Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com
German Thought


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Metacritique: The Linguistic Assault on German Idealism edited and translated by Jere Paul Surber (Humanity Books) The translations of essays and introduction in this volume provide for the first time in English the linguistic critique of transcendental philosophy as it was worked out in Germany in the ninetheenth century by J.G. Hamann, S. Maimon, F.H. Jacobi, and J.G. Herder. This metacritique of German idealism has an analogue in the British reaction to idealism that gave birth to analytical trends in twentieth century philosophy. Surbers essay and apt selections of key paasages from these neglected authors provides the Anglophone reader with an important glimpse of a powerful counterforce to German idealism.

From the editors introduction:

When reference is made to German philosophy in the last two decades of the eighteenth century, most people will immediately think of that tradition which has come to be called "German Idealism," along with its best-known representatives, I. Kant, J. G. Fichte, F. W. J. Schelling, and G. W. F. Hegel (the latter two, of course, only at very early stages of their careers by then). For many years, the usual historical scenario ran something like this. Kant, by his Critical Philosophy, not only decisively attacked the defects of the philosophical positions developed during the Enlightenment (often classified under the headings of "Rationalism" and "Empiricism"), but lie effected (by his own admission) a revolution in philosophy so complete as to clear the field of all other competitors. Thereafter, so the story runs, philosophy could only proceed by building upon the transcendental foundations established by Kant. Beginning with Fichte, who (at least early on) claimed to remain true to the "spirit" if not the "letter" of Kantian transcendental philosophy, any relevant or trenchant philosophical criticism of the Kantian philosophy was to be found only within the transcendental tradition which Kant himself inaugurated. In other words, the basic terms, distinctions, arguments, and systematic procedures employed by Kant were granted as, to a significant extent, valid by the later German Idealists, their differences therefore remaining, as it were, affairs under the roof of transcendental philosophy and its Idealist development. To conclude the tale, it was not until after Hegel's systematic completion of this tradition in his mature philosophy that new forms of critique, which did not accept, at least as a starting‑point, the Kantian transcendental turn, first became possible.

Without wanting to minimize the profound impact of Kant's Critical Philosophy on the history of philosophy or the depth of genuine philosophical insight of Kant's Idealist successors, one must today view such an account of that philosophical milieu with some misgivings. As a matter of historical fact, while Kant's Critical Philosophy certainly aroused a great deal of interest and often sympathy, even well beyond more narrowly philosophical circles, it was by no means the case that all critical resistance in the German‑speaking lands to Kant's transcendental mode of philosophizing or its later developments was decisively vanquished. In this respect, deserving of mention would be, at the least, the various continuing attempts to respond to Kantian critique on the part of both the rationalist and empiricist camps which he had attacked; the continuation of certain already well‑developed viewpoints which could not straightforwardly be associated with either of the above, most notably those of Herder, Hamann, and Jacobi; the so‑called "Popularphilosophen," who simply did not share Kant's underlying assumption that philosophy could or should ever strive to be "scientific"; such literary figures as Goethe and Schiller, for whom transcendental philosophy, while in many ways attractive, was never an end in itself; and, somewhat later, the early Romantiker who, though certainly influenced by Kantian transcendentalism in a general way, chose quite different though still philosophically significant modes of expression.

One might, of course, respond that all of the above examples of claimants to a part of the philosophical landscape of the late eighteenth century either ultimately failed in their attempts to respond effectively to Kant's Critical Philosophy or, for whatever reasons, made no serious attempt to do so. On such grounds, one might then be justified in regarding them as rightfully falling below the threshold of contemporary philosophical interest, if not of historiography. There is, however, at least one case which cannot be so easily dismissed; it was a strand of opposition to the Critical Philosophy and its progeny which quite self-consciously invoked Kant's own project in referring to itself as "Metakritik."

First employed by Johann Georg Hamann in a short essay in 1784, Metakritik (or, as we might anglicize this term, "Metacriticism") could in no way be accused of either ignoring the critical questions raised by Kant or of having failed, in any straightforward sense, to respond cogently to them. On the first count, all three of the works which form the core of this philosophical approach (the essays by Hamann, Salomon Maimon, and Johann Gottfried Herder translated in this volume) very directly and explicitly confront the transcendental standpoint represented by Kant and, by implication, his Idealist followers. Of course, like Kant in relation to the targets of his own critique, the rationalists and empiricists, they did not formulate their "metacritique" in terms which their opponents would likely have accepted as valid‑but explicitly confront the transcendental position they certainly did. On the second count, although the Metakritik does not appear to have deterred many of its contemporaries from adopting the "transcendental standpoint," a good deal of philosophical reflection in the twentieth century seems to stand decisively on its side against Kantian and later forms of transcendentalism. For Metakritik, in its most general sense, was nothing less than an attack, not just on the specific philosophical doctrines of Kantian Transcendental Idealism, but on the implicit linguistic assumptions operative in their very articulation. That is, the basic viewpoint of the Metakritik was that, whatever else Kantian transcendental philosophy might be, it must at least be a set of specific linguistic practices and constructions, a sort of "language-game" one might say today, concerning the "grounds for the possibility" of which it should be, in a way completely paralleling Kant's own arguments, fully appropriate to inquire. Of course, the critical point was not that the "transcendental game" could not be played; rather, it was that it could not have the significance which it claimed for itself‑that is, to constitute a final and complete presentation and analysis of "the grounds for the possibility of experience."

The Metacritics, then, clearly and decisively laid down the gauntlet to the transcendental philosophers and continued to press their case throughout the 1780s, 1790s, and even into the next century. In historical retrospect, what should surprise us is not their own failure to take transcendental philosophy seriously, but the dearth of cogent responses to their "counter-critique" on the part of mainstream German Idealism. In earlier writings, I have suggested that Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in his 1795 essay on language and in his lectures at Jena on Logic and Metaphysics, may have attempted to meet the metacritical challenge, though even in his case this remains a matter of conjecture? There is no evidence that Kant or Schelling made any such attempt; Hegel did concern himself with at least the basic issues, but only in a general and somewhat disjointed manner

To find a direct and fully developed response which is not merely a recitation of orthodox Kantian doctrine, we must look beyond the mainstream of German Idealism to two figures who are usually associated with the early Romantic circle, August Schlegel and August Ferdinand Bernhardi. Bernhardi, in particular, not only published a scathing review of Herder's version of Metakritik, certainly its fullest exposition, in 1799, but followed this review with a full‑blown Sprachlehre which appeared in two volumes, in 1801 and 1803 respectively. Along with Fichte's 1795 essay on language and his subsequent lectures, Bemhardi's work must be regarded as the most complete and self-standing response available from the point of view of German Idealism to the Metakritik.

Certainly Hamann, Maimon, and Herder, the three major practitioners of Metakritik, each had his own distinctive view and general approach to philosophical as well as linguistic issues. However, as Metakritiker, they formed a united front against the transcendental style of philosophizing, employing similar arguments against it while giving them their own characteristic emphases and drawing somewhat different conclusions concerning the nature of philosophical discourse from them.

The first, and fundamental, move of the metacritical approach was to establish that, whatever else a philosophical position might involve, it was necessarily bound up with a specific form of linguistic expression. This theme was sounded in at least three distinguishable registers, all of which can be found, in one form or another and with varying degress of emphasis, within the writings of all three authors.

First, even before it is articulated for a reader or audience, every thought‑process is intimately connected with the linguistic resources available to the individual thinker. While the Metakritiker would differ significantly as to the exact relation between language and thought, all were convinced that the linguistic resources available to any individual thinker played a decisive role in determining the content, form, and resulting style of thought. Even when viewed as "interior monologue," thinking, from a metacritical perspective, could only be the actualization of certain possibilities inherent in the language or languages available to the individual thinker. They would have had no problem understanding and agreeing with Wittgenstein's dictum, "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."

Second, when we speak of a philosophical viewpoint or position, we are ordinarily able to point to a specific body of texts in which it is articulated. Of course, an author may well assert that he or she has failed to express herself or himself adequately in any given text or body of texts, but the fact remains that the concrete linguistic articulation of a given viewpoint must be the "final word" so far as any reader or audience seeking access to the philosophical viewpoint is concerned. Again, this suggests the view, sometimes attributed to Wittgenstein, that "whatever can be thought can be said"5; to take his remark a step further in a direction of which he would probably have approved, however, the Metakritiker might have added, "If something is not in fact said in a text, then we can only remain silent about it."

Finally, both the "interior monologue" of the individual thinker and her or his articulation of this in a concrete set of statements accessible to others are ultimately based upon the historical existence and latent possibilities of a concretely existing language. Not only are there limits to what can be thought or articulated in a given language, but the language itself exists only as a set of possibilities determined within its own historical horizon. While none of the Metakritiker, with the possible exception of Herder at certain points in his development, would insist upon the radically historical nature of language, they would agree that the possibilities inherent in a given language are a result of a process of historical development, which both constrains, at any given point in time, what can be meaningfully thought or communicated, as well as contains specific possibilities for future development.

Tying all this together and relating it specifically to the Kantian Critical Philosophy, we can say that Metakriitik begins by asserting a "linguistic a priori" as more fundamental than and the ultimate condition for any subsequent assertion of a "conceptual" or "categorical a priori" of the sort advocated by Kantian transcendentalism. The Metakritiker would thus be the first to have opened the way for the objection that Kant's "Table of Categories," taken as the most basic determinations of experience, must be regarded as specific to European languages and would have been different had Kant spoken some language other than German or, more generally, an Indo‑European language. However, it is also significant that none of the Metakritiker wished to draw such extreme conclusions from this that would amount to what we today would call "linguistic relativism."

Between Kant & Hegel: Texts in the Development of Post-Kantian Idealism by George Di Giovanni, H. S. Harris, and George Di Giovanni (Hackett) fills a lamentable gap in the philosophical literature by providing a collection of writings from the pivotal generation of thinkers between Kant and Hegel. It includes some of Hegel's earliest critical writings-which reveal much about his thinking before the first mature exposition of his position in 1807-as well as Schelling's justification of the new philosophy of nature against skeptical and religious attack. This edition contains George di Giovanni's extensive corrections, new preface, and thoroughly updated bibliography. The collection of writings allows an important and too often overlooked  period in German philosophy to have some reasonable representation in English.

Contents: Preface. Part I: The Critical Philosophy and Its First Reception. Introduction: The Facts of Consciousness (Di Giovanni). K. L. Reinhold, The Foundation of Philosophical Knowledge. G. E. Schulze, from Aenesidemus. J. G. Fichte, Review of Aenesidemus. S. Maimon, from Letters of Philaletes to Aenesidemus. J. S. Beck, from The Standpoint from which Critical Philosophy is to be Judged.
Part II: The Critical Philosophy and the Critical Journal of Schelling and Hegel. Introduction: Skepticism, Dogmatism and Speculation in the Critical Journal. (Harris). Hegel & Schelling, The Critical Journal, Introduction: On the Essence of Philosophical Criticism Generally, and its Relationship to the Present State of Philosophy. G. W. F. Hegel, How the Ordinary Human Understanding Takes Philosophy (as Displayed in the Works of Mr. Krug). G. W. F. Hegel, Relationship of Skepticism to Philosophy, Exposition of its Different Modifications and Comparison to the Latest Form with the Ancient One. F. W. J. Schelling, On the Relationship of the Philosophy of Nature to Philosophy in General. Bibliography. Index.

FOR A PHILOSOPHY OF FREEDOM AND STRIFE: Politics, Aesthetics, Metaphysics by Gunter Figal, translated Wayne Klein ($19.95, paperback, 224 pages, SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, State Univeresty of New York Press, SUNY; ISBN: 0791436985)

"This book will take its rightful place as a leading contribution to the burgeoning resurgence of interest in political philosophy from a continental perspective. The author operates out of an hermeneutic perspective on political philosophy, but he has an original and radical understanding of hermeneutics and metaphysics. Figal's thesis is that ontology and metaphysics, rightfully understood, offer resources for political thought that go further than any other current theory to offer a positive account of e strife between individuality and community, freedom and truth, empowerment and violence, people and institutions, action and responsibility. The point that Figal makes in each of his essays is that this strife and the apparently contradictory poles that seem to make any coherent explanation of free political life impossible are actually what produce human community. The essays are impressive in their scope, spanning from hermeneutics to phenomenology to critical theory. Along the way Figal offers an enlightened discussion of modernity and such critics of modernity as Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Schmitt and Ernst Junger." Walter Brogan, Villanova University

This first book-length work of the prominent German philosopher Gunter Figal to appear in English offers a radical defense of metaphysical philosophy in the era of postmodern thought. For Figal, metaphysics does not represent an anachronistic and pernicious mode of thought that ought to be overcome but rather is a type of thinking that proceeds from a recognition of the necessary coherence of everything with its opposite. It is this agonistic relationship of opposites that Figal, following Heraclitus, terms strife. Rather than regarding the conflict of opposites as necessarily resulting in the dissolution of meaning and sense, as many contemporary thinkers maintain, Figal contends that sense and meaning can only come into existence metaphysically, that is to say, as a consequence of strife. And, the context within which strife occurs is freedom. Using these concepts of strife and freedom, Figal proposes new and provocative readings of Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, as well as of some of the most controversial figures of twentieth-century philosophy.

ON GENIUS: Affirmation and Denial from Schopenhauer to Wittgenstein by Jerry S. Clegg ($37.95, hardcover, Peter Lang Publishing; ISBN:082042370X)

One of the most significant events in European intellectual history of the last century and a half was the injection by Schopenhauer of a subjective brand of neoplatonism into post-kantian thought. This study first describes Schopenhauer's position by concentrating on his account of the Genius, and proceeds to trace reactions to that idea in the works of Nietzsche, Jung, Freud, and Wittgenstein. The author's goal is twofold: to resolve certain issues of interpretation regarding the positions of those following Schopenhauer, and to relate the history of a movement that encompassed both ordinary language philosophy, psychoanalysis, analytic psychology, and the work of Nietzsche.

In this study we follow the tracings of the history of an idea through a temporal arrangement of argument that encompasses diverse, competing stands, some of which eventually suffered repudiation by the pens of the contentious authors who first adopted them. Since it is an idea that has refused to recognize the borders of academic disciplines, the tracings of its origin, modifications, and apparent passing require of us to follow what, with the help of metaphor, could be called a spatial component to the arguments presented in and out of the variegated hallways of metaphysics, aesthetics, psychology, logic, and the philosophy of language. The tracings offer an intellectual travelogue of the idea of genius.

It is an idea that bears the title Kant gave to the artist who, in the free play of the imagination, stood midway between the two poles of our nature: our private, sensuous selves ruled by affect and desire, and our universal, rational faculties that observe without deviation the impersonal rules of logic and morality. So overlain by other, older qualities and identities did Kant's figure become, however, that his is but one facet of the idea so considered. They are profiles belonging to the history of neoplatonic thought: profiles that show that in defiance of our habit of talking of ourselves as living in a modern, even postmodern age, we- or those who have spoken most forcefully for us- have been for more that a century obsessed with a medieval and classical set of conceptions of who, what, and where we are. This study offers some surprises and some consistencies of thought about the nature of human ability.


A revolving, kaleidoscopic, but always recognizable theme in Schopenhauer's writings, and the one that dictates their organization and imparts their message, is the division of the whole of life into facets that are merely common, ordinary, and of little or no worth at all, and those that are rare, extraordinary, and of surpassing, salvational value. In his dour pages sketches of our everyday, plodding, repetitive existence are interrupted by accounts of quickening epiphanies that bring solace to the gifted. In them our ordinary, mutually unintelligible languages are contrasted to singular, universal ones that cannot be voiced or grasped in ways any familiar understanding can emulate, even comprehend. There, too, our callings are parted into the mundane and the sublime. Our usual mode of perception is contrasted to a rare and lofty type. Our arts are treated in kind. So, indeed, are the stages our civilization has taken.

The steady axis around which these paired dualisms rotate is polar as well. It consists of a cleavage between the ordinary person and the Genius. It is the Genius who has a developed capacity to experience epiphanies, to express what cannot be said in natural languages, to practice in the highest callings, to see as no animal can, and to give a stamp of enlightenment and spiritual power to those arts and eras he dominates. It is the ordinary man or woman who leads a dull existence, who understands only such languages as English or German, whose preferences are low and utilitarian, who senses as animals do, and whose cultural life is but an artificial reinforcement of a natural bondage.

The portrait Schopenhauer paints of the hero genius of his writings owes some of its hues but far from all to his readings in Indian philosophy. The Genius stands to the ordinary person as a Buddhist or Hindu jivanmukta (enlightened soul) stands to a jiva (mere soul). He is freed of animal desires, rather than chained to them. He is a passive observer who dwells in an eternal present, rather than an active participant in life driven by regrets about the past and hopes for the future. He is also infinite, rather than merely finite, and so is, apart from his mortal nature, God or atman. Above all he understands as others do not how the universe is structured. It is that understanding that is at once the agent of his liberation from the mundane and the evidence for his extraordinary identity, for his success in finding what is hidden from the ordinary man shows him to be more than merely human. But it is here that the Genius ceases to be in any primal way an exotic jivanmukta. Western philosophy, particularly the works of Plato, Plotinus, Berkeley and Kant from whom, of course, came his title supply the content of what it is that he knows.

Schopenhauer stresses as a cardinal tenet of his creed that there are daunting, virtually lethal barriers to the acquisition of the truths the Genius knows. Yet they can be had readily enough by reading The World as Will and Representation, a work that casts itself as a ladder offering access to a "summit of knowledge" and so as revealing in words what the deepest "philosophical discernment," should a reader ever really come to possess it, would corroborate. Its basic tenet is that of philosophical idealism: the senses create their own objects. Without the pulpy masses of the brains of animals there would be no world. There is a cosmogonal kinship between the imagination, which can create at will whatever images it likes, and our organs of sight, hearing, smell and touch. That kinship goes unrecognized by the average man because he can control what he imagines but not what he senses, and so finds the first a figment, the second a fact. Yet his finding is flawed. Berkeley once explained why:

... whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by sense have not a like dependence on my will. When in broad daylight I open my eyes, it is not in my power to choose whether I shall see or no, or to determine what particular objects shall present themselves to my view; and so likewise as to hearing and other senses; the ideas imprinted on them are not creatures of my will. There is therefore some other Will or Spirit that produces them.

Jerry S. Clegg is Professor of Philosophy at Mills College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington. In addition to numerous articles in professional journals, he has also written the highly respected introduction to the platonic constructive project, The Structure of Platonic Philosophy (Associated University Press).

Headline 3

insert content here