Did Kantianism Destroy Civilization?

Rounding up an unusual suspect

In the general malaise and recrimination of present America, it is clear that much of what was once called civilization is slipping into the past. The “civilization” endangered is not per some archeological definition. No doubt urbanization and some sort of text-based literacy will survive into the ominous future. Rather, we face the eclipse of historical awareness and a growing incapacity to evaluate human events by the criteria of eternal values. For those to whom this is disturbing, talk revolves around who or what is to blame. There is a list of usual suspects in this discourse and, for example, I have nothing more to say about Cultural Marxism that has not been said by many in better ways than I ever could. On the other hand, there are a multitude of unusual suspects. If, as Richard Weaver claimed, ideas have consequences, then the culprit is a who more than a what. For example some Catholic thinkers blame the decline of the West on John Lock, but this comes perilously close to saying that the liberal order is in decline since it ought never to have been born.

A most unusual suspect, but one worthy of investigation, is Immanuel Kant. His chief accuser in popular intellectual history has been novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. Now, I have a hunch that Rand was on to something. Unfortunately she undermined her case by portraying Kant as the devil in her own ideological narrative. Kant was certainly eccentric in many ways, but it is hard to think of a more unlikely devil than the sage of Konigsburg. Yet, even unimpeachable character would be irrelevant if a person inflicted bad ideas on an unsuspecting public, willingly or otherwise. If indeed the relativism and chaos of post-modern society can be traced back to intellectual sources, then the huge influence of Kantianism on modernity cannot be excluded as a possible suspect.

Here Kantianism, not Kant himself, is the focus of my concern. I am not a Kant scholar, and indeed, if such a thing were possible, I am even less of a Kant scholar than Ayn Rand herself. At least the famous Russian-American novelist, nee Alisa Rosenbaum, got some historical perspective on the matter from her university teacher, the Petrograd Platonist N. O. Lossky.  I just start from what every educated person should know: Kant tried in his own humble yet energetic way to find a middle path between nihilism-engendering skepticism and the dogmatic certainties of metaphysics. Certainly that was a noble and non-trivial endeavor. Furthermore, given the richness and complexity of Kant’s thought, there remains the question of whether obscure but earnest Kant scholars have, or someday will, cut the Gordian knots of scientific knowledge and values.(1) However here we deal with those streams of Kantianism which, among the various contenders, acquired the most academic and social clout.  Hence we consider the possibility that these intellectual streams, having attained the high tide of influence during the 19th century, bear some responsibility for the deluge of nihilism which flooded civilization from the early 20th century onward.

Rand’s hunch vindicated?

Even if one does not adhere to the dogmas of her philosophy, there are good reasons to credit Rand with some insightful observations on the decline of civilization, specifically Western civilization. Long before she developed the personna of Ayn Rand, the truculent novelist-philosopher, the young Alissa Rosenbaum was a sensitive witness to the collapse of civil society in the aftermath of the Russian Bolshevik revolution. As a university student in the liberal arts, taught by the last generation of non-Marxist professors, her mind must have increasingly become preoccupied the inadequacy of bourgeois thought, including philosophy, to halt the oncoming storm of communist tyranny. What was it in bourgeois thinking that failed to put up effective resistance to Marxist ideology? Indeed, what was it in bourgeois philosophy which seemed to prepare the way for, and even invite, its own demise by the Marxist nemesis? After a few decades of meditation on this theme the answer seemed clear to her. It was the sins of Immanual Kant which were being reaped by succeeding generations of suffering humanity.

Now at the time this proposition was formulated it would have seemed patently absurd to anyone but a convinced Randian. First of all, Kant and Marx were intellectual apples and oranges, who can hardly be compared without risk of making a category mistake. If we were to say (which is in fact true) that Ricardo’s theory of capital paved the way for the Marxian theory of labor, then we would at least be speaking within the same realm of discourse. This apparent wrongheadedness of Rand’s accusations against Kant was accentuated by the general impression of Marxism during the early and mid 20th century, which was still an image of classical Marxism, i.e., materialism and economic determinism. Very few people at the time, including Rand, were familiar with terms like Cultural Marxism and Critical Theory. This change in our perspective on Marxism at least makes a comparison with Kantian systems possible, if not plausible.

Furthermore, it would see that if there was a connection then it was indirect, certainly more indirect than was indicated by Rand, and was mediated through the social sciences. It was more of a consequence than a pedigree in some genetic descent of ideas, and certainly cannot be proved by a common use of the word “critical” in both the former and latter eras. Apropos of which,”critical” has a completely different meaning in Kantianism and Marxism. This is not to say that the adoption of the term by Marxist thinkers was completely fortuitous. Undoubtedly, its prestige value was recognized and exploited. However the decent of the contemporary wave of nihilism, deconstruction, and cancellation from the Neo-Kantian millieux of the 19th century must be argued conceptually rather than rhetorically. Otherwise we will simply have constructed an anti-Kantian ideology based on faith(2). Our task is to do what Rand would have wanted to do herself, to understand, and not just have a hunch, whether or not the Kantians opened up a Pandora’s box which, quite apart from their own best intentions, destroyed civilization.

Neo-Kantianism and the myth of morality

As with all other philosophers, the influence of Kant on the practical affairs of humanity has been indirect. Except for specialists who delve into the actual texts of the critiques, everyone else has received Kant’s ideas from some mediating person or movement. Numerous movements have attempted to carry Kant’s ideas forward into their own generation, however it seems that the most influential of these movements developed in Germany in the mid-19th century, and was dubbed Neo-Kantianism. Neo-Kantianism itself was a complex phenomenon, consisting of at least two major school, one at Marburg and one at Baden Germany. Here I am not attempting an overall evaluation, but rather trying to capture the salient point at which the well-meaning rationalism of the Kantians opened itself up to a possible nihilistic turn.

Arguably the personality who provided the bridge from early to “neo” Kantianism was the German thinker (and sometimes professor) Fredrich Albert Lange. This F. A. Lange was an insightful and well-intentioned man who played an active, and many sided, role during his generation. His interests ranged from physiology to logic to history to the uplifting of the working class. In the latter sphere he was a passionate activist for socialism, at a time before anyone had discovered that the swiftest way to make oneself a tyrant was to gain control of a successful class war. As a man of the mid-19th century (with approximately the same flourit as Charles Darwin) he was impressed by the progress which the materialism of his time had made in discrediting the complicated systems of the German Idealists (Hegel, Schelling etc.). Yet as a philosopher he was sharp enough to understand that the physiological facts of sense perception still begged the question of what substance lay behind those perceptions. Hence he found himself returning to Kant’s general schema of a distinction between phenomena (appearances) and noumena (things in themsleves).

Yet in ethics F.A. Lange made a significant departure from Kant. Like Kant he longed for moral freedom, and refused to accept the material and biological facts of the human condition as ultimate determinations of the will. However Lange was skeptical of Kant’s solution to the problem of ethics. Unlike Kant, Lange was not able to find any intuition or data upon which to base a universal categorical imperative. Humans surely had to have a moral space independent of material causes, within which to exercise their free will. Yet, in the absence of moral imperatives, what content might exist to give a criteria for moral decisions? Lange, unable to find any criteria in nature, and having rejected religion and idealist philosophy, suggested that people simply make up their own moral criteria as they go along. In other words, morality could be a kind of poetry, and we could always make up a more suitable morality, just as we could always make a new poem.

This seemed like a splendid and liberating new way of dealing with moral issues. If the moral code of society were a work of art devised by creative impulse of the human heart, then what could be more satisfactory? Furthermore, the material and intellectual progress of society in the mid-19th century, had convinced opinion in Europe (once again, after some disillusionment in the wake of the French Revolution) that the human heart was pure and society was on an inevitable upward trajectory. F.A. Lange’s vision of a freely created moral code was eminently compatible with the ethos of his era. Yet Lange himself, primarily concerned with social activism, was not capable to giving birth to a new school of philosophy on his own. What gave birth to Neo-Kantianism was the relationship between two very different but complimentary persons, Fredrich Albert Lange and Herman Cohen. The one, an atheist son of a Protestant pastor, and the other an “enlightened” Jew who had succeeded in becoming one of the most respected professors in Germany.

Herman Cohen happily inherited the concept of moral freedom from Kant via F. A. Lange. However Cohen realized that no creation, even moral poetry, could occur in a vacuum. One might be able to paint any picture on one’s moral canvass that one pleased, but one could not invent the colors themselves. Some preexisting elements needed to be provided before the creation could be assembled. Cohen found these elements readily at hand in the moral principles of the Hebrew Bible. He felt that these principles could be adapted and rearranged as social conditions changed. In the F. A. Lange/H. Cohen system of moral creation and improvement, so fitting to 19th century sensibilities, it was almost as if the idea of a society based on Platonic myth had been reborn, based on a Kantian foundation.

Yet in reality, the myth was sub-Platonic. Consider the line at the beginning of Plato’s Laws, where the main interloquator, simply introduced as an Athenian, inquires of his hosts in Crete , “Tell me gentlemen, to whom do you credit the establishment of your code of laws? Is it a god, or a man?” The Cretan then assures him that it was a god, Zeus, and that in states with similar (just) constitutions it has always been a god, although the name of the god changes according to locality. Now one would think that Cohen, being a Jew, would be at least as pious as Plato, the pagan Helene, in so far as the latter makes the question of divine versus human origin of the laws a salient point in his introduction to the subject. Yet if the Athenian had asked Cohen the same question, Cohen in good faith would have had to have answered, “a man, or perhaps a collection of men.”

Indeed, the improvement, if it were such, of Kantianism over Plato was that its myths were more mythical. In Plato, the “myth” was not a freely willed construct of the elite, but rather an attempt (albeit by an elite) at interpreting the Ideas or essences of reality in human, social terms. As such they were the working out of a kind of revelation, though a different sort of revelation than that of Moses and the other Hebrew prophets. Hence even Cohen, who is closer to the Bible than other philosophers of his school, is more immanent in his world-view than Plato. For Cohen, the Mosaic revelation is a historic fact of the past, a source of material and inspiration which can subsequently be worked up into new created forms. For a philosopher this might count for piety, but of course it is not the point of view of the Bible or the Sages of orthodox Judaism.

Still it would be inaccurate to call (Marburg) Neo-Kantianism “subjectivist” in the loaded and negative sense that Ayn Rand would give to that term much later. According to Marburg thinking the determinate nature of the physical universe, logic, and mathematical laws still had some priority over the free actions of human history. In the last decades of his life Cohen would put a greater emphasis on religion, and his collaborator Paul Natorp would even try to recast Neo-Kantianism in a more Platonic mold, but the notion that morality (and for the Marburg school, social law) might be nothing more than a human-devised myth, was already out of the bag. The only philosopher of the time who let the cat entirely out of the bag was Hans Vaihinger, a careful Kant scholar, yet bold enough to claim that humans could fabricate their own moral worlds from the stuff of their imagination. Yet while Vaihinger’s influence was limited, it was the Baden, or Southwest German school of post-Kantian philosophy which would popularize the autonomy of the human world from nature and from primordial norms.

The Dark Side

To the humane and hopeful mentalities of Europe’s 19th century, the notion that human beings had the power to create their own moral worlds was enticing. The wars and genocides of the 20th century were still unimaginable incidents of a remote future. Of course there were harbingers of such things, such as the Crimean war reflected through Florence Nightingale’s notebooks rather than the poetry of Tennyson. However there was so much seeming improvement in power technology, communications, medicine together with perceived improvements in manners, that even such disasters were seen more as growing pains rather than warnings. If the human heart had the power to establish its own moral standards, what could possibly go wrong?

From our point of view, just posing such a question is automatically to answer it, since we live on “the other side.” On the other side of what? Well, historically, we live on the other side of the First World War, the initial disaster from which all others followed in chain. Yet more germane to the present topic, we live on the other side of Friedrich Nietzsche. While few would class Nietzsche as a Kantian, in many ways he was a kind of inverted image of the Kantians, using the same Kantian paradigm of autonomous morality but to different ends. Like Cohen and so many others, Nietzsche was influenced by Fredrich Albert Lange and probably brought by him to several conclusions, for example conceding that metaphysics had been supplanted by real physics, while conversely art, at least, was beyond the control of nature, and hence free to draw its own moral conclusions. Nietzsche didn’t feel that the conclusions of natural science compelled humans to become beasts, only that it had discredited the myth that humans were angels. Now, because the realm of values was outside of nature, human beings were free to reconstruct themselves according to any image desired. What Nietzsche himself desired was, if not exactly the beast, a kind of human being diametrically opposed to the types inculcated by 19th century bourgeois civilization.

While this might have scandalized orthodox philosophers of the school, in fact it was the Neo-Kantian view of morality as a work of the imagination independent of facts which enabled Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values. Herman Cohen might see the Bible as his paint-box, out of which he could splash together a kinder and gentler vision of civilization. Yet once the jinni of artistic fancy had been released into the realm of ethics, there was no possibility of imposing limits of any kind. The canvas of morality was blank and awaiting the brush of the social, or anti-social, philosopher. Cohen might have wished to paint a spiritualized vision of social harmony akin to the works of Marc Chagall. Yet Nietzsche, with equal creative right, would just as surely paint a vision of an axe-wielding barbarian, mounted on a saber-tooth tiger.

The American Athropological Amplification

If you have been able to follow my argument so far, you might even agree that making the moral basis of societies dependent on poetic invention carries some possibility of danger. On the other hand, you might also reckon this dangerous mostly to German professors in the 19th century, not to us today, or practical people of any era. Even if it is true, as per John Maynard Keynes, that the practical daily affairs of the masses is dictated by the long-diseased hand of unknown “academic scribblers” it doesn’t occur through magic. There must be some middle term, some agent of propagation, to turn dry reasoning into accepted social dogma.

In this case the agent of propagation was the secular science of Anthropology. This was the scholarly discipline which had arisen after the impact of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary thought had forced a reorganization of the social sciences. Prior to, let us say 1859 the publication date of The Origin of Species, the word anthropology referred to something quite different. In those days it was encapsulated as a sub-branch within the various classical systems of theology and philosophy which purported to explain the meaning of a creature who was “but a little bit below the angels.” Thus there was a Thomist anthropology, a Hegelian anthropology and so on and so forth. After the disenchantment wrought by Darwin, philosophers, at least those who were turning into “scientists,” were less inclined to speculate on the ontological uniqueness of the human race, and more liable to see humans as one species of animals among all the others, albeit a species with certain remarkable characteristics.

This lead to some embarrassments. Some how the animal distinctions of the human species (eg. an opposable thumb, relative hairlessness, upright posture etc.) didn’t give a comprehensive picture of what a human being really was. There was obviously a “something more” which accounted for the difference. Without a credible account of this “something more” popular opinion was likely to reject a natural science of humans and regress back to metaphysics or even theology. This was unacceptable to 19th century positivist researchers, the very people who had switched from calling themselves natural philosophers to scientists. Their solution to this problem was to have not one, but two new sciences, both called anthropology. One would be the science of physical anthropology, which would endeavor to show how smoothly the human race fit into the animal kingdom generally. It would be complimented by a second science, also called anthropology, with the opposite mission of explaining the uniqueness of humanity. Although this dual mandate resembled an enticement to cognitive dissonance, in practice it offered a nitch of specialization for anyone who had questions about either human origins or human nature.

Assuredly it was not hard to find extra-physiological facts witnessing to human uniqueness. Indeed, long lists might be compiled, and were compiled: houses, domesticated animals, lexicons, folk tales, kinship terms, clothing, rituals, and so on ad infinitum. For some mentalities, the making of such lists was an end in itself. It appealed to the collector instinct. Franz Boaz, arguably the founder of American anthropology, spent most of his life collecting things. Not that he didn’t have the mind to be a brilliant theorist, but his strict positivist scruples forbade him to make hypotheses. He spent the Arctic nights studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, then put his books away to resume collecting. None the less it was soon recognized that this second science of Anthropology which studied uniquely human things, required some overarching theoretical framework. It would require some paradigm with a similar power and salience as that which Darwin’s theory of natural selection had given to physical anthropology.

The paradigm which was destined to inform this second anthropological science with its ideas would be derived from (where else!) Neo-Kantian philosophy. Especially the Baden/SW German school had taken up the standard of methodological dualism, establishing a divide between the sciences of nature and the human sciences. Through a happy congruence, this exactly suited the division of materials and methods which the two new anthropologies required. Physical anthropology would be a natural science, leaving room for a second anthropology as a human science studying the unique characteristics of humans. As per not just the Neo-Kantians but many other Kant-influenced thinkers of the late 19th century such as William Dilthey, the facts of nature should be described, but the facts of human history should not just be described but understood, since free mental actions require the inner understanding of minds communicating with other minds. It was decided that this second anthropology of the human sciences should have a unique word describing the uniquely human ideas which produced human actions and artifacts. The word “culture” was settled upon. Hence the second anthropology dealing with the non-physiological aspects of the human race would be called “cultural” anthropology.

All of this was quite unobjectionable, since it was salutary that the human sciences not be swallowed up in the positivist project of measurement and determinism. In this sense, it was good to recognize that the study of human beings had become autonomous from nature. However, does this methodological dualism justify the further proposition that human thought should be independent of reality? This would seem to be an absurd leap into paradox, yet there was a line of thought within the Kantian tradition which, released from the restraint of the categorical imperative, would elevate the value of human autonomy to giddy and dangerous Promethean heights. The concept of morality as a work of free human creation, once escaped from the cubicles of German philosophers and put in the hands of enterprising American anthropologists, would indeed begin to shape and disrupt the lives of millions.

From Spirit-ism to Secularism

In the wake of Darwin and the industrial revolution, waves of European scholars spread out across the face of the Earth, professing positivism and engaged in numerous natural science “expeditions.” For geology, botany, zoology, and yes physical anthropology, this was an unambiguous extension of knowledge facilitated by advances in instrumentation and technique. However in the case of cultural anthropology, the question might have been asked (though I suspect it seldom was) : What are you bringing into the field which represents an advance in knowledge? Of course, the local people in any given area were already well-aquainted with themselves, but I am assuming here that a universal publicizing of local knowledge would constitute a net gain in knowledge, first for Europeans and ultimately for everyone in the world. Unless one is willing to go down the infinite rabbit-hole of critical theory there is no reason see anything particularly sinister in this. After all prior to the 19th century, it had not been an exclusively European endeavor, and Islamic travelers such as Ibn Battuta enriched the cultural geography of the world with their travelers accounts.

Rather, I am questioning what it was that made the “scientific” ethnography which began in the 19th century somehow superior to travelers accounts (by Westerners or others) prior to the rise of positivism in the West? After all, missionaries, traders, explorers, emissaries and others had generally done remarkably good jobs of recording the history, manners, and conditions in the various regions of the world previously unknown to outsiders. The most disappointing answer would be that the investigators now had a new status as social scientists, and the legitimacy of the new academic system in Europe, with new departments organized on positivist principles, demanded that everyone consider this research to be new and scientific. This might be a nice, lazy, Marxist-institutionalist answer, but to my mind it doesn’t satisfy. Moreover I think there is a genuine answer to the question, and that the new positivist ethnography provided an absolutely essential function in terms of promoting science and the scientific world-view.

In order to find the answer, let’s return to Plato’s dialogue between the Athenian and his local hosts in Crete as recorded in the Laws. The Athenian asks the origin of the laws of Crete, whether they be a divine dispensation or a product of a human mind. The Cretan responds vociferously that the origin of the laws in divine, and as far as Plato or anyone else is concerned, that settles the case. Now let’s consider an ethnographer, a positivist, anywhere in the world and at any time, say, between 1859 and 1959.(3) He riddles his local informant with numerous questions, on kinship systems, on crafts, on diet on whatever, and in each case records the answer of the informant with fidelity, for we are assuming the optimal case where the investigator and the informant have established a relationship of mutual trust and candor. Next the investigator asks the informant the same question that the Athenian asked the Cretan: Whence the laws, divine or human? Or put in more contemporary terms “Who or what originated your culture?”

I maintain that in every case where the informant was representing an authentic primordial tradition, the answer would be exactly the same as the Cretan gave the Athenian, though not in the exact words “the gods” or “the spirits” or some equivalent. Yet then the investigator would do something odd, and more than odd, dishonest or perhaps even treacherous, he would proceed to discount the verity of the informant’s answer and presume its opposite. Why? It is not that he would think that the informant lied, but rather that the informant was deluded on this point, perhaps even mad. It would have to be a selective insanity, only operative when the origins of his world were called into question. In all other respects he might remain a trustworthy source, and the investigator could proceed with his list-making. It is really the positivist ethnographer’s projection which is important here, for this flipping of the spiritual to the mundane is the service which his investigation renders to science. The historical task of the positivist in the human sciences was to disenchant the world, to make sure that great Pan is dead and stays dead. He earned his pay.

That being said, nobody reads anthropology or travel books in order to be disenchanted. Franz Boaz may be considered representative of the positivist moment in anthropology, the era of “facts, just the facts” the era of list-making. Such a project was only of interest to specialists and unlikely to have much influence on society at large. However anthropology, and Boaz himself, were soon swept up into the transition from positivism to Neo-Kantianism. As proud as Boaz was of his intellectual daughters, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, there is something about him which resembles Shakespeare’s King Lear, since the daughters cheerfully flipped their mentor’s methods and motives upside down, apparently with his approval. This was perhaps inevitable, since the disenchantment of the the human historical record had created a vacuum in the imagination of 20th century men and women which could not be long endured. The awe of the gods had departed, but soon the romance of human creation in all its variety had arisen to take its place. And what was it that human beings created? Of course material artifacts, and poetry in the strict sense of “new songs.” But more fundamentally humans created their own institutions and systems of morality, these latter being at the core of what was now called “culture.”

Boaz’s “daughters” were the ones who brought Neo-Kantianism on to the American, and ultimately world, stage as a normative ideology. Neo-Kantianism was no longer the exclusive property of German academic elites, and indeed it was already in decline within philosophy just as it started to gain traction in the social sciences. By the 1920s Boaz’s daughters were no longer afraid of either Virginia Wolf or the big, bad Friedrich Nietzsche. Indeed, to them Nietzsche had become domesticated, a kind of ice-cream vendor of value-flavors among which the cultural creator could pick and choose according to taste. For Benedict, culture-creation was akin to molding ceramics, except on a larger, collective scale.  Meanwhile, Meade had an uncanny ability to happen on to societies which corresponded to the varied erotic fantasies of the American public. The image created in the popular mind was that of elders sitting around a fire exclaiming: “Now, what kind of culture should we make for ourselves?” Of course this was absurd, and anyone who reflected on the matter would have understood the absurdity. None the less it propagated well as an ideological myth.(4) First of all, it resonated with previous American notions about the contractual basis of society, shared by conservatives and progressives alike. More ominously it also resonated with the rising class of educators and social planners who by the 1930s were already launching their projects for a managerial state.

Cultural Plasticity

Hence by the first half of the Twentieth century, “culture” had taken on that connotation of aesthetic creation of morals which had originally been conjectured by Neo-Kantian philosophers. Hence aesthetics was not restricted to material artifacts and limited compositions, rather, society itself, its basic laws and institutions were considered to be a human work of art. The alternative to this view, actually more sensible, was the Marxist doctrine that all things were constrained by a material base.

Cultural Marxism was a synthesis of these approaches. The voluntarism of culturology and the determinism of dialectical materialsim. Conservatives have failed to entertain the possibility that it may be the coefficient of “culture” rather than the Marxist base which has rendered 21st century politics so toxic. It is the idea that human beings are gods, with its implication of total liability, which prevents any mediation or moderation in morals once conflicts become acute. The notion that “we are gods” goes back at least to Babel, but the idea of morals as an aesthetic creation seems to be a novelty of philosophers trying to push the limits of Kantian moral autonomy.

Conservatives have generally been unwilling to criticize the culture concept because they have generally bought into the world-view of deep, evolutionary, social time. One might call this the Burke-Hayek view, in honor of the founder of modern conservatism and the economist who stated the principle of social evolution with more concision than any anthropologist, as “the results of human action but not human design.” Against this, progressives favor radical, revolutionary time, with cultural heroes or radical elites formulating new social norms out of whole cloth. Unfortunately, the conservative position flounders on the inability of the human mind to distinguish objective time from duration. Neither the collective memory or the individual subconscious can distinguish something that happened a million years in the past from the last nanosecond, hence there is no innate conservative calculus which automatically confers venerability and legitimacy on long established institutions.

The salient principle is not between deep time and shallow time, but between the reality principle (God or nature) and the ego. Hence any theory (such as the culture concept) which posits the human origin of institutions, whether these were established in the hoary past or in a contemporary upheaval, will find instant and universal acceptance. What matters is that society be a human work of art, slow or quick. Otherwise the reality principle intrudes and dulls human consent. Even the concept of nature is irksome to the human mind, since it posits a limit to possible behavior. That human institutions might have been bestowed by a god or gods is a nearly intolerable thought, at least to moderns. To live under such conditions is to eat “the bread of shame”…to live in a world, not just a natural world, but a social world, not of one’s own, or even of one’s own kind’s, devising. In Kant’s terminology, it is to live under heteronomous conditions. Only the most pious of souls would be able to return, voluntarily, from a condition of autonomy to heteronomy, although it might be possible if one had a genuine love for the law-giver.

In conclusion: The passion of Ayn Rand

The imperious novelist Ayn Rand started out with the hypothesis that something was eating at the foundations of Western civilization, and she laid the blame for this something squarely at the feet of Immanuel Kant. To the extent that it is possible to follow her line of thinking, she appears to have believed Kant’s epistemology led European thinkers into a miasma of obscurantism. Even those of us who are not Kant specialists can see that he was certainly not leading his readers into an obtuse irrationalism under the guise of a deceitful rationalism. It is true that much of his jargon is difficult and has repeatedly led thinkers down conceptual rabbit holes. On the other hand there are those such as Goethe who enthused about the Critique of Pure Reason as a room flooded with light which instantly cleared his mind upon entry. I must confess I have never had such a feeling. Perhaps it helps if one is a native speaker of German. Finally, Schopenhauer makes the even greater claim that anyone who has never read Kant cannot be considered a mental adult. Presumably Schopenhauer, who had read Kant, was a mental adult himself.

Still, although she is in the minority on the issue, I am loath to dismiss Ayn Rand’s intuition. Not because I am a Randian, but because I treasure the young Alisa Rosenbaum’s witness against tyranny and nihilism. What did she see? She saw an era much like our own, in which suddenly everything which had value to her was subject to cancellation. She wanted to find out the deep cause of these things, beyond simply blaming “the Reds”…although they were certainly culpable at the level of material conduct. The more she thought about the issue, in Russia and then in America, the more she felt the problem revolved around faulty thinking. People had forgotten the meaning of reason. How had this occured? The bright sun Aristotle had been eclipsed by the obscurity of Kant.

Aside from supposedly authoring irrationalism, Rand also blamed Kant for promoting altruism, which she considered to be a faulty ethical principle. However, quite apart from any assessment of the principle, it should be noted that coinage of the word altruism, and its most explicit early advocacy, was the work of August Compte, the originator of positivism as a social and scientific movement. Kant can only be considered an altruist “by courtesy” or in the case of Rand, through discourtesy.

This little essay has ended up like the spy drama Night of the Jackal. I think Rand found the right suspect by accident, following a faulty chain of evidence. It is not that Immanuel Kant threw a spammer into Western philosophy when he wrote his first critique. Rather, another of his critiques, that of practical reason, gave rise to schools of philosophy in Germany and elsewhere which pushed the concept of human autonomy to its logical conclusion. People began to venture that systems of morality and social institutions could be created ex nihilo from the human imagination, like poetry. At first speculations ran along the lines of accepted Judeo-Christian norms, but soon Nietzsche and others were advocating an upending of values. The idea that cultures are arbitrary, poetic creations devised by humans was spread throughout the world by American anthropologists.

Hence it was that the ultra-liberal notion of an arbitrarily promulgated moral code, devoid of any sanction beyond the sensibilities of its creators, collapsed in the face of its anti-liberal antagonists.  In comparison to Neo-Kantianism, Marxism had something like an objective metaphysics, with material factors driving towards forgone conclusions.  They also had force, and a willingness to use it.

Although Rand didn’t quite see Kant and Kantianism in the same light that I have tried to portray them here she did witness the volatility of a world in which society had come to be seen as a human creation. All that it takes is a change in the direction of the winds for the works of the human heart to be crushed and established on a new basis, a new basis which will have no greater guarantee of survival than its predecessor. Although Rand was herself a great advocate of human autonomy, she could see that there was something in liberal thinking which left it vulnerable to hostile takeover. Since she was more interested in individuals than institutions, she was inclined to trace Kant’s alleged noxious influence down through Hegel and Marx, in the guise of collectivism. Here we have taken a different approach, in considering the different ways in which institutions are constituted, as immanent (cultural) or transcendent (divine). Yet here too, the ubiquitous influence of Kant emerges, and we can see how in their overzealous embrace of human autonomy, his philosophic successors endangered even such freedoms as had already been secured by the liberal order.


1.One of the more interesting of the side currents is the neo-Friesian school, which interprets Kant’s epistemology rather differently from the mainstream. The chief living proponent of this school is American philosopher Kelley Ross who’s encylopaedic website frisian.com is well worth a visit. However even by the admission of Dr. Ross himself, neo-Friesian thought has had little influence beyond small circles of careful scholars. He attaches to the Kant-Fries tradition many luminaries in psychology, religion, economics and philosophy of science, among other disciplines.  However these connections are frequently anecdotal or episodic, and not perceived by either the public at large or most scholars as manifestations of an integral school of philosophy.

2.It was Rand’s inability to connect the dots in her anti-Kant diatribes which was her major philosophical failure. I can’t imagine anything more embarassing to Rand influenced rationalists than to point out that their evaluation of Kant is based on little more than rhetoric. More significantly, this kind of shortcut undermines the serious criticism that needs to be made of the hugely influential Neo-Kantian systems of thought of the 19th century and onward. This failure of Rand and her epigones have caused serious accusations against Neo-Kantianism to be dismissed as a “crank” opinion. In fact, Rand may have been righter than she knew.

3. Dates bookended by the publication of Darwin’s Origin of The Species and the first stirrings of post-modernism in ethnological writings. Apropos of the latter, my contention that the core institutions of primordial societies were of non-human origin is not necessarily an endorsement of Carlos Castenada-type surreal ethnological romance.

4. It also helped that Benedict and Mead, who popularized the idea of society as an aesthetic creation, were themselves accomplished poets and literary figures who almost seemed to have wandered into the social sciences by mistake. Hence when Morton Freedman called out Mead’s research as a hoax in the 1980s it was sloughed off by other anthropologists as inconsequential, since the research itself was deemed to be a kind of novel which long since been accepted into the cannon of the profession’s literary narrative.

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