German idealism

From New World Encyclopedia

German idealism was a philosophical movement in Germany in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It developed out of the work of Immanuel Kant in the 1780s and 1790s, and was closely linked both with romanticism and the revolutionary politics of the Enlightenment. The most well-known thinkers in the movement were Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, while Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Gottlob Ernst Schulze, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, and Friedrich Schleiermacher were also major contributors.

Kant argued that knowledge is constituted by the sensible contents derived from the object of cognition and the a priori forms in the faculties of the mind. Thus, things considered in themselves, apart from the way mind organizes sensible contents, are in principle unknowable. With this argument, God and the soul became inaccessible because they do not exhibit sensible content. While Kant rejected the epistemological possibility of knowing God, he affirmed the possibility of knowledge in the realm of morality. Nevertheless, Kant relegated various theological concepts such as God and the immortality of soul from the realm of knowledge.

After Kant, the unknowability of the thing-in-itself, including God, became the central question. Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and others developed speculative metaphysics, which Kant rejected, in order to regain the philosophical ground upon which God and the immortality of the soul could be discussed. Kant's contemporary Jacobi was a German idealist who wrote the well known phrase that one could not enter into Kant's system without the idea of the thing-in-itself, but one could not remain within it.

Kant’s contemporary Johann Gottfried von Herder criticized Kant’s rationalism and his failure to recognize how human thought is rooted in language. The significance of Herder's thoughts were recognized as German idealism declined in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; subsequently, his philosophy influenced the development of hermeneutics, philosophical hermeneutics, philosophy of culture, and philosophy of language.

After the major German idealists, German idealist speculative metaphysics has not been developed further; however, American transcendentalists continued to explore the spiritual and imaginative faculties of understanding. Kant's arguments, however, are still the subjects of current debates in philosophy.

Meaning of idealism in German Idealism

Main article: Idealism
Immanuel Kant

The word "idealism" has more than one meaning. The philosophical meaning of idealism here is that the properties we discover in objects depend on the way that those objects appear to us as perceiving subjects, and not something they possess "in themselves," apart from our experience of them. The very notion of a "thing in itself" (Kant's notion) should be understood as an option of a set of functions for an operating mind, such that we consider something that appears without respect to the specific manner in which it appears. Hence, "thing in itself" can be read as "thing considered in itself without consideration of the cognitive faculties of mind." The question of what properties a thing might have "independently of the mind" is thus incoherent for Idealism.

The above framework was established by Kant. Philosophers after Kant such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel developed their thoughts as critical responses to Kant. These thinkers are all called "idealists" because they inquired into the spiritual elements of the mind to answer both ontological and epistemological questions. Their inquiries into the mind are often extended to inquiries into God.

Other forms idealism, such as Plato's, should be clearly distinguished from German Idealism.


Those philosophers who are known today as German Idealists did not, however, call themselves German Idealists. This coinage originated from the Neo-Kantians and Neo-Hegelians in the early twentieth century.

While Kant is the pivotal philosopher, some include Kant in the German Idealists and stress the continuity of thought. Others, however, exclude him and stress the differences on the basis that post-Kantian German Idealists developed their thought in disagreement with Kant; furthermore, while those thinkers took God as the central subject in their thought, Kant limited the discussion of God to the realm of morality alone.

Kant (1724 - 1804) is sometimes considered the first of the German idealists. Kant's work purported to bridge the two dominant philosophical schools in the eighteenth century: 1) rationalism, which held that knowledge could be attained by reason alone a priori (prior to experience), and 2) empiricism, which held that knowledge could be arrived at only through the senses. Kant's solution was to propose that while we could know particular facts about the world only via sensory experience, our mind have a priori form which are principles to organize sensory contents. Knowledge is thus constituted by sensory contents we gain from experience and the forms which are built in the mechanism of mind.

If knowledge is comprised of the sensory contents supplied by the object and the a priori forms of faculties of mind, things considered in themselves (thing-in-itself or noumena) are, in principle, unknowable. God, the world, and the soul are thus unknowable, from Kant's perspective, since none of them supply sensible contents.

Because, the forms of the mind are a priori conditions of the possibility of knowledge, Kant called this position "transcendental idealism." This distinguished it from earlier "idealism," such as George Berkeley's, which held that we can only directly know the ideas in our minds, not the objects that they represent. Thus, Berkeley viewed the world as ideas and developed subjective idealism. Kant, on the other hand, argued that objects of knowledge are "empirically real" yet they are "transcendentally ideal" for the reason that human knowledge about the object is a constitution of the empirical and the ideal.[1] The mind, thus, plays a central role in influencing the way that the world is experienced: we perceive phenomena through time, space and the categories of the understanding such as quality, quantity, relation, and modality.

At the other end of the movement, Arthur Schopenhauer is not normally classed as a German idealist. He considered himself to be a transcendental idealist. In his major work The World as Will and Idea he discusses his indebtedness to Kant, and the work includes Schopenhauer's extensive analysis the Critique.


Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi

In 1787, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi addressed, in his book On Faith, or Idealism and Realism, Kant's concept of "thing-in-itself." Jacobi agreed that the objective thing-in-itself cannot be directly known. However, he stated, it must be taken on faith. A subject must believe that there is a real object in the external world that is related to the representation or mental idea that is directly known. This faith or belief is a result of revelation or immediately known, but logically unproved, truth. The real existence of a thing-in-itself is revealed or disclosed to the observing subject. In this way, the subject directly knows the ideal, subjective representations that appear in the mind, and strongly believes in the real, objective thing-in-itself that exists outside of the mind. By presenting the external world as an object of faith, Jacobi attempted to legitimize belief and its theological associations.


In the German Mercury, Karl L. Reinhold published Letters Concerning the Kantian Philosophy in 1790 and 1792. They provided a clear explication of Kant's thoughts, which were previously inaccessible due to Kant's use of complex or technical language. Reinhold skipped Kant's complex arguments on the theory of knowledge, and started his explanation from the last section of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which dealt with issues of God, soul, and freedom. Reinhold presented Kant's ideas in relation to his own views on God, soul, and the life after death. Reinhold's work was well read by intellectuals and, at the same time, aroused the concern to Kant's philosophy.

Reinhold started, not from definitions, but, from a principle that referred to mental images or representations in a conscious mind. In this way, he divided knowledge into (1) the knowing subject, or observer, (2) the known object, and (3) the image or representation in the subject's mind. In order to understand transcendental idealism, it is necessary to reflect deeply enough to distinguish experience as consisting of these three components: subject, representation, and object.


Kant argued that a mental idea or representation must be of something external to the mind, which is empirically real. While Kant held the empirical realist thesis, he also argued that the forms of understanding such as the principle of cause-and-effect. Gottlob Ernst Schulze pointed out the inconsistency of Kant's argument. Schulze wrote, anonymously, that if the law of cause and effect only applies to the phenomena within the mind, not between those phenomena and any things-in-themselves outside of the mind, then a thing-in-itself cannot be the cause of an idea or image of a thing in the mind. In this way, he discredited Kant's philosophy by using Kant's own reasoning to refute Kant's concept of a thing-in-itself.


Johann Gottlieb Fichte

After Schulze had seriously criticized the notion of a thing-in-itself, Fichte (1762 - 1814) produced a philosophy similar to Kant's, but without a thing-in-itself. Fichte asserted that our representations, ideas, or mental images are merely the productions of our ego, or knowing subject. For him, there is no external thing-in-itself that produces the ideas. On the contrary, the knowing subject, or ego, is the cause of the external thing, object, or non-ego.

Fichte's style was a challenging exaggeration of Kant's already difficult writing. Also, Fichte claimed that his truths were apparent to intellectual, non-perceptual, intuition.

Schopenhauer, a student of Fichte's, wrote of him:

…Fichte who, because the thing-in-itself had just been discredited, at once prepared a system without any thing-in-itself. Consequently, he rejected the assumption of anything that was not through and through merely our representation, and therefore let the knowing subject be all in all or at any rate produce everything from its own resources. For this purpose, he at once did away with the essential and most meritorious part of the Kantian doctrine, the distinction between a priori and a posteriori and thus that between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself. For he declared everything to be a priori, naturally without any proofs for such a monstrous assertion; instead of these, he gave sophisms and even crazy sham demonstrations whose absurdity was concealed under the mask of profundity and of the incomprehensibility ostensibly arising therefrom. Moreover, he appealed boldly and openly to intellectual intuition, that is, really to inspiration.

Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, §13


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Hegel (1770 - 1831) responded to Kant's philosophy by suggesting that the unsolvable contradictions given by Kant in his Antinomies of Pure Reason applied not only to the four areas Kant gave (world as infinite vs. finite, material as composite vs. atomic, etc.) but in all objects and conceptions, notions and ideas. To know this he suggested makes a "vital part in a philosophical theory."[2] Given that abstract thought is thus limited, he went on to consider how historical formations give rise to different philosophies and ways of thinking. For Hegel, thought fails when it is only given as an abstraction and is not united with considerations of historical reality. In his major work The Phenomenology of Spirit he went on to trace the formation of self-consciousness through history and the importance of other people in the awakening of self-consciousness. Thus Hegel introduces two important ideas to metaphysics and philosophy: the integral importance of history and of the Other person.

Hegel was hugely influential throughout the nineteenth century, by its end; according to Bertrand Russell, "the leading academic philosophers, both in America and Britain, were largely Hegelian".[3] His influence has continued in contemporary philosophy but mainly in Continental philosophy. In contrast, contemporary Analytic philosophy of the English-speaking world came about as a reaction against Hegel and a re-assertion of abstract thought.


With regard to the experience of objects, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775 - 1854) claimed that the ideas or mental images in the mind are identical to the extended objects which are external to the mind. Schelling's "absolute identity" asserted that there is no difference between the subjective and the objective, that is, the ideal and the real.

In 1851, Schopenhauer criticized Schelling's absolute identity of the subjective and the objective, or of the ideal and the real:

…Everything that rare minds like Locke and Kant had separated after an incredible amount of reflection and judgment, was to be again poured into the pap of that absolute identity. For the teaching of those two thinkers [Locke and Kant] may be very appropriately described as the doctrine of the absolute diversity of the ideal and the real, or of the subjective and the objective.

Schopenhauer. Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, "Fragments for the History of Philosophy," § 13.

In the book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Ken Wilber called Schelling's thought "Plotinus temporalized." That is, Schelling transformed Plotinus' neo-Platonic emanationist metaphysics into an evolutionary ontology.


Friedrich Schleiermacher argued from a theological perspective that the ideal and the real are united in God. He understood the ideal as the subjective mental activities of thought, intellect, and reason. The real was, for him, the objective area of nature and physical being; the unity of the ideal and the real is manifested in God. The two divisions do not have a productive or causal effect on each other. Rather, they are both equally existent in the absolute transcendent being which is God.

Responses to idealism

Schopenhauer contended that Spinoza had a great influence on post-Kantian German idealists. Schopenhauer wrote: "In consequence of Kant's criticism of all speculative theology, almost all the philosophizers in Germany cast themselves back on to Spinoza, so that the whole series of unsuccessful attempts known by the name of post-Kantian philosophy is simply Spinozism tastelessly got up, veiled in all kinds of unintelligible language, and otherwise twisted and distorted," (from The World as Will and Representation, Vol.II, ch. L).

Kant's original philosophy, with its refutation of all speculative philosophy and theology, had been transformed by the German Idealists. Through the use of his technical terms, such as "transcendental," "transcendence|transcendent]]," "reason," "intelligibility," and "thing-in-itself" they attempted to speak of what exists beyond experience and, in this way, to revive the notions of God, free will, and immortality of soul. Kant had effectively relegated these unknowable and inexperiencable notions to faith and belief. The German Idealists Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Schleiermacher tried to reverse Kant's achievement. This trend was continued later in the nineteenth century by American transcendentalists.

Santayana developed his thoughts in order to overcome the effects of Kant's transcendental idealism.

German Idealism, when we study it as a product of its own age and country, is a most engaging phenomenon; it is full of afflatus, sweep, and deep searchings of the heart; but it is essentially romantic and egoistical, and all in it that is not soliloquy is mere system-making and sophistry. Therefore when it is taught by unromantic people ex cathedra, in stentorian tones, and represented as the rational foundation of science and religion, with neither of which it has any honest sympathy, it becomes positively odious – one of the worst impostures and blights to which a youthful imagination could be subjected.

George Santayana, Winds of Doctrine, IV, i.

Kant’s contemporary Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) also constructed a meta-critique (a critique of a critique) of Kant’s rationalism. On one hand, Kant understood modern science as the paradigmatic model of knowledge and presupposed its rationality as a “pure” universal faculty that is free from interpretation. Herder, however, argued that: Kant’s notion of reason is a fictitious invention due to a misunderstanding of language; Kant failed to understand how human thoughts are embedded in language; reason must be understood based on an analysis of its primordial roots in the unified whole of nature and spirit, which are primarily manifested in poetry and religion. As German idealism declined in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Herder came to be recognized and his insights influenced the development of hermeneutics, philosophical hermeneutics, philosophy of culture, and philosophy of language.

See also


  1. In his monumental work in Kantian scholarship, Kant's Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. ISBN 9780300036299), Henry Allison elaborated the "empirical realism" and "transcendental idealism" of Kant's philosophy.
  2. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, "The Science of Logic" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences. (1817-1830)
  3. Bertrand Russell. History of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed. (original 1946) Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0415325056)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Allison, Henry E. Kant's Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. ISBN 978-0300036299
  • Ameriks, Karl. The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0521656955
  • Baur, Michael, and Daniel O. Dahlstrom. The Emergence of German Idealism. Studies in philosophy and the history of philosophy, v. 34. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0813209289
  • Behler, Ernst. Philosophy of German Idealism. The German library, v. 23. New York: Continuum, 1987. ISBN 978-0826403070
  • Brinkmann, Klaus. German Idealism: Critical Concepts in Philosophy. Critical concepts in philosophy. London: Routledge, 2007. ISBN 978-0415344173
  • Desmond, William, Ernst-Otto Jan Onnasch, and Paul Cruysberghs. Philosophy and Religion in German Idealism. Studies in German idealism, v. 3. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004. ASIN B000PY3UUS
  • Dudley, Will. Understanding German Idealism. Stocksfield: Acumen, 2007. ISBN 978-1844650965
  • Franks, Paul W. All or Nothing: Systematicity, Transcendental Arguments, and Skepticism in German Idealism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0674018884
  • Hammer, Espen. German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives. London: Routledge, 2007. ISBN 978-0415373043
  • Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Ernst Behler, Arnold V. Miller, Steven A. Taubeneck, and Diana Behler. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline, and Critical Writings. The German library, v. 24. New York: Continuum, 1990. ISBN 978-0826403391
  • Henrich, Dieter, and David S. Pacini. Between Kant and Hegel: Lectures on German Idealism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0674007734
  • Manfred Engel u. Jürgen Lehmann. "The Aesthetics of German Idealism and Its Reception in European Romanticism." In: Steven Sondrup, Virgil Nemoianu, Gerald Gillespie eds. Nonfictional Romantic Prose. Expanding Borders. 69-95. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: Benjamins, 2004. (A Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages XVIII). ISBN 978-1588114525.
  • O'Connor, Brian, and Georg Mohr. German Idealism: An Anthology and Guide. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0226616711
  • Solomon, Robert C., and Kathleen Marie Higgins. The Age of German Idealism. Routledge history of philosophy, v. 6. London: Routledge, 1993. ISBN 978-0415056045

External links

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