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SAAP Annual Meeting

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John William Miller’s Actualism and the Genealogy of Idealism

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Michael McGandy
Cornell University Press
United States

M. D. Moorman
Catholic University of America
United States

Katie Terezakis
Rochester Institute of Technology
United States

Stephen Tyman
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
United States

Over the course of four papers, we will chart a specific and yet telling genealogy of idealism. Our genealogy begins with Johann Georg Hamann’s critique of Immanuel Kant and concludes with the historical idealism or actualism of the twentieth century American philosopher John William Miller (1895-1978).

If Kant is our point of departure, then Miller is our touchstone. Each of the four papers addresses a moment in the idealist project inaugurated by Kant through a critical comparison with Miller. Thus we will explore the thought of Hamann (focusing on the practice of metacritique), Henri Bergson (exploring his sense of durée and non-conceptual experience), Josiah Royce (focusing on ontological argumentation), and C. I. Lewis (considering the reconciliation of pragmatism and idealism). In each case, Miller’s thought will serve as a foil for sharpening ideas and clarifying the stakes of each development in idealism. In this regard, the panel is an illuminating overview of idealism as it moves from the Continental to the American context. More critically, each paper in the panel engages with the principal challenges to idealism—i.e., history, plurality, contingency, and pre-conceptual experience.

Collectively, we argue that these challenges have given shape to the genealogy of idealism and have provoked each step forward (both in time and in concept). With this in mind, each panelist in his or her own way asserts that Miller—because of his principled commitment to action, history, and contingency—offers a compelling articulation of idealism. The systematic cogency of idealism has always shown it to be a strong and attractive philosophical outlook. In its history, as we show, it has too often purchased this cogency at the expense of a frank assessment of the character of experience. (This sense of the existential imperfection or the experiential cost of idealism was very much alive in the Battle of the Absolute engaged in by Royce and William James.) The root claims of idealism regarding mind, disclosure, freedom, and responsibility can, as Miller shows, be maintained in and through a radically historicist philosophy that embraces contingency, plurality, and accident.

We do not argue that this is the genealogy of idealism. (At the very least, too many key thinkers are missing and we have too little time and space to articulate this developmental process.) We do argue that this is a crucial genealogy and that it reveals something fundamental about idealism. Idealism has always been a provocative but flawed way to articulate the order of experience as well as our own compulsion to order experience. A more nuanced, earthy, and, indeed, pragmatic approach to idealism, such as that offered by Miller, casts great light not only on the history of idealism but also on its future prospects.


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