Nineteenth-century philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC100-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 21, 2019, from

4. The re-emergence of idealism

As well as these internal tensions, the three strands of materialism, positivism and naturalism were also faced by counter-currents from idealism and the idealist tradition, which in different ways questioned the conception of science that these positions had taken up. So first, for example, the materialism of Büchner, Vogt and Moleschott was questioned by Engels, who was more sympathetic to the critique of mechanism offered by the Naturphilosophen, while opposing what he saw as their idealism. Engels argued that precisely because it was based around an early modern scientific paradigm, metaphysical materialism was outdated, with contemporary scientific developments such as electromagnetic field theory suggesting a less mechanistic and atomistic metaphysical picture (see also Dialectical materialism; Marxist philosophy of science §3). It was also argued by various Hegelians (such as Johann Bernard Stallo, an influence on Emerson) that Hegel’s conception of the dialectic and his emphasis on time and change made his position compatible with evolutionary theory, which in turn suggested less mechanistic ways of understanding the processes involved, as more than chance variation and natural selection. Similarly, in France Ravaisson adopted a more Romantic conception of nature based on the irreducibility of the higher mental faculties to material processes, while the British psychologist James Ward was equally critical of mechanism. Moreover, while the Neo-Kantians were opposed to what they saw as the anti-scientific speculative metaphysics of Hegelian idealism, they nonetheless questioned how far human cognition could be reduced to natural processes, arguing that Kant’s transcendental approach to epistemology is needed to provide a proper foundation for science (see Cohen, H.; Neo-Kantianism; Neo-Kantianism, Russian; Renouvier).

Second, where positivism was committed to a unified conception of the scientific method, on the grounds that the human and the natural were continuous domains, those working in the Kantian tradition saw the need to reassert a fundamental division between the natural and the human sciences, and so questioned the assumption on which positivism was based. The most significant figure here is Wilhelm Dilthey, who in the 1880s and beyond argued that human cultures required investigation not through classification and causal explanations, but from within, through lived experience, which was conceived of in historical terms, in contrast to the ahistorical paradigms of the natural sciences. Thus, according to Dilthey, while the positivists were right to hold that the natural sciences look for general laws, the Geisteswissenschaften have the different goal of seeking the meaning of particular human situations, thereby acquiring hermeneutic understanding rather than predictive control. (See also Naturalism In social science; Neo-Kantianism; Neo-Kantianism, Russian.)

Third, Mill’s empiricist assumption that the scientific method was purely inductivist was challenged as a misrepresentation and oversimplification of actual scientific method by William Whewell, who offered a more Kantian picture, according to which ideas are prescribed to, and not derived from, sensations. He also claimed that positivism took its empiricist claims about the limits of enquiry too far, arguing that we must speculate about causes if we are to posit laws. Likewise, Peirce combined a commitment to the methods of science with a recognition of their metaphysical underpinnings, in a manner that led him to take the Naturphilosophie of Schelling and Hegel quite seriously, together with their anti-nominalist idealism.

Finally, as regards naturalism, some of the various schools of Neo-Kantianism in Germany stood against both the empiricist rejection of the a priori, and psychologism about the a priori, which seemed to subsume logic and epistemology under psychology. This non-naturalism was to have a decisive influence on twentieth-century philosophy through the anti-psychologism of Frege. Opposition to naturalism can also be found in Royce’s idealistic alternative (see Royce, J.) to James’s naturalistic pragmatism and in the work of the British idealists, where T.H. Green in particular played Kant to Mill’s Hume, accusing Mill and other empiricists of naivety in the face of Kant’s recognition of Hume’s lesson that naturalism leads to scepticism. Britain, along with other European countries, thus ended the nineteenth century with a revival of positions that had been dominant at the start of the century, but which had apparently been eclipsed by the ‘return to the eighteenth century’ that took place from the 1840s onwards. (See Berdiaev, N.A.; Bergson, H.-L.; Bosanquet, B.; Bradley, F.H.; Croce, B.; Gentile, G.; Lachelier, J.; McTaggart, J..)

Given the polarity that developed from the middle of the century onwards between idealism on the one hand, and various strands of materialism, positivism and naturalism on the other, it is not surprising that some thinkers sought ways of compromising between them. One route was to take up a kind of Kantian modesty, whereby positivism and naturalism are adopted with respect to the material world, but where this is said to place limits on our scientific knowledge, beyond which traditional metaphysical possibilities are left open and unresolvable by us. This allowed for a dualistic compromise between science and religion, of the sort favoured by Spencer, Thomas Huxley (who coined the term ‘agnosticism’), William Hamilton, Leslie Stephens, Rudolph Virchow and Emil Du Bois-Raymond (who in a speech to the Berlin Academy of Science in 1880 famously delivered the verdict of ‘Ignorabimus!’ - ‘we will never know!’ - on the question of the origin of sensation and consciousness, amongst other ‘world riddles’). To some, this humility appeared the highest wisdom; to others (such as Ernest Haeckel) it appeared incoherent, obscure and in bad faith. Another strategy was to attempt to integrate idealism with these apparently competing positions: this led to the eclecticism of Cousin (see Eclecticism), and also the similarly syncretic approaches of Taine, Renan, Cournot, Boutroux, Lange and Lotze, while many of the American pragmatists attempted to combine elements of idealism and naturalism, as in Dewey’s attempt to reconcile Hegelianism and Darwinism in his early papers (an attempt he later abandoned, as he lost faith in the value of Hegel’s idealism) (see Dewey, J.).

However, even to some enthusiastic proponents of the revival of eighteenth century paradigms in science and philosophy, it was still recognized that aspects of the social, ethical and religious picture offered by the idealists and Romantics were of value and should be retained. It was in these areas that Mill, for example, was keen to stress the true contribution of Coleridge and Carlyle and the school of German philosophy they represented, as a counterbalance to the ahistoricism and abstract rationalising of the philosophes, the early utilitarians and the political radicals. Thus Mill, like many commentators since, sought to preserve the social and historical insights of the idealist tradition, but to divorce them from what he saw as their wrong-headed epistemological and metaphysical underpinnings.

Citing this article:
Stern, Robert. The re-emergence of idealism. Nineteenth-century philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC100-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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