Kant, Immanuel

On every fundamental issue, Kant’s philosophy is the exact opposite of Objectivism.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

The man who . . . closed the door of philosophy to reason, was Immanuel Kant. . . .

Kant’s expressly stated purpose was to save the morality of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. He knew that it could not survive without a mystic base—and what it had to be saved from was reason.

Attila’s share of Kant’s universe includes this earth, physical reality, man’s senses, perceptions, reason and science, all of it labeled the “phenomenal” world. The Witch Doctor’s share is another, “higher,” reality, labeled the “noumenal” world, and a special manifestation, labeled the “categorical imperative,” which dictates to man the rules of morality and which makes itself known by means of a feeling, as a special sense of duty.

The “phenomenal” world, said 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, 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; they are valid only so long as they deal with this world, with a permanent, pre-determined collective delusion (and thus the criterion of reason’s validity was switched from the objective to the collective), but they are impotent to deal with the fundamental, metaphysical issues of existence, which belong to the “noumenal” world. The “noumenal” world is unknowable; 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.

Even apart from the fact that Kant’s theory of the “categories” as the source of man’s concepts was a preposterous invention, his argument amounted to a negation, not only of man’s consciousness, but of any consciousness, of consciousness as such. 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.

The motive of all the attacks on man’s rational faculty—from any quarter, in any of the endless variations, under the verbal dust of all the murky volumes—is a single, hidden premise: the desire to exempt consciousness from the law of identity. The hallmark of a mystic is the savagely stubborn refusal to accept the fact that consciousness, like any other existent, possesses identity, that it is a faculty of a specific nature, functioning through specific means. While the advance of civilization has been eliminating one area of magic after another, the last stand of the believers in the miraculous consists of their frantic attempts to regard identity as the disqualifying element of consciousness.

The implicit, but unadmitted premise of the neo-mystics of modern philosophy, is the notion that only an ineffable consciousness can acquire a valid knowledge of reality, that “true” knowledge has to be causeless, i.e., acquired without any means of cognition.

The entire apparatus of Kant’s system, like a hippopotamus engaged in belly-dancing, goes through its gyrations while resting on a single point: that man’s knowledge is not valid because his consciousness possesses identity. . . .

This is a negation, not only of man’s consciousness, but of any consciousness, of consciousness as such, whether man’s, insect’s or God’s. (If one supposed the existence of God, the negation would still apply: either God perceives through no means whatever, in which case he possesses no identity—or he perceives by some divine means and no others, in which case his perception is not valid.) As Berkeley negated existence by claiming that “to be, is to be perceived,” so Kant negates consciousness by implying that to be perceived, is not to be. . . .

From primordial mysticism to this, its climax, the attack on man’s consciousness and particularly on his conceptual faculty has rested on the unchallenged premise that any knowledge acquired by a process of consciousness is necessarily subjective and cannot correspond to the facts of reality, since it is “processed knowledge.”

Make no mistake about the actual meaning of that premise: it is a revolt, not only against being conscious, but against being alive—since in fact, in reality, on earth, every aspect of being alive involves a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. (This is an example of the fact that the revolt against identity is a revolt against existence. “The desire not to be anything, is the desire not to be.” Atlas Shrugged.)

All knowledge is processed knowledge—whether on the sensory, perceptual or conceptual level. An “unprocessed” knowledge would be a knowledge acquired without means of cognition. Consciousness . . . is not a passive state, but an active process. And more: the satisfaction of every need of a living organism requires an act of processing by that organism, be it the need of air, of food or of knowledge.

A “straw man” is an odd metaphor to apply to such an enormous, cumbersome, ponderous construction as Kant’s system of epistemology. Nevertheless, a straw man is what it was—and the doubts, the uncertainty, the skepticism that followed, skepticism about man’s ability ever to know anything, were not, in fact, applicable to human consciousness, because it was not a human consciousness that Kant’s robot represented. But philosophers accepted it as such. And while they cried that reason had been invalidated, they did not notice that reason had been pushed off the philosophical scene altogether and that the faculty they were arguing about was not reason.

No, Kant did not destroy reason; he merely did as thorough a job of undercutting as anyone could ever do.

If you trace the roots of all our current philosophies—such as pragmatism, logical positivism, and all the rest of the neo-mystics who announce happily that you cannot prove that you exist—you will find that they all grew out of Kant.

One of Kant’s major goals was to save religion (including the essence of religious morality) from the onslaughts of science. His system represents a massive effort to raise the principles of Platonism, in a somewhat altered form, once again to a position of commanding authority over Western culture.

Plato was more than a Platonist; despite his mysticism, he was also a pagan Greek. As such he exhibited a certain authentic respect for reason, a respect which was implicit in Greek philosophy no matter how explicitly irrational it became. The Kantian mysticism, however, suffers from no such pagan restraints. It flows forth triumphantly, sweeping the prostrate human mind before it. Since man can never escape the distorting agents inherent in the structure of his consciousness, says Kant, “things in themselves” are in principle unknowable. Reason is impotent to discover anything about reality; if it tries, it can only bog down in impenetrable contradictions. Logic is merely a subjective human device, devoid of reference to or basis in reality. Science, while useful as a means of ordering the data of the world of appearances, is limited to describing a surface world of man’s own creation and says nothing about things as they really are.

Must men then resign themselves to a total skepticism? No, says Kant, there is one means of piercing the barrier between man and existence. Since reason, logic, and science are denied access to reality, the door is now open for men to approach reality by a different, nonrational method. The door is now open to faith. Taking their cue from their needs, men can properly believe (for instance, in God and in an afterlife), even though they cannot prove the truth of their belief. . . . “I have,” writes Kant, “therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.”

There are two different kinds of subjectivism, distinguished by their answers to the question: whose consciousness creates reality? Kant rejected the older of these two, which was the view that each man’s feelings create a private universe for him. Instead, Kant ushered in the era of social subjectivism—the view that it is not the consciousness of individuals, but of groups, that creates reality. In Kant’s system, mankind as a whole is the decisive group; what creates the phenomenal world is not the idiosyncrasies of particular individuals, but the mental structure common to all men.

Later philosophers accepted Kant’s fundamental approach, but carried it a step further. If, many claimed, the mind’s structure is a brute given, which cannot be explained—as Kant had said—then there is no reason why all men should have the same mental structure. There is no reason why mankind should not be splintered into competing groups, each defined by its own distinctive type of consciousness, each vying with the others to capture and control reality.

The first world movement thus to pluralize the Kantian position was Marxism, which propounded a social subjectivism in terms of competing economic classes. On this issue, as on many others, the Nazis follow the Marxists, but substitute race for class.

A man’s self, [Kant] maintains, like everything else, is a part of reality—it, too, is something in itself—and if reality is unknowable, then so is a man’s self. A man is able, Kant concludes, to know only his phenomenal ego, his self as it appears to him (in introspection); he cannot know his noumenal ego, his “ego as it is in itself.” Man is, therefore, a creature in metaphysical conflict. He is so to speak a metaphysical biped, with one (unreal) foot in the phenomenal world and one (unknowable) foot in the noumenal world.


As to Kant’s version of morality, it was appropriate to the kind of zombies that would inhabit that kind of [Kantian] universe: it consisted of total, abject selflessness. An action is moral, said Kant, 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.)

Those who accept any part of Kant’s philosophy—metaphysical, epistemological or moral—deserve it.

The arch-advocate of “duty” is Immanuel Kant; he went so much farther than other theorists that they seem innocently benevolent by comparison. “Duty,” he holds, is the only standard of virtue; but virtue is not its own reward: if a reward is involved, it is no longer virtue. The only moral motivation, he holds, is devotion to duty for duty’s sake; only an action motivated exclusively by such devotion is a moral action (i.e., an action performed without any concern for “inclination” [desire] or self-interest).

“It is a duty to preserve one’s life, and moreover everyone has a direct inclination to do so. But for that reason the often anxious care which most men take of it has no intrinsic worth, and the maxim of doing so has no moral import. They preserve their lives according to duty, but not from duty. But if adversities and hopeless sorrow completely take away the relish for life, if an unfortunate man, strong in soul, is indignant rather than despondent or dejected over his fate and wishes for death, and yet preserves his life without loving it and from neither inclination nor fear but from duty—then his maxim has a moral import” (Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. R. P. Wolff, New York, Bobbs-Merrill, 1969, pp. 16–17).

His view of morality is propagated by men who have never heard of him—he merely gave them a formal, academic status. A Kantian sense of “duty” is inculcated by parents whenever they declare that a child must do something because he must. A child brought up under the constant battering of causeless, arbitrary, contradictory, inexplicable “musts” loses (or never acquires) the ability to grasp the distinction between realistic necessity and human whims—and spends his life abjectly, dutifully obeying the second and defying the first. In the full meaning of the term, he grows up without a clear grasp of reality.

In a deontological [duty-centered] theory, all personal desires are banished from the realm of morality; a personal desire has no moral significance, be it a desire to create or a desire to kill. For example, if a man is not supporting his life from duty, such a morality makes no distinction between supporting it by honest labor or by robbery. If a man wants to be honest, he deserves no moral credit; as Kant would put it, such honesty is “praiseworthy,” but without “moral import.” Only a vicious represser, who feels a profound desire to lie, cheat and steal, but forces himself to act honestly for the sake of “duty,” would receive a recognition of moral worth from Kant and his ilk.

This is the sort of theory that gives morality a bad name.

The widespread fear and/or resentment of morality—the feeling that morality is an enemy, a musty realm of suffering and senseless boredom—is not the product of mystic, ascetic or Christian codes as such, but a monument to the ugliest repository of hatred for life, man and reason: the soul of Immanuel Kant.

In theory, Kant states, a man deserves moral credit for an action done from duty, even if his inclinations also favor it—but only insofar as the latter are incidental and play no role in his motivation. But in practice, Kant maintains, whenever the two coincide no one can know that he has escaped the influence of inclination. For all practical purposes, therefore, a moral man must have no private stake in the outcome of his actions, no personal motive, no expectation of profit or gain of any kind.

Even then, however, he cannot be sure that no fragment of desire is “secretly” moving him. The far clearer case, the one case in which a man can at least come close to knowing that he is moral, occurs when the man’s desires clash with his duty and he acts in defiance of his desires.

Kant is the first philosopher of self-sacrifice to advance this ethics as a matter of philosophic principle, explicit, self-conscious, uncompromised—essentially uncontradicted by any remnants of the Greek, pro-self viewpoint.

Thus, although he believed that the dutiful man would be rewarded with happiness after death (and that this is proper), Kant holds that the man who is motivated by such a consideration is nonmoral (since he is still acting from inclination, albeit a supernaturally oriented one). Nor will Kant permit the dutiful man to be motivated even by the desire to feel a sense of moral self-approval.

The main line of pre-Kantian moralists had urged man to perform certain actions in order to reach a goal of some kind. They had urged man to love the object which is the good (however it was conceived) and strive to gain it, even if most transferred the quest to the next life. They had asked man to practice a code of virtues as a means to the attainment of values. Kant dissociates virtue from the pursuit of any goal. He dissociates it from man’s love of or even interest in any object. Which means: he dissociates morality from values, any values, values as such.

It is not inner peace that Kant holds out to man, not otherworldly serenity or ethereal tranquillity, but war, a bloody, unremitting war against passionate, indomitable temptation. It is the lot of the moral man to struggle against undutiful feelings inherent in his nature, and the more intensely he feels and the more desperately he struggles, the greater his claim to virtue. It is the lot of the moral man to burn with desire and then, on principle—the principle of duty—to thwart it. The hallmark of the moral man is to suffer.

If men lived the sort of life Kant demands, who or what would gain from it? Nothing and no one. The concept of “gain” has been expunged from morality. For Kant, it is the dutiful sacrifice as such that constitutes a man’s claim to virtue; the welfare of any recipient is morally incidental. Virtue, for Kant, is not the service of an interest—neither of the self nor of God nor of others. (A man can claim moral credit for service to others in this view, not because they benefit, but only insofar as he loses.)

Here is the essence and climax of the ethics of self-sacrifice, finally, after two thousand years, come to full, philosophic expression in the Western world: your interests—of whatever kind, including the interest in being moral—are a mark of moral imperfection because they are interests. Your desires, regardless of their content, deserve no respect because they are desires. Do your duty, which is yours because you have desires, and which is sublime because, unadulterated by the stigma of any gain, it shines forth unsullied, in loss, pain, conflict, torture. Sacrifice the thing you want, without beneficiaries, supernatural or social; sacrifice your values, your self-interest, your happiness, your self, because they are your values, your self-interest, your happiness, your self; sacrifice them to morality, i.e., to the noumenal dimension, i.e., to nothing knowable or conceivable to man, i.e., as far as man living on this earth is concerned, to nothing.

The moral commandment is: thou shalt sacrifice, sacrifice everything, sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, as an end in itself.

Sacrifice is the surrender of that which you value in favor of that which you don’t. . . . It is not a sacrifice to renounce the unwanted. It is not a sacrifice to give your life to others, if death is your personal desire. To achieve the virtue of sacrifice, you must want to live, you must love it, you must burn with passion for this earth and for all the splendor it can give you—you must feel the twist of every knife as it slashes your desires away from your reach and drains your love out of your body. It is not mere death that the morality of sacrifice holds out to you as an ideal, but death by slow torture.

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. . . .

Kant is the most evil man in mankind’s history.

Psychological Techniques

Kant originated the technique required to sell irrational notions to the men of a skeptical, cynical age who have formally rejected mysticism without grasping the rudiments of rationality. The technique is as follows: if you want to propagate an outrageously evil idea (based on traditionally accepted doctrines), your conclusion must be brazenly clear, but your proof unintelligible. Your proof must be so tangled a mess that it will paralyze a reader’s critical faculty—a mess of evasions, equivocations, obfuscations, circumlocutions, non sequiturs, endless sentences leading nowhere, irrelevant side issues, clauses, sub-clauses and sub-sub-clauses, a meticulously lengthy proving of the obvious, and big chunks of the arbitrary thrown in as self-evident, erudite references to sciences, to pseudo-sciences, to the never-to-be-sciences, to the untraceable and the unprovable—all of it resting on a zero: the absence of definitions. I offer in evidence the Critique of Pure Reason.

If “genius” denotes extraordinary ability, then Kant may be called a genius in his capacity to sense, play on and perpetuate human fears, irrationalities and, above all, ignorance. His influence rests not on philosophical but on psychological factors.

The philosophy of Kant is a systematic rationalization of every major psychological vice. The metaphysical inferiority of this world (as a “phenomenal” world of mere “appearances”), is a rationalization for the hatred of reality. The notion that reason is unable to perceive reality and deals only with “appearances,” is a rationalization for the hatred of reason; it is also a rationalization for a profound kind of epistemological egalitarianism which reduces reason to equality with the futile puttering of “idealistic” dreamers. The metaphysical superiority of the “noumenal” world, is a rationalization for the supremacy of emotions, which are thus given the power to know the unknowable by ineffable means.

The complaint that man can perceive things only through his own consciousness, not through any other kinds of consciousnesses, is a rationalization for the most profound type of second-handedness ever confessed in print: it is the whine of a man tortured by perpetual concern with what others think and by inability to decide which others he should conform to. The wish to perceive “things in themselves” unprocessed by any consciousness, is a rationalization for the wish to escape the effort and responsibility of cognition—by means of the automatic omniscience a whim-worshiper ascribes to his emotions. The moral imperative of the duty to sacrifice oneself to duty, a sacrifice without beneficiaries, is a gross rationalization for the image (and soul) of an austere, ascetic monk who winks at you with an obscenely sadistic pleasure—the pleasure of breaking man’s spirit, ambition, success, self-esteem, and enjoyment of life on earth. Et cetera. These are just some of the highlights.

Copyright © 1986 by Harry Binswanger. Introduction copyright © 1986 by Leonard Peikoff. All rights reserved. For information address New American Library.


Excerpts from The Ominous Parallels, by Leonard Peikoff. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted with permission of Stein and Day Publishers. Excerpts from The Romantic Manifesto, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1971, by The Objectivist. Reprinted with permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Excerpts from Atlas Shrugged, copyright © 1957 by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, copyright © 1943 by Ayn Rand, and For the New Intellectual, copyright © 1961 by Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff, Executor, Estate of Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from “The Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture series. Copyright © 1976 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted by permission. Excerpts from Alvin Toffler’s interview with Ayn Rand, which first appeared in Playboy magazine. Copyright © 1964. Reprinted by permission of Alvin Toffler. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.