Friday, October 05, 2007

Dull Shrug

Apparently Atlas Shrugged was published on October 10th, 1957, making next Wednesday its fiftieth anniversary.

I suppose I should mark the occasion. And I will give it what marking it deserves.

Now, I can't offer much commentary on the historical reception of the novel. It will be fifty when I am still twenty-five, making me, bizarrely, half as old as it as of next week. What I propose to offer, instead, is the history of my exposure to Ayn Rand, her works, her ideas, and her disciples. The road to disdain is twisted indeed.

I first heard of Rand in grade school. I can't remember the circumstances at all. I think my mother mentioned someone about Rand's being conservative. I learned, perhaps from my mother as well, that Rand's work embodied an ideology of radical individualism. Well, this appealed to me quite well. I was already a heartless conservative and wished that people would do for themselves, and stop bothering others. Given that my entire existence was, at the time, fully supported by two people who worked, and that I was not working myself, I was probably not being very intellectually consistent. Well, whatever; work was in the future. For now, I knew little of Ayn Rand, but what I knew, I liked. Here was a woman unafraid to tell the moochers to stop mooching.

My next major encounter with Rand came during undergrad. I was reading back issues of National Review - 1950's to 1980's, in fact. It was in those pages that I became aware of the internecine feud between the Objectivists, on the one hand, and Whittaker Chambers, on the other, representing a classical (and theistic) conservatism. Rand was an atheists; this did not sit well with me. I still thought, though, that her basic ideas must be right, and that she just must be wrong about God.

Now I was in for a surprise. Later in my undergraduate career, I came upon certain Objectivist forums. Let me outline the exchange:

I: "I think Ayn Rand had some good ideas."

They: "Of course. She was always right."

I: "And I say this as a more-or-less Kantian ethicist and epistemologist."

They: "HERETIC!"

That's not far off the truth. Ayn Rand's moral philosophy, which she seems to have bequeathed unmaimed to her intellectual heirs, is a confused and confusing mess. On the one hand, Rand was clearly, undoubtedly influenced by Immanuel Kant in her insistence that objective moral standards, discernible by reason alone, were the sole possible basis for morally sound behavior. Were you to pass the works of Kant and of Rand on this point through some online translators a few times, in fact, it would not take long until they came out identical. Objectivism, at least as far as morality goes, it clearly Kantian.

But Rand never acknowledged her debt to Kant. In fact, as you may know, what I just said is as much an understatement as Justice Scalia's describing the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as "not a model of clarity." Rand despised Kant, and ascribed to him the blame for the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, for the murder of tens of millions of people, and for an ideology of nihilism which had infected Europe's intellectual elite. Kant, of course, is innocent of such charges, due to two misunderstandings. First, the Objectivists posit a false dilemma in ethics - either one is an egoist or an altruist. Because Kant clearly was not an egoist, and explicitly refutes egoism, he is branded an altruist. But this is unfair. Kant explicitly refutes altruism in Critique of Practical Reason right after he's refuted egoism - he says that even a philosophy designed to cause the greatest amount of aggregate happiness in the human race would not have true moral worth on its own. Kant's deontological ethics is something beyond egoism and altruism, whereby, instead of basing action on pleasure, individual happiness, or collective happiness, a person is supposed to do what is right solely because it is right. Objectivists either cannot or will not accept the distinction.

The second misunderstanding of Kant that has been shared by Objectivists since Rand is that he was a subjectivist, and, consequently, a nihilist. Kant does locate the validity of mathematics and physics in the human subject, but to leap from that "subjectivity" to relativism is unwarranted. Kant proposed transcendental idealism as a way of avoiding the contradictions, indeed, the nihilism into which realism falls. If all we know are things outside us, then we cannot be sure that those things will remain the same. If, however, what we know is conditioned on objects' conforming to our minds' very way of thinking, then objectivity is assured. This is baffling upon first glance to any student of Kant - because laws of nature are merely aspects of the human mind (thus subjective in some sense), those laws hold universally, because the mind cannot think of anything except in those fixed terms (making knowledge entirely objective by definition).

It is apparent, then, that Kant's "subjectivism" is more complex than the Objectivists claim. His subjectivism, if one takes him to be speaking truly, actually secures objective knowledge in the only way possible. Again, Rand and her cronies have misleadingly applied a label to Kant based on some aspects of his philosophy, then proceeded to extract all the implications from that label, no longer even trying to connect accusations to Kantian citations. It's intellectually dishonest, and lazy, and ignorant.

My final major encounter with the Randian school was a book by Leonard Peikoff, one of her disciples. In it Peikoff essentially argues that Kantian relativism infected German thought in the 19th century; that such relativism in morality and epistemology lead to a fascistic political theory embodied in Hegel; that later philosophers, influenced by Kant and Hegel, developed nihilism (see especially Nietzsche); and that this intellectual tradition ultimately provided the ideological backbone for the Nazi regime. In an effort, apparently, to make his book even more surreal, Herr Peikoff asserted that the same intellectual trends were apparent in the United States and would lead to a fascist regime in due time.

Well, it's absurd because it includes, among other things, the "Kant is the root of all evil" premise, which is demonstrably false. Further, while Hegel's political philosophy is peculiar, perhaps even anti-Lockean, he was no Nazi. Nor do I think that Nietzsche's nihilism had as much an effect on the Nazis as Peikoff thought, although perhaps here there is a hint of truth.

Well, that's been my experience with Ayn Rand and Objectivism. I have found the movement to be a political cult. The members appear unable or unwilling to think, to research, and to have their beliefs challenged. Ayn Rand herself seems to have been the queen of this sort of dogmatism, so I can't greet the coming anniversary with any great joy. Thank goodness she's marginalized in most universities' curricula.


At 8:57 AM, October 07, 2007 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The difference is the primacy of Consciousness versus the primacy of Existence.

Kant wanted to save faith from the Enlightenment. Since there are no gods that made his arguments disingenuous.

At 3:08 PM, October 07, 2007 , Blogger Vernunft said...

Human freedom cannot be explained in purely phenomenal terms, because phenomena operate by natural causality. By limiting knowledge to the realm of phenomena (not designed to save religious belief from knowledge but rather a recognition that transcendental idealism precludes knowledge about metaphysics), Kant was able to provide some account of human freedom (the second Critique). Call that disingenuous if you want, but had he not limited knowledge the way he did, he would have had no way at all of accounting for the freedom of the will. I wonder how Objectivists manage that...


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