German idealism

German idealism

German idealism was a philosophical movement in Germany in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It developed out of the work of Immanuel Kant in the 1780s and 1790s, and was closely linked both with romanticism and the revolutionary politics of the Enlightenment. The most well-known thinkers in the movement were Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, while Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Gottlob Ernst Schulze, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, and Friedrich Schleiermacher were also major contributors.

Meaning of idealism

The word "idealism" has more than one meaning. The philosophical meaning of idealism here is that the properties we discover in objects depend on the way that those objects appear to us as perceiving subjects, and not something they possess "in themselves", apart from our experience of them. The very notion of a "thing in itself" should be understood as an option of a set of functions for an operating mind, such that we consider something that appears without respect to the specific manner in which it appears. The question of what properties a thing might have "independently of the mind" is thus incoherent for Idealism.


Kant (1724 - 1804) is sometimes considered the first of the German idealists. Kant's work purported to bridge the two dominant philosophical schools in the eighteenth century: 1) rationalism, which held that knowledge could be attained by reason alone "a priori" (prior to experience), and 2) empiricism, which held that knowledge could be arrived at only through the senses. Kant's solution was to propose that while we could know particular facts about the world only via sensory experience, we could know the "form" they must take prior to any experience. That is, we cannot know what objects we will encounter. Kant called his mode of philosophising "critical philosophy," in that it was supposedly less concerned with setting out positive doctrine than with critiquing the limits to the theories we "can" set out. The conclusion he presented, as above, he called "transcendental idealism". This distinguished it from earlier "idealism", such as George Berkeley's, which held that we can only directly know the ideas in our minds, not the objects that they represent. Kant claimed that we know more. He said that we also directly know that there possibly are things-in-themselves, noumena, that is, things that exist other than being merely sensations and ideas in our minds. Noumena are empirically real and transcendentally real. Kant held in the "Critique of Pure Reason" that the world of appearances (phenomena) is empirically real and transcendentally ideal. The world of things-in-themselves cannot be known as being actual, only as possible, or as "phenomena", which are not simple appearances, but the way things appear to us. The mind plays a central role in influencing the way that the world is experienced: we perceive phenomena through time, space and the categories of the understanding. It is this notion that was taken to heart by Kant's philosophical successors.

At the other end of the movement, Arthur Schopenhauer is not normally classed as a German idealist. He considered himself to be a transcendental idealist. In his major work "The World as Will and Idea" he discusses his indebtedness to Kant, and the work includes Schopenhauer's extensive analysis the "Critique". The Young Hegelians, a number of philosophers who developed Hegel's work in various directions, were in some cases idealists. On the other hand, Karl Marx numbered among them, and he professed to be a materialist.

Kant's transcendental idealism consisted of taking a point of view outside of and above oneself (transcendentally) and understanding that the mind directly knows only phenomena or ideas. Whatever exists other than mental phenomena, or ideas that appear to the mind, is a thing-in-itself and cannot be directly and immediately known.


In 1787, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi addressed, in his book "On Faith, or Idealism and Realism", Kant's concept of "thing-in-itself." Jacobi agreed that the objective thing-in-itself cannot be directly known. However, he stated, it must be taken on faith. A subject must believe that there is a real object in the external world that is related to the representation or mental idea that is directly known. This faith or belief is a result of revelation or immediately known, but logically unproved, truth. The real existence of a thing-in-itself is revealed or disclosed to the observing subject. In this way, the subject directly knows the ideal, subjective representations that appear in the mind, and strongly believes in the real, objective thing-in-itself that exists outside of the mind. By presenting the external world as an object of faith, Jacobi legitimized belief and its theological associations.


Karl L. Reinhold published two volumes of "Letters Concerning the Kantian Philosophy" in 1790 and 1792. They provided a clear explication of Kant's thoughts, which were previously inaccessible due to Kant's use of complex or technical language.

Reinhold also tried to prove Kant's assertion that humans and other animals can know only images that appear in their minds, never "things-in-themselves" (things that are not mere appearances in a mind). In order to establish his proof, Reinhold stated an axiom that could not possibly be doubted. From this axiom, all knowledge of consciousness could be deduced. His axiom was: "Representation is distinguished in consciousness by the subject from the subject and object, and is referred to both."

He thereby started, not from definitions, but, from a principle that referred to mental images or representations in a conscious mind. In this way, he analyzed knowledge into (1) the knowing subject, or observer, (2) the known object, and (3) the image or representation in the subject's mind. In order to understand transcendental idealism, it is necessary to reflect deeply enough to distinguish experience as consisting of these three components: subject, representation, and object.


Kant felt that a mental idea or representation must be of something external to the mind. He gave the name of "ding an Sich", or thing-in-itself to that which is represented. However, Gottlob Ernst Schulze wrote, anonymously, that the law of cause and effect only applies to the phenomena within the mind, not between those phenomena and any things-in-themselves outside of the mind. That is, a thing-in-itself cannot be the cause of an idea or image of a thing in the mind. In this way, he discredited Kant's philosophy by using Kant's own reasoning to disprove the existence of a thing-in-itself.


After Schulze had seriously criticized the notion of a thing-in-itself, Fichte (1762 - 1814) produced a philosophy similar to Kant's, but without a thing-in-itself. Fichte asserted that our representations, ideas, or mental images are merely the productions of our ego, or knowing subject. For him, there is no external thing-in-itself that produces the ideas. On the contrary, the knowing subject, or ego, is the cause of the external thing, object, or non-ego.

Fichte's style was a challenging exaggeration of Kant's already difficult writing. Also, Fichte claimed that his truths were apparent to intellectual, non-perceptual, intuition. That is, the truth can be immediately seen by the use of reason.

Schopenhauer, a student of Fichte's, wrote of him:


Hegel (1770 - 1831) was a German philosopher born in Stuttgart, Württemberg, in present-day southwest Germany. Hegel responded to Kant's philosophy by suggesting that the unsolvable contradictions given by Kant in his Antinomies of Pure Reason applied not only to the four areas Kant gave (world as infinite vs. finite, material as composite vs. atomic, etc.) but in all objects and conceptions, notions and ideas. To know this he suggested makes a "vital part in a philosophical theory." [Hegel, "The Science of Logic" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences (1817-1830)] Given that abstract thought is thus limited, he went on to consider how historical formations give rise to different philosophies and ways of thinking. For Hegel, thought fails when it is only given as an abstraction and is not united with considerations of historical reality. In his major work The Phenomenology of Spirit he went on to trace the formation of self-consciousness through history and the importance of other people in the awakening of self-consciousness (see master-slave dialectic). Thus Hegel introduces two important ideas to metaphysics and philosophy: the integral importance of history and of the Other person.

Hegel was hugely influential throughout the nineteenth century, by its end, according to Bertrand Russell, "the leading academic philosophers, both in America and Britain, were largely Hegelian". [Russell, History of Western Philosophy] His influence has continued in contemporary philosophy but mainly in Continental philosophy. In contrast, contemporary Analytic philosophy of the English-speaking world came about as a reaction against Hegel and a re-assertion of abstract thought.


With regard to the experience of objects, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775 - 1854) claimed that the ideas or mental images in the mind are identical to the extended objects which are external to the mind. Schelling's "absolute identity" asserted that there is no difference between the subjective and the objective, that is, the ideal and the real. In the book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, philosopher Ken Wilber called Schelling's thought "Plotinus temporalized". That is, Schelling transformed Plotinus' neo-Platonic emanationist metaphysics into an evolutionary ontology.

In 1851, Schopenhauer criticized Schelling's absolute identity of the subjective and the objective, or of the ideal and the real. "... [E] verything that rare minds like Locke and Kant had separated after an incredible amount of reflection and judgment, was to be again poured into the pap of that absolute identity. For the teaching of those two thinkers [Locke and Kant] may be very appropriately described as the doctrine of the "absolute diversity of the ideal and the real, or of the subjective and the objective"." ("Parerga and Paralipomena", Vol. I, "Fragments for the History of Philosophy," § 13).

Ken Wilber's perspective on Schelling is that this was a mistaken viewpoint, and that Schelling was insightful in seeing beyond the separation of knowledge to a future synthesis and integration of that differentiated knowledge, which opponents mistook for a call to regression and re-merging of that knowledge in undifferentiated form. Schelling's "Philosophical Inquiries Into the Nature of Human Freedom" (1809) lends much support to Wilber's assessment.


Friedrich Schleiermacher was a theologian who asserted that the ideal and the real are united in God. He understood the ideal as the subjective mental activities of thought, intellect, and reason. The real was, for him, the objective area of nature and physical being. Schleiermacher declared that the unity of the ideal and the real is manifested in God. The two divisions do not have a productive or causal effect on each other. Rather, they are both equally existent in the absolute transcendental entity which is God.

Responses to idealism

Schopenhauer contended that Spinoza had a great influence on post-Kantian German idealists. Schopenhauer wrote: "In consequence of Kant's criticism of all speculative theology, almost all the philosophizers in Germany cast themselves back on to Spinoza, so that the whole series of unsuccessful attempts known by the name of post-Kantian philosophy is simply Spinozism tastelessly got up, veiled in all kinds of unintelligible language, and otherwise twisted and distorted," (from "The World as Will and Representation", Vol.II, ch. L).

Kant's original philosophy, with its refutation of all speculative theology, had been transformed by the German Idealists. Through the use of his technical terms, such as "transcendental," "transcendent," "reason," "intelligibility," and "thing-in-itself" they attempted to speak of what exists beyond experience and, in this way, to revive the notions of God, free will, and immortality of soul. Kant had effectively relegated these unknowable and inexperiencable notions to mere faith and belief. The German Idealists Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Schleiermacher tried to reverse Kant's achievement. This trend was continued later in the nineteenth century by American transcendentalists.

Santayana had strong opinions regarding this attempt to overcome the effects of Kant's transcendental idealism.Quotation|German Idealism, when we study it as a product of its own age and country, is a most engaging phenomenon; it is full of afflatus, sweep, and deep searchings of the heart; but it is essentially romantic and egoistical, and all in it that is not soliloquy is mere system-making and sophistry. Therefore when it is taught by unromantic people "ex cathedra", in stentorian tones, and represented as the rational foundation of science and religion, with neither of which it has any honest sympathy, it becomes positively odious – one of the worst impostures and blights to which a youthful imagination could be subjected.|George Santayana, "Winds of Doctrine", IV, i.

ee also

*Johann Gottfried Herder
*Salomon Maimon
*Friedrich Schiller


Further reading

*The [ London Philosophy Study Guide] offers many suggestions on what to read, depending on the student's familiarity with the subject: [ Nineteenth-Century German Philosophy]
*Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles on [ Fichte] , [ Reinhold] , [ Kant] , [ Hegel] , and [ Schelling] .
* Karl Ameriks (ed.), "The Cambridge Companion to German Idealism". Cambridge: Cambridge UP 2000. ISBN 978-0521656955.
* Manfred Engel u. Jürgen Lehmann: "The Aesthetics of German Idealism and Its Reception in European Romanticism". In: Steven Sondrup, Virgil Nemoianu, Gerald Gillespie (eds.): "Nonfictional Romantic Prose. Expanding Borders". Amsterdam, Philadelphia: Benjamins 2004 (A Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages XVIII), 69-95. ISBN 978-1588114525.

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