Herbart, Johann Friedrich (1776–1841)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC039-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

From 1798, Herbart developed a ‘realistic’ alternative to the idealistic philosophy of Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. His theoretical philosophy, which centres around metaphysics and psychology, is sharply critical of the idealistic concept of subjectivity. His practical philosophy rests on ethics and educational theory, each of which presumes the existence of the other.

Herbart laid the foundations for his philosophy by critically examining Fichte’s philosophy in the late 1790s. Like Kant, Fichte had distinguished between theoretical and practical philosophy. Unlike Kant, however, he believed he could pinpoint the factor uniting them. Fichte called this uniting factor ‘the ego’, ‘pure, absolute self-consciousness’ (see Fichte, J.G. §§3–5).

Herbart responded by stating that it is true that we understand the ego to be identical with self. It is also true that this term suggests itself forcibly to us. However, we cannot conceive of the ego as constituting an identity of this kind, because it is a contradictory concept in itself. If the ego is to be comprehended as an act of ‘conceiving of oneself’ or as ‘conceiving of one’s ego’, it should be possible for us to know that the ego is conceiving something, but not what it is conceiving. Fichte’s concept of the absolute ego is therefore circular and incomplete.

This leads on to the theoretical part of Herbart’s philosophy and into the realms of metaphysics and psychology. For Herbart, metaphysics consists first of a search for and analysis of concepts which are given but not conceivable, because they are contradictory in themselves. Contradictions of this kind present themselves not merely in terms of the concept of ‘ego’, but also in the concept of an individual thing with many characteristics (the problem of inherence), the concept of change (the problem of causality), and in the concept of matter. In Herbart’s view, the second task of metaphysics is to map out a path showing how such contradictions in thinking can be resolved. This task is performed by methodology. In general terms, an attempt is made to demonstrate that the given contradiction in concepts (for example, identity of ego subject and ego object) rests on manifold, composite premises. While these premises are not apparent in the given concepts, the concepts refer to them as a part or outcome. Herbart calls this analysis the ‘relations method’. Finally, his view of metaphysics incorporates ontology and ‘synechology’. The task of ontology as the science of being is to cast light on the characteristics and structure of being, in other words to determine what is real in the appearances of things. While scepticism may prevail in respect of what we perceive or experience in the world, the fact that we do actually experience something cannot be denied or arbitrarily declared invalid. Experience as a state cannot be negated. For Herbart this implies that being means at any one time an ‘absolute position’. Being is positive, per se simple, and beyond all relationship. The world we know is based on a multiplicity of simple entities, the ‘reals’, which are self-sufficient and react to change (‘pressure’) by seeking self-preservation. Synechology, then, determines the metaphysical manifestations in time and space of the multitude of individual reals which are in themselves simple (line, level, space; movement, speed).

By drawing on the essentials of metaphysics, Herbart was at the same time able to lay the foundations for his psychology. The ‘true’ basis of the concept of the ego, which is recognized as being contradictory, resides in the fact that Fichte’s formula of the conceiving ego being identical with the conceived ego actually refers to a multiplicity of changing states, for which the formulas must be presumed. Herbart’s explanation of self-consciousness as the essential task of ‘realistic’ psychology is as follows. Human consciousness is a mass of different interacting presentations. A study of their interaction gives rise to ‘statics and dynamics’ of the mind. The conscious separation of the act of conceiving from what is conceived is important for the development of self-consciousness. These two series of ‘presentations’ are joined by the concept of ‘self’ which presents itself, above all, in linguistic terms. Just as we say that water carves out its river bed ‘for itself’, we also project ourselves as the ‘subject’ of the act of conceiving onto a ‘self’ in which the conceiving and the conceived ego are deemed to be one and the same thing.

Herbart’s practical philosophy also flows from his criticism of ego. Just as there can be no pure ego, there can equally be no pure, transcendentally free will (see Fichte, J.G. §§3–5; Kant, I. §11). A pure will would be a will which does not desire anything. That is a contradiction, however, since we always want something.

Herbart deduces from this that reason does not express itself as will, but rather as an aesthetic judgment. In the sphere of ethics, reason does not pass judgment on natural or artistic beauty, but on the well-balanced nature of human decisions. The fundamental judgment here is that human beings should gain an insight into what is good by dint of their will. This judgment leads to the ‘idea of inner freedom’ as consisting of a unity between insight and will. Herbart answers the question of which insight is good by presenting four more aesthetic ideas: perfection, benevolence, right and equity. These five ideas are directed at the individual. Similarly, Herbart derives five other ideas for society. In passing its judgment on aesthetic grounds, reason cannot induce morality (as a unity between insight and will). The fact that individuals can follow the judgments of reason is not a matter for moral philosophy or reason itself, but for educational theory. The primary task of educational theory – of ‘educative instruction’ – is to ensure that the child gains an insight. Its second task is to strengthen the will of the child and lead it to follow its insights – the task of ‘discipline’. Ethics is ineffectual without educational theory and is devoid of any moral reality, while educational theory without ethics is devoid of any goal or reason.

Citing this article:
Langewand, Alfred. Herbart, Johann Friedrich (1776–1841), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC039-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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