Sunday, January 31, 2010

An example of why 19th century German philosophy was more insightful than Anglo-American philosophy.

After putting it down for a long time I've come back to "The Romantic Imperative" by Frederick C. Beiser, a book all about the philosophical ideas of the early 19th century Romantic thinkers in Germany. These folks were taking on the world in general and weren't purely limited to aesthetic criticism. They followed in the philosophical tradition of Kant and of the current that would be known as Absolute Idealism.

In the section on Friedrich Schlegel, Beiser reproduces and condenses a fragment of a notebook that Schlegel wrote concerning the philosopher Fichte. Fichte proposes as a first principle that the Ego posits itself absolutely, meaning that the ego has to identify itself as the absolute ground of experience for the person involved, which is not the same as the cogito of Descartes. This means that the ego is a transcendent entity that trumps all experience because of it indicates a higher order of reality. Schlegel writes why not say that the non-ego posits itself absolutely, and there begins the real meat of the insight, an insight that goes beyond what comparable streams of thought bring to the table.

Although Fichte's idea is pretty abstract in that it's a modification of Kant's ideas about the nature of the self in relation to experience and to the outside world, the rough outline of it is recognizable to folks who are familiar with English and American philosophy: we have an 'I' that posits or has an idea of itself that it is absolute reality. What, though, does the idea that the non-ego posits itself as absolute mean? Isn't the ego the 'I', the mind, the self, the thing that thinks? How could a non-I posit itself or exist outside of the ego? Well here's how.

The Germans had a great tradition in the late 18th and early 19th century of taking apart the mind into its component parts in philosophical analysis in order to get a better handle on what exactly the basis for our experience of the world, and our knowledge of ourselves was. Complete abstraction in the sense of formalism was rejected and replaced by a more nuanced notion of how the mind fitted together, with Kant leading the way in his Critiques. It's a little strange to talk about the self and the nature of the self and yet dismiss as irrelevant the experienced portions of the self that contribute to what you're talking about. Anyways, through this process of analysis the idea came up of a difference between the ego and the thing that does the thinking. Descartes might have declared that "I think, therefore I am", but who's to say that the thing doing the thinking is the I? Couldn't it be that the actual machinery of thought itself exists independently of the I and is only brought into relation with the I at certain times, the rest of the time existing as a sort of function that exists outside of our self? And what is our self anyways? Are we conscious of being our self at all moments or just at certain times? Of course it can be said that the self is another faculty of feature that exists outside of both the I and of the non-I parts of thought. Do I as an I will everything that I do with full consciousness, or do I sometimes choose actions and respond to things with less than full self consciousness that I'm doing them. This could be seen as indicating another aspect of the mind altogether and not just a sort of Freudian take on subconscious wills and drives. In any case, following Kant it seems that in many cases the doer is not what we'd consider to be the I, yet its activity means that it could in fact posit itself as being the absolute. The non-I functions of the mind, the fact that we have them, could be indicators of the absolute reality outside of our minds, one that may be more fundamental than that which would be thought of if the I was used as the measure.

I think we've gone into territory that English and American philosophy in the mainstream has tended to avoid. It's territory that in my opinion is richer and more sophisticated than what we have today, and is possibly what we'd need to reinvigorate philosophy as a whole here.

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