Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical is the first survey of Rand's philosophy to come from a university press. It is well-researched and contains material not readily found elsewhere. Unlike Peikoff's uncritical Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, it grapples with difficult issues and cites problems to explore in Objectivism. Unlike many smear jobs not worth mentioning, it presents Rand in a fair and positive manner. It is not a personal biography like Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand, although it contains some general biographical information. It may be compared to Merrill's The Ideas of Ayn Rand; Sciabarra's book is more scholarly in style and much more thoroughly researched, but both seek to present an overview of her philosophy from a sympathetic yet critically reasoned viewpoint. Yet it has an oddly skewed view of Rand's philosophy, attempting to find new layers of unity in her work, and often stretching in order to do so.
As a university press book, it might be some readers' first introduction to Ayn Rand, though most people attracted to the book will probably have read some of her fiction first. The book presents problems for a reader not already familiar with Rand's work and some of the current controversies surrounding it, due to the order in which it presents its material. The introduction discusses the current Peikoff-Kelley split, and the first four chapters cover Rand's intellectual development. Only after 122 pages does Sciabarra systematically present Rand's philosophy. This formulation will engage the interest of the reader already familiar with Rand, but is likely to leave the newcomer confused at first.
Sciabarra presents a startling new thesis about Rand's philosophy. He places her in the tradition of dialectical methods, thus connecting her to two philosophers whom she thoroughly despised: Hegel and Marx. He sees Rand as influenced by Russian philosophers from the early twentieth century, and particularly by N. O. Lossky, under whom Rand studied.
On the dialectical method, Sciabarra writes:
Dialectical method is neither dualistic nor monistic. A thinker who employs a dialectical method embraces neither a pole nor the middle of a duality of extremes. Rather, the dialectical method anchors the thinker to both camps. The dialectical thinker refuses to recognize these camps as mutually exclusive or exhaustive. He or she strives to uncover the common roots of apparent opposites....
In Rand's work, this transcendance of opposites is manifest in every branch of philosophy. Rand's revolt against formal dualism is illustrated in her rejection of such "false alternatives" as materialism and idealism, intrinsicism and subjectivism, rationalism and empiricism. Rand was fond of using what Thorslev has called a "Both-And" formulation in her critique of dualism.
It is true that Rand rejected dualism in the technical sense of treating the mind and the body as separate substances occupying separate realms, and that this rejection permeates her thinking. But not all "dualities" are "dualistic" in this sense, and Rand rejected some dualities while strongly affirming others. She did not find "common roots" in reason and force, in capitalism and statism, in egoism and altruism, but rather stressed their polar opposition. Sciabarra takes a valid point but applies it too sweepingly. Rand saw unities where others saw opposition, but she did not seek to combine the whole range of ideas into one harmonious whole.
The "dialectical" approach, in the sense in which Sciabarra uses the term, is characteristic of a very broad range of philosophy. Philosophers of every persuasion have juxtaposed one idea against another and drawn new conclusions. For Rand, these dualities are not the starting point; rather, she draws out similarities in apparently opposed ideas in order to contrast her position with traditional alternatives. For example, Rand does not treat the mind-body dichotomy as a stage in the dialectic process toward the truth that man is an integrated being; rather, she regards it as an aberration promoted by brutes and mystics.
The book credits N. O. Lossky with a high degree of influence in Rand's intellectual development, stating that "the relationship between these two is of paramount historical importance because it was probably Lossky who introduced Rand to dialectical methods of analysis." Lossky is best known among Objectivists as the subject of a brief anecdote, in which he is reported to have given her the highest grade in spite of his dislike of women and his disagreement with her views. But Sciabarra notes that there is no independent confirmation that Rand studied under Lossky, suggesting that she took only one off-campus, non-credit course from him. How much opportunity he had to influence her is a matter of conjecture.
Lossky appears to have been far more opposed to dualities than Rand ever was. He is cited as rejecting "antitheses between knowledge and existence, the rational and the non-rational, the a priori and the a posteriori, the universal and the particular, the analytic and the synthetic." Comparing and contrasting this statement with Rand's views is intriguing. She would never have accepted a reconciliation of the rational and the non-rational, or the universal or the particular; but she did make a major point of rejecting the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, and the related one of a priori "logical" truths vs. a posteriori "empirical" ones. But Sciabarra does not claim that Rand and Lossky are similar in the content of their philosophy; his claim is that Rand's method, and some of her interpretations of the classic philosophers, were largely learned from Lossky. The extent to which one accepts this claim depends in part on the extent to which one accepts the claim that Rand's method is distinctively "dialectical."
Sciabarra does very will in presenting the crucial area of Rand's epistemology, though many of his presentations would be less confusing without the attempt to build a dialectical explanation onto everything. At times, he appears to note the over-ambitiousness of his program; for example, after presenting a dialectical explanation of her view of the intrinsic, subjective, and objective, he writes: "It is not quite accurate to say that Rand actually constructed her resolution out of the debris of these false alternatives." But leaving aside the attempt to build the dialectical construction, the discussion is among the best available of this issue.
Sciabarra loves to draw unexpected parallels between Rand and thinkers whom she violently disagreed with, and I suspect he gets a certain pleasure from the shock value. For example, he compares Rand's view of the "new intellectual" with Trotsky's view of the ideal communist man. Doing this may be fun up to a point, but it can also obscure the fact that these similarities have little significance in a wider context. One could play the game using almost any thinker. For instance, Jesus and Ayn Rand both stressed the value of the individual soul, and Rand even has the heroine endorse one of Jesus' sayings on this point in the screenplay of Love Letters; but this doesn't mean that there is any significant affinity between Objectivism and Christianity.
More valuable is the extensive discussion of the similarities and differences between Objectivism and Austrian economics. Rand stressed the affinities between her views and the Austrian school, perhaps largely because of her personal admiration for Ludwig Von Mises. But there are also major differences, particularly with F. A. Hayek's version of the Austrian philosophy, and Sciabarra discusses these at length.
There are many little gems of information in the book, such as the comparison between the original and revised editions of We the Living, and a more authentically Russian version of Rand's birth name -- Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum -- than the one Barbara Branden offers. The footnotes are extensive and intriguing; in fact, this is the first book I've ever read in which the footnotes were worth browsing in themselves. In a nice touch, each footnote page is headed with the corresponding page numbers in the main text.
This review has taken more effort from me than any other review I've written for this list [the mailing list to which I had been sending these reviews], for two reasons. The first is the complexity and importance of its subject matter. This is one of the most thorough books available on Rand's philosophy; only Peikoff's Objectivism competes with it. Second, my audience which includes many readers who are thoroughly familiar with Rand's philosophy. At least two people on this list are mentioned in the book, not counting Sciabarra himself. While I don't think I've let myself be intimidated by these facts, I've put in an extra effort to make this a substantive and objective review. I leave the evaluation of the result to you.
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