German Idealism: Origin and Philosophical Foundation

After reading this article you will learn about German Idealism:

1. Origin of German Idealism

2. Contribution of French Revolution to German Idealism

3. Philosophical Foundation.

Origin of German Idealism:

Idealism in politics during the eighteenth century originated from the doctrines of natural law, natural rights and social contract. There was also idealism in laissez-faire but the events and facts of the nineteenth century deflated the principles of idealism.

Maxey writes:

“The nineteenth century saw revolution degenerate into chaos and reaction, saw democracy itself betray the grand ideals of the eighteenth century; saw economic freedom converted into an instrument of power and acquisition specially fitted to the hands of rapacious industrial moguls.”

Bentham built up the doctrine of utilitarianism in support of the cause of the English middle class He wanted that the middle class should come forward and directly participate in the political and other affairs of state. From this he developed the idea of utilitarianism. His premises of thought were that men are reasonable, they seek their own interests and happiness and if such men are allowed to pursue their own activities and policies without state intervention or minimum intervention, then they will be able to maximize their pleasure.

But the Industrial Revolution com­pletely changed the political, economic and social milieu of European society and it has been asserted by many, especially Barker, that utilitarianism was incapable to cope with this new situation and a new philosophy was required.

The utilitarian philosophy—idea of limited state—required to be replaced by a new philosophy. Some university professors of Germany and England did not make any attempt to modify utilitarianism.

They wanted to lay the foundation of a new philosophy. They thought that the nature, functions of state, role of individuals, their relation to state and many others related issues should be reviewed in the background of the new situation.

These philosophers formed a school and we call it the idealist school. The idealist school formed by the Oxford professors is called Oxford Idealist School. Kant, Fichte and Hegel are German philosophers and the idealism professed by them is called German Idealism. The best known English idealists are T. H. Green, Bradley, and Bosanquet.

But the Oxford Idealism drew its inspiration from German Idealism the idealism in politics as a whole is voluminously indebted to Greek philosophy, specifically Plato and Aristotle. These idealists are called metaphysical idealists.

The doctrine of these metaphysical philosophers is understood by very few, but their influence on modern political thought is enormous.

The ultimate bases of idealist philosophy of the state is thus to be found in the writings of Plato and Aristotle and in a steady tradition of study and teaching of Republic and Ethics.

From Greek philosophy the idealist adopted the view that political philosophy was essentially an ethical study which considered the state as a natural society and which inquired into the methods by which it sought to attain its moral aims.

Man is a member of a state as a political association and his membership is for the purpose of fulfilling moral objectives. The state is the highest manifestation of morality and ethics. So no individual can think of giving up the membership of the political association.

Furthermore, according to Greek idealism, the law is the expression of pure reason. So no question of withdrawing obligation from the state or disobeying the law does arise. The primary objective of every individual is to perform his duties assigned by the community.

The noted German philosopher Kant borrowed from Rousseau’s ‘general will’ and the concept of moral freedom. We find a close relation between the general will of Rousseau and the moral imperative of Kant.

Rousseau thought that members of the body politic are guided by morality and this is more or less self-imposed. Kant’s individuals are also guided by moral imperatives. In both cases, authority does not impose moral principles upon the members of society.

Kant also borrowed Rousseau’s general will. Kant said that individuals thought it to be a moral duty to be an integral part of general duty. Needless to say that it is Rousseau’s theory. Hegel also accepted (though in different form) the general will of Rousseau.

The former said that general will is the will of the national state. Strictly speaking, Rousseau’s body politic and Hegel’s national state are different. But Hegel’s philosophy is based on dialectics. Hegel’s national state is the culmination of family and civil society and, in the whole process, dialectics has worked.

To Kant, to perform a self-imposed duty is morality and the right to will a self-imposed duty—is freedom. Man cannot be politically free if he is not morally free. Man must think that he is an integral part of the whole.

The decision of the whole is his decision. Rousseau’s moral freedom insists that an individual is not permitted to do whatever he thinks. It is said that with Kant freedom has a negative, limited and subjective meaning.

Rousseau revolted against reason. In his view, the development of art, science and civilization was responsible for moral degeneration. To him, emotion was more important than reason.

The German idealists did not give much credence to scientific intelligence and truth. They sought a higher kind of truth. There was a distinction between truth discovered by observation of phenomena and truth arrived by abstract thought. In this process, political theory became a part of transcendental metaphysics.

Contribution of French Revolution to German Idealism:

It is commonly argued that the German idealism has been the theory of French Revolution. The implication of this comment is not that the German idealist philo­sophers set out to interpret the French Revolution in terms of idealist philosophy. But they (Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel) wrote their philosophy largely as a response to the challenge from France to recognize the state and society on a rational basis so that social and political institutions might accord with freedom and interest of the individual.

The ideas of the French Revolution constitute the core of German idealism. It abolished the feudal absolutism and replaced it with the economic and Political system of the middle class.

The most important contribution of the French Revolution is the emancipation of man from the enslavement of thought imposed upon him by others. After the Revolution man began to treat everything with reason and lean/the technique of self-reliance.

Man is a thinking being. His reason enables to recognize his own potentialities. He does not take events and facts as they are, but subject them to the acid test of reason. He accepts those which reason allows him to do. He is not at the mercy of anybody.

Though Rousseau revolted against reason, Hegel held the view that in every sphere of life there were inequality and unreasonableness. In the opinion of Hegel all these dominated French society.

In fact, the lack of reason and courage and absence of freedom force man to surrender to irrationality and servitude. Hegel argues that the French Revolution had succeeded in asserting the dignity of man.

He can now understand what is right and what is wrong Reason dominates hi action and conduct. This reason is, again, central to Hegel’s philosophy. In order to recognize individuality and give it proper scope for its development several things require to be done. Feudal absolutism is to be abolished and free competition is to be established.

The Revolution did these two things. After the disintegration of feudalism, industrial capitalism came to occupy that place and, with it, free competition was ensured.

Hegel thinks that the French Revolution asserted the supremacy of reason over reality and this is an important part of Hegel’s idealism The German idealists- and particularly Hegel-state that thought or reason ought to govern reality.

What men think to be true right and good ought to be realized in actual organization of their social and individual life. But the thoughts of different individuals will vary and a cohesive and well-knit social organization will be impossible.

Hegel says that certain universally accepted principles and concepts are required to be properly emphasized.

Philosophical Foundation of German Idealism:

German idealism rejected empiricism and British empiricism is the root of the general doctrine of empiricism. The root of empiricism is that there is no single concept of law of reason and universality of reason.

The British empirical thinkers said that there was no such thing as unity of reason, but there is unity of custom and habit Locke, the great British empiricist, said that the general ideas were the invention and creatures of understanding. The generals are the products of particu­lars.

At the beginning people study particular events and form certain views on the basis of observations. On the basis of these observations they form at subsequent stages-general opinion.

The general cannot be separated from the particular and this forms the basis of empiricism. David Hume, another great empirical philoso­pher, expressed identical view.

The empiricists further said that there was nothing like universal thought and reason. If the particulars differ, the general idea or conclusion will also differ.

German idealism rejected the empirical philosophy of particularize and proceeded to universalize everything. Some critics say that the German philosophers started their analysis primarily to challenge the British empirical philosophy of the eighteenth century.

According to the German idealists, the “empiricist attack jeopardized all efforts to impose an order on the prevailing forms of life. Unity and universality were not to be found in empirical reality”.

Fact is concerned with what is. But the existence of something is not all. There is something beyond the existence of reality or matter. According to German idealism, reason deals with that. It says what ought to be.

German idealist does not intend to confine man or his ability within “the given”. “The given” is temporary and limited. But the universality of concepts and principles goes beyond “the given”.

Reason crosses the boundary of “is” and embarks upon the vast field of “ought”. German idealism argues that, if experience and custom were to be treated as the sole source of knowledge, then men will have no weapon to fight custom.

In the opinion of German idealist philosophers, human psychology is subject to change. There is every possibility of uncertainty and chance and from this no necessity and universality can be derived. But necessity and universality are sole guarantees of reason.

Unless the general concepts that claimed such necessity and universality could be shown to be more than the product of imagination, they could be shown to draw their validity neither neither from experience nor from individual psychology, unless, in other words, they were shown applicable to experience, reason would have to bow to the dictates of empirical teaching.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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