Category Archives: Rand Studies

DWR (7): On Free Will, Rand & Branden

Notablog readers should be familiar with my “Dialogues with Ryan” series, which began on November 7, 2021, and continued with Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6. Today, I add my reflections on a new live streaming video that my friend Ryan Neugebauer posted earlier this afternoon. In it, he discussed a wide range of issues, including the debate over libertarian free will, soft determinism/compatibilism, and hard determinism, the Libet experiment, the self and to what extent it’s an “illusion”, religion and religious ritual, and John Vervaeke’s views on the meaning crisis (a subject to which I will return later this year, when I complete Vervaeke’s brilliant series on the subject). Ryan asked me to comment on the views of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden with regard to the free will issue. Below are my lengthy comments:

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I was finally able to watch the full stream and, like the earlier one, I thought it was wonderful. Since I was invited to say a few words, I’ll try to do so in a concise manner! (STOP LAUGHING! I will TRY!)

  1. On the libertarian free will vs. hard determinism debate, I agree with you 100%. I’ll preface this by saying I am a political and social theorist by profession, neither a trained philosopher nor a cognitive scientist. But, as you know, I look at things from a dialectical perspective, and this almost always leads me to charting a middle course through ‘extremes’ of all kinds. Like you, I too don’t like labels such as ‘soft determinist’ or ‘compatibilist’, but I think these approaches seem far more context-sensitive than the polar alternatives. I think that no choice is made outside a context and that context includes a mixture of in-born qualities, cognitive and emotional development distinct to each individual’s experiences, the social and cultural context within which we live, and the ways in which these contexts either nourish and promote or constrain and inhibit our ability to make choices. Hence, we choose, but our choices are never made outside a context, which both frames and influences them. (How much and to what degree is an open question…)
  2. I mentioned the work of Nathaniel Branden during the stream, but I’ve also been asked to comment on Ayn Rand’s approach to the issue of free will. While hard-core “Objectivists” will tell you that Rand was an ardent advocate of what is today known as ‘libertarian free will’, contained in her comment that the choice “to think or not to think” is the essence of that approach, it is true, as you note, that it’s far more centered on what she and Branden called the ability to volitionally raise or augment our focal awareness. That’s a far more meta- approach to this question (what Rand and Branden saw as a ‘psycho-epistemological’ issue).

    But I think she and Branden end up far closer to the ‘soft determinist/compatibilist’ view than most people realize. Each recognizes that there are myriad experiential factors that go into any individual’s capacity to augment focus and Rand was particularly critical of the anti-conceptual means exhibited in both culture and education, which undermined children’s abilities to augment focus and to move toward critical thinking. Having those abilities stunted by what she called ‘the comprachicos’ (a term meaning ‘child-buyers’, borrowed from Victor Hugo’s “The Man Who Laughs”), Rand argued that the cognitive damage done to people from a young age was fully in keeping with a distorted social system that required the stunting of that ability, the inculcation of obedience, and the bolstering of hierarchical authoritarian social structures.

    Branden, of course, went further, insofar as he added a substantive psycho-therapeutic dimension to this issue. He used an array of clinical techniques based on an integrated biocentric view of the human organism (with no bifurcation of body and mind ever implied), designed to help individuals in their own lives and in the context of the larger culture and social system in which they live to ‘break free’ of many of the constraints imposed by this context. Neither he nor Rand suggested that it was possible for anyone to jump out of their own skin and view things from a ‘synoptic’ vantage point outside the larger context of which they were a part, since we are both creatures of it, and creators of it. But he was committed to helping individuals reclaim aspects of their disowned selves, so often a product of their embedded past patterns, influenced by personal, cultural, and structural factors.

    I know that we often joke about the Randroids; I have been a frequent target of their scorn and they have been a frequent target of my ridicule. And they have done, in my view, more damage to the legitimately radical and enlightened elements in Rand’s approach than any of her critics.

    That said, my take on Rand has always charted a ‘middle course’ between the extremes of those acolytes and sycophants who believed she had popped out of the head of Zeus as a modern goddess of wisdom and those critics who have ridiculed her as a cult figure of no philosophical, intellectual, or critical importance. I reject both approaches unequivocally. I state that here only because what I’ve said about Rand above might strike those on either side of this divide as … surprising.

JARS Grand Finale Update!

I am happy to report that today I signed off with the Penn State University Press copyeditor on the final group of essays for the 2023 double-issue grand finale of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

The next update should come early in 2023, when I sign off on the first set of page proofs for what will be a truly blockbuster conclusion to our 23-year run. To say “I can’t wait” is an understatement! Then they’ll be the second set of corrected page proofs, and, possibly a third set… but ultimately, that issue is slated to be published on or before July 2023.

On a personal note, I’ve got a lot on my plate right now to say the least, and will have much to deal with for the foreseeable future. But I’m confident that even as I’m zigging and zagging emotionally … I continue to work productively and will ultimately flourish in a post-JARS era.

JARS December 2022 Issue Published!

The December 2022 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies has just been published on the Scholarly Publishing Collective. It should be live on Project Muse in about two weeks. And hard copies should be in the hands of print subscribers in 2-3 weeks.

This is the penultimate issue of JARS. We are headed toward a truly grand finale in 2023. Watch this space!

Elizabeth Ann Sciabarra, RIP

September 2, 1952 – November 26, 2022

My sister Elizabeth Ann Sciabarra—Ski to the thousands of students whose lives she touched as an educator for half a century—died at 8 p.m. tonight after a two-year long bout with many serious health issues. Her passing came quite shockingly after a steep decline over the past week.

Ski was the recent recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala marking the one-hundredth anniversary of the opening of Brooklyn Technical High School [YouTube link]. She was fortunate enough to view the YouTube video of this presentation this past week and was very deeply moved; I think that it provided a poignant coda to her lifelong, passionate commitment to the education and well-being of young people.

Back in 2010, before she’d go on to become Executive Director of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, she retired from the NYC Department of Education—after a professional life that took her from teacher and coach to assistant principal at Tech, principal at New Dorp High School on Staten Island, deputy superintendent and founding CEO of the Office of Student Enrollment at the DOE. At that time, I had the occasion to speak at her retirement dinner. I highlighted one of my sister’s favorite quotations, which she often used at various commencement exercises. It could just as easily and appropriately speak to her own impact and legacy. Noted historian Rina Swentzell (1939–2015) of Santa Clara Pueblo said:

“What we are told as children is that people, when they walk on the land, leave their breath wherever they go. So, wherever we walk, that particular spot on the earth never forgets us, and when we go back to these places, we know that the people who have lived there are in some way still there, and that we can actually partake of their breath and of their spirit.”

In every place she has been, with everyone she has worked, all those students she has taught, advised, assisted, coached, all the teachers, assistant principals, principals, parents, community partners and others with whom she has interacted, not to mention her dear friends and beloved family—all these have been blessed to partake of her very strong spirit.

Wherever she has walked, people will be hard pressed to forget her and her impact on their lives.

I once told her that she may not have had kids of her own, but she mothered literally thousands of kids, whose lives were forever changed by their encounters with her. Indeed, as a caring educator, in the eyes of those kids, my sister flew around the city of her birth, the city she was so proud to call home, with a huge “S” on her chest, which could have stood for “Sciabarra” or “Ski”—or even “Superwoman.”

For me, however, that “S” always stood for “Sister,” which means more than that one word can ever convey.

Indeed, as siblings, we lived together for as long as I’ve been alive. She was more than my sister. She was my friend, my confidante, my partner-in-crime, my advisor, my guide, not only for all things academic but for life itself. As someone who struggled with chronic, congenital medical issues, I could never have made it without her loving support and encouragement. She was my strongest advocate and fiercest defender.

Even over the last month, as she struggled with increasingly difficult medical complications, she was elated as I completed the copyediting and formatting of the last essays for the 2023 grand finale of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. She gave me a fist bump when I told her, “It’s done!” As a lover of music and dance—and boy did she have rhythm [YouTube link]—she was also privy to all the “Songs of the Day” that I had already lined up for the upcoming holiday season, my projected January 2023 fifteenth-anniversary tribute to the “Breaking Bad” franchise, and my annual Film Music February Festival. And so, those songs will be posted, no matter what, with added poignancy.

There wasn’t a holiday she didn’t embrace or celebrate in grand style. She was even able to glimpse the Christmas decorations I put up the day after Thanksgiving. I know that it brought her peace and joy even as she fought bravely against the agony and pain that were consuming her body.

Tonight, my heart is shattered. I am comforted only because she is finally out of pain and that she died with dignity in her own home—by the grace of the generosity of the multitude of people who contributed to her #GoFundSki campaign. For all that love and support, our family expresses a profound depth of appreciation.

My brother Carl, my sister-in-law Joanne and I ask for privacy at this time. We will announce a more public memorial at an appropriate time and place, which will be held sometime in 2023.

I will always love you, my Bitty.

A Happier Time, late 1980s

See Facebook condolences.

Postscript (29 November): There is a poignant tribute to my sister by Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (NY) on Facebook.

In addition, I was interviewed by Annalise Knudson of the Staten Island Advance this morning, before attending my sister’s funeral, and I was very touched by this wonderful article detailing my sister’s legacy as an educator. See here. And also see this tribute from Tim Bethea.

9:10 AM

You sent

Postscript (12/22/22): My deepest appreciation to the literally THOUSANDS of people who reached out and expressed their love and support during this difficult time. I am truly blessed. As is the memory—and legacy—of my dear sister. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

JARS: 2023 Grand Finale Files Submitted!

I am absolutely delighted to report that this afternoon, I submitted to Pennsylvania State University Press the final manuscript for the final double issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. I will keep folks in suspense as to the full Table of Contents, which I will announce in mid-2023. The issue is officially designated as:

The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 23, nos. 1–2 (July 2023)

Our grand finale is a blockbuster! It includes my introduction, 7 articles, 6 book review essays, a volume index, and a 2013–2023 Master Index (for vols. 13–23, since we already published a 1999–2012 Master Index for vols. 1–12 here). When it arrives, the issue will most likely be around 400 pages.

As a preview, let me mention that our authors include: Pavel Solovyev, Anastasiya Grigorovskaya, Robert F. Mulligan, David Tyson, Marsha Enright, Roger Bissell, Cory Massimino, Douglas Rasmussen & Douglas Den Uyl, David Beito, Raymond Raad, Aaron Weinacht, Luca Moratal Roméu, and Roderick Long. The contents range from illuminating studies of archival sources to probing discussions of philosophical and cultural issues.

I will keep folks updated on our progress. Indeed, we have a long way to go as we work through page proofs and such. For now, all I can say is: YES!!!

Check out the comments on Facebook.

JARS: New December 2022 Issue!

As I announced on September 6, 2022, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies will be publishing its grand finale in 2023 as a double issue. We are working very hard right now to complete the submission of the full slate of articles toward that end—an elegant conclusion to our 2+ decades of commitment to being the only nonpartisan, interdisciplinary, double-blind, peer-reviewed, biannual periodical devoted to the study of Ayn Rand and her times.

Today, it gives me great pleasure to announce the publication of the penultimate issue of JARS (which will be published on both the Scholarly Publishing Collective and on its way to subscribers in hard copy next month). Our December 2022 issue continues another commitment we made when this journal began, that every new issue would feature at least one new contributor to our project. With our newest issue, we welcome three new contributors: Mikhail Kravtsov, Luca Moratal Roméu, and Elizabeth Bissell, bringing our total number of authors to 188, who have contributed 408 articles over the past 22 years. Our 2023 grand finale will add to those totals.

The December 2022 issue features the following articles and contributors:

Introduction – Chris Matthew Sciabarra

ARTICLES

Archival Discoveries Related to Ayn Rand’s Residences in Saint Petersburg
(Petrograd/Leningrad) – Mikhail Kravtsov and Mikhail Kizilov

Objectivism and Libertarian Political Thought: A Comparative
Introduction – Luca Moratal Roméu

Chosen or Proven Ethics? – Robert Hartford

Error, Free Will, and Freedom – Kathleen Touchstone

Where There’s a Will, There’s a “Why?” Part 2: Implications of Value
Determinism for the Objectivist Concepts of “Value,” “Sacrifice,” “Virtue,”
“Obligation,” and “Responsibility” – Roger E. Bissell

REVIEWS

Ayn Rand, Nihilist? (review of Aaron Weinacht’s book, Nikolai Chernyshevskii and Ayn Rand: Russian Nihilism Travels to America) – Elizabeth Bissell

“Atlas Shrugged” Explored (review of Edward W. Younkins’s book, Exploring “Atlas Shrugged”: Ayn Rand’s Magnum Opus) – Fred Seddon

Index to Volume 22

Check out our article abstracts and our contributor biographies. Subscription information is available here. (This announcement has also been posted to Facebook here.)

Only one more (double) issue to go! Don’t miss out!

Sharon Presley (1943-2022), RIP

My dear friend, Ellen Young, announced today that Sharon Presley, lifelong libertarian feminist writer and activist, died on Monday, October 31, 2022, at the age of 79. Her partner Art—who has had his own share of health challenges—was able to be there to say goodbye to her.

Sharon had been suffering from serious illnesses for quite a while. In the wake of eviction from her apartment and the loss of her cats, she was in and out of hospitals and nursing homes for over a year.

Sharon received her B.A. in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, her M.A. in psychology from San Francisco State, and her Ph.D. in social psychology from the City University of New York. She taught on the psychology of women and other gender-related courses at California State University, Iowa State University, the College of Wooster, and Weber State College. Her published research included historical papers on women resisters, a study of Mormon feminists, an edited collection of essays on nineteenth-century individualist feminist Voltairine de Cleyre and the 2010 volume, Standing Up to Experts and Authorities: How to Avoid Being Intimidated, Manipulated, and Abused. Sharon was also a national coordinator for the Association of Libertarian Feminists and Executive Director of Resources for Independent Thinking.

Her frail state over these many months was quite a contrast to the rambunctious fireband whom I met way back in 1978, when I was an undergraduate student at New York University. She and John Muller had helped to launch Laissez-Faire Books, which offered a treasure-trove of classical liberal, libertarian, and anarchist literature in the heart of Greenwich Village. As a cofounder of the NYU chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society, I spent a lot of time at that bookstore, especially in 1980, when it became a virtual warehouse of antidraft placards and pamphlets that we distributed in Washington Square Park, joining with other student groups to protest Jimmy Carter’s reinstatement of Selective Service Registration.

From the very beginning of our friendship, Sharon and I had our differences, but it never interfered with her willingnesss to step up and speak out in an uncompromising, principled way on many controversial topics. She gladly accepted our invitation to speak at an NYU-SLS-sponsored event, delivering a fiery lecture in support of reproductive freedom. Given that Ayn Rand’s work played such a key role in initially sparking Sharon’s political radicalization, I was delighted, many years later, when she accepted an invitation to be among the diverse group of contributors to Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand (1999), which I coedited with Mimi Reisel Gladstein, for the Penn State University Press series, “Re-reading the Canon.” That volume, prominently featured among anthologies on thirty-five major figures in the Western philosophical tradition, brought Rand’s work into critical engagement with various feminist perspectives. Sharon’s essay, “Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Individualism: A Feminist Psychologist’s Perspective”, was one of its gems.

My very deepest condolences to all those who knew her. I will miss her.

Sharon Presley (1943-2022)

See comments on Facebook.

Anne Conover Heller, RIP

I was very saddened to learn this morning that my dear friend and colleague, magazine editor and journalist Anne Conover Heller, passed away on October 10, 2022. We had been in touch over the summer, and I knew she had been battling cancer. She lost that battle at the age of 71. As the NY Times legacy page tells us: “She is survived by many many friends from all corners of life, her dear sister Peggy, and David, her devoted husband. A memorial celebration will take place at the Church of the Holy Trinity in December.” My very deepest condolences to all those who had the pleasure of knowing her.

Over the years, Anne had been the managing editor of The Antioch Review, a fiction editor of Esquire and Redbook, features editor of Lear’s, and the executive editor of the magazine-development group at Conde Nast Publications. She would go on to author the probing biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made (2009) and the insightful Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times (2015).

She was one of the most curious, tenacious, and courageous scholars I’ve ever known. She was also a very sweet, caring, supportive, and loving friend.

We first met many years ago, when she was researching her book on Rand. She was very deeply impressed with my own book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995, first edition), and was embarking on major research on Rand’s Russian background. Aware of my previous work on Rand’s education at Petrograd University and my discovery that Rand had studied at the Stoyunin gymnasium—including my essay “The Rand Transcript,” featured in the 1999 debut issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies—Anne worked diligently to provide further documentation of many aspects of Rand’s Russian beginnings that became more transparent over time. She gained access to materials that I did not have when I first put forth my theses.

Unlike those who had access to certain archives but who had refused to share these materials with others without stipulations that were meant to crush independent inquiry, Anne openly shared with me key documents on Rand’s education at Petrograd University. In collaboration with such scholars as the esteemed philosopher and intellectual historian, the late George Kline, I was able to provide Anne with a thorough exploration of the materials. The results of that investigation—“The Rand Transcript, Revisited” (JARS, Fall 2005; republished in the 2013 expanded second edition of Russian Radical)—were used by Anne in her 2009 Rand biography. In later years, I was able to revisit that material and expand on it greatly, in collaboration with my dear friend and colleague Pavel Solovyev. Our coauthored essay, “The Rand Transcript Revealed” (published in the December 2021 JARS), utterly delighted Anne. None of it would have been possible without the pioneering steps taken by her.

As a friend, she had this unique ability to lend a heartfelt word of support when times were tough and to laugh through the tears. And laugh we did. Our countless hours of conversation over the years were the source of great joy to me. I am greatly indebted to her—for so much. I will always honor her immense generosity of spirit. And I will miss her.

RIP, dear, dear friend.

Posted to Facebook with discussion.

JARS: Toward a 2023 Grand Finale

In the fall of 1999, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies began publication as the only nonpartisan, interdisciplinary, double-blind, peer-reviewed, biannual periodical devoted to the study of Ayn Rand and her times. In 2013, JARS began a fruitful collaboration with Pennsylvania State University Press. Our reach has grown beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. We are indexed, in whole or in part, by nearly two dozen abstracting services across the humanities and the social sciences and are reaching thousands of global readers due to our availability on a variety of e-platforms—from JSTOR and Project MUSE to the new Scholarly Publishing Collective. And all its issues will always be on the Portico dark archive.

Over these last 22 years, JARS has contributed to the expansion of Rand scholarship in a truly significant way. With the forthcoming December 2022 issue, we will have published 408 articles by 188 different authors. Thus, we have not merely reflected a growing interest in Rand’s ideas; we have helped to spark a broader critical engagement with a thinker who was once viewed as outside the philosophical and literary mainstream. To this extent, we have accomplished one of our most important goals. Indeed, unlike the first year in which JARS appeared, articles about Rand are now being published regularly across the world in a wide variety of scholarly journals. And each year, more and more books are being published about her ideas and influence, and not even we can keep up with the demand for reviews of this expanding literature.

There comes a point at which one can look back at the achievements of a project and declare that it is time to move on. After more than two decades of what could only be termed ‘a labor of love’ by a group of editors, advisory board members, peer readers, and writers, this journal will be publishing its last volume as a double issue in 2023. We look forward to providing our readers with a truly grand finale. Our back issues will continue to be made available electronically and in print for as long as there are people seeking their contents.

This decision was made by the JARS Foundation Board of Trustees. This was not a publisher decision to liquidate JARS—which has been one of the most popular periodicals in the Penn State University Press Journals Program.

We know that there is still much work to be done in this field of study, but we are proud to have made a trailblazing contribution to its long-term vitality and success. Above all, we thank our readers for having made this journey possible.

Toward that end, I should note that we have a full slate of articles for our final July-December 2023 issue and will not be accepting any additional submissions beyond those already in production.

***

As a personal aside, I have been asked by friends and colleagues about my own future in a post-JARS era. All I can say is this: It is no coincidence that the last book I published as an author was in the year 2000. It was the conclusion of my “Dialectics and Liberty Trilogy”: Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. Since then, I have worked very hard as a founding coeditor of JARS, publishing the equivalent of two anthologies per year for what will be nearly a quarter century. Aside from several reviews and historical-archival essays that I contributed to JARS, my only “side” project was as a coeditor of The Dialectics of Liberty: Exploring the Context of Human Freedom (2019). I fully intend to invest much more time and effort in expanding on this dialectical research project and its implications for human freedom and personal flourishing. But before I return to that project, I will be moving toward the completion of JARS. I’m proud of what this journal has accomplished and look forward to its graceful conclusion.

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*This has been announced publicly on Facebook and a link to it can also be found on the JARS home page. It was also announced by Stephen Boydstun on Objectivism Online.

Film: We the Living 80 Update

I last wrote about the 80th anniversary restoration of the 1942 film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s We the Living back on April 28, 2022. Here’s another update from Duncan Scott.

We wanted to take a minute to say thank you to all of the great people who contributed time, money, and encouragement towards restoring We the Living.

This Labor Day weekend marks the exact 80th anniversary of the film’s premiere in 1942 at the Venice Film Festival. So it’s the perfect time to share some terrific news: All the finishing touches to the We the Living 80th Anniversary Restoration have been completed!

The last major challenge was restoring the audio. Previously, static, popping, and hum could frequently be heard in the film. After a six-week process, those defects have been almost completely removed. The movie now sounds as good as it looks—nearly as good as when it first played in theaters in Rome!

Next, the critical distribution and promotion phase begins. ​We the Living will enjoy a wide release that includes art-house movie theaters, DVD, and video-on-demand. In addition, it will be distributed to colleges and schools through educational distribution services. Audiences around the world will be able to discover this inspiring movie and the fundamental values it so powerfully dramatizes.

And if you haven’t heard the news: We the Living was honored at Il Cinema Ritrovato (Cinema Rediscovered) on June 27, 2022, in Bologna, Italy. Il Cinema Ritrovato is the world’s major festival of film restoration. This brought the movie to the attention of distributors of classic films. Discussions with three of those companies are underway.

Also, a sneak preview of We the Living was shown on July 5th at OCON, the Objectivist Summer Conference hosted by the Ayn Rand Institute. Over 350 people attended the screening and several hundred more attended a one-hour presentation on the history of the film. These events heightened awareness of the upcoming release among a key audience—fans of Ayn Rand’s works.

A theatrical booking service has been engaged and is now setting up art house theater engagements in New York City and Los Angeles. These two markets are critical to the successful launch of any film, but they are particularly important for bringing attention to a newly restored film classic. Other cities across North America and overseas will be added as the general release of the film gets underway. After the theatrical release, it will be distributed to home video, video-on-demand, and to educational markets.

The premiere engagement had been long planned for the fall of 2022, but for strategic distribution reasons, it will be a few months later. October to December is “award season” in the movie industry. During the flurry of award-qualifying screenings, theater availability is very limited and the movie would not get maximum attention from the media.

We the Living 80th Anniversary Restoration will open as early as possible in 2023. We will be excited to announce to you the specific theaters and dates as soon as these engagements are confirmed.

Stay tuned!

We the Living 80