[The Untenability of Individualistic Philosophy]
If philosophy aspires to gather all the contents of the world’s happening into a single point that can adequately explain the whole multifariousness of that happening, then the basic duality of spirit and matter — or whatever else one wishes to call it — certainly stands as an obstacle. The principal attempts at a solution — incorporating one of these poles into the other, or rather showing that one is derived from the other, so as to accomplish the oneness of the universe — dominate the history of philosophy.
Disregarding for now the philosophy of religion and its metaphysical orientation, we can classify the great philosophical systems before Kant formally into these two mental tendencies. Rationalism and sensualism select one of the powers of knowing, ratiocination (Verstand) or perception (Sinnlichkeit), as the means to establish the character of the objective world.
Kant was the first who overcame this contradiction in philosophical thought and tried to resolve it in a higher unity. For him the crucial prerequisite for knowledge of the world is neither syllogistic thought (das logisch-begriffliche Denken) alone, nor sense-perception (Wahrnehmung) alone, but the total power of comprehension (der gesamte Intellekt). The totality of consciousness, as a combination of both, constitutes experience (Erfahrung) — the unconditional validity of which he indeed presupposes. Since ratiocination is the sum of the pure forms whereby we are able to think at all, it is for him the precondition of what, with the help of sense-perceptions, becomes experience. And since for him things must first be broken, so to speak, through the medium of the soul before becoming knowledge for man, it was possible to say in Kant’s sense: “The world is my idea.” While epistemology is Kant’s path to the insight that only the “unity of consciousness” makes knowledge possible, which limits us however to ideas (Vorstellungen) and demonstrates that the absolute, the “thing in itself,” is incomprehensible to our mind, Goethe, for example, achieves a similar synthesis from an entirely different, more artistic approach. “If you want to find yourself in the infinite, you must differentiate and then combine.” He makes the concept of life felt as whole, as totality, into the point of origin for knowledge. With that the course has been set for a philosophy of life, and of course it was on the broader expanses of that territory that Schopenhauer and Nietzsche created their immortal works. Certainly they all unify it, although on a higher level, back into that underlying phenomenon [i.e. consciousness], from whose inexplicability philosophy began.
From yet another perspective however, it is possible to take a cross-section through philosophical thought. Faced with the manifoldness of phenomena, with the infinity of Being (Sein), the human mind can penetrate only by separating it into form and content. While on the one hand the idea that something persists amid all that changes allows formless substance to grow into the totality of Being, on the other hand the attempt to make contentless form, the very thing that changes in all that persists, into the highest principle of the universe, is also found everywhere in the history of philosophy. The “philosophy of Being” found its most decisive expression in Spinoza’s “Substantia sive deus.” In Hegel’s “self-movement of the idea” the philosophy of Becoming reached its zenith in close association with the idea of evolution.
We see from the history of philosophical thought, from whichever perspective we ourselves always contemplate it, that the contradictoriness of the world’s contents also encompasses all attempts by the philosophical mind to master it. The philosophical striving for the ultimate scientific unity, for conceptual completion of positive knowledge, to a closed mental picture of Being, has remained in the final analysis unsatisfied to this day. Metaphysics, the appeal to the unprovable, has always been its last word. Even the so-called phenomenological philosophy has not so far convinced us to the contrary, since it can show no positive results whatsoever.
Thus the history of philosophy so far seems itself to affirm that the ultimate absolute truth is an ideal toward which cognition strives as a distant enticing light, a direction-sign pointing out of the darkness into the bright light and leading to humanity’s relentless scientific progress. We are far from advocating any philosophical pessimism. That is because value and meaning, which these philosophical systems for the development of the human spirit have had, remain unaffected by the temporal limitedness of their cognitions. Like life itself, scientific knowledge is found in constant flux. And as Fichte’s saying, “What kind of philosophy one would choose depends on what kind of human being one is,” has meaning even today, so too will the philosophical thought of an epoch always reflect the spirit of that time.
If for that reason we seek the position of the philosophical thought of the present, the task is facilitated in no small degree by the fact that the philosophers of the world met a few weeks ago at the 8th International Philosophers’ Congress in Prague. What became apparent before all the world at this congress, which was attended by more than 600 philosophers from 21 countries, was nothing other than the crisis of philosophy in our age, as of course had quite long ago ceased to be a secret to philosophical contemporaries. It would be of only slight value for the purpose of these explanations to go into the details of the disputes at the Prague congress; we shall in due course have opportunity to touch on some ideas. The net result of this philosophical discussion in any case consists not at all in positive solutions of a particular kind, but on the contrary, precisely in the absence of large and consistent perspectives of any kind. Even shifting the main theme to the field of the modern doctrine of the state by passionately debating the problem, “the crisis of democracy,” could not obscure this impression, but only strengthened it further. The outcome finds perhaps its best expression in the lecture that the philosopher Edmund Husserl delivered to the congress, wherein he argued that philosophy today is in danger of dying out.
Skepticism, horizons of unclarity (Unklarheitshorizonte), and disunity of the philosophical discipline are indications of it, he said. The few still genuine philosophers are united only in their ethos. The question of what actually is (die Frage nach dem Seienden) must be posed radically anew. Only then, Husserl concluded, will philosophy be able to come together again in communal creating.
With that, the international forum of philosophers was told by someone from its own ranks what the philosophical consciousness of our age quite universally is really driving at: the question of what actually is must be posed radically anew in an age wherein the mind presently confronts such a fundamentally new configuration of social life. We live today at the intersection of two epochs, the changing and transition of which were unleashed by the World War and by the socialist and nationalist revolutions in its wake. Is it amazing, or isn’t it entirely natural, that this transition, wherein the old collapses and the new is not yet ready, precipitates also an intellectual revaluation, a crisis of the mind and of philosophical thought as we see it today? For us this crisis would only warrant a skepticism if we felt ourselves shackled to the downfall of what was. But the fact that today everywhere in the world the old still struggles with the new does not absolve us, in whom the new has already taken shape, from the necessity of carrying it forward also intellectually, as standard-bearers of a new age.
If the intellectual picture of the world as most philosophers of the past have seen it and investigated it is reduced to a starting-point shared by all, to a common denominator, it has been individualism, to which almost all were subject in their thinking. “Man is the measure of all things.” Man as “unity of mind and matter,” as “unity of subject and object,” as “the beginning and end of all philosophy.” The individual was for the philosophy of all ages the point of reference of all knowledge whatsoever. The individual was the uniquely indisputable thing, the stationary pole amid the flight of phenomena — unless an easier way of thinking preferred also to dissolve this awkward-to-bear earthly remnant in the aether of an exclusive principle. Individualism was, to put it in Kant’s terminology, the category of philosophical thought in general. What could be more obvious than the fact that the crisis of individualism that we are experiencing today must also be the crisis of individualistic philosophy! And as life itself orients itself anew, forward from the worship of the individual and onward to the community, the same must be expected of intellectual life in general and of philosophy in particular, if it is supposed to acquire new life. That is no cheap assertion, but a reference to the fundamental situation.
Individualistic thought proceeds from individual consciousness as the only given fact, and makes it sovereign over the world. With this sovereignty of the individualistic spirit over the world, philosophy is given a practically boundless arena for metaphysical speculation. To arrive at knowledge of the world through philosophy: an enticing prospect that always has and always will attract the best minds. But all individualistic philosophy ends — as history shows us — in unprovables. It cannot grasp what the whole of life precisely is; only where individualism establishes assumptions and boundaries for knowledge does it arrive at practical, positive cognitions. For individualism, the identity of the subject with the object, as in consciousness of oneself, comes to light in the self-knowledge of the individual, the ultimate … inexplicable thing. This unity of the knower with the known, which can be traced no further, remains for individualism the miracle, the “node of the world” as even a Schopenhauer must confess. And Kant’s ingenious individualistic theory of knowledge that limits the world of experiences to ideas, ends in the postulate of practical reason (praktische Vernunft) — in the moral law of the community. Individualistic philosophy, which was elaborated in order to arrive at ultimate knowledge of the world, thus, at the end of its journey, sees itself faced with the community, and finds its practical cognitions for the first time where universal thought begins. With that we have reached a crucial point in our observations.