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Objectivism and Academe: The Progress, The Politics, and The Promise

By Chris Matthew Sciabarra

Forum: Enlightenment's Online Conference

I’d like to open the discussion with just a few brief remarks about Objectivism and the academy: the progress, the politics, and the promise.

The Progress

The penetration of Objectivism into the academy is taking place through two basic means: First, through the scholarly discussion of Ayn Rand and her legacy. Second, by the extension and application of Ayn Rand’s philosophy to an ever-growing list of disciplines. The first means can be called, generally, “Rand scholarship” - that is, material that is about Rand and her philosophy (either critical or interpretive), but that is not necessarily produced by Objectivists. The second means can be called, generally, “Objectivist scholarship” - that is, scholarly work being done by those who work exclusively or predominantly within the general paradigm offered by Ayn Rand. I should note that it is certainly possible for those on the peripheries of Objectivism to contribute to this second means, by extending and applying (sometimes inadvertently) Objectivist principles through a critical engagement with Rand’s philosophy. (So there is obvious overlap between the two basic means; they needn’t be hermetically sealed from one another.)

Rand scholarship has had an unusual growth over the past five years. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are well aware of how Rand scholarship in particular has grown exponentially during this period. Since August of 1995, when Penn State Press published My Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, many, many books on Rand have appeared, including such works as Peter Erickson’s The Stance of Atlas, John Robbins’ Without a Prayer, Jeff Walker’s The Ayn Rand Cult, Gene Bell-Villada’s The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand, Tom Porter’s Ayn Rand’s Theory of Knowledge, and Mimi Reisel Gladstein’s New Ayn Rand Companion, Revised And Expanded Edition. These works vary in their scholarly appeal, but each provides a very different take on Rand: historical, methodological, sociological, literary, and so forth.

More importantly, books have begun to appear in established serial collections of a canonical nature: Tibor Machan’s Ayn Rand is part of the Peter Lang series on Masterworks in the Western Tradition; Allan Gotthelf’s On Ayn Rand is part of the Wadsworth Philosophers Series; Douglas J. Den Uyl’s the Fountainhead: an American Novel and Gladstein’s Atlas Shrugged: Manifesto of the Mind are part of the Twayne’s Masterwork Studies series; and, of course, my own coedited anthology, with Gladstein, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, is part of the “Re-reading the Canon” series put out by Penn State Press. And let’s not forget the publication of the first three Cliffsnotes monographs, on Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, all authored by Andrew Bernstein. What is really significant about these publications is that each is a part of a larger series, in which Rand is placed on the same shelf with every other major thinker or literary artist in the Western tradition. If ever there were a sign of Rand’s entrance into the pantheon of serious philosophical and literary consideration, her appearance in such series is cause for celebration - whatever the worth (or lack thereof) in any individual work.

Of course, as one of its founding editors, I should also point out a scholarly publication that straddles both Rand studies and Objectivist Scholarship: The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, which gives every indication of being a place where people working in very different traditions meet to discuss Rand’s ideas and legacy.

All of these developments have been noted by important periodicals inside and outside of academia: including the Chronicle of Higher Education, the National Post, Lingua Franca, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and even the Village Voice.

Scholarship on Rand or in the growing Objectivist tradition is also being aided by a continuing publication of posthumous “Rand” books, emanating from the Estate and from associates of The Ayn Rand Institute, including such works as The Ayn Rand Lexicon, Rand’s Marginalia, her Letters, her Journals, and her lectures as presented in The Art of Fiction and The Art of Non-fiction.

The Politics

What needs to be noted, however, is that some of the books mentioned herein provide us with a snapshot of the politics surrounding Rand and Objectivist studies. Of course, there is the typical politics that Objectivism must face from without: those who do not take Rand seriously, and who doubt the seriousness of any scholars who do. Often, this politics is quite literally political; that is, it is usually motivated by those who know that Rand is an uncompromising defender of capitalism, and who dismiss her work as an apologia for the corporate state. This left-wing bias is sometimes matched by a right-wing bias coming from those traditionalists who have always looked at Rand suspiciously, given her atheism and stance on civil liberties. These biases, while real, are withering to some extent. It is not that they are nonexistent; it is that the more that is published on Rand, the more the study of Rand and Objectivism is legitimated. As this young industry grows, even the critics must present sustained argument, rather than dismissal by “purr and snarl words,” if they wish to be taken seriously.

From personal experience, I can say that I have never, and I do mean never, received any stunning rebuke for mentioning Ayn Rand in class, whether as an NYU undergraduate (in the late 1970s) or as an NYU graduate or doctoral student (in the early-to-mid-1980s). Sure, sometimes, if I mentioned Rand, like in an introductory philosophy class, I’d get a little chuckle from the teacher. But sustained questioning, done with respect, often elicited more careful discussion. Possibly because I was always good-natured, even when criticized, I felt more and more comfortable bringing up Rand’s name in politics, economics, and history classes - in classroom discussion, on exams, in term papers. I was not naive; I had decided early on that I’d write a book on Rand, but I chose not to focus on her in my doctoral dissertation. I was encouraged, nonetheless, by my Marxist mentor, Bertell Ollman, to write a dissertation on Marx, Hayek, and Rothbard - with some bulky references to Rand.

When the time came for my oral defense, I introduced Rand’s name several times; the five professors who interrogated me voted to pass me with “honorable distinction” - on the condition, they said, that I not undermine my career so quickly by publishing a book on Ayn Rand before my projected volume on Marx and Hayek. We all laughed; I pledged that Rand would surely be number two on my list of projected books, and that they need not worry!

The point of this little autobiographical digression is this: I think that more depends on how you introduce Ayn Rand into an academic setting than on the simple fact that you do. As a colleague of mine once said, if you learn how to play nicely, and show respect to the other boys and girls in the sandbox, nobody will threaten to take your pail and shovel away. Often, the respect you receive will be a function of the respect you provide.

I was warned early on in my libertarian education not to be self-victimized by what was called “The Great Libertarian Macho Flash.” If you enter an academic discussion by beating people over the head with an ideological bludgeon, you will not get very far. On matters of academic exposition, one should not begin a conversation with the implicit premise (summarized well by Nathaniel Branden): “I’ll give you one chance... if you don’t get it, your soul be damned!” Do your best to relate your own views to the views of your opponents, to understand the interests and contexts of each audience that you address so as to bridge the gaps between you. We all have to provide a bit of translation among the traditions that we actively engage if we are going to be understood and appreciated.

Aside from the politics that surrounds Objectivism from without, another form of politics or partisanship comes primarily from within Objectivism. 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 more orthodox followers give substance to Bierce’s insight. What I mean by partisanship here is not simply the taking of a strong position in the intellectual give-and-take. It is support of a position based not on the correctness of the ideas, but on the source of those ideas - the group, the faction, or the party from which the ideas emanate. Partisanship is the opposite of objectivity.

Since the lexicons, the marginalia, the letters, journals, and lectures come ultimately from the Rand Estate, one would hope that they would be presented free of partisanship, with a willingness to open the facts of reality to scholarly discussion and evaluation. Sadly, this has not been the case. Let me say at the outset that we will find lots of value in these books; but unfortunately, there are distortions that can be found in the texts, which cast an unnecessary shadow on their authenticity. This is not a good thing for Rand studies or Objectivist studies, since scholars working within these areas require reliability in the sources they consult. I’ve written about this subject at some length; see for example:

Ultimately, the problem with the release of edited material from the Estate is that when we don’t have the original source with which to compare the material, we are left at the mercy of editors who sometimes do not recognize the importance of that which they have edited. (A less generous interpretation of such editing is that the editors DO know the importance of what they are editing, but this makes their actions even more tragic.)

In some instances, even the original sources have been altered. The Art of Fiction, for example, is based on Rand’s lectures on fiction-witing, but the lectures that are selling at Second Renaissance Books have been edited down from 48 to 23 hours, as Russ LaValle has pointed out. Unfortunately, even the audio lectures themselves have been edited. And some of those edits are curious, to say the least. For instance, in attendance at Rand’s 1958 course were Barbara Branden and Nathaniel Branden. Anytime either of these individuals speaks, a narrator interrupts the tape to tell us that “at this point in the lecture, a [nameless] student asked Miss Rand the following question . . .” Such air-brushing of reality is never completely successful, because those of us who know Barbara’s or Nathaniel’s cough or laugh can detect them in the background.

The Ayn Rand Institute is in the process of establishing an archival library, wherein the original lectures will be available. The work of the institute, in terms of the preservation of original documents and lectures, has been exemplary. But we can only hope that someday the archives will be open to bona fide independent scholars who do not have to pass a litmus test in order to conduct research, and who will be able to view materials without the distorting influence of editorial intervention.

The interesting thing about partisanship is that it often depends less on direct criticism of competing ideas (since that would entail actually entering into a respectful dialogue with one’s opponents), and more on an absence of competing ideas. It is a perverse Hegelianism: it is the absence that speaks louder than the presence. Ultimately, the orthodoxy is creating a kind of ideology - and I use this word in a pejorative sense, in this context. As John Davenport once wrote: “The hallmark of ideology is always to rule out alternatives before they can be critically considered.”

Several examples of this occur in Gotthelf’s book, On Ayn Rand, a fairly straightforward primer. He claims in that book that he wishes to deal only with primary sources, and will discuss secondary sources at another time. Still, he dismisses Barbara Branden’s biography of Rand for its “gratuitous psychologizing,” its “embittered” tone, and its “factual errors,” but he never actually provides the title for Branden’s book. He dismisses the theses that Rand that Rand was ever influenced by a dialectical orientation or that her methodology or even her interpretations of Nietzsche were influenced by her Russian teachers.

Gotthelf is criticizing implicitly those who might hold such positions; but one can find no reference to Ayn Rand: the Russian Radical or its author, wherein such claims are examined quite extensively. Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand is used as a primary source (Peikoff’s post-publication condemnation of Gotthelf’s book notwithstanding), but one will not find any reference to work by those who are persona non grata with the orthodoxy, including Machan, Den Uyl, Rasmussen, and Gladstein. There is no mention of David Kelley’s Evidence of the Senses or of Nathaniel Branden’s Psychology of Self-esteem (even though this latter work is filled with “approved” writings that Branden authored while he was associated with Rand). Gotthelf only states that Branden and Rand were friends, and that those wanting more information about the end of their relationship should consult Rand’s version of the story as published in the May 1968 issue of THE OBJECTIVIST.

This same bibliographic myopia is on display even in Bernstein’s Cliffsnotes. At the end of each of the monographs, there is a “Cliffsnotes Resource Center.” In every other monograph published by Cliffsnotes, one will find a nice diversity of sources cited for the particular author and work under consideration. In Bernstein’s monographs, here are the books listed under “Critical Works About Rand”

Letters of Ayn Rand (edited by M. Berliner)

The Ayn Rand Lexicon (edited by H. Binswanger)

Journals of Ayn Rand (edited by D. Harriman)

The Ayn Rand Reader (edited by G. Hull)

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand - by L. Peikoff

The Ominous Parallels - by L. Peikoff

None of these books is a critical work on Rand. Rand’s major works of fiction and nonfiction are listed thereafter, as are some Internet addresses (ARI, for example), and some films and audio recordings (the Paxton documentary, Ayn Rand: a Sense of Life, plus Rand’s Fountainhead, Love Letters, and You Came Along).

The only non-orthodox source listed is “The Passion of Ayn Rand” - not Branden’s biography, but the Showtime “film based on Ayn Rand’s life.” I was actually quite shocked to find this listed in the bibliography, but not surprised by the omission of information that would have identified the film as based on the Branden book.

Sometimes, the orthodoxy promotes those Objectivist scholars whose works even it criticizes as “burdened at times by an overly ‘academic’ style” - as Second Renaissance Books characterizes Tara Smith’s Viable Values: A Study of The Root And Reward of Morality.

As Objectivist scholarship goes, I think Smith’s book is worthy of our attention - whether or not we agree with her approach to Rand’s ethics - and I enjoyed the recent symposium on Viable Values at the December 2000 Ayn Rand Society meeting of the American Philosophical Association. Having met Smith, I am impressed especially by her willingness to engage with non-Objectivist academics in such a forum.

Still, I was disappointed that Smith’s book does not engage academics who have long published on the subject of Objectivist ethics. Considering that she presents a case for eudaimonia based on Rand’s ethical egoism, and that her arguments for human flourishing share much with positions offered in the early 1980s by theorists such as Den Uyl and Rasmussen (in Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, and later, in 1991, in their Liberty And Nature), it would have been good to see her situate her own work within this growing literature, to compare and contrast her approach with those who have come before her. I should note that Lester Hunt contributed to this literature in a paper for the 1996 meetings of the Ayn Rand Society, for which Tara Smith served as a commentator. Smith refers to her comment, in Viable Values, but nowhere mentions the paper by Hunt on which she commented. Neo-Aristotelian eudaimonism is happily on the rise in many quarters (even on the left, in the work of Marxist Roy Bhaskar); to not notice its champions among writers influenced by Rand is especially regrettable.

The Promise

There are other books being published, of varying quality, that seek to actively engage, extend, and apply Rand’s work to an ever-growing number of disciplines. The most important of these, in my view, is Torres and Kamhi’s What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. It is the first book that attempts to place Rand’s philosophy of art within the history of aesthetics, and that attempts to apply and extend Rand’s principles in an analysis of contemporary trends. The good news about this effort, however, is the dialogue that it is sparking: it has already provoked two reviews in The Objectivist Center’s Navigator, and has inspired a forthcoming symposium on Rand’s aesthetics in the Spring 2001 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (JARS). This symposium features contributions from Objectivist philosophers, Rand sympathizers, and Rand critics - both Marxist aestheticians and traditionalists. This is the kind of critical engagement that will promote not only discussion of an important book, but of one of the most neglected aspects of Objectivist philosophy. And it is my hope that such discussion will branch out into publications outside our little universe.

One thing that I must emphasize about such symposia is this: as an editor, I do my best to keep scholars on the “high ground.” Sometimes, however, I will work with a scholar who has an intransigently negative view of Rand. In such circumstances, I will ask for clarification and amplification, but I almost always throw caution to the wind; there are many scholars on the left and the right who have read Rand and who have few prospects for publishing their own negative musings on Rand’s work. It is my view that a journal like JARS can be a place where such negativity is put on display - as one means of counteracting it, since we open our doors to those who will reply in kind, pointing out such an author’s errors or biases. I maintained this same approach in Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, in which we printed previously published essays by authors such as Susan Brownmiller, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, and others, who were deeply critical of Rand. Fans of Brownmiller or Harrison might pick up the book, nod in agreement, and then, suddenly, find themselves in a quandary, as they read other essays in the book that challenge their cherished negativity. We’ve got to stop being fearful of this negativity; there’s lots of it out there - and it is going to take a gargantuan effort to overturn it. Better to notice it, and to respond to it. With each exchange, Rand’s work gains legitimacy. And as my colleague Roger Bissell points out, it was Rand herself who once said: “It is obvious that a boat which cannot stand rocking is doomed already and that it had better be rocked hard, if it is to regain its course...” I think Objecitivism can withstand the rocking.

Other scholarly exchanges among those sympathetic to Rand are taking place as well. I am particularly pleased by the recent publication of Roderick Long’s Monograph, Reason And Value: Aristotle Versus Rand, as part of TOC’s Objectivist Studies series. What is extremely important about this monograph (and others like it in the series) is that it features a dialogue among three participants: Long, Fred Miller, and Eyal Mozes. By weighing the perspectives of Rand and Aristotle, scholars working within or on the periphery of Objectivism, challenge some important aspects of Rand’s work. The challenge must ultimately result in refinement, revision, extension, application, and innovation.

I’d be remiss to not notice, in this context, the important work of Enlightenment, which is also extending the challenge by providing us with net access to a remarkable growth in work by budding Objectivist scholars. I am personally amazed by how much work is being done and I applaud the efforts of Carolyn Ray, Tom Radcliffe, and others connected to the Enlightenment project and the forthcoming Journal of Objectivity.

Just a cursory look at Enlightenment’s website shows us the work of dozens of authors, who have written dozens of essays and critical analyses, working papers, doctoral dissertations, master’s theses, and bachelor’s theses. The site also provides access to important email discussion lists, including “Analytic,” a list conceived, created, and run by Bryan Register; “Dictionary,” conceived and run by Carolyn Ray; and “Locke,” a read-list only, which provides a guided introduction for Objectivists to Locke’s work.

The web is extremely important to the future of Objectivism and the academy, and Enlightenment is taking advantage of this fact in many important ways, including, of course, its sponsorship of this Online Conference. We have barely touched the potential of the web. As technology advances, more and more long-distance education options become possible. (I, myself, continue to teach long-distance classes, such as my “Dialectics and Liberty” course.) Online education is a very fruitful area for development; it provides an alternative means for spreading Objectivism via a “parallel institution,” as Rothbard once called it. Actually, on this point, Rothbard echoes the views of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, who argued that Marxists could and should provide alternative educational and cultural organizations as one means of infiltrating the larger culture; over time, these organs of “civil society” penetrate the culture. They not only undermine established institutions from without; they are sometimes absorbed by established institutions, which are then undermined from within. The importance of using this parallel strategy in combination with the strategy of penetrating established educational institutions is that it provides us with a multi-pronged approach to undermining the intellectual status quo. The strategies are not mutually exclusive; they are, in fact, complementary.

I’d like to conclude with a few observations about the kind of Objectivist scholarship that we are most likely to see in the future. I’ve often argued that scholarship proceeds by a kind of hermeneutic: as more and more people enter a dialogue, each brings to that dialogue a personal context of knowledge with which to interpret the texts under consideration. The tacking back and forth between the intentions of the author as expressed in the text and the perspective of the interpreter creates a dynamic that almost always advances the dialogue further. Inevitably, competing schools of interpretation emerge, and the debates intensify over the original author’s meaning, and the implications and applications of the author’s ideas.

This is how most schools of thought have developed. Let’s take two schools in particular: the Marxist and the Austrian.

After Karl Marx’s death, two central schools developed: the orthodox and the revisionist. Engels promoted the orthodoxy by publishing many of Marx’s works posthumously. Other thinkers, like Eduard Bernstein, began a necessary “revisionist” critique of some Marxist ideas, while adhering closely to the Marxist paradigm. In Russia, Plekhanov took Engels’ writings on the dialectics of nature and developed a more formal “dialectical materialism.” Lenin applied Marx’s theories to the context of a “pre-capitalist” country (Russia) and developed Marxist-Leninist ideology. The works of Freud and Reich were integrated with some of Marx’s earlier, more “humanistic” works, by the Frankfurt school of Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, and others. By the end of the twentieth century, we were being offered competing pictures of Marx: the Aristotelian Marx (Meikle), the Hegelian Marx (G. Lukacs), the dialectical Marx (Ollman), the analytic Marx (Roemer), and even Marx the Market Socialist (Lawler and Schweickart - who have learned a lot from Hayek!). The point is that all of these developments have come from individuals working within the Marxist paradigm. And as their work has multiplied, it has affected every discipline from aesthetic criticism to political economy to cultural anthropology.

The same can be said, on a more modest level, about the Austrian school of economics. Developing out of the works of Carl Menger, Friedrich von Weiser and Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, the modern Austrian school of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek has given birth to a veritable industry in Austrian economics. Some have approached the body of Austrian theory in a deductivist or “rationalist” or “aprioristic” manner more consistent with Mises’ Human Action (e.g., Rothbard), whereas others have taken a more Hayekian route that stresses evolutionary processes and the unintended consequences of human action. Still others have taken the lessons of hermeneutical method and developed a kind of Austrian hermeneutics (e.g., Lavoie, Horwitz, Boettke, and others). (I discuss all of these developments in my newest book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism.) Some stress the radical “subjectivism” of the theory (Lachmann), whereas others incorporate lessons on objective value from the classical school of political economy (Reisman). There are now very spirited debates within Austrian economics - taking place in Austrian-inspired journals and in mainstream journals alike. All indications are that Austrian theory is slowly emerging from its position as a relic of the history of economic thought to a vibrant, living paradigm, with its emphasis on the primacy of process as a foil to static, neoclassical economics.

The simple fact is: You can’t keep an idea down. Even bad ideas become fertile ground for major theoretical developments. Such developments are even more exciting when the ideas are good ones.

I think we are seeing the beginnings of such an evolution in Objectivism, and I do not think that this is anything to fear. There will be those who argue that the core of the philosophy will necessarily be stripped of its essence, and watered down. But that is not necessarily the case; what will happen is that as more and more people join the ranks of scholars who take Rand and Objectivism seriously, there will be more and more opportunities for different interpretations and developments within the paradigm provided by Rand. Some of those developments we will like, and some we won’t. But the great thing about an exploding industry is that there will be more and more opportunities to debate this or that development and its consistency with Rand’s philosophical framework - and ultimately, with reality, which, after all, is what matters most.

I see a Promised Land that will only be reached by the hard work and effort of dedicated individuals, who eschew dogmatism, who take ideas seriously, and who pursue this project with the intellectual honesty it requires.