Frederick Beiser interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Frederick Beiser broods on the momentous German roots of philosophy so he never stops thinking about German rationalists, idealists, romantics and historicists. When you read his work you are left breathless because of its awesome erudition and you never think there is anything he doesn’t know. He thinks Romanticism was both reactionary and revolutionary. He carries deep warnings for those who think that Hegel is still relevant because it only is if you believe in the absolute, and we mostly don’t. He thinks German idealists fought against the idea that all we know are our own representations, unlike Heidegger who thought that they were stuck with that idea from the start. He’s an art rationalist of the very very old school of Gottsched and so kicks back at post-modernist aesthetics. Yet with his musty fusty peruke he finds Schiller’s analysis of aesthetics unsurpassed, so when you get down with his stuff you’ll be wailin’ sweet with the mellows.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Frederick Beiser: When I was fifteen I read Hermann Melville’s Moby-Dick. I was excited by the fact that Ishmael called himself a philosopher, that he stood apart from life and reflected upon it. I wanted to play that role myself. I have never grown out of it. So call me Ishmael.
3:AM: In your book The Fate of Reason you claimed that there was a ‘serious lacuna in our knowledge’ of eighteenth century German philosophy in the English speaking world and this has largely been your project – to fill this gap. In that book the dates you cite – 1781 to 1793 – are crucial aren’t they because they tell us key things about post-Kantian idealism and the influence of Kant’s critics on the development of his philosophy? Can you say something about this time and why it’s important that we know about it? What is lost without knowing this context? And since your work, is the situation regarding our interest and knowledge better than when you started or is there still much work needed?
FB: The years 1781 to 1793 are crucial for many reasons, but chiefly because they pose in an especially clear way the main problem of German philosophy for the next century. This is the old conflict between reason and faith which recurred during the pantheism controversy between Jacobi and Mendelssohn. Jacobi posed that problem in the form of a dramatic dilemma: a “salto mortale” (i.e., a leap of faith) on the one hand or a naturalistic atheism and fatalism on the other hand. There is no comfortable middle path where we get to provide a rational justification for our basic moral, religious and common sense beliefs. In other words, the old doctrine of “natural morality” and “natural religion” of the Enlightenment is a delusion. The same dilemma returns later in the nineteenth century during the materialism controversy of the 1850s, which dominated the nineteenth century as much as the pantheism controversy dominated the eighteenth century.
Since I wrote The Fate of Reason in the early 1980s, there has been much excellent work on this period. There is Dieter Henrich’s work on the origins of idealism (Konstellationen, Grundlegung aus dem Ich), Manfred Frank’s work on the origins of Frühromantik (Unendliche Annäherung) and Paul Franks’ work on early idealism and skepticism (All or Nothing). They have greatly increased our knowledge and appreciation of this period. That said, there is still much more to do. There is an enormous mass of philosophical writing by writers who are interesting and important but still relatively unexplored. Anyone can get an idea of the richness of the period — and the poverty of the scholarship about it — simply by consulting Erich Adickes’ German Kantian bibliography. There you will find scores of authors and hundreds of works that are still virtually unknown. Much of it is dross, but also some of it is gold, and the only way of finding out which is which is by delving into it.
3:AM: Normativity is a huge part of contemporary philosophy. Thomas Scanlon’s Locke lectures a few years ago was all about why I should be rational, what hold reason has on me. Christine Korsgaard’s whole philosophical project is similarly focused on the role of reasons. Andrei Marmor asks similar questions in the context of philosophy of law. But this is the question that German philosophers in the last decades of the eighteenth century started asking: as you put it, they asked, ‘what is the authority of reason?’ They were looking critically at ‘the fundamental article of faith for the European Enlightenment.’ Why did this happen? Was it that philosophers started to see that Kant and Spinoza in particular were potentially corrosive? Hume played a huge role in this didn’t he? You label the early history of Kantian criticism ‘Hume’s revenge.’
FB: The authority of reason became problematic for essentially two reasons. First, there was the revival of Spinoza’s naturalism. Spinoza’s naturalism was taken to be the paradigm of rational thinking, because it radicalized the methods of the new mechanical sciences. But those methods seemed to lead to atheism and fatalism. That raised a question about the authority of reason: should we follow our reason to the end if it destroys our moral and religious faith? Second, there was almost simultaneously the revival of Hume’s skepticism (through Hamann, Jacobi and Maimon). If we follow Hume’s skepticism to the bitter end, we are left with nothing, because it seems we can know only our passing impressions. We have no reason to believe in the existence of our own selves, other minds and the external world, let alone god. The revival of Hume posed the problem of the authority of reason in a very dramatic way. It raised the spectre of nihilism. When Jacobi introduced this word (Nihilismus) it referred to a Humean form of skepticism: that reason leads to nihilism because it does not allow us to believe in the existence of anything but our passing impressions.
Kant seemed for a brief while to give some relief from Hume’s skepticism. After all, there was the transcendental deduction, which seemed to show that the possibility of experience requires synthetic a priori principles. Maimon quickly put an end to this respite: he pointed out that the deduction begs the question against Hume, who would have doubted the existence of experience in the strong sense required by Kant (i.e., the conformity of representations with universal and necessary laws). There was no Prussian bastion to stop the Scotsman’s swift conquest of the territory once claimed by reason. I think that these Spinozian and Humean problems are still very much with us. Here is another reason for going back to 1781 to 1793: it poses these issues in such a clear and forceful way it is impossible not to think about them.
3:AM: In looking at the early political writing of German Romantics of this period Schiller and Schlegel, as well as Kant, are often alluded to, often through distorting prisms. The period you explore is 1797 to 1802, which is the early phase of the Romantic movement. Romanticism started off as a literary movement, didn’t it? So what’s the connection between Romantic politics and aesthetics? And why are Schiller and Schelling so important?
FB: The connection between romantic politics and aesthetics is plain in Schiller’s and Novalis’s concept of the aesthetic or poetic state. For them the ideal state is the aesthetic state because the ideal state is a harmonious whole, where each individual identifies with the whole and realises him/herself through interplay with others. The aesthetic dimension of the ideal state comes out in the idea of harmony, which is the classical idea of beauty as “concinnitas” or “unity-in-variety”.
In more political terms, this means that the state has to have freedom for the individual to realise him/herself but also community where each feels at home in the whole. There is a sinister anachronistic interpretation of the aesthetic state as some kind of totalitarian regime that puts aesthetic over moral standards; one associates it with national-socialism. But this has nothing to do with the romantics, whose ideal of the aesthetic state has much more to do with the republican tradition (viz., Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Rousseau). Schiller is an important philosopher because he shows just how integral the idea of beauty is in normal life. His central philosophical claim is that beauty is integral to the good life, that it is essential to our conception of a flourishing human being, society and state. To live well is to live in harmony with ourselves, others and nature, and that idea of harmony is, of course, an aesthetic one. Schiller never wanted to replace the moral with the aesthetic but he did want the moral to be one part of the aesthetic. He rightly notes the aesthetic dimension of morality, that we use concepts like grace to characterise people who do their duty with ease and pleasure. His analyses of aesthetic concepts in moral life are rigorous and insightful, and I do not think that they have ever been surpassed.
3:AM: The idea of art as a ‘magical realism’ is about making nature society and the state beautiful, magical and mysterious again isn’t it? Can you say something about how this idea developed and who were the philosophers linked to it?
FB: Novalis writes in fragment 105 of his Philosophical Studies: “When I give the commonplace a higher meaning, the known the dignity of the unknown, the finite the illusion of the infinite, I romanticize it”. That is the locus classicus. What Novalis said was programmatic for the romantic movement as a whole, and it is fair to attribute similar goals to the whole romantic circle (viz., Friedrich Schlegel, Schleiermacher, Hoelderlin, Schelling). The idea of romanticising the world goes back to the idea of creating a harmonious whole where the individual will feel at one with himself, others and nature. The romantics were reacting against a modern culture that divided individuals from themselves (through specialisation in the division of labor), from others (the competitive market place) and from nature, which had been reduced down to a machine through technology. The antidote to such division is unity and wholeness, which means feeling at home again in the world. When I recreate that wholeness then I will give my world its higher meaning. One last point I must emphasise about the project of romanticising the world: the romantics’ devotion to romantic “poesy” was not simply to writing a particular kind of poetry or literature, or even developing a certain general kind of art. The romantics really did want to romanticise the world itself, and that meant re-creating the state, society and even nature so that it became a work of art. This was the main theme of my Romantic Imperative, though it seems to me to bear repetition.
3:AM: Liberals and leftists often contend that the politics of this Romanticism is reactionary. Schlegel, Baader and Mueller made religion defend monarchy, aristocracy and church, but you think that these critics are being rather anachronistic, and that reading Schleiermacher’s On Religion is helpful in understanding the movement in a different light. So how would you summarise the political project?
FB: Liberals and leftists are not wrong in describing romanticism as reactionary, because it did indeed become that after 1810. The problem is that they make that description true of the movement as a whole, as if romanticism were essentially reactionary. Romanticism was very protean, and the early romantics would not have much sympathy for the late romantics (even in one and the same person, like Friedrich Schlegel). The early romantics were very much in the liberal and republican traditions. The crucial question to ask is how a movement at first liberal and republican became reactionary. That is a question which, as far as I know, still deserves and demands an answer.
3:AM: Hegel is fashionable at the moment. But in your first Hegel book you say that modern Hegelian studies have either been merely historical and largely drop critique, or else too dismissive of the metaphysics, focusing on areas of philosophy in Hegel that connect with contemporary philosophical concerns. You think this is a mistake and that the metaphysics is crucial to understanding Hegel and that we must critically appraise it. So what is metaphysics according to Hegel, and to follow your cue, what are we to make of spooky-sounding terms like spirit and the absolute?
FB: That Hegel is a metaphysician, and that he thinks metaphysics is fundamental to philosophy, is plain enough from his definition of philosophy. Hegel defines philosophy as knowledge of the absolute. The absolute is essentially what Spinoza calls substance. Since substance is infinite, the universe as a whole, i.e., god, Hegel is telling us that philosophy is knowledge of the infinite, of the universe as a whole, i.e, god. You cannot get more metaphysical than that. I think that Hegel scholars have to admit this basic fact rather than burying their heads in the sand and trying to pretend that Hegel is concerned with conceptual analysis, category theory, normativity or some such contemporary fad. Spooky terms like “spirit” and “absolute”? They should get their meaning from their historical context not from contemporary concepts that we impose upon them (viz., normativity). All the spookiness comes from giving a contemporary anachronistic sense to terms whose historical meaning is lost to us.
3:AM: Modern Hegelians, like McDowell and Brandom in the USA and Stern and Zizek here in Europe, don’t seem to be Hegel-like in some aspects. They seem to drop the feeling for the absolute, have no faith in progress and don’t argue for a restoration for wholeness and the recovery of unity with ourselves (perhaps Žižek does, but he’s an exception I think). So why is Franz Rosenzweig not right to say that we are living in an age post-Hegel mortuum? And given that you say reading Hegel is like chewing gravel, why should anyone take his philosophy seriously anymore? Can it be done without anachronism?
FB: What I said above raises big questions about Hegel’s relevance. No one nowadays talks about the absolute, not even people with firm and deep religious convictions. The whole Hegelian project has no resonance for us, as it once had for the Germans in the 1820s and the British and Americans around the 1880s. This is not to say Hegel is unimportant, or that we should not take his philosophy seriously. We should take him very seriously, but that is essentially for historical reasons. Hegel remains of great importance to understand ourselves, but essentially because we have all grown out of a reaction against Hegel. This is to say, then, that Hegel is still important for us for essentially negative reasons, i.e., to show us what we are not. Feuerbach wrote in his Principles of the Philosophy of the Future: “Hegel’s philosophy is the last great attempt to rescue lost and fading Christianity through philosophy…” I think that this is absolutely accurate. The more we come to terms with it, the more we can see the degree of Hegel’s relevance for us. I think that for most of us nowadays, who have accepted life in a secular age, Hegel’s project is obsolete. Christianity was still central to the life and worldview of my old supervisor, Charles Taylor, and that is why he went back to Hegel. But as a secular pagan Hegel’s project has no resonance at all for me.
3:AM: An undercurrent to your work has been to help English speakers understand the whole of German Idealism better, and this has meant releasing it from the grip of the important but ultimately distorted picture of it developed by the early American pragmatist Josiah Royce. So how does your view of German Idealism correct Royce’s distortions? Your sub-title in your book about German idealism is ‘The Struggle against Subjectivism’. Can you say something about this?
FB: Royce is the father of the thesis that German idealism is a story about the discovery and development of the Kantian transcendental ego—the “I” that accompanies all my representations—as an absolute cosmic supersubject who, god-like, creates the entire universe. This idea has been very popular and persistent, but it scarcely makes sense when you examine the crucial texts of German idealism. It makes no sense when you apply it to Kant or Fichte, “the subjective idealists”, who do not really hypostasise the knowing subject in this way (and warn against this until they are blue in the face). It also makes no sense when you apply it to Hegel, Schelling, Hölderlin, Novalis and Schlegel, “the objective idealists”, because their absolute transcends the whole dichotomy of the subjective and objective. The absolute as the idea is neither subjective nor objective; it is the intellectual structure under which they are subsumed.
The struggle against subjectivism was the attempt to avoid the charge of what was then called “idealism” or “nihilism”, i.e., that we know nothing more than our own representations. The great German idealists from Kant to Hegel saw this idealism or nihilism as a reductio ad absurdum of any philosophy, and so they struggled by all conceptual means to avoid it. My starting point was that we should understand German idealism as an attempt to avoid this problem and not begin with the assumption that it is hopelessly stuck with it from the very beginning (as Heidegger and others have charged).
3:AM: Another key tradition you examine and bring to the English speaking world is the German historicist tradition. Your new book grew out off the essay you contributed to the Brian Leiter and Michael Rosen Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy. Friedrich Meinecke wrote of German historicism as ‘one of the greatest intellectual revolutions experienced by Western thought.’ So what was so revolutionary about it, what is it and who were the guys who did it?
FB: To put it at its most basic, I would summarise the historicist tradition in two propositions: 1) that history can be a science, and 2) that everything in the human world changes and is the product of history. We are all historicists today because we broadly accept both propositions. 1) would have been denied before the 18th century and Chladenius; and 2) would have been denied by many thinkers in the Enlightenment, who believed in a constant human nature, and by even more thinkers in the Middle Ages, who thought in terms of the eternal teachings of Christianity. This is one reason why Meinecke spoke of historicism as an intellectual revolution.
The reason historicism became so controversial was because of its relativist implications. If all values change, how can there be any that hold for all epochs and places? The more we place values in their historical context, the more we see them as the product of a particular time and place, the more difficult it is to universalise them. We suspect so-called absolute or universal values of ethnocentrism, of generalising from our own culture as if it should hold for all mankind. Modern anthropology has taught us to be aware of this fallacy; but modern anthropology as a discipline has its roots in the German historicist tradition. The great fathers of historicism were Chladenius, Möser and Herder. It is a great pity that so little is known about the first two in the Anglophone world, though they were of equal importance to Herder. I tried to provide an introduction to their historical thought in the historicism book. Fortunately, I am not such a solitary labourer when it comes to Herder. Of late there has been some excellent work on him, by Michael Forster (After Herder) and Sonia Sikka (Herder on Humanity and Cultural Difference).
3:AM: Diotima’s Children, in this work you are after a wholesale rehabilitation of rationalist aesthetics of the sort that existed before Kant, of the kind in the tradition that existed from Leibniz to Lessing. Your concern is with contemporary aesthetics isn’t it, and your feeling that we need to avoid the aporias of the present. What aporias are these, and why do you think Diotimas children are needed?
FB: The aporias of the present is that there really is no aesthetic criticism anymore, and that there are really no standards about art. Anything goes, and anything is good or excellent “in its own kind”. We got here because some aestheticians and philosophers took the avant-garde too seriously, and held that even snow shovels, urinals and soup cans can be works of art. I think that the avant-garde was making all kinds of interesting and valid points; but one it was not making is that these kinds of things are works of art. They were not intended to be works of art but, for all kinds of complicated philosophical social and political reasons, works of anti-art. There really are standards of criticism, and there really are rules of art, even though people shudder at the very thought of them. You only have to listen to film critics and book critics to see that they apply all kinds of standards, like the need for verisimulitude, the need for unity in variety, for coherence, for capturing the interest of the reader. You only have to talk to artists to see that they work according to rules, and that they know all too well that they can employ only certain means to achieve the ends they want. The question is to spell out these standards, and to make clear these rules, and that means first knowing what an aesthetic standard and an aesthetic rule means. The whole issue has to be re-thought, and to re-think we have to go back more to the past, when there was a lot more thinking about these issues.
One of the reasons standards and rules have been so undermined is because of the doctrine, common since Kant, that taste is only a matter of subjective pleasure, and that it has nothing to do with the object itself. This Kantian doctrine, which appears perfectly explicitly in the first paragraph of the Kritik der Urteilskraft, has been decisive in turning people away from criticism because there is no need to look at the object itself, to look at its qualities, to determine what is good or bad. Kant wanted universal aesthetic judgments, of course, but he could hardly guarantee them because there was no reason one could give for them. There was nothing about the object itself that made it pleasant or unpleasant to look at. We might as well look at snow shovels and urinals.
The reason why I like Diotima’s children — the aesthetic rationalists of the eighteenth century — is because they stress the importance about something in the object itself that makes it good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant to look at. They all defined aesthetic pleasure in terms of the perception of perfection, intuitio perfectionis, where perfection meant something like unity-in-multiplicity, a formal structural feature of an object, what we also call harmony or beauty. They did not deny that there is a subjective component to aesthetic experience in the feeling of pleasure; but they believed that there is also an objective component, that they judgment rests on a perception of this perfection in the object.
I think that there is something to this doctrine, and that we do well to revive it. Oddly, one of its tacit proponents, though explicit opponents, is Hume himself. When Hume insists that taste is a matter of delicacy, that it is a matter of having a sensitivity to features of an object itself, he is very close to the rationalist doctrine. Hume was really a covert objectivist (or partial one) about aesthetic pleasure because that pleasure had to be based on the sensitivity to features in the object. It was only having that sensitivity that allowed some people to be good critics. As soon as we explain what is involved in that sensitivity we get something along the lines of the rationalist’s intuitio perfectionis. Diotima’s Children was meant to be something of a reactionary aesthetic, a critique of the post-modernist aesthetics of Danto, Dickie and Carroll. It is really based on two unquestionable premises, which no one in their right mind would care to question. First, the principle of sufficient reason, which demands that we have some reason for all our judgments, even and especially our aesthetic ones. “I like it” is not a reason itself and has to be based upon something. Second, the authority of Diotima, whom even Socrates acknowledges. With these two premises, I rest my case, and now I don my musty and fusty peruke with all the pride and dignity of old Gottsched himself.
3:AM: And finally, are there five books (other than your own which we’ll be all running out to read straight after this) that would take us further into your world?
FB: When I was a graduate student, stumbling and fumbling and trying to find my way in the world, I was fortunate to hit upon some of the classic works of the history of ideas. These works were models of good intellectual/philosophical history, and completely antithetical to the models that were held before me (viz., Strawson, Bennet). Three of the works are by a scholar hardly known in the Anglophone world and nearly forgotten. I mean Rudolf Haym. His works on Herder and Humboldt are still unsurpassed; and his work on the romantic school, Die romantische Schule, was the first study of the romantics as philosophers and intellectuals. I was also greatly impressed by the historical work of Ernst Cassirer, his magisterial Das Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neueren Zeit, which is a massive three-volume work starting with the Renaissance and reaching the early twentieth century. Haym and Cassirer impress me because they are deeply sympathetic to their material, get inside its core and explain it from a few central ideas; then they are also critical, and their criticisms are penetrating precisely because they come from deep sympathy. This was to me so much better than the kind of target practice I was taught as an undergraduate, which shot first and asked questions later, and then, of course, usually missed the point. Along with Haym and Cassirer, I was greatly impressed by Dilthey’s studies of Schleiermacher and Hegel, which, though outdated on points, are mastery in their thoroughness and depth.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 21st, 2012.