A few months ago, a delightful eccentric was interviewed on the streets of New York, claiming that Donald Trump, if elected, would “raise Thule,” as well as Atlantis. This chubby-cheeked, curly-haired, manic moppet (who calls himself “Kantbot”) went on to predict that Trump would “complete the system of German Idealism.” The video went viral – at least in our circles.
It is a measure of how out of touch I am that my first reaction to this was, “But Hegel already completed the system of German Idealism! This guy is crazy!” The claims of Kantbot concerning Trump’s destiny as a philosopher seemed far more outlandish to me than his assertion that Trump would raise Thule and Atlantis. But I have now changed my mind! Trump will complete the system of German Idealism, and I can prove it. (In addition, he will also raise Thule and Atlantis.)
G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716) is an early German Idealist, but for some peculiar reason never gets called that (perhaps because he wore giant wigs). He said that what is real are minds (“monads”) and that reality is the coordinated perceptions of minds, with God doing the coordinating. Though Leibniz said that our knowledge is restricted to perceptions that we have from inside our windowless monads, simultaneously he claimed we could know things outside our monads, such as God. Hmmm. Bit of a contradiction there.
Enter Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who made just this point. But why? Who the hell cared what Leibniz had said, anyway? Well, lots of people, actually, since a fellow named Christian Wolff (1679-1754) had “systematized” Leibniz’s fragmentary thought and made it the dominant school of philosophy in Germany. Plus, it was the climax of a hugely influential modern philosophical trend we call “rationalism” (Descartes had started it). So, Kant blew up Leibniz – and, by extension, all of rationalism – by arguing that yes, we are confined to our minds and don’t know anything outside them. Or, as he put it, we only know appearances; we never know how the world is apart from how it appears to us.
This freaked the hell out of a lot of people because effectively it meant that we cannot know reality; i.e., we cannot know what really is, only how things appear. But the entire history of Western philosophy from Thales onwards was a quest to know what really is. Kant set out to answer Leibniz and his ilk, but it struck many that he had thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and declared the baby unknowable. And it didn’t help that this Kant fellow was an insufferable pipsqueak and prig who never left his hometown and almost certainly died a virgin. He talked a Prussian blue streak about human dignity, but what kind of dignity is left to us if our minds are declared impotent to know reality?
What is generally referred to as “German Idealism” is the revolt against Kant, carried out chiefly by three thinkers: J. G. Fichte (1762-1814), F. W. J. Schelling (1775-1854), and G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831).
An implication of Kant’s position was that the world as we perceive it is partially a construction of the human mind: we only know things as they appear to us, and how they appear to us is structured by characteristics innate to human awareness. But suppose it could be argued that the world is entirely a construction of the mind? This was Fichte’s move. If the world is entirely “my” creation (clearly not little-old-me, but a Transcendental Me), then human dignity is restored. Not only do I know this world as myself, there is nothing beyond this world of mine. And that means there is nothing outside it, or me, to restrain my freedom. I am gloriously, absolutely free! The world is mine! (Mad, am I? I’ll show you! I’ll show you all!)
So why does this world of my creation seem so often to resist my desires? Why am I not able to instantly bend it to my will? Is it the Russians? No! The Transcendental/Absolute Me has projected this world before Little-Old-Me as a field on which my will shall strive! My task is to take the raw material of what is and transform it into what ought to be, in terms of ideals I have posited. (Fichte loved the word “posited.”) What a grand, heroic vision! What a pure and unapologetic expression of Western Faustianism!
The trouble was that Mrs. Fichte would have none of it.
My joke is an old one: when Fichte’s philosophy was once glossed to some academic wag as “The world is my idea,” he responded, “Yes, but what does Mrs. Fichte have to say about this?” Folks, we just don’t know. She left behind no writings and J. G. doesn’t even mention her (doubtless some feminist will eventually pounce on this fact and squeeze a whole book out of it). But Mother Nature, another female, had a lot to say. You see, Fichte’s system essentially treats nature as mere “stuff” to be conquered and transformed.
Enter Schelling, the boy genius of German philosophy. For Schelling, nature had value as a means to human self-discovery. All of nature, Schelling argued, is intelligible if humanity is understood as its telos or goal. Our quest to understand nature is thus a search for self-knowledge. Schelling affirmed Fichte’s Transcendental Idealism up to a point, saying that we could indeed construct a perfectly coherent account of how the subject “generates” the object (the natural world). But we could also start from the other end and tell the story of how the natural world generates the subject (in which case we would be doing “Philosophy of Nature”). Either way, whether we go from subject to object or from object to subject, we are aiming at an “indifference point” where subject and object meet and are left behind. Schelling called this “the Absolute.”
Besides, Schelling said, Fichte was really a closet Kantian and couldn’t see it: since we don’t directly know the Transcendental/Absolute Me that is supposed to be generating this world, Fichte just reintroduces a Kantian “unknowable reality.” It was at this point that Schelling’s old college roommate Hegel spoke up and shocked everyone. Schelling, he said, was guilty of just the same thing: his “Absolute,” as an “indifference point” beyond duality, was just another unknowable “thing in itself.” It was, he said in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), “the night in which all cows are black.”
Now, this was shocking on two counts. First, it was very obviously true. Schelling had flubbed in a big way. But it was also shocking because Hegel the man was dull as dishwater. Five years older than Schelling, he was the Idealist nobody thought was ever going to make anything of himself. His friends called him “the old man” because of his tortoise-paced development and stodgy manner. After toiling unhappily for several years as a private tutor, he had to come around begging Schelling for a job and a place to crash. And Hegel’s first publication was just an ass-kissing defense of Schelling’s philosophy (published, ahem, by Schelling). It was not without reason that the younger man took umbrage at that “cows” bit, and the two didn’t speak for years.
Hegel did not dispense with Schelling’s Absolute, however. The Absolute, what truly is, has been the object of the philosophical quest since Thales. Hegel simply reached into the dark, unknowable maw of Schelling’s Absolute and turned it inside-out, like a sock. Instead of a Brahman-like transcendent Absolute beyond everything, Hegel’s Absolute becomes the sum total of everything: the universe, considered as a whole. (Or, even more briefly: the Absolute is a whole, not a hole.) There’s a big debt to Spinoza here, an apostate Jewish philosopher these guys were all reading, but didn’t dare cite. In Hegel’s account, however, the universe is a process: it is seeking self-awareness. It achieves this through humanity, and the different forms of human “Spirit” (art, religion, philosophy, and science) are all ways in which, either obviously or not so obviously, we are seeking self-knowledge.
As our self-knowledge increases, so does our freedom. The more we understand and master, the fewer ways there are in which we can be mastered. This process is not just moved along by artists, scientists, and philosophers, but also by significant figures (statesmen, generals, religious leaders, etc.) who come onto the world stage and take decisive actions that directly or indirectly advance us in becoming who we are. Hegel called these figures “world-historical individuals.”He saw Napoleon as one such. And he literally did see Napoleon, riding out of the city of Jena just after he had conquered it (and just after Hegel had completed his Phenomenology of Spirit). Hegel wrote to a friend, “I saw the Emperor – this World Spirit – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it . . . this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire.” Hegel held that, in his own time, human history had reached the point where we (really, he meant We Europeans) were ready to see ourselves as free and radically self-determining beings.
This suggests that history has not ended, that there is more to come – and that there is something about German Idealism that needs completing. In my very first essay for Counter-Currents, I said the following:
Perhaps it is time to develop a new theory of history, one which sees our present stage of belief in “radical self-determination” as a necessary stage we must go through. And it promises only to get worse. What stage will succeed it? No one can say with certainty, but what it might be is a stage where, standing in the midst of a civilization ruined by liberalism, we recognize that we must consciously accept and affirm our determination by nature and by history. This means that we would affirm all those things taken for granted by our ancestors: the biological determination of masculinity and femininity, the necessity of the traditional family, the superiority of ethnically homogeneous societies, the inescapable realities of racial differences, and more. The world of our ancestors was destroyed because they took all of this for granted and could not intellectually defend their world against the onslaught of moralizing Christian egalitarians and pseudo-scientific Left-wing sophists. But we are in a position to possibly – just possibly – recover what was lost and to place it on firmer ground. Having seen the consequences of denying reality, we will affirm and defend reality with a wisdom, realism, and ferocity our ancestors were incapable of.
Enter Donald Trump. Trump is not going to complete the system of German Idealism by writing a long treatise with an elaborate architectonic. No, Trump is the New Napoleon. He is the World Spirit astride Twitter. He is a World-Historical Individual helping to usher in this next (and final?) phase of history. (There are other such individuals today – such as Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen.) Like most of Hegel’s World-Historical Individuals, Trump doesn’t really seem to know that he is doing this, but he is. He is part of the Happening. And although I didn’t say this in my essay “The Happening,” the Happening is a manifestation of precisely what Hegel called “the cunning of reason.”
Thus, for example, the cure for the West’s radical feminism is for the feminist to recognize that the biological conditions that make her a woman – with a woman’s mind, emotions, and drives – cannot be denied and are not an oppressive “other.” They are the parameters within which she can realize who she is and seek satisfaction in life. No one can be free of some set of parameters or other; life is about realizing ourselves and our potentials within those parameters.
As Hegel correctly saw, we are the only beings in the universe who seek self-awareness, and our history is the history of our self-realization through increased self-understanding. The next phase of history will be one in which we reject liberalism’s chimerical notion of freedom as infinite, unlimited self-determination, and seek self-realization through embracing our finitude. Like it or not, this next phase in human history is now being shepherded by Donald Trump – as unlikely a World-Historical Individual as there ever was. But there you have it. Yes! Donald Trump will complete the system of German Idealism.
And he will raise Thule! And Atlantis! But I will save that for another time.