Sebastian Rödl and German Idealism

Sebastian Rödl has characterized his own work as an attempt to understand the German Idealist tradition, namely, the thought that reason, freedom and self-consciousness are one and the same subject. Though Rödl’s work then, engages thematically with Kant and Hegel, and to a lesser extent, Fichte and Schelling, Rödl’s technique and style are strictly inspired by the analytic tradition with most of his references and citations highlighting thinkers such as G.E.M. Anscombe, Christine Korsgaard, Donald Davidson, Frege, McDowell and others as his interlocutors, sometimes allies sometimes opponents, of choice. A good way to approach Rödl’s work is, in my opinion, to think of it as a defense and fleshing out of Kant’s pedagogical injunction to ‘subordinate everything to freedom.’ Rödl shows how and why this bold command is more than just a mere and desperate assertion of a Romantic, but rather an expression of a fundamental truth of logic and by extension, rational action, which is both theoretical and practical.  In an academic climate dominated by subscriptions to theories committed to the view that the mind and its concepts are not real and are entirely reducible to unconscious, unintentional, irrational and unfree processes at the biological, chemical and physical level , Rödl’s position is unorthodox and his struggle is an uphill battle. Fundamental to his theory will be to wrest the notion of causality from its strictly scientific interpretation which sees it as a power or principle of physical matter and instead to reveal it to be a property of thought and logic which cannot be applied to the world-in-itself devoid of the reasoning subject and the objects with which it interacts and judges.  Similarly, Rödl shows that empirical concepts such as matter, energy, objects, and motion are not things-in-themselves but are only concepts or principles of the reasoning mind.  Because then, reductionist theories use the very concepts and logical forms which they attempt to argue out of existence, Rödll shows them to be incoherent, performatively self-contradictory and therefore ultimately false.   For Rödl, causality is strictly a power afforded to a free agent capable of spontaneous (autonomous) action and subject to no laws other than its own laws which turn out to be the laws of logic, namely transcendental logic.

There is a problem for Rödl which was also a problem for Kant and that is explaining the ability of Reason to have receptive knowledge of exterior objects without thereby reinvoking the traditional notion of causality as a force that is also alterior to thought. This is also Sellars’ famous critique of The Myth of the Given, which is his name for the view that holds that there is predetermined, unjudged raw data outside the mind which the mind is receptive to. Rödls solution is to follow Hegel in his endeavour to eliminate externality by limiting concept application not by intuition but by further concept usage. For Rödl, only a God has purely spontaneous knowledge whilst only an animal has purely receptive knowledge. Empircism uses categories of the temporal such as substance, state, movement form and substance form to disprove the existence of these very forms resulting in incoherence, dogmatic metaphysics, skepticism bordering on nihilism and ideology. I am of the opinion that Rödl is correct and that his thesis articulates with remarkable clarity and rigour the key insights of Kant, Fichte and Hegel. When the latter three were writing, they did not yet have the logical language within which to express their views. Rödl does, however and this is how he is able to articulate the essential ideas of german idealism in the language of post-linguistic turn analytic philosophy. What science and inferential logic investigate are the relations of knowledge to knowledge or thoughts to other thoughts. However, both disciplines take for granted and do not account for the genesis or essence of knowledge as such, or the form of thought in general. An empiricist therefore can only explain his concepts in terms of illusions, including his own explanation. Empiricism is a slave epistemology. The logical form of empiricist judgments reject the autonomy that is manifested in any and all human judgments. This rejection is akin to the rejection of the freedom that a slave, insofar as he is the insuperable author of his thoughts and actions, shares unknowingly with a king. Therefore, any empiricist metaphysics reflects a worldview that is not self-conscious and therefore unfree. Though Hegel’s fable is often interepreted as pertaining to strictly socio-political situations, I find room to argue that Hegel’s basic argument is metaphysical and therefore addresses additionally those questions studied by philosophers of mind and knowledge. If there is some confusion as to the nature of this thesis, the confusion stems from the failure of philosophers to articulate the breadth and scope of their subject matter. For logic does not only pertain to thoughts about abstract mental or linguistic concepts taken as separate from judgments about science and society, but rather treats of concepts that pertain to all thoughts judging of all subject matter, including the subject matter of matter itself.


One response to “Sebastian Rödl and German Idealism

  • Samuel Bennett

    Hello, pardon me for this question, as it doesn’t relate directly to what you have written in this post, but I am hoping for some clarification on a thesis of Rödl’s provided in “Categories of the Temporal”. If you happen to be familiar with it, I would appreciate any help. In section III of chapter II (“Empirical and Temporal Thought”), R offers a critique of Tyler Burge’s description of demonstrative sentences. R maintains, contra Burge, that “A situational thought is right or wrong absolutely, not relative to given
    circumstances. Using a situational sentence is doing something by means
    of given circumstances which no longer is correct only relative to these circumstances” (69). I have trouble understanding these statements, since it is, in a sense, obviously true that a statement about, say, the mat that is lying two paces from me now, will receive its value of either “true” or “false” through the condition of the mat. If I say, for example, that the mat is green, yet the mat is actually blue, the statement “The mat is green” will have a false value in virtue of how the mat actually is. How the mat actually is, is a circumstance. The statement is true or false relative to the circumstance of the object which the statement picks out and offers a description of.

    What do you think? Am I missing something here?

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