- German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives
Espen Hammer has assembled an invaluable resource both for specialists working within German philosophy (particularly German Idealism) and for others interested in getting their feet wet with the varied and often impenetrable authors that get classed under the moniker of “German Idealism.” Collected in the volume are fourteen essays grouped into six categories. The essays are all very lucid and concise, showing clear rigor of argument and research. I mention this because reading many of the figures discussed in these essays (e.g., Hegel or Fichte) is a feat in understanding extremely complex (and, often, to Anglo-American ears) strange terminology. The essays are grouped into largely arbitrary categories (e.g., “The Legacy of Hegel’s Philosophy,” which could easily apply to the majority of the essays collected in this volume), so I will focus on the volume as a whole and on a small selection of essays that I think have a common theme.
Sebastian Gardner’s piece, which kicks off the collection, problematizes the relationship between idealism and naturalism in the work of Norman Kemp Smith, the celebrated Kant scholar. Starting from a lecture that Kemp Smith delivered at Edinburgh in 1919, Gardner’s essay shows how radically the Anglo-American philosophical landscape has changed since the beginning of the past century. For Kemp Smith, idealism trumped naturalism as a philosophical position. As Gardner points out, “once upon a time idealism seemed without doubt philosophically superior to naturalism, whereas we now think, more or less, the exact opposite” (22). At the same time, though, Gardner points out that “in line with Kemp Smith’s view, the ‘extremes’—either hard naturalism, or metaphysically construed idealism—are all that remain” (45). Gardner reaches this conclusion by distinguishing “hard naturalism” and “soft naturalism,” the latter being opposed to “the presumption that nature consists of nothing but the hard physical bare-bones of things” (28). In opposing the hard naturalist, the soft naturalist, according to Gardner, either loses the argument to the hard naturalist or is forced to adopt idealism (35). Weaving contemporary debates within German Idealism interpretation into this broader discussion of idealism and naturalism, Gardner is able to situate metaphysical and non-metaphysical readings of the German Idealists within the same broader debate. Now, while Gardner is certainly correct to stress certain exegetical points in Hegel (38–39), and while he is correct to point out that there are persistent problems in navigating the relationship between normativity and nature (40–43), I have reservations about not only whether the normative/natural distinction is one that has an analog (or, for that matter, even any sort of anchor) in the distinction between thought and being (44) but as well reservations about whether the success or failure of certain strands of contemporary naturalism is linked to the success or failure of non-metaphysical readings of German Idealism. Both of these claims [End Page 1210] require more argumentation than Gardner provides, and they both hinge on how the distinction between metaphysical and non-metaphysical readings of various German Idealist figures are drawn—a matter to which Gardner devotes insufficient attention (which Gardner seems to acknowledge, 48–49, in particular, note 51).
This relationship between metaphysical and non-metaphysical readings is one that resurfaces in a number of essays in this collection, notably in Frederick Beiser’s piece, where he argues that, “since the end of the Second World War, the predominant concern of Anglophone scholarship on German idealism has been to emasculate, domesticate and sanitize it, to make it weak, safe, and clean for home consumption” (70). The rest of the piece proceeds to argue for this by looking at the work of P. F. Strawson and John Rawls for Kant scholarship and Terry Pinkard and Robert Pippin for Hegel scholarship (the latter discussion has Beiser proposing one of my favorite sub-titles anywhere in print: “The owl of Minerva, stuffed”). While I am sympathetic to many of his concerns vis-à-vis antiquarianism and anachronism being a false dilemma (73), as well as his broader concerns vis-à-vis historical scholarship (84–87...