Some Questions Within the Framework of German Idealism

Some questions within the framework of German Idealism;

Or how I learned to quit worrying and love global warming!

It almost goes without saying that Immanuel Kant is considered one of the great thinkers of Western Culture. His primary works, the three Critiques, have engendered thousands of volumes of books and papers and baffled graduate students for over two centuries. He certainly has a place in the role of great philosophers of all time. Having said all that, it seems that some of his thoughts, while brilliant in their time and context, are problematic and have caused some thinkers to go in directions which, perhaps upon reflection, have not been profitable. This paper is not a critique of the Critiques per se, but rather a reflection on certain ideas. The legal doctrine of the “fruit of the poison tree” is an analogy, which is appropriate here. If the original arrest was flawed, then all of the information gathered after the arrest is therefore “tainted” and illegitimate. By this analogy, if one of Kant’s points were wrong, then this would lead to equally wrong inferences from that original proposition. Case in point here. Kant famously says that he has limited the role of reason to make room for faith. By this he is referring to the argument from the Critique of Pure Reason. In this critique Kant tries to argue that we can only have knowledge of thing or events within time and space. We can think of things which are not within time space, and it may even be reasonable to do so Kant argues, but nether the less we can only know what we have experience within the time/space framework.

The genesis of this argument was the enlightenment’s twin towers of opposition, Rene Descartes and David Hume. Descartes, considered by many to be the father of rationalism, (dogmatists by Kant’s time) had developed a theory of thinking that in essence argued that all knowledge is gained through rational discursive thought. Descartes even went as far as to argue that one could, properly guided by reason, reason through to the existence of God himself. There was no end to the ability of human thought and unaided reason to settle all questions of nature, physics, morality and metaphysics. Physical sensation and experience were viewed as inadequate guides, subject to distortion and trickery. The illusion of a stick “bending” under water was illustrative of how Descartes thought our sensory perceptions to be inadequate grounds for knowledge. By complete contrast, David Hume is considered by many to be the founder of strict empiricism (called skeptics by Kant’s time). All knowledge is gained by sensory perception and experience. Even the laws of mathematics and laws of logic are things that are discovered apostiori. Mere rational discourse, not grounded by prior experience, gave ground to “specious” discussions like the ontological argument, postulating the existence of something, God, not experienced in space and time. For Hume this is clear in his famous argument on miracles, in which he argues in a simple way that miracles are by definition violations of the empirical laws of “nature” and that since violations of the laws of nature are by definition impossible, then miracles are impossible. Even while realizing that this is a cheap rendition of the argument, I want to say that Hume violates his own principles in deducing it, but this is not the focus of this paper. Therefore for Hume, metaphysics in general are wrong-minded at best and irrational at the worst.

I realize that I have just grossly glossed over two hundred years, but in a simplistic way this is the scenario that is set for Kant. Kant reacts in several important ways to the competing views. For the purposes of this paper I want to focus back to the thoughts from the Critique of Pure Reason. Here Kant argues that while the categories of the mind enable to think of many things in many distinct ways, we can only have knowledge of what we experience in space and time. Now in this way you can see that he has both Descartes and Hume in mind. His nod to Descartes is that our mind works in several ways, in that it is designed with “categories”, which enables us to interpret raw empirical data. This for Kant answers the Humean denial of cause and effect. But in a nod to Hume, Kant limits knowledge to that which happens in space and time. In other words metaphysics can be talked about but not known. So he has “limited” reason to save room for faith. Thus the great philosophical juxtaposition between faith and reason, historically seen as allies, are now set against each other as potential enemies.

Why does this matter? It strikes me that one of the clearest drives within German Idealism is to try and explain the nature/consciousness relationship. Whether one thinks of this or of the one/many problem, they are both part of the same question. We will discuss this more later but it is also clear that within the limitations of Kantian epistemology, the answers got more and more mystical. Think of the main limitations that Kant has imposed. All knowledge is limited to space and time experience. The first thing to say here, as in essence Schelling does later, is that it is self-referentially incoherent. We don’t have physical experiences of concepts like “knowledge”. As Schelling points out, one must posit idealism to explain idealism and also to explain the physical universe. Mere matter or mere nature does not give rise to experiences such as “conceptness” or “theoryness”. One must bring the categories in, for Kant, and the mind uses them to explain the raw data of nature. But this is as deep as Kant goes. The Critique famously tries to refute the Aristotelian/Thomistic account of cosmology, by denying the link between the cause and effect we see in nature, (what we can have knowledge of) and the link to the Prime mover or God (which we can only think of but not have knowledge of). The problem then arises of; just what causes the mind? Where do the categories come from? This problem haunts the rest of German Idealism. Is the mind somehow generated by nature, which then reflects its own way back to nature as Schelling argued? Or is the mind reflecting on itself causing the distinction as Fichte asserts? Or is the whole thing sui generis? All of these accounts have problems but I see them as arising out of Kant’s problematic restrictions.

Not only is the limitation on knowledge problematic in this way, it also gives way too much ground to Hume in another way. As the positivists later found out, the verification principle could be hoisted on its own petard. So also for Hume’s earlier version. If knowledge is limited to what I experience, than I cannot know anything beyond my own meager framework. Everything beyond that becomes hearsay. Now Hume gave ground on that point apparently, but within a few pages he contradicts himself by discounting the accreditation of witnesses that he himself set up, on the basis of his incredulity of the very nature of the reported act. More than that, the attack on metaphysics by Hume, primarily on Christianity, is not voided by Hume’s restrictions or Kant’s “rescuing”. The Christian claim is not purely metaphysical but in fact insists that the critical events of the faith did in fact occur within the space/time universe. So the attempt by Kant to rescue the faith was not really necessary. It is also quite clear by even a short reading of the Philosophy of Religion literature, that the cosmological, teleological and even the ontological arguments are not buried but quite actively used by scholars. So Hume’s attack on cause and effect has not been overwhelmingly convincing nor in the long run was Kant’s limitations on knowledge. One might also argue that the limitations on knowledge don’t necessarily leave room for faith only, but also for nonsense. Kant’s only restrictions on what one can think is that the law of non-contradiction applies. This being true, then the thesis that an omniscient, omnipotent being created the universe including nature and consciousness, is on an equal footing with the P.E.T. hypothesis. The Pink Elephant Theory, which postulates that pink elephants that currently are hiding on the dark side of the moon, actually created the universe. The theory is not contradictory, but seems unlikely to have much staying power.

The main reason that I have argued for these minor points is that it strikes me that the limitations given by Kant may be seen as counter-intuitive to our normal experience of the universe. If everything that we observe is evidencing cause and effect, it seems more than probable that the great process of the universe, the super effect, must have a sufficient cause itself. Without going into the argument in this paper, the common sense notion of the ancients seems to be enduring. Perhaps if Kant had taken Hume to task in a stronger way, this potential mistake might have been avoided. Hume’s flawed epistemology seemed very powerful at the time, much like the initial effect of the Vienna Circle in the 1930’s. But upon further reflection one notices that more problems arise than are answered by these theories. Can one have a sensory experience of the verificational principle? Does one observe “laws of nature” or merely generalities? Once limited in this fashion, justice, love, history, scientific regularities and so many other things fall out. But for Hume, if that is the price tag of nailing cosmology and metaphysics, then so be it. Kant should have recognized the arrogance of both Hume and Descartes. By limiting knowledge, each in their own way, they present stunted theories which driven to their logical conclusions have failed to prove even their main concerns. Kant does a magnificent job in attempting to synthesize the two, but I think his nod to Hume creates the box that German Idealism is now forced to deal with.

After Kant’s monumental effort, the German Idealists are forced to head in a particular direction. Knowledge is limited to one arena, and yet Kant had not addressed the important question that the Idealists were looking for; how does consciousness and nature arise, interact and eventually harmonize? Fichte’s Subjective Idealism took Kant’s noumenal self and made into an “absolute ego” which is responsible for positing both the structure of the world experience and the data contained within the experience. Each individual is then a part of the larger world since we all participate in the absolute ego. This also included the notion that the primary function of the absolute ego was constructing or idealizing the world. The claim is protected from being perceived as arbitrary by the argument that the world is subject to certain “laws” and therefore not dependent on any one subjective point of view. There is a great convergence of views here with the Hindu scholar Ramanuja, who posited that all the world is Brahman or the divine consciousness or force, and that each part appears separate from each other but in fact are all in part of the same whole. This “truth” is discoverable through mystical meditative experiences or through drug experiences, but is unknowable through reason. Fichte, like Ramanuja, is operating from a framework that is safe from Humean concerns that of factual data and sensory experiences, but is thinkable because it is non-contradictory. It also is shielded from addressing the concern of just where did this absolute ego come from and how does it create? If the absolute ego is identified as “God” in the orthodox Christian sense, then it departs from the orthodox understanding by arguing a form of pantheism, since each part is part of the whole and all share the same nature as the absolute ego. If Fichte argues that the absolute ego is more similar to an eastern conception of the divine such as postulated by Ramanuja, then the problem shifts in a different way. If the question is the issue of separation, then how and why did this happen? Was this merely Lila, the dance, or Maya, the illusion? If the absolute ego created out of itself, then the problem shifts once again. Why would the absolute ego do such a thing? Traditionally eastern religions posit a notion of soul development through reincarnation to answer these types of questions. I have not read enough of Fichte to know if he has an equivalent idea in mind here, but any way you read this it seems that because Kant has posited a closed universe for knowledge, then in some way the question of origins becomes problematic. Not wishing to violate this drives Fichte to seek the answer within the universe itself.

This leads to a brief discussion of sui generis. How is it possible that the effect is also the cause of itself? The ancient formula of “ex nihil – nihil” fit is at least implicitly denied here. But how is this to be seen? It seems very reasonable and rational to understand that in order for an effect to be its own cause it would have had to exist prior to its own existence, in other words this is impossible, or the words cause and effect have no relationship at all. Pick any object O1 created at time T1. For O1 to be its own cause it would have had to exist prior to O1. This defies reason. One could respond that this conception of the absolute is self-existent and not self-created. But that seems to come back to the orthodox notion of God and loses the drive of the oneness of all things if the traditional idea is posited. If nature and we are all part of the absolute ego, then if the absolute ego is self-existent then so are we. In the same way, if the absolute ego is self-created then we are all self-created. But this clearly is an empirical fiction. We have absolutely no experience of any self-created things in the world. So this view becomes problematic on its face.

Schelling comes at the problem in a way that is different but still shares some of the same problems. His Objective Idealism criticized the simplicity of Fichte’s reductionistic views of mind-dependent nature. He argues that the Absolute itself can be seen as having two poles, that of Spirit or human consciousness and Nature. These two poles are in relation with each other and this can be summed up in his famous dictum that nature is “visible Spirit” and Spirit is “invisible nature”. The two poles share different relations that are similar to each other’s. The twin relations “complement” each other. This is finally climaxed in the artist who shows the final complementary roles of Nature and Spirit in the projection of Spirit into the material world of nature. As one writer puts it “extending to absolute consciousness the view that in consciousness subject and object are identical. The sum total of existence then becomes the Absolute as perceived by itself. Naturally, all distinctions and qualities, which are created by a finite relational consciousness, disappear in a self-contemplation of the Absolute by itself, and existence becomes neutral”. (Article on German Idealism in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Fichte muddied some of Kant’s distinctions, and Schelling washes them away all together. The individual consciousness is now seen as problematic and one must have what Schelling called an “intellectual intuition” to see the Absolute and the relationship of Spirit and Nature.

Upon receiving the intuition then the individual sees the oneness of all things and the harmony of nature is idealized and within potential reach physically as well. Much like Fichte’s similarity to an eastern philosopher Ramanuja, Schelling’s view is also similar to an eastern philosopher – Shankara. Shankara posits Brahman or the divine as the ultimate reality of the universe. Brahman is without attributes and “behind” or “underneath” the perceived reality of the university. This perception is flawed because the individual mind is trapped in Maya – the illusion. Through meditation one overcomes Maya and is enlightened as to the true nature of reality. For Shankara, there is perceived reality, the illusion, and true reality, Brahman. The similarities between the positions are quite interesting. Considering that eastern languages and thought have become an interest for Schopenhauer, Schlegel and others and it is not easy to see the interesting connections between eastern and western philosophers.

This view, given early in Schelling’s career, might be seen as indicative of his slide into mysticism later in life. It also explains the move by Schiller, Goethe and others into full- blown pantheism and the Romantics fascination with eastern religion. But I do think that there are some things here that make sense. I agree with Schelling’s note that Newton’s “dead inert matter” is a problematic notion and that at this point something, perhaps Idealism or perhaps something else must be included. But because of the Kantian limitations on knowledge the answers have to come from within the box. Schelling is only operating within the limitations that he inherits. In order to make the connection work between human consciousness and nature he needs something bigger than both, that both could participate in. But there is nothing allowed from outside the box, which is made up of nothing but spirit and nature. So one seems to be stuck with forcing a notion of what “is “being created or organized by what “is”. The Absolute can then be delineated as the god “is”. The god “is” is somehow postulated as the creator and divider of itself. The god “is” then contains the solution for the problem it apparently created. Somehow none of this seems to compute. Perhaps if the German Idealists had been content to think of their systems or fragments as mere thoughts, as opposed to seeking out knowledge, then this apparent quandary might have been avoided. But their goal was knowledge, if not complete then at least as complete as one human could have.

All of this is preparatory for the problem of application. The clue for this perspective was the connection in class of later German Idealism with the perennial philosophy as instantiated by Aldous Huxley and perhaps Ken Wilbur. While trying to be fair to this philosophy would take several books at least, there are some common threads that are foundational. The best description starts with the idea of monistic pantheism. Monistic pantheism means that all is one and all is God. This oneness is usually expressed as an essential oneness. That means that there literally is no distinction between perceived objects in the world. Perception within the illusion of Maya is the byproduct of unenlightened mind. Ramanuja’s version tended to soften the hard blow of Maya by saying that there was some reality in what we perceive but that is purely a temporary reality, which ultimately blends in to Brahman. Pantheism means that all is God. For Shankara, Maya hides the reality of a seamless cloak of Brahman consciousness. For Ramanuja, Maya hides the reality by cloaking Brahman within each bit of the perceived universe. Western views of this idea include Gnostic models that argue that the perceived objects are but material “prisons” trapping the “eons” which have emanated out from the divine source. Some other western models talk about the “interconnectedness” of all of nature but don’t really explain how this works. Nor do they explain how all this originated. Wilbur and Jean Houston probably give the most sophisticated versions available today.

The book that most of the Romantics and innumerable followers of the Perennial Philosophy loved the most is the Bhagavad-Gita. Written approximately a few hundred years before Christ, the Gita is part of the Upanishads, the most esoteric of all the Hindu scriptures or Vedas. There are two central stories in the Gita, the Ramayana and the one pertinent to our report here, Arjuna’s Dilemma. Arjuna’s dilemma is set when a ksaytriya warrior named Arjuna is about to face a major battle. As a warrior caste, it is his karmic duty to kill people and break things. But when his own forces are on the field facing another army and he surveys the opposing army, he sees a disturbing thing. Among his opponents are some of his friends, some of his family members and worst of all, his own guru or spiritual master. So he is stuck with the apparent moral dilemma of fulfilling his karmic duty and this might cause the death of people he cares about. What to do now? In the midst of the situation the god Krishna appears to him and offers to solve his apparent problem. Krishna offers him three possible solutions. One of his possible solutions is that Arjuna could refuse to fight, be branded as a coward, a traitor to his caste and possible suffer in his next incarnation. Not an attractive offer. Another one of the options is that he follows Krishna, forswear his caste and serve Krishna’s idol all his life. Then he would never have to think or be troubled by moral dilemmas again. The other option that is most germane here is Krishna’s teaching that Arjuna should slay, and do so happily! Krishna informs him that his problem is that he sees his friends and family as real and that because of this illusion he thinks that they will actually die. The true reality is that they are each and all Brahman. And Brahman never dies. Therefore they do not die. “So slay with great fervor oh warrior!” So Maya then is a prime key to understanding the heart of Advaita Vedanta or various other Hindu variations. If one takes Krishna seriously here, then not only is killing ok, but so is murder, rape, lying, theft and everything else. The mistake according to the Gita is thinking that these things are real. Once one rises above in enlightenment, then one realizes just what this all is, a dance, a dream, and not something that one should worry about.

There is much more that could be said about these foundations for the Perennial philosophy, but let us now take a look at how this as been applied and what this means for environmental concerns. Historically many analysts of eastern culture have described the overall culture in many as apathetic. I realize that this too is a gross overgeneralization but it does in fact reflect the stated teachings of many eastern religions. In Theravada Buddhism for example, one is told to avoid doing anything, whether good or evil, positive or negative. All action or karma brings about consequences, which will have to be repaid by another life within samsara, the wheel of birth, death and rebirth. In many of the Hindu sects, it is seen as the greatest spiritual action to go into the forest and literally stop talking, doing, eating, drinking. In the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, this can be seen as another potential illustration of the point. Noble truth #1 is that all that there is in the world is suffering. Whatever one enjoys is merely a temporary façade; in the end it will revert to suffering. Noble truth #2 is the cause of suffering. Care, concern, attachment and any other relevant synonym one chooses to use all fit the bill here. Our attachment to the things and people of this world bring about our suffering. Noble truth #3 tells us the cure for this problem. Cease caring, become detached or any way you want to say this it is all the same. If caring is the cause then cessation of caring is the cure. Noble truth #4 then explains through the eight-fold path the mindset one needs to successfully end attachment. Thus care for the environment, also part of the illusion, will continue to trap one in the illusion. A brief summary of the eastern religious point of view tends to convince one that environmental concerns are not part of the package. Since the whole world is an illusion, it tends to minimize any concern for that illusion. Even if one takes Ramanuja’s softening of Maya, ultimately nature and consciousness are still part of the illusion and environmental concerns become actually harmful to ones attempt to get off the wheel.

Another approach to this problem is that of James Lovelock and Lynn Margolis, who have given us the Gaia hypotheses. This idea, promoted by perhaps two of the best-known environmentalists in the world, argues that nature is itself alive and conscious and is capable of self-regulation. In agreement with Schelling, they would argue that there is élan, or vitale, or consciousness, or Spirit or whatever one calls it within each part of nature itself. Human consciousness is only one part of the larger whole of that framework. Lovelock then takes the controversial step of arguing that there is no need to truly be concerned about the environment since it or the God “is” or the Absolute is more than capable of resolving the problem within itself. This of course has the net effect of undermining environmentalist projects, thereby not enduring himself to the community, which once lionized him. But there is a certain consistency within his idea. If nature and human consciousness are in themselves part of a larger whole, which is called the Absolute or God or whatever, then perhaps environmental concerns are in fact part of some karmic plan, or perhaps part of the dance of Maya. If it is not capable of resolving these problems, then perhaps all talk of divinity need to be dropped, at least in the normative sense.

The Ganges river in India might serve here as a living illustration of the problematic connection of German Idealism with the Perennial philosophy. The Ganges, considered to be the holiest of all rivers in the world, is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Perennial philosophers from all over the world come to the Ganges to bath in its sacred waters, amidst the human waste, corpses, industrial pollution and so on. While Indians who are influenced by western thought realize that there is a major problem, many Hindu’s turn a blind eye to the issue because Brahman encompasses all polarities and dualities and all that is perceived in the world, including a major environmental problem, is seen as a non-issue. Now I know that there are environmentalists who are trying to work with the problem of the Ganges and other problems but I would argue that they are doing it despite eastern thought, not because of it.

The point here is to show that monistic pantheism has a track record of undermining real environmental concerns. By definition concern for the world either is problematic for the reason of involving oneself in more karmic attachments or because it is seen as merely an illusion. In either case it ought to be a concern for German Idealism to be aligned in some way with eastern thought. Now it is possible for people within the eastern traditions, such as the Dalai Lama, to be concerned for the environment, but again it could be argued that the Lama’s concern are in spite of the Buddha’s teachings, and not inspired by them.

Kant’s epistemological knot forced the later German Idealists into a path that in many ways undermines a real philosophy of nature that would actually give a foundation for environmental concerns. By the time of Hegel the noose had been tightened and nature had been subsumed into the culture which itself is part of the Weltgeist, or World Spirit. Again the God “is” or the absolute is reduced to whatever is perceived or intuited. What if Kant had not bowed to Hume so strongly? What if he instead had allowed knowledge to be available from other sources? What if there was in fact revelation or answers from outside the “box”? While agreeing with Schelling that one must explain the lower from the viewpoint of the higher, German Idealism seems to have limited the viewpoints of the higher to those possible within the box itself. There are at least potential explanations of the problem of the one and the many, or the problem of the connection between human consciousness and nature, that could come from outside the box. Perhaps one of those explanations could do the serious work of grounding real environmental concerns in a very real world.

Some questions within the framework of German Idealism;

Or how I learned to quit worrying and love global warming!

German Idealism and the philosophy of nature.

Dr. Jere Surber


Bill Honsberger

Love at the end of the rainbow