Nineteenth-century philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC100-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 06, 2020, from

1. From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century

In his Autobiography (written in the 1850s and 1860s), J.S. MILL famously identified ‘the reaction of the nineteenth century against the eighteenth’ as a central feature of intellectual life in this period (Mill 1873 [1981]: 169). The ‘reaction’ he is referring to is the way in which many early nineteenth-century thinkers saw the Enlightenment conception of reason, naturalism and liberalism as leading to scepticism, materialism and anarchy; if rationalism, science and freedom were to be defended, they argued, it could only be achieved against the background of some kind of idealism, which required thinking about religion, nature, and the social and historical world in a new way. To their critics, however, this claim by the idealists who sought to question the outlook of the eighteenth century was no more than a cover for a return to the kind of reactionary metaphysical thinking that the Enlightenment had swept away; these critics therefore sought to defend empiricism, the authority of science, and naturalism against these charges, and so began a counter-reaction on behalf of the ideals on the eighteenth century. Mill characterises the struggle this engendered in a memorable image: ‘The fight between the nineteenth century and the eighteenth always reminded me of the battle about the shield, one side of which was white and the other black. I marvelled at the blind rage with which the combatants rushed against one another’ (Mill 1873 [1981]: 169, 171). (See Enlightenment, Continental)

The origins of this struggle can be found in the eighteenth century itself, and can be traced back to Kant, who thus remains a key figure in the nineteenth century. While at one level Kant was deeply committed to the ideas of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment - freedom, reason, Newtonian science, religious toleration - it appeared to him that the epistemology and metaphysics of the Enlightenment - empiricism, realism, materialism - led to the undermining of these ideals, as freedom was threatened by causal determinism, reason and science were threatened by scepticism, and religion by dogmatic materialism and militant atheism. Kant therefore sought to retain the Enlightenment ideals, but to overturn the epistemology and metaphysics that seemed to undermine them. His solution was what he called ‘transcendental idealism’, where the strategy was to argue that scepticism, determinism and atheism can be avoided once the empirical world is treated as an appearance: scepticism is thus avoided, because we can now be sure that this world will conform to our concepts; determinism is thus avoided, because causality only operates in the sphere of appearances and not in relation to things in themselves, where the self is located; and atheism can be avoided, because we can still postulate the existence of God and immortality and so leave room for faith. However, in preserving the ideals of the Enlightenment in this way, Kant was consciously overturning its epistemology and metaphysics: he argued that experience no longer gives us access to a mind-independent reality that is purely material and causally determined; rather, what we experience this way is only the world as it appears to us. Nonetheless, he tried to sweeten the pill by pointing out that the empiricists and materialists themselves had accepted that this was true of many aspects of the world that common-sense takes to be straightforwardly real, such as colour and taste; all he was doing was applying the same idea at a higher level, to matter in time and space itself. Once this step was taken, he argued, it could be seen that pushed to their limit, empiricism and materialism themselves lead to transcendental idealism, and that it is therefore the natural next stage of Enlightenment thinking.

For those who came after Kant in the nineteenth century - such as the German idealists Fichte, Schelling and Hegel; the young Romantics Hölderlin, Novalis and Schlegel; and the Protestant theologian Schleiermacher - the general project was the same, and the diagnosis was shared; but the Kantian solution was rejected. That is, for this generation of thinkers it was clear that despite its high ideals, the Enlightenment outlook of the British empiricists and the French encyclopaedists was threatened by collapse into scepticism, materialism and nihilism (see Encyclopedists, 18th-century). Likewise, they shared with Kant a sense that the fault lay with the metaphysics and epistemology of the eighteenth-century thinkers. However, they felt that as it stood, Kant’s appeal to transcendental idealism as an alternative was inadequate, in part because in itself was too much indebted to the eighteenth-century outlook it had sought to transcend, with its atomistic view of experience, its scepticism about the world as it is in itself and its commitment to Newtonian mechanics as a scientific paradigm. (This dissatisfaction with Kant was influenced in part by the somewhat earlier critique of his work offered by Jacobi, Hamann and Herder, amongst others.) In different ways, therefore, these post-Kantians sought other solutions to the crisis in eighteenth-century thought that Kant had been responding to, as it was agreed that Kant’s radically dualistic picture of appearances and ‘the thing-in-itself’ could not avoid collapsing into scepticism, determinism and atheism. (Although ignored at the time, the only major thinker in this period who was still trying to work largely within the Kantian framework was Schopenhauer, while outside Germany Kant continued to find followers, for example Rosmini-Serbati in Italy.)

Citing this article:
Stern, Robert. From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC100-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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