Rebirth of Reason


The Professionalization of Ayn Rand Scholarship
by Chris Matthew Sciabarra

Having recently celebrated the completion of four years of publication for The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (see my Free Radical article on the subject), I was asked on a discussion group about the presence of Ayn Rand in other professional, scholarly journals.

What I have to report is that Rand and Objectivism are being treated seriously in journals, encyclopedias and textbooks across disciplines throughout academia. I've discussed some of that progress in a recent article for Philosophical Books (January 2003). Works on Rand's philosophy are being published with increasing regularity, and this is a cause for celebration. Of equal importance is the publication of articles on various aspects of Rand's philosophy in a large and ever-growing list of professional journals. This is not simply an appearance in journals friendly to libertarian or Objectivist subject-matter (among which include Reason Papers, Critical Review, Aristos, Social Philosophy and Policy, and The Journal of Libertarian Studies).

Here's a partial list of publications where essays mentioning Rand have appeared: The Monist (a special issue on teleology, which included essays by Douglas Rasmussen, Harry Binswanger, and others), The Personalist, Catholic World, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Germano-Slavica: Canadian Journal of Germanic and Slavic Comparative and Interdisciplinary Studies, College English, University of Windsor Review, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, Impact of Science on Society, Journal of Popular Culture, Cycnos, Theory & Psychology, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, The Occasional Review, The Humanist, Commentary, Nomos, English Journal, Journal of Thought, Journal of Philosophical Research, New University Thought, Journal of Business Ethics, Library Journal, Choice, Journal of Canadian Studies, Social Justice Review, Teaching Philosophy, Resources for American Literary Study, Policy Review, and Developmental Review.

Articles on Rand are also making their appearance in various encyclopedias and reference works, including Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Encyclopedia of Ethics, American Authors and Books, American Novelists of Today, Encyclopedia of World Literature, Contemporary Authors, Contemporary Literary Criticism, Contemporary Novelists, A Handbook of American Literature, American Writers, Contemporary Women Philosophers, Oxford Companion to American Literature, Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature, Twentieth Century Authors, and the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Libertarianism and Encyclopedia of New York State, among others. (Much of this information is available in Mimi Reisel Gladstein's superb New Ayn Rand Companion, which also includes information on the increasing number of dissertations being written on Rand.)

Along with this progress, much is still being written about Rand's personal life-and I'm not talking about Rand's personal intellectual evolution as an historical figure. I'm talking more about Rand as a figure of historical soap opera. The most recent example of this can be found in one of the most important journals of philosophy: Proceedings and Addresses of The American Philosophical Association (Volume 77, Issue 2). Marcia Baron, of the Department of Philosophy at Indiana University, Bloomington, has a very interesting article on "Manipulativeness" in the November 2003 issue. By "manipulativeness," Baron means not coercive actions, but the vice of attempting to influence behavior by using anger, browbeating, unearned guilt, or threats. It's an important topic and Baron takes a self-consciously "Aristotelian approach" to it.

Baron opens her article with this paragraph:

When Ayn Rand set out to have an affair with her protege, Nathaniel Branden, she wanted to feel morally in the clear about it. So (after getting some confirmation from Branden) she sought the consent of her husband and her close friend, Branden's wife. Here (according to Barbara Branden) is the gist of what Rand said by way of asking them for their consent: 'If the four of us were lesser people, it could never have happened and you could never accept it. But we're not lesser people.'

In an endnote, Baron adds this comment: "A further relevant particular is that those close to Rand feared her anger and disapproval: 'One was forever on trial, forever required to re-prove one's virtue and rationality,' Barbara Branden reports."

Baron asserts: "I take this to be a clear case of manipulation (given the particulars, including the background expectation of monogamy in the two marriages). A clear case, but not paradigmatic; manipulation comes in too many different forms for it to be accurate to speak of a paradigm. My aim today is to shed some light on what manipulativeness is and why it is objectionable, and to try to understand it as a vice."

Now, I have absolutely no objection to the use of an example from Rand's life to make a philosophical point-and it is not my intention to actually critique Baron's essay, which is worth reading. And, of course, this information about Rand's life and extramarital affair is public knowledge.

It is revealing that the Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association has not published any lectures on Rand's ideas by APA participants of, for example, the Ayn Rand Society, an organization affiliated with the Eastern Division of the association. I suspect that's a function of the fact that none of these lectures were keynote addresses. Indeed, Baron's lecture on "Manipulativeness" was her Presidential Address (she is a past President of the Central Division), and, in the wide scheme of things, I'll still take any mention of Rand I can get if it brings attention to her life and work.

Nevertheless, because Rand's life was the stuff of drama-nay, melodrama-both her sycophants and her critics have sometimes focused attention on the personal details of her epic existence to make the larger philosophical point. It's certainly "fair game" to examine the details of a historical figure's personal life in an effort to grapple with their legacy or with questions of broad philosophical interest. Rand is not alone in being the subject of this kind of attention; Heidegger, Arendt, Sartre, Freud, Marx, Wittgenstein, and others have received similar attention.

Yes, there is always the risk that this technique can become a veiled ad hominem attack-though I don't believe Baron's article qualifies here-providing the uninformed with a reason not to engage the works of the thinkers being attacked. Yes, this can get in the way of serious discussion of a thinker's substantive intellectual corpus.

But all of this is really a function of time: We don't talk much anymore about Plato's personal life or Aristotle's personal life or Kant's or Hegel's. In time, future writers will glean more lessons from Rand's work, from her ideas, rather than from her personal life. It's the kind of philosophical focus that is beginning to emerge as the details of Rand's personal life become secondary to the details of her philosophy.

So, for those Rand admirers who have expressed some discontent over the Baron essay, I say: This is a part of the process of "professionalization," of bringing more serious attention to, and building a cottage intellectual industry around, a thinker. The day will come when an APA keynote address will examine Rand's epistemology or ethics, and not a single eyebrow will be raised.

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