Nicolai Hartmann

From New World Encyclopedia

Nicolai Hartmann (February 20, 1882 – October 9, 1950) was one of the dominant German philosophers during the first half of the twentieth century. Originally a Neo-Kantian idealist, he reversed his position and developed instead a philosophical realism concerned with the extent to which being was intelligible to human beings. He believed that the purpose of philosophy was not to construct reality, but to discover the structural laws of the real world, to state the problems of being and to seek an understanding of the irrational and mysterious.

Hartmann developed a “new ontology” which recognized that man’s capacity to “know” reality was limited by his own existence within the restrictions of time and space, and by the effect of will and emotion on human understanding. Man was therefore able to rationally comprehend only a small part of reality, while the rest remained irrational and incomprehensible and a subject for future study. He also made a critical examination of the categories of being, and held that conceptually constructed categories did not always correspond with the categories of reality. Though Hartmann’s work was world-famous during his lifetime, it was eclipsed by the more radical thought of Martin Heidegger.


Hartmann was born, of German descent, in Riga, which is now in Latvia but was then the capital of the Russian province of Livonia. He studied medicine at the University of Tartu (then Jurjev), then philosophy in St. Petersburg and, most importantly, at the University of Marburg. After fighting on the side of Germany in World War I, Hartmann taught philosophy at the universities of Marburg (1920–25), Cologne (1925–31), Berlin (1931–45), and Göttingen (1945–50) where he died.

Thought and works

Originally a Neo-Kantian, studying under Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp, Hartmann soon developed his own philosophy which has been variously described as a variety of existentialism, or critical realism. Hartmann suffered from being compared with his popular Marburg successor, Martin Heidegger, who was regarded as being much more radical and interesting.

Hartmann’s first work, Platos Logik des Seins (1909; Plato's Logic of Being), reflected his early Kantianism. His two-volume Die Philosophie des deutschen Idealismus (1923–29; The Philosophy of German Idealism), showed signs of rejecting Neo-Kantian views. In Neue Wege der Ontologie (1942; New Ways of Ontology), Hartmann completely reversed the Kantian position that mind constructs reality through thought, and claimed that epistemology depends on ontology, not the opposite. Hartmann's other writings include Philosophie der Natur (1950) and Ästhetik (1953).

Hartmann is the modern discoverer of emergence, which he originally termed "categorial novum." Though it was world-famous during his lifetime, his encyclopedic work is largely forgotten today. His early work on the philosophy of biology is currently regaining popularity due to its high relevance in the discussion of genomics and cloning, and his views on consciousness and free will are currently in vogue with contributors to the Journal of Consciousness Studies. Among Hartmann's students were Boris Pasternak and Hans-Georg Gadamer.

From Neo-Kantian to new ontology

Hartmann reversed the Kantian position that mind constructs reality through thought, by maintaining that objects must first exist before they could be thought about. He believed that the purpose of philosophy was not to construct reality, but to discover the structural laws of the real world, to state the problems of being and to seek an understanding of the irrational and mysterious. His philosophical realism was concerned with the extent to which being was intelligible.

Hartmann believed that traditional philosophy had committed two major errors. First, it had assumed that there were only two alternatives, either to accept an absolute knowledge of being, or to accept that “things in themselves” were totally unknowable. The first choice resulted in closed metaphysical systems that ignored the irrational aspects of being, while the second meant that there was no possibility of any objective knowledge of reality. Philosophy, declared Hartmann, had overlooked the possibility that being might be partially comprehensible through rational thought, while at the same time a large portion of it remained irrational and incomprehensible.

Hartmann declared that the second error of traditional philosophy was the transference of the categories or principles that operated in one field to other fields that were of a totally different nature. For example, mechanistic principles were applied to the organic world, the principles of organic relationships were applied to social and political life, and mental structures were applied to the inanimate world. In order to have a correct understanding of reality, Hartmann believed that it was necessary to use rigorous critical analysis to determine when and whether certain categories were appropriate, and to maintain the validity of those categories within their appropriate domain. He concluded that the totality of beings was a far more complicated structure than had been suggested by traditional metaphysical concepts of unity and wholeness.

The first volume of his tetrology, Das Problem des geistigen Seins (1933), examined the various types of being, not only the general concept of being itself (das Seiende), but existence (Dasein) and essence (Sosein), and the types of being designated by the adjectives "real" and "ideal" (Seinsweisen). The second volume, Möglichkeit und Wirklichkeit (Possibility and Actuality) (1938), discussed modes of being, such as possibility and actuality, necessity and contingency, impossibility and unreality. In the third volume, Der Aufbau der realen Welt (Construction of the Real World) (1940), Hartmann examined the general categories applying to all the strata (Schichten) of the real world. In the final volume, Harmann explored special categories pertaining only to limited areas, such as nature. Categories specific to the realm of cultural entities (geistiges Sein) had been examined in an earlier publication.

The knowledge that people had of beings was itself an aspect, or event, of reality. Knowledge, according to Hartmann, belonged to the highest stratus, that of spirit or culture. Therefore only an ontology of spiritual being (geistiges Sein) could comprehend the essence of knowledge. Although a nontheistic humanist, Hartmann posited three levels of the spirit, which he considered to be a process rather than a substance.

Hartmann distinguished between the basic forms of human thought, which he termed the “subjective categories,” and the basic structures of reality, which he called the “objective categories,” and maintained that the two were not to be considered identical. Human capacity to understand reality was limited by human restrictions of time and space, and by the irrational will and emotion that distorts mental activity; therefore, human beings would always be surrounded by a vast expanse of unobjectifiable being which they were unable to comprehend. The best that scientists and philosophers could hope for was that their subjective (mental) categories would correspond to some extent with the objective categories of actual being.

Laws of complexity

Hartmann formulated a series of “laws of complexity” to express the relationships among the various categories. He identified four levels of complexity; each of the higher levels was superior to the ones below it, but was based upon their existence: (1) inorganic (anorganische Schicht), (2) organic (organische Schicht), (3) emotional (seelische Schicht), and (4) intellectual (geistige Schicht).

1 Law of Recurrence: Lower categories recur in the higher levels as subaspects of higher categories, ... but never vice versa.
2 Law of Modification: The categorical elements modify during their recurrence in the higher levels (they are shaped by the characteristics of the higher levels).
3 Law of the Novum: …[the] higher category…[is] composed of a diversity of lower elements, [it] contains a specific novum,…which is…[not]…included in the lower levels….
4 Law of Distance between Levels: The different levels do not develop continuously, but in leaps. In other words: The levels can be clearly differentiated.[1]

According to Rupert Riedl (1984) and Nikolaas Tinbergen, these laws can also be applied to bio-psycho-social levels of complexity such as: Atom, molecule, cell, organ, individual, and group.


Hartmann followed Max Scheler in the belief that reality, though an orderly and partly rational whole, was devoid of meaning. The consequence was that human beings must carry out their human lives in an environment of reality that was entirely unrelated to human will and aspirations. In Ethik (1926, tr., 3 vol., 1932), Hartmann sought to develop a system of values based on the ethics of Max Scheler. Hartmann argued for the existence of objective values that human beings can intuit and use as guides for action.


Hartmann was a nontheistic humanist who held that the world was a unity, but did not believe that unity should be referred to as God. He did not identify his ontology with metaphysics. Questions dealing with God and immortality belonged to the realm of knowledge that could be considered irrational and might never be comprehensible to human beings. Though they could not be solved by scientific method alone, metaphysical problems were connected to what human beings could know scientifically, and contained an aspect (Einschlag) that could be explored by the rational methods of critical ontology. Hartmann considered this “knowable” aspect of metaphysics a proper domain for the new ontology, and rejected speculation about things that were, in principle, “unknowable.”


Books (German):

  • 1921, Grundzüge einer Metaphysik der Erkenntnis, Vereinigung wissenschaftl. Verleger Berlin.
  • 1923-1929, Die Philosophie des deutschen Idealismus; 1: Fichte, Schelling und die Romantik. - 1923. 2: Hegel. - 1929, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1925, Ethik, de Gruyter Berlin-Leipzig.
  • 1926, Aristoteles und Hegel, Stenger Erfurt.
  • 1927, Allgemeine Biologie, Jena.
  • 1931, Zum Problem der Realitätsgegebenheit, Philosophische Vorträge, Pan-Verlagsges, Berlin.
  • 1933, Das Problem des geistigen Seins: Untersuchgn zur Grundlegung d. Geschichtsphilosophie u. d. Geisteswissenschaften, de Gruyter Berlin-Leipzig.
  • 1935, Ontologie, 4 Volumes I: Zur Grundlegung der Ontologie, de Gruyter Berlin-Leipzig.
  • 1938, II: Möglichkeit und Wirklichkeit, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1940, III: Der Aufbau der realen Welt: Grundriß d. allg. Kategorienlehre, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1950, IV: Philosophie der Natur: Abriss der speziellen Kategorienlehre, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1942, Neue Wege der Ontologie, Kohlhammer Stuttgart.
  • 1942, Systematische Philosophie, Kohlhammer Stuttgart Berlin.
  • 1946, Leibniz als Metaphysiker, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1949, Das Problem des geistigen Seins: Untersuchungen zur Grundlegung der Geschichtsphilosophie und der Geistewissenschaften, Walter de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1951, Teleologisches Denken, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1953, Asthetik, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1954, Philosophische Gespräche, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, Göttingen.
  • 1955, Der philosophische Gedanke und seine Geschichte, Zeitlichkeit und Substantialität, Sinngebung und Sinnerfüllung, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1955, Kleinere Schriften; *Bd. 1*Abhandlungen zur systematischen Philosophie, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1957, Kleinere Schriften; *Bd. 2*Abhandlungen zur Philosophie-Geschichte, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1958, Kleinere Schriften; *Bd. 3*Vom Neukantianismus zur Ontologie, de Gruyter Berlin.

Some articles (German):

  • 1912, "Philosophische Grundfragen der Biologie," in: Wege zur Philosophie, 6.
  • 1924, "Diesseits von Idealismus und Realismus: Ein Beitrag zur Scheidg d. Geschichtl. u. Übergeschichtl. in d. Kantischen Philosophie," in: Sonderdrucke der Kantischen Studien, Pan Verlag R. Heise Berlin, pp. 160-206.
  • 1933, "Systematische Selbstdarstellung," in: Deutsche systematische Philosophie nach ihren Gestaltern, Ebda, Berlin: Junker and Dünnhaupt, pp. 283-340.
  • 1935, "Das Problem des Apriorismus in der Platonischen Philosophie," in: Sitzungsberichte d. Preuss. Akad. d. Wiss. Phil.-hist. Kl. 1935, 15, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1936, "Der philosophische Gedanke und seine Geschichte," in: Abhandlungen d. Preuss. Akad. d. Wissenschaften. Phil.-hist. Kl. 1936, Nr 5, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1937, "Der megarische und der Aristotelische Möglichkeitsbegriff: Ein Beitr. zur Geschichte d. ontolog. Modalitätsproblems," in: Sitzungsberichte d. Preuss. Akad. d. Wiss. Phil.-hist. Kl. 1937, 10, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1938, "Heinrich Maiers Beitrag zum Problem der Kategorien," in: Sitzungsberichte d. Preuss. Akad. d. Wiss. Phil.-hist. Kl. 1938, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1939, "Aristoteles und das Problem des Begriffs," in: Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften: Philosophisch-historische Klasse; Jg. 1939, Nr 5, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1941, "Zur Lehre vom Eidos bei Platon und Aristoteles,” in: Abhandlungen d. Preuss. Akad. d. Wiss. Phil.-hist. Kl. Jg. 1941, Nr 8, de Gruyter Berlin.
  • 1942, "Neue Wege der Ontologie," in: Systematische Philosophie, N. Hartmann, editor, Stuttgart 1942.
  • 1943, "Die Anfänge des Schichtungsgedankens in der alten Philosophie," in: Abhandlungen der Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften: Philosophisch-historische Klasse; Jg. 1943, Nr 3, de Gruyter Berlin.


  1. Nicolai Hartmann, "Construction of the Real World" (in German: "Der Aufbau der realen Welt") (1940; 3rd edition, 1964), p. 432.

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