On the Disputes Concerning German Philosophy


On the Disputes
Concerning German Philosophy

(1915 – #185)

    The practical manifestation of Germanism in the current war has set in sharp relief the question concerning the spiritual sources of German culture. And since philosophy occupies a central place in German culture, this has ignited disputes concerning German philosophy. At the Moscow Religio-Philosophic Society there was a conflict that raged, and it concentrated around a thesis put forth by V. Ern, suggesting that the aggressive German militarism is an offspring begotten of German philosophic phenomenalism. For Ern, an extreme phenomenalism appears not only in the philosophy of Kant, but also in the philosophy of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. The proponents of German philosophy very resolutely objected to this. In these disputes was sensed the typical tendency towards schematicism and simplification and an insufficient attention towards individuality of spiritual activity. What was most of all striking, was that the opponents of the philosophy of Kant discerned that his interpretation involved a servile dependence upon the Neo-Kantians. For them Kant — is completely the same, as Cohen. But Kant is immeasurably richer and more complex. It is inaccurate to characterise the philosophy of Kant, as phenomenalism. For Kant, the “Critique of Practical Reason” was no less essential, than the “Critique of Pure Reason”, and inwardly it defines the latter. An authentic, consistent and extreme phenomenalist was Hume, and phenomenalism is characteristic for the English, rather than for the German philosophy. In German philosophy there has always been its own ontology and metaphysics. The German spirit — is essentially metaphysical, and even the German gnosseology itself, towards which the philosophy of recent times all the moreso tends — is metaphysics, insofar as not having denied this gnosseology itself. And the phenomenalism as such within German philosophy is but variant a viewing of the age-old German metaphysics. Characteristic and of essence to German philosophy is voluntarism. Voluntarism however is unique an ontology. The volitional impulse has been conceived by the German spirit, as basic to being. voluntarism plays a definite role in the philosophy of Kant, in his teaching concerning the practical reason, concerning the autonomy of the person, concerning the realm of freedom. This selfsame voluntarism is there also in Fichte, in Schelling, in Schopenhauer, in Hartmann and Drews [Artur, 1865-1935], Wundt [Wilhelm, 1832-1920] and Paulsen [Friedrich, 1846-1908], Windelband [Wilhelm, 1848-1915] and Rickert [Heinrich, 1863-1936] and many others. Voluntarist motifs existed already back in the old German mysticism. Revealing the truths concerning voluntarism was a mission of German thought, which it fulfilled one-sidedly and in the extreme. The German spirit discerned the dark volitional wellspring of being, an irrational principle, the Ungrund. German philosophy variously, right up through Rickert and Lask [Emil, 1875-1915], tended to reveal the irrational, and in this it continued that aspect of German mysticism, of the revealing of an ungroundedness within the nature of the Divinity itself (Jacob Boehme). Gnosseological rationalism was merely the reverse side of a voluntaristic irrationalism. And modern German philosophy, all ever more picayune in scope, is powerless to emerge from the thicket of the fundamental contradiction of the irrational and the rational. But the setting itself, is not a resolution, and a setting forth of the problem of the irrational, — is a merit of German thought. By this path immanently and to its finish has been lived out the tragedy of cognition.

Uninvestigatable and eternally fleeing within our cognition, as the remnants of the irrational, the ungrounded, the dark, the killing off of all individual life within rational knowledge — is the tragedy of cognition, which German thought has strongly revealed, but has been powerless to surmount. This — is an inward splitting within cognition, a breaking apart of subject and object, an experiencing as it were of death within cognition. The mystics teach about a passing through a moment of spiritual death. This passage through a spiritual death is there also within the paths of the cognition of man. The primordially integral sacred knowledge has to be shattered. The breaking apart and differentiation are inevitable. It is impossible to remain in the primordial cognitive felicity and balance, to affirm the initially healthy identity of subject and object. The philosophy of Kant is also a gnosseological expression of the immanent 1  tragedy of cognition, a passing through death within cognition, as a moment of developement. This I see as a fundamental meaning of Kantianism. And from the Kantian tragedy of cognition it is possible only to go forward, not backwards to the felicity of a pre-Kantian rationalism, a pre-Kantian correlation of the knowing subject with the known object. We do not see truth in the Kantian philosophy, for us Kant is unacceptable. But Descartes is still even less acceptable, than is Kant, but Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle are even still less acceptable, than is Descartes. There is an inevitable process of developement, transpiring in the fates of philosophy along the path from Thomas Aquinas through Descartes and Kant to our own time. This — is the process of the secularisation of cognition, parallel to the process of the secularisation of all the spheres of culture. From knowledge is snatched away its transcendent sanction, which provided a guarantee to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and rendered it sacred. Knowledge enters upon an immanent, externally unguaranteed path. Thus is affirmed the autonomy of the knowing subject, which proves tragic for it. The knowing as it were has fallen away from the bosom core of being and started a prodigal wandering. But these tribulations of cognition have been necessary. The Slavophil philosophy did not want to deal with the tragedy of cognition. It wanted to remain amidst the primordial wholeness and to preserve for philosophy the transcendent religious sanction. It affirmed for itself a cognitive felicity, and in the splitting separate process it saw merely a falling away and sin. But the fall, the sin-fall, lies at the very wellsprings of free immanent cognition. In the cognition is a principle of differentiation. The philosophy of Kant was also an expression of the sin-fall within cognition, a falling away from the primordial integral wholeness. This does not render it true and does not impel us to follow after it, but it imparts the profound meaning of the philosophy of Kant within the worldly coursings of cognition. The philosophy of Kant has to be surmounted. There has to be found an exit from these thickets, into which German philosophic thought has fallen. But it is impossible to reassert thought as in the primordial integral wholeness, such as preceeded the tragedy of cognition. From the philosophy of Kant and from the thickets of the irrational and the rational there has to be found an immanent egress. German voluntarism, having partial a truth lodged within it, of itself finds no way out. In it is lodged the seed of violence. German irrationalism always remains incommensurable with German rationalism. Only by having acknowledged the immanence of the cognitive being and the beingness underlying cognition itself, can philosophy emerge upon new paths.

It is proper therefore to avoid the simplified schemae concerning the German spirit and German philosophy. German culture is very complex, and within it are some several lines. The neo-Slavophils have already begun to work out certain tracings of German philosophy. They see in it both immanentism and phenomenalism, a denial of Sophia, a being torn off from the feminine principle, from the land, from nature — here is what they regard as of essence to the German spirit and to German philosophy. Bulgakov, Ern and others are constantly talking about this. The old Slavophils discerned rationalism and a fragmentation of spirit within Western philosophy. The modern Slavophils purport more specific a sort of theses on Germanic philosophy. For them, the defect of immanentism is lodged already back within the old German mysticism. The whole history of the German spirit for them thus — the mysticism, the Protestantism, the classical philosophic idealism and the modern philosophy — is totally a falling-away from the Truth, from the Church, from the land, from nature. The great creative forces have been dissipated all in vain, gone to the serving of non-truth. It becomes almost horrible. In the neo-Slavophil theses on Germanism there is something correct, some certain features taken from German thought. And yet, despite this, there is a sort of great non-truth in the evaluation of the German spirit, the non-truth of a murderous, destructive and hostile schematicism. One would have to completely forget about Jacob Boehme, about Angelus Silesius, about Fr. Baader, about the Romantics, about Goethe, about Hoffmann and Novalis, in order to assert, that in the German spirit there has been no meeting up with Sophia. There have been great revelations concerning Sophia within German mysticism, and the teachings of Jacob Boehme on Sophia — are at the highest summits in the conception of Sophia. And the great crazy Hoffmann’s image of Sophia, eternally twofold, is so passionately compelling, as no one ever. And can it be said, that there was nothing of nature in Paracelsus, in Boehme, in Schelling? Germany is not only Protestant, but also a Catholic land. It is impossible to characterise the German spirit by Kant alone, or even not Kant, but by neo-Kantianism. Neo-Kantianism — is small a phenomenon, and there is no big deal to be made over it. Neo-Kantianism is something but derivative and of decline. The greatness of the German spirit and its mission in the world mustneeds be sought within German mysticism, a phenomenon all exceptional in its own right. The German great philosophy — is an offspring of the mysticism, as are the great manifestations of German art. The German spirit is one-sided, it has its own limitations. And within the Slavic spirit lie concealed great riches. But in the German spirit have been its own authentic revelations. German immanentism — is a phenomenon complex and deep. This — is the fruition of a mystical maturity, a religious autonomy of man. And it mustneeds be stressed, that Kantianism namely least of all can be termed immanentism.2   Kantian philosophy and Kantian religion — are transcendent, and not immanent. This — is an extreme assertion of the distance between man and God and of the activity of God. The quite impoverished enough religion of Kant was a traditional transcendent theism. The teaching about the thing-in-itself, about the unknowability of the noumenal, the rift between subject and object — all this is transcendentism, and not immanentism. Immanentism is rooted within the depths of mysticism, transcendentism — upon the surface level of positivism. It is impossible to see in Kant a type of purely immanent thought. In Kant namely was much of the transcendent.

There might possibly be established a connection of the modern German philosophy with the old mysticism. Thus, for example, in the “unconsciousness” of Hartmann is sensed the Ungrund of Boehme, of the Gottheit of Eckhardt, which is deeper than God. All the irrational and voluntaristic within German philosophy goes back to the old mysticism, revealing the dark wellsprings of being. Germanism is endlessly more complex and individual a matter, than it would seem to the fashioners of simplistic schemae, accusing it of a falling-away from the old truths. To know something is possible only through love. Hatred allows only the seeing of distorted visages. And it is impossible to honestly decide the question about German mysticism, about Protestantism, about German philosophy, about Luther and Boehme, about Kant and Hegel under the din of cannon, in the blaze of national and political passions, on the streets and public squares. Needful here is an intimate examination at depth. It is fully permissible and fruitful to posit racial types of thinking. A culture is something profoundly national and through its national character it attains universally-human a quality. The German race tends to think uniquely and altogether quite differently, than the Latin or Slavic races tend to think. The Latin thought process — is dogmatic or sceptical and always lucid, always pervaded by the rays of the Southern sun. The Germanic thought process — is critical and bears upon it the seal of the metaphysical North; it attains light in the darkness, being immersed in the depths of the spirit. The Slavic thought process — is essentially moral, practico-religious, it seeks truth, the saving of the world and of people, truth, inseparable from righteous-truth. The attainment of truth is possible through the racial thought process, always varied as to form and limitedly one-sided. To various peoples is fore-ordained to reveal various sides of truth. But every attainment of truth, essentially, is trans-national and trans-racial. It is impossible to evaluate and judge about truth from racial a perspective, its particulars and its action within history. The psychology of race is very interesting, but the psychology of race cannot be the arbiter of truth. There is a very great danger hidden in the positing of types of a racial thought process and racial culture. Truth can easily become a plaything of national-racial passions. All the attainments of German thought could thus be explained away as false, merely because they are German. And thus, the will for struggle and victory over a race can get turned round into an indifference towards truth and righteousness. For us still not so long ago German philosophy was reckoned as fine and true especially, because it — was German.3   Now they regard it as bad and false likewise, because it — is German. Our Slavophilist philosophers tend to posit a type for German philosophy, for German religion, for German mysticism, which they consider already culpable and false, just because it — is German. Against this one mustneeds resolutely object. It is impossible thus to subsume truth to a national principle. This is an altogether unallowable psychologism, which would lead to a total annulling of philosophy. And thus, for example, they try to assert, that German thought always is immanentism (in philosophy, religion, mysticism), and that every immanentism is assuredly a Germanism. immanentism is made to seem a sinful peculiarity of the German race. By such a method the question about the veracity or non-veracity of immanentism, essentially unconnected with nationality and having arisen already back before there was a German culture, is relegated to a struggle of national racial passions. I think, that it is possible and proper to be at war against the German race, but it is impossible and improper to declare war against the attainments of truth within German thought. And it is indeed difficult to presuppose, that within German thought there are no attainments of truth. It cannot be a reprobate, a race accursed by God, in which everything should be sinful and false. And inaccurate also is this, that German thought always represents immanentism. I have already pointed out, that as regards Germanism the very characteristic philosophy of Kant — is not immanentist. Within German thought there has been sufficiently enough also of transcendentism. And Lutheranism itself cannot be termed an immanent type of religiosity. But there remains still the question, in what measure immanentism is truth, and as in every truth, independent of race and nationality? It is impossible to brush aside the question about the truthfulness of immanentism by merely denouncing it as Germanism. the problem of immanentism, as with every problem, ought to be completely apart and free from the problem of race.

Our thinking ought not to be contrived and devised as something Russian, hollowly fleeing from everything German. This would be a great affront to freedom, the deficiency of a direct creative national strength. The Germans nowise ponder out such that they should be immanentists, phenomenalists and voluntarists; they freely did their pondering from the depths. And I think, that our Russian thought is essentially and profoundly distinct from the German. Facing it stand other tasks, a different spirit inspires it. Our attainments of truth and right are for mankind in general and for all the world the same, as with the German and Latin races. And we are the most national, most Russian, when we seek from our own depths the right and truth, rather than then, when we proclaim that only the Russian is the right and true, and the German — the false and sinful. The authentic lie and sinfulness of Germanism — is in the attempts to monopolise and nationalise truth and right, to declare the truth as German, and right — as the expression of German power. This resides in Chamberlain, in Drews and the other ideologues of Germanism. Upon this basis developes a crazy self-conceit. Here the German voluntarism degenerates into a naked and nowise limited “I want”. But God us not to resemble the Germans in this their national-volitional tendency. the Germans, having conceived of themself as solely chosen, the higher and pure race, endowed with the fulness of truth, are totally insufferable, in need of a shot from the cannons. Racial self-love and self-conceit are odious. the Germans spiritually have fallen into this, and they have to go through a moral and material humiliation. But we ought not to imitate them. And we shall be free in our appraisals of German philosophy, free from a servile narrowness and erudite stifling, and free from hatred and pogromme-like negation. such a positive or negative narrowness is always powerless. Power however obtains in a passionate striving for truth and a fearlessness in experiencing the tragedy of cognition, in accord with a perceptive lack of felicity.

N. A. Berdyaev




©  2012  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1915 – 185 – en)

K SPORAM O GERMANSKOI FILOSOFII.  Article originally published in the Journal “Russkaya mysl'”,  mai. 1915, p. 115-121. Republished in the anthology of N. Berdyaev articles entitled, “Padenie svyaschennogo russkogo tsarstva, Publitsistika 1914-1922”, Izdatel’stvo Astrel’, Moskva, 2007, p. 304-309.


1 I employ the terms “immanent” and “transcendent” in dynamic, and not static a sense. The philosophy of Kant statically — is transcendent, but dynamically it is a passing through the immanent tragedy of cognition.
2  If it be taken in static a view.

3  Here I have in view not individual Russian thinkers, who early on had related negatively to German philosophy, but rather certain traits of the Russian character.