Rebirth of Reason


Interview with Chris Matthew Sciabarra
by Chris Matthew Sciabarra

Interview by Peter Jaworski

Is there a resurgence of sorts in Randian studies? If there is, and I wager this is true, then the most prominent of the neo-Randian scholars, Dr. Christopher Sciabarra, should take a tremendous amount of credit for it.

Dr. Sciabarra, a visiting scholar at New York University, took an interest in Ayn Rand (and libertarianism by extension) early on in his academic career. With the publication of numerous books dealing with this topic, he has carved out a niche for himself—to pursue, understand and encourage critical scholarship of Objectivism as well as to promote a libertarian political philosophy.

To this end he has published several works, including what he calls his ‘Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy’ (Marx, Hayek and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and his new Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism). He was also a co-editor, with Mimi Gladstein, of Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, and is currently a co-editor of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

In this, Chris Sciabarra explains his positions on Rand’s dialectical side, her views on feminism, the importance of context-keeping, & his relationship with the ‘official’ Objectivists headed by Leonard Peikoff.

1. Ayn Rand would have your head -- you argue that she was influenced by dialectical thinkers like Hegel and Marx. Given her distaste of both, can you explain this position?

The influence is actually indirect, and involves a host of complicated factors in intellectual history. I’ll give you the brief answer: dialectics is, quite simply, the art of context-keeping. It is a technique of thinking that attempts to grasp the full context of a philosophic or social problem. It was pioneered by the pre-Socratics and Plato, but its theoretical principles and techniques were first enunciated by the true father of dialectical inquiry: Aristotle.

Insofar as Hegel and Marx elaborated on and practiced these principles, they learned much from Aristotle. As did Rand.

What Russian Radical seeks to do is to place Rand’s own learning-process in a cultural and historical context. Because Russia was brimming with the use of dialectical methods of research - those that sought to grasp the "whole" through differential vantage points and levels of generality, and that related theory and practice in an integrated unity - I maintain that she was, at least in some sense, a child of her Russian past. But in a good sense. So the influence of Hegel and Marx on Rand is really indirect: it is only because the teachers and thinkers of the Silver Age (to whom Rand was exposed) were themselves influenced by Hegel and Marx, and, by extension, Aristotle, that we can say Rand was "influenced" by Hegel and Marx. But Russian Radical makes clear that ultimately, if Aristotle is the father of dialectics, Rand still owes him an enormous intellectual debt that applies as much to the methods of her philosophical project as it does to its content.

2. Context-keeping, or dialectical thinking, is the art of seeing interconnections between disparate branches of knowledge. Of what importance is this?

It is of the greatest importance, because objectivity demands that we do not engage in context-dropping. Objectivity requires us to investigate empirically the possible connections between different spheres in an effort to gain integrated knowledge of the full context. This is no a priori prescription for knowledge: it is a radical recognition of the fact that we are not omniscient, and that if we are to understand a complex world comprehensively, it requires an ongoing investigation of its many interrelated aspects from shifting vantage points.

3. Could you give an example of someone who failed to keep context?

Well, let me take an example from my new book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. In that book, I examine the history of dialectics as a concept, from its earliest manifestations in the pre-Socratics up through Ayn Rand. I then turn to a comprehensive discussion of Murray Rothbard, one of the major libertarian thinkers of the 20th century.

Rothbard has an otherwise consistent theory of liberty, but he spent most of his intellectual life insisting that libertarianism did not require a theory of culture, that it was a political philosophy that could accommodate any and all cultures and moralities. The later Rothbard realized that advocates of the free society needed "liberty PLUS"—that is, a fully articulated theory of culture, since some cultures promoted, while others undermined, the free society. This was a welcome change from his earlier discussions, but, unfortunately, he argued that the culture most supportive of a free society was one steeped in conservative and traditional mores.

So, we can see that Rothbard, and many of the libertarians who followed him, simply dropped the larger context which freedom required in order to flourish. And when he finally embraced cultural preconditions, his resolution did not take into account how capitalism itself undermines certain traditions.

Context-keeping means that one must understand any political idea, like freedom, in terms of its philosophical, cultural, and historical preconditions. One must never drop the larger context: the fact that political freedom requires intellectual freedom and economic freedom, and that certain social-psychological and cultural preconditions are necessary if one is to sustain freedom. Take a look at Russia - where the move away from socialism has not yet brought about the kinds of institutional changes that are necessary to support freedom. Sheila Fitzpatrick, in her book, Everyday Stalinism, shows how a culture in which individuals shift responsibility to others, a culture that does not recognize the importance of individual initiative, self-esteem, and voluntary cooperation, is one of the prerequisites for totalitarianism.

I discuss a number of other instances in Total Freedom, including the culture of Mauritania, a country which has gotten rid of slavery, but in which the citizens still act as if they were slaves. Freedom must embrace a larger "totality"—and this includes what I have called "personal" factors (psycho-epistemology and ethics), "cultural" factors (ideology, language, arts), and "structural" factors (politics and economics).

4. In the work you co-edited with Mimi Gladstein, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, the authors take different views on Rand’s claiming herself to be an ‘anti-feminist’. Could you talk a little about that?

That is correct; some of the writers argue that Rand was anti-feminist, but that the feminism she opposed was (and is) a kind of tribalism and collectivism. It is the kind of feminism from which all good individualists should distance themselves, because it is part and parcel of the contemporary welfare statist mentality and its dependence on collectivism.

But many writers recognize that Rand’s philosophy is not only consistent with, but can be a major contributor to, an individualist feminism: one that recognizes women’s rights as individuals, in keeping with the libertarian prescription of equality before the law, and women’s need for autonomy, in keeping with the Objectivist prescription for independence, productivity, and self-esteem.

5. What do you think is the most overlooked element in Ayn Rand’s philosophy?

I think Rand’s aesthetics have been overlooked, but I also think that the new book, What Art Is: the Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand, by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi, is a major contribution toward correcting this problem.

I think more still needs to be said, as well, about Rand’s methods of philosophizing. And here I’m referring to two interrelated methods: tracing the facts of reality that give rise to certain concepts in keeping with the art of noncontradiction (logic), and tracing the relationships among these facts within a larger context (roughly, dialectics) - and my own book, Total Freedom, says more.

Personal Stuff

1. How would you characterize your relationship with the ‘official’ Objectivists (Leonard Peikoff et al.)?

Currently, aside from receiving publications like IMPACT and The Intellectual Activist, I have a kind of laissez-faire relationship with the orthodoxy; I think they have long since recognized that I’m not going to go away, and I have long recognized that they have something to offer - even if I remain critical of how they themselves undercut their own contribution.

2. How do they ‘undercut their own contribution’? Is there something that they are ignoring or criticizing that could push Rand studies more into the forefront?

Oh, quite simply: their penchant for editing everything that is published of Rand’s previously unpublished writings. They provide an atmosphere in which scholars never quite know if the material includes Rand’s actual words, or a paraphrase thereof, or worse. I’ve already shown how they edit out things that, in essence, change the historical record. And their jealous guarding of their own archives creates a siege mentality, in which only a chosen few get to comb over the documents in their possession. I had to spend months looking for a document in Russian archives that they had in their possession, but that they were unwilling to share with me or anyone else. After I found Rand’s college transcript, they transferred their own copy to their archives, and published an excerpt from it in IMPACT. They have no moral obligation to share any of their material with anyone, but they do have an obligation to be truthful. Because they have edited documents, it is they who have created this situation, and only they can change this situation.

3. What is, in your opinion, the major dividing line between the ‘official’ Objectivists and those followers of Rand that take to including libertarians, for instance, as part of the movement?

I think David Kelley hit it on the head years ago: it is that the orthodoxy sees the philosophy as closed, while the neo- or revisionist- followers believe that Objectivism is an open system, one that is based on a core set of essential principles, but that will and must advance in its applications and implications, as each successive generation engages it.

4. Some Objectivist’s would respond that revisionism would entail an essential destruction of Rand’s core system. How would you respond to that?

Well, it is always possible that revisionists will, in fact, destroy the essential core of Rand’s system. BUT one cannot guard against such aberrations by creating a fortress around her ideas. If Objectivism is strong, and I think it is, then it can and must sustain all the rigor of dialogue among people with different perspectives. The simple fact is that every aspect of a philosophical system must be subject to discussion and debate if it is to become a force in the world of ideas. Over time, it will be possible to sort out among those who retain the core of Rand’s ideas, while differing in details - and those who have dispensed with the core of her ideas and have no right to the label "Objectivism".

A similar process took place in Marxism: orthodox Marxism faced off with Eduard Bernstein and his revisionists; over time, there have been Marxist-Leninists, Stalinists, Trotskyites, Maoists, the Frankfurt School, the analytic Marxists, and so forth. I suspect that, whether we like it or not, Objectivisim may have a similar evolution. What is important in the long run is that Objectivism will have so affected the intellectual landscape that a wide variety of manifestations will be apparent. This is the process by which Marxism became a dominant force in academia—affecting everything from literary criticism to political economy.

Since the process is an evolutionary one, it is best that those who venture forth into the realm of debate are also among those who have long admired Ayn Rand, but who are not willing to live in an intellectual ghetto. And just as Objectivism will be affected by the intellectual exchange, so too will the larger world of academia.

5. What kind of future do you see for those to whom Ayn Rand is important?

Ayn Rand is important, but how her work is used and toward what purpose is something with which each individual must grapple on a personal level. As long as people do not approach her work as a new catechism, but, rather, as a magnificent starting point for a wonderful world of intellectual exploration, they will enrich not only their own lives, but the positive legacy with which Rand has left us.

6. What advice do you have for those of us who agree or respect and admire Ayn Rand and her philosophy?

As a scholar, my advice to those who agree, respect, or admire Rand is quite simple: understand the philosophy, study it, and do your best to engage its opponents and critics, in a healthy atmosphere of intellectual engagement and debate. Often, we learn more about the strength of a philosophy by showing a willingness to meet with our opponents. We can learn enormously from debate and dialogue, and expand our own understanding not only of the philosophy, but of its applications and implications to areas of study that not even Rand could have envisioned.

Finally, can you explain your Cyberseminar and what students can expect or gain from it?

Sure, about the Cyberseminar: I have done quite a few cyberseminars in the past - some were one-on-one tutorials, while others were group sessions. This time around, it will be a full-blown group session that begins January 8, 2001, and continues through May. It runs about 17 or 18 weeks.

The course is "Dialectics and Liberty," and it focuses on how a dialectical method - rooted in Aristotle - can be extended to social theory, and applied in the defense of liberty. Through weekly readings and regular weekly (sometimes daily!) moderated interaction, the students get to critique the reading and each other, and I moderate the discussion and provoke the engagement. In the past, the intellectual exchange has been most rewarding, and the students have loved it. Sometimes, we even try to go "live" in real time with various internet relay chats that are available.

All in all, it is an exciting opportunity to deal with difficult subjects in method, philosophy, and social theory.

For more information on Dr. Sciabarra, his Cyberseminar, and his books, check out his website at www.nyu.edu/projects/sciabarra. Therein you can find links to everything Dr. Sciabarra is involved in and follow the ‘Randian’ adventures of this exciting and prolific scholar.

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