Wednesday, March 02, 2011

LaZella, Andrew. Review of Jon Stewart, IDEALISM AND EXISTENTIALISM. NDPR (February 2011).

Stewart, Jon.  Idealism and Existentialism: Hegel and Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century European Philosophy.  London: Continuum, 2010.

The world of Continental philosophy has been shaped by two irreconcilable schools: German idealism on the one hand and phenomenology/existentialism on the other. If they can be called a tradition at all, it is not one of shared inheritance, but of continued revolt. Phenomenology/existentialism disdains German idealism's goal of seeking systematic totality insofar as it loses sight of the lived-experience of the individual human being. True, the idealist would argue that such lived-experience has not been lost, but preserved, albeit in a higher form and according to its immanent rational structure. For phenomenology/existentialism, however, such rational preservation renders inert and lifeless the very dynamism and spontaneity that characterized lived-experience in the first place. The distinction between the two can be simplified to various sets of irreconcilable dichotomies: systematicity vs. individuality, rational necessity vs. freedom, and so on.

This is the misconceived caricature that Jon Stewart's Idealism and Existentialism seeks to shatter. In this work, Stewart challenges this purported truism of irreconcilable antagonists by displaying the wealth of factors the two schools share, even if not always with the same intentions or toward the same results. The text is divided into three parts: The first covers Hegel and German idealism, exploring myths surrounding Hegel as an "arch-rationalist" in addition to more technical studies on the Phenomenology of Spirit. The second part takes up the relation between Hegelian idealism and the forms of proto-existentialism found in Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, targeting points of contact between supposed antagonists. The third part turns to a study of existentialism proper, with particular emphasis on the thought of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.

For reasons to be discussed below, the thesis proposed in the introduction does little to unite this work into an integrated whole, and instead the chapters remain a series of loosely related studies. Stewart himself notes: "While the individual chapters each pursue their own goals with respect to specific texts or concepts, they are united in their attempt to reveal in one way or another the long shadow cast by Kant and Hegel over the subsequent history of European thought" (2). At times, the thesis shines through the individualized studies. With all but one chapter having been published previously, however, these stand-alone studies only indirectly reinforce each other to form a unified project. Although various elements of the text succeed, the project of bringing the two traditions closer together remains underdeveloped, making for a somewhat loosely stitched-together patchwork whose overall contribution could be enhanced by greater communication among the chapters themselves. . . .

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