Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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9. The significance of Neo-Kantianism
Neo-Kantianism has often been dismissed as sterile academic philosophy, but this fails to do justice to its real significance. Despite the one-sidedness of its approach, the Neo-Kantian attitude to Kant profoundly influenced the twentieth-century study of Kant’s works. From the perspective of systematic philosophy, the significance of Neo-Kantianism lies first in its development of the concept of ‘validity’ and second in its projected philosophy of culture.
On the first point, the essence of Neo-Kantian thought lies in the strict division it makes between the realm of objects to be grounded and the principles of validity which essentially perform this grounding. According to Neo-Kantianism these principles must show themselves to possess an entirely different character.
If we understand what is principally grounded as the ‘world’, then the transcendental subject which grounds it principally is ‘extramundane’. The consequence of this conception is that all empirical features of the subject must be ascribed to the principal grounded domain, and further that all ontology which regards being as an immediate object of access in itself must be declared obsolete. It was essential to question the radical feasability of the development and transformation of Neo-Kantianism in terms of both the subject and ontology. In the long term, therefore, the issues of the subject and of an ontological presupposition of any kind were equally impossible to ignore.
The significance of the second contribution of Neo-Kantianism, the projected philosophy of culture, lies first in its attempted philosophical reflection on the existence and nature of science. The Marburg School placed its emphasis here on the so-called exact sciences, while the Southwest German School concentrated more on the so-called human sciences. It would be a mistake, however, to reduce the Neo-Kantian philosophy of culture to a specific kind of philosophical theory of value, for Neo-Kantianism devoted itself also to questions of practical philosophy, philosophy of art and philosophy of religion. It is disputed just how far Neo-Kantianism succeeded in its philosophy of culture in gaining a perspective on the political and social reality of its time. It is unquestionable, however, that Neo-Kantianism attempted to advance in this direction, as can clearly be seen, for example, in Cohen’s concept of an ethical socialism, Natorp’s pedagogy, Cassirer’s engagement with the myths of the twentieth century and Cohn’s philosophy of culture. Aside from the question of whether these attempts succeeded, however, it cannot be ignored that the school of Neo-Kantianism also included representatives of a regressive and nostalgic conservatism, such as Bruno Bauch, who in their later works openly defended a populist-naturalist position.
Despite the undeniable limitations of the Neo-Kantian systematic approach and the historical distance between Neo-Kantian and contemporary thinkers, the concern and themes of the Neo-Kantian philosophers have lost none of their relevance. For now, as then, the issue at stake is the defence of the autonomy of the subject. Since this was seen to be in danger, the Neo-Kantians of both the Marburg and the Southwest German schools insisted on the generative moment inherent in the scientific and cultural form of objectivization, or on an evaluative element which necessarily comes into play with such objectivization. If philosophy today does not wish to capitulate to the current trend towards the repudiation of the subject, then it must follow the strategy already preached by the Neo-Kantians, namely to return to Kantian insights and develop Kant’s thought further in a systematic manner.
Ollig, Hans-Ludwig. The significance of Neo-Kantianism. Neo-Kantianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/neo-kantianism/v-1/sections/the-significance-of-neo-kantianism.
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