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"Total Freedom": Never Too Late for a Review

I've always said it's never too late to review a book, especially if it is a book I've written. A classic display of this phenomenon is a nice review of my book Total Freedom: Toward A Dialectical Libertarianism, which was published by Pennsylvania State University Press back in 2000. Verma reviews the book on his blog "The Verma Report (formerly "For the New Intellectual") and can be found at this link.

Verma also maintains a Facebook page, which is where readers will most likely find some discussion of the book; I am not clairvoyant, but I suspect it will include some familiar discussion among those who responded both favorably and unfavorably to my work. For me, it is only one more illustration of what Oscar Wilde once said: "There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

In any event, I've included the Verma review in my index of the reviews that has been written over the years of Total Freedom here. The Verma review is given a brief summary here, with a link to the full review on Verma's blog.

I would just like to extend my thanks to Anoop for giving some attention to the concluding book in my "Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy," which began with Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, continued with Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, now in a second expanded edition, and concluded with Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. The trilogy itself is nearly 20 years old, the first two installments having been published in 1995, and Total Freedom at the turn of the millennium, which proves it's never too late to find a review of one's work.

Postscript: I'm not a clairvoyant, but I could have predicted the avalanche of criticism waged against my work on dialectical method. I present below some of the comments I posted to the rather lengthy thread on Facebook:

First, I thanked Anoop Verma publicly on the thread:

I would just like to thank Anoop for focusing attention on the concluding book in my "Dialectics and Liberty" trilogy, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. I know there are folks here that recoil in horror at the mere mention of "dialectics," and worse, that Sciabarra fellow. But with all due respect, it would just be nice to see a few people condemn something they've actually read. I've got no problem with criticism; my whole home page features all the reviews of all my works (both positive and negative), and while I might take issue with a reviewer here and there, especially if I believe they have misinterpreted my theses, at least the folks who reviewed the books took time to actually read them, and then took their best shot for the bleachers (in condemnation or celebration of what they'd just read).
Folks wanting to see a wide variety of reviews of the book can see the review index on the book's home page.

When a discussant claimed that dialectics was nothing more than the collision of opinion, and that Rand didn't arrive at truth through such a process of disputation, I replied:

You will find as many definitions of "dialectic" as there are opinions on the subject; It is difficult to discuss this with someone who has not read the book, but rest assured, I had to reconstruct, in the first three chapters of Total Freedom the meaning of dialectic as it evolved through the centuries, noting of course that it was Aristotle who was "The Fountainhead" of the enterprise. And his discussion of what it is and how he practices it has nothing to do with arguing from opinion; it is, in simple language, "the art of context-keeping," which requires that we study any object of inquiry, be an event or a social problem, on many different levels of generality and from many different vantage points, so as to get the "fuller context" of its meaning, both as it exists in a larger integrated system of other objects and problems, and has had a history of development across time. I devote considerable energy to showing what a masterful dialectical thinker Ayn Rand was. You can agree or disagree with it, but at the very least, disagree with me based on how I define it and defend it, rather than on words that I've never written or words that have never come out of my mouth.

The critic then claimed that "This desire to rescue dialectics stems from a desire to rationalize. To approach ideas from a deductive perspective, not inductive as Rand has done." To which I replied:

No it is not a desire to rationalize; it is to celebrate the principles of efficient thinking, so lacking in our educational systems and pedagogical practices. Context-holding is fundamental to efficient thinking, and if you read what both Rand and Peikoff have had to say about how educational and pedagogical practices have militated against the art of noncontradictory identification and the art of context-keeping and integration, you will have a better understanding of what I'm defending. It's got nothing to do with deducing anything; it is about actively going out and seeking evidence about the place of events and problems in this world and how they relate to the larger social system in which we live, and how they relate to the larger history from which they emerge.

The critic asks: "How does one think efficiently? Dialectics? How so, if there are as many definitions as there are opinions on dialectics? Doesn't seem very *efficient*. Unless dialectics means starting where one should start and building one's arguments on the proper foundations of reason, then I see no point in them as a technique." I replied:

I devote a whole chapter (Chapter Four) of Total Freedom to defining dialectics, and defending it, and it is virtually impossible for me to summarize the usefulness of the technique in a paragraph; but if you want a brief discussion of it in a magazine essay, check out "Dialectics and Liberty."

I added:

Logic and dialectics entail one another; one cannot have one without the other. Even the law of noncontradiction is defined within a specific context: A cannot be A and non-A "at the same time and in a certain respect." Folks used to ridicule Aristotle because "A is A" takes no account of how A evolves over time, and how A can be looked at in many different respects. But note, the Master understood that, and his critics, who sought to attack the laws of logic always seem to drop the proviso of the law of noncontradiction: "at the same time, and in the same respect." I could go on, but then I'd just have to cut and paste a whole chapter from Total Freedom.

But confusion with regard to the law of noncontradiction ensued; I continued:

You are totally misunderstanding what I just said. Aristotle himself would say that A thing is what it is and given its nature, all that it can and will become, given the circumstances in which it exists. One of the reasons Rand was so critical of a certain brand of libertarian thinking was because it focused its attention almost completely on political-economic issues, ripping these issues from the larger context in which they emerged, both historically and systemically. Rand paid attention to what I call the "personal" level of generality (which entailed understanding how people could be undercut in their psycho-epistemologies and cognitive capacities by the "Comprachicos"), and she also focused attention on the "cultural" level of generality, which required an understanding of how certain cultural ideas both contributed to and were reciprocal effects of the political system, which she so opposed. It is why she was opposed to the belief that simply getting rid of government intervention would create a free society. Something politicians forget at their peril, when they try to nation-build "democracies" based on individual rights on foreign cultures that are characterized by intense tribalism and have not a clue what such concepts as democracy or individual rights entail. Rand sought to undermine "statism" by a simultaneous attack on its political and economic irrationalities, but also on the extra-political institutions that undermined the development of reason, and a culture of individualism and creativity. That's what she meant when she said that libertarians were often guilty of dropping the fuller context upon which the achievement of freedom depends.

The critic relents: "Right, I get that. . . . Reading your article. Very good so far. I agree with your article, entirely." To which I replied:

Then you get my conception of a "dialectical" way of looking at the world; call it what you wish, but it is all about understanding the complex context within which social relations of power function, and the complex context that must be changed if freedom and individualism are to have a chance of surviving.

But the critic persists: "Well, I don't see how it improves on Rand's... Objectivism."

To which I replied:

It doesn't improve Rand; all it does is to help us appreciate her on a level that too many folks out there don't appreciate. They think she is a caricature of her "black-and-white" view of the world, with no nuance or sophistication to her analysis. Calling her a dialectical thinker does not invalidate any of the other fine ways of characterizing her; but it, at the very least, reveals a level of sophistication that some of her fans and most of her detractors do not understand. Sometimes if you just change the lens through which you look at a thinker, you bring into focus things that are often unseen or unacknowledged. Peikoff himself has always said that Hegel may have been wrong about a lot of things, but he was ~right~ methodologically speaking: "The True is the Whole". And it is no coincidence that this focus on the "whole", that is, the full integrated context is something that Hegel himself credited to, and celebrated in, the works of Aristotle, whom he called the "fountainhead" of dialectics, the father of the method, who was the first to articulate the principles of analysis so essential to a contextualized understanding of the problems we seek to resolve.

Another discussant equates dialectics with what Peikoff called "chewing"; to which I replied:

Well, I think it is more than simply chewing because it requires higher levels of abstraction to understand things on multiple levels and from multiple perspectives. But, indeed, if it is akin to "chewing", let's just say, first engage all five of your senses to make sure that what you ingest looks good, feels good, smells good, tastes good, and even sounds good as you chew it 30 times before swallowing; after that, however, unlike the automatic functions of your digestive process, take time to integrate what you've been chewing into the "organic unity" of your mind's integrative function, if you want to absorb its nutrients for better mental and physical functioning. :)
Peikoff would not equate "chewing" with dialectics; but, with all due respect to him, I think he thinks very dialectically in his work and his lectures. No doubt this came from Rand, but his Ph.D. mentor was Sidney Hook (who wrote the book, From Hegel to Marx), and Peikoff no doubt understands the importance of the Hegelian insight about integration in a totality. He has never tired of quoting Hegel's dictum that "The True is the Whole", and by that he means that one cannot enagage in pulling random strands out of the discussion of any philosophical or social problem without doing damage to our integrated knowledge of the real relationships among those "strands." It is no coincidence that the words "integrity" and "integration" come from the same linguistic root.

The first critic then made a claim: "Adding 'dialectics' is a term that is not clear, loaded with connotation and specifically geared to please the skeptics/academics in order to 'legitimize' Objectivism as a philosophy." I replied:

. . . I mean this with all due sincerity: if you think for one moment that I pulled dialectics out of my hat as a way of courting the favor of the folks in academia in order to bolster the "reputation" of Ayn Rand, well, as we say in Brooklyn: Fuhgedaboudit. First, understand, my book was published after the Berlin Wall fell; Marxism may not have been in decline in areas like literary criticism, but for the most part, the very last thing anybody would want to do is to pick up the mantle of "dialectics" and run with it as some kind of badge of honor, Secondly, NOBODY in their right mind in academia, was writing ANYTHING on Rand (with the exception of a few essays in the "Personalist" and the Den Uyl-Rasmussen collection published in 1984.) The only books that were of interest were those like The Passion of Ayn Rand and Judgment Day (and this is quite apart from whether you like these books or don't): they were of interest to the mainstream media because they had salacious details about the Rand-Branden affair.
Let me tell you about my experience trying to get Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical published; I went to no fewer than two dozen university presses who would not even review the manuscript because they did not believe Ayn Rand was a subject worthy of scholarly study or legitimation. I went to two trade presses that would have published the book, but they found it too "scholarly" for their commercial markets. In the end, Temple University Press accepted the book for publication, over the objections of one of its reviewers (a scholar who was of the more "orthodox" school of Objectivisw), but by that time, Pennsylvania State University Press gave me an offer I couldn't refuse and I went with them. So two years passed before I could even get a publisher; it did not help my academic career one iota in either proprietary rewards or scholarly reputation by combining the hated "dialectical method" with the hated Ayn Rand. In fact, it was the surest way of practically sinking my career.
But as it turned out, some reasonable reviews came out that didn't find it so explosively controversial to hypothesize that somebody might have learned something from their education and from the culture within which they came to intellectual maturity. It was largely because of the controversial nature of my claims that publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Lingua Franca ran stories on it. I don't claim to have opened the path to others or to have simply benefited from a rising interest in Rand. But the simple fact is that prior to 1995, there had not been a single full-length book discussing the historical genesis, systematic character, and radical implications of Ayn Rand's thought. And in the years that followed, a veritable avalanche of books began to appear on Rand. If my book had even the slightest effect on opening the market on Rand, I'm happy. All I know is that I wrote that book as a way of showing that Rand was an intellectual giant, but that she stood on the shoulders of giants to see further. I honor Rand, but Rand has never been the sole area of my scholarly work; I've done books on Marx, Hayek, Rothbard, dialectics, and written articles on subjects as diverse as sexuality and music.
In any event, I appreciate the attention given to my work; nobody has to agree with anything I say in any of the works I've written. But I'm not the enemy. There is a world out there that Ayn Rand sought to change; it is the same world that I want to change, in the direction of "free minds and free markets"; it was Rand who inspired me from my senior year in high school, and it is Rand who still inspires me to live each day, with conviction that my own life and productive work are deeply personal, life-sustaining values to hold dear.

I was also asked by one person: "Is contextually absolute definition a part of the process of dialectical reasoning?"

I replied:

An excellent question; I discuss precisely this issue in Chapter 6 of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, specifically on pages 161-166. I argue there that Ayn Rand rejects those who would view all characteristics as essential to a definition as well as those who would view nothing as essential (hence, implying that the identification of an "essential" characteristic is either subjective or socially arbitrary.) I actually quote Rand directly on page 162 that definitions are neither subjective conventions nor "a repository of closed, out-of-context omniscience." Rand understood that since everything belongs to one reality, all things are related, but since we are not omniscient, she always emphasized that everything is related in some sense (that is, in some identifiable context). As I write: "For Rand, definitions must be 'contextually absolute' since they must 'specify the known relationships among existents (in terms of the known essential characteristics)" The emphasis here is on what is essential within the context of knowledge."
That whole section of the book focuses on the mutual importance of the art of noncontradictory identification (logic) and the art of context-keeping (dialectics). Each entails and implies the other. (BTW, the pages I'm referencing are from the second edition of Russian Radical.) Every chapter that discusses the structure of Rand's philosophy in every major branch stresses the crucial role of contextual thinking, whether it be in epistemology, or in Rand's analysis of the social problems of the day.

In another discusssion, concerning Anoop Verma's essay, "An Enquiry Concerning the Objectivist Movement During the 1950s and 1960s", Anoop, prompted by his reading of the recent JARS symposium on Nathaniel Branden, remarks: "Chris Matthew Sciabarra, the editor of Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, is an outlier on the Branden issue. He blames the 'orthodox Objectivists' for spreading disinformation to distort Branden’s legacy." I responded to this comment on Anoop's Facebook thread:

To be fair, it's not that I believe that "orthodox" Objectivists have spread disinformation about NB; it's certainly not disinformation that he lied to Ayn Rand, used some important principles of psychology that he developed, not as a means to understand or explain, but as a psychological sledgehammer to manipulate and control Inner Circle members of the "Collective" for too many years.The central issue for me, as a scholar, was that for too many years, those who were affiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute wrote articles and books---and readers could not find a single reference to any essay, lecture, etc. that Branden contributed ~during the years of his association with Ayn Rand~. Rand's statement of policy after her 1968 break with NB and BB emphasized that all their work up to that break was still considered to be part of canonical Objectivism, among the only "authentic" sources on her and her philosophy. So it was regrettable that up until the most recent "Blackwell Companion Series" book on Rand, one would strain to find a passing reference to NB and it would only be made by inference.
For example, I recall that at one point, one writer stated something like: "In an essay entitled 'Counterfeit Individualism'," and then offer a quoted passage, without even mentioning who wrote the essay; or, for example, in the case of Edith Packer (prior to her expulsion from ARI), she referred without attribution to the "Muttnik Principle" (a term coined by NB, in a discussion of experiences with his dog "Muttnik" that led him to understand and articulate the concept of 'psychological visibility'). What I most objected to was this fundamental violation of the common customs of attribution. It prevented a generation of ARI-affiliated scholars from citing any of the original lectures or essays on "self-esteem," "psycho-epistemology," "volition," etc. that Branden wrote. In some instances, such writers twisted themselves into intellectual pretzels to cite some derivative source rather than the original primary and still-officially-sanctioned sources written in the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s by NB.
I understand fully why many orthodox followers might not wish to sanction works by NB, but just because you think somebody is a bum, a liar, or a fraud, does not mean that you violate the customs of scholarly attribution to primary sources. This practice is, thankfully, changing; Gregory Salmieri (and his late co-editor Allan Gotthelf), have finally made a titanic shift in the recent Blackwell Companion, and it is a book that I cannot more highly recommend.

The person who raised the issue of "contextually absolute definition" was not fully satisfied with my response, and asked for greater clarification, especially since it appears that dialectics is a rejection of alternatives that are quite clearly true (like "good versus evil", "food versus poison", etc.). I responded more fully (on 6 February 2017):

You have misunderstood what I define as dialectics with a rejection of right versus wrong, good versus evil, food versus poison. Dialectics rejects ~false~ alternatives, not true ones. It can best be understood if one thinks of how Rand posited subjectivist versus intrinsicist "solutions" to philosophical problems, and arrived at a carefully reasoned, reality-based "objective" response that was in clear opposition to conventional false alternatives.
Now it is true that "dialectics" has its origins in "dialogue", which implicitly entails the discussion of problems from different perspectives. But the full, developed conception of dialectics that I have proposed (see especially Chapter Four of my book, Total Freedom) is one that involves much more than dialogue. It is the examination of any issue, event, or problem with an eye toward understanding its full context, which entails placing it in a larger system of interconnected issues, events, or problems, and understanding how these evolved over time. It entails the examination of issues, events, or problems on multiple, interconnected levels of generality and from different vantage points so as to arrive at a fuller, richer understanding of the issues, events, or problems at hand. Rand was a master of this kind of integrated analysis, and it was, at its core, a radical form of analysis, that is, one which sought to go to the "root" of problems in an attempt to uproot them fundamentally.
Now, a bit more about the "true" versus "false" alternatives distinction I mentioned above. Even when Rand looks at conventional false alternatives, for example, she does not endorse "the virtue of selfishness" over altruism. She proclaimed "a new concept of egoism" that opposed the conventional false alternatives of "brute" selfishness (sacrifice of others to oneself) versus "benevolent" altruism (sacrifice of oneself to others).
There is nothing in dialectics that is in opposition to the law of noncontradiction. To clarify this point, I'd like to quote a passage from the canonical lectures on the "Principles of Efficient Thinking", soon to be published by Cobden Press, which were given by Barbara Branden under the auspices of the Nathaniel Branden Institute circa 1959-1960 (and later revised with quotations from canonical published sources in 1969); note especially the interdependence of context-holding, integration, and noncontradiction:
"Context-holding requires integration. With regard to ideas, it requires the integration of one's concepts into a consistent, unified system of concepts. With regard to action, it requires the integration of the meaning, implications, and consequences of one's actions. With regard to values, desires, and goals, it requires the integration of the long-range and the short-range, of means and ends; it requires the integration of any particular value or desire or goal with one's total system of values, desires, and goals.
"Context-holding requires that one respect the Law of Non-Contradiction---that one not form political convictions which contradict one's moral philosophy---that one not form moral convictions which contradict one's view of the nature of man---that one not pass aesthetic judgments which contradict one's philosophy of art—that one not reach economic conclusions which contradict one's knowledge of economic theory, of politics, of the nature of man and the nature of reality—that one not choose values which contradict one's other values—that one not choose goals which contradict one's long-range goals—that one not set purposes which contradict the nature of reality.
"Context-dropping means holding a contradiction."
I hope this addresses the issues you've raised.

Anoop Verma added this comment: "In other words, . . . dialectics is a stepping stone to logic. You need to be dialectical to be logical is what your arguments in the book lead to." To which I responded:

And vice versa. By that I mean, there is an "organic" interrelationship here that cannot be sundered.

To which Anoop added: "Ok. But the question is why shouldn't we use the term 'logical analysis' or 'logical argumentation' for dialectics? Is it about preserving the Aristotelian lineage of the term 'dialectics' or is there some other significance to the word. Or is it important for us to take back the word from the Marxist universe (dialectical materialism.)" To which I replied:

We use a different word because it is a word that specifically focuses on "context-holding"; it's not just "logical argumentation," which can imply other, equally important, analytical tools. In Total Freedom and elsewhere, I spell out what I mean by context-holding and the types of analyses that qualify as such: That's why there is an emphasis on looking at any problem, event, or issue on different levels of generality and from different vantage points. I use this developed concept of dialectics to hone in on the specific importance of the means by which we hold context in our analysis of any issue, event, or problem.
On the issue of taking back the word from the Marxists, I think this is strategically important as well; after all, Rand fought to take back the word "selfishness" from those who viewed it in conventional ways, just as she tried to redefine "capitalism" as an "unknown ideal" (and note, as F. A. Hayek pointed out, the word "capitalism" was coined by the left as a way of denigrating what they believed was the "capital-class-centered" nature of free markets.)

The person who raised questions about dialectics thanked me for clarifying the issues, and I responded:

I genuinely appreciate the "dialogue" here, and I do hope that it has clarified some issues. But understand that I wrote a trilogy of books on this subject, which began with Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, and continued with Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and concluded with Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. So it's a lot to "chew" in any brief discussion. Please feel free to get back to me with any further quesions in the future.

The discussion continues on this thread; one participant raised the question of what exactly is "Objectivism" and I commented on it; here is what I said:

John, you asked about whether the fuller context of freedom includes a base, and I believe it does. To this extent, I would say that I have accepted, in general, Rand's fundamentals in the central branches of philosophy (her "standing on one foot" summation is a good place to start if one wants to get the general spirit of those fundamentals). It is one of the reasons I've rejected the approach of certain "libertarians" who argue as if a focus on politics is all that is needed to revolutionize the world. It is not. There are "personal" and "cultural" issues that are just as, or perhaps even more, important, as the political-economic issues.
You know, ironically, John, I am in agreement with you. Objectivism is exactly what Ayn Rand said it was, and it includes all the sources that she endorsed in her lifetime as "authentic"; we can probably have disagreements over what specifically should be included in the philosophy and what should be excluded. For example: her views on whether a woman should be President, which grew out of her views on masculinity and femininity, her views on gays, her views on specific works of art or of specific composers. But yes, there is this body of work that we should honor and call "Objectivism".
I sometimes wonder if there is utility in distinguishing between Objectivists, who stick to everything that we would have to agree is "essential" to the philosophy and, say, Randians, or neo-Randians: those who are influenced by Rand, and who have gone in directions that Rand may not have agreed with. To this extent, now that Rand is gone, we are all Randians now, that is insofar as any of us (including Leonard Peikoff who has taken full responsibility for the various directions he has taken what he has learned from Ayn Rand) develops the implications of her thought for areas that Rand did not fully address: the theory of induction, applications of her views to different cultural contexts, and so forth.
I'm sure we're all familiar with what Marx said about some of his followers, who were taking his thought in directions that he himself opposed. These folks were self-identified "Marxists," and he is reported to have said "Je ne suis pas Marxiste" ("I am not a Marxist"). I suspect that if Rand were alive today, she'd be appalled by some of the directions that the Randians or neo-Randians have gone (and I, myself, would most likely fit into the "neo-Randian" camp on most issues, but then again, I'd also fit into a "neo-Misesian" camp on economic issues, and a "neo-Aristotelian" camp on methodological issues, and so forth).
There was an old saying that Objectivists used: "Take what you want and pay for it." I take that to mean: Take what you find of value in Rand, and pay for it, by taking responsibility for the fact that you may have gone in directions that Rand would not have endorsed, and do not put words into the mouth of Rand that she never uttered or misrepresent yourself as her spokesperson. She did pretty well on her own, I'd say. One need only read her words and realize that she is and will always be the spokesperson for the philosophy that she identified as Objectivism.