IBSA (ISKCON Bhaktivedanta Sadhana Asrama), Govardhana, India
25 December 2003
How Kant's Philosophy of Transcendence Degraded
into Impersonalism, Voidism and Social Issues
The period of approximately 1780 to 1860 was the age of so-called German Idealism. The German Idealists started out as philosophers who aimed to find God through pure reason. How they defined God we shall see. First we must give attention to the man who set the stage in Germany for the Idealist movement. He was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose own doctrine goes by the name Critical Philosophy.
Kant, a learned scholar in the east Prussian city of Koenigsberg, was a pious Christian of the rationalist tradition of European philosophy. As a rationalist his desire was to render God's order of the world reasonable to the human mind, without contradicting Christian theology. He proposed critical thinking as the means to that end.
"Critical" did not mean fault-finding; rather it was a careful, exact evaluation. Kant argued that critical thinking was how mankind could experience transcendence. By transcendence he meant a level of knowledge beyond practicality, theory, and aesthetics. A level beyond them, yet a level that was engaged only with them. To practicality, critical thinking brought moral order. To theory, it brought truth. To aesthetics, it brought beauty.
Critical thinking did this by engaging a priori laws, or the first principles innate to reality itself. Without these principles we could find no order in sensations or ideas. Relation, quantity, quality, causality--these were a priori, transcendental, and they were detectable by pure intuition or sensibility (Anschauung), the innermost frame of critical thinking.
Once so detected, a priori principles became the equipment of pure judgement (Verstand), a larger frame of critical thinking, one that encompassed intuition. Judgement worked out the operative relationship between the principles. The largest frame of critical thinking, which included the two before, was pure reason (Vernunft). Reason engaged the a priori principles. "Reason prescribes its laws to the sensible universe," Kant wrote. "It is reason which makes the cosmos. " And because it included intuition and judgement, pure reason so engaged was critical thinking.
It is important to note that reason for Kant was not God. He personally believed in a realm beyond pure reason, a realm of noumena or inconceivable realities. Reason was the limit of man's access to transcendence. Reason flowed from above toward below. Its object was the material world. Therefore Kant strongly argued that reason didn't equip mankind with the power to peek into the noumenal realm which was, necessarily, above and beyond reason.
In short, Kant was an agnostic with pious grounds for being so. Without intending to, he rendered reason independent of above and predominate over below. Kant was clear that he meant human reason. Above human reason was the absolute, the noumenal; below human reason was the relative, the phenomenal. Unfortunately, either Kant didn't take enough care to emphasize the marginal position of human reason; or perhaps the German Idealists who came after him didn't take enough care to understand reason's marginal position.
There was a further danger-point in Kant's doctrine. This was his explanation of Ding-an-sich, "the thing in itself. " A thing in itself belonged to noumena, the inconceivable realities, which are: the absolute, the total universe, the soul and God. It turned out that the phenomenal world we perceived with our senses was that noumenal Truth. The noumenal appeared phenomenal because of the way intuition, judgement and reason worked with our senses.
Intuition detected a priori principles, yes, but it detected these transcendental realities not as things in themselves but as principles of the characteristics of phenomena. An infant, Kant argued, spontaneously moved away from disagreeable sense objects and moved toward agreeable sense objects. Thus the infant, with no education of spatial measurements and relationships, intuitively knew the difference between nearer and farther, beside and beyond. Such were intuitions of space. For Kant, space was an a priori principle outside of us. Time was also a priori, but inside us. And so an infant intuitively knew the difference between before and after. Kant supposed that a person's sense of space and time were the purest intuitions that he or she could have. Yet still these purest of intuitions were no use to us when separated from the phenomena they defined.
By critical thinking we could know that space and time were transcendental within phenomena, but we could not know them as they were in their own noumenal nature. On top of that, without the a priori conditions set by space and time, we could perceive nothing else that existed in space and time. Thus there was no phenomena in this world, at any time, in any place, that could be Ding-an-sich (the thing in itself), the noumenal Truth. But phenomena was not utterly severed from noumena; it was all that our senses could grasp of noumena.
Kant had suggested that the mysterious unknown concealed behind the phenomena of sense perception might be identical with the unknown within ourselves. To him, it was just a thought; to the German Idealists who came after him, it was the seed of a new philosophy. The main philosophers of the German Idealist movement were Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1765-1814), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Of these four, Hegel was most influential.
Kant's speculation about the possible oneness of ego (the inner man) and non-ego (the outer world) was developed by Fichte into the central tenet of his doctrine: that the self produced the world by an unconscious and involuntary act of creation, and then overcame his creation by free and conscious effort. Schelling thought ego and non-ego were rooted in something else, a primitive will or a desire to be, which was transcendent, mysterious and impenetrable. Like Schelling, Schopenhauer stressed the will as the starting point of the world that appears to be made up of mind and nature. But Schopenhauer, a professed pantheist, thought the world was really only a representation of the will. It was not a happy representation either, pervaded as it was by suffering; we might say the representation was a perverted reflection of what the will desires. Schopenhauer concluded that the will should turn back upon itself, negate its so-called life of enjoyment, and enter impersonal monism. Hegel argued that ego and non-ego, or mind and nature, are modes of the absolute.
In his purport to Sri Brahma-samhita 5. 62, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura writes:
Certain thinkers conclude that the nondifferentiated Brahman is the ultimate entity and by undergoing self-delusion (vivarta) exhibits the consciousness of differentiation; or, the limiting principle itself (Maya), when it is limited, is the phenomenal world and is itself the Brahman, in its unlimited position; or, the Brahman is the substance and this phenomenal world is the reflection; or, everything is an illusion of the jiva.
Fichte's notion that the ego unconsciously produced the world that restrained it, and then struggled to get free of its own creation, is akin to the fourth idea mentioned by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta: that everything is an illusion of the jiva.
Schelling acquired his conception of primitive will as the source of ego and non-ego from the mystic Jakob Boehme, whose teachings are still respected by the Quaker sect of Christianity. I have seen that some Quakers themselves draw parallels between their theology and advaita-vedanta. And so it would seem the closest match for Schelling's doctrine is the idea that nondifferentiated Brahman is the ultimate entity, and by undergoing self-delusion (vivarta) exhibits the consciousness of differentiation.
Schopenhauer's philosophy resembles the third idea: Brahman is substance and this phenomenal world is the reflection.
I find that Hegel's philosophy has much in common with the second idea outlined by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta--the limiting principle Maya itself is the world and Brahman. Hegel's use of the word "absolute" may give the impression that he intended to mean something like the impersonal Brahman. No, for him nature and consciousness were the absolute. They were not in opposition, like Brahman and Maya are thought to be by advaita-vedantists. Hegel saw nature and consciousness to be functions of the same dynamic that was immanent in both. One could say that nature acts as consciousness and consciousness acts as nature, and that activity, that movement, that change, that succession, is what Hegel meant by the absolute. The key to knowing his definition of this term is that his absolute was most definitely not transcendental. It was immanent, and as such it did not exceed the world nor the capacity of the human intellect. It evolved toward freedom; hence it gradually progressed from the limited to the unlimited. Hegel's absolute was the limiting and unlimiting principle itself.
In its worldly consequences, the philosophy of Hegel far surpassed Fichte's, Schelling's and Schopenhauer's. One wonders: how did it become so influential? Because there seemed to be a flaw at its very ground. If the absolute was immanent, not transcendental, and this absolute was everything, then why did things change? Hegel's answer was: things change due to their inherent contradictions. Being everything, the absolute was full of contradiction.
Hegel's logic displayed skillful word-jugglery and so had a hypnotic effect on the minds of his submissive students. He proposed that it was not difficult to understand the absolute, because it is Being, and Being is simple. Being is pure. In fact Being is so simple and pure it is equal to Non-being. Thus Being is both itself and its opposite. One is thesis. The other is antithesis. By their mutual contradiction, or dialectic, a synthesis appears. From this threefold dynamic of contradiction and resolution (thesis, antithesis and synthesis), the modes of the absolute manifest as quality, quantity, proportion, phenomenon and action.
Synthetic reason was a term introduced by Kant to denote a key method of thought within his Critical Philosophy. That method of thought I've already alluded to. It synthesizes, or generates new knowledge, by linking a priori first principles with a posteriori experiences of the world. (A posteriori simply means "that which follows" first principles. ) For example, Kant thought that the proposition "all bodies are extended into space" is a priori. Even an infant perceived the truth of it. Later, as a child gains a posteriori experience, he comes to know that bodies have weight. When this later perception of a body's weight is connected to the a priori intuition of a body's spatial dimension, a synthesis appears: mass. Mass is the bulk of a material object: its weight distributed through volume.
Again, Kant's intention was to establish a system of reason that would account for everything within human experience without contradicting the Christian theology. But in that attempt he inadvertently raised reason to the status of the highest method of knowledge. There was no place in his system for a rational account of the revelation of divine knowledge. The same remark that Mark Antony made about Brutus at Caesar's funeral could be made about Kant: "He was an honorable man. " He was a friend to transcendence, just as Brutus was a friend to Caesar.
Hegel seized Kant's sharp weapon--synthetic reason--which Kant forged in defense of Christianity, and used it to attack Christianity. To be sure, Hegel did not profess atheism. He simply had his own idea of God that had little to do with Christian theology. Hegel's God was absolute being that evolved dialectically. How was this God to be seen? In history.
Hegel proposed the gods of ancient Greece to be the thesis of the evolution of man's thought toward the world; Greek theology was pantheistic, fully involved with nature. Thus for the Greeks, man was everything, "God" (in the transcendental sense) nothing. The Old Testament God-the-Father, on the other hand, was the antithesis of the nature gods. Here, man's thought had evolved away from the world; thus God was everything, man was nothing. Christ represented a synthesis of the two: a being who was both God and man. This notion of the unity of God and man would gain, as we shall see, a unique significance as Hegelian thought developed after Hegel's death.
The Judaeo-Christian God, Hegel argued, had become an inadequate expression of the truth it represented. Dialectical evolution would raise mankind to a higher level of consciousness. On that higher ground of being man and God would appear again in new improved forms. Evolution was leading us all to the self-achievement of the total conscious Being of God. In four words: we are all one.
Hegel's philosophy represents the apex of German Idealism. The downhill trend is evident in the thought of a fervent disciple of Hegel's, Ludwig Feurbach (1804-1872). In his youth he aspired to become a Lutheran minister. But while at the University of Heidelberg he witnessed a student protest against religious authorities. He was shocked at how the churchmen engaged the police to violently suppress the idealistic young rebels. This experience turned Feurbach away from religion and toward philosophy. He enrolled in the University of Berlin where Hegel taught philosophy. He not only attended the professor's classes, he became his friend. Feurbach soon accepted Hegel as a second father.
Hegel had many followers, known as Hegelians; they were divided into two camps, the Left and the Right. Feurbach became a leader of the Left Hegelians. After one has comprehended the basic elements of Hegel's philosophy, the position of the leftists can come as no surprise. If ego (man) and non-ego (nature) are Being, and Being is one, and the one is evolving dialectically to its own perfection, then what is the need of keeping any God at all? Man should declare himself God and be done with Him.
Feurbach proclaimed his mission in these words:
I aim to change the friends of God into friends of man, believers into thinkers, worshipers into workers, candidates for the other world into students of this world, Christians--who on their own confession are half-animal and half-angel--into men, whole men.
It is the essence of man that he is the Supreme Being. . . if the divinity of nature is the basis of all religions, including Christianity, the divinity of man is its final aim. . . the turning point in history will be the moment when man becomes aware that the only God of man is man himself: Homo homini Deus! (Mankind is man's God!)
Feurbach soon had his own ardent young followers. One of them wrote:
Then came Feurbach's Essence of Christianity. With one blow it pulverized the contradiction [in Hegel's doctrine] in that without circumlocation it placed materialism on the throne again. . . Nothing exists outside man and nature, and the higher beings our religious fantasies have created are only the fantastic reflection of our own essence. . . One must have himself experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all at once became Feurbachians. . . With an irresistable force Feurbach is driven to the realization. . . that our consciousness and thinking, however suprasensuous they may seem, are the product of a material, bodily organ, the brain. Matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter.
This praise of Feurbach was penned by one Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). But Engels and his friend Karl Marx (1818-1883) soon grew dissatisfied with the Feurbachian movement. The deity of man was a dreamy abstraction. Marx and Engels wanted their humanistic materialism on a solid "scientific" and "social" basis. And so the doctrine of Communism was born.
And the rest is history.
Indeed, if anything was God to the Communists, it was history. Karl Marx was descended from rabbis on both sides of his family. But his father converted the family to Christianity. For whatever reason, it appears that the Marxist theory of history is derived from the Old Testament Book of Daniel and the New Testament Book of Revelations.
Daniel, speaking under divine inspiration, told of four empires that spanned the Jewish world-era called "the Great Year. " He saw periods of disorder marking the transition of one empire to the next. Similarly, Karl Marx divided history into four stages of society separated by periods of social upheaval.
The first stage, "primitive communism," corresponds to the Garden of Eden. The second, "private ownership," corresponds to the Fall. The third, "capitalism and imperialism," corresponds to the Last Days. In this stage, "the proletariat" (the working class) assume the role of the Chosen People, the Jews; or in the Christian version, the faithful saved by the Blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. The fourth and final stage of society according to Karl Marx is "the socialist revolution," which corresponds to the Last Battle (or as per the Christian notion of the end of the world-era, the Second Coming). Marx predicted the final stage would be established by "a dictatorship of the proletariat;" gradually, the dictatorial aspect of the working-class state would wither away into "true communism. " In this formulation of two steps to perfection, Marx paralleled the Book of Revelations. It foresees the Apocalypse in two steps. The first is the return of Christ and his saints, who will rule the earth for one thousand years. The second step is the final defeat of the Antichrist. When all possibility of evil is at last vanquished, a permanent, infallible New Order of Heaven and Earth will be made manifest by God.
It goes without saying that history had its own idea, a little different from those of Marx and Engels.