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More on Rand's Development

The discussion on Ayn Rand's intellectual development continues at SOLO HQ. Today I posted additional comments here and reproduce them below.

Rick tells us that he doesn't "quite buy [my] arguments" and therefore "won't be buying [my] book [Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical]" which, apparently, he has "flick[ed] through ... now and again" when he visits "the 9th floor of the central library at University Of Canterbury." Well, I'm delighted to know that Canterbury has my book, but even more delighted to know that you know where it's located. If somebody desecrates the book by putting a moustache on a picture of N.O. Lossky, one of Rand's teachers, we'll know who the prime suspect is! :)

Seriously, Rick, I don't think I need to know anything about Michael Jackson's biography or Ayn Rand's biography in order to appreciate their respective arts. (And I've made it a point of saying that I don't care what artists have done in their private lives in my appreciation of art. See here.) One can dance to "Don't Stop til You Get Enough" without ever knowing or caring whether MJ was born in Gary, Indiana, or is guilty of molesting kids. Likewise, one can love Atlas Shrugged without ever knowing or caring whether AR was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, or had a friendship with Isabel Paterson.

But in the realm of ideas, I do think biography matters (see Carlin Romano on this here) if one is interested in the means by which a thinker arrives at her conclusions. Trying to understand the means by which a thinker discovers and "chews" an idea is something that is not easily discernible by reading the published works of that thinker.

Basically, a thinker engages in several stages in the development and presentation of an idea.

She begins with certain basic (metaphysical and epistemological) premises. But the critical thinker who embarks on an investigation, draws partially from her own experiences, from the evidence of her own life, which serves as the raw material for her inductive generalizations. In this sense, the Soviet Union was like a giant laboratory from which Rand could draw much material not only for her evolving understanding of the nature of collectivism but also as backdrop for her first forays into fiction (Red Pawn, We the Living, etc.).

The investigation, the inquiry, never ceases. But as one learns to grapple with the evidence, with the raw material, one typically engages in intellectual reconstruction or self-clarification. That is the step that is most often not seen by the general public. To have evidence of Rand's beginnings not only in that provided by, say, a thorough analysis of her college education (see here), but also in her extant journals, notebooks, and letters, helps one to view the possible steps that a thinker of her calibre took in both checking her own premises and coming to the conclusions that she eventually presented in her published work.

The next step—the published work, the actual exposition of the material that Rand gathered, inquired about, and "chewed"—is something that is easy to see. But even here, Rand tells us (in posthumously published books like The Art of Fiction and The Art of Nonfiction, both derived from lecture courses) that there are methods to the presentation of material, methods that can best be described as an application of the "art of context-keeping" to the exposition of an idea (I discuss this here).

Upon basic premises, inquiry, intellectual self-clarification, and exposition, there is a final aspect to consider that is relevant to each of us, as consumers of her work: The application of the lessons learned to the context of one's own life—a life in which one purposefully acts to continue the task of testing one's conclusions, deepening one's understanding (that "spiral theory of knowledge" mentioned by James Heaps-Nelson here), and, ultimately, changing the world. And Rand had a lot to say about that too.

The one thing that I also wish to emphasize is that the most important aspect of Russian Radical is not, in my view, a speculative consideration of Rand's beginnings. (And thanks to George Cordero for touching upon a lot of important aspects of my book.) It is in the reconstruction of Rand's dialectical or "context-keeping" methods of dealing with social problems. Part Three of my book reconstructs that method as a multidimensional investigation of any social problem on three distinct levels of generality (what I call the "personal," the "cultural", and the "structural") and from many different vantage points within each of those levels (psycho-epistemology, ethics, ideology, pedagogy, aesthetics, linguistics, economics, politics, etc.).

In other words, in any problem that Rand considered, be it the phenomenon of racism, war, or inflation, she was never content to examine these in one-dimensional terms. It was always with an eye toward grasping each problem's preconditions and effects, often taken as mutual implications of each other. It was always with an eye toward relating a particular social problem to other social problems, and viewing each as constituents of a larger system that had a past, a present, and many possible future implications. That's how Rand could view racism as a manifestation of irrationalism, tribalism, and collectivism, and also as an example of the anti-conceptual mentality at work. That's how she could trace the distorting effects of racism on culture and language (e.g., her discussion of "ethnicity" as an anti-concept). And finally, that's how she could see tribalism/racism and advancing statism as reciprocal presuppositions of one another: For Rand, the modern mixed economy was a tribal war writ large and racism was one form of the vast social fragmentation that state intervention had created and perpetuated.

All of this has important implications not only for understanding racism, but for challenging it radically, for uprooting it, and for creating the kind of social change that would toss racism on the scrap-heap of history.

Part III of Russian Radical is focused on making apparent the ways in which Rand constructs this kind of full-bodied radical analysis. In the wide scheme of things, it might be "marmalade" for the golden-browned toast that is Rand's work, but it is also an exposition of the ingredients that Rand used in baking that bread to begin with.

Comments welcome, but readers are encouraged to view the full dialogue at SOLOHQ, starting here. (Other comments in this thread can be found here, here, and here.)