There are some ideas that seem so obvious that they should not have to be explained or repeated. For example, it is obvious that whatever consciousness is, it must be something specific. That is self-evident, right? That’s the law of identity, a basic axiom of metaphysics. The obviousness of the law of identity applying just as strongly to consciousness as it does to every other entity is why I was surprised to find that the title of the next section of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand was: ‘Consciousness as Possessing Identity.’ Peikoff already covered that in chapter one, didn’t he? But the fact that consciousness must be something in particular, it turns out, is an extremely important principle to epistemology. Peikoff states that Objectivism “stands alone in accepting the fact’s full meaning and implications” (OPAR, 49). In this section, Peikoff argues that identity is a necessary precondition of consciousness and that the implications of that fact must be accepted before a reality-based epistemology can be developed. He reinforces his point by rebutting Kant-style “attacks on cognition” that stem from the groundless premise that consciousness, if it is to be considered valid, should not possess identity.
Now, I am no expert on Immanuel Kant, so most of what I say here is based on a second-hand understanding of him. For the sake of this blog post, I am assuming that Peikoff is correct and that philosophers inspired by Kant do make such insinuations about human cognition. Further study on my part is obviously necessary. But for now, please take this as my best understanding of Peikoff’s understanding of Kant.
Peikoff’s argument goes basically like this:
- Human consciousness operates in a certain, limited way and achieves awareness via a particular means. All consciousness has a specific form. As Peikoff puts it, “It is something that has to grasp its objects somehow” (49). In other words, consciousness possesses identity.
- Philosophers inspired by Kant have made the following (implicit) argument for centuries: The fact that man’s cognitive faculties achieve awareness via a particular, limited avenue means that people are cut off from true reality. Human cognition, because it has a specific identity, is invalid. The means of cognition negate the validity of cognition.
- Kant and his followers are wrong. His ideas are rooted in an incorrect belief about the nature of reality and consciousness. All Kant-inspired doubts about the validity of human cognition are groundless and should be thrown out.
- The fact that consciousness possesses identity must be embraced as a vital cornerstone of epistemology. You cannot know that you know something without first knowing that you know something by a specific means. If you don’t understand that consciousness has to have a particular nature and that having a nature does not make cognition invalid, you cannot define what knowledge is or ascertain the proper method for achieving it.
To expand on Peikoff’s argument above, Immanuel Kant was an extremely influential German philosopher who, among other things, argued that the world in itself is different from the world as it appears to the human mind. People do not have access to true reality, Kant claimed. Rather, what we perceive as reality is just phenomena created by the structure of our consciousness. If we had a different type of conceptual apparatus than we do, the world would seem much different. Because people are limited to perceiving and thinking in a uniquely human way, what we observe and conclude is not true reality—it is merely reality as it seems to us (49).
The Kantian view elevates the unknown and the inaccessible above the identifiable. Kant’s problem, according to Peikoff, is that rather than starting with reality, Kant begins by wanting consciousness to be something other than it is. Kant seems to wish that consciousness was a formless, automatic conduit between humans and some supreme, mystical knowledge of reality. But because consciousness is not the god-like conduit he wants, Kant demotes human cognition to the status of grasping only “the world as experienced” rather than actual reality. True knowledge, in Kant’s view, is comprised of what we could know if we were not as we are. Kant’s theory of cognition seems to imply that to be tied to an identity means to be invalid.
But identity is the essence of existence. To advocate for an idea of consciousness that is totally removed from a specific form is to advocate for something that can never exist. Kant’s criticisms of human cognition are based on a fantasy of non-existent nothingness. Peikoff puts it this way:
What sort of consciousness can perceive reality, in the Kantian, anti-identity approach? The answer is: a consciousness not limited by any means of cognition; a consciousness which perceives no-how; a consciousness which is not of this kind as against that; a consciousness which is nothing in particular, i.e., which is nothing, i.e., which does not exist. This is the ideal of the Kantian argument and the standard it uses to measure cognitive validity: the standard is not human consciousness or even an invented consciousness claimed to be superior to man’s, but a zero, a vacuum, a nullity—a non-anything (50).
Perceiving reality by a particular, limited means does not make what you are perceiving not-reality. There is no “reality as it really is”—no noumenal world. The nature of human consciousness is not a prison; rather, it is the starting point from which all standards of knowledge must develop. Any epistemology that does not rely on consciousness as necessarily possessing identity is not an epistemology based in reality. Peikoff writes that “every process of knowledge involves two crucial elements: the object of cognition and the means of cognition—or: What do I know? and How do I know it” (51). The what would be some aspect of reality, and the how would be some type of consciousness and form of cognition. Kant, because he is a mystic driven toward an imaginary reality and a non-existent consciousness, sets up these two elements as being at odds with each other. But Objectivism, which seeks reality for reality’s sake, holds that there is no conflict between the two.
Questions and Concerns:
- Why does Kant think that the noumenal world exists? If no one can access the noumenal world (things in themselves) by any means, then what evidence does Kant have for the noumenon?
- How can the essential invalidity of the idea of the “noumenal world” be most clearly demonstrated?
Mystery Number: 70
1. Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991). New York: Meridian, 1993.