paul franks: the three and a half goals of reconstruction

The reconstructive method anchors many contemporary philosophical attempts to deal with the history of philosophy. The goals of reconstruction are distinct from the goals of intellectual history, on one side, and philosophical argumentation, on the other. Reconstruction allows for a bridging between the disparate goals of these two disciplines, but on the side of the latter: we need to get the arguments right and see if they’ll then inflect the timbre of more contemporary discussions. One exemplary reconstructive work is Paul Frank’s All or Nothing. Luckily for us, he gives a definition of reconstruction which is tripartite (but really, it has another half-piece). I wonder what you, the reader think. Can we attain any or all of these reconstructive goals?

1*) The approach I adopt here may be described as historically constrained reconstruction. Insofar as I seek to avoid anachronism, I operate under historical constraints.

Franks doesn’t set avoiding anachronism as a goal, but a constraint. So this gets an asterisk. The constraint of avoiding anachronism could be viewed positively or negatively. On the plus side, historical considerations are so ingrained among first rate philosophers that we need to adopt these constraints as a given. On the minus side, hey, these are just constraints! Philosophers would love to adopt some anachronisms to add horsepower to their arguments, but assumedly some lightweight intellectual historians will call them on it.

1)  My project is also reconstructive in at least three senses. First, and following more or less standard practice among Anglo-American interpreters, I try to develop, on the authors’ behalf, the most philosophically powerful arguments and considerations compatible with their texts.

For intellectual historians, a philosopher can suck at philosophy and still be emblematic of something. For example, in his recent book, Stefanos Geroulanos deals with an entire epoch of terrible philosophers who latched on to 12 pages or so of Heidegger and developed some high sounding gobbledygook about it (Geroulanos wouldn’t describe it in these terms). Doesn’t matter!

On the other hand, for philosophers to actually care about something, it has to be reconstructable into something that isn’t a total mess. Why should Paul Franks waste his time on Fichte? There has to be some hope that somewhere in there Fichte could’ve made an argument. So (1) is comparable to (1*) inasmuch as both are constraints. The first constraint is for historians—they’ll say hey, Kant couldn’t have thought that. The second constraint is a bit more serious. If there aren’t some “philosophically powerful arguments and considerations compatible with their texts” then we sadly need to ignore their texts.

2)  Second, I do not limit myself to what the authors explicitly say; rather, I try to present their projects with maximum charity by developing arguments and considerations that were available to them. Although this mode of reconstruction is perhaps also standard, it plays an unusually prominent role in this book. For the little that the German idealists say about why they engage in their systematic project in the first place is not even close to sufficient to motivate the project for a reader educated in the Anglo-American tradition. Consequently, I draw heavily on arguments and considerations from texts that were known to the German idealists, texts that helped form them and the context in which they worked, texts by figures such as Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Salomon Maimon, and Karl Leonhard Reinhold.

So intellectual history does have an important contribution to make to philosophical argumentation! We need all this ambient literature just to give us the sense of where Hegel and Kant where hanging out and what problems were on their minds. Their own self-description of these problems remains woefully uncompelling. These guys didn’t know they were onto something philosophically interesting. Only by bringing in the whole pantheism controversy, agrippan trilemmas and a bunch of Spinoza can we begin to understand the justification project these folks were working on. To make good arguments, philosophers can even borrow from historians!

3)  This book is also reconstructive in a third sense that concerns the interpretation of Kant developed in Chapter 1. The German idealists’ relationship to Kant is at once both the obvious way to approach them and the stumbling block that us from entering into their thought. For the idealists recognize Kant as their most immediate philosophical influence and initially describe their own project as the completion of Kant’s unfinished revolution. Yet Kant himself repudiates the idealist project. It is a gesture that some contemporary Kantians continue to repeat. On the one hand, there is no question that the German idealists misunderstand Kant in ways that no sophisticated Kant reader can miss…

On the other hand, Kant sees German idealists solely through their deformations of some of his central concepts and, by insisting that their use of these concepts be understood according to his own standards, he foists upon them projects that cannot be theirs, such as the attempt to generate empirical objects from the empty forms of general logic alone. Much of the literature sympathetic to German idealism assumes some German idealist interpretation of Kant and thereby fails to engage Anglo-American philosophers with a sophisticated and charitable understanding of Kant. At the same time, much of the literature critical of German idealism takes pains to detail the ways in which the idealists are wrong about Kant, and thereby fails to engage with the German idealist project in its own right. I will say more about the reasons for this hermeneutical tangle later in this introduction. In the body of the book, however, I develop an interpretation of Kant-or, at least, of some central strands in Kant’s critical philosophy-that represents neither Kant as I think we should read him nor Kant as the German idealists actually read him, but rather Kant as the German idealists should read him. It is an interpretation of Kant that aspires to maximize, as far as possible, both compatibility with Kantian texts and conduciveness for the motivation of the German idealist project. Thus it is more compatible with Kantian texts than the actual Kant-interpretations of the German idealists, but it is also more compatible with the German idealist project than some other Kant-interpretations that might be equally or, arguably, more-compatible with Kantian texts.

This last bit of what reconstruction can do fascinates me. Franks says essentially that history messed up. Sure, Kant and the idealists had their differences. But if we got the arguments just a little better, we could make it so they wouldn’t talk past each other so much. Being careful with the arguments allows us to gloss over some of the rhetorical excesses that occluded understanding. We can sort of fix history to be more philosophically compelling.

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