The dialect of the dialectical

Highly creative people sometimes present themselves in a way that makes their origins very difficult to understand. Frank Lloyd Wright was clearly a creative genius, perhaps -- if such things can ever be quantified and compared -- the most productive mind that has ever applied itself to architecture. Where did his ideas come from? His own writings, as I recall them, do suggest some sources, but the ones that were outside his own mind (the Japanese, the ancient Mayans) were often so remote from his own practice that they seemed to explain little. His self-explanation made him seem almost like the god of certain theologians: the sole cause of himself.

Some years ago, Vincent Scully displayed the origins of Wright's very earliest designs in sources that were much less arcane -- specifically, in what he called "the shingle style," a type of domestic architecture that is now almost forgotten but was very prominent in Wright's environment when he was just getting started. The effect of Scully's text and illustration was almost revelatory. It gave us a detailed, three-dimensional picture of what genius really does: taking what the environment offers and transforming it into something startlingly new.

Of course, there is no creation ex nihilo, of oneself or of anything else. The act of creation always makes something out of materials, and those materials are always the product of some other act or event. What is new arises from what is old. The materials with which theoretical thinkers begin include, at least at the beginning of their careers, ideas produced by their predecessors. One way to shed some light on a thinker's eventual point of view is to go back to its origins and show what he adopted from his early environment and how he gave it a new shape and character.

This is the approach taken by Chris Matthew Sciabarra in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. In doing so, he admittedly receives no support from Rand's own self-explanation, which is at least as ahistorical as the one I just attributed to Wright. The only philosophical debt she could acknowledge, according to a notorious statement she made in a postscript to Atlas Shrugged, was to Aristotle. In a way, Aristotle was her version of the Japanese and the Mayan stone-cutters: an influence so remote from the most obviously salient features of her thinking as to leave her looking almost as unconditioned by history as she did before the connection had been noted.

Obviously, it would help us to achieve a greater understanding of Rand if we could find some additional appropriate connection between her and the world that preceded her. To achieve this end, Sciabarra examines her work in light of the environment in which she spent her first 20 years and received her entire formal schooling, including her university education: the Russia of the so-called Silver Age.

Here again, relevant texts seem at first sight to offer him resistance. The intellectual milieu of Russia at that time, as both Rand and Sciabarra depict it, consists broadly of two intellectual traditions. One was traditionalist and mystical, the other revolutionary, secular, and collectivist. Both, apparently, were deeply authoritarian. The problem here is that Rand, even at that tender age, was repelled by both these traditions. Her later comments on the intellectuals who were influential then were generally negative and usually dismissive.

Here the only sort of influence that seems possible is negative. That, at least, would constitute a connection of sorts between her work and her early environment. There is such a thing as negative influence. If Debussy composed Pelleas et Melisande out of hatred for the music of Wagner, in order to show that a good opera can be made that has none of the characteristics as those of Wagner, then Debussy will have been powerfully influenced by Wagner; an understanding of Wagner's music would be essential for understanding why Pelleas is the way it is.

In fact, to some extent, this seems to be just the sort of influence that Sciabarra finds in Rand's connection to her Russian origins. As his historical narrative unfolds, he makes it very clear that Rand's own views are about as far as one can get from those that dominated her early cultural environment.

That, however, is not his main point, or his most original one. He also finds that Rand was influenced by this environment in a positive way, that in fact "her system is as much defined by what she accepted in Russian thought as by what she rejected" (p. 10). Briefly, his thesis is that, while the content of what she thought is virtually the reverse of the views that dominated the intellectuals of that time, including all her professors at Petrograd University, she absorbed, and always used, the intellectual method that dominated this same group of people.

This method Sciabarra characterizes as "dialectical." The dialectical approach, as Sciabarra describes it, is a way of avoiding both dualism and reductionist monism. Dualists, as he puts it, "distinguish mutually exclusive spheres." A classic example is of course Cartesian dualism, with its division of the world into minds and bodies. Reductionist monists "accept the dichotomies defined by dualists and reduce one polarity to an epiphenomenon of the other" (16). Thus, materialists explain mind away as an aspect of matter, and subjective idealists reduce matter to an appearance produced by the mind.

The dialectical philosopher views the elements singled out by the dualist as parts of a whole, as parts that can only be understood in terms of the rest of the whole. Thus a dialectical approach involves two characteristics that might be found in points of view that we do not ordinarily think of as dialectical: it treats the object of knowledge as a system and not as a collection of independently understandable isolates, and it understands the nature of a thing by understanding its relations to other things (the so-called doctrine of internal relations).

The Lossky Case

The most dramatic piece of evidence Sciabarra offers to connect Rand to the dialectical approach is his discussion of N. O. Lossky, a practitioner of this approach and one of the most prominent philosophers of his time and place. He is Rand's only philosophy teacher that she is known to have mentioned by name. Sciabarra's argument on this point rests on an anecdote that Rand once told Barbara Branden. Everyone who knows much of the Objectivist corpus remembers Branden's vivid retellings of this story.

In it, Rand tells how her favorite course while a student at the university was one on the history of ancient philosophy given by Lossky, who Rand describes as an authority on Plato. At the final exam, which is an oral one, he gives her a grade of "perfect," despite the fact that he is a harsh grader and especially hard on women. When he asks her the reason for her evident distaste for Plato, she says, "My philosophical views are not part of the history of philosophy yet. But they will be."

It is to Sciabarra's credit, and adds considerably to the interest of this part of the book, that he lists an extraordinary number of obstacles to believing this story. According to convincing testimony, Lossky was not an especially tough grader and was not prejudiced against women. Nor was he an authority on Plato: his area of specialization was nineteenth-century German philosophy. None of his listed courses at the university deals with Plato, Aristotle, or the Greeks. Worst of all is the fact that, shortly before Rand came to the university, he had been barred from teaching there because of his adamantly anti-Communist views.

Sciabarra manages to overcome all these obstacles without making any evidently implausible assumptions. Rand's apparent misperception of Lossky's character he explains with the hypothesis that, as a banned professor whose career was suddenly in ruins, he might well have been very dour and irritable at the time. Further, the ban on Lossky's teaching was qualified. He was allowed to teach, provided the content of his courses was not objectionable, at an institution connected with the university, the Institute of Scientific Research. Rand could have taken such a course if she had gotten special permission to do so. Teaching an introductory cource on ancient philosophy, though not his usual sort of work, might have been desirable on the grounds that it would have seemed harmless to his politically correct tormentors. Unfortunately, as a course offered by a censured professor on the fringes of the university, there was no official record of it.

Sciabarra also turns up a reason why Rand might have gone through the trouble of asking permission to take a course from Lossky. She had earlier attended the Stoiunin Gymnasium, a school run by Lossky's in-laws. By an interesting coincidence, Lossky was there at the same time, lecturing to students who were older than she was. One can easily imagine the hushed tones of awe with which the gymnasium teachers would have spoken of the great man. If, while attending the university, she had found that he was still teaching courses that were available to university students, she would certainly have recognized his name and might well have retained a favorable impression of him, sufficiently favorable to make her want to hear what he had to say.

Of course, though the assumptions used in this theory are plausible enough, there is no independent evidence for most of them. They are offered only as the best available explanation of the facts that are known to be the case. As always, however, there are other explanations. A while ago, R. W. Bradford suggested an explanation which doubtless has occurred to others: that Rand was simply lying ("Rand: Behind the Self-Mythology," September 1995). Of the major alternatives, this seems to me the least plausible. What motive could she have had for inventing a connection with Lossky? The only one I can think of would be that of attempting to gain some sort of respectability. At the time she told this story to Barbara Branden (1961), he was dying in almost complete obscurity. Very few people in this country knew who he was, or would have cared had they known. His name unfortunately could work no magic in the world that she knew at that time. Further, trying to gain respectability by associating yourself with some antecedently respectable person was not the sort of thing that Rand did. As I have indicated, she was, if anything, in the grips of the opposite vice: that of presenting oneself as unconnected with human history.

Probably, any plausible explanation of her claiming to have taken a course from Lossky would have to assume that she believed she had done so. But of course Sciabarra's is not the only explanation that is consistent with this constraint. Given that the tape-recorded interview on which Branden bases her retelling is the only time she is known to have mentioned Lossky or this course, the possibility that she is misremembering it in some crucial way seems particularly real. Obviously, an explanation that assumes that her memory was crucially faulty has something going for it: people do misremember events that happened 40 years in the past. What it has going against it is Rand's phenomenal memory and the vividness with which, according to Branden, Rand seemed to remember this event.

Further, supposing that her memory of the entire event is not delusional, the only error that would damage Sciabarra's case would involve the name of the professor. His point, after all, is to show that she took a course from a leading practitioner of dialectical method. Even then, little damage would be done if she were recounting a real event but replacing the name of the professor who was involved in this incident with the name of another professor from whom she took a course. It would still be true that she took a course from Lossky.

But this means that the sort of error that would seriously damage Sciabarra's case would be for her to have falsely remembered the name of a professor from whom she had never taken a course. This would seem to be an odd sort of mistake to make: to try to remember the name of someone with whom one had frequent contact for several months, and come up with the name (apparently accurately remembered and correctly spelled) of someone who one did not know at all. I grant you that even this is possible, but it seems very unlikely.

My own opinion on this issue, for whatever it might be worth, is that Sciabarra's explanation is the best that is readily available, but that its advantages over the others are not overwhelmingly large. At present, this issue is still a mystery, with the peculiarly obsessive fascination that mysteries often have. None of the available views about it can be held with entire ease and comfort.

Either/Or, Neither/Nor

Fortunately, though the interpretation of Rand that Sciabarra is defending is helped by an assumed connection with Lossky, it does not require it. Sciabarra claims that dialectic had a strong and widespread effect on the culture around her in those years, on "both the Slavophiles and Westerners, and even on those thinkers who turned to materialism and positivism" (27). In particular, it was widespread in the history department, in which Rand majored (77 - 82). This is really his main argument, or rather half of it. The other half is that we can find the dialectical approach in her own works, and that looking for it sheds light on them. For people who, like me, are not competent to dispute the case he makes about Russian culture, the issue that is really discussable and debatable is the textual one: do Rand's works support the dialectical interpretation, and are they illuminated by it?

On this issue I find that the evidence is mixed. One fact that works in Sciabarra's favor is that the rejection of dualism is a definite and important theme in her work. In the canonical Objectivist works, the word "dichotomy" is consistently used as a term of opprobrium, as in "the soul-body dichotomy," "the analytic-synthetic dichotomy," and so forth. When we look up this word in the dictionary we find that it is simply an old logical term for a certain sort of distinction, in which a genus is divided into two species that are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaust the genus. It is, however, the sort of distinction with which dualists divide up the world.

Consequently, although many dichotomies (such as the division of pine wood into white pine and yellow pine) are obviously harmless and legitimate, some philosophers tend to be suspicious of dichotomous distinctions where philosophical issues are concerned. There is some evidence that Rand is one of them. She certainly rejects a number of important dichotomies with considerable animus. Aside from the soul-body and analytic-synthetic dichotomies, there are the divisions between the theoretical and the practical, between morality and self-interest, and between reason and emotion.1 Two of the most memorable passages in Atlas Shrugged are Francisco's parallel speeches on sex and on money. In one of them he depicts sex as being at the same time a physical pleasure and a moral choice that embodies one's deepest values. In the other, he characterizes money simultaneously as the apt symbol of greed and as profoundly moral and "noble."

All this is obviously and fiercely anti-dualist, and it would be easy to compile other examples. Are they evidence that Rand's point of view is dialectical in Sciabarra's sense? For this to be true, something more must be the case; being hostile to dualism is not enough to make one a dialectician. From a dialectical point of view, what is objectionable about dualistic distinctions is not simply that, say, the mind and the body are supposed to be mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive of reality, but that they are supposed to be separately understandable. We can only understand what something is by grasping its relations with other things. That is, all things are internally related to other things. This is why all dualities are bad from a dialectical point of view, in themselves and on principle.

I think we have good reason to doubt that this extra dimension of animus against dualism is present in Rand. One thing that should at least make us suspicious is the fact that all the examples of rejected dichotomies that I have just gave are dependent, at least as Rand understands them, on one dichotomy: the one that divides the soul and the body. Part of the reason, according to Rand, that morality and self-interest are thought to be mutually exclusive is that one of them is associated with the realm of the soul and the other with the body, and that these two realms are thought to be mutually hostile in some way. Something like this can be said of all the obviously important dualities that Rand denounced.

What this suggests is that what we are looking at is not an attachment to internal relations as such but a much narrower sort of concern. What lies in the background may not be a notion of how all things must be understood but rather a view of what sort of entity the human being is. These are two very different things.

Of course, they are not mutually exclusive. Sciabarra does a very good job of marshalling examples from the Objectivist literature in which the elements of a distinction are understood in terms of one another. He argues, for instance, that virtue for Rand is defined in terms of its conduciveness to life, while on the other hand human life has that status precisely because it embodies those same virtues (258). One of the most interesting parts of the book is Chapter 13, in which Sciabarra discusses Rand's analysis of racism as a paradigm of her way of understanding social phenomena. In it, the psycho-epistemological flaws of individuals both cause and are caused by distortions in the language, and both of these in turn cause and are caused by defects in massive political institutions.

As a result of this habit of thought, Rand tends to think of the problems of life as problems about large wholes. As such, seemingly isolated problems, such as the fact that some people today think racist thoughts more often than they used to, cannot be eliminated unless the system itself is changed. This, according to Sciabarra, is why Rand is a radical thinker (hence the title of the book): her way of thinking more or less requires her to call for change in the system as a system, changes that would alter every aspect of life.

Sciabarra is very skillful at eliciting this tendency of Rand's to think in terms of totalities. He sheds unexpected light on many aspects of her work. I am also impressed by his evidence that this is something she gets from her Russian beginnings. What I am skeptical about is his claim that it constitutes a use of something that can rightly be called a dialectical method. The philosophers who clearly employ such a method do so for a reason: they believe that things are what they are in virtue of their relations to other things. This is why they always try to understand diverse phenomena by relating them to the wholes of which they are parts. As far as I know, this is the only reason why this practice could, as such and in general, be a good thing. But this idea is quite lacking in Rand's thinking; she has, to put it another way, no metaphysical doctrine of internal relations.

This would mean that any generalized tendency on her part to think dialectically would be, not an instance of philosophical method, but a mere habit of thought, picked up (if Sciabarra is right about this) in her Russian youth and never gotten rid of.

The Problem with the Totality

This might sound almost like a technical point, but I don't think it is. To the extent that Rand's thinking exhibits these generalized tendencies, it would be something that she -- and her followers -- would not be able to recognize as a virtue. This could go far in explaining why this book has elicited hostility from orthodox Objectivists, though others often seem to like it very much. Those whose thinking follows Rand's very closely may have good reason not to like it, in spite of its obvious merits.

A habit of thought that is a mere habit and not an intellectual method may be either a good habit or a bad habit. Suppose that I have picked up such a habit in my youth and then developed a way of thinking that, as far as its content is concerned, is sharply opposed to the entire culture of my youth. I should be concerned about whether the habit conflicts in some way with the content that I have developed.

If Sciabarra's account is right, I think there is some reason for this sort of concern in Rand's case. The problem, as I see it, is this. The content that Rand eventually developed placed a very high value on liberty. As Sciabarra shows very effectively, liberty for her is very closely related to the value of reason itself. But if she has the habit of using her reason, for want of a better term, totalistically -- that is, if she was in the habit of seeing everything as connected with everything else -- this habit would tend to give her other habits, ones that tend to be very unfriendly to liberty. Suppose I notice that you have made a mistake of some sort. To the extent that I have the habit of thinking in totalistic terms, I am apt to think there is a great deal more wrong with you than this one mistake. This will be true whether the mistake is moral, aesthetic, or philosophical, whether you are attracted to a person I find unworthy, or do not adequately appreciate the music of Rachmaninoff, or have wrong views on the problem of free will. At the very least, you are ignorant of the logical import of all the truths that support the idea you have rejected or the virtue you have failed to show. Worse yet, if I expect your thinking to constitute an organic whole, then I will suspect that your error will bring with it many other ideas, ones that must also be faulty somehow.

On such a view, there will not be many small mistakes, and harmless ones will be far between. But in that case, people who appear to me to make mistakes -- that is, people who disagree with me -- will be ones that I find unwelcome and undesirable. If that is true, then I am that much less likely to show the virtues of civility and tolerance. But these virtues are an essential part of a free society, because they require me to act in such a way that I leave others free from irrational pressure to subject their way of thinking to mine.

It is well known that Rand's own life -- and that of some of her followers -- sometimes exhibited this lack of civility and tolerance. The possibility that Sciabarra's interpretation opens up is that this flaw was not a purely personal foible, but deeply rooted in her way of thinking, an aspect of it that is a relic of her Russian past. If he is right, then the question, for me at any rate, would be to what extent her totalism is detachable from the rest of her system.

After Nietzsche, at Odds with Hayek

There is a great deal more in this book to talk about, but I suspect it would tax the reader's patience and my own time exorbitantly to go into any of them at length here. I will briefly mention just two of the more important issues.

One on which Sciabarra makes interesting, if disappointingly brief, comments is Nietzsche's influence on Rand. Though he rightly calls for further research on this subject (382), he seems eager to downplay the influence that Nietzsche might have had (100 - 6). I think this is a serious mistake. There are obviously important similarities between the content of Rand's thought and that of Nietzsche, including her idea that life is the standard of value and her idea that evil rests on some sort of incapacity or failure and consequently is not to be taken as seriously as good is.2 There are also direct statements from Rand herself that she was strongly impressed by Nietzsche at one time.3 In both these respects, the Rand-Nietzsche connection differs sharply from her relations with the Silver Age writers Sciabarra discusses. I don't mean to suggest that these relations are not real or that they are not worth writing a book about -- they are -- but the odds seem very high that the connection with Nietzsche is more important.4

One other issue opened by Sciabarra that cries out for further discussion is the relation between Rand and Hayek. Here the obviously important problem is ascertaining the nature of the difference between these two seminal thinkers. Hayek's case for liberty is largely based on the idea of spontaneous order, in particular on the idea of phenomena that are the results of human action but not of human design. Not only is this idea virtually absent in Rand, but her few apparent references to it seem to be unfriendly, to say the least. She seems to have been hostile to whatever is fortuitous in human affairs.5

This, according to Hayek and his followers, is one of the most fundamental errors of socialism, the source of many others. How deep does this difference between Rand and Hayek go, and who is right? Sciabarra's discussion of this issue is a very helpful beginning, though I think he errs in making the difference involved seem much less profound than it probably is.

It is indicative of the interest of this book that I have so far engaged in an argument with it instead of saying how good I think it is on the whole. Among other things, it is an excellent synthesis of the Objectivist literature, both the works of Rand and those of her immediate successors. Sciabarra's mastery of enormous amounts of material is almost literally incredible. He also manages to break entirely new ground on several different issues.

I don't think that Sciabarra has achieved the detailed, three-dimensional picture of genius at work that we ultimately desire, but it may be a long while before we can expect that. We are barely past the earliest beginnings of serious Rand scholarship. He has, at least, executed the largest single leap forward that it has taken so far. While it is true that his interpretation of Rand is very controversial and likely to remain so, it is also true that he has produced indispensable reading for anyone genuinely interested in Rand's life or work.

Sciabarra's Response to Hunt Click here to view the Author's response


1. In a letter to John Hospers, she said: "Do you accept reason vs. emotions as a dichotomy? . . . In a man of fully rational, fully integrated convictions, emotions follow the judgements of reason as an unforced, automatic response." Michael Berliner, ed., Letters of Ayn Rand (Dutton, 1995), p. 526.   Back.

2. On the former idea, see my Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue (Routledge, 1991), pp. 111 - 112. On the latter, see Part I of Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals.   Back.

3. Incidentally, I believe he is also the only real person who is quoted by any of the characters in The Fountainhead.  Back.

4. There is also an important methodological connection: namely, the tendency of both Rand and Nietzsche to criticize other authors in terms of their hidden motives and what they "really" meant to say, as a result of which both have been criticized (too facilely, I think) for their intemperate and unfair comments on the views of others.  Back.

5. This, incidentally, is another important trait she shares with Nietzsche. See Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue, pp. 43 - 46.  Back.

Copyright 1996, Liberty Foundation

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