The Role of Skepticism in the Emergence of German Idealism

In Michael Baur & Daniel Dahlstrom (eds.), The Emergence of German Idealism. Washington, DC, USA: pp. 63-91 (1999)
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According to Immanuel Kant’s well-known account of his own intellectual development, it was the skeptic David Hume who roused him from his dogmatic slumber. According to some popular accounts of post-Kantian philosophy, it was the soporific speculation of the idealists that quickly returned German philosophy to the Procrustean bed of unverifiable metaphysics, where it dogmatically slept for half of the nineteenth century. This popular picture of post-Kantian German philosophy receives some apparent support from the relevant evidence. After all, Kant had allegedly demonstrated the illegitimacy of all metaphysical speculation that transcends the bounds of experience, and the writings of the German idealists - filled as they are with references to what is putatively “absolute” and “unconditioned” - seem to violate Kant’s strictures. In place of this popular conception, I seek to sketch out a rather difference picture of German idealism. The development of post-Kantian German idealism is best described, not as a turning away from skepticism, but rather as a radicalization of it. The radicalization of skepticism from Kant through Fichte to Hegel, however, does not lead away from systematic philosophy. The movement of thought from Kant to Hegel coincides with the gradual realization that skeptical thought is not external to systematic philosophy, but is in fact internal to, or even identical with it. This thesis concerning the progressive “radicalization” or “internalization” of skepticism in German idealism receives some prima facie support form the relevant writings of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel.
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