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The Kantianism of Hegel and Nietzsche

The Kantianism of Hegel and Nietzsche by Robert Zimmerman

Lesley Chamberlain wants to rescue Kant from an interesting book by Robert Zimmerman.

The story of German Idealism’s metamorphosis from the critical philosophy of Kant, through Hegel’s phenomenology of spirit, to Nietzsche’s science of joy, is well-known to historians of ideas. The German Idealist disposition effectively founded the post-1789 tradition of thought onto which Marx, Nietzsche and Freud mapped the modern. Continental philosophers work these post-1789 seams closely; Anglo-American philosophers are less aware of the riches they contain than of the noxious gases they have sometimes given off. But it’s not simply a matter of suspicions justified or not. The fundamental difference of approach, still enshrined in a basic non-Continental philosophical education, begins with differences in understanding Kant. Kant functions in the Anglo-American and Continental traditions with an alternative identity. He is like an enharmonic note in music, which counts as different pitches depending on the key in which it occurs.

“Can’t” as he is pronounced in his English appropriation – a useful, if unintended and faintly comic differentiation – is the idealist for whom the structure of the mind determines and limits what can be known about the world. A great critic of Hume’s empiricism, Kant is most importantly the author of The Critique of Pure Reason, which together with his ethics, ensures his continuing Anglo-Americanrelevance.

The Continental Kant is the same philosopher, but with a vital supplement. The book that matters as much as any, and most of all for understanding the Continental tradition, is his third critique, The Critique of Judgement. This third critique is not just about aesthetics. The way to modernity leads from it to Hegel, and through Hegel to Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno, Derrida and onwards. Robert Zimmerman knows this, and in his book on three German giants he’s asking his Anglo-American colleagues to see things his way. He wants us to grasp Kant’s Critique of Judgement, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Nietzsche’s Will to Power as an ongoing project of ‘renovation’.

To what end? The startling phrase Zimmerman uses to summarise the result of Nietzsche’s part in the project of renovation is “chaos dominated by desire.” Generally, renovation means we should revise our sense of the foundations of modern subjectivity:

“Hegel and Nietzsche do not simply represent a set of non-Kantian views, but rather they represent Kant the philosopher and existentialist reborn, renewed by the work of Hegel and Nietzsche.” (p.2)

When Kant excluded from human consciousness knowledge of the thing-in-itself [ie, reality as it exists independent of our experience of it], he stimulated in those who were at once his admirers and his critics – not only Hegel, but the always-neglected figure of Schiller – both deep intellectual admiration for his position and a passionate desire to prove him wrong. Kantian man was moreover unhappy in the world, and for Kant’s critics this was the result of his disproportionate self-consciousness. Schiller and Hegel both proposed a dialectical solution to rectify the imbalance: they imagined a way of cognizing the world as well as the self, as moments in a dialectical [ie dialogue-like] process of gradual, self-revealing truth.

Classic German Idealist, ie Hegelian, dialectic does not look like a truth-seeking instrument to our positivist age. But its latent power to re-energize a world which has become too excessively subjective or too excessively factual never seems quite to disappear. There are English philosophers alive today who write in praise of Hegel, and one suspects it is because of the supplements he brings to the scene of reasoning. The Hegelian dialectic places the thinker in a direct and active relation with the world, and makes him the collaborator of a shared, not-yet-revealed truth. It has poetic appeal because its way of dealing with critical barriers like Kant’s is to lessen the cognitive burden on the subject and increase the spiritual incentives. The great Hegelian feat in The Phenomenology of Spirit was to line up social and personal fulfilment as two aspects of reason, and moreover, to see reason as increasingly manifesting itself in world history, so that the world is getting better and better as a place in which to be a rounded individual.

Such a solution to Kant’s critical philosophy blockade released new energy and purpose in minds like Hegel’s and Nietzsche’s. Their task was to juggle the subject’s need for truth with its apparent (ie Kantian) non-availability in the world out there. They took liberties, but which philosopher doesn’t?

Zimmerman begins his book with some interesting thoughts about ‘true falsehoods’ against a background of Darwinian thoughts about survival. Of course, Hegel’s solution to Kant’s problem of the reality-isolated subject is false. There is no law in history which says that the growth of the subject and the growth of the world coalesce, and the world might have been spared a great deal of hopeful anguish if Hegel had not tried to make his speculations part of reality. A step in the right direction, Nietzsche already expressly contented himself instead with deliberate falsehood. Indeed, he made joyful illusion the principle of The Cheerful Science, or as I would prefer to translate the title, The Science of Joy.

Nevertheless dialectic was a serious philosophical tool in its day, and rehearsing the moves that lead from Kant to Nietzsche, and Kant to Hegel, in that ahistorical order, Zimmerman shows most usefully how dialecticism won the argument over dualism. He reminds us that Nietzsche saw knowledge not as a matter of truth and those who would know it, but of multiple perspectives in which truth-seekers interpret what they find on the basis of what they need. As Zimmerman puts it, “we stir our subjectivity into [the world]” (p27). More contentiously, he accepts a reading of Nietzsche which says that “we provide [the world] with the determinateness its fundamentally indeterminate or poly-determinate structure calls for.” This allows him to bring out the strong connection between Nietzsche and Hegel that he needs.

Hegel wraps up his response to Kant in an immensely complex cognitive and psychological dialectical system. Nietzsche expresses his dialectic in terms of the free creative imagination. In both cases, the world is unfinished. It has to be completed by the thinking subject, whose existence is heavy with the need for fulfilment.

Now I don’t think many of us would accept that Kant is the kind of philosopher who would put the existential plight of man ahead of the question of cognitive responsibility. So it’s disputable whether Hegel and Nietzsche renovate the Kantian building, as Zimmerman contends. ‘Renovation’ is a historicizing metaphor which may come naturally to mind in the case of Adorno, Zimmerman’s prompt, but then that was because Adorno believed his own work was doing precisely that vis a vis the Idealist tradition. In Adorno’s belief that Kant was “brought to truth” by later philosophers, Adorno was part of the action. We have no need to be.

Loosely speaking, Hegel and Nietzsche built on Kantian foundations, which, against Zimmerman, I don’t believe Kant would have recognised. That does not stop certain connections being there which may be revelatory for those who would grasp them.

To argue the connection, Zimmerman follows Kant in dividing philosophical inquiry into three areas: rational understanding, moral evaluation and aesthetic appreciation. He shows how Hegel and Nietzsche introduced the dialectic into each sphere – according to which we animate a world ‘for us’, rather than accept that we are locked into a world we can’t know. If I was dismissive about ‘dialectic’ earlier, that was in respect of its impact on world history. In philosophy, dialectic taught a great lesson, namely that it is our existential duty to bring an open-ended, creative response (an ‘interpretation’) to bear on the world around us. Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ was a variation on that creative message. The concept of will to power had aesthetic origins: it derived from the way the classical artist was thought to master his material, imposing form on content. Nietzsche’s great innovation was to twin the notion of the work of art and the work of the art of life.

Two aspects of Kantian philosophy made this later move possible and acted as its foundation. The first was the overwhelming emphasis on the subjective mind in creating the world as it is ‘for us’. The second was the way Kant lifted the restrictions on the subject’s activity in the imaginative sphere, as covered in his third critique. Zimmerman homes in on a vital aspect of this subjectivity when he highlights Kant’s insistence that it is the mind’s function to stipulate causality. We make causes and effects. They don’t exist ‘out there’. I would add parallel moments from Kant’s ethics and aesthetics, and not only to drive the point home about the creative power of the free subject. It’s important to make clear that the moral and imaginative faculties which Kant isolated from the rational faculty were used by later thinkers to swamp it. They contained so much emotional power that they caused the collapse of ‘pure’ reason. Kant himself used this way of isolating things, only to show how they might be joined again. For instance, in his ethics, when he insists that the realm of freedom is empty but waiting for men to determine it through actions which conform to the moral law, he places all his hope for the moral future of the world on the active, as it were, self-inventing, subject. The symmetry of Kant’s voluntarist system is all the more apparent in The Critique of Judgement. What the mind seeks and finds in art, namely ‘purposefulness without purpose’, is the source of the highest spiritual satisfaction for those who perceive it. Art has beautiful form, and a significance which speaks to us equally as rational, moral and imaginative creatures. A rounded human being is happy in the world to the degree that he or she can develop these capacities in harmony and begin to imagine the world as an emotionally sustaining and knowable whole.

Hegel and Nietzsche picked up and developed these voluntaristic aspects of Kant, while casting aside his prohibitions. Hegel systematised the constant involvement of the cognitive subject in bringing into being what he wants to ‘know’. From a Kantian viewpoint Hegel turns an aesthetic daydream into an apparent object of cognition; but by making provision for the subject to create a world ‘for us’, Kant has shown the way.

Nietzsche, as I suggested earlier, discarded both the Kantian and Hegelian systems, and also any claim that what is made by his science, the science of joy, is ‘real’. The superabundant Nietzschean substitute for a non-existent truth was the will to imagine anything and everything that the human spirit needed to survive the dismal and chaotic nature of existence: ‘True falsehoods’ were required, and created.

Nietzsche expressed himself extravagantly, but philosophy has long had time for the kind of true falsehoods the Idealist dialectic played with. Some of Zimmerman’s most interesting pages show Hegel’s reworking of Kant happening in the long shadow of Aristotle’s response to Plato. As Zimmerman puts it, central to Aristotle’s epistemology is “the dialectical co-presence of object and concept.” The actual object, a One, also contains, as its potential, the Universal. The particular and the general are two sides of the same cognitive coin for Aristotle.

But I want to come back to the importance of Zimmerman’s topic not only as a chapter in the history of philosophy, but also for understanding where Nietzsche’s ‘chaos dominated by desire’ leaves us today. What is the legacy of the Kantian subjectivism which made way for the emergence of the dialectical imagination, and which has dominated Continental philosophy through the eras of the Frankfurt School and post-structuralism, almost ever since? It’s no fault of this survey which confines itself to Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche, but Marx urgently needs to be slotted into this picture. What matters is not so much how Marx adapts the Hegelian dialectic into the materialist dialectic of history. The credibility of historicism, whether (German) Idealist or materialist, has surely come to an end. It is the terms Marx introduces to take account of the economic forces hollowing out the objects of cognition which seem to me to still matter, as the Frankfurt school felt too. If free agents work to create their subjective satisfaction in the world, do they not expect to make real contact with that world? Or are they content for there to be no corresponding ‘reality’ at all? In the present age, in which the dialectical challenge to the subject as thinker has passed entirely to the subject as consumer, without any corresponding ‘reality’ being available, we seem to be back to Kantian unhappiness mark two. On the other hand, is this truly where the noble Kant, of all the great philosophers, has led us – to a world in which chaos is called ‘market forces’ and the desire that tries to dominate them is endlessly manipulated?

Yes, the succession of ideas is there if you concentrate on Kantian subjectivism. But no, not in the light of all Kant invested in the moral integrity of the subject. Kant did not so much engender a philosophy of ‘chaos dominated by desire’ as make way for Schopenhauer to spell out for us ‘chaos mitigated by pity’ (my term).

My conclusion in reading this interesting book is that I wanted to rescue Kant from it, but also that I urge the connections it makes on anyone interested in German Idealism and the Continental scene. It also makes me think that a new study of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in the light of their Kantian background would not go amiss.

© Lesley Chamberlain 2007

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of many fascinating books including, most recently, The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia. For more info see

• Robert L. Zimmerman The Kantianism of Hegel and Nietzsche Studies in the History of Philosophy vol. 81, Edwin Mellen Press, New York/Lampeter 2005.


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