In In Kant's Wake, Tom Rockmore sets himself the almost impossibly ambitious task of telling a coherent story about the sprawling set of thinkers, doctrines, arguments, journal articles, books, social institutions, teachings, and other intellectual practices that make up philosophy in the twentieth century. His highly plausible unifying hypothesis is that twentieth-century philosophy is a series of creative and reactive footnotes to Kant's Critical Philosophy as encapsulated in the Critique of Pure Reason, and in particular, to Kant's transcendental idealism. Of course the same unifying hypothesis is equally plausible of the nineteenth century. In this sense, the history of philosophy since Kant is just the history of post-Kantian philosophy.
Rather than telling a single long story, Rockmore tells five shorter stories. He begins his narrative with a chapter on Kant's metaphysics and immediate responses to the Critique of Pure Reason (ch. 2). Then he focuses, in turn, on the diachronic developments of Marxism (ch. 3), pragmatism, (ch. 4), phenomenology (ch. 5), and analytic philosophy (ch. 6). The five stories are framed by a methodological chapter on the problem of interpreting twentieth-century philosophy (ch. 1), and a concluding chapter on the relation between Kant and the overall shape of philosophy in the twentieth century (ch. 7).
Three more or less explicitly-stated interpretive principles run through each of Rockmore's historical narratives. The first, as I have already mentioned, is the grand unifying hypothesis of the essentially protean character of Kant's first Critique and the metaphysics of transcendental idealism. The second is that each distinct philosophical movement is [End Page 676] fundamentally organized around the teachings and writings of a few "master" or "strong" thinkers (14). And the third is that the history of philosophy is nothing but a multi-voiced Socratic conversation (13). Everyone knows how even the most intensely animated intellectual conversation can end with an inconclusive whimper instead of a conclusive bang. According to Rockmore, that is basically what happened to the great philosophical conversation of the twentieth century.
In the chapter on Kant, Rockmore usefully distinguishes between two strands of transcendental idealism that Kant regarded as fully complementary, but which tended to run and pull in sharply opposite directions in post-Kantian philosophy: (1) the representationalist strand, and (2) the constructivist strand (36). Now Kant's transcendental idealism says four things. First, cognition is the mental representation of objects. Second, the objects we cognize are nothing but appearances or phenomena and never things-in-themselves or noumena. Third, the generic structure of the objects and the world we cognize is identical to the non-empirical or a priori generic structure of the innate cognitive capacities or faculties of our minds. And fourth, the human mind is spontaneously active in producing the specific structures of the very objects we cognize when our faculties are triggered by particular sensory inputs. The first and second theses of transcendental idealism constitute its representationalist strand, and the third and fourth theses constitute its constructivist strand.
The decomposition of the orginal Kantian vector into its representationalist and constructivist components helps Rockmore in his interpretation of the four main sub-movements of twentieth-century philosophy. Marxism or dialectical materialism, organized of course around the teachings and writings of Karl Marx, is an economic, social, and political version of post-Kantian constructivism focused on the concrete struggles of alienated individuals and groups to achieve liberation and self-realization in collective action. So too pragmatism, organized around the teachings and writings of C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, is another version of post-Kantian constructivism, this time focused on the idea that the meaning and truth of concepts and propositions is strictly determined by the practical pay-offs of applying those concepts and propositions.
By contrast, phenomenology and analytic philosophy are both versions of representationalism. Phenomenology is organized around the teaching and writings of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and focuses on the structures of consciousness and object-directedness (or intentionality) in the mental act of representation. Analytic...