Category: Persons

Kant, neo-Kantianism and Plato

Kant, and the academic / intellectual current known as "neo-Kantianism," have attempted a fragmentary, productive and at times interesting reading of Plato's work, which explicitly derives from their own systemic interests.

Kant

Immanuel Kant's work (1724-1804) occupies a nodal position concerning the development of modern philosophy. He criticised the purportedly one-sided views of modern rationalism and empiricism and sought to effect their conciliation. At the same time, his work inaugurated intellectual currents such as German Idealism while exerting considerable influence upon contemporary philosophical debates.

Kant's mature work is usually defined in terms of a "critical philosophy." Faced with the conflicts and impasses of a traditional metaphysics that could not keep pace with the progress encountered in other scientific fields, he attempted to re-ground it through his critical project. It essentially consisted in the exact determination and strict delimitation of the limits of Reason [ratio, Vernunft]. The philosopher acknowledges the existence and binding character of an a priori knowledge, that is, a knowledge that is independent from experience. This kind of knowing, however, does not target the perceptible world as its object but shapes up itself as the knowledge of the ways in which human subjects come to set up the empirical world: "with respect to things themselves, we know a priori only what we ourselves set within them."

Kant had a limited involvement with the history of philosophy. It is around 1770 that his references to Plato appear and are probably not the result of a first-hand contact with the Platonic works. Rather, they seem to derive from the study of contemporary secondary sources. Plato's work, in those days, was presented in the light of neo-Platonic and Christian interpretations and, especially, in the context of its Romantic reception. The result being that Kant declared the Platonic corpus to be exemplary for a philosophy of pure "excessive enthusiasm" [Schwärmerei]. In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), the chapter "The Ideas in General" (p. A312-320) adopts the Platonic emphasis on the type of knowledge that transcends experience while stressing that "Plato came across his ideas mainly through practical [ethical] things, that is, things that depend on freedom." Nevertheless, Kant rejects the expansion of the concept of the idea to the realm of "speculative knowledge" as well as the "mystical production of these ideas" (A 314). The Platonic concept of virtue provides the "practical force" of the ideal as canonical principle with a first grounding. This ideal is supposed to transcend any empirical constraint. The influence and recognition of the Platonic philosophy is obvious in Kant's ethical-philosophical works, which present the Socratic-Platonic model as the first historical grounding of rational ethics. This type of ethics is juxtaposed critically to Epicurean "hedonism." The 1796 text "On a Newly Arisen Aristocratic Tone in Philosophy" oscillates anew between the overall embedment of Plato within the "excessive enthusiasm" category and the attempt to rescue the "Academy Plato" from his subsequent characterization as "father to any possible excessive enthusiasm in philosophy." In its Romantic version and reception, Platonism is virtually synonymous with a pseudo-poetic philosophy of higher "intuitions," immediate knowledge and "sentiment," which Kant acknowledges as the greatest danger for what he (and paradoxically, Plato himself!) regards as real, scientific philosophy: the synthetic function of concepts.

Neo-Kantianism Neo-Kantianism was the dominant philosophical current in Germany during the period 1870-1920 and flourished in the academic environments of Marburg and Baaden. Its adherents were not merely content with interpreting and blindly following Kant's philosophy, but engaged critically with its very essence and impact in contradistinction with other philosophical currents. Their references to the history of philosophy were not put to the service of historical or philological accuracy, but sought to reconstitute philosophical tradition in terms of a form of prehistory of the Kantian critical philosophy. With this aim in mind, they also probed various facets of the tradition for principles that would validate the central neo-Kantian tenets. In this context, the work of two prominent neo-Kantian scholars, that is, Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp, on Plato is of particular importance.

Hermann Cohen's early involvement with Plato is obvious in the texts Plato's Doctrine of Ideas in its Psychological Development (1866) and Plato's Doctrine of Ideas and Mathematics (1878). Placing particular emphasis on Phaedo's relevant passage (100a-b), Cohen stressed the character of the idea as hypothesis whose validity is always ascertained in the context of its dynamic relations with particular beings. The Platonic ideas are presented, accordingly, not as "self-complacent" transcendental hypostases, but as forms of mediation and connection between the intellect and Being through reason [λόγος]. The idea is elevated through the particular beings partaking in her and its function in the context of a sequence of rational discourses [λόγων]. It is, therefore, understandable that Cohen criticised Plato's assignation of a prominent place to the idea of the good [ἀνυπόθετον] in terms of a regression to an ill-conceived metaphysics of the absolute. Paul Natorp had a broader and deeper knowledge of Plato's work because of his training in philology. In 1903 he published one of the most important Platonic studies of the twentieth century, Plato's Theory of Ideas. This work focuses on the role of ideas in a large number of works by Plato and lays emphasis on Phaedo and the later period dialogues. Natorp focuses on the logical function of the ideas as sources for getting to know the empirical world. Ideas are not substances / things but foundational hypotheses through which "the intellect in a way moulds its object seeking to gradually attain its essence rather than taking it for granted" (p.1). He considers the basic achievement to be found in the dialogue The Sophist to be the expression of a general categorial theory (p.296) (that is, a categorial interpretation of the forms as “hypotheses” and the immanent operation of the ideai as the categorial hypotheses). Additionally, Natorp treats the idea of the Good as the "law of lawfulness," which is not in essence the ultimate rational principle but the beginning of the rational element as such within which all partial intellectual positions must be ultimately grounded." (p.194). The Platonic studies undertaken under the auspices of neo-Kantianism were inextricably linked with the internal philosophical interests and researches of this particular intellectual current which sought to re-direct the essential tenets of the Platonic philosophy from an ontological onto a theoretical-cognitive problematic. They followed the typical fate of neo-Kantianism since they fell into oblivion in the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, this does not invalidate the significance of many neo-Kantian studies, which can even today help revive the Platonic research.

"I am not in a position to say whether the more profound study of the systemic questions helped me attain a deeper understanding of Plato or whether it is rather the reverse that holds true. I believe that this [dilemma] constitutes the fate not only of my own philosophy, but of philosophy in general" (Natorp, Platos Ideenlehre, p. xii).
  • Holzhey, H. "Platon im Neukantianismus. Einleitung und Überblick." Mojsisch, B., Kobusch, T. eds. Platon in der abendländischen Geistesgeschichte. Darmstadt, 1997.
  • Heimsoeth, H. "Kant und Plato." Kant-Studien 56 (1965)
  • Bubner, R. "“Platon - der Vater aller Schwärmerei. Zu Kants Aufsatz ‘Von einem neuerdings erhobenen vornehmen Ton in der Philosophie." Bubner, R. ed. Antike Themen und ihre moderne Verwandlung. Frankfurt am Main, 1992.
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