Ayn Rand and the

Metaphysics of Kant1

George V. Walsh


In the writings of Ayn Rand, and in the Objectivist literature generally, the treatment of Kant is uncompromisingly negative. It is condemnatory of what it regards as his goal and of what are presumed to be the intentions behind that goal. It is condemnatory of his methods of argument, or of what are believed to be his methods of argument. It is condemnatory of his conclusions, or what are believed to be such. It views the results of his thought to be catas- trophic and holds him responsible for these results. Finally, it regards his philosophy as, in the words of Rand (1971, 4), “on every fundamental issue . . . the exact opposite of Objectivism,” her philosophy, which she believed had logically refuted him, and which she hoped would reverse his destructive cultural influence.

Let us summarize the main Objectivist charges against Kant. These charges lie in three main areas: metaphysics, ethics, and intellectual history (specifically, the influence of Kant on the history of thought). The charges in the metaphysical area may be summed up in the ascription to him of the view that “[r]eason is impotent to discover anything about reality” (Peikoff 1982, 24). The basic premise that Kant allegedly adduces to support this position is that “man’s knowledge is not valid because his consciousness possesses identity” (Rand 1990, 80). As Rand (1961) states:

His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them. (33)

The “phenomenal” world, said Kant [this is not a direct quotation from Kant], is not real: reality, as perceived by man’s mind, is a distortion. The distorting mechanism is man’s conceptual faculty: man’s basic concepts (such as time, space, existence) are not derived from experience or reality, but come from an automatic system of filters in his consciousness (labeled “categories” and “forms of perception”) which impose their own design on his perception of the external world and make him incapable of perceiving it in any manner other than the one in which he does perceive it. This proves, said Kant [this is not a direct quotation], that man’s concepts are only a delusion, but a collective delusion which no one has the power to escape. Thus reason and science are “limited,” said Kant [this, again, is not a direct quotation from Kant]; they are valid only so long as they deal with this world, with a permanent, pre-determined collective delusion . . . but they are impotent to deal with the fundamental metaphysical issues of existence, which belong to the “noumenal” world . . . [which] is unknowable; [but] it is the world of “real” reality, “superior” truth and “things in themselves” or “things as they are”—which means things as they are not perceived by man. (32)

So far as the ethics is concerned, Rand charges that “Kant’s version of morality . . . consisted of total, abject selflessness. An action is moral, said Kant [not a direct quotation], only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual; a benefit destroys the moral value of an action. (Thus, if one has no desire to be evil, one cannot be good; if one has, one can.)” (33).

This deontological, or duty-centered, ethics was made possible by the fact that having “closed the door of philosophy to reason,” Kant opened it again to “a feeling, as a special sense of duty” (31–32). In the adjoining field of religion, faith was invited in, so that now, in the words of Peikoff, “[t]aking their cue from their needs, men [could] properly believe (for instance, in God and in an afterlife), even though they [could not] prove the truth of their beliefs. . . . ‘I have,’ writes Kant, ‘found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith” (Peikoff 1982, 24–25).

In terms of Kant’s influence on the history of thought, Peikoff accuses Kant of being “the father of the romanticist movement” (44), which was “the defiant rejection of the Enlightenment spirit” (43), and which taught that “[m]an’s true source of knowledge . . . is: feeling—or passion, or intuition, or faith, etc. . . . [that] he is in essence an emotional being,” thus, “drawing explicitly the conclusion Kant had implied” (44–45). Although, Peikoff adds, “Kant opened the door to the movement, [he] hesitated to walk firmly through” (44). Romanticism ultimately led, Peikoff tells us, to modern irrationalist art, culture, and politics, to the totalitarianism of Communism and Nazism. All these things, it is asserted in the Objectivist literature, were the consequences of Kant’s ideas, and, since ideas control life, and since Kant’s ideas became the basis of twentieth-century culture, and the disasters suffered by and inflicted by the latter, he must bear the responsibility in major part. Rand, in fact, accused Kant of “hatred for life, man and reason” (“Causality versus Duty” in Rand 1982, 117).

This treatment of Kant has encountered much contemporary criticism. Many critics, especially among classical liberals and libertarians, have pointed out that Objectivists ignore Kant’s defense of free will, his stress on principled conduct, his doctrine that every man is an end in himself, his public advocacy of the cause of the Enlightenment against the absolute state and ecclesiasticism, his advocacy of a largely liberal legal system and the rule of law, his defense of the sanctity of private property—all points which, so it is said, deserve the applause of all true friends of rationality and freedom. From the first, these critics have characterized Rand’s view of Kant as ignorant and unworthy of discussion.2

The standard Objectivist answer to these objections is, first, to distinguish between what is essential in Kant’s philosophy and what are merely influences absorbed from the Enlightenment. Second, the point is made that Kant’s concepts of freedom, of the individual as an end in himself, of principled conduct and so on, must be under- stood in the light of his whole philosophy, which gives distinctive meanings to these concepts, meanings far less praiseworthy than at first appears.

A complete rethinking of all these topics cannot be presented in the course of a single paper. Since Kant and Rand would agree that their differences in all other areas are rooted in their differences in metaphysics, I have chosen to confine my investigation to this area. I will provide an account of Kant’s main argument, which, I submit, faithfully reproduces his premises and conclusions on the major issues that he and Rand regarded as highly significant and on which they disagreed. The account will be very conservative, keeping as close to what Kant actually said as possible, and will be followed by a summary of the two philosophers’ disagreements, together with their occasional convergences of thought.3 Points on which I think Rand has misread Kant will also be indicated.

The Centrality of Metaphysics

Ayn Rand and Immanuel Kant asked essentially the same set of questions. For Rand, the questions are: Where [that is, in what kind of universe] am I? How can I discover it? What should I do? What is man? (Rand 1982, 1–2). For Kant, the questions are: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? What is man?4 (Kant 1933, A805/B833).5 They both believed that it was the job of philosophy to answer these questions, and they both believed that metaphysics was central to philosophy.

The importance of metaphysics to Rand cannot be exaggerated. Metaphysics was, for her, the basic branch of philosophy. And philosophy was truly the guide of life. All of man’s knowledge, all of his values, all of his actions were ultimately determined by the philosophy he chose himself or allowed others to choose for him. Philosophy formed individual life and it formed culture. It formed art. Her own novels were the direct expression of the philosophy to which she so passionately adhered.

The importance of metaphysics to Kant reflected a similar estimate of its role in life. But it found its immediate expression in the project of reconciling the Newtonian world-view with the very possibility of ethics and the moral life. Kant was a convinced Newtonian and a major scientific worker in the theoretical physics and astronomy of his time. He came to believe that there was a basic conflict between the Newtonian model and the demands of a defensible ethics and political philosophy. As he saw it, the Newtonian model, taken by itself, resulted in a mechanistic, materialistic picture of the universe. Within this picture, man was merely a micromachine whose values amounted to no more than a chaos of conflicting desires. Reason’s only role in this situation was to assist man in attaining an ideal of happiness, which consisted in “a maximum of well-being in [his] present, and in every future, state” (Kant 1956, 85; German original, 46). But reason has been a dismal failure in this task. That is why, Kant tells us,

there arises in . . . those who have made most trial of this use of reason, if they are only candid enough to admit it, a certain degree of misology—that is, a hatred of reason . . . [and] they come to envy, rather than to despise, the more common run of men, who are closer to the guidance of mere natural instinct, and who do not allow their reason to have much influence on their conduct. (Kant 1956, 63; German original, 5–6)

The mechanical picture is thus self-defeating when it comes to building a bridge between fact and even those moral values that, in the view of Enlightenment thinkers, it is able to accommodate, namely man’s “preservation, his welfare, or in a word, his happiness” (Kant 1956, 63; German original, 4). But the situation becomes even more hopeless when it comes to reconciling the Newtonian model with the basic Judaeo-Christian values to which Kant personally adhered. Not only can a link not be built between the mechanical model and these values, but the latter will fit only into a teleological model. Further, this teleological model and it alone will satisfy the highest aspirations and hopes of man to attain the good and the beautiful.

Metaphysics, for Kant, is the traditional area wherein such a reconciliation has been sought. And, indeed, metaphysics is the only area wherein, he thought, such a reconciliation could ever be possible.

Let us now compare Rand’s conception of metaphysics with Kant’s. For Rand, the function of metaphysics is to provide us with a unitary world-view. According to Objectivism, metaphysics is “the study of existence as such, or in Aristotle’s words, of ‘being qua being’” (“Philosophy: Who Needs It” in Rand 1982, 3). It “identifies the nature of the universe as a whole” (Peikoff 1982, 14). It is “the basic branch of philosophy.” It tells us whether we live “in a universe ruled by natural laws,” one that is “stable, firm, absolute—and knowable,” or “in an incomprehensible chaos.” It tells us whether the things we see around us are “real—or . . . only an illusion” (Rand 1982, 3), “some kind of unreal appearance, which leaves men staring and helpless” (Peikoff 1982, 15), whether the things around us “exist independent of any observer—or are . . . created by the observer,” whether they are “what they are—or can . . . be changed by a mere act of . . . consciousness, such as a wish” (Rand 1982, 3), “whether there is a supernatural dimension beyond [the universe]” (Peikoff 1982, 14).

According to Kant also, the function of metaphysics is to provide man with a unitary world-view. For him, as well, metaphysics is that “philosophy . . . that considers everything . . . insofar as it is” (Kant 1933, A845/B873). In accordance with this Aristotelian definition, he agrees that metaphysics considers such questions as whether everything that happens has a cause and whether the universe is eternal. But he believes that these two questions are different in kind. To ask whether everything that happens has a cause is to ask whether everything in the class of events is also in the class of effects. To answer such a question is to make a universal statement about each and every member of the class of events, considered separately or distributively or disjunctively (Kant, Nachlass 4168 in Dryer 1966, 491 n. 1). Furthermore, the reference is to objects that we are capable of experiencing, as in the case of water extinguishing fire. Kant called the questions of this nature “metaphysics of the first part” (Kant 1933, Bxviii). By contrast, the question as to whether the universe is eternal demands an answer about everything that is considered as a whole, i.e., collectively (Dryer 1966, 491 n. 1). Moreover, the reference is not to an object we are capable of experiencing. We cannot experience the universe as a whole. Kant called questions of this nature “metaphysics in its second part” (Kant 1933, Bxix). This distinction should always be kept in mind whenever Kant is referring to “metaphysics.” For sometimes he is referring to metaphysics as a total enterprise and sometimes he is referring to one or another of the two “parts” of metaphysics. The two “parts” are parts of a curricular division used by late scholastics and by rationalists in the German universities. The first part of metaphysics was called ontology or general metaphysics. The second part consisted of cosmology, rational theology, and rational psychology, and was called special metaphysics. Obviously, under special metaphysics were considered such topics as whether the universe was finite or infinite in space and time (cosmology); whether there was a primordial being, or God, and if so, what were his attributes (rational theology); and whether man had a unitary, immortal soul endowed with free will (rational psychology).

It is important to note here that Kant differed radically from the rationalists in his treatment of the relative certainty of general and special metaphysics. For the rationalists held, in the Platonic tradition, that the closer to sense experience an idea was, the less clear and distinct it was. The ideas of special metaphysics (especially the idea of God) were, for the rationalists, clearer and more distinct and therefore more certain than ideas involving causal sequences in the physical world. So far as degrees of certainty were concerned, Kant turned this hierarchy on its head. He held that insofar as metaphysics deals with concepts “to which the corresponding objects commensurate with them can be given in experience” (Bxviii–Bxix), such metaphysics can be set upon “the secure path of a science.” The only metaphysics that has any hope of achieving certainty, therefore, is the part whose concepts are least abstract, “metaphysics of the first part” or general metaphysics. By contrast, “metaphysics of the second part” or special metaphysics, which is so abstract that it transcends all possible experience, must, as we shall see, be denied the possibility of ever achieving certainty or “the secure path of a science,” for its concepts are “empty.” Although Kant retains the terms “intelligible” and “noumenal” to refer to the objects designated by these empty concepts, whatever honorific weight they bear is not epistemological or “scientific.” The path up and out of the Platonic cave is not “the secure path of a science” but the path of dogmatism, and it is a highly insecure path because those who frequent it are always disagreeing among themselves and going back to square one to start all over again.

By way of a preliminary comparison of Kant’s conception of metaphysics with that of Rand, we can already say that they agree on two points: that metaphysics is the study of everything insofar as it is, or of being qua being, and that the fundamental issues of existence fall within the scope of metaphysics. But on a third point, Kant differs from Rand. This is in his doctrine that metaphysics has two fundamentally different parts. Metaphysics in its first part deals distributively, he claims, with everything within the universe and accessible to experience, whereas metaphysics in its second part deals collectively with the universe considered as a whole and, as such, not accessible to experience. Questions of metaphysics in its first part, such as whether every event has a cause are, in principle, capable of being answered, whereas questions of metaphysics in its second part, such as whether the universe as a whole has a cause, are not capable of being answered, even though they may validly be asked. Rand does not recognize any such dichotomy and treats all valid metaphysical questions as being equally answerable. She would no doubt call Kant a skeptic in this matter, and he would call her a dogmatist. This is a basic difference between them.

Kant was primarily interested in settling once and for all the questions of whether metaphysics is possible as a science. He knew there was a subject called metaphysics dealt with in treatises such as those of Descartes and Leibniz. And he knew there were such things as sciences dealt with in such treatises as those of Euclid and Newton. He was convinced that mathematics and natural sciences were true sciences. And he was equally convinced that metaphysics in neither of its parts had, up to his time, succeeded in attaining the status of a true science. How do we recognize a failure in the field of science? What Kant regards as the marks of a failed science are made clear in the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason:

If, after elaborate preparations, frequently renewed, it is brought to a stop immediately, it nears its goal; if often it is compelled to retrace its steps and strike into some new line of approach; or, again, if the various participants are unable to agree in any common plan of procedure, then we may rest assured that it is very far from having entered upon the secure path of a science, and is indeed a merely random groping. (Bvii)

Such is a good description of the state of metaphysics, and if it continues in that state, we must acknowledge that the skeptics are right in rejecting it. But what if we could, by some sort of revolution in our whole approach to metaphysics, set it firmly “upon the secure path of a science”? We now come to Kant’s central aim in writing the Critique of Pure Reason.

Kant’s Main Argument

The aim is to determine whether any metaphysical knowledge can be attained and, if so, whether it can be organized into a science, and what, if any, are its limits. It is the main purpose of the Critique to show how answers to these questions can be reached provided that a radically new approach to the subject be taken. In Kant’s own words: “This attempt to alter the procedure which has hitherto prevailed in metaphysics by completely revolutionizing it . . . forms indeed the main purpose of this critique. . . . It marks out the whole plan of the science, both as regards its limits and as regards its entire internal structure” (Bxxii). “The critique of pure reason . . . will decide as to the possibility or impossibility of metaphysics in general, and determine its sources, its extent, and its limits—all in accordance with principles. . . . I venture to assert that there is not a single metaphysical problem which has not been solved, or for the solution of which the key at least has not been supplied” (Axii–Axiii). Later, in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, he states that “[c]ritique and critique alone . . . contains within itself the whole well-proved and well-tested plan, and even all the means required to establish metaphysics as a science. By other ways and means it is impossible” (“Solution to the General Question” in Kant 1950, 114). In stating the central aim of the first Critique in this way, I am following Kant’s explicit and clear statements of purpose, statements that are often passed over or played down or simply given too little emphasis by many major commentators.

Kant’s dismissal of the metaphysics that had been practiced up to his time has so far been based on external criteria of success, and the application of these criteria has yielded a negative verdict. But what he needs to do if he is to found a scientific metaphysics is to identify the positive criteria of a science and then produce metaphysical conclusions that satisfy these. Kant believes that the first positive criteria of a true science are that its conclusions be both necessary and universal. This is true of the science that teaches that only three lines can be drawn at right angles to each other. It is equally true of the science that teaches that, with regard to all changes of a corporeal nature, the quantity of matter taken as a whole remains the same. Pure geometry teaches what must be true of all spatial figures. And pure mechanics teaches what must be true of all physical changes.

If each of these sciences deals with limited kinds of things and consists of universal and necessary judgments about things within those kinds, metaphysics—which deals with everything whatever

—must, if it is to be specific, come forth pari passu with universal and necessary judgments. To produce such judgments, we must first find out how they are produced. And to do that we must look over the shoulders of pure mathematicians and pure natural scientists to find out how they do it. It is wrong to think that Kant is trying to validate mathematics and natural science, lay their foundations, or make it possible for them to proceed with certainty. This was Descartes’ aim. When Kant asks the questions of how metaphysics is possible, he is asking how a science of all that is, insofar as it is, could, in whole or in part, attain the certainty of pure mathematics and pure natural science. Any acceptable metaphysics will have to exhibit strong analogies to these two sciences. But in order to understand what they are, we must understand what Kant’s conception of a science is and of what its elements are. And we must understand his use of this conception as a standard to determine whether metaphysics in either of its parts is a true science, and, if so, what are some examples of its conclusions. Further, we must determine what is to be done with any part of metaphysics that fails the test. Kant’s exposition of his position on these matters is set out in a tightly knit argument that we will follow closely.

Kant conceives of a science (in the sense of a product) as a system of related true judgments within a specified area of investigation. All judgments, whether parts of a science or not, he divides into two classes, empirical and a priori. An empirical judgment can be verified only by observation of what it is about (Dryer 1966, 30). Any non-empirical judgment Kant calls a priori. As an example of an a priori judgment, take: “All bachelors are unmarried.” We verify this not by observing bachelors, but by analyzing what is meant by the subject of the judgment, “bachelor.” We find that in the very concept of “bachelor” is already contained the concept of “unmarried,” which is the concept of the predicate. So that it would be self-contradictory to deny that all bachelors are unmarried. A judgment verified by such analysis Kant calls analytic. He also calls such judgments explicative (Kant 1950, §2; 14), because the predicate merely explains the concept of the subject without adding anything new to it. All analytic judgments are a priori, known apart from any appeal to observation. Whether all a priori judgments are analytic is, of course, in Kant’s view, quite another matter.

By contrast, take the judgment: “All bachelors are lonely.” No analysis of the concept of “bachelor” will yield the concept of “lonely.” We need interviews, talk shows, statistics, even psychiatric consultations—all those things we call observations—to throw any light on the subject. This is an empirical judgment, and all empirical judgments Kant calls synthetic, because they bring the subject and predicate together by some means that is non-analytic. He also calls them “ampliative” (§2, 14), because the predicate adds something new to the concept of the subject. All empirical judgments are synthetic, observation in their case supplying the link between subject and predicate. Whether all synthetic judgments are empirical—in other words, whether it is observation that always provides the link for synthesis—is again, in Kant’s view, quite another matter.

If metaphysics is a science composed of judgments, are the judgments empirical or a priori? Well, they must hold of every existent as such. Therefore, they must be universal and necessary. For instance, consider a judgment belonging to metaphysics in the first part: “Every event has a cause.” We cannot admit any exceptions to this judgment. Or consider a judgment belonging to metaphysics in its second part: “The universe is eternal.” Neither does this judgment admit of exceptions. No metaphysical judgments, then, are empirical. They are a priori. But are they analytic?

Consider again the judgment: “Every event has a cause.” Its predicate is not contained in the concept of its subject, as would be the case in the judgment: “Every effect has a cause.” Or consider again the judgment: “The universe is eternal.” Neither here is the predicate contained in the concept of its subject. So the typical judgments of metaphysics either in its first or in its second part are synthetic and a priori. Although necessary and universal, their predicates are not linked to their subjects either by empirical observation or by logical inclusion. What, then, is the link that supplies the requisite universality and necessity? What kind of link can it be, which is neither observational nor conceptual?

Kant believes that the way to discover the link is to look at an established science whose whole success is based on the employment of just this link. Such a science is geometry. Geometry is not based on empirical observation or its extension in induction. It is not by measuring that we discover that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points on a plane. We would rule out of court any evidence for an exception, which we would never do if it were an empirical generalization. Neither is geometry analytic. Consider the judgment: “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points.” The concept of “shortest” in the predicate is quantitative and cannot be derived from the qualitative concept “straight” in the subject. The judgment that “[e]verywhere space has three dimensions and . . . cannot have any more . . . is based on the [judgment] that not more than three lines can intersect at right angles in one point; but this judgment cannot by any means be shown from concepts” (§6; 32). Between my hand and its image in the mirror, there are “no internal differences which our understanding could determine by thinking alone. Yet . . . they are not congruent; the glove of one hand cannot be used for the other” (§6; 33). We know these things as necessary geometrical truths; we do not establish them by induction: “Here is a great and established branch of knowledge . . . carrying with it thoroughly apodictic certainty, that is, absolute necessity, and therefore resting upon no empirical grounds . . . How . . . is it possible for the human reason to produce such knowledge entirely a priori?” (§6; 28).

The answer to this question is, according to Kant, to be found in the fact that there is a radical difference between two kinds of consciousness: intuition (Anschauung) and thought (Gedanke), or concept (Begriff). First, an intuition is a direct awareness of concretes, whereas a concept is an indirect awareness of concretes via the awareness of what is common to the concretes. One is an immediate awareness, the other is mediate and discursive. Second, an intuition is direct awareness of a concrete whole, whether an individual thing or a cluster of things, whereas a concept is the awareness of an indefinite number of concretes. Third, an intuition is an awareness of a variety of features that stand in the relation of parts of a concrete whole. Fourth, an intuition is, in human knowledge, independent. As Kant states: “Intuition stands in no need whatsoever of the functions of thought” (Kant 1933, A91/B123).

To illustrate clearly the distinction between the two modes of consciousness, let us take the concept “facade of a large hotel,” which is a complex concept. Let us compare it with the immediate intuition of the facade of the Washington Hilton. From the intuition at a given moment could be extracted the information that the building is so many stories high, that a window washer is at work on the seventh floor, third window from the left, that four pigeons are just flying away and so on. This information could in no way be extracted from the thought, or concept, just mentioned. The radical difference between these two modes of consciousness as conceived by Kant is the basis for the irreducible difference he draws between analytic and synthetic judgments, and is, in the words of Lewis White Beck (1969, 458) “the most important strategic move Kant made in his philosophical development.” Intuitions are ampliative providing, so to speak, the new meat for concepts. But without concepts the intuitions remain blind. Whereas the intuition reports the existence of something, the concept identifies the something by judging “S is P.” The concept identifies the “what” of intuition. But, once fixed, the concept can itself provide no new information, although its own inherent juice can be explicatively squeezed out.

All human intuition Kant calls “sensibility” (Sinnlichkeit). Sensibility is a species of intuition. Its genus, intuition, Kant defines as direct awareness. Its differentia Kant identifies as the fact of being generated by the action on the senses of the perceiving subject of some entity. This action on the senses Kant calls “affection.” The affecting entity Kant calls the thing considered in itself (das Ding an sich Selbst betrachtet).

The link between the subject and predicate of a geometrical judgment is a sensible intuition. But there are two kinds of sensible intuition: empirical and pure. In empirical intuition, my mode of knowledge is a posteriori. I wait around to see what will happen as in the case of watching the facade. But I do not wait around to see whether a straight line will, on the next try, turn out to be once again the shortest distance between two points. Here, my mode of knowledge is a priori and pure, and therefore certain. What it shares with the intuition of the facade are immediacy, awareness of a concrete whole, awareness of a variety of features, and epistemic independence of any concepts I may form about it. But it differs from the intuition of the facade in that it is a priori, certain, necessary, and the form or structure of all spatial intuition. And, of course, Kant makes a parallel argument for time as the pure a priori form of all human intuition whatsoever, his argument drawn from the synthetic a priori nature of arithmetical judgments. Since intuition is one of the essential ingredients of all knowledge, space and time are transcendental conditions, as Kant calls them, or, to use a term of Henry Allison’s, epistemic conditions (Allison 1983, 10).

Space and time are a priori conditions of knowledge because they are first of all a priori conditions of sensibility. All sensible representations must occur in time and all outer sensible representations must occur in space or time. So much for the form of sensibility. But there is also its content, inner content such as memory, an emotion, a wish, and outer content such as the colors of a landscape or the roar of a waterfall. These are intuited a posteriori, but it is also known a priori that they will occur in space and time. The forms of sensibility, so to speak, bracket its content.

The same thing may be said of the other basic form of consciousness, the conceptual. It too may be a posteriori or a priori. It is sometimes forgotten that Kant believed in empirical concepts. The concepts of desk, table, chair, hotel are all empirical concepts drawn from the senses in a perfectly prosaic Aristotelian way, by abstraction. They comprise the content of thought. But just as intuition has form as well as content, so has thought. And the form of thought is not abstracted from its content any more than the form of intuition is abstracted from its content. In other words, there are a priori forms of thought, a priori conditions on all conceptualizing. There are, to begin with, the a priori forms of valid inference supplied by formal logic—the laws of identity, non-contradiction and excluded middle. These are a priori laws of judgment, and hold per se, having no antecedent ontological foundation such as Rand asserts.

What Kant is concerned with are not the laws of valid inference as such but the laws of true thinking with reason or knowledge about objects in general, which is metaphysics. He is looking for a transcendental logic of truth. For this, he finds a clue in the rules limiting the ways I can combine concepts into judgments. Let us take, for instance, two ordinary concepts like “window washer” and “courageous.” These concepts are traditionally called categorematic, meaning that they can by themselves serve as subject or predicate in a judgment. I find I can only combine these concepts into judgments in a limited number of ways, as “all window washers are courageous,” “some window washers are courageous,” “some window washers are not courageous,” “all window washers must be courageous,” “if a non-Aristotelian window washer confuses courage with fool-hardiness, then he will become an erstwhile window washer.” Each of these rules in turn corresponds to a concept of a special kind that is called syncategorematic because it can bring the categorematic concepts together in a judgment in which it serves as form to their content. In other words, it is a connective concept. There are only twelve of these high-level concepts and Kant calls them categories. Examples of categories are substance and causality. For any judgment, four of the twelve categories are required. It follows that the categories are a priori concepts, not derived from the senses but pure forms of the faculty of the understanding, i.e., epistemic conditions on the understanding of objects.

Let us see how the sensibility and the understanding cooperate in making possible empirical knowledge. This turns out to be the substance of the promised “metaphysics in its first part” or the study of “those concepts a priori to which the corresponding objects commensurate with them can be given in experience” (Kant 1933, Bxviii). Kant claims to be successful in “setting metaphysics in its first part upon the sure path of a science.” Let us summarize his procedures and what he claims are his results, and then compare these briefly with his corresponding treatment of metaphysics in its second part, the metaphysics that professes to “transcend the limits of possible experience” (Bxix).

Since, for Kant, metaphysics is the study of everything in general, it is the study of everything that can be known. Hence, its conclusions will consist of synthetic a priori judgments that apply to any and all things that can be known. The search for such synthetic a priori judgments is called by Kant a “transcendental investigation,” since it is the search for the conditions of all knowledge of things. Discovering such conditions is equivalent to discovering whether, how, and to what extent metaphysics is possible as a science.

In the discipline of metaphysics in its first part, we are seeking the transcendental universal and necessary conditions of the knowledge of all things distributively, and we are committed to stay within the bounds of possible experience. In this field as in all others, knowledge consists of true judgments of the form S is P. We are dealing with things or objects, so the judgments must not be of mere concepts and so must be synthetic or ampliative, expanding our information. Our purpose in metaphysics in its first part is to bring these objects under the categories. But the categories are in themselves like empty file folders. They can only be given filler if we translate them into experiential terms. How can an abstract concept be given experiential filler? It is easiest to illustrate it first with an empirical content. Beck gives an excellent and charming example:

I hear purring and feel something warm and furry. I see something white before me on which there are black marks; hear a clock strike, feel hungry, think of Königsberg, taste brandy, smell tobacco . . . and so on to Joycean lengths. But I attend to and associate the first three, neglect the others and say, “There is a cat.” A cat is not a sensation, nor is the cat a concept; cats have fur and concepts do not. Since all that is in my mind is sensations and concepts, how do I talk about cats, which are objects? The cat is that X . . . the concept of which provides a rule in accordance with which hearing the purr is constituted an empirical intuition of the cat. The cat must conform to the concept of cat; otherwise I would have no way of finding evidence of  her existence . . . (1969, 478–79)

Beck has given us a rule for the synthesis of representations of an empirical object, the cat, some of whose representations will be “counted as intuitions” of the cat. Categories are “concepts of any object whatsoever, if it is to be known by experience.” And Beck quotes Kant:

The possibility of experience is . . . what gives objective reality to all our a priori cognitions. Experience, however, rests on the synthetic unity of appearances, that is, on a synthesis according to concepts of an object of appearances in general. Apart from such synthesis it would not be knowledge, but a rhapsody of perceptions which would not fit into context according to rules of a completely interconnected possible consciousness. . . . Experience, therefore, depends upon a priori principles of its form, that is, upon universal rules of unity in the synthesis of appearances. (Kant 1933, A157/B195–96).

We have now arrived at the crux of metaphysics in its first part. Since the categories are a priori concepts that apply to any object whatsoever, the corresponding rules for their application must be a priori rules with sensible content, unlike the empirical content of the cat, whose rule of application is a posteriori with sensible content. Kant is about to fulfill his promise to provide metaphysical principles that are synthetic a priori.

Since all our representations are temporally related, the rules of application of the categories will be stated in terms of the different temporal relations that we know are a priori possible. Each of these statements Kant calls a schema. The schema of the category of reality (Realität) is “existence at some definite time.” The schema of the category of substance (Substanz) is “permanence of the real in time.” “Given these schemata,” writes Beck, “which involve a patterned intuition in time, we have a pure (non-empirical) X by reference to which pure concepts can be combined a priori into synthetic judgments” (Beck 1969, 480). The result is the vindication of metaphysics in its first part and the production of actual metaphysical conclusions in this discipline. Among these are the first two Analogies of Experience: (1) The Principle of Permanence of Substance (Substanz): “In all changes of appearances, substance is permanent, and its quantum in nature is neither increased nor diminished” (Kant 1933, A182/B225); and (2) The Principle of Succession in Time in Accordance with the Law of Causality: “All alterations take place in accordance with the law of the connection of cause and effect.” Kant believes (A158/B197) that he has found the very conditions that make possible the empirical knowledge of things generally and therewith both demonstrated that metaphysics in its first part is possible as a science, and brought forth actual results in that field for the first time in history. But he adds that he has done this only by challenging the classical ontology of the rationalists and substituting for it an “Analytic of the Understanding.” The rationalists imagined that they were attaining in metaphysics a clearer and more distinct knowledge by rising with Plato to ever higher and thinner abstractions, leaving behind them the world of the senses. In this, they resembled the dove who thought that flight would be still easier in empty space. Instead of thus venturing out on the wings of pure ideas in our attempt to vindicate such metaphysical principles as substance and causality, we have brought these abstract concepts into intimate connection with the senses by means of the schemata to produce true metaphysical knowledge.

But what of metaphysics in its second part—in other words, the study of all things considered collectively? This includes rational cosmology, the study of the universe as a whole; rational psychology, the study of the soul as that to which all possible knowledge must be referred; and rational theology, the study of the creator and governor of all things. The questions raised in rational cosmology are whether the universe is infinitely extended in space and time, whether it is infinitely divisible, whether there is universal determinism, or whether there is another causality as well, that of free will. The questions raised in rational theology are whether there is a God, as allegedly proven by the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments, and, if so, what is his nature.

Kant argues overall that the attempt to demonstrate anything in any of these fields is futile. The root difficulty is that there is no intuition of the universe as a whole, of the soul as a whole or of God. Consequently, there is no X factor, no link, to connect the subject with the predicate of any synthetic judgment about these beings, no way to verify or falsify them. His conclusion is that, whereas we may reach certain knowledge in this first part of metaphysics, we are forever barred from knowledge in its second part. Kant has reached this verdict by a general argument. But he also presents special arguments against the possibility of knowledge in the second part of metaphysics. He concludes that each of the alleged proofs pro or con the theses of these so-called sciences only leads to logical absurdities.

The universe as a whole, God, the soul, its free will and immortality are thinkable, but not knowable beings, and the same goes for the objects that affect our senses, the so-called things in themselves. All these are noumena or purely intelligible beings. About things in themselves the question can be raised how we know that these things are not in themselves spatiotemporal and parts of a deterministic causal order. The point is often pressed against Kant that, on the one hand, he asserts that we can know nothing about noumena and that, on the other hand, things in themselves have neither spatiotemporal characteristics nor do they exist in a spatiotemporal order. How can he claim to know this?

Kant’s answer is vital to his whole position. It is vital to the essential aim of his philosophy, and he is quite certain that it follows incontrovertibly from his premises so far. His argument may be stated roughly: Perform a thought experiment and imagine yourself divested of your a priori intuition of space. You encounter a rectilinear facade. You “look it over,” so to speak, and “notice” that it is enclosed by four straight lines. You also observe a nearby cubical house and “notice” that it has twelve edges. Then you see a realtor’s sign offering for sale a house farther down the road with a facade enclosed by two straight lines and a cubical house with thirteen edges. You would have no reason to disbelieve the sign, and you might even attend the open house the next day. In other words, you would have to rely on empirical observation or induction apart from the conditions of empirical intuition to discover whether the shape of the next object you encountered was Euclidean! Kant made this point in his “Inaugural Dissertation of 1770” (in Kant 1929, §15D; 62), when he was entering on the Critical Philosophy. Things in themselves cannot be spatial because they cannot be presented in empirical intuition.

These considerations, once he adopted them, remained landmarks of his philosophy. But having adopted them, he would now have to assert a radical difference between things as they appear to us and things as they are in themselves. For things considered as appearances are things considered as items of the deterministic morally neutral Newtonian world. And these things can be known, treated, and manipulated scientifically. Drops of Newtonian rain are attracted at a force inverse to the square of the distance to the heads of the just and the unjust. This raises the question of the epistemological status of the world of things in themselves, and of all other noumena, such as God and the soul. What can we know of these?

We have just seen that it is possible to know something about things in themselves, namely that they cannot be spatiotemporal or be known by application to them of the categories. But this tells us nothing of what they are like positively. The knowledge we have gained is like that of the medieval negative theology that dealt with all the things that God is not. But Kant did think that we have a certain positive knowledge of things in themselves, that they exist, that they “affect” the senses and that in so doing they contribute the content as opposed to the form of empirical knowledge. That they exist we know from the fact that to talk about appearances would be absurd unless the appearances were the appearances of something. That they affect the senses is Kant’s answer to his own question of “how should our faculty of knowledge be [otherwise] awakened into action . . . ?” (Kant 1933, B1). That they provide the content of knowledge must be true by elimination, for the sensibility provides the form only. Paton, in his commentary, advances an interesting formulation: “On my view . . . though causality and degreeness are imposed by the mind, every particular causal connection and every particular degree is determined by the nature of things in themselves” (1951, v. 1, 139 n. 2).

But of the other noumena we can know nothing. We cannot know whether there is a God or whether all is determined or whether we have free will or even whether there is a universe as a whole. This does not mean that these concepts have no function. The concept of the universe as a whole, the concept of an omnipotent law-giver and the concept of the uniformity of nature, though never verifiable, may serve as what Kant calls Ideas of Reason that are regulative of the never-ending search for the unification of all knowledge into a system, which can never in practice be achieved. So here is one use of metaphysics in its second part.

But granted that we know nothing of noumena, is there any justification for believing that they exist or have one or another set of characteristics? In asking this question, Kant is distinguishing between the verification of a belief and the justification for accepting it. Certainly verification provides complete justification for accepting a belief and falsification provides justification for rejecting it. As long as we can prove or disprove, theoretical knowledge reigns supreme and we are justified only in accepting its results. But Kant maintains that he has already shown that there are some things that can never be proved or disproved. The question then arises: Is there any justification for believing besides knowledge?

Kant answers that once theoretical reason is given its due, the primacy of the practical asserts its interests. Whereas theoretical reason is concerned with what is, practical reason is concerned with what ought to be. Theoretical reason has been unable to deliver knowledge on subjects transcending experience, therefore we must deny all its claims in that area and give such topics over to the practical reason of man. “Therefore,” says Kant, “I have found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith” (Kant 1933, Bxxx). To deny knowledge, not reason, because practical reason is part of reason and because it limits faith to the minimum number of points necessary, in Kant’s view, is to protect the interests of morality—the existence of God, the freedom of the will and the immortality of the soul. Faith based on Schwärmerei (religious feeling) such as the Counter-Enlighteners advocated, Kant condemned. Kant thought it necessary to abandon what he regarded as the outposts of the Enlightenment in order to protect what he regarded as its essence: lawfulness in both the cognitive and moral areas. He addressed the Counter-Enlighteners in these words:

Friends of the human race and of that which is holiest to it! . . . do not wrest from reason that which makes it the highest good on earth, i.e., the prerogative of being the ultimate touchstone of truth. Otherwise you will become unworthy of [intellectual] freedom and certainly lose it, and you will bring this misfortune on the heads of that blameless portion of mankind which wanted to make use of its freedom in a lawful manner toward the good of the world. (“What is Orientation in Thinking?” in Kant 1949, 305) [emphasis mine]

The moral interests that Kant thought were involved in practical reason are beyond the scope of this paper, but I wanted to make clear the point that, if we take Kant at his word, he thought he was defending both reason and the Enlightenment and warning of future horrors in case these were abandoned in the name of “feeling.” This point goes unnoticed in the Objectivist literature.

A Point of Misinterpretation

We now come to a point on which I believe Rand misinterprets Kant. She attributes to him the view on which she says “[t]he entire apparatus of Kant’s system . . . [rests as] on a single point: that man’s knowledge is not valid because his consciousness possesses identity” (Rand 1990, 80). By “possesses identity” Rand means having “a specific nature.” When she attributes to Kant the view that consciousness is not valid, she means that he holds that “reality, as perceived by man’s mind, is a distortion,” “a permanent pre-determined collective delusion” (Rand 1961, 32–33).

Consider the form of the argument Rand is here attributing to Kant. It is the following hypothetical syllogism: If man’s consciousness has a specific nature, it cannot have true knowledge. Now Kant never said this, and, in fact, no evidence has ever been presented that he did. First, he never asserted the major premise: “If man’s consciousness has a specific nature, it cannot have true knowledge.” As a matter of fact, if this view was ever held by a great philosopher, that philosopher was Aristotle. He said that the intellect “must, then, since it thinks all things, be unmixed . . . in order that it may know . . . hence too it must have no other nature than this, that it is potential” (Aristotle 1968, De Anima 3.4.429a18–23). The exact meaning of this is disputed by scholars, but here is at least some evidence that Aristotle held the view in question, whereas there is no evidence whatever that Kant ever did or that he ever argued from it to the impossibility of our having knowledge of reality by means of adding a minor premise that man’s consciousness indeed has identity.

Of course, Kant did hold that the specific characteristics of consciousness determine in part the way objects appear to us. These characteristics are the pure intuitions of space and time. But Kant presented these characteristics of sensibility as conclusions to his argument, not as premises. His argument ran like this: We have synthetic a priori knowledge. This cannot come from things in themselves. Therefore, it must come from the nature of sensibility, i.e., from the specific nature of sensible consciousness, which must be capable of generating pure intuitions. Kant arrives at this conclusion by eliminating the only other possible source of such knowledge, things in themselves.

On this general point, let me quote the words of Paul Guyer from his book, Kant and the Claims of Knowledge:

. . . that space and time merely reflect the structure of the mind rather than that of real objects of knowledge is not the premise of Kant’s arguments for transcendental idealism either in the “Transcendental Analytic” or elsewhere in the Critique but is, rather, the conclusion of these arguments. (Guyer 1988, 340)

The reason that Kant never tried to argue from the nature of the sensibility to the necessity of space and time is that he did not claim to know any property of sensibility as such that would account for that necessity.

As a matter of fact, he had once held that while space appears to us as Euclidean, there is nothing necessary about this. It is simply a contingent fact. The appearance of space to our senses merely reflects the structure of external ontologically real space, which is a derivative of the interaction of objects according to the law of inverse squares. And this law is itself contingent. He expressed this view in 1747, at the age of 24, in his essay, “Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces.” Speaking of the law of inverse squares, he wrote:

. . . this law is arbitrary, and . . . God could have chosen another, for instance the inverse threefold relation; and . . . that from a different law an extension with other properties and dimensions would have arisen. A science of all these possible kinds of space would undoubtedly be the highest enterprise which a finite understanding could undertake in the field of geometry. The impossibility which we observe in ourselves of representing a space of more than three dimensions seems to me to be due to the fact that our soul receives impressions from without according to the law of the inverse square of the distances, and because its nature is so constituted that . . . it [is] thus affected. (Kant 1929, §10; 11–12)

In this quotation, which is astounding in so many ways, including its anticipation of non-Euclidean geometries, we see that Kant had once held to the doctrine that space, as we intuit it, is determined by the nature of our sensibility, without at the same time holding that its (space’s) properties are universal, necessary, and a priori. This should serve as a warning to Objectivist interpreters of Kant not to assume that for him the mere fact that our sense organs have identity is sufficient to account for the necessary structure of our intuition of space. For, in 1747, he had held both that our sensibility has identity and that the intuition of space it supplies us is contingent. Moreover, this Euclidean experience of space was, as he saw it, reflective of the “arbitrary” character of Newton’s law of inverse squares. When, many years later, Kant adopted the view that Euclidean geometry was “apodictic,” or absolutely necessary, it was not because he realized for the first time that the senses have identity and so must impart a necessary structure to appearances. Rather, the change of mind that resulted in the Critique of Pure Reason was predicated upon Kant’s coming to the following conclusions: (1) that the laws of Euclidean geometry are inherently universal and necessary; (2) that they are based on pure intuition, which is the form, not the content, of sensibility; (3) that intuition is a species of consciousness that is capable of delivering to us on its own the basis of knowledge that is both a priori and synthetic or ampliative; (4) that space and time as forms of intuition are epistemic conditions of objects as they are represented in our experience, but have no application outside our experience.

Having dealt with the alleged premise of the doctrine ascribed to Kant that man’s mind cannot know reality, let us examine the question of whether he ever maintained that conclusion, and if so, in what sense and for what reason.

Kant’s doctrine on this matter has always been subject to various interpretations. There is, for instance, the interpretation of Arthur Schopenhauer, from his Kritik der Kantischen Philosophie.

Kant’s greatest contribution is the distinction between Erscheinung (appearance) and things in themselves . . . he thereby sets forth the same truth which Plato . . . expresses, that the world presenting itself to the senses has no true being . . . and that the grasp of it is delusion rather than knowledge. The same truth . . . is also a chief doctrine of the Vedas . . . that the visible world is an illusion, comparable to optical illusions and dreams. . . . This exposition of the dreamlike character of the whole world is actually the basis, the heart, and the greatest contribution of the entire Kantian philosophy. (quoted in Dryer 1966, 499 n. 1)

This interpretation of Kant’s doctrine agrees with that of Objectivism, except that the latter declares the doctrine worthy of condemnation instead of praise. They both represent Kant as teaching that the grasp we have of the world of the senses is “delusion” rather than “knowledge,” and that the world presenting itself to the senses has no true being, but is a “veil” that needs to be “torn aside,” or a “barrier between man and existence,” which needs to be “pierc[ed]” (Peikoff 1982, 24).

This interpretation is, as it stands, a misrepresentation. Let us take the sense in which it is held by Objectivists to be true of Kant. They are declaring that he holds that the physical world is a delusion, a collective delusion, in fact. An individual delusion happens to one person; for instance, he may think he is much stronger than he really is. Such a delusion may in principle be corrected by others who restrain him. A collective delusion is the same thing extended to many people; for instance, on 13 October 1917, 70,000 people gathered at a site (Fatima) in central Portugal, and thought they saw the sun revolving in circles. This, too, was in principle subject to check. We have started with the delusion of one person, then extended it to many. Rand’s interpretation of Kant is that he is just universalizing the concept of collective delusion so that the whole human race is deceived.

What is meant by saying that Kant thought we can gain no knowledge of reality because we are under a universal collective delusion? Some people take Rand to mean that Kant is saying that we cannot trust our senses to deal with our physical environment, so that at any moment what seems like a straight road ahead may turn out to be a dangerous curve. Therefore, we are in danger of getting killed because our sense organs systematically “distort reality.” This is suggested by the story of the astronaut landing on an unknown planet in Rand’s Philosophy: Who Needs It (1982, 1–4). Because his confidence in his reason, his senses and his instruments has been weakened, he dies. Now some students draw from this story the suggestion that Kant would say: “That is no surprise, because you can’t be certain of what your consciousness tells you about space and time.” Or the suggestion that the astronaut was himself a Kantian.

There is no doubt that if Rand had meant to suggest anything like this she would have been mistaken. For Kant said very clearly that “[t]his ideality of space and time leaves, however, the centrality of empirical knowledge unaffected, for we are equally sure of it whether these forms necessarily inhere in themselves or only in our intuition of them” (Kant 1933, B56). The Kantian astronaut, then, would be just as likely to survive as if the Objectivist theory of knowledge were true. However, if the astronaut were himself an adherent of the Kantian ethics and decided that he was obligated to treat the unknown approaching creatures as ends in themselves in the Kantian sense, then we might have a difference in the outcome. But this paper is on metaphysics.

Well, what is the difference between a collective delusion and a Kantian world of phenomena? I think the answer is that the collective delusion in Portugal can in principle be identified as such against a perceived background of reality. The entire Kantian world of phenomena cannot and, therefore, Kant’s contrast between appearances and things in themselves, must be on another level, a level that is not subject to empirical test. Explaining Kant’s doctrine, Dryer points out

Within what is presented by the senses a distinction is to be drawn between how objects look and how they really are. This distinction is drawn by means of regularities. Since such regularities are themselves ascertained empirically, the alternative to what are objects of empirical knowledge cannot be made meaningful in this manner [but only by categorical concepts] free from any thought of space and time. . . . Since the concepts of God, of the mind, and of the [universe as a whole] are formed exclusively, from purely intellectual concepts, in thinking of God or the mind or the world, we are thinking of each as it is in itself. (Dryer 1966, 517)

There is a danger of not capturing Kant’s meaning, therefore, if we interpret him as asserting that this world is a collective delusion, because collective delusions can be sorted out by empirical tests against a background of empirical reality. The real difference between Kant and Rand is accurately stated in her words, interpreting his metaphysics that “reason [in his sense of the empirical understanding] and science are ‘limited’ . . . they are valid only so long as they deal with this world . . . but they are impotent to deal with the fundamental metaphysical issues of existence, which belong to the ‘noumenal’ world” (Rand 1961, 31). She believes that the scientific method, keeping within the axiomatic concepts, is unlimited in its potential for knowledge; Kant believes that it is limited by the boundaries of pure intuition. This is the fundamental metaphysical difference between them.

Summary of Kant’s Argument

Kant takes the judgment as his starting point and its epistemic characteristics as his first principles. His concern is with what judgments are known with certainty and what is their warrant. He accepts as known with certainty the judgments of mathematics and pure natural science. In mathematics, he includes geometry and arithmetic, the geometry being Euclidean. In pure natural science, he includes such judgments as that in all changes of the material world the quantity of matter remains unchanged, and that in all communication of motion, action and reaction must always be equal. He argues that all these judgments are synthetic a priori. In order to account for their synthetic a priori, he introduces the notion of pure intuition and distinguishes it from thought. There are, he declares, two basic faculties of human consciousness, intuition, which is the direct awareness of a concrete individual whole, and thought, which is the indirect and discursive awareness of things through their abstract species. Each of these faculties have conditions of knowledge that are a priori limitations on what can and what cannot be known by their exercise. The a priori conditions of intuition are space and time. The a priori conditions of thought are, first, the a priori conditions of valid inference; and, second, the a priori conditions of thinking about objects, the forms of judgment, and the categories.

The a priori conditions of thought apply to intuition as well. Each of the two faculties has form and content, the form being pure or a priori, the content being empirical or a posteriori. The data of intuition, already organized in space and time, supply the content of thought. In man, intuition is sensible, that is, due to the “affection” of his sense organs by things in themselves. In sensible awareness, the content is due to things in themselves and the form to the nature of sensibility. In all human consciousness, therefore, this holds as a general principle. Kant arrived at this general principle, we maintain, by elimination: there are only two factors in cognition, the factor due to the impingement of things in themselves upon the sensibility, and the nature of the sensibility. Since what is derived a posteriori comes from things in themselves, and what is known a priori cannot be explained by such a source, the a priori element in sensibility must be attributed to the nature of sensibility itself, and since thought is empty of all a posteriori content when considered in itself, the basic principles of thought, that is the conditions under which it functions, must be a priori. It is therefore unnecessary to assume a general principle of the primacy of consciousness as a premise for the Kantian doctrine of the a priori character of space, time, and the categories. Nevertheless, Kant had already assumed the primacy of consciousness when he took the judgment as his starting point and its epistemic characteristics as his first principles.

Kant’s aim in writing the Critique of Pure Reason is to discover whether metaphysics as a science is possible. Metaphysics, he held, was the study of being qua being, the study of things or objects generally. He assumed that the basic principles of pure mathematics were verified and that he had explained how they were verified. His next task was, therefore, to establish a pure science of objects in general, i.e., of the conditions of understanding all objects, to produce some principles of that science and to verify them. Since the categories are a priori concepts that apply to any object whatever, the corresponding rules for their application must be a priori rules with sensible content. Given these rules, we can use them to combine pure concepts a priori into synthetic judgments about experience in general. The most important of these judgments are the Principle of Permanence of Substance and the Principle of Succession in Time in Accordance with the Law of Causality. Kant claims that he has now proved that a science of metaphysics is possible and to have produced from it verified principles. But he points out that this is only the first part of the traditional science of metaphysics, the part that was supposed to apply to all objects distributively. There is a further limitation. We know that the principles do not apply to things in themselves or other noumena such as the universe as a whole, God, or the soul.


The main similarities between Rand and Kant consists in the following points:

(1) They both accept the existence of a world whose major constituents they call entities or objects and regard as ordered in a system of space, time and causality and perceived by men generally. This world Kant calls “empirical reality” and Rand calls simply “reality.” In contrast to this world are some illusions and delusions whether individual or collective. These can be detected and corrected by the application of ordinary rules and processes. (But Rand interprets Kant as saying that the whole of what he calls “empirical reality” is itself a “collective delusion,” which is universal in scope.)

(2) They both agree that the proper use of man’s perceptual and conceptual faculties, in other words, his reason, in dealing with this world, results in knowledge.

(3) They both agree that man, by accepting this world as metaphysically given, i.e., “outside the power of any volition” (Rand), can adjust to it, control it and thrive in it.

(4) They both agree that in dealing epistemologically with the universe as a whole, we cannot treat it as an entity in the sense in which we call a table or a chair an entity, and can deal with it only in terms of the most fundamental concepts.

The main differences between Rand and Kant consist in the following points:

(1) Rand maintains that this world of spatiotemporally and causally related entities is exhaustive of all reality and known to be exhaustive, whereas Kant maintains that another reality, teleologically ordered and exempt from space and time and causality is at least thinkable, although not knowable. In this thinkable realm are the universe as a whole, God, the soul, man’s freedom of will, and the order of things providing for his immortality. Rand denies that the unknowable is thinkable.

(2) Kant maintains the thesis that consciousness has two fundamental forms, thought and intuition, each with its a priori laws, but with the a priori laws of thought applying to intuition as well as thought. This position works out to the conclusion that the ways in which the a priori laws of thought organize intuitions into the objects of experience is limited to the twelve categories. Rand, by contrast, although acknowledging a major difference of level between the conceptual and perceptual, derives the former from the latter and holds that both percept and concept conform to three axiomatic concepts—existence, identity, and consciousness—their application to objects being a scientific rather than a philosophical matter.

(3) Kant maintains that we can know with certainty only a small subsection of that which is thinkable. This requires the introduction of a special concept called pure intuition, which guarantees that certainty, and which is the form of all empirical knowledge, or knowledge of empirical reality. But since empirical reality thus necessarily conforms to the mind of man and since the mind of man could not dictate to things in themselves, we must conclude that empirical reality is the only appearance or the mode in which things in themselves appear to us. Rand, by contrast, maintains that the kinds of objects that exist are a matter for science to determine, subject only to the three very general axiomatic concepts. Rand acknowledges that while man’s senses each have forms of perception, these do not narrow the conceptual elaboration of his knowledge.

(4) While Kant holds, in basic agreement with his predecessors, to the analytic-synthetic distinction, Rand denies it for reasons that are beyond the scope of the current paper, but which are systematically set forth by Peikoff (“The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy,” in Rand 1990, 88-121). Since she denies the distinction, she denies also the concept of a synthetic a priori judgment, and therewith all the consequences he derives from this, including the conclusion that we have pure a priori intuition that limits knowledge, thereby leading Kant to deny it to make room for faith.

(5) This leads us to Kant’s explanation of what he does after he limits knowledge to metaphysics in its first part and thereby to science. Since Kant has shown to his satisfaction that metaphysics in its second part cannot be verified, he has brushed away not only all proofs of the existence of God, freedom and immortality, but also all disproofs as well. Kant does not opt for agnosticism at this point.

(6) Kant’s limitation of knowledge to what can be known by means of the categories and his further limitation of the categories to appearances means that knowledge of the universe as a whole is forever foreclosed, and therewith knowledge of all other subjects included in metaphysics in its second part. Not foreclosed, however, is application of the laws of valid inference to such noumena, the laws of identity, non-contradiction, and excluded middle. It is still the case that God either exists or he doesn’t. But for Kant, such a statement is completely empty. Now Rand also believed that the universe is not an entity in the same sense that a table or chair is. Rand’s words, in an Epistemology Workshop meeting, merit attention here:

Actually, do you know what we can ascribe to the universe as such, apart from scientific discovery? Only those fundamentals that we can grasp about existence. Not in the sense of switching contexts and ascribing particular characteristics to the universe, but we can say: since everything possesses identity, the universe possesses identity. Since everything is finite, the universe is finite. But we can’t ascribe space or time or a lot of other things to the universe as a whole.6 (Rand 1990, 273)

We said at an earlier point in this paper that Rand does not recognize Kant’s metaphysics in its second part as a separate field of investigation. We must now modify this by saying that she acknowledges that when metaphysics is exercised in the special context of the universe as a whole, only the most basic concepts may be applied. Here, her thought approaches that of Kant for a moment, then radically diverges from him. For she would maintain that the use of such concepts results in knowledge however broad, knowledge of a fundamental nature, so that she

can say: “I have affirmed that knowledge is unlimited, leaving no room for faith.”


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Goldberg, Bruce. 1961. Ayn Rand’s “For the New Intellectual.” New Individualist Review 1, no. 3 (November): 17–24.

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___. 1933. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. London: Macmillan.

___. 1934. Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone. Translated by Theodore H. Green and Hoyt H. Hudson. Chicago: Open Court.

___. 1949. Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writing on Moral Philosophy. Translated by L. W. Beck. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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1 1. This paper was delivered at the Ayn Rand Society meeting (Eastern division, American Philosophical Association) in Washington, D. C. on 29 December 1992. This version, edited by Chris Matthew Sciabarra in cooperation with the author, is published with the author’s permission.

2 2. See, for instance, Goldberg 1961. So far as the larger profession of Kant scholars is concerned, I am convinced that they would disagree sharply with the characterizations of Kant I have just cited from the Objectivist literature. Many are convinced that Kant was an advocate of reason. An advocate in what sense and against whom is another matter. The most recent case for Kant as an advocate of reason is to be found in O’Neill 1992, 280–305, especially 290. The author tells us that reason as vindicated by Kant will save us from the extremes of post-modernism on the one hand and foundationalism on the other.

3 3. In my exposition of Kant, I have consulted extensively only two commentators, both of them very conservative: Lewis White Beck, to whose publications on Kant I am indebted; and Douglas P. Dryer, whose exhaustive commentary (Dryer 1966) I have followed on many points, and which I highly recommend.

4 4. This question is added to the preceding three in Kant 1974. The question may have been inserted by the editor, but Kant regards the nature of man as a crucial question. See Kant 1934, passim.

5 5. A and B refer to the first (1791) and second (1787) German editions of this book. Further references to the book will be identified simply as An/Bn or An or Bn.

6 6. For a defense of Rand as “an extremely austere compact and minimalistic” foundationalist, see Machan 1992, 52. This discussion is replicated in Machan 1999, Chapter 2.