Scibarra Essay, Research Paper
Ayn Rand in Three Acts:Chris Sciabarra’s _Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical_—–1. Introduction—–Admirers of the philosophy of Ayn Rand have spent well over thirty yearstrying to introduce her viewpoint to mainstream academia. But up tillnow, most of the effort has been concentrated upon Anglo-Americanphilosophy departments in the “analytic” tradition. What is uniqueabout Chris Sciabarra’s work is that he make a surprising attempt toexplicate Rand’s thought to thinkers within the very different traditionof “Continental” philosophy. Now this is not to say that Sciabarra isaiming this work at a primarily European audience; but rather he seemsto be aiming it at fields like political theory, political science, andliterary criticism which orbit primarily around the geographicallydistant sages of Continental philosophy, rather than the indigenousanalytic tradition. —–Initially, this seems like a hopeless quest: while Rand herself lookedupon contemporary Anglo-American philosophy with scorn, I suspect thatmuch of the Continental tradition would have positively revulsed her. But upon reading Sciabarra’s presentation, it seems that her aim ofpresenting a unified philosophic system, culminating in a “radicalcritique” of all existing societies, has many striking structuralsimilarities to the Continental tradition that Rand so despised. At thevery least, Rand’s grandiose aim should find sympathy within theContinental tradition, whereas the more “single-issue” orientedanalytics would probably be very dubious from the outset. —–Sciabarra does a remarkably good job of translating Rand’s viewpointsinto a form more easily understood by those familiar with Continentalphilosophy. In the process, of course, he exposes himself to two risks. The first risk is alienating readers who liked Rand already; they don’twant to see her views re-cast in new language, however accurate thetranslation. Properly, I think, Sciabarra ignores this risk. The otherdanger, however, is that something will be lost or added in thetranslation; in particular, since Sciabarra is trying to appeal to anaudience familiar with the Continental tradition, there will always be atemptation to put a misleading spin on Rand’s thought. Overall, I thinkthat Sciabarra manages to avoid succumbing to this temptation in anyserious way; but there are a few places where he might have done better. —–The work is divided into three sections. The first is an historicaltreatment of the evolution of Rand’s thought; the second is an eloquentbut unsurprising explanation of her views; the final section is a quiteastounding and innovative effort to place Rand squarely within the”radical” tradition. Sciabarra describes his approach as “historical,”but this really draws our focus away from the most interesting part ofthe book, which is Sciabarra’s effort to draw together a host ofseemingly disparate strands in Rand’s thought and show how they amountto a tightly woven critique of all historical human societies. —–2. Sciabarra as Intellectual Historian—–The first, historical section is quite engaging, but in the finalanalysis, Sciabarra simply didn’t have a lot of material to work with. He puts great emphasis on Rand’s only-named philosophy instructor, N.O. Lossky. Unfortunately, as Sciabarra concedes, we can’t even be totallysure that Rand studied under Lossky. And while he does produce a fewparallel quotations from Lossky and Rand, it just seems likecircumstantial evidence. —–The clearest connection, Sciabarra thinks, lies in the fact that bothLossky and Rand were supremely “dialectical” thinkers. Now while Randdid not use this phrase to describe her thought, Sciabarra makes a goodcase that it applies to her as it did to Lossky. The basic feature ofdialectical thinking, as Sciabarra uses the term, is to consider thepossibility that current philosophic debates are based upon a series offalse alternatives; thus, a correct position must stake out a newposition which incorporates the valuable elements of existing viewswhile identifying their shared error. Aristotle frequently used thistechnique: laying out a list of prevailing positions, and trying todevelop a correct position after appreciating the strengths andweaknesses of preceding views. —–Now this is certainly a fair description of Rand’s perspective; but whatare so many routes to a “dialectical approach” that it seems rather oddbothers me is that the “dialectical” genus is incredibly broad. Thereto think that Lossky was the primary inspiration for this aspect ofRand’s thought. In fact, it would be hard to name any thinkers who are_not_ dialectical in the sense that Sciabarra discusses. Basically,only those thinkers who try to deduce their entire view fromself-evident axioms — like Descartes in the _Meditations_ orWittgenstein in the _Tractatus_ — would fail to qualify for membership. While Rand probably relies on dialectical exposition more than someother modern thinkers, it seems that Sciabarra over-emphasizes thedialectical side of Rand’s writing to the detriment of her manystraightforward statement of and arguments for her controversial views. —–When I ordered Sciabarra’s book, I was expecting a much stronger effortto tie Rand to Russia’s long history of philosophical novelists. Hedoes discuss this connection somewhat, but I was hoping for a much morethorough comparison between Rand and e.g. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. There certainly seems to be something both distinctively Russian anddistinctively Randian about novels in which the characters personifyabstract philosophical viewpoints. Moreover, the influence of theRussian novelists upon Rand’s own thinking seems to have a great dealmore textual support (in, e.g. _The Romantic Manifesto_) thanSciabarra’s own “Lossky hypothesis.”—–Sciabarra deserves credit for linking the Russian followers of Nietzscheto Rand’s thought. Ronald Merrill pointed out the extensive editorialchanges that Rand made when _We the Living_ was re-issued; changes whichindicate that Rand’s Nietzschean period continued well into the 30’s. Sciabarra traces the “transmission mechanism” skillfully, and Icertainly learned a lot more about Nietzsche’s penetration into Russiathan I expected. (In particular, his discussion of the Russian MarxistNietzscheans — and their possible influence upon Trotsky — was quitevaluable.)—–Sciabarra’s coverage of Rand’s relation with the conservative andproto-libertarian movement during the 1930’s and 1940’s is strangelycursory. It seems that extensive documentation and oral history must beavailable; so why was the treatment so brief? When did Rand articulateher belief in laissez-faire capitalism for the first time? Whateducation in economics did she receive? I would have liked to havethese questions answered. In particular, I would have liked a more
detailed history of how Rand gradually replaced her mature peers — withwhom she could still enjoy some intellectual give-and-take — with amuch younger generation of impressionable followers. —–3. Sciabarra as Expositor of Rand’s Thought—–I have much less to say about the second part of the book. Sciabarra’streatment is necessarily more cursory than a work like Peikoff’s_Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand_, devoted exclusively to Rand’scompleted system. But for several reasons, Sciabarra’s summary issuperior. First, he freely uses all available Objectivist writings,unlike Peikoff, who basically ignores even the Branden’s Rand-approvedworks. Secondly, Sciabarra’s tone is less confrontational thanPeikoff’s, and more inclined to explain Rand’s ideas in terms thatmodern thinkers (in the Continental tradition) would understand. Andfinally, Sciabarra freely mixes in comparisons with better-knownthinkers, and notes important points that Rand’s critics have madeagainst her. Although on this last point Sciabarra might have donemore; I was particularly disappointed when he summarized the manyapparent incoherencies in Rand’s derivation of “life as the standard ofvalue”, only to vaguely indicate that somehow everything can bedialectically reconciled. (pp.240-243)—–4. Sciabarra’s Radical Rand—–The third section of Sciabarra’s book more than compensates for anyweaknesses of the previous two. The last three chapters are extremelyoriginal, synthesizing almost every aspect of Rand’s thought. And yetdespite this originality, Sciabarra remains scrupulously true to thetexts that he is writing about; he develops a powerful, unifying, andcreative thesis about Rand’s work, without trying to distort her thoughtto make his book more interesting. In fact, these three concludingchapters are possibly the best commentary ever written on Rand, and theyare alone worth the price of admission. —–The first chapter in section three, “Relations of Power,” gives afascinating diagrammatic explanation of Rand’s inter-related views onsociety and the individual, and between individuals, culture, andpolitico-economic structures. He draws together a huge number of piecesto tie his case firmly to the Randian and broader Objectivist corpus:the exploitation of producers and creators in _The Fountainhead_ and_Atlas Shrugged_; “the sanction of the victim,”; Branden and Rand’s workin psychology; Branden’s work on alienation; and Rand’s bitter attack onour irrational and collectivist educational system. He delves intoRand’s observations on the modern corruption of thought via corruptionof language; and then examines Rand’s “parallel spheres” of society andthe individual. Every piece fits together beautifully in this chapter;Sciabarra seems to have distilled and expressed Rand’s picture betterthan she was able to do herself. —–One facet of this chapter puzzled me. Several years ago, David Kelleytold me that there was an interesting parallel being Marx and Rand’sanalysis of social change; only Rand basically stands Marx on his head. For Marx, there is the “mode of production” or “base”; from the base,the “relations of production” arise; and to defend these relations ofproduction, there emerges a “superstructure” of ideas justifying whatexists. For Marx, social changes should be traced from the base; newmeans of production lead to changing property roles and statusrelations; which lead to new philosophies. For Rand, Kelley explained,we can see the entire process reversed: changes originate at the levelof the “superstructure,” when prevailing philosophical ideas fall intodisfavor; these ideational changes prompt the re-organization of therelations of production, which finally lead to a new way of life andproduction. Since I think that Kelley previewed Sciabarra’s book, Iwonder whether Kelley didn’t point out the similarity between Kelley’sview and Sciabarra’s; or whether Sciabarra knew of Kelley’s view butdidn’t want to discuss it. Either possibility is rather odd; but in anycase, it seems that Kelley’s picture is quite consistent withSciabarra’s broader analysis of Rand’s thought. —–The second chapter in the third section, “The Predatory State,”document’s Rand’s radicalism more fully. Sciabarra explores hercritique of the mixed economy and the cumulative effect ofinterventionism. And he interestingly brings up two topics that I wouldhave expected to see in Derrida than in Rand: social fragmentation andracism. And yet, Sciabarra persuasively shows how these concerns fit innaturally with Rand’s broader perspective. Sciabarra closes thischapter with a superb discussion of Rand’s views on liberalism andconservatism, pointing out that the early Rand defined her views inopposition to both Russia’s “religious right” and “secular left.” Thischapter left me with a much stronger sense of how Rand probably saw thepolitical atmosphere: conservatives probably struck her as watered-downCzarist theocrats, and liberals (less surprisingly) looked likedmild-mannered Bolsheviks. —–The final chapter in the third section, “History and Resolution,” roundsout Sciabarra’s discussion of Rand’s radicalism; along the way, itrehabilitates some of Rand’s most heavy-handed distinctions, showingthat they are far more subtle than we might think. In particular, Randhas often been ridiculed for dividing up the world into “Atillas” and”Witch Doctors.” But as Sciabarra points out, Nietzsche got away withthe equally sweeping symbolism of “Apollo” and “Dionysus” (which Randherself freely used). What is so bad about using these archetypes ifthey help clarify matters? After explaining Rand’s view of the historyof philosophy, and her critique of contemporary social sciences andhumanities, Sciabarra explores Rand’s view that philosophy is the primemover in history. He concludes with several provocative observations;perhaps the most interesting of these is Popper’s view that systematicphilosophy leads to totalitarianism, and how Rand might respond to hiscriticism. —–5. Conclusion—–I thoroughly enjoyed Sciabarra’s book, and highly recommend it. Theentire work shows a level of scholarship and comprehensiveness unmatchedin any previous survey of Rand’s thought; just looking at the footnotesand bibliography reveals how thorough and broad Sciabarra’sinvestigations had to have been. Too often Rand has been studied byignorant critics and ignorant adherents; Sciabarra brings somemuch-needed objectivity to the discussion. —–_Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical_ is indeed an excellent book; but thatexcellence is concentrated in the final three chapters. The first twosections of the book are competent, interesting, and thoughtful, butincomplete and in need of improvement. The final section is trulyremarkable, and elevates what would have been a good book into a verygood one. —–If Sciabarra’s book were a play in three acts, I would call the firstact is intriguing, but spotted with a few holes in the plot. The secondact elicits a steady tempo and solid character development. And thefinal act takes us completely by surprise, leading us inexorably to anunexpected conclusion. All of which adds up to one fine performance forProfessor Sciabarra.