Kant, Savior of Religion

Oct 272007


Religion has faced formidable foes in its history. But atheism hasn’t generally been one of them — until today. A recent string of bestselling books has put believers of all stripes on the defensive. Religion, say authors such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, is an unreasonable form of blind faith, often leading to fanaticism and violence. Reason and science, they contend, are the only proper foundations for forming opinions and understanding the universe. Those who believe in God, they insist, are falling for silly superstitions.

This atheist attack is based on a fallacy — the Fallacy of the Enlightenment. It was pointed out by the great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant erected a sturdy intellectual bulwark against atheism that hasn’t been breached since. His defense doesn’t draw on sacred texts or any other sources of authority to which people of faith might naturally and rightfully turn when confronted with atheist arguments. Instead, it relies on the only framework that today’s atheist proselytizers say is valid: reason. The Fallacy of the Enlightenment is the glib assumption that there is only one limit to what human beings can know — reality itself. This view says we can find out more and more until eventually there is nothing more to discover. It holds that human reason and science can, in principle, unmask the whole of reality.

That’s from Dinesh D’Souza, unsurprisingly. He’s the author of the just-published book, What’s So Great About Christianity. (Yes, I do plan to read it.)

Kant as Destroyer

Feb 212006

Someone who probably wishes to remain anonymous sent me the following comment on my post on David Kelley Versus Ayn Rand on Kant:

[Your post] brought to mind a passage I discovered in a book by Heinrich Heine (a 19th century German poet). Speaking of Kant, Heine writes:
What a strange contrast did this man’s outward life present to his destructive, world-annihilating thoughts! In sooth, had the citizens of Konigsberg had the least presentiment of the full significance of his ideas, they would have felt a far more awful dread at the presence of this man than at the sight of an executioner, who can but kill the body. But the worthy folk saw in him nothing more than a Professor of Philosophy, and as he passed at his customary hour, they greeted him in a friendly manner and set their watches by him.” [Religion and Philosophy in Germany, translated by John Snodgrass (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), p. 109.]

The “worthy folk” of Konigsberg had an excuse: They were not professional philosophers, had not seen the historical consequences of Kant’s ideas, and had not read Ayn Rand. David Kelley has no such excuse.

Indeed! David Kelley should know better than to think that the Marxist professors who advocate the “dictatorship of the proletariat” are morally better than actual dictators of that proletariat. Yes, those Marxist professors do merely attempt to persuade others — but they attempt to persuade some to exercise brute force while rationalizing and/or denying the resulting rivers of blood to others.

The fact that the professors wouldn’t dream of bloodying their own hands does not exonerate them, but condemns them further. It shows that they wish for the illusion of civilization, even while obviously supporting the very opposite, including death camps for even suspicion of dissent, show trials against loyal communists, and starving whole peoples into submission. (Yes, Marxist professors did support such atrocities, not just by rejecting such “bourgeois” concepts as individual rights, objective law, and economic freedom, but also by defending the USSR and other communist regimes against almost any criticism.) To be unable to slit the throats of your ideological victims yourself, yet continue to preach the ideas which justify and inspire others to slit throats, is not a sign of any redeeming virtue but only of dishonest cowardice.

David Kelley Versus Ayn Rand on Kant

Feb 192006

Myfraf has blogged a bit about David Kelley. His question about whether Kelley’s views on moral judgment can be reconciled with Ayn Rand’s judgment that Kant was the most evil man in history is worth considering. Instead of offering some grand analysis of the issue, I’ll simply quote the relevant texts, to let my readers just for themselves.

Ayn Rand made the “most evil man in history” claim about Kant in the final issue of The Objectivist, in an article entitled “Brief Summary.” Here’s the relevant section:

Those who are not willing to give up the world to mindless brutality, must learn that the battle is philosophical–and that there is no time for anything else.

Suppose you met a twisted, tormented young man and, trying to understand his behavior, discovered that he was brought up by a man-hating monster who worked systematically to paralyze his mind, destroy his self-confidence, obliterate his capacity for enjoyment and undercut his every attempt to escape. You would realize that nothing could be done with or for that young man and nothing could be expected of him until he was removed from the monster’s influence.

Western civilization is in that young man’s position. The monster is Immanuel Kant.

I have mentioned in many articles that Kant is the chief destroyer of the modern world. My primary concern, however, was not to engage in polemics, but to present a rational approach to philosophy, untainted by any Kantian influence, and to indicate the connection of philosophy to man’s life here, on earth–a connection which Kant had severed. It is useless to be against anything, unless one knows what one is for. A merely negative stand is always futile- as, for instance, the stand of the conservatives, who are against communism, but not for capitalism. One cannot start with or build on a negative; it is only by establishing what is the good that one can know what is evil and why.

Kant was opposed in his time and thereafter, but his opponents adopted a kind of Republican Party method: they conceded all his basic premises and fought him on inconsequential details. He won–by default and with their help. The result was the progressive shrinking of philosophy’s stature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. All the irrational twistings of contemporary philosophy are Kantian in origin. The ultimate result is the present state of the world.

If, on the positive basis of my philosophy, I may be permitted to express a negative consideration, as a consequence and a side issue, I would like to say, paraphrasing Ragnar Danneskjold in Atlas Shrugged: “I’ve chosen a special mission of my own. I’m after a man whom I want to destroy. He died 167 years ago, but until the last trace of him is wiped out of men’s minds, we will not have a decent world to live in. (What man?) Immanuel Kant.”

It is, therefore, appropriate that in the last issue of The Objectivist, I should offer you Leonard Peikoff’s brilliant presentation of Kant’s views on some of the central questions of morality. It is a condensed presentation, especially since it is excerpted from a fuller discussion, but it will be sufficient to give you a clear image of Kant’s mentality and of its product.

You will find that on every fundamental issue, Kant’s philosophy is the exact opposite of Objectivism. You may also find it hard to believe that anyone could advocate the things Kant is advocating. If you doubt it, I suggest that you look up the references given and read the original works. Do not seek to escape the subject by thinking: “Oh, Kant didn’t mean it!” He did.

Dr. Peikoff’s essay will help you to understand more fully why I say that no matter how diluted or disguised, one drop of this kind of intellectual poison is too much for a culture to absorb with impunity- that the latest depredations of some Washington ward-heelers are nothing compared to a destroyer of this kind–that Kant is the most evil man in mankind’s history.

It will also help you to see what enemy I am fighting and have been fighting all these years.

In contrast, here’s what David Kelley said in “A Question of Sanction“:

The concept of evil applies primarily to actions, and to the people who perform them. [Peter] Schwartz asserts that we should not sanction the Soviets because they are “philosophical enemies.” This is a bizarre interpretation of their sins. Soviet tyrants are not evil because they believe in Marxian collectivism. They are evil because they have murdered millions of people and enslaved hundreds of millions more. An academic Marxist who subscribes to the same ideas as Lenin or Stalin does not have the same moral status. He is guilty of the same intellectual error, but not of their crimes (unless and to the extent that he actively supported them, as many did in the 1930s, although even here we must recognize a difference in degree of culpability).

On David Kelley’s view of moral judgment, no mere intellectual could even aspire to be “the most evil man in history,” let alone achieve that distinction. As a commentary on both Ayn Rand and David Kelley, let me quote Leonard Peikoff’s comments in “Fact and Value“:

Now consider the case of Kant, whom I take to be the negative counterpart of Ayn Rand. To anyone capable of understanding Kant’s ideas, the first thing to say about them is: “false.” But implicit in the all-embracing war on reality they represent is a second verdict: “wicked.” The cause of such ideas has to be methodical, lifelong intellectual dishonesty; the effect, when they are injected into the cultural mainstream, has to be mass death. There can be no greater evasion than the open, total rejection of reality undertaken as a lifetime crusade. And only evasion on this kind of scale, evasion as the motor of an entire philosophic system, makes possible and necessary all the atrocities of our age. (For details, see The Ominous Parallels.)

Whoever understands the Critiques, yet urges “toleration” of Kant (or his ilk), or tells us to practice cognition on his ideas but not moral evaluation, has rejected self-preservation as a goal. He has rejected the principle of justice and the entire realm of moral value. He has said that man’s life or death should not be a ruling concern in anyone’s mind.

In the final issue of The Objectivist, Ayn Rand described Kant as “the most evil man in mankind’s history.” She said it knowing full well that, apart from his ideas, Kant’s actions were unexceptionable, even exemplary. Like Ellsworth Toohey, he was a peaceful citizen, a witty lecturer, a popular dinner guest, a prolific writer. She said it because of what Kant wrote–and why–and what it would have to do to mankind. She held that Kant was morally much worse than any killer, including Lenin and Stalin (under whom her own family died), 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 philosophic climate Kant and his intellectual followers created, none of these disasters could have occurred; given that climate, none could have been averted.

The dishonesty central to Immanuel Kant’s philosophy is not some self-evident primary. I’ve certainly questioned it myself. To arrive at that judgment, a person must firmly grasp that intellectual honesty fundamentally consists of actively working to rationally conform one’s ideas to the facts of reality. He must clearly understand the fundamental principles of Kant’s philosophy — as learned from Kant himself. And he must be familiar with the metaphysical and epistemological works of at least some major Enlightenment philosophers, not just to understand the bright intellectual milieu in which Kant worked and which Kant destroyed, but also to provide more than a few clear contrasting examples of clearly honest but also thoroughly erroneous attempts to defend reason and understand the world thereby. (Locke’s Essay is an excellent example, since he’s wrong on almost every substantive point, yet also clearly honest. Looking back, I think that I wasn’t quite certain of Kant’s dishonesty in that old blog post because I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with the shining honesty Enlightenment philosophy.) With that background, a person can understand that Kant’s philosophy constitutes a thorough, blatant rejection of reality and reason, not just some misguided attempt to understand reality by means of reason.

As an aside, let me add that I absolutely do not think that Kant’s dishonesty can be directly inferred from his horrendously crow-busting writing, as many try to do. While I think that his style of writing is dishonest obfuscation, plenty of basically honest intellectuals are horrendous writers of various kinds. (Sadly, most of those today are the confused children of Kant, I think.) The judgment of dishonesty cannot be based upon a reader’s inability to easily understand Kant’s ideas; it must be based upon those ideas themselves. And that requires wading through all his jargon and untangling his obfuscation, no matter how hard that might be. Yet once that is done, his style of writing does take on new meaning, since it is clearly his method of concealing his pathetically bad arguments for his shocking conclusions.

Of course, none of that matters for David Kelley, since “in judging an individual… one cannot go merely by the content of what he believes” (T&T 44). Rather, “one must have some independent evidence about his motives for believing it” (T&T 44). So while both Stalin and the Marxist professor willingly adopted anti-life ideas, perhaps even by evasion, Stalin “intended to kill,” whereas the Marxist professor merely “engaged in persuasion” (T&T 36). And so we are supposed to fix our gaze upon the thin veneer of civilization to which so many intellectuals cling, ignoring the obvious fact that they are openly calling for the destruction of all that civilization requires.

Kant in the News

Nov 182004

When I heard that Dinesh D’Sousa had written a very Kantian op-ed for Opinion Journal from some Objectivist sources, I figured that the article merely had a Kantian flavor to it. Boy, was I ever wrong. The whole article is an explicit appeal to Kant’s tortured metaphysics and epistemology, all for the small task of rejecting Daniel Dennett’s stupid suggestion that atheistic materialists identify themselves as “brights.”

I would quote from the article for the purposes of illustration, but then I’d have to quote it all. So go read it if you want the gory details.

Far more amusing was British Home Secretary David Blunkett blaming Kant for the public’s skepticism about national identity cards. (Paul found it in the course of surfing for stories for GeekPress.)

Home Secretary David Blunkett said today that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant is to blame for scepticism about the government’s plans for a compulsory national identity card. He was speaking at a meeting at the Institute of Public Policy Research, restating his arguments in favour of the scheme.

The British public’s fear of ID cards is down to our “history of legitimate doubts about the intentions of the state, reinforced by what we saw in terms of communism and fascism over the last century”, Blunkett said. “It was writers like Kant who first took the view that there is something suspicious about government activity, and that if a government is up to something, it must be about removing freedoms.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, he argues. In fact, the ID card will pave the way for a more tolerant society, with greater social cohesion. It will be useful in the fight against racism, and won’t be a big-brother style surveillance tool, at all. It is now time to take on the sceptics, and those who argue that the government’s intentions cannot be taken at face value, he says.

Trust us. We’re nice.

If only Kant were such a good influence on public policy!

Was Kant Necessarily Dishonest?

Oct 142004

I wrote the bulk of this post a number of weeks ago, but then abandoned it as other work piled up. Instead of re-writing it to be entirely current, I decided to just clean it up a bit and post it, as I’m still quite interested in responses to my ruminations and questions. In other words, although my thoughts on this matter have progressed somewhat, I wouldn’t regard them as settled.

This semester, I’m taking a class on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason from one of my favorite professors, Bob Hanna. (I took two good semesters of philosophy of mind from him in my first year at Boulder.) In order to thoroughly learn the material of this profoundly influential work, I’ve adopted the procedure of first reading the text carefully, then later reviewing and writing some notes on it. I actually typed the whole long passage from the B Preface below into my notes, as it fairly well encapsulates Kant’s basic project in the First Critique. (I added paragraph breaks to facilitate reading for the blog.)

As you read it, remember that Kant regards Hume as having absolutely demonstrated that the concept of causation cannot be derived from experience. Moreover, after considering the “general form” of Hume’s skeptical arguments, Kant claims that the whole of metaphysics consists of concepts relevantly similar to causation, i.e. synthetic a priori concepts. (Kant recounts that bit of intellectual history in the Preface to the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, pages 257-61.)

For those unfamiliar with Kant’s terminology, “cognition” concerns any mental representation, “intuition” is sense perception, and “understanding” is reason.

Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that objects must conform to our cognition, which would agree better with the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us.

This would be just like the first thoughts of Copernicus, who, when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and left the stars at rest.

Now in metaphysics we can try in a similar way regarding the intuition of objects. If intuition has to conform to the constitution of the objects, then I do not see how we can know anything of them a priori; but if the object (as an object of the senses) conforms to the faculty of intuition, then I can very well represent this possibility to myself.

Yet because I cannot stop with these intuitions, if they are to become cognitions, but must refer to them as representations to something as their object and determine this object through them, I can assume either that the concepts through which I bring about this determination also conform to the objects, and then I am once again in the same difficulty about how I could know anything about them a priori, or else I assume that the objects, or what is the same thing, the experience in which alone they can be organized (as given objects) conforms to those concepts, in which case I immediately see an easier way out of the difficulty, since experience itself is a kind of cognition requiring the understanding, whose rule I have to presuppose in myself before any object is given to me, hence a priori, which rule is expressed in concepts a priori, to which all objects of experience must therefore necessarily conform, and with which they must agree.

As for objects insofar as they are thought merely through reason, and necessarily at that, but that (at least as reason thinks them) cannot be given in experience at all — the attempt to think them (for they must be capable of being thought) will provide a splendid touchstone of what we assume as the altered method of our way of thinking, namely that we can cognize of things a priori only what we have ourselves put into them. (CPR B xvi-xviii)

One could say a great deal about Kant’s basic project. Yet my thoughts on it of late have largely concerned the question of whether a philosopher could ever honestly reject the idea that “our cognition must conform to the objects” in favor of the view that “objects must conform to our cognition.” In other words, can we judge Kant as necessarily dishonest on the basis of his ideas alone?

In an attempt to understand the issues involved a bit more clearly, I recently re-listened to Leonard Peikoff’s two lectures on Kant from his History of Philosophy (HP) course, as well as his discussion of inherent dishonest ideas in the final lecture of Understanding Objectivism (UA). In the UA lecture, Peikoff argues that since intellectual honesty fundamentally consists of working to rationally conform one’s ideas to the facts of reality, then no outright rejection of reason and reality can be honest. Yet he denies that that implies, for example, that Plato was necessarily dishonest for downgrading the world of sensibility in favor of the world of Forms, since he was still working to conform his thoughts to a (mistaken) understanding of reality. Similarly, even skeptics like Hume were often unable to take their own ideas all that seriously, even though they could not refute their own skeptical arguments. In sharp contrast, Kant explicitly rejects the basic aim of rationally understanding reality — asserting that such is not merely impossible but also unimportant. That basic analysis makes good sense to me, yet the case for Kant’s dishonesty still seems like too much of a floating abstraction, i.e. a mere deduction from some abstract principle.

On the one hand, I have no trouble recognizing (1) the ways in which Kant’s philosophy makes mincemeat of fundamental and self-evident truths of philosophy, (2) the terrible destruction wrought upon Western civilization by Kant’s “Copernican Turn,” and (3) the fact that Kant, as a well-educated professional philosopher, ought to be held to a higher standard than ordinary folks. Moreover, I do not think that a philosopher can arrive at any conclusions whatsoever honestly; consciousness is not infinitely malleable. Yet perhaps I don’t understand all that well enough, as I cannot quite wrap my mind around the conclusion that he was necessarily dishonest on the basis of his horrid philosophy. His writings seem too civilized for that, although perhaps that is merely a clever disguise. (Notably, many of the examples from his ethics are downright revolting.) Perhaps I am seeking some sort of explanation for Kant’s destructive rejection of reality — but perhaps that is neither possible nor reasonable nor necessary. Really, I’m not sure.

Any thoughts?

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