AYN RAND:THE RUSSIAN RADICAL

AYN RAND:THE RUSSIAN RADICAL

SCIABARRA RESPONDS TO THE CRITICS

RESPONSE TO RONALD E. MERRILL


I would like to thank Ronald Merrill for his review of my book, AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL. I welcome this opportunity for the exchange of ideas, especially amongst those who are interested in Rand's philosophy. Below, I would like to respond to several of Ron's (I hope he won't mind my use of his first name) criticisms.

Ron Merrill states: "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." My point in the book is that Rand is revolutionary not because she is simply an "anti-dualist" or a "dialectical" thinker. It is not merely her method that defines her thought. Every thinker in the history of thought can be understood as merging a certain "method" -- a certain way of looking at the world -- with a certain "content" -- substantive theories about the world, human beings, etc. In my view, previous studies of Rand have relied too much on content-heavy comparisons. So, here, we can understand Rand as "influenced" by classical liberals, Aristotle, etc. But unlike so many current-day libertarians, Rand is a "holistic" thinker (one might think of Hayek as such, as well... see my book, MARX, HAYEK, AND UTOPIA). She makes the case for liberty on many levels of generality and from many different vantage points. She does not fragment the case--she is an integrator.

Dialectics is NOT merely anti-dualism; it is in its essence, as I state in my book, a method of analysis which preserves the analytical integrity of the whole. No atomism here. Dialectics as a method emphasizes internal relations within a systemic and an historical context. It grasps reciprocal causation between and among the various factors in the whole, and, in tracing internal relations, integrates mind and body, fact and value, theory and practice.... the need to both critique conditions, and transcend them. On all of these fronts, Rand is a dialectical thinker-- and recognizing her as such, allows us to compare her not only on the crucial issue of content, but on the extraordinarily radical mode of inquiry which she utilizes.

Ron Merrill continues: "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?"  Attacking false alternatives, transcending them, does not mean that we integrate truth and falsity, or good and evil.

And yet, there is something useful in understanding the relationship of good and evil, for instance. Rand was no Manichaean; she didn't divide the world into apocalyptic black and white, but tried to grasp the dependent relationship of evil on good. This is no dualist view of morality. And while it is true that many philosopher attack false antitheses, many also resolve the antithesis by placing an emphasis on one pole of the duality, rather than transcending the very terms of the duality. Once again, what makes Rand radical is not merely the method--it is, as I state in my book, the first time in the history of social thought that any thinker has combined a fully defined individualist-libertarian politics with a dialectical sensibility.

Dealing with part one (the historical section), Ron Merrill continues: "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."   

I readily acknowledge that no thinker slavishly responds to her context. But in contrast to nearly every previous study of Rand, this book argues that we are the creatures of history as much as its creators. It is the first attempt to grapple with the complexities of Rand's intellectual development in an historical context, and questions profoundly the self-creation mythology of those who believe that Rand emerged from the head of Zeus. Even if I overstate the case--which I don't, simply because I acknowledge it as a speculative enterprise-- it is the context that demands comprehension.

Ron Merrill continues: "How ironic--and depressing--then, to find Sciabarra dividing Rand's followers into 'orthodox Objectivists' (e.g., Peikoff) and 'neo-Objectivists' (e.g., Kelley)."  I am very clear on this distinction: I define the "orthodox" vs. "neo" positions strictly in terms of their approach to the "closed" and "open" nature of Objectivism, and state clearly, that (p. 4) "the 'neo-Objectivist' label is not employed critically; for history, I believe, will describe all these thinkers simply as 'Objectivists.' "

Ron Merrill continues: "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."  I can only say that I disagree profoundly with Ron--I believe that this is the first treatment ever in print of just how radically Rand approached the study of society, on different levels of generality, and from many different angles. It is also a synthesizing part, that is less concerned with the diachronic, and more concerned with "where it all leads us"--namely, a radical critique of relations of power in statist society, and a vision of how to transcend such relations.

Ron Merrill continues: "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." I am very sensitive to the differences especially with regard to such issues as Rand's moralizing and views on emotion--my chapter 7 shows, for instance, that Rand's views are much more complex and sophisticated than might appear at first glance. As for Rand's views on conservatism, I deal with her early relationships to the Old Right only cursorily--I wish I'd had the Letters to draw from. My forthcoming review of Letters of Ayn Rand in Reason magazine focuses much attention on Rand's gradual disillusionment with conservatism. 

Ron Merrill continues: "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."  Gotta start somewhere.... :)

Ron Merrill continues: "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."

I, myself, was heavily schooled in Marxism. It is the dominant approach in its various guises in social theory. My project--for better or for worse--attempts to relate Rand to this approach, to show not that its just like Marxism--but that it is as fully integrative and "dialectical" even though it proceeds on assumptions and resolutions that are profoundly non-Marxist in their substantive orientation. For me, that's a contribution.

Ron Merrill continues: "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."

I really don't believe that Rand's views on homosexuality or feminism were anything more than personal biases. She rightfully condemned the leftist orientation of feminism, but looked at many "hot button" issues in the women's movement through her own penchant for "man-worship" -- emphasis on the gender here. And as for homosexuality, she stated her most repulsive views on the subject in the 70s, not the 30s. Finally, one would hope that a woman who argued that philosophy has no business passing moral judgment on issues which are dependent upon a changing and evolving scientific knowledge would not in principle say anything that could be overturned later on. That's why Rand's metaphysical approach is "minimalist" in my view. Ron Merrill concludes: "*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."

I simply wish to thank Ron for his critical discussion; it is the kind of discussion that is most productive of implications that none of us could have anticipated.

[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.]

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