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German Idealism

The nineteenth century movement called German Idealism grew from the highly independent character of the Enlightenment in Germany. The main features of the movement were the mind-dependence of reality, the dominance of thought over sensation, universalized ethics, and natural teleology.

Leibniz was an important early influence on the movement through his dedication to ethics and religion and through his doctrine of natural teleology. However, Kant provided the first conceptual framework for German Idealism by securing the priority of mind over nature without endangering the validity of scientific principles.

Kant’s idea of inner freedom became the inspiration for creative genius; the resulting aesthetic-ethical idealism manifested in the work of Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller and many others. However, the absolute reality of nature was equally important to these poets; thus, an absolute consciousness from which the individual consciousness could be deduced was posited to eliminate the unknowable real world of the Kantian system.

Inspired by this turn, German Idealism became Absolute Idealism through the philosophies of Fichte and Schelling. In their systems, the human mind is directly in touch with reality as an individual manifestation of the absolute mind. Absolute Idealism reached its peak with the philosophy of Hegel. Hegel makes the impulse of the absolute mind a gradual and self-determined process, by which the Absolute lifts itself from mere possibility and actuality to conscious, free, and necessary possession. For Hegel, the whole process is timeless, and only to a finite mind does it appear as an endless procession in time and space. Schelling, who coined the term “the Absolute,” disagreed with Hegel’s idea that the Absolute was spirit, preferring to say the Absolute is the identity of subject and object. In the late nineteenth century, German Idealism as Absolute Idealism became influential in British philosophy through the works of Bernard Bosanquet and F. H. Bradley, and in the United States through the works of Josiah Royce.

Schopenhauer’s variant of German Idealism returned to the Kantian separation of the phenomenal world and the world-in-itself. He identified the phenomenal world as pure idea and the world-in-itself as a blind, illogical, aimless impulse with no ethical direction.

German Idealism has affected many fields other than philosophy including the positive sciences, poetry, art, and theology

Table of Contents

The Movement Characterized
Leibniz and the Pietists
Kant’s Transcendentalism
Lessing, Herder, and Others
Goethe, Schiller, and Others
Early Views of Fichte and Schelling
Romanticism Later Views of Fichte and Schelling
Hegel’s System
Idealism in the Positive Sciences

1. The Movement Characterized

The term “German Idealism” refers to a phase of intellectual life that had its origin in the Enlightenment as modified by German conditions. English and French representatives of the Enlightenment, giving precedence to sensation, had become empiricists and skeptics. They viewed the world as a great machine, adopted hedonism as their ethics, and interpreted history from a subjective-critical point of view. The situation in Germany was just the reverse. There thought was given precedence over sensation, and, instead of empiricism, idealism was dominant. Ethics was based on norms of universal validity, instead of on individual whim. History was interpreted genetically as a rational process; and in place of the mechanical conception of the world, an organic or dynamic view was substituted. Nature was seen to be spiritual, as well as spatial, and was interpreted teleologically. In the hands of Jacobi and Kant, Hume’s skepticism became the weapon that destroyed the influence of empiricism and thus paved the way for idealism. For the Germans, Rousseau’s radicalism brought into question the value of the culture-ideals of the Enlightenment, and impelled them to seek the basis of culture in the creative power of the mind. For the philosopher German idealism usually means the philosophy of Kant and his immediate followers, while for the historian of literature it may seem little more than the personality of Goethe; and it is not usual to characterize the literary aspect of the movement as neo-humanism. However, there is a unity in the movement that cannot be ignored. All its varied manifestations, whether in science, philosophy, literature, art, or social life, are properly treated under the title German Idealism

2. Leibniz and the Pietists

Several factors contributed to the peculiarly independent character of the Enlightenment in Germany. Most notable was the influence of Liebniz and that of the Pietists. Leibniz was an essentially religious personality, and in transplanting the spirit of the Enlightenment into Germany he gave it that distinctively ethical and religious flavor which became characteristic of German Idealism. It was he who was chiefly instrumental in substituting the mechanical view of nature with a teleological one. He transformed the atoms of the materialists into monads, or psychical entities, and substituted for natural law his theory of preestablished harmony. He asserted the absolute worth of the individual against the destructive monistic pantheism of Spinoza, and saw in the progress of history a movement of the monads towards some divine end. On the one hand, he made the development of materialism and skepticism impossible in Germany, and, on the other hand, he brought about the teleological explanation of the history of the universe as a whole. The teleological and idealistic tendencies of Leibniz were strengthened through Pietism; Klopstock, Herder, Jacobi, Goethe, and Jean Paul, all betray in their works the Pietistic influence.

3. Kant’s Transcendentalism

The conceptual framework of German Idealism was provided by Immanuel Kant who was the first to reconcile the conflicting empirical and rationalistic elements of the prevailing dogmatic philosophy. With one stroke he secured for mind priority over nature, without endangering the validity of the principles of scientific investigation. By giving the primacy to practical reason, he placed religion and ethics on a sure footing and broke the ban of rationalism. Kant’s work was purely epistemological. He made it particularly his problem to rescue natural science from the (epistemological) skepticism of Hume, and then to rescue religion from nationalism. Kant demolished the rationalistic arguments of Anselm, Descartes, and others, for the existence of God. Science is valid, but it has to do only with phenomena. This phenomenal world, however, is produced a priori by the activity of consciousness, reacting on that external reality whose eternal nature cannot be known. The constancy of experience is accounted for by the very fact that the world as we know it is only the sum total of phenomena. This becomes the basis of the universal validity of certain principles of explanation. Space and time, and the categories of the understanding are subjective and thus ideal. Taken together they form a mold in which we shape the impressions coming from the unknowable, transcendent reality. Thus, the principles of science and the laws of nature are universally valid because they are in the subject, not in the object. Knowledge of ultimate reality comes through the practical reason, particularly through the a priori moral law in us. Kant’s idea of inner freedom became the inspiration of the creative genius. The phase of German Idealism manifested in the art and poetry of the period has been called aesthetic-ethical idealism. Leaders of this artistic movement, who popularized idealism and made it part of the life of the time, were not intent on solving old philosophical problems. For conceptual thought they substituted the creative imagination.

4. Lessing, Herder, and Others

Klopstock and Wieland mark the turning-point toward idealsm. However, their contemporary, Lessing, was the first representative of the movement to liberate himself completely from conventional theology and all that was arbitrary and external in German culture and find in the inner aesthetic and ethical development of the mind the ideal to be followed. Idealism in the sense in which the word is here used became even more effective in the work of Herder. His break with the Enlightenment was complete. In his large application of the idealistic method to the interpretation of science, art, and history, he practically reformed all the intellectual sciences. He, too, proceeded from an analysis of the poetic and artistic impulse, and in the creative activity of the mind he found the key to ethics, aesthetics, and religion. From this subjective, or idealistic, view-point he saw the panorama of history as a spiritualistic development. If Lessing’s great work was to introduce idealism into aesthetics, particularly the aesthetics of dramatic poetry, Herder’s greatest service to the idealistic cause was his application of idealism, as a method, to the interpretation of history. What Wieland, Lessing, and others had done for poetic art, this Winckelmann did for plastic art. He too found in the conception of the free creative mind the basis of ethics, aesthetics, and religion.

5. Goethe, Schiller, and Others

The great representatives of the idealistic type mind in German poetry were Goethe, and Schiller. Against the exclusive claims of the aesthetic view of nature, and a morality essentially classical, Goethe emphasizes the moral and religious worth of the individual, thus approaching the ethical teachings of Kant. Schiller combined the epistemology of Kant with the pantheism of Goethe. With him aesthetic values were the chief types of intellectual norms. Thus, his ethics and religion might be regarded as a phase of aesthetics. However, the aesthetic harmony that he found in the universe had an impact on his ethical and religious nature; despite his aesthetic view-point, he must be classed with Kant and Fichte as one of the great moral teachers of Germany. Schiller’s only consistent follower was Willhelm von Humboldt, who was instrumental in bringing about the Neo-Humanistic reform, on the basis of the new aesthetic-ethical culture. Jean Paul was a representative of the anti-classical type of idealism.

6. Early Views of Fichte and Schelling

The basis of the aesthetic-ethical movement was Kant transcendental idealism. But while Kant made the idealistic position secure, he had not accounted for the reality of the world of nature, with all that it means to the poet as the expression of some divine purpose. To get at the bottom of the matter, it was felt that human consciousness as a starting-point would have to be abandoned and an absolute consciousness posited. From this reality of absolute consciousness, then, individual consciousness could be deduced in a manner, analogous to that employed by Kant.

The first to attempt such a comprehensive solution of the problem was Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Starting from Kant’s idealistic position he tried to overcome the dualism involved in Kant’s doctrine of a (thing in itself) by bringing this mysterious reality into consciousness. To do this he dropped the Kantian distinction between practical and theoretical reason, and conceived of the absolute mind, or ego, as moral reason. In his view all existence is psychical, and the human mind is only a manifestation of the absolute ego. Thus, the last trace of an unknowable transcendent reality is obliterated. The absolute ego has divided itself into a large number of relative egos, and through these it is moving progressively toward its own destiny. The core of reality lies in human personality, in the finite mind, but this is caught up in an endless process of development; Hence, to transcend his own consciousness and explain the progress of history, with reference to the past and future, the philosopher must look at existence from the point of view of the absolute ego. In this way Fichte developed his subjective realism, bringing this scheme of idealistic evolution every phase of human experience. Under his treatment, ethics, sociology, aesthetics, and religion become a part of the history of the Absolute. He overcame the dualism between individual mind and nature by dissolving both individual nature and mind. Schelling, starting from the Kant-Fichte point of view, extended the conception of the Absolute to objective nature. His system may be characterized as a sort of spiritualized pantheism. The world is a continuous process from inorganic unconscious nature to organic conscious nature, and then from organic nature back to inorganic nature. While in humans the Absolute reaches consciousness, nature remains essentially objective, but not in a materialistic sense. Nature, for Schelling, is a system of spiritual forces similar to the monads of Leibniz. Schelling worked out his so – called Identitatsphilosophie by extending to absolute consciousness the view that in consciousness subject and object are identical. The sum total of existence then becomes the Absolute as perceived by itself. Naturally, all distinctions and qualities, which are created by a finite relational consciousness, disappear in a self-contemplation of the Absolute by itself, and existence becomes neutral. If Fichte had interpreted existence ethically, Schelling interprets it aesthetically. While with Fichte the Absolute distributes itself in finite minds in order to work out its own moral development, with Schelling the Absolute comes to consciousness in humans in order that we may enjoy the aesthetic contemplation of the unity of mind and nature, the identity of mind with its sensuous content.

7. Romanticism

The immediate result of the metaphysical systems of Fichte and Schelling was a revival of poetic production and criticism known as Romanticism, which sprang from the school of Goethe and Schiller. The union of poetry with the metaphysical or religious view of life became a recognized principle of art; and it was this combination that secured for idealism the final triumph over the narrow naturalism and rationalism of the Enlightenment. Romanticism brought to light the connection of poetry with Christianity. Just as Schiller had taken Kant’s epistemology as a basis for the explanation of the relation of aesthetics to ethics, so now the Kantian position was used to explain the relation of religion to aesthetics. From Kant’s idealism came a new analysis of religion, illuminating with a new light the problems of culture. Romanticism gave depth to the historical view and dissolved into thin air those time-worn conceptions of a “law of nature,” “common sense,” and innate norms of the reason; this was just as the Enlightenment had formerly disposed of the idea of a supernatural, ecclesiastical norm, which rested on these conceptions. The leading spirits in the romantic movement were the two Schlegels, though Fichte, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Schelling, Novalis, and many others took a part in it. Out of Romanticism sprang a new impulse for systematic thinking; and through the political catastrophes of the time and the moral earnestness of the intellectual leaders, idealistic speculation was forced to apply its norms to practical social problems.

8. Later Views of Fichte and Schelling

The first to feel the pressure of the realistic-historical problems were the founders of metaphysical idealism, Fichte and Schelling. Both betray the influence of Schleiermacher. Realizing the inadequacy of their philosophy to meet practical needs, they now sought an ethical and religious ideal which should unify the concrete content of spiritual life and at the same time be a necessary deduction from the metaphysical background of existence. Fichte retained his idea of the moral state as the consummation of the historical process. However, he no longer considered this state merely as a postulate of progressive freedom, but as a concrete civilized state, in which all members of society share in the blessings of religion, morality, and art. In this remodeled view of Fichte, religion is dominant; for he finds that only religious faith makes possible the realization of the moral idea, and thus the reality of the external world. The world is ethical. It is religious faith that gives an ultimate aim to ethical conduct, that makes possible a union of the empirical ego with its metaphysical basis, that is, God. His ethics is thus deprived of its formal character as an endless progress and given a definite aim. This ethical and religious view necessitates a modification of his metaphysics. The background of empirical consciousness is no longer an endless progression of the Absolute, but a fixed and unchanging divine being. In this being the empirical ego has its origin, and through ethical conduct it returns to its source. Similarly, in view of moral and aesthetic needs, Schelling was forced to change his views. In applying the principle of identity, he destroyed the variety of existence, and thus its reality. In describing the universe as a quality-less neutrum he had only caricatured the Absolute. His philosophy disagreed with every phase of experience. Just as Fichte, so Schelling sought in religion the key to the origin and destiny of humans. The phenomenal world takes its rise in the absolute, self-determined will of God. Because of its origin, the phenomenal world necessarily works its way back up to God again. This movement back to God is a religious process, through mythology, or natural religion, up to Christianity, at which stage the union of man with God takes place. Thus, Christianity, whose dogmas are interpreted evolutionistically by Schelling, becomes the end and purpose of history; and it is upon Christianity that ethics, politics, and aesthetics are to be based.

9. Hegel’s System

If Fichte and Schelling tried to find the purpose of existence in some concrete content (such as the moral state or the Christian religion, deducing this concept from the conception of God), Hegel solved the problem by a systematic exploitation of the conception of evolution, which with him was both a constituent and a teleological principle. The conception had been variously and obscurely employed by Leibniz, Lessing, Kant, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, and F. Schlegel. Then, on the basis of Kant’s transcendental deduction, Fichte and Schelling interpreted the process of development in a purely idealistic manner as the unconscious opposition of the Absolute to itself; this further entailed the conscious and gradual removal of this opposition by self-absorption, the double process following necessarily from the very nature of mind. Hegel makes the impulse of the absolute mind a gradual and self-determined process, by which the Absolute lifts itself from mere possibility and actuality to conscious, free, and necessary possession. Viewed sub specie aeternitatis the whole process is timeless, and only to a finite mind does it appear as an endless procession in time and space. However, it is just in this finite view that the ethical, aesthetic and religious character of Hegel’s philosophy manifests itself. In the finite consciousness there is a separation of the natural, the actual, and the empirical from the spiritual, the free, and the necessary. In the unity reached by overcoming this divorce of the finite from the infinite lies religious blessedness, perfect beauty, and moral freedom. Every phase and stage of this inner teleological development is necessary to the life of the Absolute, and all variety in finite experience is preserved in the higher unity. Nothing is lost. Instead of being an undifferentiated substance, or a qualityless neutrum, the Absolute is the living, vital reality that manifests itself in human experience. This reality is spiritual, and the guiding principle of its upward movement is the fulfillment of its own divine purpose, which is religious, ethical, aesthetic. Religion and ethics are thus a necessary product of the self-explication of the Absolute, or God.

10. Schleiermacher

The religious turn that idealistic metaphysics had taken was due to the influence of Schleiermacher, the most specifically religious of all the great philosophers. In his own system he made use of the religious consciousness in an original and striking manner to solve the practical and theoretical problems growing out of Kant’s critical philosophy. In the field of ethics he was the most conspicuous exponent of German idealism. What Hegel had deduced from the Absolute by his application of the conception of development, Schleiermacher, following the critical method of Kant, sought to attain by an analysis of empirical consciousness. In its theoretical attitude toward being, consciousness is receptive and seeks to combine the data of sense into the highest possible conceptual unity; in its practical attitude consciousness is active and transfers the aim of reason from the world of sense to the world of conscious freedom. However, in both cases thought and being always remain separate for the finite understanding. On the other hand, that essential unity of reality which makes possible any relation of thought to being, such as volition to being, is present in religious feeling. While Hegel had employed a deductive, dialectical method to show that all being is in God, Schleiermacher reached this unity by an inductive process, which was guided by feeling, instead of by pure reason. Instead of starting with a timeless and spaceless Absolute, he started with the phenomenal world. His task was to analyze the reason that dominates the actual world of history, to bring to light its various purposes, combine them into a totality representing the absolute divine purpose of the universe, the summum bonum, and to show that the power to realize this ideal lies in religious consciousness. Schleiermacher’s practical religious interests now took him into the field of theology.

11. Herbart

Herbart stuck even more closely to the Kantian view-point, but, like other followers of Kant, he sought to eliminate the concep-tion of an unknowable reality, and press forward to the ultimate nature of things. He adopted Kant’s analysis of consciousness, but in a psychological sense, and found that the transcendental reality consists of a plurality of simple substances. These he called “reals.” They are psychical in nature and analogous to the monads of Leibniz. Through their relations to one another and to human consciousness the phenomenal world is brought into existence; and from their teleological cooperation Herbart deduces a divine, creative intelligence, analogous to the monad-monadum of Leibniz, thus opposing sharply current poetic naturalism and Spinozism. Herbart’s practical and social philosophy, which is based on the judgments of the soul as to the relations of the “reals” to each other, particularly on judgments expressing like or dislike, also tends toward rationalism. On account of the method employed here, Herbart calls the result aesthetics, to which he subordinates ethics. In his view the ideal society would be one based on the insight and activity of the educated, and on the rational education of youth, and realizing in its organization the natural and fundamental ethical ideas. Herbart thus became not only a reformer of psychology, but of pedagogy as well.

12. Schopenhauer

The last great representative of German Idealism in systematic philosophy was Schopenhauer. While with him the phenomenal world is idea (that is, existing only as a subject idea) its objective basis is not a “thing in itself” as Kant taught, but a universal will. This Schopenhauer interprets as a blind, illogical, aimless impulse, without any original ethical tendency whatsoever. Through the blind impulse of this world-will arises human intelligence and the phenomenal world. History loses all teleological significance and becomes an irrational and endless progression. Ethics, therefore, as the philosophy of the ultimate purpose of the world can only proclaim the aimlessness of the cosmic process and seek to put an end to it by stilling the will. This quietizing of the will is effected by recognizing the aimlessness of the process and resigning oneself to it completely. For these teachings, Schopenhauer found a support in Buddhism, which was then just becoming known in the West. He was bitter in his hatred of the theism of Judaism, which for him exhibited selfishness and sensuality, and was the root of all deceptive theism. The pure Christianity of Christ he regarded as a sort of mystical quietism. Though his metaphysical work, De Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, appeared as early as 1819, his teachings found no popular reception till after the wane of Hegel’s influence in Germany.

13. Idealism in the Positive Sciences

The effects of this idealistic development are apparent in the positive sciences no less than in metaphysics. In accord with the idea of the oneness of the world, the natural sciences have been given a subordinate position, or else reduced to natural philosophy. The new spirit is manifested even more clearly in the historical sciences, where the genetic method is everywhere employed and individual facts are treated in relation to the whole development. For instance, the historian of literature or art now seeks to bring the facts with which he is dealing into relation with other phases of life and thus grasp the life and ideals of a nation as a whole. Similarly, the philologist is no longer satisfied with the study of one language, but seeks to correlate it with kindred tongues and reconstruct the inner life of the people. Even in the field of jurisprudence the genetic method has been adopted and particular stress laid on the development of common law. The effect of this idealistic movement may also be observed in theology. Here deistic efforts to base Christianity on a general theory of religion have been replaced by a more penetrating psychological analysis, together with a genetic view of religious history. It should be added, though, that repeated and earnest attempts have been made to rescue the core of Christianity from the general flux of history and give to it a fixed character. Since it is in the universities, chiefly, that the sciences are cultivated, naturally the universities were reorganized in conformity to the changed ideals. It was in the University of Jena that German Idealism got its first foothold. From here the new educational ideal went to the newly established universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, Bonn, Breslau, and Munich, and into the secondary schools.

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