‘After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900’ reviewed by Paul Giladi

After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900

Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2014. 248pp., $29.95 / £19.95 hb
ISBN 9780691163093

Reviewed by Paul Giladi

About the reviewer

Paul Giladi is currently an honorary research fellow at the University of Sheffield’s …


The aim of Fred Beiser’s latest tour de force in the history of 19th century German Philosophy is to reject Karl Löwith’s narrative of the development of post-Hegelian thought. Rather than seeing 1840-1900 simply as the transformation of speculative idealism into Marxism and Nietzschean existentialism, Beiser wants to show how figures such as Fries, Herbart, Beneke, Trendelenburg, Hartmann, Dilthey, Windelband, Büchner, Leibig, Du Bois-Reymond, Fischer, Lotze, Helmholtz, Rudolf Wagner, Vogt, Czolbe, Lange, Virchow, Haeckel, Nägeli, Rathenau, Niebhur, Ranke, Droysen, Dühring, Volkelt, Meyer, Haym, Taubert, Weygoldt, and Plümacher play significant roles in intellectual debates that go deeper and further than the increasingly specialised and technocratic debates of academic philosophy. The intellectual debates in which these comparatively unknown thinkers are the principal dramatis personae, are, according to Beiser, the five central controversies of 1840-1900, namely: 1) The Identity Crisis of Philosophy; 2) The Materialism Controversy; 3) The Ignorabimus Controversy; 4) The Rise and Crisis of Historicism; and 5) The Pessimism Controversy. However, Beiser’s ambitions are not restricted to giving centre stage to comparatively unknown philosophers and natural scientists. He also wants to show that 1840-1900 is in fact philosophically more important and interesting than 1800-1840, because the post-Hegelian years are dominated by crisis and controversy, whereas 1800-1840 is an era of consolidation and consensus.

The most basic metaphilosophical question, namely “what is philosophy?”, was the subject of the first furious debate. For Beiser, the first major answer to this question came from Trendelenburg, who abandoned the speculative foundation of the scientific framework and replaced it with a second-order account of the sciences. Philosophy is the logic of science, because it critically investigates the methods and presupposed concepts used by first-order science. The second answer to the Lebensfrage came from the Young Hegelians, who defined philosophy as radical critique of everything, whose function is understood in predominantly negative terms. This articulation of radical critique as fundamentally negative leads Beiser to deem the Young Hegelian metaphilosophical position as Bohemian and impractical, glorious but miserable. Being so anti-establishment meant that the critics’ employment prospects in Germany were hardly strong. Of course, while I think aspects of Beiser’s understanding of radical critique can be challenged – for example, he very briefly alludes to the concept of emancipation, but does not expand on what that specifically means – one cannot help but be sensitive to his subtle cautionary remark to the Left.

The second and third controversies on Beiser’s narrative have overlapping themes. The Materialism Controversy is focused on whether modern natural science necessarily leads to materialism, which is the view that only matter exists and that everything in nature obeys strict mechanical laws. What is particularly interesting about Beiser’s account of the latest incarnation of the Jacobi-Mendelssohn dispute, is how the Materialism Controversy’s battle lines are partly drawn on political grounds. For example, the prominent physiologist Rudolf Wagner criticised materialism for damaging moral and political order, and Carl Vogt, a scientist-turned-Bakunian radical journalist, argued for materialism on the grounds that religion was a veil of deception preventing people from becoming autonomous through the institutionalisation of democratic principles and ideals. The central figure in Beiser’s narrative is Lange, who offers a neo-Kantian resolution to the reason/faith dilemma. According to Beiser, Lange construes the distinction between the phenomenal realm and the noumenal realm in terms of a distinction between description and value. Materialism is conceived of as emancipatory to the extent that it is the apotheosis of the Enlightenment. However, the failure of materialism lies in how it regards the discourse of normative sciences as either reducible to natural scientific discourse, or as second-rate propositional discourse if ethics and aesthetics cannot be reduced to natural science.

The Ignorabimus Controversy, Beiser’s third topic of discussion, is perhaps the most intense of the intellectual crises in Germany in the latter half of the 19th century. It centres on the reaction to a lecture given by one of the champions of materialism, Du Bois-Reymond, in 1872. The Laplacian mathematical paradigm of mechanical explanation coupled with extraordinary developments in the natural and empirical sciences had led the audience to think Du Bois-Reymond’s speech would be the Triumph of Caesar Scientia. Instead, they were apoplectic when Du Bois-Reymond claimed that the Laplacian ideal can never give us knowledge of the inner nature of matter, or solve the now-called Hard Problem of Consciousness. Because the inner nature of matter and the emergence of consciousness from physical systems cannot be explained using the mathematical paradigm, we will forever remain ignorant of these answers. To his materialist colleagues, Du Bois-Reymond was Brutus of the Naturwissenschaften. Equally scathing of Du Bois-Reymond, but for very different reasons, were Hartmann, who based his critique on Du Bois-Reymond’s failure to see the possibility of Naturphilosophie and his over-emphasis on mechanical paradigms of explanation; Nägeli,who argued that the Laplacian paradigm only works for one area of natural science, and cannot be used to explain the phenomena of the special sciences which are not accounted for solely on the basis of particle location and movement; and Dilthey, who rejected the mechanistic model on the grounds of distinctive logics of the natural and socio-historical sciences.

Beiser’s introduction of Dilthey in the concluding sections of the Ignorabimus Controversy nicely sets up the focus of the trials and tribulations of Clio, namely the birth of historicism and the crisis facing historicists’ claim that history is a sui generis science. Beiser conveys how the historicists aimed to undermine the traditional philosophical-anthropological claim that human nature is fixed and unchanging. The narrative then moves to bring in the real bête noire of historicism: positivism, which advocated a neo-Laplacian paradigm of explanation. According to the positivists, history is a science only if it adopts a nomothetic form of explanation, and subsumes individuals and events in relation to general laws. In what follows, Beiser carefully charts the historicist response from Droysen, Windelband and Dilthey. He focuses on Windelband’s neo-Kantian distinction between the nomothetical nature of the natural sciences and the ideographical nature of the human sciences, and Dilthey’s Droysen-inspired distinction between explanation and understanding as analogous to the distinction between mechanical psychology and descriptive psychology. Beiser concludes the chapter on the fourth controversy by claiming that the positivists and historicists talk past one another, as the positivist approach to history is a parti objecti, whereas the historicist approach to history is a parti subjecti. However, even though one can see the clear methodological difference between positivism and historicism, I would venture to say that hardly any student of history would think the positivist approach makes better sense of history than Dilthey’s famous notion of lived experience (Erlebnis), which does not regard the objects of historical discourse as the same genera as the objects of natural scientific discourse.

After Hegel concludes with a discussion of the Pessimism Controversy. Though the neo-Kantian critique of Schopenhauer and the positivist rejection of pessimism are presented as interesting, the real philosophical gem is the incredibly rich understanding of pessimism in the wake of Hartmann’s claim that this is the least bad of all possible worlds. As a bizarre syncretism of Hegelian objective idealism and Schopenhauerian pessimism, Hartmann’s position in his Philosophy of the Unconscious is that revealing the inherently miserable nature of life gives us strong incentive to exercise our rationality to overcome the suffering caused by the arational striving of Will. Though his qualified pessimism brought a deluge of constant polemical criticism, Hartmann’s wife, Agnes Taubert, proved to be his most powerful philosophical ally. Taubert, as Beiser argues, focused on the proposed idea that work is not pleasurable in and of itself especially when we consider the debilitating effects of work in the division of labour and modern mass forms of production; how can work be edifying when one does the same small task over and over again and one has little or no role in design and mode of production? This, in turn, gave rise to a powerful response from Volkelt, who argued that Hartmann and Taubert had an excessively narrow and industrial-antiquarian portrayal of work. For Volkelt, work was the avenue through which we achieve self-consciousness about our powers and achieve a sense of self-worth, a great source of inner pleasure. He recognised the phenomenology of dull, routine, mindless, and even degrading aspects of modern work, but contra Taubert, argued that these are not intrinsic features of work, but rather the effects of the ideology under which work is practised. The problem, in other words, lay in the capitalist framework rather than in the activity of work itself. For Volkelt, the advent of socialism would drastically improve the conditions of work, whereas for Taubert and Hartmann, the socialist state was illusory, and any attempt at egalitarianism posed a significant threat to property and liberty.

Beiser presents Taubert as a formidable philosophical conservative, but an arguably even more remarkable woman in the Pessimism Controversy is Olga Plümacher. With no formal university education, several children to raise, and spending much of her life in a Swiss colony in the backwoods of Tennessee, Plümacher was able to make substantive philosophical contributions to the debate on work. She drew a distinction between the social/cultural value of work and the individual/eudemonistic value of work, put forward a tripartite condition on work being rewarding and pleasant, argued that the tragedy of modern life is that the bourgeois intellectuals have no real understanding of what it is like to be poor and having unedifying work to do, and that there is no guarantee that social democracy can remedy the problem.

The discussion subsequently shifts to Meyer and Haym’s neo-Romantic critique of Taubert and Hartmann, namely that one escapes the drudgery of modern mass production and urban capitalism by returning to nature to make us whole again. What we then find is a very sophisticated dialectic between Taubert and her critics on subjects ranging from Et in Arcadia Ego, the difference between Greek forms of life and modern forms of life, and proto-Nietzschean conceptions of art as life-affirming and redeeming.

In reading After Hegel, Beiser’s passion for giving a viva voce to lesser known thinkers the Anglophone philosophical world by and large have never even heard of, is there for all to see. My impression is that Taubert and Plümacher are the heroines of the work. But this is not a mere desire to plug something about a bunch of unknown intellectuals for the sake of originality. This is an invaluable exercise in broadening one’s historical and cultural understanding; one should think twice about the traditional view that 1840-1900 is a period of only transforming Hegelianism into Marxism and Existentialism. Ironically, then, Beiser’s lesson about the history of 19th century post-Hegelian Philosophy in Germany is a Hegelian one. The traditional narrative is one-sided, and one ought to be thankful for the clear and engaging way Beiser reveals this. 

28 June 2015

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