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Dewey and Peikoff on Kant's Responsibility

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Dewey and Peikoff on Kant’s Responsibility


Part 1 – Transcendental Idealism v. Experimental Pragmatism


John Dewey delivered three lectures in February 1915 that were published later that year under the title German Philosophy and Politics (GPP). Dewey attempted in this work to trace the contribution of some abstract philosophical ideas to the currents of German thinking that had contributed to bringing the world to its present situation. The Great War had been on for seven months. Hundreds of thousands had died already. Eight and a half million would die, and twenty-one million would be wounded, by the end of the war.


It is understandable that Dewey examines mainly German philosophy and war politics rather than French, Russian, or British philosophy and war politics. It was Germany who had violated the neutrality of Belgium, in order to advance toward France for conquest. I do not know whether Dewey was in favor of American entry into the war against Germany as of the time of his lectures.


Americans were overwhelmingly against entry at that time. Irish-Americans and anti-Czarist Jewish-Americans were fervently opposed to entry on the side of the Allies. Swedish- and German-Americans were pro-German. President Wilson was quietly complicit in British violations of American neutrality, complicit in Britain’s blockade of private American commerce (foodstuffs and cotton) with Germany. In the subsequent escalations of civilian-killing policies at sea and in ports between Germany and Britain, Wilson would turn loudly sensitive to neutrality when its requirements were unfavorable to Germany’s war making (Karp 1979, 171–87, 250–63). In May 1915, Germany torpedoed the British liner Lusitania, which was bearing over a hundred American passengers (and some munitions). It took nearly two more years, but Wilson was eventually able to win enough support to enter the war on the side of Britain and France and their allies. This he accomplished by pumping up a putative right of Americans to travel on vessels of belligerents and by declaring as his motive for entry: bring an end to the war, and then proceed to universal disarmament.


Turn back to Dewey in February 1915 and to his thoughts on the Germany that had lead to the mass killing and suffering in Europe. Dewey rejects the Bergsonian conception that history is moved by our instincts, that our intelligence is only statement after the fact. He rejects also the Marxist conception that history is moved inevitably by economics, that social institutions, art, literature, science, and philosophy are only byproducts.


Preliminary to examining the bearings of some modern German philosophy on German war politics, Dewey lays out his own view of the influence of general ideas upon practical social questions. He maintains there are abstract ideas, vital and genuine, that have practical influence, although one must be careful not to exaggerate their influence.


He does not think that pure ideas, or pure thought, influence human action. There are in truth “no such things as pure ideas or pure reason. Every living thought represents a gesture made toward the world, an attitude taken to some practical situation in which we are implicated” (GPP 8; further 1910, 19; 1929, 133–34). Although ideas may have not originated with a view to altering practical conditions, sometimes they “are congenial to a situation in which men in mass are acting and suffering. They supply a model for the attitudes of others; they condense into a dramatic type of action. They then form what we call the ‘great’ systems of thought” (GPP 8–9). Philosophic ideas, along with art, can become settled into men’s “permanent dispositions of action.”


Most folks would concur that some ideas influence action and the subsequent course of events. But most tend to suppose that philosophic theories are only leisurely speculations. People tend to think their own particular general ideas affecting their conduct of life are normal and inevitable. “They forget the extent to which these ideas originated as parts of a remote and technical theoretical system, which by multitudes of non-reflective channels has infiltrated into their habits of imagination and behavior” (GPP 9-10; also 1929, 56–58).


I would take issue with that qualifier “non-reflective.” In the national schools of Germany in the preceding decades, students received catechism instruction from an early age. When they had graduated from those schools, if not before, at least in the cities, they would be exposed to the live ideas of the atheists Marx, Haeckel, and Nietzsche. The young person’s continuance in or revision of his old school beliefs would be quite reflective. A good many of his long-standing ideas could come up for reassessment.


Dewey thought the philosophers had been largely mistaken about what they were doing. They thought they were seeing into and reporting “ultimate reality, or the essential nature of things.” In fact they had been telling of “nature and life and society in terms of collective human desire and aspiration as these were determined by contemporary difficulties and struggles” (GPP 10–11). I would say Dewey is straining what philosophy had been to force it into a mold of what he now—having turned from Hegelianism to Pragmatism—thought it should be.


I notice that that conception of philosophy, and of ideas in general would tend towards dampening whatever responsibility for the present calamity an influential philosopher might bear on account of the influence of his ideas in bringing about the calamity. To the extent that a philosopher was a voice of what people in his culture already thought, perhaps inchoately, his responsibility would be mitigated. To the extent that the conscious aim of his thought was truth regardless of practical consequences, his moral responsibility for the present killing fields would be further mitigated. On the other hand, Dewey thought that philosophers looking for ultimate reasons in existence and locating them in super-sensory realms was a way of off-loading responsibility that would and should come from engaging in practical experimental philosophy (1910, 17–18). Though he does not say so explicitly, that would suggest that the intellectual irresponsibility of rationalistic and otherworldly philosophers is of practical, moral consequence.


How Dewey would see the history of philosophy and its role in the history and current problems of mankind would likely have changed somewhat as his own philosophy changed from Hegelianism to Pragmatism. Rand’s views differed from Dewey’s concerning the history of philosophy, its role in history, and what reforms in philosophy are needed. Objectivism is not Pragmatism. I should stress that errors by a philosopher—whether Dewey or Rand or Peikoff—about the history of philosophy or errors concerning specific causation of specific human suffering and mass killing does not necessarily show the erring philosopher’s philosophy to be incorrect. To show that error in the philosophy of P is implied by a particular error E by philosopher P in his or her historical account of philosophy or account of its specific influences in specific historical episodes, one would need to show that the particular error E is necessitated by the philosophy of P.


Returning to February 1915, Dewey is correct in the following point: Abstract ideas can be taken up far away from the circumstances of their origin and put into operation in a different situation. Time may unfortunately not put right, but may very well “accentuate the evils of an intellectual catastrophe—for by no lesser name can we call a systematic intellectual error” (GPP 12). Remember, I say with Leibniz, that the term evil is used for physical evil (an earthquake killing people), moral evil (fraud in seismic qualifications of a building), or both together.


Within responsibility, I think we should keep track of the distinction between causal responsibility and moral responsibility. Remember that lines of causal responsibility must be established between thought and deed to establish any moral responsibility (or even for there to be any morally neutral liability in tort). With causal lines of responsibility for a physical evil identified, lines of culpability by intentions or complicity need to be determined following the causal lines.


The moral culpability of a thinker for the morally evil actions committed years later by individuals and by institutions of organized force under the remote thinker’s influence can be only specific, not also particular; it can be only of like kind, not self-same in occasion.[1] It is the actor who held the ideas and enacted them in the deed on the particular occasion. With causal responsibility established between remote thinker T and ideas of culpable actor A, the culpability, if any, of the thinker would be by way of specific identity between A and T in respect of idea and intent or specific identity between A and T in respect of idea and complicity.


Observe that if a thinker T’s only motive for an idea were truth—discernment of identity, existential or formal, which is wider than Dewey’s definition of truth—then his or her responsibility in culpable acts of A later on would be at most causal, not also moral. Where also moral, the moral culpability of T can be only a shadow culpability. T should not be held liable (were he living), for in the nature of the case, the act requirement for criminality fails. Moreover, the way in which T’s idea can have a causal role in the crime of A is only as a causal circumstance (like a handy hoe or shotgun), as an objective of the criminal act, or as an incitement to the criminal act. Those are listed in increasing order of similitude between specific, shadow culpability and particular, actual culpability. The sole remediation concerning culpability of T is this: By analysis along the lines of Dewey’s, one might discern and correct T’s errors, innocent or motivated, and better know the importance of philosophy.


Dewey acknowledges that for an account of German intellectual history one would need to go back to at least Luther. Dewey elects, however, to begin with Kant. “In Protestant Germany his name is almost always associated with that of Luther. That he brought to consciousness the true meaning of the Lutheran reformation is a commonplace of the German historian. One can hardly convey a sense of the unique position he occupies in the German thought of the last two generations” (GPP 18–19).


In Germany and the Next War (1911), Friedrich von Bernhardi had written:

Two great movements were born from the German intellectual life, on which, henceforth, all the intellectual and moral progress of man must rest: the Reformation and the critical philosophy. The Reformation, which broke the intellectual yoke, imposed by the Church, which checked all free progress; and the Critique of Pure Reason, which put a stop to the caprice of philosophic speculation by defining for the human mind the limitations of its capacity for knowledge, and at the same time pointed out in what way knowledge is really possible. (73)



Dewey recurs to that book of Bernhardi’s in his 1915 lectures. Bernhardi’s book had been issued in English translation in 1914.[2] Bernhardi had been the first cavalry officer to ride through the Arc de Triomphe when the Germans entered Paris in 1870. He later served in the General Staff. At age sixty, writes Barbara Tuchman, “Bernhardi assembled a life-time’s study of Clausewitz, Treitscheke, and Darwin, and poured them into the book that was to make his name a synonym for Mars” (1962, 25).


Bernhardi enlists the name of Goethe in making his case for German imperial expansion and its requirements for the nation and state. Goethe, Kant, and Luther were settled names of German cultural identity and pride. Appeal to their authority was appeal to very widely accepted voices of deepest truth and right.[3] Appeal to them was conservative, and Bernhardi aimed to have their weight and a conservative gloss on his program, notwithstanding the circumstance that the views of none of these icons were compatible with his core philosophic rationalization for such war.


For Bernardi’s program, there is one popular Kant essay whose plain contradiction with Bernhardi’s position could not be left unaddressed. That is Kant’s “Towards Perpetual Peace” (1795), which sets out the duty to work towards perpetual peace by international federalism. Bernhardi squarely acknowledges his opposition to that Kantian outlook, which was championed by European liberals at the time of Bernardi’s writing.


Bernhardi proclaimed that it would not be desirable “to abolish war entirely, and to deny its necessary place in historical development.” That would be “directly antagonistic to the great universal laws which rule all life. War is a biological necessity of the first importance, a regulative element in the life of mankind which cannot be dispensed with, since without it an unhealthy development will follow, which excludes every advancement of the race, and therefore all real civilization. ‘War is the father of all things’ (Heraclitus). The sages of antiquity long before Darwin recognized this” (1911, 18).


The names Haeckel and Nietzsche would shatter Bernhardi’s pretense that his warmongering is a smooth graft onto conservative German philosophy and theology. Naturally, Bernhardi does not mention those two names. It is in fact those two counter-traditional thinkers who supply Bernhardi’s core philosophic rationalization for waging a war of aggression. (I notice the quote from Heraclitus used by Bernhardi appears also in Nietzsche’s text GS 92.)


By the time of Bernhardi’s book (1911), Friedrich Nietzsche’s books had been flying off the shelves for about two decades (Safranski 2002, 318–26; Aschheim 1992, 29–84, 101–27; Tuchman 1966, 349–51; Thomas 1983). “At the beginning of the war, Nietzsche was already so popular that 150,000 copies of his Zarathustra were printed in a special edition and handed out to the soldiers at the front along with Goethe’s Faust and the New Testament” (Safranski 2002, 329).


There are some sayings glorifying unreasoning war in the sections of Zarathustra “On War and Warriors” and “Conversation with the Kings” (§2), although the former also contains elements subversive of the organized collective action that is war (see further Pippin 2006, xi; Aschheim 1992, 128–48; Thomas 1983, 103–4). I think Bernhardi was silent on Nietzsche because of the latter’s loud atheism. Then too, notwithstanding the common merit the two see in war per se, Nietzsche’s individualism could undermine actually making war (HH I 481; GS 5).


Ernst Haeckel was the premier champion of Darwin’s theory of evolution in German lands. Darwin’s Origins of the Species (1859) had come into German translation in 1860. Haeckel mastered the theory and soon embraced it. Some of Haeckel’s work in biology provided significant evidence for the theory beyond evidence mustered in Origins. In that work, Darwin had withheld judgment on whether humans were descended from other animal species. Since the eighteenth century in Germany, there had been speculations concerning the development of life from hypothetical amorphous forms into the greater articulation and ramification seen in species today. Thinkers such as Herder and Schelling had included in these pre-Darwinian accounts of species transformation speculations of how human kind had arisen. Haeckel charged immediately from Origins to the conclusion that humans descended from other, less perfect animals, and he alleged in print new implications for human nature and society. In 1871 Darwin would publish his own evolutionary conclusions and conjectures concerning humans (see Richards 1999, 135–45).


Haeckel wrote popular accounts of his evolutionary ideas in 1868 and 1874, which became best sellers. Three decades later, he issued three more popular books on his evolutionary ethics, or social Darwinism. One of them The Riddle of the Universe (1899) sold a hundred thousand copies in its first year. “It quickly became Germany’s most popular philosophic work” (Gasman 2004, 14). In this book, Haeckel staunchly defends atheism, proclaims a scientific morality based on evolution, and derides Kant and much of Christian morality.


Neither Haeckel nor Nietzsche had been promoting war with France. It is Bernhardi’s voice leading that chorus, but part of his rationale is reasoning from Haeckel and Nietzsche (HH I 477; Z – above; GM II 24). The quotation of Bernhardi above continues:

The struggle for existence is, in the life of Nature, the basis of all healthy development. All existing things show themselves to the result of contesting forces. So in the life of man the struggle is not merely the destructive, but the life-giving principle. “To supplant or to be supplanted is the essence of life,” says Goethe, and the strong life gains the upper hand. . . . / The nation is made up of individuals, the State of communities. The motive which influences each member is prominent in the whole body. . . . / That social system in which the most efficient personalities possess the greatest influence will show the greatest vitality in the intrasocial struggle. In the extrasocial struggle, in war, that nation will conquer which can throw into the scale the greatest physical, mental, material, and political power, and is therefore the best able to defend itself. War will furnish such a nation with favorable vital conditions, enlarged possibilities of expansion and widened influence, and thus promote the progress of mankind. . . . Without war, inferior or decaying races would easily choke the growth of healthy budding elements, and a universal decadence would follow. (1911, 19–20)



I have not been able to find that quote in Goethe, and I notice that other scholars have also not found it. For now its accuracy and context remain unknown. My doubt over of the fidelity of Bernhardi’s quotation of Goethe in support of an evolutionary struggle for existence is increased when I open Goethe and Darwin (1906) by the scholarly theologian Rudolf Otto. He writes that the principle of natural selection through the struggle for existence belongs exclusively to Darwin’s theory, that it is by all means alien to and contrary to Goethe’s way of thinking according to potentiality (9).


Perhaps Bernhardi was paraphrasing somewhat Goethe’s biological law of compensation: “One part [in an organism] cannot be added to unless something is taken from another” (quoted in Richards 2002, 416; also 447, 456). Bernhardi’s picture of the effective and efficient intrasocial organization fits fairly well the picture of the organism put forth by Haeckel’s student, the embryologist Wilhelm Roux, whose 1881 treatise The Struggle of the Parts in the Organism was a crucial influence on Nietzsche in divining will to power as the essence of all life (Moore 2002, 37–38, 78–79; further here [scroll down]).


I conjectured that one reason Bernhardi omitted credit to Haeckel and Nietzsche in his core philosophical justification for war, whether defensive or aggressive, was to give the appearance of having the imprimatur of conservative German culture for his program. Doubtless there are reasons for such a subterfuge and its special laudation of Kant. We shall come to that.


In addition to the names Luther, Kant, and Goethe, Bernhardi drops the iconic name of Wilhelm von Humboldt as he pays lip service to ideals of individual freedom within the intrasocial organization. Immediately thereafter he goes on to argue the necessity of countering individual freedom; he calls for increasing domestic power of the state. Dewey is adamantly opposed to the autocratic state.


What are the reasons for Dewey’s sleight of the influence of Haeckel and Nietzsche in the German atrocity of 1914? There can be no realistic weighing of the influence of a philosopher’s ideas in bringing about a war without assessing the comparative influence of the ideas of other philosophers, and ideas of other sorts of intellectuals, in facilitating the parties of war. There can be no judgment of causal, thence moral, responsibility without weighing of influence.


Dewey was definitely aware of the influence of Nietzschean ideas in German war thinking. He observed that many had been saying it was the philosophy of Nietzsche that explained Germany’s atrocious behavior (on those voices, see Aschheim 1992, 128–48). Dewey curtly dismisses Nietzsche’s influence as “a superficial and transitory wave of opinion” (GPP 28).


Perhaps Dewey found no way profoundly telling of national character by which Haeckel’s German version of social Darwinism differed from Spencer’s British version. Certain it is that the license to war, indifferently defensive or aggressive, drafted from the social Darwinism of Haeckel and sayings of Nietzsche (promoted, for example, by Alexander Tille) was not Dewey’s candidate philosophic idea for most weighty influence upon German national character in contrast to British or American national character.[4]


Dewey brings to the fore one idea of Kant’s as solidifying German character conducive to militarism in the modern world: Kant’s segregation of morals and science, segregation of the supersensible world of moral duty and moral freedom and the sensible, spatial world of science (GPP 20–23; also 1929, 47–49). Reason gives law to the material of sense and in this way constitutes nature, but reason is itself supersensible, above sense and nature. There is “command in man to act for the sake of what ought to be—no matter what actually is . . .” (GPP 24; A802 B830). This in man is Kant’s proof of the operation of supersensible reason within human experience. The command of reason’s law from within is addressed to a free moral will, which also belongs to the supersensible realm.


Dewey quotes Kant as saying “I have found it necessary to deny knowledge of God, freedom, and immortality in order to find a place for faith.”[5] Dewey takes faith here to be a moral act (GPP 26). That is correct in Kant. I should stress, however, that although the act of faith for the Lutheran, Reformed, Pietist, or Catholic has moral import, that act first and foremost act is connection to God, the degree and character of the connection being various among these predominate Christian denominations (Otto 1917, 106–12). (     ) The faith Kant warrants directly is only rational faith (Vernunftglaube), which is not logical inference of reason, but is an issue from reason and not contrary to reason (A822 B850, A825–830 B853–58). He did not share the traditional mystical faith of his culture (Kant 1793; Kuehn 2001, 34–40, 338–40, 344, 350, 361–72; Michalson 1999). He hoped his work would stop, on the one hand, intellectual threats to the religiously devout from science and from highly rational philosophies (under influences of Spinoza and Wolff) and on the other hand, existential threats to free rational inquiry from church and state (Bxxx; A744–54 B772–82).


Dewey saw the root idea of Germany’s national life in Kant’s doctrine of two independent realms, “one outer, physical and necessary, the other inner, ideal, and free” (GPP 28). The latter for Kant has primacy over the former. “The chief mark of distinctively German civilization is its combination of self-conscious idealism with unsurpassed technical efficiency and organization in varied fields of action” (GPP 28). Dewey makes clear that although this is a realization of what is found in Kant, he is not saying that Germany’s marvelous advances in science, industry, and the military were caused by Kant. He means, rather, “that Kant detected and formulated the direction in which the German genius was moving, . . . [and] that his formulation has furnished a banner and a conscious creed which in solid and definite fashion has intensified and deepened the work actually undertaken” (GPP 28-29).


Concerning advances made by German scientists, that last statement by Dewey floats vaguely near the truth in the case of biology to the 1840’s (Lenoir 1982; Richards 2002, 229–61, 309–12, 407–9, 427–30, 488–91; Richards 2008, 31–36, 120–22, 459–60). However, what influence Kant had on German biology in the nineteenth century was mainly on account of his general characterization of organism life and his characterization of biological understanding in Critique of Judgment. His characterization of teleological judgments as strictly regulative (virtually hypothetical and immutably so), a doctrine well suited to his critical and transcendental idealism, was immediately pushed aside by German biologists. They took Kant’s teleological judgment to be essential in their advancing discipline, but they took teleology to be, in one form or another, a governing principle really operating in the physical domain of life, independently of our requirements for scientific explanation.*


Advances in German science were not on account of Kant’s particular form of idealism and his situation of science within it. In the case of chemistry and physics, in Germany after Kant, his doctrines sometimes furnished “a banner and a conscious creed,” but it is not the case that they “intensified and deepened the work actually undertaken.”


Kantianism, says Dewey, “has helped formulate a sense of national mission and destiny” (GPP 29). Kant’s formulation of the two realms and their relationship illuminates why German consciousness has not been taken over by its material endeavors, “but has remained self-consciously, not to say self-righteously, idealistic” (GPP 29). Positivism, materialism, and utilitarianism are kept in minority by Kant’s successful doctrine of the two realms, the material one to be developed ever more, beneath and for the sake of the ideal and supersensible one. “There is no people so hostile to the spirit of a pragmatic philosophy” (GPP 30).


Dewey draws attention to Kant’s emphasis on the a priori in his idealism (GPP 39–44; cf. 1910, 17–18). The unitary forms necessary for any and all sensory experience are, in Kant’s view, space and time. These two are irreducible forms and are ineluctable a priori contributions from the mind of one having experience. A priori means not derived from experience. Kant proposed that taking space in experience to be a priori is necessary to explain how the deductive discipline of geometry, applicable to all outer experience, is possible. Time is an a priori form applicable to all experience, inner and outer. All sensory material is made into experience by these two fundamental forms, space and time (A22–49 B37–66; B66–73; A165–66 B206–7).


All concepts, mathematical or empirical, can be logically entered into judgments having twelve different irreducible forms to which there correspond twelve fundamental concepts, or categories. These categories, such as limitation or causality, are given a priori. These categories apply to judgments pertaining to our processes of consciousness as well as to judgments pertaining to objects and processes in the outer world of our experience (A76–83 B102–9; B109–69).


Though the twelve categories of the understanding and the sensory form that is time apply to inner experience, they are about what is. Our inner life is not only about what is. It is about what ought to be, what ought to be in character and action. In Kant’s ethics, what ought to be is governed by a priori law following from the unconditional end in itself that is rational nature (A841 B869; G 4:407–21).


Dewey maintains that a Kantian way of analyzing the world into a fairly small number of a priori concepts, “rational concepts which are legislative for experience,” greatly simplifies (too greatly simplifies) comprehension of real events (GPP 41–42). Habits of conforming the world to the dictates of a practically divine a priori Reason, Dewey suggests, predisposes the German people to imagine that in imposing their will on other peoples they are instruments of a deified Reason (GPP 43).


Dewey is on the right track in stressing the repercussions of the obsessive a priori in Kant’s philosophy. I should say, however, that it is not plausible that the rational organization of concepts for research by the great German physicists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was in accord with the a priori gloss Kant attempted in his pretentious rewrite of Newtonian mechanics in Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786). Helmholtz, Mach, Einstein* (Martínez 2009), and other luminaries of physical science had their particular stands on Kant. But Kant’s claim of the a priori nature of such things as the principle of inertia was silliness to them as it is to us. In his elegant text on mechanics, Hertz (1899) gave steady supplication to the Kantian a priori character of the kinematical prerequisites of dynamics, but he really had reverted to the pre-Kantian notion of the a priori. Although Hertz took what we would now call Galilean kinematics to be insusceptible to empirical test for correctness, he maintained that its value or worth hangs on whether the dynamics in which it is used coincides with experience. There is no such vulnerability to experience for Kant’s a priori principles of dynamics. In stark contrast to Kant, Hertz regarded the principle of inertia, his Fundamental Law of dynamics, to be “inferred from experience” (1899, 144). (Michael Friedman’s 2001 concept of the relative a priori in the work of science is a concept radically different from Kant’s a priori.)


Dewey’s 1915 effort to find philosophical roots of Germany’s disastrous attitudes and behavior in the sharp differences between the critical philosophy of Kant and his own philosophy of pragmatic experimentalism (or empiricism) goes overboard. Dewey thinks dangerous “the mental habitudes generated by attachment to a priori categories” (GPP 40), dangerous that “no moral, social, or political question is adequately discussed in Germany until the matter in hand has been properly deduced from an exhaustive determination of its fundamental Begriff [concept] or Wesen [essence]. Or if the material is too obviously empirical to allow of such deduction, it must at least be placed under its appropriate rational form” (GPP 41–42). It is plain that “the whole modern liberal social and political movement has allied itself with philosophical empiricism” (GPP 44). Think of Locke or Mill. “A hierarchically ordered and sub-ordered State will feel an affinity for a philosophy of fixed categories, while a flexible democratic society will, in its crude empiricism, exhibit loose ends” (GPP 44).


It might be argued—and this may be an underground assumption of Dewey’s—that Kant saved rationalism and idealism in Germany, by his original and influential reform of them together with his mighty counter to empiricism and materialism. It is plausible that without Kant’s critical and transcendental idealism, the idealisms of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel would not have come about. Nevertheless, I expect these three men would have made philosophies, even had Kant never existed. Without Kant, these three might well have made new ways in philosophy, and it is reasonable to suppose they would have sprung their creations not from the empirical tradition in Germany (Sassen 2000; Kuehn 1987), but from the Leibnizian-Wolffian tradition. Then too, it is plausible that these three would have had the relations they did have to the Romantic movement in Germany. Goethe and Schiller were happening, Kant or no. Goethe was a realist, not an idealist. He put spirit into nature and that nature into man. Goethe’s only reliance on Kant was in biology, and like the other German biologists, unlike Kant, he took teleology to be in nature. The German enlightenment, the fideist reactions to it, and the German romantic movements in the arts and philosophy, would have happened without Kant.


It is true that Kant’s a priori elements yield a grand organized structure of the phenomenal world. But it is not a resulting organization any more grand and unified than was taught by Kant’s contemporaries such as the Leibnizians Moses Mendelssohn and Johann Eberhard or than would be taught by a Thomist philosopher anywhere in the world. Grand system providing a rational location of most anything in its relationship to everything else is not a peculiarity of German philosophy as distinct from French philosophy. In addition to Scholastic philosophies in France, there had been the comprehensive systems of Descartes, Malebranche, D’Alembert, Cournot, and Bergson. Notice that Nietzsche’s philosophy, whose influence Dewey mentioned only to disregard, is like Dewey’s in not being a systematic philosophy* (cf. A832–41 B860–69).


Dewey’s analysis is defective in its focus on the contrasts between German and Anglo-American philosophy to the neglect of contrasts (and similarities) between German and French philosophy. It was Germany’s long conflicts with France, not with Britain, that eventuated in the German aggression of August 1914. The German regime resented Britain’s standing in colonial power and her command of the seas, but it was not spoiling for a fight with Britain in this offensive, the bluster from Moltke notwithstanding. To fully assess the factor of dominant-philosophy differences in war-making differences among the belligerent nations of the Great War, one must not neglect France. Thanks to a lead from Bernhardi, Dewey does not neglect differences in French and German philosophy altogether, as we shall see in the sequel.


More important than systematic character in philosophy, whether a priori or entirely grounded by experience, would be Kant’s refashioning of the concept of the a priori. William Tait (1992) has argued persuasively: for Leibniz and Plato the a priori discipline of geometry had been the study of a type of structure whose truths hold independently of whether that structure is exemplified in the physical world; for Kant a truth of geometry is a priori true of the physical world. This facilitates casting the fundamental organization of the phenomenal world as issuing from something deep inside mind.


Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel inherit and transform the Kantian a priori power of structuring the world, for use in their various editions of idealism, their various versions of Innerlichkeit. Dewey claims that “the Germans, more readily than other peoples, can withdraw themselves from the exigencies and contingencies of life into a region of Innerlichkeit [inwardness, or subjectivity; profoundness]” (GPP 46). We shall evaluate this claim in the sequel.


Greatest within any possible importance of Kant’s a priori for the historical nightmare of the Great War is the role of the a priori in Kant’s renovation and central placement of duty in his ethics. That ethical realm, in Kant’s picture, is the realm of inner rational being. It is shielded from fundamental bases in the phenomenal world, outer and inner, by Kant having rendered the basic form of the phenomenal world fixed a priori by the sentient subject and by having free will completely compatible with the phenomenal world even while accepting that no free will is possible in the phenomenal world alone. The fact of free will is a testimony of the existence of the noumenal world, a touch of it within the rational self.


As the sun rose at Cape Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, the British fleet was arranged in two successive lines for battle. The Franco-Spanish fleets were silhouettes against the eastern sky. With the two opposing fleets closing for the fury, Admiral Nelson made a signal to all his ships: “England expects every man to do his duty.” This duty was nothing new in human history, and it had no dependence on ideas of the late sage of Königsberg (d. 1804).



To be continued. In the next installment, I shall complete discussion of Dewey 1915. I shall assess Dewey’s account, to World War I, of the influences of Kant’s doctrines of two separate realms and of moral duty.


In 1942 Dewey issued a second edition of German Philosophy and Politics, adding a large Introduction in which he applied his earlier analysis to the rise of Hitler and the new world war. I shall discuss Dewey’s extended account and the criticisms of his account made by two Kantians shortly after World War II. Then comes Leonard Peikoff 1982.





1.  The distinction of particular and specific identity is mine and is as follows. Particular identity answers to that, which, where, or when. Specific identity answers to what. Every existent consists of both a particular and a specific identity (Boydstun 1991, 43–46, and 1995, 110).


2.  Germany and the Next War was reviewed in the November 1914 issue of Moody’s Magazine 17(11):553–54.


3. In Chicago, in the corner of the lakefront park at Sheridan and Diversey, there is a serene and strong statue erected in 1913 by Germanic Americans. Inscribed on its base is “To Goethe, the Master Mind of the German People.”*


4.  On German social Darwinism, see Gasman 2004, 90–92, 147–51; Thomas 1983, 112–14; Aschheim 1992, 122–25. On Haeckel and WWI, see Gasman 2004, 126–31; Richards 2008, 432–35.


5.  This is evidently from an 1882 English translation by John Watson of Critique of Pure Reason Bxxix–xxx. This old translation draws together in one sentence what is placed in separate sentences by translators today, but it remains true, all the same, to Kant’s statements in that part of the Introduction to the second edition of KrV.




Aschheim, S.E. 1992. The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany 1890–1990. California.


Bernhardi, F. 1912. Germany and the Next War. A.H. Powles, translator. 1914. Longmans Green.


Boydstun, S. 1991. Induction on Identity. Objectivity 1(3):1–56.

——. 1995. Volitional Synapses. Objectivity 2(3):105–29.


Darwin, C. 1859. On the Origin of Species. John Murray.

——. 1871. The Descent of Man. John Murray.


Dewey, J. 1910. The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy. Henry Holt.

——. 1915. German Philosophy and Politics. Henry Holt.

——. 1929. The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action. In John Dewey, V4. J.A. Boydston, editor. 1984. Southern Illinois University.


Friedman, M. 2001. Dynamics of Reason. CSLI – Stanford.


Gasman, D. 2004 [1971]. The Scientific Origins of National Socialism. Transaction.


Haeckel, E. 1899. The Riddle of the Universe. J. McCabe, translator. 1900. Harper & Brothers.


Hertz, H. 1899. The Principles of Mechanics. Macmillan.


Kant, I. 1781, 1787. Critique of Pure Reason. W.S. Pluhar, translator. 1996. Hackett.

——. 1785. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. M.J. Gregor, translator.

In Practical Philosophy. 1996. Cambridge.

——. 1786. Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science. M. Friedman, translator. 2002. In Theoretical Philosophy after 1781. Cambridge.

——. 1790. Critique of Judgment. W.S. Pluhar, translator. 1987. Hackett.

——. 1793. Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason. G. Giovanni, translator.

In Religion and Rational Theology. A.W. Wood, editor. 1996. Cambridge.

——. 1795. Towards Perpetual Peace. M.J. Gregor, translator.

In Practical Philosophy. 1996. Cambridge.


Karp, W. 1979. The Politics of War. Harper.


Kuehn, M. 2001. Kant – A Biography. Cambridge.

——. 1987. Scottish Common Sense in Germany. McGill.


Lenoir, T. 1982. The Strategy of Life. Chicago.


Martínez, A.A. 2009. Kinematics – The Lost Origins of Einstein’s Relativity. Johns Hopkins.


Michalson, G. 1999. Kant and the Problem of God. Blackwell.


Moore, G. 2002. Nietzsche, Biology and Metaphor. Cambridge.


Nietzsche, F. 1878. Human, All Too Human. R.J. Hollingdale, translator. 1986. Cambridge.

——. 1882. The Gay Science.  J. Nauckhoff, trans. 2001. Cambridge.

——. 1883–85. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A. Del Caro, trans. 2006. Cambridge.

——. 1887. On the Genealogy of Morals. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale, trans. Vintage.


Otto, R. 1906. Goethe und Darwin / Darwinismus und Religion. Vandenhoeck & Kuprecht.

——. 1917. The Idea of the Holy.  J.W. Harvey, translator. 1923. Oxford.


Peikoff, L. 1982. The Ominous Parallels. Stein and Day.


Pippin, R. 2006. Introduction to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. A. Del Caro, translator. Cambridge.


Richards, R.J. 1999. Darwin’s Romantic Biology: The Foundations of His Evolutionary Ethics. In Biology and the Foundations of Ethics. J. Maienschein and M. Ruse, editors. Cambridge.

——. 2002. The Romantic Conception of Life. Chicago.

——. 2008. The Tragic Sense of Life. Chicago.


Sassen, B. 2000. Kant’s Early Critics. Cambridge.


Safranski, R. 2002. Nietzsche – A Philosophical Biography. S. Frisch, translator. Norton.


Tait, W.W. 1992. Reflections on the Concept of A Priori Truth and Its Corruption by Kant. In Proof and Knowledge in Mathematics. M. Detlefsen, editor. Routledge.


Thomas, R.H. 1983. Nietzsche in German Politics and Society 1890–1918. Manchester.


Tuchman, B.W. 1962. The Guns of August. Dell.

——. 1966. The Proud Tower. Bantam.

Edited by Boydstun
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  • 7 years later...


I don’t know if ever there will be a time in which I’ll complete the further planned installments on this work. But meanwhile I thought to add notice of this related recent book.

The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle

David Edmonds (Princeton University Press, 2020)

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  • 8 months later...

Sebastien, I for one would be pleased to hear any further elaboration you may develop and care to share.

It has so far remained uncertain with me what is the relative amount of influence of different German philosophers had upon the minds of German leaders in their rationales for that world war and the next as well upon the minds of the population taking orders. And it remains unsure with me how much all German philosophy together was an influence in those wars on the German side in comparison to the influence of religion and usual melding of people in collective actions for collective defense and perceived collective progress.

Into pockets of German military personnel the government put 100,000 copies of two books, presumably for reminder of the great culture for which they were fighting and for personal consolation and inspiration. Those two were The New Testament and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The former preceded German philosophical idealism and the latter spit in its face. So there is that to also take into an account of ideological factors in the German political disasters of the twentieth century.

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Hi Boydstun,

If you know that 100,000 copies of The New Testament and Thus Spoke Zarathustra were both widely disseminated and also equally widely read, phenomenology can give us some tools.

All we need to do is closely read those same texts and also read work of scholars who have kept track of the changing interpretations of the two texts, zeroing in on what the current interpretations were before and during the war.

TSZ for instance was widely misread for a long time, as Nietzsche himself predicted it would be.

The Ubermensche was supposed to be a symbol of heroic redirection of the cultural inheritance of Christianity and enlightenment rationalism. Not a justification for nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism.

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But as for a Kantian understanding,

we need the following A Priori Transcendental deduction:

1. Time is necessary for history to be recollected.

2. If time is necessary for history to be recollected, then people do not know ahead of time the history they are making.

3. If people do not know ahead of time the history they are making, then something other than foreknowledge must be responsible for the actions people take as time passes.

What is necessary for people to act without foreknowledge?

There are several possible candidates:

Unified leadership







Which of these candidates do you think is most responsible for German war behavior before and during WWI?

I do not have enough knowledge to complete the Transcendental Deduction.



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We might be able to combine a Kantian Transcendental Deduction with Hegelian Phenomenology.

But honestly, I think Ms. Rand might have the answer we are looking for.

Capitalism the Unknown Ideal, "The Roots of War."

Rand talks about modern Europeans not having outgrown their tribal mentality.

Simple, but I think a good place to start.

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  • 2 months later...


I've decided to complete this study and do it now (before completing my work comparing Dewey and Rand/Peikoff/Kelley concerning logic, perception, conception, and foundations). I have gotten hold of the needed materials for completing Dewey and Peikoff on Kant's Responsibility, shown in the list below. This chronology I’ve put together should be a good help to me and to my readers of the remaining work on this.


1914, July — WWI begins.

1915, May — Dewey’s book German Philosophy and Politics (GPP).

1915, Oct. — William Hocking’s criticism of GPP: “Political Philosophy in Germany” and Dewey’s reply.

1915, Oct. — Kuno Francke’s “The True Germany”.

1916, Feb. — Dewey’s “On Understanding the Mind of Germany” (picks up Francke).

1916, March — Santayana’s book Egotism in German Philosophy (EGP).

1916, Dec. — Dewey’s “The Tragedy of the German Soul” (his review of EGP).

1917, April — US enters WWI.

1918, Nov. — WWI ends.

1938 — Aurel Kolnai’s book War against the West.

1942 — Second edition of GPP with Introduction by Dewey bringing the old text to bear on Nazism and WWII. Dewey’s Introduction is titled “The One-World of Hitler’s National Socialism”.

1943 — Review by Leo Strauss of GPP second edition.

1947 — E. M. Fleissner’s “In Defense of German Idealism”.

1948 — Frederic Lilge’s book The Abuse of Learning – The Failure of the German University.

1950 — Walter Kaufman’s book Nietzsche, chapter 10 “The Master Race”.

1964 — Leonard Peikoff completes Ph.D. dissertation under direction of Sidney Hook.

1979 — Hook writes Introduction to John Dewey - Middle Works, Volume 8, which includes Dewey’s German Philosophy and Politics (1915) as well as Dewey’s “The One-World of Hitler’s National Socialism”, which was the Introduction to the reissue of GPP in 1942.

1982 — Peikoff’s book The Ominous Parallels, with Introduction by Ayn Rand.

1998 — Randall Collins’ book The Sociology of Philosophers, chapter 12 “Intellectuals Take Control of Their Base: The German University Revolution”.

2004 — James Campbell’s “Dewey and German Philosophy in Wartime”.

2010 — Stephen Hicks’ book Nietzsche and the Nazis.

2019 — Wolfgang Bialas, editor of the book: Aurel Kolnai’s ‘The War against the West’ Reconsidered.

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  • 2 weeks later...

John Dewey was 55 years old when he wrote the lectures that soon issued in his 1915 book German Philosophy and Politics (GPP). He was by then the dominant voice in American philosophy, and he would continue to be so until early in the Cold War. Charles Sanders Peirce had died in 1910, and William James had died in April 1914.

By politics in that title, Dewey meant “practical social affairs.” To show the effects of philosophy in such affairs, he allowed one might choose Plato. “For in spite of the mystic and transcendental coloring of his thought, it was he who defined philosophy as the science of the State, or the most complete and organized whole known to man” (GPP, 144). Or to example the effects of philosophy in practical social affairs, we might turn to the English and the French in modern times. English philosophy from Francis Bacon to John Stuart Mill was cultivated by “men of affairs rather than by professors, and with a direct outlook on social affairs” (144). “In France, the great period of philosophy, the period of les philosophes, was the time in which were forged the ideas which connect in particular with the French Revolution and in general with the conceptions which spread so rapidly through the civilized world—of the indefinite perfectibility of humanity, the rights of man, and the promotion of a society as wide as humanity, based on allegiance to reason” (144).

Dewey chose to focus in GPP, to illustrate his thesis, certain aspects of classic German thought. Partly this choice was attractive because “one is piqued by the apparent challenge which its highly technical, professional and predominantly a priori character offers to the proposition that there is close connection between abstract thought and the tendencies of collective life” (144).

Dewey had graduated from college in 1879, and he started graduate school at Johns Hopkins three years later. In the interim, he was tutored in reading German, and he studied much German philosophy, especially Kant. At graduate school, Dewey became immersed in Hegel and Neo-Hegelian thought, which was major at the time in both British and American academic philosophy. It had become the academic space of that time for religious apologetics, and strikingly, it opposed the views of Hegel and Marx bannering bloody conflict and all-encompassing state. Rather, the absolute idealism of Neo-Hegelians was turned to “radical liberal reform to maximize individual freedom while countering the great inequalities of laissez-faire industrial capitalism” (Fesmire 2015, 15). Peirce was teaching at Johns Hopkins while Dewey was there, but Peirce would not become important for Dewey until a couple of decades later.

The important philosophy professor for Dewey in graduate school was the Neo-Hegelian George Sylvester Morris, whose Hegelianism was tinged with “his early Scotch philosophical training in a commonsense belief in the existence of the external world” (Burke 2019, 510). Morris peaceably united Aristotelianism and Hegelianism. “Morris’s absolute idealism was tempered by an engagement with the Greeks as taught by his own professors in Germany, F. A. Trendelenburg and Hermann Ulrici.” Dewey adopted from Morris’s absolute idealism “its organic idealism, regarding every real thing as functionally contributing to the ongoing vitality of the whole of reality, joining a philosophical heritage tracing back to F. W. J. Schelling and J. G. Herder” (Auxier and Shook 2019, 654). In the 1840’s, Trendelenberg had mustered critiques of Hegel’s dialectical method from which it and Hegel’s overblown stature could not recover (Beiser 2013, 59–68). Varieties of absolute idealism without Hegel’s dialectic continued to the late nineteenth century.

Issued in 1888 was a book by Dewey titled Leibniz’s ‘New Essays on Human Understanding’. In this work, Dewey, in his absolute idealist outlook, gives a critical exposition of Leibniz’s important close commentary on and rebuttal to Locke’s An Essay concerning Human Understanding. “The technical proficiency and clarity of this book on Leibniz . . . solidified Dewey’s reputation as a historical scholar,” meaning as a scholar of the history of philosophical ideas (Fesmire 2015, 17).

Coming to the composition of GPP, Dewey had shown sound understanding of Kant’s logical relation to Leibniz (1888, 428–35), Kant on the self and Kant’s transcendental deduction of the categories (1890), ambiguity in Kant’s concept of the a priori (1906, 132–34), and Kant’s revision of the concept of experience as against the concept in Locke and Hume (ibid.). English translations of Critique of Pure Reason (KrV) that Dewey turned to were of the KrV B edition by Francis Haywood (1838) and by Max Muller (1881), but Dewey could dig into the German itself. Peikoff 1982 relied on the translation by Norman Kemp Smith (1929), which is superior to earlier translations and shows both the A and B editions of KrV. (I also used Kemp Smith until the late 1990’s, when the translations of Pluhar and of Guyer issued.) For Kant’s ethics in English translation, Dewey turned to Thomas Abbott (1873). Peikoff had Lewis White Beck (1949).


Auxier, R.E. and J.R. Shook 2019. Idealism and Religion in Dewey’s Philosophy. In Fesmire 2019.

Beiser, F.C. 2013. Late German Idealism – Trendelenburg and Lotze. Oxford.

Burke, F.T. 2019. Dewey’s Chicago-Functionalist Conception of Logic. In Fesmire 2019.

Dewey, J. 1888. Leibniz’s ‘New Essays on Human Understanding’. EW V1.

——. 1890. On Some Current Conceptions of the Term “Self”. EW V3.

——. 1906. Experience and Objective Idealism. MW V3.

——. 1915. German Philosophy and Politics. MW V8.

Fesmire, S. 1915. Dewey. Routledge.

Fesmire, S., editor, 2019. The Oxford Handbook of Dewey. Oxford.

Peikoff, L. 1982. The Ominous Parallels. Stein and Day.

(To be continued.)

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