German idealism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC095-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

From the late eighteenth century until the middle of the nineteenth, German philosophy was dominated by the movement known as German idealism, which began as an attempt to complete Kant’s revolutionary project: the derivation of the principles of knowledge and ethics from the spontaneity and autonomy of mind or spirit. However, German idealists produced systems whose relation to Kant is controversial, due to their emphasis on the absolute unity and historical development of reason.

As a movement to complete Kant’s project, German idealism was punctuated by controversies about whether certain Kantian distinctions constitute dualisms – unbridgeable gaps between elements whose underlying unity must be demonstrated – and about how such dualisms can be overcome (see Kant, I. §3). One controversy concerned the distinction between the form of knowable objects – contributed by the mind, according to Kant – and the matter of sensation – contributed by mind-independent things-in-themselves. Jacobi objected that things-in-themselves lay beyond the boundaries of human knowledge, so Kant should profess ‘transcendental ignorance’ about the origin of sensible matter, leaving open the possibility that reality is mind-dependent. Another controversy concerned Kant’s distinction between the spatio-temporal forms of sensibility and the categorial forms of understanding. Maimon (1790) argued that unless the underlying unity of this distinction were demonstrated, the applicability of categories to sensible objects could not be demonstrated against sceptics like Hume. Instead of defeating scepticism as he intended, some thought Kant had ensured its triumph by establishing unbridgeable dualisms between mind and reality, and between understanding and sensibility.

In the 1790s, some Kantians – notably Reinhold, Fichte and Schelling – sought to complete Kant’s project through systematization. Troublesome dualisms would be overcome by positing distinct mental forms, as well as the distinction between mind and reality, as necessary conditions of the mind’s free and unitary activity, and thus as necessary elements of a unified system (see Fichte, J.G. §3; Schelling, F.W.J. von §1). However, other Kantians – notably Buhle – accused the systematizers of undermining the distinctness of form and matter, and of attempting to generate matter from pure form. Meanwhile the systematizers, seeking to defeat scepticism, claimed metaphysical knowledge grounded in intellectual intuition of the mind’s spontaneity (see Fichte, J.G. §5). But Kant had explicitly denied that humans could attain such knowledge.

Professing continued allegiance to Kant despite these apparent departures, some systematizers – notably Fichte – claimed that Kant’s teaching was only intelligible from a special standpoint and that, having attained that standpoint, they were expressing Kant’s spirit, if not his letter. However, in his 1799 Open Letter on Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre, Kant publicly repudiated all attempts to discern his philosophy’s spirit from a special standpoint and rejected any endeavour to bridge the gap between form and matter. But those who were repudiated did not change their ways. Finding Kant unable to complete the revolution he had started, they henceforth constructed their systems more independently of Kant’s writings. The influence of pre-Kantian philosophers, notably Spinoza, was explicitly acknowledged.

In order to overcome Kantian dualisms without ignoring his distinctions, Idealists produced a variety of developmental monisms (see Fichte, J.G. §3; Schelling, F.W.J. von §2; Hegel, G.W.F. §4). Such systems portray a single, developing principle expressing itself in dualisms whose unstable, conflictual nature necessitates further developments. Thus reality is a developing, organic whole whose principle can be grasped and whose unity can be articulated in a philosophical system. But the dualisms encountered in everyday experience are not illusory. Rather, they are necessary stages in reality’s development towards its full realization. This conception of development is often called dialectic.

Developmental monism emphasized the sociality and historicity of reason. Fichte was the first to emphasize sociality, arguing that the development of individual self-consciousness required consciousness of another mind, and deriving a theory of justice from the idea of one individual recognizing another as such (see Fichte, J.G. §7). Hegel placed particular emphasis on historicity, portraying human history as a series of conflicts and resolutions culminating in a just society that would enable the reciprocal recognition of individuals, as well as the perfect self-recognition of reason at which philosophy had always aimed (see Hegel, G.W.F. §8). Thus history – especially the history of philosophy – acquired unprecedented significance as the narrative of the mind’s ascent to self-knowledge. And it was hoped that a philosophical account of society’s historical development would correct the deficiencies of the French revolution, which was often called the political equivalent of Kant’s revolution.

Idealists disagreed about whether Kant’s distinction between mind and nature was another problematic dualism. Schelling and Hegel argued that a systematic philosophy must portray nature as the mind’s preconscious development. But Fichte regarded their philosophy of nature as a betrayal of Idealism that explained the mind in nonmental terms and deprived the mind of its autonomy. By 1801 the disagreement was explicit (see Fichte, J.G. §6; Schelling, F.W.J. von §§1, 2; Hegel, G.W.F. §§3, 7).

Controversy about another putative dualism – between concept and intuition – ended the alliance between Schelling and Hegel. Without naming him, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) appeared to criticize Schelling’s view that philosophy can only be understood by those innately able to intuit – to grasp non-discursively – the identity implicit in apparent dualisms. Hegel argued that the completed philosophical system must be conceptualized and rendered discursively intelligible to everyone. However, only those who transformed their accustomed ways of thinking could understand the system (see Hegel, G.W.F. §§5, 6). So Hegel undertook to guide his readers through a series of transformations of consciousness representing the history of human thought, as well as the education of the individual. The Napoleonic wars forced Hegel from university life, but after his return in 1814, and especially after his move to Berlin in 1818, his version of idealism – with its portrayal of reason developing in both nature and culture towards conceptual articulation – became dominant.

However, Hegel died in 1831 and Schelling raised influential criticisms of Hegel when he began teaching in Berlin in 1841. In an inaugural lecture before an audience including Engels and Kierkegaard, Schelling argued that Hegel’s system was an inevitably failed attempt to overcome the dualism between conceptual thought and intuited existence. Schelling’s criticism was seminal for Marxism and existentialism and was more influential than his alternative proposals, which he had been developing under the influence of theosophy since 1809 (see Existentialism; Marxism, Western; Schelling, F.W.J. von §§3, 4; Hegelianism §3). The relationship between thought and existence remains problematic for post-idealist philosophy, and German idealism remains both an object of criticism and a source of insight.

Citing this article:
Franks, Paul. German idealism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC095-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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