Thursday, August 2, 2007

Critchley vs. Leiter: Understanding German Idealism

Last week Brian Leiter (UT Austin) of the "The Philosophical Gourmet" fame attacked Simon Critchley (New School) for misrepresenting the relationship between German Idealism and what Critchley called the "continental tradition" or what we refer to by convention as "Continental Philosophy". To read Leiter's rant against Critchley go here. Here is what Critchley says about German Idealism:
It was felt by post-Kantians like Maimon and Jacobi, and by the German idealists, that Kant had established a series of dualisms in the Third Critique--pure reason and practical reason, nature and freedom, epistemology and ethics--but had failed to provide a single unifying principle which would bring those dualisms together. German idealism, then, can be seen as a series of attempts to provide this principle. So you get the Subject in Fichte, Spirit in Hegel, art in the early Schelling, and then in later nineteenth and early twentieth century German philosophy, Will to Power in Nietzsche, Praxis in Marx and Being in Heidegger. These are all attempts to answer this question.
Leiter writes:
I assume in a normal PhD program, a graduate student who submitted a statement like this as part of a prospectus would be expelled from the program, but apparently such sophomoric blather is thought to constitute scholarly insight in some circles. Overcoming the dualisms of the Third Critique surely was an animating concern (among others) for some of the German Idealists, but it obviously was not for Nietzsche or for Marx. Hegel was a dead issue in German philosophy by the 1850s, as materialists, on the one hand, and NeoKantians, on the other, rose to prominence, and Schopenhauer's anti-Hegelian polemics informed a generation's perception of the mad system builder of Jena. What role "will to power" actually plays in Nietzsche's philosophy is, unbeknownst apparently to Critchley, actually a hotly debated scholarly topic, but there is no significant account of it on which it constitutes an "attempt" by Nietzsche to provide a "unifying principle" for the dualisms of the Third Critique. Assimilating Marx to this just-so story is even weirder, given Marx's spectacular hostility to the questions of metaphysics and epistemology that animated German Idealism, a hostility encapuslated (sic) in the 2nd Thesis on Feuerbach, where Marx deemed all questions "isolated from practice" to be merely "scholastic" questions. This was no "attempt" to "bring those dualisms together," but an attempt to push them off the table as questions worth anyone's intellectual energy.
I don’t think Leiter is being as generous has he should be given that Critchley’s claim about German Idealism and Continental philosophy was made in an interview. Here is what Roman Altshuler at the "Ends of Thought" has to say. Altshuler makes some clear points mostly in defense of Critchley.

Leiter’s post and Critchley’s comments do raise an important question about how we should understand the influence of German Idealism on late 19th and 20th century philosophy. How did Idealism re-orient philosophy? Leiter takes Critchely to be claiming that there was no major reorientation and that Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger continue the search for unifying principles. Is this a plausible way to understand Marx, Nietzsche or Heidegger? I agree with Leiter that it’s not, but I don’t think that is exactly what Critchley means, though I could certainly be wrong. I take it he is claiming that praxis, will to power, and being are attempts to overcome or deflate the need for a unifying principle between pure reason/practical reason or freedom/nature. In this sense Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger are indeed responding to the Kantian dualisms internal to his Critical philosophy. This I think is a brief, general, and generous reading of the Critchley's words, and with such a reading in mind I assume there is no need to kick Critchley out of school. The question remains: how did German idealism re-orient philosophy (for the better)?


Roman Altshuler said...

I think one way German Idealism re-oriented philosophy, especially in relation to continental philosophy, is that it made all sorts of naturalism and some kinds of realism seem very untenable. I suspect that the legacy of Idealism is behind the very different ways in which continental and analytic philosophers orient themselves with regard to the natural sciences.

Gabriel Gottlieb said...

I think the point about naturalism is a valid one, especially if we consider the anti-naturalism of the phenomenologists. I also think of people like McDowell and Brandom. I've recently been interested in transcendental arguments which seem to be a dominant mode of a argumentation used by the Idealists. I would like to think this to be a positive influence on philosophy, but many philosophers (e.g. Barry Stroud) might not think it as positive as some.