Why German Idealism Matters

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Why German Idealism Matters

by M. Segall

Quote:For Kant, the human mind is incapable of objectively understanding the organic purposiveness of nature as a whole or in its parts. Kant was willing to grant nature purposiveness in appearance only, a side effect of our subjective way of apprehending it. We can judge nature aesthetically (that is, by analogy to a work of art) as if it were purposively designed, but if our goal is scientific knowledge, he was convinced that the mind is equipped only to grasp nature as a deterministic machine. Schelling affirms that the purposive activities of organisms implies that some sort of intelligence is involved in their coming-to-be. But rather than rest satisfied with a theistic account of nature’s ends, where purpose is imported into nature from beyond nature, Schelling sought to grasp how nature’s organizational patterning could emerge from within itself, as a result of an indwelling world-soul. According to Schelling, “You destroy all idea of Nature from the very bottom, as soon as you allow the purposiveness to enter her from without” (34). In order to make such immanent or intrinsic teleology a constitutive principle of our knowledge of nature, Schelling needed to overcome Kant’s skepticism regarding the limits of reflective understanding. “What is that secret bond,” he asks, “which couples our mind to nature . . . that hidden organ through which nature speaks to our mind or our mind to nature?” (41). The bond Schelling sought was deemed non-existent by Kant, who understood the human spirit to be forever alienated from the reality of the physical world it desires to know.

From Schelling’s perspective, “Philosophy had to descend into the depths of nature in order to raise itself from there to the heights of spirit” (On the History of Modern Philosophy120). Schelling did not deny Kant’s and Fichte’s transcendental approaches to philosophy. He only relativized their claims to the Absolute by articulating a complementary approach that I’ve elsewhere termed descendental philosophy. The prime subject–object of philosophical thought becomes not the Self, but the incomprehensible groundlessness preceding volitional agency and objectified physicality alike. This creative abyss is unprethinkable according to Schelling, since it provides the groundless ground of Reason itself. The philosopher encounters it, as Kant taught, both inwardly in the moral world, but also outwardly in the sensuous world, in the realm of aesthesis.

Fichte emphasized the former, while Schelling argued that an aesthetic act provides the keystone of all philosophy and worked to develop what he termed a “metaphysical” or “higher empiricism.” This “higher empiricism” is not at all the positivistic empiricism of much modern science. Schelling’s is not a high-altitude God’s-eye-view of nature as a collection of objects mechanically governed by eternally imposed mathematical laws. Rather, Schelling sought to return philosophy to its senses, to its concrete aesthetic encounter with nature. Only in such an encounter could nature’s natality or creativity shine through the superficial appearance of objective finitude.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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