Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ayn Rand sighting: AMERICA THE PHILOSOPHICAL

 I spotted a new book the other day called America the Philosophical by Carlin Romano. A title like that just begs the attention of anyone familiar with Ayn Rand's comments on the subject...
 

From the Amazon description:
  A bold, insightful book that rejects the myth of America the Unphilosophical, arguing that America today towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece or any other place one can name.
   With verve and keen intelligence, Carlin Romano—Pulitzer Prize finalist, award-winning book critic, and professor of philosophy—takes on the widely held belief that ours is an anti–intellectual society. Instead, while providing a richly reported overview of American thought, Romano argues that ordinary Americans see through phony philosophical justifications faster than anyone else, and that the best of our thinkers abandon artificial academic debates for fresh intellectual enterprises, such as cyberphilosophy. Along the way, Romano seeks to topple philosophy’s most fiercely admired hero, Socrates, asserting that it is Isocrates, the nearly forgotten Greek philosopher who rejected certainty, whom Americans should honor as their intellectual ancestor.

The author does discuss Ayn Rand in some detail, though oddly enough, it does not discuss her view about the role, or lack of, philosophy in America. The bulk of attention is found in the chapter titled "Women," which discusses the role of women philosophers in America, mostly in a biographical sense. The biography on Rand does have a condescending tone to it, but it packs a lot of information into a small space. He mentions all the usual names, like the Brandens and Alan Greenspan, but is up-to-date with names like Paul Ryan, and mentions Chris Matthew Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical: "The book spurred debate with its novel claim that Rand is best understood as a thinker whose roots in Russian philosophy and Marxist dialectical account for the unique syntheses of her later work." 

To be fair, I haven't read the book in full (just the parts on Rand, for reporting purposes), so I can't say much on the author's full views. But he does touch on a couple of issues relating to Rand's ideas about philosophy in America, namely her attacks on B.F. Skinner and Immanuel Kant. Romano, discussing Skinner's various critics, writes:
Novelist Ayn Rand, perhaps the world's greatest champion of autonomous heroes, savaged the book as a 'corpse patched with nuts, bolts and screws from the junkyard of philosophy, Darwinism, Positivism, Linguistic Analysis, with some nails by Hume, threads by Russell and glue by the New York Post.' Could such evil be generated by a mild-manner type born and reared in the friendly little town of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania?...Apparently, the answer was yes."

Speaking of "evil generated by mild-mannered types," Romano writes that Rand misrepresented Kant: "Her claim that Kant believe we owe moral duty only to others, not oneself, utterly distorted his work, as shown in a 1952 article by the scholar Julius Ebbinghaus." With this, though, it should be noted that Romano takes care to distinguish Rand's usage of the word "altruism":
"To be fair, by altruism Rand did not mean 'kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others--' three things she claims altruism makes impossible. Instead, she meant the principle 'that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence and his self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and valor.' Since self-sacrifice meant to her 'self-immolation,' and reason dictates that man choose a morality that sustains his life, reason and altruism were 'incompatible.'"

These passages had potential, but there is more from Rand that has more bearing on his thesis: for example, this quote from Philosophy: Who Needs It, in the last chapter, "Don't Let It Go":
Americans are anti-intellectual (with good grounds, in view of current specimens), yet they have a profound respect for knowledge and education (which is being shaken now). They are self-confident, trusting, generous, enormously benevolent and innocent....Europeans believe in Original Sin, i.e., man's innate depravity; Americans do not. Americans see man as a value--as clean, free, creative, rational. But the American view of man has not been expressed or upheld in philosophical terms (not since the time of our first Founding Father, Aristotle; see his description of the "magnanimous man").

While it's noteworthy to see Rand discussed in the conversation at all, at this point, we don't need another biography; Romano doesn't add anything new to the conversation, and a brief bio would have sufficed. I'd have been more interested to see how Romano would address her ideas about America's philosophical issues in relation to his own theory that America is, indeed, philosophical. Even if it would have been critical, a more direct discussion of Rand's ideas of "America the Unphilosophical," which would have better suited the book's thesis.

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