Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 7

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

Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 5

Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 6

The experiential whole and the reason that is adequate to it is the whole and the reason of individual finite beings, even as we, as such beings, understand that in explicating, as it were, the whole of experience we also explicate the larger whole of which we are “parts”. The necessary reference of the absolute as distinct from our relative perspectives and eternally complete, is of course easily conceivable for non-“modal” philosophical purposes, and even when still merely a regulative idea, as more objective than any realist conception that we may work out of correspondence with an independent, external physical structure could ever be.

Yet even Croce’s understanding of intrinsic rationality is connected with a version of the calamitous older idealist ambiguity concerning the relation between the finite subject and the absolute, or, put more simply, the lack of a clear understanding of the necessity of distinction between them – the weakness which British absolute idealism inherited from the pantheistic Germans. It is not necessary to exemplify further this position according to which the individual lacks independent reality from the perspective of the absolute and even, ideally, in some respects from his own, and his separateness and integrity is reduced to a relative, temporary fragment of the comprehensive historical self-actualization of the absolute, to a passing contribution to the absolute experience, or to a presupposition of the mode of practice, to be cultivated for what it is worth as a feature of everyday experience.

It is not just from the perspective of an anti-pantheistic traditionalism that a humanist philosophy taken to this point of anti-essentialism must be rejected – even as in some ways expressed by such a traditionalist as Burke, for all the insight he possessed into the difference between the classico-Christian understanding of human nature and the moral order and the modern rationalist one. It is also because of the nature of the historical genesis of this conception of the absolute in the first post-Kantian idealists and Green, as critically analysed by Pringle-Pattison. Yet as Pringle-Pattison immediately makes clear, this does not mean that the concept of the absolute itself, even as in other respects understood in absolute idealism, should be rejected. There are certainly ways leading from consciousness to the absolute, or from the finite to the infinite consciousness. But these ways are other than the standard absolute idealist one. My consciousness and experience are not the absolute’s consciousness and experience, although I may indeed fragmentarily share them through their piecemeal communication and reproduction; philosophical progress takes place only in some finite individuals. Philosophy is only ideally and potentially a system in development, and even where this ideal is realized, there is, again, for philosophy, in contradistinction to modern gnosticism, no general historical progress toward a final, immanent redemptive consummation.

A deeper view of the finite centres as distinct persons is necessary for many reasons, not least for the understanding of perspectival relativity and of how precisely the modes of experience are not in every respect independent either of each other or of philosophy. Experience has its modes, we ourselves, as subjects of experience, are not modes. In one sense, we are of course part of the absolute experience, but as Bradley had to admit, the absolute must comprise both unity and diversity, it must, no matter how paradoxical it might seem from the standpoint of a reifying logic, be relational.

The closed immanentism of idealism as part of the pantheistic revolution, with a number of typical concomitant philosophical positions, must be rejected. I cannot see that there is any problem with saying that there is a transcendent dimension to the absolute, even if we hold merely that the absolute is absolute experience and that this experience, distinct from ours, has a subject conceived in the terms of personal idealism. If the personal idealists are right that our experience never exhaustively coincides with that of the absolute, there would still be no need to insist on the strict Kantian meaning of transcendence. Oakeshott’s putting religion on a par with scientism, Marxism, and Freudianism as a rationalism claiming to yield knowledge of how reality is apart from how we experience it, as well as his own later doubts about idealism itself as rationalism, can, I think, be shown to be superficial even from the position of idealism’s own emphasis on experience, as including religious experience.

But of course the absolute is both immanent and transcendent, and since there is both unity and diversity in the whole, even our ordinary experience can partly coincide with or participate in it to various degrees, depending not only on philosophical insight but also on the moral preconditions of such insight. To that extent it would be more correct to say that in relation to our experience the absolute is “implicit”, in Oakeshott’s sense, than “unconscious” or beyond anyone’s possible experience and conception.

To a degree that I think it is today possible to see is problematic, the understanding of the nature and the order or sequence of the modes in both early and later idealists was determined by the in some respects, as it were, substitute culturalism of the nineteenth-century secular humanist world of Wissenschaft and its modified perpetuation in the early twentieth century. But the more general idealist positions I have pointed to represent lasting contributions and insights of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century humanistic Bildung, apart from what could perhaps be called the management of knowledge and its sometimes too context-specific divisions. Idealism in its highest forms represents this culture at its best, restoring badly needed elements of philosophy as the love of, and the quest for, wisdom. The potential for retrieving elements of the pre-pantheist synthesis, for rethinking the modes and their relations to each other and to philosophy, and for further thought on the complex issues associated with some of the positions I have defended, is considerable within the general framework of idealism.

Apart from its contribution to all of the branches of philosophy which it uniquely and organically connects, idealism could contribute to the renewal of humanistic philosophy especially by demonstrating anew the partial, modal nature of “non-humanistic” thought, and indeed by explaining the deeper significance and value of the humanistic modes: by explaining, when they are invaded and distorted by rationalism and scientism, why and how they must again be conceived as humanistic. It could thus contribute to the restoration of the larger context and framework of human culture and practice which sustains philosophy even as philosophy dialectically transcends it, and which both analytic and continental philosophy have undermined in the twentieth century through different yet not unrelated forms of nihilism.

As a description of the current state of philosophy, the distinction between Anglo-American analytic philosophy and continental philosophy is, increasingly, at least geographically obsolete. This marks a step forward. Although it has long been clear to me that “non-humanistic” philosophy in any of the forms produced by the two wings of the pantheistic revolution is going nowhere and has indeed been disastrous, there are of course still many partial truths floating about in contemporary philosophy that are humanistic and relevant to humanistic philosophy in the deeper, integral sense that idealism at its best represents.

It seems to me, for instance, that even the insights into the nature of intersubjectivity and alterity of dialogical philosophy are not, as is the common understanding, incompatible with idealism – namely, if idealism is conceived in the terms of personal idealism. For as I have tried to show elsewhere, these insights first arose long before twentieth-century continental philosophy in the thinkers and currents of thought that are the origin precisely of personal idealism. In order not to be lost, such truths need to be taken up in idealism thus conceived. And it seems that for this purpose, and for the purpose of their necessary supplementation, the forgotten resources of idealism must be made available and comprehensible through a revised restatement of the kind I have tried to suggest in outline.

1 Response to “Idealism and the Renewal of Humanistic Philosophy, 7”

  1. 1 John July 7, 2013 at 4:22 am

    Please find a set of references which provide resources for doing philosophy as an in-depth subjective Process of self-transformation and self-transcendence – a process that is inherent in Reality It-Self.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)


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