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I Get Letters ...

Michael ("Mick") Russell (who has left comments on Notablog before) wrote me a personal email the other day, and I asked him for permission to reproduce it, in part—not because he was so complimentary, but because I thought he raised an issue of general interest:

Dear Chris,
Thank you for your wonderful site. And for your respect. I am a former socialist, seeking a new and improved way to change the world, for the better, of course. I have recently read Ayn Rand's We The Living. It confirmed the obvious (now) for me: collectivism is morally bankrupt and utterly wrong. I now totally reject socialism. Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism fascinates me.
But I must confess to being intimidated by its study. Leonard Peikoff? David Kelley? The split with the Brandens? Of all the Objectivist, or Neo-Objectivist blogs, I find yours to be the freest and most respectful of dissent. And I loved Blondie. My condolences.
Does my past association with Marxism—I was a member of the Young Socialist Alliance and The Socialist Workers Party—preclude me from any activity within the Objectivist movement? I am an Atheist; not only do I reject God, I don't believe Ayn Rand is God. She was a brilliant but fallible mind. Am I an apostate before I even join the movement? I try to engage but am usually rejected by various pro-Objectivist blogs. I guess I'm a libertarian. I just want to further my mind and advance the cause of freedom. Any suggestions? Mick

I'll include here my answer to Mick, with a few additions too.

My first suggestion is that you do not worry about joining any "movements"; virtually all organized movements have their pitfalls, and it's not my intention here to list those that have been manifested throughout the history of "Objectivism."

My second suggestion is that you spend time actually reading Ayn Rand's work. Instead of navigating through all the conflicts within the "movement," you should focus on the ideas, and then, once you've read and digested Rand's work, I strongly suggest moving on to works written by those who were influenced by her (Nathaniel Branden, Leonard Peikoff, David Kelley, etc.), followed by works in the secondary literature.

Of course, as part of that secondary literature, I'd be remiss if I didn't suggest that at some point you might actually want to read my own book on Rand: Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (as well as other Rand-related books and journals with which I've been involved).

Whatever his other criticisms of my book, the late Ronald Merrill once called Russian Radical, "Objectivism for Marxists." I don't agree with Merrill's reasoning behind that quip—that I packaged Rand's work in the "language" of the left to make it accessible to the academic community. In fact, it was my belief then, and it is my belief now, that the "language" of dialectics was usefully employed because it captured something important in Rand's work, while enabling me to challenge the left's monopoly on an eminently radical methodology. It was not a marketing decision; it was an intellectual and theoretical choice that I made based on my view that it was a correct identification.

But if you began on the left, my work may, in fact, be something that helps you to situate Rand in the broader context of radical thinking.

As a supplement to your reading on Rand, let me make a third suggestion: Don't narrow your focus to all things Rand. If you're genuinely interested in libertarianism, let me also recommend all the works that I list here, which certainly made a huge impact on my own development.

Finally, I have to cite two essays: the first, published on the Lew Rockwell site back in 2002, entitled "How I Became a Libertarian"; the second, entitled "Taking It Personally" (PDF version). Both mention my interactions with the Young Socialist Alliance when I was in high school. I was a bit more conservative back in those days, but here's the relevant paragraph from the latter essay that should make you chuckle:

I had been an outspoken political type in high school, involved in some rather contentious battles with the Young Socialists of America who had plastered the school’s hallways with their obscene propaganda. I had begun writing for Gadfly, the social studies newspaper, and had taken to quoting Ronald Reagan on the perils of central planning. I knew that I "arrived" as a political commentator when I walked into a school bathroom one afternoon to find a copy of one of my anti-socialist articles—sitting, rather wet, in the urinal. Though I’d heard of "yellow journalism," the article seemed to have been saved from discoloration because it had already been printed on goldenrod mimeograph paper. A small victory, that.

In any event, I hope you enjoy your new reading adventures; please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions, and I hope you'll feel free to comment here as well.

Comments welcome.

Comments

Chris, you were out of high school when I was in the YSA, I can assure you I wasn't the one who urinated on your article :)

Chris,

I think anyone who has read the works you mentioned might proceed to Tibor Machan's book AYN RAND and also A. Gotthelf's book ON AYN RAND.

There is no completely satisfactory book on Rand, but taken together these do a good job.

Mick,
I used to be a lefty type socialist myself who broadened his outlook to include folks like Rand and right-libertarians which has added immensely to my knowledge/understanding of the notion of radical political/social thinking.

My advice would be to absorb as much of her fiction/non-fiction as you can handle while maintaining an independent outlook on it but it sounds like your not out to make Rand a god so maybe that comment wasn't needed.

I am a buddy of Chris's and I reccomend his Russian Radical as an excellent read for those interested in her thought.

It's definitely not all you should read but I've found it to be very thought provoking/stimulating.

not just trying to give free publicity to Chris cause he's a friend too hehe

I do honestly think it's a worthwhile read.

Cheers,
Nick

P.S. I am trying to construct a personal essay on Rand which is on the personal blog linked under URL if your interested

not finished at all but I'm doing a rereading of material dealing with her ideas to finish it up.

Mick,
I don't know how familiar you are with the libertarian blogosphere/community but just wanted to add that that there are left-libertarians/those who identify with the label socialist but from a free market perspective

www.mutualist.org which is hosted by Kevin Carson is one such example

Cheers,
Nick

Nick,

I do have Chris's book on Rand. Thanks for the link to Kevin Carson's site.

Mick,
Okie Dokie and no problem on the link

glad to be of service

Cheers,
Nick

I gave my own evaluation of the relationship between Chris' work and Marxism in a couple of posts that I once wrote for Louis Proyect's Marxmail List several years ago. In one such post, I wrote:

Much of McLemee's article focuses on Chris Sciabarra's book Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. Sciabarra is a libertarian who did his doctorate under the Marxist scholar, Bertell Ollman. Ollman is noted among other things for his studies of Marxist dialectics in which he applied the American idealist philosopher Brand Blanshard's,analysis of internal relations to the elucidation of dialectics.

Sciabarra has in several of his works attempted to apply Ollman's approach to provide reconsiderations of libertarian and classical liberal thinkers like F.A. Hayek, Karl Popper, and Ayn Rand. In the case of the first two thinkers, Sciabarra's approach seems quite plausible and fruitful since despite their avowed anti-Hegelianism, both Hayek and Popper in their mature thought advanced evolutionist conceptions of history and culture. Both Hayek and Popper were not incapable of subtle thought. Their are IMO aspects of their thought that can indeed be understood as being dialectical in character and doing so has made these aspects much clearer. BTW the Soviet philosopher, Igor Naletov, arrived at an evaluation of Popper's mature thought that is similar to Sciabarra's.

In the case of Rand though, this argument seems less plausible, if only for the reason she was such a crude and often dishonest thinker. I dare say that Chris Sciabarra is far more learned and intelligent than Rand ever was and he tends to read back into her a work a subtlety of mind that he himself possesses but in which Rand was lacking.

Much of Sciabarra's book is devoted to tracing the influences of Russia's Silver Age on the genesis of Rand's thought. In particular he points out the influence of Nietzsche on her philosophy, something that she was most loathe to admit since Rand and her Objectivist disciples have always dismissed him as an irrationalist. Of course Rand's Nietzscheanism ought to have been apparent. After all, the hero of her novel,Howard Roark, was based, at least in part, on the architect Frank Lloyd Wright who was very much a professed Nietzschean. It is true that Barbara Branden in her biography of Rand noted her youthful infatuation with the writings of Nietzsche and the impact of Nietzsche on the development of her own ethic of egoism and on her romantic individualism. That didn't stop orthodox Objectivists from denying the influence of Nietzsche on Rand but on this point Sciabarra has made a persuasive argument that has given the orthodox Objectivists much trouble. In general Rand was very reluctant to admit to being influenced by other thinkers. She claimed that her thought stemmed from Aristotle and from the free-market economists.

Rand was also arguably quite dishonest in her denials that she was influenced in any significant way by contemporary philosophers. Her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology includes among other things a sustained argument aimed at demolishing the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions. For Rand the analytic/synthetic distinction was at the root of
nearly everything that she thought was wrong with modern philosophy. So far, so good but what she didn't say in her book was that Harvard philosopher, W.V. Quine had years before published a demolition of the analytic/synthetic distinction in his famous essay "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" in his book From a Logical Point of View. Perhaps, Rand can be excused or forgiven for this lapse since she was not a professional philosopher but how does one explain the fact that the essay by Leonard Peikoff on the analytic/synthetic distinction which appears in Rand's book makes no mention of Quine either?
Peikoff, who became Rand's designated intellectual heir after she had dumped Nathan Branden, was, unlike Rand, a professional philosopher with a doctorate in the subject and he has served as a professor at several universities. What's his excuse?
--------
In another post, I wrote:

I realize that I omitted the name of the American idealist philosopher in question. His name was Brand Blanshard, who taught for many years at Yale and was basically the last of the American idealists, a neo-Hegelian school that had pretty dominated American academic philosophy towards the end of the 19th century (British academic philosophy was similarly dominated by idealists at about the same time). Unlike most of the earlier idealists though, Blanshard was an avowed atheist, and he was active in various freethought and
humanist organizations. He was noted among other things for his defense of the notion of internal relations, an issue that he debated vigorously with the empiricist philosopher, Ernest Nagel.

The notion of an internal relation is closely tied to the notion of necessity. Thus if an individual X has a property, such that by virtue if having that property, X necessarily has a relation R to a certain thing or things, then R can be described as an internal relation of X. Thus if X is a bachelor, then the relation of not being married to anyone else is an internal relation of X. The notion of an internal relation is contrasted with the notion of an external relation. Thus if X has a relation to certain other things but there is no property that X necessarily has this relation, then this relation is said to be an external one. Towards the end of the last century, however, some
of the British neo-Hegelians were arguing that all relations are internal. This thesis was closely connected with the coherence theory of truth that was also embraced by the neo-Hegelians.

In the US, Brand Blanshard, who was a disciple of Bradley, was a leading defender of the thesis that all relations are internal, notably in his 1939 book, The Nature of Thought. As such his thesis bore an obvious kinship with Leibniz's view that all truths are analytic as well as to Spinoza's idea that causal relations can be reduced to logical relations. Blanshard's own defense of this thesis focused on the argument that the distinction between logical necessity and causal necessity which most Anglo-American empiricists took for granted was in fact untenable. Since, empiricist philosophers derived most of their understanding of causality from Hume, Blanshard turned much of his firepower against Hume's analysis of causality. Many of
the connections between the thesis that all relations are internal and associated conceptions of causality were elucidated in the course of the debate between Blanshard and Nagel.

Concerning Blanshard, I once saw him at a commencement at Boston University back in the 1980s where he delivered the commencement address. He was well into his 90s but he was still writing and publishing in philosophy. For his commencement address, he delivered a learned talk
on the life of reason. As I recall, he cited his old friend, John Dewey, as an exemplar of the life of reason. He may have also said something about Bertrand Russell but I am not sure. I also recall, that he lambasted religious fundamentalism
and so-called "scientific" creationism. One thing that I am sure about is that his talk sailed over the heads of at least 95% of the audience at BU. I suppose that he believed that university commencement was a proper place for delivering a learned address. He probably also thought that universities were places for learning and scholarship. Imagine that! What cheek!

Wow, Jim, that was quite a trip down memory lane. For the benefit of Notablog readers, I'll just post a few comments in reply.

First, thanks very much for your kind words of appreciation for the character and quality of my work. And it is certainly true that, in the arena of intellectual history, we often learn a lot about the approach of an author through his interpretation of other thinkers (see, for example, Isaiah Berlin).

As for your evaluation of Rand: you are not the first person who has characterized her as either "crude" or "dishonest," though I would certainly take issue with both characterizations. The thing that must be remembered about Rand is that she was not a "scholar"; she was a creative writer who authored many works of fiction. She was also a master polemicist who used fiery language in her many nonfiction essays. Some of those essays come across as "crude" only because, in my opinion, she had a penchant for getting to the "bottom line" of an argument with gusto, and not tracing every last mediation in that argument. But I do think that a more detailed discussion of her work shows immense subtleties and a dialectical dexterity that may not be noticed on first reading.

As for the "dishonesty" issue: I honestly do not believe that Rand studied many other thinkers, especially in her mature years. Peikoff certainly studied others when he was a doctoral student at NYU, but I'm not sure he studied any Quine at that time. I could be wrong, but I don't recall any references to Quine in his dissertation---which was written under Sidney Hook at NYU. And I also don't recall any coverage of Quine in any of Peikoff's courses on the history of philosophy. Dishonest? I'd need more evidence for that. I think it surely can be said, however, that it is deeply regrettable that Peikoff did not engage Quine's works.

I should note, however, that you're not alone in your assessment here. For example, there is one writer, Rob Bass (who has a forthcoming article in JARS), who has suggested that a case can be made that Peikoff had to have been "deliberately dishonest" in not citing Quine; see here.

On Nietzsche: I do think Rand admitted the Nietzschean influence---in a limited sort of way. But I think that since the release of Rand's journals and letters, it has become increasingly difficult for anyone to deny the important impact that Nietzsche made on Rand's thought. A forthcoming issue of JARS will actually be devoted to the relationship between the two thinkers.

And speaking of Brand Blanshard: Rand, of course, had wonderful things to say about Blanshard's work, and the two exchanged a note or two in the mid-1960s. Your mention of that commencement address was just precious.

Thanks, finally, Jim, for your discussion of internal and external relations: much appreciated.

A lot of this sails right over my head, but I am somewhat familiar with Nietzsche (for me, he's Oscar Wilde without the humor, in a way)--and I do sense from the little Rand I've read that he must have had an effect on her thought. I look forward to reading that JARS issue when it's out.

Speaking of commencements at Boston University. It was another one, a couple of years where the commencement address was delivered by the physicist, Carlo Rubbia who in 1984 shared with Simon van der Meer the Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of the massive, short-lived subatomic W and Z particles, thus providing experimental confirmation for the electroweak unification theory that had been developed by Steve Weinberg, Sheldon Glashow and Abdus Salam.

In contrast with Blanshard's address, Rubbia's address had to be the most insipid and cliche-ridden commencement address that I had ever had the misfortune of sitting through. And given the quality of most commencement addresses, that's really saying something. I recall, that it was so bad, that even one of the public relations people at BU practically admitted to the Boston Globe that it was bad. Whereas, Blanshard apparently had an overly generous view of the audiences that show up at university commencements, Rubbia seems to have had nothing but contempt for his audience. Either that, or the guy was just plain lazy. But he struck a new low for commencement speeches.