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.

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