The aim of Anja Jauernig’s project is to provide nothing less than a comprehensive interpretation of Kant’s critical idealism understood as an ontology. In The World According to Kant, Jauernig tackles Kant’s theoretical philosophy in particular, highlighting the ways in which Kant’s views on cognition, God, and, most importantly, the distinction between appearances and things in themselves, contribute to the establishment of Kant’s overall “ontological position” (xi; 1-2).
The first of two main studies (the second study, still forthcoming, will deal with the ontological implications of the practical philosophy), the book revolves around a number of issues regarding how it is Kant conceives of “the world.” From the outset, Jauernig flags that, at least in the Inaugural Dissertation and his lectures on metaphysics, Kant understands “the world” to be “a unified whole of substances that stand in mutual interactions” (16) – a description that technically only applies to what the Kant of the first Critique will call “outer appearances” (A24/B49; A106). Taken in a less strict sense, however, Jauernig argues that Kant can be interpreted as providing an ontology of “the world,” where “the world” is more generally understood to be the sum total of all that has realitas:
[The] book … is devoted to an examination of Kant’s critical idealism, understood as an ontological position. Less technically put, it is about Kant’s account of what there is in the world, understood as the sum total of everything that has reality, including, in particular, his account of appearances and things in themselves and their relation to one another. (xii; See also 25; 355)
From her initial depiction of “the world” understood in this more general sense, it is clear it refers to all existents that possess reality, both sensible, as well as supersensible:
Appearances and things in themselves are distinct existents … Kantian things in themselves [however] are supersensible and ground Kantian appearances. (27)
Although recognizing the Kantian twist given to metaphysical inquiry inaugurated by the Copernican revolution – and so the complications that metaphysical investigation faces once questions are posed about the conditions under which one could possibly come to possess knowledge, including the metaphysical – Jauernig’s account of Kant’s ontology thus proceeds in remarkedly traditional terms. This is especially true regarding the ontological status of things in themselves and their relation to appearances; the issue in the book she most thoroughly engages with.
One the one hand, Jauernig raises uniquely Kantian concerns with just how it is we might gain ontological knowledge of things in themselves. Granting that things in themselves, like the objects of traditional metaphysical inquiry, belong to the “supersensible realm” (38), she rightly wonders along with Kant: “In virtue of what can our concepts refer to [things in themselves]? How can we manage to cognitively access them through our thinking? What sort of cognition of them, if any, is possible for us?” (xi). On the other hand, Jauernig’s interpretation of Kant’s ontology sets out, in pre-Kantian fashion, to answer a number of questions about things in themselves conceived of as simply a subset of all that has reality:
[O]ne can take [the question about how to think things in themselves] as a broadly ontological question about Kant’s conception of things in themselves. What sort of things are they? What are their properties? What is their ontological status in Kant’s critical philosophy? (xi)
Of course, whether or not and to what extent answers can be given to these questions (about knowledge of supersensible things such as things in themselves, including their ontological status) will all be determined by the answers given to the first questions (about under what conditions and in virtue of what can we have knowledge, including metaphysical). Sure enough, things in themselves will play a decisive role in critical idealism and a proper account of it will require grappling with ontological questions in some sense. But just how it is that ontology, as first philosophy (one of two main branches of traditional metaphysis, mind you) is to be construed on the Kantian picture will be decided by how it is we understand the philosophical consequences of Kant’s theory of cognition and the revolution in metaphysics it initiated.
Fortunately, at least with regard to her account of how Kant reaches his position on the ontological status of things in themselves and their relation to appearances, Jauernig’s book is a model of clarity. Fully laying her cards on the table, Jauernig tells her readers right out of the gate exactly where her reading is heading. Outlining the core tenants of what she refers to as Kant’s “fundamental ontology” (39; 43; 44; 247), the book aims to defend six main theses regarding appearances and things in themselves (15-16):
(1) Appearances and things in themselves are not numerically identical, but are distinct existents
(2) Appearances and things in themselves are both “things,” although they are not the same things. Appearances and things in themselves in no way ontologically overlap, but they are closely related: appearances are grounded in things in themselves
(3) The distinction between appearances and things in themselves is an ontological distinction
(4) Empirical objects are appearances
(5) Appearances and, hence, empirical objects are fully mind-dependent. This entails that Kant is a genuine idealist about empirical objects
(6) Things in themselves actually exist
Taken together, Jauernig claims these six theses add up to a new version of the “classical” two-world theory of appearances/things in themselves. Appearances, and hence empirical objects, are wholly mind-dependent existents in virtue of their being given under the formal conditions of sensibility, whereas things in themselves are the distinct, wholly mind-independent existents that provide the ground of these appearances. As this is an unabashedly, “ontological” reading of the distinction, Jauernig tells us, and so one of the main targets of the book is the two-aspect theories of appearances/ things in themselves (especially methodological, two-aspect theories) that have dominated Anglo-American Kant scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century (4-5). Indeed, methodological, two-aspect views in particular are either “unfathomably mysterious” insofar as they maintain “that the properties of things truly vary according to how we consider them” or “disappointingly modest,” insofar as they maintain “that considering things as they are in themselves amounts to no more than abstracting from some of their properties” (15n).
In order to establish her “classic,” two-world reading, Jauernig first offers an account of where she stands on some basic interpretive questions regarding Kant’s critical idealism. After outlining the basic tenants of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” in chapter one, chapter two relies principally on some well-known (and hotly debated) passages from the Critique (e.g., B59/A42; B164; A383) to make the case that, for Kant, “the world” is comprised of various “levels” of reality. Consider, for instance, B59/A42:
Thus we wanted to say: that all our intuition is nothing but the representation of Appearance … and that if we take away the subject or even merely the subjective quality of the senses in general, all quality, all relations of objects in space and time, indeed even space and time themselves, would disappear and can as appearances not exist in themselves but only in us.
On Jauernig’s account, appearances are identified with intentional objects of experience or the objects that make up the mind-dependent level of reality. Due to these appearances only existing “in” us or “in our representations” – even when passively given in perception, for instance – their “ontological ingredients” or properties and “modes of being” all presuppose the human mind. In contrast, things in themselves are to be identified with existents understood to be wholly apart from any human mind, and so make up the mind-independent “level” of reality (27). Things in themselves have “ontological ingredients” and “modes of being,” but these ingredients and modes are thus fully mind-independent (30-33; 42-50). What is more, if a mind represents anew given appearances through the power of imagination, it can bring into existence intentional objects, but, due to the flexibility of the mind’s representational capacities, these representations need not faithfully represent the objects as they have been originally given (say, once again, in perception). Some objects (for example, fictional creatures like dragons) have “pseudo-existence” insofar as they are intentional objects that exist in thought, but cannot be found anywhere in given experience (36-42).
Chapters three and four are primarily concerned with demonstrating that empirical objects, as appearances, are not things in themselves, but appear under certain a priori conditions (notably, the formal conditions of space and time). Although on the Kantian picture we are certainly able to distinguish between “inner” and “outer,” “subjective” and “objective,” and so Kant ought not be charged with reducing all objects of representation to our mind à la Berkeley, the notion that space and time are “nothing” but forms of sensibility entails that empirical objects are spatial-temporal existents that fully depend on the mind, and this further entails that Kant is a genuine idealist about such objects (129-141). Once again, that we are only acquainted with appearances, as representations “in” us and whose ontological ingredients and modes all presuppose our mind and its forms of sensibility, means that even passively given, spatial-temporal things and their sensible characteristics are mind-dependent (204-244).
Chapters five and six deal with Jauernig’s positive account of things in themselves. Skirting around long-standing issues regarding just how it is possible to achieve genuine knowledge of things that are wholly mind-independent (much less know for certain that they are), her interpretation takes its guidance primary from passages in which Kant claims that things in themselves “ground” appearances (B61/A44) and “affect” the mind (B522/A494). Jauernig is clear that the way things in themselves relate to appearances ought not be confused with the way in which an objective reality underlies and gives rise to our merely subjective (even potentially deceptive) experience of the world (248-256); nor with the way in primary qualities relate to secondary qualities (257-266). However, in some sense, things in themselves exist, ground our passively receiving representations in sensibility, and are genuinely affective. Indeed, Jauernig advances a version of what she calls “bold critical idealism” in which Kantian appearances are grounded on other, finite things that are “outside us” in a transcendental, and not merely spatial, sense. What is more, these finite things in themselves are genuinely affective, yet still mind-independent in that at least one such thing exists and is distinct from both the totality of human minds and even God (295-302).
Chapter five concludes with a discussion of how it is we can know things in themselves are in fact finite existents and sets the stage for the argument that things in themselves possess the various positive features Jauernig attributes to them (295-318). To my mind the most interesting section of the book, Jauernig provides the reader with a series of carefully laid out syllogisms that move from showing that we can go from the existence of empirical objects to the “existence” of things in themselves, by demonstrating that the passivity of sensibility and the unoriginality of thought and imagination require that there is something other than sensibility and thought.
Essentially outlining the way in which the Kantian “levels” of reality relate to and presuppose each other, Jaurenig’s argument takes a few key steps. First, she makes the case that, due to its essentially unoriginal nature, the imagination can produce pseudo-existents (e.g., intentional objects or representations of inner experience) only by reproducing and recombing sensations. Second, for their part, sensations, are passively delivered via sensibility and the forms of sensibility. Third, due to its passivity, sensibility can only deliver sensations by the mind being transcendentally affected by something other than the mind (namely, things in themselves). Fourth, we in fact have sensations and can think of pseudo-existents (as well as distinguish between them). From the first three premises it follows that these sensuous representations exist and are a response to the more fundamental things in themselves which exist and must affect us (313).
This argument requires that we extend the scope of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” given so far so as to include an ontology of the human mind – the very finite existent that the other finite existents and their “ontological ingredients” and “modes” presuppose (or do not presuppose). That is, unlike the divine intellect, which can bring about the existence of the object or create objects in virtue of its thinking (and so has an “intellectual intuition” of objects), the finite human being’s thought must passively receive sensible materials from without (in sensible intuition) to occasion the representing via thought that constitutes its experience of objects.
For simplicity sake, Jauernig calls the idea that, as essentially finite, the human mind is ontologically uncreative and thus, unlike the divine mind, incapable of originally generating the matter of its objects of representations “UNCREATIVITY” (314). This ontology of the human mind underlies and provides the fundamental support for drawing the conclusion that the existence of things in themselves follows from the fact that we have the material with which to think at all.
On Jauernig’s account of things we can rightly wonder, however, how it is that Kant arrives at and justifies this ontology. How, for instance, can we conclusively establish that it must be something finite that affects our mind and, as it were, kick cognition into gear. Indeed, are there not equally compelling accounts of how we come to have the material by which we think provided by other ontologies, equally as “fundamental”? For his part, Berkeley notoriously made the case that it is only God that can supply our representations with the totality of their matter — the so-called “material” world itself being an extraneous posit. This is not to say we should simply follow Berkeley here, but how exactly can Kant know for certain what supplies the mind with its matter? Indeed, to take another worry, how do we know for certain that is not we who create such matter – that is, that transcendental idealism does not ultimately collapse into idealism proper? Indeed, given that Kant grants the mind some creative power (such as when it represents to itself pseudo-existents) and argues that the a priori forms of the mind (as the very conditions of the possibility of experience) are not capable themselves of being derived from any experience of objects, how exactly does he justify drawing a solid line between passivity and reproduction, between constitutive a priori structuring and creation? As Jauernig puzzles:
[T]here is not much difference with respect to creative power between a mind that actively brings about the “matter” of empirical objects and a mind that brings about the “matter” of empirical objects by affecting itself … If my uncreativity is compatible with me constituting … without any assistance from things in themselves that are distinct from my transcendental mind, why would it not also be compatible with me constituting empirical objects without any assistance from things in themselves that are distinct from my transcendental mind? (316)
But why assume that this [Kantian] uncreativity manifests itself in that we are incapable of actively generating any “matter” for the objects of our representations? Why could it not manifest itself in that we cannot actively generate the “form” of the objects of our representations, or their “form” or their “matter”? (316n)
Jauernig’s response to these worries is not to tackle them head on. There is no attempt to locate the difference between reception and reproduction or formal structuring and creation by appealing to the distinctive characteristics of the various Kantian “representations” themselves (for instance, unlike the representations occasioned by imagination, sensible intuitions obey natural laws). Nor does she provide a Kantian-style argument (not unlike Descartes’ in the Mediations) that the human mind does not have enough creative power to bring about an entire world of objects. Somewhat surprisingly, Jauernig claims when philosophizing about fundamental ontology, there are some features and principles that are ultimately not capable of justification or further argumentation:
All versions of critical idealism … depend for their justification on UNCREATIVITY … It appears futile to attempt a justification for these basic commitments, commitments that one could characterize as being among critical idealism’s constitutive principles, so to speak … [however] the unjustifiability of [critical idealism’s] constitutive principles by further arguments is neither a special problem for critical idealism nor a real problem at all. All arguments for substantive views must start from some substantive assumptions. So, all philosophical positions must incorporate some basic commitments that are not justifiable by any further arguments. (318)
Now, Jauernig’s book has to be admired for its rigor and precision. At key points in her presentation of Kant’s ontology she provides arguments in concise, syllogistic form – no small accomplishment given the complexity of Kant’s thought and the obscurity of the issues tackled. Rigor and precision aside, however, there are many curious features of Jauernig’s account of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” — features that I think are highlighted by the position she arrives at in the passage above regarding basic ontological commitments and their inability to be justified.
What I find most puzzling about The World According to Kant is the very way Jauernig approaches the issue of ontology in Kant’s work. As I have been gesturing at, to frame the issue of Kant’s ontology in terms of a number of issues regarding the ontological status of the existents that populate “the world,” seems to attribute to Kant a traditional metaphysical approach that is — at least on the Kantian picture of knowledge — incapable of furnishing us with any genuine knowledge. To put it succinctly, to conceive of ontology as the investigation into “what there is” in “the world” (at least as Jauernig understands it) is an entirely unKantian move insofar as it disregards the way in which Kant’s revolution in metaphysics fundamentally transforms the ontological issues and shifts them into an entirely different (namely, transcendental) register.
My main concern with Jauernig’s presentation of Kant’s ontology is not simply that it ignores the way in which Kant’s critical system rethinks basic ontological notions such as “reality,” “category,” “being,” “mode,” etc. That being said, it is worth flagging that The World According to Kant gets into trouble with its loose use of ontological terms. For example, after the Copernican revolution inaugurated by the first Critique, “reality” comes to be one of the mathematical categories of the understanding (A70/B95; A161/B200). This category of is to be conceived of as an object’s “what-content” – the essential determinations that constitute or make an object the kind of thing it is. As a Kantian category, however, it is a concept that strictly belongs to the determinations of objects of possible experience. Insofar as “reality” no longer refers to the determinations of a thing (res) as such and in general, but to the determinations of appearances, there is no sense in which it can serve for Kant as a way to think of a general ontology that would include both of appearances and things in themselves. Far from being an innocent terminological move, approaching the distinction in this way suggests that both existents are somehow available to us to be the subject of philosophizing – a commitment that has direct philosophical consequences for how we construe things in themselves.
In a similar vein, being in general (what is to be something, as opposed to nothing) is not to be a member of “the world” in the sense of being an existing thing with reality. To be in general is rather to be posited by a judgment; to have a value relative to a judging cognizer. Hence Kant’s famously arguing that “being” is (1) not a real predicate (does not add anything to an object’s “what-content”), (2) does not add anything to the concept of a thing, and (3) is to be identified with the mere positing of a thing or of certain determinations in themselves (A599/B262). Whether what is posited is merely possible or exists (to be an “existent”) for Kant is a whole different matter.
That there is little to no discussion of the way in which Kant rethinks such notions as “reality” or “being” (much less a take on Kant’s theory of modality or his account of “nothing” as laid out in the table of “nothing” (A2902/B345-9)) in a book-length study of Kant’s ontology seems like an oversight. However, once again the most puzzling aspect of the book is not that it omits such a discussion. Rather, its most puzzling feature is that it does not deal with Kant’s revolution in metaphysics and the consequences this revolution has for the pursuit of traditional ontological knowledge.
We might expect that any attempt to give an account of Kant’s ontology should pay heed to the way in which Kant takes himself to have fundamentally transformed this branch of metaphysics. Consider his two clearest statements on the subject of ontology in the first Critique:
The Transcendental Analytic accordingly has this important result: That the understanding can never accomplish a priori anything more than to anticipate the form of a possible experience in general, and, since that which is not appearance cannot be an object of experience, it can never overstep the limits of sensibility, within which alone objects are given to us. Its principles are merely principles of the exposition of appearances, and the proud name of an ontology, which presumes to offer synthetic a priori cognitions of things in general in a systematic doctrine … must give way to one of a mere analytic of the pure understanding. (A247/B303)
[Metaphysics’] speculative part … considers everything insofar as it is … on the basis of a priori concepts, is divided in the following way … Metaphysics … consists of transcendental philosophy and the physiology of pure reason. The former considers only the understanding and reason itself in a system of all concepts and principles, that are related to objects in general, without assuming objects that would be given (Ontologia); the latter considers nature, i.e., the sum total of given objects, and is therefore physiology (though only rationalis). (A845/B873)
As the first passage states, a key finding of the Transcendental Analytic – the transcendental investigation into the a priori contribution made on behalf of the understanding to the possibility of objects of experience – is that the move to consider objects as they appear under certain a priori conditions leads to us to give up the “proud name of an ontology.” By this, Kant means that insofar as objects are given under these intellectual conditions, the traditional attempt to straightforwardly provide an ontology gives way to two critical tasks. First, expounding transcendental conditions and the a priori knowledge of objects these conditions allow for (i.e., the a priori knowledge of objects generated by the anticipatory intellectual forms that structure our representation of any possible object of experience whatsoever). Second, as these transcendental contributions to our representation of objects (the source of our transcendental knowledge) simultaneously circumscribe what can possibly appear as an object of experience, and so expose the attempt to gain a priori knowledge of objects (including ontological knowledge of them) independently of these conditions (or in themselves) as unable to furnish us with any genuine knowledge.
The undermining of the traditional attempt to secure ontological knowledge is further expanded upon in the second passage, wherein Kant also shows that the faculty of reason – the faculty metaphysicians prior to Kant most heavy relied upon to supply them with a priori knowledge of objects that goes beyond what is made available by sensibility and understanding – also cannot assist us in our quest for traditional metaphysical knowledge. As Kant makes clear here, speculative metaphysics considers “everything insofar as it is” on the basis of reason alone and so according to a priori concepts. Utilizing “pure” reason or reason within which nothing empirical is mixed, we can achieve knowledge through both transcendental philosophy and what Kant calls the “physiology” of pure reason. The former allows for transcendental knowledge, i.e., a priori knowledge (of both understanding and reason) of “objects of in general … without assuming they would be given [in sensibility].” The latter gives us knowledge of objects through reason or rationalis alone, however, it deals strictly with the sum total of “given objects,” i.e., our purely rational, a priori knowledge of the objects (objects of experience) that make up “nature.”
Now, we might expect that a “physiology” of pure reason, insofar as it supplies us with knowledge of objects by way of reason alone, might be able to supply us with ontological knowledge of objects in themselves. However, as Kant makes clear, it is limited to the given objects of nature even when pure reason makes transcendental contributions, and so, in the end, merely gives us the system of the a priori concepts or ideas supplied by reason required to represent this given nature as nature (A846/B874).
Transcendental philosophy, both the kind made possible by the transcendental contributions of the understanding and reason, in contrast, deals with a priori knowledge of “everything insofar as it is” without objects being “given” in sensibility and is itself explicitly identified by Kant as Ontologia or ontology. Notice, however, that this Kantian ontology is limited to possible (given) objects of experience as the very conditions of their appearing. Although transcendental philosophy does not depend on experience or any particular objects being given in order to establish its transcendental knowledge, it is limited, as the anticipatory forms that structure this experience, to the sphere of objects that can be possibly given in sensibility.
Indeed, after transcendental philosophy, genuine metaphysical knowledge – knowledge of objects achieved a priori, yet would extend our grasp of them and not simply analytically draw out their marks – comes to be transformed and limited to the knowledge of the transcendental sphere, namely, knowledge of the conditions of the possibility of objects of experience. The main idea is that the same “anticipated” form of the understanding and reason that lets objects appear also provides us with a new source of a priori knowledge (the “fundamental predicates” of objects insofar as they are represented under the categories) that enlarges our cognition of objects without turning to any particular experience (e.g., that objects appear as substances standing in community relations of cause and effect). Transforming metaphysics in this way enables it to take the secure course of a Kantian “science.” Metaphysics is no longer the attempt to gain knowledge of objects beyond all possible experience by way of the analysis of concepts alone, but a systematic body of knowledge that can ground its claims, like other sciences that contain an a priori component, on something over and above our concepts (namely, the very possibility of the intellect representing objects of experience).
Keeping this fundamental re-construal of metaphysics in mind, Jauernig’s presentation of critical philosophy as offering an “ontological,” “two-world” account of the appearance/ thing in itself distinction, as well as positively attributing characteristics to things-in-themselves, seems to attribute to Kant an ontological theory that would lapse back into the traditional metaphysical approach to knowledge that Kant sought to show can never result in genuine knowledge, at least in the theoretical sphere. Indeed, from what knowing perspective could make claims about the appearance/ thing in itself distinction or the way things in themselves are that would allow us to properly ground such claims? As claims about the very “relation” between the different kinds of existents that make up “the world” (those that appear under the mind’s transcendental conditions, those that do not), what resources can Jauernig draw upon to ground her knowledge of this very set up? From which relation to existents do we have access to such that this can be established knowledge? Kant reworks and limits genuine ontological knowledge to transcendental philosophy precisely in order to move beyond the antimonies and the seemingly endless “mock combat” that characterized metaphysical debates prior to his metaphysics as a science. Such debates seemed endless because they were groundless – deploying the mere resources of the intellect and their logical coherence, metaphysicians came up with competing, contradictory systems, with no way, no “touchstone,” to ultimately settle their metaphysical disputes.
As Jauernig’s ultimate worries about her reading of Kant’s “fundamental ontology” attests, there is no way to secure our claims about the basic, ontological set up of transcendental philosophy (at least on her reading) that can be justified by any of the criteria for the establishment of genuine knowledge within its own framework. There is no view from which, in other words, we can concretely establish how (or if) the mind passively receives its objects from without. This leads Jauernig to conclude that we ultimately cannot justify fundamentally ontology – indeed, Kant’s or any others – and so we ought simply, within the bounds of logic, to choose which basic assumptions or position seems most agreeable to us:
But unless we adopt the implausible epistemic norm that, under any circumstances, only claims that can be justified by an argument of some kind are epistemically permissible, or reasonable, we are within our epistemic rights to choose the most basic assumptions on which to build our philosophical positions according to what seems most agreeable to us, provided these assumptions are internally consistent and cohere with the rest of all claims that we accept, all necessary truths, and the totality of the available empirical evidence. Whether to opt for timid critical idealism or bold critical idealism or a version whose strength lies somewhere between these extremes ultimately is a matter of taste. Kant seems to like bold critical idealism best, and I do not blame him. (318)
And at an earlier point she remarks:
Everybody is entitled to their own intuitions about what is plausible when it comes to matters of fundamental ontology. (31)
Taking this route, however, leads right back to the situation Kant wanted to remedy: contradictory metaphysical arguments with no grounding beyond logical coherence. Kant’s lesson is that what allows us to move forward is not to demonstrate that metaphysical claims are merely logically possible; much less does he think metaphysics is simply based on the necessary of conceptual truths or empirical evidence. Rather, he shows us that the only non-sensible a priori knowledge we can have of objects is limited to knowledge of the (non-sensible) transcendental conditions and that supersensible knowledge of objects apart from these conditions (objects as they are in themselves) is not possible. This would include knowledge of how it is the mind fundamentally, ontologically relates to the source of its cognitions’ material.
Jauernig’s pointing out that there is an entire “fundamental ontology” presupposed by Kant’s move of ontological issues into a transcendental register certainly puts a finger on a lasting problem with Kant’s philosophy. It is no surprise that thinkers from Hegel to Nietzsche, the Neo-Kantians to Heidegger, have all pursued the question of how it is the transcendental philosophy of the first Critique (including its reworking of the traditional ontological project) is itself possible. However, to lapse back into a pre-Kantian approach to metaphysical issues or to ignore Kant’s revolution in philosophy altogether does not seem like a promising approach.
In Perception and Reality in Kant, Husserl, and McDowell, Corijn van Mazijk takes up an ambitious project of dealing with a group of central issues in western philosophy, namely: the nature of perception, the nature of reality, and the relation between perception and reality. He does this via explicating some aspects of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, and John McDowell. It is no news that McDowell’s thinking has a robust Kantian root, but McDowell’s relation to Husserl is less clear. McDowell himself never engages with Husserl’s thinking, and his engagements with the phenomenological tradition – with Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty via Dreyfus – have been reactive and minimal (2007a/2008a, 2007b/2008a). That being said, I believe van Mazijk is right in seeing the hidden connections between McDowell and Husserl. Generally speaking, both painstakingly explicate the nature of perception, the nature of reality, and the relation between these two poles. More specifically, both see close connections between intentionality and phenomenality. It is a basic dictum in Husserl’s thinking that consciousness is inherently intentional (Ideas I, 1911/1983), and though McDowell seldom remarks on the phenomenal or conscious aspect of our mental lives, he does think the intentional and the phenomenal are closely connected: “Not, of course, that we cannot distinguish sapience from sentience. But they are not two simply different problem areas: we get into trouble over sentience because we misconceive the role of sapience in constituting our sentient life” (1989/1998, 296). This sketchy remark seems to suggest certain version of representationalism (Cheng, forthcoming a), but even if not, it certain echoes Husserl’s idea that consciousness is inherently intentional.
The main text has only 172 pages, which means van Mazijk needs to be selective for both the topics – perception and reality – and the figures – Kant, Husserl, and McDowell. The book has six chapters, with two chapters for each figure. For Kant, ch.1 covers sensibility, perception, and reality; ch.2 covers concepts, deduction, and contemporary debates. For Husserl, ch.3 covers intentionality, consciousness, and nature; ch.4 covers perception, judgement, and habit. For McDowell, ch.5 covers concepts, perceptions, and connections to Kant and Husserl; ch.6 covers reasons, nature, and reality. Given the breadth of the grounds it covers and the space limit, the contents are necessarily compressed, but van Mazijk does an excellent job in explaining things clearly, and making sure the discussions of the three philosophers cohesive. Moreover, he does not aim for a historical study; “Instead, I develop my interpretations of both Kant and Husserl in part to show that history provides us with viable alternatives to McDowell’s theory of our perceptual access to reality” (7), van Mazijk writes. Given this, in what follows I will devote this brief discussion primarily on van Mazijk’s McDowell, as that reflects better his overall aim in the book. This should not be taken to imply, to be sure, that there is nothing more to be discussed concerning Kant and Husserl in the book.
In the two chapters on Kant, there are discussions of traditional Kantian themes such as sensibility and understanding, idealism, noumenon, ideality of space and time, intuition and concepts, synthesis, transcendental deduction, and incongruent counterpart. There are also discussions of contemporary issues such as the Myth of the Given, disjunctivism, and non-conceptual content. A substantive move van Mazijk makes in his interpretation of Kant is the attribution of “weak conceptualism,” “the view that all intuition and perception is, for us at least, open to conceptual exercises” (4). More specifically, “the central thesis Kant sets out to defend here is that intuitions are always already at least in accordance with pure concepts, which commits Kant to weak conceptualism” (8). In these two chapters van Mazijk touches on convoluted relations between (sheer) intuition, categories, synthesis, and apperception. For example, he writes that “sheer intuitions have the appropriate unity to be conceptualized in the first place is said to rest on synthesis of the imagination, which brings intuitions in accordance with pure concepts” (46). This implies that sheer intuitions are themselves non-conceptual, though they have the potential to become conceptual. A stronger reading of Kant, though, is that the exercise of apperception already implicates categories, so sheer intuitions themselves have to be already conceptualised in a certain sense. I do not take side concerning this interpretative question on this occasion, but it is worth noting that what van Mazijk defends here is close to “sensibilism” in today’s terminology: “at least some intuitions are generated independently of the intellect itself,” and the stronger reading is called “intellectualism,” which holds that “the generation of intuition is at least partly dependent on the intellect” (McLear, 2020). It would be helpful for the readers if this context were explicitly flagged.
In the two chapters on Husserl, the distinction between traditional themes and contemporary issues seems less clear, but this is by no means a criticism: topics such as fulfillment, simple apprehension and perceptual explication, horizons, kinaesthetic habit, and constitution do have distinctive Husserlian flavours, but other topics such as the intentional approach to consciousness, sensation contents, the space of consciousness, fields of sensations, types of conceptuality, objects of thoughts, and pre-conceptual norms are both Husserlian and contemporary themes. This should not be surprising, as Husserl is closer to our time, and his influences on contemporary philosophy have been enormous and visible. There are two elements of Husserl’s thinking that van Mazijk highlights but has not noted their potential connections with McDowell’s thinking. The first is “cultural-linguistic upbringing” and “habit” (96, 111, 117) and their connections to McDowell’s Bildung; the second is “passive synthesis” (99, 103, 107) and its connection to McDowell’s conceptualism, especially the idea that “conceptual capacities are drawn on in receptivity” (McDowell, 1996, 9), and similarly, “conceptual capacities… are passively drawn into play in experience belong to a network of capacities for active thought” (ibid., p.12). Perhaps van Mazijk does not think the connections here are clear enough, but in any case I suggest these are further directions for connecting Husserl to McDowell. There are other highlights and potential points of contact with the analytic tradition as well, for example the “space of consciousness” (74 onwards) can be compared with the hard problem of consciousness (e.g., Chalmers, 1996), the “field of sensations” (98 onwards) can be compared with the tactile field debate (e.g., Martin, 1992, O’Shaughnessy, 1989, Cheng, 2019), and “lived body” (10, 96, 109) can be compared with Kantian spatial self-awareness (e.g., Cassam, 1997; Cheng, forthcoming b). And there are more. This shows that Husserl’s thinking has much to offer for contemporary philosophy, as van Mazijk rightly points out.
The two chapters on McDowell cover canonical McDowellian themes such as conceptualism, the space of reasons and the realm of law, and Bildung, and also broader issues connecting to Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Dreyfus, including skillful coping, animal consciousness, and transcendental reasons. In what follows I discuss some highlights and points of potential disagreements. First of all, although van Mazijk mentions the “realm of law” in several places (21, 148, 149, 161), he uses the label the “space of nature” much more (passim), and this can generate the harmful implication that the “space of reasons” is unnatural; for example, he writes that for McDowell some contents are “in some sense not natural, insofar as they stand in a sui generis space of reasons” (124). Charitably, we can say that van Mazijk specifies “in some sense,” and that leaves room for another sense in which the space of reason is natural, i.e., Aristotelian second nature. However, other remarks show that van Mazijk’s understanding of this crucial McDowellian divide between the space of reasons and the realm of law cannot be entirely correct. For example, in introducing this divide, van Mazijk mentions “causal order” to characterise the realm of law, or with his label, the space of nature. But this is problematic on two fronts: first, that might imply that the space of reasons has no causation, which is not true of McDowell’s characterisation: McDowell certainly follows Davidson (1963) here in that they both think, correctly I believe, that reasons can be causes. Second, McDowell also discusses Russell’s view that causation might not be a suitable notion for the realm of law (McDowell, 1996, 71; Russell, 1912-3). Now, such view has become quite unpopular nowadays, but even if Russell and McDowell are wrong in avoiding causation in the realm of law, McDowell would certainly insists on causation in the space of reasons (see also Gaskin, 2006, 28 onwards). Therefore, when we read van Mazijk’s discussions and criticisms of this McDowellian distinction, we need to bear in mind that the characterisation in the book might not be entirely accurate.
There are other oddities concerning van Mazijk’s understanding of the divide between the space of reasons and the realm of law, and relatedly, second nature. For example, consider this passage:
These refer to two ways of speaking about things, of finding things intelligible. However, as it turns out, both spaces ultimately consist simply of natural phenomena. The space of reasons thus fits entirely within that of nature. (van Mazijk, 2020, 150)
Taken literally, this passage might be a fine characterisation of McDowell’s framework. However, since for unclear reasons van Mazijk insists on using the “space of nature” to refer to the “realm of law,” the passage thus implies that the space of reasons is simply “one way of speaking about things.” That is, there is only one kind of things, but there are two ways of speaking about them or finding them intelligible. Now this looks like a description of Davidson’s anomalous monism (1970), which McDowell has emphatically rejects (1985). Whether McDowell’s criticism here is plausible is irrelevant; what is crucial in this context is that he does not hold anomalous monism, but van Mazijk’s characterisation of McDowell’s position makes it indistinguishable from anomalous monism. On another occasion I have argued that McDowell’s view should be interpreted as a kind of emergent dualism (Cheng, forthcoming a), but that requires much more elaborations, and arguably McDowell himself would refuse to acknowledge this classification. Concerning the space of reasons, van Mazijk says that “McDowell’s own definition of the space of reasons is what makes conceptualism attractive” (van Mazijk, 2020, 151). This is meant to be a criticism, but to this McDowell would reply that his invocation of the notion of “concept” is a matter of “stipulation: conceptual capacities in the relevant sense belong essentially to their possessor’s rationality in the sense I am working with, responsiveness to reasons as such” (2005/2008b, 129). His point is that given this stipulation or definition, let’s see what significant would follow. To simply point out that there is a definition involved here can hardly be an objection by itself.
Also relatedly, McDowell’s appropriation of Gadamer’s distinction between environment and world (1960/2004) is not acknowledged in the book, and that affects van Mazijk’s verdict of McDowell’s view on animal minds. Gadamer writes,
Language is not just one of man’s possessions in the world; rather, on it depends the fact that man has a world at all. The world as world exists for man as for on other creature that is in the world. But this world is verbal in nature… that language is originarily human means at the same time that man’s being in the world is primordially linguistic. (ibid., 440)
[Although] the concept of environment was first used for the purely human world… this concept can be used to comprehend all the conditions on which a living creature depends. But it is thus clear that man, unlike all other living creatures, has a “world,” for other creatures do not in the same sense have a relationship to the world, but are, as it were, embedded in their environment. (ibid., 441)
Simply put, “environment” here refers to what philosophers normally call “world,” and corresponds to McDowell’s realm of law and first nature. By contrast, “world” here corresponds to the space of reasons and second nature. In Mind and World, Lecture VI, McDowell has explained how human animals like us can possess the world and inhabit an environment, while other animals can only do the latter. This also corresponds to McDowell’s later distinction between “being responsive to reasons” and “being responsive to reasons as such”:
The notion of rationality I mean to invoke here is the notion exploited in a traditional line of thought to make a special place in the animal kingdom for rational animals. It is a notion of responsiveness to reasons as such. (2005/2008b, 128)
And this “wording leaves room for responsiveness to reasons… on the other side of the division drawn by this notion of rationality between rational animals and animals that are not rational” (ibid., 128). That is to say, when other animals see predators and run, they are responsive to reasons, but they cannot recognise those reasons as reasons. With these dualistic distinctions in mind, let’s come back to van Mazijk’s texts and see why the interpretation there is not entirely fair.
In chapter 5, van Mazijk notes that McDowell holds “animals see things or items in the outer world ‘no less’ than we do,” and argues that:
But it is difficult to see how this fits into the conceptualist thesis as discussed so far. For wasn’t the whole idea of conceptualism to take the very givenness of things as a result of conceptual functions of an understanding only rational creatures like us enjoy? It seems that… McDowell contradicts his own conceptualism, which rests on the idea that the sensible presentation of things in the outer world relies on functions specific to rational creatures like us, namely on concepts and the capacity to judge. (131)
We can readily give a “No” to the query in this way: for McDowell, other animals can perceive things or items in the outer world in the sense of Gadamerian environment, while rational animals can perceive things or items in the outer world in the sense of Gadamerian world. This can also be seen that in later writings, McDowell speaks of “world-disclosing experience” (2007a/2008a, 319): rational animals like us enjoy experiences that can disclose aspects of the world, while other animals are also capable of experiencing, but of their environment only, not the world. This view can be found already in Mind and World, and McDowell further develops it in recent decades. It is worth noting that this view has a clear Heideggerian flavour as well (1927/2010). Similar considerations are applicable to van Mazijk’s discussion in 132, and in chapter 6, especially from p. 150 to 153 on animal consciousness. I shall not repeat my response elaborated just now.
Another point is that van Mazijk does not distinguish between “propositional” and “conceptual”; for example he writes that many philosophers “hold that our thoughts have propositional or conceptual content” (2, my emphasis). It is true that in most cases they coincide: the constituents of propositions are concepts, one might say. However, in relatively recent writings McDowell seeks to set them apart:
I used to assume that to conceive experiences as actualizations of conceptual capacities, we would need to credit experiences with propositional content, the sort of content judgments have. And I used to assume that the content of an experience would need to include everything the experience enables its subject to know non-inferentially. But these assumptions now strike me as wrong. (McDowell, 2008c/2008b, 258)
“What we need,” McDowell carries on, “is an idea of content that is not propositional but intuitional, in what I take to be a Kantian sense” (ibid., 260; my italics). Now, whether this position is plausible or coherent is not important for our purposes (van Mazijk argues that it is implausible in p. 129); what is crucial is that McDowell does hold that view since 2007 or so, and that needs to be taken into account for interpreters. In effect, McDowell’s intuitional content seems to fit weak conceptualism as van Mazijk defines it. McDowell writes,
If it is to become the content of a conceptual capacity of hers, she needs to determine it to be the content of a conceptual capacity of hers. That requires her to carve it out from the categorially unified but as yet, in this respect, unarticulated experiential content of which it is an aspect, so that thought can focus on it by itself. (McDowell, 2007a/2008a, 318)
Now, recall that weak conceptualism has it that “all intuition and perception is, for us at least, open to conceptual exercises” (van Mazijk, 2020, 4). So van Mazijk is right in noting that McDowell has hold strong conceptualism, but he might have missed, or at least does not believe, that later McDowell has retreated from that to weak conceptualism since 2007 or so. Elsewhere I have argued that McDowell’s new view might disqualify his conceptualist credential, and might cause trouble for his environment/world distinction (Cheng, forthcoming a), but those are quite different matters.
A final point I would like to highlight is van Mazijk’s understanding of the nature of McDowell’s overall project. He writes,
I want to deal with conceptualism as McDowell understands it – not as a theory concerning the psychology, phenomenology, or epistemology of perception, but as one purporting to address a problem regarding our access to reality. (van Mazijk, 2020, 121)
It is understandable to make such a division, but it is unclear how the above domains can be set apart from one another. It is true that McDowell’s primary concern is not psychology and phenomenology (understood as consciousness), but how can “our access to reality” fail to be epistemological? In the next page van Mazijk rightly reminds that McDowell thinks epistemological anxieties do not go to the root; the problem of intentionality itself is the deepest problem. However, in that context by “epistemology” McDowell means questions concerning justification or warrant; he certainly would not deny that “our access to reality” is broadly (and rightfully) an epistemological issue. Moreover, although the problem of intentionality is McDowell’s primary concern, what he says for that purpose imply theses in psychology and phenomenology (understood as consciousness), and it does not help to insist that the project is transcendental and therefore human psychology is irrelevant (van Mazijk, 2020, 147): for example, if the possibility of intentional action presupposes certain kind of body representation (O’Shaughnessy, 1995), this transcendental conditional can be falsified by what we know about human psychology (Bermúdez, 1995). Van Mazijk mentions that “McDowell’s theory [pertains] to ‘rational relations’ rather than, say, sub-personal psychological contents” (van Mazijk, 2020, 122; quoting Bermúdez and Cahen, 2015). However, McDowell’s view can be about personal psychological contents (McDowell, 1994/1998). This shows that at least some “misunderstandings” concerning arguments for non-conceptual contents van Mazijk tries to point out (137 onwards) are actually not misunderstandings, but it will take us too far if we go into those details.
Overall, van Mazijk has offered a substantive and original effort of explicating aspects of Kant’s, Husserl’s, and McDowell’s philosophy, and identifying various strands in their thinking. It would be unfair to demand any such book project to be close to comprehensive. This is not the first contemporary discussion of the relations between these figures (e.g., Christensen, 2008), and will certainly spark many further investigations into these interrelated themes. My critical points above should be taken as my will to carry on the conversations, and I am sure many others will join and make the exchanges even more fruitful.
I would like to thank Cheng-Hao Lin and Kuei-Chen Chen for helpful inputs. Daniel Guilhermino also reviews this book for this journal; I have made sure our reviews do not overlap much.
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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.