July 17, 2008

Schelling, earning Hegel’s hearty approval, once proclaimed freedom to be the alpha and omega of all philosophy

Draft Review of Hammer’s ‘German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives’ from Grundlegung by Tom July 17, 2008
Comments, whether stylistic or substantive, very welcome!
Espen Hammer (ed.): German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives, London, Routledge, 2007, pp. 339. £18.99 pbk. ISBN 0-415-37305-0.

The German idealists have recently attracted increased attention, especially amongst Anglo-American philosophers. This renewed interest has not been confined to historians of philosophy but includes those involved in current debates on topics like freedom, naturalism and agency. In part, this is due to new readings, influential in the last two decades, which have sought to dismiss the traditional image of the movement as a series of baroque systems riddled with metaphysical monstrosities. Such readings have emphasised the essential modernity of the German idealists, both in their methods and philosophical ambitions. Their respectability has been further enhanced in light of their influence upon figures familiar in Anglophone philosophy, such as Putnam, Habermas, Brandom and McDowell. This new climate is reflected in this solid collection of fourteen articles (all but one previously unpublished) by many of the leading researchers in the field. The authors acknowledge these recent scholarly developments throughout, however they often disagree over which have been progressive.

As one might expect, Kant and Hegel are the major focus. Fichte also features reasonably prominently throughout and commands an essay by Jay Bernstein examining the often overlooked role for human embodiment in the theory of mutual recognition which underlies his account of rights and agency. Unsurprisingly, Schelling, along with other significant post-Kantian idealists like Reinhold, receives comparatively less attention. There are some deviations from the well-trodden path from Kant via Fichte to Hegel though, as we shall see.

Schelling, earning Hegel’s hearty approval, once proclaimed freedom to be the alpha and omega of all philosophy. This claim foreshadows a core theme of the book and captures the spirit of Terry Pinkard and Robert Pippin’s approaches to German idealism. They both seek to develop Kantian ideas about autonomy, the importance of which they locate not in any overt metaphysical thesis but in a conception of agents as sources of normativity: beings accountable to laws only because they in some sense author them. Pinkard’s paper examines this idea in the context of political liberalism, arguing that it presupposes a particular form of life and set of institutions to sustain it. As Pinkard says, “I can be an independent liberal agent only by virtue of a determinate set of structured dependencies.” (p.216) The purportedly Hegelian picture that results sees this sort of autonomous agent as a socio-historically achieved being that emerges from a structure of agents mutually recognising each other.

Pippin’s contribution, which examines Robert Brandom’s interpretation of Hegel, picks up many of the same themes. He approves of the thrust of the interpretation, particularly its attempt to embed a broadly Kantian story about autonomy as the source of normativity within a wider account of social recognition. However, he thinks Brandom does not go far enough. For example, he claims that the account of Hegel is stymied by an excessive formalism inherited from Brandom’s own project. Brandom has a rich vocabulary for describing what happens when agents make claims and challenge the authority of socially instituted norms, but in a deeply un-Hegelian fashion he divorces this from a further issue about which he has little to say: how the agents would and should appraise the legitimacy of these claims and resolve such challenges. (Unfortunately, Brandom’s reply to the original article is not included here.)

Doubts about this whole line of interpretation are raised by Stephen Houlgate and Sebastian Gardner, who criticise its non-metaphysical tenor, as well as Bob Stern and Fred Rush, who question its focus upon Kantian autonomy. Houlgate also assesses Brandom’s reading of Hegel, and he concentrates on his account of concepts. Brandom’s Hegel maintains that the content of concepts is solely determined by a socio-historical process of negotiation between agents. For Houlgate, this overlooks the role that Hegel gives to the logical categories underlying judgements. The content of these categories has its source in both being, understood as the spatio-temporal natural world, and norms of rationality internal to thought.

Therefore, he thinks that Hegel’s pragmatism about concepts is only partial and must be understood within a larger frame that is both rationalist and metaphysical. Gardner buttresses these claims by arguing that the turn away from speculative metaphysical interpretations of the German idealists does not fare well even on non-textual grounds. This is because the middle-way that it proposes between hard naturalism and metaphysical idealism is unstable, conceding too much to the hard naturalist to retain the distinctive advantages of an idealist position.

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