Evil Thoughts?

In Atlas Shrugged Francisco d’Anconia says to Hank Rearden:

There are no evil thoughts, except one: the refusal to think.

Nit-pickers may object to this that the refusal to think is not a thought, but the absence of thought. But that is nit-picking. It is quite common that people refuse to consider some issue that they should consider. I do not think it is even possible for someone to refuse to think altogether; but it is certainly possible – and happens quite frequently – that someone refuses to think about this, that or the other issue. Sometimes, it is even justified – if the issue is too unimportant to think about – but mostly it is impermissible. If an issue is important and you refuse to think about it, it will land you in trouble (do I need to elaborate on this?). – And refusing to think is of course the same as “evasion” or “blank-out”, which Ayn Rand identifies as the basic sin or vice, lying at the bottom of all other sins or vices.

But I have to ask myself how this statement is to be reconciled with the statement that Immanuel Kant was

the most evil man in mankind’s history. (“Brief summary” in the last issue of The Objectivist.)

Does this mean that Immanuel Kant consistently refused to think? If so, how did he manage to write his books (or hold his lectures at the University of Königsberg, for that matter)? I, myself, cannot write a single sentence without thinking, let alone this blog post and let alone a whole book or a whole philosophical corpus. So how did Immanuel Kant perform this feat, if he consistently refused to think?

I was impertinent enough to ask this question in a thread on Facebook, and the answer I got was that what Kant was engaged in was not thinking at all, but something entirely different. Let me quote:

Some people have asked me how I can take the position that irrationality in one’s own mind is immoral when Miss Rand said that there was only one primary vice and that was not to think. But there is no contradiction here at all. Running obtuse verbiage through your mind is not thinking. In order to be thinking you have to go by the evidence in a non-contradictory manner, even if you are the only one aware of what is going through your mind. Put another way, thinking is a very specific process, it is not any ole thing that passes through your mind. And because of this, one has to consider Kant to be evil because Kant was not engaged in a thinking process. So, what was he doing, say, when he wrote Prolegomena to Any future Metaphysics?

The short answer is that Kant was not thinking — he was not being rational. He deliberately wrote long tracks of obfuscatory verbiage in an effort to undercut your mind’s connection to existence, but he was not thinking. Thinking would have required him to point to evidence that what we observe is not real, and he didn’t do that. He wrote and wrote many passages that cannot be grasped by a rational mind just to confuse you into thinking that you have no access to existence either with the senses or via a process of reason. He was not thinking, he was irrational, and even if he had only written that down for his own amusement and never showed it to anyone, he would have been thoroughly irrational and therefore evil.

But this explanation, I have to say, is “obfuscatory”. The guy who wrote this is running obtuse verbiage through his mind.

(Those sarcasms will not be posted on Facebook. I have no desire to start a “flame war” on Immanuel Kant.)

Sarcasm aside, I have actually read Prolegomena (in a Swedish translation), and I am perfectly capable of refuting it myself without much help from others. Yes, it does require an effort to grasp what Kant is saying, and it does require a further effort to see what is wrong with it. But it is impermissible to dismiss it merely on the grounds that he is obtuse.

What is the alternative to thinking before one formulates one’s thoughts (be they clear or obscure)? The only alternative I can think of is speaking in tongues – in which case one’s thoughts are dictated, either by God or by some demon. Was Kant speaking in tongues when he wrote his books and delivered his lectures?

And it is not possible even to write obtusely without thinking. Even obtuse writing requires the use of words – and how does one grasp the meaning of words, except by a process of thinking?

And it is not possible to abandon the use of reason entirely. Even the philosopher who attacks (or undermines) reason has to use reason to formulate his attack. – A case in point is Martin Luther, who called reason “the devil’s highest whore” (”Des Teufels höchste Hure”) . The same Martin Luther performed the incredible feat of translating the whole Bible into German. How did he do this without consulting this whore?

And on a non-philosophical level, even a bank robber has to use reason to plan and execute his robbery. His aim (to get rich by robbery rather that by productive work) is certainly irrational. But his means does require some amount of rationality, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to rob the bank. (And you can probably make up your own examples.)

So what is my point in writing this? Certainly not to defend Immanuel Kant – who might very well be the worst philosopher in the history of philosophy (with the reservation that there are many philosophers that I haven’t even read). But it is true about every philosopher that if one wants to refute him (or her, as the case may be), one first has to thoroughly understand what the philosopher is trying to say. Merely pointing to his (or her) obtuse language will not do the trick.

If Kant’s philosophy is unimportant, then one may safely refuse to think about it. But if it is so important that one has to declare him, not just the worst philosopher in the history of philosophy, but even the most evil man in mankind’s history – then one has to think really hard about all of the main points in his philosophy. And, first of all, one has to read him.

1) There are at least two factual errors in the quote that I have to point out:

First of all, Kant did not say that what we observe is not real. This is a misunderstanding that he clears up in Prolegomena.

And secondly, he did not doubt the evidence of our senses. On the contrary, he defended the senses. This is taken up in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View.

2) For Scandinavian speaking readers, I have written a Prolegomenon to Kant’s Prolegomena in Swedish – plus a whole slew of other blog posts on Kant. For non-Scandinavians, I mention Prolegomena in my blog post Rand Debating Kant.

I should also mention that Wikipedia has a good summary of Kant’s Prolegomena. (It will confirm that Kant’s reasoning is obtuse.)

PS. I just discovered that the full text of Prolegomena is available in an English translation.

A Short Note on Independence…

…and on the virtues in general.

The following is probably nothing new to you – you may have figured it out for yourselves – but I think it is worth mentioning and elaborating on.

Quent Cordair (the proud owner of an art gallery and of a dog named  Mollie) recently posted this on Facebook:

The man who needs you to know how independent he is, isn’t.

True enough. The truly independent person has no need to talk about his/her independence.

One commenter asked this rhetorical question:

Now I’m thinking about a man telling me how independent he is, or demonstrating how independent he is. Is purposeful demonstration of independence the same as declaration of independence?

Well, if one’s purpose in taking an action is to demonstrate one’s independence, then I don’t think the person is truly independent. A truly independent man, or woman, would simply feel no need to demonstrate his/her independence, neither to him- or herself, nor to others.[1]

The same holds true of the virtue of honesty. An honest person has no need to talk about his honesty. If someone has to speak about his own honesty, he/she probably has something not quite honest to hide. Likewise if he/she has to demonstrate or make a show of his honesty.

There is a good example of this in literature. If you have read Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea (Les Travailleurs de la Mer in the French original), you will recall that one of the protagonists works very hard to acquire a reputation for being completely honest; but he does so in order to commit a theft which no one will suspect him of, since he is perceived as such an honest fellow. (It does not end well for him.)

This is of course an extreme and stark example – an artist stylizes reality, as Ayn Rand writes somewhere in The Romantic Manifesto. But I am sure you can find less extreme examples in real life.

One could make the same point about the other virtues, as well. For example, a productive person does not talk about how productive he/she is (unless it is necessary when writing a CV); he/she just goes on producing. And the man/woman of pride and unbreached self-esteem has no need of talking about it or making a show of it. The person who does most probably is trying to overcome some self-doubt. (Parenthetically, I don’t think Quent Cordair talks a lot about how proud he is of his art gallery; I just assume he is; and he should be.)

Humble people, on the other hand, seem to have a need to talk incessantly – not about their own humility, or even about the pride they take in being humble – but about how humble the rest of us should be.[2]

There is also a good literary example concerning the virtue of courage. In Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, one of the protagonists thinks of himself as a coward and is ashamed of his own fear; so he performs brave acts just to prove to himself that he is, after all, not a coward. This does not help him overcome his fear. When the other protagonists find this out, they all tell him that they, too, are very frightened when they perform their courageous acts. The moral sense of this is that fear by itself is not cowardice; succumbing to the fear is.

And I cannot withhold from you a great quote from Aristotle:

It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good. But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become  good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy. – The Nicomachean Ethics in David Ross’ translation, Book 2, Chapter 4; italics mine.

In other words: one does not become virtuous by thinking or talking about virtue (or even writing treatises on the subject), but only by practicing the virtues.[3]

And whether I myself am a truly independent person, or an abject second-hander, who just repeats what better thinkers have said before – that is a closely guarded secret. The same goes for the question whether I have a sense of humor or not.

[1]) Someone truly independent might write a novel featuring independence versus second-handedness. I have a vague memory of having read such a novel.

[2]) The exception to this rule is Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield – and if you have read the book, you know where that ends.

[3]) For Scandinavian speaking readers, I have written about this here.