« Song of the Day #1521 | Main | Song of the Day #1522 »

Russian Radical 2.0: The Dialectical Rand

My essay, "Reply to Critics of Russian Radical 2.0: The Dialectical Rand," which appears in the December 2017 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, has apparently caused a bit of a stir on Facebook, as folks discuss one part of my essay---though it appears few have actually read the essay in full.

Anoop Verma has already posted a piece on his Verma Report: Ayn Rand: The Philosopher Who Came In From the Soviet Union, a clever play on Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

I am reluctant to say much about the essay until people have actually read it, though in truth, I think the essay speaks for itself. I did, however, clarify one issue that has dogged my use of the word "dialectics" for over twenty years now. Some folks may think my use of the word is idiosyncratic, but as I explain in the first four chapters of my book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, though the word has come to be associated with various untenable philosophical doctrines, it originates among the ancients, and its theoretical father is Aristotle. On Facebook, I posted this reply to one commentator:

I absolutely do not identify dialectics as the Hegelian "triad" of thesis-antithesis-synthesis (though this is more a formulation of Fichte, rather than Hegel); I identify it as the art of context-keeping. It is this art that led even Peikoff to exclaim that Hegel was "right" methodologically when he said "The True is the Whole"--but very wrong in terms of his philosophical premises. The original theoretician of "dialectics" was Aristotle, whom even Hegel called "The Fountainhead" (and he used those specific words) of dialectical inquiry: that is, Hegel saw Aristotle as the father of a mode of analysis that sought to understand any problem from multiple vantage points, on different levels of generality, and across time, so as to get a more enriched perspective of the fuller context of the problem, and how it is often an expression of a larger system of interconnected problems.
It would really be great if folks would actually read my book, and the new JARS article before hoisting onto me theories that I explicitly reject. (I address the issue of false alternatives in the book and in the newest essay as well.)
I agree completely about defining one's terms, . . . and I've devoted a trilogy of books (Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism) to explaining exactly what I mean by dialectics. In the concluding book of the trilogy, in fact, I reconstruct the entire history of the concept in the first three chapters, and then devote a full chapter to defining dialectics, and unpacking that definition in such a way that it cannot possibly be confused with any of the ways in which it has been distorted. And boy has it been distorted..

Stay tuned; there may be a few additional exchanges I'll post here.

Postscript (15 December 2017): In a tangential Facebook discussion on Marxism, I had the opportunity to pay tribute to a brilliant friend and colleague, the late Don Lavoie:

Just a note on Don Lavoie: He was a wonderful friend and a magnificent colleague; he was among the most supportive people in terms of his encouragement of my own intellectual adventure. And it's no coincidence that we both did our dissertations at NYU with Marxists and Austrians on our dissertation committees. He was certainly among the most well-read libertarians on Marxism (as is Pete Boettke), and in fact, when I was the President of the NYU chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society, we sponsored a debate between Don and Bertell Ollman. It was terrific---as Don was a kind of Hayekian anarchist and Bertell remains one of the finest Marxist scholars of his generation.

I also spoke of a Marxism discussion list that I cofounded:

I have fond memories of interacting with Doug Henwood, Jim Farmelant, and others on the Marxism discussion list that I cofounded, and that is still operating ("Marxism-Thaxis", as in "THeory" and "prAXIS"---yes, I proposed that crazy mashup for the list name). . . . [C]halk it up to my years as a mobile college DJ, always looking for a way to create "mashups" of different styles of music that kept the crowd dancing... [Additionally], I can tell you one thing: While I took more than my share of lumps on marxism-thaxis over discussions on everything from the calculation debate to dialectics and Ayn Rand, I honestly do not believe I was ever treated with the level of vicious disrespect that I have experienced over the last 20+ years in certain "Objectivist" circles. The Thaxis folks may have thought me eccentric and crazy, but most participants treated me with respect. Maybe some of it had to do with the fact that Bertell Ollman was providing provocative blurbs for my books, but I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that even though I had my disagreements with Marxism, I had devoted much time to studying and understanding the Marxist tradition, rather than engaging in sweeping, uninformed denunciations.

Postscript (18 December 2017): Anoop Verma's blog post on my essay has elicited a provocative response from Irfan Khawaja, which can be viewed here. Irfan says:

It's an understatement to say that Sciabarra's thesis was harshly criticized by orthodox Objectivists associated with ARI; Sciabarra himself was marked out for personal attack, and attempts were made to destroy his reputation and career. I taught for several years (1997-98, and 1999-2005) at The College of New Jersey with the late Allan Gotthelf, a well-known Objectivist philosopher associated with ARI. Allan told me explicitly that the point of his polemics against Sciabarra's book was to discredit Sciabarra as a scholar, to wreck his reputation, to wreck his career, and to make sure that no reputable scholar were ever to take him seriously. He set out, deliberately and explicitly, to make Sciabarra's views appear absurd, and to make Sciabarra himself to appear a laughing-stock. People around Allan regularly referred to Sciabarra with derision, and encouraged others to do so. They trashed JARS as an enterprise, and encouraged others to do so. One had to be there to bear witness to the intensity of the animosity felt, not just for Sciabarra's ideas, but for Sciabarra himself. I was there. It was an unpleasantly memorable experience.
The irony is that though Chris and I are friends, I've never been convinced that Ayn Rand was a dialectical thinker. Chris's work had an oddly mirror-image effect on me. Instead of concluding that Rand was a dialectical thinker, I spent some time with Aristotle's Topics, and came to the conclusion that the problem with Rand was that she wasn't a dialectical thinker. (Indeed, the problem with a lot of contemporary philosophy is that dialectics has fallen through the cracks.) Or to the extent that Rand was a dialectical thinker, the dialectical tendencies in her work were at odds with what she took herself, self-consciously, to be doing.
In any case, though it'd be pretentious to call myself a "dialectical thinker," I'm now more strongly influenced by dialectics than I once was. I owe that to Chris. So while I don't literally accept the truth of his thesis, I've ended up being positively influenced by it all the same. Despite the efforts made to shut him up and discredit him, his work found an audience, and made a lasting impression. That's quite a vindication, and a well-deserved one.
Not only did Gotthelf try to undermine Chris's reputation and career, he did his best to de-legitimize JARS as an enterprise. He (Gotthelf) had a position on the editorial board of The Philosopher's Index (a major indexing service) and did his best to get JARS excluded from their indexing service, so as to minimize its exposure to the profession. My ex-wife Carrie-Ann Biondi was (and I think is) an indexer TPI, and she told me that she had no idea that Gotthelf had engaged in such efforts. So the efforts were made, but they were made covertly.
But if you knew where Gotthelf stood--and he hardly made it a secret--none of this came as a surprise. The whole episode has been covered up and rationalized by appealing to Gotthelf's undeniably distinguished career as an Aristotle scholar. What has gone unremarked is the fact that Gotthelf self-consciously used his credentials to get away with malfeasances that he knew he could get away with precisely because he had those credentials.
The pattern is part of the Objectivist obsession with Great Men and Their Achievements: a Great Achiever is permitted to do what and as he likes without having to live up to the pedestrian ethical standards that apply to non-achievers, the lowly proletariat of the Objectivist ethical universe. Never mind the fact that no one has yet managed to define precisely what counts as "productive work" on the Objectivist account. "Intuitively," everybody "knows" what counts and what doesn't. Definitions are only the guardians of rationality until you put them to sleep.

And on 19 December 2017, Irfan continued:

I don't think we need to go very far in hunting down Gotthelf's motivation. The motivation was transparent: Gotthelf had very fixed ideas about what Rand was saying, and what scholarship on Rand should say and look like. Sciabarra's work fit neither of his pre-conceptions, and neither did JARS.
But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, both "Russian Radical" and JARS had started gaining currency in the scholarly community. This happened at a time when ARI had decided, after a long hiatus, to re-invest in the scholarly enterprise. Simultaneously, David Kelley's organization, long regarded as a bastion of openness and scholarly seriousness, began to take a populist turn, and then, to fade from view. Gotthelf was well-acquainted with all of these facts. From his perspective, if Sciabarra/JARS could be swept from the field, ARI would have a monopoly on Rand scholarship. And a monopoly is what they had wanted all along--as any reader of "Fact and Value" could figure out. The important thing was to give this monopoly a moral/intellectual blessing so that they could tell themselves and the world that they had earned it.
I don't think Allan was precisely "jealous" of Chris; he had so little respect for Chris that jealousy couldn't have arisen. But he resented the attention that Chris and JARS had gotten, attention that he regarded as undeserved, and that ought to have been directed toward ARI and Anthem.

Roderick Long added a comment with regard to Gotthelf's scholarship and behavior:

Certainly Gotthelf did some good scholarly work -- his work on Aristotle's biology, for example, is first rate. Being capable of good scholarship and being capable of unprofessional behaviour are, sadly, quite compatible.

But readers should go to Anoop Verma's blog to see Anoop's comments as well; it is a very interesting conversation to say the least.