Johann Friedrich Herbart

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Johann Friedrich Herbart

Johann Friedrich Herbart (May 4, 1776 - August 11, 1841) was a German philosopher, psychologist, and founder of pedagogy as an academic discipline. His work found little favor during his lifetime, but after his death it had profound influence on teaching practices. His theory of education, which brought ideas from both psychology and metaphysics, particularly ethics, into the study of learning, was dominant from the late nineteenth century until new approaches to education, particularly the progressive ideas of John Dewey and others in the twentieth century took over.

Although his teaching methodology was overtaken by new ideas, Herbart's institution of pedagogy as an academic field has remained. The idea of a science of education, including psychology as a source of information about the nature of the learner as well as the learning process, was and is significant. The building of character as the essential goal of education, rather than simply the accumulation of knowledge, is not itself a new idea. It was Herbart's structuring of a scientific model of education in which development of internal character was the priority, and the acquisition of knowledge and skills—the activity of teaching that is used to achieve that goal—was subordinate, that was innovative. Herbart also drew a clear connection between the development of individual character through education and the resulting benefits to society: The emergence of productive citizens. While Herbart's teaching methodology later became routinized, ideas such as those still have merit. Their weakness lies more in Herbart's lack of understanding of how good character develops, something that psychology (in his day and today) had not been able to uncover, than in his model of education.


Johann Friedrich Herbart was born on May 4, 1776, in Oldenburg, North Germany. His father was the state councilor for Oldenburg. Young Herbart studied under Fichte at the University of Jena from 1794 to 1797, where he also encountered Friedrich von Schiller. Although Herbart distanced himself from the philosophical views of his teacher, he remained true to the rigorous style of thinking he learned from Fichte (Hilgenheger 1993).

His first work was as a tutor in Switzerland, where he met Johann Pestalozzi and visited his school at Burgdorf. He then taught philosophy and pedagogy at the University of Göttingen until 1809. During this time he published his educational theories, including Allgemeine Pädagogik (General Pedagogics) his major educational work, in 1806. He also published a number of philosophical treatises, including his Allgemeine Praktische Philosophie (General Practical Philosophy) in 1808.

In 1809, Herbart accepted the chair of philosophy formerly held by Kant at the University of Königsberg. There he also established an experimental pedagogical institute. He married Mary Drake, an English girl.

At Königsberg he wrote prolifically, including texts on psychology such as Psychologie als Wissenschaft (Psychology as a Science) (1824-1825), as well as metaphysics including Allgemeine Metaphysik (General Metaphysics) (1828-1829). His work had taken a liberal turn whereas Prussia was becoming more reactionary.

In 1833, Herbart returned once more to Göttingen, and remained there as professor of philosophy, continuing to publish until his death.

Herbart died on August 11, 1841, in Göttingen.


In Herbart's day, psychology did not exist as a separate discipline, and while education as a practice had existed for centuries again there was no discipline separate from philosophy that addressed its goals and methods. Herbart, then, was a philosopher, whose work advanced the establishment of the scientific discipline of psychology. But his most significant impact lay in the field of education and the creation of the "art and science of teaching"—pedagogy.


Philosophy, according to Herbart, is an attempt to remodel the notions given by experience. It begins with reflection upon our empirical experiences, and consists in the reformation and elaboration of these. The three types of elaboration give us three divisions of philosophy. The first, logic, has to render our perceptions and the judgments and reasonings arising from them clear and distinct. However, in some cases the more distinct they are made, the more contradictory their elements become. Changing and supplementing these so as to make them comprehensible is the problem of the second part of philosophy, or metaphysics. A third class of conceptions embody our judgments of approval and disapproval; the philosophical treatment of these falls to aesthetics.


In Herbart's writings logic receives comparatively meager notice. He insisted strongly on its purely formal character, and expressed himself in agreement with Kantians such as Fries and Krug.


Herbart's most important philosophical work is Allgemeine Metaphysik (1828–1829). His metaphysics was a form of realism, and he strongly rejected the German idealism of Hegel.

Herbart maintained that being consists of a plurality of simple "reals," which were modeled after Leibniz's monads. These reals are absolute; they do not change or decay. However, they can interact in a multitude of different ways. Unlike Leibniz, Herbart did not regard all reals as sharing in the common characteristic of consciousness, and his mechanical model of their interaction was quite different from Leibniz's pre-established harmony (Watson 1978). Herbart described the qualities of the real:

  1. This must exclude everything negative; for non-A sublates instead of positing, and is not absolute, but relative to A
  2. The real must be absolutely simple; for if it contain two determinations, A and B, then either these are reducible to one, which is the true quality, or they are not, when each is conditioned by the other and their position is no longer absolute
  3. All quantitative conceptions are excluded, for quantity implies parts, and these are incompatible with simplicity
  4. But there may be a plurality of reals, albeit the mere conception of being can tell us nothing as to this

This plurality of reals is a cardinal point of Herbart's ontological system, and can be called "pluralistic realism."

Having established the absolute characteristics of these reals as individual entities, the issue then becomes how their relationships constitute the myriad of objects and events that we experience. Merely postulating a number of reals in connection (Zusammensetz) does not suffice as an explanation of phenomena; something must happen when they relate. The answer to this is the second hinge-point of Herbart's theoretical philosophy.

What happens when two reals A and B are together is that, assuming them to differ in quality, they tend to disturb each other to the extent of that difference, at the same time that each preserves itself intact by resisting, as it were, the others disturbance. Thus, by relating with different reals the self-preservations of A will vary accordingly, A remaining the same through all; just as, by way of illustration, hydrogen preserves its identity in water and in ammonia, or as the same line may be now a normal and now a tangent.

Just as things exist as reals, maintaining their identity while participating in combinations, ideas also have existence and resist change, seeking self-preservation. Even when driven below the level of consciousness, they still continue to exist and may return to consciousness when circumstances permit. Ideas relate to each other, forming complex systems of thought depending on the type of experience of the individual and their interests. In the course of mental development, ideas of certain types become dominant, affecting how new ideas are received.

Herbart regarded the reals that make up this objective world as much like Leibniz's monads, having existence that is not simply material. For Herbart, the human soul was also a real, interacting with other reals, resisting as an act of self-preservation, and connecting in different ways as it experienced other reals, including other souls, in the world. This suggests a spiritual component. Thus, Herbart was a realist but no materialist.

Herbart's metaphysics was also very formalistic and deterministic. He believed in rigid laws of human nature. There was little or no room for free will. The soul and the mind are seen as impacted by experiences in a mechanical way:

The soul seems to be conceived merely as the arena for chance experiences coming from without. Our whole mental life is solely the resultant of the collision or coalescence of the presentations flowing in upon us. Every volition is the inexorable product of the circle of thought (Maher 1910).

Indeed, the psychology he developed based upon his philosophy was intended to be a mechanical model of the mind, and his principles of teaching, although apparently designed to foster character development based on the individual interest of the student, became formalized and rigid programs in which students and teachers merely followed the book. Finally, Herbart was accused of "trying to shape the mind through external influences and of wanting to impose the teaching needed for this purpose. Herbart was said to have denied the existence of active functions in man" (Hilgenheger 1993).

Aesthetics and ethics

Herbart viewed aesthetics as the elaboration of ideas in terms of the attribution of beauty or the reverse. The beautiful is to be carefully distinguished from the allied conceptions of the useful or the pleasant, which vary with time, place, and person; beauty, by contrast, is predicated absolutely and involuntarily by all who have attained the right standpoint.

Ethics, which he regarded as the most important branch of aesthetics, deals with relations among volitions (Willensverhältnisse) that unconditionally please or displease. Approximating Kant's view in some respects, Herbart replaced the Categorical Imperative with five moral ideas (Musterbegriffe), as follows:

  1. Internal Freedom—the underlying relation being that of the individual's will to his judgment of it
  2. Perfection—the relation being that of his several volitions each other in respect of intensity, variety and concentration
  3. Benevolence—the relation being that between his own will and the thought of another's
  4. Right—in case of actual conflict with other
  5. Retribution or Equity—for intended good or evil

These five are the foundation of an ethical society: A system of rewards and punishments, a system of administration, a system of culture, and an animated society, correspond to the ideas of law, equity, benevolence, perfection, and internal freedom respectively. Virtue is the perfect conformity of the will with these moral ideas. The application of ethics with a view to the realization of the moral ideas Herbart called "moral technology" (Tugendlehre), of which the chief divisions are Pedagogy and Politics.


Underlying Herbart's theory of psychology were several metaphysical assumptions, in particular his concept of being. His general conception was based on realism, that perceived appearances of objects are based on actual things—independent elements called "reals." Mental life is the manifestation of the interactions of the reals, ideas formed from relationships among reals. Herbart believed that these interactions could then be studied and modeled, much as physics constructed models of mechanics.

Although for Herbart psychology was rooted in experience, he viewed experimentation as impossible in psychology. Rather, he believed that mathematics was the essential foundation for the science of psychology (Watson 1978). He developed a detailed calculus of the mind, which, although not adopted by others, nevertheless encouraged those who did develop psychology as a science. For example, Gustav Fechner combined mathematical formulations with the experimental method.

Herbart rejected the view of the mind as composed of independent faculties, that could be trained through study of particular subjects. Instead he focused on ideas and memories of previous experiences, which he regarded as the basis of learning. He developed this as a theory of apperception—namely that our perception of new experiences occurs in relation to past experience.

In Herbart's theory, information is better received when the learner has existing knowledge that is related to, or at least compatible with, the new material and that knowledge is of significance and interest to the individual. Interest is not just a goal, but also functions as a means to achieve that goal:

Only a continuous interest can constantly and effortlessly expand the circle of thought, give access to the world and encourage individuals to participate sincerely in the destiny of their fellow men (Hilgenher 1993).

This idea that learning takes place through building on existing knowledge that is of interest to the learner was the beginnings of a theory of motivation (Clark 2000).

Applied to teaching, this suggests that the worst possible situation is boredom. Herbart's view was that students link new ideas to their existing ideas (or knowledge). Thus, to be successful, a teacher should identify the interests and past experiences of their students and present new material in ways that can be linked to those contexts. Through relating new material to the student's previous experience Herbart believed there would be less resistance to perception of those new ideas.

To this Herbart added the concept of "versatility" of interest, by which he referred to the development of a balanced, well-rounded whole, leading to an individual with the ability to deal with many aspects in depth. He noted six orientations of the mind, corresponding to the Humanism of his day: Empirical, speculative, and aesthetic interests in the sphere of cognition; societal and religious interests in the area of inter-human relations; and the interests of the individual (Hilgenheger 1993).


Although Herbart was a contemporary of Fröbel, and they were both enthusiastic about the work of Pestalozzi and the opportunities it offered in the development of educational theory, they followed very different directions in their work. Herbart not only made significant contributions to the reform of teaching practices he also revolutionized pedagogical thinking (Hilgenheger 1993). His philosophical view, based on realism, that all mental phenomena result from the interaction of elementary ideas, led Herbart to believe that a science of education was possible. Herbart's work led to the establishment and acceptance of pedagogy as an academic discipline.

Herbart distinguished between education—shaping the development of character with a view to improving the person—and teaching—developing existing aptitudes, imparting useful skills, and conveying new information. For Herbart, these two are linked hierarchically, with teaching being the "central activity of education" (Hilgenheger 1993).

He believed that educational methods must be founded in psychology, to provide understanding of the mind, and ethics to determine the goals of education (Clark 2000). Herbart’s pedagogy emphasized the connection between individual development and the resulting societal contribution. In Platonic tradition, Herbart espoused that only by becoming productive citizens could people fulfill their true purpose:

He believed that every child is born with a unique potential, his Individuality, but that this potential remained unfulfilled until it was analysed and transformed by education in accordance with what he regarded as the accumulated values of civilization (Blyth 1981: 70).

According to Herbart, abilities were not innate but could be instilled. Only formalized, rigorous education, Herbart believed, could provide the framework for moral and intellectual development. In order to appeal to learners’ interests, Herbart advocated using classical literature and historical stories instead of the drier readers and predictable, moralistic tales that were popular at the time (Smith 2002: 111).

He distinguished between the instructional process and the content of what was to be taught. In his work Universal Pedagogy (1906), Herbart advocated five formal steps in teaching, which were translated into a practical teaching methodology:

  1. Preparation—relating new material to be learned to relevant existing ideas (memories) to stimulate the student's interest (prepare students to be ready for the new lesson)
  2. Presentation—presenting new material in the form of actual experience of concrete objects (present the new lesson)
  3. Association—comparison of the new idea with existing ideas to find similarities and differences and thus implant the new idea in the mind of the student (associate the new lesson with ideas studied earlier)
  4. Generalization—procedures designed to take learning beyond perception and experience of the concrete into the realm of abstract concepts (use examples to illustrate the lesson's major points)
  5. Application—using the newly acquired knowledge so that it becomes an integral part of the life of the student (test students to ensure they learned the new lesson).

Herbart believed that such an educational paradigm would provide an intellectual base that would lead to a consciousness of social responsibility:

Using this structure a teacher prepared a topic of interest to the children, presented that topic, and questioned them inductively, so that they reached new knowledge based on what they had already known, looked back, and deductively summed up the lesson’s achievements, then related them to moral precepts for daily living (Miller 2003: 114).

Herbart's work even in education received little acclaim before his death in 1841. However, his pedagogy enjoyed a surge of popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. While Germany was its intellectual center, it “found a ready echo in those countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and the United States in which the development of Individuality into Character appeared particularly well attuned to the prevailing economic, political and social circumstances” (Blyth 1981: 77). This combination of individual potentiality and civic responsibility seemed to reflect democratic ideals.

By the twentieth century, however, the steps had become mechanical and Herbart's underlying ideas on ethics, psychology, and aesthetics had been forgotten. In their place, new pedagogical theories, such as those of John Dewey in the United States, which freed the child from what had become a controlled learning environment, grew in popularity.


When Herbart died in 1841, his work had not been particularly influential. Although insightful, in the post-Kantian period his realism was most notable in its contrast with the German idealism of Hegel. However, it did not lead to any new schools or directions in philosophy and had little lasting impact. His approach to psychology was not been adopted by those seeking to establish it as a separate discipline, although the mechanistic view of mind is found in Freud; his work did, however, contribute to that endeavor. Herbart's most significant contribution in the realm of psychology is probably that he made clear that psychology was crucial for educational theory and practice (Watson 1978).

It is within the realm of education that Herbart's legacy is to be found. Although in his lifetime he had not seen reforms of the educational system that he hoped for, within a few years of his death a new educational movement known as "Herbartianism" emerged based on his teachings. Centers for Herbatian teaching were established at the universities of Leipzig, Jena, and Vienna and associations and journals were founded dedicated to Herbartian pedagogics. For example, the Association for Scientific Pedagogics was established in Leipzig in 1868. Translations of his work appeared in French (General Pedagogics in 1895) and English (1898), published both in London and Boston.

The National Herbartian Society (later renamed the National Society for the Study of Education) was formed in the United States in 1892, with the purpose of promoting Herbart's ideas as they might relate to the needs of the United States. For the Herbartians, education has as its goal the development of character such that the child is well prepared and able to participate successfully as members of their family and society in all aspects of life including religious, economic, and so forth. They regarded the foundational elements of elementary education, when properly selected and taught, to be "potent influences in training the child's moral insight and disposition" (De Garmo 1895).

Although his teaching methodology was overtaken by new ideas, Herbart's institution of pedagogy as an academic field has remained. The idea of a science of education, including psychology as a source of information about the nature of the learner as well as the learning process, has continued to advance teaching methods. Though the emphasis on character building through literary appreciation diminished somewhat after the movement toward utilitarianism following World War I, Herbart’s pedagogy continued to influence the field by raising important questions about the role of critical thinking, and literary appreciation in education. The building of character, rather than simply the accumulation of knowledge, which he viewed as a method to achieve that goal, is a cornerstone to his theory. It can be said that without it, the whole enterprise of education is weakened if not fatally undermined.

Major works

  • Allgemeine Pädagogik. [1806, 1894]. 1999. Thoemmes Press. ISBN 1855062879.
  • Hauptpunkte der Metaphysik. 1808.
  • Allgemeine praktische Philosophie. 1808.
  • Lehrbuch zur Einleitung in die Philosophie. [1813] 1883.
  • Lehrbuch der Psychologie [1816, 1887] 2003. Würzburg. ISBN 382602480X.
  • Psychologie als Wissenschaft. 1824-1825.
  • Allgemeine Metaphysik. 1828-1829.
  • Psychologische Untersuchungen. 1839-1840.
  • Encyklopädie der Philosophie. 2nd ed. 1841.
  • Umriss pädagogischer Vorlesungen. 2nd ed. 1841.
  • Lehren und Leben [2nd. ed. 1907, Otto Flügel (ed).] 2002. Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 0543691497.

Some of his works have been translated into English under the following titles:

  • Textbook in Psychology. 1891. M. K. Smith (trans.).
  • The Science of Education and the Aesthetic Revelation of the World. 1892. H. M. and E. Felkinand (trans.).
  • Letters and Lectures on Education. 1898. H. M. and E. Felkin (trans.).
  • ABC of Sense Perception. 1896. W. J. Eckhoff (trans.).
  • Application of Psychology to the Science of Education. 1898. B. C. Mulliner (trans.).
  • Outlines of Educational Doctrine. [1901] 2007. A. F. Lange (trans.). Spaight Press. ISBN 1406743240.
  • A Study in Pedagogics. [1911] 2008. A. M. Williams (trans.). Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1436502542.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adams, John. [1895] 2007. The Herbartian Psychology applied to Education: Being A Series Of Essays Applying The Psychology Of Johann Friedrich Herbart. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 0548200491.
  • Blyth, A. 1981. From individuality to character: The Herbartian sociology applied to education. British Journal of Educational Studies 29(1): 69-79.
  • Clark, Donald. 2000. Johann Friedrich Herbart. Retrieved November 11, 2008.
  • Compayre, Gabriel. [1907] 2008. Herbart, And Education By Instruction. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1436869126.
  • Davidson, John. [1906] 2008. A new Interpretation of Herbart's Psychology and Educational Theory through the Philosophy of Leibnitz. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1436925082.
  • De Garmo, Charles. [1895] 2001. Herbart and the Herbartians. University Press of the Pacific. ISBN 978-0898756968.
  • Dodd, Catherine I. [1904] 2007. Introduction to the Herbartian Principles of Teaching. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-0548158715.
  • Dunkel, Harold B. 1970. Herbart and Herbartianism: An Educational Ghost Story. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press. ISBN 0226172198.
  • Dunkel, Harold B. 1985. Herbart and Education. Peter Smith Publishing. ISBN 0844620076.
  • Felkin, Henry M., and Emmie Felkin. [1895] 2008. An Introduction to Herbart's Science and Practice of Education. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1436512237.
  • Hayward, F. H. [1903] 2008. The Critics Of Herbartianism And Other Matter Contributory To The Study Of The Herbartian Question. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1436581066.
  • Hilgenheger, Norbert. 1993. Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841). Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education XXIII(3/4): 649-664. Paris: UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, 2000. Retrieved September 4, 2008.
  • Lang, Ossian Herbert. 1894. Outline of Herbart's Pedagogics: With a Biographical Introduction. E. L. Kellogg & Co.
  • Maher, M. 1910. Herbart and Herbartianism. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved November 12, 2008.
  • McMurray, Charles Alexander. [1893] 2007. The Elements of General Method: Based on the Principles of Herbart. BiblioBazaar. ISBN 978-1434632142.
  • Miller, E. J. 2003. Teaching methods, the Herbartian revolution and Douglas Clay Ridgley at Illinois State Normal University. Journal of Geography 102 (3): 110-120.
  • Smith, Nila Banton. 2002. American Reading Instruction. Newark, NJ: International Reading Association. ISBN 0872073483.
  • Williams, A. M. [1911] 2008. Johann Friedrich Herbart: A Study In Pedagogics. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-1436502542.


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