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The Neokantiana network

an introduction to the phenomenology and the aesthetics of connecting

Michał Mrugalski(Humboldt University of Berlin)

pp. 209-235


1When launching the Neokantiana project (, Patrick Flack, Erik Martin, and I envisioned an infrastructure and resource which would focus both on transdisciplinary and on transcultural movements, and which would thus provide a bridge as much between disciplines (philosophy, linguistics, literary studies, the arts, and politics) as between German, Austrian, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, and Russian intellectual and artistic cultures. We intended, in short, to present the Neo-Kantian movement as a process of dynamic networks and exchanges.

2In this sense, the intended goal of the Neokantiana project was, besides mapping the various paths of Neo-Kantianism, to develop research methods on scientific networks (i.e. the relations between scientists and ideas, the movement of ideas) as well as ways of presenting research in a digital environment. German-language philo|sophy at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries—represented here by its most prominent school—was to be framed as the central node of a network of exchanges covering East and Central Europe. In addition, we would seek on this basis to answer the general research question as to how the concepts formulated in the–to a large degree parochial–context of Eastern and Central Europe turned out to be so incredibly effective, even authoritative, across almost all the fields of the arts and humanities.

3In this article, I strive to elucidate the general theoretical assumptions of the project by expanding on the so-called “phenomenological networks” approach, which appears to be the most suitable for constructing a dynamic image of Neo-Kantianism. The general theory of phenomenological networks will be the focus of section one. In sections two and three, I foreground Neo-Kantianism, with three overlapping points in mind: Neo-Kantianism’s contribution to the emergence of network research, its relevance for present-day cultural studies at the junction with natural studies, and finally the role of aesthetics, which—as I argue—has every chance of fulfilling the task Kant assigned to it in his critiques, and thus of reconciling the natural with the cultural in the process of shaping networks. After highlighting relevant developments of historical Neo-Kantianism in section two, I try to answer the question of the potential significance of post-Kantian aesthetics for historical network research. Kantian and Neo-Kantian aesthetics provides both an opportunity and a model for bridging the gap between ideas and circumstances–specifically for relating given ideas to their natural and social milieu—, without however having recourse to reciprocal causality, i.e. to the notion that conditions cause ideas or the other way around. Instead, the exchanges and transfers of ideas amount to a kind of “formal causality”, which an aesthetic approach can account for particularly appropriately.

1 | Phenomenological Networks

The founders of cultural transfer studies, Michel Espagne and Michaël Werner (Espagne & Werner 1985; Espagne & Werner 1998; Werner 1997; Espagne 1999), have generally considered only bilateral German-French relations, although Espagne has also recently (2014) embarked on the study of trilateral German-French-Russian relations. The case our project makes is more complex in that it pertains to a multitude of cultures, which result in multilateral exchanges between politically and historically different contexts.1 The Neokantiana project frames the intellectual field of East and Central Europe in such a way that German philosophy at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries takes a position at the centre of the network. In this perspective, German thought is posited not as an origin or a source of ideas, but rather as one of the most potent (because most densely connected) node in a network of exchanges that emerged in a “turbulent context” (White 2008, 1). Research methods on cultural transfer and specifically on the transfers associated with Neo-Kantianism are elaborated here with reference to one main research question: why did the developments that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century in Eastern and Central Europe—which was by no means the most economically developed or socially progressive region in Europe—–, impact virtually the whole of the arts and humanities in the 20th century? Our research hypothesis is that the answer to the question of conceptual productivity does not lie directly in the conditions of the emergence of theories, e.g. in political or economic circumstances, but in the make-up of the network or networks connecting the actors of intellectual production, as well as in the participants’ attitudes toward those networks, i.e. in the meanings they ascribe to them in communication with other participants. In this sense, aesthetics as a discipline that both deals with forms and with attitudes towards forms, and that builds specific communities around the experience of aesthetic categories, possesses an explanatory force that is stronger than any attempt at anchoring theories in a precise milieu. To be more precise, my thesis is that the strong diversity of the region, under the conditions of dense interconnection, prompted the emergence of networks consisting in the exchange of information and the movement of people and, in this way, the emergence of theories.2 This approach reflects the transition from Marx and Engels’s question as to how economically backward Germany produced the most progressive philosophy at the beginning of the 19th century (Engels 1967 [1890], 493) to Ludwik Krzywicki’s concept of “wandering ideas” (1888), which focuses on the effects ideas have as a result of moving from one context to another. Removed from their context of origin, ideas cease to merely reflect or justify reality and gain an agency of their own instead.

6One of the major theoretical inspirations for reconceptualising intellectual transfers comes from a phenomenologically attuned network theory, to be found in the later works of Harrison White (2008) and, in particular, Randall Collins (1998; 2005), as well as in the historical network research closely related to them. Here, these theories will be transferred into the virtual space of hypertext and applied to a specific cross-section of time-space, East and Central Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, which is of utmost importance for understanding the nature of transfer and the formation of the modern humanities and the arts. Specifically, the project aims to combine intellectual resources that are already given in the legacy of the Warsaw School of the History of Ideas (Bogusław Baczko, Leszek Kołakowski, Krzysztof Pomian, Jerzy Szacki, Andrzej Wali|cki) 3 with new inputs and collaborations, thus producing an effect of synergy. I chose the Warsaw School because of its rootedness in the intellectual landscape of the region and the emphasis put by its representants—predominantly Andrzej Walicki—on the transcultural wanderings of ideas. Drawing on Max Scheler and Karl Mannheim, who polemically transformed phenomenology into a sociology of knowledge, intellectual historians formulated positions best suited for a development in another element, that of the hypertext. With reference to historical research network, a sociological approach is applied to studying the emergence and the wandering of “ideas” (Ludwik Krzywicki 1888), “theories“ (Edward Said 1983, 2000), or “concepts” (Mieke Bal 2002) with the goal of constructing a social history of the humanities, which would sidestep the pitfalls of a geneticism that reduces ideas to expressions of group needs, interests or to the direct conditions of their emergence.

7The Warsaw School of the History of Ideas is insofar instructive for the project as its members investigated ideas in a lifeworld that was affected above all, if not defined, by politics, especially in its overbearing dimensions; in other words, their close readings and contextualisations reflected their unique experience of Stalinism and Real Socialism. The principles according to which we would like to operate harmonize with the legacy of the Warsaw School of the History of Ideas and are: a focus more on the wanderings of ideas than on their originality or Sonderweg, a notion that is ideologically suspect; a preference for intellectual history rather than the history of ideas; intellectual history is namely also a history of intellectuals acting in specific contexts, whose specificity is revealed by the wandering of notions; treating theories as a part of a holistic worldview which is also a certain way of life lead by thinking, feeling, and desiring people. People who constitute more or less coherent wholes by resorting to an aesthetic (self)-reflection or “rhetorics” or “styles” (White 2008, 173); studying not only for notions but for (mostly mythical) images that operate behind them. This also includes distinguishing between superficial problems and what Bronisław Baczko called crypto-problems [kryptoproblemy], i.e. occult problems that are the real and hidden stakes of discussion.

8All in all, the accuracy and stringency of this approach is safeguarded by its rootings in phenomenology. At the heart of the project is the moment of Husserl’s thought4 in which the subject enters and experiences the lifeworld [Lebenswelt] as a multiplicity and heterogeneity of human worlds. The “home world” [Heimatwelt] and the “alien world” [Fremdwelt] elucidate and as if bring each other into relief (cf. Husserl 1954 [1935], 2008; Waldenfels 1985, 1993). Hence the significance, also for its German initiators‘ “self-appraisal”, of studying the circulation of models and concepts between different cultures—both “Fachkulturen” [expert cultures] and, quite simply, different local, national, and linguistic traditions. The so-called phenomenological sociology of Alfred Schütz and Günther Anders elaborated basic structures of everyday lifeworlds (cf. Krasnodębski & Nelle 1993; Bühl 2002). Phenomenology turned out to be even more influential, indeed foundational, in the sociology of knowledge. Husserl’s student Max Scheler initiated a sociology of knowledge (1923–1924), in which knowledge must always be understood as being bound to a specific location—produced by corporal human beings in a specific spacetime. Karl Mann|heim critically developed Scheller’s position, albeit in a revisionist vein (1929). Mannheim, alongside Ludwik Fleck, was one of the greatest inspiration for the Warsaw School of the History of Ideas.

9A major encouragement for merging phenomenology with network research comes from Phenomenological Network Theory (PNT), which developed after the “cultural turn” (Arendt Fuhse 2008, 31) or “the phenomenological turn” (Bernhardt 2018, 2) in the 1990s in the works of American scholars Harrison White, Charles Tilly, Peter Bearman, Ann Mische, Mustafa Emirbayer, Paul di Maggio, and in Germany by Jan Arendt Fuhse. Arendt Fuhse 2008 applies PNT reflexively to his work, thus interfacing PNT with the sociology of scholarly collectives in the tradition of Ludwik Fleck, Thomas Kuhn, Diana Craine, and Nicholas Mullins. As a result of this unification, the network of interrelations between the members of a scholarly community—previously regarded rather as a single undifferentiated collective—comes to the fore. White, together with his then wife Cynthia White (1993), applied his general theory to the study of social forces that engendered careers and creativity in the arts. In their wake, Randall Collins came forward with a global theory of intellectual change (a history of philosophy) composed along the lines of network theory: “if one can understand the principles that determine intellectual networks, one has a casual explanation of ideas and their changes” (Collins 1998, xviii). Collins highlights the creative role of conflict for attention (Collins 1998, 1), which lies at the heart of the present project, which itself continues Whites’ and Collins’s efforts, albeit in a more focused, interdisciplinary, digitally underpinned, and openly phenomenological way.

10Harrison White, called networks “phenomenological realities as well as measurement constructs” (White 2008, 36). Networks are not only “phenomenological” in the sense that they are observable; their central features are described in the language of phenomenology as a thought style initiated by Husserl: they trace “our lived experience” (White 2008a, 2) and interplay at all times with meanings “within that horizon of possibilities, within a public as socio-cultural space” (White 2008a, 1). One can add to “lived experience”, “horizon”, and “meaning” Collins’s emphasis on the formative role of “intellectual attention” (Collins 1998, 15, 26, 39ff.), which also happens to be a fundament of phenomenological studies. For Collins, attention operates both on the level of the study and of the competitive formation of networks. Only analytically can the purely formal aspect of the network be separated from the meaning in which it is entwined both by and for its participants and observers, “out of efforts at control amid contingencies and contentions in interactions” in the process of seeking “footing among other identities”, i.e. “orientation in relation to other identities” (White 2008, 1). For this reason, identities or footings “must be reflexive”: in order “to yield control”, “they supply an angle of perceptions along with orientation and assessment that guide interaction with other identities” (White 2008, 2), which is an extremely phenomenological take on a node.

11That said, identity is not to be confused here with a subject in the Cartesian tradition, as it operates on different levels and can be a person or an institution just as persons may, conversely, appear as a bundle of identities. Accordingly, networks constitute meaning (render phenomena meaningful) as they consist in communicative interaction (Mische 2003, 258), just as the works of intellectual, scholars, and philosophers, according to Collins (1998, 7, 36, 49), constitute communicative and antagonistic processes—even when the discussion is internalised into a soliloquy (“coalitions in the mind”). Other major analytical categories having to do with phenomenology, such as tracing the constitution of meanings, are validating institutions (White 2008, 171ff.) and “styles” (White 2008, 112ff.) presenting themselves in experience as sensibility. “Like stories, style characterizes the rich phenomenological texture, the fabric of lived experience of identities among populations in networks and disciplines” (White 2008, 115). “Disciplines” are kinds of network structures, which will be applied to the relations among intellectuals in East and Central Europe: “interfaces” engage in different forms of (cultural production); “councils” are organized around dominance and submission; “arenas” are built around relationships friendli|ness/hostility, purity/impurity (White 2008, 65ff.; Collins 2005, 13–14).

12Of the utmost importance for the project is the presupposition that networks and narratives are, so to speak, two complementary points of view on the same states of affairs. “Stories”, which emerge in exchanges between actors, connect and explain networks as they fix and legitimise the nature of the relation and the identity of its participants in the process of permanent negotiations (Somers 1994; Tylly 2002; White 2008). A story is an interpretation of a relationship by its participants or by observers. Meaning, as a constituent of a story is defined in agreement with the type of narratology which, in the wake of Jurij Lotman (1970), characterises an event as the smallest component of narrative—as a crossing of a boundary, as when a transit takes place between two netdoms (complexes of network relations and domains of topics, “plus understanding”, White 2008, 7). A scientific explanation, in the form of making a connection between two sets of fact, is, thus, itself an event. One can assume that scholarly or intellectual communities are extraordinarily narrative-satiated both with a view to the dialogical nature of science and the locally specific urge to produce genealogies of professed theories, i.e. to describe networks connecting people and notions. Analyses of networks reconstruct stories and are (potential) stories themselves; in this regard, digital visualization tools can and should be translated into historical narratives, and vice versa. Such a prolific oscillation between narrative and network lies at the heart of the project. The translation is facilitated by the fact that PNT is an interpretation of White’s own highly formalised research on networks, e.g. his mobility studies (White 1970) as well as the emphasis he puts on “revealing correspondences between linguistic and sociological parsing of the great social river” (White 2008, XIX–XX, cf. 171ff.); none other than de Saussure drew on Durkheim’s sociology of ideas (Wagner 1990). “[L]inguistics provides the deepest-rooted evidence in support of switching among netdoms” (White 2008, 13), i.e. producing meanings and events; computer linguistics obviously leads the way as an unequalled model for the digital humanities. The diversity of the intellectual field of East and Central Europe (i.e. the different netdoms it encompasses) reveals itself as a condition for networks and stories about them.

2 | The Neo-Kantian Network in East and Central Europe: Between Ideas and Environment

13As the editors of we wish to position Neo-Kantianism as a part of an entangled history of knowledge cultures of Central and Eastern Europe, i.e. to re-position it as a transcultural and interdisciplinary phenomenon. Numerous works on Neo-Kantianism in Russia and Poland, such as Bezrodnyj (1992), Dmi|trieva (1999, 2007, 2009), Machkarina (2007), Grifceva & Dmitrieva (2010), Briushnikin (2013), Kubalica & Nachtsheim (2015), take into account relevant problems; however they often remain within the framework of a traditional history of philosophy or ideas.

14Just as transcendental constitutive phenomenology, which underlies the research on observable, experiential and recountable networks, depends in last resort on Kant’s Copernican revolution, so too Neo-Kantianism not only presents itself to the observer as a dynamic system of exchange, but also lies at the conceptual heart of PNT. The Neo-Kantian movement, particularly Georg Simmel, rendered network research possible. My working hypothesis states that while reconstructing the transcultural network of Neo-Kantian transfers and exchanges, one should consider both Neo-Kantianism’s necessary input into the development of network theory, which has been generally recognized, and the new possibilities it offers to cultural studies in general (encompassing network theory). Researchers of social networks refer to Simmel’s formal sociology as one of the main referent points of their line of attack (Fuchse 2018, 21–23). In his “formal sociology”, Simmel displays a holistic approach by assuming that only a relationship—more precisely the form of a relationship—constitutes a sociological entity. Putting stress on the formal character of social entities by no means entails ignoring qualitative differences in relationships, i.e. their “significance.” Rather, just as in the work of art in Neo-Kantian aesthetics (Lipps 1906, 96; cf. Wóycicki 1914, 18), form and content coincide in that the terms simply signify different vantage points on the same phenomenal reality.

15In its historical development, the reception of Neo-Kantianism hinged on the problem of the relation between form and content or, to be precise, form, significance and meaning, the latter referring to the relation between significant forms (ideas) and factuality. It seems as if when Neo-Kantianism crossed in East and Central Europe, it also crossed the boundaries of university philosophy towards political theory and practice (Bogdanov, Novgorodcev, Lappo-Danilev|skij, Petrażycki): it became a paradigmatic case of the wandering of the ideas in Krzywicki’s meaning of the term. Ideas ceased to be mere reflections of the circumstances they emerged in; they could no longer be regarded as justifications or validations of the status quo, but rather they became ideals, by which I mean a purposive, future-oriented character and an ability to inspire subjects to action. (As I will argue in section three, they acquired the very qualities which aesthetically pleasing objects have, and which contemplating subjects enjoy.)

16This process can be best observed in the cases of the Russian and Polish intelligentsia, whose numerous representatives addressed the interference of Neo-Kantianism with Marxism or other kinds of socialist theories (economy-based collectivism). The interference was called (following Adler) “social a priori”, “class consciousness”, or by any name which combines spontaneity or apriorism with natural and historical conditions. In this the Polish and Russian developments paralleled the Austro-Marxism of Max Adler, Otto Bauer, Rudolf Hilferding, Karl Renner, and Friedrich Adler, who did not consider Marxism as an autarcic and closed system, but supplemented it with value-based theory of progress and rationality (Kołakowski 2009, 254).

17In Russia, the issue of class a priori was foreshadowed by the debate between the nationalist’s [narodnik] “subjective sociology”, as represented by Petr Lavrov, Nikolaj Michailovskij, and Viktor Černov, on the one hand, and the necessarism typical of Georgij Plechanov or the young Petr Struve on the other (Chaly 2018; Kruglov 2018; Kolerov 2020, 118–147). The latter thinkers adhered to the necessitarianism typical of the Second Internationale. The nationalists referred to Kantian ethics as they emphasised the role of individuality and moral ideals in history and equalled the outcome of the successful October revolution with the triumph of ethics over metabolism (Michailovskij 1998 [1875]). The development of class a priori as a model for explaining history and the historical roles played by collectives was catalysed by the lively reception of Franz Mehring’s works (his aesthetics in particular owed much to Kant (Mehring 1961 [1898 – 1899]) and, most consequentially, Rudolf Stammler’s book Wirtschaft und Recht nach der materialistischen Geschichtsauffassung (1896), which criticised the mechanical character of Marxism from a Neo-Kantian position.

18Roughly three camps emerged: alongside the nationalists, hell-bent on individual moral responsibility, and the Plechanov orthodoxy, which praised freedom as consciousness of necessity,5 a third group formed,6 taking a middle path and consisting of the future authors of the Problems of Idealism [Problemy idealizma] (Novgo|rodcev 1902), who eventually became pillars of the Russian religious renaissance. The older Struve, Bulgakov, and Berdjaev extensively quoted the German Neo-Kantians as they tried to ethically ground social ideals (Steila 2010, 335). Berdjaev’s book on the nationalist Michailovskij (1901) was emblematic of the position between Marxism and nationalism which the new generation assumed. Berdjaev praises Marx for establishing social science on a foundation as solid as the one laid by Kant for ethics and thus overcoming subjectivism and relativism. Berdjaev does not arrive to the idea of a social a priori, as he wants to secure the existence of absolute and universal values. Yet, he endeavours at the same time to ascribe a messianic role to the proletariat. Hence his compromise solution: even though the essence of justice as universal applies uniformly to all rational beings, it turns out to be “psychologically accessible” in a particular historical situation to only one class—the proletariat (Ber|djaev 1901, 53). The next step for Berdjaev would be to formulate in the years 1900–1906 a philosophy of tragedy, which models a tension between the empirical and the ideal which only a Kierke|gaardian leap into the realm of the super-natural can overcome (Berdjaev 1907; 1907a).

19The collective volume, bearing the traits of a generational manifesto, The Problems of Idealism [Problemy idealizma, 1902], to which Berdjaev was a major contributor, marks an important stage on the way towards solving the above tension in favour of idealism. This step was taken by a whole generation. Correspondingly, the step in the opposite direction was provoked among other by tensions between Kant and Marx. The “real” Russian theory of social apriorism emerged as an answer to The Problem of Idealism in a collective volume from 1904, Essays on Realistic Worldview (Očerki 1904), by way of employing Mach’s empirio-criticism to the economically determined reality of the social. The core of this volume consists of Anatolij Lunačarskij’s “positive aesthetics” (Lunačarskij 1904, 113–182), whose point of departure is the tense relationship between life and ideal. After being run down by Lenin for his attempts to combine Marxism and Empirio-criticism, Aleksandr Bogdanov admitted with pride that he could not be put to shame by stating he sounds like Kant, since Marxism as the rightful heir of classical German philosophy grows out of Kant’s work (cf. Bogdanov 2014 [1910], 58). In the Kantian tradition, being part of which Bogdanov prided himself with, aesthetic experience—posited as an unhindered play of all faculties—functions as a model experience; whoever, like Bogda|nov, wanted to weld Marxism with modern experimental science had to take aesthetics’ cue.

20 And so, at least four major intellectual traditions developed from the confrontation of Neo-Kantianism with different forms of socialism operating in Eastern Europe, in an incessant process of uniting and splitting, bonding and detaching: late narodničestvo; the Russian classical religious philosophy of Berdjaev, Bulgakov, Frank, etc.; Bogdanov’s tectology (science of organisation) and proletkul’t, one of the main positions in the discussions on class a priori and the proletarian attitude towards pre-revolutionary tradition; and Lunačarskii’s aesthetical theory, which, beyond the shadow of a doubt, impacted his activities as the first and long-lasting Soviet commissar for art and culture. Moreover, these negotiations between transcendentalism and economism most probably directly influenced Georgy Lukács’s theory of class consciousness (Walicki 1989; 2011), which then, carried by Lucien Goldmann, Raymond Williams’s cultural studies, and Michel Foucault, became thanks to Edward Said (Said 1983) the groundwork of present-day research on traveling theories and entangled intellectual cultures.

21Prior to these Russian developments, however, Edward Abra|mowski demonstrated that in order to arrive at a social a priori, one is not required to move from Kant to Mach’s or Avenarius’s phenomenalism (whatever its indebtedness to Kantianism), as Bogda|nov (1901; 1904–6; 1913), Lunačarskij, or their Polish acquaintance Stanisław Brzozowski (1984 [1906–1907], 64; 1907, 157) did. Quite the contrary, while for most thinkers of the period, particularly the Austro-Marxists and Karl Vorländer (Kołakowski 2009, 253–315), Kantianism was supposed to supplement socialism with either a reference to values and ethical ideals or a reliable theory of scientific experience, Abramowski (2012 [1899]) claims that socialism in its essence is homologous to Kantianism. Both socialism and Kantian philosophy combine science with ethics, determinism with a striving for ideals, systematic development and revolutionary action which puts an end to gradual progress. Precisely this dualism of lawful uniformity and voluntary revolution forms the essence of socialism and, moreover, it is what makes socialism compliant with human nature. 7 Socialism is humanism and even its historical success demands that it acts according to its nature—at least according to Kazimierz Kelles-Krauzes’ theory of revolutionary retrospection. The current suppression of certain needs endows distant epochs in which these very needs were satisfied with an irresistible beauty. Hence the law of revolutionary retrospection: all revolutionary movements borrow their future-shaping ideals from the distant past (Kelles-Krauz 2018 [1897–1898]). In his review of Kelles-Krauz, Abramowski points out that this revolutionary inversion “on the one hand, draws its vital juices from life interests and, on the other, shows their ideal, aesthetic, expression, which inspires and allures minds, while at the same time revealing the present state of affairs to be even more abominable” (Abramowski 2011a [1898], 174). Thus, revolutionary retrospection represents socialism as it mirrors the double structure of Kantianism conjoining determination with freedom, needs and ideals.

22Both realities have a common root in apperception, connecting the spontaneous subject with the law-governed experience of science. Abramowski (2011 [1898]) claims that memory and art, by shutting off our every-day modus operandi founded on utilitarian interests, needs, and satisfaction, both provide an insight into this kind of apperception as if in an act of intellectual intuition [intellektuelle Anschauung]. Thanks to art, we take things for what they are and not for what purpose they may be appropriate. Art thus lies at the heart of all research and all ethics because the form’s appeal to the subject—always specific and always universal—uncovers way of creating communities that rise above shared interests and crowd dynamics.

23 Marburg’s transcendental method likewise upvalues aesthetics because the transcendental method entails demonstrating the unity of science and culture in general. Without art’s “homogeneous method” [homogene Methodik], religion and ethics would most probably remain somewhat formless, mute, lacking self-consciousness, and meaningless to human beings (Cohen 1912, II 83–84). The great revolutions in morals and beliefs turn out to be “by-products, or better, pre-conditions” of poetical creation (Cohen 1912, II 83–84).

3 | Aesthetics of Neo-Kantian Knots and Braids

24Bogdanov asserts—in agreement with Lunačarskij (1905, 369–370)—that art is, at every stage of society’s development, the highest form of organisation (Bogdanov 1918, 55–56; 1990 [1920], 421). Art models the “true solution to the old philosophy’s accursed problem of freedom and necessity”, i.e. the “conscious collective creation, changing the world according to the laws of nature and human design” (Bogdanov 1910a, 113). Thus, Bogdanov’s theory of art as organisation, while incorporating and solving the Kantian dualism of freedom and necessity, paved the way for constructivism as the art that does not aim at depicting reality, but changing it in the most efficient manner. Bogdanov’s project in its structure parallels the working of Cohen’s transcendental method, which pertains to all areas of culture. In Cohen, separation and unification define the nature of language and of art: “Separation must sustain itself in unification, and unification must no less sustain itself in particularity” (Cohen 1912, I 360), says Cohen about language, whose innermost essence he perceives, according to his apprenticeship with Moritz Lazarus and Heymann Steinthal, the founding fathers of Völkerpsy|chologie, and in then typical fashion as proto-theatric expression, pantomime. Language parallels here, of course, art as the primary realm introducing the unity into multiplicity without fusing all components together in one single mass.

25In the Kantian framework, aesthetic experience amounts to a work of integration: it unifies a manifold of data in an overall Gestalt, usually by means of subsuming all elements under one dominant or “principle of monarchical subordination” (Lipps 1903, 53). Aesthetically appealing forms were, at least since Kant’s Critique of Judgement, exemplary for introducing unity into multiplicity. The most prominent aesthetician of the period, Theodor Lipps, called this principle of aesthetical unity, according to which mind experiencing forms as forms operates, “apperception” (Lipps 1903, 12). Correspondingly, in Aesthetics of Pure Feeling, Cohen identifies art’s task for culture as a redesigning, a Neugestaltung, of morals, i.e. of the way in which people connect with one another (Cohen 1912, II 76). This influence is reciprocated; art overall while depicting societal changes, has the capacity to produce a homogenous methodical reshaping [homogene methodische Umformung], of religious and ethical transformations [Umgestaltungen]. Cohen agrees with Kant that humanity must be transformed into a unified totality, which makes possible a harmony of free wills, yet he introduces an aesthetical element to this ideal: “unlike Kant, Cohen holds that this means that all our institutions must become unified pluralities or totalities” in the phenomenal world, such as producer cooperatives (Van der Linden 1994, 7; 1988, 208). Turning Kantianism into socialism foregrounds aesthetics.

26The particular animation and exuberance of Neo-Kantianism’s transfers in East and Central Europe is correlated with the unifying task of aesthetic experience which, for its part, causes in the subject a sensation of pleasant agitation. The surplus of energy thrusting ideas through channels of contact on the intersubjective plane parallels the enlivenment of all subjective faculties vis-à-vis a beautiful object. Neo-Kantianism became a shaping and unifying activity. This highly professional, academic philosophy not only viewed itself as an arbitrator or mediator between individual sciences, but also helped to design the rationale behind the form of these sciences. According to the principle of the organic structure of a work introduced by Shaftesbury (1999 [1709]) and Winckelmann (2014 [1759]), the Neo-Kantian procedures and assumptions—particularly their preference for form over content, methodology over concrete theory—recurred in individual sciences and, likewise, in their modules, creating quasi-fractal images. For example, Vladimir Belov describes the third wave of Kant’s reception in Russia as

a process of emanation of Neo-Kantianism into cultural philosophy in the broadest sense: the problems of psychology were addressed by […] Ivan Ivanovič Lapšin, Boris Aleksandrovič Focht, and Matvej Kagan, social and legal issues by Sergej Iosifovič Gessen and Pavel Ivanovič Novgorodcev, questions of art and creation by Lapšin and Belyi, education by Gessen and Mosej Matveevič Rubinstein, the philosophy of history by Boris Valen|tinovič Jakovenko and Fedor Avgustovič Stepun. (Belov 2010, 306–307)

27By virtue of its unifying activity, Neo-Kantianism prompted all areas of culture to a kind of epistemological turn, as a result of which they started exploring their own conditions of possibility. Just as was the case with network theory, so too contemporary cognitive studies simply cannot but recognise Neo-Kantianism as its direct forerunner, rather than as a random school that dealt with the relationship between cultural and natural sciences. Many Kantians and Neo-Kantians unknowingly laid the foundations for current cognitive science. The popular conception of the Bayesian brain —–the ultimate achievement of embodied and enactive cognition (Knill, Puget 2004; Friston 2010)—– draws on Hermann von Helmholtz theory of unconscious interference conducted by the human brain (Helm|holtz 1962 [1860]). More generally, contemporary cognitive science stems from the psychologization of Kant’s criticism of knowledge conducted by his first followers who did not take the path of German idealism—specifically Fries, Beneke, Herbart, Zeller, Lange and Bona Meyer. One can say—half-jokingly, half seriously—that Kant himself inaugurated embodied cognition in his conception of pleasure based on physical sensation. In contrast to judgment, the sensation of pleasure promotes the entire life of the whole person, and therefore also of physical well-being, i.e. health. For example, laughing at a joke proves that all our thoughts correspond harmoniously with some movement in the organs of the body (cf. Critique of Judgement § 54).

28The banality of the results of cognitive science when applied to art, especially literature, depends on the suppression of this Kantian legacy, especially its aesthetic slant. Trapped—to use Marx’s vocabulary (Marx 1993 [1894], 959)—in a “realm of necessity” governed by the necessity of metabolism and the conservation of energy, the cognitivists cannot find the passageway to “the realm of freedom”, which does not heed to the tyranny of needs and satisfactions but builds itself around ideals and values. Knowledge, as art, is not only a need, but also a luxury, a seemingly unnecessary expenditure of resources, cost what it may. The young Viktor Šklovskij expressed it most eloquently in his criticism of the approaches to art which posited it as a way of saving mental energy (Šklovskij 2018 [1917]). As is well known, Kant’s critique of judgment, encompassing Kant’s assessments of beauty and the sublime, was supposed to override the chasm between his philosophy of morality and that of natural science, i.e. between freedom and determinism. Mutatis mutandis, one should ask whether Neo-Kantianism, which once helped to pinpoint the difference between culture and nature as separate objects of study, could not, by virtue of its aesthetic component, also facilitate the reintegration of cognition.

29Research on the phenomenological networks of Neo-Kantianism entrusts itself to the guidance of aesthetics understood as a theoretical and affective activity of separating and unifying, i.e. establishing networks in time and space between people and disciplines, even across the chiasm of nature and culture. The form of a network provides possibilities to fall back on under the chaotic circumstances of East and Central Europe. It even lures its participants (probably) and definitively the observer, into believing in a kingdom of freedom or at least of relative independence from the historical and natural circumstances—a constitutional monarchy of letters in which the formative, Gestalt-endowing principle of “monarchy” (cf. Lipps 1903) coincides with the most animated exchanges.


  • 1 For an extensive list of references on cultural transfer see:, accessed on 16.1.2020)
  • 2 On Eastern and Central Europe, cf. Le Rider 1994; Tihanov 2004; Feichtinger et al. 2006; Csáky & Kury 2004; Troebst 2006, Prokhorova 2009; on cultural transfers and entangle|ments in the region cf. Mitterbauer & Scherke 2004; Celestini & Mitterbauer 2003; Mitterbauer & Kokorz 2004, Csáky 2010; on schools and circles in the region cf. Grisha|kova & Salupere 2015, on the entangled history of literary theory Mrugalski et al. 2021)
  • 3 cf. an ample bibliography, which resulted from a recent project at the Institute:
  • 4 Starting from phenomenology, we also return to the sources of postcolonial, postimperial, and post-dependence theories, which largely determine the tone in the discourse on cultural or intellectual transfer (Said 1983, 2000; Clifford 1989; Bhaba 1994; Lepenies 2003; Habermas 2004; Epple 2011; Hüchtker & Kliems 2011). Both large trends of postcolonial contemplation flow from the vicinity of phenomenology. Frantz Fanon studied in Lyon with Merleau-Ponty, before asking Sartre for a preface to Les Damnés de la Terre (1961). The Indio-American trend in postcolonial studies, initiated by Spivak, is likewise indebted in phenomenology by virtue of its embeddedness in deconstruction. The roles played by Jan Patočka as a mentor to, among others, Vaclav Havel and Józef Tischner and phenomenology in general in Central European opposition against communism is well known. (cf. Gubser 2014)
  • 5 On Plekhanovs polemics with the nationalists and Stammler see Plekhanov (1961 [1898]); on Mikhailovskii’s polemics with Struve see Walicki (2005, 657).
  • 6 They foreboded such thinkers as Adler (1925).
  • 7 However, as Gouldner observes, the tension, for example, between voluntarism and determinism is not specific to Marxism but rather “part of the deep structure of Western thought that it shares”; “Marxism did not invent this tension and it did not resolve it” (Gouldner 1980, 37).


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Publication details

Published in:

Martin Erik, Mrugalski Michał, Flack Patrick (2022) Neo-Kantianism as an entanglement of intellectual cultures in Central and Eastern Europe: Neukantianismus als Verflechtung von Wissenskulturen Mittel-und Osteuropas. Genève-Lausanne, sdvig press.

Pages: 209-235

Full citation:

Mrugalski Michał (2022) „The Neokantiana network: an introduction to the phenomenology and the aesthetics of connecting“, In: E. Martin, M. Mrugalski & P. Flack (eds.), Neo-Kantianism as an entanglement of intellectual cultures in Central and Eastern Europe, Genève-Lausanne, sdvig press, 209–235.