Idealism: The History of a Philosophy - Review

Posted by | Chris | 20.5.11 | 6 Comments

Idealism: The History of a Philosophy achieves its subtitle with admirable and compelling clarity, weaving an intellectually invigorating narrative of two and a half millennia of idealist thought. An area of philosophy much maligned, and, in the estimation of the authors, much misunderstood, the book sets out to rediscover the potential of the Idea by explicating the common themes and problematics of its thinkers and to counter criticisms by showing the powerful conceptual possibilities and contemporary relevance of idealism.

Divided first into sections (ancient, early modern, German, British and contemporary idealisms) and then into chapters, each focuses on a thinker or group of thinkers representative of a certain branch of idealism. The great strength of these chapters is their condensation of an easy to understand introduction to some of the important features of each philosophers work. History is always partial of course, and Idealism is no exception. The argument made throughout the book is for a continually developing philosophy, bringing the power of the Idea to bear in broad range of topics – including those often considered as antithetical to idealism.

The central claims of the authors, repeated and rehearsed in arguments throughout the book, are:
  • Philosophical idealism need not exclude either naturalism or realism, nor is it necessarily anti-science.
  • Idealism is instead an extreme or cosmic realism, a realism about all that there is.
  • In particular it is realism concerning the Idea: the cause of an organisation that is not formal, abstract or separable “but rather concretely relates part to whole as whole [...] such an idealism is a one-world idealism that must, accordingly, take nature seriously” (8)
In this regard Ideas (capitalised to make clear the difference from mere 'ideas' or the thoughts of finite rational beings) are the loci around which every philosophy here included moves. Differing in their conceptualisation, what they have in common in every thinker – whether explicitly or not – is their role as the powers of being which structure and organise existence.

The book begins as it means to continue: by challenging the casting of idealism as an early modern phenomena that makes reality entirely mind dependent. The first idealism, it is argued, comes from Fragment B3 of On Nature, the Parmenidean identity thesis: “it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be” (Cornford 1939: 34) (alternatively: “thinking and being are the same” (Philips 1955: 553)). This is an ancient idealism that is explicitly metaphysical and cosmological in scope. The book sets a pattern for what is to follow: by engaging with primary works, pointing attention to translation, interpretation and reception, and critically examining these in the context of a consistent case for idealism as a philosophy of pressing relevance in contemporary discussions.

Parmenides' philosophy is taken as the starting point for Plato's work, presented here as a one-world metaphysics of the dynamics of the Idea. Plato grapples with the problems of monism and questions of being, becoming and non-being. His dynamics are here described in terms of attractors – immanent powers combining efficient and final causality – through which nature becomes what it is. The Neoplatonists develop this physics of the Idea and continue to question the role of causality, the problems of the production and differentiation of nature and the place of reason in the world. Platonic physics sets the standard for all subsequent idealisms, and its focus on natural production and cosmology mark them as truly global in their purview. The chapter makes a clear and well-structured argument for a one world Platonic physics, a view that is perhaps not widely accepted but on which attention is beginning to focus. Indeed, the argument here is considerably clearer than it is in Grant's Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. This comparison makes clear the consistent clarity of writing in Idealism and it's potential audience which could include interested under-grads, the curious uninitiated and also those more experienced philosophers who are perhaps no less unfamiliar with idealism as it is presented here.

Descartes and Malebranche are taken as having as given clear articulation to the problems of Idealist dynamics when they are limited to a certain segment of reality. In particular this early modern philosophy is a response to materialist science in a retreat to phenomenalist idealism. In contrast to Plato's global metaphysics, idealism here begins its retreat to the minds of individual philosophers to escape the problems of science and nature. This circumscription of the domain of the powers of Ideas is a consistent theme of the book - running into 20th century neo-Hegelenianism - and a sticking point for criticism of insufficiently global philosophy that refuses the 'extreme realism' the authors argue is the greatest legacy of idealism.

The tension of philosophy and science also introduces another point of insistence for the authors. If much of 20th century continental philosophy has displayed an illiteracy, or worse, disdain, of science that has left it unable to face up to the problems and developments of the 21st century, this does not mean that a newly engaged, naturalistic and speculative philosophy cannot make productive use of the conceptual legacy of idealism. If idealism is extreme realism the one thing it is surely opposed to is reductionism, especially mechanical materialism. To admit “a real distinction between matter and spirit leads ultimately to an insoluble problem regarding causality. If mechanist matter is inert and lifeless then how can it cause consciousness?” (204). If the phenomenalist or subjectivist idealists err by retreating into a world of sensation it is not a failure of imagination but the problem of causation. The dynamics of the Idea provide the motor of becoming, but is there any reason why this dynamism need be limited to consciousness? Properly oriented idealist naturalism is possible and there is no reason, as Galen Strawson has argued, why idealism might not also be a form of materialism (quoted 12).

Interestingly Berkely is one of the stars of the book. Often considered paradigmatic of subjectivist idealism, this conception is complicated and set in context. Whilst clearly the most extreme of the phenomenalist idealists the problem of solipsism, the common functioning of minds and the eternal existence of Ideas as the ground of the temporal are all addressed by Berkeley. His philosophy takes a small section of the book, but critics of idealism who suggest that “idealism = Berkeleyanism” are referred to the scope and urgency of idealist thinking, which Berkeley himself manifested, and which this equation ignores.

The German idealists occupy the middle section of the book and this period of sustained development of idealist thinking is exhilarating to behold. Each chapter could serve as an introduction to the specific philosopher, but the focus of the book also draws out elements of their thought in relation to the eternal and the temporal, the structuring role of Ideas, and the dynamics of thought and nature. The final chapter of this section on Hegel is a high point of the book, rightly proclaiming Hegel as one of the most accomplished thinkers of the Idea – expanding and developing idealism through his concept of the 'concrete universal'.

The chapter on Hegel especially (but also Kant and Fichte) serves to highlight one of the potential criticisms of the book however – namely that criticism of the idealists themselves is minimal. The philosophy of every thinker included here is presented as part of an argument for a continuing problematic of idealism and as such the positive aspects of their work are foregrounded. The failures, blind-spots and omissions are only hinted at or addressed briefly. For example “Hegel’s stupefying judgement in the Encyclopaedia (§ 339) that there is nothing philosophically pertinent in geology” (The Speculative Turn: 41), obviously recognised by Grant, is not raised here. The reason for this generous dispensation is obvious however: there is ample literature devoted to criticisms of idealism, so much so that in the opinion of Dunham, Grant and Watson that these criticisms have become caricatures. The purpose of Idealism is to redress the balance and to make a case by careful engagement with these thinkers on their own terms, to unearth the concepts which animate their thought and to make their legacy a viable and fertile are for future investigation. The book does highlight problems with its protagonists, especially in later chapters, but these are set in the context of a philosophy which can provides the resources for engaging and overcoming these problems rather than simply dismissing them - either as unproblematic or uninteresting.

The penultimate section of the book takes a look British idealism from the early twentieth century. This is a fascinating section showing the development of German idealism (especially Hegel) in a different context, and, most interestingly, surveying the historical roots of the analytic-continental divide. It is a point to remark upon that G.E. Moore's Refutation of Idealism (1903), and the post-idealist generations of philosophers, for example Russell and Frege, are imbued with overt an Platonism. In this way Idealism also weaves its argument, putting forward Hegel as a presence in philosophy whose impact has not yet been fully understood, and whose development of the Idea holds the seeds of changing attitudes and approaches to the old divisions.

Two brief surveys of idealist science are over all too quickly before the final chapter on contemporary idealisms. The scientists chosen for this idealist experiment are Maturana & Varela and Stewart Kaufman. The case for Maturana & Varela's idealism is intriguing since it is made against their own arguments, revealing a tension in their work between idealist realism (organisation, autopoesis, Idea), Kantian critical impulses (disavowing organisation as a fact of nature), and a commitment to mechanical materialism. That idealist science is here biological science will do little to quiet critics of vitalism, though quick reference to Lee Smolin and Julian Barbour, whose fields of physics and cosmology could not be more wide ranging, show the potential of idealism in science. The chapter ends with a quote from Smolin, in what could easily be a call to action: “In the past, philosophers like Leibniz did not hesitate to tell physicists when they were speaking nonsense. Why now, when so much is at stake, are the philosophers so polite?” (Smolin 1999: 244; quoted 255).

There is more packed into the books 300 pages than this review can do justice to and the shear number of interesting avenues of thought opened here is a testament to the authors achievements. Deserving more than this brief mention other highlights include the survey of neo-Hegelians, including Žižek, which is critical of the insufficiency of metaphysics sublimated to ethical axiology. Also, the section on Whitehead, especially in contrast with a potentially even more exciting and much too brief look at Deleuze, whose presentation as an idealist is wonderfully heterodox. These thinkers and there reading here have much to add to recent debates, including that between Grant and Harman (The Speculative Turn: 21-46). Idealism is a work of impressive study and a stimulating project that, whatever your position, will be a cause for new thinking and a challenge to our ideas.