Felix Duque is arguably the most important living philosopher in the Spanish-speaking world. Remnants of Hegel is the first book translated into English. It is not a mere interpretation of Hegel, but rather a critical study that attempts to drive the aspects of its subject matter toward their ultimate consequences using Hegelian criteria. In other words, if Hegel’s philosophy is a critique of Kant’s critical philosophy, then Duque’s exposition is a critique of Hegelian philosophy. Furthermore, and just as Hegel develops Kantian categories in order to reveal a truth that goes beyond Kant, Duque develops Hegelian concepts in order to deduce a truth that transcends them. Indeed, Duque says that “The Hegelian system, impressive as it is, ultimately reveals itself as a miscarried attempt to reconcile nature and theory, individuality and collective praxis” (Duque, x).
Moreover, I should begin my review by noting that the book is clearly written for readers who are well acquainted with Hegel’s philosophy. In this respect, my review will attempt to overcome this difficulty by limiting itself to a reading that makes it accessible to those who are not conversant with this philosophy.
The book itself contains five chapters:
Chapter I: Substrate and Subject (Hegel in the aftermath of Aristotle). This chapter is concerned with the famous expression made in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit: “According to my view of things, which can be justified through the exposition of the system itself, everything depends on apprehending and expressing the true not as [nicht als] substance, but just as much [eben so sehr] as subject” (Duque, 17).
Chapter II: Hegel on the Death of Christ, is a discussion that seeks to analyze the transition from nature to society, or, rather, the transition from a natural human being to a historical being, and to a being having a second nature, which is the political life of man, a transition which is made possible by the understanding of society and politics as a higher level of self-consciousness.
Chapter III: Death Is a Gulp of Water. This chapter is concerned with terror in World History. More specifically, it is a critical exposition of Hegel’s idea of revolution and terror which primarily refers to the French Revolution. The politics of terror, the chapter argues, is the necessary result of trying to implement the revolution without mediations, that is, directly and as an abstract revolution (Duque, 83). Here Duque does not limit himself to an analysis of Hegel and his time, but also deals with its historical reception by the likes of Communism and Stalinism in the twentieth century. Such an idea of terror does much to radically undervalue the value of life and also makes us remember Hanna Arendt’s Banality of Evil. Indeed, terror is, paradoxically, a result of the French Revolution in its historical imagining of Napoleon, namely, the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity as mediated by his political force appearing as the opposite of those values’ true essence.
Chapter IV: Person, Freedom, and Community is an analysis of the last chapter of Hegel’s Science of Logic which is concerned with the notion of the absolute idea. It is an essential problem to understanding the book as a whole since Hegel begins and ends the book by praising this notion rather than explaining or developing it.
Chapter V: The Errancy of Reason. This chapter summarizes the previous chapters and engages in a holistic critical analysis of the topics discussed.
I would now wish to develop some ideas on Hegel inspired by reading Duque’s work and by my own understanding of Hegel’s philosophy.
Hegel’s logic is not normative. Unlike formal logic, which determines how we should think and not how we actually think, Hegel‘s Science of Logic, proceeds in the opposite direction by studying thought as it is as well as its development from the most abstract stage (the thought of pure being without further determinations) to the most concrete, this being the absolute idea as the unit of theoretical and practical thinking. Duque’s interpretation adopts this principle, and unlike the interpretations offered by Alexandre Kojève and many others, asserts that it should be taken literally, that is, by not trying to correct the author in order to understand him! Understanding by correcting makes the original a tabula rasa since it allows the interpreter to introduce any idea as it occurs to her or him to the work in the belief that it is an interpretation, while it is actually a creation of her or his own mind.
Hegel’s Logic is a reflective study of the concept. In Duque’s words, “the entire Logic is nothing but a relentless attempt to furnish a conscious and deliberate reconstruction of fugitive and fleeting linguistic forms and determinations.” (Duque, ix). The terms in his Logic do not have the fixity that they have in formal logic (both classical and modern), but their meaning varies according to the context, and especially according to the level in which the study is developed. Hegel perceives only the term, the word, as fixed, but not the concept or content that is expressed through words.
Hegel’s logic attempts to solve the classic problem of Aristotelian logic, in which “to say what something in the last instance really is, its ultimate logos, amounts to affirming all the affections, properties, and determinations of that thing” (Duque, 4). Hegel, however, is not successful in resolving this difficulty despite believing he is.
Hegel suggests that thought and reality, as well as mind and world, are inseparable in the sense that their meaning undergoes constant change and construction with respect to the conceptual level and context in which it takes place. A concept’s level of abstraction or concreteness thus simultaneously determines the degree of reality to which it refers. Put differently, this reading suggests that the Science of Logic ultimately serves as an ontological proof which not only proves the existence of God but also the existence of every concept subjected to actual thought. In other words, if I really believe in the concept of having a hundred thalers in my pocket, and not merely imagining them, then the hundred thalers become real and become part of my patrimony. I thus either have them in my pocket or, alternately, owe them and am obliged to pay them. This is not the case with Kant, since he merely imagines them, that is to say, recognizes from the very outset that they are not real thalers. This, in turn, is the difference between abstract and concrete concepts.
The process of concretion is clearly explained in the “logic of the judgment” discussion in the third part of Science of Logic, which is nothing but logic from the perspective of the relationship between the two essential components of judgment—subject and predicate. Thus, every judgment announces that the subject is the predicate. More explicitly, the subject of the judgment is the entity whose identity is being subjected to inquiry, and the answer is offered by all the predicates that refer to that subject. Each predicate thus changes the meaning of the subject, and, in reality, amplifies its meaning. In this respect, a subject is enriched by having more predicates attributed to it – as each of the latter forms another subject with other questions. In other words, to think is – formally – to pass from the subject, which functions as what is unknown and in need of becoming known, to the predicate, which functions as what is known and therefore as what bestows knowledge and meaning on the subject. It is thus a relation between a bearer of meaning (the subject) and a meaning (the predicate).
However, this relationship occurs within the frame of another relationship that occurs in the same intentional field. It is the relation (entirely unlike that of subject and predicate) between subject and object. Despite their difference, subject-predicate and subject-object relations cannot be separated but only distinguished. In effect, when the thought passes from the subject to the predicate, it does not consider the predicate (that is to say, it does not think about grammar) but its content, that is, the object or, rather, something that acquires the status of an object. The subject thus objectifies the target of though by means of predication. In the case of philosophy, that is to say, thinking about thinking, thought passes to something else, to what is being thought about, namely the object. And what is an object if not something that stands in front of the subject as a correlative to the subject? Hegel indeed argued that the object possesses nothing more than this relational character. The object is thus what was thought about by the subject. It is the entire universe existing insofar as it is the content of thought. There is no other universe. However, it is not the thought of my individual reflection. It is ultimately a universal reflection, and Hegel goes so far as to maintain that everything is Spirit (“There is nothing at hand that is wholly alien to spirit” (Hegel, Encyclopedia § 377, note, quoted by Duque, 38).
The Spirit is the objectification of subjectivity, the whole universe as thought of, a conceptualized universe, insofar as another does not replace it. But if something else remains, it is the task of thought to appropriate it, that is, as we said, to conceptualize it and thus imbue it with reality. This, in turn, is the secret of the coincidence of logic and metaphysics.
Thus, it turns out that the object is the complete expression of the subject. A strange reflection indeed. Fully aware of being a reflection and its denial at the same time—because it always returns to thinking about the object when it is supposed to be thinking about thinking about the object.
Hegel nonetheless moves backward. He rethinks the thought, concentrating not on content but on the fact of thinking about it. Hegel and his readers believed that they were thinking about Being when they were actually thinking about Essence; they thought they were thinking about Essence, and they were actually thinking about Concept! That is to say, Hegel was not concerned with a question of being but with the concept of being. It was not a question of essence but of the concept of essence, and it was not about concept but about the concept of concept. Hegel and his readers believed that they were thinking about substance when they were actually thinking about themselves—about the subject. Duque is therefore right in saying that all this does not mean we are solely concerned with thinking about substance, but also about the subject. This is because the substance is not even the truth, although it is a reflection, but this is a reflection that lacks reflection, or that does not know that it is a reflection. In other words, we are ultimately concerned with a subject thinking about itself.
The culmination of this backwards-advancing reflection is the Absolute Idea, which also serves as the culmination of subjectivity in the Subjective Logic (the third and last part of the Science of Logic). This must not be forgotten, as must the assertion that Hegel’s thought cannot migrate to another sphere, or does not enter it because Hegel does not need it, although he promises to explain something new, viz. the content of the Absolute Idea. But it is precisely here, at the end of the Science of Logic, that Hegel begins being poetic and stops being philosophical: he offers pure promises without any fulfillment. Such is the end of the great Science of Logic despite its colossality. Duque, in turn, ascribes a great deal of importance to this abrupt end in Hegel’s Logic. When the Absolute Idea is reached, according to Duque, “Everything else [Alles Übrige] is error, obscurity, struggle, caprice, and transience [Vergänglichkeit].” (Hegel, Science of Logic, quoted by Duque, 38). Is it not the case that everything should be included in the Absolute Spirit? Is the whole path unnecessary, as is the case of the ladder for the young Wittgenstein? This would go against the spirit of Hegel’s philosophy no less than his own assertion about error, obscurity, etc.
The Absolute Idea, then, does not fulfill Hegel’s intention. The universal absolute should deduce the individual in her or his singularity from itself because the individual is absolutely relational. It is a being that includes what is not her or him in itself, as well as what is other than itself, as the determinant of what it is. In other words, it is a concrete individuality understandable in its concrete universality. This is especially apparent when we think of the individual as a social being. If we take away all of the individual’s “environment” and context, namely, every socially shared issue and every general feature including language and clothing it will remain, contrary to what could be expected, an abstract individual: Just as when attempting to isolate the individual in order to understand it in her or his singularity, nothing remains and the very individual disappears. This, in turn, means that individuals are wholly social, that is, totally relational. This does not, however, imply that the individual is not individual, but that this is what it consists of: The more singular the individual, the more dependent she or he is on her or his network of relationships. Thus, the more relationships the individual has, the more individual she or he becomes.
When the individual denies her or his otherness, as in the case of the worker or the slave in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, she or he not only denies the other but it denies her or himself when alienating her or himself from her or his other because that other is her or his own other, not an abstract, isolated other. Thus, the more she or he is social, the more individual she or he becomes. The more she or he has relations to and dependencies on other individuals, the more she or he is a concrete singularity, a singularity determined by its relationships. This is entirely unlike the Aristotelian relations of genera and species, where the individual is obtained through isolation. The Aristotelian individual is obtained by excluding all difference. In Hegel the opposite is true: the more a thing includes the differentiated as differentiated in itself, the more individual it becomes. History is thus a process of socialization which is – in actual fact – a process of individuation. In Aristotelian logic, intension and extension are opposed: the greater the intension, the smaller the extension; the greater the definition, the smaller the subsumed individual(s). In Hegel, there is no such opposition. The individual is more social the more determined she or he is and the more she or he includes the other. Hegelian logic is not, however, intended as an alternative logic to Aristotelian logic, but rather as the self-consciousness of the Aristotelian logic as well as its inner development and evolution. Formal logic is thus a stage that the spirit must pass through in order to be finally be criticized by consciousness, as it is in the Logic of Essence, the second part of the Science of Logic, which engages in the critique of the “laws” of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle.
I will now turn to the relationships between substance and subject. According to Aristotle, a substance is that which is neither said of a subject nor in a subject, namely, it is not a predicate as predicates are said about a substance (individuals, like this individual man or this statue). However, entities which say what a substance is are “secondary” substances, genera and species, that can be also subjects as well as predicates and are always general and never individual. However, saying what an individual is, has the genera and species as an answer, something that is not individual. The individual man belongs to a species, man, and an animal is a genus of that species. Thus, both man and animal are considered secondary substances. In this respect, Duque rightfully claims that the Aristotelian definition of substance as a negative definition arises from the impossibility of saying what it is without making it into something other than what it is. In other words, predicates will always betray their original intention since they cannot be individuals.
If there is something that is neither said of a subject nor exists in a subject, this is obviously because it is itself the subject, as Aristotle himself concedes: “All the other things are either said of the primary substances as subjects or in them as subjects” (Aristotle, Categories, 2a, 34–35, quoted by Duque, 6). Duque then proceeds to state:
Yet secondary substance does not exist of itself, unless it is given with primary substance. We are evidently confronted with a certain inversion here, with an irresolvable chiasmus: that which is first in the order of being is second in the order of logical discourse, and vice versa.” (Duque, 7)
The substance is for Aristotle the being of the being, and it is the fixed (permanent) side of change, something that does not change as things change. As a being of being it has a double function, meaning that it has two meanings in the sense that it is both the essence of the being and the being of the essence.
As the essence of being, the substance is the determinate being, the nature of the necessary being: the man as a two-legged animal. As the being of the essence it is the two-legged animal as this individual man.
This is a duality that Aristotle did not manage to resolve. When Aristotle says that the substance is expressed in the definition and that only the substance has a true definition, the substance is understood as the essence of the being, as that which reason can understand. But when, on the contrary, he declares that the essence is identical to determinate reality, as beauty exists only in what is beauty, Aristotle understands the substance as the being of the essence, and as a principle that offers necessary existence to the nature of a thing.
As the essence of being, the substance is the form of things and bestows unity on the elements that make up the whole where the whole is a distinct proper nature unlike its component elements. Aristotle refers to the form of material things as a species, and species is, therefore, its substance. As the being of the essence, the substance is the substrate: that about which any other thing is predicated but that cannot be a predicate of anything else. And as the substrate it is matter, a reality without any determination other than a potentiality. As the essence of being, the substance is the concept or logos that has neither generation nor corruption, that does not become but is this or that thing. As the being of essence, the substance is the composition, namely, the unity of concept (or form) with matter—the existing thing. In this sense, the substance comes to being and comes to its end.
As the essence of being, the substance is the principle of intelligibility of the being itself. In this sense, it is the stable and necessary element on which science is founded. According to Aristotle, there is no other science than that which is necessary, whereas the knowledge of what can or cannot be is rather an opinion. Substance is thus, objectively, the being of the essence and the necessary reality, and subjectively the essence of being, as necessary rationality. In short, the distinction Aristotle makes between primary substances (0ρώται οὐσίαι) and secondary substances (δεύτεραι οὐσίαι) consists of understanding the former as physical individuals and the latter as species (τά εἴδεα) and genera (τά γένη) of those individuals (Aristotle, Categories, 2a14).
In Hegel, on the other hand, the substance is the principle from which the individual is deduced. He argues for the primacy of the universal and the primacy of substance over the individual. Unlike with Aristotle, the universal is the principle of individuation, so that the individual has no meaning without the universal. This, in turn, is the basis on which his understanding of truth as substance but also as subject can be understood. Duque contends that “primary substance is entirely subsumed in secondary substance, or in universality. But this universality is indeed concrete since it bears and holds all particularity and all individuality within itself. It is concrete, but it does not yet know that it is.” (Duque, 2018, 24). Namely, it doesn’t know that it is also a subject.
The intentional character of the subject, as it is understood in self-consciousness, means the understanding of the subject as the one that externalizes itself and then internalizes what was rejected, that is, that understands that this is its way of acting. It also means that being is ultimately recognized in reflection as a first instance, that is, as thinking. Substance is itself thinking, though not recognized as such. Ultimately, therefore, subject is a synthesis of self-consciousness and objectivity.
In judgment, when the subject moves toward the predicate, when it is objectified and when, in subsequent reflection, discovers that it returns to itself (since the predicate is predicated from the subject), then the subject ends up enriched with what the predicate attributes to it.
This, in turn, allows us to understand the controversial and somehow obscure dictum in the 1806 preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit:
According to my view of things, which can be justified through the exposition of the system itself, everything depends on apprehending and expressing the true not as [nicht als] substance, but just as much [eben so sehr] as subject (quoted by Duque, 17)
Hegel therefore contends that self-consciousness is externalized and thus becomes an object. But this posited object is itself the very subject that has been placed as another, thus appearing as an opposite to itself: it knows itself knowing the other.
And this happens because that object is not, as it were, a natural object, a given, but an object created or engendered (like any object, according to Hegel) by self-consciousness. They are, then, two momenta, that of subjectivity (being-for-itself) and that of objectivity (being-in-itself). In reality, however, they are not merely two momenta, but a single reality split into two momenta that are only true in their opposition and in their unity. For subjectivity does not become true if it is not objective and true objectivity cannot be natural but only produced by human endeavor (in the broad sense of the word). This is why the fact that men, at one point in history, had subjected other men to work, to externalize themselves, to produce objects out of themselves, and thus transform a given natural environment into a human environment, is a necessary step in human development, as this is a human creation, an elevation above the natural.
A misreading, according to Duque, is to believe that the substance is not true as if the subject has nothing to do with the substance (or mutatis mutandis, a misreading that believes that freedom has nothing to do with necessity). Just as reason does not exist without understanding, subject does not exist without substance. The subject is thus the conceptual understanding of the substance and the consciousness of necessity. Put differently, it is a continuation of Spinozism taken to its logical extreme.
The task to write a short history of German philosophy is daunting. Hösle approaches this task with erudition, precision and admirable polemical style. Readers should note that Hösle’s account is not meant to be a neutral encyclopaedic one which narrates the entire history of philosophical ideas in the German-speaking world. While his selection and evaluation of certain figures might appear questionable, it would be unfair if one judges it with an expectation of encyclopaedic comprehensiveness. Indeed, it is a specific account representing the German Spirit in a specific way. He gives four criteria for his selection of German philosophers: 1. quality of the philosophical work, 2. influence on subsequent developments in the history of philosophy, 3. whether the work paradigmatically expresses the basic ideas of the time and of German culture and 4. whether the philosopher helps us make sense of the developmental logic of the process of development. Along with the use of the German language, these make up the formal necessary requirements of Hösle’s historiography of German philosophy. On this basis of selection, he identifies a set of material features that characterize the German Spirit, and they are: 1. rationalist theology; 2. a commitment to synthetic a priori knowledge (trust that God created the world in a rational way); 3. a penchant for system-building; 4. grounding ethics in reason not in sentiment and 5. a combination of philosophy and philology. This review consists of two main parts. I will first sum up the line of ideological development given by Hösle, and then I will critique Hösle’s account of the withering of German philosophy and its Spirit.
In Hösle’s account, which consists of 16 chapters arranged by chronological order, German philosophy first started with Meister Eckhart and reached its climax in German idealism. Eckhart is not only the first medieval philosopher who expresses his original philosophical ideas in vernacular German language, his rationalist theology and mystic idea of an unmediated relationship to God are characteristic traits of the German Spirit. Nicholas of Cusa, though he did not write philosophical treatises in German, was influenced by Eckhart’s rational theology and conceived the project of an a priori, theologically-grounded natural philosophy, which sees the universe (and human mind) as an image of the Trinitarian infinite God and critiques the Aristotelian geocentric worldview of finite cosmos. The reasons for Hösle to include him despite the fact that Nicholas did not write his works in German seem to be his use of the distinction between understanding and reason and his epistemological optimism about human mind’s approximation to divine infinity. Paracelsus is a natural philosopher in the Spiritualist tradition that was partly inspired by the Reformation and partly broke with the dogmas of orthodox Lutheranism and biblical authority. His polemic against traditional medicine called for founding medicine in chemistry and mineralogy and he sees the forces of nature as God’s manifestation and particular sciences as subordinated to theology.
But it is Jakob Böhme whom Hösle identifies as “the first epoch-making German philosopher of the modern period.” Böhme considered himself a pious Lutheran and his experience of mystical visions brought him to provide a deeper theosophic foundation for Lutheranism. In his contemplation on the problem of evil and suffering, Böhme recognizes in God three principles: the positive (the “Yes”), the negative (the “No”) and their synthesis. Devil and Hell are the expression of the negative divine principle, and it is through this opposition that God becomes knowable and apparent. The reunion of the Yes and the No was found in Christ.
Leibniz must be included in any historical account of the emergence of German philosophy. Not only did he contribute to raising German to the rank of a language suitable for academic purposes and founding the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences (now the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities), his philosophical contributions also earned him a place among the greatest philosophers. Interestingly, Hösle understands modern philosophy as a competition between ontology-first and epistemology-first thinkers (or “ancientizers” and “modernizers” in Hösle’s own terms). The prime example of the former camp is Spinoza, and the leader of the latter is Descartes. Whereas Spinoza starts with an ontological proof of natura naturans with extension and thought being its two knowable attributes, Descartes starts from the undeniability of the cogito, with the physical and the mental being two different kinds of substances. Though Hösle did not clearly assign Leibniz to either side, Leibniz seems to be straddling both with a stronger sympathy for the modernizers. Despite Leibniz’s personal admiration for Spinoza and the partial agreement in their philosophical positions, Hösle is quite right in stressing their differences regarding the concept of necessity, the moral status of God and the notion of substance. The appropriation of possible worlds in Leibniz’s metaphysics is bound by the axiological view that the actual world must be the best possible world created by God if God exists, and Leibniz’s pluralistic view of substances is supplemented by the notion of pre-established harmony.
By tying God down to the actual world as the best possible world, Leibniz in effect exacerbated the theodicy problem. Not only did Kant uncover the problem by critically examining previous proofs of God and pointing out their implausibility, he is also a revolutionary in ethics because his practical philosophy detached the foundations of ethics entirely from any hopes of an after-world. The value of moral conduct no longer depends on God’s reward or on subjective feelings, but rather it lies within the act as an end in itself. Ethics so conceived is grounded on a categorical, unconditional imperative that is owed to practical reason’s self-determination and not to any heteronomous factors. This alignment with practical reason generates a stream of anti-eudaimonism in Kant’s ethics, in which human dignity consists in the capacity of sacrificing one’s own happiness for the fulfilment of obligation, and one’s relation to God is grounded internally through the compliance with moral obligation. Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal realm and the noumenal realm along with his epistemological distinction of the capacity of understanding and reason allow him to reserve a regulative role for the idea of God while restricting its objective validity in accordance with his criterion of significance for the phenomenal realm.
The development of a new human science is another important achievement of the German eighteenth century alongside Kant’s critical philosophy. The historical reliability of biblical narratives was challenged and the narrow-minded salvation history of Jews and Christians was discredited by the universalistic spirit of Enlightenment. But the Lutheran pathos of sincerity prevented the German intellectuals, many of whom came from a Lutheran parsonage, to adopt a detached attitude of irony. Instead, modern philology provided the means to reconstructing the meaning of the Scriptures in response to not just biblical criticism but also Enlightenment universalism. This led to the idea that understanding the word of God is not simply understanding the Bible (literally), but rather the whole history of the human spirit; and the establishment of human science became a religious duty. In this regard, Herder’s contribution to German philosophy is unmistakable, for he gave it a new focus in philosophy of language, history, aesthetics and anthropology. Schiller’s aesthetic theory attributes a moral function to the traditional aesthetic category of beauty, and aesthetic education was conceived as an apolitical alternative to political revolution for the realization of moral ideas and the unification of all spheres of life. Through the Schlegel brothers and Novalis philosophy and poetry achieved an integral and yet anti-systematic cohesion, which became an essential characteristic of early Romanticism. Schleiermacher’s theology of feeling granted religion an autonomous status within human sciences, making it accessible via rational standards for those who had detached themselves from the dogmatic authority of tradition. Humboldt’s linguistic works and his analysis of the relationship between thought and language constitute an important contribution to the German tradition of the philosophy of language. He also played a significant role in the institutionalization of human science in the modern blueprint of the research university.
German idealism is for Hösle the most ambitious philosophical school of thought in the history of German philosophy and he focuses on the three most prominent figures: Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. The philosophizing of each of the three philosophers manifests not just the essential character of religious seriousness that defines the German Spirit, but also the longing for a comprehensive metaphysical system that defies the current prevalent trend of specialization. Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre is a reflexive transcendental philosophy that seeks to uncover (or “deduce”) the implicit presuppositions, or the fundamental principles (and their implications), of the faculties of the mind assumed by Kant’s philosophy. Fichte traces the foundation of the laws of logic (identity and contradiction) in the I’s self-positing and counter-positing act, and all theoretical knowledge is based on the mediation of the divisible I through the divisible not-I. His ethics, like Kant’s, not only recognizes autonomy as the necessary condition for moral acts, but it represents a view more radical than Kant’s in that it does not allow for morally neutral acts. The mutual recognition of the spheres of freedom among individuals is enacted by law; and it is with Fichte that intersubjectivity is deduced for the first time as a necessary condition of autonomous self-consciousness. Practical belief takes priority in his system, as it is the only way to avoid nihilism.
Schelling started out as a Fichtean philosopher but soon broke with Fichteanism by attributing to nature a much higher status than Fichte’s Wissnschaftslehre allowed. Instead of deducing nature as the field of ethical striving for rational beings, Schelling’s objective idealism sees nature and consciousness as manifestations of the Absolute, and the basic structures of reality are conceived as the results of the development of a polar structure. Built on a metaphysical view that seeks to accommodate the real and the ideal, Schelling took inspirations from the contemporary development of natural science and attributed metaphysical significance to its latest discovery. Schelling’s view on religion is closer to traditional Christianity in that he does not content himself with a negative philosophy that postulates God as a logical abstratum but demands a positive account that affirms the vitality of a personal God.
Hegel started his philosophical career as a loyal follower of Schelling’s absolute idealism, but he established it with much greater brilliance and systematic rigor than Schelling was ever able to do. His mature metaphysical system contains three parts: logic, nature and spirit. In contrast to what Hegel calls “the reflective philosophy of subjectivity,” the a priori categories in Hegel’s system are not to be understood as subjective concepts imposed on an objective reality. Instead, reality is conceptually structured, and the categorial structures of reality are not ens rationis from a transcendent realm, but dynamic moments in the teleological self-movement of the Absolute. Thus, the theological significance of Hegel’s Science of Logic is prominent, since the entire system can be taken as an ontological proof of God. Hegel also places intrinsic value on social institutions and intersubjectively shared ways of life.
Schopenhauer is an essential key to understanding the transition from German idealism to Nietzsche. Clearly, his epistemology was influenced by Kant’s subjectivism and the German idealists’ wish to bring the thing-in-itself to light, and he reacted to them with an alternative, pessimistic worldview that parallels Indian Buddhism. His epistemology adopts space, time and causality as our subjective constructions, and takes the will to live for the ultimate ground of reality. Prioritizing intuition over concept and the will over reason and understanding, Schopenhauer sees reality as a series of objectivizations of the will, which is fundamentally driven by unconscious biological drives for procreation and self-preservation. Reason is therefore nothing but a symptom of the will, and human knowing is in continuity with animal knowing. With great philosophical depth and eloquence Schopenhauer expressed Europe’s hangover after the gradual flickering out of Christianity, anticipating Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.
In the wake of Schopenhauer, two Hegelian philosophers emerged and determined the history of European consciousness. Feuerbach’s investigation of the essence of Christianity uncovers contradictory ideas in Christian dogmas. He gives an anthropological explanation of religion, according to which God is the hypostatization of human understanding or moral experience. His critique of Christianity seeks to free humans from “religious alienation” which he sees detrimental to morality. Although Feuerbach was a member of Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, he was not a political activist and the influence of his revolt against Christian dogmatics remained within the intellectual circle. On the other hand, with the goal of changing the world, Marx and Engels left the domain of philosophy. Marx’s historical materialism is directed against German idealism and any metaphysical tradition in philosophy that stands on ideas. From a historical materialist point of view, morality, religion, metaphysics, and the rest of ideology are to be explained externally by social economic activities and conditions. Although Marx’s critique of the modern state and his analysis of the effects of alienation are pioneering, he underestimated the influence the “superstructure” can have on material conditions, leaving human capacity for grasping truth incomprehensible. His claim to be scientific was indefensible, not only because his prediction of communist society did not accord with our experience, but also because his emphasis on the primacy of the economic is one-sided and prejudiced.
The prominence of Nietzsche’s philosophy lies in its attempt to provide a philological explanation of the origin of Greek tragedy, in which he identifies and upholds the irrational element in ancient Greek culture represented by Dionysus. As the Antichrist in the history of German philosophy, Nietzsche is no less critical of metaphysics, morality, and Christianity. According to Hösle’s judgment, Nietzsche’s genealogical account of the emergence of religion and morality contributes to the “the German adventure of crushing the Christian order of values and the creation of an alternative value system that dripped with the desire to kill” (158). Against any universalist democratic ethics, Nietzsche demands a higher culture of the noble and the strong. His doctrine of the superman and his theory of the will to power replace all theological or religious grounding of values and express his rejection of transcendence.
Contrary to Nietzsche’s expressive language, Frege’s concept script was a precision instrument that achieved not only absolute clarity in inference, but it also brought about a logical revolution by attempting to ground arithmetic in logic. Although Frege’s new logic is incomplete and he was forced by Russell’s paradox to abandon his logicistic program, the new logic, compared to the traditional logic, was a much better candidate for providing a foundation for the new science and for accommodating its results and methods. This led to the very fruitful contributions to philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of physics made by the Viennese and Berlin Circles of logical positivism. Characteristic of this movement is its deflationary or anti-realist approach to metaphysical as well as moral statements, such that it recognizes no synthetic a priori judgments. The most prominent figure from this tradition is Wittgenstein, who once claimed that the limits of one’s language mean the limits of one’s world. The logical and mathematical structures underlying our languages reflect the structures of the world. The late Wittgenstein moved away from his early position, but the boundary of philosophy remained for him to be that of our language. His reflections on rule-following led him to conclude that meaning consists in the concrete use of language and not in any inner image, hence also his rejection of the possibility of private language and his reluctance to recognize any individualistic transcendental grounds of language.
Parallel to the development of logical positivism and Wittgenstein, the enterprise of grounding human and social sciences in reaction to the emergence and domination of natural sciences was undertaken by the Neo-Kantian philosophers, Dilthey, Husserl, and others. Hermann Cohen, founder of the Marburg School, gives a rationalistic interpretation of Judaism as a kind of universalist ethics that preserves its originality and at the same time rejects Zionism. Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert from the Baden School were concerned with the status of the knowledge in human and social sciences in contrast to natural sciences and they made important contributions to the investigation of the role of values. Wilhelm Dilthey tries to ground human sciences in an understanding of psychology and offers a critique of historical reason that objectivizes human mind and philosophical systems on an historical dimension without any idealistic commitment to the validity of any single system. Having lost the religious consciousness characteristic of the Protestantism of traditional German philosophy, Dilthey’s historical relativism loses at the same time the religious and ethical claim to absolute truth. Husserl is the most loyal defender of the traditional concept of reason in the 20th century. Having taken up the influences of Brentano’s and Frege’s realism, Husserl’s phenomenology is a scientific philosophy that seeks to determine the foundation of all the sciences without any theological ambitions. On this basis, his analysis of the phenomena of consciousness takes the relationship between meaning and expression seriously, investigates the dependency relation between contents and the laws that are the a priori conditions of meaningfulness. His phenomenology made not only advances in the investigation of the structure of subjectivity and intentionality, his concept of the life-world also offered a modern alternative to transcendental solipsism and a foundation for regional ontologies of essences. Although Husserl himself was not keen on building a comprehensive system, his phenomenology inspired some of his best students to apply it in new domains, e.g. aesthetics and practical philosophy.
Hösle then ponders in chapter 13 the question whether ideas in German philosophy play any role in the rise of National Socialism or in the hindrance of the opposition to it. He sees in the central figures of the German tradition (i.e. Luther and Kant) the lack of a plausible theory of resistance. The recess of universalist ethics brought about by Nietzsche and logical positivism, coupled with the rise of an anti-democratic right after the First World War in response to the threats of communism and British hegemony, contributes to the weakening of the binding power of an ethical order, paving the way to the emergence of a totalitarian regime. In this light, Hösle offers a critical assessment of Heidegger, whose philosophy redefines and undermines the traditional moral sense of terms such as conscience and guilt. His empty notion of resoluteness, even though it does not necessarily lead to National Socialism, is said to have encouraged the radicalization of irrational convictions.
For the Third Reich period, Arnold Gehlen and Carl Schmitt are picked as the determining figures of German philosophy. Gehlen’s pragmatist anthropology, taking into account a broad range of results from various sciences as well as the influence of Fichte but without any transcendental reflection, centers on action and the stabilizing function of social institutions, which are necessary for the constitution of consciousness. However, Gehlen fails to ascribe any moral significance to questioning unjust institutions. Despite the moral repulsiveness of Schmitt’s refusal of denazification after the Second World War, the influence of his political philosophy has to be acknowledged. His competence of intellectual history is unusual for a jurist, which enables him to see the plausible continuity between legal and theological concepts. But Hösle points out that Schmitt’s reference to the absolute decision as the ultimate ground of law is as problematic as Heidegger’s “resoluteness.”
After the Second World War, Germany could no longer retain the special cultural status it enjoyed since Kant. Not only did several intellectuals leave the country, the occupation and integration the country underwent made it impossible to travel further with the especially German philosophical paths. Gadamer’s attempt at breaking out of the aporias of historicism increased confusion in human sciences. Despite his concept of the anticipation of completeness that re-established some hermeneutic sense of truthfulness and his attempt at constructing an equivalent of first philosophy, he inspired the deconstructivist undermining of human sciences. The first Frankfurt School, for which Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno are the best representatives, reacts against the progress-oriented philosophy of history as well as the culture industry, but carries the Marxist ideal of eliminating concrete suffering through a cooperation with empirical sciences. Its lack of a normative foundation following from a rejection of Kantian ethics becomes the main concern of the second Frankfurt School represented by Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel. They seek to ground normativity by a theory of intersubjectivity influenced by American pragmatism. Though much originality can be found in the two Frankfurt Schools’ social critical stance and Hans Jonas’ environmental concern, it becomes clear to Hösle that up to this stage the Spirit of German philosophy has lost much of its earlier appeal.
Hösle’s account of the history of German philosophy shows an admirable intellectual capacity of synthesizing various materials and understanding them in a coherent, unifying manner that pieces together a pessimistic developmental picture. It is a pessimistic picture, because, as the title of the final chapter clearly suggests, it is likely that German philosophy will not exist in the future. Hösle points out sharply and accurately the current conditions of German philosophy that prevent it from having a bright future. The internet culture of our digital era has witnessed an explosion of information and it has become practically impossible to keep track of the works of all intellectuals. This phenomenon significantly dilutes the influence of any intellectual. The trend of specialization in the knowledge industry makes every attempt at system-building untimely and unattractive. And the institutional policy of German universities makes it hard for them to compete with Anglo-American universities, which in comparison offer much better financial support to junior researchers and systematically encourage the academic performance of professors. Given the global trend of technical specialization and the dominance of English as the lingua franca in the academic world, Germany has now become a “second-rate scientific power,” as Hösle put it. It sounds as if German philosophy has already sung its swan song, and what is left for researchers in German philosophy to do is only preservation of this repertoire of valuable ideas, so that these can be carried by the ark of culture “to the salvific shore of a new beginning” when environmental problems force human civilization to start anew.
The diagnosis in the final chapter that German philosophy has come to a dead end is disputable even if one accepts the preceding account of its historical development. One cannot help but suspect that this lament over the withering of German philosophy is rather a consequence of sticking to the letter (viz. the German language), and not the Spirit, of German philosophy. It is not necessary to restrict the domain of German philosophy to only those works written in German. Although most of the canonical works in German philosophy were written in German, making a logically necessary condition out of a genetic factor is a confusion. When the academic lingua franca in Europe was Latin and German philosophy was still in a nascent stage, tracking the intellectuals who first composed philosophical works in German is the philologically reasonable thing to do in recording how German philosophy came into existence. But over the course of development, it has gained worldwide attention and multilingual contributions. One might argue that contributions in foreign languages are not works in German philosophy, but about it. For instance, there are numerous careful and sophisticated exegeses on Kant and Hegel in English and although many of them are excellent scholarly works that are useful to readers of German philosophy, they do not extend the scope of German philosophy nor do they determine its course of further development by adding original insights. And when they do, they count as original works in foreign culture. British idealism and French phenomenology can be seen as prime examples of such cases. However, not every case is as clear. For example, as long as one cares not only about the historical genesis of Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophy but also their validity, ignoring the related works of Peter Strawson, John McDowell, Robert Brandom and others on the ground that they are not German philosophers and their works are not written in German and hence fall outside of the relevant scope, is counterproductive for the prosperity of German idealism. Here we need not draw a rigid line to settle the question whether original, non-German works that take positive reference to German philosophy should be counted as canonical works in German philosophy. Hösle’s historical account informatively and polemically demonstrated what kind of Sonderweg the German spirit has travelled, but this path is not an isolated (abgesondert) one, instead it has many crosses and sometimes even merges with other paths. Perhaps it is not Hösle’s intention to announce the death of German philosophy when he warns of its extinction, and philosophers in this field should heed the warning; but Hösle gives no advice as to how the withering of German philosophy can be avoided (one even has the impression that it is not avoidable at all).
If Hösle were not so insistent on abstracting from his historiography all Anglophone and Francophone influences, he should observe that, in recent years, the porous spirit (now with a small “s”) of German philosophy has crossed other paths, from which it has found new inspirations and directions. Phenomenology and German idealism, two outstanding branches of German philosophy, have seen important transformations after encountering foreign influences. The encounter with speculative realism, neuroscience and cognitive psychology forced phenomenology to defend against naturalistic criticisms or to reconcile them by broadening its own conceptual space. The encounter with American pragmatism, contemporary philosophy of mind and analytic philosophy of language brought idealist philosophers to incorporate ideas from external sources in order to generate a broader and more cogent foundation that would require a conceptual reorientation in epistemology, philosophy of mind, as well as other fields of philosophy. But all these cannot happen without philosophers, who seek not only to study the past history of German philosophy but also to participate in its future course of development, writing and engaging others in English (or other non-German languages), even though it is reasonable to require from them a robust knowledge of the German language. More generally speaking, the institutional structures of philosophy faculties in Germany have become much more diversified, new chairs and institutes that encourage applied ethics and interdisciplinary co-operations on research have been established, to mention only a few; a focus on the interaction of contemporary philosophy of mind and language in Bochum; pioneering works on philosophy of mathematics and science in Munich; analytic German idealism in Leipzig; an interdisciplinary approach to mind and brain in Berlin, etc. Just as it is too early to register these occurrences in any account of the history of German philosophy, it would be premature, too, to say that they evidence its disappearance. German philosophy is no natural object, and as a cultural enterprise undertaken by finite rational beings who do not just think but also feel and will, its essence cannot be the same as that of natural entities.