Blogs > Liberty and Power > Reflecting on the Ayn Rand Centenary, Part I

Jan 30, 2005 5:43 pm

Reflecting on the Ayn Rand Centenary, Part I

I've written so many pieces for the Ayn Rand Centenary, for so many publications, that I don't think I'll have much more to say, which might be considered"new" and"original." But, of course, not being one to keep my mouth shut, I'm sure I'll have more to say each day from now till Wednesday, February 2, 2005, when the one hundredth anniversary of Ayn Rand's birth will be celebrated in various forums from the East coast to the West coast.

Today, I came upon a piece in the New York Times Book Review section that just pissed me off. Written by Clay Risen, an assistant editor for The New Republic,"Rebuilding Ground Zero: The Struggle Between Architects and Developers at the World Trade Center" is a review of Philip Nobel's book, Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero. I'm less concerned with the politicized process of rebuilding that is the subject of Nobel's book and more concerned with the opening paragraph of Risen's review:

AYN RAND may be long discredited as a philosopher, but her ideas about architecture are still very much alive. Howard Roark, the protagonist of her objectivist fantasia ''The Fountainhead,'' is the archetypal artist-hero, rendering society's soul in concrete and steel. Since the 1940's, his image has shaped our appreciation of everyone from Frank Lloyd Wright to Frank Gehry, defining even the competition to rebuild the World Trade Center site: the struggle between Daniel Libeskind and Larry Silverstein was seen as a veritable ''Fountainhead Redux'' in which a valiant architect armed only with his dreams takes on a mega-developer.

Notice how Risen opens this article:"Ayn Rand may be long discredited as a philosopher..." stated as if it were an observation of fact.

But if Risen had been paying much attention to the academic tide, he'd discover that, after many years of being perceived as an outsider, Rand is finally being considered as a serious thinker worthy of our critical attention. This is not happening across the board and it is not happening in all academic circles but it is clearly a trend that cannot be ignored. As I have written in an article for Philosophical Books (a piece that has been revised for inclusion in a forthcoming anthology edited by Edward W. Younkins, entitled Philosophers of Capitalism):

Since the 1982 death of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, there has been ever-growing interest in her thought. In the immediate aftermath of her death, Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen’s edited collection, The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, and the first edition of Mimi Reisel Gladstein’s Ayn Rand Companion appeared. ... Together with ... heightened cultural awareness of Rand’s life and thought, academic work has proceeded apace with some fanfare. Both The Chronicle of Higher Education and [the now defunct] Lingua Franca featured major stories on new books and research projects involving philosophy, political theory, literary criticism, and feminism, highlighting how Rand had “finally caught the attention of scholars.” ... These articles note the increase in scholarly sessions devoted to Rand’s work in such organizations as the Modern Language Association and the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, which includes an affiliated Ayn Rand Society.
My own Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, published in 1995, was central to the Chronicle and Lingua Franca studies—as was my 1999 anthology, Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, co-edited with Mimi Reisel Gladstein. The former book rooted Rand’s intellectual development in Silver Age Russian thought and reconstructed her Objectivist philosophy as a radical dialectical project. The latter book is part of the Penn State Press “Re-reading the Canon” series, edited by Nancy Tuana, in which nearly two dozen volumes center on questions of gender and sexuality in the works of thinkers as diverse as Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Arendt, Sartre, Levinas, and Foucault. The Rand anthology includes original and reprinted contributions from writers across the globe, including Susan Brownmiller, Camille Paglia, Karen Michalson, and Melissa Jane Hardie.
Another measure of Rand’s growing scholarly presence is the appearance of entries on her in textbooks—in philosophy, political science, and economics—and in reference works, such as Routledge’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Encyclopedia of Ethics, Scribner’s American Writers, Gale’s American Philosophers, 1950–2000 (a volume of the Dictionary of Literary Biography), and Lexington’s History of American Thought. A Rand primer, by philosopher Allan Gotthelf, in the Wadsworth Philosophy Series, a volume by philosopher Douglas J. Den Uyl on The Fountainhead, and another by Mimi Reisel Gladstein on Atlas Shrugged, in Twayne’s Masterwork Series, and CliffsNotes monographs on Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, by philosopher Andrew Bernstein, are further evidence of increased attention to Rand by professional scholars. (It should be noted too that one can find an increasing number of master’s and doctoral dissertations devoted to Rand’s thought.) [In addition, a recently published scholarly collection on We the Living will be complemented by forthcoming collections on Anthem and Atlas Shrugged,] as well as an anthology on The Literary Art of Ayn Rand (edited by William Thomas and David Kelley), a Thomas-Kelley authored study, The Logical Structure of Objectivism, and a book on induction and integration, written by Leonard Peikoff, entitled The One in the Many: How to Create It and Why. [And let's not forget monographs by some of our esteemed L&P colleagues, such as Roderick Long, who has published on Rand and Aristotle.]
One final measure of expanding scholarship on Rand is the commencement, in the Fall of 1999, of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, co-founded by R. W. Bradford, literature professor Stephen Cox, and me. The journal is a nonpartisan semi-annual interdisciplinary double-blind peer-reviewed scholarly periodical dedicated to an examination of Rand’s work and legacy. In its contents, one will find essays by Objectivist philosophers and those sympathetic to Rand, as well as critics of Objectivism ...
Clearly, the ever-expanding scope of Rand studies suggests that philosophers of various stripes have begun a long overdue reassessment of her thought.

Say what you will about Ayn Rand but it is simply not the case that she has been"discredited as a philosopher." It seems to me that the scholarly community is finally taking notice.

I'll have more to say about this and other related topics in the coming days.

Update: Ironically, I just discovered that, today, Carlin Romano, literary critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer published a piece"Assessing Rand at Centenary." Romano mentions my work and the work of others in the piece, stating:"Even studies in academe—the sector of America most [resistant] to Rand in her lifetime—are increasing."

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Robert L. Campbell - 2/1/2005

The ties to Hegel are very clear in the writings of Rand's official #1 disciple, Leonard Peikoff. (Despite the fact that orthodox Objectivists froth at the mere
mention of dialectics...)

In Rand's version there's more scope for individual initiative, both well and ill-intentioned, as a source of historical change than seems to have been the case with Hegel.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/31/2005

Sounds orthodox Hegelian. How does historical change occur?

Robert L. Campbell - 1/31/2005


The only historians I can think of who have been strongly influenced by Rand are Robert Hessen and David Mayer.

One prominent strain in Randian thinking about history insists that the prevailing philosophical ideas during some historical period determine just about everything else. Some of Leonard Peikoff's writings provide an extreme example, but there's plenty in Rand's text that they can draw on for support.

Robert Campbell

Roderick T. Long - 1/31/2005

I would add that sections on or brief discusisons of Rand are now frequently offered in introductory ethics textbooks. (I know because in my position I get loads of intro textbooks sent to me for free.)

Admittedly, the version of Rand's ideas that these textbooks present is usually a hopelessly crude caricature. (See, e.g., my grumbling here.) But then, the version of Aristotle's, Kant's, or Mill's ideas that such books present tends to be a crude caricature also, so there's parity of a sort.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 1/31/2005


They never publish me, but who knows? Maybe they'll make an exception. I'll keep you posted. :)

Aeon J. Skoble - 1/31/2005

Chris, I also was annoyed by the gratuitous slur, which is sneeringly dismissive in just the sort of way Rand parodies in her novels. My question to you is: how quicky did you get out a letter-to-the-editor? Complaining about it here on L&P is fine, but your energy would be more effectively expended on a letter to the NYT Book Review. Just a thought! :-)

M.D. Fulwiler - 1/30/2005

I was just thinking...if Ayn Rand were alive today, she wouldn't be dead!

Jason Kuznicki - 1/30/2005

Err... I guess it was Robert talking about Objectivists not entering the social sciences. That's what I was referencing.

Jason Kuznicki - 1/30/2005

You said it, Johnathan. What Objectivist theories of history I have seen are either absurd or obviously derivative of other historiographic traditions. Perhaps I'll attempt a "Randian theory of history" post sometime. I'm not truly an Objectivist, but I do share a great many of their premises and values.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 1/30/2005

Oh, one other thing: The academic studies of Rand's work are coming from non-"Randian" publishing sources: Pennsylvania State University Press, Open Court Press, Rowman & Littlefield, Wadsworth, and so forth. Granted, we are a few "Cambridge Companions" short... but, as I said, the scholarly industry on Rand is still in its infancy. Let's check back here in 20 years. :)

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 1/30/2005

I appreciate your concerns, Jonathan. I think one of the keys is that material on Rand is making its way into scholarly encyclopedias and textbooks across disciplines---from philosophy to sociology to economics to political theory. And even those who are critical of Rand are joining the formal philosophical discussion. For example, in our own pages in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, several high-profile left-wing critics have published respectful pieces on Rand: Bill Martin, National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Gene Bell-Villada, and even continental philosopher Slavoj Zizek. (Zizek includes a discussion of Rand in his book, The Abyss of Freedom, where he argues that Rand's character, Howard Roark, is a portrait of genuine human "authenticity.")

I think this is the kind of activity in which we've seen an increase.

Still, it would be a mistake to suggest that there is no resistance to Rand's ideas. I suspect that this might be an outgrowth of several factors: 1) her status as a "novelist"; 2) her status as a woman in a predominantly male field; and 3) her status as a proponent of capitalism. It would be difficult to prove that these are the reasons for Rand's continued marginalization in some quarters, but to suggest that the marginalization comes because Rand has been "discredited" as a philosopher (as Risen states) is absurd. I say this because in order to be "discredited," one must first be discussed, and that formal academic discussion is still in its infancy.

Robert L. Campbell - 1/30/2005


The Ayn Rand Institute and The Objectivist Center maintain Randian publishing houses. The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies is published by a libertarian publishing house--if you want to call it anything so grand. But most of the items that Chris mentions in his entry were published by outfits that are neither Randian nor libertarian.

Nor has there been any kind of recent turn toward philosophical questions among Randians. If anything, for a couple of generations there has been an overconcentration on philosophy among young intellectuals influenced by Rand. It goes all the way back to the 1960s.

It's still quite difficult to get young Randians interested in psychology as a discipline (or in any of the other social sciences, except economics). They see Objectivism as a philosophical system, first and foremost.

Robert Campbell

Jonathan Dresner - 1/30/2005

I'm not a philosopher, nor do I follow the trends in philosophy departments closely, but I do have this thought. That Rand is being written about as a philosopher, and even that there are professional philosophers who are Randians, doesn't immediately suggest to me that her ideas are being taken seriously in the scholarly community as such. An alternative explanation -- namely that Randian disciples and publishing houses are finally turning to philosophical issues -- seems to me equally plausible. I would want to see other evidence: Rand's thought included in surveys of Western philosophy, non-libertarians engaging with Rand's philosphical ideas, non-libertarian presses publishing works on Rand and Randians.

I don't mean to suggest that her ideas are not worth consideration (that's an entirely other discussion, of course) but that I'm not convinced from this description, or other evidence I've encountered, that you've made a strong case for Rand being taking seriously by non-adherents.