On Judging and not reading

Chris Matthew Sciabarra cms10 at SPAMis2.nyu.edu
Fri Aug 27 09:40:15 MDT 1999

I respectfully disagree with Carol Cox.  And I don't think my comment is
pompous at all.  The original poster was passing judgment on me on the
basis of what he knew about the individual theorists I've written about.
Since he judged these thinkers to be of poor quality, he expressed a
similar judgment of my work, without ever having looked at it.  Suffice it
to say, THAT attitude would bring intellectual engagement to a halt for
sure.  I think it is important to engage your opponents on the basis of
what they actually say, not on the basis of what you assume they say.  It
is a principle going back to the original Socratic dialectic -- inherent in
dialogue -- that one must engage in the give-and-take of intellectual
discourse, before one passes judgment on the rightness or wrongness of an
argument.  And ultimately, we will have to judge all arguments by whether
they are true or false -- by whether they correspond to reality or not.

Now, it is true, as Carol and Robert seem to suggest, that we don't have
TIME to read everything, and we are certainly not obligated to read
everything.  And sometimes, it is surely justified to say:  I haven't
looked at Y, but it sounds similar to X, and I hate X, and I'm not inclined
to read Y for that reason.  Life is short; there is plenty of work to do.
And we all have our own interests and concerns that prioritize what we do,
and when we do it.

What struck me, however, was that I have been given the same treatment by
those Randian cultists who have condemned my work as -- and this is a quote
"preposterous, destructive, worthless" -- while stating that they have not
actually READ my work, but it is worthless nonetheless, because it is
"obviously" a product of a "corrupt" academic, who was mentored by a
Marxist.  These cultists have so marginalized themselves that they have
become a laughing stock, and one of the prime reasons why Ayn Rand, to this
day, is treated with a smirk.  I reject this kind of approach to passing
judgment on things that one refuses to read -- on principle.

I started out as a fairly straight-forward libertarian.  I went to NYU to
study history, economics, and politics.  When I found Ollman, I was
inspired to study Marx and Marxism -- because I wanted to understand my
opponents better.  When I was finished studying with Ollman, I had absorbed
dialectics with such passion, I had gained enormous respect for the Marxist
tradition.  If I'd simply dismissed Ollman and Marx and the left without
having read them, I would have been that much poorer intellectually.

Finally, Brian suggests that I've fallen back on a discussion of "ideas" so
as to avoid a discussion of the hard material facts.  There is an organic
connection between ideas and reality, between theory and practice.  The
virtue of dialectics is that it compels us to relate the two.  I seek to
alter many of the same material injustices that Jim pointed out in his
original posts.  I have worked with the left for years on everything from
the anti-war and anti-draft movements to standing strong on civil
liberties, gay liberation, and feminism (I coedited a book for a feminist
series as well).  I take the connection between ideas and reality very
seriously.  The purpose of relating my own personal experiences is simply
to put some human form on these otherwise disembodied words and abstractions.


At 04:40 PM 8/26/99 -0500, you wrote:
>Chris Matthew Sciabarra wrote:
>> Take a look at my work before you pass judgment on it.
>I am not concerned in this post with Sciabarra's own work but
>with the general principle embodied in this remark. It is obviosly
>false. (See Craven on opportunity cost.) Just a few feet away from
>where I am typing I note on my shelves the following books which
>I have *not* read, though some of them I have owned for years:
>Kenneth O'Reilly, *Black Americans: The FBI Files*
>Edward Said, *The Politics of Dispossession*
>Nelson Peery, *Black Fire: The Making of an American Revolutinary*
>Samir Amin, *Re-Reading the Postwar Period*
>Normon Solomon, *False Hope: Politics of Illusion in the Clinton
>    Era*
>Howard Zinn, *Postwar America: 1945-1971*
>Raymond Williams, *Problems in Materialism and Culture*
>Eric Foner, *Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men*
>Jerome Miller, *Search and Destroy: African American
>    Males in the Criminal Justice System*
>And many others (and this not the bookcase I reserve for new
>or unread books of special interest)
>Also within a few feet are the following works which I have
>not reread in over a decade:
>Gramsci, *Prison Notebooks*
>E.P. Thompson, *The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays*
>Lunacharsky, *Revolutionary Silouettes*
>Chomsky and Herman, *The Washington Connection and
>    Third World Fascism*
>And I have not reread *Paradise Lost*, the *Republic*, Capital
>Vol. II, ...... in the last year or longer. And this is of course not
>to mention the many must read books which I do not even
>possess a copy of, or the journals that come in each month or
>Everyone has to judge the overwhelming proportion of books
>published each year *without* reading them. One must judge
>most of these without even reading about them. Everyone does
>And yet hardly a week goes by on maillists that someone does
>not pompously proclaim that this, that or the other work must
>be read before one can say anything about it. That attitude, if
>seriously carried through, would bring all intellectual and political
>activity to a halt, forever.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Visiting Scholar
NYU Department of Politics
715 Broadway
New York, New York  10003-6806
Dialectics and Liberty Website:
Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand:

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