The Legacies of Idealism


Interview by Richard Marshall.

Terry Pinkardis the Ali Shuffle of heavyweight philosophers, stinging like a bee and floating like a butterfly through the legacy of Idealism, its historical context, the distinction between transcendental and trancendent, Fichte, Schelling, his naturalistic Platonism, his influence on the Romantics, on Holderlin and Hegel, Hegel's species of idealism, the centrality of his Logic, on what Beethoven and Wagner illustrate, and on the chances for Idealism in the contemporary setting. Rumble young man, rumble...

3:AM:What made you become a philosopher?

Terry Pinkard:As a first-generation college student, I arrived at the university in a state of muddled confusion as to what it was I supposed to be doing. So I signed up for a course in symbolic logic without really any idea of what in the world I was getting into. Like many students before and since, I had somehow formed the opinion that taking logic would be really helpful, would teach you “how to think” and thus eventually become a better businessman or lawyer or cardsharp or something. In the class, the teacher discussed some of the other philosophical problems that came up in logic, so I decided the next term to take an Intro philosophy course. That really whetted my appetite, but at the time, I was also chaotically interested in all kinds of different things (too many, to be honest). I took Chinese, and by accident, got interested in the at that time newfangled Chomsky approach to linguistics, took a lot of film and literature classes, and read a lot of Marx. It was all a big jumble.

I then by accident ran into two extraordinary teachers, who happened to be in philosophy: O.K. Bouwsma and Marjorie Grene, both of whom had an enormous influence on me. There was also a lot of talk about Kant among students who weren’t even philosophy students because of the force of the personality of John Silber on campus at that time. He had become a loud critic of the leftist students and so what he talked about became talked about more widely, which meant, oddly, a wider discussion of Kant than otherwise would have been the case. Bouwsma and Grene helped me pick my way through the conceptual jumble that was only getting more and more mixed up in my thoughts: from Bouwsma, I got a version of Wittgenstein that linked up with Kierkegaard, and from Marjorie I got a feel for French phenomenology, Polanyi’s and Merleau-Ponty’s idea of implicit and background knowledge, and the importance of the philosophy of biology. It rapidly dawned on me what otherwise should had been obvious, namely, that I had developed a serious addiction to philosophy. Rather than swearing off and trying to kick the habit, I decided to up the dose. I ended up backing into German idealism front the front (Kant) and the back (French philosophy).

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3:AM:You’re a leading expert on German Idealism, Hegel and their legacies. You think the context out of which all this happened is important don’t you – the fact that that there wasn’t really a Germany when it all started, the aftermath of the Seven Year War was something that shaped the development of this movement (and earlier, the Thirty Years War and the treaty of Westphalia etc). Could you perhaps sketch out what was most salient about the situation out of which these philosophical ideas emerged.

TP:Well, there’s lots going on there, but here are some highlights. Germany after 1648 was highly fragmented, and it was a place where, although the grip of the old regime was firmly in place, the mores of the people were changing rapidly, so there was a real and obvious gap between theory and practice. The way some began to think of it, “Germany” seemed to resemble more the plurality of ancient Greek states united only by a common culture, unlike its big neighbor, France. Furthermore, one of the very few all-German institutions in fragmented and still highly localized Germany was the German professor, since the professors went to wherever the jobs were. You thus had conceptually ambitious people armed with a certain authority with some of them thinking of themselves, however vaguely, as the new Greeks in a situation in which the gap between subjective life and social rules was deeply felt. That was a combustible mixture. Once you stirred the Scottish Enlightenment into the mix, as Kant did, the octane level of the coming conceptual explosion got raised even higher. Likewise, for those growing up in Württemberg, with its leanings toward France, the Kantian philosophy’s obvious debt to Rousseau was a plus. The arrival of the young Goethe on the scene with the Sorrows of Young Wertherwas a sign to those younger Germans that the times, they were indeed changing. The mixture created by all of these things managed to form an ignitable background for philosophy, especially Kant’s, to take the lead. With the French Revolution in 1789, the combustible mixture in German intellectual life exploded. Those things coming together set the stage for a certain discovery, as we could call it, of spontaneity and self-determination. And here we are, still living in that backwash.

3:AM:Self-determination, freedom and humanity’s relationship with nature and a certain sense of the revolutionary potential of transformation are familiars of the movement – and it perhaps stemmed from Kant. Can you outline what you take to be the important ideas of Kant that fed into the German Idealists. One of the important issues is to get to grips with what is meant by Idealism in this context isn’t it, and getting to grips with the difference between transcendent and transcendental?

TP: Fully explaining the “transcendental” versus “transcendent” distinction? Even 3AM doesn’t have enough gigabytes to cover that adequately. Anyway, here’s a pass at it. Kant’s idea of a “transcendental” philosophy involved a new approach to metaphysics as done “within” the human point of view but which was not thereby empiricist. What excited the younger idealists was in part Kant’s claim to have shown that traditional metaphysics was bankrupt – so there’s no possible transcendent knowledge of things in themselves – but that there was still a possibility of doing metaphysics anew. The attraction to a move to a metaphysics “within” or “immanent” to experience surfaces in similar ways in Husserlian phenomenology, early Heideggerian phenomenology, French phenomenology of the 50’s and 60’s, and in ordinary language philosophy (among others). Kant was content to say that the metaphysics “from within” experience was idealism, since it rested on the way we made sense of things and not on any claim to have knowledge of things as they were apart from our making sense of them. This was an idealism one big step removed from the older conception that only the “idealities” (for example, the forms) were ultimately real or from the idealism that held that to be is to be perceived.

However, crucially for the younger idealists, there was Kant’s teaser in the third Critiquethat in the experience of natural beauty, we have the “indeterminate concept” of the supersensible substrate which is itself neither nature nor freedom but linked to the ground of freedom. For all the clandestine readers of Spinoza (Hölderlin, Schelling, Hegel), that rang all the bells. The unity of nature and freedom might be… Spinoza’s substance adequately transformed? The world trying to make sense of itself? It also dawned on the young idealists that the orthodox Kantian way of drawing a hard and fast line between appearances and things in themselves looked like it was claiming to be thinking about what cannot be thought. In addition to that worry, there was also Jacobi’s nagging anxiety that, yes, reason can analytically and critically destroy traditional structures, but it cannot build anything up to take their place, and what the no-holds-barred critique of reason will thus leave behind will only be nihilism. Kant’s three Critiqueswere a powerful rejoinder to Jacobi by supplying the detailed architecture of what a world built on reason would look like, and the French revolution had made it seem all the more crucial to get all the freedom stuff right. But if the cracks in the Kantian project were starting to become obvious, then Jacobi’s anxieties had to be addressed and Kant’s idealism had to be rethought. There was a rough sense among the younger idealists that the stakes were really high.

Some of those things finally led Hegel– or least so I think – to hold fast to the aim of doing a metaphysics within experience but that wasn’t “transcendental,” not aimed at providing the “conditions of the possibility” of experience for all times. For Hegel, our concepts themselves develop historically and logically, and a basic concept that might at first have been adopted for very external reasons can become central to the intelligibility of the whole world. Hegel transformed Kant’s idea of some concepts forming the presupposed background of all thought and action into a related but different idea of concepts developing in light of many different concerns but with some of them eventually taking their place as central. As Hegel himself explicitly said, he was interested in a critique of such concepts that did not look at them in terms of the a priori/a posteriori division but just in terms of their content. A. W. Moore has recently (The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics) distinguished between making sense of things (for example, metaphysics) and making sense of making sense (logic). Hegel came to think that both of those had to be part of one program, and he came up with one of the more ingenious ways of putting them together. We could have a retrospective logic of how such and such concepts came to be central ones in making sense of things and of making sense of making sense.

3:AM:The University of Jena was where post-Kantian idealism was kept alive – first by Reinhold but more significantly by J.G..Fichte. He took transcendental idealism through the prism of ‘spontaneity’ which he linked up with self-consciousness didn’t he? Can you tell us something of how Fichte developed Kant – or his reading of Kant – and what was significant for idealism in what he did?

TP:Fichte’s early philosophy went through two or three different stages, but here I’ll run them all together. Fichte in effect claimed that for the “transcendental logic” Kant spoke of having, we only needed the more general concepts – to put to use some Kantian terms given au courantlife by John McDowell – of spontaneity and receptivity, and once we understood that spontaneity included within its own self-conception the very idea of receptivity – since otherwise (to continue the McDowellian run) it would be spinning in the void – then we had the elements of a form of transcendental idealism. All that we could possibly mean by “things in themselves” was our own receptivity. So Fichte said: Let’s just start with self-knowledge, spontaneity, the “I think,” and see what kinds of limits it necessarily has to set for itself if it is not to be spinning in the void. Away with the false restraint of a prioriintuitions of time and space as limits to thought outside of thought. That meant it always looked like Fichte was claiming that the “I” creates all the objects, which was not what he meant.

In many ways, Fichte is very Brandomian (or maybe it’s vice versa): The distinction between the normative and the non-normative is itself normative, agents have to recognize each other to get the show going, and there is ultimately a non-normative input from the world which has to be integrated into our sense-making machinery. This is Fichte’s idealism: Those folks in the neuroscience lab can tell you how your brain is processing color, but when one of them glibly says she’s reduced sensation to brain-states, it’s the philosopher who will tell you whether she is making sense. She may know what there is to know about neurons, but the philosopher knows about making sense.

Fichte offered up a new model: In the chaotic, post-revolutionary modern world, it was the philosophy professor who was in the position to tell you whether you could make sense of this or that (whether it was material objects, God or the moral law). We humans are the ultimate sense-makers and what makes sense depends on the laws that our own spontaneity, compelled by its own nature, lays down for itself. This was indeed a more radicalized conception of transcendental idealism, of doing philosophy from “within” the human standpoint. All that was required to get this going was the thought of ourselves, and the philosopher was the fellow who ultimately has the authority to rule on what counted in all the domains of making sense. (This led Kant to denounce Fichte as claiming that you could derive content from the formal rules of logic. That wasn’t fair to Fichte, but you can see why Kant would have thought that.)

Romanticism and romantic irony came out of Fichte’s philosophy, which is itself terribly ironic, since Fichte was one of the least ironic people you run into in philosophy – he took himself and his work really, really, really seriously. According to Ziolkowski, when Fichte was the Rector of the Berlin university, he would sign off on edicts by saying “It is not I as an individual who says and wills this, but the Idea, which speaks and acts through me.” (If you were the head of your department, wouldn’t it be nice to sign all the departmental directives with Fichte’s phrase? It’s catchy, you have to admit.) Yet the young students sitting in his lectures in the 1790’s created out of Fichte’s picture of the self-determining “I” the idea of self-distancing romantic irony – and therefore “romanticism” itself, a term coined by Schlegel after hearing Fichte around 1795 in Jena.

3:AM:Schelling followed Fichte at Jena and started off agreeing with him but then became critical. For Fichte everything was either a subject or an object, but Schelling was after a third alternative. Is that right?

TP:Yes, that’s certainly right. To get it, you have to understand how experimental (in a romantic sense) Schelling was as a philosopher. He was always willing to try out an idea that might at first seem off the wall and see how far he could run with it. Schelling himself was a phenomenon. From an early age, he had learned that whenever he walked into a room, he was almost always the smartest and the most charming person there. That served him both well and badly. He entered the seminary at 15 and was Fichte’s successor in Jena at 23. As is well known, he, Hegel and Hölderlin roomed together for three years in Tübingen (the greatest college roommate lineup in history) and it’s a bit of an exaggeration but not over the top to say that together they hatched their plans for idealism while they were roommates.

Schelling’s big breakthrough was to link Kant’s third Critiqueteaser about the unity of nature and freedom with Fichte’s idealism. He did this with several hypotheses. First, he took Fichte to have said, in effect, that the options in philosophy were with either with dogmatists (what we’d likely label “naturalists” nowadays) or idealists (the idea that is “us” who are setting the limits of what makes sense). So on Fichte’s view, we have the choice of a view of the world as composed of objects (atoms and the void), or a view that has within it objects and subjects (creatures aware of themselves non-inferentially and non-observationally). But what if there were a third way, something that was neither object nor subject but the ground of both? What if it were something like Spinoza’s substance that was (somehow) aware of itself? His second hypothesis was to note that if we didn’t buy the “appearance/thing in itself” duality of Kantian philosophy, then, if we were to keep Kantian freedom intact and naturalize it, we needed a more capacious conception of nature than the mechanistic conception that everybody seemed to accept.

He first put both of these together by claiming that we therefore needed a two-track conception of philosophy. On one track, we start with the idea of nature that the natural sciences have bequeathed to us (circa 1795) and show how nature develops in such a way that the kinds of self-knowing agents we are have a place in it. On the other track, we start with our self-knowledge and show how a conception of nature develops out of such self-knowledge as a condition of its possibility. How do we bring the two tracks together? Via an “intellectual intuition.” It’s kind of like Sellars’ idea that we bring the scientific view and the manifest view together in “stereoscopic vision.” With Sellars, that seems to be pure metaphor (and it’s never been entirely clear how to unpack it), but Schelling said, no, that’s the way it is, and the “intellectual intuition” that does this comes via the work of art (instead of just the experience of natural beauty, as Kant suggested). But who is performing the “intellectual intuition”? Schelling’s other hypothesis: Well, it’s not just us, since that would make the conditions of making sense of making sense relative to the layout of human beings, but the ultimate logic of things isn’t relative just to our particular makeup. It must be the whole of nature itself trying, via us, to come to some understanding of itself. The teleology of the whole universe is aiming at a comprehension of itself, and we are where the lights go on and the show comes on stage. You had to have Schelling’s enormous self-confidence to make these leaps. You also had to have his self-confidence to keep at it when so many people professed that they didn’t understand what it was even supposed to mean to say that in our self-knowledge we are intuiting the absolute working through us. To be honest, it never has been clear.

3:AM:Conventional thinking has it that naturalism and Platonism are opposed but you read Schelling as being both an idealist naturalist and a Platonist. How did he manage this? Is the Platonism something that emerges from his transforming Spinoza’s idea of nature into an act of becoming?

TP:As with all things Schellingian, his naturalistic Platonism is rather offbeat. (Whether it’s really very helpful to continue to call this a “naturalism” is a different issue.) People like Thomas Nagel look at nature, mind and moral value and conclude that nature (as described by the sciences in their current state) has no place for mind or value, so there has to be some way of working purposiveness and mind-emergence into the scientific account that does not erase mind and value. Schelling too thought nature had to have a place for mind and value, but he thought that the sciences were never going to be in the position of doing what Nagel hopes they can eventually do. On surveying the sciences of his time, Schelling was struck by the large gaps he thought existed between mechanics, the physics of heat, light, magnetism and electricity, chemical reactions, life, and self-conscious life. You couldn’t get from one to the other, yet since nature was a unity, there had to be some way to move from physics to self-consciousness.

He came up with two other big hypotheses. First, the universe exhibited a kind of inner purpose that Kant ascribed to organisms. If the universe were indeed purposive (moving in a direction to produce inquiring, self-conscious creatures), then since there was no place for this in the sciences, the basic purposive forces of the universe had to be themselves idealities, “ideas” that were not the presuppositions of the empirical sciences but the best explanation for how nature, as disclosed by the sciences, all fits together. These idealities are not outside of nature, they are part of nature. (It was the idea of a “supernatural” explanation that Schelling was rejecting.) His second hypothesis was that these idealities are sort of like Plato’s forms, and the way the forms flow into each other creates the progression from mechanics to physics to chemistry to life to self-consciousness. The relation between the idealities and empirical reality is that they were originally the same but then divided off against each other. Roughly, his account went like this. From an original bundle of pure energy – he called it “the infinite” and with a little tongue in cheek, we could call it the “singularity” – it had to be the case that the original unity split itself in two and then developed in such a way to seek to restore the lost unity, thereby creating a balance between the two opposites (he called it an “indifference point”), and that balance turns out to be a new shape. In the beginning, the universe as an original unity explodes in heat and combustion, creating the difference between the idealities and matter, but that balance proves to be unstable, and the process goes on to chemical affinities, life and then finally us. The world propels itself developmentally by each new balance proving to be unstable, and the end of the series is the “absolute” coming to grasp itself as being the end result of the universe propelling itself to comprehend itself..

For whatever it was worth, Schelling provided the early Romantics with an initial blueprint for how to think of nature and the self. Schelling also thought that since we comprehended all this in an “intuition” – a form of “seeing” – the man or woman of the hour had to be the artist, not the philosopher. Both Schlegel and later Shelley were speaking Schellingese when they proclaimed that the poets were the unacknowledged legislators of mankind (although Schlegel put it a bit differently). It’s not far off to read (a bit anachronistically) a poem like “Tintern Abbey” as something like Schelling set to music. To invoke the famous distinction made by another German-speaking philosopher, ultimately there were things that could be shown but not said, and for Schelling, it was the artists who did the real showing.
There’s something a bit wild and wacky about Schelling, but there’s also something engaging about his process, if not his results. The historian of science, Robert Richards, even credits him for paving the way for Darwin. Schelling never seemed to lose his early self-confidence. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him at any point that maybe, just maybe, he had bitten off more than he could chew or that producing a unified metaphysical theory of physics, chemistry, biology and psychology in his 20’s was perhaps an overreach. He remained a Romantic for all of his life, looking for the non-standard ways of re-enchanting the world against what he thought was its modern soullessness. It’s no wonder he has come to be a kind of hero for a certain type of post-modernist thinker. Žižek’s idea of there being “holes” in being is a kind of updated punk rock version of Schelling.


3:AM:His was friends with Hegel and Holderlin wasn’t he? Was Hegel sympathetic to Schelling’s approach? I guess the idea of process is something he would have liked? Was this incredible friendship group one where they bounced ideas off each other or did they see themselves as rivals trying to outdo each other?

TP:They were all friends and very close at first. From 1790 to a little after 1800, they were more than just bouncing ideas off each other. They were intensely engaged in a common project that began in their student days in Tübingen. Hölderlin got Hegel to come to Frankfurt in 1797, and from all the evidence we have, it was pretty much Hegel, Hölderlin and a few others who spent every free moment arguing philosophy, going to concerts, and drinking a lot of very good wine. Hegel has a passage in his lectures on aesthetics where he speaks of young men who originally take all for one and one for all, but as they grow up, they split off and have to proceed on to their own careers and how painful this can be. It’s hard not to read that passage as autobiographical.

By 1800, Hölderlin was on the downward path of several mental breakdowns leading to the final debilitating one. Schelling had become the quintessential roommate who rose to stardom immediately after graduation (while the rest of us were still trying to figure out what we wanted to do and how we were going to pay for it). Hegel had been the lesser achiever of the three amigos, but now, especially after his father’s death in 1799, he realized he had to get his act together. While he lived in Frankfurt Hegel more or less lost touch with Schelling, but in 1800 he finagled Schelling into inviting him to Jena where Schelling was now a famous professor. The two began editing a journal together, but which in effect amounted to carrying on Schelling’s project with Hegel as a kind of sidekick water-boy. Hegel bristled more than a little under those circumstances, and Schelling didn’t seem to notice that he was treating his friend as merely a subordinate character in his own drama. (Was Schelling a bit self-absorbed? Well, a bit…) When Schelling left in a huff in 1803 for Würzburg, he left Hegel high and dry. They no longer had a common journal to edit, and Hegel had to find his own way. (He had no real paying job at that point, having to lecture at an emolument that rivals the most exploited adjuncts in some places today.) When in the Phenomenology, Hegel characterized what was clearly Schelling’s philosophy of intellectual intuition as the “night in which all cows are black,” Schelling had trouble forgiving Hegel for what Schelling seemed to think was a lack of gratitude and maybe insubordination, and after Hegel’s rise to fame he complained to anyone who would listen that Hegel had stolen all of his ideas from him.

They met again by accident at a spa in 1829. In his letters to his wife, Schelling complained about having to deal with Hegel again, whereas Hegel wrote to his wife about how great it was to see Schelling again, how it was just like the old days and all that. At a royal dinner in Berlin in 1830, Hegel even went into a little reverie about his old days in Frankfurt with Hölderlin. After Hegel’s death, Schelling later befriended Hegel’s son when he noticed him attending his lectures, staging his reconciliation through the son. It was clear that there had been a pretty intense time of philosophical togetherness, but that had long since faded. From their recollections of the period, we can also surmise that they all also regretted it having fallen apart.

3:AM:You say Hegel is much more Kantian and Fichtean than Schellingian don’t you? So what are the main components of Hegelian idealism?

TP:There is a long history of reading Schellingian ideas into Hegel’s philosophy, and that's understandable. For one reason, Hegel started in Jena in 1801 as a Schellingian. Second, when you start wondering what Hegel means by “Geist” and all that, the Schellingian answer seems like the easy one. Geist is something like God, God is coming to some kind of self-awareness of Himself through us, and history, even the whole cosmos is the process of this coming to be. Schelling thought it all happened through indifference points tipping over, Hegel thought it was via dialectic. That’s easy to state and teach, even if it is knotty as to what it might possibly mean.

Hegel says in several places that animals are idealists because they don’t take things to be mere appearances of some hidden underlying reality. Instead, they just jump on them and eat them. That’s pretty much an indication that Hegel didn’t mean by “idealism” something like the view that all reality is ultimately mental. Here’s a kind of sloganistic way to think of Hegel’s idealism: It’s the old Aristotelian idea that there is nothing that is not intelligible by thought, or, to use Hegel’s animal metaphor, that there is nothing that can resist the ends set by thought to comprehend it. (In the sciences, when we find something incomprehensible, we pounce on it and seek to think it through and explain it.) Once we have made sense of things and made sense of making sense, there’s no residue left over, nothing about which we then say: Yes, that’s right, but it’s impossible to make any sense of it. That is very different from what Hegel dismissed as “subjective idealism” which either held that worldly things were constructed by us or that we had to content ourselves with second-best, knowledge only about how “we” feeble human beings on the planet earth have to comprehend things but not of how they really are (as if, say, physics was species dependent).

Like Fichte, Hegel rejects the way Kant draws the concept/intuition distinction, but he thought Fichte’s way of reordering that only amounted to another form of subjective idealism. From Schelling, he got the idea that we had to move beyond the standoff between subjective idealism and naturalism, but he thought Schelling’s basic ideas about the “intellectual intuition” of nature’s idealities was a non-starter. Furthermore, we couldn’t simply naively go back to Aristotle. Kant has blocked that, and so Hegel says in the Phenomenology, everything hangs on seeing the true not merely as substance (i.e., the longstanding consequences of Aristotelian metaphysics) but also equally as subject (i.e., Kantian philosophy). Hegel’s idealism is the faith that reason does not run out so that something else (revelation, whatever) has to take its place. That’s why he continually says that the “infinite” is only available to thought. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the basic idea.

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3:AM:Hegel’s Logicis you say central to his system. Its complicated, and there were three distinct logics within itself, but can you say what Hegel was doing with this, and why it’s crucial for his system?

TP:In many ways, it’s in the Logicthat Hegel thinks he has given the basic account of how the true must conceived not only as substance but equally as subject.

But briefly summing up Hegel’s Logic, which has brought legions of people who have tried to read it to grief? That’s more than really hard, not only because are there so many different things going on in that book, but because there is the unfortunate situation that, to put it as bloodlessly as possible, it’s just not the most accessibly written book in the canon. It has what may be the ultimate “user-unfriendly” interface. Anyway, here’s a stab at a quick answer. The Logicis a kind of “account of all accounts,” a descendent of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre. It starts out from the ground zero of intelligibility, with a kind of “Well, I do know that being is different from nothing,” at which point it turns out that this little banality is philosophically more fraught than one would at first think, and out of the difficulties attending that assertion, you have three big sections of the Logic: Being, Essence, and Concept. In each of them, we have a different way of accounting for things. The first two comprise the basic findings of traditional metaphysics. In “Being,” we speak of the ways we account for individuals by pointing them out (“That one, not that one”), classifying them (“It’s a blue one.”), generalizing them (“Sea turtles live about 50 years”), or counting them (“There’s four of them, sir” or “The set of all even numbers is infinite.”). Such accounts differ from those that explain something in terms of some background condition which is not immediately apparent to observation (“The tie looked green in the shop but looks blue in the daylight” or “The weak nuclear force causes some elements to decay”), and accounts like that ultimately leads you to the in’s and out’s of the modalities. That’s the “Essence” book.

The first two make sense (in the broadest possible way) of things (in the broadest possible sense) and thus, as Hegel says, take the place of traditional metaphysics. The third book, “Concept,” is where we try to make sense of making sense, as when we say, “Your conclusion did not follow from your premises,” or “What you say makes no sense within the standards of contemporary physics.” It introduces a “better and worse” element into discourse. There are bad arguments, good theories, clumsy artifacts, and so on. A “subject” is the kind of creature who can move around in the inferential conceptual spaces made up by those three logics, so that a “subject” can do things better or worse or even fail at them. As moving around in normative space, “subjects” have to have the capacity for self-reflection. But as he says, this Logic only gives us the “possibility” of subjectivity. How that gets fleshed out, what the reality of subjectivity is, depends on how we further work out that we are living, breathing self-conscious animals engaged in social practices of mutual recognition, subjects whose rationality, to appropriate a distinction made by Matthew Boyle in another context, is not some additive feature merely grafted onto an animal but a feature that transforms that animal from “animal” into “rational animal” (from “substance” into “subject”). (Boyle calls that a “transformative” view.) The Logic culminates in thinking about what is implied by the view of a rational animal moving in an inferential space. The rest of the system after the Logic fleshes out how those rational animals pursue more concrete aims, both individually and collectively.

Now, of course, Hegel doesn’t present his Logic in the casual way I’ve just given. For him, each of the separate sections in each book breaks down on its own terms – it ends up contradicting itself – and the end of each section is supposed to generate the next one. “Being” and “Essence” together are supposed to be the condensation of all the fundamental moves you can make in explaining things and to show why those traditional conceptions fail meet the internal standard of consistency or beg some questions, all of which necessitate a move to “Concept” (making sense of making sense). The big claim to emerge from it is that subjectivity and objectivity have to be phrased in terms of different accounts of what they are but that we are also not dealing with a dualism.


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3:AM:What vision of humankind was the legacy of Hegelian idealism – or of the combined German Idealism of the time? Can we really be Hegelian– or Idealist in the German tradition - without any appeal to theological metaphysics? Some contemporaries say we can but someone like Frederick Beisersays no, that to do so distorts. Where do you stand on this?

TP:The combined idealism of the movement is a picture of human agents interacting on a free and equal basis – from Kant’s kingdom of ends to Hegel’s “all are free” shorthand for the sense of history. This sounds a bit like either puffery or a platitude until you start to work out what it would mean in concrete life. In Hegel’s case, you have a picture of us as self-conscious animals in the “transformative” sense, who are also always a problem to ourselves. We’re finite creatures faced with an infinite problem, that of how to make sense of ourselves, all the more problematic since all our reasoning capacities are fairly well socially indexed and bounded on all sides. Resolving the issues that come up in that picture implicates us in patterns of mutual recognition and deep struggles about who has the authority to enforce the standards. Likewise, on Hegel’s view, our history is a mostly chaotic, violent series of events that has always involved a basic human hope and, sometimes, demand for justice. That’s because in the course of history, we keep finding that the basic commitments we have collectively undertaken – our “shapes of life” – have ended up placing unlivable burdens on us because of their own internal irrationalities, and that is a great part of what has led to their breakdown. In those cases of meaning breakdown, where the old order not only is ceasing to make sense but faith in the idea that it could be patched back together is also fading out, things fall apart.

In those situations, people collectively pick up the pieces, keep what works and discard what does not, and fashion a new shape of life. From out of all those breakdowns, Hegel argued, we have in modern times come to the realization at least in theory that nobody by nature has the authority to rule over others, that “all are free.” Justice conceived as the normatively correct natural order begins to be replaced by justice as an order actualizing people’s freedom. This didn’t mean that the older hierarchies were all going to go poof and vanish. It meant that nobody could any longer defend any of these older, so-called natural hierarchies. This has, as Hegel realized, explosive consequences, including some he himself resisted, such as the breakdown of the older view that men by nature have authority over women. (It’s not to say that men aren’t still lording it over women – look at the representation of women in philosophy, for example – but that nobody in his or her right mind thinks anyone could now produce an argument that justifies that.) Furthermore, this “all are free” order can be real only under the conditions whereby we practically and institutionally acknowledge the deep metaphysical dependence of our own agency on our sociality. This is the “I can be free only if others are free” condition of modern life, which is continually being strained by the way in which such a view creates a kind of individual who has powerful motives to think he is not so dependent on others.

Hegelwas obviously overly optimistic about how the right argument would win the day, and he certainly didn’t accurately assess the looming poisonous force of nationalism, crazy views of ethnicity and the other madhouse stuff that led to twentieth century’s moral catastrophes. But that’s the vision, as you put it.

So can you hold these Hegelian views without a theological base for them? Beiser seems to think Hegel meant more or less what Schelling meant and that the only deep difference between Schellingand Hegel has to do with indifference points versus dialectic. That is a big issue, and it’s all a matter of which interpretation stands up philosophically. But if we just keep pointing to the texts and saying no, no, no, that’s not the real Hegel, then all we end up doing in the history of philosophy is reading the texts back to each other. In doing the history of philosophy, you have to take a stand philosophically on how the thoughts fit together and not just summarize what the author happened to say fit together. If you can put together an interpretation that isn’t so overtly Schellingian-Theological and that stays true to the texts, why not? It may well be that Hegel himself (or even Kant) thought you could get away with this only if there were a properly functioning Protestant church at work in people’s lives, but that’s just one more argument in the corpus to be assessed, not a basic normative fact on which you must swear your creed to be a Hegelian.

So where do I stand on the outlook for Hegelianism? I think that a properly reinterpreted Hegelianism is as much an option as is a properly interpreted Kantianismor a properly interpreted Aristotelianism (among others). Moreover, Hegelian themes are popping up all around us in areas removed from the arcana of Hegel scholarship. Think of the “Pittsburgh Hegelians,” or of Robert Pippin’s work on modernism or philosophy of action, or Axel Honneth’s neo-Hegelian Freedom’s Right, just to mention a few places where Hegel’s ideas are resurfacing and reasserting themselves. There’s lots to be done there.

3:AM:When discussing the aftermath of German Idealism you use Beethoven and Wagner to illustrate some of the important features of that aftermath. So can you say firstly what you think Beethoven illustrates?

TP:Talking about Beethoven and Hegel here is really hard without sounding terribly pompous. Even worse: I’m competing with Adornoon the topic, and he had a fair amount to say already. But, to start: First of all, we don’t know what Hegel himself thought of Beethoven. We know his family had a piano, there was Beethoven sheet music in the house, and there was the presence of A. B. Marx in Berlin celebrating Beethoven. We know that Hegel’s friend, Zelter, pooh-poohed Beethoven, and that might have influenced Hegel to make a negative judgment against Beethoven. But Hegel never addresses his great contemporary who shared his birth year (1770). Still, like Adorno, I see affinities. Hegel thought music, like all art, was a way in which we collectively and individually try to make sense of what it is to be a minded creature.

Music was, as he explicitly put it, a way in which we experience our being in time. In some of his lectures, Hegel also says that the use of harmony in (Western) music is the key to why music has the kind of elemental power of emotional expressiveness that it does. Sort of like us, the musical piece materializes out of nowhere, and, expressing our own being in time, it harmonically moves in some directions rather than others as it faces forking alternatives, it builds up a thickness behind itself, and, unlike us but as we sometimes would like to be, heads for an end that resolves its harmonic dissonances. In a couple of places, he speaks of how great pieces of music run up to the limits of harmony and then pull back, so that we are hearing in them, as it were, the struggle of freedom and necessity. Now, that’s very “Beethoven,” or at least the Beethoven about whom musical commentators like Rosen, Burnham, Kinderman and Solomon have spoken. In many of his works, Beethoven effectively combined a kind of classicism about order with a spontaneity and explosions of chaos – out of order it suddenly sounds as if everything is falling apart only to be pulled back completely again into order. Beethoven combines a kind of substantial, intelligible order that suddenly falls apart on its own terms and then puts itself back together, embodying agency’s temporality. Doesn’t that sound a bit like a metaphorical description of the path of the Phenomenology, which as Hegel says, might at first seem like a path of despair? (There’s also a bit of a disanalogy. I think we can update Hegel. But can we really update Beethoven?) There is a suggestion that just as that just as we can’t write “Beethoven music” any more, we perhaps have trouble being the agents that Kant or Hegel thought we were. Maybe we don’t have the sense that we can stage the kind of reconciliation in thought that Beethoven staged in music. There’s too much disunity in our lives, or maybe there’s too much of a sense of despair over the connections we see between, say, the effects of climate change and an affluent life-style and our seeming inability in the face of global capitalism and its allure of vast wealth to do anything about it. In Beethoven, we “hear” what it would be like to know where to go. Adorno said that Beethoven never goes out of style because reality hasn’t caught up with him. Maybe the same is true of the German idealists?

3:AM:Wagner – and particularly the star hero Siegfried – gives us a different impulse doesn’t he? Here you see a proto-Nazism rising up don’t you?

TP:When I wrote those few sentences about Wagner and German idealism, I was still very much under the influence of Bernard Williams’ interpretation of the Ring and its dangers. Schacht’s and Kitcher’sbook on the Ring changed my mind on a lot of aspects of Wagner. While I was living in Chicago and Berlin, I also got a chance to hear Barenboim with two different orchestras performing Wagner’s operas, and that too changed the way I thought about Wagner. I do not think that in Wagner we are hearing proto-Nazism, but we are hearing something that does have its own dangers.

Here, again, it’s next to impossible to say anything briefly on this topic without sounding even worse than pompous and gassy. But here goes. Make a contrast: first, what Kant says in the beginning of the Groundworkabout how the good will would, even it accomplished nothing, shine as if by a light of its own; second, Schopenhauer’s accusation that individuation was a painful illusion, something which at one point Wagner seems to have somewhat accepted. In Tristan, however, Wagner seemed to be saying, no, we do shine as if by our own light but only when we are recognized by another in a very specific way: Love. And, yes, the light does go out, but it shines as long as the lovers keep it alight, and when it is gone, individuation vanishes, and we pass over into the “one.” We go through that each time we hear Tristan. In the Ring, there is also the theme of recognition of a sort and, of course, as Schacht and Kitcher argue, Brünnhilde turns out to be the heroine, to bring about the real end which was being sought all along.

Williams worried that the celebration of the death of the least self-conscious of all of Wagner’s heroes (Siegfried) was in effect Wagner’s way of proposing some kind of order that is beyond the messiness of politics and which is thus only a couple of steps away from demanding a leader who will be beyond politics. I think that is still there in Wagner, but it’s balanced by other concerns. Wotan’s order is that of contract, but contracts require enforcement, whereas love doesn’t. The purely contractual world is a cold, even commercial order of things, which Brünnhilde brings it to an end in the name of her love for Siegfried. Just as Aristotle said only a beast or a god could live outside the city, only the gods could live by contract alone. Brünnhilde brings Valhalla down and does so in order to initiate a new and more human order of things. In Wagner, the theme of recognition and what it can and cannot do takes center stage, as it does in much of Hegel’s writing. But we hear the struggle between freedom and necessity in a different way than we do in the classical style. Wagner can’t decide if he wants to endorse an order based only on love (and not therefore political) or if he is hoping for a new, more enchanted world. In a way, he’s straddling Schelling’s romanticism, Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Kant’s ethics, and Hegel’s idea of mutual recognition. The music gives us no reconciliation of those alternatives, nor could it. Wagner leaves the harmonies in tension, so they keep inviting new interpretations. Wagner’s tension laden harmonies with their astonishing reconciliations are a sort of musical idea that has a loose kinship with those defenders of Hegel who hold that nonetheless Hegel spoke too hastily in declaring his philosophy to have achieved a real reconciliation.

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3:AM:Do you take German Idealism to have died out when revolutionary potential failed to ignite in the nineteenth century – or was Hitler actually a legitimate (and deadly) consummation of one of the implications of German Idealism? I recently went to the Anselm Keifer exhibition and it seems he thinks the latter.

RP:I don’t think German idealism died out. It just got set aside and left to rust. After Schelling’s failure to light a fire in Berlin in the 1840’s, there was a new generation, and it was not looking in particular for an update on the French Revolution. Instead, the new ethos of industrialism and the new industries being created by German science stepped into the forefront of things. Especially after the failures of 1848, the new watchwords were materialism and pessimism. For a while, idealism was taken to be the possible teleological supplement to Darwinism, but when that hope for it faded, it just got set aside as a historical curiosity. Since then, it’s rematerialized again only to be killed off, then rematerialized again only once more to be killed off, and then rematerialized again. In the USA, since the first world war, it led more or less a closeted existence until the late 80’s and mid-90’s, and in 1994, as it were, it came out and declared itself for what it was, and it has been a public presence since then.

German idealism also got caught up in the argument about how much of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany were due to German culture. For a long time, the historical account seemed to focus on how German culture somehow prepared the way for the third Reich and the holocaust. Recently, historians have been taking a slightly different point of view, showing how the madhouse of Nazi ideology came from a mishmash of sources, some of them German, some not (for example, the American cleansing of the continent of the Native Americans for colonization by Europeans, French racial theories, and the techniques used by European colonialists). We have now moved beyond the time when pre-Nazi German “culture” served as the explanatory be-all. Of course, the enormity of the crimes makes even slight complicity in them good grounds for condemnation, but I don’t think that the idealists were all that complicit. It takes a lot of distortion to move from the kingdom of ends or “all are free” to Nazism, but philosophical reasoning was never really the strong point for the Nazis. Even so, this doesn’t get the idealists completely off the hook. Kant and Hegel both bought into the bogus ideas of “race” being proposed in their own times, and even though they were not alone, they still did accept some of the disturbing ideas around that. (Even Hume, the most enlightened and open of men, had terrible things to say on that matter.) There’s no way to get them and almost all the modern philosophers off the hook for that. Some post-modernists have said that the Hegelian concern for “totality” is itself really just a recipe for “totalitarianism.” I happen to think that’s completely bogus. Had we but world enough and time, we could go into that more, but we don’t.

3:AM:The latter half of the nineteenth century found German philosophy concerned with different matters – materialism, historicism, pessimism, the identity crisis of philosophy and the limits of knowledge (based on the mind matter problem). Yet today there’s a resurgent interest in Hegel – perhaps due to the emergence of pragmatism – is this interest surprising to you and what does this renewed interest tel us about the state of philosophy today – and of perhaps the state of the world. I’m thinking that across the globe there are movements appearing asking for self determination and revolution of various kinds and maybe a politics of autonomy of the kind the German Idealists were developing seem relevant again.

TP:We’re coming into a different state of materialism and pessimism right now. Philosophical topics about agency, animals, thinking machines, the hard problem of consciousness, and the ethics of just about everything look like they are up for grabs. We are living in a philosophical age, and it is not exactly clear if professionalized philosophy is up to the challenge. It’s maybe no wonder that people are looking back to modern philosophy’s heroic period, when Kant, Reinhold, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel et al. took on modern life in all its complexity and tried to fit it all together in a fully rigorous fashion. After all, Kant said that in the darkness of pure reason, it’s philosophy that gives us orientation, and that’s what people by and large seek from it. In large parts of the world outside of the USA and Europe, big chunks of everyday life are lived out in terms of philosophical questions such as “What would it mean for me to be leading my own life,” or even “What is it to be modern? Do I have to stop being me to be modern?” When people ask those questions, it’s not long thereafter that they start turning to the idealists to see what they had to say. The idealists believed that we had to look at things in a big holistic way, to ask our questions in terms of what Heidegger later called the “meaning of being.” We are always orienting ourselves in terms of the “whole,” even if much of it necessarily has to remain the background and defies full explicitation.

John McCumber joked that maybe Hegel was the great tyrannosaur who was too big for his environment and thus went extinct, so that all we have are his better adapted descendants: Birds. We’ve got no Hegel – only his reconstructed skeleton – but we’ve got lots of smaller and more nimble occupants of the different places in the dialectic. Maybe idealism is still chirping at us although no longer roaring in its old way. Or maybe it could shed a few pounds and be back in business again.

3:AM:And are there five book you could recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?

TP:Only five?

First on the list would be Robert Pippin’s work. I could fill up the five books question with books by him alone. Faced with that, I’ll just fudge the whole matter and treat three of his most recent books as if they were one, since they well could be. They are all very short and taken together would be shorter than many of his other books – call them the “Pippin Film and Painting Trilogy.” They would be Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy(Yale, 2010); Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy(University of Virginia press, 2012); and After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism(Chicago, 2013). The trilogy is a great response to your question about the relevance of idealism to contemporary issues.; Christopher Yeomans, The expansion of autonomy: Hegel’s pluralistic philosophy of action(Oxford, 2015). Hegel meets contemporary action-theory head on – a close reading that also has new things to say about action; Eckart Förster, The Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy: A Systematic Reconstruction(Harvard, 2013) Just when you thought that everything that might be said about the move from Kant to Hegel had been said, Förster found new things to say;
Robert Brandom, A Spirit of Trust: A Semantic Reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Brandom is a force in his own right in contemporary philosophy, but he keeps insisting that his work is just carrying forward Hegel’s philosophy. If you’re curious, my own worries about the part of the book dealing with the philosophy of history are laid out here; Rahel Jaeggi, Kritik von Lebensformen(Suhrkamp, 2013). This might look like cheating, since it’s not in English, but there is an English translation underway which will appear in a couple of years. Jaeggi looks at a “form of life” from a standpoint of a kind of Hegel-based Frankfurt critical theory, where the history of forms of life involve a “learning process” about how they fail and where they need to go; Axel Honneth, Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life(Columbia, 2014) Honneth’s book takes Hegel further than Hegel might have wanted to go, but he’s got good reasons for doing so. Even if Hegel himself might have gotten his back up if he had to confront Honneth’s arguments, he would also have realized that he had to answer them. If I’m allowed to sneak in a 6th after fudging three on the first one, I’d say anything and everything written by Michael Thompson– although I don’t always understand everything he’s saying, I always assume it’s my fault, not his.

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