books Philosophy

Revolution, Reaction, and Re-Integration: Vittorio Hösle’s “A Short History of German Philosophy”

German philosophy is one of the core epochs/areas of the history of Western Philosophy, along with Ancient (Greek and Hebrew), Christian, and Early Modern and Modern (and possibly Islamic depending on whether one considers Islamic philosophy and theology, premised on Platonism and Aristotelianism, and Abrahamic lineage as Western). All students of philosophy, at least at an undergraduate level, will likely touch upon thinkers in all these eras as part of the core of any history of philosophy study. The most interest of all the philosophers, with much controversy, are the Germans.

Why is this so?

There are two prevailing narratives of German philosophy (by German, I mean German Romanticism and Idealism, and their outgrowth influences upon Marxism, Existentialism, and Reactionary thought; e.g. Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Spengler, and Schmitt). The first narrative, a narrative commonly found in the Analytic and Anglosphere (liberal) traditions, is that German philosophy was a rebellion against reason and the Enlightenment. Per Romanticism, there was a favoritism toward passion and emotion. With Hegel, the grandest of the German philosophers and arguably the most important philosopher of the last 200 years, there is an attempt to prevent the “death of God” from becoming a reality. In  Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy , William Barrett noted that the existentialists were the direct inheritors of the romantic philosophical tradition—to which most of the German philosophers either belong to explicitly or have significant inheritance and influence from. There is also the view among liberal theorists that German Romanticism and Idealism played a role in fostering the seeds that eventually culminated with fascism.

The second narrative, common among Continental philosophers and proper scholars of the German philosophers—like Frederick Beiser at Syracuse—is that German Romanticism and Idealism was really a revolt against the materialist rationality of Spinozistic Monism and the influence that materialism and monism wrought in the aftermath of Hobbes and Locke, e.g. the universalist bourgeois ethos that transcends culture, religion, and ethnicity in pursuit of material advancement. With Johann Hamann, the German Romantics begin a slow attempt to advance the “higher reason” (höher als alle Vernunft). The Romantics and Idealists, it is claimed, are extremely rational, but seek to liberate reason from the shackles of materialism which binds and constricts reason only to materiality. Eventually, Hegel comes along and systematizes the romantic tradition into his Idealism that provides a single form of operational function: Positive Concept, Negative Concept, and Synthetic Concept (or the Dialectic: Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis which comes from Johann Fichte actually).

Vittorio Hösle, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, captures the heart of German Philosophy with his own polemical inserts and twists into the story. (For instance, he believes Hegel to be a constitutional liberal, sharply breaking with the conventional readings of Hegel as either being a precursor to German authoritarianism and totalitarianism—inevitably—or the Left-Hegelian readings that inspired Marx.) Regardless of Prof. Hösle’s inserted polemic (like also claiming it is absurd to read Hegel as a historicist), he has done an immense job in producing a concise work that tracks the main trajectories of German philosophy from Meister Eckhart to Jurgen Habermas.

With Eckhart, one notes that the foundation of German philosophy—if it has one—is rooted in rebellion. Eckhart rebelled against Latin Catholic and scholastic universalism, also being an early writer in the vernacular which is Hösle’s basis for what constitutes “German philosophy.” It is no surprise that Germany, then, becomes the epicenter of the Protestant Reformation.

In Hösle’s narrative, we see the building blocks of German philosophy as a search for meaning and system that sets it apart from the rest. Apart from Catholic Realism and Scholasticism on one hand, and also the empiricism and monist rationalism that will characterize much of “Enlightenment” philosophy in the Anglosphere and Western Europe (especially France). The apogee of the book is certainly the chapters of the Romantics (Chapter 6) and the Idealists (Chapter 7). He covers all the important figures: Hamann, Herder, Lessing, Humboldt, Fichte, Schlegel, and Hegel, etc. It is in this epoch that German philosophy systematized itself with the birth of German Idealism. German Idealism was, as Professor Hösle notes, the culmination of the search for a system and meaning that had plagued German philosophy for hundreds of years.

But it failed, ultimately.

In the aftermath of the failure emerged the Left-Hegelians, Feuerbach, Marx and litany of important writers who were waging war against bourgeois materialism. Marx, most profound, rejected the de-humanizing and atomizing tendencies of bourgeois liberalism. Although, Marx (being influenced by Rousseau too), can only counter with another materialist philosophy that merely attempts to preserve the bonds of solidarity.

Moving through Nietzsche and Heidegger, we see reactionary philosophers who are troubled with how to deal with the reality of nihilism. (Nihilism, in philosophy, is not just the absence of values and meaning in life, but also the destruction of such values and meanings that brings about nihilism). Nietzsche, of course, offers a unique solution to the problem of Christian morality (which enslaves the will to the ethics of pity and compassion) and the crisis of bourgeois materialism as leading to the catatonic mentality of “the Last Man.” For Nietzsche, the “will to power” is the essence of his Übermensch philosophy. It is not, as some wrongly think, a superior race or ethnicity of people. The “Overman” for Nietzsche is simply the man who self-actualizes his liberated will. Nihilism, for Nietzsche, is both a blessing and curse. It is a blessing because the will is totally free from all constraints. It is a curse because if one slumbers and subverts his will to Christianity’s “slave morality” of the materialist ethos of the bourgeoisie (hence becoming the “Last Man” who is only concerned with economic security, e.g. the “Rational Consumerism” celebrated in today’s capitalist ideology), then the living man is barely alive. One must recognize the freedom of will to simply will oneself a future.

Heidegger, of course, offers a different alternative rooted in his ideas of Bodenständigkeit (deep roots) which is the basis of one’s Dasein (being-in-the-world). Heidegger seeks authenticity to the crisis of nihilism. The authentic individual is the individual who is “connected” (so to speak) with the roots of heritage and culture. Of course, in this era is also Husserl’s Phenomenology of Consciousness, and after Nietzsche and Heidegger the national socialist philosophers, such as Gehlen and Schmitt. This chapter is critically important for understanding how the reactionary turn in the philosophies of Nietzsche and Heidegger (especially Heidegger) were appropriated for national socialist anthropology and thinking; this, again, is not to say philosophy was to blame for national socialism but certainly made the intellectual environmental possible. Following this, we see in Habermas and the post-war German philosophers an attempt to reconcile back with the rest of Europe and America—the “adaptation to normality” as Hösle describes it.

Although this book asserts to be a work accessible to the lay person, I must inject that I disagree. A serious student of philosophy might not gleam anything “new” in this work, since it is something of an introduction. However, those without a firm grasp of German Romanticism and Idealism (in particular), as well as the Phenomenologists (when he discusses Husserl and especially Heidegger), might find themselves put off by Hösle’s constant use of German, block pages of text, and name-dropping of important ideas with minimal explanation as to what it all means in application.

Thus, the book is something of a companion survey to those trained in German Romanticism and Idealism, who will be able to read Hösle’s work and be able to “connect the dots” with what they know of the philosophers he is covering. He attempts to bring forth an accessible survey of many of the important philosophers of the last 250 years who are part of the “German philosophical tradition,” but ultimately this should not be read by anyone without a decent knowledge of the figures and ideas that are all at work and in interplay with each other.

Nevertheless, the book is a good introduction and survey to those with some training and knowledge on the subject matter. It is always nice to own such works, rather than having to recourse back to all the works of Hamann, Herder, Fichte, Hegel, Husserl, or Heidegger. In that sense, the book is worthwhile.

Hösle tracks a narrative of German philosophy that is valuable, and is certainly accessible to an undergraduate philosophy student; or a truly serious layperson. We see German philosophy as rebellion, reaction, and reintegration; perhaps a fitting irony to the tripartite dialectic the Germans bequeathed to the history of philosophy.

This review is from my Amazon review of Vittorio Hosle’s A Short History of German Philosophy.

Vittorio Hösle, A Short History of German Philosophy

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