The Philosophical Investigations of Ayn Rand


1. Introduction 

Admirers of the philosophy of Ayn Rand have spent well over
thirty years trying to introduce her viewpoint to
mainstream academia. But up till now, most of the effort
has been concentrated upon Anglo-American philosophy
departments in the "analytic" tradition. What is unique
about Chris Sciabarra's work is that he make a surprising
attempt to explicate Rand's thought to thinkers within the
very different tradition of "Continental" philosophy. Now
this is not to say that Sciabarra is aiming this work at a
primarily European audience; but rather he seems to be
aiming it at fields like political theory, political
science, and literary criticism which orbit primarily
around the geographically distant sages of Continental
philosophy, rather than the indigenous analytic tradition.
Initially, this seems like a hopeless quest: while Rand
herself looked upon contemporary Anglo-American philosophy
with scorn, I suspect that much of the Continental
tradition would have positively revulsed her. But upon
reading Sciabarra's presentation, it seems that her aim of
presenting a unified philosophic system, culminating in a
"radical critique" of all existing societies, has many
striking structural similarities to the Continental
tradition that Rand so despised. At the very least, Rand's
grandiose aim should find sympathy within the Continental
tradition, whereas the more "single-issue" oriented
analytics would probably be very dubious from the outset.
Sciabarra does a remarkably good job of translating Rand's
viewpoints into a form more easily understood by those
familiar with Continental philosophy. In the process, of
course, he exposes himself to two risks. The first risk is
alienating readers who liked Rand already; they don't want
to see her views re-cast in new language, however accurate
the translation. Properly, I think, Sciabarra ignores this
risk. The other danger, however, is that something will be
lost or added in the translation; in particular, since
Sciabarra is trying to appeal to an audience familiar with
the Continental tradition, there will always be a
temptation to put a misleading spin on Rand's thought.
Overall, I think that Sciabarra manages to avoid succumbing
to this temptation in any serious way; but there are a few
places where he might have done better. The work is divided
into three sections. The first is an historical treatment
of the evolution of Rand's thought; the second is an
eloquent but unsurprising explanation of her views; the
final section is a quite astounding 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
of the book, which is Sciabarra's effort to draw together a
host of seemingly disparate strands in Rand's thought and
show how they amount to a tightly woven critique of all
historical human societies. 2. Sciabarra as Intellectual
Historian The first, historical section is quite engaging,
but in the final analysis, 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
totally sure that Rand studied under Lossky. And while he
does produce a few parallel quotations from Lossky and
Rand, it just seems like circumstantial evidence. The
clearest connection, Sciabarra thinks, lies in the fact
that both Lossky and Rand were supremely "dialectical"
thinkers. Now while Rand did not use this phrase to
describe her thought, Sciabarra makes a good case that it
applies to her as it did to Lossky. The basic feature of
dialectical thinking, as Sciabarra uses the term, is to
consider the possibility that current philosophic debates
are based upon a series of false alternatives; thus, a
correct position must stake out a new position which
incorporates the valuable elements of existing views while
identifying their shared error. Aristotle frequently used
this technique: laying out a list of prevailing positions,
and trying to develop a correct position after appreciating
the strengths and weaknesses of preceding views. Now this
is certainly a fair description of Rand's perspective; but
what bothers me is that the "dialectical" genus is
incredibly broad. There are so many routes to a
"dialectical approach" that it seems rather odd to think
that Lossky was the primary inspiration for this aspect of
Rand'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 from self-evident axioms --
like Descartes in the _Meditations_ or Wittgenstein in the
_Tractatus_ -- would fail to qualify for membership. While
Rand probably relies on dialectical exposition more than
some other modern thinkers, it seems that Sciabarra
over-emphasizes the dialectical side of Rand's writing to
the detriment of her many straightforward statement of and
arguments for her controversial views. When I ordered
Sciabarra's book, I was expecting a much stronger effort to
tie Rand to Russia's long history of philosophical
novelists. He does discuss this connection somewhat, but I
was hoping for a much more thorough comparison between Rand
and e.g. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. There certainly seems to
be something both distinctively Russian and distinctively
Randian about novels in which the characters personify
abstract philosophical viewpoints. Moreover, the influence
of the Russian novelists upon Rand's own thinking seems to
have a great deal more textual support (in, e.g. _The
Romantic Manifesto_) than Sciabarra's own "Lossky
hypothesis." Sciabarra deserves credit for linking the
Russian followers of Nietzsche to Rand's thought. Ronald
Merrill pointed out the extensive editorial changes that
Rand made when _We the Living_ was re-issued; changes which
indicate that Rand's Nietzschean period continued well into
the 30's. Sciabarra traces the "transmission mechanism"
skillfully, and I certainly learned a lot more about
Nietzsche's penetration into Russia than I expected. (In
particular, his discussion of the Russian Marxist
Nietzscheans -- and their possible influence upon Trotsky
-- was quite valuable.) Sciabarra's coverage of Rand's
relation with the conservative and proto-libertarian
movement during the 1930's and 1940's is strangely cursory.
It seems that extensive documentation and oral history must
be available; so why was the treatment so brief? When did
Rand articulate her belief in laissez-faire capitalism for
the first time? What education in economics did she
receive? I would have liked to have these questions
answered. In particular, I would have liked a more detailed
history of how Rand gradually replaced her mature peers --
with whom she could still enjoy some intellectual
give-and-take -- with a much 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's treatment is necessarily more
cursory than a work like Peikoff's _Objectivism: the
Philosophy of Ayn Rand_, devoted exclusively to Rand's
completed system. But for several reasons, Sciabarra's
summary is superior. First, he freely uses all available
Objectivist writings, unlike Peikoff, who basically ignores
even the Branden's Rand-approved works. Secondly,
Sciabarra's tone is less confrontational than Peikoff's,
and more inclined to explain Rand's ideas in terms that
modern thinkers (in the Continental tradition) would
understand. And finally, Sciabarra freely mixes in
comparisons with better-known thinkers, and notes important
points that Rand's critics have made against her. Although
on this last point Sciabarra might have done more; I was
particularly disappointed when he summarized the many
apparent incoherencies in Rand's derivation of "life as the
standard of value", only to vaguely indicate that somehow
everything can be dialectically reconciled. (pp.240-243) 4.
Sciabarra's Radical Rand The third section of Sciabarra's
book more than compensates for any weaknesses of the
previous two. The last three chapters are extremely
original, synthesizing almost every aspect of Rand's
thought. And yet despite this originality, Sciabarra
remains scrupulously true to the texts that he is writing
about; he develops a powerful, unifying, and creative
thesis about Rand's work, without trying to distort her
thought to make his book more interesting. In fact, these
three concluding chapters are possibly the best commentary
ever written on Rand, and they are alone worth the price of
admission. The first chapter in section three, "Relations
of Power," gives a fascinating diagrammatic explanation of
Rand's inter-related views on society and the individual,
and between individuals, culture, and politico-economic
structures. He draws together a huge number of pieces to
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 work in psychology; Branden's
work on alienation; and Rand's bitter attack on our
irrational and collectivist educational system. He delves
into Rand's observations on the modern corruption of
thought via corruption of language; and then examines
Rand's "parallel spheres" of society and the individual.
Every piece fits together beautifully in this chapter;
Sciabarra seems to have distilled and expressed Rand's
picture better than she was able to do herself. One facet
of this chapter puzzled me. Several years ago, David Kelley
told me that there was an interesting parallel being Marx
and Rand's analysis 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 of
production, there emerges a "superstructure" of ideas
justifying what exists. For Marx, social changes should be
traced from the base; new means of production lead to
changing property roles and status relations; which lead to
new philosophies. For Rand, Kelley explained, we can see
the entire process reversed: changes originate at the level
of the "superstructure," when prevailing philosophical
ideas fall into disfavor; these ideational changes prompt
the re-organization of the relations of production, which
finally lead to a new way of life and production. Since I
think that Kelley previewed Sciabarra's book, I wonder
whether Kelley didn't point out the similarity between
Kelley's view and Sciabarra's; or whether Sciabarra knew of
Kelley's view but didn't want to discuss it. Either
possibility is rather odd; but in any case, it seems that
Kelley's picture is quite consistent with Sciabarra'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 her critique of
the mixed economy and the cumulative effect of
interventionism. And he interestingly brings up two topics
that I would have expected to see in Derrida than in Rand:
social fragmentation and racism. And yet, Sciabarra
persuasively shows how these concerns fit in naturally with
Rand's broader perspective. Sciabarra closes this chapter
with a superb discussion of Rand's views on liberalism and
conservatism, pointing out that the early Rand defined her
views in opposition to both Russia's "religious right" and
"secular left." This chapter left me with a much stronger
sense of how Rand probably saw the political atmosphere:
conservatives probably struck her as watered-down Czarist
theocrats, and liberals (less surprisingly) looked liked
mild-mannered Bolsheviks. The final chapter in the third
section, "History and Resolution," rounds out Sciabarra's
discussion of Rand's radicalism; along the way, it
rehabilitates some of Rand's most heavy-handed
distinctions, showing that they are far more subtle than we
might think. In particular, Rand has often been ridiculed
for dividing up the world into "Atillas" and "Witch
Doctors." But as Sciabarra points out, Nietzsche got away
with the equally sweeping symbolism of "Apollo" and
"Dionysus" (which Rand herself freely used). What is so bad
about using these archetypes if they help clarify matters?
After explaining Rand's view of the history of philosophy,
and her critique of contemporary social sciences and
humanities, Sciabarra explores Rand's view that philosophy
is the prime mover in history. He concludes with several
provocative observations; perhaps the most interesting of
these is Popper's view that systematic philosophy leads to
totalitarianism, and how Rand might respond to his
criticism. 5. Conclusion I thoroughly enjoyed Sciabarra's
book, and highly recommend it. The entire work shows a
level of scholarship and comprehensiveness unmatched in any
previous survey of Rand's thought; just looking at the
footnotes and Bibliography reveals how thorough and broad
Sciabarra's investigations had to have been. Too often Rand
has been studied by ignorant critics and ignorant
adherents; Sciabarra brings some much-needed objectivity to
the discussion. _Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical_ is indeed
an excellent book; but that excellence is concentrated in
the final three chapters. The first two sections of the
book are competent, interesting, and thoughtful, but
incomplete and in need of improvement. The final section is
truly remarkable, and elevates what would have been a good
book into a very good one.
If Sciabarra's book were a play in three acts, I would call
the first act is intriguing, but spotted with a few holes
in the plot. The second act elicits a steady tempo and
solid character development. And the final act takes us
completely by surprise, leading us inexorably to an
unexpected conclusion. All of which adds up to one fine
performance for Professor Sciabarra. 

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