Rebirth of Reason


Partisanship vs. Objectivity in Ayn Rand Scholarship
by Chris Matthew Sciabarra

In the first week of October 2002, I participated in a discussion on the usenet newsgroup, humanities.philosophy.objectivism, in response to a posting entitled "The Journal of Ayn Rand Sludge." As a founding co-editor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (JARS) , a non-partisan, semi-annual, interdisciplinary, double-blind peer-reviewed scholarly periodical, I contributed five posts to a thread that has now provoked 186 responses (at last count). The debate centered initially on the postmodernist tenor and seemingly disrespectful tone of a single article (out of more than seventy published articles in our first three years), written by the Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Zizek.

I used to repond to the almost daily criticism of my scholarly activities at every turn; I gave up that practice when I realized that it didn't really matter much. For all this talk of "objectivity," too many people in the "Objectivist movement" were drawing their battle lines based on pure partisanship. Ambrose Bierce once defined politics not as "the art of the possible," but as "a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles." Some of Rand's followers give substance to Bierce's insight.

What I mean by partisanship is not simply the taking of a strong position in intellectual give-and-take. It is acceptance or repudiation based not on the rightness or wrongness of the ideas in question, but on the source of those ideas, the person who might be affiliated with a group, faction, or party deemed "unacceptable." Partisanship is, thus, a vestige of tribalism. It is the opposite of objectivity.

The interesting thing about partisanship is that it often depends less on the direct criticism of competing ideas (since that would entail actually entering into a respectful dialogue with one's interlocutors), and more on their absence. Ultimately, partisans exhibit what Marxists might call an "ideological" streak, for as John Davenport explains, "the hallmark of ideology is always to rule out alternatives before they can be critically considered."

When Ayn Rand was alive, and David Kelley was affiliated with "official" Objectivism, his book The Evidence of the Senses was actually excerpted in The Objectivist Forum, a publication edited by Harry Binswanger. Today, one finds not a single word about that terrific book on perception in any orthodox Objectivist publications. Likewise, even Nathaniel Branden's essays published while he was associated with Rand almost never receive mention in any orthodox Objectivist publications. Need we mention George Reisman, or Edith Packer, or any number of other scholars formerly affiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI)? With the officialdom seeking to control the flow of historical information (see http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sciabarra/essays/randt1.htm , and to airbrush certain historical facts and people out of existence (see http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sciabarra/essays/liberty.htm , a de facto "Index Librorum Prohibitorum" has emerged. Books and authors previously cited are now not discussed because they are deemed "unacceptable." It amounts to repudiation by ad hominem, not by reasoned discourse.

This was, after all, the gist of Andrew Bernstein's call for a boycott of my books and JARS, back in June 2002, even though he'd contributed to JARS a brief reply to Kirsti Minsaas's review of his CliffsNotes. Once he realized that he was interacting with people with whom he would never have "knowingly" associated, he "hereby irrevocably repudiate[d] any and all association with" the journal, and "recommend[ed] a complete repudiation and boycott of this journal and of any and all of Mr. Sciabarra's work." Considering his admission that he'd never actually read JARS or my work, his call for a boycott was all the more remarkable.

Imagine, for a moment, if we boycotted all those books written by people with whom we'd not "knowingly" associate, whether or not we have actually read the books or have met the people. We'd have to descend on our libraries and engage in a little Fahrenheit 451 exercise, tossing Plato, the "evil" Kant, Hegel, Marx, and others into the fire, and pretty soon, the libraries would be virtually empty. What a victory for human knowledge!

When Hollywood was concerned about communist ideological infiltration into American film, Rand published her famous "Screen Guide for Americans" as an aid to movie-makers and movie-viewers alike. Consider what would happen if every person interested in Rand studies adhered to a similarly constituted "Publication Guide for Rand Scholars," in which we were instructed to withdraw our "sanction" from any journals that "knowingly" published non-Objectivists.

Well, Leonard Peikoff once contributed an article to The New Scholasticism, a journal sponsored by the American Catholic Philosophical Association. ARI scholar John Ridpath has contributed to The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, to which Keynesians and Institutionalists have also contributed. ARI scholar Robert Mayhew has contributed to The Review of Metaphysics, which has also published Hans-Georg Gadamer, Richard Rorty, and Leo Strauss--hardly an Objectivist Hall of Fame. And ARI scholar Harry Binswanger has contributed to The Monist, a journal that has featured symposiums on everything from "feminist epistemology" to those "for and against" Continental philosophy (Ironically, Binswanger's contribution to a symposium on "Teleology and the Foundation of Value" sits alongside another by Douglas J. Den Uyl, author of The Fountainhead: An American Novel, and co-editor of The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand; Den Uyl is on the JARS Board of Advisors). Nobody has called for a boycott of The New Scholasticism, or The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, or The Review of Metaphysics, or The Monist, or Peikoff, or Ridpath, or Mayhew, or Binswanger.

The fact that these authors can contribute to such journals, even while Bernstein calls for a boycott of JARS when all of these journals are by editorial policy "non-partisan," suggests that what is being objected to is not the varied content at all. When Bernstein tells us that he repudiates JARS because it is "filled with writings by people with whom [he] refuses[s] to knowingly associate under any circumstances," we should take pause. In essence, Bernstein views the act of being published in a journal alongside people with whom you disagree as a moral crime.

And if it is a moral crime, why should any Rand scholar publish anything in any academic journals? Simply cease and desist from submitting any articles to any non-partisan professional journals throughout the entire academy, and deal with the unfortunate consequences when your department chair wonders why you have no "professional publications" to your credit. Sing to the choir, stay in your intellectual ghettos, speak only at "sanctioned" conferences, and never venture forth into the contemporary debates of a "corrupt" academic world...which will stay corrupt as good people say nothing in actual response, in the "give-and-take" upon which all of Western philosophy has proceeded from the time of Socrates.

If such scholars object to some of the contents in JARS, they can easily submit a reply, as Andrew Bernstein did initially, or contribute an original article. Our journal is now indexed in whole or in part by abstracting services in philosophy, sociology, political science, and literature. We are fast becoming a place where people working in very different traditions converge to critically engage Ayn Rand's vast legacy. We welcome new contributors, whatever their affiliation or point of view.

Such is a requirement, not of partisanship, but of objectivity.

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