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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Neo-Kantianism means a revived or modified type of philosophy along the lines of that laid down by Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century or (sometimes) by Schopenhauer's criticism of the Kantian philosophy in his work The World as Will and Representation, as well as by other post-Kantian philosophers such as Fries and Herbart. It has some more specific reference in later German philosophy. The "back to Kant" movement began in the 1860s, as a reaction to the materialist controversy in German thought in the 1850s.

In addition to Herman Helmholtz and Edward Zeller's work, early fruits of the movement were Kuno Fischer's works on Kant and Friedrich Lange's History of Materialism (Geschichte des Materialismus), the latter of which demonstrated the way in which transcendental idealism superseded the historic struggle between material idealism and mechanistic materialism. Fischer was early involved in a dispute with the Aristotelian Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg concerning the interpretation of the results of the Transcendental Aesthetic, a dispute that prompted Hermann Cohen's 1871 seminal work Kant's Theorie der Erfahrung, a book often regarded as the foundation of twentieth century neo-Kantianism. It is in reference to the Fischer/ Trendelenburg quarrel and Cohen's work that Vaihinger started his massive commentary on the Critique of Pure Reason.

One major thinker of importance in the first generation of the Neo-Kantian movement was Hermann Cohen who became known as the leader of the Marburg School, the other prominent representatives of which were Paul Natorp, and Ernst Cassirer. Another important group, the Southwest School (or Baden School, in Southwest Germany) included Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert and Ernst Troeltsch. The Marburg School emphasized epistemology and logic, whereas the Southwest school emphasized issues of culture and value. A third group, mainly represented by Leonard Nelson, developed a Frisean trend.

The Neo-Kantian schools tended to emphasize scientific readings of Kant, often downplaying the role of intuition in favour of concepts. However the ethical aspects of Neo-Kantian thought often drew them within the orbit of socialism and they had an important influence on Austromarxism and the revisionism of Edward Bernstein. Lange and Cohen in particular were keen on this connection between Kantian thought and socialism leading Ludwig Von Mises to view Kantian thought as pernicious. Another aspect of the Neo-Kantian movement that was important was its attempt to promote a revised notion of Judaism, particularly in Cohen's seminal work, one of the few works of the movement available in English translation.

The Neo-Kantian school was of importance in devising a division of philosophy that has had durable influence well beyond Germany. It coined such terms as epistemology and upheld its prominence over ontology. Natorp had a decisive influence on the history of phenomenology and is often credited with leading Edmund Husserl to adopt the vocabulary of transcendental idealism. Emil Lask exerted a remarkable influence on the young Martin Heidegger. The debate between Cassirer and Heidegger over the interpretation of Kant led the latter to formulate reasons for viewing Kant as a forerunner of phenomenology; this view was disputed in important respects by Eugen Fink. An abiding achievement of the Neo-Kantians was the founding of the journal Kant-Studien, one of the foremost journals of academic philosophy that still survives as a key resource of importance to all studying Kant. In the Anglo-American world recent interest in Neo-Kantianism has revived in the wake of the work of Gillian Rose, who is a critic of this movement's influence on modern philosophy, and because of its influence on the work of Max Weber. The current work of Michael Friedman is explicitly neo-Kantian.

The term "Neo-Kantian" can also be used as a general term to designate anyone who adopts Kantian views in a partial or limited way. The revival of interest in the work of Kant that has been underway since Peter Strawson's work The Bounds of Sense can also be viewed as effectively Neo-Kantian, not least due to its continuing emphasis on epistemology at the expense of ontology. The converse European tradition drawing on the understandings of the transcendental derived from phenomenology continues to emphasize the converse reading as is shown by the recent works of Jean-Luc Nancy.

Neo–Kantian thinkers



References and further reading

  • Hermann Cohen (1919) Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Modern Judaism (1978, trans. New York)
  • Harry van der Linden (1988) Kantian Ethics and Socialism (Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis and Cambridge)
  • Gillian Rose (1981) Hegel Contra Sociology (Athlone: London)
  • Arthur Schopenhauer (1819) The World as Will and Representation (1969, trans. Dover: New York)

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