Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 4

Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 1

Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 2

Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 3

The basic idealistic insight regarding what could be called the experiential whole can be traced back to the first beginnings not only of idealism in Germany, but of the new aesthetic ideas of romanticism in a broad sense. This insight is common to the more “complete” idealism I seek to defend, which synthesizes the Platonic tradition with the partial truths of modern idealism, and the latter form of idealism in itself. It is well described by Folke Leander and Claes G. Ryn in their selective defence of idealism as part of their so-called value-centered historicism. Here as elsewhere, I will build partly on their account. But I will relate it to the work of a wider range of idealist thinkers, draw out its implications of a more complete absolute idealism, and indicate briefly the difference made by the distinct positions of personal idealism or personal absolute idealism.

The discovery of wholes, inspired by the new view of the active and synthetic imagination, was decisive for the reaction against the sensationalistic materialism of the Enlightenment and its dissolution of experience into impressions and associations, and had implications for the whole field of humanistic knowledge and thought.

The post-Kantians and the romantics, perceiving the absence in Kant of a critique of his own critical reason, moved on from his abstractly and rationalistically conceived synthetic wholes to discover, along with the properly creative imagination, the primacy of real, concrete, non-conceptual experiential wholes – moral, aesthetic, and philosophical. Coleridge’s concern was the transcendental deduction of the imagination, i. e. to show that it is a necessary part of the categorical network that constitutes the mind. This imagination orders our experiential wholes and the symbols of the infinity in which everything experienced exists and from which it is separated only by the abstractive operations of reason in the sense that the Germans, less felicitously, designated by the term Verstand and Coleridge, equally unfelicitously, the Understanding.

The insights were now fully expressed that there are no atomic “facts” related only externally to each other, that facts have whatever meaning and reality they have only because of the relations within experiential wholes, that everything is to be understood in terms of its essential relatedness, and that ultimately there is meaning only in relation to the largest whole. The idealist understanding of experience, distinct from both rationalism and empiricism, was soon fully elaborated. Everything has to start from the direct experiential awareness of the flow of life, unmediated by formulas and laws, a flow which is more fundamental and real than any of the conditional modes of experience, as Oakeshott calls them.

I should add here that the expression “flow of life”, used by Leander and Ryn, does not for me signify an endorsement of those expressions of the “philosophy of life”, from romanticism to Dilthey and beyond, which rejected idealism as mere “school philosophy” and sought something else beyond it. Indeed, I find this to be a shared error of the philosophical currents of phenomenology, existentialism and hermeneutics. Although the case is not as serious as that of the analytic philosophers, their rejection of idealism still seems to me often superficial and stereotypical, not seldom based on sheer misunderstanding and spatio-temporally parochial, incomplete assimilation. The work of the philosophers in these traditions contain important insights, but they need to be reconnected to a properly understood and reformulated idealism. The broad metaphysical horizons opened up by the renewed idealist tradition in the nineteenth century, with their great potential not least in the field of comparative studies, need to be restored.

Such an idealism includes but also transcends the insights formulated by Leander and Ryn. Supplemented or qualified by the insights of degrees of reality, truth, and value, and of the perspectival relativity and the possibility of error that follow from a clear distinction between the finite and the infinite subjects of the kind insisted on by the personal idealists, it seems to me that to assert with a more complete idealism that reality is identical with experience, that appearances are real, not illusions, and that experience is self-authenticating, not guraranteed by anything more fundamental, since there is nothing more fundamental, might be admissible. To be real is to be in experience, and every experience is part of or content of consciousness. And the full understanding of what this implies makes it clear that it is not at all a matter of a subjectivist imperialism or reduction of the being of things.

Ultimate reality, on this view, is experience as a whole, the ordered sum of appearances or of what exists, or the experience of this totality – which we can of course conceive of only imperfectly – in which all partial perspectives are overcome. This is one aspect of the absolute. The absolute, the ultimate reality, is absolute experience. Truth is this reality itself, the whole of reality or the absolute. We can in a sense understand that this is so although our own experience as finite is only partial and relative. The absolute is the ultimate standard of truth, reality, and value. Truth is in this perspective ontological rather than semantic, and not only a property of propositions or judgements. These are always distinct from the whole and partial, they are, in their own way, true as partaking of the authority of the whole.

Human thought progresses by stages or moments in its understanding of reality, although Hegel, the Hermeticist, is mistaken in his suggestion that it can actually reach a final completion of self-realization in the Idea, the point at which, in complete knowledge, it grasps its true identity with the Whole. He is right that, to the extent that and in the cases where progress takes place, each successive moment, though defective, contains a greater measure of truth than its predecessor, that each stage represents a provisional coherence until reason, exposing its inchoateness, ascends to the next platform of understanding in an evolutionary hierarchy, and that in relation to the absolute the stages differ in degree rather than kind. There are, generally speaking, degrees of abstraction and mutilation, an ascending scale of validity.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)


Arts & Humanities


For a Truly European Union


Carl Johan Ljungberg: Humanistisk förnyelse

All original writing © Jan Olof Bengtsson
"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi