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Philosophers on the Beach

by Anja Steinbauer

The 19th century is a time that is particularly associated with German philosophers spreading out their conceptual beachtowels over the deckchairs of the world. And what an exciting deckchair scramble we can image this to have been: First on the beach is Kant neatly arranging his huge nightsky blue towel over pretty much all the existing deckchairs. But soon Hegel comes running down in his bathing trunks, ready to take the plunge, but not before pulling the towel from underneath the slumbering Kant. However, if Hegel thought he could now rule the beach, he hadn’t counted on Schopenhauer grumpily engaging him in cheeky battle by here and there pushing Hegel’s many towels off the chairs and sitting there himself. When Nietzsche arrived, he assertively put down his towel next to Schopenhauer and – with a grin on his face – amused himself for the rest of the day by throwing sand at Kant and Hegel.

As you can see, the 19th century is by no means a time of philosophical uniformity or even passivity. On the contrary, it saw an incredible rollercoaster ride in the mood, views and style of philosophical activity. It was a time when some of the greatest philosophers of the Western tradition utterly disagreed, contradicting each other, at times trying to unravel and to ridicule each other’s theories.

Immanuel Kant is no doubt a difficult and, as Peter Rickman argues in his article, often misunderstood philosopher. Only narrowly counting as a 19th century philosopher (he died in 1804) he both produced a monumental philosophical structure and ripped the world apart in his Critical Philosophy: into what is knowable and what isn’t, into what is achievable and what can never be done, into what we can be and what we’d like to but will never be. Humans are forever torn between wanting to know yet being unable to know, wanting to make the most of themselves as civilised humans yet being constantly reduced to a more base existence by their nature.

Hegel disagreed: like many of his fellow 19th century system builders, such as Schelling and Fichte, he could not bear these Kantian tensions, and sought a resolution. For Hegel, this resolution came from history. Even if human individuals could not achieve absolute knowledge or any other kind of human perfection, the processes of history would allow them to get there. Hegel explains in meticulous detail how thought and reality emerge together, such as in the case of human self-consciousness, demonstrated in Roger Duncan’s article. Hegel thus defines philosophy as “its time grasped in thought.” Robert Wallace emphasises that not even God is excused from history and shows how this can help us make new sense of the phenomenon of religion.

Arthur Schopenhauer, lecturing at the University of Berlin at the same time as Hegel, though to much less popular acclaim, refered to his rival as “a flat, uninspired, disgustingly-revolting, ignorant charlatan”, who he deemed responsible for the “detriment of an entire scholarly generation.” In his article on Schopenhauer, Roger Caldwell reveals more about what made this charming but irresistibly fascinating individual tick. Rather than seeing a pattern, logos or even rationality in the process of reality, Schopenhauer believed the world to be driven by an a-rational ‘will’. When the cholera came to Berlin, the optimist and believer in the logical workings of the world, Hegel, died, whereas, Schopenhauer, the pessimist and irrationalist, escaped.

“Nothing is true, all is permitted,” announces Friedrich Nietzsche, and thus snubs most great thinkers of the past. Where Kant had sought to discover the timeless foundations of morality, Nietzsche recommends a repeated “re-evaluation of all values”. Where Hegel had believed in an absolute truth to be revealed in the course of history, Nietzsche believed that which we call ‘truth’ to be nothing but our “irrefutable errors.” Uncompromising yet complex and subtle, Nietzsche never ceases to captivate his readers, both as a philosopher and as an individual, of whose passion and drive Eva Cybulska gives us an enlightening glimpse.

I leave you here on the beach with the four greats, perhaps sitting in between deckchairs, perhaps equipped with a towel, perhaps joining in Nietzsche’s sand throwing. In any case I hope you’ll have fun and the more time you spend here, the more you may discover that if you want to understand the 21st century it can be a very good idea to look to the 19th century.

Announcing… An annual Philosophy Now award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity!

Please send your nominations for the 2011 award with supporting arguments to rick.lewis@philosophynow.org. Nominees can be philosophers, authors, scientists or anyone else you think has made an outstanding contribution to promoting knowledge, reason or public understanding.

The winner will be announced and the prize (a £10 book token!) will be awarded at the Philosophy Now 20th anniversary celebration on 18 December (see Philosophy Now 20th Anniversary Celebration!). All Philosophy Now readers welcome!

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