Frederick Beiser: The Fate of Reason

Frederick C. Beiser (1993). The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 410p.

Book review by Renxiang Liu, originally written in Jul 2018.

This book fills a lacuna in the history of philosophy at the end of the 18th Century. Kant’s influence was predominant in German philosophy during that period, obscuring other figures who motivated him through criticism, made explicit internal contradiction of the critical philosophy, or foreshadowed the development of idealism after Kant. Significant among them were Hamann, Mendelssohn, Jacobi, Herder, Eberhard, Reinhold and Maimon. This book gives a careful examination on each of them, pointing out their historical significance as well as summarizing the ways they contributed to the disputes.

There are two clues that lead throughout the book. The first is the crisis of the authority of reason at the decline of the German Aufklärung. The harmony between reason and morality/religion, the autonomy, impartiality, and universality of reason, were all under serious doubt. The second and more concrete clue is the pantheism controversy initiated by Jacobi and Mendelssohn and participated by almost all the figures at the time. Through a disclosure of Lessing’s Spinozism, Jacobi argued that reason, when followed consistently, necessarily leads to fatalism and atheism. There is no way to be loyal to reason while retaining values of morality, religion, and the state. A dichotomy was posited between rational nihilism and irrational fideism.

The role Kant played in the story was interesting. Though his critical philosophy deserves a significant place in the pantheon of philosophy, Kant’s fame was largely due to Reinhold’s popularizing interpretation of him as providing a solution to the aporia created by the pantheism controversy. Kant’s critical notion of reason (distanced from Leibniz-Wolffian rationalism) and especially his prioritization of practical over theoretical reason seemed to provide a third path apart from Jacobi’s dilemma. Because obligations of practical reason necessitate the regulative ideas of freedom, God and immortality of the soul, Kant proves their validity without relying on metaphysical arguments, which were losing their credit under Hamann, Jacobi and Herder’s attack.

But the solution Kant gave soon appeared problematic as well. Attacks came from Lockeans and Wolffians, but more fatally from Reinhold, Schulze and Maimon, who maintained that Kant’s critical philosophy failed to fulfill its own aims. Criticism thus turned into meta-criticism, and philosophy was profoundly transformed from a first-order inquiry of epistemological processes into a second-order examination of transcendental concepts of reason, which was crucial to the transition from Kant to Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel.

The merits of this book are various. First, Frederick Beiser knows how to extract from intricate materials a clear account of a certain philosopher’s ideas, with an emphasis on his agreements and disagreements with others. This is a gift for a book that deals with some 30 figures within 300 pages. The reader never finds herself lost in details of those disputes but is always guided with a synoptic view on the main issue.

Second, the book impressively contextualizes Kant’s philosophy and its development. Most of Kant’s ideas are revealed to have been responses to others, though the pivotal conception of a transcendental philosophy was undoubtedly revolutionary—something more revolutionary than Kant the man. Beiser neither trivializes Kant’s thought as a mélange of his contemporaries’, nor detaches him from them, rendering Kant’s breakthroughs rootless. Rather, Beiser knows well that the best way to depict a great philosopher is to place him back in his time and then to show the timelessness of his thoughts.

Third, the book also serves as a valuable documentation of those supposedly “minor” figures at the period. Though they seemed to be largely trapped in their Zeitgeist, lots of their ideas, given proper interpretation, are astonishingly close to what we find in 19th and 20th Century philosophy. For example, Hamann and Herder’s philosophy of language already suggests a conceptual analysis; Reinhold’s theory of representation is structurally reminiscent of Husserl’s discussion of intentionality, and Maimon’s idea of an infinite struggle of understanding foreshadows Lacan’s conception of the dynamics of the Real. This does not mean, of course, that 19th and 20th Century philosophies have nothing new. However, once we recognize those purportedly “novel” ideas in the history of philosophy, we become less blind to their connection to other ideas as well as the difficulties intrinsic to them. Indeed, most philosophers today are much more ignorant of such difficulties than their 18th Century precedents.

Having gone through the extremely productive years from 1781 to 1793, the book curiously stops before introducing Fichte. The rest of the story, which is largely a revival of metaphysics in the face of meta-criticism, constitutes the theme of Beiser’s another book, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 1781-1801.

Published by Renxiang Liu

Philosopher, Phenomenologist, Humanist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: