“A Short History of German Philosophy” by Vittorio Hosle— Concise and Comprehensive

Hosle, Vittorio. “A Short History of German Philosophy”, translated by Steven Rendall, Princeton University Press, 2016, paperback reissue, 2018. Concise and Comprehensive Amos Lassen “A Short History of German Philosophy” is a concise yet comprehensive original history of German-language philosophy from the Middle Ages to today. It is written as a narrative that explains complex ideas in clear language. Vittorio Hösle traces the evolution of German philosophy as well as describes its central influence on other aspects of German culture, including literature, politics, and science. The narrative starts with Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic Meister Eckhart and then moves forward to look at the philosophical changes brought about by Luther’s Reformation, and then presents a detailed account of the classical age of German philosophy (Leibniz and Kant); the rise of a new form of humanities in Lessing, Hamann, Herder, and Schiller; the early Romantics; and the idealists Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. The following chapters investigate the collapse of the German synthesis in Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche. Turning to the twentieth century, the book explores the rise of analytical philosophy in Frege and the Vienna and Berlin circles; the foundation of the historical sciences in Neo-Kantianism and Dilthey; Husserl’s phenomenology and its radical alteration by Heidegger; the Nazi philosophers Gehlen and Schmitt; and the main West German philosophers, including Gadamer, Jonas, and those of the two Frankfurt schools. There was a distinctive German philosophical tradition from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and the book closes by examining why that tradition largely ended in the decades after World War II. If you have ever doubted the German contribution to philosophy, you will quickly change your mind when you read about the depths of Germany’s philosophers and their influence on the world of philosophy. It was difficult for me to realize that the Holocaust emerged from a society that was so rich in the world of thought yet chose not to speak out against the tide of Nazism. Of course there were Nazi philosophers as well. I so remember my father’s reaction when I decided to get my degree in philosophy. I was warned by him that the great German philosophers came rise to Hitler and his twisted idea. Yet even with the evil that came out of German philosophy there was also good. This philosophical history  is quite remarkable in scope, brevity, and lucidity and is an invaluable book for students of philosophy and anyone interested in German intellectual and cultural history. I found the section on Heidegger to be exceptionally well done. (Yet Arendt is missing and only briefly cited on two entries. I see in Arendt the continuation of the great German philosophical heritage which she so successful brought to and used in the United States. Like her or hate her, we do not see too many minds of her caliber. Hösle’s summaries capture the most important characteristics of German philosophers in a stimulating way and his book is a literary as much as an intellectual work. This is a survey of the full landscape of German philosophy and I believe that the reason that Vittorio Hösle can make the names come alive is because he evaluates philosophers with a light touch. Hösle wrote this book for general readers and he is both lucid and forceful mixing analysis and polemic.

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