Alexander Schnell: Was ist Phänomenologie?

Was ist Phänomenologie? Couverture du livre Was ist Phänomenologie?
Rote Reihe 111
Alexander Schnell
Klostermann
2019
Paperback 24,80 €
182

Reviewed by: Daniel Sobota (Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences)

Phenomenology as Transcendental Speculative Idealism

 

The book by Alexander Schnell, a professor of theoretical philosophy at University of Wuppertal, bearing the title Was ist Phänomenologie? (What is Phenomenology?), is his third book written in German. The book presents the conception of phenomenology understood as speculative transcendental idealism. To a large extent it refers to Schnell’s prior investigations, such as in his first German-edited book Hinaus. Entwürfe zu einer phänomenologischen Metaphysik und Anthropologie (Würzburg, Königshausen & Neumann, Orbis Phaenomenologicus (Studien), Nr. 24, 2011, 160).  This book which will be reviewed here consists of a Preface and three parts, each of which is subdivided into two chapters. The length of this book—relative to its gravity and the complexity of the question included in its title—suggests that Schnell’s new book (in a similar vein to his Hinaus) is a systematic presentation of an idea; a well-thought project rather than a complete system of phenomenological philosophy.

Schnell’s project is intended to answer two fundamental questions: 1) How do we understood phenomenological cognition in its most radical form? and 2) How do we reconcile a turn to transcendental subjectivity—being so characteristic of phenomenology as such—with the grounding of the “robust” (that is, “tactile,” “concrete,” “hard,” etc.) concept of being with respect to reality? What is at stake here is the possibility of reconciling an epistemological question about legitimizing cognition with the ontological character of phenomenology. In other words, Schnell’s agenda aims at reconciling the goals and methods of phenomenology pursued by Husserl and Heidegger, respectively. To reach this goal, Schnell delivers an argument which combines three distinct “ways” out of a possible four: 1) it presents the idiosyncrasies of the phenomenological method; 2) it points to the heritage of German idealism and English empiricism as the philosophico-historical origins of phenomenology; 3) it polemizes with Quentin Meillassoux’ speculative realism and puts forward a phenomenological-transcendental grounding of the concept of reality. The fourth way, which would consider specific investigations of phenomenological problems, not counting the issue of correlationism (Korrelationismus) and sense-formation (Sinnbildung), lies outside the author’s interest.

The book is intended not to be a historical or systematic introduction to phenomenology, but rather an outline of the task which we can label, quoting Eugen Fink, as a “phenomenological idea of grounding.” When asked about the possibility of uniformizing such distinct standpoints as Husserl’s, Heidegger’s, Merleau-Ponty’s, Fink’s, Levinas’s, and Richir’s into a common phenomenological “school” Schnell replies that phenomenology from its very beginning was a project which has been (despite many differences in the methods of its realization) characterized by a common philosophical horizon and direction of thinking. In his view, this common denominator is transcendental philosophy.

Phenomenology is a philosophical project emerging from a critical diagnosis of western culture in the 20th century. Opposing the general cultural tendency to reduce the dimensions of sense and being to pure facts, the point of departure for phenomenology is to note that whatever appears to us is given to our consciousness and that the appearance of things presupposes the idea of correlation. The only object of phenomenology is intentionality or original phenomenological correlation, which is the transcendental field for constituting any sense, including the sense of the real world.

Schnell operationalizes the conceptual core of phenemenology by the following four points: firstly, double (both ontological and gnoseological) presuppositionlessness; secondly, genetic givenness, which, due to the fact that it is just being drawn out, it is not priorly given; thirdly, the above-mentioned correlativity; and finally intelligibilization, which states that instead of exploring Being and justifying or explaining cognition, phenomenology is oriented at investigating sense and “rendering the idea of cognition comprehensible”.

As far the phenomenological method is concerned (chapter 1), with which phenomenology as such happens to be identified, Schnell points to four points of convergence for the shaping of sense: transcendentality, meaningfulness, eidetics and correlativity. The first point reduces to the correlation between thinking and Being (Fichte), with this correlation being enabled by way of “transcendental experience,” or opening the field of sense constitution. That is why the second sense characterizes the phenomenological method as investigations oriented at sense, or as an attempt to make things comprehensible. After Heidegger, we can describe said sense as the “with respect to what” of each comprehension. The third moment, that is eidetics, protects the phenomenological cognition from the threat of collapsing into investigating fact (contra psychologism). Eventually, the fourth moment has already been mentioned in the context of the concept of transcendentality; on the grounds of phenomenology, correlation proceeds in a three-fold manner: 1) It is still a pre-phenomenological correlation between the subject and object of experience; 2) Strictly phenomenological correlation of noetic-noematic nature; 3) Deep pre-phenomenal correlation, understood as pre-immanence, pure anonymity. With these three points mentioned above serving as a point of departure, one can point to four fundamental axes of the phenomenological method 1) Epoché and reduction; the former means suspension of judgement, as characteristic of the natural approach, whereas the latter means a turn to transcendental subjectivity. Additionally there is 2) Eidetic variation, 3) Phenomenological description, and 4) Phenomenological construction. What merits attention is a complex description of the eidetic variation, with the description in question introducing a characteristically phenomenological concept of essence. This very concept appears to be quite different from what traditional philosophy understands by essence (as opposed, on the latter view, to facts and particulars). From the point of view of the well-known opposition of essence and phenomenological fact, Eidos is something third. Across all these constituents of the phenomenological method, Schnell stresses their “creative,” “constructive”, and speculative character. There is a relation of mutual dependence between the objects of phenomenology and the existence of the phenomenological method.

There is another concept related to the above-delineated phenomenological method; namely, the concept of understanding, which makes the Husserlian phenomenology receptive to Heideggerian motifs (chapter II). The concept of understanding operates within a tension between the Self and the Other; that is between the Self and what is other than myself. As an element of the phenomenological method, the previously mentioned concept renders phenomenology capable of addressing the problem of legitimizing (a problem that haunts the humanities) claims for truth and epistemic accomplishments of the sciences. Schnell brings out a methodical outline of understanding in two steps. First, he refers to historical conceptions of understanding in the thought of Heidegger and Fichte. Second, he heeds two aspects of understanding which the afore-mentioned thinkers failed to consider and which are, however, essential to the phenomenological understanding. Just as in the previous considerations related to a method, also at this point, the author emphasizes a ‘creative’ and active character of the phenomenological method, the aspect of which is understanding itself. The said character manifests itself, first and foremost, in the concept of projection (Heidegger); and second – in the self-interpretation of the Self, which understands something; third – in the negative activity of differentiation (Fichte); fourth – in the fixation; that is, in holding of what is to be comprehended, during which within the Self there emerges some distance to itself; fifth, in the “phenomenalization” of what is incomprehensible, which constitutes a sort of base for the comprehensible. The phenomenalization in question, involving the a priori extension of the field of comprehensibility, is achieved by way of “the phenomenological construction”; namely, “genetization.” Generally speaking, phenomenology as a method means an incessant “going back to things in themselves”; or, to put it more accurately, going “beyond things” and towards the open horizon which makes things appear to us in the first place. In this open horizon, there is eventually something irreducible, something given which is not to be identified with any “data” but rather with something “given” in the process of the phenomenological construction. This will be addressed further along.

Chapter III points to another route towards phenomenology. This route goes across philosophico-historical reflection which is supposed to elucidate “what is not thought about” in the phenomenological method. The idea of grounding, constituting a guiding idea of phenomenology itself, derives its motifs from two traditions: classical German philosophy and English empiricism of the 17th century. Resorting to the pronouncements of Husserl, Heidegger and Levinas, Schnell notes that phenomenology is possible only as idealism which combines in itself both a transcendental and ontological dimension. The premises of this reasoning are to be found in classical German philosophy, especially in Fichte, according to whom one legitimizes cognition by virtue of non-sensory intuitive cognition.  The intuitive legitimization of cognition has different modi. First and foremost, it refers to the first level of justifying cognition. That is, it refers to the level of the phenomenological description of immanent data of consciousness. At a second stage, with this stage entering the sphere of pre-immanence, aware (or conscious) experience must be supplemented with the annihilation of occurring closures. The positive side of annihilation is the already-mentioned construction. Its intuitive dimension is instantiated as history, conceived of as genesis; that is habitualizations and sedimentations. These are creative accomplishments of a phenomenologist who constructs whatever is necessary for validating cognition at the deepest level. This is the lesson from Kant. However, Fichte goes even further than Husserl by demonstrating in the double reflection how what enables cognition is possible: how are conditions of possibility possible themselves? On the grounds of phenomenology, a similar scheme of conduct is realized by the Heideggerian existentiell being-towards-death, which, grounding the “entirety” of Dasein, is labelled as “enabling” (Ermöglichung) what constitutes the “possibility of impossibility”, and hence, death. Searching for the possibility of combining an epistemological and ontological aspect of the “idea of grounding”, Schnell evokes a dispute between Fichte and Schelling. According to the latter, in order to legitimize knowledge, it is not sufficient to resort to a form of knowledge as such. One should also take into consideration its content. This strict relations between the constituting and the constituted was recognized within the realm of phenomenology by Levinas, who speaks of “the relations of mutual conditioning.” To rebut an indictment of formalism, which is in turn related to an indictment of solipsism, one should demonstrate what the immanent link between thinking and Being consists in. The explication of this relations proceeds in reference to three categories and dimensions: truth, constitution, and genesis. Regarding truth: On the basis of the analyses of experience, Husserl demonstrates in what way “truth is an a priori form of any reference to the world.” Regarding constitution: On the level of the sphere of immanence, it is proved that every actual consciousness is surrounded by the horizons of potentiality, which opens up the way towards “new ontology” (Levinas), although it must be conceded that thinking constitutes Being. The latter each and every time transcends thinking, thus founding the former’s accomplishments.  On the level of pre-immanence, what is revealed is the sphere of ‘pre-being’, the aspects of which are “subject” and “object”. Therefore, it transpires that “transcendental constitution is an ontological founding” (100). Regarding genesis: At the level of transcendental genesis, what takes place is what Levinas labels as “diachrony” and Fichte – “the reflection on reflection”. Every relation of conditioning presupposes a shift between registers, wherein one asserts either presence or absence – depending on the perspective assumed: be it the conditioning or the conditioned. Then again, what applies at this point is the trope of enabling doubling. Due to the complexity of the issue under scrutiny and its concise presentation in Schnell’s book, what we can say herein is that it is only at the level which Heidegger calls “fundamental happening,” that what is eventually reconciled is the need to make cognition comprehensible and founding everything upon Being itself.

A second historico-background for Husserlian phenomenology, next to German classical philosophy and of equally importance, is English empiricism (chapter IV). Husserl dedicated much attention to the Humean achievements particularly towards the end of his life; that is, in the period in which—on the one hand—he recognized Lebenswelt as a primary category of his phenomenology—and on the other hand—he described phenomenology as reflection on history. The latter characterization leads to the conclusion that the crisis of science results from its “objectivism”, which roughly means its underestimation of the life-world. The said objectivism supersedes the world of natural approach with a mathematical substrate, understood as a being in itself. And it is precisely in Hume’s thought that soul constitutes the world out of impression by virtue of fantasy that Husserl finds the motifs which shake the foundations of this objectivism. In his phenomenological considerations Husserl tries to give a positive account of how consciousness, including the acts of imagination, constitutes the world “in itself” and legitimizes the pretense of modern sciences for absolute truth. In Husserl’s view, unlike in Kant’s, the major problem in Hume’s thought is not the problem of induction, but the problem of making comprehensible this “naïve obviousness of the certainty of the world” which ordinary and scientific consciousness feeds on. To solve this problem, Husserl enters transcendental considerations which are supposed to disclose the transcendental life of subjectivity at the very foundations of “the certainty of the world.” For this purpose, he develops the “world-life reduction”, which is supposed to liberate one’s perception from the naïve certainty of the world and to direct it towards a priori, inhering in Lebenswelt. That is, to the hidden correlation of the world and the consciousness thereof; to “spiritual actions” which constitute all the meaningful creations. Only via this route is one able to, on the one hand, show whence sciences derive their claim for universal validity; and on the other, to make comprehensible the naïve obviousness surrounding the life-world. According to Husserl, the validity of sciences has its foundations in the sense of being in the life-world, from the “synthetic wholeness” of its transcendental achievements.

From the above-described perspective of “the science of Lebenswelt,” Husserl conducts a critical reinterpretation of five fundamental motifs of earlier phenomenology: 1) The grounding horizon of the legitimization of cognition, 2) Intuition as the principle of all principles, 3) The most fundamental role of actual perception, 4) Description as a basic method of phenomenology, and 5) Hegemony of the constructing Ego. Regarding the five above-listed motifs in turn: 1) Whereas in his writings dating back to the twenties, Husserl mainly aimed at justifying any cognition, in his notes and lectures from the thirties he describes the task of phenomenology as making comprehensible, which introduces the process of sense-formation and exposes the significance of intersubjectivity, or actually, strictly speaking, intersubjectivity of “anonymous” character. Such intersubjectivitity requires not reduction but “in-duction” (Latin inductio literally means: introduction) into the realm of what is pre-subjective.  2) This anonymous subjectivity calls into question the principle of all principles; or to put it more clearly, the primacy of intuition as far as sense-formation goes.  3) This in turn gives rise to contesting the primacy of actual perception as a legitimizing source of all cognitive references made by consciousness to objects. Instead, contesting the above can count in favour of the modes of actualization realized by imagination. 4) Reaching the transcendental non-intuitive foundation of sense-formation requires that it should be recognized and conceded that philosophy may be a “universal science” only as a non-objective science. There is no “descriptive science on transcendental being and life”, says Husserl. This implies that the process of making comprehensible must avail itself of a different notion of truth from the one traditionally attributed to objective sciences. 5) The last difficulty concerns the relations between the constituted world and the constituting subjectivity. Here we are facing the following dilemma: either we preserve the participation of the subject in the word, which would make the world-constitution non-radical. Or, alternatively, the constitution is radical, and then what would be required is that the subjecthood, as related to the world, is to be rescinded. Therefore, at this point there occurs some tension between the natural approach to the world and the transcendental approach. To elucidate this tension, it takes the introduction—as a “foundation” of the world constitution—of the self-destructive subjecthood. In Husserl, this paradox is solved by projecting it onto the problem of the relations between primordial-Self and intersubjectivity and between primordial self and objectified worldly self.           

This very reference to the lowest layers of the transcendental life and being is reminiscent of the issue of the Absolute. Schnell raises this issue with reference to the dispute having been going on since the critique of phenomenology launched by “speculative realism,” represented by Quentin Meillassoux (chapter V). According to the latter thinker, phenomenology is purportedly the contemporary paradigm case of the philosophical standpoint, labelled as correlationism, wherein there is no possibility of thinking a being in itself without simultaneously relating this very being to thinking itself. Schnell takes the sting out of these indictments in four steps.

The main argument against the phenomenological correlationism is to be the one from ancestrality. The main thrust of the argument is the claim that any version of correlationism faces an insuperable problem posed by the fact of existence of the events prior to the emergence of conscious beings who could have experienced these events. This argument is easy to refute from the perspective of transcendentalism. Neither Kant’s philosophy nor Husserl’s imply that something exists insofar as it is experienced by empirical persons. Instead, what the above philosophies deal with are the conditions of possibility of possible experience. Believing that the transcendental consciousness must be always embodied in a physical person and defining what is possible in terms of the lack of what is actual, Meillassoux misunderstands the transcendental status of phenomenological subjecthood and its function of making comprehensible what is genuinely possible. It is erroneous to conceive of the relation of phenomenology to reality in the same vein and at the same level as one conceives of the relation of natural sciences to reality. For phenomenology, after applying the epoché, reality appears to us as a phenomenon; a phenomenologist does not ask whether the said phenomenon exists or existed; rather, he asks about its sense: how does the past reality which no empirical person could in fact experience appear to us?

Apart from that in the process of a critical analysis speculative realism proves to be correlationism in disguise. According to Schnell, Meilassoux’s indictments derive from the assumption of a false external attitude towards phenomenology.

A positive side of the discussion is the attempt to engage phenomenology in elucidating the profoundest foundations of the correlation, which should simultaneously ensure the meaningfulness of what is – in both daily and scientific experience understood as reality it itself. Schnell brings up “correlational hypophysics” (Greek hipo – under), which is supposed—in order to fully realize the task of materializing the “idea of the grounding of phenomenology” to life—to elaborate the “transcendental matrix of correlationism” (151). In the course of elaborating this very idea, the three fundamental motifs of correlationism are uncovered. First and foremost, it is to be established what is the foundation and essence of correlation; second, what is the principle of making phenomenological cognition possible and—along with this—of granting sense; third, what phenomenological reflection consists in. Therefore, what makes up the transcendental matrix of correlationism are three motifs: correlation, sense and reflection.

Schnell outlines the said three motifs in the following manner. The essence of correlation is—following Heidegger—“horizon-opening anticipating.”  It is this concept that captures the intuitive sense of what appears to us; namely the very appearing to us itself. On the other hand, reflection does not imply a subject’s turning to itself. Rather, it means the already-mentioned “introduction (induction) into a self-reflective processualness of sense-formation” (153). Phenomenological reflection is reflection over both “borderline structures of phenomenality and what phenomenality enables”. What is thereby meant is a “characteristic performance of a phenomenologically relevant form of reflection” (154). Schnell distinguishes three types of induction, which correspond with three layers of the transcendental matrix of correlation. At the first stage of reflection, there emerges an intentional structure of consciousness, designing sense and making cognition comprehensible. Each of these structures have a dualistic form: intentionality is divided between a subject and object; what designing sense consists in is its creation and the reception thereof; making cognition comprehensible is spread between the original (Urbild) and a copy (Abbild). At the second stage, these dualities get both deepened and dynamized: consciousness becomes self-consciousness, the apparently ultimate truth of fulfilling intentions is getting hermeneutically distanced and the relations between the original and a copy within the principle of cognition becomes malleable in the process of the simultaneous designing and annihilating. Eventually, at the third stage, self-reflection becomes inward (verinnerlichende) self-reflection. First, this self-reflection opens a pre-phenomenal, pre-immanent sphere of phenomenological constitution; second, it deepens the hermeneutic truth and elevates it to the rank of a generative truth.  In place of what is given, a construction emerges. The example of the latter is Husserl’s phenomenological construction of original temporality, included in Bernauer Manuskripten. Third, what is subject to inward reflection is also establishing and destroying – both interwoven with the principle of cognition; at this stage, the reflection becomes the reflecting (Reflektieren), which highlights the workings (laws) of reflection itself (Reflexionsgesetzmäßigkeit). What is at stake here is to make the very act of making possible transparent. What is thereby meant is to enable the enabling, which characterizes the nature of what is transcendental. These workings (laws) of reflection express—next to making understanding possible—enabling being. For, eventually, what we deal with at the lowest level of what is transcendental is not pure reflective asserting. Rather, it is something which anticipates the former and which reduces to the annihilation of the experienced positiveness of conditions and to the creation of these conditions and of being as a “surplus,” with the said surplus being supposed to serve as ontological foundations to the conditions in question. “Being is a reflection on reflection” (159). “It is being that is ‘ground’ of any reality; it is not priorly given or assumed but rather genetically constructed, reflectively geneticized ‘medium of reality’” (159). With reference to the dispute with Meilassoux, Schnell claims that “the fundamental result of phenomenological speculative idealism ‘is a concept of being that can be classified as the’ Absolute”. It does not coincide with reality. It does not denote any entity. Instead, it can be characterized in the following three-fold manner. 1) Being is a prior being, “pre-being”; it denotes a pre-immanent realm of openness, an “ontological status of transcendental a priori” (161); 2) Being is a surplus; 3) Being is identified grounding.

In the last chapter (VI), Schnell returns to the question of reality. He searches for the motives for raising this question in historico-philosophical problematics of modernity, inaugurated by Descartes and then promptly revolutionized by transcendental philosophy. From this perspective, one can clearly see that the question of reality already appeared in the context of epistemological problematics, within which reality is a concept standing in contradistinction to the subjective experiences of imagination, dream or methodically complex intellectual operations. The Kantian attempt to redefine the problem introduces the idea of correlationism.  However, even this idea is originally of purely epistemological character, with which, on the grounds of phenomenology, only Heidegger clearly polemizes.

According to Schnell, one can distinguish four fundamental forms of correlationism. The first of them is to be found in Kant: it is a correlation of judgement and self-consciousness. The second is introduced by Fichte: it is a correlation of Being and thinking. The third one—phenomenological—is inaugurated by Husserl: it is the intentional correlation. The fourth one stems derives from Heidegger: it is the correlation of being-in-the-world. Schnell pauses to consider the third form of correlation, known mainly from late writings and manuscripts by Husserl in which he develops his investigations pertaining to genetic phenomenology. He combines the notion of constitution with the one of genesis. As Husserl says:

“Indem die Phänomenologie der Genesis dem ursprünglichen Werden im Zeitstrom, das selbst ein ursprünglich konstituierendes Werden ist, und den genetisch fungierenden sogenannten „Motivationen” nachgeht, zeigt sie, wie Bewusstsein aus Bewusstsein wird, wie dabei im Werden sich immerfort auch konstitutive Leistung vollzieht(Hua XIV, 41).

The said history of consciousness is given in transcendental experience. The key concept of genetic phenomenology is the category of  “sense-formation” (Sinnbildung). Schnell distinguishes three semantic moments of the process in question: the constituting moment (bildend-erzeugende), the moment of imagination (Einbildung), and the one introduced by Marc Richir: the constituting-schematizing moment (bildend-schematisierende). With reference to Richir, who was searching for the novel grounding of phenomenology, Schnell highlights the third moment and claims that at the very bottom of any act of a cognizing subject referring to Being, there is no perception but fantasy (certainly, as conceived of in the transcendental sense). Referring to the transcendental concept of an image, Schnell attempts—by way of “transcendental induction”—to demonstrate “the pre-phenomenon of sense-formation,” which allows for making both cognition and reality comprehensible. According to Schnell, what is an image is both reality and the said pre-phenomenon. In three steps of reflection, Schnell constructs “the pre-phenomenon of sense-formation.” In the above-mentioned first step of reflection, one constructs an empty concept of reflection (Abbild) which, in the second step of reflection (that is, during self-reflection) is endowed with some content. This in turn means that the former as an empty concept gets annihilated. The construction thus assumes a malleable form. Finally, during the third step of construction, which is an inward reflection, reflection starts manifesting itself as reflection with its lawfulness, which means that “each transcendental relations of conditioning implies its own enabling doubling” (178); namely, the enabling of enabling. The last sections bring an answer to two originally posed questions: 1) How may we understand phenomenological cognition in its most radical form? and 2) How do we reconcile a turn to transcendental subjectivity—being so characteristic of phenomenology as such—with the grounding of the “robust” concept of being with respect to reality? The first question is replied to with “the principle of elucidating phenomenological knowledge-claims”, which is a gradually inward reflection. By revealing its own workings (laws), this reflection leads to an answer to the second question: the possibility of reconciling epistemological and ontological features of phenomenology is to be found in the concept of phenomenality as “durable steadfastness” (ausstehende Inständigkeit) (Heidegger). Reality, as non-theoretically understood, is a “trace” of a mutual relationship of immanence (endogenesis) and transcendence (exogenesis); it is “onto-eis-ec-stasis”. “Reality is not pure being-in-itself, neither only being-for-myself, but rather, a steadfastly (inständig) discovered and geneticized being-outside-of” (181).

The boldness of some of Schnell’s ideas are inversely proportional to the detailedness of their respective explications; that is why, the last words of the book—since it is devoid of a conclusion proper—is the statement that all the considerations included therein are of preliminary nature and they call for further elaboration.

At the end, let us take the liberty of posing several questions of a polemical-critical nature. Undoubtedly, the content of the book evidences the fact that the author is well-versed in the phenomenological problematics and he freely chooses the issue that he deems necessary to highlight the identity and the peculiarities of phenomenology. However, it raises the following questions: To what extent do Schnell’s decisions related to the selection of problematics stem from what phenomenology as such is? To what extent do those questions stem from the fact that the author desires to validate his vision—rather arbitrarily assumed—of what, in his opinion, phenomenology may be? Furthermore, the next question is this: To what extent is the reconstruction of the motifs selected by Schnell—the motifs being known to the phenomenological movement—an apt interpretation? And to what extent is this interpretation distorted, taking into account the goal motivating the author’s very enterprise? What is the purpose of Schnell’s considerations? It seems that the purpose may be most easily identified in the light of the title of the scrutinized work. In other words, what is at stake is an answer to the question of what phenomenology is. Does the author succeed in reaching his goal?

Certainly, due to its concise and cursory nature, Schnell’s work requires the reader to be significantly acquainted with intricacies of the problematics of phenomenology. In this sense, the book is not, thematically and historically speaking, of introductory character, which, if it were, would make it useful to the adherents of phenomenology barely initiated into the art of philosophizing in this fashion. Quite the contrary, the beginning of Schnell’s considerations require a higher level of prior knowledge on the part of his readers. Certainly, the above does not translate into any sort of indictment. Still, it must be conceded that Husserl’s wrote that a phenomenologist is always a beginner; yet, this dictum should not be construed as related to the amateur’s practice. Husserl’s conviction about the introductory character of phenomenology gives rise to another quite distinct problem. Phenomenology is an introductory science in the five-fold sense: 1) It is a science about origins; 2) It a science designed from scratch; namely, by dint of systematic maneuvers which are supposed to ensure to phenomenology relevant sourceness and presuppositionlessness; 3) It is a point of departure for other sciences; 4) It is located at the beginning of its historical development; and, eventually 5) It is of preliminary nature. Phenomenology is essentially a research work, it is active searching, questioning, also going astray and getting lost. By contrast, Schnell’s work is a systematic presentation of ideas and of the results of phenomenological analyses – genuinely formidable, coherent construction which, albeit sketchily presented, is ex hypothesi a self-confident attempt at a philosophical system. In this sense, the scrutinized work alludes to all those attempts which can be subsumed under the umbrella term of German idealism. It is especially Kant and Fichte, to whom Schnell makes frequent historical references, that used to present their respective philosophies in a rudimentary form which was meant to eventually assume the form of a system. Hence, the title of Schnell’s book—instead of Was ist Phänomenologie?—should rather be: Ein Entwurf der Phänomenologie als spekulativer transzendentaler Idealismus. Counter to the generality of the title given by Schnell—which not only assumes the form of an interrogative but also uses the word Phänomenologie without any article, thus implying that the text shall concern the most general idea of phenomenology taking into account its most extreme thematic and historical instantiations—all the considerations contained herein are from the very beginning dedicated to the presentation of a single form of phenomenology, that is the one which is understood in the light of “the idea of grounding” (E. Fink). It seems that the element most wanting in Schnell’s consideration is the ability “to maintain the state of questionness” (“what is phenomenology?”). After all, the said ability is—as I believe—a distinctive feature of phenomenology as well as its trademark, thus distinguishing it from the other movements in the history of philosophy. The said traits are not only distinctive features marking the realm of phenomenology off against the backdrop of the history of philosophy. They also constitute its philosophical mission, so to speak. Elevating the motif of the question to the rank of a fundamental methodological directive—which entails the altered understanding of cognition and being—it dissociates itself from the question of oblivion, with the oblivion having lasted since the times of Aristotle. To revoke the question is to restore to philosophy its proper dimension of self-realization. And this is what Kant’s “Copernican turn” as well as its misunderstanding on the part of Kant’s German successors essentially consist in. By the same token, this is what the historical importance of phenomenology consists in too. That is why, if one attempts to understand phenomenology through the eyes of historico-philosophical motifs known to the history of philosophy—which, albeit important and educational in itself, threatens to obfuscate the original contribution made by phenomenology—it is precisely in Kant’s ‘Copernican turn’ that one should look for creative affinity.

After all, grasping phenomenology in the light of the question (stated by the title of the reviewed book) shows more than merely the peculiarities of phenomenology against the backdrop of the history of philosophy. By posing the question of what phenomenology is and “remaining in this state of questionness,” one uncovers phenomenology, on the one hand, as a domain or problems; and on the other hand – as an open field of different possibilities of understanding and solving them. Certainly, these are not pure possibilities but possibilities of historical nature. The internal richness of the possibilities of the idea of phenomenology, and which is what we can aptly label as its internal problematicity, somehow a priori resists any attempt to exclusively identify phenomenology with one of these possibilities. This principle applies both to its thematic and historical aspect. The question opens its own historicalness of phenomenology, with this historicalness directing us to philosophico-historical aspect of the phenomenological movement.  One would be ill-advised to reduce this internal problematicity either to a specific set of problems or to only selected attempts at solving them. However, in the context of this problem, Schnell’s work is of regrettably one-sided character. For instance, despite Schnell’s scholarly competence, as indubitably evidenced by his intellectual accomplishments, his book almost entirely skips the discussions on and transformations in the understanding of phenomenology known from, say, the writings by French phenomenologists of the post-war period (the only exception being sporadically mentioned Emannuel Levinas and Marc Richir). Certainly, it would be very bad if any subsequent attempt to raise the question of “what is phenomenology” similarly dismissed Schnell’s work.

Michael N. Forster and Kristin Gjesdal (Eds): The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics

The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics Couverture du livre The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics
Cambridge Companions to Philosophy
Michael N. Forster, Kristin Gjesdal (Eds.)
Cambridge University Press
2019
Paperback £ 22.99
432

Reviewed by:  Leen Verheyen (University of Antwerp)

In their introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics, editors Michael N. Forster and Kristin Gjesdal immediately make clear that the volume differs in approach from other, similar guides to hermeneutics. Whereas there are a number of volumes available that offer histories of hermeneutics or treatments of individual hermeneutical theorists, this book focuses on the question of how hermeneutical issues relate to different fields of study, such as theology, literature, history and psychoanalysis. In this way, the authors aim to demonstrate how hermeneutical thinking thrives and develops through concrete interdisciplinary reflection.

The book opens with an article on “Hermeneutics and Theology,” written by Christoph Bultman. In this essay, Bultman offers a historical overview of different approaches to the interpretation of religious texts and focuses in particular on the various approaches that were developed and debated during the German Enlightenment. Although Bultman offers a clear overview of different approaches within biblical hermeneutics, to a certain extent his precise aim and argument remain unclear, with the central questions behind his overview not made explicit.

In an interesting contribution in the second chapter, Dalia Nassar focuses on the way in which the study of nature in the eighteenth century involved hermeneutical methods and insights that transformed the way in which we approach and represent the natural world. In her essay, “Hermeneutics and Nature,” Nassar directs attention to the ideas of Buffon, Diderot and, especially, Herder. Nassar starts her investigation by highlighting the fact that the emergence of a hermeneutics of nature that can be found in their works must be understood in light of the liberalization of science in the mid-eighteenth century. This liberalization meant that science was no longer understood as founded on mathematics, which led to the introduction of new modes of knowledge in scientific research. According to Nassar, one of the important ideas within the development of a hermeneutics of nature in the eighteenth century was Herder’s concept of a “circle” or a “world.” If we want to understand the structure of a bird or a bee, we should focus on their relationship to the environment or world. Instead of being devoted to classifying animals or other forms of life into different categories, Herder thus directs his attention to grasping the particular “world” a certain creature inhabits and to the way this world is reflected in the structure of its inhabitants. Interpreting nature thus implies seeing the parts in their relation to the whole and, in turn, seeing how the whole is manifest in the parts.

In the following chapter, “Hermeneutics and Romanticism,” Fred Rush focuses on the form that hermeneutics took in German Romanticism, and in particular in the works of Schlegel, Schleiermacher and Humboldt. It is in their works that hermeneutics becomes concerned explicitly with methodological questions. Rush sketches the historical and philosophical circumstances in which this turn comes about.

In his chapter on “Hermeneutics and German Idealism,” Paul Redding also focuses on the emergence of a philosophical hermeneutics in the wake of an era of post-Kantian philosophy. In particular, he explores the different stances taken by hermeneutical philosophers such as Hamann and Herder, and idealist philosophers such as Fichte and Hegel, towards the relation between thought and language. Particularly interesting is his reading of the later Hegel, in which he emphasizes that Hegel can be read not as the abstract metaphysician he is often seen to be but as a philosopher engaged with hermeneutical issues.

In the following chapter, “Hermeneutics and History,” John H. Zammito explores the disciplinary self-constitution of history and the role of hermeneutics in that disciplinary constitution. Through this exploration, Zammito aims to show a way out of contemporary debates on the scientific status of disciplinary history. By investigating the views of Herder, Schleiermacher, Boeckh, Humboldt, Droysen and Dilthey, Zammito argues that the hermeneutical historicist’s attempt to give an account of the past is a cognitive undertaking and not a mystical one. The historian thus does not aim to relivethe past but to understand it. As Zammito’s exploration makes clear, such a view acknowledges the importance of the imagination in this practice, but at the same time ensures that this imagination is harnessed to interpretation, not unleashed fantasy.

Frederick C. Beiser also connects a contemporary debate to the period in which disciplinary history emerged. He starts his chapter on “Hermeneutics and Positivism” with the statement that the distinction between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy has a harmful effect on many areas of philosophy and that one of worst affected areas is the philosophy of history. Beiser notes that, starting in the 1950s, there was a sharp rise in interest in the philosophy of history among analytic philosophers in the Anglophone world, but that these analytic discourses almost completely ignored the German historicist and hermeneutical tradition. The main cost of this, Beiser argues, has been the sterility and futility of much recent philosophical debate, and in particular the long dispute about historical explanation. The dispute has been between positivists, who defend the thesis that covering laws are the sole form of explanation, and their idealist opponents, who hold that there is another form of explanation in history. One of the reasons this debate has now ended in a stand-off can be found in the neglect of alternative perspectives, and in particular that of the historicist and hermeneutical tradition. Beiser argues that if these perspectives had been taken into account by analytic philosophers, they would have recognized that there are goals and methods of enquiry other than determining the covering laws. Had they done so, their focus of attention may have shifted in the more fruitful direction of investigating the methods of criticism and interpretation that are actually used by historians. Beiser therefore concludes that the philosophy of history in the Anglophone world would be greatly stimulated and enriched if it took into account these issues and the legacy of the historicist and hermeneutical tradition.

In the subsequent chapter, “Hermeneutics: Nietzschean Approaches,” Paul Katsafanas explores several key points of contact between Nietzsche and the hermeneutical tradition. As Katsafanas notes, Nietzsche is deeply concerned with the way in which human beings interpret phenomena, but also draws attention to the ways in which seemingly given experiences have already been interpreted. By highlighting these two aspects, Katsafanas argues that it is not wrong to characterize Nietzsche as offering a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” as Paul Ricoeur suggested, but that this statement can easily be misinterpreted. As Katsafanas notes, the hermeneutics of suspicion is often understood as a stance which discounts the agent’s conscious understanding of a phenomenon and instead uncovers the real and conflicting cause of that phenomenon. Nietzsche is clearly doing more than this. According to Nietzsche, the fact that a conscious interpretation is distorting, superficial or falsifying does not mean that it can be ignored. On the contrary, these interpretations are of immense importance, because they often influence the nature of the interpreted object.

The following chapter, “Hermeneutics and Psychoanalysis,” also deals with one of the thinkers who Paul Ricoeur identified as developing a hermeneutics of suspicion, namely Sigmund Freud. In this chapter, Sebastian Gardner argues that there is an uneasy relationship between hermeneutics and Freud’s own form of interpretation. As Gardner shows, Freud may be regarded as returning to an early point in the history of hermeneutics, in which the unity of the hermeneutical project with the philosophy of nature was asserted. In line with this thought, which was abandoned by later hermeneutical thinkers, Freud can be seen as defending the idea that in order to make sense of human beings we must offer an interpretation of nature as a whole.

In “Hermeneutics and Phenomenology,” Benjamin Crowe explicates some of the fundamental insights and arguments behind the phenomenological hermeneutics developed by Heidegger and brought to maturity by Gadamer. Crowe shows how Heidegger opened up a radically new dimension of hermeneutical inquiry, because his conception of hermeneutics as a phenomenological enterprise intended to be a primordial science of human experience in its totality, and in this way took hermeneutics far beyond its traditional purview. By building on Heidegger’s approach, Gadamer developed this thought further, thinking through the distinctive role and value of humanistic inquiry in an age that prized exactitude and results above all else.

In “Hermeneutics and Critical Theory,” Georgia Warnke focuses on the critique of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics by Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, two thinkers from the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Warnke starts her investigation by returning to Horkheimer’s description of critical theory and shows how these ideas form the basis of Habermas and Honneth’s philosophical framework. Taking Horkheimer’s framework as his starting point, Habermas seems to see many virtues in Gadamer’s philosophical ideas. Gadamer’s theory, for instance, begins with the social and historical situation, and in this way provides an alternative to the self-understanding of those forms of social science that assume they can extract themselves from the context. Habermas and Honneth nevertheless see Gadamer’s attitude to reflection as a problem, because his emphasis on the prejudiced character of understanding seems to give precedence to the authority of tradition and immediate experience instead of emphasizing the importance of reason and reflection. As Warnke shows, Gadamer’s response to this critique consists of showing that the dichotomies between reason and authority and between reflection and experience are not as stark as Habermas and Honneth suppose. We can, for instance, only question the authority of aspects of our tradition on the basis of other aspects, such as inherited ideals and principles that we do not question, just as we can only reflect on our experiences if we do not begin by distancing ourselves from them. Full transparency is therefore not possible.

In “Hermeneutics: Francophone Approaches,” Michael N. Forster focuses on the French contributions to hermeneutics during the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. In the first part of the chapter, Foster argues that the roots of German hermeneutics were largely French. German hermeneutics, for example, arose partly as a response to certain assumptions of the Enlightenment, one of which was the Enlightenment’s universalism concerning beliefs, concepts, values and sensations, etc. According to Forster, this anti-universalism of German hermeneutics was largely a French achievement and was exported from France to Germany. In particular, Montaigne and the early Montesquieu and Voltaire had developed an anti-universalist position, which emphasized, for example, profound differences in mindset between different cultures and periods.

In the second part of the chapter, Forster focuses on some key figures within twentieth-century French philosophy who contributed to the development of hermeneutics, despite not describing themselves as hermeneutical thinkers. One of them is Jean-Paul Sartre, who gave a central role to interpretation in his early existentialism developed in Being and Nothingness, where he included what Forster calls a hermeneutical theory of radical freedom: although we do not create the world itself, we do create the meanings or interpretations through which we become acquainted with it.

Paul Ricoeur is the only French thinker Forster discusses who not only contributed to hermeneutics but also regarded himself as a hermeneutical thinker. Forster, however, does not seem to regard Ricoeur’s philosophy as very attractive. According to Forster, Ricoeur’s most important contribution to hermeneutics lies in his development of the concept of a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” in this way drawing attention to the fact that three major philosophical developments in the nineteenth century, namely Marx’s theory of ideology, Nietzsche’s method of genealogy and Freud’s theory of the unconscious, can be classified as forms of hermeneutics. It is, however, somewhat strange that Forster does not give much attention to the way in which Paul Ricoeur, as the only philosopher he discusses who also regarded himself as working in the hermeneutical tradition, described his own philosophical project as a hermeneutical one. In particular, Ricoeur’s idea that understanding and explanationshould not be regarded as opposites but rather as being dialectically connected, perhaps deserved more attention.

In “Hermeneutics: Non-Western Approaches,” the topic of which is rich and broad enough to be the subject of a companion of its own, Kai Marchal explores the question of whether modern hermeneutics is necessarily a Western phenomenon. As Marchal points out, philosophers in Western academia only rarely examine reflections on interpretation from non-Western traditions. Marchal therefore offers a very short overview of some of the most important scholars and texts on interpretation from non-Western cultures, while at the same time pointing toward the problem that arises from the use of the word “non-Western,” insofar it refers to a multitude of cultures and worldviews which do not have much in common. Instead of presenting an overview of the different hermeneutical theories and practices around the globe, Marchal therefore focuses on one particular example: the history of Confucian interpretive traditions in China.

After this first part, Marchal changes the scope of his investigation and focuses on the possibility of a dialogue between Western and non-Western hermeneutics. As Marchal shows, Western hermeneutical thinkers from the eighteenth century, such as Herder and von Humboldt, engaged with non-Western thought and languages, while most representatives of twentieth-century hermeneutics highlighted the Greek roots of European culture and emphasized the idea that we are tied to this heritage. Many non-Western philosophers, however, have engaged with ideas that were formulated by Heidegger and Gadamer. Nevertheless, such non-Western philosophers often unfold their understanding of European philosophical problems in their own terms. Furthermore, they are encouraged to do so by Gadamer’s claim that understanding is necessarily determined by the past. Marchal concludes his short introduction to non-Western approaches to hermeneutics by emphasizing the value of engaging with hermeneutical thinkers from other traditions. This engagement may result in an awareness of the Other’s understanding of ourselves against the backdrop of their traditions, and even in becoming open to the possibility of a radically different outlook on things.

In a chapter on “Hermeneutics and Literature,” Jonathan Culler aims to answer the question of why the tradition of modern hermeneutics has not figured significantly in the study of literature. Culler starts his investigation by noting that in literary studies there is a distinction between hermeneutics and poetics: while hermeneutics asks what a given text means, poetics asks about the rules and conventions that enable the text to have the meanings and effects it does for readers. Poetics and hermeneutics therefore work in different directions: hermeneutics moves from the text toward a meaning, while poetics moves from effects or meanings to the conditions of possibility of such meanings. In his historical overview of literary criticism, Culler highlights two important evolutions that enable us to explain the absence of modern hermeneutics within contemporary literary studies. The first is the revolution in the concept of literature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this period, the concept of literature as mimesis shifted to a concept of literature as the expression of an author. Although this means literary criticism no longer assesses works in terms of the norms of genres, of verisimilitude and appropriate expression, most discussion of literature nevertheless remains evaluative rather than interpretive. The change in the conception of literature, however, also inspired German thinkers such as Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Schleiermacher to propose a general hermeneutics, as opposed to the special hermeneutics that had focused on biblical or Classical texts. Once the mimetic model of literature is displaced by an expressive model, Culler writes, the question of what a work expresses also arises.

The arguments about what kind of meaning a work might be taken to embody or express seldom draws on this hermeneutical tradition. One of the reasons for this is the second evolution that Cullers highlights, which occurred in the twentieth century when hermeneutics itself changed. Modern hermeneutical thinkers such as Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer shifted their focus to the understanding of understanding. In this way, their hermeneutical theories offer little guidance on interpretation or in distinguishing valid interpretations from invalid ones.

In “Hermeneutics and Law” Ralf Poscher starts from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s claim that hermeneutics in general could learn from legal hermeneutics. Poscher, however, disagrees with Gadamer about what exactly can be learned. As Poscher summarizes, Gadamer thought that what could be learned from the law is that an element of application must be integrated into the concept of interpretation. Poscher, however, disagrees with Gadamer’s idea that hermeneutics is a monistic practice consisting of interpretation, and he argues that what can be learned from law is that hermeneutics is a set of distinct practices that are of variable relevance to different hermeneutical situations. Poscher develops this thought by exploring the different hermeneutical activities in which a lawyer must engage when applying the law to a given case, such as legal interpretation, rule-following, legal construction and the exercise of discretion, and he highlights the important distinctions between these different means for the application of the law to a specific case. To prove the point that hermeneutics is not a monistic practice but rather a complex whole of different practices applicable to hermeneutics in general, Poscher draws some minor parallels between the different hermeneutics applied in law and in art. These parallels are often very clear, although the fact that they are often reduced to brief remarks means that Poscher does not really engage with debates on the interpretation of art. Nevertheless, these remarks do indicate that such a profound comparison between legal hermeneutics and the hermeneutics of art could be an interesting subject for further investigation.

In the final chapter, “Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,” Kristin Gjesdal explores the question of how best to conceive of the relationship between philosophy and other sciences through the lens of hermeneutical theory and practice. Gjesdal reveals that different responses can be given to the question of what hermeneutics is, and she explores the various answers. First, she outlines the Heideggerian-Gadamerian conception of hermeneutics, in which philosophy is identified with hermeneutics and hermeneutics is identified with ontology. According to Gjesdal, this tendency is concerning because it takes no interest in the different challenges emerging from within the different areas of the human sciences, nor does it acknowledge different subfields of philosophy or textual interpretation. When looking for an answer to the question of how the relationship between hermeneutics and the human sciences might be understood, an investigation of hermeneutics in its early, Enlightenment form, seems to be more fruitful, Gjesdal argues. Through such an investigation, Gjesdal shows that hermeneutical thinkers such as Herder, Schleiermacher and Dilthey combined an interest in hermeneutical theory with hermeneutical practice and in this way can be seen as an inspiration to explore our understanding of the relationship between philosophy and the other sciences. Philosophy would then no longer be seen as the king among the sciences, and our thinking about the relationship between philosophy and the human sciences would start with a more modest attitude and a willingness not simply to teach but also to learn from neighboring disciplines.

It is clear that for a large share of the contributions to this companion, the history of hermeneutics itself and the way in which this history has been constructed by later hermeneutical thinkers is under investigation, leading to new insights into contemporary debates. In this way, this companion as a whole can be seen as engaging with the question of what hermeneutics is, with the various approaches leading to the formulation of different answers to this question. Furthermore, the different readings of the history of hermeneutics also means that a number of contributions go beyond the traditional understanding of hermeneutics, drawing attention to thinkers who are not commonly associated with the field. In this way, the approach to hermeneutics does not remain limited to an investigation of the works and ideas of those thinkers who are generally understood as belonging to the hermeneutical tradition, which also makes the relevance of hermeneutical thinking to diverse contemporary disciplines and debates more apparent. Although the diverse contributions to this companion engage with the fundamental question of what hermeneutics is in different ways, this book as a whole will probably not serve as a good introduction for someone who is not already familiar with philosophical hermeneutics and its history to some extent. Some of the contributions are successful in offering the reader a clear introduction to the subject and discipline they discuss, but this is not always the case, with some authors presupposing a lot of prior knowledge on the subject. Nevertheless, for those already familiar with the subjects discussed, several contributions to this companion will offer the reader fruitful insights and perhaps provoke thought that invites further research.

Alexandre Kojève: The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov

The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov Couverture du livre The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov
Alexandre Kojève
Palgrave Macmillan
2018
Hardback $69.99
VII, 81

Reviewed by: Thomas Nemeth (USA)

Kojève’s slim volume, a translation of a two-part article that originally appeared in 1934/35, while its author was conducting his famous seminars on Hegel in Paris, is itself an “adaptation,” as the translators’ put it, of a 1926 dissertation submitted as a dissertation in Heidelberg under the supervision of Karl Jaspers. This French-language article “La métaphysique religieuse de Vladimir Soloviev” was not Kojève’s first presentation of Solovyov’s ideas. He had previously published in 1930 a short piece entitled “Die Geschichtsphilosophie Wladimir Solowjews,” presumably also culled from his dissertation. Kojève was also not the first Russian to submit a dissertation to a German university on Solovyov. Fedor Stepun had already in 1910 – only a decade after Solovyov’s death – submitted a dissertation also with the title Die Geschichtsphilosophie Wladimir Solowjews to Heidelberg University.

Alexandre Kojève’s name needs little introduction to Western audiences familiar with secondary literature on Hegel. The notes from Kojève’s Parisian lectures at the École Pratique des Hautes Études on the Phenomenology of Spirit have long been available to English-speaking philosophy students. Kojève, born Aleksandr Kozhevnikov in Russia in 1902, had by all accounts a unique personality. In the same year that he completed his dissertation, he moved to Paris, where another well-known Russian émigré scholar/philosopher Alexandre Koyré happened to have established himself as early as 1912 after Husserl had rejected his dissertation. (Despite this, Koyré remained on quite friendly terms with his former mentor, who attended Koyré’s dissertation defense in Paris.) Later in life after World War II, Kojève worked in the French Ministry of Economics and from there was instrumental in establishing the European Common Market. Although a Marxist, at least of sorts, he was invited to Berlin in 1967 by radical students to whom he allegedly advised that they should turn their attention instead to learning ancient Greek!

Kojève’s book can be read from two distinct viewpoints. We can, on the one hand, comb the text for Kojève’s own positions at the time of its writing. Bearing in mind his later emphasis on the Hegelian dialectic and in particular on the master-slave riposte Kojève made famous in his reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, we can attempt to see its anticipation here. Indeed, there are good grounds for doing just that, and we find within the pages of this book a considerable discussion of the Absolute vis-à-vis the Other. Within the framework of Kojève’s concern, this is both understandable and cannot be held to be inappropriate or incorrect. Kojève’s familiarity with Schelling and Hegel as well as with the German mystical tradition is clearly evident throughout his text. Whether Kojève’s emphasis on Solovyov’s debt to those German writers is excessive or not is for the reader to determine. No one has seriously questioned, however, that Solovyov owed a great debt to Hegel and the later Schelling, even though specific references to the latter in Solovyov’s writings are virtually non-existent.

On the other hand, one can read Kojève’s book apart from its author’s later writings, taking it as what it purports to be, namely, a secondary text on Vladimir Solovyov, which is how we shall approach the book here. Solovyov is likely to be a name less familiar to an English-speaking philosophical audience. Although generally regarded as the greatest Russian philosopher of the nineteenth century, his works are almost invariably classified as belonging to religious philosophy. We find in them, especially his early writings, hardly a trace of the concerns that would rivet either the budding German neo-Kantian movement or the logic of such figures as Bolzano, Frege, or Husserl. Solovyov, instead, was deeply religious in that his beliefs were carried over into his philosophical investigations, something that cannot be said about the other figures mentioned. Solovyov did seek to express his religious faith in the form of a philosophy employing his knowledge of both the history of philosophy and philosophical terminology, suitably adapted of course. Thus, a reader coming with contemporary analytic sensibilities will look in askance at such claims as that ideal Humanity, the Soul of the World (note the capitalizations) is an individual, free, and independent being (58). Kojève, especially in his later pages, is particularly prone to such statements without comment, let alone critical assessment. Solovyov, certainly, writes in such a manner. However, should a twentieth-century philosopher let such a claim pass freely? There are countless additional statements that Kojève affirms as Solovyov’s position and that the former fails to question or to clarify. To be sure, he offers a masterful paraphrase, but it is just that and no more than that.

We see, then, that Kojève is correct in seeing the starting point and the center of gravity of Solovyov’s thought lies in metaphysics. What Kojève does not make sufficiently clear is that his characterization applies most poignantly to the early Solovyov, but, arguably to be sure, not to his later works. Indeed, Kojève focuses almost exclusively on the early Solovyov, though he does reference from time to time Solovyov’s 1889 Russia and the Universal Church, which appeared originally in French and in some proffered periodizations belongs to Solovyov’s middle period.

As with most Solovyov-scholars, Kojève sees Solovyov’s literary activity falling into three distinct periods. Doing so is in keeping with Solovyov’s own fixation on triadic schemes. Kojève in his earlier German-language essay on Solovyov’s philosophy of history from 1930 found that the first period featured a philosophy of history under the influence of the Slavophiles. During a second period a Catholic influence predominated, and the third period or standpoint, which was also the briefest, was represented by just one writing, the three conversations known in English translation as War, Progress and the End of History from 1900. This appeared just a short time before Solovyov’s death. We could object to Kojève’s particular delimitations, but we should keep in mind that his concern in this early essay was with Solovyov’s philosophy of history, not his metaphysical system. Unfortunately, Kojève was noticeably silent on just when this supposed “Catholic period” in Solovyov’s thought began, but presumably it extended until the writing of the 1900 piece.

In the book under review here, Kojève offered a different periodization for Solovyov’s philosophical works, presumably owing to the book’s different orientation – but, nevertheless still three and only three periods. Kojève finds that the first one serves as a historical and critical introduction to Solovyov’s metaphysical system, a system that he had already in his mental possession by this time. Kojève, unfortunately, fails to demarcate how long this period extended. But it surely includes Solovyov’s first major writing, viz., his magister’s thesis The Crisis of Western Philosophy, for he there declares, as Kojève notes, that a definitive metaphysical system would emerge on Russian soil in the near future. Kojève is somewhat misleading in stating that this system would, in Solovyov’s eyes, be his own. The metaphysical system Solovyov had in mind at the time of writing his Crisis text was that presented by the Eastern Church Fathers. Contrary to Kojève’s claim, Solovyov had neither a fully formed system at this early date nor would he ever if by that we mean Solovyov had already conceived all the details. For example, when he published his major systematic work the Critique of Abstract Principles he had not yet, nor would he ever, have a hammered out comprehensive philosophy of art. Kojève characterizes the second period of Solovyov’s activity to be the shortest, and during this time he presented an outline of his metaphysics. It is from the works of this period that Kojève will draw much of his discussion. The third period is the longest. However, since Solovyov apparently at this time lost much of his interest in theoretical questions and in metaphysics proper, it is of little concern to Kojève. Indeed, the latter has little to say about the works stemming from this last phase in Solovyov’s thinking. What is hard to countenance is Kojève’s dismissal of those works on the grounds that by 1890 – and thus just after the publication of Russia and the Universal Church – Solovyov had completed the elaboration of his metaphysics and would not make any changes to it important enough to mention. In light of the fact that Solovyov explicitly rewrote his ethics resulting in The Justification of the Moral Good and started a revision of his “theoretical philosophy” immediately after doing so, it is hard to assent to Kojève’s claim.

Kojève draws his discussion of Solovyov’s metaphysics from three early works in addition to the 1889 one. Although Kojève recognizes that there are obscurities, inaccuracies, contradictions, and shortcomings in Solovyov’s works, these are not often carefully indicated. Kojève also charges Solovyov’s thinking with being often abstract and superficial, more religious than philosophical. Yet, Kojève avoids philosophical, i.e., rational, and secular criticism of that thinking. As have many other commentators on these writings, Kojève sees a marked inspiration from Schelling in Solovyov’s constructions. Kojève goes so far as to say that Schelling served almost exclusively as Solovyov’s model and that the German Idealist’s philosophy lay at the root of nearly all of the Russian’s metaphysical ideas. What Kojève does not point out is the fundamental differences between Schelling and Solovyov. One of the most striking, of course, is that for the former the “positive” reconstruction of Christianity is merely the first step on the road to a philosophical metaphysics, whereas for Solovyov his elaborations are meant as an expression of the truth of Christianity. Solovyov had no intention of replacing Christianity with philosophy of any sort.

Notwithstanding the alleged influence of Schelling, we cannot be surprised that Kojève sees as well a dialectic of the “Other” in Solovyov’s metaphysics, although he finds that dialectic to be the most obscure and most abstract part of it. Those interested in Kojève’s thought for its own sake can surely find much of interest here. Most curious, though, is that instead of seeing Solovyov’s discussion as drawn from Hegel’s Phenomenology, Kojève sees it as a “simplified and impoverished paraphrase” of the relevant speculations found in Schelling, who, in turn, is largely indebted to Jakob Böhme (23). In a sense, we cannot truly be surprised. Others even more recently, such as Zdenek David, have recognized the influence of the German mystic Böhme on Solovyov and Russian religious philosophy in general. Solovyov may have first turned to Böhme through the former’s philosophy professor at Moscow University Pamfil Jurkevich and the spiritualist circle around Ivan Lapshin, a civil servant, orientalist, and father of the St. Petersburg philosophy professor Ivan Ivanovich Lapshin. Kojève, in turn, may have been alerted to this German source of Solovyov’s own metaphysics through the 1929 book on Böhme by his friend Koyré.

Kojève, of course, recognizes that there is a certain “kinship” between the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and Neoplatonic teachings, but he finds that kinship to be extremely vague. What kinship there is between the Christian doctrine and Neoplatonism can be easily explained through the influence of Neoplatonism on early Christianity, when the latter was still in its formative stages. Solovyov himself gave neither any direct indication nor any evidence of the source or sources of his own conception of the Christian Trinity. We have no basis to hold that Solovyov was directly influenced by Plotinus or any of his disciples here. For Kojève, Solovyov saw his own version of the Trinitarian doctrine arising from his idea of the Absolute independently of the Christian tradition to which he otherwise expressed such allegiance. Solovyov’s conviction in his originality in this matter is illusory and shows the extent to which Solovyov thought was permeated by dogmatism. He believed that thinking through his religious experience he could deduce all dogmatic truths including that of the Trinity. In Kojève’s eyes, the speculations of the German Idealists, rather than the Neoplatonists, served as Solovyov’s more immediate source (28).

What we have seen thus far forms a section of the book that Kojève calls “The Doctrine of God.” The next section, “The Doctrine of World” is frankly more metaphysical, if that is imaginable. Kojève provides a faithful recounting of Solovyov’s early metaphysical position, but without extended critical reflection on it from the standpoint of concrete, empirical substantiation. Solovyov’s conception of Divine Humanity is above all the “culmination and crown” of his religious metaphysics (31). Whereas we can affirm that it is the crown of that doctrine, it strains logic to hold that it, in the same breath, is also the starting point of Solovyov’s doctrine of the world. How it can be both the culmination and starting point is unclear unless we distinguish in some ill-defined manner Divine Humanity from the world. Solovyov, after all, has precious little to say about the world apart from humanity. Even more egregious, though, is Kojève’s assertion that Solovyov’s idea of Divine Humanity, being the “keystone” of his metaphysics, is, for that reason, the pivot of his entire philosophical system. Such an assertion may be true on the face of it for Solovyov’s early writings, but it needs demonstration when affirmed of the writings stemming from the last decade of Solovyov’s life.

Kojève is on firmer grounds in claiming that the presentation of Sophia in Solovyov’s metaphysics and that in his alleged mystical experience is enormous. Since the manuscript material related to Sophia has now been widely available for some years, the reader can easily confirm Kojève’s statement that many of the elements in the mysticism associated with Sophia have equivalents in Solovyov’s early metaphysics. Yet, Kojève correctly recognizes that the Sophia depicted in that metaphysical doctrine cannot be the image he supposedly saw as a vision while sitting in the British Museum’s library and which directed him to proceed forthwith to Egypt.

Kojève holds that whereas Solovyov purports to analyze the dialectical notion of the Absolute deductively to obtain his doctrine of God, the doctrine of World employs an empirical method. It is to Kojève’s credit to recognize that Solovyov does not adhere rigorously to these two respective methods in their respective domains. In fact, Kojève is, if anything, too polite. In both doctrines, the assumptions made are staggering in number. Solovyov sees the entire doctrine of God as merely a rational deduction from what is contained in a mystical intuition of divine love. He makes no allowance for those who are unable to intuit this Godly presence, and the premises for his a posteriori, inductive doctrine of the World are similarly not ones with which everyone would agree. The early Solovyov has God doing this and that spelled out in language just as questionably appropriate as the general idea being expressed. On what basis Solovyov determines that God imparts freedom to his creation and then separates Himself from that creation is anyone’s guess. Kojève, following in Solovyov’s footsteps, apparently feels no trepidation in using the word “freedom” in conjunction with the Soul of the world, but Kojève provides no non-circular definition of the term. Indeed, even an idea itself can be characterized as free! Again to Kojève’s credit, he recognizes that Solovyov is indebted to others, particularly to Schelling, which can come as a surprise to no one. Immersed as he was in the metaphysical aspects of German Idealism, Kojève finds Schelling behind Solovyov’s formulations, with the general ideas and structure being similar (71).

There is little here in Kojève’s work that we can easily characterize as phenomenological, focusing as it does on the early metaphysics of Solovyov. Kojève makes no attempt to provide a non-metaphysical reading. Certainly, Solovyov himself understood his position as definitely, even defiantly, religious. But what we, as readers, can ask is why this work at this time. The translators in their introduction admirably discuss the difficult writing style Kojève employed. To their credit, were it not for their comments the reader would likely not realize the points they make. The English is generally smooth and flows as gently as one could wish given the abstruse subject matter. Knowing something about Kojève’s writing style might tell us something about Kojève, but it does little for our knowledge of Kojève’s thoughts on Solovyov. It would have been helpful if the translators had situated this work within Kojève’s corpus and at least have compared the ideas presented with those found in his work on Solovyov in German. Perhaps that was not their intention. But if we look at this extended essay as an intended contribution to scholarship on Solovyov, we can ask what its relationship was at the time of its original appearance to other works on Solovyov in general but particularly to those in the French-speaking world.

Unfortunately, the translators also do not inform us why they singled out this work for their efforts. Is it outstanding in some special manner compared to others? Were it not for the fact that Kojève later became widely known for his Hegel-interpretation would they have translated it nonetheless? Most regrettably, the translators do not situate Kojève’s work within the body of Solovyov-scholarship in recent years. They take no account of the vast literature in either Russia or the West that has appeared particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Again, the question, then, arises: Why this work at this time? Is Kojève’s extended essay in some manner better than recent work on the same topic?

The translators’ references can be confusing or at least troublesome. Whereas the translators make the appropriate references to Solovyov’s works, these are to the now obsolete first edition of the collected works from the first decade of the 20th century instead of availing themselves of the far more accurate and detailed 21st century ongoing edition together with its detailed commentary. Additionally, the references given are always to the mentioned Russian edition even when an English-language translation exists. This poses an obstacle to anyone without knowledge of Russian but who wishes to pursue some idea further. It certainly would also have been helpful to mention the title of the individual work by Solovyov, rather than simply the volume and page number within the set of the collected works.

In conclusion, whereas the advanced student of Solovyov may find Kojève’s work unnecessary, those largely unacquainted with the ideas of the Russian religious philosopher will find this to be a splendid introduction as well as further evidence of the infiltration of German Idealism into Russia.

Michael N. Forster, Kristin Gjesdal (Eds.): The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics, Cambridge University Press, 2019

The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics Couverture du livre The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics
Cambridge Companions to Philosophy
Michael N. Forster, Kristin Gjesdal (Eds.)
Cambridge University Press
2019
Paperback £ 22.99
432

Miklós Vető: Von Kant zu Schelling: Die beiden Wege des Deutschen Idealismus, De Gruyter, 2018

Von Kant zu Schelling: Die beiden Wege des Deutschen Idealismus Couverture du livre Von Kant zu Schelling: Die beiden Wege des Deutschen Idealismus
Miklós Vető. Transl. by Hans-Dieter Gondek
De Gruyter
2018
Hardback 148,00 € / $170.99 / £134.50
1100

Sandra Lapointe (Ed.): Philosophy of Mind in the Nineteenth Century: The History of the Philosophy of Mind, Volume 5, Routledge, 2018

Philosophy of Mind in the Nineteenth Century: The History of the Philosophy of Mind, Volume 5 Couverture du livre Philosophy of Mind in the Nineteenth Century: The History of the Philosophy of Mind, Volume 5
The History of the Philosophy of Mind
Sandra Lapointe (Ed.)
Routledge
2018
Hardback £100.00
278

Dan Zahavi (Ed.): The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology, Oxford University Press, 2018

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology Couverture du livre The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology
Dan Zahavi (Ed.)
Oxford University Press
2018
Hardback £110.00
784

Frederick C. Beiser: Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900

Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 Couverture du livre Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900
Frederick C. Beiser
Oxford University Press
2016
Hardback £40.00
320

Reviewed by: Sergio Valverde (Social Sciences, Metropolitan State University, Saint Paul, Minnesota)

A curious intellectual phenomenon occurred in Germany after 1850. Suddenly, the mood was doom and gloom with no obvious or single explanation. The global market was booming. Germany was a capitalist power rivaling England. French imperialists were defeated. But German intellectuals were stuck in a funk.

The word is Weltschmerz – ‘world pain’. Instead of Hegel’s more optimistic Weltlauf – ‘the march of the world’ towards freedom – Weltschmerz implies “weariness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering” (1). German pessimism involved “a rediscovery [and reformulation] of the [ancient] problem of evil” (5). In short, German intellectuals secularized the concept of evil and attempted to comprehend the meaningfulness of life in the face of the radical ontological evil envisioned by Kant.

For Beiser, the origins of Weltschmerz are a mystery. The great capitalist depression from 1870 to 1900 that came after only helps to explain the spread of Weltschmerz, not its cause. If pessimism were all the rage among the genteel, one would expect them to be cynics to the suffering of others. Yet Weltschmerzers and their challengers had differing positions, not only on metaphysics, but over the “social question” of capitalist modernization and the exploitation of the worker. Many optimists, convinced that social progress (when left alone) is certain and sufficient, opposed welfare reforms. Pessimists wanted state intervention and technical progress to alleviate suffering even if, as a matter of principle, they believed ours was a world racing to the bottom. If pessimism did not have an identifiable social cause, Beiser locates the sullen Zeitgeist in the history of ideas and, specifically, in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer came from a wealthy family. He is famous in the annals of philosophy for coming up with the most offensive philosopher-on-philosopher insults. For years, Schopenhauer languished in obscurity, berating the German professoriat that was represented by Hegel and taking breaks to look for his soon-to-be disciple, Julius Fraunstaedt, his brightest follower and most fervent critic. Living off his father’s rents in Frankfurt, Schopenhauer spent his days musing on nothingness and absurdity in the comfort of his “Grand Hotel Abyss”. When the dust settled and the “dragon seed of Hegelianism” was finally eradicated by the good Christian king (with no small help from Schelling), Schopenhauer had his chance.

At that time, there were two branches of German philosophy. On the one hand, Neo-Kantians offered “transcendental grounds” for science, thereby attempting to justify philosophy in the face of great scientific advances. These were not the advances of Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, but the electromagnetism of Michael Faraday, Leon Foucault and the rotation of Earth and, of course, the equations of James Maxwell. On the other hand, positivists saw their craft as a sui generis science of facts. The problem was that both schools forgot the world of emotions, the problem of freedom and the the sense of evil. That is, the very bread and butter of the philosophia perennis. Furthermore, philosophers lacked an audience. Nobody was buying.

With the publication of Parerga and Parapolimena, a collection of witty essays about existence and the meaning of life, in 1851, Schopenhauer became the celebrity philosopher of the second half of the long nineteenth century. As Beiser tells us, his “influence lies more on his age than on individual thinkers.” Schopenhauer successfully set Germany’s philosophical agenda for the rest of the century. What was that agenda?

Schopenhauer devised an anti-theodicy, according to which non-existence is better than existence because existence implies that, even in the very best of lives, a minimum of suffering that is absent in not existing. The position is both perfectionist and realist. First, Schopenhauer argued like an upturned Leibniz: the worst of all worlds has a maximum of evil compatible with existence because if we add one gram more of that poison, the world ceases to be. Second, Schopenhauer endorsed Epicurus and some of the ancient utilitarians. Pain always outweighs pleasure and, if we were rational, we would choose nothingness over being. Yet we exist, so what to do in such a pickle?

Schopenhauer returned to the questions of classical philosophy: life, pain, death and meaning. According to Schopenhauer, evil and suffering belong to the very make-up of our world. However, it is not Kant’s concept of evil, which is a matter of just intelligence, of freely and rationally choosing the opposite of the Categorical Imperative. Radical evil for Kant allows us to disrespect other people’s dignity, violate their autonomy and walk all over their humanity in a purely disinterested and universal way. For Schopenhauer, however, evil is not only a “noumenal” idea that guides our actions. Evil is noumenal in a more radical way; it is part of the very nature of existence. The will only cares about itself. As Beiser puts it, “life is suffering because it is the product of an insatiable and incessant cosmic will” (37).

Schopenhauer’s assertions on cosmic wills were, in a sense, more radical than those of Kant. The latter told the world that it is impossible to know things as they really are. He critiqued a type of reason that thinks it speaks for things in themselves, or worse, for non-things like God and the soul. Kant built a wall between representation and whatever was behind or beyond it. He argued, instead, that we can only know our own mental representation of things. But Kant was not an atheist. He reserved the capacity to think beyond appearances for morality. Only as a commandment of the will can the idea of God or the soul be of any use. Such entities cannot be proven by science but ethical beings need them to make free-will feasible. Freedom is not proven but demanded. As Fichte claimed, freedom is “posited” by an infinite will.

Schopenhauer, however, was a Kantian. He was aware of the faux pas against established orthodoxy and he “solved” the ontological question by inlaying a new dimension to the already radical duality between things-in-themselves and representations. Schopenhauer agreed, following orthodoxy, that the faculty of understanding produces representations. But he reserved the will for the noumenal realm – the old country of metaphysics. Beneath all representations of things, there is this inexhaustible, irrepressible and unending will of which everyone is only a fleeting quote.

Yet, for Schopenhauer, a return to metaphysics had only practical significance. It is not Scholasticism 2.0. Schopenhauer addressed “the puzzle of existence” in practical terms. This simple and apparently antiquated, yet profound, change in tactics made him different and popular among readers of the time. So, what were the ethical implications of his new metaphysics?

Beiser thinks that Schopenhauer produced a sort of Protestant atheism, or “Protestantism without theism”. It is not enough that we suffer. We deserve to suffer. In their obstinate attachment and reiteration of original sins as excuses for our suffering, Schopenhauer joined other great modern reactionaries like Joseph DeMaistre and Juan Donoso Cortés. Furthermore, Schopenhauer’s negative anthropology was useful in drawing the necessary weapons against starry-eyed Enlightenments. Because man is evil, a strong hand is needed. Because man is evil, only grace can save us. However, due to the impenetrability of God’s designs, such voluntarism is usually resolved in a monastery and in the blind acceptance of rules. But Schopenhauer was not a man of mystery. His catholic rationalism and cosmological voluntarism is a fascinating mix. Schopenhauer did believe that natural law can be known. The problem is that his notion of natural law is not the happy and elated one of Aquinas. The selfish will is the only natural necessity. Yet, unlike Spinoza, Schopenhauer thought that we can separate ourselves from an absolute will (“lift the veil of Maya”) by using our understanding and denying the will. It is the aesthetic quietism well known to Schopenhauer readers. Yet, how does one reconcile Schopenhauer’s determinism of the will with intellectual autonomy? Beiser offers an explanation of this contradiction. However, his is not a decent solution. Ultimately, it is a problem that manifests when philosophy starts with absolute definitions and proceeds through dichotomies until the end. Antinomies always remain antinomies because of a static universe despite Schopenhauer’s hyperactive will.

Historians have long ignored the tradition Schopenhauer started. However, Beiser shows that, from 1860 to 1900, Schopenhauer towered above all others in Germany. Schopenhauer’s followers like Eduard von Hartmann or critics like Karl Eugen Duhring (sadly remembered today for being the punching bag of Engels and for his late anti-Semitism) were stars in the intellectual sky of the Second Reich. Hartmann’s “flat, dry, and boring” Philosophy of the Unconscious went through eight editions. Duhring’s Natural Dialectic went through no less than ten revisions and an equal number of editions. Beiser reminds us of the contemporary importance of these neglected thinkers and, moreover, places Nietzsche within his proper context. Many of Nietzsche’s ideas were borrowed from the “pessimist controversy” that defined German thinking, that is, between Schopenhauerian curmudgeons and the positivist and neo-Kantian Panglossians.

There were many voices involved in the Weltschmerz controversy: Agnes Taubert, Olga Plümacher. Büchner, Duboc, Windelband, Paulsen, Meyer, Vaihinger, Fischer, Rickert, Cohen, Riehl. Beiser, however, explores the philosophies of five of Schopenhauer’s disciples and critics, who responded by recalibrating or re-mixing in different ratios the pessimist and optimist elements in a sort of moral chemistry.

First, there is Julius Frauenstaedt, Schopenhauer’s first apostle and critic. Frauenstaedt was the only Schopenhauerian who came from the fading Hegelian tradition. All others were neo-Kantians or positivists. Frauenstaedt abandoned Hegelianism because the monism of Hegel’s dialectics was not enough to account for the identity of faith and reason. Where does human freedom stand if in the last instance reason is both divine and human? This “divine reason” or “speculative Good Friday” of Hegel cannot be resolved in theism or pantheism because both are “illegitimate metaphysics”. Frauenstaedt finds in Schopenhauer a more feasible solution to this problem. There is, in Schopenhauer’s body of work, both a system of transcendental idealism, according to which the thing-in-itself is separate from appearances and a system of transcendental realism whereby appearances are objectifications of this transcendent will. Thus, it is the will that unites reason and faith. However, Frauenstaedt finds a new dualism in Schopenhauer – the separation of will and understanding. The will needs to represent the object of its striving; it needs to have an idea of what it wants. On the other hand, why does the cosmic will that is all-powerful and self-sufficient divide itself into two – itself and non-will? Other dualist problems in Schopenhauer concern the distinction between philosophy and natural science and the Schopenhauerian contempt for history in favor of metaphysics. All these problems that originate from Schopenhauer’s radical dualism were signs for Frauenstaedt that Schopenhauer remained trapped in “the cage of idealism.” In the end, Beiser thinks Frauenstaedt could not abandon the basic Hegelian conviction that things always work out for the better even if they do so through the worst.

Karl Eugen Duhring was Schopenhauer’s fiercest detractor. He opposed Schopenhauer with an optimism based on natural science and socialism. Duhring’s positivism precluded any metaphysics of cosmic wills and known unknowns. Immanence is absolute. We determine the  value of life, our own small measure of peace. However, according to Beiser, Duhring contradicts himself. We can grasp nature and reality through intellect and correctly conclude that there is no world beyond. Yet, for Duhring, the intellect cannot make a final determination on the worth of existence. That determination is ineffable. On the topic of death, Duhring joined the gang of pessimists repeating Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius; we shall not fear death since we cannot experience it.

Duhring was one of only a couple of Weltschmerzers that harbored leftist sympathies in the “pessimist controversy.” Most were well into the political right. However, unlike Mainlander, Duhring thought that we can make life happier for the greatest number through science and redistribution. For Mainlander, even socialism does not solve suffering.

The most influential theorist of pessimism was Eduard von Hartmann. Philosophy of the Unconscious was the “eye of the storm” in the 1870 pessimist controversy. Hartmann tried to reconcile Schopenhauer’s pessimistic voluntarism and Hegel’s optimistic rationalism in a systematic way through a) pantheistic monism, b) transcendental realism, c)an eudemonic pessimism and d) evolutionary optimism. Hartmann saw that spiritual monism solves the problems of theism and materialism altogether. It avoids the traps of theism in that ethics is autonomous in a pantheist system because moral law comes from the dictates of a cosmic self, while theistic ethics is heteronomous; one should obey an alien God. Spiritual monism also avoids the traps of materialism. This cosmic self has a purposeful nature in the sense that it is not a machine without track. Secondly, against Kant, Hartmann followed Schopenhauer in taking a transcendental-realist position; appearances can give us some information on the things-in-themselves. Consequently, Hartmann thought that the best position is the ancient ideal of eudaimonia because it has an idea of how the universe really works. The world is pain and suffering but life is worth living if one follows the ancient utilitarian principle of avoiding both. However, Hartmann shared with the positivists and Hegelians a belief in progress and claimed that, culturally or as species, mankind heads for the better. This evolutionary optimism allowed Hartmann some measure of social Darwinism in that pain, suffering, war and colonialism are tools for progress unbeknownst to us in another iteration of the Hegelian List der Vernunft.

Beiser devotes a later chapter on Hartmann in relation to the pessimist controversy between 1870 and 1900. It describes the main points of the polemic between Hartmann and his two “female allies”, Olga Plumacher and Agnes Taubert, against Lutheran priests and neo-Kantians (a more intellectual kind of Lutheran) on whether life is worth living on the basis of love, pain, and pleasure. It is worth mentioning that one of the debates is about the question on whether the hedonic calculus should be considered quantitatively or qualitatively. By that time, economic thought was undergoing a profound change on this question. Marginalism – to which this problem was central – caused a major revolution that transformed economics into the science that it is today.

Phillip Mainlaender (née Phillip Batz) was the most utopian politically and the most coherent. He followed his master’s proclivities for dark and gore with even more gusto. He signed off his only book and immediately hung himself. Mainlander’s philosophy is a gospel of suicide. The only way out of suffering is death. His view of life is not that of Stoic tranquility but of the Christian mystic. Life is suffering and death redeems us all. Yet, Mainlaender was a materialist and did not believe that there is life after death, not even the promise to enjoin the one true cosmic will of Schopenhauer. For him, such ideas are abstractions. Mainlander was a nominalist. For him, there is only the individual will. He was also profoundly democratic and nationalist. For all his ethical pessimism, what matters in social life is sympathy and pity for the suffering of others, not the misanthropy and scorn proper to reactionaries like Schopenhauer.

Finally, there was Julius Bahnsen. His philosophy further problematized Schopenhauer’s metaphysics along familiar scholastic lines of whether the will is universal (Schopenhauer), multiple (Bahnsen) or individual (Mainlander). Bahnsen’s ideas were powerful and original, yet those traits came from a profoundly mentally ill man. His marriage was a disaster. His career as a professor failed. Some of his anxieties betrayed his petty-bourgeois conditions. Much of Bahnsen’s views were rooted in that social resentment that comes, like Schopenhauer, from not being of the establishment. For Bahnsen, pessimism sprang from failed dreams, not from the primacy of suffering in life. If suffering were the criterion, “even animals would be pessimists”.

In the face of dissatisfaction, Bahnsen revised some key aspects of his master’s doctrine. Firstly, there is individual responsibility in life’s actions and projects. Accordingly, the cosmic will is useless. Will is just a property or potential but the actual outcome is the sole province of each. Secondly, since responsibility presupposes autonomy (Kant), then the will must be redefined as plural and individual – a monadology so to speak of individual substances in the noumenal realm. Thirdly, even with disinterested activities such as aesthetics, there is also will – a “higher interest” of “self-promotion, self-affirmation, and self-satisfaction” (again, Bahnsen’s job anxieties come to the fore.) That the will is resilient in all fields of activity questions the stark division between will and representation. On the one hand, to experience art without interest or intellectual curiosity is boring “even if it were forms of Plato”. On the other hand, Schopenhauer’s notion of aesthetic detachment is refuted by the real fact that “we are touched and moved by aesthetic objects.”

Beiser’s book is delightful, clear and thorough. It is written in the best style of historians of philosophy. My only issue as a reader who prefers social histories of thought is that his approach is too internalist and textualist. For Beiser, “there seems to be no straightforward social or historical case for [German Weltschmerz]” because the period studied seems like “a happy age” for Germany. However, I take issue with this hypothesis and subsequent dismissal of social explanations. Furthermore, I think Beiser mirrors sociological reductionism in reverse. For mechanical theories of material-cum-intellectual conditions, then, if social conditions are happy, intellectual traditions have an optimistic outlook. Indeed, if conditions are dire, then pessimism is the intellectual order of the day. Beiser’s argument is similar: since social conditions were good in Germany, then the only reason for intellectual pessimism is the ideas of an individual (Schopenhauer) who caused the entire ruckus. However, to accept this theory would reduce German pessimism to a dull workout of the disgruntled class of intellectuals. In my opinion, things are always socially conditioned despite the apparent contradiction, or precisely because of real contradictions, between thought and (social) being. It is more interesting to speculate on why capitalist expansion produces periodically the kind of languor we see today and of which German Weltschmerz were the outcome and not the cause.  I recall Walter Benjamin’s studies on Baudelaire. Why is it that Baudelaire produced dark and gloomy poetry in Paris, “the capital of the 19th century”? Why did Baudelaire use another genre of allegories to express a problematic that was not visible in economic indicators? Though speculative, Benjamin offers a more satisfying social theory to Weltschmerz. It is precisely in times of commodity abundance and high consumer satisfaction offered by a buoyant capitalism that the meaninglessness of material life expresses itself as boredom and hopelessness. Even Benjamin’s explanation would make sense along Schopenhauer’s lines: since desire is endless and instant satisfaction guarantees boredom, why do we need more?

 

Markus Gabriel, Anders Moe Rasmussen (Eds.): German Idealism Today, De Gruyter, 2017

German Idealism Today Couverture du livre German Idealism Today
Markus Gabriel, Anders Moe Rasmussen (Eds.)
De Gruyter
2017
Hardcover 109.95 €
xi, 232

J. G. Fichte: Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)

Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812) Couverture du livre Lectures on the Theory of Ethics (1812)
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Translated, edited and with an introduction by Benjamin D. Crowe
SUNY Press
2016
216

Reviewed by: Robert Seymour (University of Essex)

 

Fichte´s 1812 Lectures on the Theory of Ethics belong to the final stage of his so-called late philosophy. This is the first time they have been translated into English and they now form the single book length publication available to anglophone scholars from the productive last years of Fichte´s activity (the only other document is the translation of the very brief text ‘The Science of Knowledge in its General Outline’ from 1810 in Idealistic Studies). Given that the subject matter neither corresponds to ‘ethics’ in any conventional sense nor is it self-standing, but rather a component part of an unfinished ontological system which is itself not well understood, some contextualization is required.

Fichte´s early philosophy, with the publication in 1794 of the Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre, immediately sparked a period of extraordinary intellectual effervescence, making Jena the centre of European philosophy and forming the basis for both German Idealism as well as philosophical romanticism. Subsequently it became to be considered, even in more sympathetic cases, as a mere prelude to Hegel. Fichte´s thought largely had no independent purchase for most of the twentieth century. In a reversal of philosophical fortunes, the early work from the Jena era has, in the last few decades, become an important resource for work in strands of “post-analytic” philosophy in the anglosphere, and in areas of anglo-american style “Diskursethik” as well as in Critical Theory, both of German provenance. Although the use to which Fichte has been put is in each case different, one point of convergence is a general interest in Fichte´s practical philosophy and particularly in his pioneering account of intersubjectivity and recognition.

By contrast Fichte´s late philosophy, despite comprising a disproportionately large amount of his output (roughly speaking from 1801 to the year of his death 1814 – the major breakthrough usually being located in the second version of the 1804 Wissenschaftslehre), never received serious attention during his lifetime. Discounting the reception of the so-called “popular writings” in the formation of German nationalist ideology, Fichte´s later thought remains along with Schelling´s late Berlin lectures, the only body of work of major significance within German Idealism which remains more or less unexplored even in its country of origin. There are some contingent reasons for this neglect, chief among which is the fact that much of Fichte´s later work was delivered in the form of private lectures which were never redacted for publication. The lack of a reliable critical edition which draws on Fichte´s manuscripts as well as audience transcriptions has only been rectified relatively recently (this edition provides the relevant pagination meaning it can be used for scholarly work).

Nonetheless, as is obvious from reading these lectures, any attempt to introduce Fichte´s later philosophy faces some major difficulties which are inherent in the thought itself. First is the daunting form in which it is presented. Unlike Schelling´s later thought, expressed in a potentially off-putting theological idiom which is arguably detachable from its philosophical import, the difficulty of Fichte´s later writing goes deeper. As is evident from these lectures, Fichte repetitively employs an obscure set of half-phenomenological, half-metaphysical terms (for example: Seeing (Sehen), Image (Bild), and Gesicht, meaning both ‘face’ and ‘that which is seen’ – Fichte considered this to be the literal translation of Plato’s idea) in an attempt to capture a process which resists objectification. This approach perhaps partly explains why Fichte´s attempts never crystallized into a satisfactory final form.

Secondly, part of the attraction of Fichte´s early philosophy is its apparently anti-metaphysical register which allows it to dovetail with contemporary soft-naturalist concerns. But if we take Fichte´s vocabulary at face value, his later work looks like a return to the problems of classical metaphysics. The form which Fichte´s early philosophy takes is determined by his commitment to reorganize Kant´s revolutionary findings into a single deductive system, sloughing off the empirical and inductive contaminations which had prevented Kant himself from undertaking this task and by avoiding any appeal to positive ‘facts of consciousness’ in the manner of the Populärphilosophen. The absolute ground of reality which Fichte locates is the ideal activity of the thinking self. However, as this starting point is not absolute in the sense of creating all reality ex nihilo out of itself, it immediately runs up against the inexplicable fact of the self’s limitation. This basic contradiction, the dialectic of the claim to absolute status of the self and of its finitude, is the motor which drives the development of his early thought. In its most polished form, the 1797/8 Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo, Fichte constructs from this basis a phenomenological account of the entire development of consciousness.

However, in line with his resistance to acceptance of brute facts Fichte became more preoccupied with finding an explanation for why the absolute should appear in the finite at all. Thus further developments of the Wissenschaftslehre led Fichte to search for a more basic starting point, a move which necessarily runs counter to his metaphysically neutral starting point of self-consciousness. By 1804, his answer to this question is that the absolute posits itself, and this self-positing is disclosed in the thinking self. The thinking self as such is no longer primary. This further involves, in a seeming contradiction, retaining the primacy of consciousness as the locus for the disclosure of the absolute whilst proposing the deduction of what can count as a phenomena. Concomitantly, while in the Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo ‘being’ was still a purely negative concept, restricted to the objective/sensible realm – the obverse of the absolute non-objective ideal activity of the self – with the progressive ‘deepening’ of his starting point this begins to change. By 1806 he can affirm that the absolute is being, which one must conceive “as of and through itself absolutely unvarying and immutable.” The radicality with which Fichte approaches the problem of the manifestation of the absolute as well as its subsequent return to its original state in his later works makes his thinking look deeply neo-platonic. A further problem is that Fichte uses fundamental terms such as ‘being’ equivocally. Even in the final years of his lecturing there appears to have been considerable instability in his terminology.

An anglophone scholar has no opportunity to form a complete opinion on these developments as the substance of the last theoretical work, the Wissenschaftslehre from 1811, 1812, and 1813, are untranslated (although only the 1812 WL ever received complete formulation). Likewise untranslated are the important introductory lectures, Die Tatsachen des Bewußtseins, and those on transcendental logic (which were held in 1812 concurrently with the lectures on the theory of ethics, and are occasionally referred to in the latter). Given these considerable lacunae, what grounds are there for thinking that the 1812 lectures on the theory of ethics are a plausible candidate for introducing the final stage of Fichte´s thought? After all, from 1805 onwards Fichte not only maintains, as he did in the Jena era, that the theory of ethics does not constitute an autonomous science. But rather that, strictly speaking, conceived under the aspect of the Wissenschaftslehre qua pure science of the absolute, the subject matter of the theory of ethics disappears entirely and is revealed as deficient, constrictive presentation of the absolute.[i] Whereas the 1798 System of Ethics is probably Fichte’s most accomplished composition, the 1812 version cannot compare in this respect. The lectures were not edited for publication. They retain little of the stringency and lucidity of the earlier text; the style is elliptic, the arguments are highly compressed, laid out in short lectures of a few pages each, and the plan of the lectures is only thematic in a loose sense and does not follow a pronounced linear development. The alternative formulations from the two main transcriptions which the editor has helpfully included at key junctures often provide a less involuted formulation of Fichte´s idea than does the manuscript. The force of the lectures is cumulative rather than strictly deductive.

Nonetheless, one can make a positive case for these lectures as a plausible introduction to the thought world of the very late Fichte that goes beyond the fact that they form the late pendant to that aspect of Fichte´s early philosophy which currently enjoys the most interest. The editor´s main focus on this count is not the most obvious. He plays up the importance of the lectures´ role in Fichte´s pedagogical thought. It is certainly true that the importance of education is central to Fichte, and that as this part of his philosophy takes on a more historical cast Fichte begins to have more concrete proposals in this regard. There are two fascinating, if rather authoritarian, proposals “to create an academy, that truly is an academy, properly for the first time anywhere”[ii] which Fichte drew up for the University of Erlangen as well as the newly founded University of Berlin. It is likewise the case that the great importance of pedagogical theory in the wider intellectual climate as well as the specific role of Fröbel and especially of the Swiss educational reformer Pestalozzi in the development of Fichte´s thought is not always appreciated. It is also worth stressing, as is evident from the last part of these lectures, that Fichte´s concept of education differs considerably from the Weimar-classic ideal of Bildung – its final end is not betterment of Verstand but of the will, i.e. insight into moral vocation. However given the highly abstract nature of much of the text, as well the fact that several of the popular writings which touch on this more directly are already translated, there are perhaps some more promising places to start.

A more conventional approach would indicate that while the theory of ethics is a derivative science it has special status given the importance of practical reason in the development of Fichte’s idealism. Understanding the transformation of the role of practical reason is thus important for understanding the shift from the early to the late work. It is perhaps because of the preeminent importance of practical philosophy for Fichte that it is arguably easier to track continuities and differences in his thinking on this domain than between the earlier and later Wissenschaftslehre (the continuities are also more pronounced). Unsatisfied with Kant’s appeal to the Faktum der Vernunft, both the early and later accounts of ethics aim to provide a complete deduction of the ground of the categorical nature of the “ought.” In order to do this, the early System of Ethics draws on the basic contradiction mentioned above: on the one hand the encounter with another self-consciousness discloses the absolute nature of the self, on the other the finite self is confronted with a world in which must be rationalised in order to reflect this nature. Moral obligation stems from the necessity of overcoming this contradiction. It is the impossibility of finite agency ever achieving such a total overcoming which invited Hegel’s famous “bad infinity” objection to moral duty being conceived as an infinite task not admitting of stabilisation in a concrete form of Sittlichkeit.

The 1812 lectures approach the same task: “the ‘ought’ is not to be simply assumed,” in the following way: the first stage is a lengthy and complicated discussion of the fundamental claim that “the concept is the ground of the world” – for Fichte this claim is the content of the statement that reason is practical and likewise expresses the assertion of the Wissenschaftslehre that the concept is the ground of all being. Fichte’s task is to explain how these two statements relate to one another. Here one sees clearly both the continuity and development in Fichte’s thinking. Fichte asks: “What if it were not the I that possessed consciousness but rather consciousness that possessed the I and that produced it out of itself?…What if the first principle of the theory of ethics that we have set forth were one of the points at which one could grasp this in the most compelling way?” This is presented as the major insight of the theoretical philosophy which determines the remit of the theory of ethics. One might read this as a radicalization of his earlier criticisms of Kant’s method – he claims Kant understood that the concept is ground but on the basis of a deficient starting point, namely “[w]ithin an I. This is the tacit assumption. He already possesses consciousness as something that is familiar. [his theory is founded on] mere facticity. We do not proceed this way; we allow the I and consciousness to first come into being, hence the completely different result.” However, this is equally valid against Fichte’s position in the earlier System of Ethics – in accordance with the primacy of the absolute, ideality is basic and no longer constrained.

The next stage is the synthesis of the concept with ‘life.’ In Fichte’s later thought ‘life’ becomes one of his key concepts, initially functioning as an alternative designation for the absolute. In these lectures it is used to introduce the self-determination of the concept, now that the starting point of the theory of ethics is no longer the self-consciousness of the individual agent (which itself has to be derived). As mere ideal being, on its own, the concept possesses no real effect. In order to realise the ideality of the concept – parallel to the disclosure of the absolute in the self – the I must exist to bring it about: “…the I, regarded as free and self-sufficient (which it only is as the power of self-determination), exists for the sake of furnishing the concept with causality.”[iii] As the I qua I thus only exists as a phase in the realisation of the concept, as its “proxy,” realising it in fact is what constitutes the basis of categorical obligation: its “essence is the ought.” Far from being a Faktum “categorical nature [Categoricität] is merely a criterion = external image of the concept” which presents itself to the I in consciousness, announcing its vocation. The self-determination which synthesises the concept with life is freedom. The I has the formal choice of being able to determine itself in accordance with the concept or not.

It is here that we see most clearly how the theory of ethics depends on the Wissenschaftslehre. Ethics essentially has to do with the appearance of the concept and a theory of ethics is thus for Fichte a “phainomenologia.”[iv] Fichte’s discussion of the – deficient – status of moral phenomena helpfully clarifies the role of freedom in his later work. The issue of how formal freedom relates to the absolute is initially thematized in the 1801 Wissenschaftslehre, the first major work which contains at least some of the main problems of the late philosophy. It often looks as though Fichte is drawn to assert, incoherently, that the necessary manifestation of the absolute is dependent on a contingent act of freedom. Here, however, despite the difficulty of the discussion, there can be no doubt that formal freedom is ultimately valid only at the level of appearance [Erscheinung], but from the deeper perspective of the theory of being it is illusory. Freedom is not a basic datum, but something itself which must be derived: “The theory that we set forth here does not assume freedom but rather derives it as a mere form of appearance… not as something that belongs immediately within being but rather only within the visibility of being; it is a synthetic member of a relation, namely, the relation between what in fact does not exist (the expression of life in an image) and that which alone exists in an absolute way (the life of the concept itself).”[v]

Although the earlier practical thought is motivated by a contradiction between the striving of the self to overcome the barriers to its full rationalization of the world and the impossibility of ever achieving a definitive rationalisation, one of its main achievements from Fichte´s perspective was to have dissolved the dualistic account of moral psychology in Kant´s moral theory. On the latter account the moral subject is torn between the demands of reason and heteronomous determination grounded in natural desires for satisfaction. A complaint raised against Fichte´s move here is that whatever other benefits it might have, it appears to reduce radically the significance of the individual and its moral life. Thus in the Jena System of Ethics, we read: “The drive towards self-sufficiency aims at self-sufficiency as such [überhaupt]. All individuality has for the system of ethics, considered at its highest standpoint, only this meaning: that individuality is for us qua sensuous beings the exclusive condition of the causality of the pure will, the single organ [Werkzeug] and vehicle of the moral law.” From the perspective of the 1812 lectures, we can see how definitively uninterested Fichte’s ethical thought is interested in the travails of particular finite existence. Alluding to, and tacitly arguing against, the seventh of Reinhold’s Letters on the Kantian Philosophy, Fichte explicitly denies that the will can be divided against itself.[vi] As with the earlier System of Ethics, the criterion for ethical action comes down to whether reason is used or whether it is not. Although now his focus on the question of how the will corresponds to the ideal being of the concept leads him to assert that any failure to do so is so ontologically unimportant as to be unworthy of consideration. As a result of this there is no equivalent discussion of evil to rival section sixteen of the Jena System of Ethics. The one goal of ethics is the annihilation of its proper domain, appearance, and the dissolution of the latter into truth.

One question these lectures raise is then to what extent this position is merely a working out of ambiguities latently present in the earlier practical philosophy. For example, in the Foundations of Natural Right Fichte provides a deduction of the institutions of the Rechtsstaat which corresponds to an ideal-type of liberalism (social contract, primacy of freedom of contract, Urrechte – the latter correspond roughly to human rights, rights which are ascribed to one simply in virtue of being a rational agent). However, these institutions are derived from a theory of self-consciousness and agency which is strikingly at odds which the traditional intellectual basis of liberalism. The corollary of the Wissenschaftslehre’s account of self-consciousness, according to which the latter can only be known contrastively, at the level of practical philosophy is that an inter-subjective relationship is the condition of possibility for subjectivity. This result immediately rules out the idea of unmediated rational self-awareness (Locke) and throws Fichte´s position with regards to traditional social contract theory into sharp relief. The latter assumes a fully formed individual in the state of nature who is able to enter into the contract. Fichte on the contrary argues that the status of being an individual is only attained on the basis of being in a mutually recognitive Rechstverhältnis with another – explicitly arguing that state of ‘nature’ is brought about by the state insofar as it guarantees and formalizes these relationships.

In his later practical thought, the priority of being over the individual seems to correspond to a prioritisation of the communal over the individual – but in light of these ambiguities one might argue that Fichte’s earlier commitment to individualism was arguably merely formal. One can see in the 1812 theory of ethics how these contradictions are worked out in tandem with the theoretical development of the Wissenschaftslehre: the strict separation between the domain of ethics and the legal sphere is subsumed into “one commanding Ought.” The general will replaces the moral law and the stress is clearly on the collective. In the Rechtslehre of the same year, Fichte writes that Kant is mistaken “when he says that each man is his own end…the ends of each is everyone else, because the realisation of the collective end of all depends on the cooperation and commitment of each.”[vii]

While the denial of concrete individuality seems to be both in line with and more radical than the earlier practical philosophy, this assessment needs to be qualified. Fichte strenuously denies the existence of a collective consciousness that transcends that of the individual, a point overlooked in some of the unsympathetic commentary on the late work. As Hans Freyer points out in his suggestive essay “Das Material der Pflicht” (one of the few pieces which explicitly deals with the 1812 theory of ethics, unfortunately not included in the editor’s bibliography), it is precisely Fichte’s move towards a metaphysical deduction that leads him to pose the question of individuation for the first time: “The inclusion of the individual into concrete totalities is constitutive of its individuality. These concrete totalities are themselves (in formal logical terms) individuals. Both of these facts motivates individualising concept formation and drives Fichte in this phase of his philosophy to the problems of community and history.”[viii] The last discussion of the lectures concerns precisely these issues. Examination of Fichte’s later ethical thought from this perspective may provide an adequate Fichtean defence against the Hegelian criticism mentioned above.

One major theoretical advantage of the earlier SL was its ability to account for deviant moral phenomena in terms other than simple heteronomy/pathological determination as Kant had to do. Here we see Fichte is able to present a somewhat more developed account of such phenomena as well as, importantly, their historical import. In line with his account of community as the condition of the individual, Fichte also develops a positive historical account. Of particular interest is his conception of rational religion and its church for sustaining Sittlichkeit. The comparison with Schelling, who entertained similar thoughts in his later work, is instructive here. Fichte allows that a religion which is not based on explicit awareness of the concept may help cultivate moral action, but if this happens it is merely accidental. Schelling, on the other hand, is much more interested in the idea that such awareness must first be brought about historically.

The link to Schelling’s work more broadly is a final reason for interest in these lectures. They contain one Fichte’s clearest appreciations of his objections to Schelling´s philosophy of nature. This is something that the editor notes (although he inaccurately calls Schelling´s philosophy of nature “vitalist”) and will hopefully be particularly useful given that this is the area of Schelling´s thought which is currently generating the most scholarly interest. Although Fichte was familiar with the different stages of Schelling´s early work, his discussion is generally restricted to the philosophy of nature – unfortunately he appears never to have read Schelling´s major discussion of freedom in Freiheitsschrift (this is all the more unfortunate as he elsewhere expresses some – albeit very qualified – praise for the ideas in the 1804 Philosophy and Religion which is the precursor to the 1809 text). Nonetheless his discussion provides an instructive vantage point for the comparison of the Fichte´s and Schelling´s philosophies as a whole.

Initially a partisan of Fichte´s project, by the mid 1790´s Schelling had become convinced of a deficiency in Fichte´s approach. According to Schelling, the idealism of the first Wissenschaftslehre documents only the highest stage (or what Schelling calls ‘potentiality’) of spirit and hence requires a more comprehensive ontological account of its own conditions of possibility – one which would indicate how freedom and subjectivity fit in to nature. This led Schelling to balance Fichte´s ‘practical’ idealism with a corresponding ‘theoretical’ philosophy of nature which tracks the development of spirit out of the organization of matter as it prefigures its highest realization in human subjectivity; the ‘practical’ and the ‘theoretical’ are shown to be mutually implicating, forming a complete philosophical system. When it became clear to Fichte that Schelling´s proposed ‘filling out’ of transcendental philosophy could not ultimately be subsumed under the practical idealism of the Wissenschaftslehre, philosophical collaboration between the two promptly ended. From Fichte´s perspective at the turn of the century, Schelling´s smooth transition from nature to the sphere of consciousness annihilates the sui generis status of freedom and hence amounts to a reformulation of the Spinozistic determinism which Fichte had wrestled with in his youth and had devoted his philosophical career to overcoming (a striking account of what Fichte takes to be the psychological correlate of such a system is given in the first book of the 1800 text The Vocation of Man).

Whilst the correspondence between Fichte and Schelling provides first hand evidence of their disagreements, it is often hard to identify precisely what is at issue given that both of their positions are in a phase of rapid development. In these late lectures, Fichte doubles down on the charge that the philosophy of nature is incompatible with the theory of morality – the concept must be pure and not a copy of the world, precisely what philosophy of nature must assert of the concept. His insistence on this is strengthened by the denial of any (even irrational) independent existence of non-ideal being. However despite continuities in the terms of Fichte´s criticism, there is a certain irony in the way Fichte´s and Schelling´s thought matured after their acrimonious disagreement insofar as the two thinkers appear to swap basic intuitions. Schelling was driven to the philosophy of nature (and thence to his Identity System) by the thought that being is deeper than subjectivity and that the post-Kantian systematizing project necessitated a critical reformulation of this metaphysical idea. As we have seen Fichte continues, more radically even than in the Jena period, to deny any reality to nature. Yet his attempt is clearly supposed to be some sort of answer to Schelling´s objections and performs an analogous depotentiation of self-consciousness. The slogan of the Wissenschaftslehre 1812 is “only one is [nur Eins ist]” – suspiciously close to the adage of hen kai pan that he condemned in Schelling´s earlier work.

Similarly, whilst Schelling stood accused of resurrecting a mix of neo-platonic and Spinozistic ‘dogmatism’ in his youth, his later work is centred around a reformulation of the understanding of practical reason – the rupture initiated by the Freiheitsschrift precisely concerns the unsystematisable sui generis status of freedom which institutes a gulf between the human and natural world. As is evident from these lectures, by the end of Fichte´s career, the reality of freedom seems to be simply coterminous with the being of the absolute whilst human – formal – freedom is reduced to an illusory appearance covering up what is in fact a necessary stage in the manifestation of the absolute. In other words, Fichte substitutes Schelling´s interlocking system of nature and spirit with a system of the self-realization of ideal/spirit – both cases clearly prioritize the idea of a teleology of being leaving the reality of practical reason in doubt. Whether this is a necessary development from Fichte´s earlier System of Ethics, which itself insists on the unity of reason, and whether Fichte´s late account of the absolute is preferable to the Schellingian alternative are questions which are still little discussed in the secondary literature. These lectures pose them in a way that is hopefully accessible to those who have hitherto focused their attention on the more accessible early debates of German Idealism. Whether Fichte´s resolution of the theory of ethics into a subsidiary aspect of a theory of being will generate equivalent excitement to his early privileging of the practical is doubtful. However, Fichte’s revision of the earlier position in this direction does not amount a total break from the System of Ethics and is, like the later Wissenschaftslehre with respect to its earlier counterparts, never presented in these terms but rather as a progression in terms of formulating the basic starting point. As such, despite their occasional opacity, these lectures should also raise some difficult questions for the project behind the recent reception of the Jena period insofar as it assumes that Fichte’s early work can provide a completely systematic account of normativity independent from ontology.


[i] Cf. the first lecture of Die Prinzipien der Gottes- Sitten- und Rechtslehre (1805).

[ii] Cf. Ideen für die innere Organisation der Universität Erlangen (1805/6) in Fichtes Werke (I.H. Fichte ed.), vol. XI, 277.

[iii] Lectures on the Theory of Ethics 1812, 33.

[iv] Ibid., 53.

[v] Ibid., 51.

[vi] Unfortunately the editor has left out some of the information provided in the German critical edition on Fichte’s less obvious references.

[vii] Rechtlehre 1812 II, 501.

[viii] H. Freyer, ‘Das Material der Pflicht: Eine Studie über Fichtes spätere Sittenlehre’ in Kant-Studien, 1920, 151.