Ayn Rand on nature

All my life I’ve run into followers of Ayn Rand who assertively assert that I need to read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead or The Virtue of Selfishness or something. My trouble is that these books are too fat, sort of like me. So I confess I haven’t read anything by her that took any serious commitment.

But this afternoon in a moment of withdrawal and laziness, I pulled down a nice little book she wrote called Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. It sounded relaxing, so I skipped to the last chapter, which turned out to be a summary of the eight previous chapters. I was particularly struck by her summary of her last chapter before the last chapter, so I turned to it and read some more.

I kind of enjoyed it. I like her assertiveness. I like the way she takes most of the philsophers of human history and sweeps them into the garbage heap of a single fundamental mistake. Take a look at this wonderful passage on Immanuel Kant (and while you read, do remember that Genghis Khan):

The entire apparatus of Kant’s system, like a hippopotamus engaged in belly-dancing [see what I mean!!], goes through its gyrations while resting on a single point: that man’s knowledge is not valid because his consciousness possesses identity. “His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes–deaf, because he has ears–deluded, because he has a mind–and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.” (For the New Intellectual.)

That, my friends, is a tour de force, a rhetorical marvel of exposition. How can you not bang your head on your desk, sit back and stare at your ceiling, open a vein or two, rush to blog what you just read, and determine with all the resolution of a salmon confronted by a grizzly to figure out what exactly she meant? Because it was marvelous, whatever it was!

But, having subjected myself to Kant over lunch a few times while working for Ernst and Whinney in the 80’s and having deliberately tried to understand at least one or two sentences in his writings even more recently and having read all kinds of things about how smart Kant was and how he gave us our modern philosophy, I think she’s right.

Here we are, with our eyes, ears, and minds. Kant says that since those are the only ways we can interact with the universe, we can’t know anything. She goes on,

That is a negation, not only of man’s consciousness [I may as well express the obtusely perverse pleasure I derive from her sexist language – it turns me on!], but of any consciousness.

In other words, she is arguing that Kant is arguing that because we have tools by which we can perceive and think we clearly are unable to perceive and think. “Kant negates consciousness by implying that to be perceived, is not to be.”

You can probably tell, so I don’t need to say it, but this puts me in an ecstasy.

OK, so what does this have to do with nature and the conference and all that? Listen to how she concludes the chapter. Pay attention, because the first time you read it it sounds confusing, but it isn’t all that bad. Read it a couple times and you’ll see what she’s getting at.

Objectivity begins with the realization that man (including his every attribute and faculty, including his consciousness) is an entity of a specific nature who must act accordingly; that there is no escape from the law of identity, neither in the universe with which he deals nor in the working of his own consciousness, and if he is to acquire knowledge of the first [the universe, ed.], he must discover the proper method of using the second [his consciousness, ed.]; that there is no room for the arbitrary in any activity of man, least of all in his method of cognition — and just as he has learned to be guided by objective criteria in making his physical tools, so he must be guided by objective criteria in forming his tools of cognition: his concepts.

Just as man’s physical existence was liberated when he grasped the principle that “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed,” so his consciousness will be liberated when he grasps that nature, to be apprehended, must be obeyed–that the rules of cognition must be derived from the nature of existence and the nature, the identity, of his cognitive faculty.

To summarize, Kantians and thus most moderns believe that we cannot know the universe we live in because we know it according to human nature. We have a consciousness that is a human consciousness.

This implies limits. Limits drive these people nuts.

But if we accept human nature, if we accept that we can only know things the way humans can know things, then we can actually know things! If we learn how to use our consciousness according to its identity (i.e. as human consciousness), then we can come to know the universe as humans can know it.

Ayn Rand was an avowed atheist from what I’ve been told, though I’ve also read that she was strongly influenced by a mentor who was a devout Christian but with whom she eventually fell out.

In any case, she probably wouldn’t care for my next point, but I’m happy to borrow her insight to better understand the same reality she looked at with the same human consciousness she used to see it.

Because God made us stewards of the universe, the uniquely human consciousness that he gave us provides the kind of knowledge that is good for the universe and for us. In other words, as humans, we can know the universe because we are made to know and love it. And we can and must use that knowledge for the good of the universe which our God clearly loves so much.

In turn, we must master this manner of knowing with boldness and confidence, and not be intimidated by the self-contradictory nonsense that the intellectuals of the world use to commit suicide. Ayn Rand, responding to one of Kant’s followers’ summaries of his teaching, put it this way:

Make no mistake about the actual meaning of that premise: it is a revolt, not only against being conscious, but against being alive.

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(recommended resource: The Lost Tools of Writing. These are the tools that enable us, not only to write, but to think in a human way and thus to fulfill our role as stewards who know the world they are trying to care for. Also, the CiRCE apprenticeship. www.circeinstitute.org)

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5 Responses

  1. Thomas,

    I think Rand right me more righter than you give her credit for in this case. Kant was looking for a mode of knowing that provided some sort of certainty that would have satisfied, it seems, Descartes’ standard.

    He’s trying to use reason in a Cartesian way, which, I contend is very modern and very contrary to the way in which Aristotle and Plato used it.

    So it can’t bear the weight.

    So if not Kant certainly his disciples end up concluding that we can’t know anything really. We can know enought to adapt or adjust or make practical decisions, but to truly know “ontologically” he’s quite convinced is impossible.

    That’s what Rand seems to be objecing to.

    • I agree that Kant must be distinguished from his disciples. He intended to save philosophy and science from skepticism, but some of his arguments inspired a more deeply entrenched skepticism.

      I suspect that Randians are themselves Cartesians, that their “objectivism” really wishes to side with Descartes over Kant. Kant, after all, argued that Cartesian reason cannot achieve the goals it sets out for itself (though it can describe the basic structures of consciousness), and so purely theoretical knowledge of the “thing-in-itself” is impossible, since our knowledge of things is always colored by the specificity of our own sort of existence. In order to know things that go beyond sense perception and the exploration of the structures of consciousness, Kant argued that we must determine what we ought to believe based on practical concerns. Kant rejects the ambitions of Cartesian reason to purely objective knowledge.

      I believe Kant correctly dismisses the possibility of knowing the “thing-in-itself” as well as the ambition of knowing things apart from the peculiarities of our nature as human beings. We do not know simply as minds, but as human beings with a history and with limitations. Aristotle agrees with this much: a thing does cannot be known in a way untouched by the act of knowing. In fact, for Aristotle, an act of knowing ultimately holds all things in being (Kant would disagree). My problem with Kant is that he does not go far enough, he thinks too abstractly about human beings.

      Kant operates too much within the bounds of modern thinking, but “objectivism” seems to be much more determined by the enlightenment myth of “objective” reason than does Kant. Rand’s picture of an external world existing apart from any act of thought which we access through the senses and through logical reasoning is completely determined by the modern picture of reality, even more than Kant.

      So, while I agree with you about Kantians, and even in some ways about Kant, and I agree with your more general point, I don’t think Rand would be one of your allies.

  2. Rand didn’t understand Kant very well. He hardly argued the universe cannot be known, as what appears to us can be known within certain limits (the transcendental field). However, he argued that pure reason cannot know things in themselves, apart from the limitations imposed by the faculty of consciousness. Here again, he did not argue this to be beyond human knowing, just the exercise of pure reason. Practical reason can get quite a ways into the “unconditioned”, even demonstrating the existence of God.

    It seems the decisive thing about Kant isn’t that he gives reason free reign (that he’s rebelling against limits), but precisely that he imposes rather strict limits on pure reason, maintaining that the more important things must be determined by practical human concerns.

    • Is that where Pragmatism comes from?

    • Really, I know very little about Pragmatism, but I would suspect it was at least influenced by Kant’s work on practical reason. Both argue that we ought to believe things based on practical concerns that cannot be validated through pure reason. Kant’s arguments on the subject don’t impress me very much, but maybe the Pragmatists have better arguments.

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