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Frederick C. Beiser: The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880

Cover Frederick C. Beiser: The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880. Oxford University Press (Oxford OX2 6DP) 2014. 624 Seiten. ISBN 978-0-19-872220-5. 109,25 EUR.
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The American philosopher and historian of philosophy Fredrick C. Beiser, author of numerous and renown books on, among others, Hegel, German Idealism and its aftermath, Trendelenburg, Lotze, and Schiller, has written a book about a hitherto fairly neglected and in many respects misinterpreted part of the history of philosophy. Among students and scholars of philosophy it is a commonplace that Neo-Kantianism began after 1860 or at least in the middle of the 19th century and that it consisted of two (or in some lines of thought three) schools, viz. the Marburg school (Hermann Cohen, Paul Natorp, Ernst Cassirer), the Southwest (or Baden or Heidelberg) school (Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert) and, thirdly, the neo-Friesian school (Leonard Nelson). Beiser´s book tries to show that Neo-Kantianism did not originate in the 1860s, but goes to back to a much earlier date, the 1790s, so even before Kant´s death.


Frederick C. Beiser was born and raised in the US and studies in the UK at Oriel and Wolfson Colleges, Oxford, He also studied in Germany and lived in Berlin for many years. Currently he is professor at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. He is the author of, among others: ‚Schiller as Philosopher‘ (Oxford University Press 2005), ‚Diotima´s Children‘ (Oxford University Press 2009), ‚The German Historicist Tradition‘ (Oxford University Press 2011) and ‚Late German Idealism‘ (Oxford University Press 2013).


Beiser´s book consists of three parts. Each part offers a thorough study of the several generations of Neokantians. Besides that, each part contains one or two chapters in which he places the thinkers in their historical and philosophical context.

  1. The first part (‚The Lost Tradition‘) contains a description of the ‚lost tradition‘ of first Neo-Kantians: Fries, Herbart and Beneke.
  2. The second, largest, part (‚The Coming of Age‘) contains a description of the Neo-Kantians Fischer, Zeller, Liebmann, Bona Meyer and Lange.
  3. The third, and smallest part (‚The New Establishment‘), is devoted to a description of the beginnings of the well-known Neo-Kantians Hermann Cohen and Wilhelm Windelband and also Alois Riehl.

It is often told and taught about the history of philosophy that in 1860, after Hegel´s death in 1831 and after the stagnant decades of 1840-1860, there was a ‚return to Kant‘ and that only then Neo-Kantianism began. Beiser, professor of philosophy at Syracuse University, who already published a monograph on Trendelenburg and Lotze (Oxford University Press 2013), tries to correct this picture of this important part of the history of continental philosophy. He aims at proving that Neo-Kantianism did not only begin after Kant´s death, but much earlier, in fact soon after the publication of Kant´s ‚Critique of pure reason‘, in the 1790s. At this point in time Kant´s reputation was already waning and there were attempts to rehabilitate Kant´s original thought.

Part I: The lost tradition

The first part of the book is devoted to what in Beiser´s opinion are the real first Kantians: Jakob Friedrich Fries, Johann Friedrich Herbart and Friedrich Eduard Beneke. According to Beiser Fries´s ‚Reinhold, Fichte and Schelling‘ should be considered as the real ‚sourcebook‘ of Neo-Kantianism. How is it possible then that the history of philosophy seems to have forgotten about this tradition? This is even more remarkable when one realizes that Reinhold´s, Fichte´s and Schelling´s ‚rationalistic-speculative‘ interpretation of Kant should be regarded as just as legitimate and one-sided as the empiricist-psychological Kant-interpretation of Fries, Herbart and Beneke. Of both ‚schools‘ it should be understood that they highlighted only one aspect of his thought, and that both did that at the prize of the other and in this sense both traditions did as much justice or injustice to Kant as the other. Fries, Herbart and Beneke thought that Kant´s philosophy could best be continued by placing it on an empirical ground. It is a remarkable fact of history that, although initially their Kant-interpretation was regarded as the only true heir of Kant, in the course of history their Kant-‚school‘ was forgotten.

This is, Beiser shows, due to the fact that Windelband and Cohen, the well-known representatives of what later came to be known as the two Neo-Kantian schools, were in favor of an epistemological interpretation of Kant, and very much against a psychological interpretation. During the course of history it became undisputed fact that Neo-Kantianism is identical with the primacy of epistemology. In hindsight that makes any psychological interpretation, such as those of Fries, Herbart and Beneke, as having nothing to do with Neo-Kantianism. Furthermore, it has been a commonplace to think that Neokantianism arose after and as a consequence of the collapse of Hegel´s metaphysics. If this was the case it would be more correct to realize that the idealism of Hegel´s forerunners, Fichte and Schelling, was already under attack of Fries, Herbart and Beneke, and this in explicit reference to Kant. And last nut not least, because of the well-known theme of the critique of psychologism, mainly of Husserl and Frege, the so-called psychological interpretation of the first Neo-Kantians was treated with suspicion. But in reality Fries, Herbart and Beneke, Beiser shows, cannot be accused of having confused epistemological with psychological questions. They were very well acquainted with Kant´s ‚quid juris‘ – ‚quid facti‘ distinction.

In the last chapter of the first part Beiser discusses the, as far as the rise of Neo-Kantianism is concerned, interim years between 1840-1860, the years that were, according to the dominant picture of the history of philosophy, philosophically stagnant years between Hegel´s death and the actual rise of Neo-Kantianism. It is commonly held that, because of the Revolution of 1848, there was not much energy and time left for philosophy in these years. Beiser, instead, makes a subtle, but important differentiation here: as far as philosophical productivity is concerned, that commonplace can be said to be true, but not as far as philosophical significance is concerned: it were Kantian political ideals that played an important role in this revolution and since Hegel had put all his cards on history, the fact that these ideals in reality were not realized meant the defeat of Hegelianism and the beginning of the rise of Neo-Kantianism. So in a sense, these years laid an important basis for the return to Kant.

Nevertheless, it took some time for Neo-Kantianism to really come to flourish. But here too, Beiser shows in what manner these ‚long and eventful‘ (182) decades were not philosophically unimportant years, but on the contrary were crucial for the rise of Neo-Kantianism. The materialism-controversy, the rise of materialism, the identity-crisis of philosophy and the coming of age of three philosophers (Lotze, Trendelenburg and Helmholtz) were of great importance for the actual rise of Neo-Kantianism as we know it now.

The materialism controversy played an important role in the 19th century: Rudolph Wagner and Karl Vogt met each other in several and severe discussions about the consequences of the rise of science. Vogt took the side of science and materialism, Wagner chose the opposite, the part of theism. Just as important in those years was the identity crisis of philosophy: after the fall of speculative idealism, its foundationalist program – philosophy had to lay the foundation for the sciences – came to a breakdown. Concreteness cannot be deduced from abstract and general first principles and nor Fichte´s and Schelling´s appeal to an intellectual intuition, nor Hegel´s appeal to the dialectical method was plausible anymore.

But it was not only the defeat of philosophy itself that contributed to its identity crisis. Also the huge success of the sciences had a huge impact on this crisis. The autonomy of the sciences could not be stopped. The metaphor of philosophy as the mother of the sciences now had to deal with its consequences: the grownup sciences left the motherhouse.

Beiser discusses the responses of philosophers to this crisis. One of them is Otto Friedrich Gruppe´s reaction: philosophy should be logic, but a logic that is based on a philosophy of language. The way in which Gruppe thinks about language reminds us today of Wittgenstein: according to Gruppe words do not have a ‚definite and given meaning of their own‘. Their meaning depends on their use in a certain context. Another interesting reaction came from Trendelenburg. In his ‚Logische Untersuchungen‘ he said farewell to the foundationalist pretenses of philosophy, but not without insisting on the future of philosophy: since the sciences were not able to reflect on their basic concepts and presuppositions – one could be reminded of Heidegger here -it is up to philosophy to do that, not in a normative sense, however, but following the actual course of the sciences. According to Trendelenburg philosophy needed to acknowledge ‚the fact of science‘, i.e., that they are ‚forces in their own right‘.

In a next segment Trendelenburg, Lotze and Helmholtz are discussed as the forerunners of Neo-Kantianism. This however has never really been neglected or denied in the history of philosophy, but Beiser walks a different path here than Klaus Christian Köhnke and Thomas E. Willey. He does not stress the similarities, but the philosophical differences of these thinkers concerning Neo-Kantianism as being of great importance for the rise of Neo-Kantianism. Lotze and Trendelenburg were idealists; in their thought ‚all reality conforms to the idea‘. Nevertheless they contributed to the rise of Neo-Kantianism in the 1860s in an important way: Lotze was Windelband´s teacher, Trendelenburg was Cohen´s and Bona Meyer´s teacher. Helmholtz was of great importance for Neo-Kantianism as well, however not as the founding father of Neo-Kantianism, but because of his reputation in the sciences and because of the fact that he tried to ‚wed‘ philosophy with the natural sciences. Here Helmholtz´ interesting theory of signs is discussed: ‚a sensation is not an image of its object, all that we can say is that it is a ‚sign‘. While an image resembles its object by virtue of some natural similarity, a sign designates its object only in virtue of some convention or interpretation. In making relations do the works of representation, Helmholtz anticipates one of the later doctrines of the Marburg school.‘

Part II: The Coming of Age

In the second part of the book, ‚The Coming of Age‘, the first generation of Neo-Kantians is discussed: Kuno Fischer, Eduard Zeller, Otto Liebmann, Jürgen Bona Meyer and Friedrich Albert Lange. In the view of these thinkers, ‚Kant was a bullwark against materialism‘. Criticism became the central vocation of philosophy. These thinkers were the heirs of the psychologism of Helmholtz: although aware of the importance of the difference between an epistemological and a psychological Kant-interpretation, in order to keep philosophy as much as possible in contact with the sciences, especially with psychology, Kant´s epistemology was interpreted as an investigation into the basic mental activities behind human cognition. Fischer and Liebmann though were well aware of the problems of this interpretation and although they kept to their psychological interpretation, their critique laid the ground for the new Neo-Kantianism of the 1870s. By trying too hard to keep philosophy in contact with the empirical science of psychology, philosophy gradually lost its autonomy. Another fraught theme was the Kantian ‚Ding-an-sich‘: initially Fischer, Zeller and Liebmann were against the concept, but in the end they had to acknowledge that it was a necessary concept in order to be able to keep Kant´s dualisms intact and not succumbing to Fichte´s idealism.

Part III: The New Establishment

In the third part of the book, ‚The New Establishment‘, Beiser contends that whereas the 1860s were the years of breakthrough of Neo-Kantianism, the 1870s were the years of consolidation. Both the liberal political atmosphere in Germany and the growth of the German university system contributed to this consolidation. The rise of Neo-Kantianism in particular as the predominant philosophical movement in Germany of that time was due to the fact that with the help of Kant´s philosophy it was possible to give philosophy a distinctive vocation and, at the same time made it a ‚valuable adjunct to the sciences‘. Thanks to the return to Kant, philosophy could keep its autonomy and keep up with the sciences. But the dual ideals of autonomy and of being close to the sciences eventually led to the decline of Neo-Kantianism as well. This had to do with the identity crisis of philosophy: either it succeeded in being autonomous, or it had to resemble the natural sciences and as a consequence lose its identity. The concentration of Neo-Kantianism on epistemology soon led to the realization that philosophy therewith would forget its other task, i.e. thinking about the riddle of existence and about ethics. So in the course of time Volkelt, Windelband and Riehl would all lay more stress on Kant´s ethics.

Hermann Cohen´s book was of great importance in this phase of Neo-Kantianism, since he moved the Neo-Kantianism focus away from a psychological to a more logical conception of knowledge. Equally important in this respect was Wilhelm Windelband, who, though a less systematic writer than Cohen, contributed much to the new Kant-interpretation. Windelband interpreted Kant as the one great philosophical achievement after the ancient Greeks: Kant replaced the concept of the object with the concept of rules of thinking and Windelband in his turn replaced the concept of rule with the concept of norm and normativity, which he adopted from thinkers such as Lotze. To Windelband Kant´s philosophy was a normative philosophy that offered a comprehensive worldview. Here, once again, the relevance of Beiser´s book for actual philosophy becomes clear: Windelband is presented as the one who long before Richard Rorty, John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger replaced the metaphor of the ‚mirror‘ of nature (‚Spiegel der Welt‘) with that of normativity.


Beiser´s book combines historical scrutiny with systematic philosophical reflection in a lucid, well-written style. It is not only of the utmost importance to those who are interested in post-Kantian philosophy, but also for anyone who still, not without reason, worries about the future and vocation of philosophy in a society that still has the tendency to identify knowledge in general with scientific knowledge and that assigns to philosophy the highly privatized task of offering to those in need a personal worldview that enables them to deal with the so called facts. Since the author explores many new fields, the book should also be read as an implicit invitation to scholars to explore this new territory. Any reader who welcomes the combination of historical research and systematic philosophical reflection the way Beiser offers it here, only wonders how a final chapter that concludes part III would look like.

Rezension von
Dr. Rob Plum
Koordinator DFG Forschungsgruppe „Sakralraumtransformation. Funktion und Nutzung religiöser Orte in Deutschland“ (FOR 273) und Postdoc des Projektes „Theorie des Sakralraums“
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Rob Plum. Rezension vom 07.10.2015 zu: Frederick C. Beiser: The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880. Oxford University Press (Oxford OX2 6DP) 2014. ISBN 978-0-19-872220-5. In: socialnet Rezensionen, ISSN 2190-9245,, Datum des Zugriffs 27.10.2021.

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