Objectivism, Hitler, and Kant
by David Gordon
This review of The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America, by Leonard Peikoff, was first published in the September 1982 issue of Inquiry under the title "The Butcher of Königsberg?"
Leonard Peikoff's entry into the "why-Hitler?" sweepstakes comes to us with the imprimatur of the late Ayn Rand, who in her introduction hails the book as "brilliantly reasoned." Her followers regarded Miss Rand as a major philosopher, but I do not think even her most ardent devotees would claim her to have been an authority on the history of ideas. Had she been, it is difficult to see how she could have lavished praise on this misguided work. I cannot recall any other book that matches this one in its distortion of the history of philosophy.
Peikoff's principal thesis is a simple one. The prevalent explanations of the rise of Hitler to power in 1933 do not penetrate to the essence of the matter. Some historians have pointed to the failure of the Weimar Republic's successive governments to deal with the Great Depression as a principal factor inducing the desperate masses to succumb to the promises of radical change made by the National Socialists. Others have emphasized the fact that key sectors of German society — the army, the higher echelons of the civil service, and many of the intellectuals — did not accept the republic. Still other historians claim to explain Hitler by an innate depravity on the part of the Germans. (Peikoff rightly gives this last "explanation" short shrift, rejecting it as racist.) While recognizing that many of these accounts contain some truth, Peikoff finds the root of the matter elsewhere. (Oddly enough, in his canvass of the "superficial" factors explaining Hitler's rise, Peikoff does not find it necessary to mention German resentment of the Treaty of Versailles, though it was in fact the most persistent theme in German foreign policy throughout the interwar years. The treaty appears only once, in the course of his summary of the Twenty-Five Points of the Nazi party program.)
What then is the key to the mystery? According to Peikoff, if one seeks a fundamental explanation for the rise of Hitler, one must consult the science of fundamentals, that is, philosophy. Ludwig Feuerbach once said, "Man is what he eats." Peikoff has a different view — to him, man is what he believes about metaphysics, the theory of knowledge, and ethics. And it is because most Germans had distorted ideas on these fundamental subjects that they were unable to see the obvious flaws in the nostrums peddled by Hitler. The main reason, in turn, for their mistaken ideas was the malignant influence of Germany's foremost philosopher — Immanuel Kant.
Peikoff does not put all the blame for Nazism on Kant; other philosophers, like Plato and Hegel, must take their share of responsibility. But, however implausible it may at first sight have seemed, I was not exaggerating in stating that Peikoff regards the mild-mannered sage of Königsberg as a proto-Nazi. Peikoff goes so far as to say of life in the Nazi concentration camps: "It was the universe that had been hinted at, elaborated, cherished, fought for, and made respectable by a long line of champions. It was the theory and the dream created by all the anti-Aristotelians of Western history." The reader who has gotten as far as this point in the book will have no doubt as to the identity of the chief anti-Aristotelian.
What is so bad about Kant? According to Peikoff, Kant downgraded the physical world to which we gain access through our senses as a mere "phenomenal" realm. It was nothing but an appearance as compared with the "noumenal" world, which only faith, not logic, could grasp. In ethics, Kant spurned individual happiness as a matter of no moral worth; instead, persons were to subordinate themselves entirely to a duty that bore no relation to their interests as human beings.
These doctrines, Peikoff holds, paved the way for Hitler. The Nazis rejected reason — Kant taught that reason can teach us nothing of the world beyond mere appearance. Hitler's movement demanded that individuals sacrifice themselves for the common good — again, a theme straight out of Kant's ethics. So pervasive was Kant's influence. Peikoff argues, that no important group in the Weimar Republic dissented from the baleful doctrines of irrationalism, altruism, and collectivism. The decadent expressionist artists of the left shared the same Kantian irrationalist assumptions as their right-wing detractors. No one in Weimar Germany had the intellectual resources to mount an effective resistance to Hitler, hence his triumph in 1933.
In order to resist Hitler, what would have been required (but was nowhere to be found) was a correct understanding of philosophical basics. Specifically, a clear-sighted defender of reason needs to acknowledge the existence of the external world (not a very demanding requirement, one would have thought) and accept an egoist ethics that rejects the duty of individual sacrifice. Someone who accepts these truths has implicitly rejected Kant in favor of the foremost pre-twentieth-century philosopher, Aristotle. In our own day, however, reason has made further advances: Ayn Rand has presented Aristotelian philosophy in a more consistent way than has ever been done before, purging it of the remnants of Platonism entangled in it.
Although, in the absence of Rand's novels, no one before our own time was in a position to see the truth full and entire, the founders of the American Republic came close. In their stress on individual rights and their basically secular outlook, the Founding Fathers were good Aristotelians. But the story of the United States is not altogether a happy one. In the nineteenth century, German philosophy was imported into our hitherto Enlightenment-oriented culture. Its influence has now become so dominant that the rationalism and individualism upon which the United States was founded have been displaced by the altruism and denigration of reason characteristic of — you guessed it — Kant's philosophy.
Should this trend continue, an American version of Nazism may well ensue. It is the growth of Kantian irrationalism in the United States that Peikoff has chiefly in mind when in his title he speaks of the "ominous parallels" between pre-Hitler Germany and America.
Whatever one thinks of Peikoff's thesis, it has at least one virtue: Peikoff, in concert with most other Randians, presents his ideas in a clear and forthright manner, so that, in Bacon's phrase, "he who runs may read." He is, I think, entitled to equal directness in response. Let us say at once, then, that Peikoff distorts Kant at every point. Kant was not a skeptic dismissing the sensory world as mere appearance. On the contrary, he thought of his Critique of Pure Reason as answering David Hume's skepticism. In particular, he attempted to explain causality in order to justify philosophically the achievements of Newton's physics. Kant was, in brief, a defender, not an opponent, of the real world. Peikoff himself is forced to acknowledge that "Kant does not repudiate the term ‘objective,' and claims to oppose subjectivism," though this admission is hidden away in an endnote. When Peikoff defends himself by saying that Kant's objectivism is just a variety of subjectivism, he is precisely wrong. Kant's categories are not subjective creations of individuals or groups, but (he holds) necessary requirements of reason.
Even if Peikoff had been entirely right about Kant's metaphysics, however, his genealogy of Nazism would still appear more than a little silly. Does Peikoff really believe that anyone (outside of an asylum) doubts, in his daily life, the existence of the external world, or considers it the result of subjective fantasy? As David Hume (surely a skeptic if ever there was one) long ago pointed out, when one leaves the philosopher's study, one cannot in practice behave as a skeptic. The picture of people falling for Hitler because, owing to Kant's influence, they doubted the reality of the sensory world is too ridiculous for words.
Peikoff's view of Kant's ethics is equally mistaken, although it at least makes more sense to think that someone's moral principles can have practical effect than it does to assume that the key to politics is to be found in recondite theories of epistemology. Peikoff has a good deal to say about Kant's stress upon duty and "categorical imperatives"; but, oddly enough, he never tells us what the categorical imperative is. It is, unfortunately, easy to understand the reason for this slight omission on Peikoff's part. Had he quoted the second formulation of the categorical imperative, he would have at once given the lie to his charge that Kant laid the foundation for the Nazi doctrine of blind submission to the omnipotent state. That formulation reads: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."
In point of fact, Kant's own political views were, broadly speaking, those of a classical liberal. He strongly supported private property, for example, and devised a scheme he hoped would lead to the abolition of war. Peikoff is at least partly aware of these facts. He says, "Kant is not a full-fledged Statist… [He] accepts certain elements of individualism," but has the gall to dismiss these as trivial compared to the implications he perversely derives from Kant's metaphysical and epistemological views. Peikoff wisely does not attempt to explain why such preeminent defenders of freedom as Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek have regarded themselves as Kantians.
There is, I think, a deeper flaw in Peikoff's approach to intellectual history than his errors, however grave, about a particular thinker. One has no sense, when reading Peikoff, that Kant (or any of the other thinkers he condemns) was responding to serious intellectual problems. If, for example, Kant differed with Aristotle, the thought never seems to have occurred to Peikoff that he may have had some legitimate reasons for doing so. Peikoff gives us a history of philosophy with the arguments left out. Someone unfortunate enough to derive all his knowledge of Kant from Peikoff's pages would have no conception at all of why Kant's successors regarded him as a profound thinker rather than the proponent of "a perverted theory that no one could mean."
In refusing to consider philosophical arguments for the views of which he disapproves, Peikoff is guilty of the dogmatism and pragmatism he is so quick to condemn in others. He says, in effect, look at the terrible consequences of adopting certain doctrines: Kant leads to Hitler; therefore, Kantianism is to be rejected. What is this but a particularly blatant form of pragmatism, a doctrine he holds to be the American variety of Kantianism?
It should come as no surprise that, besides being radically flawed in its thesis, the book is unreliable on matters of detail. Edgar Jung, here called a Nazi, was in fact a conservative adviser to Franz von Papen and was killed by the Nazis in 1934. Ludwig Klages, although at one time a member of the George Kreis, was not a philosophical spokesman for Stefan George, with whom he quarreled. Carl Schmitt was never a communist. Kurt Gödel did not make the idiotic claim that all mathematical systems are inconsistent. Herbert Spencer did not ignore the fact that man lives by production and is able to create increasing amounts of wealth; this fact happens to lie at the basis of his social philosophy. Henry George was not a statist. Finally, what is known as the Renaissance was not, at least according to most historians, primarily an Aristotelian movement; many of its leading figures, such as Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, were in fact supporters of one of Peikoff's bêtes noires, Plato. Peikoff might take a look at a book by Ernst Cassirer, a philosopher whom he sneers at in passing, Individual and Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy. Those in search of an explanation for Hitler would be well advised to look elsewhere. Peikoff's book is nothing but strident and uninformed advocacy, unredeemed by humor, art, or insight. Reading it is an unrewarding task.
November 5, 2005
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