A Short History of German Philosophy

A Short History of German Philosophy

Vittorio Hösle

Princeton University Press – £18.99

Since there is no proportionality between the finite and the infinite, only learned ignorance of God is possible, in whom the greatest and the smallest coincide, because nothing is opposed to him.

(‘The Birth of God in the Soul’)

Research on nature is in fact infinite, but that does not mean that nature itself is infinite. At the same time Kant attributes a regulative function to the three ideas of reason: the soul, the world, and God.

(‘The German Ethical Revolution’)

In a relatively accessible narrative that deciphers complex ideas, Vittorio Hösle – a German-American philosopher and the Paul Kimball Professor of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame – herein traces the evolution of German philosophy, and anchors its prime influence within the parameters of German culture, science and politics.

All three areas of which are relatively resolute in relation to their non-malleability.

As such, this being a book on (German) philosophy, much of its essence can be placed within the socio-politico arena of what is taking place today. For instance, were the words of the first of the above opening quotes to be aligned with what is currently taking place on the streets of Belfast, one would undeniably need to question the essential reasoning behind the inexorable divide between Protestants and Catholics. Particularly in light of ‘’only learned ignorance of God is possible, in whom the greatest and the smallest coincide.’’

For learned ignorance, can indeed go a long way.

And when God is thrown into the equation, it can go a whole lot further.

So, even though A Short History of German Philosophy is a short history of German philosophy, much of its subject matter transcends; which, to all intents and philosophical purposes, is but one strand of what philosophy is all about, isn’t it?

One of the most interesting and refreshing aspects of these 268 pages (excluding Preface to the English Translation and Index of Names) is the light shed on Immanuel Kant, the chapter from which the second of the above opening quotes is taken (‘The German Ethical Revolution’).

It’s ‘’infinite’’nature is relative to the aforementioned, although the one prime difference is reason takes hold by way of ‘’the soul, the world, and God.’’

All things considered, this is at best, diversionary; at worst, endemic of yet further reasoning: ‘’Kant did not succeed in adducing a common property of all judgements that he considered synthetic a priori. But had he done nothing more than ask this question, he would have been assured a place of honour in the history of thought. Kant, however, sought not simply to list the synthetic a priori judgements he considered valid, but also to ground them, precisely in the so-called transcendental deductions.’’

Moreover, having lived on the United States myself, I found part of the author’s opening gambit in the Preface of particular interest: ‘’I have now lived long enough in the United States to say that such an interpretation of general culture and philosophy is quite alien to this great country. Here, philosophers understand themselves mainly as smart puzzle solvers – which is indeed noble work, but rarely inspires society at large or even other disciplines or the arts.’’

I couldn’t agree more.

Lucid and literary, A Short History of German Philosophy is a more than valuable contribution to that which its title suggests (and then some).

David Marx

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