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The Legacies of Idealism

Interview by Richard Marshall.


Terry Pinkard is the Ali Shuffle of heavyweight philosophers, stinging like a bee and floating like a butterfly through the legacy of Idealism, its historical context, the distinction between transcendental and trancendent, Fichte, Schelling, his naturalistic Platonism, his influence on the Romantics, on Holderlin and Hegel, Hegel’s species of idealism, the centrality of his Logic, on what Beethoven and Wagner illustrate, and on the chances for Idealism in the contemporary setting. Rumble young man, rumble…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Terry Pinkard: As a first-generation college student, I arrived at the university in a state of muddled confusion as to what it was I supposed to be doing. So I signed up for a course in symbolic logic without really any idea of what in the world I was getting into. Like many students before and since, I had somehow formed the opinion that taking logic would be really helpful, would teach you “how to think” and thus eventually become a better businessman or lawyer or cardsharp or something. In the class, the teacher discussed some of the other philosophical problems that came up in logic, so I decided the next term to take an Intro philosophy course. That really whetted my appetite, but at the time, I was also chaotically interested in all kinds of different things (too many, to be honest). I took Chinese, and by accident, got interested in the at that time newfangled Chomsky approach to linguistics, took a lot of film and literature classes, and read a lot of Marx. It was all a big jumble.

I then by accident ran into two extraordinary teachers, who happened to be in philosophy: O.K. Bouwsma and Marjorie Grene, both of whom had an enormous influence on me. There was also a lot of talk about Kant among students who weren’t even philosophy students because of the force of the personality of John Silber on campus at that time. He had become a loud critic of the leftist students and so what he talked about became talked about more widely, which meant, oddly, a wider discussion of Kant than otherwise would have been the case. Bouwsma and Grene helped me pick my way through the conceptual jumble that was only getting more and more mixed up in my thoughts: from Bouwsma, I got a version of Wittgenstein that linked up with Kierkegaard, and from Marjorie I got a feel for French phenomenology, Polanyi’s and Merleau-Ponty’s idea of implicit and background knowledge, and the importance of the philosophy of biology. It rapidly dawned on me what otherwise should had been obvious, namely, that I had developed a serious addiction to philosophy. Rather than swearing off and trying to kick the habit, I decided to up the dose. I ended up backing into German idealism front the front (Kant) and the back (French philosophy).


3:AM: You’re a leading expert on German Idealism, Hegel and their legacies. You think the context out of which all this happened is important don’t you – the fact that that there wasn’t really a Germany when it all started, the aftermath of the Seven Year War was something that shaped the development of this movement (and earlier, the Thirty Years War and the treaty of Westphalia etc). Could you perhaps sketch out what was most salient about the situation out of which these philosophical ideas emerged.

TP: Well, there’s lots going on there, but here are some highlights. Germany after 1648 was highly fragmented, and it was a place where, although the grip of the old regime was firmly in place, the mores of the people were changing rapidly, so there was a real and obvious gap between theory and practice. The way some began to think of it, “Germany” seemed to resemble more the plurality of ancient Greek states united only by a common culture, unlike its big neighbor, France. Furthermore, one of the very few all-German institutions in fragmented and still highly localized Germany was the German professor, since the professors went to wherever the jobs were. You thus had conceptually ambitious people armed with a certain authority with some of them thinking of themselves, however vaguely, as the new Greeks in a situation in which the gap between subjective life and social rules was deeply felt. That was a combustible mixture. Once you stirred the Scottish Enlightenment into the mix, as Kant did, the octane level of the coming conceptual explosion got raised even higher. Likewise, for those growing up in Württemberg, with its leanings toward France, the Kantian philosophy’s obvious debt to Rousseau was a plus. The arrival of the young Goethe on the scene with the Sorrows of Young Werther was a sign to those younger Germans that the times, they were indeed changing. The mixture created by all of these things managed to form an ignitable background for philosophy, especially Kant’s, to take the lead. With the French Revolution in 1789, the combustible mixture in German intellectual life exploded. Those things coming together set the stage for a certain discovery, as we could call it, of spontaneity and self-determination. And here we are, still living in that backwash.

3:AM: Self-determination, freedom and humanity’s relationship with nature and a certain sense of the revolutionary potential of transformation are familiars of the movement – and it perhaps stemmed from Kant. Can you outline what you take to be the important ideas of Kant that fed into the German Idealists. One of the important issues is to get to grips with what is meant by Idealism in this context isn’t it, and getting to grips with the difference between transcendent and transcendental?

TP: Fully explaining the “transcendental” versus “transcendent” distinction? Even 3AM doesn’t have enough gigabytes to cover that adequately. Anyway, here’s a pass at it. Kant’s idea of a “transcendental” philosophy involved a new approach to metaphysics as done “within” the human point of view but which was not thereby empiricist. What excited the younger idealists was in part Kant’s claim to have shown that traditional metaphysics was bankrupt – so there’s no possible transcendent knowledge of things in themselves – but that there was still a possibility of doing metaphysics anew. The attraction to a move to a metaphysics “within” or “immanent” to experience surfaces in similar ways in Husserlian phenomenology, early Heideggerian phenomenology, French phenomenology of the 50’s and 60’s, and in ordinary language philosophy (among others). Kant was content to say that the metaphysics “from within” experience was idealism, since it rested on the way we made sense of things and not on any claim to have knowledge of things as they were apart from our making sense of them. This was an idealism one big step removed from the older conception that only the “idealities” (for example, the forms) were ultimately real or from the idealism that held that to be is to be perceived.

However, crucially for the younger idealists, there was Kant’s teaser in the third Critique that in the experience of natural beauty, we have the “indeterminate concept” of the supersensible substrate which is itself neither nature nor freedom but linked to the ground of freedom. For all the clandestine readers of Spinoza (Hölderlin, Schelling, Hegel), that rang all the bells. The unity of nature and freedom might be… Spinoza’s substance adequately transformed? The world trying to make sense of itself? It also dawned on the young idealists that the orthodox Kantian way of drawing a hard and fast line between appearances and things in themselves looked like it was claiming to be thinking about what cannot be thought. In addition to that worry, there was also Jacobi’s nagging anxiety that, yes, reason can analytically and critically destroy traditional structures, but it cannot build anything up to take their place, and what the no-holds-barred critique of reason will thus leave behind will only be nihilism. Kant’s three Critiques were a powerful rejoinder to Jacobi by supplying the detailed architecture of what a world built on reason would look like, and the French revolution had made it seem all the more crucial to get all the freedom stuff right. But if the cracks in the Kantian project were starting to become obvious, then Jacobi’s anxieties had to be addressed and Kant’s idealism had to be rethought. There was a rough sense among the younger idealists that the stakes were really high.

Some of those things finally led Hegel – or least so I think – to hold fast to the aim of doing a metaphysics within experience but that wasn’t “transcendental,” not aimed at providing the “conditions of the possibility” of experience for all times. For Hegel, our concepts themselves develop historically and logically, and a basic concept that might at first have been adopted for very external reasons can become central to the intelligibility of the whole world. Hegel transformed Kant’s idea of some concepts forming the presupposed background of all thought and action into a related but different idea of concepts developing in light of many different concerns but with some of them eventually taking their place as central. As Hegel himself explicitly said, he was interested in a critique of such concepts that did not look at them in terms of the a priori/a posteriori division but just in terms of their content. A. W. Moore has recently (The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics) distinguished between making sense of things (for example, metaphysics) and making sense of making sense (logic). Hegel came to think that both of those had to be part of one program, and he came up with one of the more ingenious ways of putting them together. We could have a retrospective logic of how such and such concepts came to be central ones in making sense of things and of making sense of making sense.

3:AM: The University of Jena was where post-Kantian idealism was kept alive – first by Reinhold but more significantly by J.G..Fichte. He took transcendental idealism through the prism of ‘spontaneity’ which he linked up with self-consciousness didn’t he? Can you tell us something of how Fichte developed Kant – or his reading of Kant – and what was significant for idealism in what he did?

TP: Fichte’s early philosophy went through two or three different stages, but here I’ll run them all together. Fichte in effect claimed that for the “transcendental logic” Kant spoke of having, we only needed the more general concepts – to put to use some Kantian terms given au courant life by John McDowell – of spontaneity and receptivity, and once we understood that spontaneity included within its own self-conception the very idea of receptivity – since otherwise (to continue the McDowellian run) it would be spinning in the void – then we had the elements of a form of transcendental idealism. All that we could possibly mean by “things in themselves” was our own receptivity. So Fichte said: Let’s just start with self-knowledge, spontaneity, the “I think,” and see what kinds of limits it necessarily has to set for itself if it is not to be spinning in the void. Away with the false restraint of a priori intuitions of time and space as limits to thought outside of thought. That meant it always looked like Fichte was claiming that the “I” creates all the objects, which was not what he meant.

In many ways, Fichte is very Brandomian (or maybe it’s vice versa): The distinction between the normative and the non-normative is itself normative, agents have to recognize each other to get the show going, and there is ultimately a non-normative input from the world which has to be integrated into our sense-making machinery. This is Fichte’s idealism: Those folks in the neuroscience lab can tell you how your brain is processing color, but when one of them glibly says she’s reduced sensation to brain-states, it’s the philosopher who will tell you whether she is making sense. She may know what there is to know about neurons, but the philosopher knows about making sense.

Fichte offered up a new model: In the chaotic, post-revolutionary modern world, it was the philosophy professor who was in the position to tell you whether you could make sense of this or that (whether it was material objects, God or the moral law). We humans are the ultimate sense-makers and what makes sense depends on the laws that our own spontaneity, compelled by its own nature, lays down for itself. This was indeed a more radicalized conception of transcendental idealism, of doing philosophy from “within” the human standpoint. All that was required to get this going was the thought of ourselves, and the philosopher was the fellow who ultimately has the authority to rule on what counted in all the domains of making sense. (This led Kant to denounce Fichte as claiming that you could derive content from the formal rules of logic. That wasn’t fair to Fichte, but you can see why Kant would have thought that.)

Romanticism and romantic irony came out of Fichte’s philosophy, which is itself terribly ironic, since Fichte was one of the least ironic people you run into in philosophy – he took himself and his work really, really, really seriously. According to Ziolkowski, when Fichte was the Rector of the Berlin university, he would sign off on edicts by saying “It is not I as an individual who says and wills this, but the Idea, which speaks and acts through me.” (If you were the head of your department, wouldn’t it be nice to sign all the departmental directives with Fichte’s phrase? It’s catchy, you have to admit.) Yet the young students sitting in his lectures in the 1790’s created out of Fichte’s picture of the self-determining “I” the idea of self-distancing romantic irony – and therefore “romanticism” itself, a term coined by Schlegel after hearing Fichte around 1795 in Jena.

3:AM: Schelling followed Fichte at Jena and started off agreeing with him but then became critical. For Fichte everything was either a subject or an object, but Schelling was after a third alternative. Is that right?

TP: Yes, that’s certainly right. To get it, you have to understand how experimental (in a romantic sense) Schelling was as a philosopher. He was always willing to try out an idea that might at first seem off the wall and see how far he could run with it. Schelling himself was a phenomenon. From an early age, he had learned that whenever he walked into a room, he was almost always the smartest and the most charming person there. That served him both well and badly. He entered the seminary at 15 and was Fichte’s successor in Jena at 23. As is well known, he, Hegel and Hölderlin roomed together for three years in Tübingen (the greatest college roommate lineup in history) and it’s a bit of an exaggeration but not over the top to say that together they hatched their plans for idealism while they were roommates.

Schelling’s big breakthrough was to link Kant’s third Critique teaser about the unity of nature and freedom with Fichte’s idealism. He did this with several hypotheses. First, he took Fichte to have said, in effect, that the options in philosophy were with either with dogmatists (what we’d likely label “naturalists” nowadays) or idealists (the idea that is “us” who are setting the limits of what makes sense). So on Fichte’s view, we have the choice of a view of the world as composed of objects (atoms and the void), or a view that has within it objects and subjects (creatures aware of themselves non-inferentially and non-observationally). But what if there were a third way, something that was neither object nor subject but the ground of both? What if it were something like Spinoza’s substance that was (somehow) aware of itself? His second hypothesis was to note that if we didn’t buy the “appearance/thing in itself” duality of Kantian philosophy, then, if we were to keep Kantian freedom intact and naturalize it, we needed a more capacious conception of nature than the mechanistic conception that everybody seemed to accept.

He first put both of these together by claiming that we therefore needed a two-track conception of philosophy. On one track, we start with the idea of nature that the natural sciences have bequeathed to us (circa 1795) and show how nature develops in such a way that the kinds of self-knowing agents we are have a place in it. On the other track, we start with our self-knowledge and show how a conception of nature develops out of such self-knowledge as a condition of its possibility. How do we bring the two tracks together? Via an “intellectual intuition.” It’s kind of like Sellars’ idea that we bring the scientific view and the manifest view together in “stereoscopic vision.” With Sellars, that seems to be pure metaphor (and it’s never been entirely clear how to unpack it), but Schelling said, no, that’s the way it is, and the “intellectual intuition” that does this comes via the work of art (instead of just the experience of natural beauty, as Kant suggested). But who is performing the “intellectual intuition”? Schelling’s other hypothesis: Well, it’s not just us, since that would make the conditions of making sense of making sense relative to the layout of human beings, but the ultimate logic of things isn’t relative just to our particular makeup. It must be the whole of nature itself trying, via us, to come to some understanding of itself. The teleology of the whole universe is aiming at a comprehension of itself, and we are where the lights go on and the show comes on stage. You had to have Schelling’s enormous self-confidence to make these leaps. You also had to have his self-confidence to keep at it when so many people professed that they didn’t understand what it was even supposed to mean to say that in our self-knowledge we are intuiting the absolute working through us. To be honest, it never has been clear.

3:AM: Conventional thinking has it that naturalism and Platonism are opposed but you read Schelling as being both an idealist naturalist and a Platonist. How did he manage this? Is the Platonism something that emerges from his transforming Spinoza’s idea of nature into an act of becoming?

TP: As with all things Schellingian, his naturalistic Platonism is rather offbeat. (Whether it’s really very helpful to continue to call this a “naturalism” is a different issue.) People like Thomas Nagel look at nature, mind and moral value and conclude that nature (as described by the sciences in their current state) has no place for mind or value, so there has to be some way of working purposiveness and mind-emergence into the scientific account that does not erase mind and value. Schelling too thought nature had to have a place for mind and value, but he thought that the sciences were never going to be in the position of doing what Nagel hopes they can eventually do. On surveying the sciences of his time, Schelling was struck by the large gaps he thought existed between mechanics, the physics of heat, light, magnetism and electricity, chemical reactions, life, and self-conscious life. You couldn’t get from one to the other, yet since nature was a unity, there had to be some way to move from physics to self-consciousness.

He came up with two other big hypotheses. First, the universe exhibited a kind of inner purpose that Kant ascribed to organisms. If the universe were indeed purposive (moving in a direction to produce inquiring, self-conscious creatures), then since there was no place for this in the sciences, the basic purposive forces of the universe had to be themselves idealities, “ideas” that were not the presuppositions of the empirical sciences but the best explanation for how nature, as disclosed by the sciences, all fits together. These idealities are not outside of nature, they are part of nature. (It was the idea of a “supernatural” explanation that Schelling was rejecting.) His second hypothesis was that these idealities are sort of like Plato’s forms, and the way the forms flow into each other creates the progression from mechanics to physics to chemistry to life to self-consciousness. The relation between the idealities and empirical reality is that they were originally the same but then divided off against each other. Roughly, his account went like this. From an original bundle of pure energy – he called it “the infinite” and with a little tongue in cheek, we could call it the “singularity” – it had to be the case that the original unity split itself in two and then developed in such a way to seek to restore the lost unity, thereby creating a balance between the two opposites (he called it an “indifference point”), and that balance turns out to be a new shape. In the beginning, the universe as an original unity explodes in heat and combustion, creating the difference between the idealities and matter, but that balance proves to be unstable, and the process goes on to chemical affinities, life and then finally us. The world propels itself developmentally by each new balance proving to be unstable, and the end of the series is the “absolute” coming to grasp itself as being the end result of the universe propelling itself to comprehend itself..

For whatever it was worth, Schelling provided the early Romantics with an initial blueprint for how to think of nature and the self. Schelling also thought that since we comprehended all this in an “intuition” – a form of “seeing” – the man or woman of the hour had to be the artist, not the philosopher. Both Schlegel and later Shelley were speaking Schellingese when they proclaimed that the poets were the unacknowledged legislators of mankind (although Schlegel put it a bit differently). It’s not far off to read (a bit anachronistically) a poem like “Tintern Abbey” as something like Schelling set to music. To invoke the famous distinction made by another German-speaking philosopher, ultimately there were things that could be shown but not said, and for Schelling, it was the artists who did the real showing.
There’s something a bit wild and wacky about Schelling, but there’s also something engaging about his process, if not his results. The historian of science, Robert Richards, even credits him for paving the way for Darwin. Schelling never seemed to lose his early self-confidence. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him at any point that maybe, just maybe, he had bitten off more than he could chew or that producing a unified metaphysical theory of physics, chemistry, biology and psychology in his 20’s was perhaps an overreach. He remained a Romantic for all of his life, looking for the non-standard ways of re-enchanting the world against what he thought was its modern soullessness. It’s no wonder he has come to be a kind of hero for a certain type of post-modernist thinker. Žižek’s idea of there being “holes” in being is a kind of updated punk rock version of Schelling.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 14th, 2015.