DAVID M. BROWN
This letter was posted on-line in its entirety before being published in edited form in the pages of Full Context.
To the editor:
I much enjoyed your interview with Chris Matthew Sciabarra on the issues raised by his book, AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL. Sciabarra's profound and brilliant work is a giant leap forward in Rand scholarship.
In the interview, Sciabarra alludes to my assertion that he has "adopted a `diabolical' plan to use the terms of the radical left to undermine those terms" and so transmogrify the radical landscape, or something. Yes, I did make such a claim, in an unpublished review; it's not an observation particularly original with me, though. One problem I have with the Sciabarran comparison of the Randian dialectics with those of Marx, Hegel, etc., is that I don't think dialectical method can be utterly detached from "content," as in his book Sciabarra sometimes seems to suggest. More than mere linguistic ambiguity is involved here. We are dealing with differing modes of dialectic. Essential features of the competing dialectics clash. In Hegel, the dialectics is metaphysical. Specific philosophical claims are very much bound up with and expressive of his dialectical method -- which is implicitly and explicitly (and always, of course, obfuscatorily) hostile to Aristotle's law of non-contradiction. The dialectical permutations or "triple somersaults" of Spirit are allegedly happening in reality, not just as an incidental and unfortunate requirement of exposition or philosophical integration. This is what Hegelian hurdling of opposites is all about. It gives any sane reader a headache very quickly. But RUSSIAN RADICAL tells us that opposition-transcension is a cardinal, even premier feature of dialectics as such. "The best way to understand the dialectical impulse is to view it as a technique to overcome formal dualism and monistic reductionism," insists the author. (p.16) Sure, Ayn Rand does "overcome opposites" in the sense that she overturns the "false dichotomies" of other thinkers and provides a radical alternative that rejects the common underlying premise of the dichotomy. But she vaults the contradictions of these other thinkers in the polemical part of her project. It's a big part, obviously, but very different from taking those opposites as metaphysically constituent, a duality in reality. While some philosophers have been motivated to work largely by the need to resolve oppositions (such as that between mind and body, or sexual desire and holiness), oppositions that they take to be truly confronting them in reality, Rand's primacy-of-existence premise, carried through, allows her to treat man and reality as unproblematically integrated. She simply does not recognize the dilemmas of perception, knowledge, and living that confo und other thinkers. Sciabarra is keenly aware of all this, of course; that's why he specifies "formal" dualism as the sort of dualism being overcome. But if Rand is dialectical, the pivot of her dialectics is not any struggle to overcome opposites. That's a side issue. This must be so even if, as a matter of fact, Rand could not have arrived at her views without having been forced to take account of sundry false alternatives during the course of her intellectual development.
In your interview, Sciabarra says that "Dialectics is opposed to false alternatives." I prefer his characterization of dialectics as a methodological determination to integrate, which in Rand's thought leads to the rejection of certain false alternatives. Another problem with the Sciabarran view of dialectic is that the Hegels and Kants can hardly be said to have surmounted formal dualism and monistic reductionism, even if that were their intention. If Hegel's Spirit ain't a monistic reduction, what the heck could be? (Of course, there may be some dualisms or other that they are overcoming.) Yet these kinds of thinkers are supposed to be the exemplar dialecticians. I submit that what Rand has methodologically in common with them is more limited than Sciabarra supposes. AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL has convinced me that Rand's thought is genuinely "dialectical" and that this perspective is illuminating. But to forestall confusion, a little more clarification of distinctions needs to be done. Method, after all, is what gets us to content. I admit that my criticism is something of a nit-pick, since Sciabarra's own interpretation of Rand's philosophy per se is free of metaphysical idealism. But the issues are fundamental and the assumptions I'm quibbling about could produce dire distortions (of Rand's thought or of Sciabarra's own interpretation thereof). I don't mean the sort of distortions based on hysterical scanning of jacket copy, by the way.
Finally...Dr. Sciabarra deserves great credit for his persistence and care in doing this work. I would caution him to be fully dialectical and hermeneutic at all times, however. Contra Dr. Sciabarra, my name is "David M. Brown"-- not "David Brown," as he carelessly avers in the interview. Check your premises, fella.
David M. Brown
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