After Kant: reality or reason, but not both

[This excerpt is from Chapter 2 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]

After Kant: reality or reason, but not both

Kant’s legacy to the next generation is a principled separation of subject and object, of reason and reality. His philosophy is thus a forerunner of postmodernism’s strong anti-realist and anti-reason stances.

After Kant, the story of philosophy is the story of German philosophy. Kant died early in the nineteenth century, just as Germany was beginning to replace France as the world’s leading intellectual nation, and it was German philosophy that set the program for the nineteenth century.

Understanding German philosophy is crucial to understanding the origins of postmodernism. Continental postmodernists such as Foucault and Derrida will cite Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Hegel as their major formative influences—all of them German thinkers. American postmodernists such as Rorty emerged primarily from the collapse of the Logical Positivist tradition, but will also cite Heidegger and pragmatism as major formative influences. When we look to the roots of Logical Positivism we find cultural Germans such as Wittgenstein and the members of the Vienna Circle. And when we look at pragmatism, we find it to be an Americanized version of Kantianism and Hegelianism. Postmodernism is thus the supplanting of the Enlightenment with its roots in seventeenth century English philosophy by the Counter-Enlightenment with its roots in late eighteenth-century German philosophy.

Kant is central to that story. By the time of his death Kant’s philosophy had conquered the German intellectual world,[22] and so the story of German philosophy became the story of extensions and reactions to Kant

Three broad strains of post-Kantian philosophy emerged. What shall we do, members of each strain asked, about the gulf between subject and object that Kant has said cannot be crossed by reason?

1. Kant’s closest followers decided to accept the gulf and live with it. Neo-Kantianism evolved during the nineteenth century, and by the twentieth century two main forms had emerged. One form was Structuralism, of which Ferdinand de Saussure was a prominent exponent, representing the broadly rationalist wing of Kantianism. The other was Phenomenology, of which Edmund Husserl was a prominent representative, representing the broadly empiricist wing of Kantianism. Structuralism was a linguistic version of Kantianism, holding that language is a self-contained, non-referential system, and that the philosophical task was to seek out language’s necessary and universal structural features, those features taken to underlie and be prior to the empirical, contingent features of language. Phenomenology’s focus was upon careful examination of the contingent flow of the experiential given, avoiding any existential inferences or assumptions about what one experiences, and seeking simply to describe experience as neutrally and as clearly as possible. In effect, the Structuralists were seeking subjective noumenal categories, and the Phenomenologists were content with describing the phenomena without asking what connection to an external reality those experiences might have.

Structuralism and Phenomenology came to prominence in the twentieth century, however, and so my focus next will be on the two strains of German philosophy that dominated the nineteenth century. For those two strains, Kant’s philosophy set a problem to be solved—though one to be solved within the constraints of Kant’s most fundamental premises.

2. The speculative metaphysical strain, best represented by Hegel, was dissatisfied with the principled separation of subject and object. This strain granted Kant’s claim that the separation cannot be bridged epistemologically by reason, and so proposed to bridge it metaphysically by identifying the subject with the object.

3. The irrationalist strain, best represented by Kierkegaard, was also dissatisfied by the principled separation of subject and object. It granted Kant’s claim that the separation cannot be bridged epistemologically by reason, and so proposed to bridge it epistemologically by irrational means.

Kantian philosophy thus set the stage for the reign of speculative metaphysics and epistemological irrationalism in the nineteenth century.


[22] See, e.g., Wood, in Kant 1996, vi; also Meinecke 1977, 25.


[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]

One thought on “After Kant: reality or reason, but not both

  • September 16, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    All philosophers since Socrates have failed to understand language because they have failed to understand the meaning of reason and its relationship to the structure of reality.

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