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.


14 Responses to Evil Thoughts?

  1. Gustav Ros says:

    You kind of left us hanging, didnt you? How do you reconcile the statements?

    I came up with two possibilities apart from the one discussed. “Thinking” can be used in two different, but equally correct, respects, or the first quote is intended to be Fransiscos – not Ayn Rands – understanding of the issue

    • I actually have not been able to reconcile the two statements myself. But since you ask, I think there is a way: taking Kant as an example (since Kant is what I am discussing, anyway), one could try to pinpoint his mistakes and say: “This is something he completely missed; he simply refused to think about it”.

      It would take some more digging into Kant’s philosophy to accomplish this; but one example that comes readily to mind is this: In his ethics, he says that telling the truth is a categorical imperative, so one has to tell the truth, even if it has the most disastrous consequences. For example (not Kant’s own example, of course, but he has some similar example himself), if the Gestapo knocks on the door and asks you whether you have any Jews hiding in your attic, you have to tell the truth, even if it means those Jews will be taken to Auschwitz. So this categorical imperative never to lie leads to consequences that are clearly evil. He certainly should have stopped there and asked himself: “Isn’t this a reductio ad absurdum of my ethics?” But he did not do that, but went straight ahead with his ethics.

      • Gustav Ros says:

        Thanks for the response.

        Would you object to defining ‘thinking’ with reference to the content? In some way differantiate a process where the content is some aspect of reality from a process where it is not in order to exclude the arbitrary from the realm of thinking?

        If Kant then asserts that moral knowledge is knowledge of an unknowable noumenal world, it would be arbitrary. He would not just have missed, or refused to think about, _something_. He is thinking about nothing and therefore not thinking at all.

        • I don’t think so. Even thinking about the arbitrary is thinking. If somebody is making an arbitrary statement, he will still have to use words to make the statement, and using words is an aspect of thinking.

          I think my own solution is the simplest: Not thinking at all is simply not possible to a human being – and if someone refused to think altogether, he would quickly die. But it is certainly possible to refuse to think about (or evade) some specific issue. And that is why one has to pinpoint the mistakes in Kant’s philosophy in order to answer them and be able to tell exactly what he has refused to take into consideration. Sweeping statements about how bad he was (such as the quote I gave in the post) simply won’t do.

      • Gustav Ros says:

        Is the first statement in the context of christian morality and sinful thoughts? He could be making the point that you are not evil if the thought “I want that car” pops into your mind, but you are if you proceed to steal it – refusing to think about who owns it etc.

        In this light Kant didnt just think, he actually acted on his ideas aswell. He wrote them down, plublished them, etc.

        • Yes, writing down one’s thoughts and publishing them is certainly an action. But then there are two possibilities with regard to Kant: Either he was not aware that his ideas were evil, so he had no reason not to publish them. Or else, he understood quite well that they were evil and then committed the further evil act of trying to get the rest of mankind to accept them. But I don’t know how one could ascertain which of those two alternatives is the right one – because that would require that one has telepathic knowledge about the inner workings of Kant’s mind. And that, of course, is not possible (the only mind one has direct access to is one’s own).

        • Sometimes, Kant tells us what his intention is, and then we don’t need this telepathic information. For example in the famous quote from the introduction to The Critique of Pure Reason where he says that he has had to “suspend knowledge to make room for faith”. But one still has to find out why the hell he said that,

    • PS. I think it is true of all philosophers that they failed to ask themselves some questions that they should have asked, It might even be true about me. 😉

  2. If the footnotes section looks strange, it is because WordPress currently has some problems with pasting a word document into WordPress. Formatting gets lost and has to to be added manually, and the same holds true for links. Footnotes cannot be pasted in at all, the way it used to be. WordPress is working on fixing this bug, so hopefully it will be fixed till the next time I write a blog post with footnotes.

  3. Also, there such a thing as “unfocused thinking”. My own thoughts, for example, are constantly wandering from one subject to another. My thinking is focused only when I have something to focus on – such as writing a blog post or writing this comment. Or when I have something important to do – making dinner, vacuum cleaning or whatever. But it is hardly likely that Immanuel Kant’s thoughts were wandering to this, that or the other thing, when he was writing his books!

  4. Pingback: Återupptagna Kantstudier | Hemma hos POS

  5. AynRandFan says:

    In my opinion, Kant’s evil was not his thinking, his refusal to examine the consequences of what he thought (if indeed he did refuse to think) or his lack of clarity in communication. His evil was abuse of power.

    The power that he abused was his position as a preeminent academic philosopher. Could he have innocently failed to predict that his philosophical ideas would lead to the consequences described by Leonard Peikoff in The Ominous Parallels, or (without reference to Peikoff) the anti-philosophical movement known as Postmodernism? Ayn Rand believed Kant was too smart not to know the consequences of his life work. I agree with her on that point.

    One might argue that free speech is not criminal, and that Kant committed no crime by writing and teaching what he believed. Perhaps, but history has shown that what Kant did was far more destructive than shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater.

    • Some time in the future, I may write extensively on the extent of Kant’s influence. The subject is too big to address in the comments section here.

    • One point though: There were dozens of philosophy professors at different universities in Kant’s time, and most of them are forgotten today and only Kant is remembered. There is no reason to think that Kant had more power than those forgotten professors. And, of course, the power of a professor is still the power of persuasion, so the question remains how Kant was able to persuade so many and become as influential as he did. (But this last, of course, would be the subject of another blog post.)

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