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.
Stern defends a realist interpretation of Hegel’s ethics. In doing so, he argues that far from rendering our ethical actions heteronomous, ethical realism is a condition upon autonomous actions which prevents them being arbitrary undertakings. Thus, he formulates a challenge to readings of Hegel like Pippin’s. This is underscored by a convincing attempt to show that, despite Hegel’s indisputable focus on freedom, he forcefully rejects the legislative conception of morality that makes the Kantian notion of autonomy an attractive way of understanding freedom. Fred Rush also tries to show that the idea of self-legislation is a poor gloss on Hegel’s conception of freedom since Rush thinks (arguably wrongly) that it implies that values are “produced in decisional judgement.” (p.103) Rush believes that this undermines the process of value-acquisition because requiring reflection upon values before their acquisition renders them alien to agents and may fail to capture the content of thick ethical concepts like piety and shame. He suggests that a more Hegelian notion of freedom is inhabiting, and knowing oneself to inhabit, a functional role within a rationally ordered socio-historical structure.
In a polemical piece, Frederick Beiser takes considerably broader aim at the last half-century of Anglophone scholarship on the German idealists. His verdict is scathing, claiming that its aim has been to “emasculate, domesticate and sanitize [German idealism], to make it weak, safe and clean for home consumption.” (p.70) Again, non-metaphysical interpretations of Hegel come under attack. Alongside these, Beiser also criticises Strawson’s influential interpretation of Kant’s transcendental idealism and the Rawlsian tradition of neo-Kantian constructivism. Given the breadth of his targets, Beiser inevitably sacrifices much of the rich detail present in his meticulous studies of the German idealists and romantics. So, whilst his warnings about the ahistorical and reconstructive approach of many contemporary interpreters are germane (and still far from being sufficiently heeded), specialists will find little new support for them here.
Closer to Beiser’s preferred historical methodology is Manfred Frank’s brief but careful examination of the sources of Novalis’ conception of philosophy as ‘infinite striving.’ Philosophy’s task is supposedly infinite since it both requires an absolute foundation to avoid a regress of explanations yet cannot discursively grasp and justify such a foundation, which is only available to us non-discursively through aesthetic experience. Frank thinks that this early German romantic idea provides an instructive contrast with German idealism (for which foundations are within cognitive reach), which he claims “traces the structures of reality back to the products of the mind or - conversely - derives them from the assumed evidence of a subject.” (p.292) However, this trades upon a highly contentious subjectivist or mentalist interpretation of the German idealists which, arguably, ill-befits Kant and Fichte, let alone Schelling and Hegel.
Paul Franks’ paper also takes it cue from a lesser-known figure, namely, Salomon Maimon. It pursues Maimon’s claim that Kant’s response to Humean skepticism is question-begging since it fails to rule out a naturalist explanation of our use of concepts coupled with an error theory regarding their justification. Maimon believed that this sort of sceptical naturalist is locked in a stand-off with the transcendental philosopher, and that both approaches should be embraced whereby each can check the pretensions of the other. Illuminatingly, Franks suggests that Quine’s response to Carnap cannot avoid begging the question in favour of his physicalist brand of methodological naturalism and, when seen aright, his arguments actually support Maimon’s two-pronged approach. The desire to renegotiate this unstable truce between naturalism and transcendental philosophy is, he urges, a useful frame for understanding many post-Quinean developments, including the recent turn to German idealism of Brandom and McDowell.
A further cluster of issues is raised by Paul Redding, Andrew Bowie and Richard Eldridge, who examine the nature and role of reason, especially as it relates to freedom and judgement. Redding analyses Hegel’s critique of Fichte’s account of the role of conscience in moral judgement. This critique, he suggests, casts doubt on Brandom’s expressivist and rationalist interpretation of Hegel’s pragmatics of judgement. Redding thinks that Brandom is too narrowly focused on the legalistic category of ‘entitlement’, which occludes the richer ethical vocabulary of who one should be rather than merely what one is entitled to do. This places Hegel closer to the romantics, whereas Bowie begins from an interpretation of Hegel that contrasts his conception of reason with a romantic one. For Bowie, the idealist conception of reason risks overemphasising its active and self-determining dimension. He thinks that this focus on free self-determination creates difficulties for the idealist in accounting for expressive activities, such as mimetic practices like art, which are not best captured through an idiom of reason-giving and taking normative stances. Eldridge’s paper develops the Kantian notion of judgement as the free undertaking of a rule-governed responsibility, and like Bowie he considers the interplay of this idea with the checks upon it, such as the fact that judgements are world-responsive and collectively formed. Ultimately, they both suggest that art, or at least a distinctively aesthetic discourse, may be best placed to stage and thereby help us get a grip upon the tensions between freedom and our given circumstances.
Finally, Espen Hammer’s contribution examines Habermas’ relation to Hegel. Habermas finds a precursor to his own communicative conception of rationality in Hegel’s early writings, but he deplores the metaphysical ‘absolute subject’ that Hegel supposedly introduces in the Phenomenology. Hammer defends Hegel, claiming that Habermas misses much important detail from the notion of immanent critique that he extracts from Hegel, and tries to show that a metaphysical absolute subject is not a mandatory component of profitable readings of the Phenomenology. Furthermore, he goes on to demonstrate that Hegel presents a challenge to Habermas’ Kantian theory of formal pragmatics. Hammer also provides a useful introductory chapter, emphasising the theme of naturalism, which heads an altogether worthy book.