19th-Century Philosophy

My interests in the 19th-century are broad. In the first place, I am concerned in tracing how Kant’s critical philosophy, which maintains that human rationality is responsible for the constitution of our experience of the world around us and the moral demands that inflect how we act in that world, was transformed by Fichte, the early Schelling, and Hegel into distinctive forms of idealism that at once qualify and build upon Kant. In particular, I am currently interested in how these thinkers, while accepting Kant’s thesis regarding rationality as the source of human freedom and the moral law, develop unique strategies, contra Kant’s metaphysical skepticism, to show how our rational freedom is compatible with the system of nature, thereby balancing ethics with naturalism.

In the second place, I am concerned with how the reception of these forms of idealism set the stage for later 19th-century developments and ultimately 20th-century continental thought through a series of critical reflections on the limits of the theories of rationality and experience expounded by the German Idealists.  This has led me to work on figures such as the early German Romantics, Schopenhauer, the late Schelling, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.

Publication on German Idealism

Rethinking German Idealism. Edited by S.J. McGrath and Joseph Carew. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. DOI: 1057/978-1-137-53514-6.

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  • The ‘death’ of German Idealism has been decried innumerable times since its revolutionary inception, whether it be by the 19th-century critique of Western metaphysics, phenomenology, contemporary French philosophy, or analytic philosophy. Yet in the face of two hundred years of sustained, extremely rigorous attempts to leave behind its legacy, German Idealism has resisted its philosophical death sentence. For this exact reason it is timely ask: What remains of German Idealism? In what ways does its fundamental concepts and texts still speak to us?Drawing together new and established voices from scholars in Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling, this volume offers a fresh look on this time-honoured tradition. It uses myriad of recently developed conceptual tools to present new and challenging theories of its now canonical figures.

Publications on the History of 19th-Century Philosophy

1. “The Irreducibility of Aesthetics in Novalis’ Conception of Nature.” In L’homme et la nature. Politique, critique et esthétique dans le romantisme allemande, edited by Giulia Valpione und Arnaud François. Münster: Lit Verlag, forthcoming.

  • The early German Romantics are often construed as irrationalist or proto-postmodern. As this reading goes, being critical of the myopic vision of modern science and the systematic tendencies of discursive reason, they prefer the openness of the fragment and the semantic inexhaustibility of poetic imagery and the feelings aroused by aesthetic experience. Novalis, like the other early German Romantics, is indeed pessimistic about the worldview endorsed by Enlightenment science and philosophy, which, he contends, disenchants nature by exclusively explaining its phenomena by quantification and mechanism, thus leading to alienation and nihilism. But Novalis envisages the then-emerging Romantic poetry as a distinctive a type of rational practice that can establish a new, more life-affirming conception of nature, one in fact already suggested by various developments in the science of his time. It accomplishes these feats by permitting us to gain, through the aesthetic experience of the beautiful whole of nature, a non-discursive, yet objective awareness of nature itself as a God-like organism to which we belong like limbs or organs to a body. However, not only is this poetic act of romanticizing, whereby we re-enchant a now disenchanted nature, “similar to algebraicizing” and hence on par with mathematical rigour, but also it, rather than philosophy, is the vehicle for truth. As Novalis encapsulates his approach: “Poesy is the truly absolutely real. This is the core of my philosophy. The more poetic, the more true.”

2. “Schelling’s Critique of Hegel: Its Historical Context, Argument, and Contemporary Purchase.” In The Palgrave Schelling Handbook, edited by S.J. McGrath and Kyla Bruff. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming.

  • Schelling’s late lectures on the philosophy of revelation have been described, quite rightly, as the last great university event. Called to Berlin by the King to take over Hegel’s Chair and vanquish the “the dragon seed of Hegelian pantheism, the vapid spouting of knowledge, and the dissolution of domestic discipline,” everyone came to hear the once colleague and now rival to Hegel give his verdict on the latter’s absolute idealism and present his own alternative, after a decade of silence. While these lectures have largely been forgotten by mainstream history of philosophy, the influence that they exerted was profound. For in order to motivate his own “positive philosophy,” a truly epic account of the history of human consciousness as an essential, but yet contingent moment in the history of the life of God, Schelling first gave a critique of Hegel and in turn a critique of the very limits of rationality in explaining the human experience and ultimate reality, prefiguring existentialist attacks on system building, Heidegger’s dismissal of ontotheology, and poststructuralism. This contribution will summarize the historical context of Schelling’s Hegel critique, its argument, and reflect upon its contemporary purchase for continental and analytic philosophy.

Work in Progress on the History of 19th-Century Philosophy

F.W.J Schelling. The Philosophy of Revelation: The Paulus Transcript of the 1841-42 Inaugural Berlin Lectures. With an Introduction by Manfred Frank. Edited and translated by Michael Vater and Joseph Carew.

An excerpt of the translation is forthcoming in The Schelling Reader, edited by Daniel Whistler and Benjamin Berger, translated by Joseph Carew and Michael Vater. New York: Bloomsbury.

  • With Michael Vater, one of the world’s foremost Schelling scholars and translators, I am preparing the first ever English translation of the Paulus transcript of Schelling’s 1841-1842 inaugural Berlin lectures on the Philosophy of Revelation. (In)famously summoned by the Prussian King to take over Hegel’s old chair in order to combat “the dragon seed of Hegelian pantheism” whose effects were, according to the King, visible in Prussian society, the now old Schelling came to pronounce his final verdict on the “absolute idealism” he himself had paved the way for to an audience with auditors as diverse as Bakunin, Engels, Feuerbach, and Kierkegaard. Highly sceptical of the unfettered powers of reason to grasp reality, the Hegel critique that he here develops exerted an immeasurable influence on the development of post-idealist 19th-century philosophy and beyond, but whose influence has, for the most part, been entirely neglected by scholars. Indeed, it significantly anticipates existentialism, Marxism, Heideggerian ontology, contemporary theology, and  poststructuralism. Furthermore, the metaphysics it offers, which provides an innovative “historical argument” for of God’s existence, is a forgotten masterpiece of theology.
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