RONALD E. MERRILL, AYN-RAND@IUBVM.UCS.INDIANA (15 August 1995)
The full text of the review also appears here. There is also an online response from Daniel Ust.
Objectivist intellectuals, starting with Rand herself, have long had a gnawing hunger for recognition and respectability in the scholarly community. With the publication of Chris Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical by Penn State Press, it looks like they will finally get their desire. In all that has been written about Rand and Objectivism, what we have lacked until now is a monograph comprehensively analyzing Rand's thought from a scholarly perspective. Leonard Peikoff's *Objectivism* is an introductory textbook. My own book, *The Ideas of Ayn Rand*, takes a scientific rather than a scholarly intellectual approach (as I acknowledge in its preface). Now the long-awaited appearance of Sciabarra's book fills that gap, and fills it brilliantly.
The reader should be warned at once that this book is no light summer read to take to the beach. Picking a sentence at random, I find at the head of page 130: "Rand's approach to the ontological foundations of philosophy was minimalist." If you had to stop and think for a moment to figure out what that means, you'll find the text heavy going. Sciabarra assumes that his reader is proficient in the esoterica of philosophical terminology, and prepared to digest a heavy dose of Russian intellectual history. Stylistically, Sciabarra is the antithesis of Rand, who avoided academic jargon and always tried to relate even the most abstruse concepts to familiar practical issues.
As I read Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical, the word that came repeatedly to mind was "meticulous." Sciabarra has tackled his subject with extraordinary energy and thoroughness. He has searched out practically everything that has ever been written about Rand; the bibliography alone is worth the price of the book to a Rand scholar. Beyond that, he has conducted much primary research, especially on Rand's life in Russia and her education. Perhaps the most impressive passage of the book comes in the acknowledgments, which show that Sciabarra succeeded in getting cooperation from both Leonard Peikoff and David Kelley.
Sciabarra's thesis is that Ayn Rand can best be understood as being "anti-Dualist" (yet not "Monist") in the content and methodology of her thinking; and that indeed she took a "dialectical" approach. There is always danger in using this sort of "one size fits all" explanatory notion. One tends to stretch the meaning of the terminology so that awkward cases can be fit into the framework. I think Sciabarra falls into this difficulty in several places. Even so, his approach genuinely helps to clarify Rand's meaning, and leads to fruitful new insights. I found the idea of anti-Dualism as a philosophical position not useful. Dualism, in this sense, seems to be something like dividing all phenomena into two separate or even opposing classes. It's not always clear what this really means. When we are told that the premise of anti-Dualism was common to Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Lenin, and Rand--well, that practically establishes a *prima facie* case that the concept is unconstitutionally vague. And as Sciabarra pursues this part of his argument, we soon find ourselves sinking into a quicksand of ambiguity and nebulous distinctions.
Let me give an example. In introducing Rand's metaphysics in his "Basic Principles of Objectivism" lectures, Nathaniel Branden emphasized the importance of the distinction between "something" and "nothing": "Nothing is not just another kind of something; nothing is nothing." This could be interpreted as a Dualist assertion (something and nothing are opposites). Or, more subtly, as anti-Dualist or even Monist (nothing really "isn't"; everything is something). One could argue the issue all day, and arrive nowhere; and why would it matter, anyway? Sciabarra is on to something much more productive when he discusses "anti-Dualism" in a second sense, as a methodology, not philosophical content. In this sense of the term, anti-Dualism means the tendency to reason or argue by means of rejecting false antitheses. This "dialectical" method of argumentation, says Sciabarra, can be traced back to the "thesis-antithesis-synthesis" sequence attributed to Hegel, and further to the "golden mean" sought by Aristotle. But this is not really anti-Dualist in the sense of rejecting antitheses. In fact, if we examine Rand's reasoning in detail, we find that almost always she ends up replacing the false antithesis with a new, corrected antithesis. Nonetheless, Sciabarra's insight is valuable because it stimulates us to analyze more closely the various lines of argument that Rand used. Rand sometimes makes an argument of the form, "A and B are thought to be opposites; but actually A is just a type of B, and the true opposite to both is C." This argument is applied to criticize traditional egoism (of the Nietzschean or Stirnerian form) as merely a variant of altruism, notably in Toohey's speech in The Fountainhead. At other times, Rand attacks the false antithesis by changing the boundary--rotating the frame of reference, so to speak: "A and B are thought to oppose C and D; but the true opposition is A and C against B and D." We see an example of this in Atlas Shrugged when Tom Colby tells Rearden: "They've been telling us for years that it's you against me, Mr. Rearden. But it isn't. It's Orren Boyle and Fred Kinnan against you and me." The familiar Randian argument for the "objective" as an alternative to the "intrinsic" or "subjective" in epistemology again involves setting up a new antithesis. "A and B are not really opposites; because they both presume the same, false, premise, the true opposite to both is C."
Prompted by Sciabarra's observation, we can see Rand using this method of identifying and rejecting false antitheses over and over again in discussing the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, the nature of mysticism and materialism, and many other issues. It is instructive to go through her work and draw Venn diagrams to clarify the various arguments she applies. In the end, though, it's not clear that attaching the label "anti-Dualist" or "dialectical" to Rand gives us a definitive characterization of her way of thinking. After all (as Sciabarra concedes), she was repeatedly accused of seeing issues in "black and white" terms; she not only admitted doing this, she gloried in it. Above all she opposed any attempt to construct "compromises" that blended elements of antithetical positions. Thus Rand says in Galt's speech that "There are two sides to every question: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil." One has to stretch a bit to call this quintessentially Randian statement "anti-Dualist." Does this label really show us how Rand was distinct from other thinkers? Sure, she attacked false antitheses--but what philosopher doesn't?
Structurally, Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical is divided into three parts. In the first, Sciabarra traces the roots of Rand's thinking in the intellectual milieu of the Russian "Silver Age" into which she was born. In his detailed analysis, he finds the source of Rand's anti-Dualism in the Russian absorbtion with Hegel and Nietzsche. He particularly emphasizes the influence of N. O. Lossky, who (apparently) taught philosophy to Rand, and to whom Sciabarra devotes a whole chapter. A great many interesting parallels are identified in this section, and it certainly gives us a new and valuable perspective on the intellectual context in which Rand developed her ideas. I am, however, sceptical of the power of this approach for causal explanation. Like repression theory in psychology, it "explains" anything, and therefore nothing. If Rand was anti-Dualist, it's because she absorbed this from her anti-Dualist teachers. But if she was a radical individualist, it's because she was "reacting against" the commitment to *sobornost'* (communal organicism) held by her teachers. The process of intellectual development is, I would argue, far more complex than the conventional routine of scholarly appraisal can effectively comprehend.
In the second section of the book, Sciabarra conducts a top-down analysis of Objectivism, from metaphysics to politics. Deep discussions of psychological and esthetic implications are included here also. Sciabarra begins this section by citing Lossky's ambition to see philosophy become a true science, which would no longer contain competing "schools of thought." As I have previously argued, Rand saw her task in just these terms. How ironic--and depressing--then, to find Sciabarra dividing Rand's followers into "orthodox Objectivists" (eg, Peikoff) and "neo-Objectivists" (eg, Kelley). One might therefore conclude that Rand died a failure in a very important sense. And yet, these two "schools" really differ on only three issues. First, there is the well- known but ultimately political dispute over "tolerance" and "open" vs. "closed" views of Objectivism. Second, there is the rather artificial distinction between ethical "flourishers" (orthodox) and "survivalists" (neo). Third, there is anarcho- libertarianism; orthos are firmly against it, neos more receptive to it. Despite these splits on peripheral issues, Objectivists seem still united on basic principles, so we may hope that philosophy will yet become a real science. To cover this extensive and detailed analysis of Rand's philosophy in a brief review would be impossible. I can only compliment Sciabarra on his thorough analysis, which perceptively relates seemingly disparate aspects of Objectivism. I was particularly interested in the way in which he integrates the psychological theories of Nathaniel Branden (both "Objectivist psychology" and the later "biocentric" approach) into the fabric. These psychological topics, and even Rand's esthetics, are taken by Sciabarra to be prior to her metaethics and ethics, which is certainly a novel approach. While I cannot agree with all of his positions, I found his fresh perspectives on the issues provocative.
Sciabarra devotes the third section of his book to discussing Rand's work on social and political issues, emphasizing the problems of implementing her vision. I found this to be the weakest part of the text. In his introduction, Sciabarra tells us that "dialectics grasps that any system emerges over time." Unfortunately, his treatment of Rand's thought, especially in the last part of the book, mostly lacks this "diachronic" perspective. Just as the Rand of We the Living wrote from a dramatically different standpoint from the author of The Fountainhead; so the Rand of the Fifties was not quite the same thinker as the Rand of the Sixties, let alone the Seventies. When Sciabarra writes of Rand's moralizing, her hostility to emotion, her views on conservatism, and many other subjects, he relies heavily on texts from her later, even declining years. In view of her physical and emotional condition in this period, generalizations based on her essays in the post-NBI period should be made with great caution. One might as well judge Jane Austen on the basis of *Sanditon*. That's not to say that these contributions should be ignored; Rand, even when mortally ill, could think better than the average intellectual in the pink of health. But late Rand is not typical Rand, and far less is it "mature" Rand.
Objectivists often like to cite the Spanish proverb, "Take what you want, says God--and pay for it." Let us assume that Sciabarra will achieve academic respectability for Rand's ideas. What, we may legitimately ask, will be the price? I can see three drawbacks to this project. First, is membership in the scholarly clique really worthwhile? There is something anachronistic about the longing of Objectivist intellectuals for academic recognition--which, during the last 50 years, has increasingly become a badge less of honor than of shame. Today more than ever, what passes for "scholarship" consists mainly of the painstaking classification of intellectual coprolites. Now, if Sciabarra's book achieves the breakthrough he seeks, Rand will finally be given space in the display case on equal terms with Derrida, Heidegger, and MacKinnon. My. What a privilege.
Second, the emphasis on scholarship may easily divert attention from more substantive work. The scholar's task is to understand exactly what Rand said; why she said it; how she developed her ideas; and who influenced her thinking. That job is important and worthwhile. But far more crucial is the scientific approach to her philosophy: What can we learn from Rand? What productive areas for new inquiry did she open up? How can we build a higher conceptual structure on the foundation she erected? Rand's academic opponents, if they are shrewd, would like nothing better than to see her reduced to an object of study--just another dead thinker to be analyzed and discussed. Who is to carry forward the real enterprise of Objectivism? Whoever it is will not get--and, I suspect, will not desire--the plaudits of the scholarly community.
Third and most important, in appeasing the political prejudices of the dominant Left intelligentsia, it is easy to distort the content of Objectivism. Sciabarra's discussion repeatedly emphasizes how Rand's ideas relate to those of Hegel and Marx. Indeed, the book might well be subtitled, "Objectivism for Marxists." This is certainly the best way to make Rand's philosophy accessible to the academic community: explain it in their language. And like the Japanese custom of bending over and looking at a mountain upside down between one's legs, it does give a new perspective; but one looks a little peculiar doing it. Moreover, in reframing the ideas there is inevitably the danger of debasing them. For it is hard to get into the academic church without bowing to the gods of political correctness. In several "hot-button" areas, Sciabarra appears to genuflect to current dogma. He recoils from Rand's moral "intolerance," and her "insensitivity" to the plight of the poor and handicapped; he calls for a "kinder, gentler Objectivism." This simply does not do justice to Rand's thinking on this subject. Sciabarra concedes, and condemns, Rand's "homophobia" and her inadequate commitment to feminism. But, he assures us, these merely reflect Rand's personal character deficiencies, and are not integral to her thought. Well, embarrassing though it may be, that simply is not the case. Objectivism is a philosophy that depends heavily on the input of scientific knowledge. Rand understood that if philosophy is to become a science, it must be integrated with the scientific endeavor. Thus Objectivism, especially in its ethical reasoning, starts from specific facts about human nature. As currently formulated, Objectivist ethics derives from views that were dominant in biology and psychology in the Thirties and Forties, when Rand was developing her ideas. Unfortunately these obsolete theories contained internal contradictions, which became reflected as inconsistencies in Rand's ideas on such topics as feminism and homosexuality. One of the most important tasks facing philosophers is the revision of the Objectivist ethics to take into account new scientific knowledge. To dismiss Rand's errors in this area as mere personal idiosyncracies impedes our recognition of an important problem.
Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical is a first-rate piece of work. This is the book that has been needed for a long time. Sciabarra's exhaustive analysis of Rand's thought, and the new perspectives that can be discovered from his fresh viewpoint, will help encourage the renewal of Objectivism. I do worry about the response from the book's intended academic audience; for I fear that a positive reaction may almost be more dangerous than a negative. But in the end I remember a passage from The Fountainhead: "The *A.G.A. Bulletin* refers to you as a great but unruly talent--and the Museum of the Future has hung up photographs of Monadnock, the Enright House, the Cord Building and the Aquitania, under beautiful glass--next to the room where they've got Gordon L. Prescott. And still--I'm glad."
The late Ronald E. Merrill is author of The Ideas of Ayn Rand (Open Court, 1991), and co-author of The New Venture Handbook (AMACOM, 1993) and Raising Money (AMACOM, 1990). His publications on Objectivism include "Axioms: the Eightfold Way," Objectivity 2(2), 1 (1995). The Merrill review sparked an interesting exchange on the now defunct "Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy" mailing list. For another perspective on the Merrill review, see, for instance, Daniel Ust's "Dialectical Objectivism: An Answer to Ronald Merrill," which first appeared on MDOP.
|Click here to view the Author's response|
| FREEDOM | RAND | UTOPIA | ESSAYS | FEMINIST | THESIS | SEARCH | ABOUT | DIALECTICS OF LIBERTY | SEMINAR | DOG | LINKS | BLOG