Terry Pinkard: The Legacy of Idealism

Terry Pinkard (2002). German Philosophy 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 393p.

Book review by Renxiang Liu, originally written in Oct 2021.

Many stories have been told of German Idealism, referring roughly to the philosophical movement which Kant initiated with his critical philosophy and which Hegel epitomized with his philosophical “system”. What is peculiar about Pinkard’s treatment is an emphasis on its “legacy”, i.e., what is still alive and relevant nowadays despite the apparent “expiry” of German Idealism as such.

The legacy bears an unmistakable sign of “idealism”. Pinkard interprets idealism, not as a metaphysical account of what and where the world essentially is, but as a philosophical narrative about the irreducibility of the normative aspects of human (conscious) existence to its metaphysical nature. An idealist position therefore implies an attentiveness to the forming and abiding of this normativity. Being an achievement of human activity, normativity is not rooted in human nature per se; nor is it the arbitrary product of one individual. The emergence and perseverance of normativity necessarily involves negotiation between plural agents and, when necessary, compromise. The negotiation, moreover, is always historical and entails violence and forgiveness (reconciliation, in Hegel’s language). According to Pinkard, this attentiveness to normativity and plurality, summarized in the now misleading word “reason”, was lost in the wane of German Idealism in the late 19th Century. By implication, the rise of an all-encompassing autocratic power, which annihilates rather than respects the diversity of political voices, resulted not from German Idealism (as Karl Popper once contended in The Open Society and Its Enemies) but from a weariness from it.

Pinkard did well furnishing the social-historical backdrop of the entire movement of Kantianism and post-Kantianism. When evaluating Kant’s position, he highlights the Critique of Judgment to the same extent as he does the Critique of Pure Reason; the aim is to set up the stage for later figures. Pinkard draws out the “Kantian paradox” in the following steps. Transcendental philosophy has invalidated, once and for all, the metaphysical approach to human knowledge, freedom, and vocation [Bestimmung]—that is, to establish these matters on an apodictically assumed essence. Instead, what we deem “natural” must be seen as an achievement, calling for constant activity on our part (which of course does not mean we can change them at will). In other words, the norms we follow are (or, in the practical realm, ought to be) the norms we institute ourselves. The difficulty is however: how is it possible that we abide by the very norms we author? If we author these for a reason, it seems that reason predates the authoring act; however, the point here is precisely that the reason, and in fact any reason which is justified to motivate us, must be the product of the authoring act.

Put otherwise, our freedom (which is not arbitrariness but implies rationality and responsibility) seems to depend on an anonymous nature, while, on the other hand, nature must bear the structure of freedom. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant therefore seeks a common ground of the two. The following is a phrase Pinkard quotes repeatedly throughout the book: the solution to the “Kantian paradox” is sought in that which is “neither nature nor freedom and yet is linked with the basis of freedom, the suprasensible.” (Critique of Judgment, §59) It is possible, then, to view post-Kantian developments as diverse interpretations of this idea.

It was F. H. Jacobi who initiated a long-lasting tradition of reading Kant as saying that nature and freedom are aspects of some one underlying, “absolute” reality. (92) Jacobi argued this to show that Spinozism is the only consistent conclusion of Kantian philosophy, so as to propose his own view that reason does not solve the difficulty of faith, and so we must become available for a salto mortale. Later, people in the Romantic tradition, as well as the early Schelling (who greatly inspired Romanticism with his “identity philosophy”), would take this Spinozist interpretation more seriously and content that aesthetic experience (either with the beauty of nature or with art), rather than conceptual thinking, gives us immediate access to what Kant called “the basis of freedom, the suprasensible.”

With Karl Leonhard Reinhold’s popularization of Kantian philosophy, the unity of freedom and nature became an immediately certain “fact” of reason. Fichte pointed out, however, that the first principle of philosophy, being a principle, cannot be simply a “fact” [Tatsache]; rather, it must be normative, a norm-guided action [Tathandlung]. Otherwise, the first principle would remain a ‘dead’ proposition without normative power. (107) But this means that the dichotomy between freedom and nature is itself established by freedom, i.e., subjectively. (109) The theme of philosophy was thus shifted more thoroughly from substance to normative activity. See, for example, Fichte’s use of intellectual intuition:

Nothing other than our own spontaneity, our autonomy itself, could serve as such a basis; and that very basic autonomy had to be itself construed non-metaphysically, not as expressing any ground-level metaphysical fact about some suprasensible object, but as expressing some absolutely basic norm, which itself could only be grasped in its necessity through an act of rational insight, of intellectual intuition. (112)

The target of intellectual intuition is no longer some metaphysical entity (as in Plato) but the “absolutely basic norm” which we ourselves have instituted in the first place.

Since to adopt a normative stance is to commit oneself to distinction (“negation”), the division between “I” and “not-I” becomes a key moment of Fichte’s system (115), and here the “not-I” must be “posited” by the “I” so as to preserve the “I’s” primacy in instituting norms. While the “not-I” may well exceed the expectations of the “I”, it structure must still come from the latter.

While the early Romantics appreciated Fichte’s idea that everything must “count” for the “I” in the latter’s institution of normativity, they were dissatisfied with Fichte’s abstract formulation of the “I”. (137) To rehabilitate the sense in which we are not just the subject but also the object of reflection, the early Romantics turned to our pre-reflective awareness of the “being” of the world as well as of our temporal existence in this world. (140)

This led to the young Schelling’s conclusion that the suprasensible common ground is an “one and all” [ἕν τὸ πᾶν], inaccessible through conceptual understanding. Schelling developed his Naturphilosophie to trace this pre-history of conscious normativity. He revived the Aristotelian notion of “nature” as “infinite pure productivity” (183), i.e., as natura naturata, which in Schelling’s view is an immemorial past which has always already grown into, and continues to nourish, the conscious, articulated world. When we study nature in the sciences, then, we view this anonymous ground in retrospect and apply to it categories that are our own work, thereby seeing nature as conforming to norms (laws), etc. But this is certainly not nature in its most primordial sense.

Schelling therefore called for “an openness to something more than the merely human, namely, to the divine in human life.” (194) Accordingly, the emergence of personality and individuality, rather than being dismissed as meaningless (as in Schopenhauer, for example), was for Schelling an interesting historical development. (195)

In his own way, Hegel incorporated Fichte’s idea of the internalization of the limit of reason and Schelling’s idea of the historical development of reason. This creative “synthesis” is shown in Pinkard’s interpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: what seems otherwise the simplest perception already commits us to the normativity of reason, the act of asking and giving reasons, the mutual recognition of free agents, the institutions in which traditional reasons have been sedimented, and so on. According to Pinkard, Hegel’s response to the “Kantian paradox” was truly a hermeneutic one:

Hegel viewed the “Kantian paradox” as the basic problem that all post-Kantian philosophies had to solve; and the solution had to be to face up to the paradox and to see how we might make it less lethal to our conception of agency while still holding onto it, all in terms of integrating it into some overall conception of agency that showed how the paradox was in fact livable and conceivable. (226-227)

The “mediation” which allows us to make the paradox livable is our plural, social coexistence:

Since the agent cannot secure any bindingness for the principle simply on his own, he requires the recognition of another agent of it as binding on both of them. Each demands recognition from the other that the “law” he enacts is authoritative (that is, right). (227)

For a norm to really be a norm, recognition from outside of the self is necessary. In suggesting this new model of plurality, Hegel has in fact reimagined the relation between the finite and the infinite as such: the infinite, instead of being the whole in which all parts vanish (as in traditional metaphysics), is reinterpreted as the way of the finite’s coming-to-be and passing-away. (253) The society is thus not a grand entity over and above individuals but the horizon of their coexistence and cooperation. Such is Hegel’s intrinsic articulation of finitude, ignored by most of his critics.

The absolute for Hegel is accordingly not “out there” but itself a historical achievement, indicating the moment when the “concept” is finally able to give itself “actuality”, i.e., when the self-legislating being (spirit) is finally able to recognize itself as self-legislating. (264) We begin in the middle of ourselves and will only gradually recognize (“redeem”) our own aspects bit by bit. Thus, Hegel says, “the nature of spirit is to produce what it is. So it is its destiny to make itself into that which it is in itself” (285)—better still, we may say “that which it has been [gewesen] in itself.” The natural aspects of our existence (need of food, reproduction, companionship, etc.), once realized, become inscribed or “doubled” in our network of meaning and display themselves as custom, habit, moral and legal institutions, religion, etc. (288) The latter is irreducible to the natural basis. From now on, the normative achievement will know of no limit; it just takes time to double on what has been (or will have been) nature (300)—such was Hegel’s idealist optimism.

After giving a thorough account of Hegel’s life and work, Pinkard turns to some of the repercussions of Hegelianism after 1830. First, there was the “materialist” transformation of Hegel in Feuerbach and Marx: the normative was displaced from consciousness to social fact, social forces. (311) Second, there was Schelling’s attack on Hegelianism for its overconfidence in the identification of being and thinking—in Schelling’s (and later Kierkegaard’s) words, the confusion of logic with existence, of thought with reality. By contrast, Schelling insists on the idea of the excess of being—in fact, of God (for what infinitely exceeds the finite can itself only be infinite). Our task is therefore to work out a cosmogony in retrospect, i.e., at a point when God has already given rise to the world in his freedom, in his will for particularity (an idea reminiscent of Hegel’s). (322-323) By positing the “final dichotomy” between thought and that which is beyond thought, however, Schelling (both in his middle and his late period) has effectively restored a metaphysical fact which Fichte and Hegel were at pains to dispense with. The birth of normativity is, in Schelling, not normative (at least not according to the human perspective) but unthinkable-in-advance [unvordenklich]. (328) The argument he puts up for an abyssal ground [abgründliche Grund] of reason continued to rely on a privative conception of human finitude. (329)

Finally, in the generation after 1830, when revolutionary hopes were suffocated following the upheaval of 1848, German thought went in a direction, not so much of the “overcoming” of German Idealism, but of its oblivion or dismissal. Schopenhauer, with an idiosyncratic lack of conceptual rigor, generalized the will to such an extent that all distinction of individuals must vanish into the utterly purposeless ground; freedom becomes detachment or escape from selfhood, out of a weakness and an incapability to suffer the tragedy of agency and dignity. (343-344) In Kierkegaard, while a lot of idealist elements (including the key idea of responsibility) was preserved, the emphasis on a singular individual in front of an unfathomable God threatened to compromise what we could have accomplished in a finite and plural human community. The hope in human community as a whole and European modernity as such, which virtually pervaded the generation of German Idealism, was now replaced by a disillusion with and mistrust of the commercial, flattened, and thoughtless mass society. Ironically, once idealism retreated to the atomized, solitary individual, its eventual demise impended.

In the conclusion, Pinkard reemphasized that the German Idealist conception of reason were “part of the thickly historical and social practice of giving and asking for reasons, and their universality was thereby conceived as a fragile historical achievement, not as a transcendental feature of consciousness.” (359) The practice of holding up a historical achievement must be thick, precisely because reason, the achievement itself, is thin, i.e., unessential in the metaphysical sense. This subtle notion of reason was itself a fragile achievement of generations of painstaking investigations. These investigations were possible thanks to the faith in the self-determination and self-legislation of humanity (361); once this faith was frustrated by the “ugly reality” of the 19th Century, German Idealism could no longer survive as a dominant way of thinking about ourselves. Most lamentable, however, was not the wane of German Idealism as a school of thought, but the seemingly irreparable loss of a keen sense to the difficult yet invaluable equilibrium of mutual recognition between plural agents. Pinkard remarks in a comment on Wagner’s music:

What, in Kant, were the claims to “compare our own judgment with human reason in general… to put ourselves in the position of everyone else” in a world of plural agents, and, in Hegel, the demand to understand the inevitable contingency of our norms while holding fast to the need and requirement that we justify them to each other, become instead submerged into another quite different vision: that of a world in which the messy and complicated process of giving and asking for reasons might be avoided, in which a “heroic” act (or perhaps a “heroic art” might provide us with a new unity “higher than” or “deeper than” the conditions of human plurality and self-consciousness. (365)

As we know, this avoidance of “messy” plurality in favor of a superior unity has been the “mainstream” of philosophy from Plato to contemporary analytic dogmatism. But it was this vain hope in the “hero”, not a Kant or a Hegel, which gave way to the rise of totalitarianism, as well as the inactivity of “subjects” therein. The Dritte Reich was therefore the culmination of a weariness with pluralist reason.

Fortunately, the legacy of German Idealism is still accessible for us. Pinkard notes that freedom continues to be the basic category underlying contemporary movements, conservative and progressive alike. Because of this, we might as well give a more serious thought to the full sense and implication of freedom:

As a set of some of the deepest and more thorough reflections of what it could mean for us to be free both individually and collectively under the inescapable conditions of human plurality, and as an ongoing suspicion about all those views that neglect these conditions, whether they be philosophical or otherwise—this is and remains the true legacy of idealism. (367)

Academically, one can certainly nit-pick about the book’s narrative. What strikes me as problematic is the perhaps oversimplified account of Fichte and Hegel as advocating a “philosophy of normativity” which came to thrive long after their deaths. While this offered a powerful framework of analysis and interpretation, it left untouched the “metaphysical” (no longer in the pejorative sense) question of the being of norms: to say that an activity or agency institutes normativity tells very little about what that activity is like in terms of its relation to nature and freedom; a purely normative analysis is therefore like a high-order theory which remain silent about what undergirds the structures it describes. In a transcendental, indeed Kantian reserve, one can certainly bite the bullet and claim they are only describing things as themselves an agent embedded in this entire framework of meaning. What they produce will be consistent; my suspect is just that it might leave out some of the interesting outreaches of German Idealism, especially of Hegel’s religious thought. As a work for the public, however, this book has the incredible merit of rehabilitating the most intricate “legacy” of German Idealism, making it accessible against its cultural-historical background, and, in doing so, making a philosophical case for the irreducibility of plurality and mutual recognition.

Published by Renxiang Liu

Philosopher, Phenomenologist, Humanist.

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