Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Intellectual Sources of Rand's View of Kant

Where did Rand pick up the notion that Kant's philosophical aim was to destroy reason to make way for faith and mysticism? Given that Rand probably never read Kant and that what she wrote about Kant has been refuted several times by two of her admirers (Walsh and Seddon), how can we account for Rand's declaration that Kant is the "man who closed the door of philosophy to reason"?

Kant, it is true, did admit in the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Reason that "we have to deny knowledge to make room for faith." But this is hardly the equivalent of full-fledged attack on man's conceptual faculty. Where, then, did Rand get the idea that not merely Kant, but his critical philosophy, is opposed to reason?

One possibility is Chapter 4 of George Santayana's Reason in Common Sense. While it is unlikely that Rand ever read Santayana, she may have got Santayana's take on Kant second-hand through someone who had read him. Of all the major philosophers that came before Rand, Santayana's view of Kant comes closest to Rand. "Kant," writes Santayana, "had a private mysticism in reserve to raise upon the ruins of science and common-sense. Knowledge was to be removed to make way for faith." Santayana contended that there lurked a "sinister intention" in Kant's substitution of faith for knowledge. "[Kant] wished to blast as insignificant, because 'subjective,' the whole structure of human intelligence, with all the lessons of experience and all the triumphs of human skill, and to attach absolute validity instead to certain echoes of his rigoristic religious education.... Nature had been proved a figment of human imagination so that, once rid of all but a mock allegiance to her facts and laws, we might be free to invent any world we chose and believe it to be absolutely real and independent of nature. Strange prepossession, that while part of human life and mind was to be an avenue to reality and to put men in relation to external and eternal things, the whole of human life and mind should not be able to do so!" As for Kant's morality, Santayana regarded it as a "personal superstition, irrelevant to the impulse and need of the world. [Kant's] notions of the supernatural were those of his sect and generation, and did not pass to his more influential disciples; what was transmitted was simply the contempt for sense and understanding and the practice, authorized by his modest example, of building air-castles in the great clearing which the Critique was supposed to have made."

Rand would have agreed with virtually everything in Santayana's critique, particularly about Kant's motivation, except that she would have wished to translate it into her own strange philosophical terms. Kant, she argued, invalidated man's knowledge on the grounds that man's "consciousness possesses identity." This is intolerably vague. How much better is Santayana when he writes: "Conceptions rooted in the very elements of our being, in our sense, intellect, and imagination, which had shaped themselves through many generations under a constant fire of observation and disillusion, these were to be called subjective, not only in the sense in which all knowledge must obviously be so, since it is knowledge that someone possesses and has gained, but subjective in a disparaging sense, and in contrast to some better form of knowledge. But what better form of knowledge is this? If it be knowledge of things as they really are and not as they appear, we must remember that reality means what the intellect infers from the data of sense; and yet the principles of such inference, by which the distinction between appearance and reality is first instituted, are precisely the principles now to be discarded as subjective and of merely empirical validity."

We find an echo of Santayana's argument in Rand when she writes: "[T]he attack on man's consciousness and ... on his conceptual faculty has rested on the unchallenged premise that any knowledge acquired by a process of consciousness is necessarily subjective and cannot correspond to the facts of reality." But how much better is Santayana's explication of the same point! Santayana gets right down to the heart of the matter without the scholastic trappings that Rand brings to the table with her penchant for reducing all disagreements to a failure to observe the law of identity and the other Objectivist axioms. Of course, Santayana had a huge advantage over Rand: he had actually read Kant in the original German and had even studied Kant in Germany under German professors. So his criticisms, whether one agrees with them or not, at least are well-thought out and plausible. Rand's criticisms, to the extent that they're plausible at all, merely repeat those of Santayana. But in rewording them in terms of her own philosophy, she weakens them and opens herself to criticism. (Peikoff is even worse in this respect.)

And so from this, we can make a generalization which will help place Rand's achievement as a philosopher in proper perspective. You take almost any position that Rand holds, whether good, bad, or indifferent, and you'll find that position more ably supported by someone else.


Unknown said...

In other words, Rand had no primary or secondary sources for her views of Kant - at least, none that she ever cited.

This alone should make any honest intellectual approach her ideas with a very skeptical eye.

Anonymous said...

I think this argument contains too many assumptions about Rand's knowledge of Kant and Santayana.

Paul said...

The primary academic criticisms I've read of Rand seem to rest on her supposedly faulty and/or insufficient descriptions of other philosophers. I don't care about Rand's, or any philosopher's, description of other philosophers. I realize that this is what academic philosophers do, but the purpose of philosophy is not the study and description of other people's philosophy, but the explanation of their own philosophy. By the standard that academics seem to be espousing here, we shouldn't judge Beethoven or the Beatles by their music, but by the degree to which they've dedicated their lives studying *other* musicians! Frankly, who cares? Would you rather have had Beethoven dedicate his life to studying previous musicians or to writing his own music? Judge objectivism by its merits, not by whether Rand accurately described the philosophy of a man from two centuries before she lived. Also, remember that Rand had limited space in her essays to discuss Kant. She had to try to reduce it to a sentence or two here or there. If her critiques of him are incorrect, that's fine to point out, but thinking that this somehow rebuts objectivism is just silly.

Daniel Barnes said...

>The primary academic criticisms I've read of Rand seem to rest on her supposedly faulty and/or insufficient descriptions of other philosophers.

Then you need to read more primary criticisms. For example, this site.

>Also, remember that Rand had limited space in her essays to discuss Kant.

What, there was a paper shortage in the '50s and 60s? Err...she didn't write a column for the NYT you know - she had her own newsletters. She could write what the hell she wanted, for as long as she wanted. She could have even, y'know, written, like, a whole essay on Kant, taking his philosophy apart line by line. After all, she claimed he was the greatest criminal in mankind's history, and was knowingly responsible for the holocaust. Yet, oh whoops, she kinda ran out of space to discuss him in detail...? What next: the dog ate her citations? This is probably the lamest Randian excuse for her feeble scholarship yet, and I've heard a few.

>thinking that this somehow rebuts objectivism is just silly.

No one is arguing that Rand's poor scholarship rebuts Objectivism - it is this comment that is silly. What the essay argues (as does the rest in the series) is that "you take almost any position that Rand holds, whether good, bad, or indifferent, and you'll find that position more ably supported by someone else." As the saying goes, Rand's philosophy is both good and original; the good part is not original and the original part is not good.

Now, as to the Beatles comparison: if the Beatles had declared their music the only valid music in the last 2000 years, and that all other music was wrong or evil, especially modern music, and that the future of mankind depended on the world listening to their records, and if they'd said that Mozart was a criminal whose music led to the rise of Nazi Germany, then you might have some basis for your comparison. But they didn't, so you don't.

Because Rand isn't the Beatles. She's Noel Gallagher.