Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 2

Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 1

I will assume here a general understanding on the part of my readers of the origins of humanism and humanistic thought in classical antiquity, which I have discussed at length elsewhere, and where we find basic positions and values wich I presuppose in all discussions of humanism in the strict sense in which I use the term. These original formulations of course already imply several central positions of classical idealism or of idealism in the broad sense, which I have also often discussed as fundamental to my general understanding of humanism, and which for this reason will also be left our here.

Instead, I will focus on what are still less obvious and well-known aspects of the relation between humanism and the broader idealistic tradition. In line with the version of traditionalism I find defensible, to a considerable extent the ethical insights, the metaphysical background, and the theological dimension which makes true humanism in essential respects, in the Western tradition, a Christian humanism, must in my view be accepted. Christianity in itself of course also contributed strongly to Western humanism.

But again, as confirmed even by, for instance, the so-called “transcendental Thomists”, who, as Thomists, are not in my main Platonic line of idealism in the broader sense, some insights of modern idealism, rightly understood, have the capacity to enrich, broaden, and in very important respects modify the scholastic tradition. Properly understood and more thoroughly assimilated, I think it even has in itself the capacity and the resources to recapture precisely the historically still accessible truths and values which in the past it tended to lose.

For the purpose of the definition of humanistic philosophy, the esoteric tradition needs to be mentioned again, since it has been a constitutive ingredient in much modern Western humanism, ever since the Renaissance, and has contributed to the epochal self-understanding of Western modernity as such. Esotericism is connected with the whole of the long-standing tradition of non-scientistic philosophy which, going back, through historicism, idealism, romanticism, and Vico to the Renaissance, is central to what we mean today by humanistic philosophy. There is in this line what has been called a “mystical humanism” which, as almost always in the traditions of Western esotericism, is metaphysically and morally ambiguous, and which has left a correspondingly ambiguous legacy.

On the one hand, through its view of the nature of God in relation to the world and man, and, increasingly, to history, it has contributed to the secularization of the Christian eschaton and to the deification of man, in whom alone God is seen to become real – and thence, through the swift transformations in the work of the Left Hegelians, the Saint-Simonians and others, to a purely secular humanism representing one of the meanings of the word humanistic and indeed idealistic philosophy which, in accordance with the historical alignment I have signalled, I reject outright.

On the other hand, esotericism, which has been described as a third, major intellectual current in the West, occupying a position between rationalistic science and faith or revealed religion, stands in connection with some of the most interesting positions in several periods of the history of Western philosophy. In the modern period, most importantly, there developed gradually in this tradition an understanding of the meaning and role of the imagination which had been absent or rudimentary in classical and mediaeval thought. This esoteric development was more closely related to Kant’s Copernican revolution, the post-Kantian idealists, and the romantics than has hitherto been understood, and it resulted in new insights into the nature and function of the imagination as creative. The new understanding of the active mind and its production of imaginative synthetic wholes had decisive and far-reaching implications for epistemology which are still far from generally understood.

This is one essential insight of humanistic philosophy in the sense I have in mind – and more generally a central part of the neo-humanistic thought of nineteenth-century Germany which came to define much of humanism in Europe and the West – which needs to be salvaged from the morass of the pantheistic revolution. Although the mutual criticism produced by the surface clashes of the latter’s rationalistic and romantic wings hides their underlying interdependence and even reciprocal reinforcement (not only is Oakeshott right that irrationalism is often rationalism in disguise, but of course the converse is equally true), it also displays partial truths which could be admitted even by the critic who seeks to rise beyond the whole of their vast and complex dialectic and their powerful historical momentum, and to return to a more strictly defined humanism in the classical and Christian traditions.

1 Response to “Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 2”



  1. 1 The Stone Philosophy Links - NYTimes.com Trackback on January 18, 2012 at 3:38 pm

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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