German Idealism

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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 Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. However, thinkers such as Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, and Friedrich Schleiermacher were major contributors to German Idealism.

Meaning of "Idealism"

The word "idealism" has more than one meaning. (For instance, it could mean thinking about things or people as having the best or most perfect qualities. This is not the meaning that should be associated with German Idealism.)

The philosophical meaning of idealism is that we do not directly know objects. We directly know only the sensations, ideas, images, or representations that are in our minds. These directly known ideas stand for or represent the objects, which are known indirectly. This is the meaning that should be associated with the philosophy of German 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, that is, things that exist other than being merely sensations and ideas in our minds. Kant held that the world of appearances is empirically real and transcendentally ideal. The world of things-in-themselves cannot be known as being actual, only possible. The mind plays a central role in influencing the way that the world is experienced. 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 although he considered himself one and his work reflects similar themes. 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 "thing-in-itself" to that which is represented. However, G.E. 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 an exaggeration of Kant's difficult writing. It was to be assumed that Fichte's exposition was not easy to comprehend because it was profound. 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.


Hegel (1770 - 1831) was a German philosopher born in Stuttgart, Württemberg, in present-day southwest Germany. After Kant had discredited proofs for the existence of the traditional God, Hegel published his Absolute Idealism. This abstraction represented a pantheism patterned after Spinoza's, but influenced by Kant's Transcendental Idealism. Impersonal mind or spirit (German geist) was thought to have brought forth the universe in accordance with reasonable, logical thought. All individuals were said to be part of the overall universal which always operated in accordance with a rigid three-step sequence. This pattern was named dialectical, after the usual way that dialogues, conversations or arguments were conducted. A thesis was proposed, which inevitably led to a countering antithesis. These were always resolved in a synthesis.


With regard to the experience of objects, 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 view on Schelling is that this was a mistaken view-point, 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.


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.


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. This was continued later in the century by American Transcendentalists.