Was Ayn Rand Right About Western Civilization?

Originally published at picoultraorientalis.com.

Back to the Foundations of Morality

In a time of escalating crises, reflections on the foundations of human action and cognition seems almost like an unaffordable luxury. Yet in the present moment when the civilization/barbarism antithesis has made a sudden (perhaps short-lived) comeback, we who remember the 20th century recall the rhetoric of Miss Rand. Yes, that Miss Rand, the one with the deliberately provocative counter-feminist preferred pronoun. Call her what you will, a shallow philosopher, a bad novelist, or even someone who was jointly complicit in the formation a cult centering on herself. Yet she excelled as a writer of essays and manifestos, of which the most important was her “For the New Intellectual.” Leaving aside the validity of Ayn Rand’s other notions, the central hypothesis of her manifesto has yet to be either refuted or elaborated since its publication in 1962. Here I am reopening her brief on the Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and to that end I will proceed by further simplifying Rand’s already streamlined take on the history of Western thought.

The salient thought of the manifesto is epitomized by one bold hypothesis: The decline and ultimate canceling of Western Civilization was initiated by the popular reception of Immanuel Kant’s Critical Philosophy. On the face of it, this is an outrageous assertion, given Kant’s status as a pillar of the Western philosophical tradition together with his image as sublime moralist. Furthermore, Rand added fuel to the outrage by implying malicious intent on Kant’s part. None the less, it might be worth while to extract the core hypothesis from Rand’s ad hominum innuendo, with the purpose, not of condemning Kant, but of salvaging whatever might be its value to intellectual history. The core hypothesis is non-trivial, and indeed might be of great importance if it could identify (as Rand claimed) a root cause of civilization’s destruction. After all, we know plenty enough about the proximate causes, ranging from war to inflation to censorship to terrorism and so on and so forth. Let’s give the Rand vs. Kant case a hearing, not because we have any sympathy for the way Rand’s following degenerated into a cult (or cults), but because the hypothesis itself deserves testing. If Kant can be vindicated, then we will owe his historic memory an apology. On the other hand, if the hypothesis is substantiated, we will have a plausible answer to a seldom asked but important question: Why do we speak of “the European Enlightenment” as a period which has a tacit closing date around the beginning of the 19th century, nomenclature which seems to imply a following age of darkness? It would seem unlikely that the following age has duped historians into cloaking its decline under the attractive aliases of Industry, Democracy, Science and Romance. Furthermore, even if we grant the onset of spiritual and moral decline, this might be attributed to any number coincident factors outside the realm of philosophical discourse ranging from the French Revolution to the harnessing of the steam engine. However those of us who stubbornly adhere to Richard Weaver’s adage “ideas have consequences” are always gratified when an intellectual cause can be hypothesized for the progress or regress of civilization.

Now if the anti-Kant hypothesis, in some form or other, can be vindicated, then things become much more interesting, and much more constructive, since the hypothesis implies a corollary. If Kant is a wrong turning, then we can take up the thread of pre-Critical ideas and develop them in ways which were precluded after Western thought took a wrong turn at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. Rand’s thought hints at what such a possible civilization might have looked like, and what it might look like in the future if the “war” (here a metaphor for intellectual struggle) for civilization could be won. Rand herself is a kind of unicorn, and while her thought was generally well intended and well articulated, it is incomplete and insufficiently robust to carry out the kind of renewal of civilization which she envisioned. Correcting this requires filling in the missing links in Rand’s history of rationalism, which may turn out to have many forgotten (or covered-up) items both in her sketch of intellectual history and among the people and ideas which formed her own views. Ultimately neither you nor I should be interested in the perpetuation or justification of Rand’s thought, but only in the nature of “what is” and how human life should proceed in accordance with that truth. Yet Rand remains significant even if the only thing she ever did was to alert us to a fatal flaw in the thinking of the West. Perhaps it is truly fatal, and the West cannot be saved, in which case all we will have is the satisfaction of knowing the cause. Or perhaps the ancient threads of rationality can be picked up again and extended into a brighter future. Frankly, I am much more interested in the corollary of the anti-Kant hypothesis than in the hypothesis itself. Yet exploration of the corollary will have to wait until the hypothesis has been reiterated with greater simplicity and lesser animus than in Rand’s initial presentation.

Problems in Rand’s Articulation of the Hypothesis

At the outset, to maintain that Immanuel Kant was operating out of bad will in the development of his Critical Philosophy is simply counterfactual. Nothing has brought more discredit to Rand’s hypothesis than her mischaracterization of Kant as an evil human being, as nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of the Sage of Konnignburg’s life and times will see the enormity of the slander. This is not to say that an “evil philosopher” is necessarily an oxymoron. I have my own misgivings about Frederich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and especially J. J. Rousseau, the last of whom even the generally tolerant David Hume thought demented. More to the point, during her life and afterwards many people intimated that Rand herself was evil, and these included not just her predictable left-wing critics but fellow conservative Whittaker Chambers. Unlike Chambers I think that Rand was a passionate advocate for goodness and truth.

Indeed, perhaps she was too passionate, at least for a philosopher. My hunch is that she lashed out at Kant because she intuited a deep flaw in his thinking which she couldn’t describe with sufficient exactitude. The strong points in her anti-Kant manifesto are rhetorical, in which she links the splitting of reality into a noumenal world and a phenomenal world with a division of labor between priests and tyrants, whom she strikingly characterizes as the “Witch Doctor” and “Atilla [the Hun]” There are some problems with this from a historical point of view, primarily in that the categories of noumenal and phenomenal predate their adoption into Kant’s system. None the less, the reader gets a vivid impression that a “divide and conquer” scheme has been used to impose mental chains on whomever adopts Kant’s reasoning. So far so good, but when it comes to the analysis of Kant’s system rather than just its characterization Rand has trouble following through with her insight.

At first blush it would seem that Rand’s quest against post-Kantian thought is poorly aimed. For instance, in terms of his general moral tenor, Kant was neither a political nor religious apologist. On the contrary, Kant saw himself as an intellectual opponent of both tyranny (Atilla) and priestcraft (the Witch Doctor). Yet, significantly, he framed his dialectical inquiry not in terms of the tyranny/priestcraft doublet, but rather as a critical overcoming of the skepticism/dogmatism antithesis. Let us grant for the moment that Kant was successful in this endeavor of staking out a middle ground which in some sense incorporated the strengths of both skepticism and dogmatism while avoiding the weaknesses of either. But at what price? Did this overcoming of pre-Kantian thought set the stage for even deeper moral dilemmas in subsequent philosophy? This is a matter which must be considered before we move on to celebrate what Kant called his “Copernican revolution.”

Before we can answer this question we need to have a clear, succinct, and non-trivial definition of Kant’s Critical Philosophy. It is easy enough to dislike Kant for some non-essential reason. Rand herself falls into this trap when she lampoons Kant’s exposition as deliberately obscure. This has been a complaint of many others beside Rand, although the innuendo of bad faith is probably unique to her. More to the point, complaints about style sidetrack serious consideration of a writer’s salient thoughts. It is up to the reader to extract the essence of a complex body of thought.

Here I will go out on a limb and give my impression of Kant’s general movement of thought. At the price of raising academic hackles, I am striving for simplicity and clarity. It seems to me that Kant has overcome both skepticism and dogmatism at the price of grounding his philosophy in psychology. Now certainly, I realize that many Kant scholars take exception to the characterization of the Critical Philosophy as a form of psychologism, but here I am not trying to fine-tune my, let alone anyone else’s, understanding of Kant’s thinking, but rather attempting to elucidate what Rand sensed to be the terrible error in Kant which sent Western civilization down the path of destruction. I think she sensed right, but could not articulate the reason adequately, a painful irony for a thinker who valued explicit reason over what she called “sense-of-life.”

The Heart of the Matter: Unleashing the Demon of Ethical Inventionism

If we define “ethical inventionism” as the arbitrary promulgation of values and ethical standards by human creators operating independently of either God or nature, then Immanuel Kant was, if anything, the opposite of an ethical inventionist. None the less, he may have opened the door for the rise of ethical inventionism in Western, and subsequently global, civilization. Arguably, this was the end result of the reception of Kant’s Critical Philosophy, first in Germany and later throughout all of Europe and its civilizational appendages. It was not, as Rand implies, a direct result of Kant’s metaphysics, but rather a consequence of the towering prestige attained by Kant’s formal ethics, which ostensibly surpassed all previous debates over substantive ethics. This movement towards a mental and formal ethics had as its unintended consequence, the eclipse of the lively debates over natural law, which had been the essential context within which European, and especially German, thought had developed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Whether or not we want to call Kant’s transcendental philosophy “psychologistic” or not, its ideal and absolute character had, as the first of many unintended consequences the rise of the German historical schools to fill the gap left by the diminishing of natural law discourse. This void could not be filled by Critical Philosophy due to its ideal, and in the realm of sociopolitical theory, utopian implications.

The movement from abstract theory to history as the context for thinking about politics, law, and ethics does not, in one fell swoop, take us from immutable ethics (proper to both divine command theory and its friendly rival natural law theory) into the chaotic world of ethical inventionism. Furthermore, the development of history as a field of understanding is nothing to be disparaged. None the less the shift from natural law thinking to historicism, (whether of German provenance or otherwise) is evidence of a transition from thinking which uses principles to using narratives, and from deductions founded on universal axioms to parochial us/them inductions, from humanism to tribalism, from enlightenment to romance. Parenthetically, the last term is viewed as compatible with rationalism in Rand’s philosophy, but here we are not pointing out potential contradictions in her thought, but only her anti-Kant hypothesis.

We see the above mentioned transitions at almost exactly the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries which is also the period of the initial reception of the Critical Philosophy in Europe. Coincidence is not proof of causality, but it gives some grounds for examining Rand’s claim that Kant was an irrationalist, despite the near-universal verdict that he was a rationalist, albeit a rationalist who’s works were obscure enough to generate endless disagreements among his interpreters. The grounds that Rand stipulates for Kant being an irrationalist are not cogent in so far as she implies the segmentation of reality into noumenal and a phenomenal spheres defaults on a supposed requirement of rationalism to encompass all being with a comprehensive explanation, or at least a set of explanations. Hegel, who did exactly that, does not escape her ire either. Most importantly however, Rand herself does not pretend to offer a comprehensive account of being, as if such were a requirement for a rational philosophy. On the contrary, she deliberately precinds from making any statements on cosmology, on the sensible observation that a philosophy attempting to provide its followers with stable standards of thought and behavior will be constantly undercut if it attempts to ground itself on a science which is in a continual state of revision. To her credit Rand is seeking an ethics which is reliable, stable, and objective. Furthermore, while she frequently uses the word “metaphysics” in her own ideosyncratic way, the heart of her philosophy manifests itself in her ethics, and that is where we should expect to find validation of her anti-Kant hypothesis as well, in ethics rather than in metaphysics or epistemology.

Highlighting ethics means bypassing the usual understanding of how the Critical Philosophy developed, seen as an attempt to overcome the logjam created by equally well-argued dogmatism and skepticism. In a sense Kant’s solution, far from being a compromise between rationalism and its doubters, resulted in a kind of hyper-rationalism. However it was a rationalism rooted in the mind rather than any exterior or even interior (psychology in the vulgar sense) reality. One might hail it as the third (after divine command and natural law theories) and vastly improved version of an immutable ethics. It should have stabilized civilization and set the bar for unlimited future moral progress. Yet within a hundred years Nietzsche was already hinting that the dark gods had returned. Translated into the language I am employing here, the era of ethical invention had arrived. Nietzsche could see that once ethics had turned into an expression of human creativity, it didn’t stop at a little stylistic dabbing, a custom here, a moral there, but rather painting with broad strokes, turning evil into good and good into evil, if only to satisfy the creators that they had the power to do so.

All of this is far removed from Kant, who conceived of moral standards, like pretty much everything else, as being “hard-wired” into the human mind, and not susceptible to meddling. The will was empowered to comply with the standards, or ignore them, according to its choice, but it was not free to change the standards themselves. Kant’s ethics included and consolidated elements from previous exchanges among enlightenment and religious viewpoints and furthermore raised the bar of morality according to strict notion of duty. Generally speaking consolidation and high standards are good things. However the vicissitudes of human events often turn even the best of intentions into traps for the unwary.

It was the Roman emperor Caligula who said, “If only they had one neck!” [That he might chop them off, i.e., the Roman people as a whole, with one blow.] In a sense Kant, in his Critical Philosophy, provided the Enlightenment with one neck, a consolidated system which reconciled and extended much of the previous century’s thought. Furthermore it was too strong to be chopped off, even by the guillotine of dogmatic materialism emanating from France in its late form of “ideology” which declared human thought processes to be epiphenomena of biological and economic realities. Instead Kant’s system melted in a slow and insidious fashion which lasted through most of the 19th century.

It was the post-Kantian idealists themselves who initiated the metamorphosis of the immutable mental categories into dynamic historical processes. Taking advantage the Critical philosophy’s consolidation of rational categories into a mental/ideal framework, Fichte introduced the ego as a unifying principle, while Hegel integrated history into idealism. This introduction of the time element was, none the less, limited and ordered. But with the rise of materialism, with its implication of a strict determinism of laws exterior to the human mind, the radical aspirations for freedom which had been awakened by German idealism and romanticism were crowded into a displaced and disinherited mental realm. Thus limited, and in order to attain parity with the new evolutionary thinking of natural history, idealism had to lay claim to its own powers of metamorphosis. In this transformation of post-Kantian thought, ideas became the opposite Plato’s unchanging essences. Ideas now became fluid thought-forms, created and modified by the genius of human cerebration. The greatest consequence of this movement was an increasing tendency to see systems to morality as arbitrary constructs invented by human beings, these being either individual law-givers or groups acting in concert.


When we divide all possible ethics into either systems of immutable morality or systems of moral invention, it is clear that Kant’s ethics, whether we agree with it in substance or not, rests firmly within the former, immutable, camp. Kant’s “revolution” is not a revolution in the contemporary sense of an emergence of novel form out of a prior state of being. It was a revolution in the classical sense of a restoration of primordial form from the corruptions of time. Even something as seeming radical as his transcendental turn was only a movement in terms of a discovery process delving down into hitherto unexplored realities. It was not the promulgation of a new reality birthed by human thought. The freedom and autonomy spoken of so highly by Kant and his followers is only the disciplined freedom of moral attainment within an objective system of formal ethics. It is not the freedom to set one’s own standards of morality. So we must reject Rand’s characterization of Kant as “subjective.”

None the less, when Kant placed the location of an immutable morality into the mental, as opposed to the theistic or natural sphere, he opened the door to the possibility of moral inventionism. The major fruit of invented morality during the 19th century was the perfection of positive law, replacing natural or traditional law, and reflected in the consolidation of state power, signaled the rise of the various “gods” of sovereignty, popular, autocratic or otherwise. The minor though well-advertised counterpoint to this was the bourgeois decadence of celebrated individuals, attaining their own godhood through moral invention which characteristically involved inversion of norms. In the 20th century the first tendency intensified through the spread of universal state warfare, allegedly countered, but in fact complimented by universal revolutionary agitation on the part of revolutionary professionals. The 21st century has seen the combination of major (state) and minor (individualist) moral invention, with the public sanctioning of anomic behavior.

Assigning ultimate responsibility for this degeneration in civilization to Immanuel Kant seems rather unfair. None the less, in this modified form Ayn Rand’s anti-Kant hypothesis appears cogent. Left to their own devices, neither the rationalistic nor skeptical modes of thought popular in European philosophy prior to Kant would have been capable of birthing the moral inventionism of latter times. It took Kant’s static psychologism (or if you will “mentalism”) to suggest later dynamic roles for the human intellect in constructing novel moralities.

So much for the hypothesis. I hope at some point to comment on the possibility that Kant’s immediate predecessors shared much with Rand. It is always interesting to see if Rand, who denied any homage to other philosophers aside from Aristotle, was in fact influenced by unnamed sources. More importantly, if there are missteps in Kant, what can we learn by returning to the pre-Kantians? If we are able to pick up where those long abandoned trails left off then perhaps we will be, in Kant’s own words “…on the road to a true science.”

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