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Feb 26, 2016

On the Influence of Ideas

Smith discusses the issue of whether we should hold a philosopher responsible for the beliefs of those followers who agree with him.

In The Objectivist Newsletter (Sept. 1964), Leonard Peikoff heaped effusive praise on Wilhelm Windelband’s two-volume work A History of Philosophy (first published in German in 1892 and in an English translation in 1893). Windelband, according to Peikoff, was “a master of philosophic integration,” and his History, “which cannot be too highly recommended,” is “one of the great classics on the subject.” The rewards of reading this book are “invaluable”; indeed, “If it is possible to acquire a truly profound understanding of the inner logic of the history of philosophy by reading just one book, then, to my knowledge, that one book would be Windelband’s History.

I agree with Peikoff’s evaluation of Windelband’s History; it is without question one of the best histories of philosophy ever written, a true classic. It was owing to Peikoff’s review that I purchased my first copy of the book through the NBI book service in the late 1960s, and to that extent I am indebted to Peikoff. But Peikoff failed to mention that Windelband was a leading Neo-Kantian of the Baden School (also called the Southwestern German School of Neo-Kantianism). Although Peikoff called Windelband a “Hegelian,” this is true only to the extent he was influenced by Hegel’s approach to the history of ideas. In his fundamental epistemological views, Windelband was a Kantian, as were other prominent thinkers, such as F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who made important theoretical contributions to social theory and history.

The Kantian inclinations of Windelband would scarcely be worth mentioning were it not for Ayn Rand’s condemnation of Kant as “the most evil man in mankind’s history” (The Objectivist, Sept. 1971). Kant developed a “grotesquely irrational” philosophy and, in Critique of Pure Reason, he originated the selling of “irrational notions” by concocting proofs that paralyzed the critical faculty of readers though “a mess of evasions, equivocations, obfuscations, circumlocutions, non sequiturs, endless sentences leading nowhere,” and much more. (“An Untitled Letter,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It?)  Given Peikoff’s remarks about Kant in The Ominous Parallels, it is evident that he agrees with Rand’s assessment of Kant and his influence, but this raises an obvious question: How did the Neo-Kantian Wilhelm Windelband, whose critical faculties should have been “paralyzed” by Kant’s nonsensical obfuscations, manage to become “a master of philosophic integration” and write an “invaluable” book that exhibits a “truly profound understanding” of the history of philosophy? It would seem that Kant’s poisonous theory of knowledge caused only partial brain rot in Windelband’s case, leaving enough of his rational faculty intact to write Peikoff’s favorite book on the history of philosophy.

According to Rand (in “An Untitled Letter”), “Kant’s purpose was to corrupt and paralyze man’s mind” (my italics). We must understand the full import of this comment. As Rand saw the matter, Kant deliberately set out to destroy the efficacy of reason, and he spent countless hours over many years writing books to achieve this purpose. Never mind that Kant claimed precisely the opposite. Never mind that Kant claimed to be laying a rational foundation for science (especially Newtonian physics) by refuting the skeptical arguments of David Hume in regard to causation and other matters. Never mind that Kant developed a number of important arguments against skepticism that Objectivists would later call “the fallacy of the stolen concept,” which consists in showing that the skeptic must presuppose the validity of certain propositions in the course of attempting to refute them. Never mind that Kant, in his theory of synthetic a priori judgments, attempted to show that, contrary to many previous philosophers, some necessary truths (such as those found in mathematics) are based not solely on the relations of ideas but are grounded in both reason and experience. No, never mind any of this, for Kant’s real purpose was to “corrupt and paralyze man’s mind.” How did Rand know this? To my knowledge she never explained the source of this insight, but presumably it should be obvious to any rational person with psychic abilities.

Having discussed Rand’s outrageous assessment of Kant in my last essay, no useful purpose would be served by dumping on her even more. I raised the point about Peikoff and Windelband and the point about Kant’s supposed desire to destroy the efficacy of reason because they serve as platforms to discuss some broader issues. There are many such issues, of which I can discuss only a handful and most of those more briefly than I would like.

The fact that a Neo-Kantian (and to a lesser extent a Hegelian) like Windelband could produce a masterful history of philosophy should come as no surprise, even if we agree with Rand’s opinion that Kant’s epistemology was a godawful, irrational mess. As with many elaborate philosophical systems, the philosophies of Kant and Hegel were complex and at times inconsistent, so their self-proclaimed admirers could choose to elaborate upon many different features of their theories. This is why when historians speak of “Neo-Kantians” they typically distinguish between six or more different “schools” of Kantianism, as found in Germany during the nineteenth century. These schools were often at loggerheads, even to the point of attempting to block the wrong-headed Neo-Kantians from teaching at their universities. The same is true, but even more so, of the serious disagreements among self-proclaimed followers of Hegel. One historian of Hegelianism put it this way:

The influence of Hegel has been felt not only in systematic metaphysical thinking but also in aesthetics, political and social theory, Protestant theology and philosophy of religion, and historiography, particularly the interpretation of intellectual history. But Hegel’s influence has functioned differently in different fields, and movements which have been influenced by one aspect of his thinking have generally been very critical of other aspects.

Different but recognizably Hegelian movements have often reached nearly opposite conclusions among themselves. This great diversity within Hegelianism is due not only to historical contingencies but also to contradictory tendencies within Hegel’s system. (Stephen D. Crites, “Hegelianism,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, Macmillan, 1967.)

The lesson here should be obvious. It is thoroughly improper to place the admirers of Kant or Hegel or any other philosopher (such as Plato) into the same basket and condemn (or praise) the lot. Such evaluations should be made on a case-by-case basis.

My next point, which is fundamental to my entire discussion, is this: No person can be held responsible for the thinking that other people do or fail to do.  This should be obvious to admirers of Ayn Rand, given that she argued that the choice to think or not to think is the essence of free will. In a previous essay I noted Isaiah Berlin’s observation that ideas do not beget ideas as butterflies beget butterflies. When Rand communicated an idea to her readers, it is not as if she laid an egg in their brains that would inevitably hatch and reap consequences (whether intellectual or practical) regardless of the desires and mental activities of those readers. (I am here using “idea” to signify any mental phenomenon considered as a single unit—a concept, a proposition, an argument, a theory, etc.) We communicate ideas by means of language, but words must be converted by each person into ideas, and each person must (when appropriate) assess the epistemological value of a given idea for himself or herself. Each person must decide whether a concept is clear or fuzzy, whether a proposition is true or false, whether a theory is justified or unjustified, whether a proposed course of action is moral or immoral, and so forth. The fact that many people accept important ideas passively and uncritically—on faith, or on authority, or simply from laziness—merely means that they have declined to exercise their critical faculties. But this is still a choice, even if it has become so habitual as to seem automatic, so such people are still responsible for their ideas. Therefore, even if we were to agree with Rand’s extreme position that Kant deliberately set out to destroy the efficacy of reason, he cannot be held responsible, whether morally or in any other way, for subsequent philosophers who embraced his ideas, nor was Kant responsible for how those ideas were used by other philosophers.

Thus, although it is accurate to say that my ideas, when I communicate them to you, may influence your thinking and therefore your beliefs, we must keep in mind that to influence is not to determine the outcome. Here a bit of a digression is necessary to substantiate and amplify my claim.

It is essential that we distinguish the psychological concept of “belief” from the cognitive concept of “truth.”  Belief is the assent of the mind to the truth of a proposition, and to assent (or to affirm) requires an act of consciousness.  My beliefs, like my emotions, are my beliefs; they are psychological phenomena that cannot co-exist in, or be transferred to, the mind of another person. A belief is the mental affirmation of an individual believer. A belief cannot exist outside of, independently of, or in addition to the consciousness of a particular individual. 

A belief must have a content, or subject matter. To believe is to believe something; to assent is to assent to something; to affirm is to affirm something. Merely to say “I believe,” without indicating (implicitly or explicitly) the object of one’s belief, is to say nothing at all. Thus where we have a belief, we must also have an object of belief. And in the case of a cognitive belief—i.e., a belief that such and such is true—this object is abstract rather than concrete, general rather than singular. To believe that such and such is the case, is to affirm that p (a proposition) is true. This proposition is the abstract object of a cognitive belief.

It is owing to its abstract object that a belief can be something more than the subjective affirmation of a particular individual. It is the abstract object that makes a belief objective as well as subjective. My psychological world is private: no one else can share, or participate in, my subjective experiences—whether perceptual, emotional, or mental. Thus my belief, when viewed psychologically as my subjective assent to the truth of a proposition, is necessarily mine and mine alone.

When we say that two people have the same belief, we are speaking objectively rather than subjectively. My subjective assent cannot be your subjective assent, but we can both assent to the same abstract proposition. My belief, psychologically considered, cannot be your belief, but we can both believe in the same truth. In other words, our mental acts of affirmation, though separate and distinct, can have the same abstract object. It is in this objective sense, when we affirm the same abstract truth, that we are said to have the same belief.

In addition to the subjective act of assent and the objective content of a belief, there is yet a third aspect that is in some respects the most important. This is the cognitive value of a belief, i.e., the justification or grounds of belief. To justify a belief is to assess its cognitive value and to pronounce it worthy of acceptance. Justification is the intermediate link than joins the subjective act of assent to the abstract object of belief, and thereby transforms belief into knowledge.  For knowledge is more than true belief; it is belief which is both true and justified. Justification is neither psychological assent nor the abstract object of belief, but a judgment of cognitive value which determines whether we should (or should not) give our assent to the truth of a proposition.

This is what I mean when I say that justification serves as a bridge between the subjective and objective aspects of belief. In seeking justification we must make judgments of cognitive value—we must determine whether a belief is or is not worthy of our assent—and this process of evaluation has both subjective (psychological) and objective (abstract) components.

A belief cannot evaluate its own object: only a thinking person (or other rational being) can assess the truth value of a belief. In this sense, therefore, justification is a psychological process, one that can only occur in the mind of a particular individual. This process of evaluation, if it is to serve its cognitive purpose, must employ abstract norms of cognition, and this gives to justification its objective character. But only the individual can render judgments of cognitive value.

Let us assume, per Rand, that Kant’s epistemology had no objective justification whatsoever. Nevertheless, each person who read Kant and found his epistemology credible would be responsible for his own judgments about Kant’s philosophy. A devoted disciple of Kant, assuming he was concerned with the justification of Kant’s ideas, would need to retrace Kant’s arguments in his own mind and, by applying cognitive norms that he deems acceptable, reach his own conclusions. At that point the ideas of the disciple are his ideas (in the psychological sense explained above), not Kant’s, so the disciple can in no way blame Kant for any errors in his own thinking. Nor may an observer hold Kant responsible if his disciples committed the same errors he did, for Kant was not a Svengali who could compel others to think as he wished them to think. If I defend irrational ideas, then that is my problem. But if other people agree with my irrational ideas, then that is their problem, not mine. We are all responsible, as individuals, for our own beliefs, regardless of the source that may have influenced our beliefs.

There several other points I wish to discuss, but those must await my next essay.

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