sunnuntai 14. elokuuta 2011

Why we are here

My interest in German idealism started with two books: Kant's Critique of pure reason and Hegel's Lectures on the history of philosophy. Of the two gentlemen I was finally drawn more to Hegel, and after reading Phenomenology of spirit, I began my decade-long project of translating Science of logic into Finnish. During this project I was for a short while engaged in translating Foundation of Wissenschaftslehre, from which my interest on Fichte. I could say that I have read a significant portion of Kant's and Hegel's works and a good deal of Fichte's. Schelling is the German idealist I have always found least attractive, although I have tried to introduce myself to his philosophy: so far this attempt has been met with a failure to understand him.

When both the project of translating Hegel and myPhD thesis were nearing their end, I found myself wondering what to do next. I had the idea that I might use my knowledge of German idealism to some use by starting a blog where I would go through the highlights of German idealism in detail. My plans have a bad habit of becoming more and more grandiose. Finally, I decided that in addition to the most famous German idealists I would try to investigate more carefully the whole German philosophy during the German idealism, that is, not just the followers, but also the critics of German idealism and generally the philosophy written in Germany at that time.

The natural ending point for my blog was then inevitably the death of the last great German idealist, Schelling, in 1854. The starting point was more difficult to determine. It is somewhat unclear whether Kant should be called a German idealist, and some Kantians resent the idea. Still, German idealism without Kant would be like a torso without the head, because the German idealism grew out of a certain reading of Kant's philosophy.

But starting from Kant was not enough. The critical idealism of Kant was preceded by his pre-critical writings, which were clearly influenced by the earlier Leibnizian-Wolffian philosophy. If I then wanted to really see how the German idealism had risen, I thought I should take a look at the pre-Kantian metaphysics. Here I put the final limit to the philosophy of Christian Wolff. Wolff's philosophy was undoubtedly influenced e.g. by Leibniz, but Leibniz is still more of a European than just German phenomenon, on par with Descartes and Spinoza. Besides, Leibniz did not write in German, unlike Wolff.

The task is set then. I shall read and comment on various philosophical writings that have appeared in Germany between the first publications of Wolff and the death of Schelling. The order of my reading shall be somewhat loose. Works of Hegel won't come before works of Wolff, but I shan't be too strict on doing all the writings of one year before the writings of the next year. I might even do some backtracking if I find that I have ignored some important work.

Of course, I shall not pay the same amount of attention to every writing, because some important works deserve a number of comments. Indeed, in addition to the obvious places, I would like to take a look at the not so well known passages of the classic works, for instance, the idea of different types of nothingness in Kant's first Critique.

Other works I will probably just skim quickly and make up some clever anecdote. But because even such a philosophically meagre work as Wolff's Anfangs-Gründe has required four separate blog texts, I shall probably have to spend a whole decade to get even to the precritical works of Kant. I assume it takes twice as much time to get to the 19th century, and by the time I finally hit the late works of Schelling, I might be on the verge of senility. We shall see whether that helps me to understand better what he is saying.

Although the main theme of this blog is philosophy, I shall not restrict my interest to strictly philosophical works – indeed, none of the four greats did either. Thus, I might look into some political and cultural essays and scientific writings. Then again, I shall try to veer away from poems, plays and novels, firstly, because it is far more difficult to see the true philosophical relevance of such literary works, and secondly, because I would just make myself look like an idiot if I tried to analyse them. Hence, you will more likely find in my blog a text on Goethe's theory of colours than on the first part of Faust, although both undoubtedly had an influence on Schelling and Hegel. Then again, in some cases an important philosophical figure has published in nis lifetime nothing else, but poems and plays and I feel compelled to take a look at them. For instance, if I would avoid reading the play Hyperion, I would have almost nothing to say about Hölderlin, the friend of both Schelling and Hegel and an important figure in their development.

My choice of what I shall read is mostly determined by accessibility. Thus, I shall usually limit myself to material actually published at the time the German idealists were living, because most of it is easily available even in a digital format. Still, at least in case of the four great names, Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, I will read at least some of the unpublished manuscripts and lecture notes of their students, because often the development of their thoughts requires this. For instance, Fichte had decided after a scandal in Jena that he would never again publish anything on his views and therefore we must reconstruct later changes to his philosophy from unpublished manuscripts, while many parts of Hegelian system were fully developed only in his lectures. And if some reader happens to have access to a rare manuscript of an obscure German philosopher that I should read for some reason, please send me a copy (do not send the original or it will probably face some tragic fate or at least be stained by jam).

Whether I read different editions of the same work will depend on the number and imporantnce of changes from one edition to another. Thus, because in the second edition of his Grundlage Fichte had added only some footnotes and changed few phrases, I won't be reading the different editions at different times. Then again, the changes to both Kant's first Critique and the first book of Hegel's Logic are so drastic that a differentiation of the two editions is clearly in order. In the cases where I shall read only one edition of a work, I shall usually try to choose the latest edition published at the lifetime of the philosopher or just after his death.

Finally, some words on my method are in place. Often one sees essay collections on Kant's philosophy where all aspects of his philosophy appear to be contested and no consensus on the meaning of Kant's works is reached, yet, one detail is accepted by all writers: Hegel got it all wrong. Similarly, there are number of Hegel-scholars who disagree on what Hegel intended to say, but agree that he definitely knew it better than Kant. Such presuppositions obviously colour how one then interprets the supposedly worse philosopher. I shall try to avoid all such pre-evaluations and instead aim at finding some reasons why a philosopher would want to say what he has said, even if what he says sounds ridiculous. Furthermore, I shall refrain on making any decision as to who got it right. Indeed, often different philosophers were not even pursuing the same agenda, so the question is somewhat moot.

With these words the necessary prologue ends: onwards to Christian Wolff.

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