Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 3

Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 1

Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 2

Scientism was thus correctly criticized by philosophical currents deeply shaped by romanticism, even when as alternatives these were not in themselves tenable due to the problems precisely with this romanticism. The analytic philosophy which turned against and replaced idealism was a militantly scientistic philosophy, and still tries, even if only awkwardly, to be so. Much of romantically inspired “continental” philosophy was sometimes correctly criticized by analytic philosophers even as their alternative was not in itself tenable either, due to the problems with its scientism. But primarily because of the latter problems, the sharp demarcation line between analytic and continental philosophy has for a long time and in many respects been blurred.

This is not always because analytic philosophers relinquished their scientism and continental philosophers their romanticism. Again, on a deeper analysis, we have to do with two expressions of the same underlying cultural dynamic, and thus there were, not surprisingly, instances if not of the potential of synthesis, at least of a characteristic combination. But to the extent that such relinquishing of untenable elements – whether because of the criticism from the other side taking effect or for other reasons – was the reason why the line was blurred, the blurring was welcome.

Some philosophers call for further mutual modification of the analytic and continental traditions. The former has to recognize and assimilate the central humanistic, historical, and hermeneutic concerns of the latter, while the latter is held to stand in need of the formal and conceptual clarity and rigour of the former. It is difficult to see how anything like this is possible without discarding completely the scientistic substance of the analytic project. But to the extent that an interpenetration of the two traditions leads to a mutual modification which does involve this, it is certainly of the greatest historical and intellectual significance. That continental philosophy was not always what the analytic philosophers said it was has always been obvious, and that analytic philosophy can be disconnected as a set of formal instruments from its scientistic substance has of course also long been clear, and is exemplified today not least by analytic philosophical theology and “analytical Thomism”.

Idealistic philosophy was part of a whole cultural paradigm in many countries, which, in the eyes of the radical critics, shaped by the incipient general, post-World War I twentieth-century sensibilities, often made its positions wrongly appear conservative and almost “traditional” in my sense, constituting as it did one major expression of the Victorian spirit, its moralism, and its aesthetics, and symbolizing much of the world before the rise of high modernism and the general cultural radicalism shared, for all of their differences, by the logical positivists, Bloomsbury, the Marxists, the Freudians, and many others. Idealism seemed to represent the lost world of the nineteenth century. Defending it in the Britain of Lytton Stratchey required new and different talents. Defending it in terms of that Britain, or as to some significant extent part of it, was from the beginning a project of poor prospects.

Yet in some more and less obvious ways, nineteenth-century idealism did in fact live on. There were idealists here and there, and idealism’s nineteenth-century legacy contributed important elements to the work of the few non-analytic or, possibly, non-scientistic analytic philosophers in Britain and America, and even more to continental philosophy. Typically, however, idealism was conspicuously absent from the analytic-continental controversy. Both camps considered themselves “post-idealist”. Under the influence of, for instance, Heidegger’s criticism of the epistemology of neo-Kantianism, historicism, and earlier forms of hermeneutics in the case of continental philosophy, and, again, simply of scientism in the case of analytic philosophy, both long tended to forget or play down the idealist themes of modern philosophy of history, art, action, science, and language.

Today, the contributions of idealism in these areas, and elsewhere, are becoming more visible. Not least for the purpose of a modified reconstruction of the “subject”, including but also transcending epistemology, continental philosophers more consciously take up greater or smaller elements of idealism, often with a thorough historical knowledge of its traditions, but also sometimes without critical discernment, and adding some of the problematic twentieth-century assumptions. Some philosophers at least trained in the analytic tradition take up various idealist positions, but, it seems, often from outside, as it were, without the full idealist understanding of experience, reason, or the role of philosophy. It is time, I think, to pay attention not only to the scattered idealist themes and positions that appear here and there in contemporary philosophy, and to not only rediscover idealism’s contributions to and influence on later and other philosophies, but to renew something of the more integral vision of idealism. In the respects mentioned here, the twentieth century is over.

As selectively reappropriated, idealism could, I suggest, contribute both to the completion of the mutually modifying interpenetration of the analytic and continental traditions as I have outlined it, and, simultaneously, to the process of transcending them both. For when some misunderstandings in the criticism of idealism have been cleared up, it might be possible to see that idealism can supplement and indeed in the most central respects supplant both, not least through a broader and deeper view of reason and of objective truth which, for different reasons and with different but equally characteristic consequences, they have both lost.

As disentangled from the pantheistic revolution, idealism is a badly needed moderating force in secular modernity which, I contend, should be embraced in its unabridged anti-naturalistic and anti-physicalist import. The need is for a non-reductive spiritualism.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)


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