Review of "Goethe, Kant and Hegel: Discovering the Mind Volume 1"

I decided to purchased Goethe, Kant, and Hegel: Discovering the Mind. Volume One by Walter Kaufman to see if the book could work as a text for an Introduction to German Philosophy course for which I’m currently preparing notes. In this first of a three part history of the major intellectual vein leading to the creation of the discipline known as psychology, Kaufmann subjects the Goethe, Kant and Hegel to an assessment as to their contributions to the understanding of the mind both by analyzing their propounded ideas as well as their lives. In this latter task, he embodies the Nietzschean form of philosophy that has not been widely adopted by professors of philosophy but which he sees as being an insightful means of intellectual exegesis.

The profound but unacknowledged impact of Goethe’s thought on German philosophy is the first issue which Kauffman seeks to illustrate. He does this not only by quoting important thinkers praising Goethe’s genius, but also by showing the popular reaction to his writing, the development of his ideas by others and how his life was in accordance with them. As a gentleman poet/philosopher, Goethe does not fit the mold of the professors that follow him but instead follows his joys and finds outlet for his thought in such a way that it has a profound effect on all subsequent literature and even parts of the scientific community. Though his contributions he helped define and defend a non-mathematical model of science that was based on qualitative rather than quantitative measurements. This is, of course, the manner in which psychoanalysis operates, by prioritizing narrative accountability and discussion over testing via numbers. Kaufmann shows that Goethe provided a model of autonomy that rejected the rule of concepts but was instead run by experience and development. While many of these may be commonplace today, Kauffman is clear to show that at the time of their dissemination they were clearly revolutionary approaches – especially in the context of the Newtonian revolution in epistemology.

From here to Kant a number of lesser luminaries are mentioned and their general lack of new or innovative research into the mind are glossed over. Once Kant is arrived at, he is subjected to a devastating but deserving critique. His lack of rigor, ahistoricity, structural and epistemological absolutism, poor writing style masked in absurdly long sentences, the prioritization of concepts over experience and generally poor subject of human autonomy and the mind is thoroughly upbraided. It is by combining the analytics of his major and minor works with a biographical sketch of his life that Kauffman finds the source of these errors, for Kant is shown to have embodied many of the contradictory or ridiculous ideas. While ridiculing Kant casuistry, he shows how powerful a model he is for what NOT to think, what NOT to do. Indeed, it is his divorce of the heart, mind, body and natural inclinations from duty we can see the philosophic foundation for alienation later explored by Hegel, Marx, Freud and others.

Goethe the Great and Kant the Confounding are, according to Kauffman, synthesized by Hegel. While a more thorough account of Kauffman’s position towards this can be found in his book Hegel: A Reinterpretation, he provides a concise account of the success and failing in what he conceives to be Hegel’s project. While finding Hegel’s guilty of accepting of some of Kant’s flaws, such as his poor organization of material, his prolix form of address and the creation of a “comprehensive system,” he also sees more to be admired in him than to be disregarded. Thus while the attempt at a scientific series of psychological/epistemological stages in Phenomenology of Spirit is not up to Kauffman’s standards of rigor, he does say that it does provide an inspiring method of autonomy informed by profound self-knowledge and states that even Hegel, for all his attempts at showing absolute necessity, “…realized that all he could hope to show was various developments were not totally capricious, that there were reasons for them, and that one could construe them as organic”. Additionally insightful is Kauffman’s tripartite conceptualization of Hegel’s Phenomenology as science, poetry and encyclopedia via philological research. One can thus take a multitude of perspectives, as Hegel did in his research, in order to gain insight into oneself, one’s culture, nation and history. Indeed, to a marked degree much more so than even Goethe, Hegel is shown to incorporate close historical readings and illustrate it’s primary role in human development.

While an excellent text, the book is at times redundant. Additionally, Kauffman does not proffer a positive conception of the psyche amidst the critical expositions. This should not, however, be judged a fault as this is one part of three volumes and it is by finishing the rest of them, and thus familiarizing oneself with the other greater and lesser luminaries of German thought that one can garnish better insight into the human mind and subsequent developments in psychology and therapy practices.

As a final point of consideration it is worth mentioning how Kauffman closes this book with an insightful thought: “Those who would discover the mind cannot afford to ignore poetry and art”. As new research into the brains biological responses to reading literature shows, this is not just some refrain of an academic seeking to justify their position in the face of neo-liberal cuts to arts education, but a verifiable fact. The brain, conceived of solely as an organ grows, develops and becomes more agile while reading. But as Kauffman illustrates, it is not just an exercise for the brain but also one for the self – for by familiarizing oneself with the life and thought of others, which are not two different aspects but sides of a coin, we are able to learn more about ourselves.