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Beiser, Frederick C. The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism 1796-1880.

BEISER, Frederick C. The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism 1796-1880. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. xiii + 624 pp. Cloth, 75.00 [pounds sterling]--Neo-Kantianism began with an 1865 polemic entitled Kant und die Epigonen excoriating the metaphysical excesses of Naturphilosophie. With the rallying cry, Zuruck zu Kant!, Otto Liebmann thus ushered in a spiritual rebirth of Kantianism, reestablishing philosophy as a sober epistemological reflection on empirical science.

Such, at least, is the received view; in fact, neo-Kantianism began over sixty-five years earlier, while Kant was still alive. When Liebmann penned his polemic--which did not contain the quotable slogan, but the less pithy, "Es muss auf Kant zuruckgegangen werden"--neo-Kantianism was already a dominant philosophical force in German-speaking Europe. Nor did neo-Kantians abandon metaphysical, religious, moral, or existential questions for that dry "university philosophy" dismissed by Lebensphilosophen. While most neo-Kantians revered the empirical sciences and harbored critical attitudes toward Naturphilosophie, many defended metaphysical theses and critically engaged with Schopenhauer's pessimism. Some sought aesthetic foundations for morality and religion, following the romantics, while others tried to resurrect virtue ethics in a Kantian framework.

These are some of the many welcome correctives to conventional historical wisdom provided by Frederick Beiser's considerable new volume, which traces neo-Kantianism from the late eighteenth century to its culmination in the late nineteenth. Beiser thus provides much needed perspective on one of the most important philosophical movements of the last two centuries, one which influenced Schlick, Carnap, and Reichenbach no less than Heidegger, Benjamin, Merleau-Ponty, and Foucault.

Too often, however, the legacy of neo-Kantianism is confined to the Marburg and Southwest schools--or to some of their more notable ideas, for instance, the critique of psychologism, the Naturwissenschaften-Geisteswissenschaften distinction. Not only does this obscure our understanding of the history of philosophy, it also deprives our own philosophical debates of the insights of the many other neo-Kantians who were as influential in the nineteenth century as they are overlooked in our own. Beiser rectifies these errors.

In part 1, Beiser describes neo-Kantianism as a reaction to the "dogmatic" metaphysics of Rheinhold, Ficthe, Schelling, and Hegel, as well as the "identity crisis" in philosophy, stemming from the successes of natural science, which appeared to leave little room for philosophy. Jakob Friedrich Fries, Johann Friedrich Herbart, and Friedrich Eduard Beneke all sought to reestablish natural science as the pinnacle of human reason, while adapting its empirical methods into a genuinely philosophical reflection on knowledge. This is the heart of Beiser's account, outlining what he calls the "lost tradition": the sophisticated and under-appreciated psychological interpretations of Kant that set the terms of neo-Kantianism for almost a century.

Part 2 deals with neo-Kantianism's "coming of age" period. This is marked by philosophy's ongoing "identity crisis," Kuno Fischer's dispute with Adolf Trendelenburg, the Materialismusstreit, and neo-Kantianism's continuing struggle to define itself with respect to Hegelianism, especially in the writings of Fischer and Eduard Zeller.

Part 2 also contains chapters on Friedrich Albert Lange and the forgotten Jurgen Bona Meyer, whose program Beiser describes as '"the last great hurrah of the psychological interpretation of Kant." And, in an impressive vindication of Liebmann's legacy, Beiser describes Liebmann's critique of psychologicism, foreshadowing the Marburgers, and his incisive critique of positivism. The latter is especially noteworthy in light of current interest in neo-Kantian alternatives to logical empiricism.

Part 3 returns the reader to more familiar territory, with chapters on the origins of the Marburg and Southwest schools, respectively. But Beiser does not shoehorn his account into the received narrative: Cohen's Kants Theorie der Erfahrung is treated in its historical specificity, while the next chapter enlivens Wilhelm Windelband's overlooked moral and political philosophy. The final chapter is devoted to Alois Riehl, a prominent exponent of the realist school of neo-Kantianism.

Given how little known it is today, the realist school deserves more attention than it is accorded in Beiser's account overall. And while he rightly devotes more space to early progenitors of the "lost tradition" than to Hermann von Helmholtz's physiological Kantianism--which has been documented elsewhere--there is surprisingly little mention of Leonard Nelson, who helped to resuscitate Fries's legacy in the early twentieth century.

Beiser also writes as if the critique of psychologism were somehow inevitable. A more substantive engagement with the distinctions between fact and value and discovery and justification might have complicated this narrative. One could draw here on conceptual resources provided by the history of philosophy of science and naturalized epistemology.

Finally, Kant scholars may be frustrated by the implicit interpretation of Kant that informs much of Beiser's narrative. Little deference is given to recent realist and metaphysical readings or those suggesting that Kant does not have a normative conception of logic.

However, such shortcomings are more than outweighed by the scope and timeliness of Besier's achievement. Neo-Kantianism is enjoying a renaissance in a number of areas. Continuing debates about the fate of Kantian philosophy will benefit greatly from the richness of Beiser's account. Zuruck zu Neukantianismus!--M. Anthony Mills, Washington, D.C.
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Author:Mills, M. Anthony
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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