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German idealism was a philosophical movement that emerged 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 best-known thinkers in the movement were 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. <div class="thumb tright" style="width: Expression error: Unrecognized punctuation character "[".px; ">

Philosophers associated with German idealism

Meaning of idealism

Main article: 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 [How to reference and link to summary or text].


Immanuel 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 a posteriori (after experience). 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, but we can know how we will encounter them. 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 said that there are things-in-themselves, noumena, that is, things that exist other than being merely sensations and ideas in our minds. Kant held in the Critique of Pure Reason that the world of appearances (phenomena) is empirically real and transcendentally ideal. 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 of 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. "…[B]y reducing the external world to a matter of faith, he wanted merely to open a little door for faith in general…."[1]


Karl Leonhard 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, subject's representation of object, 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, Johann Gottlieb 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:

...Fichte who, because the thing-in-itself had just been discredited, at once prepared a system without any thing-in-itself. Consequently, he rejected the assumption of anything that was not through and through merely our representation, and therefore let the knowing subject be all in all or at any rate produce everything from its own resources. For this purpose, he at once did away with the essential and most meritorious part of the Kantian doctrine, the distinction between a priori and a posteriori and thus that between the phenomenon and the thing-in-itself. For he declared everything to be a priori, naturally without any proofs for such a monstrous assertion; instead of these, he gave sophisms and even crazy sham demonstrations whose absurdity was concealed under the mask of profundity and of the incomprehensibility ostensibly arising therefrom. Moreover, he appealed boldly and openly to intellectual intuition, that is, really to

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— Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, §13


Main article: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 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."[2] 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. His work is theological in that it replaces the traditional concept of God with that of an Absolute Spirit.

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".[3] 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.


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" or "indifferentism" asserted that there is no difference between the subjective and the objective, that is, the ideal and the real.

In 1851, Arthur 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 German idealism

The neutrality of this section is disputed.


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).

According to Schopenhauer, 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.

19th century United States

"German idealism was initially introduced to the broader community of American literati through a Vermont intellectual, James Marsh. Studying theology with Moses Stuart at Andover Seminary in the early 1820s, Marsh sought a Christian theology that would 'keep alive the heart in the head.' "[4] Some American theologians and churchmen found value in German Idealism's theological concept of the infinite Absolute Ideal or Geist [Spirit]. It provided a religious alternative to the traditional Christian concept of the Deity. "…[P]ost–Kantian idealism can certainly be viewed as a religious school of thought…."[5] The Absolute Ideal Weltgeist [World Spirit] was invoked by American ministers as they "turned to German idealism in the hope of finding comfort against English positivism and empiricism."[6] German idealism was a substitute for religion after the Civil War when "Americans were drawn to German idealism because of a 'loss of faith in traditional cosmic explanations.' "[7] "By the early 1870s, the infiltration of German idealism was so pronounced that Walt Whitman declared in his personal notes that 'Only Hegel is fit for America — is large enough and free enough.' "[8]

Thomas Hill Green

In England, during the nineteenth century, philosopher Thomas Hill Green embraced German Idealism in order to salvage Christian monotheism as a basis for morality. His philosophy attempted to account for an eternal consciousness or mind that was similar to Berkeley's concept of God and Hegel's Absolute. John Rodman, in the introduction to his book on Thomas Hill Green's political theory, wrote: "Green is best seen as an exponent of German idealism as an answer to the dilemma posed by the discrediting of Christianity…."[9]

Ortega y Gasset

According to José Ortega y Gasset[10], with Post–Kantian German Idealism, "…never before has a lack of truthfulness played such a large and important role in philosophy." "They did whatever they felt like doing with concepts. As if by magic they changed anything into any other thing." According to Ortega y Gasset, "…the basic force behind their work was not strictly and exclusively the desire for truth…." Ortega y Gasset quoted Schopenhauer's Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume II, in which Schopenhauer wrote that Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel forgot "the fact that one can feel an authentic and bitter seriousness" for philosophy. Schopenhauer, in Ortega y Gasset's quote, hoped that philosophers like those three men could learn "true and fruitful seriousness, such that the problem of existence would capture the thinker and bestir his innermost being."


George Santayana had strongly held opinions regarding this attempt to overcome the effects of Kant's transcendental idealism.

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.

G. E. Moore and spiritualism

In the first sentence of his The Refutation of Idealism, G. E. Moore wrote: "Modern Idealism, if it asserts any general conclusion about the universe at all, asserts that it is spiritual." This was in contrast to Schopenhauer's contention that spiritualism, devised merely as a way to avoid materialism, is not related to idealism. Schopenhauer wrote that "the assumption was made of a second substance, outside and along with matter, namely an immaterial substance."[11] In claiming that "spiritualism is the specious and false safeguard against materialism[12]," Schopenhauer asserted that "the real and true safeguard [against materialism] is idealism."[13] Schopenhauer's idealism, however, was Kantian transcendental idealism, not the German Idealism or Absolute Idealism of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. According to Kant's idealism, "[w]hat is proved is not, as in spiritualism, the knower's independence of matter, but the dependence of all matter on the knower."[14]


Karl Popper claimed that "It was Kant's criticism of all attempts to prove the existence of God which led to the romantic reaction of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel.… With the romantics, a new kind of dogmatism becomes fashionable…." German Idealism is oracular, according to Popper. "It confronts us with its dictum. And we can take it or leave it." [15]


German Idealism is claimed to be the basis of Žižek's academic doctrines. He professed that "the core of my entire work is the endeavour to … reactualize German idealism". (See The Žižek Reader) The reason Žižek thinks German idealism needs reactualizing is that we are thought to understand it in one way, whereas the truth of it is something else. The term "reactualizing" refers to the fact that there are different possible ways to interpret German idealism, and Žižek wishes to make "actual" one of those possibilities in distinction to the way it is currently realized. At its most basic, German idealism believes that the truth of something could be found in itself[citation needed]. For Žižek, the fundamental insight of German idealism is that the truth of something is always outside it. So the truth of our experience lies outside ourselves, in the Symbolic and the Real, rather than being buried deep within us. We cannot look into our selves and find out who we truly are, because who we truly are is always elsewhere. Our selves are somewhere else in the Symbolic formations which always precede us and in the Real which we have to disavow if we are to enter the Symbolic order.

See also

  • Johann Gottfried Herder
  • Salomon Maimon
  • Friedrich Schiller


  1. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch. I
  2. Hegel, "The Science of Logic" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences (1817-1830)
  3. Russell, History of Western Philosophy
  4. James Marsh, as quoted by James A. Good in volume 2 of his The early American reception of German idealism, p. 43.
  5. James Allan Good, A search for unity in diversity, p. 83
  6. Herbert Schneider, History of American philosophy, p. 376.
  7. Lawrence Dowler, The New Idealism, p. 13, as quoted in James Allan Good, A search for unity in diversity, p. 83.
  8. Walt Whitman, The complete writings, vol. 9, p. 170, as quoted in James A. Good, A search for unity in diversity, ch. 2, p. 57
  9. John Rodman, The Political Theory of T. H. Green, "Introduction"
  10. Phenomenology and Art, "Preface for Germans," p. 48 ff.
  11. The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 2, Ch. I
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume II, Chapter 11, Section II.


  • Lawrence Dowler, The new idealism and the quest for culture in the gilded age. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland 1974.
  • James Allan Good, A search for unity in diversity: The "permanent Hegelian deposit" in the philosophy of John Dewey. Lanham: Lexington Books 2006. ISBN 0-7391-1360-7.
  • James Allan Good, editor, The Early American Reception of German Idealism. Volume 2 of 5. Bristol: Thoemmes Press 2002. ISBN 1-85506-992-X.
  • José Ortega y Gasset, Phenomenology and Art. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 1975. ISBN 0-393-08714-X
  • Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Volume II. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1966
  • Rodman, John, The Political Theory of T. H. Green, New York: Appleton Century–Crofts, 1964
  • Josiah Royce, Lectures on Modern Idealism. New Haven: Yale University Press 1967.
  • Schneider, History of American philosophy. 2nd edition. New York: Columbia University Press 1963.
  • Walt Whitman, The complete writings of Walt Whitman. Volume 9. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons 1902

Further reading

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