The freer humans get, the more idealist they become – philosophically, epistemologically, and practically. Relative freedom from want makes possible all kinds of human projects, while individuality is less tightly grasped by communal imperatives.
When there isn't as much freedom, philosophical dogmatism results. The idea that we are dominated by things, that the mind is their product rather than vice versa, is especially well-suited to a world where survival requires society's full attention, where the only "ideal" is found in heaven.
Kant's Critique of pure reason is an example of the turn to idealist philosophy in the wake of a long and powerful wave of creativity and intellectual independence made possible by Europe's increasing prosperity, especially as it was shocked by the accelerant called "the new world." Boy did people in Europe start to make a lot of money. Either they or their children can afford to go to school, indulge in romantic love affairs that highlight pesonal feelings rather than tactically-dictated marriages, read Sorrows of the young Werther by Goethe, become less directly and intimately tied to that great slave-owner and declared enemy of the individual, the land. Historically, Kant's Critique of pure reason was exquisitely situated: first version 1781, second substantive revision in 1787, the very year the founding parents were revising the Articles of Confederation in Philadelphia, and just two tiny, tiny years before the whole five or so centuries-long European game of Risk (those games seem to go on forever!) was upended by – would everyone please rise – the French Revolution of 1789. Please listen to the following short version of the French national anthem.
I have said it was a shame-faced idealism. I think of his immediate successor, J.G. Fichte as "Kant + French Revolution." His first work, The Science of Knowledge (Wissenschaftslehre) came out in 1794. It is a lot more unapologetically idealist.
Kant points to the quickness of the times himself: "No more than a century and a half has elapsed since Bacon's ingenious proposal partly initiated that discovery, partly gave a new impetus to it as others were already on the right track – a discovery which, like the former, can be explained only by a rapid intellectual revolution." "es sind nur etwa anderthalb Jahrhunderte, daß der Vorschlag des sinnreichen Bacon von Verulam diese Entdeckung teils veranlaßte, teils, da man bereits auf der Spur derselben war, mehr belebte, welche eben sowohl durch eine schnell vorgegangene Revolution der Denkart erklärt werden kann." (Bxii-xiii). As we can see, Kant is very concerned to include a lot of references to key figures from the Scientific Revolution when explicating his idealist project:
When Galilei experimented with balls of a definite weight on the inclined plane, when Torricelli caused the air to sustain a weight which he had calculated beforehand to be equal to that of a definite column of water, or when Stahl, at a later period, converted metals into lime, and reconverted lime into metal, by the addition and subtraction of certain elements; a light broke upon all natural philosophers. They learned that reason only perceives that which it produces after its own design . . .
Als Galilei seine Kugeln die schiefe Fläche mit einer von ihm selbst gewählten Schwere herabrollen, oder Torricelli die Luft ein Gewicht, was er sich zum voraus dem einer ihm bekannten Wassersäule gleich gedacht hatte, tragen ließ, oder in noch späterer Zeit Stahl Metalle in Kalk und diesen wiederum in Metall verwandelte, indem er ihnen etwas entzog und wiedergab; so ging allen Naturforschern ein Licht auf. Sie begriffen, daß die Vernunft nur das einsieht, was sie selbst nach ihrem Entwurfe hervorbringt . . . (Bxiii)
And a little later:
Even the science of physics owes the beneficial revolution in its character entirely to the happy thought that we ought to seek in nature (and not import into it by means of fiction) whatever reason has to learn from nature and could not know by itself, and that we must do this in accordance with what reason has originally placed in nature.
Und so hat sogar Physik die so vorteilhafte Revolution ihrer Denkart lediglich dem Einfalle zu verdanken, demjenigen, was die Vernunft selbst in die Natur hineinlegt, gemäß, dasjenige in ihr zu suchen (nicht ihr anzudichten), was sie von dieser lernen muß, und wovon sie für sich selbst nichts wissen würde. (Bxiii)
If, when we 'look' at nature, "we must do [so] in accordance with what reason has originally placed in nature/was die Vernunft selbst in die Natur hineinlegt", then we are thinking idealistically.
Kant's name-dropping from the pantheon of the scientific revolution is at its most ingenious just a few paragraphs later. He says we should imitate the approach taken in the scientific revolution:
Hitherto it has been supposed that all our knowledge must conform to
objects; but under that supposition all attempts to establish anything
about them a priori by means of concepts, and thus to enlarge our
knowledge, have come to nothing. The experiment ought therefore to be
made whether we might not succeed better with the problems of
metaphysics by assuming that objects must conform to our mode of
cognition . . . . We have here the same case as with the first thought
of Copernicus, who, not being able to get on with the explanation of
the movements of the heavenly bodies as long as he assumed that all the
stars turned round the spectator, tried to ascertain whether he could
not better succeed by assuming the spectator to be turning round and
the stars to be at rest. A similar experiment may be tried in
metaphysics so far as the intuition of objects is concerned. If the
intuition had to conform to the constitution of objects, I do not see
how we could know anything a priori, but if the object, as an object of
the senses, conforms to the constitution of our faculty of intuition, I
can very well conceive of such a possibility.
Bisher nahm man an, alle unsere Erkenntnis müsse sich nach den Gegenständen richten, aber alle Versuche über sie a priori etwas durch Begriffe auszumachen, wodurch unsere Erkenntnis erweitert würde, gingen unter dieser Voraussetzung zunichte. Man versuche es daher einmal, ob wir nicht in den Aufgaben der Metaphysik damit besser fortkommen, daß wir annehmen, die Gegenstände müssen sich nach unserem Erkenntnis richten . . . . Es ist hiermit ebenso, als mit den ersten Gedanken des Kopernikus bewandt, der, nachdem es mit der Erklärung der Himmelsbewegungen nicht gut fort wollte, wenn er annahm, das ganze Sternenheer drehe sich um den Zuschauer, versuchte, ob es nicht besser gelingen möchte, wenn er den Zuschauer sich drehen, und dagegen die Sterne in Ruhe ließ. In der Metaphysik kann man nun, was die Anschauung der Gegenstände betrifft, es auf ähnliche Weise versuchen. (Bxvi-xvii)
" . . . die Gegenstände müssen sich nach unserem Erkenntnis richten/the objects must adjust themselves to our knowledge." It must be admitted, using Copernicus is a brilliant cover for the idealist project. Because who is going to say we shouldn't try imitating Copernicus, one of the patron saints of the Enlightenment? But Kant's well-played use of Copernicus, Bacon, and the rest, points to an anxiety about the reception of idealist thinking.
More on these points soon.