German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 1781-1801

German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 1781-1801

German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 1781-1801

German Idealism: The Struggle against Subjectivism, 1781-1801

Excerpt

There has been in the history of philosophy a remarkably popular and persistent interpretation of German idealism that, much scholarship not withstanding, continues to find adherents to this day. Both detractors and defenders of German idealism endorse this interpretation; for the detractors it is a compelling reason to spurn the idealist tradition, for the defenders a persuasive reason to embrace it.

According to this interpretation, German idealism is essentially the culmination of the Cartesian tradition. It accepts some of the central assumptions of this tradition: that epistemology is philosophia prima; that only self-knowledge is certain; that the immediate objects of knowledge are ideas; and that knowledge consists in contemplation rather than action. But it goes even further than Descartes because it takes these assumptions to their ultimate bitter conclusion—namely, subjectivism, the doctrine that the subject has an immediate knowledge only of its own ideas, so that it has no knowledge beyond its circle of consciousness. Supposedly, rather than struggling against subjectivism, the German idealists welcomed it, seeing it as the result of a deep epistemological truth: that it is impossible to get outside our representations to compare them with reality itself. To be sure, the German idealists reject solipsism, the theory that I know the contents only of my own empirical or individual mind; nevertheless, they still insist that all knowledge is a function of some transcendental or universal mind, which somehow exists within all empirical and individual ones. Hence the circle of consciousness is never really broken; rather it is only widened to embrace everyone.

This interpretation usually goes along with a seductively simple narrative about the history of German idealism. This narrative is essentially a story . . .

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