Idealism as Alternative Modernity, 4

Idealism as Alternative Modernity, 1

Idealism as Alternative Modernity, 2

Idealism as Alternative Modernity, 3

I was in fact alerted to the problems – not least the moral ones – of the pantheistic revolution not primarily by Christian orthodoxy, but by that form of idealism that in the “empire of idealism” was called personal idealism and that in one version dominated Swedish philosophy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and, later, by the creatively renewed classicist criticism of the American new humanist Irving Babbitt and two of his Swedish philosophical successors who were not disinclined, as he himself was, to connect his ideas with idealism, in the footsteps of no less an idealist than Benedetto Croce.

If we consider the problematically revolutionary aspect, Christianity too, of course, as well as Judaism, have in their own ways, and mainly through their ever newly interpretable eschatologies, contributed quite as much to it. But, building also partly on the work of Eric Voegelin and some Christian historians (Voegelin was not an orthodox Christian) I also accept that traditional Christian orthodoxy does have valid general points to adduce against the pantheistic revolution, although they are not exclusively its own contribution. They are primarily the ones relating to transcendence, the general nature of the order of the world, freedom, moral responsibility, and individual personality. Through the emphasis on them, it has provided a needed counterbalance.

But broader idealism itself, properly conceived, is not identical with or reducible to the pantheistic revolution that generated problematic modernity. That it is not per definition revolutionary in the immanentizing metaphysical and moral sense I discussed in Greece is obvious, to the point of supporting almost an opposite understanding of it, when we consider the various historical implications and applications of Platonism, and, a fortiori, the social structures supported by Eastern idealisms.

This of course highlights the problems with bracketing the vast differences between modern and other forms of idealism, but, as some of the mentioned idealism critics are of course well aware, modern idealism too often manifested explicitly non-revolutionary forms, and already in Hegel. Moreover, the tension between the conservative and the radical versions is also clearly discernible throughout the history of Western esotericism.

Alongside the often closely related esotericism, idealism represents the long neglected third main avenue of Western thought, distinct from both fundamentalist religion and modern materialist or nihilist secularism. Rightly conceived, it provides in itself many of the resources of the requisite alternative modernity, not least with regard to the metaphysical, moral, and political dimensions of the question of the relation between the individual and the larger wholes which was a central theme in my Greece paper.

And in so-called personal idealism or idealistic personalism in its most advanced forms, the correctives with regard to the mentioned valid points of criticism, and indeed some further and no less important points, are, as I always suggest, already available, independently of the mythological peculiarities of Christian dogmatics and even to a considerable extent independently of general Christian theology.

The main weakness of nineteenth-century absolute idealism from this position is not that it is absolute, but that it is not fully idealistic. With this I reiterate my in-house idealistic challenge with which some of you are by now familiar. For all the important partial truths I defended at Oxford, Bernard Bosanquet’s position that “consistent realism and absolute idealism differ in name only” epitomizes for me the philosophical confusion and error of the pantheistic revolution of the modernity to which an alternative is needed.

The optimal resources for the formulation of the idealist contribution to an alternative modernity therefore seem to me to be those of personal idealism or personal absolute idealism in its most advanced forms. And as I always point out – both because of the way in which I myself became an idealist and for the sake of corroborating my argument for the universality of these issues – there are from the beginning, despite, or beyond, the obvious difficulties of translation and interpretation, striking similarities with the Western debates between absolute and personal idealists in the Vedanta tradition in the East.

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