DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC055-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 04, 2022, from

2. The origins of Neo-Kantianism

In earlier research the overriding tendency was to trace Neo-Kantianism back to certain founding figures. Thus, for example, the role of inaugurator of the Neo-Kantian movement was attributed to Liebmann. This view was based mainly on his early work Kant und die Epigonen (Kant and the Epigones) (1865), in which he had accused all branches of post-Kantian philosophy of working with a variously interpreted notion of the thing-in-itself. In the true Kantian view this was a false approach, and in each case he concluded his criticism of the schools of idealism (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel), realism (Herbart), empiricism (Fries) and transcendentalism (Schopenhauer) with a demand that scholars should return to Kant. In the same way, Helmholtz and Lange were credited with having founded the Neo-Kantian movement, since they both based their doctrines on the Kantian a priori, which they admittedly (mis)interpreted in terms of innate species-specific capacities (Gattungsorganisation), turning their backs on the simplistic objectivism popular during the 1850s in the context of the debate concerning materialism. Finally, Eduard Zeller was also frequently associated with the origins of Neo-Kantianism. In his lecture Über die Bedeutung und Aufgabe der Erkenntnistheorie (On the Meaning and Purpose of the Theory of Knowledge) (1877) he was the first philosopher to win academic acceptance for epistemology or the theory of knowledge, which played a central role within the framework of the Neo-Kantian system.

Modern research sees the birth of Neo-Kantianism as being more clearly determined by certain developments which were characteristic of the philosophy of the post-Hegelian period. In the first instance a central role was played by a departure from pure thought and from the systematic philosophy (Systemphilosophie) of the idealist tradition, as exemplified in the works of Friedrich Schleiermacher or Adolf Trendelenburg. The latter are important for the development of Neo-Kantianism, first because the concept of theory of science is articulated as early as the second edition of Trendelenburg’s Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations) (1840), and second because with his Dialektik (Lectures on Dialectics) (1839) Schleiermacher can be regarded as the originator of the theory of knowledge. Furthermore, the thesis that German philosophy from Fichte to Hegel pursued a mistaken course which could only be corrected by establishing a direct link with the Kantian tradition was not first formulated by Liebmann, but can be found in the earlier doctrines of Christian Weisse and Friedrich Beneke. A third problem area in post-Hegelian philosophy is the relationship between philosophy and the individual sciences. The attempts by Helmholtz and Lange to provide Kant’s theory of knowledge with a sensory-physiological basis against the background of reinstating cooperation between philosophy and science was just one way of overcoming the problem. There was also the opposite tendency, which aimed at rejecting the inclusion of individual and special scientific knowledge in an attempt to maintain the autonomy of philosophy. This attitude can be found in the works of Kuno Fischer, Liebmann’s teacher, who propagated a neo-idealistic interpretation of Kant in the manner of Fichte and played an important role in the foundation of Southwest German Neo-Kantianism. Fourth, in addition to the critical approach to the idealist point of view there was also the tendency to insist on the necessity for a critique of knowledge in the hope that it would finally provide a means of settling disputes about fundamental questions of worldview or ‘Weltanschauung’. Such a tendency is to be found not only in the works of Zeller and Lange, but also in the those of J.B. Meyer, a hitherto largely unknown philosopher in the field of Neo-Kantian research. In his essay Über Sinn und Wert des Kritizismus (On the Meaning of Criticism) (1857), Meyer emphasizes that the relationship between body and soul belongs, like all metaphysical questions, to those problems which transcend the horizon of our possible knowledge, and that the significance of ‘kritizistischen Kant’ (‘Kant the Criticist’) lay in the way in which he had demonstrated this fact. Similarly, in his programmatic deliberations concerning the theory of knowledge, Zeller repudiated the exploitation of specific, scientific knowledge for the purpose of establishing a worldview, just as Lange was eventually concerned to refuse universal claims based on such a worldview, of whatever kind they were.

Therefore, even if the extensive pre-history of the Kantian movement is taken into account, there can be no doubt that its real breakthrough occurred during the 1870s and 1880s. In 1871 Cohen published his work Kants Theorie der Erfahrung (Kant’s Theory of Experience), which set out to establish Kant’s doctrine of the a priori. Cohen’s central thesis is that only those things can be seen to be objective which are produced a priori by subjectivity. Thus he understands Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to be a theory of experience in which Kant’s aim was to reveal those a priori moments which make scientific experience possible. In the same vein he maintains that in ethics and aesthetics Kant was also concerned with the revelation of those a priori elements which in the first instance generate the sphere of morality and art. This concept of generation thus provided the basis for a new form of systematic appropriation of Kant which was significantly different from the subjective-idealistic Kant interpretation of Kuno Fischer or Lange’s naturalistic interpretation. Cohen considers both interpretations inadequate because neither manages to provide a stable basis for the sphere of the ideal. In the case of Lange in particular, Cohen criticized the fact that, although he attempted in his Geschichte des Materialismus (History of Materialism) to save ethics in opposition to the mechanistic-deterministic worldview, he nevertheless failed to justify the idealist point of view in a scientific manner. Cohen believed that he had found the means of achieving this in his concept of generation. In his view, modern natural science is the best evidence for the fact that reality as objective has been created by us, since we are only capable of knowing that which we have put into things.

This realist attitude was given a different emphasis in the Kantian research of Friedrich Paulsen and Alois Riehl. Paulsen’s Versuch einer Entwicklungsgeschichte der Kantischen Erkenntnistheorie (Attempt at a History of the Development of Kant’s Theory of Knowledge) (1875) aims, as the title indicates, at a historical and systematic reconstruction and not, like Cohen’s work, at a new and improved presentation of Kant’s doctrine of the a priori. Thus Paulsen’s goal was not a productive assimilation of Kantian thought against a background of the specifically nineteenth-century conflict between idealism and materialism, but an attempt to understand the philosophy of Kant from its historical context, against a background of the contrast between rationalism and empiricism during the eighteenth century. Riehl’s three-volume work Der philosophische Kritizismus und seine Bedeutung für die positive Wissenschaft (Philosophical Criticism and its Significance for Positive Science) (1876–7) aimed to place Kant within a tradition of critical thought which began with John Locke. In his view, Kant’s critical position tends towards a ‘Phenomenalism of Intuitions’ which is at the same time a ‘Realism of Things’. Riehl regarded the epistemological scepticism represented by David Hume as the precursor of such a position, since it can be seen as a means of securing a positive content for thought. Thus, in his presentation of Kant, Riehl undertakes an attempt to bridge the gap between Kantianism and positivism. This approach can also be seen in his history of philosophy, which assumes as its basic concept a parallelism between scientific and philosophical history. Benno Erdmann completes the spectrum of Kant interpretations during this period. His works use a purely historical approach to reconstruction and rejected all attempts to update Kantian thought.

Finally, during this period Windelband founded the Kantian approach of the Southwest German School, and this represents a second type of systematic Kantian assimilation beside that of Cohen. Mindful of the overwhelming significance of Kant for all subsequent philosophical endeavours, Windelband investigates the nature of the critical method put forward by Kant. According to him, what is essential in this respect is the contrast with every type of genetic method. Unlike the genetic method, it is not a question of explaining how certain norms in the realm of logic, ethics and aesthetics were established. Instead, Windelband’s critical method questions the correctness of the norms that have come into existence in these areas. In other words, its aim is the clarification of the question of justification. Windelband is convinced that Kant and his three Critiques made a significant contribution to the critical science of norms. Thus philosophy, if it wishes to counter the relativism which inevitably results from a consistent application of the genetic method, is obliged to return to Kant. At the same time, however, Windelband emphasizes that such a ‘return’ to Kant cannot involve simply a revival of the historically conditioned form of his philosophy, but remains a task for all contemporary engagement with the philosopher from Königsberg: to understand Kant means to go beyond him.

Citing this article:
Ollig, Hans-Ludwig. The origins of Neo-Kantianism. Neo-Kantianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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