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.