The Legacies of Idealism


Richard Marshall interviews Terry Pinkard in 3:AM magazine:

3:AM: You’re a leading expert on German Idealism, Hegel and their legacies. You think the context out of which all this happened is important don’t you – the fact that that there wasn’t really a Germany when it all started, the aftermath of the Seven Year War was something that shaped the development of this movement (and earlier, the Thirty Years War and the treaty of Westphalia etc). Could you perhaps sketch out what was most salient about the situation out of which these philosophical ideas emerged.

TP: Well, there’s lots going on there, but here are some highlights. Germany after 1648 was highly fragmented, and it was a place where, although the grip of the old regime was firmly in place, the mores of the people were changing rapidly, so there was a real and obvious gap between theory and practice. The way some began to think of it, “Germany” seemed to resemble more the plurality of ancient Greek states united only by a common culture, unlike its big neighbor, France. Furthermore, one of the very few all-German institutions in fragmented and still highly localized Germany was the German professor, since the professors went to wherever the jobs were. You thus had conceptually ambitious people armed with a certain authority with some of them thinking of themselves, however vaguely, as the new Greeks in a situation in which the gap between subjective life and social rules was deeply felt. That was a combustible mixture. Once you stirred the Scottish Enlightenment into the mix, as Kant did, the octane level of the coming conceptual explosion got raised even higher. Likewise, for those growing up in Württemberg, with its leanings toward France, the Kantian philosophy’s obvious debt to Rousseau was a plus. The arrival of the young Goethe on the scene with the Sorrows of Young Werther was a sign to those younger Germans that the times, they were indeed changing. The mixture created by all of these things managed to form an ignitable background for philosophy, especially Kant’s, to take the lead. With the French Revolution in 1789, the combustible mixture in German intellectual life exploded. Those things coming together set the stage for a certain discovery, as we could call it, of spontaneity and self-determination. And here we are, still living in that backwash.

More here.