Rockmore, Tom. German Idealism as Constructivism

By Stambovsky, Phillip | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Rockmore, Tom. German Idealism as Constructivism


Stambovsky, Phillip, The Review of Metaphysics


ROCKMORE, Tom. German Idealism as Constructivism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016. x + 203 pp. Cloth, $45.00--The jacket copy bills this volume as Tom Rockmore's "definitive statement on the debate about German idealism between proponents of representationalism and those of constructivism." It marks the culmination of Rockmore's efforts over the years (till now little credited in the literature) to persuade students of German idealism that "the philosophical tradition that includes iconic thinkers such as Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel" is a tradition "best understood as a constructivist project." More than of merely historical significance, this project is, in Rockmore's view, the enduring "legacy of German idealism," which "lives on through cognitive constructivism" in widely diffuse forms across a variety of disciplines.

Constructivism is Rockmore's term of art--"not a theory but a cognitive approach"--which he takes to "refer only to the problem of cognition (das Erkenntnisproblem, from erkennen)." His special concern is thus cognitive constructivism, something he defines in the present work and in earlier books as the idea "that we 'construct' what we know," or (presumably) correlatively, "that we only know what we in some sense construct." Among the exponents of constructivism so conceived, Rockmore at different times has included Hobbes, Vico, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Peirce, Dilthey, Cassirer, Dewey, Reseller, and even Husserl. If Jean Piaget is "perhaps the most distinguished twentieth-century cognitive constructivist," as Rockmore announces in the concluding chapter of this, his latest and definitive contribution to scholarship on the German idealist tradition, one is not surprised to hear that the "constructivist epistemology attracts little attention" in current literature on German idealism and its philosophical legacy.

Whatever form it takes, construction is ultimately based, asserts the author, "on a type of identity--more precisely, a view of identity in difference." The difference in question "lies in the stress on activity--more precisely, the subject's activity as the unity, which is neither subjective nor objective, and which subtends the difference between them." Such identity in difference is, says Rockmore, "neither numerical nor qualitative," but rather "a metaphysical relation brought about by the subject in creating a unity between itself and the object it 'constructs'"--a relation Rockmore interprets as a "metaphysical identity in the difference between the subject that knows and the object that it knows." Rockmore's cognitive construction thesis figures in this metaphysic as follows: "If a minimal condition of knowledge is that the subject must construct the object, then in a sense, in order to be specified, subject and object are both different as well as identical." Whether as "pure unstructured identity" or as "an identity between identity and difference," this sort of Identitatstheorie-cum-constructivism is the core of Rockmore's concern in a series of unevenly developed chapters on Kant, Fichte, Schelling (who "was in a sense never a German idealist"), and, in a chapter longer than the others combined, on Hegel. …

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