(Reading Terry Pinkard’s marvelous German Philosophy 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism)
It may be that the tenability of idealism comes down to the question of history. A resolute idealist discovers that the most fundamental framework of existence is expressed as dynamic relations among concepts: the I, the not-I, the striving of the I to take in the not-I as an object of thought, and the thorough ordering of the not-I – “Nature” – in further concepts, eventually expressed in the terms of the most conceptual branch of physical science. The idealists promise that, in the final analysis, our science of nature will merge meaningfully into this fundamental metaphysics. We will somehow get from I/not-I to the general theory of relativity.
But this still leaves the problem of history, for Nature is not merely a set of relations among concepts. Nature has been, is, and will be a most particular sequence of events. Another way to put this point is that there are many, many possible worlds which differ radically from one another but which all obey the same laws of nature. One of these is ours; how can this be explained? Why have things been one way rather than another? In short: why this history?
There are some basic replies one might try. You might try, in Zeno-like fashion, to simply deny the reality of our particular history, and call it some kind of illusion. Or you might partition off some deeper recess of the I which, in its hidden structure, explains why we should have this particular history. Or you might mythologize history, and turn its seemingly inexplicable particularity into something uniquely meaningful: our history is getting something done, and this something can get done in just one way, which is the way of our history. Moreover, this something that needs to get done may be linked up with the I/not-I dynamic, so that in the end the I wills the world. None of these ploys are especially interesting.
There may be a more subtle way of responding to the problem, which Pinkard sketches in his account of Schelling’s idealism:
Surely the past, as Shelling himself notes, has a reality that is independent of our representation of it. This objection to idealism, however, like generalized skepticism, assumes the “reflective” stance that puts subjects on one side of a divide and objects on the other [“the mind-as-the-mirror-of-nature” view]. Once one has shifted one’s picture and come to “see” or “intuit” the matter differently, those worries cannot arise. In understanding our experience as of a world, we experience it as more than what is manifest in that experience; or, as Schelling puts it, for us to be “intelligences,” we must perform a “synthesis” (a drawing of normative lines), which requires us to take up our experience both as being of an objective “universe at large” and as the way we “view the universe precisely from this determinate point.” We understand ourselves, that is, as particular points of view on an objective world that can be only partially manifested to us in our experience of it. Seen in that way, idealism is, as he puts it, only a “higher” realism. (p. 186; my bolds)
I understand this as follows. The very question – “Why is history this way rather than another?” – presupposes that we are divided from it. On one side is us, armed with our philosophical understanding; and on the other is the totally other “it,” with its own stubborn character. But Schelling asks us to shift out of this paradigm: take away the dividing line. The particular world we confront in experience is not distinct from us, but is a resulting mash-up of our own intelligence with an entity we ourselves posit – an object of our experience. The “stubborn character” which we thought was outside us is in fact inside us, in the sense that we have projected it into our own experience.
Now I would like to continue to press the objection: but why then have we projected one sort of seemingly objective world rather than another? (Or, in other words, just whose show is this, anyway?) I suppose that the Pinkard/Schelling reply would be something like, “There you go again, trying to divide yourself from the objects of your experience. Stop it!” But I can’t decide whether this is really a reply or just an attempt to get me to stop raising a question they can’t answer. Does the brute contingency of history evaporate as soon as I accept responsibility for it? Doesn’t that just bring the contingency into myself?