Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ayn Rand: The Philosopher Who Came In From The Soviet Union

Ayn Rand was a 21-year-old college graduate in 1926 when she left Russia for the United States.

I find it hard to believe that she could have written books like We The LivingThe Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged if she were born and educated in the USA. Her thinking was markedly influenced by her experiences in communist Russia and the formal education that she had there. Her individualist mind was forged in the collectivist hellfire of communism.

The best book that I have read on Rand’s Russian education is Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. Sciabarra’s description of the philosophical environment at the university where Rand was educated and the professors who may have taught her provides an insight into how Rand was inspired by the ideas of individualism and liberty while being trapped in a collectivist totalitarian environment.

Unfortunately, most Objectivist scholars tend to discourage an in-depth study of Rand’s life and her literary and philosophical method. They have their own orthodox narrative about Rand which they wish to propagate. Sciabarra’s thesis is a challenge to this orthodox narrative and therefore it is harshly criticized by prominent Objectivist scholars.

In his latest article, “Reply to the Critics of Russian Radical 2.0: The Dialectical Rand,” (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Volume 17, Number 2, December 2017), Sciabarra answers the critics of the second edition of his book, which came out in 2013. As the subtitle indicates, a vital part of his article is focused on the issue of dialectics.

When Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical was first published in 1995, it generated a lot of controversy because of its claim that Rand was a dialectical thinker. But in the Objectivist environment, the word “dialectical,” because of its association with the Marxist theory of “dialectical materialism,” is held as a philosophical abomination. Indeed, many Objectivists see the attempt to associate the word “dialectical” with Rand as a ploy to discredit her philosophy by equating it with Marxism.

But Sciabarra has (rightly) pointed out in his book that the idea of dialectics has been around since the time of Aristotle. Marx and the Marxists do not own the copyright on dialectics. Sciabarra identifies dialectics as the art of context-keeping, and he asserts that many major thinkers in history have used the dialectical method.

Why didn’t Rand acknowledge in her lifetime that her method was dialectical? In his article, Sciabarra suggests that given her Russian origin, her use of the word “dialectical” would have led some to see a connection between her philosophy and Marxism; such comparisons were odious to her and therefore she rejected any association with dialectics.

But the most interesting aspect of the article is Sciabarra’s evidence about Rand’s positive views on the dialectical method. The evidence is derived from Barbara Branden’s biographical interview of Rand conducted on 26 February 1961—a partial transcription of which (by Michael S. Berliner) is included in Robert Mayhew’s edited anthology, Essays on Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” According to Sciabarra, in Berliner’s transcription Rand’s mention of the word “dialectical” has been edited out.

Sciabarra attributes to Ayn Rand and Barbara Branden the following words in the brief alternative transcription which he offers in his article:
Ayn Rand: (talking about architect Frank Lloyd Wright): “[H]is approach to ideas was: the Truth with a capital T, and you know what that means. It’s not quite my approach. In other words, he would not be what we call “dialectical.” 
Barbara Branden: “Yes.”
From Sciabarra’s transcription (only partially reproduced here), it is possible to draw the inference that Rand knew that the dialectical method was not a monopoly of Marxist thinkers and that her own method was in essence dialectical. But she did not talk about it in public forums because she most likely wanted to avoid using a term which might create the impression that there was some connection between her method and the Marxist idea of “dialectical materialism.”

(This issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies also has an article by Roger Bissell, “Reply to the Critics of Russian Radical 2.0: Defining Issues.” Bissell provides a good analysis of the issues that lie at the core of the criticisms which have been leveled at Sciabarra’s Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.)


Irfan Khawaja said...

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.

Irfan Khawaja said...

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.

Anoop Verma said...

Irfan Khawaja, Thank you for your comments. I am surprised to know that a scholar like Allan Gotthelf spent time in writing articles that were designed to harm Chris's reputation and career. I think there is nothing in Chris's writing that merits this kind of an attack.

Irfan Khawaja said...

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.

Anoop Verma said...

Irfan Khawaja, Gotthelf seemed like a serious scholar to me earlier because I was under the impression that he has written some good books and articles; it is too bad that he too got himself involved in such nasty politics which basically leads to nowhere. Perhaps it was jealousy that motivated him to go after Chris and JARS. He (and others in his position) could not take it that someone who is not part of the exclusive ARI club is actually doing a good work on Rand's ideas.

Roderick T. Long said...

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.

Irfan Khawaja said...

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.

Anoop Verma said...

This, in essence, means that by trying to discredit Chris and JARS, Allan Gotthelf was merely following the company policy--it is apparent that ARI's main focus has been on corporate kind of rivalries rather than on issues of philosophy and literature.

As a consumer of philosophy, I can say that I have found much better perspectives on Ayn Rand's legacy and work in the articles that are published in journals like Reason, JARS and a few others than in the official sources to which Gotthelf tried to grant the monopoly over Rand.

I think this is a good case study by itself--someone should investigate why/how very well trained scholars who have been leading the ARI (including Mr. Peikoff) developed the notion that they could actually *monopolize* the evolution of Rand's thoughts? How could they develop such a bizarre notion of their own capabilities?

How did they come to believe that they could by themselves fulfill the massive gaps that are there in Rand's philosophy and resolve all the problems? Did they really think that they could by themselves draw all the perspectives that are possible on her fiction novels? Rand has not given a complete thesis on any branch of philosophy--she has given only some basic ideas, which need to be developed.

Irfan Khawaja said...

Having been steeped in the relevant "milieu," I think I can answer the question you ask. It's a multi-part answer.

Your question was: "How did they come to believe that they could by themselves fulfill the massive gaps that are there in Rand's philosophy and resolve all the problems?"

One part of the answer is that they didn't regard the gaps as "massive." They regarded their task as a matter of making Rand more explicit than she had been, on the assumption that Rand possessed (in her head) all the answers to the legitimate questions that anyone might pose about Objectivism (or about philosophy). The "Rand scholar's" task was that of posthumously crawling back into Rand's head and asking, "What would Ayn say?" Or, "What was Ayn thinking?" Hence the overwhelming importance to them of her Letters, Journals, and archival material (which I personally regard as inconsequential and irrelevant to bona fide theorizing).

Just to illustrate: Allan and I had once had a loud quarrel in the hallway of a hotel at which the APA's Eastern Division meeting was taking place. I had just given a paper on Rand's ethics to a mixed crowd of Objectivists and others. The quarrel concerned the offense I caused him by saying, in public, that Rand's ethical theory had "lacunae" that needed to be filled. That one word--"lacunae"--spelled the beginning of the end of our friendship.

These Objectivists were also quite convinced that the "oral tradition" held the solution to many knotty theoretical problems--meaning the "oral tradition" of Ayn Rand's extemporaneous oral comments as passed down to people like Peikoff (think of the Appendix to IOE). Their attitudes on this subject were identical to those one encounters in pious Muslims who earnestly believe that the hadith collections collect the oral sayings of the Prophet, and that if God left anything unsaid in the Qur'an, well, the Prophet must have cleared it up during his lifetime, and it's got to be somewhere in Sahih Bukhari. Hence their extreme defensiveness about access to the Archives and about the questions asked about how various posthumous books were edited (e.g., Mayhew's editing of the Q&A book).


Irfan Khawaja said...

[Continued from the preceding comment]

Then, there are psycho-sociological considerations. Many of these people either attended or taught at elite schools. For the most part, they were educated in analytic-style philosophy departments. And they were mesmerized by the Atlas Shrugged ideal of a small band of brothers (or siblings) "clearing the way back to the world." All three factors tended to lead to promote an extremely insular and elitist view of the world. The attitude is not unique to Objectivists. Think of the famous Oxford "poem" about Benjamin Jowett: "My name is Benjamin Jowett/There's no knowledge but I know it/I am Master of this College/What I don't know is not knowledge." Analytic philosophers trained at top schools often have a version of this attitude.

Anyway, add the preceding sauce to a few decades' attendance at NBI and ARI events, throw in some resentment at a world as yet unconverted to the True Faith, and then add the apocalyptic sense that a bunch of frightened zombies is conspiring, through the universities, to stop the motor of the world. Add a lot of money, and use it to buy some professorships at prestigious universities, and the result will be a cohort of people intent on monopolizing discourse on Ayn Rand.

I should add that setting aside exceptions like John Ridpath, Gary Hull, and Andrew Bernstein, the people in question were often talented, accomplished, and (otherwise) intelligent scholars. Given all of the preceding plus that undeniable talent, it must have been tempting for them to believe that they were the Objectivist Vanguard of the Future. Marxists and Freudians have done similar things, and in many ways, Objectivism follows in their footsteps.

One last proviso. The preceding picture of the world can be held in a variety of forms, from the most crudely dogmatic and mercenary to one that can, at least superficially, be reconciled with (a highly circumscribed sort of) openness, tolerance, and benevolence. Both extremes exist, along with the points in between them.

Roger Bissell said...

An Angel of the Lord appears to three Objectivist philosophers and tells them that tomorrow the world is going to end. The Angel asks them what they want to do during their last night on earth. Professor P says that he will sketch out a new theory of inductive and deductive reasoning that is fully integrated with the Objectivist theory of concepts. Professor K says that he will outline an original model of the proposition and the nature of truth that is completely consistent with Rand's concept theory. Professor G says that he will destroy Professor S's career by undermining the success of his journal, preventing the publication of his books, and making him a laughingstock of the academic community.

Anoop Verma said...

Irfan Khawaja, What you are saying seems quite convincing. You are right--I think this is the way the mind of so-called "Objectivist elite" has evolved. That is why they seem so insular and out of touch with the general developments in philosophy, culture and politics. There really is no chance of Objectivism ever developing into a decent philosophical system, because the Objectivist scholars think that a philosophical system is what Rand has developed; what she has not talked about is not philosophy.

Anoop Verma said...

Roger Bissell, I guess then all the three Objectivist professors, P, K and G, fail to complete their task.

Robert Campbell said...

The funny thing about the "oral tradition" is that much of it was not transmitted via the epistemology workshops of 1969-1971, or any other such medium. Whatever the advantages Leonard Peikoff and his A-listers have derived from rewriting Rand's unpublished remarks, they still haven't come up with an official source for "charity refutations," or for several other purportedly Randian notions that circulate among the ARIans.

In fact, the edited material from the epistemology workshops includes Rand's admission that she doesn't have a philosophy of science and can't develop one on her own. We could call that one the Big Lacuna—no epistemology can be complete without a philosophy of science.

Anoop Verma said...

Robert Campbell, you are right. Epistemology without philosophy of science is inconceivable. If few years or decades from today if someone decides to write the history of Objectivism, he may choose to give it the title, "The Decline and Fall of Objectivist Philosophy."

The key argument in the book would be that Objectivism fell into decline (despite the massive popularity of Ayn Rand's fiction) because she bequeathed her entire corpus to someone who was not competent in philosophy or scholarship. Her legacy passed into the hands of people who had NO clue about what to do with it. Through their illogical efforts they ensued the decline of Objectivism.

The book will be a tragedy.