BRYAN CAPLAN, PHILOSOPHICAL NOTES, no. 43 (1996)
The following review appeared on an internet discussion group. It was reprinted by Libertarian Alliance, for their "Philosophical Notes" series.
"AYN RAND IN THREE ACTS: CHRIS SCIABARRA'S AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL"
Admirers of the philosophy of Ayn Rand have spent well over thirty years trying to introduce her viewpoint to mainstream academia. But up till now, most of the effort has been concentrated upon Anglo-American philosophy departments in the "analytic" tradition. What is unique about Chris Sciabarra's work is that he make a surprising attempt to explicate Rand's thought to thinkers within the very different tradition of "Continental" philosophy. Now this is not to say that Sciabarra is aiming this work at a primarily European audience; but rather he seems to be aiming it at fields like political theory, political science, and literary criticism which orbit primarily around the geographically distant sages of Continental philosophy, rather than the indigenous analytic tradition. Initially, this seems like a hopeless quest: while Rand herself looked upon contemporary Anglo-American philosophy with scorn, I suspect that much of the Continental tradition would have positively revulsed her. But upon reading Sciabarra's presentation, it seems that her aim of presenting a unified philosophic system, culminating in a "radical critique" of all existing societies, has many striking structural similarities to the Continental tradition that Rand so despised. At the very least, Rand's grandiose aim should find sympathy within the Continental tradition, whereas the more "single-issue" oriented analytics would probably be very dubious from the outset. Sciabarra does a remarkably good job of translating Rand's viewpoints into a form more easily understood by those familiar with Continental philosophy. In the process, of course, he exposes himself to two risks. The first risk is alienating readers who liked Rand already; they don't want to see her views re-cast in new language, however accurate the translation. Properly, I think, Sciabarra ignores this risk. The other danger, however, is that something will be lost or added in the translation; in particular, since Sciabarra is trying to appeal to an audience familiar with the Continental tradition, there will always be a temptation to put a misleading spin on Rand's thought. Overall, I think that Sciabarra manages to avoid succumbing to this temptation in any serious way; but there are a few places where he might have done better.
The work is divided into three sections. The first is an historical treatment of the evolution of Rand's thought; the second is an eloquent but unsurprising explanation of her views; the final section is a quite astounding and innovative effort to place Rand squarely within the "radical" tradition. Sciabarra describes his approach as "historical," but this really draws our focus away from the most interesting part of the book, which is Sciabarra's effort to draw together a host of seemingly disparate strands in Rand's thought and show how they amount to a tightly woven critique of all historical human societies.
2. Sciabarra as Intellectual Historian
The first, historical section is quite engaging, but in the final analysis, Sciabarra simply didn't have a lot of material to work with. He puts great emphasis on Rand's only-named philosophy instructor, N.O. Lossky. Unfortunately, as Sciabarra concedes, we can't even be totally sure that Rand studied under Lossky. And while he does produce a few parallel quotations from Lossky and Rand, it just seems like circumstantial evidence. The clearest connection, Sciabarra thinks, lies in the fact that both Lossky and Rand were supremely "dialectical" thinkers. Now while Rand did not use this phrase to describe her thought, Sciabarra makes a good case that it applies to her as it did to Lossky.
The basic feature of dialectical thinking, as Sciabarra uses the term, is to consider the possibility that current philosophic debates are based upon a series of false alternatives; thus, a correct position must stake out a new position which incorporates the valuable elements of existing views while identifying their shared error. Aristotle frequently used this technique: laying out a list of prevailing positions, and trying to develop a correct position after appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of preceding views. Now this is certainly a fair description of Rand's perspective; but what bothers me is that the "dialectical" genus is incredibly broad. There are so many routes to a "dialectical approach" that it seems rather odd to think that Lossky was the primary inspiration for this aspect of Rand's thought. In fact, it would be hard to name any thinkers who are not dialectical in the sense that Sciabarra discusses. Basically, only those thinkers who try to deduce their entire view from self-evident axioms -- like Descartes in the Meditations or Wittgenstein in the Tractatus -- would fail to qualify for membership. While Rand probably relies on dialectical exposition more than some other modern thinkers, it seems that Sciabarra over-emphasizes the dialectical side of Rand's writing to the detriment of her many straightforward statement of and arguments for her controversial views.
When I ordered Sciabarra's book, I was expecting a much stronger effort to tie Rand to Russia's long history of philosophical novelists. He does discuss this connection somewhat, but I was hoping for a much more thorough comparison between Rand and e.g. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. There certainly seems to be something both distinctively Russian and distinctively Randian about novels in which the characters personify abstract philosophical viewpoints. Moreover, the influence of the Russian novelists upon Rand's own thinking seems to have a great deal more textual support (in, e.g. The Romantic Manifesto) than Sciabarra's own "Lossky hypothesis."
Sciabarra deserves credit for linking the Russian followers of Nietzsche to Rand's thought. Ronald Merrill pointed out the extensive editorial changes that Rand made when We the Living was re-issued; changes which indicate that Rand's Nietzschean period continued well into the 30's. Sciabarra traces the "transmission mechanism" skillfully, and I certainly learned a lot more about Nietzsche's penetration into Russia than I expected. (In particular, his discussion of the Russian Marxist Nietzscheans -- and their possible influence upon Trotsky -- was quite valuable.)
Sciabarra's coverage of Rand's relation with the conservative and proto-libertarian movement during the 1930's and 1940's is strangely cursory. It seems that extensive documentation and oral history must be available; so why was the treatment so brief? When did Rand articulate her belief in laissez-faire capitalism for the first time? What education in economics did she receive? I would have liked to have these questions answered. In particular, I would have liked a more detailed history of how Rand gradually replaced her mature peers -- with whom she could still enjoy some intellectual give-and-take -- with a much younger generation of impressionable followers.
3. Sciabarra as Expositor of Rand's Thought
I have much less to say about the second part of the book. Sciabarra's treatment is necessarily more cursory than a work like Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, devoted exclusively to Rand's completed system. But for several reasons, Sciabarra's summary is superior. First, he freely uses all available Objectivist writings, unlike Peikoff, who basically ignores even the Branden's Rand-approved works. Secondly, Sciabarra's tone is less confrontational than Peikoff's, and more inclined to explain Rand's ideas in terms that modern thinkers (in the Continental tradition) would understand. And finally, Sciabarra freely mixes in comparisons with better-known thinkers, and notes important points that Rand's critics have made against her. Although on this last point Sciabarra might have done more; I was particularly disappointed when he summarized the many apparent incoherencies in Rand's derivation of "life as the standard of value", only to vaguely indicate that somehow everything can be dialectically reconciled. (pp.240-243)
4. Sciabarra's Radical Rand
The third section of Sciabarra's book more than compensates for any weaknesses of the previous two. The last three chapters are extremely original, synthesizing almost every aspect of Rand's thought. And yet despite this originality, Sciabarra remains scrupulously true to the texts that he is writing about; he develops a powerful, unifying, and creative thesis about Rand's work, without trying to distort her thought to make his book more interesting. In fact, these three concluding chapters are possibly the best commentary ever written on Rand, and they are alone worth the price of admission.
The first chapter in section three, "Relations of Power," gives a fascinating diagrammatic explanation of Rand's inter-related views on society and the individual, and between individuals, culture, and politico-economic structures. He draws together a huge number of pieces to tie his case firmly to the Randian and broader Objectivist corpus: the exploitation of producers and creators in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged; "the sanction of the victim,"; Branden and Rand's work in psychology; Branden's work on alienation; and Rand's bitter attack on our irrational and collectivist educational system. He delves into Rand's observations on the modern corruption of thought via corruption of language; and then examines Rand's "parallel spheres" of society and the individual. Every piece fits together beautifully in this chapter; Sciabarra seems to have distilled and expressed Rand's picture better than she was able to do herself.
One facet of this chapter puzzled me. Several years ago, David Kelley told me that there was an interesting parallel being Marx and Rand's analysis of social change; only Rand basically stands Marx on his head. For Marx, there is the "mode of production" or "base"; from the base, the "relations of production" arise; and to defend these relations of production, there emerges a "superstructure" of ideas justifying what exists. For Marx, social changes should be traced from the base; new means of production lead to changing property roles and status relations; which lead to new philosophies. For Rand, Kelley explained, we can see the entire process reversed: changes originate at the level of the "superstructure," when prevailing philosophical ideas fall into disfavor; these ideational changes prompt the re-organization of the relations of production, which finally lead to a new way of life and production. Since I think that Kelley previewed Sciabarra's book, I wonder whether Kelley didn't point out the similarity between Kelley's view and Sciabarra's; or whether Sciabarra knew of Kelley's view but didn't want to discuss it. Either possibility is rather odd; but in any case, it seems that Kelley's picture is quite consistent with Sciabarra's broader analysis of Rand's thought.
The second chapter in the third section, "The Predatory State," document's Rand's radicalism more fully. Sciabarra explores her critique of the mixed economy and the cumulative effect of interventionism. And he interestingly brings up two topics that I would have expected to see in Derrida than in Rand: social fragmentation and racism. And yet, Sciabarra persuasively shows how these concerns fit in naturally with Rand's broader perspective. Sciabarra closes this chapter with a superb discussion of Rand's views on liberalism and conservatism, pointing out that the early Rand defined her views in opposition to both Russia's "religious right" and "secular left." This chapter left me with a much stronger sense of how Rand probably saw the political atmosphere: conservatives probably struck her as watered-down Czarist theocrats, and liberals (less surprisingly) looked liked mild-mannered Bolsheviks.
The final chapter in the third section, "History and Resolution," rounds out Sciabarra's discussion of Rand's radicalism; along the way, it rehabilitates some of Rand's most heavy-handed distinctions, showing that they are far more subtle than we might think. In particular, Rand has often been ridiculed for dividing up the world into "Atillas" and "Witch Doctors." But as Sciabarra points out, Nietzsche got away with the equally sweeping symbolism of "Apollo" and "Dionysus" (which Rand herself freely used). What is so bad about using these archetypes if they help clarify matters? After explaining Rand's view of the history of philosophy, and her critique of contemporary social sciences and humanities, Sciabarra explores Rand's view that philosophy is the prime mover in history. He concludes with several provocative observations; perhaps the most interesting of these is Popper's view that systematic philosophy leads to totalitarianism, and how Rand might respond to his criticism.
I thoroughly enjoyed Sciabarra's book, and highly recommend it. The entire work shows a level of scholarship and comprehensiveness unmatched in any previous survey of Rand's thought; just looking at the footnotes and bibliography reveals how thorough and broad Sciabarra's investigations had to have been. Too often Rand has been studied by ignorant critics and ignorant adherents; Sciabarra brings some much-needed objectivity to the discussion. Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical is indeed an excellent book; but that excellence is concentrated in the final three chapters. The first two sections of the book are competent, interesting, and thoughtful, but incomplete and in need of improvement. The final section is truly remarkable, and elevates what would have been a good book into a very good one. If Sciabarra's book were a play in three acts, I would call the first act is intriguing, but spotted with a few holes in the plot. The second act elicits a steady tempo and solid character development. And the final act takes us completely by surprise, leading us inexorably to an unexpected conclusion. All of which adds up to one fine performance for Professor Sciabarra.
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