Western Civilization: Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer

Yet frequently the world images which have been created by ideas have, like switchmen, have determined the tracks along which actions have been pushed by dynamics of interest

— Max Weber

In most classical philosophy, value was tied to existence. Is and ought went hand in hand. In the West, that gloriously superficial cultural-civilization, Reality came to be seen in terms of the objective and the empirical, Understanding in terms of the logical and the rational, and Value, in the sense of both aspiration and up-holding, in terms of the Absolute and Transcendent. For a time these conceptions were harmonized in the notion of Truth, and in Christianity. This sense of Truth gave a sense of guidance. As the West developed, this way of seeing began to break down. And it’s breaking down was of no small consequence.

Immanuel Kant and the deRealization of the European World

Renee Descartes (1596-1650) is often said to be the father of Modern Philosophy. Among other things, he introduced the Cartesian Coordinate system, the Mind-Body problem, and set the framework for the rationalist-empiricist debate. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was an 18th century philosopher who set out to resolve this divide. It was a divide concerning epistemology, or how people came to know what they did. On the one hand, there were the British empiricists, such as Locke, Berkeley and Hume, who, in the manner of Aristotle, emphasized the empirical grounds for knowledge; on the other side there were the continental rationalists, such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, who, in the manner of Plato, emphasized the rational grounds for knowledge. The debate was complicated by the fact that the nature of knowledge was tied to views of Reality, and, of course, Value. To some looking back on this, the debate might seem academic, but such a take fails to grasp the larger social dynamics and relevance of such debates. Ideas in composite are of no small consequence to how we see ourselves, and how we see ourselves is of no small influence to how we engage the world.

To resolve the issue, Kant proposed what is called Transcendental Idealism. There was some unknowable and unreachable world in itself. There were categories of the mind — such as space, time, and multiplicity — through which what we conceive and perceive is structured. And there was the manifold before us, generated by our minds, given that mysterious unknown. This view solved the debate rather nicely. We could gain some information through pure reason, as the rationalists proposed, since we could intuit some information about the structures of our mind, structures which were preconditions for knowing anything. But all practical information came through observing and making inductions about the phenomena that our mind generated. What Kant did was establish a distinction between what we perceived and know and how things are independent of what we perceive and know; while this seems like an obvious and nature distinction today, this was a revolutionary distinction for Europeans; due to it, and his other work, Kant is generally considered one of the most influential Western thinkers.

Of course, given the frame work of Western thought, Kant did more than establish this distinction; the Western psyche was not the Hindu psyche. In making this distinction, he banished the realm of thinking which connects the sacred and the mundane. In ruling out the possibility of metaphysics, Kant deRealized the European world by alienating the World for-us from the world in-iself. I was the new Copernican revolution. Man was no longer seen to behold the world, but the world as he knew it, was seen to be generated through his cognitive structure. Where with Copernicus man was shifted from the center of the Cosmos to outside, with Kant man’s perception and conception was shifted from being a grasping of Reality, to being an afterimage. For some, this meant man was left looking at shadow on the cave wall; he was now cut off from experiencing, through perception and conception, the Real, the True, and the Beautiful.

Kant, himself, did not see this severing as an existential problem. For him, the experience of Truer Reality was the providence of faith, and by his view, he just saved the possibility of faith from the Newtonian revolution and the ever creeping mechanistic materialism of the day. By cutting the world of experience from what is, he saved the realm of the unknowable; God could safely live, without his privacy invaded by prying mortal eyes.

AntiRationalism and the New Metaphysics

In established a conceptual distinction between the world we know and the world that is, Kant abolished metaphysics as a study. One could no longer, to paraphrase Plato, ascend the staircase to Truer being. The Transcendent was off limits. For many, though, this wouldn’t do.

Friedrich Jacobi (1743-1819) was on such person. He was a religious traditionalist for whom the rational faith of Kant and the Deists was not good enough. Like the later Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who rejected Hegelianism, Jacobi, rejected Kantianism; the Transcendent was something to be participated in. He considered Kant’s critique to be radically deValuing and spiritually alienating, or, as he called it, nihilistic.

Other felt the same problem, but approached it differently. For Europeans of the 19th century the believability in God was at a low. Where many of the enlightenment thinkers were deists of a sort, many of the post enlightenment thinkers were atheists, or at least, the theism of Jacobi no longer spoke to them, and Hegel’s ‘Gott ist tot,’ became a rather serious matter.

Hegel (1770-1831) was one; Author Schopenhauer (1788-1860) another. Both created new metaphysics. Hegel tried to recapturing the in-itself, the sacred immanence, and see it in the progressive unfolding of the world we experience. Truth and Reality, for Hegel, was process and progress. For Hegel and many of his followers this was reconcilable with Christianity. Much as John Henry Newman (1801-1890) saw the teachings of Catholicism as an unfolding of God’s word and, therefore, not contradicted by biblical exigesis or undermined by the reality of doctrinal disputes, Hegel could see Truth, and in that sense God, as working through the movements of the world, and not either banished or relegated from direct communion with man. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, revised the in-itself, the basic essence, and saw it as the Will imposing itself. The primal and basic, for Schopenhauer, was the will — with its dark, menacing, chthonic tones — manifesting.

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