Where Ayn Rand Learned a Lot of Philosophy

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I've seen Kant described as an atheist, agnostic and deist.

It would be interesting to see how Kant was received in his life and the next generation. Did his readers think he was planning on destroying the mind, saving orthodox religion, or designing gas chambers to kill Jews (as Peikoff thinks)?

I'm not an expert on the history of German philosophy (and most reactions to Kant during his life, and on through the next generation, came from other Germans).

But very roughly:

There were critics who considered him anti-reason and anti-Enlightenment.

There were critics who basically didn't think he was anti-reason or anti-Enlightenment enough.

I'm reasonably sure that any atheist critic of Kant would have said that he was trying to save theistic religious belief and its associated morality—but not specifically the Lutheran state church in Prussia—from philosophical or scientific challenge.

The nastiest German haters of Jews had not yet come up with mass extermination via gas chambers, so I'm pretty confident no one was accusing him, in 1785 or 1825, of being behind anything like that.

Robert Campbell

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Kant from A to Bxxx

"I have arrived at an explanation of why Kant writes in the Preface to the second edition (1787) of CPR “I therefore had to annul knowledge in order to make room for faith” (Bxxx). Unfolding the background of this statement will also elucidate its meaning. . . ."

Kant on Rational Faith


A bit about early Kant transmission in Britain, from W. J. Mander in his British Idealism (2011):

While perhaps the earliest writings on Kant appeared in the 1790’s, it is necessary to move forward quite some years before one may find any significant use of his ideas and . . . the first person we should note is Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In his Biographia Literaria (1817) Coleridge did much to introduce the ideas of Kant, as well as those of Fichte and Schelling, to a new audience. Subsequent accusations of misrepresentation and plagiarism have dented Coleridge’s reputation in this matter, but his importance at the time cannot be doubted. To Coleridge, who moved over from a youthful support for John Locke and David Hartley to embracing something like Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, the discovery of Kant was a decisive moment. Kant’s writings, Coleridge says, “took possession of me as with a giant’s hand.” Crucial to Coleridge was the conception of mind as something which, instead of just passively copying experience, had the power to shape—and even to penetrate through appearances to the spiritual realm behind. For while his presentation of the claim that understanding cannot establish the fundamental truths of noumenal reality is Kantian enough, drawing much out of the distinction between understanding and reason, Coleridge’s development of that point as the thesis that we are nonetheless entitled to claim not simply practical knowledge but “faith” or “immediate awareness” of God, freedom, immortality, and even things in themselves, moves out considerably on its own.

Another figure of great significance to idealism in the introduction of Kantian ideas was Thomas Carlyle, whose 1827 essay on the “State of German Literature” did much to introduce Kant (as well as Fichte) to the wider reading public. Although he had perhaps even less direct knowledge of Kant than did Coleridge, Carlyle was equally convinced of his importance. Endorsing Schlegel’s claim, he advertised to his readers that the critical philosophy, “in respect of its probable influence on the moral culture of Europe . . . stands on a line with the Reformation.” Like Coleridge, he takes the crucial message of Kant to be that there exist in man two faculties, understanding and reason. Understanding cannot demonstrate the existence of God, virtue, freedom, or immortality and, if it attempts to do so, only ends up in contradiction or proof of the opposite. But “to discern these truths is the province of Reason, which therefore is to be cultivated as the highest faculty in man. Not by logic and argument does it work; yet surely and clearly may it be taught to work: and its domain lies in that holier region, where Poetry, and Virtue and Divinity abide.” Not claiming himself fully to understand or to pass judgement on it, Carlyle nonetheless insisted that Kant’s philosophy was neither impossibly obscure nor mystical, and his call for its further study was effective. (15–16)

I’ve been studying the philosophy of Bernard Bolzano (1781–1848), and in my book, his is one of the philosophies I compare to Rand’s and to my own. This is the same guy whose name is enshrined in mathematical analysis by the “Bolzano-Weierstrass Theorem,” a thing of tremendous beauty. In 2014 Bolzano’s masterwork in philosophy, his Wissenschaftslehre, came into English translation in its entirety. Into English last year also came New Anti-Kant which had appeared two years after the death of Bolzano. It was written by Frantisek Prihonsky in consultation with Bolzano. The author was a proponent of Bolzano’s philosophy, and this book is a section-by-section criticism of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason from the standpoint of Bolzano’s philosophy. New Anti-Kant did receive much comment from scholars at the time. For me it is a help for further grasp of Bolzano’s views. But in his Preface, Prihonsky pauses to forestall the impression one might get from the book’s title that he and Bolzano (not idealists of any stripe) thought Kant had done nothing good by his philosophic writings. Prihonsky’s corrective to that possible presumption provides a window into how Kant was being viewed, and lauded, by some of his well-versed opponents as of 1850 in German lands:

It is undeniable that the period that immediately precedes the Kantian one was one of tepidity and stagnation for philosophical research, and that it was the Sage of Königsberg who once again awoke the spirit of reflection and stimulated and reanimated the enthusiasm for investigations of this kind. Indeed it would not be wrong to say that what has been accomplished in the field of philosophy since Kant’s appearance has happened almost solely through his intervention and at his instigation. The new positions he presented set minds into motion in a variety of ways. Some took them up approvingly and sought to make them their own. Others who were less congenial spoke out against them. He himself, the initiator of this intellectual stimulation, never showed himself on the battleground, content with the fact that his students had taken it upon themselves to forcefully defend the contested assertions of their master. Admittedly they did not always succeed, and astute opponents soon discovered points of vulnerability, which they used to attack him all the more successfully. In turn, Kant’s friends saw themselves forced to fill the gaps that had become manifest, to correct the mistakes, to let go of what had become untenable, or even to attempt the construction of new systems. The fresh and rich life that necessarily awoke through all of this is certainly an uncommon merit Kant won for the philosophical sciences. Not only that: Kant also undisputedly assisted philosophy in fighting, not without success, the extreme methods of an undue dogmatism and a skepticism all too bold, methods that impair steady research and which had until then usually been observed in philosophical expositions. While attempting to investigate the grounds on which human cognition rests, he insisted that one neither decisively assert anything the truth of which one has not insured as much as possible beforehand, nor deny or doubt in a foolhardy way that for which no sufficient reason presents itself. He thus aspired to introduce the critical method in philosophy. It recommends and encourages scrutiny and modest research, and sets due limits to arrogance, whether in asserting or doubting and denying. – But Kant gained even greater merit, not just for philosophy alone but for humanity as a whole, in virtue of the fact that he supported ethics with a purer foundation and freed it from egoistic motivations. Before him, moralists for the most part paid homage to the principle of personal happiness [Selbstbeglückung], a principle as false as it is pernicious, which they not only sought to make valid in science but also to introduce into everyday life through popular writings. Now, it is easy to understand that men should have eagerly embraced and kept hold of a principle that so flattered their wishes, and it truly required Kant’s entire, weighty authority to wrest it away from them, and to convince them of its falsehood and its deleteriousness; a task in which the great man fully succeeded. (29–30)

I’d like to mention also that Andrew Bernstein’s essay “Objectivism vs. Kantianism in The Fountainhead” (The Objective Standard, Spring 2012) does not conflict with my remarks in #10 concerning the increase in Rand’s information on Kant in 1945. Also, Dr. Bernstein’s representation of Kant’s views, on pages 36–37 of this essay, is incorrect in almost every point.

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I hope this will not belabor the obvious, but I think it’s worth that risk in order to ensure perception of the connections of the block quotes in the preceding post to Rand’s view of Kant in the period of her mature philosophy. Compare what the Brits said in the preceding post with what Rand said about mysticism and reason* and Kant below. Compare also what Prihonsky said in 1850 about the demise of egoistic, self-benefitting moral standards in Germany at the hands of Kant with what Rand said in this quote below (also in posts above) written in 1960:

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. (FNI 31)

To the extent that Kant was attacking reason in Rand’s meaning of the term needs to be detailed by consideration of how Kant had characterized perception and its relations to concepts and how he had characterized (partly affirming and partly limiting the) powers of understanding, reason, and judgment. Where Rand wrote “expressly stated purpose,” she likely meant the Kant passage at Bxxx about knowledge and faith. She slides from faith to Judeo-Christian morality. That slide is not too wrong (however inflated her take on Bxxx) considering what Kant did subsequently in moral theory. His is not altruism, to be sure. That is, it is a partial self-sacrifice at base, but that sacrifice, so far as it is in the base, is not for the sake of others. His base shadows the First Commandment. Kant’s moral ideal entails of course only self-authored self-sacrifice.

Contradicting what Prihonsky would say later, Schopenhauer (1839) had indicated a number of ways in which Kant’s ethics profoundly favors egoism (which Schopenhauer took to be a demerit of Kant’s theory).* How much of this contradiction is surface, and how much substantial? Finding the answer is not a deep dig, but for my part it will need to wait.




. . .

Kant will not have the pursuit of life, nor pursuit of any other object, be the source, purpose, or standard of moral virtue or obligation (5:64). Before digging into Kant’s reasons for standing moral by standing off from life and happiness, I want to point to two precursors of Kant’s mature ideas about ethics in his early education: one from Luther, one from Cicero.

In his early formal education at Königsberg’s Collegium Fredericianum (from age 8 to 16), Kant would have memorized Luther’s Small Catechism and studied the Large. He would know Luther’s explication of the First Commandment. In the Lutheran doctrine, God is the source of goodness in the world. Every good in the world—health, wealth, and family—are gifts from God. Every right gift one might give to another or receive from another, must be seen as a gift from God. It is more than a pleasing coincidence that the words Gott and Güte are so similar. God commands that one’s heart and mind be set first and foremost on God. He will bring good things, temporal and eternal, to people who follow this commandment, and he will bring woe to people who put other goods in first place, higher than God. To keep the true God in first place, one must have the right heart and head, the right faith.

In his secular construction of morality, Kant would give to good will the role Luther had given to right faith. Kant wants to keep with individual necessary reward and penalty for individual condition of will, and he thinks he can find this necessary connection right here in the constitution of human will and reason. Beyond the sure sanctions for a good will is the hope of happiness in this life and hereafter.

. . .

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Correction to #27 – “New Anti-Kant did receive much comment from scholars at the time” (meaning around 1850, its year of publication) should have been: New Anti-Kant did not receive much comment from scholars at the time.”

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What Ayn Rand Read


Thanks for the link to “What Ayn Rand Read.” It is a worthy project, and I hope they stick with it.

With regard to serious philosophers, I think the list is very incomplete. What Dialogues of Plato did Rand read? What of Aquinas? She mentioned in an interview reading some Schopenhauer at an early age. She approved Leonard Peikoff’s two lecture courses (Ancient and Modern) on the history of philosophy, which included, after a neutral presentation of a given philosopher, an evaluation of the philosopher’s ideas from the perspective of Objectivism. Might she have read a little philosophy with Peikoff (and with Gotthelf)? In making their essays for Objectivity, my writers and I certainly read a great deal of philosophy together, even if not together in person.

In the “What Ayn Rand Read” list, I noticed Immanuel Kant: His Life and Doctrine by Friedrich Paulsen. When I first read Rand’s essay “From the Horse’s Mouth” my own mouth dropped open figuratively speaking. I wondered if she did not understand the meaning of the colloquialism used for her title. If the horse being spoken of is Kant, then, under that colloquialism, it better be Kant’s own words. Yet there were no words of Kant in the essay. There was only a surrogate horse named Friedrich Paulsen, whose representations of Kant were partly right, but enormously wrong in putting Kant as a champion of the philosophy-is-the-handmaiden-of-theology view. Quite the contrary. As had been so common, Paulsen was bending Kant towards his own, partly different agenda (cf. Frede). Kant made philosophy autonomous from theology, and he slew rational theology.

Rand may have tried to read the Critique of Pure Reason in German, but that’s a pretty rough row, requires special old dictionaries, and so forth. She had available the same English translations as I had available at that time. For modern English, we had the Norman Kemp Smith translation. (Today we have these.) Perhaps she relied heavily on commentators such as H. J. Paton, whom Peikoff recommended in his History of Modern Philosophy lectures. Rand’s description of the Critique of Pure Reason in “An Untitled Letter” show—to one who has studied the tome many years—that she did not spend the effort required to get much from CPR directly. Her description in that paragraph is one appalling falsehood after another. Claiming that Kant did not define his terms in CPR is like saying the character Monk does not straighten things.

Objectivist scholars after Rand have the time to study and do more and more on the profound differences between Kant and Rand in theoretical philosophy. There are more fronts than Rand knew of Kant’s theoretical philosophy where one should fight as if one were fighting for one’s life.

Stephen: "Thanks for the link to 'What Ayn Rand Read.' It is a worthy project, and I hope they stick with it."

It is indeed a worthy project. But there is a problem with citing her library as a source for what Rand read. I very much doubt that she completed her reading of Thomas Szasz' book, and I know she didn't read both her two Thomas Wolfe books, but only dipped into them. Further, a number of the books in her library were gifts -- often from their authors -- so one cannor know if she read them or not. For ihstance, I am reasonably certain she didn't read all four of Bennett Cerf's books.


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At the Bronx Community College, Nov. 1970, after giving a talk someone asked her if she had ever read a book by Kant. She did not really answer, but spent enough time with what she said in reply to deflect the question. Thus I took it as a "No." She could easily have said "No, but . . ." (she had read some or a lot of him regardless). The only embarrassment would have been to admit she hadn't read any of him and had gotten it all secondhand. Why? Because of her most evil man of all time public judgment of Kant, a conclusion both requiring extensive research and a knowledge of human being, present and historical, across almost all disciplines nevertheless continually open to falsification by myriad exceptions and not any absolute and final judgment. Underneath the obscuring silliness was her basic absolutism along with her constant moralizing. Nothing wrong with basic absolutism but it has to remain basic, not spread over the quest for knowledge like jelly on toast over the burnt butter of moralizing.


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Betsy Speicher once said that when Rand's library was sold there was a heavily annotated copy of The Critique of Pure Reason. I think this is an urban legend, but what do I know.


That's testimony or hearsay?


that Peikoff would sell that would mean he's a dolt--"Ayn Rand's Marginalia"?

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I think there might not be enough emphasis on how Rand may have learned a lot from a little. By "little" I don't mean by reading brain-cracking books by learned and pioneering and influential philosophers though it's easiest to grant her some of that. More speculation that cannot be de-spectulated would be required. She seemed to have learned a lot about political philosophy in the 1940s with Isabel Paterson as a major influence. Could she have gotten a lot about moral philosophy just from the title of a well-written and popular book of the 1930s, "The Art of Selfishness"? Maybe she read the book. Then there were the extensive conversations she must have had with Nathaniel Branden prior to writing Galt's Speech. And there is always the act of creation, especially off simple but vital principles. No evidence or almost no evidence can be adduced for this sort of contemplation so it's not worth much thinking about except as leavening for documentable research. The exception is the fantasized Rand of which there are many and they all have their uses or they wouldn't be fantasized in the first place. Some of these Rands are great and some stupid and most are in between, of course. They have a role in understanding her influence and can be legitimately documented if properly identified as aspects of her influence but not her as such.


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From first reading "Letters" I remember my impressions of how Rand started off being quite deferential of her mentors, Paterson and Hospers...then in no time at all, was telling them the rights and the wrongs of their thinking! Ha, typical!

I'm not in any way suggesting that philosophies have existed in a vacuum, but I still wonder to what extent her own vision was the driver, against how much she needed from previous philosophers (her studying of whom appears rather cursory). .

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  • 1 year later...
On 12/27/2014 at 7:38 PM, Michael Stuart Kelly said:

If you are interested, you can still get this book, but it looks like it's out of print:

A History of Philosophy by B. A. G Fuller.

For those who criticize Rand's knowledge of philosophy and the history of philosophy, I wonder what ideas she got from this book.


Look what I found, the (legal*) online version:


Here is the direct link to Kant:


*The book is now in the public domain, was digitized by Google:

"Public Domain: We have determined this work to be in the public domain, meaning that it is not subject to copyright. Users are free to copy, use, and redistribute the work in part or in whole. It is possible that current copyright holders, heirs or the estate of the authors of individual portions of the work, such as illustrations or photographs, assert copyrights over these portions. Depending on the nature of subsequent use that is made, additional rights may need to be obtained independently of anything we can address."

"Public Domain or Public Domain in the United States, Google-digitized: In addition to the terms for works that are in the Public Domain or in the Public Domain in the United States above, the following statement applies: The digital images and OCR of this work were produced by Google, Inc. (indicated by a watermark on each page in the PageTurner). Google requests that the images and OCR not be re-hosted, redistributed or used commercially. The images are provided for educational, scholarly, non-commercial purposes.

Note: There are no restrictions on use of text transcribed from the images, or paraphrased or translated using the images."


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I'm seeing differences between the first and second edition in the Kant section, for example:


An edit like this appears to be related to some of Fuller's words in the Preface to Revised Edition:

In reading over the data at my disposal I soon began to suspect that what some of the critics most disliked about the book was myself.  There were complaints that I was unsympathetic, that I played favorites, and above all that I betrayed the fact that I found some episodes in the history of philosophy amusing and treated lightly and even flippantly those that amused me.  Therefore, out of deference to these critics I have tried to expurgate the text of all comments, interpretations, and opinions of my own.  [...]"

The first edition was 1938, the second 1945.  Edit: The link to the online version upthread is the first edition.  Rand likely read the first edition because The Fountainhead was published in 1943.   Guyau posted this earlier in the thread:

On 12/27/2014 at 9:03 PM, Guyau said:

In July 1945, Rand remarked in a letter to Isabel Patterson: “I am reading a long, detailed history of philosophy. I’m reading Aristotle in person and a lot of other things. . . . It’s actually painful for me to read Plato . . . . But I must do it.” The editor of Letters of Ayn Rand identifies that history of philosophy as the one by B. A. G. Fuller.

But it seems ambiguous which edition she read---because she read it in 1945 doesn't mean it's the 1945 edition.  If she read the first edition she could have formed some opinions from passages like the above.  If she read the second edition, Fuller's voice and opinion are largely absent from his presentation on Kant, it's very objective, and harder for me to see how Rand could form her opinions on Kant from the second edition presentation.

Edited by KorbenDallas
large edit after more context
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On 12/27/2014 at 7:38 PM, Michael Stuart Kelly said:
  Peikoff said:

Ayn Rand got her history of philosophy originally, what she didn't get in Russia, from a book called A History of Philosophy by B. A. G Fuller. That was the book that I used (it was used in my college), not because of her. It was a common text in those days. And she read it from cover to cover. It's a thick book and covers everything. A very fair objective presentation.

In light of the previous post, I question which version Peikoff read.  From Wikipedia, he began college in 1950 then earned his BA, MA and PhD degrees in philosophy in 1954, 1957 and 1964 from NYU, respectively.  Checking NYU's library system, they currently only have the first edition, which might have been the book he read.  But if it was required as a textbook for a course, the second edition was available, and that might have been the one.

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  • 3 months later...

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