LEV SHESTOV \ Speculation and Revelation


A review of Richard Kroner's Von Kant bis Hegel, 2 vols. (Tübingen: Verlag von J.C.B. Mohr, Paul Siebeck, 1921-24);
and Die Selbstverwirklichung des Geistes (Tübingen, Derselbe Verlag, 1928).

Published in Put, no. 27 (April 1931)

     Richard Kroner's enormous merit lies in the fact that for him philosophy is not an interesting intellectual exercise but a matter of vital importance, as it was for the greatest representatives of German idealism who are discussed in his books. That is why his two-volume work Von Kant bis Hegel is not a work on the history of philosophy, more precisely, not merely a work on the history of philosophy. It contains a superb account of that philosophical movement in the Germany of the years between 1781 and 1821 (that is, between the appearance of Kant's Kritik der reinen Vernunft and Hegel's Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts) which is called German idealism. But the task the author sets himself goes far beyond the boundaries of historical exposition. Kroner writes: "Is metaphysics impossible? What in general is metaphysics? The present work would like to serve the discussion of this problem which is the most decisive for all philosophy, the most burning for the human mind in general, and the one that moves it most deeply, so far as a historical work can do this" (Vol. 1:26).

     The history of mankind, in Kroner's view, knows no other epoch in which philosophical thinking achieved such a tension as in the forty years in Germany that have been indicated. Even Greece can not be compared with Germany, for the development of Greek philosophical thought required much more time than did that of Germany. Through the whole epoch, according to Kroner, there passes something reminiscent of the eschatological expectations in the time of nascent Christianity. He quotes a series of passages from the writings, letters and lectures of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel which bear indisputable witness that the creators of German idealism perceived their destiny as revealing to mankind the final mysteries and enigmas of being. It would perhaps not be useless to recall here only those words with which Hegel concluded his inaugural lecture at the University of Berlin (on 22 October, 1818): "The courage of truth, belief in the power of the spirit, is the first condition of philosophical study; man ought to esteem himself and regard himself as worthy of the highest. Of the magnitude and power of the spirit he cannot think highly enough. The closed essence of the universe has in itself no power that could carry on resistance to the courage of cognition; it must open itself before it and reveal its wealth and its depths to it and put them to use."

     Kroner's books, too, are imbued and animated with this thought. In opposition to the view represented by German philosophers in the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries (Liebmann; Lange; Riehl; the so-called Marburg School with Hermann Cohen at its head; and even, to a considerable degree, Windelband and Rickert), Kroner does not agree to consider Kant both the founder and completer of philosophical idealism. Of course, he is least of all inclined to dispute the enormous significance and the exceptional originality of Kantian thought and in no way seeks to diminish Kant's importance in the history of the philosophical development of mankind. In his view, Kant, although he was a son of his time, although he was bound up with the Age of the Enlightenment and even, in a certain sense, was himself an enlightener, nevertheless stood so high above the thinking of his age that he will for a long time still serve as the guiding star of scientific philosophical work.

     But, in spite of this, Kant is for Kroner only the beginning of the movement; its end was not Kant but Hegel. Kroner writes that Windelband once said that to understand Kant means to go beyond Kant. Of Hegel one must say that to understand him means to recognize that it is impossible to go beyond him. If an "after Hegel" should somehow be fated to arise, then this would be the beginning of something completely new. Hegel's philosophy is a synthesis of the two greatest world-historical powers of the spirit: in it antiquity and Christianity mutually permeate one another to a degree that was never before the case. Hegel's Encyclopedia, in which Kroner finds the richest and most perfect expression of German idealism, closes with the well-known thought of Aristotle quoted in the original on the theme "contemplation is the most pleasurable and best" (hê theôria to hêdiston kai ariston), as if the merging of the Greek and German spirit should be characterized thereby. In the Hegelian philosophy everything that his predecessors created was recast into one grandiose system whose like we shall not find in the whole history of philosophical thought.

     Kant took the first decisive step. "The conditions of the possibility of experience in general are at the same time conditions of the possibility of the object of experience" - these words of Kant contain the kernel of his entire philosophy. In them his thinking discloses itself as logical-ontological thinking. To the basic question of the theory of knowledge, How is it possible to cognize what exists? Kant replies: Cognition is possible because what exists rests on the same principles as cognition of what exists. To be sure, this thought is far from carried through in Kant's works with the desired tenacity and consistency. Even Fichte and Schelling lacked the resoluteness to carry it through fully in their systems. Only Hegel "thought Kant through to the end."

     In general the curve of development of German idealism from Kant to Hegel may be represented in the following way. Kant formulated the thought of the opposition of idea and matter. But in him this opposition is not a congealed and unchangeable one. In him is already felt the striving to bring these opposed principles together, to merge them, to reconcile them, whereby the idea is given a more and more pre-eminent significance. It becomes the systematic principle that embraces itself and its opposite, matter. Alongside this pair of opposites there is observed in the development of Kantian thinking still another pair of opposites: the I and the world. Both pairs are close to one another. In the I the idea meets with matter. At the beginning of the Kantian development matter presents itself as something standing over against the I and alien to it, and the idea is the means that gives the I the possibility of mastering matter. The result of this process of mastering are the worlds which are generated through knowledge, moral activity, the creativeness of genius: the worlds of nature, of freedom, of art. But the opposition between the I and its worlds, in the course of development, loses its sharp, irreconcilable character. Since matter is more and more embraced by the idea and drawn into it, the worlds correspondingly are transferred more and more into the I. The I itself is compelled to transfer them into itself; it has no need to go beyond its own boundaries in order to seize the matter that is foreign to it. Matter from the very beginning is understood as something placed in the I and by the I itself, so that the worlds are converted into spheres of the I that develops in them but it remains itself. By this the I also grows, as it were, and is no longer one of the two opposites, i.e., it transforms itself from a finite into an infinite, from a relative into an absolute principle.

     On the path on which the thinking of idealism moved there was a moment when it deviated somewhat from its fundamental task and its point of departure. The I again attempted to transfer the center of gravity into its opposite, into the world. It seemed that the absolute I could obtain its recognition and achieve its legality only if the world's due right to participation in the absolute were acknowledged and assured beforehand. This deviation from the purely idealistic line shows with full clarity that the I which rises above opposition to the world is already not a human but a divine I, living in the utmost depth of our being. Thinking completes its task only when, having returned from the world to itself, it recognizes God as its primordial, inner essence and, in its turn, constructs the world anew out of God. Such is the great and exalted path traversed by German idealism. In Kant thinking directs itself to itself in order to find in itself, in the I, the foundation of the world. In Fichte it discloses at the foundation of the I - God. In Schelling it is inclined to seek God directly in the world, passing over the I (an approximation to Giordano Bruno and Spinoza). In Hegel it ends with building up the world, worlds, out of the absolute or divine I.

     It would be a mistake to think that Kant's point of view corresponds more than that of Fichte or Hegel to the strict demands of logical exactness, since Kant based it on experience and on facts. These criteria in general cannot be applied to a philosophy which, like that of Kant, sees its highest principles in ideas belonging to a sphere altogether different from any kind of experience and that sets for itself the task of investigating the "conditions of the possibility of every kind of experience" - for the sake of which it must inevitably rise above every experience. Kroner strives to show that Kant's great followers went beyond the boundaries of his philosophical achievements because they understood him better than he himself. Only after Kant displayed the finite I in its extra-worldliness, in its superworldliness, could Fichte and Hegel grasp God Himself as an I, as the absolute I. Kroner concludes his book in the following way: "Therefore, Hegel, after he had demonstrated the identity of revealed religion and the philosophy that grasps itself, attached to the end of the Encyclopedia the famous thesis of the Aristotelian metaphysics, as it were in order to seal the merging of the Greek and the German spirit carried through in his system."

     Such is the content of Kroner's book Von Kant bis Hegel, rendered approximately in his own words and with the fullness that is possible in a brief notice. His second book, Die Selbstverwirklichung des Geistes (Prolegomena zur Kulturphilosophie) is, in general, a development of ideas of a similar order. In it Kroner, however, considers the newest philosophical tendencies and, following Hegel's example, adopts from them everything that he found most valuable (the influence of Husserl is particularly noticeable). To subject Kroner's view of German idealism and his relation to it to a detailed critical analysis in a brief review is impossible and, indeed, perhaps unnecessary; I have had occasion to speak sufficiently about Kant and Hegel in the pages of the Revue Philosophique ("Parmenide enchaîné," July - August, 1930. See also my book Potestas Clavium.) I shall therefore limit myself to a few remarks.

     In discussing Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, Kroner deliberately passes over the later Fichte and the Schelling of the second period. He also deliberately says nothing about Schopenhauer, although he assigns not a little space to Reinhold, Jacobi, Salomon Maimon, and other dii minores of German philosophy. He justifies this on the basis that his task here was to pursue the ideas that found their completion in Hegel's system. A serious justification, of course, and deserving full attention. But in the deviations of the thinking of Fichte and Schelling from the straight paths of consistent idealism, as well as in the philosophy of Schopenhauer (and also, by the way, in some of the "contradictions" of Kant which Kroner so relentlessly exposes in his book), not a little material has accumulated that, even from the viewpoint of people best disposed toward idealism, will always represent a threat to the Hegelian system and that reveals its close relationship to, and dependence on, the structure of Spinoza's thought. If Kroner had managed to deal with these "deviations," his constructions would, perhaps, have lost in sense of proportion but would have gained in completeness and, it is likely, in persuasiveness.

     Second: Kroner sees in world-philosophy a merging of the spirit of antiquity with Christianity. With this it is hardly possible to agree. To be sure Hegel himself asserted in his history of philosophy that there is not one thesis of Heraclitus that he would not accept in his logic. This is correct. But Hegel himself would hardly have asserted that there is not one thesis of Holy Scripture that he would not turn into his system. Even the above-mentioned conclusion of his Encyclopedia - a long quotation in the original from Aristotle's Metaphysics - testifies not so much about the merging in his system of the spirit of antiquity with Christianity as about the fact that in him antiquity swallowed up Christianity completely. It is in no way possible to agree with Kroner that "the Logos of theology, the Logos of John, is the Logos of logic: the Logos everywhere can only be one and the same" (2:296). Also it is hardly correct that "spirit" in Hegel has the same meaning as "spirit" in the evangelists. In Hegel, as in Kant, nothing or almost nothing of faith remained. Although to Kant belong the famous words, "I therefore had to abolish knowledge in order to obtain place for faith," again "faith" in Kant, like "Logos" and "spirit" in Hegel, has a specific meaning far removed from that meaning which Holy Scripture gives to "faith." Also Kroner's words, "The creation of the critical philosophy signifies the first building of a philosophy out of the pure spirit of Protestant Christianity" (ibid., p. 257), can be accepted only cum grano salis. Accordingly, one can also hardly agree with Kroner when he defends the Hegelian philosophy against the reproach of rationalism. Hegel, he says, is "an irrationalist, because he teaches that the concept moves itself and because the self-movement of the concept... as he declares, includes its self-destruction. He is an is-rationalist because he is a dialectician, because the dialectic of methodically, rationally made-up irrationalism itself - because dialectical thinking is rational-irrational thinking. People (L. Feuerbach) called the Hegelian philosophy 'rational mysticism,' whereby its dual character was in fact successfully expressed. One does not need in this connection to appeal to Hegel's own explicit expressions; every page of his writings gives testimony about this" (ibid., p. 272).

     All this is so; these words contain much that is true. I think that Hegel himself would readily have subscribed to them. Nevertheless, rationalism remains rationalism, and whatever material may come into its hands, it will rework it rationalistically. Spinoza's philosophy was also called rationalist mysticism or mystical rationalism. Indeed, the essence of rationalism consists in man's profound conviction that it is given to his "thinking" to reveal the essence of the universe, to grasp its depths and to take possession of all its treasures, as Hegel said in his inaugural address at the University of Berlin.

     In general, Kroner's books are excellent books. They are written with great animation, with honest enthusiasm, and with a mastery and factual knowledge that are rare even among the foremost scholars of Germany. I think that it will be no exaggeration if I say that Von Kant bis Hegel is the best of all that has been written on German Idealism.

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