Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.


The Bildung tradition

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC125-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

Bildung was a central concept in the ethical and aesthetic thought of many late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century German thinkers associated with Weimar classicism, romanticism, and idealism, notably Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834). As such, the Bildung tradition is not a philosophical school but rather a loosely bounded conversation over the cultural significance of Bildung. The term itself, which has no straightforward English translation, can mean ethical formation, development, education, or culture; it had roots both in ancient Greek notions of culture or paideia and in Christian understandings of human creation and re-formation in the image of God. Early on, Bildung is understood primarily as a process of development, taking place at the level of the individual, of whole cultures, and sometimes even of the world as such, in which diverse inner capacities, powers, and/or tendencies are fully realised by being brought into harmonious interrelation. Later, it is understood more often as a cultural product, associated with the bourgeois intelligentsia and their cultural capital. Initially bound up with growing aspirations to broadened political participation, Bildung comes in the late nineteenth century to be associated with political withdrawal by cultural elites. Bildung as a cultural ideal and aspiration is thematised and interrogated in the Bildungsroman, a subgenre of the novel epitomised by Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship but often seen as including classic coming-of-age novels beyond the German context, such as Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations or J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In the German-speaking world today, the term Bildung is simply synonymous with education and has ceased to carry a determinate philosophical meaning, although it is still broadly associated with the ideals of liberal arts education as championed by Wilhelm von Humboldt. To trace the Bildung tradition from beginning to end is to highlight the emergence, transformation, and ultimate chastening of cultural aspirations that were central to European modernity.

Citing this article:
Herdt, Jennifer A.. The Bildung tradition, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC125-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

Related Articles