Rand Debating Kant

James Stevens Valliant (the author of The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics) recently published an article on Capitalism Magazine, Ayn Rand’s Critics. It is about the sad (and at this point in history, rather boring) fact that those who criticize Ayn Rand do not even bother to try to understand her ideas. Right at the beginning, he writes:

Can anyone doubt the truth of writer David Mamet’s recent comments about arguing politics?  Defining what he meant by “Brain Dead Liberalism,” he suggested that unless you can state your opponent’s position with such accuracy that he or she would agree, “Yes, that’s what I think,” no meaningful debate is even possible.

I read somewhere long ago that the medieval scholastics had a debating rule much like the Mamet test. Before you argue against your opponent, you were required to present a summary of his views, and he would tell you whether this summary was adequate or not. This might be laborious, but it would certainly serve to prevent straw man arguments. (I don’t remember where I read it, and it might not even be true. But it struck me as a very reasonable thing to do.)

Now, let me engage in a flight of fancy. Imagine a debate under this rule taking place between Ayn Rand and Immanuel Kant. Ayn Rand would start out as follows:

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. Is this a fair summary of your philosophy, professor Kant?

What would professor Kant answer?

Oh, yes, that is indeed the essence of my philosophy. Thank you, Miss Rand, for summarizing it so succinctly.

Or would he answer:

Oh, no, that is a total distortion of my philosophy. Before you come here to debate me, you should read my Critique of Pure Reason carefully. Or if this book is too heavy, you should at least read my Prolegomena. I know it is a common misconception that I should have claimed that the world of phenomena is a mere delusion; but this is precisely the misconception I answer in Prolegomena. As for the argument that I should deny the evidence of our senses, I refer you to my book Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View: in this book I maintain explicitly that our senses neither betray us nor confuse us. Of course, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the English translations. But I have heard that you can read German, so you may consult the originals.

Maybe I should turn the table and let Kant summarize Ayn Rand’s philosophy – but I haven’t figured this out. All I can say off-hand is that he would probably brand her as “the most evil woman in womankind’s history” – because she elevates to a virtue what Kant regarded as the “radical evil” in man: egoism or self-love as the base of ethics.

(As my Scandinavian readers may know, I have written quite extensively on Immanuel Kant in Swedish. I cannot do this in English, because I have to give illustrative quotes to prove my points, and I only read him in Swedish translations; occasionally, I check against the German original.)


%d bloggers like this: