AYN RAND:THE RUSSIAN RADICAL

AYN RAND:THE RUSSIAN RADICAL

PUBLISHED REVIEWS

Full Context has provided lengthy coverage of the debate over Sciabarra's book on Rand.  In addition to the exchange between David M. Brown and Chris M. Sciabarra, there have been exchanges with Howard S. Katz, David Oyerly, and others. This entry summarizes these exchanges.


Howard S. Katz writes in "The Heritage of Objectivism," in the March 1996 issue of Full Context:

  "The thesis of Chris Sciabarra that Ayn Rand derives her heritage from people such as Hegel has created a minor crisis in the Objectivist movement. Ayn Rand was certainly misunderstood during her lifetime. But to associate her with Hegel, Kant and Marx is to abuse the limits of misunderstanding. This sorry incident, however, does raise the question of what was Ayn Rand's true heritage. . . . "

In the April 1996 issue of Full Context, Chris Sciabarra replied:

"I read with interest the provocative, if tenuous, musings of Howard S. Katz on 'The Heritage of Objectivism.' While Katz's views make for interesting speculation, it must be rememberd that Rand herself, claimed that she was not raised in a particularly religious household; her father was a non-practicing Jew. It has been suggested however, that Rand may have been more aware of the religious and cultural practices of Eastern Orthodox Christianity than of Judaism; George Walsh tells us that Rand once corrected his pronounciation of a word in his recitation of a Russian Orthodox prayer. In any event, I am genuinely happy that my book has 'created a minor crisis in the Objectivist movement.' Insofar as AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL inspires individuals to think anew about these issues and to historically contextualize Rand, it succeeds immeasurably, whether or not one believe that it constitutes a 'sorry incident.' In my view, however, Mr. Katz is wrong to argue that I have 'abuse[d] the limits of misunderstanding' by associating Rand 'with Hegel, Kant and Marx.' These associations are not substantive primarily, but methodological. I argue that, substantively, Rand rejects the mysticism, collectivism, and statism of such thinkers, and of all of her Russian forebears, but she affirms a methodological commitment to organic unity and internal relations in her systemic and historical analysis. This orientation I call, 'dialectical,' and its forefather was not Kant, Hegel, or Marx; it was Aristotle. My next book will complete a trilogy that began with MARX, HAYEK, AND UTOPIA, and continued with AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL. In my forthcoming volume [TOTAL FREEDOM], I seek to clarify further the history and concept of 'dialectic,' emphasizing the need for an integrated, multidimensional defense of freedom. It is in fulfilling this need, that Ayn Rand remains one of the most creative, revolutionary, and dialectical thinkers of the twentieth century."

In the May 1996 issue of Full Context, Howard S. Katz replies to Chris Sciabarra:

"In reply to Mr. Sciabarra, I would like to say that there are two meanings of dialectic. Dialectic is the method of presenting a philosophical system by means of a dialogue between two or more people; examples of this are Hume and Plato. And Dialectic is a philosophical system based on the teachings of Hegel or his disciples; examples are Hegel's philosophy of dialectical idealism and Marx's philosophy of dialectical materialism. In neither sense is Rand (or Aristotle) a dialectical thinker. It is a mistake to study Hegel as a serious philosopher because he was not motivated by the search for truth. He was trying to advance his career by walking a thin line between the German people and the Prussian aristocracy. He appealed to the people by supporting the values of the French Revolution. These values, which included reason and freedom, were very popular in Hegel's time. He appealed to the Prussian aristocracy by supporting their authoritarian state. They believed that here was aman who was basically on their side but whom the masses would follow. Hegel was the Bill Clinton of philosophy and should not be taken seriously by a real student of the subject."

In reply to this, Chris Sciabarra wrote "Dialectics 101" which appeared in the September 1996 issue of Full Context:

"In several recent issues of Full Context, Howard S. Katz and I touched upon dialectics and its relevance to such philosophers as Aristotle and Ayn Rand. Since I have addressed these questions in other publications, and in the very pages of Full Context (Interview, September 1995), I would like to make a few suggestions for further reading to those who might be interested in the actual history of dialectic. Katz is of course, correct that Plato used the dialectic (as did Socrates and the Eleatics before him) as a means of presenting and refining philosophic ideas. In addition to Plato's dialogues, particularly the Sophist, Charmides, and Parmenides, readers should consult such works as Richard Robinson's Plato's Earlier Dialectic and Julius Stenzel's Plato's Method of Dialectic.  It should be noted however, that the actual principles of dialectical argumentation remained unformalized until Aristotle took upon him the arduous task. Topica and De Sophisticis Elenchis remain among Aristotle's most formidable and interesting works. For those who would claim that Aristotle was not a dialectical thinker, see Terence Irwin's Aristotle's First Principles, which argues persuasively that the Greek master used a 'strong dialectic' in his articulation and defense of the basic axioms. See also Gilbert Ryle's wonderful essay, 'Dialectic in the Academy,' in G. E. L. Owen's anthology, Aristotle on Dialectic:  The Topics."   Ryle reminds us that it was Aristotle who started the "theory and methodology of dialectic from absolute scratch," and that Aristotle introduced the teaching of dialectic into the curriculum of Plato's Academy. Readers should also consult J. D. G. Evans' Aristotle's Concept of Dialectic.  Finally, I should mention briefly that while I have never defended the substance of Hegel's philosophy, I take very seriously his contributions to the dialectical methodological orientation. And despite Hegel's own claims, I believe that his dialectical insights (especially with regard to internal relations) can be formally separated from the idealist and historicist content of his thought, and appreciated in their own right. Hegel may have been an apologist for the Prussian aristocracy, as Katz suggests, but I think it is unfortunate for anyone to dismiss him as 'the Bill Clinton of Philosophy.' I often wonder how many individuals, who so readily criticize Kant, Hegel, Marx, and others, have actually read substantial aspects of their work. For instance, we have been taught that Aristotle and Hegel are utterly opposed in every last detail. For those who are interested in reading Hegel's actual opinion of Aristotle, for whom he held great reverence, see his Lectures on the History of Philosophy. In the three volumes of Hegel's lectures, more space is probably devoted to Aristotle than to any other philosopher surveyed. These suggestions for further reading are only a beginning, but it is my hope that people will pay more attention to the "full context" before making any rash judgments on the character or quality of any thinker's contributions."

In the June 1996 issue of Full Context, David Oyerly, in "The Awful Truth," discussed a few aspects of Sciabarra's thesis:

Oyerly reviews the year-long debate over the book, and argues: "It seems, from what I've read, that most of this debate has been over the author's term 'dialectics.' In his Full Context interview Sciabarra gives a five point description of the meaning of dialectics which is an excellent description of integrated, hierarchical thinking, and it certainly applies to Ayn Rand. Whether he's correct or incorrect in using the term, or correct in a technical sense but unnecessarily using a confusing term, is an issue far beyond my ability or interest. But 'dialectics' is not Sciabarra's fundamental premise, and I believe that most critics have over-looked this in order to debate a philosophical term. The real issue is not whether Sciabarra is using the word dialectical properly but whether his basic premise exists in reality, and that is do people actually absorb their thinking process by osmosis from the 'intellectual air' or from a single class with a professor? Only academics could possibly consider that a person's method of thinking is formed in school, and in this case in the university, or shortly prior to it when Rand could partake of the intellectual air.   RUSSIAN RADICAL is completely dependent upon this premise." Oyerly rejects this premise and claims that Rand got her method of thinking from her exposure to Romantic literature, especially to the works of Victor Hugo. "It is in Victor Hugo that we see the radical re-ordering of opposites into original characters that typifies Ayn Rand's literary and philosophic thought. If we are going to put Ayn Rand into a historical context let us begin where she began."

In response to Oyerly's critique, Sciabarra writes in the September 1996 issue of Full Context:

"A full year after the publication of AYN RAND: THE RUSSIAN RADICAL, and the discussion shows no sign of abating. In 'The Awful Truth,' David Oyerly seems to agree with the observation that Rand is a dialectical thinker, even if he proposes an alternative emphasis on Rand the literary artist. While I certainly do not believe that people 'absorb their thinking process by osmosis from the "intellectual air" or from a single class with a professor,' I do believe it is important to pay attention to context. Oyerly suggests however, that my book has missed the real context. He argues that most likely, Rand developed her method of thinking long before her university acquaintance with Russian mysticism or Marxism.

But Oyerly may have missed the essential premise of the book's historical thesis. While not 'everyone in Russia is an integrative thinker actively rejecting false alternatives,' this dialectical sensibility is at the heart of most Russian literary and philosophic work. My first chapter quotes from The Italics are Mine, by the Russian writer Nina Berberova: 'All dualism is painful for me, all splitting or bisecting contrary to my nature. . . . My whole life has been the reconciliation within myself of the old dichotomy. . . . I am as I am, an example of synthesis in a world of antitheses.' Berberova articulates the leitmotif of the Russian mind. From the Golden Age to the Silver Age, from the classical novelists to the Symbolist poets, Russian writers exhibited a dialectical commitment to organic unity and internal relations. And by extension, they routinely integrated art, philosophy, and social criticism. It is no wonder that, despite her rejection of much of the content of Russian thought, Rand always expressed a literary debt to, and an admiration for, such writers as Dostoyevsky and Blok.

While my book examines Rand's literary debts and methods, other writers, such as Stephen Cox, Kirsti Minsaas, and now, David Oyerly, continue to focus much more attention on these underappreciated aspects. Valerie Loiret, a French Professor of Literature, has written a ground-breaking essay that makes explicit the dialectical methods at work in Rand's most Russian novel: We the Living.  I am pleased that her article will be published in the forthcoming volume, FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS OF AYN RAND (Penn State Press), which I am co-editing with Mimi Gladstein. The important historical point is this: Wherever Rand turned -- be it the literature, philosophy, or social criticism of her youth -- she would have encountered the dialectical approach. It is very likely that she inherited it from her Russian forebears. And aren't we enriched by the knowledge that, like all great and original thinkers, Rand stood on the shoulders of giants?"

In the September 1996 issue of Full Context, David Oyerly responds:

"Chris Sciabarra selects what he wishes from my article and ignores its main argument, in particular that how one does philosophy is formed at an early age and the importance of Victor Hugo as an inspiration and literary mentor. No matter how he tries Victor Hugo is not a part of the Russian culture that so fascinates him. Specific known influences, such as Hugo, are historical influences; non- specific or generalized influences, such as is meant by 'intellectual air,' are only possibilities and belong in the realm of guess-work or speculation. To describe a book as a historical speculation is a contradiction in terms. I certainly do not accept that Rand was fundamentally a dialectical thinker, but a fuller explanation will have to wait for when space is available."

Also in the September 1996 issue of Full Context, Neil DeRosa writes in "Anti-Reason" --

that "the essential ingredient" in the dialectical approach is its "legitimization of the idea of contradiction. That, and as a corollary, the negation of the law of identity, was a premise upon which Marxism was built. . . . Rand was never influenced by that kind of thought, except to reject it."

Chris Matthew Sciabarra replies in this unpublished response:

Neil De Rosa's claims in "Anti-Reason," that dialectics enshrines contradiction as its basic law is fundamentally mistaken. It is true that throughout intellectual history, a small minority of dialecticians have been careless in their use of the term "contradiction." But when Engels and others speak of contradiction they do not mean that A is non-A, at the same time, and in the same respect. This principle goes back to Aristotle, who enunciated it in Eudemian Ethics as follows:

"Accordingly a line of argument must be taken that will best explain to us the views held on these matters and at the same time solve the difficulties and contradictions. And this will be secured if the contradictory views are shown to be held with some reason. For such a line of argument will be most in agreement with the observed facts: and in the upshot, if what is said is true in one sense but not true in another, both the contradictory views stand good."

In other words, by altering our analytical vantage point, we may discover that an apparent contradiction is really not a violation of the law of identity at all -- it is merely an opposition resolved by viewing it in two different respects, or on two different analytical levels. Dialectical thinkers use the term "contradiction" to describe not logical opposition, but relational opposition. As Robert Heilbroner explains it:

"The logical contradiction (or 'opposite' or 'negation') of a Master is not a Slave, but a 'non-Master,' which may or may not be a slave. But the relational opposite of a Master is indeed a Slave, for it is only by reference to this second 'excluded' term that the first is defined."

Aristotle called these terms "correlatives" -- often they were "contraries," but they were never contradictions in the formal-logical sense. There is no doubt that some dialectical thinkers have been guilty of muddying the waters of clarity on this issue of "contradiction" -- Hegel himself, makes a number of such statements. But this doesn't detract from the essential issue at hand, that "contradiction" in the dialectical sense is a relational category, and not a formal-logical one.

Now, as for David Oyerly's response to my letter, let me say this: Rand argued, I think effectively, that culture is a complex phenomenon that affects human beings on a mostly tacit level. Moreover, it is represented in predominating attitudes, in a general emotional atmosphere that becomes the "leitmotif" of a given age and society. People in that society tend to develop, as Rand would say, "the essentials of the same subconscious philosophy" from the earliest impressions of their childhood. And Branden has emphasized further, that even if one does not overtly identify many of these accepted cultural practices, it is virtually impossible for every individual to call these into question in toto, "precisely because they are absorbed by a process that largely by-passes the conscious mind." This is what culture does -- it transmits to individuals implicit beliefs about nature, reality, human beings, masculinity and femininity, good and evil, which reflect the context of a given historical time and place. Extending Rand's insights, Branden argues further "that at least some of these beliefs tend to reside in every psyche in a given society, and without ever being the subject of explicit awareness." There is a strong resiliency and tenacity in one's early beliefs, sense of life, psycho- epistemology and other tacit dimensions. Now, for sure, the absorption of dominant cultural trends by a society's individuals is not an argument for strict determinism. But it is an argument for contextualism.

Given the time and place that Rand was born, I think she did a remarkable job of calling into question virtually the entire substance of the Russian "worldview." And I pay her great tribute by documenting just how deeply she rejected the mysticism, collectivism, altruism, and statism of Russian culture and politics. But I also believe that I have paid her tribute by documenting just how deeply she still functions like many of her Russian forebears, at least on the level of methodological orientation. If we are to accept what Rand herself says about the influence of culture on human beings, why must we abstract her from that very formulation?

No one is denying that she has had myriad influences on her life and thought. But even if we elevate Hugo to the prime position, even over and above Aristotle, for example, her own most important self- acknowledged predecessor, we still cannot discount the Russian culture within which she was born and reared. I think this is so obvious as to be an innocuous claim. I do not deny Hugo's influence on Rand -- I state explicitly in my section on her literary credo that: "She was influenced by such nineteenth-century Romantic writers as Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Schiller, and Rostand." And I refer to Hugo several other times throughout the book, not forgetting of course, that Rand herself viewed Hugo as a brilliant Romantic writer, but also as an archetype of both the virtues and fatal errors of 19th century Romanticism. If I've not paid enough attention to Hugo, I'll leave it to others to enrich our understanding. The fact that I've pushed anyone to think more deeply about "the awful truth" is flattering to me in and of itself. But I still maintain that virtually all of Rand's influences were necessarily filtered through the Russian culture of her youth. I go to considerable lengths describing how, for instance, the typically Russian views of Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche seem to reappear in Rand's parallel interpretations.

Nevertheless, to speculate on the age at which individuals form their way of 'doing philosophy' is a very complex exercise. There are differences among individuals, and these differences are almost always psychological and cognitive, and beyond our ability to assess in a completely accurate manner. There are also at least two levels on which this process takes place, as I've suggested above -- the articulate and the tacit. Even though Hugo influenced Rand's sense of life and her literary credo, I think it is also true that Rand's philosophic method developed over time, as it does in all of us, and that her articulated influences (Aristotle, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, etc.) and her tacit influences (the vast Russian cultural milieu within which she was raised) coalesced in a complex manner to shape her historic vision.

As for my book's "historical speculation" being "a contradiction in terms" -- I would suggest that by David's own pronouncements, most history can be dismissed, for nearly all historical studies entail elements of reasonable speculation. I have engaged in an empirical investigation -- I have made observations about Russian culture, about Rand's early life, and about her system of literary, philosophic, and social thought. As an historian, it was incumbent upon me to relate these factors and to present the best explanation I could on the nature of the relationships between them given the evidence that I had at my disposal. If Rand had been born in England, or in Germany, or in Ethiopia, I would have been just as "fascinated" by English or German or Ethiopian culture in any attempts to grapple with her intellectual legacy. Not because I am a cultural determinist, but because I fundamentally accept Rand's observations about the role of culture in shaping human life -- including the life of Ayn Rand.

Finally, as to whether or not Rand is "fundamentally" a dialectical thinker -- I simply believe that one must understand the issue of fundamentality on different levels of generality. On the level of methodological orientation, she is neither an atomist, nor a monist, nor a dualist, nor a strict organicist. She is fundamentally dialectical. On the level of formal method, she is fundamentally logical and empirical. My discussion of the nature of "methodological orientations" could not have been included in either of my last two books -- it is one of the most important focii of my next book, TOTAL FREEDOM, which is why I've described my three books as a "trilogy."


^
AYN RAND: HOME PAGE Back to Dialectics & Liberty Home Page

| FREEDOM | RAND | UTOPIA | ESSAYS | FEMINIST | THESIS | SEARCHABOUTFUTURESEMINARDOGLINKS | BLOG |