Reasons Has Its Reason

How does one plump a 37-year-old philosophy book? How can one best recommend a scholarly study that demands close reading and is challenging for those without a solid understanding and appreciation of continental philosophy? It is no easy task, even though in so many ways, Frederick C. Beiser’s The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte is an academic page turner. It is that good.

Beiser, now an emeritus professor at Syracuse University, has a long and successful career as a philosopher. A prolific scholar and prominent editor, Beiser penned The Fate of Reason after completing his doctorate at Oxford and spending several years in Germany doing research. It is his first book. In the introduction, Beiser calls it “only an introduction, a general survey.” That may be the case for the few philosophers steeped in the discipline and the exciting period of 1781 to 1793 in the world of philosophy. It was, indeed, a time of tremendous productivity. But for all of us today, even those that dimly recall their assigned readings as philosophy majors, this book is no high-level review. Instead, Beiser does something special that calls out for acknowledgement and appreciation: a close reading of primary texts coupled with a synthetic overview to give context, structure and meaning. One does not need to be a continental philosopher to learn so much through this book. Beiser has a rare skill to make intelligible, while celebrating nuance, a complex story.

First, a bit about the content. Immanuel Kant‘s Critique of Pure Reason, perhaps one of the most important works of philosophy ever, was written in 1781. Kant was a well-known enlightenment thinker. The book, and its subsequent revisions, completely reshaped philosophical thinking and from that, thinking across the disciplines. Philosophers, especially those working along like lines, were challenged by Kant. They responded with an extraordinary outpouring of work, articles, arguments and counter arguments. Beiser systematically tracks their work, explains their thinking, and organizes the multiple responses to Kant. He stops, admittedly somewhat arbitrarily, in 1794, when another important philosopher, Johann Fichte, wrote The Foundation of the Science of Knowledge. Stated most simply, thinkers at the time were wrestling with a host of questions that went deeper than a response to Kant. They worried about the danger of skepticism, the possibility of faith, and the very foundations of knowledge and the possibility of certainty. In so many ways, the modern world was born in the latter half of the 1700s.

The more one knows about Kant and Fichte, as well as some of the other thinkers at the time, the greater is one’s appreciation of the Fate of Reason. Beiser patiently steers us through arguments. His prose is clear, even though the concepts he elucidates can be elusive. Everything is organized and structured. With a laptop handy, too, it is possible to go further in learning about individual thinkers. There are so many intriguing characters in the books, geniuses that are worthy of follow up study. Medelssohn, Wizenman, Reinhold, Schulze and Maimon are just a few of the names. Beiser breathes agency into their works, efforts that are often ignored or relegated to footnotes.

My admiration from this book extends beyond the clarity, the prose and the encyclopedic knowledge that is rendered in accessible, or at least reasonably accessible language. While I might be personally curious in philosophy and, more idiosyncratically, philosophy from that period, a broader theme is at stake.

Several years ago a very wise dean, a brilliant academic scholar who had risen through the ranks with tons of scholarship and research to their name, remarked to me that it is only as a college senior or in the start of a graduate school, that most students begin to understand a discipline. A discipline, the dean stated, has more to it than knowledge and practice. It carries with it ways of asking and answering questions, means of making meaning, and understanding of discipline specific values. Though we may not be a physicist or an anthropologist, from a distance, we have a rough idea of what it means to be a physicist or an anthropologist. To appreciate the discipline, the stakes are higher. To gain a rough understanding of either discipline, even more effort is required.

What Beiser does, so elegantly with rigor and patience, is give clarity to what it means to do philosophy. That is special. And while I am not a philosopher, I finished Fate of Reason with a much more nuanced comprehension of what being a philosophy might be.

So if you’re looking for a page turner about philosophy from the eighteenth century, search no more!

David Potash

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