Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The German University System and the Universal Emergence of Idealist Philosophy

Chapter 12 of Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies is a veritable case study in the degree to which institutions matter. The title of the chapter is "Intellectuals Take Control of Their Bases: The German University Revolution," and it covers what happened to philosophy not only in Germany after their university reforms in the late 1700s, but also the practically identical patterns that emerged in every country that in turn adopted the German university system.

Almost immediately after the university reforms that gave rise to the university system as we now know it, German philosophy made a turn toward Idealism. Collins argues that Idealism is a halfway house from religious dominance to complete secularization within the university philosophical faculty. However, as we will see, Idealism may in fact be a consequence of the German university system itself.

Scandinavia adopted the German system in the early 1800's, and immediately underwent an Idealist revolution in philosophy.

England adopted the German system in 1872 -- and Idealism arose in England.

The United States adopted the German system in the 1870s and 1880s, and Idealism arose in the United States (with pragmatism as a halfway house between religion and Idealism, as one would expect in a country as religious as the United States).

As Italy adopted the German system, first in the north, then in the south, Italy developed its own idealist philosophical movement (interestingly, Collins notes that Idealism stayed around longer in Italy than in other places because Fascism was essentially Idealism in politics).

Now, one could simply say that this is a consequence not just of institutions, but of culture, since these were all Western European cultures (ignoring the fact that grouping these together under "Western culture" is a kind of idealistic kitsch) -- except Collins points out that the Japanese too adopted the German system (in the 1870s-1890s), and Japanese philosophy almost immediately became Idealist. And more fascinating still, Idealism in Japan raised up Buddhism in order to have a system to act as a halfway house to secularism. Why?
The Shinto cult promoted at the national level was too particularistic and too artificial a construction to serve as a rationalized philosophy; on the other side, Neo-Confucianism, dominant in the elite schools during the Tokugamwa, was already substantially secularized. Buddhist philosophy made an unexpected comeback because it could most easily take the form of a religion of reason. (686)
The Japanese experience more than the rest demonstrates that it was the institution of the German university system that resulted in the emergence of philosophical Idealism more than anything else. After all, Japan was a completely different culture. And more than that, the philosophers in the new universities actually revitalized Buddhism in Japan just to have "a religion of reason" with which to work our their Idealist philosophy. To switch metaphors, the Japanese actually built the Buddhist island to make an Idealist bridge from it to secularism. If this does not point to the fact that it was the institution which was responsible for the kind of philosophy which emerged, I don't know what does.
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