Studies in Objectivist Propaganda: Robert Tracinski’s “Woke Kant”

I’ve been thinking for awhile of starting a series at PoT called Studies in Objectivist Propaganda (SOP). Technically, this post will have to be SOP #1, though I suppose I could go back and dig up some prior posts that fit the bill: there’s never a shortage of Objectivist propaganda out there, and I rarely seem to resist the temptation to take pot-shots (or PoT-shots) at it. As a recovering Objectivist myself, I guess I owe it the world to undo some of the damage I did by contributing my own share of Objectivist propaganda to Existence. That said, I don’t think I contributed anything half as bad as the stuff I now regularly see on the Internet. Which gives me standing to attack it when I see it.

Was Kant the first “woke” philosopher? Yes, says Robert Tracinski, who makes sure to tell us that he’s read The Critique of Pure Reason, and therefore damn well knows what’s he’s talking about. I’ll let you wend your way through Tracinski’s tendentious, cherry-picked, convoluted argument for yourself. I wouldn’t want you to miss (or myself want to misrepresent) anything he says, and independence, as we all know, is the crown of the Objectivist virtues.

Here is my comment on Tracinski’s story: Either a priori concepts exist, or they don’t. If they don’t exist (and there is no a  priori knowledge in Kant’s sense), then the only legitimate objection to them is that they don’t exist (and there is no a priori knowledge in Kant’s sense).

But if they do exist, and there is a priori knowledge in Kant’s sense, it makes no sense to say that a priori knowledge is “implanted in our nature,” or worse yet, is relativized to empirical categories like ethnicity, race, gender, or sexual orientation. The first formulation conflates a priori concepts with innate ideas. The second contradicts the very concept of an a priori concept. Neither confusion is Kant’s; both are Tracinski’s. So in neither case can Kant be described as a “woke philosopher” via a priori knowledge, assuming that “woke philosopher” means anything clear or determinate, which I highly doubt, and which Tracinski does nothing to validate.

The only semi-plausible line of continuity between Kant and “woke culture” is a heightened sense of self-consciousness common to both about the darker side of human nature. Like partisans of wokeness, Kant is suspicious of human motives, and has a tendency to see bad motives more often than many people would. But then, there’s plenty to be suspicious of in this world, and no a priori way of determining how much. So it’s not clear why Kant is wrong to be suspicious of human motives, any more than partisans of wokeness are. The world has its fair share of bullshit artists.

In any case, Kant shares his attitude of suspicion with Aeschylus, Sophocles, Augustine, Aquinas, and Freud. He’s no more woke than they are. So if you want to call Aeschylus’s Oresteia the first “woke play,” or Augustine’s City of God the first “woke treatise,” or Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae a compendium avant la lettre of “theological wokeness,” you  go right ahead. But don’t get miffed when the rest of the world goes right ahead and ignores you, or treats you like a bit of a lunatic. You’ll have earned it.

Granted, there is a connection between Kant and Freud, but there’s also something preposterous about calling Freud a progenitor of “wokeness.” The preposterousness becomes clear once you start reading Freud. But then, it also becomes clear when you start reading Kant. Yes, I know Robert Tracinski has done his fair share of Kant reading. But so have I.

And when Tracinski gets on his high horse about “the fanaticism, the peremptory excommunications, the quasi-religious fervor of the woke crusade,” I wonder how much of his first-hand knowledge of those phenomena derives, in the end, from his observations of the Objectivist movement. Because Galt knows that Objectivism has seen its fair share of those things, not that Tracinski lets on about that when he’s in high dudgeon about The Left. Tracinski is a big fan of “experience,” as am I, but experience is of no use if salient experiences go unremembered. Can Tracinski really have forgotten what the Objectivist movement was like at the height of its era of factional strife?

So let’s consider: if Kant is the explanation for the fanaticism, excommunications, and quasi-religious fervor of left-wing woke politics, who or what is the explanation for the same exact phenomena when they manifest themselves among Objectivists? Is it Aristotle? Nietzsche? Ayn Rand all by herself? Or does right-wing fanaticism so close to home not need an explanation–because it’s so close to home?

Sad but true: Objectivist discourse is a lost cause which has now reached a dead end. Its most talented writers (Tracinski included) are now conspicuously wasting their talents on writing Randroid nonsense that makes little sense but serves to energize a right-wing base that craves Randroid nonsense–usually nonsense that mimics some vintage nonsense from yesteryear that got a clap or two out of some Randroid audience back in the day. (Naturally, Tracinski’s Kant mimics Peikoff’s in The Ominous Parallels, because it’s not like you were going to get a “woke Kant” out of Peter Strawson, H.J. Paton, or Karl Ameriks.) From the Peter Keating Objectivism of yesteryear we now seem to have graduated to an extended Gail Wynand phase. It strikes me as retrogression, not progress. Not that the baseline was ever set in the right place.

Back in the day, Objectivist journalism was a badly-funded, sad sack affair–half-assed newsletters  published years past deadline, read by audiences in the double digits. That’s no longer the case. Objectivists are now swimming in cash. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that the the quality of Objectivist journalism seems to vary inversely with how well funded it is. The more money the deep pockets throw around, the more nonsensical Objectivist writers seem to become. Nothing seems to fail like success. Maybe money is the root of more evils than they realize?

While we’re speculating, there’s this thought: maybe their intellectual energies would be better spent asking whether concepts like “woke-ism” are well-formed by the standards of the Objectivist epistemology they profess–or whether those concepts function more like the cognitive equivalent of litter, to be thrown about and discarded at whim by the kind of people who get their kicks that way. An analysis of wtf “wokeness” is might do us more good than labyrinthine yet superficial jaunts through the margins and peripheries of German Idealism, which proceed, by a series of hermeneutical magic tricks, through Hegel and Marx to produce a conceptual analysis of the latest bullshit on Facebook.

I’m sure Robert Tracinski is being well-remunerated for producing this embarrassing simulacrum of Kant scholarship, or whatever it is he thinks he’s doing. All I can say is, better him than me.

4 thoughts on “Studies in Objectivist Propaganda: Robert Tracinski’s “Woke Kant”

  1. One of the weird blind spots of the Randians is their idea that the worry that that “humans have no direct access to an objective world independent of our minds and senses” is some sort of rebellion against the Enlightenment. This view was on the contrary one of the dominant themes of the Enlightenment, as part of the 17th-18th century rebellion against the direct realism of the mediaeval Aristoteleans.

    I’ve grumped about this elsewhere:

    P.S. – You misspell “Tracinski” in the post title.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The misspelling was mere appearance. It was correctly spelled in the noumenal realm. Granted, mere mortals like you lack access to noumena. But woke people like me do. With any luck, you’re now woke enough to see the noumena yourself. Or themself, I should say.


  2. The entire Objectivist conception of “the Enlightenment” is an ideological confabulation. It’s just shorthand for “the wonderful ideas that preceded and hence caused the glorious event which was the American Revolution (but not the French Revolution), and which thereby paved the way for the coming of Our Savior, Miss Rand.”

    So historical accuracy is beside the point. It’s a slogan and a bludgeon. It’s not historiography. How else could you say that some cultures have failed to go through an Enlightenment, or that some movements are trying to reverse the Enlightenment, unless you had a fictional version of the Enlightenment to do the job? And where would Objectivism be if its adherents couldn’t say that?


  3. Pingback: SOP #2: A is A, Except for Book Reviews | Policy of Truth

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