Tuesday, 17 January 2012 07:20

German Idealistic Thinkers

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This lecture reviews the major German idealistic philosophers, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. The reader is encouraged to go read these giants first hand and learn about the amazing capability of the human mind. Communion with great minds, and do not just spout simple ideas that enter your mind.


So far we have mostly talked about English and French thinkers and rarely about German thinkers (except Leibniz). Why this absence of one of the most vigorous groups in Europe? It is because though they are physically vigorous Germans have a way about them when it comes to the world of intellect. I can tell a novel written by a German just by reading a few pages of it.

In the world of philosophy Germany's contribution is mostly to what is generally referred to as idealistic philosophy. Philosophy can be realistic or idealistic. Realistic philosophy as we find in the English tend to be of the here and now variety, it accepts the human senses as the best way to understand the world and limits all speculations to what our senses can verify as true. The French are, up to a point, empirical, too, though they trend towards excessive rationalism. They argue a point to death all in an effort to make it as rational as is possible. The English describe what their senses show them and the French want to use their power of thinking to illuminate what the senses show us. Germans are a different story.

German idealists beginning with Leibniz tends not to respect the senses. As it were, they think that there is a little man (spirit) in their brains that thinks in a disembodied manner and says things that have no bearing on the physical world we live in.

I bet that if you were not trained to endure the rambling of philosophers you could take some of the writings of German idealists as the babbling of psychotics, Hegel's phenomenology of spirit is an example. These writers write from the world of ideas but may or may not have relevance to the physical world we live in. The anti cerebral American does not even bother reading German idealistic philosophy; instead, he prefers the practical. As William James pointed out, Americans were presented with an untamed wilderness and had to cut down trees, build houses, cultivate the land and did not have the time to engage in intellectual gymnastics.

German philosophy is not practical; it is something you read when you have time to kill and are not worrying where your next meal would come from. I doubt that it would appeal to Africans, folks who in Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs categories are still trying to satisfy their physiological and security needs hence have no time to focus on the higher needs of being (self actualization and pursuit of being experiences).

In this lecture we shall review the major German idealistic philosophers. We have already alluded to Leibniz so we shall skip him. Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, George Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer and Frederic Nietzsche are our major focus.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804):

The resurrection of Europe from death (dark ages) was led by Italians (the Italian renaissance). The Italians passed the touch to the French; the French extended it to the English. The French and the English shared the philosophical lime light. The Germans were decidedly absent until Kant made his grand entrance with his majestic Critique of Pure Reason. And did he make a grand entrance! The old crusty bachelor entered the scene in such a manner that all Europe took notice. Once he made his entrance Kant became a benchmark for other German thinkers to aim at and measure their works.

According to him, he was plodding along until he read David Hume's works (On Human Understanding) and that jolted him out of his slumber. Hume, if you recall, had said that we know whatever we think that we know through our senses and that since our senses can be deceptive that we really do not know anything for sure (a wisp of skepticism). Hume said that we do not know what is real and what is not real. Moreover, Hume was an atheist and believed that since all knowing is through the auspices of the brain that when we die and our brain rot that nothing remains of us. The self we are proud of is an illusion. The self is conceptual, an idea, an idea produced by the human brain and dies with the death of the brain. We end with our physical death. Is this true?

The Old German bachelor who had whiled away his time toying with Leibniz's idea of monads was struck by the power and forcefulness of Hume's argument. It is now time to grow up and put away childish things. As Paul said, when we are children we play with toys, do childish things, but as adults we ought to do adult things.

Kant wanted to do adult things, write about the nature of reality. He focused on philosophy like a laser beam and by the time he was done he had redefined metaphysics (philosophy deals with metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, beauty, ethics, morality and stuff like that).

Are we pure matter (material monism, as Hume said) or is there something more to us. Ideas do matter, you know. If I believe that we are pure matter, you are not that much different than my dog; may be your brain is a bit larger than my dog's brain but other than that both of you are animals and putting bullets into your head and blowing you away is not different than butchering a cow for my dinner. People's beliefs affect what they do; Hitler believed that Eastern Europeans and Africans are unintelligent and did not lose sleep murdering them. Simply put, what our neighbors believe about human beings affect how they relate to us and our lives might depend on it! This is why folk must pay attention to philosophy.

Is science (materialism) all there is to being? Does religion and faith have any relevance beyond appealing to the emotional types?

Kant posited a philosophy called Critical philosophy; he attempted to say that there is something to faith and religion; he attempted to reconcile science and religion.

In the Critique of pure reason he made herculean effort to show that rationalism is not all there is to existence, that religion and faith matters.

Kant says that there are essentially two ways of knowing about things, apriori and posteriori. (Kant introduced interesting Latin and Greek terms into philosophic discourse; they seem complex but if you knew what they mean in English they are really simple terms; apriori is before, past; posteriori is after, future). Kant employed those two concepts in looking at what amounts to Aristotelian syllogism. Consider.

All white horses are horses.

The horse is white.

The first example is what Kant called analytic judgment and the second what he called synthetic judgment.

In synthetic judgment we determine the reality of something by looking at it. We look at the horse and notice that it is white. On the other hand, in analytic judgment the truth of what is judged is in it, is within it; the truth of the thing is affirmed by the definition of the thing. In analytic or apriori statement you do not have to see what you are judging to know the truth of it: all white horses are horses is understood whether you see white horses or not for, somehow, you know that horses can be white or black or brown etc in color.

To engage in synthetic or posteriori judgment you have to see what you are judging, you have to see the white horse to know that it is indeed white in color.

What these seeming convoluted sayings are leading to is Kant's attempt to differentiate between two worlds, what he called the world of phenomenon, the world we see with our eyes and experience, and the world of noumenon, the world that we do not experience directly, a world beyond phenomenon.

In the noumenal world things are "things in themselves' and do not depend on our experience and perception of them to be what they are.

Please reconsider the two statements above. All white horses are horses. Here, a thing is in itself and what it is, is not dependent on our perception. In the other statement, the horse is white; the judgment of what the horse is dependent on our judgment, our experience.

Old Kant is trying very hard to rescue God; pay attention. He is trying to acknowledge Hume's earth shattering argument while planting sufficient doubt about it that reasonable men could still believe that there is another world besides our physical world.

What old Kant is up to is that there are two categories of things (ah, that word categories, Kant loved it as do many philosophers).

In the phenomenal world we know by direct experience and this world is subject to Hume's empiricism.

In the other world, the category of noumenon, we do not know by direct experience and that world is above physics, is the world of metaphysics.

In effect, there is a transcendental world and there is an empirical world. The analytic, apriori category is the world of noumenon and Kant believed that that world exists, in fact and is better than the phenomenal (physical world)!

Kant not only wants to challenge Hume to a wrestling match, he wants to defeat the old Scottish master of the mind!

Suppose the old Scotsman asks: how do we know that the world of noumenon exists? Old Kant has a problem here, don't you think so?

Not to worry, Kant cites the glimpses of other worldly things we now and then claim to have experienced. Each of us occasionally becomes aware of things that his sensory perception could not have taught him. Mystics claim to experience oneness with all things. There are people who would sit by a beach and suddenly see the whole place take on a heavenly glow, seem beautiful beyond words and they feel blissfully happy.

I enjoy hiking in the woods. I have sat down on a hilltop, appreciating the beauty of the wooded valley below me and momentarily felt indescribably happy. Why is that feeling?

Old Kant says that things are more than old Hume tells us. Life is not just empirical; we do not only know things via sensory organs but by other means.

Nor is knowledge gained only through thinking, reason. There is a way of knowing that transcends our physical world, old Kant said. In this light, may be Mohamed was not a schizophrenic after all; may be he did not just experience auditory hallucination; may be he, in fact, tuned in to a different way of knowing things?

Old Kant is asking us to not be too quick to judge what folks tell us that they know through non- sensory means as psychotic.

Kant went on to propose that our minds, nous, play a greater role in knowing than empiricists give it credit. As he sees it, the world we live in is chaotic. It is our minds that give the world the order we see in it. The mind filters a disordered world and makes it seem ordered and structured in our awareness of it.

If the mind is removed what we see is a disorderly world! It is the mind that gives order and structure to our perception; space and time are not out there, they are inside us; our minds impose order on the chaos that is the external world.

Past, present and future are what our minds imposed on the world and do not exist in the world itself.

Old Kant is actually saying what my new age religionist friends say, that our minds create our reality! The old boy is saying that our minds determine the nature of the world we experience.

What is reality? It is what our minds make of the chaotic world.

What all these boil down to is that Kant believed in a world that is beyond matter, a metaphysical world, a world we do occasional have intuitions of. Ultimately, the old boy believes in God and all that goes with that concept: immortality, permanence, etc. Our physical world is a poor shadow of God's world. Do you smell old Plato's forms and shadows? No one can talk philosophy without having studied Plato!

In sum, Kant posited a metaphysics that those who are strict empiricists cannot fathom. When I was in graduate school, a disciple of Hume, I used to derisively dismiss Kant, Hegel and other German idealists as neurotics (oh, those Germans, they are full of it). My concern was the world my senses showed me and I could care less for what seemed to me an imaginary world. Alas, time does change all of us; these days, I do entertain some respect for Kant and his metaphysics! I have even come up with metaphysics (see my book, Living from the Real Self).

Johan Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814):

Kant's Critique of pure reason was a phenomenal success. He gave Germans a shot in the arm; he dragged them into the world stage of philosophy and suddenly all Europe was talking about Kant. It was no longer French or English philosophers that educated folk talked about.

Moreover, since Kant appeared to have demolished old Hume and returned respect to belief in God (for a little while there it appeared that only idiots believed in God), Christians, who have been on the defensive, embraced Kant's Critique of Pure reason. Most educated families had their copes of the Critique of pure reason.

In Germany, Fichte was one of the most vocal supporters of Kantian philosophy. However, as is always the case with disciples, Fichte eventually saw his master's mistakes and corrected them and in so doing departed significantly from him.

Kant posited that our current mind housed in body cannot fully grasp the nature of God; we can gain some glimpses of what lies in the transcendental world but cannot fully understand it.

Fichte asserted that we can understand that other world. Indeed, he went on to articulate today's new age philosophy: that we have God mind in us and with it individually create our earthly realities.

You, my friend, Fichte says, created your reality and, as such, have no other person to blame for your rotten fate.

There is a universal ego (self) and we are parts of that universal ego; in tandem with it and each other we created our individual egos and what happens in this world that we live in.

Is this true or false? Has old Fichte been smoking something; has he used a mood altering drug to confuse his mind, become grandiose and deluded? Christians accused him of having a humongous and ginormous ego; to them it is a blasphemy to see ones self as God! Was that not the crime for which Jesus Christ was condemned to death? In John 14:14 he said that he and God are one and the Jews took offense and wanted him dead. To the Jews, the father is greater than the son.

To Hinduism the father (Brahman) and the son (Atman) are the same! So, be aware that all your judgments are predicated on your presuppositions and preconceptions hence by definition biased.

George Hegel (1770-1831):

One of the Germans bitten by the Kantian bug was George Hegel. He, too, learned Kant and like a good student for a while taught what his master taught him. As expected, in time the student disagrees with his teacher and branches out. This is how knowledge progresses.

Hegel posited his own rendition of idealistic philosophy. Hegel, like most idealists, was grandiose and set for himself a grandiose goal: reconciliation of the past, present and future in human history. Whereas he wrote many books he explicated his basic Dialectic philosophy in his book, the phenomenology of Spirit/Mind.

(We go from Kant's analytic philosophy to Hegel's Dialectic philosophy; analytic, dialectic, play on words?)

Like Kant, Hegel supposed that some sort of God exists. Of course, as a philosopher he could not give it a religious name, he had to come up with a cute name for his philosopher's God; he called it Absolute spirit (absolute idea).

Hegel was a monist, that is, he believed that the same substance is in all things. He was an idealistic monist. His absolute idea is all things.

Hume was a material monist for, to him, matter is all things, including our thinking.

The Absolute manifests in two forms: the spiritual form and the physical form. As it were, the two forms of the absolute clashes and produce conflict and resolve their conflict in a synthesis of another form, a form that contains aspects of the two.

Hegel called this process dialecticism. Hegel's student, Karl Marx, said that he stood his teacher on his head, transformed his utterly esoteric formulation to economic formulation and called his approach dialectic materialism.

In the meantime old Hegel teaches that spirit and matter are clashing and producing new states. The new states then class with spirit and produce newer states.

Thesis (what is,) and antithesis (what opposes what is) clash and the result is a synthesis of both in a new state. As Hegel sees it, this is how new states of being come about (through dialecticism) As it were, the absolute is evolving, producing new states of being.

(Marx changed Hegel's categories and said that the thesis is the old economic order, the antithesis is those being oppressed by that economic order, and the synthesis is the new and improved society that results from the fight of the two orders. The new world order, in turn, oppresses some folk, who, then, oppose it, and the result is a new and improved world order, with the process culminating in the perfect world order, the Eldorado of Communist state.)

Human beings are somehow in touch with the absolute spirit and that informs our ability to reason. Our ability to reason is brought to bear on the material world. Applying reason to matter produces tension and the result is changes in the material world and also in our thinking. This process, Hegel believes, would eventually lead to human beings developing absolute self consciousness; we shall eventually know it all and become masters of the universe.

In this process of realizing the absolute spirit in the temporal world, each person is doing his bit. Artists, religionists and philosophers are all, in their own ways, helping to actualize absolute spirit on earth. As a philosopher, naturally, Hegel believes that philosophers are those who best bring about the dawn of absolute consciousness.

People like Jesus Christ are those who have gained a bit more insight into absolute spirit (Hegel believed that Christianity is the best religion).

We are on a historical match to make the world a more spirit like state, a perfect world. In this journey some are more advanced than others, philosophers are the most advanced.

Since most people are, more or less, almost at animal levels of consciousness, we need draconian laws to make sure that they behave appropriately. The state, Hegel writes, must be given total power to organize and order society.

Hegel is an authoritarian kind of guy for he reposes a lot of power on the state and actually requires the individual to obey the state. German nationalists like Adolf Hitler loved Hegel for he rationalized their emphasis on the state and the need to obey it. The Fuhrer gave orders that must be obeyed. Germans must obey the state, and since as Hitler saw it, he is one with the state, Germans must obey him. (King Louis the fourteen of France said that he and the state are one.) The Fuhrerprinz gave orders, including orders for folk to go fight and die for him (the nation), and the people must obey him.

Hegel contributed to what Theodor Adorno called the German Authoritarian Character Structure, the Germans willingness to obey authority figures even when what they ask folk to do seem foolish. In the authoritarian scheme of things, the individual is a mere spoke in a state's wheel and must do whatever he is told to do. The individual must obey the state in the journey to actualize the absolute idea.

Karl Marx was another authoritarian character, he expected the individual communist to do what he is told to do, including dying for the struggle to realize the communist utopia.

Communist utopia and Fascists utopia are emanations from the pursuit of Hegel's absolute idea.

At the end of the Second World War, American psychologists and sociologists descended on Germany trying to re-socialize Germans, teach them democratic practices. So far it appears that their efforts have succeeded; Germans have not yet, like cattle, marched to a slaughter field. But then again, all these may change when America decays and a struggle to determine who would replace her as the numero uno power of the Western world ensues. The Germans may yet revert to their traditional character; those Germans, they love martial music; they can fall in line and march as ordered to do.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860):

Hegel dominated post Kantian Germany's intellectual life. Schopenhauer resented Hegel's dominance. He set out to show that Hegel was full of it. He had no regard for Hegel and wanted to come up with a philosophy that would replace him.

Schopenhauer read up on Hinduism and apparently factored it into his own philosophical system. Whereas he wrote many books his basic philosophical system is contained in his Magnus opus, the world as will and idea.

As he sees it, nature operates as a kind of will. Nature is will. That will is driven to expand. Nurture's will is pushing it forward. See, the universe is expanding.

In us the will of nature makes us do whatever we have to do to survive. But what are we surviving for? That is the question, my friend.

The will to survival is blind, and if subjected to pure reason seems absurd. Suicide would seem the best response to living in a meaningless world. But the will doesn't want us to die. It wants us to live.

Alas, it inflicts pain on us. To obtain our allegiance and deceive us, nature gives us a little pleasure, such as sex and food, fame and power while giving us tremendous pain and suffering.

If we were rational we would commit mass suicide. But that is not going to happen; after all old Schopenhauer himself did not kill himself despite his pessimism. The will keeps on pushing us to live although to live is to live in pain.

Life is pain and then we die; what a bummer!

Schopenhauer sets out to defeat the will to live. His philosophy is an attempt to negate the will to live; it is nihilistic for it is motivated by the desire to defeat the will to live.

Nature has a will to exist. That will to live manifests in people and animals as the instinct to live. Shine light into a dark room and cockroaches scamper away to go survive but why must the critters survive, what are they living for?

If you ask that question of roaches, of course you know that what you are really doing is asking your self that question! What are you living for? Don't you run away when danger confronts you?

Nature is evolving and evolving through human beings. It achieves consciousness in people. The world is the representation of the will of the universe and human beings are the representation of the will of the world.

Old Schopenhauer says that there is order to the chaos. Before he died he said that he had what today we might call near death experience and in it he learned that every event that took place in his life was necessary and was planned (those who have had near death experience tell us that their life's activities on earth flashed through their minds and they come to know that everything that happened to them was necessary, was part of their individual journey through this hell called planet earth).

Now if it is true that all that happens to us seem part of our fate, and seem necessary for our movement towards wherever we are going, what is the point to it all?

Randomness, chance and accidental universe seem compatible with an atheistic belief and a world of design seems amenable to theistic god. Given Schopenhauer's seeming experience where he learned that life is a design it would seem that he ought to be a theist but he preferred atheism.

As noted, Schopenhauer set out to show people how to live so that they defeat the drive and instinct to live. For example narcissism can drive you to achieve a lot in Life. Consider narcissistic Igbos. They are childish and boast about their great achievements. That desire to become important drives them to achieve and they do achieve great things. The narcissistic drive keeps them going. But old Schopenhauer would ask them to destroy their narcissism and if they did they would no longer be slaves to achievement orientation. They would become quieter hence mature (they generally come across as childish). If they become less achievement oriented they would live like Hindus, calm, mature, wise but not driven. They would have destroyed the drive to live as wild men that do everything, include stealing, to obtain the means to live as very important persons and have the world admire them.

I am tempted to describe the various ways that Schopenhauer recommends that folk employ in their efforts to free themselves from the will to live a meaningless existence. I will not go there; I think that you already got the idea. A philosopher withdraws from the hullabaloo of the world and lives a quiet life.

Frederic Nietzsche (1844-1900):

Germans read their Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer. Nietzsche read them and made his own contributions. Nietzsche was not exactly a philosopher; he was more like a literary writer throwing out ideas in an unsystematic manner in his various books. The man wrote prolifically and before he died at age fifty- six filled the world with literature (and during the last decade of his life he was mad thus he must have done all his writing while young).

The Crux of Nietzsche's philosophy, if such it can be called, is that the Christian religion socialized folk to behave in an unnatural manner. In nature folk are aggressive and outward going, conquering their world. Jesus came along and gave people what we might call a sissy philosophy: told them not to fight back, not to slap the person who slaps them, to forgive the person who raped their wives, to love the Hausas who murdered Igbos.

In nature folk meet attack with attack. It is true that if you are weak and your attacker is stronger than you, you make a tactical retreat to go regroup and come at him and attack and if need be kill him.

In nature animals do not forgive each other, they kill each other. But Jesus asked his followers to forgive their enemies. In so doing he made aggressive boys passive boys. Worse, he bid them feel guilty for being their real selves, aggressive.

As Nietzsche sees it we are like camel. Camels allow folk to ask them to bend down and then place heavy loads on their backs, flog them to make them stand up and they stand up, and carry their load to long distances.

In childhood we allow adults and the Christian society to lay a guilt trip on our minds. We are socialized to be obedient to the Christian god. We internalize precepts that essentially ask us to be the slaves of the leaders of the church. Then for the rest of our lives we live to serve our slave masters, the clergy, and their secular co-oppressors of mankind.

Nietzsche said that this is an obscenity. The church must therefore be destroyed for doing this to us. Society that makes us negate our nature must be fought and replaced with a permissive society.

In Thus Space Zarathustra, Nietzsche taught a new philosophy. He wants folk to regain their natural aggression and go live life of liberty and freedom, doing whatever they want to do. His ideal man is the superman. The superman is the person who overcomes the chains with which society bound him and does his own thing.

This story runs through Nietzsche many books. We are enslaved by our internalized culture and we must fight to liberate ourselves from that internalized culture. We must not feel guilty doing what our nature calls for. If you feel like having sex go have it, do not care what the slave engendering church fathers tell you about the sinfulness of sex. If you desire power and fame go for them, work for them, and get them, for there is nothing wrong with them.

The human tragedy is that we allow others to transform us into sissies who live as their slaves. If you meet Jesus Christ (saviors) on the way kill him; you do not need any savior, only you can save you.

Nietzsche was a weak, sensitive boy who was overcompensating with intellectual bravado. In real life he could not hurt a fly. In fact, he saw a man flogging a horse and could not handle that barbaric act and flipped out into psychosis. The man was too sensitive to live in our dog eat dog, evil world. He eventually checked out and checked into the world of fantasy, psychosis.

His Mather thereafter took care of him and when she died, his sister took over. The sister was everything that Nietzsche was not.

Nietzsche ended his friendship with Richard Wagner when he discovered that he is a racist and anti-Semitic. The sister was an unabashed racist and, indeed joined, the Nazi bandwagon of hate.

So what can we make of Nietzsche? He was a writer and his many books, as he said, will influence and change the world. If you read him and decide to live an authentic, spontaneous rather than repressed life you have done what he asked you to do.

I doubt that any one who has not read Nietzsche is an educated person. His pithy aphorisms alone are gems to live by. Read Nietzsche and appreciate the mind of genius at work. Alas, this particular genius became a bipolar affectively disordered person (fancying himself the greatest philosopher in the world, delusion disorder, grandiose type).

What can I say; where we find superior intellect we often find psychological issues. I have not seen any one with IQ over 140 (the superior folk) that is not also a psychological wreck. It is the unintelligent normal folk that seem psychologically well ordered. But what is their existence for, what is the existence of cattle for? One restless neurotic spirit changes the world. Jean Jacques Rousseau, a restless neurotic made the world a better place than all the normal persons that have lived on earth. I say, give me one Nietzsche and take your six billion normal persons.


I reviewed the major German idealistic thinkers. I did not review the poets, such as Goethe, Novelis Schelling and so on. Obviously, I was scant in my review. I urge you to go read these masters of the mind in the first person. But be warned, they make difficult reading. Hegel's phenomenology of mind is in some edition over 1000 pages long. If you can read that book through I raise my hat for you. Nietzsche has over 100 books and each of them would take weeks to read and understand it. Kant is no essay read, either. Read these folk and expand your horizon a bit.

You might as well enrich your mind with the musing of the immortal minds that have passed through our universe. Philosophers do not come cheap, you know.

Consider the twentieth century I have been trying to understand why the century did not produce philosophers of note. Then it occurred to me that psychologists are philosophers and that the universe produced philosophers in the seminal psychologists of the century (I reviewed their writings in a different set of writing).

Educate your self on philosophy and psychology and, of course, the physical sciences.

*Next Lecture, English Utilitarian Thinkers (thereafter I will talk about existentialist thinkers and then modern philosophers; after those, making them ten lectures, I will make a decision as to whether to continue or not; elsewhere, I have written on the other folks that I would have here written on).

Ozodi Thomas Osuji

August 28, 2009

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: ozodiosuji@gmail.com (907) 310-8176