SCIABARRA RESPONDS TO THE CRITICS
RESPONSE TO THE IOS ROUNDTABLE CRITICS
This is an extended response to critics that was not published in either the IOS Journal or Reason Magazine.
This is a reply to criticisms of my book that have emerged out of the debate between James Lennox and me.
First, I would like to thank Robert L. Campbell, John Enright, Michelle Kamhi, Louis Torres, and Nathaniel Branden for their comments in support of my work. Enright however, makes a small criticism of my failure "to appreciate that Rand's theory of the `stolen concept' is actually wielded as a counter-dialectical tool -- to expose the baselessness which so many `dialectical' theories fall into when they undercut their own presuppositions." I refer Enright to my discussion of the "stolen concept" fallacy, a variant on Aristotle's technique of reaffirmation through denial (pp. 136-138). This technique has been viewed by Aristotelian scholars, such as Terence Irwin, as a "strong dialectic" tool at the base of Aristotle's defense of first principles.
Unlike the multitude of Objectivist scholars who read my book in its early stages and who missed it, David Ross points to a tiny error in my chapter on "Knowing." Ross is to be commended for finding two elementary mistakes in that chapter. I will correct these in any future, enlarged, second edition so as to more accurately reflect Rand's actual position. I submit however, that these mistakes are not crucial to the argument, and do not constitute any "glaring" misunderstanding of Rand's epistemology. (On the concept of "unit" for instance, though my formulation on page 171 might be imprecise, it is clearer on pages 172-73.) I fear that Ross is missing the forest for the trees here. As for Ross's other criticisms of my use of "dialectics," I refer the reader to my earlier response to him which can be found on my website.
Though I am pleased that David Kelley approves of my discussion in Part 3, I think it is incorrect to say that that discussion is "valuable" because the dialectical analysis is "less intrusive here." Simply put, Part 3 is the culminating moment of the entire project -- based on all that has come before it -- and it makes extensive use of dialectical notions of internal relations, reciprocal causality, and multi-levels of generality. At no point in the book is the dialectical analysis so comprehensive and all-encompassing. I also disagree with Kelley's view that "the concept of `dialectical' is far too imprecise to be used in describing the essential elements of Rand's system." He claims that I apply the word in too many distinct instances. But there is a reason for this. Carl Menger once spoke of broad "research orientations"; to this extent, dialectics is indeed, a broad methodological and research orientation, and it shows up in many forms and instances. I argue that despite the various guises of Rand's revolt against formal dualism, there is always an emphasis on organic unity and internal relations, and that these characteristics are essential to a dialectical approach.
Now, I turn to the response of James Lennox. Barry Smith once wrote that intellectual historians must deal with
the problem of how much credence one ought to award to self-interpretations when seeking an assessment of the nature and significance of a given thinker's achievements. For self-interpretations are very often flawed because their authors naturally give prominence to the detailed differences between their own ideas and the ideas of those around them; they pay attention, in other words, to what is original, quirky, or odd. That which they take for granted, and which they have imbibed from their surrounding culture, is thereby no less naturally and inevitably ignored (from "Aristotle, Menger, Mises: an essay in the metaphysics of economics," in Bruce Caldwell, ed. Carl Menger and His Legacy in Economics, 1990, Durham and London: Duke University Press, p. 264).
I could not agree more strongly with Smith's assessment here. This is the problem that I had to confront in writing AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL. Lennox however, seems to have accepted the "self-interpretations" of Ayn Rand so completely that he remains deeply troubled by alternative interpretations of her system, interpretations which bring to light, in my view, a sometimes hidden, implicit structure of dialectical inquiry that has never been noted by any other Rand interpreter prior to the publication of my book. Lennox continues to claim that I upgrade historical possibilities into established conclusions. In his original review, he points to one place in which such "upgrading" occurs: On page 91, I argue that Rand "by another `accident' of historical circumstance . . . had been among the very last students taught by Lossky in his native land . . ." This conclusion however, is at the end of a section which critically assesses every other alternative explanation; it is a conclusion which is offered explicitly, in that very paragraph, as "the best explanation of the facts." In critical dialogue, an "argument from best explanation" is a wholly legitimate technique. When I suggest that Lennox needs to provide us with a better explanation, I am not abdicating the "onus of proof." I am merely implying that in my careful consideration of the facts, this is my humble conclusion, and if, looking at the same facts, Lennox can offer a different, better explanation, it would be nice if he could share it with us. His "better" explanation, that Rand may have simply been "mistaken" in her recollections in "an innocuous way" is odd, to say the least. He agrees for instance, that I have established conclusively that Rand's recollections of her relationship with a sister of Vladimir Nabokov help us to place her in the Stoiunin gymnasium. (Apparently, we can trust Rand's memories of her high school years, but not of her college years!) He agrees that Rand probably knew of Lossky because she attended this gymnasium which was founded and operated by Lossky's in-laws, and in which Lossky himself taught. Did she merely pluck his name out of her high school experiences, and manufacture a whole story about her final examination with him in college? I refer the reader to Lester Hunt's informed, intelligent review of my book (Liberty, March 1996) in which he suggests -- perhaps better than I -- that an interpretation like Lennox's is gravely mistaken.
My characterization of the book's historical aspects as "speculative" leads Lennox to conclude that this is "an admission of failure." Not by any stretch of the imagination! Intellectual historians are often called upon to fill in the gaps with reasonable speculation when the historical record is not forthcoming. I continue to maintain that my interpretation of Rand's thought does not depend on the Lossky-Rand link. I emphasize this link because it is one possible means by which Rand could have assimilated a dialectical sensibility. The first three chapters however, demonstrate conclusively that Lossky was merely one voice among scores of intellectuals -- throughout Russian history,and throughout Petrograd University during Rand's tenure -- who adhered to a dialectical, organic approach.
Still, even if one could discount my entire historical case, the issue at hand is this: Does Rand demonstrate a dialectical sensibility, or doesn't she? On this count, I think the evidence is overwhelming that she does. And my book presents this case in a thoroughgoing fashion. I also refer the reader to R. W. Bradford's discussion in "The Truth and Ayn Rand," Liberty (May 1996). On the basis of the evidence which I have discovered, Bradford agrees, ironically, with Lennox's critical view of the Rand-Lossky relationship. But he also notes, quite correctly in my view, that Lennox remains a "defender of the faith," and that my general historical thesis is "overpowering."
On methodological issues, Lennox argues that I "now say" that the "historicist conception" of dialectics is not my view. I never said the "historicist conception" was my view. Not in the book. Not in any essay or any response anywhere, ever. When he quoted me in his original review, he claimed that "On [Sciabarra's] understanding, a dialectical method `focuses on relational `contradictions' or paradoxes revealed in the dynamism of history . . . '" Wrong. I invite the reader to read that paragraph within which that quote appears for him- or herself. That quote, from page 16, is my description of Hegel's historicism. I do not accept the historicist misapplication of "dialectical method" to the realm of history. Readers can review my book, MARX, HAYEK, AND UTOPIA (SUNY Press, 1995), to grasp my epistemological objections to this historicism. There is however, another sense in which Hegel, Marx, et. al, are legitimate dialecticians, and this relates to their emphasis on organic unity and internal relations. Abstract these characteristics from their historicist application, and one emerges with a greater understanding of the power of dialectical inquiry as a conceptual tool with which to clarify interrelationships between and among disparate factors in reality.
To claim, as Lennox does, that the characteristics of organic unity, internal relations, and integration "are not essentially tied to a dialectical way of thinking" is such a profound distortion of dialectics that it would merit, in response, a book in itself. I am working on this response in my forthcoming book, TOTAL FREEDOM. I can only add here that Lennox's claim, that he "didn't comment on the many uses of the term 'internal relations' because it was never clearly defined," is bizarre. I devote considerable energy to discussing the meaning of internal relations in Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5, with extensive application in later chapters and in Part 3.
As long as Lennox continues to distort the nature of dialectical inquiry, he will continue to stand by his mistaken view that there are no dialectical elements in Rand's thought. Moreover, he will continue to distort Ayn Rand's position as "dualistic." Rand is not a dualist. And it is incorrect to argue that modern day dialecticians are "dialectical" to the extent that they see reality as a "construct" of consciousness. This is precisely what is undialectical in Hegel and his modern-day idealist successors. And it is precisely what is undialectical in Marx and his modern-day materialist successors. Lennox has confused dialectics with idealist (and/or materialist) monism.
Interestingly, Lennox claims that Aristotle was not the father of dialectics. He is wrong. Though Aristotle "demotes" dialectic in the Topics, he relies on dialectic in the establishment of first principles, and uses a dialectic method throughout his corpus in discussing his solutions to philosophic problems and their relationships to previous solutions. Moreover, his understanding of organic unity and interrelationships is thorough and all-encompassing, showing up in his metaphysics, politics, biology, and aesthetics. It is very disconcerting that such a preeminent Aristotelian scholar as James Lennox could so completely miss this aspect of Aristotle's approach. Yes, Plato and Socrates and the Eleatics used dialectical methods before Aristotle. But Aristotle formalizes so much of what comes before him, and this makes him the father of dialectical inquiry for the same reasons that his formulation of the laws of logic make him the father of logic. Moreover, it is simply wrong to argue that Hegel and Marx are thoroughly removed from this Aristotelian legacy. The influence of Aristotle on Hegel and Marx is deep and broad, and it ranges from methodology to substance. I would suggest readers look at such books as Scott Meikle's Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx (Open Court, 1985) and Mure's books on Aristotle and Hegel, as well as many other works, some listed in the bibliographies to MARX, HAYEK, AND UTOPIA and AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL. Suffice it to say, my own work is challenging not only conventional views of Ayn Rand, but conventional views of the history of philosophy. I do not believe that intellectual history is a dualistic bout between Aristotelian-Thomistic- Randians and Platonic-Kantian-Hegelian Marxists. The history of thought is much more complex than this, and noting the cross influences is much more interesting and provocative.
BACK TO REVIEW
| FREEDOM | RAND | UTOPIA | ESSAYS | FEMINIST | THESIS | SEARCH | ABOUT | FUTURE | SEMINAR | DOG | LINKS | BLOG |