Chris Sciabarra
Chris Sciabarra

Editorial - Dialectics & The Art of Nonfiction

In the April-May 2001 Free Radical, someone claiming to be Lindsay Perigo issued the following warning:

"Someone claiming to be Chris Matthew Sciabarra, estimable analyst of the Eminem phenomenon has published a book called Total Freedom. There is an easy way to tell the impostor from the real McCoy, though - whereas the real Sciabarra writes in plain, fluent English, Total Freedom is written in Polish. Reviewer Nicholas Dykes has spotted the phony & furnished some examples."

Dykes quotes a few choice statements from the book, plucked out of their delicate context, to exhibit the use of what Rand once called "seventy-five-cent words" (Art of Nonfiction, 123) - though, given inflation, today we'd likely call them "five-dollar words." Peter Jaworski, whom I wish to thank for writing a positive review of Total Freedom in the very same Free Radical, "seems to have had some difficulty translating the Polish also, even though he's fluent in the language. He nonetheless appears persuaded that the impostor is the genuine article.The matter would seem to call for some editorial investigation. Stay tuned!" (TFR 46).

Given that my Eminem article was subtitled "Will the Real Slim Shady Please Stand Up?," I was tempted to subtitle this article: "Will the Real Chris Sciabarra Please Stand Up?" but I feared the parallel construction would lead some to label me "the Eminem of Objectivism." For like the controversial rap artist, I seem to have at least two different personas, leading some to wonder if there are any impostors at work. The short answer is No. The longer answer requires that we understand a bit more about the nature of dialectics and its applications to exposition.

Fortunately, that understanding will be aided by our study of a posthumously published book by Ayn Rand: The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers (Plume, 2001). Edited by Robert Mayhew and based on a series of lectures on nonfiction writing that Rand gave in 1969, the book features remarkable discussions of the relationship between conscious and subconscious processes of awareness, and the role that such processes play in the craft of writing. Ultimately, however, it includes so many maxims of dialectical wisdom on the subject of exposition that it could have easily been subtitled: "Putting Dialectics to Work in One's Writing."

In my own book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, I present a history and defense of dialectics as "the art of context-keeping." I use dialectics as a virtual synonym for what Rand calls "contextualism." Briefly, dialectics requires that we understand any object of study by grasping that object's full context, not only in terms of its relationships to other objects in a larger system, but also in terms of its relationships over time. By integrating our varied angles of investigation, we achieve a richer, more comprehensive understanding of the object in question. Because my specialty is social theory, it is "society" that is the object of my study - not as an ineffable organism, but as a complex nexus of interrelated institutions and processes, of volitionally conscious and acting individuals and their dynamic relations. Understanding any given society is, of course, the prerequisite for changing it.

Context-keeping is no simple mantra; it entails that we master mutually reinforcing techniques of abstraction - abstractions of perspective (or vantage point), of levels of generality, and of the units of one's analysis. As Rand explains in The Art of Nonfiction, "every item of knowledge is connected to every other, and since there is only one reality, if you wanted to present an exhaustive case on any one subject, you would have to write the work of a universal scholar." It is for this reason that "[a]ll writing is selective in every aspect not only in its style, but in its most basic content, because you cannot communicate everything" (7-8). Because"abstraction is the human method of classifying, integrating, and identifying concretes" (182), and because "there are as many . . . aspects" to any object of study "as there are, say, professions[,] . . . you cannot say one valid profession is better than another, . . . [or that] one aspect of a subject is objectively superior to another" (13-14).

Vehemently opposed to compartmentalization in the study of human society, Rand tells us that the "historian," the "philosopher," and the "economist," among others, will each have something of importance to contribute to our knowledge (13). But in presenting the results of our interdisciplinary investigations, we must be equally aware of the context of our audience. Dialectics has as many implications for exposition as it does for inquiry. Crucial to the process of writing is the necessity of "judging one's audience."

Since, for Rand, "there are as many different audiences as there are individuals" (18), our writing must never be "neutral about [the] audience's context" (20). It is a "requirement of objectivity" to "assume some level of knowledge - some context" when we are engaged in the exposition of our ideas (19). Rand praises our ability "to switch perspective" (23), but she warns against having "several purposes and several audiences in mind simultaneously." One "cannot write for [one's] colleagues and for a general lay audience at the same time" (24), Rand instructs, since each has a "different level of motivation and interest," and a different "level of technicality." Ultimately, "[t]he purpose for which you write depends on your audience" (25).

These principles are on display in any comparison between, say, Total Freedom and my recent Eminem article. Clearly, both works are directed to very different audiences. Such divergent approaches are also on display in the works of David Kelley, for example. There is a distinct difference between the style of Kelley's Evidence of the Senses and that of A Life of One's Own. The former is a work in technical philosophy, while the latter is a critique of the concept of welfare rights written with the intelligent layman in mind. Except for words like "individualism" and "communitarianism," the latter book does not feature many "seventy-five- cent words," whereas Evidence deals with the works of dozens of thinkers on perception - from Descartes, Locke and Helmholtz to Moore, Ayer, Gibson, Wittgenstein, Price, Ryle, Rorty, Strawson, Fodor and Pylyshyn - in the language of their shared discipline: "sensory qualia," "nonpropositional awareness," "Cartesian dualism," "diaphanous models," "representationalism," "psychophysics," "spatial" and "sensory manifolds," "reflectance properties," and "inference structures."

Similarly, it is not possible for me to discuss the history and meaning of the concept of "dialectics" without speaking to what Hayek once called a "given climate of opinion." Total Freedom, like Evidence, engages the works of dozens of thinkers on a single subject. Here, it is dialectical method that is examined from the perspective of many different traditions and in the language of their shared discipline: internal and external, endogenous and exogenous, synchronic (systemic) and diachronic (dynamic) relations, organic unity, and structured totality.

Because I need to navigate the murky waters of social science, speaking to Austrian economists, Marxists, intellectual historians, dialectical methodologists, and such, I must also engage in a difficult balancing act, often translating between traditions. In each instance, I carefully define the terms in question and do my best to concretize abstractions with references to everything from the film, "It's a Wonderful Life," to the possible relationship between a car accident and a romantic date. Granted, the first principle of nonfiction writing is "clarity," as Rand states, but clarity cannot be judged external to a context. What is stunningly clear in a theoretical work will often differ from the "clarity" on display in "middle-range articles" and in concrete journalistic pieces (4). The context of the audience's knowledge will dictate the character of the presentation.

Just as Rand shows how the art of context-keeping is as essential to presentation as it is to investigation, so too is she keenly aware that every work of nonfiction must be judged in terms of the full context that it constitutes. She reminds us that it is a fundamental "mistake" to think "that a sentence can stand by itself, outside of any context." For Rand,

"Objectivism, above any other philosophy, holds context as the crucial element in cognition and in all value judgments. Just as you cannot have concepts, definitions, or knowledge outside of a context, so you cannot judge a sentence out of context. All writing is contextual. The minimum standard, or unit of judgment, in regard to a sentence is its paragraph. But even that is not final because it depends on all the other paragraphs. Therefore, you cannot fully and finally judge the value of a sentence until you have finished the whole article (or, in a book, the whole chapter). . . . You cannot judge that until you see the total. " (74)

Thus, "the requirements of your context comes first" (77). To grasp the full context is simultaneously to understand the "integration of the total" as constituted by the parts, chapters, sections, paragraphs, and sentences taken in their organic unity. Sounding like Aristotle, the father of dialectical inquiry, in his insistence on the integrity of an organic whole, Rand argues that "[e]very aspect of a work has to be integrated into the total, whether paragraphs into a chapter or chapters into a book" (160). One need not be a "relativist" to embrace the practices of "a good contextualist" (read: good dialectician); contextualism (read: dialectics) requires "that each chapter and paragraph must be a (completed) part of a whole - a way station, not a terminal" (161, 165).

Rand repudiates those within Objectivism who do not understand the contextualist thrust of the philosophy; such individuals apply Objectivism dogmatically, with no regard to the subtleties of context. She writes: "Philosophy cannot give you a set of dogmas to be applied automatically. Religion does that and unsuccessfully. The dogmatic Objectivist desperately tries to reduce principles to concrete rules that can be applied automatically, like a ritual, so as to bypass the responsibility of thinking and of moral analysis. These are 'Objectivist' ritualists. They want Objectivism to give them what a religion promises, namely, ten or one hundred commandments, which they can apply without having to think about or judge anything" (30). These ritualists utter nothing but "Objectivist bromides" (32). Rand's prophetic observation is a lesson that has yet to be learned by some of her more orthodox followers.

Among the heterodox, however, my own explicit attempt to conjoin dialectics and Objectivism is not without its semantic problems. In using the word dialectics, I am reminded of Rand's warning against "the cultural corruption of words" (119). Rand argues that such words as "liberal" and "libertarian" qualify as among the culturally corrupted (I would disagree on the latter, but that would take us beyond our current scope), though "selfishness" and "capitalism" do not. "No word can be inherently controversial," Rand explains, "but it can become so by protracted cultural usage. . . . It is important to know when to continue using a word despite its being corrupted, and when to drop such a word. The real test is: what does the corruption of the word accomplish?" (119-20).

I asked myself precisely that question almost two decades ago, when I began my "Dialectics and Liberty" trilogy, which includes Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, and Total Freedom. By asserting a monopoly on dialectics, the Left sought to identify itself with the contextualist project; it dismissed classical liberalism and libertarianism as essentially "undialectical." For the Left, libertarianism is a one-sided rationalist "ideology," a fragmented individualist perspective oblivious to culture and history, and a mere rationale for exploitation.

By using a word identified with the Left, I was aware that a degree of irony was involved. The irony of such usage is not lost on Rand; at one time, she wanted to call Atlas Shrugged, "The Strike." She knew that people viewed strikes as leftist phenomena, but she recognized "a certain drama in having a novel with that title by me, who after The Fountainhead was well known as a 'reactionary'" (169-70). My own use of the word "dialectics" portrays a similar drama. Ultimately, however, it is more than a mere exercise in irony. It is a fundamental challenge to the Left. It draws on a rich Aristotelian dialectical legacy inherited by many of our greatest classical liberal and libertarian thinkers, who have aimed to grasp the broader context of human freedom.

And when it comes to writing about such freedom, I will continue to speak as many languages as there are audiences. Even if, Mr Perigo, it means speaking "Polish" now and then!

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