- British Idealism and the Concept of the Self ed. by William J. Mander and Stamatoula Panagakou
According to the editors of this book, “The history of philosophy as taught today is a highly selective activity. In its determination to tell a particular story, it passes over in silence large swathes of otherwise interesting philosophical work” (2). This claim would have been worthy of serious consideration had it been made a few decades ago—that is to say, at a time when analytic philosophy was a clearly recognizable (even if not homogenous) philosophical movement. The “particular story” according to which the works of the British idealists were allegedly sacrificed would then have been easily identified as the story of how the young Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore showed the absurdity involved in holding that all things are aspects of an unified larger whole. After this first triumph, so the story goes, they were quickly joined by other bold thinkers, who eventually banished from the sacred realm of philosophy all kinds of metaphysical monstrosities (monstrosities precisely because metaphysical). This claim, however, strikes one as strangely out of date. On the one hand, what is the relevance of this “particular story” today, given that the so-called “Bradley’s regresses” have become a fashionable topic in “analytical” ontology, given that thinkers who self-consciously describe their work as “analytical” advocate metaphysical substance-monism, and given that even a counterintuitive view such as panpsychism is competently debated in “analytical” philosophy of mind? On the other hand, knowledge of British Idealism has greatly increased since the 1990s. Thanks to the work of a small yet committed group of scholars, interested readers have now at their disposal a conspicuous body of publications on the main figures of the movement and of the movement as a whole.
Since the editors of the book are amongst those who mostly contributed to the rediscovery of British Idealism, what is their purpose in making the claim? That claim is not just polemical, but philosophically revisionary as well. As it becomes clear as one goes through the fourteen papers collected in the volume, its overall aim is not just to promote historical knowledge of British Idealism but also to promote idealism as a viable philosophical position.
This is not immediately evident, as the large bulk of the book is indeed composed of essays (all clearly written, seriously researched, and highly informative) that are interpretative in character. As it is to be expected, much attention is devoted to the three classical figures of the movement—the “holy triad” composed of Thomas Hill Green, Francis Herbert Bradley, and Bernard Bosanquet. The book also features lively discussions of later idealists such as Robin George Collingwood, and John Ellis McTaggart, while a brief but very helpful essay is devoted to early British idealists (or even “proto-idealists”) such as John Grote, James Frederick Ferrier, and James Hutchison Stirling. These now forgotten philosophers were key figures in the development of British thought. They made Kant and Hegel accessible to British readers; at the same time, they forcefully attacked the traditional empiricist way of conceiving of the self as a mere “bundle of perceptions” connected by the laws of association. This Humean account misses what is crucial about the notion of the self, namely, the fact that perceptions make no sense without a perceiver. German philosophy provided them [End Page 564] with a general scheme for overcoming Hume’s analysis; consciousness now appears as a relational unity, broken up into a “self” and a “not-self” side. Once this relational concept has been introduced, the pivotal question for all later idealists becomes whether it can provide a basis from which to understand the nature of society and of Reality at large.
The turn from the historical to the speculative occurs with the last three papers. In the course of a discussion of McTaggart’s conception of the self, Gary Cesarz charges materialists like Dennett and the Churchlands with having committed the same Humean fallacy of explaining away...