In November, 1993, Walsh was interviewed by Full Context, an Objectivist magazine (long since defunct). In that interview, Walsh discussed a paper he had recently presented to the Ayn Rand Society on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Walsh expressed profound disagreement with Ayn Rand’s interpretation of Kant. He stated that Rand was mistaken in attributing to Kant the view that “human knowledge is a distortion and a delusion…Kant is thus ranked as an arch skeptic moved by the desire to destroy the mind. Now I maintain that if Kant is read carefully in context and without commentaries or secondary sources, he will be seen to hold no such doctrine as the thesis that human knowledge is a distortion or a delusion.”
Walsh summarizes Kant’s basic argument this way:
“All human knowledge falls necessarily under the categories of space and time…These forms cannot be characteristics of things as they are in themselves, for if they were, their nature would be known by accumulating observations and by induction, and we could also imagine space and time as absent….But if they are not learned by inspection of the objects we know, they must have some other origin. By elimination, the only other possible source is the mind. The mind, then, must act as a grid imposing the forms of space and time on the content of our knowledge…Kant then proceeds to the further conclusion that space and time, as imposed by the mind, are forms of the way things appear to us. Within the array of spatio-temporally organized objects, it is possible to distinguish ‘empirical reality’ from delusions. In other words, [Kant] provides a criterion of objectivity. The criterion is order and regular sequence, in terms of which he distinguishes between ‘empirical reality’ and delusion.
“Now, in spite of her claim that ‘on every fundamental issue, Kant’s philosophy is the exact opposite of Objectivism,’ Rand’s position is closer to Kant’s than [she] realized. She too holds that our percepts contain elements that are not intrinsic qualities of things…Can Rand say that the ‘ultimate constituents’ of the universe are extended in space? No, she says, we cannot claim that. As Leonard Peikoff says, they may be mere ‘puffs of energy.’ So, in some sense, between the ‘ultimate constituents’ and the final percepts, space gets added. Is such a radical addition a distortion? If it isn’t for Rand, it isn’t for Kant…”
“Now these similarities do not obscure the vast differences between Rand and Kant, because for Kant the world of ‘things in themselves’ is cut off from our knowledge, forever, thereby leaving room for faith. And according to Rand, nothing is cut off from our possible knowledge and we can learn the ultimate properties of things, perhaps, in due time, by abstracting and by making inferences logically from our perceptions. And in my view Rand is right against Kant on this substantive issue.
“Thus a big difference between Rand and Kant is that she does not postulate any gulf between our perceptions and the ultimate constituents of the universe, whereas he does. She is right to emphasize this, and the fact is of vast importance. However, in her zeal over making this point, and in her conviction that it is her mission to save civilization from Kant, she makes several errors in interpreting his position. One is to attribute to Kant the view that man’s consciousness is a delusion. Two is to claim that he derived this alleged conclusion from the fact that consciousness has identity. Three is to assert that consciousness is, in Kant’s view, creative in the very act of knowing and to imply, or at least hint, that Kant thereby subjected existence to the ‘wish’ of consciousness.”
Walsh attributes Rand’s misconceptions to numerous secondary sources, and cites two in particular. One is Arthur Schopenhauer, who used Kant to support his own view that the physical world was a veil of illusion, even though Kant warned against this interpretation in The Critique of Pure Reason. The other is a nineteenth century statement by Henry Mansel, the Dean of St. Paul’s in London, which she quotes in the second edition of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Mansel states that Kant’s doctrine leads to the conclusion that “to obtain a knowledge of the real, we must go out of consciousness.” According to Walsh, both Mansel and Schopenhauer were dead wrong.
This is only a brief summary of an extended and fascinating interview with Walsh. Later in the same interview, Walsh describes Kant as “the father of idealism.”
“…[Kant] regards the noumenal world as unknowable, not merely unprovable, but unknowable in principle…
“…[The] major difference between the Kantian theory of knowledge and the Objectivist theory of knowledge [is that, metaphysically, Kant’s universe is discontinuous as between the phenomenal and the noumenal]. There is a continuity between objects as perceived and objects as they are in themselves in the Objectivist view. There is no break at all; that is, one starts with perceptual objects, and one abstracts from them, and one forms scientific theories of photons and neutrinos and things like that. We get closer and closer, by a rational process, to what Ayn Rand calls the ‘ultimate constituents’ of reality. But in the Kantian view the reality of 'things in themselves,' as he calls them, is utterly cut off….”
In other words, Kant does reach what could be called an “ultimate skeptical conclusion” regarding man’s ability to know the scientific nature of “things in themselves,” but he did not hold, as Rand concluded, that this disqualified all human knowledge. Walsh makes clear that Kant never intended this delimited scientific ignorance to extend generally to all our claims to knowledge of the world.
If you are interested, you can read the text of Walsh’s 1992 address to the Ayn Rand Society here. The original Full Context interview (volume 6, number 3, Fall, 1993) which touches on a variety of related philosophical topics (e.g., Rousseau and John Rawls) may still be available here.