DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC055-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
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7. The Southwest German School: Rickert and Lask

As far as Rickert’s philosophical development is concerned, his main interest originally lay in questions related to the theory of knowledge and methodology. In his habilitation essay, Der Gegenstand der Erkenntnis (The Object of Knowledge) (1921), he criticizes the customary definition of knowledge, which is based on the opposition between real being and a consciousness which groups such being as it is reflected in our representations. He puts forward instead a new concept of knowledge. His starting point for this is a reflection on the primary aim of knowledge, namely the striving after truth. Truth, for Rickert as for Aristotle, lies not in representation but in judgment. However, even if we have to relinquish the concept of a world that is independent of our representations, if judgment as the locus of truth is to be ascribed a central role in the process of knowledge, this approach will allow us to demonstrate a world that is independent of the judging subject, because every judgment is based on the recognition of an ‘ought’. Although this ‘ought’ represents a transcendental order as far as knowledge is concerned, it is not a matter of the order of a transcendent reality, for what we are able to discover is no more than the correct order belonging to the content of awareness, that is to say ‘the relationships of representations to each other, which ought to exist and which must therefore be affirmed’.

In his scientific methodology Rickert does not distinguish as Windelband does between nomothetic and idiographic methods, but rather between generalizing and individualizing concept formation. Even if all terms are general inasmuch as they bind general elements together to form conceptual unities, these unities are of a universal nature in the sphere of the sciences, but individual in the sphere of history. For Rickert, the formation of such individual conceptual unities can be explained by their relationship to universal values. This permits a selection to be made from the immeasurable variety of individual given facts within the world of experience. However, the historian’s value-orientated procedure should not be understood as representing a subjective valuation of historical events. It is not the historian’s job to pronounce on the worth or lack of worth of a particular event such as the French Revolution, but rather to enquire as to the significance of such an event for the history of Europe as a whole. Admittedly, that such historical concept-formation is not arbitrary naturally presupposes the existence of certain generally recognized cultural values. This conclusion, which Rickert recognized was hardly self-evident in his own period, was none the less essential for his argument. His methodological reflections thus culminate in an objective doctrine of value which claims that values enjoy the ontological mode of ‘validity’ as distinct from the ontological mode of ‘existence’.

In his middle period, Rickert drafted a System der Philosophie (Philosophical System), which, however, remained a fragment. In it he conceives of philosophy as articulating a worldview intended to illuminate the meaning of life for us. This, however, involves actually bringing to consciousness the values which make life meaningful. Rickert therefore projects a system of values which he conceives of as an open system. His goal is not ‘a complete grasp and enumeration of all valid values’, but merely ‘a complete formal classification of various types of value’ (Oakes 1990: 134). Specifically, this means that he distinguishes between a sphere of contemplative, non-social and substantive values on the one side and a sphere of active, social and personal values on the other.

The attempt to engage with ontological questions is characteristic of Rickert’s later phase of thought, yet this need not be interpreted as a break with his original theoretical approach to the problem of transcendental constitution. Indeed, it could be seen as an attempt to pursue this line of thought more deeply. Relevant to Rickert’s later philosophy are his Thesen zum System der Philosophie (Theses on the Philosophical System) (1932). Here he made it clear that the task of the individual sciences is to comprehend the world of the senses ‘either in a universalizing manner (as nature, in so far as it is governed by a system of laws) or in an individualizing manner (as the history of “culture”)’ (Rickert 1932: 99). On the other hand, he sees a system of values as necessary in order to articulate the intelligible world, because ‘meaning and significance can only be properly and rigorously explained by recourse to concepts of value’ (1932: 99). Admittedly this ‘dualist idea of the world’ (Weltdualismus) immediately prompts the question of whether there might be an encompassing unity which could bind the two worlds of being and value together. Rickert recognizes this unity of reality and value primarily in the sphere of the non-objectifiable being of human subjects and distinguishes therefore, in addition to the world of experience of sensible and intelligible subjects, a third ‘pro-physical’ type of worldly being. Of course, the question of the unity of the world is not adequately resolved by this concept. It is impossible to avoid the question concerning a ‘transcendent’ unity of the world in which value and reality are even more closely connected than in the pro-physical sphere. While in the latter value and reality are only connected through the free acts of the subjects, and otherwise remain separate from one another, here the problem concerns the possibility of an original unity of reality and value in the supersensuous ground of the world. Rickert leaves us in no doubt that this metaphysical transcendence can only be grasped with the aid of symbolic thought, which interprets material taken from this world as a simile or an image for the beyond.

Lask wrote his doctoral thesis under Rickert on Fichtes Idealismus und die Geschichte (Fichte’s Idealism and History) (1923–4) and then completed his postdoctoral teaching qualification under Windelband with a study of the philosophy of law. This is an important work for the philosophical system of the Southwest German School because in it Lask understood law as an independent sphere of validity and developed at the same time a methodology of the science of law. However, questions of theoretical philosophy stand at the centre of Lask’s philosophical works. For him, everything that can be conceived is divided between the categories of existence and validity. Correspondingly it is necessary to distinguish between knowledge of being and knowledge of validity. Form bears validity, while material being, on the other hand, is utterly foreign to form and therefore does not enjoy the status of validity. The sphere of the sensuously given is then revealed as a realm which lacks this status. For what is sensuously given cannot be deduced by means of logical processes, but can only be acknowledged in its factuality.

It is a characteristic of Lask’s understanding of the doctrine of form and material being that a particular form of validity no longer bears a direct relationship to the material, but rather corresponds to a specific material to which it clings (as it were). For Lask, therefore, material being functions as an element which determines meaning. By virtue of this theory of the differentiation of meaning, an independence is attributed to the material of knowledge which stands in direct opposition to the classical Neo-Kantian concept of knowledge, according to which the entirety of the given is determined by the forms of cognition. Correspondingly, at the centre of Lask’s conception of the subject we find, not the constitutive activity of the subject with respect to objects, but rather the subject given over to the object. For the relationship of form to the material, which the subject is required to comprehend, precedes all subjectivity. Lask’s objectivistic tendency can also be clearly seen in the fact that for him validity is in the first instance free of a relationship to the subject. This relationship only arises when validity is experienced by the subject as an ‘ought’. Inasmuch as the subject experiences validity in the shape of a demand, then the conflict of values also comes into play. This occurs because the activity demanded of the subject as regards the recognition of the ‘ought’ can either succeed or fail. If it succeeds, then the truth attained through this activity appears as a positive value; if it fails, as a negative value. The actual relationship to the validity-content occurs as the judging act which connects subject and predicate and simultaneously contains the affirmation and denial of this connection. It is now important for Lask that the truth lies outside the judgment in the configuration of matter and form. The judgment can correspond to this structure or contradict it. Therefore we can only speak of the judgment’s appropriateness to truth or untruth, but not of its truth or falsity as such.

During the final phase of his philosophical development Lask abandons such pure objectivism. Knowledge as a subjective act is once again seen as an independent problem-area of philosophy, although Lask was not prepared to take back any part of his claim concerning the significance of the objectively true with regard to the process of knowing.

Citing this article:
Ollig, Hans-Ludwig. The Southwest German School: Rickert and Lask. Neo-Kantianism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC055-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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