The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

2
EPISTEMOLOGY IN
GERMAN IDEALISM

Dietmar H. Heidemann


Introduction

It is not at all clear whether there is anything like ‘epistemology’ in Kant and German Idealism. According to a widespread view, Kant wasn’t interested in epistemology in the narrow, contemporary sense of the word as theory of knowledge. His focus, as is argued sometimes, was rather on a systematic critique of metaphysical knowledge claims. Since the German Idealists – in particular Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel – in many ways react to Kant, and develop philosophical systems of their own, in part by re-establishing metaphysics, one wouldn’t expect them to deal with epistemology either. What one can find in Kant and German Idealism therefore would be, at most, an interest in epistemological questions in the negative rather than in the positive sense. Over the last two decades, research on Kant and German Idealism has revised this view as one-sided. Nowadays, many scholars agree that Kant and the German Idealists in fact did show a strong interest in epistemology and even made substantial contributions to this core philosophical discipline. Still one has to be careful, since on the other hand metaphysics looms large in Kant and German Idealism. In what follows it will become obvious that Kant’s and the German Idealists’ dedication to epistemological themes is compatible with the systematic role these authors devote to metaphysics, be it that they criticize or vindicate metaphysical knowledge claims. Nevertheless, one has to be cautious about describing eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury epistemology with the help of canonical contemporary categories such as internalism, externalism, social epistemology, etc. Moreover, for Kant and the German Idealists the central concept of ‘idealism’ is not to be understood in terms of ‘skepticism’, though their individual conceptions of ‘idealism’ differ fundamentally from each other. The following outline takes the various doctrines of ‘idealism’ as the guide to theory of knowledge in Kant and German Idealism. In the various stages of the development of classical German philosophy we will see what each kind of idealism amounts to, and in particular how it is different from skepticism.

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