From Kant to Schelling: Counter-Enlightenment in the Name of Reason
Linker, Damon, The Review of Metaphysics
... 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.
If this were the end of the story, then, as one of the few figures in the German tradition whose work stands on both sides of the divide between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment, Schelling's corpus might very well give us some insight into why the former has so frequently given way to the latter in German intellectual history. But, as I will argue at length in this essay, the well-documented changes in Schelling's views actually mask an underlying continuity between them that promises to teach us even more: namely, an "erotic" conception of human reason bequeathed to him by Kant. (5) Once Schelling's works are viewed in the light of this continuity, his career begins to take on a different shape. Rather than bifurcated into discontinuous Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment periods, Schelling's development can be more accurately described as ever more profound attempts to answer a single question--can human reason attain satisfaction within an enlightened world?--and his otherwise dramatic shifts of view as a sign of his increasing skepticism that this question could be answered in the affirmative. One could say that Schelling eventually comes to believe that when understood correctly, human reason is a faculty of the mind that cannot help but strive to attain access to something--the "unconditioned" (Unbedingte), or the "Absolute"--that is inaccessible to the modern, critical intellect. Hence, within the context of enlightened modernity, reason itself demands Counter-Enlightenment. But if this is the case, then we are confronted by the distinct possibility that the deconstructive program of today's Counter-Enlightenment figures is, likewise, based on a series of unstated assumptions about the nature of reason, its place in the human psyche, and what the proper response to the prospect of its perpetual dissatisfaction should be. By raising this possibility, this essay not only helps us to understand why the German philosophical tradition has embraced the Counter-Enlightenment but also prepares the way for rethinking what the Counter-Enlightenment is.
In what follows, I begin by sketching the outlines of the Kantian Enlightenment, focusing on the dichotomy within it that had the greatest influence on Schelling's philosophical development: not the more commonly researched and discussed dualisms between necessity and freedom, appearances and the thing in itself, or theory and practice, but rather the distinction between immanence and transcendence. (6) Then, having set up the problematic of Kant's notion of Enlightenment, I examine Schelling's early, failed attempts--in such works as On the Ego as the Principle of Philosophy (1795) and the System of Transcendental Idealism (1800)--to conceive of its metaphysical ground. Next, I turn to Schelling's late work to see what form his philosophy takes in the wake of this failure; particularly important in this section of the paper is Schelling's response to Hegel's own version of Enlightenment philosophy, which, in its wholehearted embrace of immanence--as well as in its emphatic insistence that reason could become satisfied with that condition--surpassed Kant's thought to become the paradigm of Enlightenment self-deception in Schelling's eyes. It was in his confrontation with Hegel's philosophy in his university lectures of the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s that Schelling articulated the most radical version of the Counter-Enlightenment philosophy he had been fashioning since the first decade of the nineteenth century--the one that most resembles the form of Counter-Enlightenment thought so prevalent today. I then conclude with some general thoughts about Schelling's notions of reason and philosophy, and what we might be able to learn from them.
Reason and Immanence in the Kantian Enlightenment. According to a well-known statement of Aristotle, philosophy begins in wonder. (7) By this, Aristotle means that men first begin to philosophize when they cease to take the given state of the world and their experience of it for granted and start to inquire after the "why" of a particular object or event within the world. (8) That is, at some point in his experience, man beings to find some element of it to be "wondrous," and since "all men desire to know," he sets out to develop a theory as an explanation of why it is the way it is. (9) But for both Aristotle and Plato, the quest for knowledge of the why does not stop at particular objects and events within the world. On the contrary, once a human being begins to philosophize, he starts to seek answers to ever more profound and fundamental questions. Not satisfied with learning the true causes of things within the world, he begins to long to learn the true causes of the world as a whole: not just what it is and how it is, but even more so, why it is at all. (10) In other words, philosophy in the fullest sense strives to understand both the world and its grounds--it practices both physics and metaphysics. This thoroughly comprehensive notion of philosophy persisted for well over a thousand years, arguably reaching its most highly developed form in the Scholastic Aristotelianism of St. Thomas Aquinas, for whom philosophy and theology merged to form a single, unified quest for knowledge of the whole--an investigation of the world in its totality, from the simplest motions of inanimate objects within the world to the essence of the transcendent God who grounds it.
Early modern philosophy, which frequently took the form of a critique of theological speculation, arose in explicit opposition to this traditional conception of philosophy. Confronted with mounting discoveries of modern science that seemed to undermine the basis for belief in the Aristotelianism that had dominated the European mind for centuries, figures like Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, Spinoza, Bayle, and Locke came to the conclusion that the problem with premodern philosophy--the error that led it to propose theories that in the light of recent scientific discoveries appeared to be unjustified--had been its preoccupation with metaphysics, which they claimed was both untenable and dangerous. According to the early Enlightenment view, the untenability of metaphysics could be seen as soon as we ceased to accept the simple incorrigibility of the common sense experience of the world and reasoning based uncritically upon it to examine the considerable contribution that human subjectivity plays in constituting that experience. When we do so, we discover a number of subjectively grounded (psychological and epistemological) explanations of how we come to believe in erroneous metaphysical doctrines. Apparently, we both want to believe in certain metaphysical views and are cognitively predisposed to fall victim to self-deception. For example, Hobbes claimed that polytheism arises from a combination of men's fear of the future and their ignorance of the true causes of events within the world, while monotheism--or the metaphysical belief in a first cause of the world--comes about as a result of the work of natural scientists who, following the chain of efficient causes back as far as they can, postulate that there must be a first cause at which point their investigation could reach a conclusion. (11) In both cases, these views tell us more about the human beings that hold them than they do about the world itself. We do not exist because some metaphysical entity wishes it; rather, a metaphysical entity is posited to exist because human beings wish it. We want to find an ultimate answer to the question of why, and we trick ourselves into believing we can and even have found one. But once we become aware of our predisposition to self-deception--our tendency to accept the truth of illusions of transcendence--we also discover that it is within our power to live in the light of the knowledge of our own ignorance of metaphysical truths. Doing so provides the occasion to focus our attentions clear-sightedly on this world, which is what natural philosophers like Copernicus, Gallileo, and Kepler had already begun to do. There simply was no way to gage what discoveries might follow in the wake of a widespread effort to pursue physics unencumbered by the dead weight of a discredited metaphysics. The full-blown eighteenth century Enlightenment grew out of the hopes generated from this skeptical stance toward metaphysical speculation.
But the early modern philosophers not only believed that metaphysics was a futile pursuit; they also held it to be a dangerous one. They were united in arguing that popular belief in the existence and accessibility of a metaphysical substrate of the world led certain individuals (the clergy) to claim that they possessed esoteric knowledge of that domain. But, in fact, they possessed no such knowledge. Instead they actively perpetuated the ignorance and fear of the common people in order to insure that the latter would willingly submit to their rule in both political and spiritual matters. Europe in the early modern period was thus subject to the domination of small groups of elites claiming to rule in the name of a knowledge of metaphysical truths that modern science (and the modern philosophical methods developed to justify that science) had supposedly proven to be spurious. Given an ignorant and fearful public and a power-hungry priesthood out to exploit it with consoling lies, it was no surprise that disputes among those elites were quickly amplified into full-blown, bloody civil wars that engulfed England and the continent. In this way, metaphysics was largely responsible for the social and political ills of early modern Europe.
However, just as modern philosophers eventually came to suspect that the psychological and epistemological dimensions of human subjectivity play a much larger role than previously suspected in determining our ideas and beliefs about a metaphysical ground of the world, so many of these same philosophers argued that human beings should learn to ignore the advice of their spiritual leaders--that they could determine for themselves what social and political order was most appropriate for them. If, until now, men had tended to conceive of themselves as passively following the dictates of an external God or nature, that was only because they had chosen to view themselves in such a way. The truth is that man has (and always has had) it within his power to remake the order that currently prevails in the world to serve his own ends. Rather than voluntarily submitting either to the rule of priests or the often destructive processes of a natural order utterly indifferent to human concerns, human beings can choose to take matters into their own hands. They can choose to become masters and possessors of nature and, in turn, seek to relieve their burdens in life by using scientific discoveries about the natural world to spur advances in political science, medicine, technology, and transportation. They can spread the findings of physics through universal education, thereby insuring that ever greater numbers of people will be capable of ruling themselves, both as individuals and collectively through political institutions of their own devising. They can come to see that, given that mankind has been left for most of its history to wallow in ignorance and fear in a hostile world and only found its way out of this sorry situation through its own efforts, God (if He exists at all) must be reconceived as a entity with little, if any, interest in aiding the human race in its quest to better itself. In all of these ways, then, the early modern philosophers who inspired the Enlightenment placed their hopes for human improvement (intellectually, morally, and politically) in the rejection of transcendent or metaphysical allegiances and a subsequent turn toward the study of the immanent world in and of itself.
Viewed in this light, Kant is in many ways the archetypal Enlightenment philosopher and arguably the most self-consistent. His …
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Publication information: Article title: From Kant to Schelling: Counter-Enlightenment in the Name of Reason. Contributors: Linker, Damon - Author. Journal title: The Review of Metaphysics. Volume: 54. Issue: 2 Publication date: December 2000. Page number: 337+. © 2009 Philosophy Education Society, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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