As of late, I’ve been working my way through a number of German idealist thinkers, producing a series of small posts as I investigate the tradition (see on Kant and Fichte here, on Fichte and Schelling here, and on Goethe here). In this post, I move back to Kant himself, sketching an outline of the critical philosophy, as expressed in The Critique of Pure Reason, including an account of his rejection of rationalism and empiricism, his account of intuitions, concepts, and ideas, and his notions of judgment, imagination, and apperception. Understanding Kant’s critical philosophy is essential to understanding the evolution of German idealism as a whole. As Frederick Beiser notes, those involved in this tradition strove to find a middle path between a number of competing binaries, including that between skeptical subjectivism and naive realism, foundationalism and relativism, materialism and idealism, and Platonism and historicism, binaries which, as Beiser rightly suggests, are still the concern of much contemporary epistemology.
I’m sharing below another in my series of quick micro-takes on German idealist philosophers. This one tracks Schelling’s break with Fichte. (See my post on Kant and Fichte here.) This break in mind, it’s plain enough to see why Schelling has become such a rallying point in the Continental scene as of late. Not only because of the resurgence of speculative philosophy, mind you, but also because of related trends, such as the ongoing movement towards an environmental (or ecological) humanities. In many ways, Schelling’s problems are still our own, even if our empirical details are more numerous.
As Frederick Beiser tells it, “Schelling’s break with Fichte is largely a tale about the development of his Naturphilosophie” (483). The development of the Naturphilosophie can in turn be read as Schelling’s answer to the failure of epistemology to finally secure and describe the interaction between the mental and physical, the subjective and objective, the ideal and real, the representation and its object. In addressing the question, How do we know that our concepts correspond to the world? Schelling would break not only with Fichte but with many of the suppositions of philosophy after Descartes. As Beiser notes, “Schelling became convinced that rather than providing a presuppositionless starting point [in the Cogito, the Transcendental Ego, and so on], epistemology had some dubious presuppositions all its own” (471) such that “he recognized that the solution to the fundamental problems of epistemology requires nothing less than metaphysics” (466).
I’ve been suggesting that the basic constituents of experience are neither ideas nor representations but activities of thought capable of generating ideas and representations. On this view, it follows that perception is grounded in the actions of the person; it is a skill of combining the manifold of sensibility into the semantically hued diorama of meaningful experience that all people experience as they navigate the world. As a skill of perception, experience can be said to consist in various levels of detail and nuance; it is shot through with skillful means at the ground level, means trainable and plastic in nature. Indeed, if one takes the position that philosophy is an activity that intervenes upon the initial order of skilled perception, then it becomes clear that philosophy is a means for acting upon action. Philosophical practice on this view is itself something like a somatic or practical activity, one that makes contemplation—in the sense of marking out a space for observation—its own kind of skilled action, executed in an environment.
I’m taking a course in German idealism with the ever-busy Matt Segall. Below are a few thoughts on Fichte’s advance over Kant’s critical philosophy. I’m finding that there’s much in Fichte’s work that forms something of a historical starting point for my own work on concepts as capacities. There are substantial differences, too. For example, Fichte’s strong separation of the causal order of nature and the normative order of human freedom strikes me as implausible, and it would be hard to imagine a philosopher arguing the point with as much force today (though the exact way to think of this partition—or to not think it at all—continues to give everyone a headache).
That said, as I read them, the primary difference between Kant’s and Fichte’s philosophies lies in their differing starting points, in what a grounding for transcendental philosophy requires. If Kant was correct to say that experience has an a priori structure that conditions all possibilities of experience, he was wrong to suggest that this a priori structure—including the forms of intuition, the categories of the understanding, the ideas of reason, and the transcendental ego itself—could be taken as simply given. That is, in much the same way that Kant’s critical philosophy leads one to reject the mere givenness of empirical experience, this same rejection should be applied to the mere givenness of the a priori concepts and categories of the transcendental itself.