Review: Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit


Gary Dorrien’s Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology is a an extensive (nearly 600 page) history of German Idealism and its ramifications for modern theology, which is to say that ignorance of the former entails ignorance of the latter. As with so many other important works, I have not yet been able to read Dorrien’s book. In the meantime, I enjoyed Samuel Loncar’s overview and interpretation of the book in The Marginalia Review, an open-access journal. Loncar is a PhD student at Yale, specializing in the philosophy of religion and focusing on German Idealism. I have some disagreements with Loncar on Barth, but I respect his concerns.


Is a truly modern religion possible? Can faith survive in the face of modern science and knowledge? These timely questions are central to a major new work by Gary Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealist Logic of Modern Theology. Answering these questions leads Dorrien back to Immanuel Kant, for it is to Kant and the world he created that we must turn if we want to understand the possibility and challenges of a distinctively modern religion.

“The Second Immanuel”

The long nineteenth century is said to begin in 1789 and end in 1914. Politics, and their continuation by other means, shape our historical categories. But it was the overthrow of ideas in Germany rather than the storming of the Bastille in France that marked the beginning of the nineteenth century. Despite its revolutionary character, the publication of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 took time to have effect; it wasn’t until well into the 1780s that a serious discussion of the first Critique ensued. Once it was understood, philosophy and religion changed forever.

Kant saw himself as part of the German enlightenment, or Aufklärung, which, unlike its French counterpart, saw enlightenment as fully compatible with religion. The central idea of the Aufklärung was the supremacy of reason, the idea that reason was the arbiter before which all other authorities must be judged, including the venerable authorities of tradition and religion. Enlightened thinkers in late-eighteenth-century Germany thought reason’s supremacy and autonomy would not cause trouble for religion, whose rational tenets most of the Aufklärer defined as the existence of God, moral duty, and the immortality of the soul — these beliefs were held to be interconnected and necessary for the moral stability of society.

Kant was dismayed when he surveyed the state of metaphysics in 1781. He saw the profound disagreement and lack of progress in philosophy in marked contrast to the progress and consensus in the natural sciences, symbolized above all by Newton’s mathematical physics and the mechanistic worldview it implied. On Kant’s analysis, the disagreement on fundamental philosophical issues ultimately derived from Reason’s failure to understand herself. A critique of reason itself was therefore the essential prerequisite for progress in philosophy. To determine the nature and extent of human reason would unshackle it from its embarrassing lack of progress and lead it on to “the sure path of science.”

You can read the rest at Marginalia.



  1. I just watched the film ‘Valkyrie’ with Tom Cruise, about the plot to kill Hitler. Knowing what I do about Hegel, German Idealism, and the general spirit of the age makes films like that fascinating. There’s a line where one of the officers says that what’s happening is ‘the march of history’ and that really struck me – I was like, wow, that’s basically straight Hegel. What we tend to consider as academic ivory-tower midnight oil burning was actually what informed the zeitgest of WW2 Europe.

    • Yes, metaphysics becomes history.

      If I remember correctly, it is in Valkyrie that Hitler says, “To understand German National Socialism, you must understand Wagner,” though apparently that is apocryphal.

      • Metaphysics becomes history, or philosophers discern and articulate metaphysical themes in the world and history around them, often in ways that seem prescient and even prophetic, but really is a matter of putting their ear against the rail and hearing the far-off, slow train coming?

  2. I think I read someplace that the word “metaphysics” was coined by a publisher of Aristotle’s works. It referred to the chapters Aristotle wrote that followed his “Physics”.

    I’m still trying to figure out if Kant actually defines what he means by the term. Kant was off the ball in suggesting that morality could be derived “a priori” or by “pure reason”, devoid of any empirical basis. All reason is based on experience. Every concept is created to model some aspect of that experience by generalizing what happened today to help figure out how to survive better in the real world tomorrow.

    • Yes, meta means “after,” and Aristotle’s Metaphysics was published after his Physics. But, meta also means “beyond,” and early Latin interpreters of Aristotle understood “metaphysics” to mean “beyond the physical,” since that does comport with the material in Metaphysics, even if that is not the original intention in the naming of the book.

      The categorical imperative in Kant is a deeply metaphysical claim, which is why Kant uses it to establish metaphysical claims about God and the soul. Unfortunately for Kant, most philosophers (and those like yourself) are more closely aligned with Hegel’s identity of thought and being (i.e., reason and existence).

      • I’m totally ignorant about Hegel.

        What I’ve come to think about “rights” is that there are two classes: “rhetorical” and “practical”.

        Terms like “natural”, “God-given”, and even “innate” are no more than rhetorical devices to claim a right. And these are usually rights which most people already accept and which have been in place so long that people forget how they arose in the first place.

        All “practical” rights arise from an agreement within the community to respect and protect that right for each other. Informal agreements would be matters of ethics and formal agreements would be society’s laws.

        When Jefferson said “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”, he was speaking rhetorically. When he continued with “and to secure these rights, governments are instituted”, he was speaking practically.

        As a Humanist, I translate the “great commandment” as, “Love good and love good for others as you love it for yourself”. The best possible rules/rights are judged by how well they achieve the best possible good for everyone.

      • I don’t trust the human capacity to discern good, whether for myself or for others. “Rights” have a spiritual and metaphysical basis in God’s revealed love toward us. Anything less is arbitrary or, often enough, totalitarian.

      • 1) I don’t see how a theocracy escapes totalitarianism, especially the inquisitions and attacks upon scientists like Galileo.

        2) Are all of the stonings in Deuteronomy, for example the reference to witchcraft that led to women being hung in Salem, Massachusetts, etc. examples of “God’s revealed love”?

        3) Outside of the Ten Commandments, what words in the Bible came directly from God, and not through man’s “inspired” imagination of what God ought to say as to what is good and what is evil?

        4) I would suggest that “God’s revealed love toward us” is still a revelation in progress, and the phrase is functionally equivalent to “the best possible good for everyone”.

      • Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason is a better rendering of how to view the relation between religion and science, the church and the state. I can grant some credence, as does Stark, that there is a progression involved as the influence of this revelation is appropriated — but it is also a revelation that is frequently distorted and contradicted through false idols, as the prophets of the OT warned. The matter of Israelite ancient theocracy is a case apart. The real theocratic threat in the world today is from Muslims, not Christians.

      • We are born into a world of good, which we did not create. Not just material things, but ideals, like justice, liberty, and equality. And spiritual values, like courage, joy, and compassion.

        We benefit from what others, in good faith, have left for us. In return, we sacrifice selfish interest when necessary to preserve this good for others. For the sake of our children, and our children’s children, we seek to understand, to serve, to protect, and perhaps, humbly, to enhance this greater good.

        It is an act of faith to live by moral principle when the greedy prosper by dishonest means. It is an act of faith to stand up for right when the crowd is headed the wrong way. It is an act of faith to return good for evil.

        We have seen Hell. We have seen gang cultures whose rite of passage is an act of mayhem or murder. We have seen racial slavery, persecution, and genocide. We have seen revenge spread violence through whole communities.

        We envision Heaven, where people live in peace and every person is valued. It can only be reached when each person seeks good for himself only through means that are consistent with achieving good for all.

        If God exists, then that is His command. If God does not exist, then that is what we must command of ourselves and of each other. Either way, whether we achieve Heaven or Hell is up to us.

        The point of God is to make good sacred. We trust that, each time we put the best good for all above our own selfish interest, the world becomes a better place, for all of us and our children.

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