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IOE, Chapter Eight
Consciousness and Identity
by Carolyn Ray

Date: 17 Mar 1992
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Carolyn Ray

This chapter reemphasizes the importance of true definitions and precise concepts. Here, Rand demonstrates how arbitrary concepts and definitions lead to mental chaos and the impairment of the human capacity to acquire knowledge. I can't resist quoting: To a mentality that treats first-level abstractions as if they were percepts, "higher concepts are indeterminate splinters flickering in the abyss, which they seize and use at random, with a nameless sense of guilt, with the chronic terror of a dreadful avenger that appears in the form of a question: 'What do you mean?'"

Notice I say "impairment", not destruction. The human mind is resilient; part of its identity, its nature, is that it functions semiautomatically, and will continue to provide its owner with some guidance despite efforts to subvert it. Significantly, research scientists, economists, and day-laborers go through their activities with little trouble. They know what their tools and their subjects are, know their characteristics; and they perform their duties without self-doubt.

It is when these people run up against philosophers, or philosophical ideas which have trickled down to them, that they stumble and feel lost. And philosophers, who specialize in the production and interpretation of ideas, are lost most of the time. They feel the security that comes naturally to the day-laborer as rarely as he feels their anxiety--perhaps when they do something automatic, like make the morning tea or ride a bike.

Philosophers 'live' at a great distance from perceptual concretes. Ask many of them whether they apply Kant's or Marx's theories to their personal lives and they will snort. Ask them why they do philosophy at all and the last thing you will hear is "Because it helps me live my life." Life is separate from philosophy; one does philosophy because of the beauty or completeness of the system. That is how a theory of "truth" like coherence theory survives; coherence theory of truth says that a belief system is true if and only if no belief contradicts any other belief in the system. It is an extremely popular view, and most philosophers I know will pull it out when asked why they bother with someone like Kant, who doesn't seem to be discussing human beings at all. They say, "but his system hangs together so well; it's so consistent, so coherent!"

Foundationalism, the school of epistemological thought that claims that a belief is validated if it can be traced back to metaphysical reality somehow, is currently comatose. (Not dead--there's always hope.) Why? Rand blames it mostly on Kant, but we can start back a bit further. Plato couldn't ground his beliefs in reality because what was real was in another realm that was inaccessible to him in his embodied form. Descartes couldn't know anything without doubt except that he, the doubter, existed ("I think; therefore I am" is an indubitable inference.) Fortunately for Descartes, he had God to help him really know things.

Kant helpfully institutionalized the doubt and carried it a step further: What is real is in a realm, the noumenal realm, that was inaccessible to him, stuck as he was in the phenomenal realm. The noumenal realm consists of things as they really are, things-in-themselves, what things are apart from his observations of them. Kant's true self, his self-in-itself, apart from his observations, is in this noumenal realm. But now look: He always had to observe THROUGH HIS NATURE, through his identity, the real hings of the noumenal realm. What he got was not knowledge of things-in-themselves, since that would only be possible if he could observe them "directly", but of PHENOMENA, a mixture of physical nature and Kant's nature. It follows that he not only didn't know THINGS as they are, but that he also didn't know HIMSELF as he was either, since he had to observe himself through his nature, his identity.

Kant didn't say "knowledge is impossible." In fact, he claimed it was--it was just that that knowledge was not based on any empirical observations, since it is impossible to disengage the observer from the observed and thus get to the thing in itself. Kant did claim to know analytic truths, for example (which is a knot that will be undone in the final essay).

The problem is that Kant's position is inconsistent: he claims that he does have knowledge, but then describes the whole system of nature so as to make it impossible.

Rand seems to think that he does this willfully, that he has attempted "to escape the responsibility of rational cognition and the absolutism of assert the primacy of consciousness over existence" (p. 106). I don't think Kant can really be accused of either. But the fact remains that he does disqualify consciousness of the world as a means of acquiring knowledge of the world. It's not that Kant refused to accept that consciousness has an identity, but that he thought that the KIND of identity it has made him UNABLE to acquire knowledge through it.

He had reasons for thinking so. He failed to see the error made by Descartes when he inferred that since his senses sometimes deceive him, therefore they might always deceive him. Kant decided that his senses don't ever give a true picture of the world. Recent "evolutionary epistemology" has pointed out that frogs, e.g., see ONLY that which is in motion; bees don't seem to perceive the world the way we do either. So "who's to say" that humans don't also see only a part or an aspect of what's really out there? Our consciousness process the incoming data, and that process is only one among many possible processes, all of them giving different picture of the world.

Rand's answer is in the form of an analogy: We don't say proper nutrition is impossible because the raw material is processed by digestion; so why say that proper (true) knowledge is impossible because the raw data is processed by consciousness? Just as we can't choose our food arbitrarily and get nutrition every time, so we can't form our definitions and concepts arbitrarily and come out with knowledge every time. And Peikoff's response is that whatever it is that we perceive, it is still an effect of something real, and whatever that real thing is, the effect is part of its identity--NOT just a creation of the mind. We don't know every last thing about a given existent, but we know SOMEthing about it.

So, it turns out, epistemology, that science which has been gathering dust in the philosophy departments, urgently needs to be brushed off and resurrected--not just for us philosophers, but for the normal people to whom our ideas trickle down. The most obvious area of the normal person's life which is affected by the Kantian view of epistemology is that of morality. Our legacy to them has been to make them doubt themselves and their ability to judge, and the self-doubt eventually ceases to frighten them and comes to be used as a crutch to help them avoid thinking through a problem carefully. "Who's to say? Who's to judge?" they object in ethics classes. "Why think any ethical theory is better than any other? It's all just your own opinion; isn't it?" It's my impression that they don't really believe this. They make moral judgments that they believe to be correct all the time, if unsystematically. So these people aren't completely disabled. But they are impaired to the point that one could feed them any kind of nonsense and have them swallow it. Where does the average person get these lines that they didn't invent? Most get it from high school (and college, for a small minority) English teachers, who get it from college philosophy courses.

Why should we care? Why should we expend our efforts to change things for people we haven't met? One of the major reasons is that we live in a democracy, and these people vote. Scary, eh?

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