AYN RAND:THE RUSSIAN RADICAL

AYN RAND:THE RUSSIAN RADICAL

SCIABARRA RESPONDS TO THE CRITICS

RESPONSE TO DAVID M. BROWN


David M. Brown (he will note the inclusion of the "M" here!) has raised some very interesting issues with regard to my claim that Ayn Rand is a dialectical thinker. He supposes correctly that other thinkers, such as Hegel, can be characterized as such, despite their very different metaphysical assumptions. On these issues, he believes that I have detached method from content in a way that obscures some of these basic differences between Rand and other so- called "dialectical" thinkers. I have claimed in my book and in the FULL CONTEXT interview that the rejection of false alternatives is indeed, a cardinal aspect of dialectical method. The interview however, amplifies a point made initially in my book, a point with which David seems more comfortable: "It is this emphasis on the totality that is essential to the dialectical mode of inquiry.  Dialectics is not merely a repudiation of formal dualism. It is a method that preserves the analytical integrity of the whole" (p. 17, emphasis added). In my interview, I described this position as a kind of holism. I explained that such holism also required that one examine the whole from many different vantage points and on many different levels of generality. Furthermore, I explained that dialectics demands an examination of the whole on the basis of the internal relations between parts that exist within a system and as aspects or "moments" of a process.

The characteristics which I attribute to dialectics as method, expressed in both the interview and the book, are drawn variously from, and can be seen to varying degrees in the works of, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, and others in the history of thought. Each of these thinkers is profoundly interested in understanding the whole and the dynamic interrelationships of the parts within the whole. But each enters into the analysis from a different angle and on the basis of different substantive assumptions: Aristotle is a realist, Hegel is an idealist, Marx is a materialist. But David suggests quite correctly that in the case of Hegel, for instance, all the dialectical insights in the world do not prevent him from embracing the monism of Spirit. (For the record however, it should be understood that interpretations of Hegel vary considerably, and I'm convinced that old G.W.F. at his best does not always succumb to such monism; his own understanding of the mutual implications of "master" and "slave" is one such sparkling example of how dialectically insightful he can be.) Yet Hegel is not the most obvious of illustrations within the context of my book.

The whole history of Russian philosophy is replete with examples of thinkers who exhibit a dialectical sensibility, who are interested in examining the mutual implications of apparently opposing principles, and who, in their efforts to preserve the analytical integrity of the whole, fall victim to various forms of monism. The Russian religious philosophers and neo-Idealists for example, understood the necessity for mind-body integration, but wind up like their Hegelian predecessors, with a kind of mystic resolution. And the Bolsheviks, for all their Marxist-dialectical sensibility, were almost vulgar in their materialism. The point here is not that dialectics leads to all sorts of incompatible conclusions. Rather, in agreement with David, and consistent with his admonition that I "be fully dialectical . . . at all times," I believe that there are indeed, mutual implications of method and content. Rand herself understood, in a different context, the crucial interaction between "method" and "content." She explained in "The Comprachicos," that "the interaction of content and method establishes a certain reciprocity." To a certain degree, it can be suggested that Hegel and Marx, for instance, start out with a methodological desire to understand the whole. Ultimately, however, the substantive content of their theories affects--or one might say, undermines--the development of their distinctive dialectical approaches. Because much of their respective substantive theories are faulty, each thinker risks falling into the abyss of monism: Hegel's approach becomes an idealist monism, and Marx's approach becomes an enriched version of materialism, at best, or a kind of technological determinism, at its worst. (Rand herself, exhibits similar tensions between dialectical and monistic resolutions, especially in her sometimes one-dimensional emphasis on reason to the exclusion of emotion, for instance.)

But in the final analysis, the efficacy of the method is only as good as the truthfulness of the content. To be a little less stuffy about all this, one might say that if Marx sought to turn Hegel on his head, Ayn Rand has knocked both Marx and Hegel on their respective butts! Thus, my ultimate claim in the book is perhaps even more radical than anyone has yet noticed: "Rand's alternative . . . redeems the integrity of dialectics as a radical method by rescuing it from its mystical, collectivist, and statist incarnations" (p. 14). This means that dialectics reaches an apotheosis of sorts in Rand's approach, precisely because she is not mystical, not collectivist, not statist in the substantive content of her theories. Her method and her content are better suited for one another, better integrated than that of any of her predecessors. More than any other dialectical thinker in the history of social thought, Ayn Rand points toward a genuinely comprehensive approach to the defense of human freedom and dignity. She recognizes the tie between mind and body, fact and value, morality and prudence, theory and practice, social criticism and social transformation. No other libertarian thinker has achieved this distinction with such powerful consistency. I note this last point because it amazes me that in all the discussions of my work, save for one -- Bryan Caplan's Internet review -- nobody has given enough attention to the culminating, and most important theoretical aspect of my book: the attempt to show Rand's dialectical savvy in the brilliant integration of her social theory. I touch upon such sensibility in other aspects of my book--in my discussion of Rand's expansive view of human reason, her suggestion of a more integrated approach to reason and emotion, and her enriched perspective on human morality. But Rand's genuinely dialectical perspective is best illustrated in her attempt to dissect the latticework, the cluster of relations between individual, cultural, and structural dimensions that stands at the heart of her social theory. There are plenty of libertarians, who, like Rand, advocate individual rights and the free market. But unlike many libertarians, Rand does not offer a dualistic view of the state and the market. Nor is she apt to fracture social inquiry, to compartmentalize and abstract "economic man" from his culture, his philosophy, his moral autonomy, his psychology, his psycho-epistemology.

Rand preserves the holistic integrity of social analysis, and understands that power relations in contemporary statism are manifested on many interrelated, reciprocally implied levels of generality. Hence, for Rand, freedom must be addressed on each of these levels, for it cannot be sustained without a comprehensive grasp of its preconditions and effects. Of course Rand is no rationalist. Of course she is not transcending dualisms simply by rationalistically weighing the strengths and weaknesses of competing systems of thought external to their truth-content. Of course Rand's dialectical sensibility is a "polemical part of her project." But this sensibility is not a "side issue," as David suggests. How Rand thinks about organic wholes influences every aspect of her project--her literary aesthetic, her formal system of philosophy, and most of all, her social theory. Ironically, I could not agree more with David -- we cannot detach method from content; Rand is a "Russian radical," and her revolution pertains to both the methodological and substantive aspects of her thought.

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