From Kant to Schelling: Counter-Enlightenment in the Name of Reason

Article excerpt

... a system in which reason fulfilled itself would have to unite all the demands of the spirit as of the heart, of the most conscientious feeling as of the strictest understanding. (1)

... reason must sooner or later be satisfied. (2)

MODERN GERMAN PHILOSOPHY PRESENTS A PECULIAR PUZZLE to the historian of ideas. For most of the early modern period, philosophers throughout Europe had allied themselves with the Enlightenment in its self-proclaimed struggle against dogma, superstition, and ignorance. Yet beginning in late eighteenth century Germany, this situation began to change--so much so that by the early decades of the twentieth century, Germany had become the undisputed home of the philosophical Counter-Enlightenment. If today the most celebrated Counter-Enlightenment figures hail from France or Italy, that should not obscure the fact that the ideas of such authors as Derrida and Foucault, Vattimo and Virilio descend directly from the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger. All of these theorists are united in their opposition to the Enlightenment and what they see as its detrimental social and political effects in the modern world. Moreover, all of them deny the core assumptions of the Enlightenment: the possibility and goodness of rational discourse dispelling darkness and mystery from human life. Hence, their writings tend to take the form of deconstructive commentaries on seminal texts from the Western philosophical and literary traditions or radically critical analyses of the social and intellectual practices common to the post-Enlightenment world. Above all, these works claim to show that what might superficially appear to be examples of disinterested argument and rational impartiality in those texts and practices are, instead, attempts at violating, marginalizing, delegitimizing, and dominating the "other"--with the "other" defined as the nonrational, unusual, different, or abnormal dimensions of human life and experience. The role of the Counter-Enlightenment theorist is to liberate the "other" from its subjugation at the hands of reason by exposing the myriad ways in which all supposedly enlightened discourses and practices are themselves permeated by the "other" and thus always one step away from collapsing under the weight of their own incoherence. In other words, Counter-Enlightenment philosophy seeks to expose reason's own inevitable and fatal dependence upon unreason.

And so the question remains: Why is it that so much of German philosophy since Kant has taken such a virulently Counter-Enlightenment form? The answer is extremely difficult to determine, not least because of the complexity of the issues involved and the obscurity of the philosophers in question. But in trying to make headway toward an answer, the work of F. W. J. Schelling (1775-1854) promises to be extremely helpful. According to a widely accepted view of his philosophical development, (3) Schelling began his career (in the mid 1790s) as arguably the most gifted and ambitious of the young German Idealist philosophers trying to complete the radical Enlightenment project of Kant and Fichte. However, by the time of his last published work of philosophy (the Philosophical Inquiries into the Nature of Human Freedom of 1809), and even more so in the posthumously published lectures of the numerous university courses he taught during the last four decades of his life, Schelling had broken decisively with the idealism of his youth. In these late works, Schelling can be seen to be struggling to articulate a new understanding of philosophy--one that would come to exercise an enormous influence on the Counter-Enlightenment philosophies of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and, through them, many others in our century. That is, the postidealist Schelling seeks to show that the enlightened understanding of the world is grounded in something prereflective or preenlightened that it must presuppose and yet cannot grasp. He thus begins (4) the Counter-Enlightenment's great effort to show that far from being what it itself claimed to be--namely, the clear-sighted attempt to cast the light of human reason into all the dark corners of the world--the Enlightenment was and is willfully oblivious to the ineradicability of darkness and mystery at the basis of human existence. …