Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 7

Who is this guy Mansel? Among academics, one of the most controversial aspects of orthodox Objectivism is its interpretation of modern philosophy. Rand’s views on Hume, Kant, Hegel, William James, Dewey, Russell, et al. As Gary Merrill puts it:
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.


Anonymous said...

A few points I would like to make:

1. Kant was Hitler's favorite philosopher and I do not think that I have to describe Hitler's interpretation too you.

2. Speaking of poor scholarship, you can't explain that Rand did a bad job with Kant and thus had no concept of ANYONE else. You have to understand that Rand was not from the formal school of philosophical thought, and was largely self-instructed; this, to me, is actually impressive and illustrates her as a thinker not corrupted by the establishment.

3. I can see you can't help but throw in the word "poverty" wherever you can (even when it makes absolutely no contextual sense, and stylistically sounds awkward) with Rand because you can't adequately refute her economic (which are perfect).

Damien said...
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Damien said...


I never heard that Kant was Hitler's favorite philosopher before. But even if that was true, how does it prove that Kant or even his ideas were responsible for the Holocaust? What if Hitler misinterpreted Kant, or took him out of context? What if Kant's Philosophy was so vague that it could have been used to support Nazism and to oppose Nazism at the same time? There have been others who admired Kant, but despised Hitler.

If a Mr. X claimed that Rand was his favorite philosopher, owned and had read all her books, and was also a convicted child rapist, who tortured and murdered his victims, would you blamed Rand for his Pedophilia, his sadism or his disregard for the lives of those innocent children? Would you consider Rand or Objectivism responsible for what Mr X did?

Damien said...
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Damien said...


Note that I forgot to mention, assume Mr. X read all of Rands books before he committed his first crime.

Michael Prescott said...

I've read a few books about Hitler, and I don't recall any of them saying that he read Kant or was directly influenced by Kantianism. Hitler was not much of an intellectual; he liked to read tabloid newspapers and pseudoscientific racist tracts. He doesn't appear to have been interested in metaphysical or epistemological issues, though he may have picked up some philosophical jargon here and there.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what Rand's specific knowledge of Kant was; however there's no question that Kant's philosophy and Objectivism are diametrically opposed:

1. Kant believes that human consciousness is structured to produce the representation of reality we experience as the world. Rand believes (correctly, in my view) that the world exists prior to consciousness, that we perceive it directly, and that perception and consciousness are our means of identifying, conceptualizing and integrating the objective reality in which we exist.

2. Kant then goes full mystic by assuming an unknowable world beyond the one of experience. We can't know anything of this world--oops--except that we somehow know we must do our duty. Obviously Randian egoism is opposed to that aspect of Kant's theory as well.

I could go on, quoting passages of Kant and Rand to demonstrate their fundamental differences, but what's the point? If you've read both, the contrast is clear. Criticize Rand's position all you want, but there is no question that she understood the fundamentals of Kant's system, since her own system directly refutes his mistakes.

But that's just my non-PhD, average joe opinion. Please don't take my word for it; read both and decide for yourself.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't trying to blame the Holocaust on Kant. What I meant was to invalidate your statement claiming that no one else interprets Kant the same way Rand did, thought it seems Hitler was pleased while Rand was horrified. While you may doubt the factual validity of my statement, I can at least tell you that it is my understanding that Kant was influential in Hitler's conversion to atheism and an ideology of socialism; furthermore, Kantianism would in a sense (it is of course a stretch) be a metaphysical justification for national socialism and genocide.

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "I wasn't trying to blame the Holocaust on Kant. What I meant was to invalidate your statement claiming that no one else interprets Kant the same way Rand did, thought it seems Hitler was pleased while Rand was horrified."

Since I never claim that "no one else" shared Rand's interpretation of Kant (merely that "nearly everyone else" shared that interpretation), I have no idea where this is coming from. Can any serious person really question the fact that Rand's interpretation of Kant is out of the mainstream, that most scholars (particularly Kant scholars) disagree with it? Anon can disagree with this position if he likes; but he should at least appreciate the fact that his view goes against what most educated believe, and that if he wants to be taken seriously, he really should provide some evidence for his view. Nor does an exception or two constitute evidence, since I have never claimed that no one shares Rand's view of Kant (conservatives in 20s and 30s under the influence of Santayana, for example, may have shared Rand's view). What is needed is evidence most people (or at least most elites) have shared Rand's interpretation of Kant. Otherwise, the dilemma introduced in my post comes into effect: Rand is either wrong about Kant or wrong about Kant's influence.

Michael Prescott said...

Kantianism would in a sense (it is of course a stretch) be a metaphysical justification for national socialism and genocide.

I know Peikoff argues this way in The Ominous Parallels, but I don't find him convincing. Such broad abstractions can probably be tied to any political or social movement. One might just as well argue that Aristotelianism or Thomism "caused" Nazism.

National socialism was more of a pragmatic political arrangement, a way of uniting the German right (nationalists) with the German left (socialists). It was very clever, really; two sides that hated each other ended up working together. But I don't see any metaphysical underpinnings; the Nazi movement was a compromise born of straightforward political calculation.

As for genocide, the main impetus seems to have been the virulent anti-Semitism prevalent at the time. To the extent that there was any intellectual justification offered for Nazi eugenics, it was Social Darwinism, which profoundly influenced several generations of German intellectuals. See the worthwhile book From Darwin to Hitler, by Richard Weikart, for a detailed analysis with many quotations. (No one is saying Darwinists were proto-Nazis, only that the Darwinist idea, interpreted in a certain way, provided a rationale for racial "purification.")

My reading of Nazism is that it was a melange of different elements - eugenics, anti-Semitism, militant nationalism, fascistic economics with a populist spin, resentment over the humiliation of Germany in WWI, despair following the hyperinflation that wiped out the German economy, mystical and occult currents mainly inspired by Wagner's fascination with Teutonic mythology, anti-Christian bigotry imported from Nietzsche, and above all the deification of Adolf Hitler himself.

At its root, Nazism was a cult of personality organized around Hitler, who was viewed as a divine being. One small example: German children were taught new lyrics to the hymn "Silent Night"; in the new version, the hymn celebrates the birth of Hitler, not Jesus.

In terms of pathology, the Nazis were not much different from other cultists like the followers of David Koresh or Jim Jones. The difference is that Hitler was skillful enough to take advantage of a badly weakened and demoralized country, using the new technology of mass communication to bend the populace to his will.