Rebirth of Reason


Immanuel Kant: Ayn Rand’s Intellectual Enemy
by Edward W. Younkins

Ayn Rand considers Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and his philosophy to be evil and condemns what she perceives as the intended goal, methods, and conclusions of his philosophical arguments. She accused Kant of hating life, man, and reason. Rand observed that, since Kant, the dominant trend in philosophy has been aimed at the destruction of the human mind and that a philosophy seeking to destroy man’s mind is a philosophy of hatred for man, his life, and all human values. In Kant’s teachings, Rand saw contempt and detestation of the strong, able, successful, virtuous, confident, and the happy. It follows that Rand’s own philosophical system was an attempt to exalt happiness and to answer and oppose Kant’s epistemology and ethical theory. It is no wonder that Tibor Machan called his chapter on Kant “Rand’s Moriarty” in his book, Ayn Rand. The purpose of this essay is to explain the reasons for Rand’s hatred of Kant. In order to do this, Kant’s ideas will be given a distinctly Randian interpretation in this paper.

Kant Answers Hume

The main philosophical issue as viewed by Immanuel Kant was to save science by answering skeptic David Hume (1711-1776), who declared that man’s mind was only a collection of perceptions in which there are no causal connections. Hume argued that all knowledge is from experience and that we are incapable of experiencing causality. He explained that causality, as well as entities, are only true by association and customary belief. Causality is merely man’s habit of associating things together because of experiencing them together in the past. Necessary connections between objects or events are not implied by experiences of priority, contiguity, and constant conjunction.

Hume alleged that experience does not give us necessity or mustness. He said that things are contingently true, but that they could be otherwise. We can imagine them being different than what we have experienced in the past. Just because something occurred in a certain way in the past does not mean that it has to occur in the same way in the future. We cannot say with certainty that there are objects, identity, causality, order, and other laws of reality. Hume’s conclusion was that we are forced to be skeptics. Science is thus destroyed at its foundation because science deals with causal connections.

David Hume had contended that neither inductive nor deductive reasoning can supply men with real, certain, and necessary knowledge. He asserted that he has never seen “causality” nor experienced “self” or “consciousness.” According to Hume, men merely experience a fleeting flow of sensations and feelings. He also observed that the apparent existence of something did not guarantee that it would be there an instant later. Hume thus surmised that consciousness was limited to the perceptual level of awareness.

Desiring to refute Hume’s conclusions, Kant searched for the perceptual manifestation of necessity. In order to avoid the conclusions reached by Hume, it was essential for Kant to build a formidable philosophical structure.

The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy

Kant divided propositions into two types – analytic which are true by definition and synthetic which assert empirical facts. He said that analytic statements are logically true but provide no information about reality and that synthetic statements provide information about reality but cannot be logically proven. Analytic truths can be validated through an analysis of the meanings of its component concepts and synthetic propositions cannot be validated through an analysis of the definitions of its constituent concepts. Analytic truths are necessary, logical, and tautological whereas synthetic truths are contingent, unprovable and factual. According to Kant, one cannot irrefutably prove a synthetic proposition.

For Kant, analytical truths are logical and can be validated independent of experience. These propositions are a priori and non-empirical. On the other hand, he said that synthetic propositions or truths are empirical, a posteriori, and dependent upon experience in order to be validated. Kant contended that analytic propositions provide no information about reality and that synthetic ones are factual but are uncertain, unprovable, and contingent.

According to Rand, there is no basis upon which to differentiate analytic propositions from synthetic ones. Her theory of concepts undermines Kant’s idea of an analytic-synthetic dichotomy. For Rand, concepts express classifications of observed existents according to their relationship to other observed entities. Rand explains that a concept refers to the actual existents which it integrates including all their characteristics currently known and those not yet known. She argued that concepts subsume all of  the attributes of the existents to which they refer and not simply the ones included in the definition. Her objective theory of concepts is the tool she used to abrogate Kant’s analytic-synthetic dichotomy.

Kant’s analytic truths are in reality contingent upon what is included in the espoused “meaning” of a concept. The way Kant formulates his theory allows a person to validate a concept merely by including an attribute in the meaning of a concept. Choices are made regarding what characteristics are included in a definition and which are not. Depending upon whether or not a specific characteristic is included in the definition determines whether or not the characteristic is a necessary one or merely a contingent one!

The Nature of A Priori Knowledge

In his attempt to refute Hume, Kant declared that there were synthetic a priori categories or concepts built into the human mind. Kant argued that concepts are certain inherent features of human consciousness. Man’s basic concepts (e.g., time, space, entity, causality, etc.) are not derived from reality or experience, but instead stem from an automatic system of filters in his consciousness. These filters, which he called categories and forms of perception, dictate their own structure on his perception and conception of the external world thus making it impossible for him to perceive and conceive it in any other way than the one in which in fact he does perceive and conceive it. Empirical reality, according to Kant, conforms to the mind of man which lays down a “grid,” consisting of the categories and the intuitions of time and space, over “things in themselves.” Because men have no choice in whether or not they apply this grid to experience, it follows that people cannot know the real world and can only have appearances as our minds have created them.

According to Kant, the a priori includes what is in the mind before one has any sense experiences plus whatever judgments the mind is capable of making which are not based on sense experience. The forms of space and time and the transcendental categories are innate in the mind and comprise its structure prior to a person’s sense experience. He says that the common experience that everyone shares has the appearance and character it does because it has been given the makeup it has by the inherent structure of the human mind.

Phenomenal and Noumenal Reality

Kant attempted to demonstrate that the world that we experience is not the real world. The real world does not include our species concepts of space, time, entity, causality, and so on. He contended that the phenomenal world of appearances that we experience is metaphysically inferior to the noumenal world of true reality. The noumenal world is the world of things in themselves, higher truth, and real reality.

Kant explains that the phenomenal world is the world of earthly physical reality including man’s senses, perceptions, reason, and science. This phenomenal world, as perceived by a man’s mind, is a distortion or misrepresentation of the real world. Kant contends that the distorting mechanism is man’s conceptual faculty itself. He argued that that what the human mind perceives and conceives the world to be is not the world as it really is but rather as it appears to a specifically structured human reasoning faculty.

Kant’s Attack on Consciousness

Kant laments the fact that a person can only perceive and comprehend things through his own consciousness. He also explains that men are limited to a consciousness of a particular nature which perceives and conceives through particular means. For Kant, man’s knowledge lacks validity because his consciousness possesses identity. According to Kant, knowledge, to be valid, must not be processed in any way of consciousness. Kant’s criterion for truth is to perceive “things in themselves” unprocessed by any consciousness. For Kant only knowledge independent of perception is valid. Unfortunately, such knowledge is impossible!

He argues that human knowledge is subjective because it is not relevant to “things in themselves.” Real truth is unknowable because to know it a person would have to relate to reality directly without depending upon his conceptual mechanism. For Kant, the real is the object “in itself” out of all relation to a subject. This means that the consciousness or awareness of things cannot be mediated by any process or faculty whose nature affects the appearance of the object because any process or faculty would distort one’s perceptual awareness. According to Kant, everything is merely phenomenal that is relative and everything is relative that is an object with respect to a conscious subject. Kant is looking for knowledge that could be called absolute, unqualified, pure, or diaphanous.

Kant maintains that identity, which itself is the essence of existence, invalidates consciousness. Any knowledge attained by a process of consciousness is inescapably subjective and therefore cannot match the facts of reality, because it is processed or altered knowledge. Whereas all consciousness is a relationship between a subject and an object, it follows that for a person to acquire a knowledge of what is real, he would have to go outside of his consciousness. To know what is true a man would have to abandon his own nature, which is an absurd impossibility. In order to know true reality requires a consciousness not limited by any specific means of cognition. This is the criterion or goal of Kant’s argument.

Ayn Rand sees the Kantian argument as an attack on all forms of consciousness. Because consciousness exists, it possesses particular means and forms of cognition and thus is invalidated by Kant as a faculty of cognition. It follows that because men depend upon the type of mental constitution they have, that man’s mind is impotent, reality is unknowable, and knowledge is merely an illusion. According to Kant, if consciousness possesses its own identity, then it cannot grasp the identity of anything external to it. The Kantian argument thus divorces reason from reality. Reason, according to Kant, is limited, only deals with appearances, and is unable to perceive reality or “things as they are in themselves.” Reason is powerless to deal with the fundamental metaphysical concerns of existence which properly reside in the noumenal world which is unknowable.

Kant’s Gimmick

For Kant, the cognitive structure that all men have in common is what creates the phenomenal world. Man’s innate mental structure is what gives rise to the empirical world. Kant explains that man’s categories or concepts form a collective delusion from which no human being can escape. In essence, Kant’s gimmick involved switching the collective for the objective when he advanced the idea of common mental categories collectively creating a phenomenal world. He also reassigned the validity of reason from its place in the objective world to the collective delusional world. Reality as perceived by man’s mind is a distortion and man’s mind is a distorting faculty.

Kant’s concern is with judgments that can be known with certainty. He says that this disqualifies reason because of a priori limitations on what can be known via reason. Because the mind’s categories are limited to appearances, knowledge of the real world is foreclosed. The inability to know reality leads to relativism and skepticism. 

Pure Reason, Duty, and Good Will

According to Kant, the deepest level of reality is inaccessible to human rationality. For him, rational certainty is impossible. He says that to “know” the other higher reality that is teleologically ordered and exempt from time, space, causality, etc., a man needs to turn to feeling, intuition, or faith that exists in the form of pure a priori judgments or intuitions. Kant’s solution was to try to demonstrate that the “real” and the “ought” rests in something called pure reason that is metaphysically intrinsic to all persons. He said that the “real” and the “ought” are different form what we know through experience. Kant contends that intellectual intuition (i.e., pure reason) has the function of accessing these a priori ideas.

Kant assigns one’s emotions the power to know the metaphysically superior “unknowable” noumenal world by indefinable means that he termed “pure reason.” Pure reason resides in a special inexplicable or incomprehensible instinct for duty. Duty is a categorical impulse that one “just knows.” Kant held that an action is moral only if a person performs it out of a special sense of duty. Morality is therefore derived through feelings from the noumenal dimension of reality. Duty involves inspiration supplied by, or emanating from, noumenal reality itself. Given his reliance on the noumenal realm, Kant makes morality appear to be mystical.

According to Kant, a person must act from duty which he views as an act of pure or abject selflessness. One’s duty is thus to sacrifice himself to duty which is a dictate of pure reason. Moral duties are categorical imperatives that hold for all rational beings with absolute certainty regardless of their desires, individual characteristics, and other contingent factors. Kant’s fundamental principle of morality thus binds a person independently of any particular ends or preferences he may have. Kantian morality pertains to actions that apply categorically and that are good in themselves. Duty is the requirement to act out of respect of the moral law rather than from one’s desires or inclinations.

Kant declared that his altruist morality was derived from pure reason. He said that only “knowledge” of the concept of duty from pure reason can succeed in deriving the moral law. Kant views morality as a set of rules embedded in pure reason. Pure reason or intellectual intuition is the means used to gain moral knowledge.

Kant maintains that a person should do what conforms to having a good will and that the ought is inherent in pure reason. For Kant the good will, the will acting from duty, is unconditionally good. He argues that the good will, separate from any consequences, is an end in itself.

According to Kant, morality has its basis in a law of the will. He says that an action is morally good if it flows form a good will. A will is unconditionally good when it acts purely and solely out of a sense of duty and for the sake of duty. A will thus acts for the sake of duty when it acts out of pure respect for moral law. A person’s good will is primary and acting for the sake of duty is the ultimate good.

Morality as A Priori

The ought proceeds from the a priori and is embedded in the structures of the mind. Kant explains that the function of one’s will is to force obedience to the a priori. In effect, Kant’s reliance on the a priori is an effort to circumvent the formulation of concepts from observation by regarding certain concepts (e.g., duty) as self-evident and not dependent on the causal context that exists in nature. Kant’s profession of the moral a priori necessitates a perversion of the human functions of cognition and evaluation.

Kant detaches morality from any concerns regarding man’s existence. For Kant, morality has no association with the material world, reason, or science. He states that an action is moral only if a person has no desire to perform it, but performs it totally out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit of any kind from it. Kant makes moral duty an obligation completely independent of a person’s desires and totally without any connection to factual considerations, including the facts of one’s human nature.

Kant’s Rejection of Self-Interest

Kant’s moral philosophy deprives self-interest of any and all honor. The rejection of self-interest is also a rejection of all human values and goals because to pursue one’s self interest means to pursue values and goals. For Kant, morality must bind a person independently of any specific desires, ends, or inclinations he may have. Kant’s idea of duty severs morality from both reason and values.

Kant says that an act is moral only if no benefit of any kind is derived from it. He excludes all personal desires and benefits from the realm of morality. To be moral, a man must perform his duty without reference to any personal goals, values, or effects on his own life and happiness. A benefit destroys the moral value of an action. Kantian moral theory can thus be viewed as act-centered and not as agent-centered.

What Kant has done is to allow man’s reason to conquer the material (i.e., the phenomenal) world but eliminates reason from the choice of the goals or ends for which men’s material achievements are to be employed. Kant assigned the unreal material world to science and reason but left morality to faith. Science and reason are limited and valid only as long as they are conceived with a fixed determined collective delusion. The higher reality, the noumenal world, dictates to man the rules of morality through a special manifestation, the categorical imperative, which involves a special sense of duty known through intuition or feeling.

Duty is the moral requirement to perform certain actions without regard to any personal values, goals, motives, intentions, or desires. These a man should sacrifice from duty as an end in itself. An action is moral only if a person has no desire to perform it but performs it out of a sense of duty and receives no benefit from it of any kind. Kant thus denied that anything done to secure one’s own well-being and flourishing can have any moral significance. For Kant, morality does not and cannot involve the virtue of prudence (i.e., practical wisdom). He sees a distinct division between prudence and morality.
Kant holds that the pursuit of a person’s own happiness or interest is of no moral worth whatsoever. He insists that we can never determine whether or not an action is good or right by considering its effect on one’s happiness. Kant explains that happiness is contingent upon conditions and factors outside of a person’s control and external to the human will. He contends that the ultimate purpose of human striving must reside in something that depends on the person alone and must be unconditionally good. It follows that the only unconditional and ultimate good is the good will.

According to Kant, a person is amoral when he acts to attain his values. For Kant, all ends (except for the specifically moral) are reducible to a person’s own happiness, are nonmoral, and are incapable of producing any categorical imperatives. For Kant, what is necessary for a legitimate moral philosophy are obligations that are categorical (i.e., moral duties). The ethical is therefore what everyone ought to do.

Kant contends that moral worth is intrinsic to the act and thus valuable in itself apart from any particular valuer. For Kant, a man’s natural end of happiness cannot be the foundation for moral motivation. Unlike Aristotle, Kant draws a sharp distinction between moral and nonmoral reasoning. Kant rejects any moral philosophy that holds a person’s happiness as his ultimate end and maintains that the determination of the moral is made without reference to a man’s desires and to the facts of his nature. For Kant, morality elevates man above the sensible world. He views prudence as nonmoral and self-interest as different from doing what is right to do.

Kant provides a test for determining the moral status of various actions. He says that a person who performs his moral duty in the teeth of his contrary inclinations exhibits moral worth. On the other hand, a person who helps other people and gains pleasure from such actions displays no moral worth. Similarly, if a person wants to be honest he deserves nor moral credit. An individual who does not have a natural desire to help others or to be honest but nevertheless does so from duty does display moral worth.

Rand’s Denunciation of Kant

According to Ayn Rand, Kant’s objective was to save the morality of altruism, self-sacrifice, and self-abnegation. Kant’s vision of morality consists of total, abject, selflessness. Kantianism sharply opposes the pursuit of happiness to the practice of one’s duty. Kant’s morality of duty restricts the importance an individual’s experiences and thought and teaches that morality depends on adherence to a priori truths and on ignoring the real world. Rand thus saw Kantianism as a grand rationalization for Kant’s hatred of reason and reality and his view of the supremacy of the emotions. She interprets Kant as assigning reason supremacy over the material world and giving faith, intuition, and feeling domain over the spiritual realm.  Rand views Kant and Hume as the two arch-destroyers of reason in modern history. In Rand’s view, Kant’s synthesis was responsible for espousing the idea that consciousness was ontologically prior to existence. Rand sees Kant as attacking both the efficacy of a man’s mind and objective reality at a metaphysical level. Rand’s perspective was that Kant was waging a war on the ability of the mind to comprehend the nature of reality. Rand vehemently disagrees with Kant’s defense of faith, intuition, and feeling as the valid means of dealing with the noumenal world.  In her writings, Rand challenges Kant at his very philosophical root and base by rejecting Kant’s belief that the mind imposes structures on reality. She also condemns Kant as morally evil and dishonest (not simply as philosophically in error) with respect to his mystical philosophical system and the gradual cultural erosion that followed the initiation of it.
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