German idealism is the generic name given to a set of philosophies developed in Germany at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Its main representatives are: Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854).
The important work, which opens this page of German thought, would be the Critique of Pure Reason by Emmanuel Kant. Two other major works of this intellectual period would be Fichte’s Doctrine of Knowledge and Hegel’s Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, a period that would end with Friedrich Schelling’s Spätphilosophie (“late” philosophy).
In addition to these four figures, other thinkers should be mentioned, notably Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Karl Leonhard Reinhold, or even Gottlob Schulze, but they are generally considered to be minors. As for Friedrich Hölderlin, his reception was later and it extended until the 20th century. Hölderlin occupies an important place in the formation of German idealism, but still to be explored.
This strong philosophical moment in literature coincides with the high period of German Classico-Romanticism, which was influenced by it. Jacques Taminiaux, for example, writes that Schiller is a stakeholder in German idealism because Weimar is not far from Jena, where Fichte is talked about: in 1794-1795. There he teaches The foundations of the doctrine of science in its entirety, Die Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre, of which Hölderlin will be the direct auditor.
(The four principal German idealists: Immanuel Kant (upper left), Johann Gottlieb Fichte (upper right), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (lower left), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (lower right). )
A complex genesis
The first testimony of German idealism is a collective text called The oldest program of German idealism or Das älteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus. According to the commentators of the “shamrock” of German idealism, the three old Stiftlers (Hölderlin, Hegel, Schelling), the date of the text can oscillate between 1795 and 1797 and we have long wondered about the main author of this one. If Hegel, Hölderlin and Schelling were mentioned in turn, some would lean more favorably today for Schelling. Furthermore, it is customary to unite these three thinkers with Fichte, the author of the Doctrine of Knowledge or Wissenschaftslehre, but this reunion under the same label is strongly contested.
Basically, Kant’s influence through his conception of reason is decisive. Kant defines philosophy as teologia rationis humanae: “Reason is nothing more than a system faculty and the interest of reason aims to bring to light the highest possible unity of the greatest possible diversity of knowledge” . This question of the system, its coherence and its foundation will become fundamental.
For the philosophers of that time, criticism of reason was to succeed its system, by emerging a science proceeding from a “single principle”. Fichte wanted to see in the Critique of pure reason only the exhibition “of research on the possibility, the significance and the rules of such a science”. After the criticism, with Fichte and Schelling, place for the doctrine of science.
The common point of all the philosophers of German idealism is that they take up but also go beyond Kantian thought. Kantianism announced its own going beyond by affirming the impossibility of traditional metaphysics and the future development of a new metaphysical system which would be the fulfillment of transcendental philosophy. This system had, according to Kant, to reconcile the natural part and the moral part of philosophy, parts which had been opposed in the first Critique. The thinkers of German idealism propose to establish this system of reconciled nature and morality, announced by Kant, and thus to found a new way of doing metaphysics. However, as Émile Bréhier remarks, Kant was not their only guide.
Other philosophical influences
Without going back to Meister Eckhart and Jakob Böhme, or even to a distant Platonic heritage, other sources of philosophical inspiration would be to be sought from Spinoza and Rousseau. Without forgetting, on the fringes of idealism, the influence of the one considered to be the “father” of modern hermeneutics, Schleiermacher. On the other hand, it should be noted that these thinkers were bathed in the renewal of an almost mystical feeling for nature accompanied by a sense of historical tradition fueled by numerous works of scholarship and archeology, in favor since the middle of the 18th century.
These thinkers on the other hand lived a time when according to Xavier Tilliette “the French Revolution and the Doctrine of Knowledge of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, these events that Friedrich Schlegel associated, caused an uprising of spirits, a confused tumult of ideas and dreams. “; a time when the anti-mechanistic progress of science seemed to tend to erase the boundaries between the inorganic and the organic (for example the discoveries concerning magnetism and galvanism) and gave the spectacle of a nature capable of becoming Spirit against the traditional current of a philosophy establishing subjectivity as a principle of all its content. In this context, it was for them to defend the primacy of the Spirit over nature.
They take up the idea that subjectivity is one of the foundations of all philosophy and follow from this point of view Kant for whom subjectivity is the foundation of “transcendent philosophy” (cf. §16 of the Critique of pure reason). Fichte, who found Kant’s philosophy “unfinished”, can be seen as “a step down the staircase leading via Schelling from Kant to Hegel”. Hegel re-develops the idea of an absolute subjectivity, through Fichte’s concept of Me, to make it a phenomenology of the mind. A Fichte specialist like Alexis Philonenko, for his part, went so far as to demonstrate that “without perceiving all the subtleties of Fichte’s deduction, German idealism and more particularly Hegel plundered the structures of the WL [the Wissenschaftslehre or” doctrine of knowledge “, that is to say the philosophy of Fichte]”.
(Silhouette of Hölderlin, 1797.)
Friedrich Hölderlin, who read Kant extensively and followed Fichte’s teaching at Jena in 1794-1795, occupies a special place in the formation of German idealism: in a philosophical fragment written around 1795, “Being and Judgment“, he reminds us that Being should not be confused with identity. Jacques Rivelaygue comments at length on this text in his German Metaphysical Lessons. According to him, Hölderlin will have criticized “the very principle of German idealism which wants, by identifying the being of being with subjectivity, to make it its foundation”. Rivelaygue adds further: “Schelling and Hegel will react to Hölderlin’s objection” by trying to find solutions within the framework of absolute idealism”: Hegel is “less attentive to Hölderlin’s objections than Schelling is.”
Aufklärung, French Revolution and German Idealism
German idealism corresponds to the end of the German Enlightenment (the Aufklärung in the 18th century). Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel were fascinated by the French Revolution. It is said that Kant would have interrupted his daily walk, for one of the only two times in his life, by wanting to learn about the evolution of the Revolution. As for Hölderlin, Schelling and Hegel, it is said that they would have planted a tree of freedom when they were seminarians at the Stift in Tübingen.
German Idealism and Romanticism
Idealism and nostalgia for Greece
The nostalgia for Greece is manifested both among the thinkers “philosophers” who forged German Idealism and in literature among writers (Dichter: “literary creators”) of the “time of Goethe” (the Goethezeit) who are attached to classicism (Goethe, Schiller) or are at the hinge between “classicism” and romanticism (Hölderlin).
In comments from some critics, Fichte would appear as a representative of Herder’s ideas and Romanticism. For Herder, historical reason is deployed in peoples and nations.
The transition to romanticism
Novalis’s work is literary, poetic, as well as philosophical and scientific. The poet Novalis, in whose work the term romanticism appears for the first time, rubbed shoulders with Schiller, Fichte, Friedrich Schlegel … Among the theorists of German romanticism in literature, Schelling was very important. All these crossed encounters within a milieu comprising philosophers, poets and / or writers took place in Jena (Romanticism of Jena), the small town that this generation of the first romantics proposed to “romanticize”: “The world must be romanticized”, writes Novalis in his Fragments and studies [Fragmente und Studien] of 1798-1799.
German Idealism and the concept of the Absolute
Kant holds the ideas of God, of the World and of man as representations of reason which, if they have a guiding value, are in no case “objective representations giving the object itself”. For the thinkers of Idealism these concepts cannot have been freely forged by thought and there is necessarily another knowledge, a knowledge which occupies the foreground and which determines all other knowledge must be a knowledge of the “Totality”. On this basis German Idealism has received various and even apparently opposite meanings. Thus, Schelling is opposed to the absolute Idealism advocated by Fichte.
It is this first philosophy of Schelling which corresponds roughly to the years 1801-1808 which one calls “philosophy of identity” or “Naturphilosophie”. The pantheistic influence of Spinoza is obvious but Schelling adds to it the discoveries of modern science, asserting for example that electricity in nature merges with human irritability, magnetism with sensitivity etc. In a second period he will abandon this conception of the Absolute to find the God of Theology.