Matthew C. Altman (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of German Idealism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014; 801 pp. ISBN: 9781137334749.

Reviewed by Christopher Lauer, University of Hawaii at Hilo

Scholars of sporadic ambition and a passing familiarity with German idealism might assume that a book like The Palgrave Handbook of German Idealism is exactly what they need. After all, this was an era when the most influential philosophers both assumed the privilege of writing about every area of philosophy, including logic, epistemology, aesthetics, politics, anthropology, and so on, and insisted that true understanding must be systematic. The most reasonable course would thus seem to be to find a resource that 1) explains how Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel each treat each major area of philosophy and 2) throws in accounts of a few other contemporary philosophers for some context. Whether by design or by necessity, The Palgrave Handbook shows such a project to be a fool’s errand. The careful, topnotch essays in this book reveal the movements of German idealism to be too diverse and fluid condense into handbook form, even for those with mitts massive enough to palm this 800-pager. This is not the sort of handbook that, like Epictetus’s Enchiridion, one might read in a sitting or two and be able to say, “Now I know how to be a German idealist.” But it is also not the sort that, like an automotive manual, one might refer to whenever one’s dialectic starts squealing or one’s critical faculty starts clunking. What emerges is something far richer than a handbook—something much more like a scholarly journal whose contributors have somehow conspired not to step too much on each other’s toes. The result is akin to a festschrift or music festival: the very occasion sparks thoughts that would not otherwise have been shared and gives the audience a rich sampling of what the field has to offer.

Editor Matthew Altman’s willingness to indulge the completist’s urge in the book’s introduction signals that there may have been pressure from the publisher to justify its existence to library collections specialists. The book’s contributors are a murderer’s row of luminaries in the field, and Altman clearly did a great deal of work making sure there is as little overlap as possible in their contributions, but his claim that, “Taken together, the chapters give a nearly complete picture of the four most important German Idealist philosophers” could not have been intended to convince specialists in the field. (9) There is simply too much to say and too little consensus on what are, say, the eight most important moments of Hegel’s philosophical system or the five basic tasks of Fichtean philosophy. The one area where the book really does read like a handbook is in the biographical essays devoted to each of the big four. These are noticeably better than what one can find in online encyclopedias, with the added advantage of being easier for novices to cite without seeming like philistines researching from the comfort of their iPads.

Many idealists fond of the sorts of grand narrative found in Hegel and the later Kant will be interested in what bringing these diverse studies together reveals about the movement of German idealism. Altman’s introduction offers little guidance here. While it rightly challenges the hegemony of the Hegelian narrative that treats Reinhold, Fichte, and the early Schelling as mere way stations on the path toward Hegel’s consummation of the Kantian project, it offers nothing in its place but a general categorization of German idealism as rejecting metaphysical materialism that must be so qualified and attenuated as to mean nothing at all. As for what the German idealists were trying to do or ended up doing in spite of themselves, the collection itself offers nothing but moments. Yet I judge this to be a sign of the field’s strength rather than of the weakness of Altman’s editorial nerve. The authors of these pieces disagree in many cases about the meaning and legacy of German idealism and even about which philosophers count as German idealists, so the creation of an artificial narrative of the whole of German idealism would have done more to obscure the claims of the book’s contributors than to highlight them. A more interventionist editor might have tried to “teach the conflict” by highlighting interpretive differences, but this, too, would likely have proved unsatisfying, since most ways of framing these disputes would have to privilege one reading over others and many contributors would dispute the very existence of a conflict.

Altman’s concluding essay on the legacy of German idealism is an economical rundown of 200 years of parries and thrusts regarding Kant’s legacy, but it makes no pretensions to identify the meaning of German idealism writ large. Altman’s own contribution to the chapter on Fichte is lucid and compelling, which suggests that he might have succeeded had he attempted a grander systematic union of the essays, but in this reader’s eyes such a systematization would have taken away from the picaresque story the book actually tells. There is no particular reason to read this book from start to finish, even for graduate students attempting to get a lay of the land of the scholarship in German idealism or senior professors looking to reacquaint themselves with it in preparation for a seminar. It is, however, an excellent starting point for either sort or for anyone working in the field. It is not an exaggeration to say that one could begin with any essay in the collection and earn a solid entry into important ongoing debates. A few essays, like Iain Hamilton Grant’s contribution on Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, Allen Speight’s “Hegel on Art and Aesthetics,” and Timothy Rosenkoetter’s chapter on Kant’s transcendentals, begin their exposition a fair distance into these ongoing debates, but all three are well worth the extra effort it takes to find a way into the discussion.

The book does not tell a systematic history of German idealism, but the success of the individual essays shows that the collection as a whole would have been poorer for the attempt. The book contains thirty-six essays on topics in German idealism ranging in quality from very good to excellent. It could have contained thirty-eight or forty without redundancy, but it also could have contained thirty-two or thirty-four and still provided an important overview of many important topics in German idealism. I don’t know how the number of essays was settled upon, but it seems as reasonable an editorial choice as any other to multiply Hegel’s favorite number by Kant’s and go to press with thirty-six contributions. While the focus is on Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, there are also one-off essays on Jacobi, Maimon, Reinhold, Romanticism, Hölderlin, and Schopenhauer. Though each is tasked with introducing a philosopher’s entire work (or, in the case of Elizabeth Millán’s excellent essay on German Romanticism, introducing several philosophers’ works) in a relatively short essay, none comes off as an instance of tokenism. Rather, they remind the reader what a rich and varied tradition German idealism was and of how thoroughly each thinker’s major ideas were embedded in the debates of the time.

That said, there is one topic that cries out for a more extensive treatment in a book like this: race. All four of the major thinkers around whom Altman builds the book made claims about race that ranged from problematic to indefensible. Given the centrality of freedom and the role of the state in each thinker’s political philosophy and the colonial and slave systems that underlay the new anthropological literature that each eagerly consumed, questions of race are inescapable parts of all four thinkers’ legacies. It would thus be worth at least one essay to discuss the scholarly and political context of these claims, particularly if it could explain how four thinkers who advocated liberalized politics for substantial portions of their careers could embrace what seems at first glance to be racial or cultural essentialism. The Palgrave Handbook seems to have been designed to introduce these philosophers by focusing on the categories that they themselves understood as most central to their thoughts, but this is insufficient grounds for excluding discussions of race because 1) all four thinkers regarded the study of human biological differences as crucial to the understanding of public life, and 2) all four were eager to throw off the traditional philosophical categories of scholasticism for new approaches to philosophical systematicity. A discussion of race in German idealism would not be merely an imposition of modern preoccupations on alternative paths of thought, but would be, or at least could be, an honest accounting of how to judge the legacy of German idealism. In recent years, there has also emerged a rich field of research on German idealism (especially Hegel) and sexual difference, which could for very similar reasons justify a chapter or two on sex and gender, but the fact that problematic racial remarks are so easy to find in the works of all of these thinkers makes the exclusion of any discussion of race especially noteworthy.

This oversight should not, however, discourage philosophers from nagging their university librarians to gain access to the thirty-six essays that are present in the book. If, on the other hand, you are a librarian in charge of philosophical acquisitions trying to determine if you should blow the whole portion of your budget allocated for research in German idealism on this 800-page behemoth, my advice is to go for it. The contributions are uniformly well-informed, and almost all make novel connections. Some excellent monographs on individual German idealists have come out in the past year (I’ll only mention Jason Wirth’s The Practice of the Wild and Brady Bowman’s Hegel and the Metaphysics of Absolute Negativity as ones that I found especially helpful), but The Palgrave Handbook offers breadth not only of subject matter, but of points of view, that such monographs can’t touch. The Palgrave Handbook of German Idealism is not the essential overview it tries to pass itself off as, but it is richer for that failing.