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Introduction to German Philosophy by Andrew Bowie

Peter Rickman peruses a thought-provoking book on German philosophy by Andrew Bowie.

The distinguished tradition of German philosophy has substantially affected British cultural life and particularly philosophy. Coleridge was deeply impressed by Immanuel Kant, by whose writing he was – in own words – gripped as by a giant’s hand. He spent months in Germany studying Kant and his philosophical contemporaries, and nearly gave up poetry for metaphysics. Kant’s work were translated, commentaries were produced and Kant’s works became part of philosophy degree courses. Hegel’s writings were also influential and inspired British idealists such as Bradley. One hardly needs to expand on Marx’s influence in this and other countries. The work of the Vienna School of logical positivism was first introduced to the English-speaking world by A.J. Ayer and promoted by refugees from Austria such as Carnap and Waismann. Related to this School were the familiar figures of Wittgenstein and Popper. More recently we have become familiar with Heidegger and his pupil Gadamer; Habermas, whose roots are in the Frankfurt School, is widely discussed in philosophy and social science departments.

This selective account is meant to indicate that a book on German philosophy from Kant to Habermas is very welcome, particularly as written by a specialist on Germany who had already produced books and essays on aspects of the ground covered in this book.

Starting with the Kantian revolution, the book covers the reaction against reason and the focus on language by Hamann and Herder, followed by an account of Idealism from Fichte and Schelling to Hegel. Then comes the criticism of Idealism by the Romantic thinkers such as Novalis, the historical materialism of Marx and the emphasis on the will and the instincts by Schopenhauer and Nietzche. There are chapters on the Vienna Circle and Wittgenstein, on Husserl’s phenomenology, on Heidegger and on the Critical Theory initiated by Adorno, Benjamin and Horkheimer. The story ends with Gadamer and Habermas.

There are useful ‘cross references’ as to who influenced whom. I did not know how important was the impact of Schelling (who is not so well known in the English-speaking world). Several general themes run right through the book and link the different parts.

1) One is the relevance of social and political developments for philosophical thought. Industrialisation and bureaucratisation are two of the important factors, but the monstrosities of the Nazi regime, the Holocaust in particular, is something German thought has to come to terms with.

2) The explosive progress of science proved a particular challenge to philosophy. One response is to consider science the sole avenue to the truth, thus making philosophy redundant. Alternatively philosophy could be salvaged as philosophy of science. Other philosophers rejected these solutions because they argued for alternative roads to knowledge, for example art.

3) Another pervasive issue is the relation between subjectivity and objectivity, between consciousness and matter. Is one or the other an epiphenomenon – a secondary property caused by the other? If not, how are they related?

4) Finally there is the issue of foundations of knowledge. Can they be soundly established and if not are we confronted with an infinite regression that spells the death of philosophy?

The subtle interweaving of these themes provide continuity to the story. Bowie displays considerable scholarship in presenting the theories of numerous thinkers linked in this way. He also provides judicious criticisms of these various views.

So ambitious an enterprise suffers almost inevitably from a particular weakness. The author cannot have detailed expertise on dozens of philosophers, but must, in some cases rely on selected and sometimes inadequate secondary sources. Thus imprecisions and distortions creep in.

I will mention only two worrying examples which occur near the beginning of the book. In talking about the Copernican turn, Bowie suggests that Kant’s revolution is the opposite to that of Copernicus, as the latter displaced the observer (on the earth) from the centre while in Kant the knowing subject takes central place. I think this misses the point. The analogy is between the observations of the sky being partly determined by the movement of the observer just as cognition for Kant is partly determined by the knowing mind.

My second quibble also concerns the discussion of Kant. To reconcile the reader to Kant’s terminology he proposes to explain, in familiar terms, his idea of ‘transcendental’. He rightly quotes Kant’s definition of it referring to the conditions of possibility of something, and offers as illustration sex as a condition of possibility of pregnancy. He forgets that part of Kant’s definition of ‘transcendental’ contrasts it to ‘empirical’, ie not depending on empirical evidence. Could it have escaped Bowie that a lot of people actually experience sex? In spite of these niggles I can recommend this book as informative and thought-provoking.

© Prof. Peter Rickman 2005

Peter Rickman was for many years professor of philosophy and chair of the (now closed) philosophy unit at City University, London.

Introduction to German Philosophy from Kant to Habermas by Andrew Bowie, Polity Press 2004 £16.99/$29.95 304pp. ISBN 0745625711.

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