These sorts of things [i.e., Rand’s sweeping, unsubstantiated generalizations] would not be so bad, though they are bad, were it not for the fact that she so frequently gets things wrong. There is the business above concerning Russell [i.e., of Russell allegedly “kinda” knowing the meaning of the concept of number]. There is the claim (p. 59) that “modern philosophers declare that axioms are a matter of arbitrary choice.” (no substantiation or reference is provided). There is the claim (p. 52) that “It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist”. (Any of you Aristotle scholars want to wade in here with a brief account of particulars vs. concretes?) And none of this comes with even a hint of specific attribution that would allow a reader to evaluate it. The closest she gets is along the lines of (p. 60) “For example, see the works of Kant and Hegel.” Now that really narrows it down!
Rand’s interpretation of Kant is perhaps the most controversial of all. Again, to quote Merrill:
Rand mentions Kant repeatedly (he seems to be the guy she loves to hate), but there is absolutely nothing that is specific. She never quotes Kant directly, but when she apparently feels a need to justify her view of Kant she instead quotes from a book published in 1873 by Henry Mansel whom she describes as “a Kantian”. Again, I am not an expert on Kant, but who is this guy Mansel? I can find him mentioned in none of the histories of philosophy I have, and he is not mentioned in the fairly extensive bibliography on Kant in Lewis Beck’s 18th-Century Philosophy. So direct reference to Kant is replaced by reference to “a Kantian” (and a very obscure one at that). Why do this? Why not show how Kant himself held the position that is being attacked? There is no justification for this sort of thing. Again, poor scholarship. (I do not, by the way, believe that even the quote from Mansel supports Rand’s view of Kant. But I will not argue that point now.)
Even neo-Objectivists such as George Walsh and Fred Seddon have challenged Rand’s take on Kant. And one would be hard pressed to find any Kantian scholars of note who would agree with Rand’s assessment. There seems to be little room for doubt on this question: Rand got Kant wrong. What affect does this have on the Randian philosophy of history?
An important component of the Objectivist philosophy of history is Rand’s take on modern philosophy. Kant and the moderns have to be bad for the whole Randian eschatology to make any of sense. So if Rand is wrong about Kant and other modern philosophers, this provides us one additional reason to reject the Objectivist philosophy of history as mere a tissue of distortions and arrogant ignorance.
Yet this is not all. Even if Rand’s interpretation of Kant and other modern philosophers turned out to be correct, her philosophy of history would still have serious problems. Because even if Rand’s interpretation were correct, the fact that nearly everyone else has interpreted Kant differently it itself would constitute an insurmountable objection. Central to the Objectivist philosophy of history is the notion that Kant’s philosophy as interpreted by Rand exercised a pernicious influence on Western Civilization. But if most philosophers and intellectuals did not interpret Kant the way Rand did, then it would impossible for Kant to have the kind of influence that Objectivists ascribe to him.
The same line of reasoning can be extended to any of other controversial interpretations of philosophy offered by Rand and her orthodox disciples. If Rand is wrong in her interpretation, then the philosopher in question could not possibly have exercised the influence Rand ascribes to him; and if Rand is right in her interpretation and nearly everyone else wrong, then the philosopher’s influence differs from his actual philosophy. Either way, it demonstrates the poverty of the Objectivist philosophy of history. If an individual is in fact influenced by a specific philosopher, it is not the philosophy per se which exercises the influence, but the individual’s interpretation of that philosophy. If individuals routinely misinterpret a philosophy, it will be the prevailing misinterpretations, not the actual intended philosophy, that is critical in assessing questions of influence.