College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Understanding German idealists

Even at a time when much of the world’s information is accessible at the click of a button, the opportunity to conduct research on-site in Germany has been invaluable to Christopher Yeomans, professor and incoming head of the Department of Philosophy. As an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellow at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Yeomans has combined his research on the philosophies of three prominent 18th-century German Idealists with the historical context of the time in which they lived and wrote.

Yeomans says that conducting his research in the three philosophers’ country of origin was critical for two important reasons. Not only was he able to confer across Germany with experts on the three, but he was also able to examine how their philosophies could apply to both modern Germany and the United States.

“I was able to see the pattern of social division playing out in a very different society, as Germany struggles with many of the same issues as we do in the United States but in importantly different ways,” he says. “Seeing the issues arise in a third, historical context—in addition to ‘saddle period’ Germany and contemporary American society—helped me to get a sense of what is conceptually basic as opposed to what is determined by historical context.”

Yeomans hopes that his research will help draw parallels between the social and political struggles faced by Germans in the 18th and 19th centuries, and those we face today. “In the United States at the moment, we face a political divide between urban and rural populations, between cosmopolitanism and traditionalism, and between a competitive, success-oriented capitalist economy and deep rootedness in family and community,” Yeomans says. “These tensions would not have seemed so strange to the German Idealists, who struggled with them at the beginnings of the modern era. The hope is that the conceptual resources they developed for that struggle will be helpful to us as we try to understand our own political moment.” Yeomans makes these comparisons himself in an upcoming forthcoming essay using Hegelian concepts to interpret J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Yeomans had his first serious foray into historical research in 2013, under the guidance of history professors Charles Ingrao and Whitney Walton as part of the Provost’s Faculty Fellowship for Study in a Second Discipline. That research spawned the first of two projects he worked on in Munich, which he describes as “an attempt to construct a theory of historical subjectivity…[or] a theory of what it is like to approach the world with the self-consciousness that one’s perspective is only one among many and also with the self-awareness that this perspective can and probably will change over time.” He formed this theory using concepts set forth by German Idealist Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose work Yeomans has researched and written about extensively over the course of his career.

Yeomans’ research on Hegel has already culminated in two books that focus on whether radical free will is possible and the necessity of multiple forms of that free will in people’s lives. His previous work on

Hegel seeped into the projects he worked on in Munich, including his second focus, in which he attempted to understand the differing perspectives of three German Idealists, Immanuel Kant, J.G. Fichte, and Hegel, each of whom worked in the 18th and early 19th centuries during the “saddle period” between early and late modernity in Europe.

According to Yeomans, these three were idealists “in the sense that they thought reason was the structure of the world and human beings should be optimistic about their ability to…rationally organize a society.” Each believed that a rational organization of society should hold freedom as an inalienable value, and they each attempted to conceptualize what such a rational organization of society would look like during the pivotal historical era in which they lived. To make sense of the divergent approaches these three took to the visualization of their rational societies, Yeomans used the methodologies he learned during his fellowship with the Department of History to take a deep dive into the changes in social and economic structures that occurred during Kant, Fichte, and Hegel’s time.

Yeomans’ research was supported primarily by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Fellowship for Experienced Researchers, which was granted to him after an application process including a project proposal and peer review. The Humboldt Foundation’s fellowship supported Yeomans’ travel throughout Germany, but he’s earned lifelong support from the foundation for future research in Germany.