stated at the outset. Now, it seems, on the various threads provoked by this listing (see here, for example), people are arguing over whether "harmful" is to be judged by original intent, or by the fact that the books have been "misinterpreted" or "misunderstood" in the wake of their publication.

And that is a very real issue, in my view. I have long held that there is a distinction between "intended" and "unintended" consequences, not only in a social context, but in a textual sense as well. (The study of the unintended consequences of a text has long been a focus of those trained in the methodology of "hermeneutics," which began in the realm of Biblical interpretation and scholarship.) No author can possibly know all the interpretations and misinterpretations, applications and implications, that might result from his/her writing—given that the context of knowledge changes and that different people coming from different perspectives will engage that writing differently. This does not mean that "objectivity" is impossible in the assessment of a given work. It just means that as analysts, we need to be very careful to distinguish between original intent and unintended consequences (be they good or bad).

It also means that we are probably doomed to argue eternally about the legacy of any given writer. I've taken to arguing in favor of Ayn Rand's dialectical "radical" legacy, for example... but I'm also of the belief that there are nondialectical aspects in Rand's work that need "transcending," as it were. And, mind you, Rand is one of the more consistent writers; the problems of interpretation and misinterpretation are multiplied exponentially when we look at writers whose work is replete with "mixed premises." That's one of the reasons I would take issue with putting Nietzsche's books on a list of "harmful works"—though I do this with full knowledge that misinterpretations are quite possible in his case, in particular. How much we "blame" Nietzsche for these twists and turns of interpretation is another question entirely.

I talk a lot about this in an essay sparked by a critical reading of my monograph on Objectivism & Homosexuality—and it's why I've long taken to calling myself a "post-Randian." But I'm just as much of a "post-Hayekian" too. With all this debate, maybe my use of the phrase "dialectical libertarian" is best, after all. I discuss some of these labeling issues in a recent SOLO HQ thread here. In answer to the question "What do you call yourself?" I write, in part:

I voted for "None of the Above," though as Bill Perry puts it in response to Pete, at least in the current context "post-Randian" is good. I confess that I like Matthew Humphreys' suggestion about "Sciabarraite"... but that would make me the founder of Sciabarraism, whether I like it or not. How pretentious! hehe
I accept all the key fundamentals of Rand's Objectivism, but have gotten so tired of arguing over the meaning of Objectivism—a debate which starts to resemble those over who is the true Christian or who is the true Muslim—that I just gave up. I've also taken to calling myself a "dialectical libertarian"... because I got just as tired arguing over who is the true libertarian. But that label has successfully alienated me from both "dialecticians" and "libertarians," and generally, people who have no clue what on earth I'm talking about. Ugh. I'm just doomed... hehe

Comments welcome. Noted at L&P.


I can well understand why many people would consider Rand's works "harmful," "dangerous," etc. After all, if enough people took her ideas seriously--why, freedom could break out!

That's exactly why Mr. Luker was so upset about it. He is a socialist, that's why he didn't include a book by Marx or Keynes. And those two can be really harmful if read by fanatics, as can Rand's works.
It is the same with Nietzsche who was used by the NAZIs to support the Übermensch-theory, which in fact was totally against what he meant it to be.

So, I think every book (even and especially the bible) can be harmfull or dangerous, so to make a list is unnecessary in the first way.
The danger of a book is not a mean of it, but the reader.
Reasonable people won't fall to the lies of "Mein Kampf" or the big ideas of Lenin, because they can outthink it.

Wow, Thomas Wood is a libertarian? I have become atracted to libertarian thought thanks to people like you, Roderick Long and Charles Johnson...but then, that Wood is a libertarian confirms to me you are a minority inside a group of excentric right wingers...

I want to comment on one aspect of your remarks.

You wrote: "But that label ['dialectical libertarian'] has successfully alienated me from both 'dialecticians' and 'libertarians,' and generally, people who have no clue what on earth I'm talking about. Ugh. I'm just doomed... hehe"

I've often felt as if I'm in the minority wherever I go. Increasingly, though, I've felt that this can be a good thing!

I would be honored to be regarded as a "dialectical libertarian." I hope that I can live up to so marvelous a designation.

So at least with me, Chris, you need not feel alienated! :-)

Sergio -
It's not that Chris and Roderick are the minority and the rest are "right-wing." One could just as well argue that Wood is the minority. Look into the views of all the bloggers at Liberty and Power, for instance (where Chris, Roderick, and I all blog). Not too many seem like Woodites, but by the same token, we all have our differences. The bottom line is, "libertarians" names a pretty diverse bunch. All take individual liberty seriously, or at least claim to, and one of the things we argue about is what "individual liberty" means, and whether this-or-that view really is compatible with that vision or not. Some are "paleos," some are counter-culture; some are religious, some are secular; some are Randian, others think she's silly; some come at libertarianism via philosophy, others via economics, others via political science; some are Kantians, some Aristotelians; some are hawkish, others doveish; etc. It's a pretty mixed bag, surprisingly enough, so trying to generalize won't work as well as you might guess. At any rate, it's not like Chris is the lone wolf.

Thanks for all the comments, folks.

I do hope people realize that there were a lot of "hehe" and smiley faces in my SOLO comments, as reproduced here. I am certainly ~not~ a lone wolf and I count among my friends and colleagues many people---including Vid and Aeon, and some of those mentioned by Aeon, like Roderick---as among my fellow travelers. Proudly so!

And, in truth, I relish the differences among us; I embraced difference from the first moments of my own intellectual development, and my influences are varied---as I suggest here: http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sciabarra/notablog/archives/000487.html --- including Randian, Rothbardian, Hayekian, and even Marxian sources.

Alas, it is also true that the phrase "dialectical libertarian" hasn't exactly caught fire. :) I didn't expect that it would, given the fact that most of those who self-consciously label themselves as "dialectical" are Marxists, and most of those who self-consciously label themselves as "libertarian" would not embrace the word "dialectics" because of its association with Marxists.

Fortunately, that does not pertain to all---especially those who recognize that dialectics is not the birthright of Marxists. Indeed, the father of dialectical inquiry was Aristotle himself---not a bad forefather to look up to. And in the end, it is less important to me who uses the label, and more important to me who practices the "art of context-keeping" as I've described it. Most of my work in the area of intellectual history has been to make transparent the fact that many thinkers in the classical liberal and libertarian traditions operate through a dialectical orientation---even if they don't name it as such.

I have lots more about this coming out in a number of articles I'm preparing on the tenth anniversary of the first two books of my "Dialectics and Liberty" trilogy.

BTW, Sergio, I was delighted to visit your website and see my name embedded in lots of Spanish text. And I hope you know that your name raised my eyebrows... since Sergio Mendes (last name differs by a letter) has been named in many of my "Song of the Day" entries. :)

Anyway, thanks again, to all, for your comments here. And I certainly encourage additional discussion.

Chris, wow, I can't believe it's been 10 years since I read your "Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical"! Tempus fugit. Or as we say in Brooklyn, tempus fuggedabodit. :-)
Anyway, the "what is libertarianism" thing is par for the course. A lot of what goes on in philosophy is "what is philosophy?" As you (and Socrates) have noted, self-refelction is quite healthy.


You know "Tempus Fugit" is also a terrific Bud Powell jazz composition that will be making its appearance on "Song of the Day." I have a classic swift-paced recording of it by saxophonist Stan Getz. I can only imagine what "tempus fuggedabodit" would sound like!


Thanks... for everything.

Let me add a few more dimensions.

Rather than the intended/unintended distinction, I prefer the intended/achieved distinction. What was the author trying to do – did they do it? Thus, while giving credit to profess motives, I often classify an author diametrically opposite to his stated classification if my analysis leads me to such a position.

Rand often used a variant of this method if she thought a thesis must manifest itself in a particular way given reality. Sweeping aside good intensions, she’d argue that a thesis in fact contradicts reality and can only bring harmful (she’d use a stronger word) consequences. Thus, the thesis is the consequences – the “what in reality” – that it can only refer despite disclaimers by the author.

I don’t quite agree. In any contradiction, be it between premises and conclusion, or idea and reality, it is not clear how the author would resolve those contradictions when faced with the either/or day of reckoning. And there’s no reason to resolve contradictions within an author’s opus. People are often contradictory. The judgment day, however, will be faced by those influenced by the author at some time in the future. That is their achievement or failure.

Just a few more thoughts to keep the thread alive.

PS. You missed my article on affirmative action for Greek-Americans: http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/2005/06/im-victim.html

A very good point, Jason. It's the source of Rand's injunction (put in the mouth of Ellsworth Toohey): "Don't bother to examine a folly---ask yourself only what it accomplishes."

And you must keep me in the loop about your posts! :) That comment about Sicilians and Greeks made me chuckle.

Thanks for your comments!