Tuesday 10 October 2023

Kant, Rand, and the world


This post is about the relationship between our discourse about the world and the world itself.

We have already explored the topic in Accounts and Reality:


There we put forward a way to look at the relationship which would allow us to put to one side the question of scientific realism and parallel questions outside the natural sciences.

The aim here is different. It is to explore ideas from two authors, Immanuel Kant and Ayn Rand. Our main focus will be on Rand.

Our aim is not exegesis. We shall freely borrow material and take ideas out of context to suit our purpose. We shall also develop Rand's ideas beyond what she published. She might or might not have agreed with all of the developments we propose. But her central ideas do provide the framework for our developments, and to that extent we remain true to her thought.

The problem

There is indubitably a world that exists and that has its nature independently of our thoughts about it. That nature is stable over time. It has a constancy that we capture by formulating laws of nature. We would never have evolved if there were not such an independent and stable world.

We give sophisticated descriptions of the world, sometimes in the terms of physics and chemistry, sometimes in the terms of other natural sciences, and sometimes in the terms of the social sciences and the humanities. We shall concentrate on descriptions that are expected to be very widely applicable across different places (on and off our planet) and times. Such descriptions are given in the natural sciences.

Our problem is to find a satisfactory way to describe the relationship between the independent world and our descriptions of it. In what sense, if any, do our descriptions set out the actual nature of the world?

The task is immediately made difficult by the fact that when we want to discuss the relationship between two things, we normally start by understanding the natures of the things separately. But here, we cannot say anything about the independent world without describing it. We can draw aside the curtain of a description, for example when we reduce some high-level phenomenon to lower-level phenomena, but then we have another description.

Immanuel Kant

Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, tells us that our inability to escape from a sequence of descriptions points directly to the nub of the problem. We can never get beyond our own perceptions and descriptions of the world, which are perceptions and descriptions of the phenomenal world, the world as it appears to us.

This is a serious obstacle because in formulating our descriptions we impose mental structures, such as those of space, time and causation, which we have to impose in order for us to be subjects of coherent experience and to acquire knowledge.

Moreover, we should not conclude that the applicability of these mental structures discloses the nature of things as they might be independently of experience, things which he calls the noumena. In order for us to conclude that, things as they might be independently of experience would have to be presented to us in experience. Then the mental structures would inevitably apply, simply as a condition of experience, and we could not conclude that the structures were required by virtue of the nature of the noumena. All we can do is take it that there is some nature of reality as it is independently of experience, and then say nothing about that nature.

We should however be content with the phenomenal world, the world as it appears to us. It is the world as described by our sciences. It has stability and we can all know about a single phenomenal world. It is not our fleeting and subjective perceptions.

Ayn Rand

In this section we shall set out Rand's scheme as elaborated by us. (This qualification is important: we have added elements that are not in Rand's writings. And as we are not engaged in exposition of her views, we have mostly done so silently. Our aim is to show that there is a useful system on Randian lines.)

The intrinsic, percepts, and the objective

Rand regards as a huge mistake the Kantian generation of mystery as to the nature of the world as it is in itself. Her specific criticisms of Kant are contested. But she also offers an alternative approach.

For Rand we have the intrinsic, which is the world that is independent of our thoughts. We also have our percepts, where a percept is "a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism" (Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, chapter 1). Percepts may well differ from one person to another, and their nature will depend on the perceptual apparatus of the organism. Finally, we have the objective. This is the set of facts about the world. Facts are discovered when we apply the appropriate concepts to make sense of our percepts, where those percepts are in turn generated by the intrinsic world (which includes our own perceptual apparatus). The objective is therefore a relation between the intrinsic world and the appropriate concepts.

We need to interpret the idea of a relation in the right way. We should see relations not as processes of interaction but as connections, for example the connection of siblinghood which can exist between two people and which can be seen when we put two siblings side by side. For a given state of the intrinsic world and a given set of concepts, a conceptual scheme, there will be a given set of purported facts that can be seen. If the concepts are appropriate, they will be facts and therefore parts of the objective.

The objective must comprise a single set of facts. All rational creatures, and all other objects, exist in a single world, and things may be said about that world. If the notion of a fact is to make sense at all, each fact has to be a fact for everyone. The alternatives would be on the one hand disjoint sets of facts for different groups of rational creatures, as if they were speaking languages between which no translation was possible, and on the other hand a shared language or translatable languages within which different creatures expressed their personal truths without any requirement to avoid contradicting one another. Neither of these options would make any sense.

The need for a single set of facts gives rise to a problem for Rand's approach. Different people may have different percepts. And if we consider non-human rational creatures, we can expect them to have different perceptual apparatus. So for a given state of the intrinsic world we would need a function from ordered pairs, each of which comprised a set of percepts and a conceptual scheme, that always had the same value. That value would be the single set of facts. How could this be so?

The solution lies in the role of concepts. Different conceptual schemes would be appropriate to rational creatures of different natures, specifically those with different perceptual apparatus and the consequently different sets of percepts. (We restrict ourselves to differences in percepts by virtue of differences in apparatus, and exclude differences by virtue of happening to observe different things.) So rational creatures with different perceptual apparatus could be taken to the same facts. The differences in conceptual schemes would balance out the differences in percepts.

There is however one more stage. When appropriate concepts are used the result will be statements of facts, and the use of different conceptual schemes will result in different statements. For Rand's approach to work, it must be possible to claim that different statements could be seen as stating the same facts. But this claim could be made. We may envisage scope to hold different statements together by applying rules of translation between them. Such identities of facts stated in different ways might however be limited to statements of large and coherent sets of facts. Individual facts might not be identifiable across different conceptual schemes, because schemes would carve up the world in different ways.

In such a way we can see the objective as common property among all rational creatures, and a particular statement of it as common property within a given community of rational creatures, although different members of a community may grasp parts of the objective with varying degrees of sophistication and some parts may not yet be grasped by anyone. Any conflicts as to contents of the objective, that is, as to whether some given purported facts are facts, will indicate that mistakes have been made, so that at least one party to a disagreement has not in fact captured the relevant parts of the objective. A particularly likely reason is that they are not using the appropriate concepts. We have indeed spoken of the (single) conceptual scheme that is appropriate to rational creatures of a given nature, rather than an appropriate scheme. We shall say more about the appropriateness of conceptual schemes below.

In speaking of different concepts and different statements of the same facts, we have added to Rand's thought. But this development is within the spirit of Rand. She is very keen to emphasise that facts are as they are, independently of what we or any other rational creatures might think.

Having said that, our development does require careful handling in order to remain consistent with what Rand says. For her, the objective is a relation between the intrinsic world and the appropriate concepts. If we recognise the role of different conceptual schemes and then consider the relation between the intrinsic world and a given conceptual scheme, it may seem that the relation would have to comprise not the objective but a given statement of the objective. This would be a significant deviation from Rand's thought and not a development of it. Fortunately, we can save the day and allow the relation to be the objective itself.

One cumbersome way to save the day would be to say that the objective was a relation between the intrinsic world and the entire set of appropriate conceptual schemes. But that would raise questions about the definition of the boundary of the set. For example, which types of perceptual apparatus should be considered?

A more straightforward way is the following. While a given appropriate conceptual scheme would only take us to one statement of the objective, it would be a statement of the one objective. And it would be the same objective whichever appropriate scheme was used. Thus the relation is still the objective rather than a statement of it. It might however be necessary to extend the chosen conceptual scheme in order to allow it to cover all the ground covered by all conceptual schemes, so as to avoid having parts of the objective accessible to some rational creatures but not to others.

The objective and the facts that comprise it

It is sometimes appropriate to think of the objective as a single entity that comprises all the facts. This can help us to bring out the structure of Rand's approach and contrast it with Kant's. But when we consider questions of human progress and error, it is more helpful to consider specific purported facts and ask whether they are indeed facts, meaning that they are elements in a relation between the intrinsic world and either the whole appropriate conceptual scheme or some parts of it. (Henceforth, "the appropriate conceptual scheme" will be used to mean the scheme appropriate to rational creatures of the relevant nature.) And when we refer to facts without qualification, rather than purported facts, this is what we shall mean.

Concentration on individual facts will have the advantage of taking away any need to think it practical ever to set out the entire appropriate conceptual scheme. What will matter will be concepts that are needed to relate to the intrinsic world in order to yield the facts in question. These will need to be appropriate concepts, in the sense that they would have their places within the appropriate scheme.

Defining the objective as a relation between the intrinsic and the appropriate conceptual scheme does not allow for the distinction between the world as it is in itself and the world as it appears to us on which Kant relied. The objective considered as a single entity which can be identified given a pair that comprises the intrinsic world and the appropriate conceptual scheme is not to be seen as parallel to the world in itself in the way that for Kant, the world as it appears to us is parallel to the world as it is in itself. ("Parallel" is not meant to imply separability. We mean to permit a one-world interpretation of Kant under which one would regard the world as it was in itself and the world as it appeared to us as two aspects of a single world rather than as two worlds.) Rather, while the intrinsic world remains the world to which we relate (and in which we exist), we get away from thinking of an objective world. Instead we should speak only of the objective and statements of it. The intrinsic world is the only world. The objective is how things are, a notion that is more a concern of epistemology than of metaphysics. To echo Wittgenstein (Tractatus 1.1), it is the totality of facts and not of things. But to contrast with Wittgenstein, while this totality of facts is the objective, it is not the world. We know facts that are parts of the objective, and we state those facts in ways that reflect our concepts, but we know the world, the intrinsic world rather than the objective.

The appropriate conceptual scheme

We have spoken of the appropriate conceptual scheme for rational creatures of a given nature as being paired with the intrinsic world to yield the objective as a relation between them. We need to give some substance to this notion of appropriateness.

A conceptual scheme should take us from our percepts to the objective which is set out in the statements of facts that we make (and which would equally be set out in different statements given by other rational creatures). The objective should not depend on our perceptual apparatus, but our percepts clearly do depend on that apparatus. It is the conceptual scheme that provides the necessary flexibility. The appropriate scheme for rational creatures of some given nature is the one that is appropriate to their perceptual apparatus, where that apparatus encompasses both their external organs and whatever processing in their brains may be considered involuntary and inevitable. The conceptual scheme must be the one that will take the rational creatures from whatever percepts they have to the objective rather than to some merely apparent objective.

This point extends to routes to the objective that run through scientific instruments. Rational creatures construct them to pick up the values of certain variables. Then the creatures read off the data and draw conclusions. The instruments become parts of the creatures' perceptual apparatus. The creatures still need to find the appropriate conceptual scheme that will lead them to the objective, given how the instruments have been constructed.

The objective includes not only facts that once established may be expressed without reference to percepts, but also facts that are to be expressed in perceptual terms. The sizes, shapes, speeds and colours of objects, the pitches and volumes of sounds, and so on, are all facts that fall within the objective.

Moreover, all the facts included in the objective should in principle be open to being stated by creatures with any perceptual apparatus (although some facts would be hard to verify with the wrong perceptual apparatus). Colours and pitches as perceived by human beings might not be detectable directly by creatures with the wrong apparatus. They would have to say "to human beings, this object is blue", or something similar. But they could say it like that, picking out the fact of blueness to human beings. Human beings could identify the same fact. It is just that they would not normally bother to say "to human beings".

What we have said so far defines the appropriateness of a conceptual scheme in terms of leading to the facts. This fits very well with Rand's approach. The facts are there, whether we grasp them or not. And we have to make use of our perceptual apparatus and develop our conceptual scheme in order to improve our grasp of the facts. Now we shall look at how the development of conceptual schemes may proceed. In so doing we shall get a better idea of how we can tell whether our concepts are indeed appropriate, so that we can have confidence that the purported facts we identify are indeed facts.

The development of conceptual schemes

The origin of concepts

For Rand, our concepts arise neither in the intrinsic world alone (a realist position) nor in our consciousness alone (a nominalist position). Rather, they arise out of the need of consciousness to get a grip on the intrinsic world, with the grip being tested by reference to the perceptual appearance of the intrinsic world. They may be regarded as appropriate concepts when there is no conflict between the purported facts that are stated using the concepts and our observations of the world.


An important stage in the development of concepts which will give us a grip on the world is the process of omitting inappropriate details, a process that Rand calls measurement-omission. For example, to arrive at a sensible concept of a table we need to focus on the presence of a flat surface that can support objects and of legs that keep the surface off the floor. We should omit specifics of size, colour, or the wood or metal used.

Inappropriate details are those which should be ignored because they would destroy the concept by excessive fragmentation or would be irrelevant given the nature of the concept.

On fragmentation, the concept of an animal remains valid even after cats are distinguished from dogs. To incorporate details of the specifically feline or canine into the concept of an animal would be to destroy it by fragmentation.

On irrelevance, it is for example in the nature of the concept of a cat not to mention physical location, so location would be an irrelevant detail. We are of course free to mention the locations of specific cats, and we might regard it as significant that a given subspecies only bred in a specific place. But we might not incorporate location even into the concept of that subspecies, because we might want to allow accidental genetic twins in other parts of the world to be covered by the same concept.

Error in the selection of concepts

Error is for Rand an issue in relation to all concepts, from the most fundamental to the most superficial. This is because for her we gain, or through error fail to gain, a grip on the intrinsic world.

Specifically, Rand could not use a defence against error that Kant could use in relation to the most fundamental concepts. Kant could say that we simply had to use those concepts. Their use would not yield a false picture of the world as it was in itself, because it would not give us any picture of that world. It would only give us a grip on the world as it appeared to us. And since the concepts moulded that appearance, the result would necessarily be a grip on the world as it appeared to us. There would therefore be no such thing as error through choosing the wrong fundamental concepts.

For Rand, there is no such recourse to a mere appearance in relation to which any concepts would be bound to be appropriate because they gave us only a grip on the world as it appeared under the influence of precisely those concepts. And we cannot ignore the possibility of error, given that different people could use conflicting sets of concepts.

The response of Rand is that we must choose the right concepts to fit with the intrinsic world and yield a statement of the objective. If we choose the wrong concepts, we shall eventually find this out because the result will be a set of beliefs that contradict one another or that give us no grip or a poor grip on the world. (This is a point at which percepts do real work, alongside the work they do in guiding the development of our concepts. If what our concepts incline us to think is misaligned with our percepts, we can tell that something is wrong.) The objective, the set of actual facts rather than erroneous fictions, is to be discovered by getting things right, under the harsh discipline of the intrinsic world.

The refinement of conceptual schemes

Conceptual schemes can become more refined, capturing more details of the world. The objective can be seen as captured in more or less detail by more or less refined conceptual schemes. Moreover, progress in that way would not require the rejection of facts established using less advanced conceptual schemes.

The revision of conceptual schemes

Conceptual schemes can also change more radically, in ways that require rejection of what had earlier been thought of as facts. The development of relativity and of quantum mechanics are examples.

This is not in itself an objection to Rand's approach. Indeed it reinforces her message that we must find the concepts to fit the intrinsic world, and not expect the intrinsic world to mould itself to our concepts. But given the risk of conceptual revision, how can we have confidence that what emerges as the apparent objective is anywhere close to the relevant parts of the objective. It might be primarily a product of our conceptual scheme, with our appreciation of the intrinsic world having been distorted by that scheme.

The answer is that we cannot be wholly confident. But we can have reasonable confidence, in the sense that our apparent objective is as good as we can get for the time being and we have no specific reason to think that we are mistaken. (Occasionally we do have specific reason to think that while we may be on the right lines, there are still defects in our understanding.) We may also be able to celebrate the fact that what we currently take to be a statement of relevant parts of the objective is empirically adequate to a very high degree: there is no direct clash between the purported facts that we state and the observations we are so far able to make. And we may argue that our taking of sets of purported facts to be parts of the objective is regulated by the intrinsic world because it is sometimes precisely because of observations that we revise our view of what the facts are.

We should not however be wholly confident that we are making steady progress toward a full statement of the objective along a path that will avoid the need for any significant backtracking. It would be possible for us to pursue a line of conceptual development, and to gather data in ways that were shaped by our concepts, such that we tended toward a merely locally optimal set of concepts and apparent grasp of the intrinsic world which was still seriously defective. A large-scale rethink would then be required, although it might be many years before we discovered that this was so.

Against relativism

Different conceptual schemes would give rise to different relations with the intrinsic world. Sometimes the outcome would be the same objective, because the differences between schemes merely counteracted differences between percepts that were produced by different perceptual apparatus. But sometimes the outcome would be different apparent objectives. This would not however mean that there was really more than one objective or that relativism could gain a foothold.

We should start by discarding mistaken conceptual schemes, on the basis of their leading us into contradiction or on the basis of conflicts between their predictions and our actual percepts.

After discarding mistaken schemes, we should be left with access to a single objective that could be set out in ways which were more or less refined, depending on the specific concepts from a single scheme that we chose to deploy. (The ways in which the objective was set out might or might not all be reducible to some fundamental way. The idea of a single conceptual scheme does not require us to believe in universal reducibility.)

At least that could be expected in the natural sciences, although even there it would not be safe to assert that the current conceptual scheme would last for ever, only that it should be regarded as the appropriate one given the evidence currently available. We would in practice only be able to say that we had high confidence that we had reached the objective, because we could not be wholly confident that all mistaken schemes had been discarded.

In the social sciences and the humanities we might expect more scope for there to be schemes that yielded purported facts which were inconsistent with one another, while the various schemes were all considered to be acceptable for the time being so that no scheme could justifiably be selected as the single appropriate one.

The need to allow for that possibility is however a challenge to the notion that relevant assertions made in the social sciences and the humanities are facts. Where there is scope to put different conceptual schemes to work and conflicting purported facts emerge from the interactions between the different schemes and the intrinsic world as presented through percepts, we should hesitate to regard any of the purported facts as parts of the objective at all. The most we could confidently say would be that all but one of the schemes which yielded conflicting purported facts might at some time be discarded, so that some of the purported facts might justifiably come to be regarded as facts.

It might seem that this way of keeping relativism at bay was circular. It seems to amount to saying that if relativism appears to get a foothold, then it is not the objective that is discovered, or at least that not more than one of any set of conflicting facts can be regarded as part of the objective. That is, relativism about the objective is excluded by fiat.

There is truth in this charge of circularity. It is assumed that there is a single objective to be found, so contradictory purported facts cannot be admitted. And a consequence is that not every study of the world can be counted as consistently uncovering the objective. But the success of some studies of the world, particularly in the natural sciences, gives us every reason to think that there is an objective to be uncovered. And there is plenty of scope for the objective in the social sciences and the humanities too. Many conclusions survive shifts between conceptual schemes.

Kant and Rand

The ideas of Immanuel Kant and of Ayn Rand are far apart, and in some respects directly opposed. Nonetheless we can explore scope to modify their ideas in ways that might allow some reconciliation, and scope to find common ground even without modification.

Merging the noumenal and the phenomenal

One way to seek a reconciliation between Kant and Rand would be to make Kant's world as presented by phenomena as good to Rand as the reality of which she speaks. But Rand would require reality as presented by phenomena to be the full extent of reality.

Kant would agree that reality as presented by phenomena was all the reality we could talk about in any detail. And the fact that given a certain intrinsic world and a certain set of concepts, Rand's objective would have to be as it was, would be entirely acceptable to Kant. His position is one of empirical realism. In his view we make empirical discoveries, with the world and not our preferences being dominant. That thought fits well with Rand's approach.

But for Kant, there are still the noumena. The noumena feature in a metaphysical theory. The supposition of the noumena is motivated by a view that certain metaphysical questions make sense, even though all attempts to tackle them as if they were questions about the world as we experience it would end in paradox and confusion, and by the need to find a place for the free will of human beings. But nothing about the noumena features in any natural science, and any attempt to learn anything specific about noumenal reality would be fruitless. Alas for any hope of reconciliation between Kant and Rand through matching the phenomenal world with the intrinsic world, being all the reality worth talking about in any detail would not be the same as being the full extent of reality, something that Rand would demand.

This might seem an odd demand to infer from Rand's work, since she spoke both of intrinsic reality and of the objective. But for her intrinsic reality, and nothing else, could be paired with a conceptual scheme so that the objective could be identified as a relation between those two elements. There is no space for two sorts of reality, or even for one reality considered in two different ways. The objective is not reality viewed differently. It is the view of reality that we get by putting the appropriate concepts to work. For Kant on the other hand there is a reality as it appears to us, and we then perceive it. This would be a real point of disagreement between Rand and Kant. Rand's assertion is not a kind of logical positivist one that there would be no sense in talking of anything apart from intrinsic reality. Rather, it is a metaphysical assertion that there really is nothing else.

Even if it were a logical positivist assertion, that would not be acceptable to Kant. He would agree that nothing specific could be said about the noumena, but he would also require that reference to the noumena not be regarded as vacuous.

The emphasis on epistemology

Forms of intuition and axioms

Both Kant and Rand are concerned with what we know. For Kant, a study of our powers to know leads on to the conclusion that what is known is not the qualities of the world as it is in itself. For Rand, anything that counts as knowledge is knowledge of the nature of the intrinsic world. At that level, the conflict between Kant and Rand persists. But the centrality of knowledge to the approaches of both of them leaves open the hope of some agreement at the level of the nature of the act of knowing, and in particular in relation to the process of the application of concepts to get to grips with the world.

For Kant, there are certain forms of intuition (space and time) and concepts that we just have to apply. The need to use them reflects our nature, and the necessity of applying them should not mislead us into thinking that they reflect the nature of the world as it is in itself.

For Rand, there are three axioms that we must at least implicitly adopt if we are to think about the world at all. These are the axioms of existence, identity, and consciousness. The axiom of existence is that existence exists, or to spell this out a bit, that there really is a world out there, the intrinsic world, which is independent of our consciousness of it. The axiom of identity is the somewhat gnomic "A is A". To spell this out, each thing has the specific nature that it has, and its characteristics constitute its identity (Rand, The Ayn Rand Lexicon, entry for Identity). As a practical corollary, one must face up to the natures of things as they are. One can take action to change things in the world, but merely wishing that things were different or trying to view them using inappropriate concepts will leave them as they are. The axiom of consciousness is that one exists possessing consciousness, which is the faculty of perceiving that which exists. As Rand puts it to pull the picture together, "Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification" (Rand, The Ayn Rand Lexicon, entry for Identity).

The axioms underpin a way of thinking that Rand picks out as fundamental. She argues that a crucial step on the road to making sense of the world is to recognise units, such as a person or a table. These units are then grouped together under concepts. A modest degree of conceptualisation is needed to pick out units at all, as when someone identifies "that thing". But it is only once units have been picked out that a person can group them on the basis of some appreciation of similarities and differences, and then enquire into their characteristics so as to define concepts which allow sensible groupings. Moreover, even to get as far as picking out units in a way that will allow the application of concepts, things must be out there in the world (existence), they must have properties by which they can be recognised and grouped (identity), and we must be conscious of them (consciousness). We might get as far as picking out units and grouping them merely because existence, identity and consciousness prevailed, without our being aware of their prevalence. But in order to achieve knowledge at anything like the level we have in fact achieved we need to think about what we are doing, reflect on what we know or seem to know, and consciously work out what do do next in the way of making further empirical investigations or defining new concepts. So we need to be fully aware of existence, identity and consciousness.

The axioms are not concepts. But they correspond to the three axiomatic concepts, the concepts we must put to work, the concepts of existence, identity, and consciousness. And acceptance of the axioms and the concepts does parallel Kant's requirement to use the forms of intuition and the concepts he lists in the sense that acceptance is required in order to make any progress. There is even a noteworthy parallel in the role accorded to time, the form of inner intuition for Kant and something fundamental to our grasp of the world for Rand. In chapter 6 of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology Rand notes that it is only once we consciously take on board the concepts of existence, identity and consciousness that we can make real progress by understanding continuity and change in the world. And continuity and change are essentially temporal concepts.

There is however a difference, particularly from the use of Kant's forms of intuition. For Rand, our thought must accord with her axioms in order for us to have any hope of getting things right. For Kant, we have to perceive in the ways that use of his forms of intuition ensures. So for Rand it is about thought, while for Kant it is about perception.

Having said that, the relevant sense of perception in Kant's thought is not the basic level of incoming sensations but the more elevated level of organising them, a level which arguably involves a degree of unconscious thought. This does however correspond to Rand's stage of percepts, which follows the stage of sensations but precedes the stage of the application of concepts.

Extensive knowledge of a stable world

For Rand, the one and only world is what we come to know. And while our knowledge is never likely to become complete, we can in principle explore everything there is, with nothing beyond our reach for reasons that would be supplied by metaphysics or epistemology. We may be delayed by reasons supplied by the sciences. It may for example be very difficult to make instruments of a desired refinement. And we may, particularly in fundamental physics, find ourselves not knowing whether there is information about what particles are doing that is inevitably hidden from us or whether there is no fact of the matter about what particles are doing. But our being faced with such a disconcerting dilemma would not reflect some inevitable metaphysical or epistemic principle. Rather, it would merely reflect the inappropriateness of our expectation that the microscopic world should conform to the style of the macroscopic world.

Another important point is that for Rand, the world has its own stability. Things do endure, and they participate in causal relationships in accordance with their natures. This makes knowledge possible. Kant would likewise be happy to allow stability in the sense of endurance, natures and causal relationships in the world as it appeared to us. But for Rand, the stability we find when we learn about the things in the world and connect their natures to their causal powers is a stability of the world as it is in itself. Kant is by his own theory debarred from even speculating about the stability of things in themselves.

Knowing the world from the inside

An important part of Rand's picture is that we are elements in the world, whose perceptual and intellectual capacities are given by the nature of the world itself. We can explore how our eyes and brains work, and what we have discovered or may eventually discover is what there is to be known about our intellectual functioning. Our abilities to identify and re-identify objects, to conceptualise, and to trace chains of causes and effects give us immense power, but they do not make us beings outside the world. We are in the world and what we will discover is what is going on around us in that world. Moreover, there is no mystery about how we know. Our processes of perception and conceptualisation are natural, not magical.

There is a contrast here with Kant, who sees us as rational creatures with a true nature that is not to be defined in the terms of the world as it appears to us (although Kant would of course allow research into the eye and the brain). This view goes hand in hand with the idea that there is a true nature of the world which is outwith the grasp of empirical exploration. 

Kant's view may also make it somewhat mysterious how we perceive the world. The one sure way to remove the mystery would be to adopt a firmly one-world interpretation of Kant that took an empirical description of our processes of perception to be a good guide to how those processes really worked. That would however risk making claims about us as we were in ourselves, claims of a sort that Kant would forbid.


Rand and Kant have markedly different theories of how the world is, and those differences spill over into differences as to the nature of our knowledge. But there are some points at which their two lines of thought can be related to each other. And their basic questions about the world and about knowledge are the same, even if their answers are different.


Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason.

Rand, Ayn. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, expanded second edition edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, with an additional Essay by Leonard Peikoff. New York, NY, Meridian, 1990.

Rand Ayn. The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z, edited by Harry Binswanger and with an Introduction by Leonard Peikoff. New York, NY, Meridian, 1988.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

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