The return to Kant of Neo-Kantianism in the second part of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century took place due to two main reasons. First, the ambitious systems of the German Idealists (in particular Hegel) linked to the irrationalism of the Romantic Era had run their course and began to be rejected as unfounded speculation. Second, Positivism had led to a rejection of all metaphysics in favor of an often undeclared reductionistic materialism, and came to be regarded by many as equally unfounded and unsatisfactory. Kant’s cautiously rational approach appeared as a safe refuge and seemed to be the desirable starting point for further philosophical investigation which would not contradict the development of science, but not limit itself to its conclusions. Accordingly, thinkers of a diverse array of orientations and interests in Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, came to use Kant’s views and method as the foundation for their own work, making Neo-Kantianism the predominant philosophical school of that period.
During the first 30 years of the nineteenth century, Immanuel Kant’s philosophy had been largely eclipsed by the German Idealism of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Among the prominent German philosophers immediately following Kant, only Arthur Schopenhauer, while developing his own system, explicitly based his thought on Kant’s critical epistemology, presenting it as an alternative to Hegel’s “vain speculation.” Much less known, Jakob Friedrich Fries remained even closer to Kant, attempting to develop his philosophy in a psychological-intuitive direction. Schopenhauer would remain practically unknown until later in his life, shortly before the onset of Neo-Kantianism, and Fries never succeeded in having a significant impact during his lifetime.
A year after Hegel’s death, in 1832, Friedrich Eduard Beneke published “Kant and the Philosophical Tasks of our Times,” a work that was, however, sharply critical of Kant. In 1847, Christian Hermann Weisse held a significant speech entitled, “In What Sense German Philosophy Should Again Find its Direction in Kant.”
After these early signs, the real beginning of the Neo-Kantian movement can be traced back to the names of Friedrich Albert Lange, Otto Liebmann, Eduard Zeller and Hermann von Helmholtz. Reacting against the reigning positivism’s scientist and materialistic position—that of reducing everything to materially measurable entities—Lange published a History of Materialism in 1866. In it, he wanted to demonstrate how transcendental idealism superseded the historic struggle between idealism and mechanistic materialism.
The slogan “Back to Kant!” originated with the publication of Kant and his Epigones (Kant und die Epigonen) by the relatively unknown epistemologist Otto Liebmann. Liebmann dedicated each chapter of that work to the refutation of one school of post-Kantian philosophy (Kant’s “epigones,” i.e., his inferior imitators, from Hegel to the materialists, as Liebmann saw it). Each chapter concluded with the battle cry, “hence, we must return to Kant.”
Helmholtz, the leading German scientist of his time, further insisted that materialism itself was nothing more than a metaphysical hypothesis, one that had brought its fruits on the level of scientific research, but that was also in the process of replacing idealistic dogma with equally unfounded, hence dangerous, materialistic dogma. Kant’s insistence that theoretical, hence scientific, knowledge was about phenomena (and not about unknowable things-in-themselves) provided a framework for a strict scientific approach that was, at the same time, free from the implicit materialistic conclusions of Positivism.
The historian of philosophy Kuno Fischer, another leading influence in the development of Neo-Kantianism, had published his A System of Logic and Metaphysics (System der Logik und Metaphysik) in 1852, followed by his epoch-making Kant's Life and the Foundations of his Teaching (Kants Leben und die Grundlagen seiner Lehre, 1860). Fischer was early involved in a dispute with the Aristotelian Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg concerning the interpretation of the results of the Transcendental Aesthetic, a dispute that subsequently prompted Vaihinger's massive commentary on the Critique of Pure Reason.
The Neo-Kantian revival of the second half of the nineteenth century primarily originated in the field of logic, scientific thought, and epistemology, essentially based on discussion of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. But, like Kant’s philosophy itself, it would come to include many other aspects, notably related to the question of meaning and value (axiology), ethics, political theory, and, ultimately, the unresolved questions of metaphysics. The overall orientation of Neo-Kantianism remained that of moderate idealism, as had been the case with Kant’s own philosophy. But, with thinkers coming from a variety of backgrounds and involved in a variety of endeavors, ranging from the empirical sciences to mathematical thought and the study of religion, Neo-Kantianism came to encompass perspectives as diverse as that of empiricism, realism, and psychologism, Kant’s critical idealism often modified beyond recognition. What remained was the starting point in an analysis of the functions of the human mind.
Since these different tendencies and approaches have been largely connected to research and scholars in specific universities and locations, they have traditionally been grouped by schools, each of which tended to emphasize one aspect or orientation.
Since around 1875, the terms of Kantianism and Neo-Kantianism became increasingly common in the philosophical literature. Once the “back to Kant!” movement was on its way, it soon became the dominant force in German universities (the Schulphilosophie, or academic philosophy of the times). This trend lasted from the last decades of the nineteenth century well into the twentieth century, particularly until World War I, after which the movement declined or morphed into other, loosely related worldviews.
Along with its popularity, Neo-Kantianism inevitably experienced fragmentation, though it would be more exact to say that, from the beginning, it was a multi-faceted phenomenon. In the historical movement of Neo-Kantianism, the rich heritage of Kant’s thought came to blossom in multiple forms and types based on his successors’ orientation and fields of inquiry.
As many as seven schools, or sub-schools, have been identified within the movement of Neo-Kantianism, but two major schools stand out due to their lasting nature and influence: The “Marburg School” and the “Baden School” (also called “Heidelberg School” or “Southwest German School”). A number of other thinkers who sought to revive the philosophy of Kant come under the general umbrella of “critical philosophy” (Kritizismus).
The major thinker of importance in the first generation of the Neo-Kantian movement was Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), who became known as the founder and leader of the Marburg School, the other prominent representatives of which were Paul Natorp (1854-1924) and later Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) and Nicolai Hartmann (1882-1950). The Marburg School—representing the most important current within Neo-Kantianism—had a strong mathematical and scientific orientation.
Cohen would criticize psychologism from the viewpoint of Kantianism, something Edmund Husserl would later do with equal intensity from the point of view of his phenomenology. Psychologism is an approach that reduces all logical laws to empirical, psychological processes. Knowledge, Cohen said, cannot be tied to the subject alone, as shown by the simple fact that mathematics is taught in manuals as an objective fact unrelated to any subject.
Paul Natorp was chiefly concerned with the logical foundations of the exact sciences. Like most Neo-Kantians, he denied the existence of a hypothetical “thing-in-itself” behind the phenomena.
Among the philosophers of the Marburg School, is also Karl Vorländer, a philosopher of history whose interest was focused on Marxism and Rudolf Stammler, who was mostly interested in questions related to law and society.
Ernst Cassierer, a mainstay of twentieth century philosophy, was nevertheless anchored in the Marburg School. He was interested in questions dealing with the philosophy of language, such as the meaning of symbolic formulations. In his view, categories were conditioned historically (while Kant saw them as fully a priori laws of the mind) and they could be expressed not only in linguistic form, but also in aesthetic and religious forms.
The Marburg School’s interest in the philosophical foundations of political theory led to Eduard Bernstein’s Revisionism and Victor Adler’s “Austro-Marxism.” Thus, the ethical aspects of Neo-Kantian thought often drew its proponents within the orbit of socialism. Lange and Cohen in particular were keen on this connection, leading Ludwig Von Mises to view Kantian thought as pernicious. This form of Neo-Kantianism also had a significant influence on the political stage of early twentieth century Russia, as it represented a middle ground between atheistic materialism and Orthodox mystical metaphysics.
By contrast, the Baden School of Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert, and Emil Lask tended to emphasize the questions of values, or axiology. Windelband considered philosophy to be first and foremost a teaching about universally valid values, namely truth in thinking, goodness in will and action, and beauty in feeling, a tripartite classification that is directly based on Kant. Windelband made a clear distinction between history and the natural sciences. He also insisted that “to understand Kant means to go beyond him,” a slogan that would generally remained attached to Neo-Kantianism. Windelband’s successor, Heinrich Rickert, developed his own axiology, insisting that the critical philosophy of Kant had to be expanded so as to include all aspects of the sciences, including the “Geisteswissenschaften” (the sciences of the mind, or cultural sciences). This brought him in touch with the heritage of German Idealism.
With its concentration on the issue of meaning and value, rather than the primacy of the physical sciences, the Baden School was able to create links to, and influence, a number of other contemporary thinkers trying to find answers to the prevailing cultural chaos. These include Wilhelm Dilthey and Georg Simmel.
Some of the main representatives of Neo-Kantianism are not connected to either of the two main Schools. They include Alois Riehl (1844-1924), for whom philosophy was primarily a critique of knowledge. Riehl is noteworthy for his attempts to update Kant’s philosophical significance in regard to the new developments of physics and mathematics, for example, the advent of non-Euclidean geometry. For Riehl, unlike for the Marburg School, the notion of the thing-in-itself was not to be discarded, as it alone could account for an objective reality outside the subject. Riehl’s disciple, Richard Hönigswald (1875–1947) based his considerations on the question of the relationship between conscience and object.
Other significant figures belong more to the twentieth century than to the nineteenth century. Hans Vaihinger (1852-1933), the famous commentator of the Critique of Pure Reason and founder of the Kant-Studien, is known for his pragmatic philosophy of “As If” (als ob). The philosophy of “As If” is directly based on Kant’s own admission, in the Critique of Judgment, that the world looked “as if” there was a purposeful creator behind its existence, but that this could not be theoretically proven. Thus, for Vaihinger, knowledge had to be based on hypothetical fictions that had to be upheld depending on their practical use in life. For him, an objective truth was, hence, impossible to establish. This brought Neo-Kantianism back into close contact with Hume’s pragmatic skepticism, but with the distinction that there had to be strict criteria to establish the “as if” construction.
Other Neo-Kantians were interested in pursuing what had been Kant’s partly futile attempt to reach metaphysical certainty beyond epistemological considerations. Friedrich Paulsen (1846-1908), for instance, claimed (not without reason) that Kant had always been a metaphysician at heart. In this view, Kant’s criticism of dogma about transcendent issues as fundamentally invalid did not preclude a belief in such a reality.
Not directly part of Neo-Kantianism, but strongly related to it, and clearly derived from it historically, are the efforts by several thinkers to use Kant as a basis for a theory of religion through the use of the psychological approach that had been attempted earlier by Fries. Two thinkers in particular stand out, Leonard Nelson, a professor from Göttingen (1882-1927) and Rudolf Otto (1869-1937). Together, they form the “Neo-Friesian School.” For Nelson, the mind has an immediate, indisputable certainty about the principles of reason. Based on this certainty of an intuitive type (rejected by Kant but introduced by Fries), all further steps flowed according to strict logic.
Rudolf Otto went much further and continued this approach by offering a full phenomenology of the religious experience. Otto, who taught in Marburg, believed in a strictly scientific way of proceeding and was strongly opposed to Romantic philosophy’s vague references to “feeling” in relation to religion. However, he also believed that it was impossible to truly grasp the religious phenomenon by reason alone. A non-rational (or even irrational) element, which he called the “numinous” always remained unaccounted for when religion was merely seen in terms of rational ethics, as it was by Kant. That “numinous,” the experience of the “holy,” together with ethical universalism formed a religious category that was irreducible to any other category and more fundamental than the categories of the mind discovered by Kant. His conclusions are most famously expressed in, The Idea of the Holy (Das Heilige, 1917).
Otto’s views were largely shared by theologian and philosopher of religion Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), who believed that neither Positivism nor the Pragmatism of William James could fully account for the nature of religion, and who considered that taking the side of Kantian idealism was ultimately a matter of choice, rather than a decision that could be rationally justified.
Twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich was strongly influenced by both Otto and Troeltsch. He founded the philosophy of religion of his early, German period (the 1920s) on Kant’s critical philosophy and Otto’s added intuitive element. More recently, the religious element of Kant’s own thought has been rediscovered by various scholars who see Kant’s entire system as an attempt to account for that element, rather than an effort to lead away from religion towards an Enlightenment-type agnosticism. In this, these scholars essentially follow the view of some Neo-Kantians that an “inductive metaphysics” was possible based on empirical observation (the teleology of Kant’s Critique of Judgment).
A further aspect of the Neo-Kantian movement related to religion was its attempt to promote a revised notion of the Jewish religion, particularly in the seminal work of Cohen's later period, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism (Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums, 1919), one of the few works of the movement that has been translated into English.
Neo-Kantianism was primarily a movement that dominated the German scene and that of German-speaking countries. In England, the Hegelian philosophy was still in full swing at the time of the Neo-Kantian explosion, and the latter never gained ground in that country. In France, Neo-Kantianism affected such thinkers as Victor Cousin (1792-1867), Charles Renouvier (1815-1903), and Jules Lachelier (1832-1918). Neo-Kantianism also had a strong impact in Italy. In the United States, its influence was mostly indirect.
The Neo-Kantian school was of decisive importance in giving philosophy a new orientation and it had a durable influence well beyond Germany. It coined such terms as “Erkenntnistheorie (the equivalent of epistemology) and upheld its prominence over ontology. Natorp had a decisive influence on the history of phenomenology and is often credited with leading Edmund Husserl to adopt the vocabulary of transcendental idealism. The debate between Cassirer and Martin Heidegger over the interpretation of Kant led the latter to formulate reasons for viewing Kant as a forerunner of phenomenology, although this view was disputed in important respects by Eugen Fink. An abiding achievement of the Neo-Kantians was the founding of the journal Kant-Studien (1896), one of the foremost journals of academic philosophy that still survives as a key resource of importance to all studying Kant, and the Kant-Gesellschaft (Kant Society, 1904), both founded by Vaihinger. In the years following 1900, the Academy of Sciences of Berlin published the definitive, 23-volume edition of Kant’s works under the direction of Wilhelm Dilthey.
In the Anglo-American world, recent interest in Neo-Kantianism has been revived in the wake of the work of Gillian Rose, who is a critic of this movement's influence on modern philosophy, and because of its influence on the work of sociologist Max Weber.
Today, the term "Neo-Kantian" can also be used as a general term to designate anyone who adopts Kantian views in a partial or limited way. The revival of interest in the philosophy of Kant that has been underway since Peter Strawson's important work, The Bounds of Sense, can also be viewed as effectively Neo-Kantian, not least due to its continuing emphasis on epistemology at the expense of ontology. The converse European tradition drawing on the understandings of the transcendental derived from phenomenology continues to emphasize the opposite reading as is shown by the recent works of Jean-Luc Nancy.
While the movement of Neo-Kantianism includes a number of significant thinkers, ironically none of the really major philosophers influenced by Kant were part of it, making the term “epigones” used by Liebmann more appropriate to describe the Neo-Kantians themselves. Thus, Neo-Kantianism’s importance mostly rests on the overall impact it had on the philosophical, religious, and literary life of Germany and neighboring countries. Accordingly also, the Neo-Kantian line of thought only represents part of Kant’s legacy. The other, perhaps more important in the end, is to be found in Kant’s influence on thinkers who went their own way, often radically departing from his thought, both in the early years (such as Hegel, Schopenhauer) and much later, beyond Neo-Kantianism, Edmund Husserl, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Martin Heidegger, and all the way up to Postmodernism.
Neo-Kantianism was a temporary return to stability after the upheavals of the nineeenth century. Its mixture of guarded liberalism, taste for scientific accuracy, and repulsion towards speculative hyperbole as well as down-to-earth materialism allowed for many brilliant intellectual achievements. As a movement, it broke apart after the renewed upheavals of World War I and it was replaced by much more radical solutions. The various directions taken by philosophy after the era of Neo-Kantianism, culminating in the Deconstruction of Postmodernism, have brought Kant’s initial criticism of philosophical dogma to a nearly total rejection of foundationalism, that is, to full skepticism about one’s abilities to know any ultimate truth in an unequivocal way. This trend is in turn being criticized today as having gone overboard in its attempt to eliminate unfounded assumptions, making Kant’s moderate and balanced approach a fruitful starting-point for further philosophical investigation.
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