Thursday, September 21, 2017

An Autopsy of The Objectivist Standpoint on Kant

Ayn Rand has called Immanuel Kant the most evil man in mankind's history. She and her Objectivist followers assert that some of the worst philosophical and political problems of our age have been inspired by Kantian ideas.

But Fred Seddon, in his article, “Kant on Faith,” shows that Rand’s position on Kant is outrageous and is the outcome of sloppy thinking and ignorance of Kant’s texts.

This sentence from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is often quoted in Objectivist literature:

“I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.”

In Kant's original German writing, this is how this sentence appears:

"Ich mubte also das Wissen aufheben, um zum Glauben Platz zu bekommen,..." 

Seddon says that the Objectivist philosophers have misunderstood the ideas which Kant wants to communicate by the words “knowledge” and “faith.”

Here’s a look at the line of arguments that Seddon uses in his article to clarify the meaning of the above quoted sentence from Kant:

1. The sentence occurs in the preface to the second edition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In the time of Kant it was generally believed that the preface is not the right place for making important philosophical points. The important points are generally made in the chapters that follow the preface.

2. Before writing that sentence Kant posits that knowledge is either scientific or “a merely random groping.” He holds that metaphysics is in the latter category, while logic, mathematics and science are in the former category as they follow the path of science. He wants metaphysics to be science rather than a “merely random groping.”

3. Kant points out that logic, mathematics, and physics are secure sciences because their domain of inquiry is limited. Rand has berated Kant for saying that the sciences are limited. But her criticism is not valid, because Kant is simply saying that science is valid only so long as it deals with the world.

4. Kant makes a distinction between general and special metaphysics, and between reason in its speculative versus reason in its practical employment. In context of this discussion, the most important distinction Kant makes is between knowledge and thought. By examining the sentences in which Kant has elucidated his view of knowledge and thought, Seddon conjectures that Kant’s intention may have been to use the word “Gedanke” (which means “thought”), but for some reason he ended up with“Glaube” (which means “faith” or “belief”).

5. Even if we accept that Kant’s original intention was to use the “Glaube” in the sentence, it is clear that there is a fundamental difference between what he means by Glaube/faith and what the Objectivists mean by “faith.”

6. For Ayn Rand “faith” is a claim to a strange kind of knowledge which is not based on evidence or proof, but that is precisely what Kant is trying to deny.

7. The German word “Glaube” has been translated in English in two ways: “belief” and “faith”. It is noteworthy that for Kant there is only one word, “Glaube”, but his translators have rendered that word into two English words: “belief” and “faith”.

8. In the later section of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant divides belief into that having to do with skill versus that having to do with morality. For instance, a doctor uses his skill when he diagnoses a patient’s diseases by observing his symptoms. An example of a moral belief will be the doctrine of the existence of God. However, Seddon points out that Kant does not mean by “God,” a substantive or constitutive concept, but rather a merely regulative one.

9. Kant does not believe in God. He places God in the service of science by positing that God orders things systematically and human beings can hope to find that system.

10. According to Kant, all knowledge is a product of both the sensory and the rational. For example, we cannot know God, even though we can think him.

11.Kant’s sentence is: “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” Seddon posits that if we take into account the idea that Kant is trying to communicate, we can rewrite this sentence as: “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for thought.”

12. What are the idea which Kant is trying to counter in this sentence. Seddon says that the dogmatists (the rationalists) are one of the groups that Kant names in the same page where the sentence occurs in his book. Metaphysics, Kant believed, is a playground for the rationalists because it is not based on science. But if we reject metaphysics, then we must jettison any belief in free will and hence morality

13. Kant’s aim in the Critique of Pure Reason is to save morality by critiquing pure reason. However, his conclusions undercut both the rationalists and the skeptics.


Fred Seddon’s “Kant on Faith,” is published in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 7, no. 1 (Fall 2005), Page 189–202

1 comment:

Paul Kennedy said...

This doesn't sound very convincing. For example, "Seddon conjectures that Kant’s intention may have been to use the word 'Gedanke' (which means 'thought'), but for some reason he ended up with 'Glaube' ". Why should we accept that as anything more than an arbitrary speculation?

Given that faith and religious belief was very much under intellectual assault during the enlightenment and given that there were many religiously minded thinkers who sought to defend faith from these attacks, it seems plausible to me that Kant devised his epistemology as a way of safeguarding faith from reason. If he could delineate the boundaries of reason, then he could simply say that all reasoned arguments against religion are irrelevant because arguments about such metaphysical questions are beyond the scope of reason.