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Tim Mehigan on ‘Empiricism vs Rationalism: Kant, Reinhold, and Tennemann’

Tim Mehigan writes…

Alberto Vanzo presented two papers for discussion at the recent Otago symposium on early modern experimental philosophy. There are two conclusions in the first paper (“Experimental Philosophy in Eighteenth Century Germany” [on which we’ll publish Eric Watkins’ comments next Monday]) that are important for the second paper: one, that experimental philosophy, as “observational philosophy”, was replaced in German historiography by the term “empiricism” (this occurred sometime before 1796 as a passage from an essay by Christian Garve indicates); two, as experimental/observational philosophy waned, so the historiographical distinction between rationalism and empiricism (RED) waxed. While the reasons for the waxing are not completely clear, there appear to be two ways of imagining how it occurred. The first view holds that Kant himself was responsible for legislating the RED into existence. The second argues that the distinction was not authorized by Kant but arose as a result of the way his philosophy was interpreted and explained by later Kantians such as Reinhold and Tennemann. Both explanations are considered and evaluated in Vanzo’s second paper “Empiricism vs. Rationalism.”

So this is what’s at stake: Vanzo needs to show how the RED can be read into Kant’s first Critique, even if it is not expressly established as a formal distinction on which other parts of the CPR depend. Given the strategy alluded to above – that Kant introduces a distinction under the guise of different terminology – Vanzo is obliged to consider whether we encounter a “mapping” problem when Kant’s contrasts are seen in the context of the RED. He immediately concedes that there is indeed such a mapping problem (as Gary Banham had noted here). The RED is introduced in two places in the CPR – the Antinomies of Pure Reason and the History of Pure Reason. In the first case, Kant contrasts empiricism with dogmatism (not rationalism), and in the second case, Kant contrasts empiricism with “noologism” (not rationalism). The question is: whether RED can “map onto” either or both of these contrasts and thus indicate compellingly that Kant operated with the RED in mind?

As it turns out, the occurrence of the RED in the History of Pure Reason is more readily answered than in the Antinomies. Vanzo establishes both that the contrast of “empiricism” and “noologism” in the History of Pure Reason can be regarded as a version of the RED and that the contrast established here was to become a standard part of the histories of early modern philosophy. The argument in the Antinomies follows a more circuitous route. Vanzo cannot directly show that “dogmatism” and “rationalism” are interchangeable terms, all the more so since Kant’s purpose in the Antinomies is to show that neither dogmatism nor empiricism on its own is able to offer satisfactory proofs of key statements about the world. So both dogmatism and empiricism come up short, and Kant, as a later self-identifying rationalist, is clearly not about to subscribe to the dogmatic variant of metaphysical rationalism. So a problem of mapping does appear here, and it is the more serious one for the RED distinction.

Was the RED introduced by Kant? Vanzo’s final answer is, “not really”. Kant does not have the “epistemological bias” in regard to the RED, i.e. he does not overestimate the importance of the RED on epistemological grounds. Neither does Kant have the “Kantian bias”, according to which the RED is important for his project in the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant, finally, does not have the “classificatory bias” which classifies all philosophers prior to Kant into either empiricist or rationalist camps. When we consider the later Kantians, the picture is quite different. Both Reinhold and Tennemann are said to have the epistemological, the Kantian and the classificatory biases. Reinhold, I believe, did not initially have the classificatory bias, as it is not clearly in evidence in his first major work, the Essay on a New Theory of the Human Capacity for Representation (1789). By the early 1790s, however, as Vanzo shows, Reinhold appears to have derived a historiographical framework based on the RED. Reinhold’s framework appears to have been important for philosophers such as Tennemann, who by the late 1790s had begun to craft a “methodologically sophisticated history of early modern philosophy” in which the RED is amply applied to individual philosophers and where Kant takes his place as the author who successfully overcame the limits of these two schools.

In sum, Vanzo’s case for the establishment of the RED in Germany appears to ascribe great importance to the manner in which Kantian philosophy was received from the mid 1780s until the mid 1790s and how it was laid out against a background of historiographical assumptions. As happens so often, the background was to become foreground for a few brief years, and when it did so under Reinhold’s pen – this is the likely conclusion – the historiography became more important than the philosophy. Fortunately this situation has reversed itself and Kant’s philosophy has become a far more open proposition than it was taken to be in those years. This openness, in turn, makes room for different conceptualizations of the early modern period.

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