Enlightenment Interrupted: The Lost Moment of German Idealism and the Reactionary Present

Enlightenment Interrupted: The Lost Moment of German Idealism and the Reactionary Present

Michael Steinberg

Language: English

Pages: 345

ISBN: 1782790144

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

The modern world claims to inherit the values of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment Interrupted suggests a different genealogy. Instead of carrying on the Enlightenment it grew out of its suppression and forgetting, a founding act of bad faith and willed blindness that has haunted our world from its birth.

In this groundbreaking analysis Michael Steinberg restores German Idealism to its rightful place as the culmination of the Enlightenment critique. Its great achievement was to move beyond the self-world dichotomy at the heart of Western thought. In the work of Fichte, especially, the recognition that all human life is the product of collective human activity had revolutionary implications. After 1815, however, in the aftermath of a quarter century of revolution, philosophers and politicians alike swept such challenges under the carpet. Modernity was thus founded in reaction.

Lucidly written and accessible to non-specialists, Enlightenment Interrupted places the Idealists in the contexts of Romanticism, the brief contemporary openness to non-Western thought, and the political and social experimentation of the French Revolution. What followed was not a development of those tendencies but a retreat to the opposition of self and world and a drastic reduction in intellectual and social possibilities. This is one source of the collective impotence that sees the twenty-first century in a lockstep march to disaster.

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Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 37. 2. The phrase is from S. L. Hurley, Consciousness in Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 240 ff. 3. See, on this point, Benton, Kant’s Second Critique and the problem of Transcendental Arguments, 7-19. 4. Dieter Henrich, The Unity of Reason: Essays on Kant’s Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 37. 5. Ibid. 6. Immanuel Kant. Critique of Judgment, trans. Pluhar

More controversially, Kant presumed that all of them would create and take pleasure in works of art and would try to comprehend the living world as an implicitly ordered whole. What Kant tried to do was show that each of these activities had a logic of its own that limited its effective use, but that each one of them also had in-built tendencies that led it to be employed outside its limits. They were not to be replaced or made subservient one to another, however. They merely had to be confined

philosophers for millennia, and it was something of a Greek and Roman cliché. Similarly, although few if any of Kant’s predecessors undertook to define those limits internally and none defined them with such precision and logical rigor, there is nothing in the idea of an internal critique of reason that would demand a departure from previous thought. Where Kant truly broke new ground was the notion that experience was an affair in which subject and object both participated. His “Copernican

“cutting as a knife,” had directed his students to enter into their own minds—“we are not now dealing with anything outward:” The hearers, thus bidden, really seemed to withdraw into their own minds. Some changed their position and straightened themselves up; others bowed themselves over and closed their eyes. All waited with great eagerness to see what should come next. “Gentlemen,” continued Fichte, “let your thought be that wall.” I could see that the hearers set their minds most intently

educate himself to the status of morality; for he is not moral by nature, but must make himself so through his own labor.5 In his earlier writings Fichte refers to the state as a Nothstaat.6 This is generally translated as “makeshift state,” but Not also means need, as it does in the name of Siegfried’s sword, Nothung, and the power and organization of a state is a necessity because human perfection is “millions or trillions of years” away: Reason is one, and it is exhibited in the sensible

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