The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

1
SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS,
SYSTEM, DIALECTIC

Scott Jenkins

The problems that would shape early nineteenth-century European philosophy arose out of Immanuel Kant’s realization, early in 1772, that his conception of metaphysics rested upon a problematic assumption. Two years earlier, upon his appointment to the chair of logic and metaphysics at the University of Königsberg, he had outlined his central philosophical views in his Inaugural Dissertation in which he distinguished between sensible knowledge and knowledge possible through pure thought, which he believed to be capable of disclosing the fundamental features of things and relations that are not themselves present to the senses. Like his rationalist predecessors, such as Leibniz and Wolff, Kant took for granted that we are capable of producing such a metaphysics. When he realized that this assumption stood in need of justification, the trajectory of modern European thought underwent a fundamental change. The Critique of Pure Reason was Kant’s attempt to demonstrate that metaphysics is in fact possible. The work both introduced a new philosophical methodology and generated a radically new theory of knowledge and its limitations. The Idealist philosophers who followed Kant, figures such as Karl Reinhold, J. G. Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and G. W. F. Hegel, all regarded the Critique as the starting point of philosophical activity. But while some saw the completion of Kant’s project as the central task of philosophy, others saw in Kant’s critical philosophy errors and ungrounded assumptions so significant that the method of the Critique had to be abandoned.

In this chapter, I begin with the emergence of Kant’s new philosophical method in order to provide a context for the Idealist innovations that followed. I then consider, in part two, the work of Reinhold and Fichte, who regarded themselves as adhering to the spirit of Kant’s critical philosophy while changing its central terms. In their work on the central Kantian notions of representation and self-consciousness, respectively, Reinhold and Fichte aim to provide a firm foundation for the claims of the first Critique. This project leads them to introduce into European thought radically new methodological ideals, such as systematicity in relation to a first principle of philosophy, which give rise to new methods of doing philosophy, such as phenomenological description. The work of Reinhold and Fichte also had a significant effect upon Hegel, and in the third part I consider how Hegel’s rejection of the methodological assumptions of his

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