On one hand Kant's transcendental idealism seems purely ontological: His noumena/phenomena distinction is essentially a form of dualism. Add to that: Marx considered himself a materialist in opposition to Hegel's idealism.

These two thoughts give me the impression that German idealism was an ontological/metaphysical statement about what the world is made of, not too far removed from Berkeley's subjective idealism.

On the other hand, Hegel's concepts of dialectic and world spirit seem to be more about ways of looking at history, society and the human subject, than any ontological/metaphysical doctrines. We are warned not to take Hegel's weltgeist too literally as some sort of substantial pantheism, but simply as a method for understanding the evolution of human beings and societies.

Is German Idealism an ontological doctrine about the world, in the same league as Berkeley and Plato? Or is it more of "a way of looking at things", a "mere" methodology for understanding humans and humanity?

  • As Kant commented prejoratively about Berkeley in his Prolegomena because of his ontologic idealism and Hegel attacked Kant for his epistemological dualism, I'd say that most people do not take these positions as serious as they should. – Philip Klöcking Feb 5 '16 at 20:05

I think Kant would take exception to being called an ontological idealist or dualist. There is no dualism between appearances and things in themselves in the Cartesian sense of "dualism", the "supersensible substrate" of appearances is strictly unknowable. On ontology critical Kant remained strictly agnostic, no matter how much it seems he wanted to transgress in the last two Critiques, and especially in the Opus Postumum. "Transcendental idealism" is not a form of ontological idealism, "idealism" refers to the fact that we only deal with reality through the veil of our mental faculties, i.e. it indicates an epistemological position, and it is not epistemological or subjective idealism in the usual sense either.

Attempts to pin Kant down on ontology, like Allison's or Strawson's, are based on interpreting what he does rather than just reading what he says, and such interpretations are of course controversial. This sort of interpretation started with Fichte, who replaced things in themselves with "positing" of I, Schelling and Schopenhauer presented a kind of "vitalist" ideal reality accessible through fallible "intellectual intuition" over and above Kant's transcendental strictures. One can see where they might have gotten the inspiration both in young Kant's musings, and by reading between the lines in the Opus Postumum, but Kant is extremely meticulous at separating what drives and motivates him from what he is willing to commit to officially, so I am not sure such interpretations can ever succeed.

As for Hegel, it is even more hopeless to get a straight answer out of him. Perception of Hegel went through phases, in 19th century he was mostly the restorer of metaphysics in the aftermath of Kant's takedown of it. Marx's take was that Hegel presented the dialectic of society in an idealistic garb, which later morphed into the picture of Hegel the historicizer, and the prophet of social Geist that you mention. There is enough in Hegel to back up both, and his writing style makes it near impossible to refute anything. But both interpretations seem too be self-serving, and kind of sell Hegel short. Personally, I find Pippin's recent interpretation to be the most plausible. According to Pippin, Hegel fully absorbed Kantian implications for metaphysics, but concluded that Kant was not sufficiently critical of his own method of philosophizing and conditions of its possibility. As for ontology, Hegel is not concerned with it at all because his analysis of the said conditions led him to conclude that "determinations of thought" in the end become "determinations of reality", overcoming Kant's limiting of knowledge. Pippin's interview is a nice read.

  • I couldn't agree more! Btw, Pippin seemed to be deeply impressed by Förster's book, as his review on the back of my 2nd german edition is something like "most important book on German Idealism for decades". – Philip Klöcking Feb 5 '16 at 23:01
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    Great answer. Kant's philosophy is highly critical of ontology. One might say that the question of existence is 'Quid facti?'. Kant thought that the real question of philosophy is 'Quid juris?'. – M. le Fou Feb 6 '16 at 5:41
  • @Philip Klöcking By the way, I took a closer look at the Opus Postumum because you mentioned it in your answer philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/31683/… The Cambridge edition was put together also by Förster, he is everywhere. – Conifold Feb 8 '16 at 23:31

1) According to SEP, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant/#TwoObjInt, two different interpretations of Kant’s transcendental idealism exist:

  • The two-object interpretation focus on ontology: There are two kinds of objects: things-in-themselves and appearances.

  • The two-aspects interpretation focus on epistemology: “On this view, transcendental idealism does not distinguish between two classes of objects but rather between two different aspects of one and the same class of objects.”

Hence the question whether transcendental idealism, the content of Critique of Pure Reason, is ontology or epistemology has not found a decisive answer. Possibly any either-or classification is too narrow for the scope of Kant’s thoughts.

2) The philosophers of German idealism try to abandon the distinction between ontological and epistemological idealism: “Although the overcoming of the distinction between ontological and epistemological idealism by means of relying on self-relating activities might be seen as a common goal of all the major German idealistic thinkers, […]”, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/idealism/#GerIde

Hence also for German idealism it does not seem appropriate to classify its goal as either-or.

3) Concerning the relation between German idealism and the idealism of Berkeley SEP emphasizes the differences:

"There is thus a fundamental difference between the idealism of German idealism and the immaterialism of Berkeley: where Berkeley’s idealism focused on ideas as the “stuff” of existence and assumed minds, whether human or divine, as their repository, the German idealists focused on the mind as active and largely tried to suppress the traditional ontology of substances and their accidents within which Berkeley still worked, which Hume questioned but for which he supplied no alternative, and which Kant again defended by conceiving of substance and accident as relational categories."

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