Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tips for understanding Kant and Hegel:

Number one: read Aristotle and Plato. Both Kant and Hegel lived in a worldview that was shaped by classical philosophy to a much greater extent than the English philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries. The reason has to do with a split that occurred in the 17th century between the worlds of English and German philosophy due to a difference of opinion between Locke and Leibnitz about Empiricism as it was applied to psychology and life.

Locke wrote the very famous "Essay Concerning Human Understanding", which tried to answer the question "How is it that we come up with the  things that we think we know?", advocating looking much more closely at the process with a critical eye in order to sort out what was justifiable to believe in and what was not. Leibnitz responded with the book "New Essays Concerning Human Understanding", that from the start accused Locke of devaluing the depth and breadth of human experience, of human psychology, in order to prove his points. This can be seen as an accusation of reductionism on the part of Leibnitz, and accusation that the empirical or analytic method when applied to human beings, the human world, and human thought would continue on through the centuries. Leibnitz advocated a more complicated way of looking at the human experience  that would take into account what he saw as the complexities and problems that Locke glossed over.

In this, Leibnitz was following the tradition of the Renaissance humanists, who tried to look at all of the knowledge relating to their subjects, and who followed the Classical philosophers in this. Although Aristotle and Plato wrote works having to do with politics and works having to do with metaphysics, if you look at how they treated their subjects they don't obey any of the clean rules of classification that we have today. If you look at Aristotle's politics, you get a little bit of economics, some moral theory having to do with ideas of justice (gone into in much greater detail in the Nicomachean Ethics), and the divisions he makes regarding government don't correspond to our own at all. There's no strict division between public and private, no notion that government should be strictly limited in areas that it has a right to deal with. Everything is treated as forming part of a cohesive whole, one that Aristotle is not presenting in one book only because it's split across his  work as a whole. This sense of interconnectedness was resurrected by the Renaissance, and incorporated into its worldview.

Leibnitz, as the dominant figure of all of German speaking intellectual life in the 17th century, had a lot of influence, and because of this the more careful, classical, Renaissance mindset was preserved in the German speaking world--with alterations of course--to a greater degree than in the English world, that went gradually further and further away.  Because of this, there's more of a classical worldview in Kant and Hegel's work than there is in, say, Hume's or Jeremy Bentham's.

*on edit: it turns out that the New Essays themselves weren't published until 1765, meaning that although they expressed the ideas, Leibniz criticism came through in other writings.

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