With a clearer understanding from Sciabarra … Rand’s achievement becomes breathtaking in its comprehensiveness.”
A Review of Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical by Chris Matthew Sciabarra (2 editions)
Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a controversial novelist-philosopher, the founder of a new system of philosophy she called “Objectivism.” She remarked, “I am challenging the cultural tradition of 2,500 years.”
The Provocative Book Title
The title of Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s book is provocative, and Rand would have considered it insulting. I’m sure Sciabarra did not mean to insult, but did mean to provoke interest. Interest is good.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Rand lived through the Russian Revolution and rise of the Soviets. She despised Russia and everything about it. Rand immigrated to the US and became a proud American citizen.
Rand considered herself a radical for capitalism, meaning free-market, laissez-fare capitalism as protected by a properly limited government (Capitalism the Unknown Ideal). Her work included a revolutionary new concept of epistemology (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology) and a new theory of ethics which rejects altruism (The Virtue of Selfishness) and is itself the foundation of Rand’s ideas on politics and art.
Most contemporary academic philosophers ignore Ayn Rand. To academia, the notion of a novelist-philosopher is unprecedented, even rude. The idea of an outsider inventing a philosophy that challenges everything since Thales is unacceptable to those inside the ivory towers.
The purpose Sciabarra set is simple: “to provide an enriched appreciation of Ayn Rand’s contributions.” Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical (ARTRR) first appeared in 1995. The second edition (2013), added biographical materials relating to Rand’s early training in philosophy and her college transcript.
Sciabarra’s admiration for Rand is evident. He is storming the fortress of academic philosophy, by exploring how Ayn Rand’s thought relates to the academic philosophy that has thus far largely spurned her.
Purpose of the Review
My purpose in writing this review is to show the important ways in which Sciabarra succeeds. His work does increase the appreciation of Rand and spread interest in her and the values of Objectivism to the culture. I will also show how his perceptive questions are valuable in that they are questions crying for answers, even when Sciabarra’s own answers may provoke hostility.
The Scope of Rand’s Achievement
Simply put, Ayn Rand acknowledged only three previous philosophers — Plato, Aristotle and Kant. She acknowledged only Aristotle as an essential influence on her thinking.
Sciabarra takes strong exception to Rand’s own view of essential influences, declaring that there are important connections between Rand’s thought and that of her Russian teachers.
Clearly, thanks to Sciabarra, a fuller understanding of Rand emerges — not as merely a fourth giant among a great three, but as the one who saw through the lacks and mistakes of the hundreds of thinkers in the 2,500 years since the birth of philosophy.
Ayn Rand presented herself as a hero among three giants of thought. Sciabarra presents Rand as the hero among countless philosophers and writers.
The discrepancy between Rand’s view of her achievement and Sciabarra’s view of Rand is easy to explain. On the declaring of influences, Ayn Rand would have discarded as an influence, anyone whose basic premises were in contradiction to reality. Since of the three systems builders in the history of philosophy, only Aristotle based his thought on the primacy of reality, it is apropos that Aristotle is the only one Rand acknowledges.
However, for the student of the history of philosophy, Rand’s place among the top three as well as the hundreds of less important thinkers is not clear until one has the picture of the complexity of building a philosophical system, and the primacy of reality upon which to base it.
With a clearer understanding from Sciabarra of some of the methods employed, arguments, contradictions and failures over the centuries, Rand’s achievement becomes breathtaking in its comprehensiveness.
From my first reading in 1995 and again in 2017, I view the complex picture of philosophical exploration that emerges as the primary benefit of the book.
Ayn Rand’s Method vs the History of Philosophy
ARTRR includes a lengthy contrast of methods, principally dualism and the dialectic.
Sciabarra postulates that Ayn Rand’s method is consistent with her first encounters with philosophy in Russia where the influence of Marx dominated the philosophical landscape. Marx himself said that Aristotle was a dialectical thinker.
Ayn Rand did not directly address either dualism or the dialectic method in her epistemology. In her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, she started with active awareness and proceeded through cognition, consciousness, concepts, abstraction, definition, arriving at axiomatic concepts and identity.
Provocative Characterization of Rand’s Method
Sciabarra calls Rand’s method “dialectical libertarianism.” This designation takes considerable unpacking. It is important to mention that ARTRR is Sciabarra’s central book in a trilogy on this subject. Marx, Hayek, and Utopia is the opening book. Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism is the closing.
I find that the idea that Rand learned the dialectical method in Russia is a reasonable conclusion, but it is not a convincing label for Rand as a mature thinker. To be clear, I have not read Sciabarra’s full trilogy, and do not presume to speak to this idea in essence.
There is evidence that efforts to apply dialectical reasoning broadly have been in our culture for many years. For example, after WWII in the late 1950s, school children, myself among them, learned about the war dialectically: there was Communism (hypothesis–noble, but doesn’t really work), Nazism (antithesis—repugnant, killed 6 million Jews) and liberal Democracy (synthesis–the practical good, free countries of Europe and the US).
Libertarianism is a loosely organized movement, professing the ideology of freedom. Ayn Rand specifically rejected libertarianism as a movement without philosophical foundation. Clearly, Rand would consider Sciabarra’s labeling of her method as “dialectical libertarianism” insulting to her life, work and memory, as well as being irrelevant to her accomplishment.
The question Sciabarra raises for me, which I find riveting, even revolutionary, is what is there about Rand’s method that allows her to disregard all the methods and their many variations, and still wind up with a complete, cogent and organic philosophical whole?
To my knowledge, no other book intended for the lay market has stimulated that question, framed as Sciabarra has done, specifically with the history of philosophy as the background. The exploration of this question, which has interested me greatly, is the second most important benefit I have gleaned from ARTRR.
Ayn Rand as a Student at Petrograd State University
The new edition of ARTRR includes three appendices relating to Rand’s college education and the results of Sciabarra’s efforts to find, preserve and understand the historical facts of Ayn Rand’s introduction to philosophy as a student in Russia. Without Sciabarra’s efforts, this valuable information would otherwise have been lost. This benefit of Sciabarra’s work is clearly priceless.
The Contention of “Open” Objectivism
The concept of objectivism refers to a number of loosely defined philosophical attitudes that say that reality is real and consists of everything outside of the mind. The earlier manifestations of objectivism lack any cohesive theory or prominent theoretician.
No one is claiming that the concept of objectivism is closed – all concepts are open ended, as Rand herself pointed out. But Rand’s Objectivism is her specific work product. The law protects Rand’s work product under copyright until it comes into public domain.
By capitalizing the term for her system, Ayn Rand made Objectivism her “brand.” When modern scholars refer to “open” Objectivism, they refer specifically to the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
For example, none of the admirers of Ayn Rand, including those favoring “open” objectivism would confuse Rand’s philosophy with “logical objectivism.” This is the idea that logical truth does not depend upon the contents of human ideas but exists independent of human ideas. The independence of ideas from the humans who have them is a variant of Platonism, which Rand rejected.
Webster’s dictionary defines “objectivism” as “any of various theories asserting the validity of objective phenomena over subjective experience.” The American Heritage Dictionary goes somewhat further: “One of several doctrines holding that all reality is objective and external to the mind and that knowledge is reliably based on observed objects and events.”
In sum, I believe that Sciabarra comes down on the wrong side of the question of “Open” Objectivism when he declares Rand’s philosophy open.
However, the question is moot. The genuine concern should be to answer the question of what will happen to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism when the copyright runs out.
Ayn Rand died in 1982, but her work lives on and her reputation is growing. How will history remember her? Will philosophy absorb Objectivism into the miscellany of variations purporting to be reality based, but actually founded on Platonic or Kantian principles? Will philosophy succeed in burying Objectivism entirely? Will Objectivism supplant the all the other objectivist theories and capture the ivory citadel as well as the culture?
In the space of this review, my intention was to convey to the reader a taste of the immense context-expanding value I found in ARTRR.
Chris Matthew Sciabarra has rewarded me with a refined sense of the enormity of the task before us. Truly, despite my sometimes harsh sounding criticisms, I believe that Sciabarra, like myself is working and living by Ayn Rand’s principles, and has come not to bury her, but to praise her.
Independent thought and spirited discussion will be crucial elements in spreading Ayn Rand’s Objectivism to philosophy qua philosophy. Infighting, passion and controversy can be great incentives for the next generations to expand on philosophy’s unanswered questions.