The German Romantic Philosophers (4 of 5)

Having gone over Schiller’s writings on aesthetics and their relation to humanity and freedom, having examined Fichte’s extensive metaphysical and ethical theories, which were inspired by Kant, we will briefly look at the educational and religious advancements made during Romanticism. Schiller thought art was humanity’s greatest achievement and was integral to being free, and in Fichte we saw a move toward the subjective and active, with emphasis on the individual and the world he creates for himself. Now we discuss Humboldt and Schleiermacher.

Unknown.jpegWilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was the esteemed brother of Alexander von Humboldt, an explorer and scientist, with Charles Darwin being an admirer of his, who traveled the world collecting new plants and studying temperatures around the globe. This blog is not about his brother, though; but it does not go without saying that the Humboldts were a talented bunch, given that Wilhelm was a philosopher, educator, diplomat, political theorist, and linguist. The most lasting impression left by Wilhelm is his contribution to education, earning him the title of “the Francis Bacon of revival learning,”[1] in the words of Will Durant. During Wilhelm’s time, there were several high-ranked universities, the famous University of Jena, where Fichte and Schiller studied, among them. Assigned the duty of reforming the Prussian education system, Humboldt sought to secularize the university, taking the emphasis off of religious studies and placing it on more liberal arts. The Humboldt University of Berlin, formerly the University of Berlin, was founded by Humboldt in 1811. A fan of the Humanities, Humboldt required their teaching in his school, his interests in Ancient Greece prevailing, especially with the introduction of philosophy as a main course. In addition to philosophy, Humboldt required within the curriculum chemistry, history, and various other social sciences which he felt were more practical, more beneficial to the student, so as to prepare them for life, to educate them thoroughly and revitalize their curiosity. History was largely neglected, but by making it a mainstream topic, Humboldt allowed for more development in the subject. Hegel likely would have never systematized his theory of history had Humboldt not done this, and for this we owe a great respect to Humboldt. The school was no longer a place for students to merely listen to lectures and take notes but was now transformed into a Unknown-1.jpegprofessional, top-quality institution, with students now partaking in actual research that got them involved, that got them to see their work firsthand. Humboldt also made it incredibly hard to become a teacher without credentials, therefore ensuring that students got a quality education, one that taught them memorably, effectively. It was around this time, too, that the Ph.d. was created, although it cannot be said to be created by Humboldt himself. Not only did Humboldt introduce new material into schools, but he also pioneered a new subject: philology–the interpretation of texts. As avid a linguist as Herder, Humboldt was fascinated by different languages, studying the classics, both Western and Eastern, for there was a massive surge of interest in the East at this time while their works were being discovered and passed around. In particular, Humboldt, and Schleiermacher too, was intrigued by Indian texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, which he translated and thereby popularized. This interest in experimenting with different languages led to his studies in comparative linguistics, a study continued today. Like Herder, Humboldt thought language’s place in civilization was unique, likening it to a Volksgeist, a spirit of the people (he never used Volksgeist, but it is attributed to him). He served as the Prussian diplomat to Rome and subsequently to Vienna, and he played a large role in the Napoleonic Wars toward the end, persuading several nations to unite against the French, greatly influencing the rest of the war. Humboldt was a liberal, and like Mill, he valued individual rights above the government, which he thought should be small and limited so it would not infringe on the people’s rights.

Unknown-2.jpegThe greatest theologian of Romanticism was Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834). At the core of Schleiermacher’s philosophy is Absolute dependence, Abhängigkeitsgefühl, what he calls the “religious feeling,” since the feeling, once achieved and properly perpetuated, inspires awe and a deep sense of faith. This faith is invested entirely in God and in nothing else, like Martin Luther. He reserved religious practice, not for transcendental knowledge but Absolute dependence; in other words, were a Neoplatonist or Christian to meditate with the end of reaching the Good, of seeing God, or of awakening to reality as, say, a Buddhist would, then they are doing it for the wrong reason, insofar as Schleiermacher thought religious activity was meant to strengthen one’s belief, to establish one’s piety, to place one’s life in the hands of God, i.e., to make them dependent on Him, absolutely, wholly; therefore, dependence is not to be placed on anything outside of the world, on some other reality, but on God Himself. Absolute dependence can only be achieved by looking inward, not by rationalizing, nor by acting. It is a sensation deep within the individual, and it must be found through self-consciousness and intuition. Faith and faith alone is the tool for being pious to God. If thought comes to fruition in being, as in knowledge, then it becomes Nature; and if being comes to fruition in thought, as in moral law, then it becomes spirit. Essentially, God is a combination of Nature and spirit who can be depended upon by means of intuition, for he is so vast that reason cannot envisage Him. Intuition allows us to embrace the Absolute, to feel it, and to understand the Universe, notwithstanding its infinitude. The relation between God and Universe is complicated, as God is not synonymous with Universe, yet He is also not anonymous with Universe; rather, they are correlative and work in the same sphere, so to speak. Schleiermacher can be considered a pantheist, in that he believed God is immanent; God permeates our reality. In fact, he says we are each unique parts of God Himself, Eigentümlichkeit, individual descendants of His, with special characteristics and talents. This individualistic doctrine is interesting coming from a theologian, for he not only expressing our relation with God, but he is also expressing our uniqueness, both in personality and in talent, which he thought we should look for, perfect, and flaunt in our own ways. Furthermore, this sets up an axiomatic relationship between the individual and the community: uniqueness implies that it is unique compared to other things, meaning there must be a community of other unique individuals, and community implies there are different people within it, meaning there must be uniqueness. Both Schleiermacher and Humboldt innovated their own disciplines: Humboldt innovated philology, and Schleiermacher hermeneutics, which has the same premise as philology, except that it focuses primarily on religious, spiritual, and philosophical works than language in general. Another similarity between Humboldt and Schleiermacher is their love of Eastern images.jpegtexts. “For Schleiermacher… the source of all religion ‘can be found’ in the unconscious or in the Orient, from whence all religions came.”[2] Hermeneutics is all about interpretation, be it of the book, the history, or the author. Schleiermacher is credited with engineering the hermeneutic circle, a method whereby an interpreter can study the work effectively. The first step is to understand the background or context of the work. One must find when the work was written, where it was written, and why it was written. Once the background is researched, one then studies the grammatical and psychological aspects of it, which means analyzing the language, syntax, and grammar of the work and the mental attitude of he who wrote it. Understanding what beliefs the author had at the time and what he was thinking allows for a personal connection with the text and allows the reader deeper within the text. Lastly, the interpreter looks at the piece in sections and holistically, switching between the two to get a better grasp of the general structure and specific details. This method has been adapted into editing in writing, for it has proved effective in finding organization and finding information the writer is trying to convey.


[1] Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 10, p. 606
[2] Schwab, The Oriental Renaissance: Europe’s Discovery of India and the East, 1680-1880, p. 219

For further reading:
Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud by Peter Watson (2006)
Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy
 3rd ed. by Simon Blackburn (2016)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy
 by Ted Honderich (1995)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 4 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
Vol. 7 by Paul Edwards (1967)
A History of Philosophy
 Vol. 7 by Frederick Copleston (1994)
The Passion of the Western Mind 
by Richard Tarnas (1993)
The Story of Civilization 
Vol. 10 by Will Durant (1967)
Dictionary of Philosophy 
by Thomas Mautner (2005)
The Roots of Romanticism 
by Isaiah Berlin (1999)



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