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The Russian Connection: Rand versus Kant

There has been a debate raging on Facebook about Rand's antipathy to Kant as the most "evil" man in the history of philosophy. I certainly am not a Kantian, but let's just say that while Rand often gets some things right in her view of the history of philosophy, she often made sweeping generalizations that were at best, uncharitable, in her evaluation of various thinkers. "Uncharitable" is partially an outgrowth of a not-very-sophisticated treatment of certain thinkers (Hegel and Marx come to mind), especially in the title essay to her book For the New Intellectual.

In the meanwhile, some folks have wondered when Rand developed this rabid antipathy to Kant. For example, in the 1936 version of We the Living, Rand has the character Leo quoting Kant and Nietzsche at social gatherings. In the 1959 version, Rand airbrushed Kant from the text, substituting Spinoza for Kant in Leo's comments. This flies in the face of Rand's own view that she had made various changes to the second edition of her first novel, which were stylistic in nature. Clearly, some changes were made that were of a more substantive character, and I discuss these in Chapter Five of my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.

In that chapter, I state the following:

Yet in my view, it is far more likely that Rand's anti-Kantianism was an outgrowth of her exposure to Russian thought, rather than with any possible acquaintance with Schopenhauer's view [a suggestion made by George Walsh in a JARS essay that is critical of Rand's views of Kant]. Whereas Schopenhauer celebrated the Kantian metaphysical distinctions, most Russian philosophers rejected Kant because they believed that he had detached the mind from reality. As I suggest, such thinkers as Solovyov, Chicherin, and Lossky were aiming for an integration of the traditional dichotomies perpetuated by Kant's metaphysics. Chicherin, for instance, argued that in Kant's system, pure concepts of reason are empty, and experience is blind. Kant's view makes "metaphysics without experience . . . empty, and experience without metaphysics blind: in the first case we have the form without content, and in the second case, the content without understanding" [quoted by Lossky in his History of Russian Philosophy].
Interestingly, Rand's own view of the rationalist-empiricist distinction, and of Kant's critical philosophy, is deeply reminiscent of Chicherin's parody. For Rand, rationalists had embraced concepts divorced from reality, whereas empiricists had "clung to reality, by abandoning their mind” (New Intellectual, 30). Kant's attempt to transcend this dichotomy failed miserably because his philosophy formalized the conflict. Rand writes: "His argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and not 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” (39).
Rand's teacher, Lossky, was the chief Russian translator of Kant's works. He too had criticized Kant's contention that true being (things-in-themselves) transcends consciousness and remains forever unknowable. Lossky sought to defend the realist proposition that people could know true reality through an epistemological coordination of subject and object. In this process, the real existents and objects of the world are subjected to a cognitive activity that is metaphysically passive and noncreative. Lossky rejected Kant's belief that the mind imposes structures on reality. Such Kantian subjectivism subordinates reality to knowledge, or existence to consciousness. It resolves phenomena in subjective processes that are detached from the real world and distortive of objective reality [from Lossky's book, The Intuitive Basis of Knowledge].
Furthermore, Lossky criticized Kant for invalidating metaphysics as a science. Since Kant held that the mind perceives things not as they are but "as they seem to me," he institutionalized a war not only on metaphysics, but on the very ability of the mind to grasp the nature of reality. Though there is no evidence that Rand studied Kant formally while at the university, it is conceivable that her earliest exposure to Kant's ideas occurred in her encounters with the celebrated Lossky. Her distinguished teacher was among the foremost Russian scholars of German philosophy. Lossky's rejection of Kantianism was essential to his ideal-realist project. It is entirely possible that Rand absorbed inadvertently a Russian bias against Kant.

As I point out in my Facebook post:

To my knowledge, it's not that Kant was not being taught in the university; it's that whatever Kantian philosophy that was taught, was typically critical. And yet, there was a vibrant school of neo-Kantianism in Silver Age Russia, the time during which Rand came to intellectual maturity. The leading exponent of neo-Kantianism in Russia was Aleksandr Vvedensky, whom I've pegged as one of Rand's teachers at the University of Petrograd (the most likely teacher of the course on "Logic"). Interestingly, Shoshana Milgram states that it was Vvedensky who was the teacher of the course on ancient philosophy that Rand took, rather than N. O. Lossky, whom I identified as the teacher---in league with Rand's recollections. I have a forthcoming essay on this subject and other subjects in the December 2017 issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. I think the bulk of the evidence comes down on the side of Rand's recollections.
Interestingly, Lossky (who had translated into Russian Kant's Critique of Pure Reason as well as the famous Paulsen monograph on Kant, which Rand referenced) tells us that Vvedensky's neo-Kantianism was reflected in all his books and in his courses, especially. (So I find it odd that Milgram refers to Vvedensky as a "famous Platonist" when, in fact, he was a famous neo-Kantian, whose teachings reflected the neo-Kantian take on the history of philosophy). Lossky was famously anti-Kantian, but I have more to say in the forthcoming essay.

I was asked by Anoop Verma about the main points of difference between Russian neo-Kantianism and neo-Kantianism in the West. This requires a much longer answer than I'm capable of providing in this space, but V. V. Zenkovsky argues in his two-volume work, A History of Russian Philosophy, that the neo-Kantian tendencies, especially those found in the works of its leading representative, A. I. Vvedensky, do not break with the central Kantian ideas, except that these ideas are related to "the root problems of the Russian spirit," adding that one finds "echoes of a familiar 'panmoralism'" in the Russian neo-Kantian vision. Zenkovsky argues further that the Russian version tends to approach "critical positivism" and even "pure positivism." I know this is not satisfying as an answer, but I want to recommend Zenkovsky's treatment of "Neo-Kantianism in Russia" (chapter 13 of his aforementioned book).

Lastly, I just want to touch upon a point made by Robert Mayhew, who compares the 1936 version of We the Living and the 1959 version of that book, in a chapter of his edited anthology Essays on Ayn Rand's "We the Living". As I mentioned, Rand claimed to have made "editorial changes" in the book's reissued 1959 version, that were stylistic and grammatical, given that her writing at the time was a reflection of "the transitional state of a mind thinking no longer in Russian, but not yet fully in English." She claims to have eliminated some "awkward or confusing lapses" and "a few paragraphs that were repetitious or so confusing in their implications that to clarify them would have necessitated lengthy additions. In brief, all the changes are merely editorial line-changes. The novel remains what and as it was," she claims.

Clearly that is not the case, as I have documented in my comparison of both versions of the novel in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. One can find that comparison in "A 'Nietzschean' Phase?", which is a sub-section of Chapter Four in the second edition of the book. I think though a Nietzschean element remains within Rand throughout her entire corpus, the more belligerent Nietzschean elements that she repudiated, are more visible in the 1936 version, as readers will see in my comparative analysis.

Now Mayhew claims that Rand could not have possibly gotten her view of Kant from her Russian period because in the 1936 version, the character Leo spouts Kantian phrases at social gatherings; Rand replaces any reference to Kant in the 1959 version, substituting Spinoza instead. I think that Rand's anti-Kantianism became more pronounced by the late 1950s and early 1960s as a result of her exposure to some of the views of such folks as Isabel Paterson, and her own students, Leonard Peikoff and Barbara Branden, both of whom studied under Sidney Hook at New York University.

And yet, I do find it ironic that Rand uses Paulsen's interpretation of Kant, found in his 1898 book, Immanuel Kant: His Life and Doctrine, which was translated into Russian by Rand's philosophy professor N. O. Lossky. I don't know if Rand read the Paulsen book in its Russian translation originally, but her discussion of that book as so revealing of Kant's malevolence, can be found in an October 1975 essay, "From the Horse's Mouth" (first published in The Ayn Rand Letter, and later in Philosophy: Who Needs It). And even her remark that Kant condemned humanity to being "blind" because he has eyes echoes the Russian anti-Kantian view of Chicherin, who uses the same "blind" metaphor.

So, even if Rand didn't necessarily get her anti-Kantian bias from her Russian studies, she seems to have come full circle by embracing a view so prevalent in the Russia of her youth.

Postscript: Kirsti Minsaas asked for examples of Leo quoting Kant in the original 1936 edition of We the Living. I responded:

Kirsti, I don't have my 1936 reproduction accessible, but what Mayhew writes in his essay "We the Living: '36 & '59" in his edited anthology "Essays on Ayn Rand's 'We the Living'" is accurate (to my recollection); he writes:
"The most interesting name change comes in the passage describing the young Leo. One line in the original reads: 'When his young friends related, in whispers, the latest French stories, Leo quoted Kant and Nietzsche.'
"In the '59 edition, 'Kant' is changed to 'Spinoza'. Rand had a mild respect for Spinoza's egoism; but more important, in her mature philosophical writings she makes it clear that she regards Kant as the most evil philosopher in history, a view she did not hold in Russia or when she first got to the United States. (Later in the novel, when Leo is arrested, the '36 edition has him uttering an arguably Kantian line to Andrei: 'A tendency for transcendental thinking is apt to obscure our perception of reality'. The line was cut.")
It really is fascinating to compare the two editions. Someday, someone out there should publish a "Scholar's Edition" (much as they do at the Mises Institute), which includes both the 1936 and the 1959 versions. But I won't hold my breath.