Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 1

In several publications and conference presentations I have pointed to the historical connection of modern idealism with the dominant, radical strand in what is today often called the esoteric tradition of the West, which accounts for some of the distinctive features of this idealism as a worldview in the broad perspective of intellectual history.

I have indicated how it contributes especially to our understanding of some of what I suggest are the problematic aspects primarily of so-called absolute idealism in its main versions. Pointing, with reference to the analyses of a number of well-known historians and philosophers, to a deep cultural dynamic in the modern West, comprising both rationalism and romanticism and decisively albeit often covertly inspired by the esoteric tradition, a dynamic which I have described as a “pantheistic revolution”, I have called for a counterbalancing reconnection, in certain respects, of the partial truths of modern idealism to certain elements, distinctions, and priorities, not least the ethical ones, of the “traditional”, classical (or classicist) and Christian worldview synthesis, without the Christian element entailing any commitment with regard to the dogma or indeed much of the general worldview of exoteric orthodoxy, of which it is rather idealism, broadly conceived, that is the corrective. We need, I have suggested, to go deeper than the currently common analyses of the Enlightenment Project, and with the notion of the pantheistic revolution I have intended to serve that need.

Without any moorings in the insights of such traditionalism, I have argued, idealism, as a part and an expression exclusively of the dynamic of the pantheistic revolution, has often indirectly contributed to or become part of some of the obviously problematic cultural and political manifestations of this revolution in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I have pointed to the distinctive features of British and American nineteenth-century idealism which are due to its specific moral and cultural contexts, and which made possible more promising developments. In particular, I have stressed the importance of the alternative form of idealism, prominent not least in Britain and America, the personal idealism of Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison and Borden Parker Bowne, which is in some respects more closely related to these cultural characteristics, although they too draw on the shared continental European legacy of German idealism. Through its focus on the category of the person, this form of idealism – which, incidentally, is also that of the earlier Swedish school of personal idealism – avoids some of the problems of the standard absolute idealist nexus of epistemology and metaphysics, and for this reason dovetails more readily with the non-pantheist truths that I have in mind.

The reasons why some criticism of what could be called impersonalistic idealism is needed I have stated at length elsewhere, and they will not be my main focus in this series of posts. Here, I want rather to point to some of what I consider to be true in modern idealism in general, including absolute idealism. Since I insist that this must be disentangled from the pantheistic revolution, my defence of idealism differs from the standard neo-idealist or semi-idealist defences of a Croce, a Collingwood or an Oakeshott, which, despite their own form of traditionalism, I consider still in too many respects to be parts of that revolution, and to share some of its pervasive characteristics.

What is true in idealism in general must be defended since, when the problematization I have recommended has been carried out and the needed modifications accepted, it is still in my view by far the most important current of modern thought, and yet is still so poorly understood in contemporary philosophy.

Not only would a simple, unhistorical traditionalist return miss its valuable contributions; tradition itself can hardly be wholly unhistorical and static; elements of creativity are not only always needed for its vitality and flourishing, but part of its essence, properly understood. This general truth is applicable to philosophy in the sense that some of the new insights of modern idealism into the nature of subjectivity, reason, and history are not only in tension with but also to a considerable extent synthesizable with some general truths of the pre-pantheistic tradition, in a way that is not always perceived by the leading representatives today of more rigorous traditional thought in this sense, or indeed by an attenuated twentieth-century idealist like Oakeshott in his own definition of a living, historical tradition. The creative traditionalism I defend is different from Oakeshott’s, and indeed Gadamer’s, and not only in that it is the one which allows me to integrate the partial truths of their thought. Again, it is especially idealism as represented by its personalist version which is thus synthesizable.

What I will have to say here about the truths of idealism, on a very general level which I hope is nevertheless sufficient for my limited purpose, will, however, be in terms of, in the context of, and as a contribution to the renewal of what could conveniently be called humanistic philosophy. For this designation to be convenient, it will have to be defined, however, and in the next instalment I will provide such a definition to the extent that it is needed.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
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