Friday, August 22, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 8

Kant contra Rand There appear to be many orthodox Objectivists still in denial about Kant’s influence on history. Despite never having read Kant or the philosophers Kant influenced, they are nevertheless certain that Kant’s influence is precisely as Rand limned it. This prejudice can easily be refuted by quoting any non-controversial account of Kant. Take, as an example, what Karl Popper writes about Kant in the Open Society:
Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, asserted under the influence of Hume that pure speculation or reason, whenever it ventures into a field in which it cannot possibly be checked by experience, is liable to get involved in contradictions or ‘antinomies’ and to produce what he unambiguously described as ‘mere fancies’; ‘nonsense’; ‘illusions’; ‘a sterile dogmatism’; and ‘a superficial pretension to the knowledge of everything’. He tried to show that to every metaphysical assertion or thesis, concerning for example the beginning of the world in time, or the existence of God, there can be contrasted a counter-assertion or antithesis; and both, he held, may proceed from the same assumptions, and can be proved with an equal degree of ‘evidence’. In other words, when leaving the field of experience, our speculation can have no scientific status, since to every argument there must be an equally valid counter-argument. Kant’s intention was to stop once and forever the ‘accursed fertility’ of the scribblers on metaphysics.

Popper’s summation of Kant’s Critique is in line with the mainstream view. Kant’s attack on “pure reason” was not meant as an attack on knowledge as such, but only on speculative knowledge, i.e., claims of knowledge about matters of fact that aren’t backed by evidence. As Thomas Henry Huxley put it:
The aim of the Kritik der reinen Verunft is essentially the same as that of the Treatise of Human Nature, by which, indeed, Kant was led to develop that “critical philosophy” with which his name and fame are indissolubly bound up: and, if the details of Kant’s criticism differ from those of Hume, they coincide with them in their main result, which is the limitation of all knowledge of reality to the world of phenomena revealed to us by experience.

Kant’s basic position can be summed up from the famous aphorism from the preface of the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason: “Concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind.” Whatever errors and mistakes Kant may have committed in explicating and developing this seminal insight, the principle itself remains sound. Nor would even Rand necessarily have disagreed with it, even if she might have quibbled about the terms in which the principle is expressed.

An anonymous commentator in an earlier post insisted “that Kant's philosophy and Objectivism are diametrically opposed.” This is a bit of exaggeration. Even in the field of ethics, where the differences between Kant and Rand are the most striking, there are still similarities (e.g., they are both absolutists, and they both believe in “autonomy”). So would Rand have necessarily disagreed with Kant’s view that “when leaving the field of experience, our speculation can have no scientific status”?

Orthodox Objectivists (including Rand herself) have always been vague on this point. While Rand and her disciples will occasionally stress the importance of keeping one’s concepts in touch with reality and avoiding what they call “floating abstractions,” if we judge Objectivists by how they act rather than on what they say it becomes clear that they really are quite attached to the type of speculative reason that Kant (and Hume) criticizes. Rarely do Rand or Peikoff provide detailed, convincing evidence for their numerous controversial assertions. If they deign to advance any kind of argument at all, it is nearly always of a wantonly speculative and, ipso facto verbalistic nature. Rand’s entire theory of human nature is merely a speculative leap from her equally speculative defense of free will! One can hardly get more rationalistic and non-empirical than that!

To the extent that there is real difference between Rand and Kant on this issue “pure” reason, it is Kant, not Rand, that is on the side of science, truth and realism. The world is weary of philosophers who seek to determine matters of fact with logical, rhetorical, or moral constructions. The sort of “reason” that Objectivists actually practice (as opposed to vague, amorphous “reason” they theorize about and provide genuflect-like homage to) is merely a futile exercise in generating concepts without percepts. Kant and Hume were right to criticize such an approach. To the extent that this aspect of their philosophy has been influential, it has been influential for the better. Objectivism, on the other hand, would, if it exercised any influence at all on this issue, would constitute a step backwards for the human intellect.


Rob Diego said...

This person obviously has not read Rand or Peikoff. This piece is just propaganda for those that have never read Rand either. Rand and Peikoff both discuss Kant's philosophy in detail and extensively and on virtually every key issue, Kant is the diametric opposite of Kant. But then I don't expect you to actually read Rand so you'll never know.

gregnyquist said...

Diego: "Rand and Peikoff both discuss Kant's philosophy in detail and extensively and on virtually every key issue, Kant is the diametric opposite of Kant. But then I don't expect you to actually read Rand so you'll never know."

This doesn't make sense even on its own terms. Wouldn't the individual, in order to know whether Rand and Kant are in fact "diametric opposites," have to read both Rand and Kant? Since I doubt that Mr. Diego has read much Kant, how does he know that Kant and Rand are diametric opposites?

Perhaps it's best, at this point, to consult a scholar who has clearly read both Rand and Kant, namely, George Walsh. Here is what Walsh has to say about the similarities between Kant and Rand:

The main similarities between Rand and Kant consists in the following points:

(1) They both accept the existence of a world whose major constituents they call entities or objects and regard as ordered in a system of space, time and causality and perceived by men generally. This world Kant calls “empirical reality” and Rand calls simply “reality.” In contrast to this world are some illusions and delusions whether individual or collective. These can be detected and corrected by the application of ordinary rules and processes. (But Rand interprets Kant as saying that the whole of what he calls “empirical reality” is itself a “collective delusion,” which is universal in scope.)
(2) They both agree that the proper use of man’s perceptual and conceptual faculties, in other words, his reason, in dealing with this world, results in knowledge.
(3) They both agree that man, by accepting this world as metaphysically given, i.e., “outside the power of any volition” (Rand), can adjust to it, control it and thrive in it.
(4) They both agree that in dealing epistemologically with the universe as a whole, we cannot treat it as an entity in the sense in which we call a table or a chair an entity, and can deal with it only in terms of the most fundamental concepts.

Tenure said...


I think you miss the point, or more importantly Mr Walsh misses the point.

Yes, they both accept the existence of a world, understandable by perception, understandable by knowledge. They agree, there are fundamental concepts in this world. They agree, this world is metaphysically given.

The point is though, that Rand does not see it as 'this world' as opposed to any other world. The great evil of Kant was that he recognised all these things... and then split them apart from reality. He claimed all these rational things were just arbitrary inventions of the noumenal world, which had nothing to do with actual reality. (And the same with sensible things and the phenomenal world).
We can create all our fun little theories in this metaphysical fantasy, but it has nothing to do with how things actually are. The actual truths are only to be found through faith in the arbitrary inventions. His entire philosophy rests on this idea that man's mind is ultimately impotent and can only rely on a faithful connection to reality, not an objective, known connection.

There is a lot that can be said about interepreting Kant and where it can lead you (as I know some posit that even though he held this duality of the world, some interepret it as a duality of perspective [which still begs the question: which is the most reliable perspective; and, what is our standard for knowledge and truth?]) but it cannot be denied that whilst he accepted all these commonalities with Rand, his very point was that they have nothing to do with reality.

gregnyquist said...

Tenure: "The great evil of Kant ... [is that he] claimed all these rational things were just arbitrary inventions of the noumenal world, which had nothing to do with actual reality."

I highly doubt that Kant himself, if he were still around, would agree with this. Where exactly does Kant say that science and empirical fact checking are "arbitary inventions"? Moreover, whatever mistakes Kant may have made (and he made a lot of them), I don't think they rise to the level of "great evil." The worst things in the Critique are Kant's doctrine of the ideality of time and space (which curiously, Rand never mentioned) and his absurd belief that reality is unknowable. These are two of the least influential aspects of Kant's philosophy; nor did Kant himself consistently adhere to them. But even if they are bad (mostly bad in the sense of being ridiculous), why are they evil? They are, after all, mere "paper beliefs," as C. S. Pierce would call them: the sort of things that philosophers believe while speculating in their ivory towers but entirely forget as soon as they turn to any practical business. So why exclusively dwell on such things, while ignoring the better side of Kant, the side explicated by Karl Popper in the above post?