Kant and Idealism

Will it ever be possible to reach a meaningful, broader scholarly agreement on the interpretation of Kant? I increasingly doubt it. In too many central respects, Kant’s work is ambiguous, unclear and seemingly contradictory in a way that is, as it were, definitive, irremediable. Modern idealism developed to a considerable extent out of interpretations of and responses to his work. For this reason alone it will remain of historical importance. But how decisive is it really, in itself?

One of the primary purposes of the critique of pure reason was to account for and save the worldview of classical, Newtonian physics in terms of a new epistemology. It contains, or builds on, many rigid and sometimes forced systematic schematisms. The issues it addressed were produced and determined by specifically modern positions of rationalism and empiricism, i.e. positions within a distinctly modern philosophical context that is as a whole problematic, and at least some of which, I suggest, are in themselves, from a larger perspective that is now more easily available than in the eighteenth century, often simply quite odd.

As a response to the questions left open by the mentioned currents that defined the early modern project, Kant’s work is of course certainly not without interest. It did facilitate the transition to a later modern phase and, in various ways, made possible that phase’s proceeding beyond at least some of the limitations, on some levels, of the earlier project. In this sense, it is definitely a part of the history of an alternative philosophical modernity that remains a crucial and indispensable legacy even, to a high degree, in its “critical” aspects.

There are particular constituents of it that are obviously of value, such as the contribution it made, to some extent indirectly, to the development of the general understanding of the creative imagination. But from a standpoint entirely beyond the intellectual horizon within which it arose and within whose confines, for all its new openings, it essentially and necessarily remained, its importance and continued relevance must, I suspect, be questioned inasmuch as modern philosophy remains stuck in it or caught in its context-specific circle of questions and attempted answers, and thus in a kind of spatio-temporal provincialism.

The instability, as it were, of the very phenomenon of Kantianism that is produced by the seemingly inevitable conflicting interpretations is only one of the obviously contributing factors here. In Kant’s case, this divergence of explications says something about the particular difficulties in which the modern philosophical project ends up or loses itself. But in other aspects, this plurality and probably in principle undecidable conflict of interpretations is of course also an expression of the fruitful and valuable openness to interpretive difference and renewal offered by all great works in the history of philosophy in general. There are further reasons for the new critical distance to Kant’s work that seems to me needed that lie deeper.

I have tentatively affirmed in many texts here and elsewhere some of the truths of post-Kantian so-called absolute as well as so-called personal idealism. But, on the basis of my earlier historical work, I have done it quite as much as understood from the vantage point of the distinctly non-Kantian point of departure of those currents that is found in Jacobi’s definition of Vernunft and Verstand and hence the true, heretofore mostly misunderstood meaning of his so-called salto mortale that is only now beginning to emerge among historicans of philosophy. These things were at least as important for both Hegel and the various idealistic personalists as any specifically Kantian thematic. The truths of post-Kantian idealism are affirmable despite rather than because of their partial Kantian background which they transcended.

Once this other and different constitutive factor in post-Kantian idealism is thoroughly comprehended, it also becomes possible to pass more easily beyond Kant and his modern rationalist-empiricist synthesis to a renewed appropriation of the essential elements of the older, classical tradition of idealism and its partial equivalents and counterparts in non-European thought. Which, in turn, makes it possible to see the real nature of Kant’s project and its true place within the entirety of the historically existing traditions of human thought.

The fuller understanding of both modern and classical idealism now available, as well as the perspectives opened by comparative philosophy in itself, call for a reappraisal. The historical connection between modern and classical idealism can now not only be made clearer, but can also be further elaborated and deepened. The early, neo-Kantian criticism of post-Kantian idealism can and must be reconsidered. Indeed, the whole indirect acceptance of at least the basic anti-metaphysical (in a broad sense) and anti-absolutist positions entailed by the Kantian epistemological iron curtain that is the more or less explicit presupposition of so much modern thought – with the exception, apart from the crude materialisms that find themselves not in need of any critical sophistication, of the mentioned currents of modern idealism – must, it seems to me, be questioned.

The valid parts of the legacy of the modern critical spirit with its characteristic habits of mind, as preserved and redefined within the necessary higher form of modernity, need not, I suggest, be sacrificed in such an undertaking.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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