Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 5

Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 1

Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 2

Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 3

Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 4

Bradley’s account of the relational stages through which experience develops is problematic in some respects – and I will return to this shortly – but it does seek to describe the philosophical approximation to the absolute through the increasing grasp of the connectedness of things, their constitution through their relations to each other, and the vision of contradictions as reconciled in the absolute.

Bradley also outlines modes of experience as distinguished by content, independent of each other and neither hierarchically related nor successive. Collingwood gave a more systematic account of these modes, although partly under the influence of Croce he retained the Hegelian view of succession. While Croce’s absolute historicism, taken over by Collingwood, is problematic, Croce had a clearer understanding of the precise role of philosophy in relation to the modes. It is true that the modes are not wholly autonomous or independent of each other.

Like Green, Caird, and Bosanquet, Collingwood is also right that philosophy can to some extent and in a certain sense throw its own light on the modes. In this sense he retains idealism’s general claims on behalf of philosophy which had been challenged since the mid-nineteenth century and were again raised in a different mode by phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics. But this means that it is not clear that, as some of these thinkers hold, the mind can know itself only through the modes, or that the absolute is merely the modes taken together. This would still be the familiar consequence of philosophy’s resignation or surrender. Clearly philosophy does not simply supplant the modes, but neither is it wholly reducible to the function of their cartographer and intrinsic explicator.

Oakeshott again insists that the modes must be autonomous. The presuppositions and methods, or the “reason” appropriate to one of them, cannot be applied to any of the others. But although he rejects the interference of philosophy in the operations of the modes, in his early work he also insists on the independent nature of the distinct perspective of philosophy, which preserves the wholeness of the flow of experience in the course of its advance in reflection on the mutually independent modes. But since he defines rationalism as the belief in one uniform kind of independently valid reason which is externally applied to or imposed on modes which because of its externality it can never adequately know, and which thus, for the purpose of reorganization, overrides their own postulates and rationalities, it is no mystery that Oakeshott, who from the beginning rejected the absolute as “beyond conception and outside of the world of experience”, later tended to think that this independence of philosophy and its higher or larger perspective vis-à-vis the modes in itself implied a return of rationalism, and that after all it had to lead to the imposition not of the rationality of one mode upon another but of that of philosophy upon all of them.

The reason why I think Oakeshott was wrong in moving in this direction is the problem with the understanding, which motivated it, of the distinct perspective of philosophy and of the absolute, and not least of the nature of the reason which is specific to philosophy. Like Collingwood, Oakeshott relinquished too much of his basic idealist inspirations. It is time to reconnect to them.

Along with the discovery of the experiential whole there came in early idealism the discovery of the distinct speculative reason of philosophy, Vernunft, the reason which, as was gradually understood, discerns and describes the conditional modes of experience and is critically aware of the nature of the other kind of reason, Verstand, which produces abstract classificatory fictions and indeed constitutes some of the modal discourses (Vernunft can also have different meanings in idealism, meanings which, however, do not invalidate this one and are also distinct from Verstand). Only through this distinct, philosophical reason is it possible to perceive the modes qua modes, their nature, their limits, and their relations to each other and to the whole.

Against the kind of realist empiricism that emphasizes sense experience as giving access to objective reality independent of it, idealism teaches not only that both sense experience and reason are experience, but that, as such, they are reality. Oakeshott, with other British idealists, was aware that there is reason in sense experience, that sense experience is not distinct from judgements. But it seems to me that this awareness needs to be deepened and sharpened. Not only does the simplest perception of a “table” include the judgement “this is a table”. Leander and Ryn also uphold the position that any such simple perception also involves the judgement “this is something perceived”, in contradistinction to something merely imagined. Perception is a unity of immediacy and thought, or concrete thought. This becomes especially evident in the observations of the self-knowledge which Leander’s and Ryn’s kind of idealism accepts as fundamental in philosophy. Empirical observation is inseparable from self-observation in the same act. I can know a modal arrest, an abstractive découpage or pragmatic fiction only if I am aware of the context from which it is made.

It is thus not, Ryn continues to explain in accordance with Crocean Hegelianism, merely a question of classificatory reason being applied to sense experience. The reason operative in sense experience is a distinct kind of reason, a concrete reason in which experience and concept coincide, inseparable from the experientially given, from the content on which it works, a philosophical or historical reason with a logic of its own. It is through this reason that experience is intrinsically rational and acquires conceptual self-awareness. Perception implies concrete, historical thought, which is inseparable from philosophical reflection, the ideally evolving phenomenology of mind that is human self-knowledge and that carries with it the evidence of its own completeness.

The advance of philosophy proper is thus not only the identification of the place of the modes in what Oakeshott calls “the spectrum of knowledge as a whole”. It is also, negatively, the progressive elimination, for specifically philosophical purposes, of merely pragmatic classifications and the partialities, limits and incoherencies of modal thought, and, positively, the gradual, tentative discernment, identification, and formulation of what Croce calls categorial realities and distinctions, the permanent structure and order of experience and reality.

This is not a matter of the rationalist or explorative hypothesizing about the hidden structures of the modes. Humanistic philosophy seeks the universal as concretely experienced. It necessarily combines its own pre-theoretical language, interpretive and explicative, with a language that could be said to be explanatory in the “speculative” sense. Its improvement upon its concepts is an infinite task, but the structures it begins to discern if properly pursued are real, and they are what is presupposed in the formation also of such concepts as concept, mode, abstraction, pragmatic thought, perception, imagination, explication, categorial thought, exploration, fact, hypothesis, and verification. Ryn also accepts the position that philosophical reason is the reason which can articulate the experience of freedom, whereas abstractive reason or Verstand, left to itself, invariably produces deterministic theories.

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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