Sciabarra's Theory of Rand's Dialecticsby Ari Armstrong
Following are two of a host of posts I've written for various discussion groups concerning Dr. Chris Matthew Sciabarra's *Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical*. You can find more information about this book at Dr. Sciabarra's homepage.
Dr. Chris Matthew Sciabarra comes to terms with the host of critics of his *Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical* (ARTRR) in the Fall 97 _Reason Papers_ (No.22).
In the new article, Sciabarra reinforces his position that: a) "dialectics" is a useful concept, b) Rand is a dialectical thinker, and c) Rand assimilated many of her dialectical tendencies from the Russian culture of her youth.
Sciabarra greets head-on the assertions by David Ross, David Kelley, and others that his term "dialectics" is too vague, too empty, or too encompassing to be a useful way to categorize or explain thinkers or bodies of thought.
Sciabarra offers a new definition of "dialectics" (which is compatible with his use of the term in his book); it is "a methodological- research orientation whose distinguishing characteristic is an emphasis on contextuality - as applied to the systemic and dynamic relations within a totality (i.e., an organic unity)" (32).
Thus, dialectics guides us along certain ways of thinking and prevents us from falling into other (problematic) modes of thinking. This is important in at least a couple of respects. First, thinking dialectically causes us to consider how phenomenon relate to each other. For instance, we don't think of religion during some moments, and politics during other moments, and never consider how the two fields relate. Ayn Rand, and we to the extent that we follow in her dialectical foot-steps, consider how politics relates to religion, how religion relates to sex, how sex relates to aesthetics, and so forth. (Marx too thought dialectically, though of course his conclusions were far different from Rand's.) Our thinking is integrated. This is important; not everyone, and I would suppose that hardly anyone, actually thinks this way systematically and perpetually.
Second, dialectics steers us away from "dualism", its variant "monism", "strict atomism", and "strict organicity".
"Strict atomism" is basically what I was speaking of before; seeing different fields as disconnected. "Strict organicity" is seeing everything as connected, but believing that humans are incapable of understanding the world because we cannot view the whole at once. Dialectics sees the parts as interrelated, but permits humans knowledge of the whole BY our examination of it one part at a time. (Hence, we CAN acquire legitimate knowledge of the world.) Sciabarra mentions Plato and Hegel as prominent "strict organicists".
"Dualism" is the tendency to see phenomenon as split into two (or more I suppose) dis-connected parts. For instance, Descartes view of mind-body is a dualistic position, which Rand calls a "false dichotomy" and which, when properly (dialectically) understood, can be seen as merely two aspects, two vantage-points, of the same underlying phenomenon. Other dichotomies Rand attacked are: theory-practice, happiness-good, freedom-law, and so forth. Monism is basically adopting the dualistic framework but then emphasizing one prong of the dichotomy, such as accepting the mind-body dichotomy but then stressing mind as the all-important concern (like Berkeley I suppose).
"Dialectics" is a powerful concept which helps us distinguish between many poor types of thought and better (truth-yielding) types of thought.
And it's clear from the above examples that Rand is a "dialectical" thinker through and through. As Sciabarra notes, denoting Rand thusly is accurate regardless of how Rand acquired her dialectical tendencies (32). I.e., even if Sciabarra's history in ARTRR is totally wrong, his characterization of Rand as dialectical still stands.
But Sciabarra offers such compelling evidence in his book that the culture of Russia into which Rand was born was so over-poweringly "dialectical" in spirit that it's hard to believe that this culture did not play a major role in Rand's intellectual development.
Much has been made of Lossky; was he or was he not a teacher of Rand? While Sciabarra continues to think tentatively that he was, he grants that this point is not overly important to his thesis: "Because *Rand* mentioned Lossky in her interviews with Barbara Branden, I focused on him as symbolic of the very dialectical orientation that was endemic to the entire Russian intellectual tradition" (28).
And, as Sciabarra argues, holding that culture does not affect a person is actually an example of an atomistic style of thinking which lies at odds with Rand's more fundamental dialectical approach. That is not to say that a culture *determines* a person's thought processes, but that it does *affect* and influence them. We don't live, or think, in a vacuum.
Of course, Rand herself tended to argue that she was completely original in all of her ideas; she paid tribute to Aristotle alone as her intellectual predecessor. And Sciabarra doesn't really address this issue in his article. I suppose this comes down to an empirical matter; DID Rand in fact develop her ideas, and her dialectical mode of thinking, all on her own? I regard an affirmative answer to the question as naive, but I see it as open to the evidence. I think it's been shown fairly thoroughly now that Rand developed not only her specific ideas, in politics, ethics, and so forth, atop the shoulders of a great many previous thinkers, but that she acquired her very mode of thinking largely from the culture of her youth. To my mind, the belief that Rand alone created her intellectual system *ex nihilo* is part and parcel with the deitization of Rand and with the more cult-like tendencies of her movement.
Obviously, I recommend both ARTRR and the _Reason Papers_ article to all who would seek to better understand Rand and the thought associated with her.
Congratulations to Chris Sciabarra for the favorable review given by David MacGregor on *Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical* in _Critical Review_ (Summer 1997, Vol. II, No. 3).
I say that the review is indeed favorable, even though the title of the review is, "It Ayn't Rand," even though MacGregor claims Sciabarra fails in his primary thesis.
A couple things struck me about the review: first, how naturally MacGregor, an author of books about Hegel and Marx, accepts Sciabarra's arguments concerning the "dialectical" nature of Rand's philosophy (and, ineed, even that Rand's thought composes a "philosophy"!). "Rand has contributed something of importance to our understanding of individual freedom," grants MacGregor in his final paragraph. I take this as good sign that Sciabarra is succeeding in one of his purported objectives in writing the book, which is to render Rand's thought intelligible, and palatable, to main-stream academia.
MacGregor devotes the entire first half of the essay just to reviewing and summarizing Chris's work, without any effort at criticism. This is, I think, significant in itself. It's as if MacGregor were thinking to himself while reading the book, "My, this is an interesting application of dialectical thought to - and from - a theorist whom I would normally never have given a second thought. Sciabarra has indeed placed Rand within a dialectical context similar to that of Hegel and Marx. Take a look, readers, at what Sciabarra has done!" We get hints of this underlying attitude when MacGregor refers to Chris's work as a "remarkable exposition" and an "unusual text." Sciabarra "demonstrates persuasively, I think, that Rand's thought cannot be properly understood apart from the consideration of German dialectics," writes MacGregor.
The second aspect of the review which gave me pause was just what MacGregor considers to be Sciabarra's "major argument," which is that Rand offers a legitimate alternative to Marxist or Hegelian politics. "On the contrary," argues MacGregor, "Rand's entire mode of thought is trapped within the duality of statism and capitalism."
The reason this struck me as odd is that I never considered Sciabarra's main thesis in the book to be to offer Rand's politics as an alternative to Marxism (or Hegelianism)! Coming from a libertarian and Randian perspective, I always thought Chris's *main* thesis was just to cast Rand in a dialectical light.
Again, MacGregor, steeped in the "dialectical tradition," takes Chris's argument that Rand is dialectical as common-place, sort of an "oh, yea, but of course" reaction. This has certainly not been the reaction of either of the main Randian camps - ARI with Leonard Peikoff and IOS with David Kelley! Within the groups of "Objectivists," the main arguments over Chris's book have been over whether or not Rand can be in any meaningful way considered "dialectical."
Similarly, libertarians, who already accept Rand's politics, do not make too big a deal out of the politics and instead focus on that with which they were unfamiliar - the dialectical tradition.
Merely the fact that Chris has elicited strong reactions from both camps - "leftist" dialecticians and "rightist" Randians - attests to his over-all success at joining the two groups in conversation. I'm quite excited by it, actually.
I do, incidentally, agree with MacGregor that Rand fails to offer a legitimate "dialectical" alternative to Marx's politics and that she remains trapped in the state-market dichotomy. This is precisely her problem.
However, MacGregor does fail to take into account the ways in which Sciabarra describes Rand as *attempting* to over-come the dichotomy. He seems to forget that, though Chris can rightly be considered "Objectivist" in at least many respects, his purpose in writing his book was not primarily to *argue for* Rand's "Objectivism," but rather merely to explain it. I.e., Sciabarra was concerned mostly with how *Rand* tried to over-come the State-market dichotomy, more that with how me might *actually* over-come it. While I think Rand ultimately does fail at her task here, she does at least pay it mind, and Sciabarra relates the ways in which she tried to deal with the problem. For this Sciabarra deserves credit that MacGregor fails to give.
I, of course, would have libertarians (or neo-libertarians, whatever we want to call ourselves) "transcend the state-market dichotomy" by recognizing the "state" as a particularly *coersive* form of the larger class of "government." Then we can legitimately argue for a good government, and more widely a good society, which can capably handle all the social problems MacGregor wants to solve through democratic-socialism, only better, such as education, environmental problems, and so forth. So, while Rand herself failed to ground a working political theory, such is not out of range for subsequent Randians or libertarians generally.