Immanuel Kant on this, that and the other thing …

… as they are in themselves and as they appear to us.

Leonard Peikoff once asked Ayn Rand why she was so vehement in denouncing Immanuel Kant’s theories, and she answered (according to Peikoff) in essence:

When someone says that reality is unreal or that reason is subjective, he is, admittedly or not, attacking every conviction and value I hold. Everything I love in life – my work, my husband, my kind of music, my freedom, the creativity of man’s life – all of it rests on my perception of reality; all of it becomes a delusion and an impossibility if reason is impotent.

And Peikoff adds:

If you went up to an ordinary individual, itemized every object and person he cared for, then said to him seriously: “I intend to smash them all and leave you groveling in the muck”, he would become indignant, even outraged. What set Ayn Rand apart from mankind is the fact that she heard the whole itemization and the intention to smash everything in the simple statement that “reality is unreal”. (“My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand”, The Voice of Reason, p. 337.)

And where, in the collected works of Immanuel Kant, does one find the statement that “reality is unreal”?

Or is it the case that, although he did not say or write this, he actually meant this? Is this something we can read between the lines in Kant’s works?

The basis for believing so is, of course, Kant’s distinction between “things in themselves” (or “noumena”) and “things as they appear to us” (or “phenomena”). Only those “things in themselves” represent “true reality”; but it is impossible for us to gain true knowledge of them; they are forever hidden to us.

But did Kant ever say that those “appearances” that surround us all the time are unreal? Not to my knowledge. All he said is that they are not the whole truth about reality – and that this “whole truth” is inaccessible to us.[1]

But all Kant can validly claim is that the “appearances” – the material provided us by the evidence of our senses – do not represent omniscience; and that, no matter how much more we learn, we will never reach omniscience.

An example of this is when we observe a tree. We only observe the outside of the tree – that is how it appears to us. When we saw through the tree, we also see the inside of it, and we notice the rings. As our knowledge grows, we learn that those rings tell us the age of the tree; thus we call them “year rings” or “annual rings”. Then we learn that the tree is built up by molecules, and those in turn by atoms, and the atoms by elementary particles.

Or take a house: we first observe it as it appears from the outside; we then walk into the house and visit the apartments; we then also know the house as it appears from the inside. And we look into every nook and cranny, but no matter how hard we look, we never become omniscient about this house, much less then about every house in the world.

Or take an animal or human body: we do not see how it appears from the inside until we perform a dissection; and even then, there is much more to be learned.

No matter what, there is always more we can learn about the tree, the house and the body. And this is true about everything we observe: we only observe what we observe; but there is always more to observe.

But this does not justify Kant’s conclusion that there is some kind of gulf between what we experience through our senses and what the things are “in themselves”. Everything about a thing is an aspect of the thing, or an attribute or a property of it. The fact that we do not know all those aspects or attributes, and may never come to know them all, does not mean that we do not know what we actually know.

Kant also claims that – although the “things in themselves” are unknowable – we can at least know that they exist. His argument for this is that there could not be appearances without the things that appear.

I believe, however, that there are internal inconsistencies in Kant’s view. He claims that we only perceive reality as “filtered” through the categories. Those categories only apply to the “appearances”, not to the “things in themselves”. But one of those categories is “reality” (which he contrasts to “negation” and “limitation”). So how can he claim anything about the reality of the things in themselves? And another category is “existence” (contrasted to “possibility” and “necessity”). How then can he claim that those things in themselves actually exist? And, if causality does not apply to the “noumenal” realm of “things in themselves”, how is it possible for those things in themselves to give rise to appearances?

Kant on space and time

Apart from the categories, our experience (according to Kant) is also filtered through space and time. He calls them “forms of appearance” or “Anschaungsformen” in German. They are provided, not by external reality or by our senses, but by our own minds. They are not experience, but “a priory” conditions for having experience at all.

This is really odd. Take the statement: “Immanuel Kant lived in Königsberg in the 18th and early 19th centuries; while I live in Sweden in the 20th and early 21th centuries.” Is this a statement about how it really is – about Kant in himself and me in myself? Or is it only a matter of how my mind brings order in the relationship between me and Immanuel Kant? And how would this account for the fact that I was born 218 years later than he? If time were merely a “form of appearance”, this would be a piece of cake: Kant would simply pick me (or what I have written about him) from the manifold of appearances and place me at this point in the future. If time is an aspect of the real world, this would be … well, not quite that easy.

Kant actually claims that the senses are valid (although they only give us knowledge of appearances, not about things as they really are). But space and time, he claims, are not provided by our senses.

But – just like all our abstractions – our concepts of “space” and “time” derive ultimately from sensory experience. For example, I observe that the computer is on the table, that there is a door to the left of me and a window to the right of me, that there are a couple of pictures on the wall in front of me, and (if I turn around) that there are book shelves behind me. I observe that the distance to the door is shorter that the distance to the window. Outside of the window there is another house; somewhere inside my apartment my lady-friend is watching the television; etc., etc. Likewise with time: the sentences I write come before and after one another; dawn comes after night time and dusk before night time; seasons come and go in a regular succession; and Usain Bolt traverses short distances in a shorter time period than anyone else has done before and that only he, himself, has done afterwards. – “Space” and “time” refer to the sum of all those relationships.

The “a priori” and the “a posteriori”

Kant claims that there are three kinds of statements:

  1. Analytical statements a priori – i.e. statements that are true “by definition”. For example the statement that baldheaded men (or women) lack hair. We do not have to conduct an investigation – go out and check every baldheaded person to see if he has hair or not.
  2. Synthetic statements a posteriori – i.e. statements that do require such an investigation. For example the statement that Usain Bolt holds the world records for 100 and 200 meters. It is not part of the definition of “Usain Bolt” that he holds those records; we have to actually see it (or at least read about it in the papers.). They are “synthetic” because they combine (“synthesize”) two or more facts (such as the facts that Usain Bolt exists and that he runs short distances faster than everybody else).
  3. Synthetic statements a priori. Those are statements that are not true by definition; but neither are they true by experience (by actually conducting an investigation), but true nevertheless.

Kant has some rather odd examples. For example, he claims that there is nothing about the concepts of “5” and “7” that necessitates the concept “12” when they are combined by using the concept “+”. Nevertheless, it is true the “5+7=12”. He also claims that, although it is true by definition that objects have extension, it is not true by definition that they have weight; yet it seems preposterous to conduct an investigation and weigh all objects to ascertain that there are no weightless objects. It is part of the definition of “object”, he says, that they have at least some extension; but it is not part of the definition that they can be light or heavy.

Do you notice what is missing here? There is no mention of statements that are analytical a posteriori. And I would claim that most true statements are just that: analytical a posteriori.

Take Kant’s own example. How so we know that objects have extension? By observing objects! And how do we know they have weight, that they are more or less heavy? Again, by observing them. The only difference here is that we observe extension by sight, but we observe weight by trying to lift the objects. Kant’s distinction is arbitrary: he might as well define “object” as having weight, and then claim that their having extension is a “synthetic a priori”.

More generally: What are we actually doing with the things we observe? We form concepts; we combine our concepts into sentences; we build theories (or make hypotheses); we make up whole systems of philosophy or science. Some of this is synthesis, but a lot of it is analysis of our observations. And the observations always come first: they are what is properly speaking ”a priori”.

Take such a simple statement as “this food tastes good”. It is synthetic in that it combines the food with the taste (and adds the value judgment “good”); but it is also an analysis of the meal one is eating!

Did Kant deny knowledge?

The line from Kant that is most often quoted by Objectivists is this one (from the preface to the 2nd edition of Critique of Pure Reason):

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

Seems clear enough. But in the original German, Kant does not use the German word for “deny” (“verneinen” or “verleugnen”); he says “das Wissen aufzuheben”. And the closest English equivalent to this expression is “to suspend knowledge”.[2]

You may say that suspending knowledge is not much better than denying knowledge; but there is a difference. Suspending may be temporary. “Suspending knowledge” does not necessarily mean closing the door on knowledge forever, which “denying knowledge” would mean.

Also, there is a double meaning to the German “aufheben” (as also to the Swedish counterpart “upphäva”): apart from “suspend” it can also mean “lift up” or “raise to a higher level”.

And you should actually know this. Leonard Peikoff has lectured on Hegel’s philosophy, and this double meaning of the word “aufheben” is a corner stone of Hegel: when a thesis turns into its antithesis, both the thesis and the antithesis are “aufgehoben”, i.e. both “suspended” and “lifted up” or “raised up” into the synthesis.

Kant, of course, wasn’t Hegel, so I do not know whether he, too, was playing on this double meaning. But it is a possibility.

Be that as it may; but we must also ask what knowledge Kant wants to suspend. Is it the knowledge that grass is green, or that the earth revolves around the sun, or that the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides? No, it’s not. If you just read the preceding sentences, you will find that it is knowledge of God, freedom of the will and immortality. Those are the things Kant claims we have no certain knowledge of and have to suspend this knowledge in favor of faith. (Earlier philosophers, such as Leibniz, had claimed that those things could be proven; and this is what Kant turned against. And before Kant woke up from what he called his “dogmatic slumber”, he was an adherent of Christian Wolff, who in turn was an adherent of Leibniz.)

Update March 31: Here is the whole paragraph from the preface to the 2nd edition:

The positive value of the critical principles of pure reason in relation to the conception of God and of the simple nature of the soul, admits of a similar exemplification; but on this point I shall not dwell. I cannot even make the assumption—as the practical interests of morality require—of God, freedom, and immortality, if I do not deprive speculative reason of its pretensions to transcendent insight. For to arrive at these, it must make use of principles which, in fact, extend only to the objects of possible experience, and which cannot be applied to objects beyond this sphere without converting them into phenomena, and thus rendering the practical extension of pure reason impossible. I must, therefore, abolish knowledge, to make room for belief. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.

Here ”aufheben” is translated as “abolish”, but I still think “suspend” is more accurate. But it shows what kind of (alleged) knowledge Kant wanted to do away with.

The translation is published by Project Gutenberg.

This leads us to:

Kant on free will

I won’t bother with Kant’s views on God and immortality, since I believe in neither, anyway. But I sometimes hear that Objectivists should not be too harsh on Kant, since he shares with us the conviction that man has free will.

Now, the alleged “problem” with free will is that it is seen as an exception to the law of causality. But (qua Objectivists) we know that this is not the case at all. It is not an exception, but a special kind of causation. Nathaniel Branden (who at that time was speaking for Ayn Rand) explains it very well:

{The] freedom of choice is not a negation of causality, but a category of it, a category that pertains to man. A process of thought is not causeless, it is caused by man. The actions possible to an entity are determined by the entity that acts – and the nature of man (and of man’s mind) is such that it necessitates the choice between focusing and non-focusing, between thinking and non-thinking. Man’s nature does not allow him to escape this choice, it is his alone to make: it is not made for him by the gods, the stars, the chemistry of his body, the structure of his “family constellation” or the economic organization of his society.

If one is to be bound by a genuine “empiricism” – meaning: a respect for observable facts, without arbitrary a priori commitments to which reality must be “adjusted” – one cannot ignore this distinctive attribute of man’s nature. And if one understands the law of causality as a relationship between entities and their actions, then the problem of “reconciling” volition and causality is seen to be illusory. (“Volition and the Law of Causality”, The Objectivist, March 1966.)

Kant, on the other hand, does see our free will as an exception to causality, and his attempt at “reconciling” this illusory dilemma is as follows:

Causality is a category that only applies to the world of appearances or phenomena in which we live; it does not apply to the “noumenal” world of “things in themselves”. But man has a twofold nature: he is part of the world of phenomena but also part of the world of noumena. Conclusion: As a “phenomenon” or “appearance” man is totally determined – he can only act as mechanical causes force him to act – but as a “noumenon”, as he is in himself, he is totally free. Not much of an explanation, unless one accepts Kant’s premises. Leonard Peikoff has this to say:

The classic expression of this [the mystical] viewpoint is the disastrous Kantian slogan: “God, freedom, and immortality”, which has had the effect of making “freedom” laughable by equating it with two bromides of supernaturalism. What reputable thinker cares to uphold volition if it is offered under the banner, “ghosts, choice, and the Pearly Gates”? (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 72.)

Kant understood that without free will, ethics would be meaningless, which leads us to:

Kant’s ethics

What is the central concept in ethics? According to Objectivism, it is “value”, and a value is that which furthers our life and well-being. This is also implicit in Aristotle’s ethics: the term “εὐδαιμονία”, commonly translated as ”happiness”, covers such things as health and success in life.

According to Kant, it is “duty”. Duty is a matter of unquestioning obedience to some authority (be it one’s parents, one’s teachers, one’s superiors, the law and the lawmakers, bishops and popes, or God). In Kant’s case, it is obedience to an inner authority, one’s conscience.

Kant contrasts “duty” with “inclinations”, i.e., our own wants and desires. Insofar as we pursue our own values, this is outside the province of ethics; whenever there is a conflict or clash between our pursuit of values and our duties, and we nevertheless choose to pursue those values, we are immoral. Putting the pursuit of values above duty is what Kant calls the “radical evil” of man.

It is quite obvious that Kant’s ethics is sadistic. Take the often quoted example of a man, whose life has become unbearable and abstains from suicide out of duty alone. (Kant himself says that this man has been overcome with sorrow, but it is equally applicable to someone who has a painful and incurable disease.) Leonard Peikoff was right in dubbing it “the ethics of evil” (in The Ominous Parallels).

It might seem that Kant shares Ayn Rand’s view that man is an end in itself, since one of his formulations of the “categorical imperative” is:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

But in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals this is immediately followed by the example of a man contemplating suicide. If he takes his own life because of unbearable pain, then he uses his own person, not as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of escaping pain!

Also, Kant actually did not regard the individual man as an end in himself, only the humanity that this individual represent. In a short piece titled Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View, he argues that the ultimate end is the perfection of society, to which end, of course, every individual must contribute. And he argues that, since it is impossible for an individual to achieve perfection in his own short life span, the ultimate end must lie somewhere in the distant future.

Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”

According to the correspondence theory of truth – and according to plain common sense – our cognition should conform to the objects of cognition. Kant is supposed to have performed a “Copernican revolution” by claiming the opposite: that the objects should conform to our cognition. Here are his own words:

It appears to me that the examples of mathematics and natural philosophy, which, as we have seen, were brought into their present condition by a sudden revolution, are sufficiently remarkable to fix our attention on the essential circumstances of the change which has proved so advantageous to them, and to induce us to make the experiment of imitating them, so far as the analogy which, as rational sciences, they bear to metaphysics may permit. It has hitherto been assumed that our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to ascertain anything about these objects a priori, by means of conceptions, and thus to extend the range of our knowledge, have been rendered abortive by this assumption. Let us then make the experiment whether we may not be more successful in metaphysics, if we assume that the objects must conform to our cognition. This appears, at all events, to accord better with the possibility of our gaining the end we have in view, that is to say, of arriving at the cognition of objects a priori, of determining something with respect to these objects, before they are given to us. We here propose to do just what Copernicus did in attempting to explain the celestial movements. When he found that he could make no progress by assuming that all the heavenly bodies revolved round the spectator, he reversed the process, and tried the experiment of assuming that the spectator revolved, while the stars remained at rest. We may make the same experiment with regard to the intuition of objects. If the intuition must conform to the nature of the objects, I do not see how we can know anything of them a priori. If, on the other hand, the object conforms to the nature of our faculty of intuition, I can then easily conceive the possibility of such an a priori knowledge. Now as I cannot rest in the mere intuitions, but—if they are to become cognitions—must refer them, as representations, to something, as object, and must determine the latter by means of the former, here again there are two courses open to me. Either, first, I may assume that the conceptions, by which I effect this determination, conform to the object—and in this case I am reduced to the same perplexity as before; or secondly, I may assume that the objects, or, which is the same thing, that experience, in which alone as given objects they are cognized, conform to my conceptions—and then I am at no loss how to proceed. For experience itself is a mode of cognition which requires understanding. Before objects, are given to me, that is, a priori, I must presuppose in myself laws of the understanding which are expressed in conceptions a priori. To these conceptions, then, all the objects of experience must necessarily conform. Now there are objects which reason thinks, and that necessarily, but which cannot be given in experience, or, at least, cannot be given so as reason thinks them. The attempt to think these objects will hereafter furnish an excellent test of the new method of thought which we have adopted, and which is based on the principle that we only cognize in things a priori that which we ourselves place in them. (The Critique of Pure Reason, preface to the 2nd edition, 1787.)

Clear enough – except that it is impossible to make heads or tails of this paragraph.

It must be passages like this that made Ayn Rand write:

The entire apparatus of Kant’s system, like a hippopotamus engaged in belly-dancing, goes through its gyrations while resting on a single point: that man’s knowledge is not valid because his consciousness possesses identity. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 80 in the expanded 2nd edition.)

Was Kant an emotionalist?

Ayn Rand thought so. In the title essay of Philosophy: Who Needs It, she writes:

Have you ever thought or said the following? […] “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true.” You got it from Kant. (P. 5,)

In fact, Kant said the exact opposite. In his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft), one finds the short and simple sentence

Emotions are not knowledge.

And one thing Kant was very much opposed to was “Schwärmerei”, a word that has no exact counterpart in English, but may be translated as “excessive emotion” or “mad enthusiasm”.

So much for Kant’s alleged emotionalism. Whatever else is wrong with his philosophy, he was not wrong on this.

Kant’s influence

Should everything bad that happens in the world be blamed on Immanuel Kant? Leonard Peikoff certainly thinks so:

[Ayn Rand] held that Kant was morally much worse than any killer, including Lenin and Stalin […], because it was Kant who unleashed not only Lenin and Stalin, but also Hitler and Mao and all the other disasters of our disastrous age. Without the philosophical climate Kant and his intellectual followers created, none of these disasters could have occurred; given that climate, none could have been averted. (“Fact and Value”, The Intellectual Activist, May 1989.)

This is only partially true. The greatest threat to our civilization today is Islam; and I don’t think Kant has had even the slightest influence in the Muslim world.[3] On the other hand, the West’s weak response to this threat can be blamed on Kant (although by a rather circuitous route).

Or take the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994 – or the fact that many children in Africa are forced to become child soldiers. How is this to be blamed on Immanuel Kant? Kant influence in Africa has to be negligible.

Also, many bad things (such as the Thirty Years’ War and … well, the examples are too numerous to itemize) happened before Kant was even born. Should we blame them on other philosopher, like Plato and Augustine? But bad things also happened before the time of Plato.

The main theme of The Ominous Parallels is that the philosophers (mainly Kant and Hegel, and before them Plato) are responsible for the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Does this mean that Immanuel Kant, if he were to be magically brought back to life in the early 1940’s to see what was going on at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Soribór, would have said: “Finally the world has come to understand my ideas!”? I think not.

There are other areas where one can find the bad influence of Kant. David Harriman, in his lecture series “The Philosophic Corruption of Physics” argues that physics nowadays is not looking for actual physical causes and settle for mere mathematical descriptions of the appearances, which of course stems from their acceptance of Kant’s idea that causality does not apply to “things in themselves” – so why bother to look for actual, physical causes?

Kant on the swathing of infants

You probably did not know this, but Kant was opposed to the custom of swathing infants:

It is simply for the sake of our own convenience that we swathe our children like mummies, so that we may not have the trouble of watching them in order to prevent their limbs from getting broken or bent. And yet it often happens that they do get bent, just by swathing them. Also it makes the children themselves uneasy, and they are almost driven to despair on account of their never being able to use their limbs. (Kant on Education, published in 1803.)

A complete moral monster would not have written this. Which leads us to the question:

Was Kant really “the most evil man in mankind’s history”?

I think this is an exaggeration – I think the Prophet (damned be his name!) was even more evil – but I will not spend time and effort investigating every evil person in the history of mankind. Instead, let me ask what Kant would have thought of Ayn Rand.

Self-love, according to Kant – especially putting self-love above duty – is the “radical evil” of man. Men should fulfill their duties, not pursue their happiness. Ayn Rand formulated an ethics of selfishness, of selfishly pursuing one’s values and one’s happiness. She said that

… the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose. (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness; emphasis in the original.)

The conclusion is inevitable: Kant would have regarded Ayn Rand as “the most evil person (man or woman) in the history of mankind”.

[1] The German word for ”appearance” is “Erscheinung”. This is akin to “Schein”, which means “illusion”. In his Prolegomena Kant goes to some length explaining that he does not mean “Schein” when he writes “Erscheinung”.

[2] The German language has the habit of sticking the infinitive mark “zu” into the middle of compound words like “aufheben”; thus “aufzuheben”, not “zu aufheben”.

[3] Apart from the Prophet himself (damned be his name!), the main bad philosophical influence is al-Ghazali (ca 1058–1111). See on this my blog post Islam versus Reason and Logic.


Ayn Rand’s Philosophical Achievement

Recently, Anoop Verma wrote a blog post, Ayn Rand’s Copernican Revolution in Philosophy, and then privately asked for my feedback. I have very little to criticize in his post; but it gives me an opportunity to present my own view.

In my view, the most fundamental thing about Ayn Rand’s philosophy is the insight that all knowledge is the result of the interaction between existence and consciousness, between the external world and our minds.

Sensation and perception are the result of the interaction between the external world and our senses. Concept formation are the result of our identification of the facts of reality. And values are a matter of relating what we value (or disvalue) to our life and well-being. (Politics is about applying ethics to our social life.)

This is even true about esthetics; her definition of art is

a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgements. (“Art and Cognition” in The Romantic Manifesto.)

A re-creation of reality, not of something outside of reality.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive presentation of her philosophy, but it is something that has always struck me. With the partial exception of Aristotle (and his followers), I don’t think other philosophers have even come close to this insight. Platonism, for example, is clearly about our “interaction” with a mystical realm; and Kant’s philosophy is a variation on this theme.

In ethics, there are basically two views:

  1. That ethics is a matter of obeying divine commandments, or duties, as they are often called.

  2. That they are a matter of what we feel is right or wrong, and that those feelings are not connected to reality – that there is an unbridgeable gulf between “is” and “ought” and all that kind of jazz.[1]

And in politics the idea that we have to choose between tyranny (totalitarianism) and anarchy.

Immanuel Kant’s Philosophical Non-Achievements

The philosophy of Ayn Rand is commonly contrasted with that of Immanuel Kant; Ayn Rand herself did:

On every fundamental issue, Kant’s philosophy is the exact opposite of Objectivism. (“Brief Summary”, The Objectivist, September 1971.)

She also wrote:

[Kant’s] argument, in essence, ran 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. (The title essay in For the New Intellectual.)

It is often forgotten (or so it seems to me) that those are not Immanuel Kant’s own words; they are Ayn Rand’s summary of his epistemology. Objectivists take this description ad notam; they do not bother to read Kant and verify it.[2]

It is a common misunderstanding that Kant denied the evidence of the senses; in fact, he defended the senses, and he even gave proper arguments.[3]

Kant makes three points about the senses:

  1. The senses do not confuse us. If we are confused, it is our understanding of what the senses provide us with that is confused.
  2. The senses do not rule over the understanding; they are rather the servants of the understanding.
  3. The senses do not deceive or betray us. Again, it is only our understanding that may be mistaken.

He does however say that what the senses provide us with is “appearances”, not true (“noumenal”) reality.

Also, Kant did believe in the existence of an external world, although he claimed that it is inaccessible to us. His argument ran as follows: We live in a world of appearances; but there cannot be appearances without things that appear; thus those things must exist somewhere and somehow; but we can never know where or how.

But Kant would not be Kant, if he thought this was all there is to it. Although the senses give us valid information, he thought that space and time do not come to us through the senses; they are, as he called them, “form of appearance” (“Anschauungsformen” in German), through which the sense data are “filtered”. Rather than being part of our experience of the world, space and time are supplied by our own mind and are necessary “a priori” conditions for having experience at all.

I regard this view as ridiculous. We form the concepts “space” and “time” by observing a variety of special and temporal relationships (“the book is on the table”, “it happened yesterday”, etc. etc.) “Space” and “time” refer to the sum of those relationships.[4]

This should be enough for now (an “ought” and a temporal specification).

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(See also Rand Debating Kant and Evil Thoughts?. – Unfortunately (for most of you), almost everything I have written about Kant is in Swedish.)

Update March 29: I have now written a fairly extensive English blog post about Kant.

[1] Scandinavian speaking readers may read my recent blog posts about Axel Hägerström. Or Gastronomi och moral.

[2] There may be exceptions; if you are such an exception, I apologize.

[3] I found this out by perusing (I worked in a library of old books) Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht (Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View). Unfortunately, I cannot find an English translation of this passage in the book.

[4] Neither, by the way, did Kant ever say things like ”it is true, because I feel it’s true” – quite the contrary! In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, he goes to some length explaining that the categorical imperative is not a matter of emotion but of reasoning. And in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, one will find – buried among all the talk of selfishness or self-love being the “radical evil” of human nature – the short and simple sentence: “Emotions are not knowledge”.

Condensed Version of Atlas Shrugged

Inspired by Wrong Hands: Cartoons by John Atkinson.

“Who is John Galt?”

People start looking for John Galt.

Some people disappear.

John Galt appears; gives speech.

John Galt gets captured and tortured.

John Galt gets rescued.

John Galt and his rescuers take over the world.

And last, but not least:

People read the book, and lives (including mine) are changed.

Others hate it, and their lives remain unchanged.

Street-walking regulation

This is a translation of a passage from Ormus and Ariman by Carl Jonas Love Almqvist (1793–1866). It is a classic of Swedish satirical literature.[1]

We Ormus, by the grace of our own benevolence &c. &c. &c. When, oh men! you have built for yourselves towns, and between your houses have established streets, which should form an intersecting pattern; then it is incumbent upon you that you sit not all the time indoors, but you must pay each other visits and practice sociality, as well as intercourse, using for that purpose conversation, which should as often as is possible be intermingled with descriptions of all creatures’ faults, the bringing to light of which is of the utmost importance. But when you set out into the streets, you cannot be allowed to walk on any which street you like, for such could disturb the publick order, since it might occur to several of you to tread upon the same lane, so that no one can make his way there. Never the less, and so that no one may suffer a restriction of his freedom, each one of you is requested once a year, the tax registration period, to report which street he wishes to choose for the coming year in order to get to the market place, which other one to get to the harbour, which third one to the pharmacy: and he should also at the that time report those friends he wishes to visit in the course of the year, as well as the street he wishes to walk in order to reach each friend; whereupon We will let the applications be presented to Us, and establish, at Our own discretion, each person’s street-walking for the year. The stamp-fee paid for the decisions hereupon will be used as salaries for that supervisory personnel which needs must be put in each street-corner to oversee that each town-dweller walks his street, and exact from him fines in case he deviates.

Rendered into English by
Per-Olof Samuelsson
Not quite dated

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For the benefit of my Swedish (and other Scandinavian) readers, who may be unfamiliar with this satirical classic, I give the original text below:

Vi Ormus, enligt benäget åtagande &c. &c. &c. När människor! J haven byggt eder städer, och mellan husen anlagt gator, över vilka tvärgator böra löpa; så skall eder åligga, att icke ständigt sitta inne, utan måsten J besöka varandra och utöva samhällighet, jämte umgängelse, därtill brukande samtal, vari som oftast bör inmängas beskrivning över alla varelsers fel, vilkas framhållande i dagen är av högsta vikt. Men då J begiven eder åstad på gatorna, kan det icke varda eder efterlåtet att gå på vilka gator som helst, enär sådant kunde störa allmän ordning, efter månge av eder kunde på en gång få det infallet att beträda samma gränd, så att ingen där komme fram. Likväl, och på det ingen må lida inskränkning i friheten, tillstädjes envar att en gång om året, skattskrivningstiden, uppgiva vilken gata han under kommande året önskar välja åt sig, för att på den färdas till torget, och vilken annan, för att gå till hamnen, vilken tredje till apoteket: ävensom han då bör angiva de vänner, han under året vill besöka, jämte gatan han, för att komma till varje av vännerna, önskar gå; varefter Vi vele låta Oss ansökningarna föredrags, och efter gottfinnande fastställa varje persons gatugång för året. Kommandes den lösen, som erlägges för utslagen häröver, att användas till avlöning åt den uppsyningspersonal, som i varje gatuhörn nödvändigt måste anställas, för att efterse, det var och en stadsbo går sin gata, och fordra honom till böter om han avviker.

[1] In Zoroastrianism, Ormus or Ahura Mazda is the good principle of life, while Ariman or Angra Mainyu is the principle of evil. Almqvist turns the tables by making Ormus a full-fledged bureaucrat and Ariman a free spirit.

Implicit versus Explicit Knowledge

A Facebook note I wrote in August 2010.

I don’t know if this is of general interest; it is about my own personal struggle with some issues in Objectivism. Those who already have a perfect understanding of Objectivism might think I’m just stupid.[1]

I have a question: does “implicit knowledge” qualify as knowledge?

To give an example: the axioms of “existence” and “consciousness” are implicit in all knowledge. A child possesses this implicit knowledge from the day it is born. But he cannot express it in explicit terms until much later. The axiom of “identity” (which is actually a corollary of “existence”) is soon learned by a baby: he cannot help noticing that everything around him “is what it is and not something else” or that “everything that exists has a specific nature”. But the child cannot express this knowledge in those slightly ponderous terms. So: is it really knowledge at this early state?

Another example is concept-formation. I have been struggling lately with a puzzle: ITOE is not – or, at least not primarily – about how concepts should be formed, but about how concepts are actually formed. They are formed by observing similarities and differences between various entities, attributes and actions, and then by omitting the specific measurements (on the principles that those measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity).

That is pretty straightforward, so (you may ask) what is the problem here?

Well, I have tried to introspect, because if this is how concepts are formed, I should have some recollection that confirms the theory. But I don’t. I cannot remember having formed any concepts as child, much less then that I formed them by a process of measurement omission. Still, I do have concepts, and I actually (most of the time, at least) use them correctly. But I simply do not remember how I formed them in the first place. Did I form them myself, or did I simply take over concepts formed by others? (And then, how did those others – my parents and other adults – get their concepts?)

And I might ask any of you: do you actually remember how you formed your first concepts in your own early childhood?

Now, there are a couple of reasons why this recollection is so hard. One is that a man’s memory doesn’t reach that far into the past. This may vary from individual to individual – but who has clear memories from before two years of age? But the process of concept-formation and of learning one’s language begins already before this age.

But there is another reason that is perhaps even more important: consider how fast a child actually learns to speak. It does not take the child long to learn literally hundreds, maybe thousands of words (all of them standing for concepts) and to integrate them into sentences, expressing thoughts. This is very different to the fairly slow process of later in life learning a foreign language. How is it possible for a small child to painstakingly go through the process of measurement omission for each and every one of those hundreds, maybe thousands, of concepts? That is the question I asked myself without being able to supply a satisfactory answer. (I even, at one point, thought that this was “the final refutation of Objectivism”).

But, in fact, my doubts were unfounded.

No, children do not consciously and explicitly go through this painstaking process. It takes place implicitly, wordlessly and largely automatically. What Ayn Rand does in ITOE is, metaphorically speaking, putting the process under a magnifying glass.

To go back to the original question: does this implicit knowledge (with regard to both axioms and concept-formation) qualify as knowledge? The best way to put it is that it is not knowledge, but rather the starting point of knowledge.

Or is this simply unnecessary hair-splitting?

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The comments I got were fairly good, so I will quote some of them.

Carl Svanberg: What about the knowledge of how we form concepts? Is this implicit knowledge? Here I think it depends on whether you make a distinction between a skill and knowledge. You can know how to do things without being able to explain why it works. I know how to use a computer, but do not ask me to explain how the computer works because that is beyond me. I know how to cook food, but do not ask me to explain the chemistry, because that is also beyond me. I know how to use my hands, but do not ask me to explain how the consciousness, the brain, the nerves all interact and make my arms move like I want them to when I want them to. Obviously that is way beyond me as well. You can probably think of many other examples of your own.

I think this is a valid distinction. Another example is a child learning to walk. The child, of course, knows nothing of the mechanics of walking (or crawling or running); it is in the same position as the proverbial humble-bee who does not know that humble-bees cannot fly and doesn’t bother; it just flies, nevertheless.

Likewise, a small child learns the skill of talking and of thinking (inasmuch as thinking requires words) without first reading Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology in order to learn how to talk and to think.[2]

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Magnus Kempe: I think there are several distinct issues involved in your questions.

The one aspect I’m currently interested in is how a toddler is forming concepts. My 18-month daughter has recently started to use the word “sock” to designate “things we put on feet” – i.e. both what we think of as socks and shoes. She also recognizes and points at “bug” – little things that crawl or fly (and which adults try to keep out of the house? she’s a keen observer). In both cases, she’s perceived similarities (shapes, sizes, our actions with them) and differences (bugs are not large and don’t bark, nor do they belong to our supply of food; socks don’t fit on the head, nor do we drink from them) and she’s omitting a wide range of attributes or their measurements. She doesn’t know she’s doing that, but she knows what a “sock” or “bug” are. Soon enough, she’ll build on these concepts – she already knows “ant” as a species of “bug”– and she may even leave behind the first concept she formed so she can use more specific and delineated ones. None of her current knowledge is explicit; she’s not yet able to reflect on her conscious processes, but it’s still knowledge. To grasp axiomatic knowledge requires advanced generalizations and specializations, as well as introspection –so it remains implicit until all necessary epistemological steps are complete (I’m curious to see how many years it will take). […]

As a side note, learning a foreign language (as an adult) is not primarily a task of concept-formation, but understanding and automating: new words/symbols/sounds for already known concepts, somewhat different grammar rules, and idiomatic expressions. It’s not similar to how a child develops to understand the world and think.

Thanks for those observations, Magnus!

One thing I am interested in is how early in life concept-formation starts. Some years ago, I had a discussion with an Objectivist who was a grandmother [Ellen Moore]; and she told me that her grandchild at the age of 10 months could point to a dog and say “daw”. Earlier, I had thought that concept-formation starts approximately at the age of 2, when children utter their first primitive sentences. But obviously, it starts earlier than that. (Since I have no children of my own, I haven’t been able to study this in detail.)

We’ve strived to record our observations every day. I’m convinced she was forming concepts within months of birth, but it’s hard to tell what’s going on inside their mind for the first few months… We’re raising her bilingually[3] so we’ve noticed some developments and events that would possibly escape observers of a monolingual infant. I’ll try to add some notes from my records tomorrow.

I suspect that the lack of recall of memories before about 3 years old has something to do with a transition in how our mind holds concepts when we start to develop abstractions from abstractions. Until then conceptualization is intimately tied to perceived entities and their visible actions, they may not involve a visual-auditory symbol.

Thanks again, Magnus. Yes, what happens with a bilingually raised child is really interesting. They have to form (or grasp) the same concepts in two languages. And they would have to learn, at a very early stage, all the subtle differences in grammar between two languages.[4]

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Another thing that is largely implicit is the “choice to live”. You may remember this quote from “Galt’s speech”:

My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists – and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these.

But, except in the rare case of considering suicide and refraining from it, the “choice to live” is an implicit choice.

To take a mundane example: choosing to have breakfast in the morning. One does not explicitly go through the following reasoning: “Well, do I want to live today? Yes, I do. What do I have to do to remain alive till the evening? Well, I do need to eat something; otherwise I’ll starve. And since it is still morning, I’ll start with having breakfast.” Such thoughts are implicit in the choice to have breakfast; but one does not have to repeat them to oneself every morning.

One can make up more dramatic examples. One that I have used myself is this: You’re driving your car, and suddenly you encounter a ravine. You immediately put the brakes on. Obviously, the implicit premise behind this is that you don’t want to die. But equally obviously, you don’t go through a whole chain of reasoning, starting with the question: “Do I want to live or die?” If you did, it would be too late to put the brakes on, when you have reached the end of the reasoning![5]

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Bob Gifford: Regarding remembering how you formed concepts, have you formed any concepts recently? I mean, is it necessary to remember childhood experiences to see the measurement-omitted process work? As we go on learning, isn’t that process still going on? Part of the problem at this point is the question of measurement, I mean that in most higher level concepts, which is what intelligent, rational adults would be mostly focused upon, what the measurement is would not be obvious. You would have to dig a little, but if the concept was valid, it would be there somewhere.

The amazing thing about AR is that when she was asked about how she formed concepts she thought about it briefly and gave this answer (as I remember the story). She not only quickly recognized what she was doing but what that meant. That was the clarity of her mind.[6]

Well, I have a confession to make: I haven’t formed a single concept on my own in my whole life. I have merely taken over concepts already formed by others. Yet, I have a vast vocabulary or words, standing for concepts, in two languages (Swedish and English).

But I don’t think this is a problem for Ayn Rand’s theory of concept formation. Grasping a concept already formed by others cannot be too different from forming a totally new concept.

One of my Swedish friends [Filip Björner] recently suggested an exercise in forming a new concept. The example he chose was “blankcoin”, meaning simply a coin that is blank. But I rejected this on two counts:

  1. This “new concept” is merely a combination of two old concepts that I already understand perfectly well (“blank” and “coin”).
  2. The concept “blankcoin” is totally useless. It wouldn’t enhance my understanding of economics (or any subject) one bit.

Consider: The function and value of a coin has nothing whatsoever to do with whether it is smooth or rough to the touch. It has everything whatsoever to do with two things:

  1. The metal content of the coin. Gold, silver, copper or iron? How many carats of gold? And, of course, how large or small is the coin?
  2. The relation between the value of the coin and the value of what one wishes to exchange it for.

As Ayn Rand writes:

concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessitynor are they to be integrated in disregard of necessity. (ITOE, p. 72.)[7]

There is no necessity about the concept of “blankcoin” (or the corollary concept of “roughcoin”) – except the alleged necessity of teaching me how to form concepts.

New concepts are formed from time to time, but they are formed by geniuses. For example, Newton had to form the concept “gravity” in order to arrive at his theory of universal gravitation. And one example from Ayn Rand (there are certainly more) is the concept “second-hander”. This, of course, uses the old concepts of “second” and “hand”; but it is still a new concept that does enhance our understanding of “what makes people tick”.

Bob Gifford: I understand your feeling that you have never formed a new concept in your life, I have felt the same way. But I don’t think it really is an issue of originality or creativity. If your knowledge is valid, that is, if you can relate it to reality, then you have personally formed those concepts and they are all new to you. It is true that for a child there may be some first time stuff, but even then, the child is learning from his parents and other people. No, if you learned a concept and integrated it into your knowledge, meaning that you have knowledge of the real world, then you have formed the concept and you have used the measurement-omitted technique. […] When you find two instances of something, important or not, make a concept, give it a name, and enjoy the experience.

I see nothing I could dispute in this comment.[8] A concept, of course, is new to the child when he grasps it. And that concept-formation is speeded up by learning from parents and other adults is a point mentioned in ITOE:

… a child does not have to perform the feat of genius performed by some mind or minds in the prehistorical infancy of the human race: the invention of language … (P. 19.)

And yes, at least two instances are needed to form a concept. In the unlikely case of a child having observed only one table, it would stand in his mind as a proper noun (“the Table”). Or take a more likely case: a child grows up in a town and has as yet no experience of other towns, or cities, or villages. In this case, he would form a proper name, “the Town” and only later proceed to form the concept “town” and distinguish it from “city” and “village”.

By the way, in the Appendix to ITOE Ayn Rand mentioned that the concept “God” (in monotheistic religions) is not even an “invalid concept”, since there is only one of them. So I thought of calling this, not an “invalid concept” but an “improper proper name”. But this is more in the nature of joke. It follows, of course, that in order to form the concept “god”, you have to be a polytheist.

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Jakob Meijling: One more thing. How does the omitting of measurements work? It works by subtraction. A child forms concepts by identifying objects and having these objects named by an adult. The child tries to memorize the name of the object. Every time a similar object is identified by the same name by the adult, the child will add this to the “concept folder” in the relevant part of the brain, and notice the differences. The differences will then be omitted, leaving only the significant characteristics needed for the concept. And this “subtraction process” will go on until your brains stop working, and you die. You can experience this process anywhere: seeing new designs at a furniture trade fair; watching birds or cars or typefaces; visiting a foreign country where all artifacts look slightly different from at home.

I’m not sure I understand this. Do you mean that the differences are subtracted? Then this is just another way of saying they are omitted. For example: A child observes two tables that are different in size; then this difference in size is omitted when the concept is formed. Or one table has a round surface, the other a square surface; then this difference in shape is omitted. Or one table has four legs and the other three legs; then the number of legs is omitted. What is retained is what makes it a table: “a flat, level surface with support(s), intended to support other, smaller objects”.

It is indeed just another way of saying they are omitted, but it says something about the process. When adults form concepts consciously, they will omit the irrelevant characteristics by logic; a child will add tens and hundreds of instances of e.g. a table, and slowly arrive at the clear concept, without ever stating explicitly what Ayn Rand did.

OK, I get it.

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Time to stop wrecking my brain on this issue and think about something else.

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See also What Comes First, the Concept or the Word? and Two Observations on Definitions.

[1] Tongue in cheek.

[2] This paragraph of course is jocular.

[3] Magnus is fluent in Swedish, English and French.

[4] Once (a very long time ago) I lived in an English-speaking community in Copenhagen. The children went to Danish schools and had no difficulty switching between English and Danish. A couple of them had German and French parents, and they easily switched between all three languages.

[5] The point I mention here is taken up by Tara Smith in Viable Values, p. 105.I quote her in my own blog post The Choice to Live. Apart from that, I have not seen it discussed by Objectivists.

[6] The story is at the tail end of the Appendix to ITOE (p. 307).

[7] Ayn Rand calls this an ”epistemological razor”. It of course bears resemblance to “Occam’s razor” – the difference being that Occam said that “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity”. For example, one should not assume there is such an entity as God, if one can explain the world without him. (This, however, is hardly an example that Occam himself gave.)

On a more personal level, I have invented an entity called “the girl in the closet”, who is supposed to perform the household chores for me and my lady-friend. So if the bed isn’t made, or the potatoes not peeled, I blame this entity, when the simple explanation is that I was absent-minded and forgot all about it,

[8] Except that he calls it a feeling. It wasn’t a feeling, it was a thought.