Frederick Beiser is, in my opinion, the most interesting historian of philosophy working today. Through a wide range of publications he has single-mindedly executed the job of introducing English speakers to the treasures of post-Kantian German philosophy, an era and region of thought bizarrely understudied in light of its tremendous influence. He wrote what I consider the best introduction to the notoriously opaque philosopher Hegel: Hegel, from Routledge. my favorite of his works is The History of German Historicism, but he’s probably best known for The Fate of Reason, a book in part about the immediate context and reception of Kant. I like his work so much that I’m spacing out the volumes I haven’t read in the same way I’m spacing out my consumption of the remaining Jeeves novels from P.G. Wodehouse, or Mark Twain’s historical fiction. I just find them so delightful that I need to know I still have one waiting for me when I need it. Recently I allowed myself the treat of Beiser’s After Hegel—and it was predictably awesome.
I know what you’re thinking: the “history of post-Kantian German philosophy” doesn’t exactly sound like catnip. Well partly that’s because you’re not a professional philosopher and I am: but even besides the topic of Beiser’s research, he’s also an expositor with a genius for clarity. I think I would read him for pleasure even if I’d never come to grad school. Let me just give you one example of what I mean.
Where most histories of philosophy are organized by thinker, topic, or theory, Beiser tends to organize his books around controversies. Organizing an intellectual history around a controversy gives a narrative shape to the exposition of individual thinkers and their theories, making it easier to pay attention and remember. It also has the useful effect of flattening our current canon. Only in such a context can we non-anachronistically assess the significance of a famous thinker’s contribution in their own time; and often such a context reveals that we’re re-litigating old disputes. (For example the correspondence that was conducted immediately after Descartes wrote his Meditations and then published in the back of the book adumbrates nearly every major criticism of his arguments that decades of scrutiny would subsequently re-invent.)
This virtue of Beiser’s method of exposition is fully on display in After Hegel. As you might suppose from the title, it’s about German philosophy after Hegel up until it gets famous again at the beginning of the 20th century. But in between 1831, when Hegel died, and 1900, Beiser convincingly argues that some of the most important trajectories of modern philosophy were determined by a set of controversies about the nature of philosophy, the limits of scientific knowledge, the truth of materialism, the status of history as a science, and the advisability of pessimism about life.
I’m not going to go deeply into any of these things; instead, here’s a list of what I learned from the book.
First, I had no idea Arthur Schopenhauer was such an important philosopher. I always thought of him as a minor and eccentric thinker (I still think he was pretty damn eccentric) whose major influences were disseminated into the wider culture rather than affecting the development of formal philosophy. How wrong I was! Beiser describes how he came to fill a vacuum in German philosophy in the realm of ethics that forced mainstream movements like Neo-Kantianism to respond to his views:
That philosophers in the 1870s and 1880s were forced to move away from their rigid scholastic agenda was due to the work of a single man: Arthur Schopenhauer. By the early 1860s he had become the most famous philosopher in Germany. His works not only had an appeal to the general educated public, but they also proved powerful competition for philosophy professors whose agenda was limited to the logic of the sciences. Schopenhauer had performed a remarkable feat that was the envy of the professors: he had made philosophy relevant again, so that it was asking basic questions of concern to everyone alike, not only professors interested in abstruse matters of logic.
Second, I learned about two important female philosophers I’d never heard of before. I’m always on the lookout for female philosophers because they’re systematically ignored in the annals of the discipline. The years I’ve spent teaching Intro to Philosophy and talking with young women who like philosophy but can’t see themselves in its history has made it transparent to me that the suppression of female thinkers is an ongoing trainwreck that damages the discipline, not just as bad PR, not just as injustice, but integrally in the quality of its dialectic. Anyway, in the Pessimissmustreit, a controversy about Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Agnes Taubert and Olga Plümacher were major players. (This is a controversy virtually unknown in the English-speaking philosophical world. Beiser convinced me it should be better known, and now I want to read the book he wrote exclusively about this controversy.) I will look carefully into these two women next time I teach. In fact the whole pessimism controversy in general might serve as a wonderful question to organize an introduction to philosophy around:
When, with the benefit of hindsight, we look back over the pessimism controversy, it is impossible not to view it without a sense of loss. The discussion was pursued at a high level of philosophical subtlety and sophistication by Schopenhauer, Dühring, Hartmann, the neo-Kantians, Taubert, Plümacher, and Hartmann’s many critics. Rarely has so much intellectual energy been focused on an issue of such great existential importance and of such wide public interest. Yet the pessimism controversy has been largely forgotten, and the issues it raised about the value of life have not been much discussed in contemporary philosophy. This is a pity, because the pessimism controversy shows us that the question of the value of life was capable of very exacting philosophical treatment; the topic raised classical philosophical issues about pleasure, desire, work, love, good and evil, and the role of art in life, which no serious philosopher can ignore.
Third, I didn’t realize that the frontiers of materialism are virtually the same today as they were in the 19th century. The battle rages: to what extent ought one to assume that only physical stuff exists? Can the ultimate constitution of “matter” be said to be physical? And how can we explain the seemingly qualitative leap from brain activity to consciousness? A speech by the prominent scientist Dubois-Reymond kicked off a fascinating debate about these things—a debate I felt like I recognized, because we continue to litigate the exact same issues today.
The main question posed by the materialism controversy was whether modern natural science, whose authority and prestige were now beyond question, necessarily leads to materialism. Materialism was generally understood to be the doctrine that only matter exists and that everything in nature obeys only mechanical laws. If such a doctrine were true, it seemed there could be no God, no free will, no soul, and hence no immortality. These beliefs, however, seemed vital to morality and religion. So the controversy posed a drastic dilemma: either a scientific materialism or a moral and religious “leap of faith.” It was the latest version of the old conflict between reason and faith, where now the role of reason was played by natural science.
Fourth, I learned a lot about the origin and trajectory of several movements I knew about and had even studied through the work of selected thinkers, but never really contextualized or properly understood: the Neo-Hegelians (from whose ranks came Karl Marx), the Neo-Kantians, and positivism. I particularly appreciated Beiser’s succinct exploration of the origins and influences of Neo-Hegelians (the Young Hegelians, or Left Hegelians as they are sometimes known), whose concept of critique is instrumental to my own conception of philosophy:
Though it began in theology, neo-Hegelian criticism soon extended to other spheres. It was the task of critique to expose alienation in all its lairs, whether in society, economy, state, or church. Besides faith in God, self-enslavement assumed many forms: the belief in a divinely ordained prince; the doctrine of absolute spirit; the belief in natural economic laws; the ethic of absolute commands. The neo-Hegelians made it their business to expose alienation wherever it took place, so that people would cease to enslave themselves to their own creations and begin to take control over their lives.
So, fifteen hundred words later, I think it’s clear I really liked this book. I am currently forcibly restraining myself from rushing on to another volume of Beiser. I have my eye on either Diotima’s Children, about the origin of aesthetics as a discipline of philosophy, or his book about the pessimism controvery. But I’ll hold off, space out the pleasure.