Objectivism vs. Kantianism in The Fountainhead - The Objective Standard

Author’s note: This essay assumes that the reader has read The Fountainhead; it contains many spoilers.

A legend is told regarding the birth of agriculture in ancient Mesopotamia. Some of the first men to cultivate crops were surrounded by savage hunters inhabiting the hills. When drought killed off the game, the hunters faced starvation. They swooped down on the peaceful farmers, murdered them, gorged themselves—and, when the supply ran out, starved.

This story, perhaps apocryphal, presents two groups—the farmers and the raiders—who attempt to survive by different means: the farmers by growing crops, the raiders by plundering them; the farmers by means of their own thought and work, the raiders by parasitism.

In her novel The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand characterizes this kind of conflict as a struggle between “firsthanders” and “secondhanders.” The novel’s hero, Howard Roark, a brilliant architect who struggles against a conservative society that rejects his revolutionary designs, gives voice to the novel’s conflict and theme:

Nothing is given to man on earth. Everything he needs has to be produced. And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways—by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates. The parasite borrows. . . . The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature. The parasite’s concern is the conquest of men.1

Throughout history, independent minds have carried mankind forward. Whether they identified how to make fire or manufacture tools, develop rational philosophy or create man-glorifying art, pioneer scientific knowledge or invent the electric light, independent thinkers have created the goods on which human life and prosperity depend.

The parasites, on the other hand, whether as criminals, psychological manipulators, unthinking followers, or political dictators, have survived not by facing reality and thinking for themselves, not by learning to irrigate fields or invent airplanes, nor by learning such skills as plumbing or nursing, but rather by leeching off of producers.

The essence of firsthandedness is the use of independent thinking and productive effort in support of one’s life. The essence of secondhandedness is the abdication of one’s mind and reliance on the thought and creative effort of others.

Secondhandedness manifests in several ways—including conformity, nonconformity, and power lust—and is tragically rampant in America today. Observe, for instance, the prevalence of conformity: the unthinking acceptance of the judgment and/or values of others, regardless of whether one deems them true, in order to appease people and win approval. Politicians regularly flip-flop on issues to keep pace with public opinion polls. Millions of individuals still believe in God, generally the specific faith of their parents. Many teenagers and young adults use drugs, not because they think drugs improve their lives, but because they want to win peer approval.

Was it always this way in America? Did the revolutionaries who founded the nation kowtow to British authority? Was the pioneer spirit that conquered a continent grounded in truckling to others? What of the immigrants who risked their lives crossing the ocean to a new land; did they do so in conformity to majority opinion in the Old World? Although spineless people have existed in every society, it is reasonable to conclude that early America featured a more tough-minded, independent citizenry.

What happened? Why has secondhandedness become so widespread? What accounts for the change?

Secondhandedness is, in some cases, caused by low self-esteem; but details of personal psychology are insufficient to explain its prevalence in modern culture. A more fundamental cause is at work. That cause and its antithesis can be seen in The Fountainhead. The characters, their ideas, and their actions represent the fundamental opposing philosophies of the day. Although neither philosophy is explicitly mentioned in the book, one or the other (or both) is inherent in every scene and conflict therein.

Let’s look first at some scenes representing secondhandedness; then, we’ll turn to the philosophy responsible for its prevalence; finally, we’ll turn to some scenes representing firsthandedness and the philosophy that supports it.

Consider Peter Keating. In his youth, Keating held two important values: He yearned to create paintings and to marry Catherine Halsey. Graduating from college, Keating recalls the change in his career goals—and the cause of the change: “It’s funny, Keating remembered, at one time he had wanted to be an artist. It was his mother who had chosen a better field in which to exercise his talent for drawing. ‘Architecture,’ she had said, ‘is such a respectable profession . . .’ She had pushed him into his career, he had never known when or how.”2

Near story’s end, he encounters Catherine six years after jilting her—and speaks honestly regarding his betrayed aspirations: “But that’s not my worst guilt. . . . Katie, I wanted to marry you. It was the only thing I ever really wanted. And that’s the sin that can’t be forgiven—that I hadn’t done what I wanted. It feels so dirty . . . as one feels about insanity, because there’s no sense to it, no dignity, nothing but pain—and wasted pain. . . .”3

Why does Keating surrender the values he holds dear? He gives up painting because his mother deems architecture a more respectable profession than painting; he yields his goal to satisfy his mother’s expectations of society’s expectations. He gives up the graceless Catherine, whom he loves, to marry the elegant Dominique Francon for the same reason: Dominique impresses others; Katie does not.

Keating sacrifices his career and romantic relationship to meet the expectations of his mother, his employer (Guy Francon), a prominent architectural critic (Ellsworth Toohey), and the general public. Their views—not his—govern his life.

Keating kowtows before authority. He designs buildings in the styles his professors demand; he wears the ties that Francon prefers; he studies porcelain to win the approval of Francon’s partner, Lucius Heyer; he fawns over Ellsworth Toohey to win his approval. He even codifies his toadying attitude into a formal principle. He tells the uncompromising Roark: “Always be what people want you to be. Then you’ve got them where you want them.”4

This is the soul of a conformist—a man who uncritically accepts and is guided by others’ values.

Keating—and many real-life, weak-willed souls—are seduced by the allure of popularity. They desperately want others to like and support them. To a conformist, adulation is a heady brew.

But what of a person who craves not others’ approval but their disapproval? What of those who seek not to fit in with others but to stand out by rejecting their norms? Is this “nonconformist,” who rebels against others, essentially different from the conformist? In the conventional view, they are not merely different; they are opposite. But, in Rand’s view, they do not oppose each other; they differ merely as variations on a theme.

The character who demonstrates this is the avant-garde writer, Lois Cook. She deliberately cultivates a slovenly personal appearance. Despite possessing means, she builds her home on the Bowery—New York City’s skid row—and stipulates that it be the ugliest house in the city. She intentionally eliminates objective meaning from her writing, stringing together words by psychological association, thereby churning out meaningless “word salad”: “Toothbrush in the jaw toothbrush brush brush tooth jaw foam dome in the foam Roman dome come home home in the jaw Rome dome tooth toothbrush toothpick pickpocket socket rocket . . .”5 She defies rational norms, seeking to shock the bourgeoisie. Her goal is to inflict pain by throwing in others’ faces her repudiation of their cherished values. “They all work so hard and struggle and suffer, trying to achieve beauty. . . . Let’s throw their sweat in their face. . . . Let’s be ugly.”6

Whereas Keating is a classic example of a conformist, Cook is a perfect illustration of a “nonconformist.” She aims always to act against the judgment and values of others. In this, she is the anti-Keating and a variation on his theme. Whereas Keating looks to others’ views to capitulate, Cook identifies them to attack. Keating abases himself before the crowd, Cook snarls at it—but both turn to the crowd to decide how to act. The first question for each is, “What do others think?” The conformist seeks to agree, the nonconformist to disagree. Both are concerned primarily with the views of others.

Both contrast with Roark, the independent man, whose fundamental question is, “What do I think?” Roark looks at reality, does his own thinking, and forms his own conclusions—no matter what the crowd’s judgment may be. For Roark, the views of the crowd are a cognitive nonissue; others’ acceptance or rejection of his work affects his career but not his thinking. But for Keating and Cook, the crowd’s views are a cognitive compass, impelling one to accept, and the other to reject, specific ideas or values.

The nonconformist, too, is rampant in our culture. For example, the drug-addicted hippies of the 1960s rebelled against the rational values of their parents. The Occupy Wall Street hippies are unable to specify what they are for but eager to spew incessantly about what they are against. More broadly, the “intellectuals” of the New Left rebel against the principle of individual rights embodied in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution. And modernist painters, composers, and writers rebel against representationalism, melody, and intelligibility by slinging random colors, notes, or words together into discordant jumbles. All such people seek to assail men’s rational values.

The crowd rules the lives of both conformists and nonconformists.

Who rules the crowd? The herd does not possess cognitive autonomy; a mob mentality is one of blind obedience to a leader. Who is the leader? What kind of man seeks to acquire authority over the masses? In The Fountainhead, this question is answered in the character of Ellsworth Toohey.

Every aspect of Toohey’s life—from the private to the public—is devoted to gaining power. For example, in the Councils of American Builders, Writers, and Artists, he cultivates a legion of unthinking followers. As a vocational adviser at a New York university, he convinces students to surrender their values, emptying their souls and allowing him to fill their then meaningless lives with his commands. He seeks to destroy Roark because the independent architect will not obey. In cultivating a private following of drones, he is a cult leader, analogous to Jim Jones. In agitating for collectivism, he advocates statism in politics; and in seeking total power over people, he lusts for the position of intellectual adviser behind the throne, a position occupied in National Socialist Germany by Joseph Goebbels.

Like conformists and nonconformists, power lusters infest Western culture. In addition to gurus, cult leaders, and intellectual advisers to dictators (and would-be dictators), there are religious leaders who demand blind obedience to scriptural commandments, and humanities professors who suppress independent judgment in their classrooms. Such persons do not demand material wealth—only their victims’ minds. This is the Toohey method.

Observe that although Toohey gains power over unprincipled men such as Keating, at a deeper level the crowd has power over him. His existence is devoted exclusively to it—to the schemes, scams, and manipulations necessary to deceive and control the herd. His “thinking” is subordinated to it, to the conditions that must be met to receive its obedience.

Does Toohey seek—ever—to design buildings, identify scientific principles, grow food, or even hammer nails into wood to build a chair? He does not. He is not concerned to master reality; reality is not his orientation. He is concerned to take over the souls of others; others are the focus of his effort. Like a drug addict craves a fix, he craves power over men.

But the terms under which a follower will voluntarily surrender his soul to another are set by him. Keating, for example, requires approval and patronage; Catherine Halsey must receive altruistic pep talks; the various Councils require constant attention and guidance. These are the terms under which such pawns will follow a leader; Toohey must meet them; consequently, their terms reciprocally rule his life.

Toohey states to Keating: “I’ll have no purpose save to keep you contented. To lie, to flatter you, to praise you, to inflate your vanity. To make speeches about the people and the common good. Peter, my poor old friend, I’m the most selfless man you’ve ever known. I have less independence than you, whom I just forced to sell your soul.”7

Rand shows Toohey’s utter dependence in a number of ways. How does he make a living? He critiques the work of others by applying philosophic theories developed by yet others in order to enslave still others.

He is not passionate about his “profession”—as Roark is passionate about architecture. He has no romantic interest—as Roark has Dominique. He has no friends, no one he can trust, only cowed followers who fear and hate him. He has no values. Expunging the values of others is not a form of possessing values; facilitating spiritual death in others is not a method of living. Toohey exists exclusively to insinuate himself into others’ souls and spread spiritual death. Does a virus live an independent existence? Ellsworth Toohey’s existence is identical. He is, as he acknowledges, the man most dependent on others.

The lives of the conformist, the “nonconformist,” and the power luster show that, in different forms, each surrenders his soul to the group. One obeys, one rebels, one rules—but each grants the group primacy in his life. Each is dependent; none is autonomous.

What prompts a man to deliver his soul to the crowd? What premise impels a person to cognitive dependency? The belief that truth is determined by social plebiscite.

A secondhander holds that if others believe the earth is flat, it is flat; if the general consensus is that God exists, then God exists; if men of the past mandate Classicism as the ideal, then it is. Whatever the group says, an individual must comply. No one may stand alone before the crowd.

Secondhanders view society the way medievals viewed God. In granting the notion that truth is social, they proclaim society omniscient. This mentality is captured in the slogan, “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” Of course, fifty million men are just so many individuals—one or all might err. But one labors in vain to convince a secondhander. One might as well tell a Dark Age monk that God erred. To a secondhander, the voice of the people is the voice of God. The group is all-powerful; whatever it decrees is reality.

Historian Paul Johnson provides a chilling example. Speaking of Communist dictator Mao Tse-tung, he wrote: “He did not believe in ‘objective situations’ at all.” He displayed “contempt for objective reality. . . . It was all in the mind: he . . . believed in ‘mind over matter.’ On the basis of ‘the tremendous energy of the masses,’ he argued, ‘it is possible to accomplish any task whatever.’”8 In Mao’s view, the will of the people transcended all obstacles. Presumably, if the masses believed it, they could fly across the Pacific by flapping their arms. Certainly he held that agriculture was subject to popular decree, impelling him—leader of the people and representative of their collective consciousness—to will crops to grow on infertile lands by irrational methods. The result, of course, was mass famine.

The idea that the group creates its own truth is widespread today. Multiculturalists, for example, hold that every ethnic group creates its own truth, which holds for its members, and that the group’s “consciousness” governs the thinking of all members. Feminists maintain that there is “male truth” and “female truth,” and that one’s inclusion in either gender group necessarily shapes one’s thinking. Communists believe that membership in an economic class similarly determines one’s worldview. All hold that the group dictates reality and that an individual is a pawn helplessly accepting its beliefs.

Why do so many people accept the idea that the views of the group constitute the facts of reality? Where did this idea come from?

Multiculturalists, feminists, and their ilk are essentially Marxists, holding that human life is composed of oppressive and oppressed groups. Karl Marx argued that the wealthy exploit the poor; feminists maintain that men subjugate women; and multiculturalists hold that Western cultures exploit non-Western ones. Each is a variation on the theme that society necessarily consists of warring groups, one oppressing the other, who in turn rebel against the oppressors. Each is a variation on Marx.

How did Marx develop the idea that truth is social? He studied and was deeply influenced by the leading philosopher of his era, Georg W. F. Hegel, who argued that each society creates its own truth. On this social theory, truth varies from culture to culture. For example, a primitive savage whose society believes that disease is caused by evil spirits and outraged pagan deities has a different truth than a 21st-century Westerner who comprehends illness in terms of germs and biologic principles. Both hold a worldview contrasting with that of a Dark Age Christian, who construes disease in terms of man’s sinfulness and redemption through Jesus. Simply put, an individual is reared in a society, he absorbs its worldview, and he thus necessarily interprets the world through an intellectual prism of the society’s creation.

Why did Marx and Hegel conceive of truth as something not discovered but created by men? Philosophers of an earlier age had held that facts exist independently of human thoughts and that truth is born when human beings identify facts. How did philosophers’ conception of truth switch from something discovered by the mind to something created by it? Who ultimately is responsible for so momentous a transformation in men’s thinking?

Immanuel Kant.

Kant argued that because human sense organs possess specific characteristics, we perceive objects, not as they are in themselves, but only as they appear to beings with our type of sense organs. This, Kant said, is true of all species. For example, a bat might perceive a table via its sonar apparatus as a certain shape and texture, whereas a human being will perceive it via his visual apparatus as a colored rectangular surface. The kinds of sense organs a being possesses determine the form in which that being perceives a given object. Therefore, we do not experience objects as they really are—but only as they appear to us.

Further, Kant argued, the human mind is inherently equipped with certain built-in concepts—“categories,” as he terms them—which it imposes on this incoming sense experience. Among these are the concepts of “entity” and “causality.” Rather than perceiving entities and causal relationships that actually exist in the world, the human mind, via the “categories,” creates entities and relationships that we then perceive. Because all men do this identically, Kant said, human beings collectively create the world they experience. As he put it: “We then realize that not only are the drops of rain mere appearances, but that even their round shape, nay even the space in which they fall, are nothing in themselves, but merely modifications or fundamental forms of our sensible intuition [what we perceive], and that the transcendental object [the object in itself] remains unknown to us.”9

In short, according to Kant, men can never know the real world, but are collectively the creator—hence the master—of the one in which they live. The collective consciousness creates and controls its own world. The group—the collective—is God.

In Kant’s view, objectivity and individualism are impossible—the former, because the world, as it really is, is unknowable; the latter, because the collective is all-powerful.

Kant’s theory amounts to utter skepticism—the belief that the mind, in principle, cannot know reality. One of Kant’s peers, philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, referred to Kant as “the all-destroyer,” the man whose epistemological theory claimed it was impossible for human beings—or any species—to know reality. Ayn Rand stated the essence of Kant’s creed:

[Kant’s] argument . . . ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by a specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.10

Once Kant pushed objectivity off of the philosophic scene, Hegel, Marx, and their followers proceeded. Kant said the collective creates truth. Hegel added that this subjective creation varies from group to group. Marx added that the group is necessarily divided into warring subgroups—specifically, in his theory, economic classes—each with its own truth, each striving to brutally suppress the others.

Between the three—with Hegel and Marx following Kant’s lead—was born the modern view that society creates its own world and that an individual is a hapless pawn, molded by the collective, helpless to live independently. This is what Ayn Rand termed the social primacy of consciousness premise. Just as the medievals held that God created the world, so the moderns hold that the group creates it. Society, not God, is now regarded as omnipotent, and it rules the individual. If society dictates truth and falsity, then it dictates right and wrong, and individuals must comply. As philosopher Leonard Peikoff puts it:

Kant secularized the religious viewpoint. According to his philosophy, the human mind . . . creates existence. . . . Thus God’s will gives way to man’s consciousness, which becomes the metaphysical factor underlying and ordering existence. Implicit in this theory is the social version of the primacy of consciousness, which became explicit with the Hegelian development from Kant . . .11

Observe that all villains in The Fountainhead are on the social primacy of consciousness premise; all of them represent the Kantian school. Whether the nameless dean of Stanton Institute, who is an uncritical follower of history’s great architects—or Gus Webb, a rebel lashing out with snarling hostility at people’s rational values—or Catherine Halsey, who devolves into a mini-Toohey, an autocratic social worker lusting to control the souls of her poor charges—each is a Kantian, in that each holds the group is God. Consequently, whether by obeying, defying, or ruling, each permits the group to set the terms of his life.

The Fountainhead’s case against Kantianism and secondhandedness is, by way of the villain’s lives, its demonstration of the evil of the social primacy of consciousness school. The novel’s case for Rand’s philosophy and firsthandedness can be seen in the life of Howard Roark.

The essence of Roark’s firsthandedness can be extracted from a few scenes.

The dean of Stanton Institute asserts that, in matters of design, modern architects should defer to the rules set forth by history’s great designers. Roark responds:

Rules? Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape.12

Roark’s rules of design do not spring from the past or from other people, but from the available materials, the site, the building’s purpose—and from his independent understanding of such facts.

His independent judgment, not the beliefs of others, rules his life. For example, the dean, telling Roark of his expulsion, informs him that he might be welcomed back should he learn to comply; Roark refuses. Society deems the once-great Henry Cameron a has-been; Roark judges him the world’s greatest living architect, and goes to him for mentoring. Millions of honest people reject Gail Wynand as an unprincipled “sellout”—but Roark sees deeper than this to the firsthanded core of the man, and loves him as his dearest friend. Above all, although powerful social institutions and public opinion often oppose him, Roark does not waver from his own principles regarding both architecture and morality.

In Roark’s quest for truth, he recognizes, first and foremost, that nature is absolute, that reality is as we perceive it with our senses, that its laws do not bend in accordance with popular opinion or social consensus, that observation and logic are the final arbiters of truth and falsity. In terms of Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, Roark is on a primacy of existence premise, the principle that existence holds primacy over consciousness. According to this principle, existence exists independently of consciousness; consciousness is dependent on existence, not vice versa; consciousness cannot, by sheer act of will, create or alter the world; “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” As Peikoff puts it:

Existence, this principle declares, comes first. Things are what they are independent of consciousness—of anyone’s perceptions, images, ideas, feelings. Consciousness, by contrast, is a dependent. Its function is not to create or control existence, but to be a spectator: to look out, to perceive, to grasp that which is.13

Roark’s firsthandedness—his cognitive and moral independence—is a direct result of his primacy of existence orientation. The secondhandedness of the novel’s villains is a direct result of their orientation toward a social version of the primacy of consciousness.

Rand dramatizes the philosophic conflict between firsthanders and secondhanders throughout her story, but one subtle scene—depicting the only dialogue between Roark and his primordial antagonist—is especially memorable. Toohey, having puppet-mastered society’s desecration of the Stoddard Temple, says, “Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.” Roark responds in simple honesty: “But I don’t think of you.”14 Whereas Toohey is concerned always with what people think about him or others, Roark values facts, not opinions—and rational men, not irrational ones. He literally does not think of Toohey at all.

In real life, both historically and today, there are numerous examples of creative freethinkers who ultimately succeed in revolutionizing men’s understanding but who struggle initially against entrenched social beliefs. These include great scientists such as Galileo and Darwin, whose groundbreaking theories engendered powerful opposition from religious institutions; pioneering educators such as Maria Montessori, whose methods outrage the educational establishment; and revolutionary novelists and philosophers such as Rand herself, who transfigure human understanding of literature and philosophy in the face of virulent and virtually unanimous intellectual opposition.

The Fountainhead dramatizes the principles that firsthanders such as Roark are the fountainhead of human progress, that they often face intense social opposition—and that they inevitably do when the secondhandedness propagated by Kantianism permeates society.

Ayn Rand described The Fountainhead’s theme as “individualism vs. collectivism, not in politics but in men’s souls.” This theme may be restated in several ways: independence vs. dependence, firsthandedness vs. secondhandedness, the primacy of existence principle vs. a social version of the primacy of consciousness premise. But described in terms of the history of philosophy, the book’s conflict represents the life-giving ideas of Ayn Rand vs. the all-destroying ideas of Immanuel Kant. In this regard, the novel’s theme can be seen as Objectivism vs. Kantianism.


1 Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead,Centennial Edition (New York: Penguin, 2005), p. 679.

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2 Rand, Fountainhead, p. 31.

3 Rand, Fountainhead,p. 598.

4 Rand, Fountainhead,p. 261.

5 Rand, Fountainhead,p. 233.

6 Rand, Fountainhead,p. 241.

7 Rand, Fountainhead,p. 638.

8 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), p. 546.

9 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), p. 85, A46.

10 Ayn Rand, For The New Intellectual (New York: New American Library, 1961), p. 32.

11 Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Meridian, 1993), pp. 21–22.

12 Rand, Fountainhead,p. 24.

13 Peikoff, Objectivism,p. 18.

14 Rand, Fountainhead, p. 389.


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