Brill’s Companion to German Platonism explores how Plato was interpreted and appropriated by some of the leading thinkers of the history of German philosophy, from Nicholas of Cusa to Hans Georg Gadamer. The book includes fifteen chapters, each of them devoted to one author or school, written by outstanding scholars. While most of the contributions deal with the reception of Plato’s epistemology and ontology, some others also—or only—address the long-disputed issue of how to interpret Plato’s philosophy. Since it is not possible to discuss all the topics in this almost four-hundred page volume, the review is limited to discussing how Plato’s most famous and controversial doctrine, the so-called theory of forms, was interpreted by German philosophers. More specifically, I will pay special attention to what we might call—to use the terminology suggested by the editor—the ‘transcendental interpretation’ of Plato’s theory of ideas. In the following lines, I focus on how this reading emerged and was developed by German philosophers in their various ways of endorsing, modifying, or rejecting Plato’s thought.
Alan Kim’s Introduction (chapter 1) provides an overview of the topics discussed by each of the contributors and identifies the two conflicting interpretative models already mentioned: the ‘transcendental’ or ‘functional’ reading of the ideas, on the one hand, and the ‘transcendent’ or ‘substantial’, on the other (2). According to the latter, which is the most common interpretation of Plato, ideas are separated substances that exist in a transcendent sphere of reality. Under this view, the forms are conceived as the true objects of knowledge and the soul is said to gain access to them through intellectual intuition. On the other hand, the former reading does not understand the forms as objects, but rather as ‘transcendental conditions of possible experience’ (3). The transcendental reading thus rejects the realism and dualism associated with the transcendent one and does not consider ideas as objects of intuition, but rather as functions of understanding. Among the figures examined in this volume that ascribe to Plato the substantialist view are Kant, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. On the other side, the functional interpretation was anticipated to some degree by Nicholas of Cusa, Leibniz, Mendelssohn and Hegel, and explicitly supported and developed by Cohen, Natorp and Husserl.
In the first chapter after the introduction (2), Claudia D’Amico presents a detailed study of the manifold connections between Nicholas of Cusa and Platonism. She also provides a valuable survey of German authors that in one way or another were influenced by Cusanus’ thought. As for the understanding of Platonic forms, Nicholas of Cusa criticizes Plato for conceiving ideas as separated forms, suggesting instead that while forms are real, they do not exist separated from things. Cusanus thinks that real forms are inaccessible to human reason, only capable of forming conjectures.
In chapter 3, Jack Davidson examines how Leibniz incorporates Plato and Platonism into his own philosophical system. Among the most remarkable points of agreement between both philosophers, Davidson points out Leibniz’s rejection of materialism and his conviction that reality ultimately consists of immaterial, intelligible substances, of which sensible things are appearances (53). After indicating other points in which both philosophers converge, the author devotes epigraph 5 to show how Leibniz’s epistemology reshapes some Platonic themes. More precisely, this section focuses on the agreements and disagreements regarding the role and nature of innate ideas. As it is well-known, Leibniz holds that some of the most fundamental concepts are known innately. At the same time, however, he rejects two positions he ascribes to Plato: the pre-existence of the soul and the presupposition that every truth one knows has been explicitly known by the soul before (63). Despite the emphasis that Leibniz puts on his differences with Plato at this point, both philosophers agree on a fundamental level, as Davidson suggests, that sensible experience does not suffice to account for our knowledge of necessary truths. Thus, the human soul must be equipped with a special potential to know them (ibidem).
The next chapter, written by Bruce Rosenstock, studies Moses Mendelssohn’s appropriation and reworking of Plato’s Phaedo within the framework of his ‘Leibnizian Platonism’ (79) in his own Phädon. Rosenstock focuses on the ‘infinitesimal calculus of the soul’ as Mendelssohn applies it in his own version of the dialogue. The application of Leibniz’s infinitesimal calculus leads Mendelssohn to endorse a functionalist view, since he believes that the soul’s process of knowledge works—like that type of calculus—by progressively ‘integrating’ the initially indistinct mass of representations’ (83). Thus, following Leibniz, Mendelssohn understands the soul as an active Platonic idea that brings unity into multiplicity (84). However, as Rosenstock indicates, this is only one side of the story. Under Mendelssohn’s view, the Platonic ideas do not only account for the integrative nature of human knowledge; they are not merely abstract objects of understanding, but also and at the same time ‘the object[s] of the soul’s authentic (philosophic) desire for happiness’ (92). In this sense, the soul’s capacity to unify the multiplicity of appearances through conceptual unities is the ‘expression’ of the soul’s desire for happiness (93). Hence, according to Mendelssohn, the search for knowledge is necessarily entangled with the quest for the good (92).
In chapter 5, Manfred Baum examines Kant’s appropriation of the theory of ideas in both the pre-Critical and the Critical period. It is worth noting, first, that Kant never attributes the two-world doctrine to Plato, even though his primary source, Brucker, does it. The Kantian pre-critical reading of the Platonic idea assimilates it with a ‘common standard of perfection’ for measuring all other less perfect realities (115). In the critical period, Kant’s well-known differentiation between understanding and reason leads him to reshape his reading. Under this new light, Plato’s ideas are interpreted as anticipating to some extent Kant’s concepts of reason, the regulative ideas, in contrast with the concepts of understanding, the categories (123-124). According to Baum, both Kant and Plato agree that ideas do not originate in the senses and that their object is not found in the empirical world (ibidem). However, Kant rejects the alleged hypostatized nature of Platonic forms, that he presumably takes from Bruker’s Neo-Platonic interpretation of Plato (126-127). The result of Kant’s appropriation of Plato’s theory of ideas, then, is twofold (as Kim also puts it in the introduction ): Kant attributes to Plato a substantial or transcendent view of ideas, while at the same time he sees Platonic ideas as the first attempt towards a transcendental consideration of human knowledge.
Hegel’s reading of Plato can be seen, as Jere Surber persuasively presents it in chapter 6, as the first modern philosophical interpretation of the Platonic corpus (133). The most distinctive features of the Hegelian approach to Plato are, first, Hegel’s direct and detailed engagement with the dialogues and, second, his distinctive appropriation of the Platonic ideas. According to Hegel, Plato’s ideas anticipate in a still unsystematic way his own systematic account of genuine Begriffe (concepts) as “concrete universals” (141). Relying on his interpretation of Parmenides, Timaeus, and Republic, Hegel rejects the dualistic, transcendent interpretations of the forms. He suggests instead that the Platonic idea should be understood as an ‘identity-in-difference’, and therefore as a genuine concept in Hegelian terms, that is, one that unifies in itself the formal and material aspect of reality (136). On the other hand, Hegel also dismisses the psychological transcendentalism according to which the ideas are mere constructs (or mere concepts, as opposed to genuine concepts) of the human mind since this view fails to account for the essential connection between the ideas and the sensible things (p.136). Therefore, as Surber points out, Hegel thought of his own philosophy as the articulation of Plato’s ‘in a modern systematic form’ (142).
The following two chapters (7 and 8) are devoted to Schleiermacher’s influential approach both to Plato’s philosophy and its interpretation. In chapter 7, André Laks provides an insightful discussion of Schleiermacher’s both philological and philosophical reading of the Platonic dialogues. Regarding the interpretation of Plato’s ideas, Schleiermacher rejects Aristotle’s criticisms and defends that the forms are real concepts that actually possess causal force and can directly affect both the physical and the moral world, given that they derive from God’s power (155). Chapter 8 is at odds with the rest of the contributions since it does not offer a reconstruction of Schleiermacher’s reading of Plato, but rather presents the author’s (Thomas Szlezák) main reasons for disagreeing with it. While the philological arguments provided by Szlezák are highly illuminating, and many of his objections to Schleiermacher are indeed very persuasive—see, for instance, his detailed analysis of Plato’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus (172-179)—, one cannot but wonder why Schleiermacher’s interpretation is the only one subject to such critical scrutiny. Besides, the main objections of the Tübingen School–to which Szlezák belongs– to Schleiermacher are again developed and argued for in chapter 14 by Vittorio Hösle. In his contribution, Hösle also provides a valuable survey of some of the most representative advocates of the abovementioned school and provides a summary of the main points of Krämer’s pioneering dissertation Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles, still only available in German (337-339).
Robert Wicks’ chapter on Schopenhauer (9) stresses the role of Plato’s account of time in the former’s metaphysical account of human consciousness and reality. More specifically, according to Wick, the Platonic conception of time as ‘the moving image of eternity’ in the Timaeus inspired Schopenhauer’s consideration of the spatio-temporal world as a prison of human consciousness (192 and 215). In his mature philosophy, Schopenhauer regards Plato’s ideas as essentially dependent on the Will, which constitutes the core of reality, the thing-in-itself, which lays beyond any form of representation and time (209). Under this view, ideas are said to play an intermediary role between the thing-in-itself as Will, on the one hand, and the objects of the spatio-temporal world, on the other (210). Therefore, as Wick suggests, Schopenhauer’s reading of ideas within this framework attributes them a twofold nature: as long as they are objects, they ultimately belong to the world of representation and, to this extent, they are high-ranking illusions; however, considered in their relationship to the thing-in-itself, ideas are ‘timeless acts of Will’ (213-214). In this last sense, Plato’s forms are placed behind the veil of the ordinary experience of the world, and thus they are only apprehended by a certain timeless intuition that Schopenhauer identifies with an intense awareness of the present moment (200-201). Philosophy is thus conceived as a form of asceticism whose aim is to reach such timeless, transcendent, and even mystical awareness (215). As Richard Bennett stresses at the beginning of chapter 11, Nietzsche regards this ascetic approach to reality—that he attributes to Plato—as anti-natural, coward, and decadent (249-252). In the second section of his contribution, Bennet proves that Nietzsche’s consideration of Plato goes far beyond this one-sided evaluation and is more multi-faceted and less consistent than usually acknowledged.
The transcendental reading of Plato’s ideas was explicitly defended for the first time by the two leading figures of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism: Herman Cohen and Paul Natorp. In chapter 10, Karl-Heinz Lembeck examines both authors’ attempts to mediate between Kant and Plato in their ambitious philosophical-historical interpretations (217). Cohen’s early reading of the forms as psychological categories radically evolved in the mid-1870s into a purely logical-transcendental interpretation of them. Under this new approach, and drawing on Kant’s Critique of Judgement, ideas are now viewed as ‘regulative concepts’ guiding knowledge. Within this picture, the form of the Good is not seen as a real entity, but rather as ‘the function of a unifying synthesis of appearances’ (223-224). Cohen extracts this interpretation from Plato’s alleged identification of ideas as hypothesis, that is, as ‘pre-sub-positions’ which thinking anticipates in order to be able to apprehend reality (228). In other words, ideas are said to be a priori conditions of knowledge.
Unlike Cohen’s, Natorp’s appropriation of Plato is grounded on a deep engagement with the texts. In Platons Ideenlehre (Plato’s Theory of Ideas), Natorp develops his reading of Plato’s theory of ideas as a theory of the constitution of experience (231-232). From this standpoint, Natorp downplays the ontological significance of the ideas, stressing their epistemological relevance as ‘laws’ that govern the dynamisms of knowledge (233). In his late systematic philosophy, Natorp modifies his reading of Plato’s ideas, as he seems to come under the influence of Neo-Platonism. Now, forms are understood as categories and, as such, as secondary functions unable to grasp the ultimate level of reality. Such level corresponds to Plato’s form of Good, which is radically transcendent and, therefore, inaccessible by means of articulated knowledge (237).
In the next chapter (12), Alan Kim explores Husserl’s ‘productive appropriation of Plato into phenomenology’ (273), relying on the fact that Husserl considered himself a phenomenological Platonist. By doing this, Kim provides an original, perceptive reading of the theory of ideas from a phenomenological perspective and, at the same time, a compelling presentation of the Husserlian account of eidetic intuition. In a way akin to Cohen and Natorp, Husserl endorses a transcendental interpretation of Platonic ideas, rejecting the ‘static’ Platonism of separated substantial forms along with its subsequent metaphysical dualism and mystical intuitionism (274). According to Kim, Husserl’s ideas or eidê refer to the object of the apprehension of the what-ness of a given thing. Such eidê, however, differ from the empirical universal concepts derived by abstraction from contingent facts. Eidê also relates to facts, but not because they derive from them, but rather because they constitute the rule of any possible apprehension of them. In order to illustrate the process by means of which consciousness moves from facts to eidê, Kim draws on Plato’s Divided Line and Allegory of the Cave. The first is meant to represent the different psychic states, while the second focuses on the soul’s progression from one to another. Here, eidê are presented as logical structures or essential meanings ‘that had always been co-intended in my aesthetic grasp of the phenomenon as actual thing, but which had been, as it were, eclipsed by the glare of ‘reality’’ (278). The ascension of the soul towards the realm of ideas is thus understood as a progressive detachment and liberation from the blinding glare of sensible appearances of things, so as to be able to perceive the essential features of them. This interpretation explains both the fact that the highest form of knowledge according to Plato, namely, dialectics, is said to deal only with ideas, and also that the knowledge of ideas allows the ex-prisoner in his return to the cave to recognize images as what they really are (280). In the following pages, Kim equates both Husserl’s and Plato’s account of the vision of eidê with the ‘understanding of the F-ness of many f’s’ (281). As the author points out in a footnote, the state of consciousness in which we grasp an eidê is not adequately described as a learning process, that is, as certain acquisition of knowledge, but instead as some sort of perceiving or, even more accurately, re-cognizing (erkennen) (281, n. 70). In this sense, the phenomenological method of purifying the mind from its factual intentions and redirecting it towards the essential turns out to be very similar to Plato’s account of dialectic as a process of remembering (anamnesis) what one already knows in his or her soul (281). Within this framework, Kim forcefully argues that Husserl’s basic idea of a ‘noematic form implicitly governing the coherence of sense experience’ can be paralleled with Plato’s account of the relationship between noêsis and aisthêsis in the passage on the summoners in Republic VII, as well as with the role attributed to sensibility in the recollection argument offered in the Phaedo. Finally, the author points out that the Husserlian reading was deeply influenced by Lotze’s thesis that ideas do not possess existence (Sein), but rather validity (Geltung) (294).
The two remaining chapters are devoted to Heidegger’s confrontation with Plato (chapter 13) and Gadamer’s productive reshaping of the Heideggerian reading (chapter 15). Francisco J. Gonalez begins his chapter on Heidegger’ reading of Plato by focusing on the 1924/25 course on Plato’s Sophist. In these lectures, it becomes apparent a tension that characterizes how Heidegger will read Plato the rest of his life. On the one hand, the Heideggerian approach reveals several points where Plato’s understanding of being comes very close to Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. On the other, the German philosopher insists that Plato interpreted being as presence, that is, as the object of logos, and therefore that Plato’s philosophy is to be seen as the first of a long series of reductions of truth to correspondence (306). As Gonzalez clearly shows in his contribution, this tension will persist until the late Heidegger, although the latter approach will become the ‘official’ reading. The author suggests that one of the most remarkable exceptions to the official reading can be found in the Parmenides seminar of 1930/31. Drawing on both Heidegger’s class notes and Herbert Marcuse’s transcript of this seminar, Gonzalez clearly shows that Heidegger saw Plato’s discussion of exaiphnês (instant) in the Parmenides as a genuinely ontological comprehension of the problem of ‘being and time’ (314-315). We find a similar exception in Heidegger’s interpretation of erôs in the Phaedrus seminar of 1932 (319 ff.). Gadamer’s appropriation of Platonic philosophy, discussed by François Renaud in the final chapter (15), reacts against Heidegger’s official reading. Gadamer claims that ‘Plato is not a Platonist’ and argues that the theory of forms and the method of dialectic are meant to make explicit the conditions of Socrates’ practice of dialogue in the early dialogues (356). According to Renaud, Gadamer seems to think that the forms are objects independent from representation, though he also speaks of them as if they only were transcendental principles (374).
This volume is worth reading for both historical and philosophical reasons. Each of the fifteen chapters provides the reader with valuable insights into the history of German philosophy in line with the most updated research and effectively supports the general thesis of the book that Plato exerted a decisive influence over the most relevant German philosophers (1). On the other hand, anyone interested in the interpretation of Plato’s works will surely find this book an exciting source of inspiration. In particular, as I hope to have shown, it will prove especially helpful for those intrigued by the possibilities of a transcendental reading of Plato’s theory of ideas. Last but not least, this collective work reminds us of both the risks and benefits of a philosophical reading of Plato, that is, one that attempts to identify and rethink the core issues of Platonic philosophy anew.
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.