17 July 2012

Förster's "Twenty Five Years": an overview.

It seems worthwhile to outline the story of German Idealism, as Förster presents it in "The Twenty Five Years of Philosophy". I suspect my previous post on Förster's book is unreadable, and so unread.

Kant begins with the realization that philosophy before him has taken for granted that our thoughts can get things right or wrong -- that they have "objective validity", in his later terminology, or objective purport as McDowell says it -- and that metaphysics is building on sand so long as it is unsettled whether metaphysical thinking can so much as get things wrong. So in the first Critique, Kant tries to settle the question of how and when thinking can have objective purport. The answer he arrives at is that thinking has objective purport by standing in a relation to sensibility: the receptive aspect of our cognition provides us with a kind of cognition which is dependent on the objects it purports to be about, and so the question of objective purport does not arise for it; the other aspects of our cognition (the categories and the ideas) are explicated as structuring and guiding this receptive aspect of our cognition. As time and space are the forms of our sensibility, this means that thinking has objective purport only in relation to objects in time and space: as the traditional objects of metaphysics are extraspatiotemporal, traditional metaphysics thus shows itself as confused.

But a new sort of metaphysics stands primed to take its place: in establishing how it is that our (empirical, spatiotemporal) thinking can have objective purport, Kant has also established that certain principles govern such thinking. That they in fact do this is a condition on the possibility of thought, as thought must be (able to be made) self-conscious. It is the task of the new metaphysics to establish these principles, and lay out what follows from them.

Förster notes that Kant subtly changes the question he is answering after the A-edition of the first Critique: where before he was asking "How can thinking have objective purport?", starting with the Prolegomena he is asking "How are synthetic a priori judgements possible?" In the case of theoretical synthetic a priori judgements, this question is what the new metaphysics confronts and answers. This shift in Kant's question is both a narrowing of his original question, as he is no longer questioning how empirical judgements are possible as such (though this will in fact still be a topic he addresses in the B-edition of the first Critique), and a broadening of it: for there are judgements which do not depend on a relation to an object for their validity, but which are connected with synthetic a priori principles. These are practical judgements. In the first Critique, Kant had left moral questions underscrutinized, and he had explicitly denied that practical philosophy was connected with transcendental philosophy. But now practical and theoretical philosophy are both the concerns of the transcendental philosopher.

Förster thinks that Kant's attempt at his project fails at several points. For one, Kant's construction of matter in "Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science" is circular, as Kant and Schelling both notice; Förster notes that Kant was still working on this problem in the Opus Postumum, and that he still did not solve it there. Förster thinks that this is a significant problem, because he thinks the Metaphysical Foundations was trying to complete something the first Critique had accidentally ignored: a spatial schematism of the categories to parallel the temporal one given in the first Critique's Analytic. Whether Kant needed such a thing is controversial in the literature. (My judgement is that Kant didn't think he needed one, and that by his own standards he was right -- but that these standards were too low, and he in fact did need one if he wasn't to take the spatial form of our intuition as simply Given. I'm not sure that his failure to construct the concept of dense matter matters for this, though.)

This is related to a second place where Förster thinks Kant failed: he simply takes the fact that space and time are the forms of our receptivity as given, and he does the same with the table of general logical forms. Förster spends less time on this complaint, but I think it's the most important one he brings up.

Very shortly after the first Critique, Reinhold will try to present Kant's philosophy in a more systematic form than Kant had managed (following up on hints from Kant that such a system should be possible, that the transcendental unity of apperception really is the ground of all synthetic a priori judgements). The form this takes in Reinhold is an attempt to derive all of the Critical Philosophy from what he calls "the principle of consciousness": "In consciousness representation is distinguished though the subject from both object and subject and is related to both". Reinhold held this to be an analytic judgement, and from it tried to prove via a "short argument" that we can never know the thing-in-itself (because we know representations only, which are distinguished from the object) or the subject-in-itself (because we know representations only, which are distinguished from the subject), but that our representations have objective purport (because they are related through the subject to the object). (I know Reinhold only second-hand, through Karl Ameriks's "The Fate of Autonomy", but the prospects for his project strike me as dim.)

In "Aenesidemus" Schulze criticized Reinhold's attempt to found all of the Critical Philosophy on this one analytic principle. He claimed that Reinhold was tacitly appealing to many other principles in his derivations from it, for instance to the logical principle of noncontradiction, and so the appearance of systematicity was merely apparent. It was his reading of "Aenesidemus" that first startled Fichte out of his dogmatic attraction to Reinhold's philosophy; Schulze did not convince him that the whole project was hopeless, but rather spurred Fichte to try to fill the gaps and genuinely establish all of the Critical Philosophy on a single self-evident principle (from which he hoped to derive the "principle of consciousness", and therefrom use Reinhold's efforts to derive the bulk of Kant's philosophy).

Telling this part of the story occupies several chapter of Förster's book, and for my money this is the most interesting and successful part of the work. I found the accounts of how Fichte and (his very Fichtean) Hegel tried to systematize Kant's philosophy intriguing and energizing, even when I did not find them convincing as presented. The general idea is that Kant simply did not go far enough in trying to establish the conditions under which self-consciousness is possible, and that he mischaracterized the nature of self-consciousness. Where Kant still (sometimes) seems to think of self-consciousness as receptive, as relying on an "inner sense" which relates consciousness to a (noumenal) self which is not dependent on the thought of it, Fichte resolutely treats the self as nothing but its apperceptive unity. This residual empiricism in Kant's conception of the self has vanished in Fichte, and the results which are claimed as proved will be considerably more impressive, but the very general argumentative strategy of the Wissenschaftslehre is Kant's: What must be the case, given that I am aware of myself as a self?

There is a third area where Förster thinks Kant failed where I found his criticisms less clear, and the responses on the part of German Idealists seemed less on-point. This is the question of the unity of practical and theoretical reason hinted at in the third Critique, where the regulative principle of the purposiveness of nature is used to guide inquiry (as it already was in the appendix to the Dialectic of the first Critique), and also to somehow aid moral faith (by suggesting that since both the order demanded by the moral law and the order demanded by the purposiveness of nature are demands put by reason to nature, seeing one fulfilled (in scientific empirical inquiry and in beauty) is an aid to believing that the other is fulfilled, that the world is morally structured).

As I recall, Förster's complaint is largely focused on Kant's skepticism regarding whether we can know there to be purposes in the world. He presents Schelling as presenting as an empirical hypothesis that the world is so structured, and as taking contemporary developments in physics as confirming it. Förster is generally skeptical of Schelling's whole approach here (and he presents Hegel as likewise skeptical of it, after the break with Schelling in his Jena period). Förster's positive remedy to Kant's skepticism here comes from Goethe's botanical and optical writings: Goethe claimed that he could "see ideas", and Förster endorses this, and presents it as the way forward for philosophy.

Now, it is easy to see that Kant's skepticism has to be wrong somehow: we do know that there are purposes in nature, for we know that there are living things in nature, and living things are purposes. A horse does things for the sake of maintaining itself and reproducing its kind; it is not merely mechanically explicable, and in fact cannot be understood as a horse if approached mechanically. Human action is the action of a living being, and so likewise is purposive: so if we are not to be skeptical of whether there is human action in nature, of whether freedom is at work in the world, we must not be skeptical of whether we can know nature to have purposes in it.

But Schelling seems to want to prove more than this: not merely that there are purposes in the world, or that the world is purposive to the extent that morality requires (that virtue and happiness will coincide), but that nature as such is purposive. Schelling wants to derive the general structure of nature from what he calls an "intellectual intuition", but it is not at all clear how he can have such a thing. Kant used the term "intellectual intuition" to characterize how God knows the world (supposing he does): he knows it by creating it. Fichte follows Kant in this: the I knows itself in its act of self-positing, and in its act of self-positing knows itself. Schelling explicitly does *not* mean this: his "intellectual intuition" is not creating the world, for the world is already there before Schelling's Naturphilosophie. Fichte's intellectual intuition of the I was used to work out the Wissenschaftslehre, and it appears that this is the usage Schelling is following: his "intellectual intuition" is the foundational principle for his Naturphilosophie. It's unclear how he can establish it, and Förster seems to be of the view that he simply can't: Schelling built on sand.

Förster opposes Schelling and Goethe on this score. Where Schelling ultimately appeals to an intellectual intuition (which is hopeless), Goethe appeals to something else: an intuitive intellectual apprehension of an idea, which Förster also refers to by the Spinozan title scientia intuitiva. Goethean scientia intuitiva is supposed to establish what Schelling could not, and what Fichte left only as an incompletable task: that the world and the mind are both structured by the mind, that nature and reason are both rational, that the purposiveness demanded by freedom is the end of the world itself.

I said some things about why I don't think the scientia intuitiva stuff works in my previous post about Förster's book, but I think the real problems show up in his examples (the film, the book, etc.). Looking at those is probably something I need to devote a post to, because this one is already feeling too dense to be read. So I stop here.

tl;dr: Kant is insufficiently systematic; Fichte is sufficiently systematic, but does not establish all that he needs; Goethe establishes limited results about colors and plants; Hegel uses Goethe's methods to establish all that Fichte had not, to supplement what Fichte had genuinely established, and in this way brings Kant's program to a successful close. Schelling was an enthusiastic blind alley.

The future of philosophy, as I see Förster presenting it: Hegel's own post-Phenomenology work is doing a better job presenting what was already contained in nuce in his Jena-period work. Where there are problems in Hegel's system, they are to be resolved by doing Hegel's job better than he managed it himself -- but Hegel has effectively established what it is that should be done. The Absolute Idea was presented in Jena; what is left to us later philosophers is the seeing of subordinate ideas, such as Goethe saw in his optical and botanical works. (Presumably philosophers can also just do something else, not directly related to the history of metaphysics that Kant is working in: Kierkegaard and Nietzsche simply wrote books which are not trying to do what German Idealism is trying to do, and their work neither contributes to nor (directly) challenges what was going on in "the twenty five years of philosophy". But I suspect that people like Russell and Heidegger would figure as mere epigones to Fichte, on Förster's view.)

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