Objectivists claim to "take ideas seriously," yet are notorious for bad arguments and worse scholarship. Regular ARCHNblog contributor Neil Parille continues his series detailing some key examples of this problem. (Part 1 here) This week, he examines Leonard Peikoff's debut "The Ominous Parallels."
In part one of this essay I discussed some of the problems with the Objectivist theory of history. Here I will discuss Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels, in which Peikoff applies Rand’s philosophy of cultural change to a concrete historical episode.
The Ominous Parallels (“OP”) was published in 1982 with a preface by Ayn Rand. Peikoff’s thesis is that the rise of the Nazis was the direct result of the influence of Immanuel Kant on German philosophy and culture. Kant inspired even more irrational philosophers as Hegel and Fichte, who went on to influence twentieth century German speaking irrationalists such as Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Karl Barth, Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger (most of whom, curiously enough, were anti-Nazi). This intellectual climate paved the way for the Nazis to take control of Germany in 1933. Peikoff gives short shrift to the Great Depression, the Treaty of Versailles, and mistakes made by anti-Nazi politicians to mount an effective resistance to Hitler as explanations for the rise of Nazism.
The most obvious problem for Peikoff is that Kant was not a Nazi or even a proto-Nazi. His political views were generally of the classical liberal variety. The second formulation of the categorical imperative (which Peikoff never quotes in his lengthy discussion of Kant’s ethics) is the rather un-Nazi sounding “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.” For any number of reasons, Kant seems particularly ill-suited as the intellectual godfather of Adolph Hitler.
A larger problem is Peikoff’s assumption that the influence of ideas flows one way (from bad to worse) and that later thinkers will inevitably draw the conclusions that Objectivists assert must be drawn from bad ideas. Peikoff does not establish (or even attempt to establish) that his and Rand’s idiosyncratic understanding of Kant was accepted by German philosophers and intellectuals. In addition, Peikoff does not show (or again even attempts to show) that German intellectuals drew the political conclusions that he thinks are inevitable from Kantian philosophy. Such a demonstration would require the review of an enormous amount of literature (most of it untranslated) by German intellectuals from Kant to 1933. If Kant’s immediate followers were not collectivists of the Nazi variety, any claim that Kantianism leads inevitably to collectivism or Auschwitz (which Peikoff alleges was Kant’s “dream”) is rather dubious.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that there are only a couple of Nazis whom Peikoff cites as finding support in Kant. The first is Lothar Gottlieb Tirala. Peikoff calls him a “philosophically trained Nazi ideologist” who believed that Aristotle was non-Aryan. (OP, pp. 57, 65-66.) I suspect that Tirala first came to Peikoff’s attention through von Mises’ works Human Action and Omnipotent Government. Von Mises discusses him as a representative advocate of “polylogism,” the belief that different classes or races employ different logic. Tirala was a physician who headed the Nazi’s Institute for Racial Hygiene. He was seen as something of an eccentric even by most Nazis because of his theory that proper breathing could cure a host of diseases. He does not appear to have been taken seriously as a philosopher. (Best I can tell, his only work translated into English was The Cure of High Blood Pressure by Respiratory Exercises.)
The second is Adolph Eichmann. Peikoff relies exclusively on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, her famous account of his 1961 trial. According to Peikoff, “[h]e was a faithful Kantian Adolph Eichmann told his Israeli judges.” (OP, p. 96.) As Fred Seddon shows, Peikoff’s use of Arendt is highly misleading.
As David Ramsay Steele notes, one of the presuppositions of Objectivist theory is that there is a “tight fit” between metaphysics and epistemology on the one hand and ethics and politics on the other. However, the one theme running through Nazi ideology is not Kantianism or even philosophy, but biology and race. Fanciful theories of Aryan supremacy were probably accepted by the average Nazi not because of epistemology but because of the all too human need to find scapegoats in a time of crisis. Peikoff is aware that the rise of the Nazis took place simultaneously with the acceptance by many intellectuals of esoteric racial theories of Aryan superiority, but makes the dubious claim that these ideas were believed only because bad philosophy paved the way for them. Of course many German philosophers such as Hegel and Fichte were ardent nationalists, but it does not appear that they advocated proto-Nazi racial ideas. Even the most prominent philosopher who was a member of the Nazi party (Martin Heidegger) did not accept Nazi racial theories completely. If one had asked the average Nazi (or even Nazi intellectual) why he believed in racist ideology I would be surprised if he gave reasons having anything to do with the philosophies of Kant, Hegel or Fichte.
Interestingly enough, probably the most widely quoted philosopher by the Nazis was Friedrich Nietzsche. Unlike the obscure and abstruse Kant, Nietzsche actually sounds like a Nazi, at least at times. His philosophy is also tinged with racial and biological overtones. This is not to say that he would have approved of the Nazism, but if Nazism should be laid at the feet of any thinker (a dubious proposition) it would be Nietzsche. As readers of the ARCHNblog know, Rand admired Nietzsche and echoes of his philosophy show up even in her later works. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Peikoff (always eager to defend Rand) tells us that his influence on the rise of the Nazis is “debatable.” (OP, p. 43.)
- Neil Parille