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Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical

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Eiuol
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The book Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical by Chris Sciabarra, deserves more attention. I read it recently, so I want to document at least what's important about it.

It's a work of comparative philosophy, that is, looking at differences and similarities with other philosophers and thinkers. It's also on the context in which Rand developed intellectually in college. Towards the end, it examines the way that Rand is a radical in the broadest sense of advocating for fundamental change throughout all of society and among all individuals.

I don't want to give a complete book review. Rather, I want to highlight what I think are its most important and essential points. In no particular order:

1) Rand had a literary and even philosophical method very much like other writers and philosophers from Russia.

Writing about grand themes with fiery and powerful commentary alongside novels of epic scale are particularly Russian. This is what I mean by method. She was responding against the interpretations of life all those other Russians had, to be sure - as influenced by writers she admired like Victor Hugo. It's not as if Rand divorced her mind from everything Russian, and after all - this is my addition - everyone's sense of life is affected by the culture they grow up in for better or for worse.

2) Dialectical thinking is critical to Rand's method of doing philosophy

Dialectical thought is not merely Hegelian dialectic, or merely dialectical materialism. Those are species of dialectical thought and discussion. Dialectic is about dealing with apparent contradictions and resolving them by integration (or attempted integration) into a unity of some sort. Aristotle did this plenty, and is important to the way he did philosophy. 

When Rand was in college, she had to study something about dialectical materialism. But she was also exposed to dialectical thinking even through anti-Marxists (although theists) who were more directly influenced by Hegel. In Russia at the time especially, even the Marxists liked to point at false dichotomies and say that they are in fact unified. Not just mind and body, but rationalism and empiricism, theory and practice, and so on. Even Marx said there is no separation between theory and practice. 

Of course, Rand rejected the basis and reasons for how these things can be unified compared to other Russians. Yet she made a lot of use of dialectical thought, and would agree with Hegel on some level that everything must work in a unified way if true. Peikoff loves to quote the one line by Hegel "the true is the whole". In other words, Rand learned how to use a dialectical method, and trained to use it, but uniquely applied it to the individual.

3) Her teacher, N.O. Lossky, influenced her early understanding of Aristotle

Lossky was a theist, but he was also literally the only teacher she has ever mentioned by name. I'm not getting into the details here, but Rand took at least one class by him, and some of Rand's interpretation and even expansions on Aristotle resembles things that Lossky wrote. Big emphasis on resemble, though, the influence on those points might only be indirect.

4) The issues of the world are deeply interwoven, which Rand masterfully pointed out

Sometimes it's easy to overlook that Rand examined the interconnected nature of the way the world has been fractured. She didn't say that the problem was only the government. She didn't say that everything only stems from culture, or only individuals. All of this must be put together. If the government tells us that its function is to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number, this will come to bear on the culture, affecting education perhaps, or individuals being forced to change their behaviors by banning certain books. If individuals fail at the level of self-esteem or reason, even a proper government can't function well, and certainly a benevolent culture could not develop. Families, if they preach altruism, would impact the government people expect, but also push and encourage individuals to act against their self-interest. All of these things are quite entangled.

In many different ways, this "fracturing" is almost literal. Separating theory and practice has negative consequences on the form of government. Separating emotion and reason as strictly contrary to one another is damaging to self-esteem. This fracturing is especially easy to see when you think about the deep themes of Atlas Shrugged. Rearden has the issue with his family demanding that he sacrifice himself for them, which induces guilt in him; that guilt damages his self-esteem, which is also further impacted by the government making demands of him. 

Edited by Eiuol
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Eiuol, thanks for these remarks and for holding up this book for discussion.

Does Dr. Sciabarra’s book maintain that in Atlas Shrugged Aristotle is the greater influence on Rand than Lossky? Does he dig into the reasons why or why not that is so?

I’ve taken classes under several philosophers, and some are among the most distinguished in anglophone philosophy today. But who has influenced me in writing my own philosophy, after five decades of study, are the philosophers I decided to study further and further and learn more and more of their philosophy. (The big influencers could be centuries dead of course.) It’s not as if Rand or I studied years with a particular professor of ours as we produced a dissertation directed by that professor. Do you think it is plausible that Rand could be greatly influenced distinctively by a professor under which she took one class?

Scantness of mention of Lossky by Rand, I suppose, could be a bit of a coverup by her, by way of not wanting her philosophy derated in originality or not wanting to acknowledge debt to someone she greatly disagreed with. Nietzsche tried to conceal the fact he had ever read Stirner, probably from that originality concern. Publicly, Rand definitely made overly small, looking back on her own trajectory, the influence of Nietzsche on her early thought.

I wonder how dialectic not Hegelian is anything more than philosophy’s workaday differentiations and oppositions, followed by its workaday resolutions and unifications. I should dig into what Sciabarra has written on that someday.

Whomever the philosophers influencing another philosopher or not influencing them, it remains worthwhile to compare the content of their philosophies with the later product.

I recall that this book contains in its course a hefty presentation, with citations, of what is Rand’s philosophy.

Eiuol, are you reading the second edition of Russian Radical?

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1 hour ago, Boydstun said:

Does Dr. Sciabarra’s book maintain that in Atlas Shrugged Aristotle is the greater influence on Rand than Lossky?

I mean, he doesn't say anything explicit about that. The way Lossky is mentioned in the book is more like he was a professor that Rand respected but recognized that there were many disagreements. I found that the section about Rand's education in Russia was more focused on how her mind developed and all the ideas she was dealing with in early adulthood. She was an inquisitive student who put a great deal of effort in learning. It's more like Lossky helped her to chart a philosophical course, which resulted in a matured look at Aristotle.

1 hour ago, Boydstun said:

Do you think it is plausible that Rand could be greatly influenced distinctively by a professor under which she took one class?

I think it's reasonable to suppose that Rand actually sought out Lossky because he was not a Marxist, probably heard of him before, and wanted to learn more about ancient Greek philosophy. To the extent she respected him, she would certainly find value in his interpretation of Aristotle and Plato. The difficult thing is that Rand burned all her diaries from the time in order to keep her family safe when she left for the US. We can't really confirm what exactly she learned from Lossky, but evidently he was the only professor she really cared about.

1 hour ago, Boydstun said:

Scantness of mention of Lossky by Rand, I suppose, could be a bit of a coverup by her, by way of not wanting her philosophy derated in originality or not wanting to acknowledge debt to someone she greatly disagreed with.

I think so. On the other hand, perhaps he was more of a supportive mentor in her eyes. She was never much to talk about personal life.
 

1 hour ago, Boydstun said:

Eiuol, are you reading the second edition of Russian Radical?

Yes.

Edited by Eiuol
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