The Impact of Idealism – Research

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The culmination of an international project which aims to trace the legacy of German Idealism – an explosion of philosophical ideas which emerged from Germany during the 19th century – begins in Cambridge today (Thursday, 6 September).

Over the past three years, more than 40 researchers from Britain, Germany and the United States have been involved in the “Impact of Idealism” project, examining how the idealist movement, perhaps the most influential force in philosophy over the past two centuries, shaped the way in which we see the world and ourselves today.

Even though we may not realise it, the concepts which emerged as a result of the idealist movement have influenced subjects as varied as politics, biology, literature and psychology. In spite of this, how those ideas seeped into so many different areas of life has never really been studied – until now.

Researchers involved in the “Impact of Idealism” project have been studying the way in which the outpouring of new ideas changed fields far beyond the realm of philosophy itself, as well as the way in which the same concepts were then developed and passed down through generations. Their conclusions will be presented in the form of a series of papers at the three-day conference, which is taking place at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Among those speaking will be the Archbishop of Canterbury and new Master of Magdalene, Rowan Williams, and the writer and philosopher, Roger Scruton. A four-volume book compiling all of the contributors’ work will be published by Cambridge University Press next year.

“The questions and issues that dominate German idealism did not just concern the idealists themselves, they had a lasting impact on the way we think now.” Professor Nick Boyle, principal investigator on the project, said. “Two centuries later, we are still preoccupied by many of the same problems.”

German Idealism began in the late 18th-century, against the turbulent backdrop of the French Revolution. Its first major figure was Immanuel Kant, whose idea of “transcendental idealism” revolved around the notion that the mind was key to the way in which we perceive the world, and that the world was filtered by perception.

Kant argued that we can only understand or make judgements about the world around us (or anything else) by experiencing it through our senses, then applying a framework of concepts to those experiences. This was a new theory of the mind, and pointed out the limits of human cognition by claiming that what we see is a world of appearances processed by our minds, and that it is impossible to understand it independently of ourselves.

The philosophical movement which sprang from this has been the focus of the “Impact of Idealism” project. Thinkers like Fichte, Schelling and (most famously) Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel developed and challenged Kant’s ideas, providing new and sometimes contentious sets of theories on the nature of the human mind and what shapes our self-consciousness and perception of the world, and our engagement with it.

Importantly, however, these ideas did not get lost in a vacuum. Later nineteenth-century figures we naturally recognise as shaping the way we think now, such as Darwin, Marx and Freud, were themselves profoundly influenced by the world view created by the Idealist generation of German philosophers. In the 20th century concepts and issues first formulated by Kant and the post-Kantians preoccupied and inspired both Anglo-American thinkers and French existentialists, post-structuralists, and post-modernists.

The researchers behind the “Impact of Idealism” project argue that this process continues to affect some of the biggest questions of the 21st century. Theories of the mind and human society derived from Idealism define and shape fields as varied as neuroscience – in which researchers are explicitly trying to understand the relationship between mind and brain – inter-faith relations, or postmodern literature and art.

“If we want to understand why we are concerned about these problems and why we are approaching them in the way we are, we need to understand that they are closely related to a set of philosophical ideas that began 200 years ago,” Boyle said. “In its most influential form, German idealism was the backdrop against which many of our current ideas about politics, society and culture emerged. It is not the case that these people had certain ideas and we have had the same ones in the 21st century. They contributed directly to the way in which we think about the world now.”

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