German idealism

From AnthroWiki
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)

German idealism' was an epoch of modern philosophy that lasted from about the last third of the 18th century to the end of the first third of the 19th century and was shaped above all by Kant and the triumvirate of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel and their metaphysical positions. The publication of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and the death of Hegel (1831) are usually taken as the key dates. This epoch was often regarded as the heyday of German philosophy and formed the essential intellectual background of the Goethe period.

„Only one philosophical direction has been given the epithet "German" - German idealism. Why? On the one hand, it has been the most intellectually demanding philosophy that Germany has produced; on the other hand, it succeeded in integrating almost all the innovative achievements of earlier German philosophy in the form of a system, the most complex shape of philosophical thought. The religious motivation of the three main figures, who had all studied theology, contributed to the emergence of a new form of philosophical religiosity in world history, which had a lasting influence on the German educated bourgeoisie of the 19th century, especially Protestant, but also Catholic to a certain extent, indeed, its offshoots can still be felt in Thomas Mann, and to which there was hardly any equivalent in other European countries.“ (Lit.: Hösle, p. 106)

„With Kant and German idealism, a renewal of philosophy begins. It descends into the depths again, becomes fundamental research once more and attempts to understand the totality of being in a closed philosophical system from a final, unified ground. With Kant, we encounter a philosophical system that is completely In Kant's case, we encounter a philosophical edifice that is completely constructed on all sides. Criticism, however, still predominates with him. In the case of the German idealists, however, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, enormous, entirely positive philosophical systems emerge that surpass the great systems of the 17th and 18th centuries in speculative power. They establish what one tends to call "German philosophy": typical spiritual philosophy, abstract speculation, bold construction up to conceptual poetry, difficult trains of thought and often incomprehensible language, but a philosophising that is always carried by a high ethical and metaphysical idealism.“ (Lit.: Hirschberger, p. 267)

According to Rudolf Steiner, this development was made possible by the stronger intervention of the German folk spirit. The German folk spirit has a certain peculiarity by which it differs from other folk spirits. When the folk spirit gradually descends, it first takes hold of the soul of the human being and then, by descending still further, it works its way into the body and imprints the folk character on it. This is also the case with the German folk-spirit, but while otherwise the folk-spirit continues to work in the physical for a long time, it detaches itself from the German people after a relatively short time and rises again. This swinging back and forth is the characteristic of the German folk spirit.

„We can now raise the question: How is it now with the German people? Did there also once occur a time when the Archangel attained a certain level? - Such a time already occurred. But there is a certain difference between the German people and the other peoples. We know that the soul of man consists of the sentient soul, the intellectual or mental soul and the consciousness soul. You can already gather this from the lectures on the folk souls, that with the Italian people the Archangel strives primarily for his power to work in the sentient soul, with the French people in the intellectual or mind soul and with the British people in the consciousness soul, and with the German people in the I, which extends its power over the three members of the soul. Hence the relationship of the Archangel to the individual I's of the German people is different from that of the Western peoples. There already came a time when the Archangel of the German people also intervened in the physical life or the lower soul life, in so far as it took hold of the physical. That is approximately the time between 1750 and, one may say, 1830. If one will study things quite sensibly, one will gain quite wonderful insights into the course of the development of peoples. And if someone would only take the time to look at the really great, grandiose difference that prevails in German life between the people of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the people who lived two hundred years before, then he would see how enormous this difference is. At that time the Archangel intervened in the national character of the German people, just as the Archangels intervened in the other peoples at the times I have described. But, one might say, he abated again, he did not reshape the physique so energetically, so thoroughly, as it happened with the other peoples.“ (Lit.:GA 159, p. 140f)

„If we now look at the development of the German folk-spirit, we perceive something similar in the period roughly between the years 1750 to 1850. But here we must curiously say: this folk-spirit descends there, but it ascends again. And that is the significant thing. We can only follow a process that has taken place among the Western peoples in such a way that we see the people's spirits descending and taking hold of the peoples. In the case of the German people we see how the spirit of the people also sinks around the middle of the eighteenth century, but how this folk spirit rises again in the middle of the nineteenth century, so that here there is a quite different relationship. Only one attempt is made to develop the German character into an eminent folk character, but this is only done for a while. After some of this has been done, the folk spirit again recedes, ascends, in order again to have an effect merely on the soul.

The heyday of German intellectual life coincides with the time when the folk spirit had descended the lowest. Of course, the folk spirit remains with its people. But now it is once again in the spiritual heights. That is the peculiarity of the German folk spirit. It has also descended in the past, but has then refrained from a too strong nationalisation. Such crystallisation in nationality, as in the Western nations, cannot occur in the German people because of the peculiarity of the German folk-spirit. That is why the German being must always remain more universal than other folk beings. These things are indeed connected with profound truths of the spiritual worlds. If one had looked for the German folk spirit in Goethe's time, one would have found it on about the same level as one would have found the English or French or Italian folk spirit. If you look for it today, you have to climb higher. There will come times when it descends, there will come times when it ascends. The swinging back and forth is the peculiarity of the German national spirit.“ (Lit.:GA 157, p. 224f)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English (by Steiner Online Library).
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.