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”.

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