AYN RAND:THE RUSSIAN RADICAL

AYN RAND:THE RUSSIAN RADICAL

SCIABARRA RESPONDS TO THE CRITICS

RESPONSE TO DAVID S. ROSS


David Ross criticizes me because he believes that I simply have not given a sufficient definition of dialectics in my book, AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL. Well, let me say that this is not an oversight on David's part; I don't provide a single-sentence, genus-differentia definition of dialectics.** But if David reads pages 14-18 in the Introduction of my book, he will get a nice introductory description of what I mean by "dialectics." The description, by the way, is certainly not restricted to the "two main features" he claims to have gathered from my exposition: the rejection of dualism through "transcendence" and the necessity for integration in a philosophic system. My introduction suggests that dialectics is a methodological orientation with five basic characteristics: holism, abstraction and integration, systemic internal relations, dynamic internal relations, and, as an implication of these, a revolt against formal dualism. The reason why I chose not to give a full-bodied "genus-differentia" definition of dialectics in the Introduction was because it would have relied on other "red-flag" words and concepts (such as holism, reciprocal causation, internal relations, etc.) which I develop more fully throughout the book. Nevertheless, my Introduction does in fact highlight these five distinguishing characteristics:

1) HOLISM: As I state in the Introduction, dialectics (p. 17) "is a method that preserves the analytical integrity of the whole." Dialectics views each of the factors within the whole as "distinctions within an organic unity. . . . inseparable aspect(s) of a wider totality." In the context of Ayn Rand, holism means that she never loses sight of the whole in any aspect of her project. In her literary method, she views each novel as an "organic whole" (and she uses this phrase), seeing each part -- characters, plot, etc. -- as a microcosmic expression of the wider theme, just as the theme provides the various constituents with their meaning. In her philosophy, each branch is a microcosm of the wider totality of Objectivism. In her social theory, each problem is analyzed as a microcosm of the whole -- contemporary statism. Consequently, the movement toward freedom must also be organic, embracing economic, political, intellectual, psychological, and ethical constituents to name but a few.

2) ABSTRACTION AND INTEGRATION: This is an important characteristic of dialectical approaches, because no human being can analyze a whole from a synoptic vantage point. As I state in my Introduction (also page 17), dialectics "recommends the study of the whole from the vantage point of any part," but "it eschews reification, that is, it avoids the abstraction of a part from the whole and its illegitimate conceptualization as a whole unto itself." Our analysis of the whole, then, proceeds from different vantage points and on different levels of generality. Moreover, once we have engaged in such abstraction, we must integrate our analysis of the part and relate it to its wider context. "The dialectical method recognizes that what is separable in thought is not separable in reality" (p. 17).

In Rand's literary method, she constructs characters through a process of abstraction, abstracting various principles and then, concretizing the abstraction in the characters of her creation. But she also integrates these principles, and shows their dynamic interplay in the action of the novel. (Dostoyevsky and other Russian novelists did the same, calling the interaction a "dialectical" interplay.)

In Rand's formal philosophy, she has the ability to abstract each branch of the philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, aesthetics) never losing sight of the fact that they too, must be integrated.

In her social theory, she has the ability to abstract and analyze specific problems (racism, regulation of the airwaves, etc.) but not without recognizing the need to integrate our analysis of a problem with our understanding of the system that each problem expresses and perpetuates.

3) INTERNAL RELATIONS IN A SYSTEMIC CONTEXT: I don't use the phrase "internal relations" widely in my Introduction, because it is a fairly technical phrase which I develop in Chapters 1, 2, 6, and Part 3. But I state in my introduction (also page 17), that "dialectics requires the examination of the whole both systemically (or `synchronically') and historically (or `diachronically'). From a synchronic [systemic] perspective, it grasps the parts as systemically interrelated [or internally related], as both constituting the whole, and constituted by it." I also suggest that this conception of internal relations includes corresponding notions of "reciprocal" causation, (p. 17) in that the parts mutually imply each other, often entering into relationships in which they both cause and reflect each other, in which they are both preconditions and effects of one another.

In Rand's literary method, as I've suggested above, each aspect of the novel is internally related to every other aspect. The characters express principles, and principles are expressed through the characters. The main theme is internal to every action, every event, and every thought expressed. (Rand's own analysis of Atlas Shrugged, found in Who is Ayn Rand?, suggests that the theme is internal to virtually every word in every sentence!) In Rand's formal philosophy, so too, each branch is part of a hierarchy upon which every other branch is built. But any branch which is abstracted from the whole cannot be fully understood or appreciated as distinctly Objectivist without comprehending its reciprocally related branches. Politics can't be understood without ethics or epistemology. But Rand also shows that an appropriate ethical life for instance, requires social conditions that make the practice of virtue fully efficacious.

And in Rand's social theory, she never views social problems discretely (p. 18) but "in terms of the root systemic conditions they both reflect and sustain."

4) INTERNAL RELATIONS WITHIN A DYNAMIC (OR HISTORICAL) CONTEXT: As I state in my Introduction (p. 18), "Diachronically, dialectics grasps that any system emerges over time, that it has a past, a present, and a future. Frequently, the dialectical thinker examines the dynamic tensions within a system, the internal conflicts or `contradictions' [Note:  Not Logical Contradictions, but Relational Opposition; see especially chapter 11 on this one] that require resolution. He or she refuses to disconnect factors, events, problems, and issues from one another or from the system they jointly constitute."

In Rand's literary method, it is the action (dynamics) of the novel that leads to climax and resolution, and to the victory of certain principles as they dynamically interact with other principles.

But this particular characteristic -- tracing internal relations over time -- is most apparent in Rand's full-bodied social critique. In her social theory, she is always looking at a specific problem through the perspective of history -- the antecedent conditions that led, for instance, to a specific government intervention, the impact of that intervention on the current state of affairs, and the potential implications of that intervention for the future. Moreover, Rand recognizes that each intervention is a reciprocally reinforcing cause and effect of other interventions. (See for example, my discussion of her critique of the emergence and perpetuation of racism in contemporary statism.)

By the way, in this context, it seems as if nobody is paying much attention -- except Bryan Caplan in his insightful review -- to the third and final part of my book, "The Radical Rand," which fully illustrates Rand's rich, dialectical approach to the study -- and transformation -- of society.

5) REJECTION OF FORMAL DUALISM: This fifth characteristic of dialectical method is actually an implication of the above characteristics (holism, abstraction & integration, internal relations). As I state in my Introduction, (p. 16) dialectics is opposed to "formal dualism and monistic reductionism. Dualism attempts to distinguish two mutually exclusive spheres, though it often leads theorists to emphasize one sphere to the detriment of another. . . A thinker who employs a dialectical method embraces neither a pole nor the middle of a duality of extremes. Rather, the dialectical method anchors the thinker to both camps. The dialectical thinker refuses to recognize these camps as mutually exclusive or exhaustive. He or she strives to uncover the common roots of apparent opposites. He or she presents an integrated alternative that examines the premises at the base of an opposition as a means to its transcendence. In some cases, the transcendence of opposing points of view provides a justification for rejecting both alternatives as false. In other cases, the dialectical thinker attempts to clarify the genuinely integral relationship between spheres that are ordinarily kept separate and distinct." Dialectical approaches reject such false oppositions because, by varying the level of generality or the vantage point of our analysis, we can often find that opposing principles are sometimes intimately connected with one another, internally related so-to-speak. Thus, we might discover that apparent opposites are actually "false alternatives" (p. 17, as Rand would call them) sharing a common error, or simply relational units in need of integration. Hence, Rand's dialectical approach generally rejects such distinctions as that between materialism and idealism, rationalism and empiricism. But it also aims for an integrated understanding of mind and body, fact and value, reason and emotion, morality and prudence, theory and practice, and, as Marx emphasized, critique and revolution, for (p. 19) "the dialectical thinker seeks not merely to understand the system, but to alter it fundamentally."

Now, here is where David seems to have the most trouble. He wants to know what I mean by "transcendence." I am NOT saying that Objectivism stands in a "relation" of transcendence to intrinisicm and subjectivism, for example, as if this is some kind of separate, mysterious "operation," that emerges from the triple somersaults of "thesis," "antithesis," and "synthesis." David is overloading this word, "transcendence," with too much technical and rationalistic sophistication, and not examining its more obvious meaning. I have never said that "transcendence" involves the inference of true ideas from false ones -- this is simple nonsense. The dictionary definition of "transcendence" is "going beyond, rising above the limits," in other words, and in the specific context noted above, the ability to rise above the limitations of previous systems of thought, or alternatively, the ability to rise above the limitations of such dualistic distinctions as that between "mind" and "body" for example, since these are actually, in reality, distinctions within an organic unity. Well, as I note again and again throughout Part Two of my book, Rand shows that in most philosophical debates, there are often two dominant alternatives in the history of philosophy, which do not exhaust the possibilities. Even if these approaches sometimes express a kernel of truth (in that certain of their premises correspond to reality), they often share a more fundamental error. Rand "transcends" these schools of thought by showing their errors, which are errors of course, because they don't correspond to reality. She proposes a genuine, objective alternative based on the facts of reality that has the effect of capturing the truth of the perspectives that have come before her, even while it exposes the errors that undermined those perspectives and traditions.

Now, once again, as I suggest in my Introduction, I do not believe that Rand's "transcendence" is some kind of rationalistic synthesis of previous belief systems. Rand is not looking at "intrinsicism" and "subjectivism," and coming up with an objective alternative by ignoring reality. I have never stated this, and in fact, I deny explicitly (p. 17) "that Rand literally construct(s) a synthesis out of the debris of false alternatives. Rather, she aims to transcend the limitations that, she believes, traditional dichotomies embody. In some instances, Rand sees each of the opposing points of view as being half-right and half-wrong. Consequently, at times, her resolution contains elements from each of the two rejected positions." This is true, even if it is also true that her position is validated by the facts of reality.

Please remember that my study is historical -- it is not my job in this study (p. 7) "to demonstrate either the validity or falsity of Rand's ideas." I state that "I do not mean to suggest that Rand's ideas lack objective validity." David states, and I would agree wholeheartedly that "In evaluating an idea, there is only one fundamental question: does the idea conform to the facts?" But David also states that Rand only looked at the facts in formulating her alternative. I have no doubt that this is how she validated Objectivism. But she didn't do it in a vacuum; she was an historical figure who responded to other historical traditions. And she emerges out of an historical and cultural context, which we must understand if we are to gain any appreciation of her profound originality. Obviously, and as I try to document throughout the book, Rand's alternative is one based on her understanding of the facts of an objective reality. But it was not my place in this book to evaluate whether she got it right or not, that is, whether her alternative is in fact, "objective." That's what she claims it is, and for the purposes of my study, I had no reason to doubt it. (And for the record, I believe that in most cases, she did get it right!) But I simply could not spend my time in a book of this length, trying to independently validate or evaluate the validity of Rand's objective alternative. That is another volume entirely. My approach here is "hermeneutical" -- another "red flag" word -- in that I am interested in grasping the significance of Rand's Objectivism in terms of Rand's intellectual roots and historical context, its meaning as it has evolved over time (as it has been developed by Rand and her followers), and finally, in terms of its implications for a genuinely radical approach to social theory that is neither Marxist nor conservative.

In my view, part of what makes Rand radical is not just the content of her thought, nor even her ruthless use of logic, but the critical and revolutionary dialectical orientation that I believe underlies her whole approach to doing philosophy and social theory. Rand didn't simply get up one morning, look around her, and say: "Hmmm, A is A, therefore, reason is valid, therefore selfishness and capitalism are moral. Done!" Rand was a diligent intellectual. She read what had come before her. She was exposed to what had come before her. Her system, though objective, responds to previous systems of thought, and grapples with the problems that these systems grappled with. Yes, other philosophers have shown a similar regard for organic totality, internal relations, and integration of relational opposites. What makes Rand distinctive in my view, is that she is a philosopher of freedom who does such things. Though other modern libertarian or neoliberal thinkers such as Hayek show a concern for the whole, no thinker is as fully dialectical as Rand in making the case for freedom on multiple and integrated levels of generality. She is perhaps the most provocative "holistic individualist" in the history of social thought, as I stated in my  Full Context interview. Rand shows that it is possible to preserve the analytical integrity of the totality without being a totalitarian. While I concede that I did not put forth a single structured definitional sentence for dialectics, I do not concede that dialectics remains a mystery in my book. In a fashion that I believed more accessible to the reader, more integrated with the text, my Introduction, particularly pages 14-18, sets forth precisely the above outlined characteristics of a dialectical orientation. (And by the way, I say methodological "orientation" because dialectics is not a method in the narrow sense of "logic," "induction," "deduction," or "statistical inference." Dialectical thinkers often use all such scientific methods in their attempts to be holistic, relational, and critical in their analyses. More on this in a moment...)

A few more concluding observations here: David gives an excellent summary of Rand's actual logical method of validating Objectivism. I accept his characterization. I just think, once again, that we are talking about different things. Rand's use of logic or induction is in no way opposed to the dialectical orientation. What then, is the relationship of dialectics and logic? I think that the relationship is somewhat external in the context that I have provided. Aristotle himself, perhaps the greatest logician to have ever lived, is also known as the father of dialectical inquiry. And there is no contradiction here at all. As I state in my introduction, Aristotle argued (correctly, I believe) that dialectics demanded the study of a whole from many different vantage points, but that in and of itself, dialectics could not establish scientific truth. Nevertheless, such comprehensive study of any system (be it a philosophic or a social system) from different vantage points enriches our understanding of that system, its dynamics, and its internal relations. If Aristotle himself could be both supremely logical and supremely dialectical, why should not our view of Ayn Rand also encompass both? Now, I admit in my epilogue that my book focuses on the dialectical aspects in an almost one-dimensional manner. But before my book, hardly anybody even noticed the dialectical aspects of Rand's approach, and nobody ever developed this aspect with such comprehensiveness. I had to address this issue ruthlessly because I saw things that others didn't. And here, I also reiterate the conclusion of my epilogue, that my approach is not the only valid one, and perhaps someday, other books will be written that deal more extensively with other aspects of Rand's approach, including her use of logic. For now, I am hoping that the book doesn't get thrown onto the scrap heap of Objectivist intellectual history, along with the other "misrepresentations" of Rand to which David alludes.

** Ed. Note:  Sciabarra provides a full genus-differentia definition of "dialectics" in his book Total Freedom.

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