German Idealism: History & Philosophy from Immanuel Kant and Johann Fichte to Friedrich Schelling and Georg W.F. Hegel

The world of philosophy that German Idealism is responding and reacting against is the world of the so-called new science, Enlightenment philosophy, which can roughly be said to have begun with the publication of Sir Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, the New Science, in 1620. Tied to the new science is Rene Descartes and his Meditations on First Philosophy; the two are brought together in the pursuit of the modern project: The conquest of nature (begun by Bacon) and the attempt to understand the self (begun by Descartes even though the quest for self-knowledge really began with the existential phenomenology of Saint Augustine).

Bacon was an English philosopher, scientist, and statesman who helped to establish the tradition of philosophy now known as empiricism; his was a philosophy of reductionist materialism that reduced the world to an instrumented object—this including subject beings. Humans were nothing more than a material mass of atoms composed together in motion as everything else in the object-world was. However, man had the unique ability to dominate; and, according to Bacon, to advance our knowledge man had interrogate nature on the rack of investigation. Empirical science is the outcome of the instrumental exploitation of nature; this also brings about the end of the science of vitalism, the “pre-modern” scientific worldview begun by the Greeks and inherited by Christianity through Neoplatonism which argued that the world and all lifeforms therein had distinct and particular life forces, and intelligibility in them. Vitalism can be summed up as the outlook that “living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things.” In essence, Baconian science stripped man of his vitalism—his life essence—and turned into a material object of the world; ultimately no different than other objects in the world.

We are familiar with this outlook today—popular scientistic intellectuals and philosophers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett exhibit these views. Critics of this view call this reductionist materialist worldview the “nothing-but” outlook; humans are nothing but atoms composed and hitting each other in a certain manner which give the appearance of a human; trees are nothing but atoms composed and hitting each other in a certain manner which give the appearance of a tree; a dog is nothing but atoms composed and hitting each other in a certain manner which give the appearance of a dog; and so on. Man is reduced to an object in a world of objects for all objects follow mechanical and mathematical laws.

Although Bacon was, properly, a monistic materialistic, his sidestepping (or eradication) of consciousness produced a functional dualism: a dualism that pitted man against nature as the supreme object of force. Man could not dwell in nature. Man would simply overwhelm and destroy nature; the forces of science and industry would be unleashed by man’s motionary movement.

On the opposite end of Bacon was the French rationalist Rene Descartes. Descartes is probably best remembered to posterity as the philosopher who proved human existence by saying “I think, therefore I am” (the cogito ergo sum). The task of Descartes’ philosophy, Cartesian philosophy, was to affirm the subject’s own subjectivity; to affirm one’s own existence.

The problem that arises from Descartes’ philosophy is the classical mind-body problem. Are humans a mind inhabiting a body, or a body with a mind. What is the mind? Unwittingly, Descartes “dualism” (so-called) ended up advancing the Baconian outlook. Man was a body, and his mind was nothing but matter. But this wasn’t so much the problem with Descartes that the German idealists took. Later generations of Cartesian rationalists ended up becoming subjective solipsists; that is, I could only affirm my own existence. In a world where only the I-Think could prove its own existence, I am forever cut-off from others; the others that I perceive to be existing may or may not be existing, I can never know because I do not have access to their minds. I can never think as another beside myself, therefore, I can never affirm anyone’s own existence besides my own. The result is a detachment and flight from the material world and the world of others. Admittedly, this is not what Descartes intended but the tradition of philosophy spawned by his thought nevertheless exhausted itself into a solipsistic rationalism where the self was forever awash in a sea of isolated and atomized minds and particles.

It is this world of philosophy that German Idealism, coming into form with Immanuel Kant, is reacting against. The task of Kantian idealism, or simply the task that Kant dwelled upon for nearly a decade and finally published The Critique of Pure Reason in response to, was how to achieve the apperceptive unity of the I and Not-I, the I-Think with other I-Thinks and with the phenomenal world of space and time without allowing subjects to becoming objectified and instrumentalized into conformity with the determinacy of mathematical laws (which would reduce subject-beings into objects) and keeping subjects detached from each other. The I-Think, the thinking subject, must be able to accompany all representations it encounters and perceives, and this is what self-consciousness is.

Kant, then, revises the Cartesian and Baconian outlook by starting with the mind, like Descartes, but attaching the phenomenal world to the mind. Mind comes into existence with innates ideas. In this way Kant is following Plato and can be said to be a revisionist Platonist. The Categories of the mind are also lifted from Aristotle. While the mind comes into existence with innate ideas—thus denying the tabula rasa (blank slate) of John Locke (an outlook now also generally rejected by all except the most fervent defenders of the reductionist model of science)—space and time, the phenomenal realm of experience and sensation, are forms of a priori intuitions that the mind projects. That is, mind, not body, is the seat of sensation and experience.

It is wrong to deduce, as the reductionists do, that our bodily experiences and sensations are only tied to the body; Kant argues that they are really tied back to the mind as sensational experiences are rooted in consciousness, in thought, in the mind’s innate ideas, and so on. What we experience comes through mental faculties; and mental faculties are not reducible to a bland hunk of meat and atoms as the reductionist materialists claim. Plants, for instance, are material bodies with atoms but plants do not have sensory experiences because they do not have consciousness. Animals, which have material bodies and are also atoms, do feel because they have minds but they are not self-conscious; that is, they are not “rational” in the classical sense. Reason, for Kant, is that which permits man to know his nature, to know and experience the transcendentals: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Animals, as far as we know—back in Kant’s time and today—do not have this in-dwelling of reason which prevents them from having a unitive relationship with the transcendentals and a coming to understand nature though they do, unlike what Descartes argued, have the ability for basic sensory experiences precisely because they have raw animal minds.

The mind, according to Kant, cannot exist without this ability to project the phenomenal realm of objects which are, as stated, a projection of the mind.

This brings us to the synthetic a priori in Kantian philosophy. As the mind comes into being with innate ideas, this means that our innate ideas, from Kant’s perspective, can be confirmed in the world of phenomenon. The a priori is that which is known without experience. The a priori is that which is true by definition; like all bachelors are unmarried. One does not need to meet a bachelor to confirm this reality. It is an a priori (logical) truth. A posteriori is that which is known, or confirmed, by experience. One needs to have a direct experience to validate an a posteriori claim to knowledge. For example, John was planting a flower in the afternoon. This can only be known from experience; that I saw or encountered John planting a flower in the afternoon. If I do not have this direct experience, I cannot make a valid epistemological claim.

Kant’s synthetic a priori bridges the a priori and a posteriori together. Again, because the phenomenal realm (the world of a posteriori) is a projection of the mind (the world of a priori) which permits us to confirm a priori ideas. The synthetic a priori, then, is where the world of phenomenon is linked to the world of thought. The synthetic a priori is where thought and experience meet. And where they meet the apperceptive unity that was lost in the world of Bacon (by, ultimately, denying thought by objectifying everything) and Descartes (by only being able to confirm the a priori detached, entirely, from the phenomenal world). Moreover, the synthetic and a priori coming together also enriches knowledge because our experiences which confirm a priori knowledge ensures a priori knowledge isn’t dry intellectual thought; it has real-world reality and consequences.

But Kant’s philosophical project begins with mind. It does not begin with the phenomenal world of objects or nature. Instead, the phenomenal world is a projection of our mind, our thought, our consciousness. If I exist without thought, I am an object. But I would have no knowledge of my existence. A rock, for instance, has no knowledge of its existence. A rock exists because it exists as a projection of the human mind and its sensory experiences. Ergo, for Kant, existence and knowledge of existence is tied back to mind, which is tied to the self.

Besides being concerned with metaphysical-epistemological concerns, Kant was deeply interested in the question of identity and how identity was related to the larger metaphysical-epistemic crisis wrought by modern philosophy. Looking upon the empiricists, man was an empty body—the “hollow man” as T.S. Eliot would later go on to explain. Looking upon the rationalists, especially Descartes, the cogito ergo sum proved thinking but not that I was actually the one doing the thinking. For Kant, the question of identity was necessary for thinking: The I-Think.

The notion of the Transcendental Self, the I-Think, in Kant’s ontological philosophy is the grounding of the self with thought through the apperceptive unity of the synthetic a priori. Since my mind is the seat of sensation and I think and perceive, the self is behind perception and not an object of perception. Moreover, for Kant, the self is what we do. Selfhood is the activity of consciousness, action and engagement, with the phenomenal world of space and time. In this way Kant bequeaths to German philosophy the notion of being as action, a being in the process of doing or becoming and something that isn’t fixed in the classical sense. The only thing fixed about the being of man is that he is rational, i.e. to organize ideas and experiences.

Kant’s understanding of the self is twofold. There is the empirical ego and the transcendental ego. The transcendental ego is the true self; the self-in-itself, how we identify ourselves and understand ourselves. The empirical ego is how others identify us. In other words, the empirical ego is the self that others encounter and perceive from their minds but they do not have access to our transcendental, interior, self.

If the phenomenal world is a projection of the mind, and there exists other persons, other selves who are not me, this is the origin of the I/Not-I distinction in Kantian philosophy that will be picked up upon principally by Fichte and Hegel. The I is the total self: empirical and transcendental, though the true self is always the transcendental self. Only I can be the total self because I control how I appear to others and I know myself.

Sticking with how this relates to the synthetic a priori and the noumenon, the transcendental ego projecting into the realm of space and time therefore perceives others (the empirical ego). However, the noumenal not-I is the transcendental ego/“true self” that I do not have access to. Therefore, I can only ever know another person in the empirical sense. Kant’s philosophy of selfhood is intimately tied with, and the outgrowth of, his philosophy of the synthetic a priori and noumenon.

Thus, in Kant, as the famous saying goes, he had to limit knowledge to ensure knowledge. However, this was deeply unsatisfying to the post-Kantians, the first of whom was Johann Fichte who built from the spirit of Kantian philosophy but wanted total knowledge because the limited knowledge of Kant was insufficient in warding off the skeptics.


Johann Fichte was a student of Kant’s philosophy. Although little known in the English-speaking world, Fichte was one of the most important philosophers in 1790s and early 1800s until his death in 1814. If English-speakers have any awareness of Fichte, it will likely be through his “Address to the German Nation,” given during the Napoleonic Wars, which was part speech on the need for education and educational reform as well as a call for German unity against the French occupiers, or as one of many names mentioned by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. Fichte, apart from being a philosopher, a metaphysician and epistemologist, was also a political philosopher and civil servant. His work of political economy, Der Gessloschen Handelstatt, led him to becoming an advisor to the Prussian minister of Commerce in 1800. In fact, Fichte’s “Address to the German Nation” is the logical derivative of his larger philosophical projects.

Fichte considered himself a Kantian, a Kantian in spirit, as all the post-Kantian idealists did. That is, while they disagreed with the substance of Kant’s limited metaphysic and epistemology, they nevertheless took up the project of defending mind, consciousness, reason, against its potential enemies: the materialists and solipsists.

In 1794 Fichte entered the world of philosophical dialectic with the writing of his Science of Knowledge (Wissenschaftslehre) In the introduction he laid out the two main schools in which all philosophies could be boxed in to. One school he called the dogmatists. The other school he called the idealists. The dogmatists were those scientistic materialists, materialists stretching as far back as the pre-Socratics, to the materialists of today, now known as the empiricists. The dogmatists were those whom Fichte opposed; for these mechanical materialists were dogmatic in their insistence that all life and laws could be reduced to the determinacy of the laws of motion. According to Fichte this reductive materialism moves us to an acceptance of determinism which has sweeping implications—all in the negative—as it relates to ethical life.

Fichte, in this sense, also wishes to actualize the Kantian ethical imperative. Fichte was, in a word, a moralist. He believed humans had duties and responsibilities to each other, to act, in the Kantian manner, in a way in which we would wish our actions to become universalized throughout the world. The dogmatists, in reducing knowledge to properties of mechanical laws of motion which deny free will and, therefore, responsibility, leave no room for morality. For morality hinges upon responsibility; for ethics is not a singular, solipsistic, endeavor. Ethics involves the other. That means ethics involves relationships with others. Which means ethics involves how we interact with others.

The idealists, whom Fichte considered himself part of, would have included the likes of Plato, Plotinus, Augustine—the broader Christian tradition—and, most importantly, Kant. The idealists, Fichte claimed, were concerned the perception. Today we call this phenomenology. From perception arises the concern for consciousness. From consciousness self-consciousness. From self-consciousness the subject, from the subject other subjects as we come to recognize that other thinking-subjects (persons), exist, and from this moral responsibility.

Fichte’s philosophy is grounded in the self. Which he calls the ego. And the ego is desire, movement, energy, creativity, moving to moral joy which is found in absolute knowledge and absolute freedom which is tied to responsibility; but we’ll get to that issue later.

Fichte’s break with Kant rested with Kant’s assertion that the human mind was cut off from the thing in itself; the noumenal realm. According to Fichte, while this does provide a clear foundation for some knowledge, it is nevertheless insufficient to achieve what Kant had earlier set out to achieve: to ward off the dangers of the mechanical philosophers. Accordingly, if objects (the things in themselves) remain separate and known to us, the mechanical philosophers will seize this opening and maintain that the objects (those things in themselves in the noumenal world) are the cause of our sensations and this once again reduces humans to objects. For if the mind cannot perceive or have experience of these things-in-themselves this means we cannot be sure that everything exists and can be perceived through the mind as Kant argued. Thus, Fichte is a true son to the Kantian tradition. He wants to produce a philosophy of mind, which is the philosophy of ego, which is all-encompassing and all-knowing, which will prevent any crack and crevice for the mechanical materialists to exploit. Like Kant, Fichte is concerned with (re)establishing a foundational philosophy for the apperceptive unity of the I and Not-I to exist. Things as they are must be tied to self.

Fichte’s philosophy is therefore not only grounded in the self, it is grounded in the heroic self, the heroic ego which strives for encounter and conquest, to encounter and conquer the noumenal world, the world of others, the world of the Not-I, the world of objects and other egos different than that of my own. In this way too, he hopes to resolve the Cartesian solipsistic dilemma even though, in his own life, Fichte was accused of being a solipsist.

The charges that Fichte was a solipsist rest on unfamiliarity of the Christian psychological and ontological tradition which Fichte was, himself, unknowingly inheriting. In the Christian tradition humans are images of the Trinity. The Trinity is simultaneously pluralistic yet united, three in one, Father (Memory), Son (Intellect), and Spirit (Love). Fichte’s movement of ego to Absolute ego, or the Absolute-I, which is the unity of the I with the Not-I, i.e. ego with other egos, follows this basic Christian framework. There must be a unitive link that binds egos together into the Absolute, just as the three persons of the Trinity are bounded together by, and through, love. This binding together is knowledge. I come to know you, that which I am not, the Not-I, through knowledge. This knowledge is achieved through encounter and engagement. Recognition.

The ego, Fichte, asserts, is moved by an insatiable quest, a desire, for knowing. Roland Kany and Dieter Hienrich, two contemporary scholars of German idealism, have written how Fichte inherits and builds upon “Augustine’s original insight of man,” the se cogitare and se nosse. Man thinks so as to come to know. His thinking is motivated by deep existential impulses and desires. Man is, as Spinoza said, in riffing from Augustin, a creature of desire. Thus, Augustine’s will which seeks after God is now the Fichtean ego seeking after the absolute (the temporalization of God).

The ego encounters other egos (the not-I) and in these encounters grows mutual recognition and understanding. It is in the phenomenal realm, nature, that the I-Not-I encounter develops; the social ego begins to emerge through these encounters of the I and Not-I to the point of the I and Not-I fusing together as one, two become one, in absolute knowledge of each other, to form the Absolute-I.

The ego’s transformation to absolute ego, the I to Absolute I, is by the I’s conquest of the unknown. That engagement, encounter, and recognizing the unknown—the noumenal, or the Not-I—leads to its absorption into the self. Self-knowledge is only possible through this coming to understanding of the totality of the whole. Fichte’s epistemology of the heroic ego is like the adventurous traveler, who is the ego, climbing—indeed struggling—up the mountain top to get to the peak to look over the vast horizon of wholeness. Only in completing this journey does the ego absorb all, understand all, and becomes one with totality. At the mountain top the ego is transformed into the absolute ego which has broken down the barrier of the unknown and that which was previously unknown has now revealed itself to the heroic ego.

This ego-to-ego-to Superego, or I-Not-I-to-Absolute-I movement, is simultaneously the movement to absolute knowing where the thing-in-itself (the not-I) previously unknown and unknowable to me becomes known, and the unveiling of oneself to the other (and vice-versa) like two loves unclothing to share their most intimate secrets with each other. I know you and you know me, and this only came about by encounter and recognition; not the domination and exploitation of putting the other up on the rack of scientific interrogation as Bacon speculated. This is, as Fichte asserts, the very heart—desire—of the ego. That two become one in absolute knowledge. It is a mutual journey; it entails the other to participate as much as it does the self.

This I-Not-I to Absolute-I movement is only possible in the phenomenal realm of nature. In Fichte’s reimagining, nature is that barrier that separates the I and Not-I, nature is the barrier to the noumenal realm that must be slowly broken down and penetrated into through this dialectic of encounter and adventure. As this barrier is broken down, and the ego becomes socialized and loving, the I and Not-I grow closer together and fuse as one, becoming the Absolute-I. This is the restoration of the apperceptive unity that was lost in Bacon and Descartes.

Moreover, and in agreement with Kant, the I-Think knows through consciousness. Fichte’s epistemology is not only grounded in the self, it is founded upon self-consciousness; the logical exhaustion of any epistemology grounded in the self. I come to know through coming to know the other not as object but as subject; I can truly come to know its essence, its inner self, itself; because we are now one. This occurs in the mind, the ego, the absolute ego. Not as a detached observer but as an intimate participater. That participation, of course, was through the encounter and recognition of the I and Other. If this sounds familiar to Hegel’s dialectic of master-slave, of I and Other, in the Phenomenology you would be correct; for Hegel, a contemporary of Fichte who taught as the same university, was influenced by Fichte though Hegel subsequently took Fichte’s I-Not-I encounter and historicized it.

Fichte’s alteration of the Kantian gives of mind and the phenomenal realm of space and time is at once a stronger return to nature than with Kant but also a stronger sublation of nature through the ego-to-ego encounter en route to the harmonization of the ego-to-ego dialectic of encounter and recognition. Nature, the space existing as a barrier to the free creativity of the ego, must be made in our image. Much like how Freud said where id is ego shall be, where nature is I shall be. Nature, at once, is that which allows for the encounter of the I and Not I to move to Absolute I, and nature is that space which allows for the moral community, the ethische Gemeinshaft, to actualize itself. But in this development to moral community nature is altogether overcome in the realization of moral community.

This returns us to Fichte’s ethical imperative. If the reductive deterministic materialists are right, there is no moral order. All is atoms, particles, in motion following the laws of motion until they dissipate in atrophy.

The unity which is achieved in the movement to Absolute I, or Absolute Ego, is not merely based on the newfound and absolute knowledge we have of each other, but based on the responsibilities and duties we now share to each other. In order to retain this unity I have responsibilities to you as you have responsibilities to me, because it is through responsibilities to each other that the eternal iteration of the I-You encounter perpetuates itself. The I-Other becoming I-You which is really I to myself as two have become one, relationship is the continuous and eternal dialectic of engagement which self-perpetuates the unity now shared. Again, if Fichte had drawn upon Christian theology more explicitly he would have had better grounds to defend himself against charges of atheism; charges Fichte disputed and charges his son, a famous Lutheran theologian and philosopher himself, always defended his father from. For if the unity of love which binds the Trinity together ceased, the Trinity would fall apart. In the same manner, the love which now perpetuates and holds the Absolute I together must perpetuate itself through the duties and responsibilities we share to one another otherwise that unity which fused I and Not-I together would dissipate.

All self-consciousness, freedom, and reason is bound together through rational engagement and counter. We subsequently become accountable to the other because in being accounted to the other I am also accountable to myself; I have a responsibility to the other which means I, the ego, have a duty within me to uphold these responsibilities. My well-being, as well as the other’s, depend upon this. To shirk responsibility is to become detached. To embrace responsibility is to become engaged. True freedom, according to Fichte, is the freedom to choose responsibility. It is the freedom to be dutiful and loving to those who constitute the Absolute-I. And, in total knowledge, I know I have these responsibilities which led me to action. Responsibility upholds the unity of relations which have been forged in the I-Not-I, ego-to-ego, movement to Absolute-I: The moral community manifested on earth.

Furthermore, this synthesis of egos leads to the moral joy consummated in love. The “I replacing God” is the Fichtean temporalization of divinization. I embody divinity and the Absolute I is the embodiment of divinity realized as all I’s, as part of the Absolute-I, becomes the Godhead incarnate in the world. The I-Not-I have become Absolute-I in love and knowledge.

However, Fichte’s philosophy posed new problems. These problems were subsequently dealt with Friedrich Schelling, a student of Fichte. For Schelling, the implication of eradicating nature in Fichte’s philosophy to Absolute-I was a new crisis that had to be dealt with.


While influenced by Kant and Fichte, Schelling deviates from them insofar that he does not start with mind (as Kant and Fichte) but with nature (per Goethe). Therefore, Schelling’s axiomatic foundation is not the mind, the rational (or transcendental) but the natural; nature. The mind, for Schelling, is an outgrowth of the forces of conflict within nature and organic/morphologic growth.

Schelling’s enemies were twofold.  While influenced by Fichte, especially in his earlier days, Schelling came to conclude that the implications of Fichte’s philosophy of the absolute ego and consciousness would lead us down the path of a dangerous solipsism.  At the same time, as was the case with the whole of German Idealistic and Romantic thought, he was also vehemently opposed to the anti-teleological and reductionist empiricism and materialism of the dominant Anglo-French schools of thought which eventually produced utilitarianism with the likes of Bentham and Mill.  Schelling sought to reconcile the philosophy of consciousness and transcendentalism of earlier German philosophers (Kant and Fichte) with a form of non-reductionist empiricism that was also teleological (thereby allowing humans to have total knowledge through coming to know the end of the purpose of life).

The core idea of Schelling’s naturphilosophie is that everything springs from nature (principally in Ideas Concerning a Philosophy of Nature and System of Transcendental Idealism).  Rejecting the mechanical model of earlier “Enlightenment science,” Schelling was the forefront of integrating the new biological and organicist models of science with philosophy.  Thus, rather than the cold, mechanical, and lifeless philosophy and science that dominated the British and French materialist and utilitarian schools of thought, Schelling embraced an organicist, rhizomatic, and “chaotic” understanding of philosophy.  That is, all life organically grows from an early simplicity to greater levels of complicatedness and intricacy over time – much how biological and organicist models of science understand life.  In time this outgrowth becomes more and more complex with more roots taking hold as life expands over time.  For Schelling, the high points of life come during the rhizomatic phases when flourishing is correlated with creativity which, in turn, is correlated with the uncontrollable nature of rhizomes.

Schelling recontextualizes the dialectic of the I/Not-I through the morphologic realities of biology and also through an ingenious reimagining of space and time from Christian theology. Nature is internally dialectical, one might say paradoxical or even “contradictory.” There is, on one hand, an infinite expansion of the nature (thesis) which is reacted against (antithesis) by an infinite contraction of the natural. The forces of nature are simultaneously moved to expansion (growth and life) and contraction (decadence and death). This results in a disequilibrium which sets off a generative teleological evolutionary byproduct leading to the “new nature” (synthesis) that grows out of this generative disequilibrium within the forces of nature: The movement to self-consciousness and realization within the realm of nature.

The first generative principle of nature is space and time. The expansive and contracting principles then take place in the realm of space and time and recapitulate a new outgrowth, gravity and light (with further smaller recapitulations producing chemistry and electricity, etc.). Gravity is the new outgrowth of space. Light is the new outgrowth of time.  Space was the outgrowth of the force of expansion and time the outgrowth of the force of contraction. This process of dialectical recapitulation continues to cycle (like Goethean plant biology) producing newer iterations of the natural. From the gravity and light recapitulation emerges organic bodies, first beginning with plants. Then from organic bodies recapitulation produces animals. And from animals emerge humans. The generative movement of nature culminates in the “creation” of the human, which is the first and only lifeform that becomes aware of these generative processes of expansion and contraction and, as such, becomes self-conscious of his place in the natural realm through the emergence of self-conscious thought and reflection rooted, ultimately, in the generative germ of natural forces acting against one another. This plays out in human physiology: The growth, consummation, frailty, and death of the body; libidinal or biological urges (expansion) being curtailed by rational constructs and edifices which order eros (contraction) which makes ethical life possible (but not at the expense of destroying eros as in Fichte’s though concerning the emergence of the ego and ethical life and community); ultimately leading to the Christian consciousness of love as expansive and life-giving and the corruption of love, lust, as contractive and therefore life-denying.

Nature’s generative process of coming to self-consciousness culminates in the human. Thus, Schelling is—in the most traditional and proper sense and usage of the term—a humanist. Schelling believes the human, among all the lifeforms generated by the natural seed of generative recapitulation so it could, itself, understand itself, is set apart (the exception, hence, exceptional). Humans are exceptional because they are the exception in coming to self-consciousness and understanding. Schelling believes that animals feel and have all the basic self-perceptions which allow basic sensational awareness, but animals lack the ability to self-consciously reflect and come to know who they are, where they are, why they exist, etc., and neither can other animals come to understand all the generative laws of the natural world in which they dwell in. Animals simply have, in Christian language, the grace to be what they are and they are what they.

Thus, in the human—the ultimate coming to understanding is the consciousness of love. Love is the prime generative principle; hate (or sin) is the contractive principle. This was, for Schelling, the internal mythological truth of the Christian understanding of Original Sin and Divinization. Original Sin is that aspect of the human which leads us to do evil which is a negation of life and therefore a contraction of the generative principle of love and expansion; divinization is that embodiment of love and the principle of self-giving which brings two self-contracting forces (dying humans) into propagating further expansion (the generative/expansive principle) which leads to the creation of new life. Schelling, also being a theologian along with being a scientist and philosopher, tied this back to the book of Genesis in which God implants into creation the generative principles of self-propagation (reproduce after one’s own kind) which, after moving from space and time to light and gravity to plants to animals to, finally, humans. The arc of the evolution of nature, the morphological impulse of all life, reaches fruition in the human who is the single lifeform that fully develops the seed of intelligibility and consciousness to the point of self-reflection and the understanding of the generative principle of nature as love.

Schelling grounds his philosophy in the natural because love, eros, is the basic creative force of nature; the spirit. (Schelling follows a contemporary of his, Friedrich Holderlin on this account.) In the larger contests of philosophy and the world, as it relates to civilization, sterile rationalism, mechanicalism, and the material (i.e. “the scientific” as we tend to think of the term today) is that which threatens to severe us from the rational and, therefore, cut us off from the erotic which is the first generative principle of natural expansion. It is here that Schelling considered himself the true heir of Kant, who was much afraid of the same encroachments of the scientistic and mathematical (hollow) worldview of Anglo-French material utilitarianism. However, by starting with mind, according to Schelling, Kant started with the teleological end product and was still, despite his opposition to the monistic material reductionists, cut-off from the natural which would not resolve the problem of our alienation and destruction of nature. By beginning with nature and tying the mind (transcendental self-consciousness) to nature, Schelling hoped to show how true self-consciousness—true transcendental idealism—must always remained grounded to nature itself and not separated apart from it. (As was the unfortunate and unintentional cases of Kant and Fichte.)

Thus, in Schelling we can see the essential biological, morphological, and organic reality of life. Nature embodies two principle forces (hence avoiding reductionist monism): expansion and contraction. The dialectic between expansion and contraction is not an equal dialectic; the disequilibrium of the two (following Newton: equal and opposite reactions would cancel each other out) which is the superiority of the expansive over the contractive “wins out” so to speak which leads to the generative seed of nature which slowly produces new life. In theological language this is the triumph of love over hate, of divinization over sin. The cycles of nature recapitulate this basic dialectic leading to ever more complex lifeforms moving through atoms to plants to animals to humans. It is in humans, the culmination of nature’s movement to self-consciousness, that there is a mind (the human mind) that is fully capable of conscious self-reflection and an understanding of these morphological laws.

The intelligibility of the natural world reaches fruition in the human and the gift of love in self-conscious humans who, unlike with Fichte, do not need to destroy nature to be moral, but need to embrace their most primal nature (through understanding) to be moral. The moral is both an outgrowth of, but still linked to, the natural. It is in the biosphere that the generative principle of life, love, waits to be unleashed; the world of edifice, construction, and industry is really the embodiment of the contractive principle. As it relates to human minds, the truly self-conscious mind is that which exudes the generative principle of morphological growth; the mind that has severed itself from nature, which has therefore severed itself from true self-consciousness (understanding of the generative) is the contractive germ of morphological decline. This also puts humans in the most precarious position as we control our destiny of generative life or contractive death where other lifeforms don’t.

Schelling begins with nature, and, in a paradoxical sense, ends with nature. Nature’s becoming, its movement to totality, is the process of the emergence of self-consciousness in humans. Here we see Schelling’s debt to Kant and Fichte; but, as stated before, Schelling broke with Kant and Fichte because the two began where nature ends: The Mind. In starting at the teleological endpoint, Kant and Fichte are unable to truly attain the apperceptive unity cut off by the philosophies of Bacon and Descartes. It is not that the spirit of Kant and Fichte are wrong; one might go as far as even saying that Schelling agrees with a certain amount of the substance of Kant and Fichte too. But if neither begin with nature as their axiom, neither can sufficiently establish a philosophy that links the I with the Not-I; or in the case of Fichte, the emergence of the Absolute-I entails the end of the Not-I, the natural, which has been sublated in the movement to the Absolute-I.

Knowledge, then, for Schelling, must be tied to nature. For the truly self-conscious mind is that which recognizes its outgrowth from, and its roots in, the natural. Those minds who cut themselves off from this reality are not self-conscious, indeed, they are the human embodiment of the force of contraction. Those who entrench themselves, so to speak, and reflect back and recognize their deep roots (bodenstandigkeit) with the biological organism that they dwell in, are those truly self-conscious and knowledgeable minds who possess true knowledge and understanding. This is how Schelling achieves that apperceptive unity that is the primary concern of his predecessors: Kant and Fichte. The unity of knowledge and understanding, the unity of self and world, comes from our unity with nature because we are outgrowths of nature. Knowing this allows us to form the moral community, with responsibilities and duties, which permit humans to dwell in the world with both knowledge and the joy that comes with knowledge and active participation in life and love.

But where Schelling saw the entire movement of philosophy as one of nature, another German philosopher who borrowed extensively from Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, explained the rise of consciousness, complexity, and moral duties as arising from History. That philosopher was Georg W.F. Hegel.


While Johann Fichte and Friedrich Schelling were luminaries of German idealism in their time, the most famous son of German Idealism known to posterity is Georg W.F. Hegel. Hegel did not share the same early fame as Fichte and Schelling and only became a major figure in German philosophy with the publication of his famous Phenomenology of Spirit in 1807. Like the rest of the post-Kantians, Hegel took the spirit of Kant and drew upon Fichte and Schelling to try and create an all-encompassing system of philosophy to provide both total knowledge and total meaning in life.

Hegel’s corpus is extensive, and I will be drawing and synthesizing the general arc of Hegel’s systematic philosophy from Phenomenology of SpiritLectures on the Philosophy of History, and his Elements of the Philosophy of Right, especially as it relates to the general theme we’ve already covered in Fichte and Schelling. In most ways, Hegel inherits the Fichtean and Schellingian thrust of having a moral order of duties and rights with each other that provide for moral community. Hegel goes a step further in his politicization of the movement of philosophy and the formation of law, order, and political structures as the manifestation of our recognition of each other in historical progress.

Understanding Hegel is difficult due to his verbose style. However, once you’re able to deconstruct Hegel’s language most of what he says is somewhat straightforward and easy to grasp. In second section of the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel gives his easiest and most straightforward analogy to his philosophical vision. He tells the story of the plant bud blossoming to yield fruit; it begins as a seed, becomes roots and stem eventually emerging with a bud, the bud blossoms into a flower, and the flower is pollinated and then brings forth fruit. It is only at the end of this process can we know what the entire process of necessary unfolding entailed.

Hegel’s philosophical system is anti-reductionist and explicitly Schellingian and Goethean in nature (in fact, the Phenomenology’s structure mirrors that of Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism). It considers ‘the whole picture’, as it were, and understands philosophy as the task of engaging with “purposive activity.” From guiding tendency into activity  to aims/results; the task of philosophy is to penetrate the phenomenon of activity to understand the guiding tendency’s unfolding development to results (which Hegel calls the Sache Selbst, or the real issue of philosophy). This means, however, as Hegel said at the end of the Preface to the Philosophy of Right, philosophy only comes to know the reality of the world at the close of its unfolding development; philosophy only takes flight at the coming of the shades of dusk.

One should immediately see, from one of the few analogies that Hegel uses which is comprehensible, how his system is very much in the tradition of post-Kantian idealism. Where Kant would have us cut-off the phenomenological and noumenal worlds at, say, the blossoming of the flower, Hegel sees the movement of the phenomenological as revealing the noumenal at the end of the process if keeping with the Kantian language and dynamic. That is, the noumenal (the thing-itself) is revealed at the end of the development process through the realization of the transcendental idea. However, Hegel is anti-reductionist because to reduce the phenomenon of development back to its origo (the seed) is to have clearly misunderstood what one was observing. Likewise, to focus only on the results is to focus on the “lifeless corpse that has left the guiding tendency behind.” Hegel is fighting against reductionism and utilitarianism by emphasizing a sense of organic holism in philosophy.

This is why Hegel asserts “the Truth is the whole.” Only at the end-stage do we understand the truth of the whole. The Absolute is the result, and the realized, manifested in the world through the activity of Spirit. Hence, “the rational is real and the real is rational.” Hegel may be an “idealist,” but the functional manifestation of his philosophy is empirical (like with most of the German idealists). It is a philosophy about the world of experience; it is a philosophy concerned with incarnate (or embodied) living in the corporeal world which we exist in; it is a philosophy of the real, of thought and action united instead of separated.

The unfolding of truth and its incarnate manifestation in the world is the “purposive activity” that reason is. Hegel maintains a sense of classical ontological teleology but one that is in the process of becoming rather than one that is in a fixed state as a given. This is double-play on Hegel’s part. Many Aristotelians, for instance, criticize Hegel’s concept of being and non-being, of becoming and non-becoming. This is due to misunderstanding Hegel’s pontifical philosophy. He bridges being and non-being, becoming and fixity, together. For, in a sense, man has a fixed state—but that is what he is unfolding to be or realize. That also means, however, man in this imperfect state is not yet what he is truly meant for.

Let us return to Hegel’s image of the plant bud becoming flower and producing fruit. Hegel asserts that primordial man, like the seed, has a fixed end; a telos or destiny. Primordial man has not yet blossomed, or produced, that end of being yet. As such, man is in a state of becoming—the unfolding movement to his teleological constitution like the seed becoming bud, flower, and eventually producing fruit. Man develops to his teleological end. Man has a nature, but that nature is not yet manifested in the world. Hegel’s philosophical vision, in some sense, is a temporalized recontextualization of Christian chiliasm. The total vision of man is that which is to come. And that which is to come is rooted ethical life in a community (a secularized, temporalized, heavenly city bound together in, and by, love).

This unfolding to rooted ethical life is what Hegel calls History. Hegel’s philosophy of History, then, establishes a comprehensive and political reading of the movement of History which makes him a powerful philosopher relevant to political philosophy as much as to metaphysics and epistemology. History, then, for Hegel, is essentially philosophical; it is ethical. History pertains to human-to-human relationships. History pertains to the face-to-face. History is about us! For only philosophy, the “queen of the sciences,” can understand the totality of History. History is, therefore, the movement of the Spirit and its manifestation in time and space to its purposive end; that end being rooted ethical life through the bonds of duties and obligations to one another in a recognized ethical (sittlichkeit) community.

In History the Spirit manifests itself as Being-in-itself; Being-for-itself; and most importantly, Being-for-us! While there is an unmistakable collective tidal wave in Hegel’s philosophy which threatens to sink and overwhelm the individual who is not that important to the totalizing unfolding of History, Hegel’s philosophy also has an unmistakably individualistic element to it. I do, in fact, matter; and Spirit manifests itself for me. Hegel’s I, the particular I, is connected and individuated. There is no contradiction in Hegel because Hegel doesn’t pit the two together but sees them as existing in the same being of the I.

The manifestation of the Spirit through determinacy is something concrete and invites human participation. This participation is collective, but it is also individualist. It invites all to participate, but in this invitation, it is reaching out to me in particular too. This cannot be forgotten about Hegel (though is often forgotten about Hegel by Hegel’s critics, especially those who follow the negative approach of Karl Popper). Spirit’s determinacy manifests itself in numerous ways: art; literature; law, religion; economy; social structures; states and communities; relations with others (friendships and families, etc.). Hegel would not be a proponent of ‘spiritual but not religious.’ For Hegel, such a mentality is to misunderstand the Spirit and become a victim of History (someone who doesn’t understand History). ‘Spiritual but not religious’ refers to primordial times when Spirit hadn’t yet manifested itself in determinate and concrete ways inviting particularized participation. The emergence of orderly and formal religion is the manifestation of the Spirit’s purposive activity for there is a community in this purposive construction. This applies to everything else, like the formation of national communities with particular constitutions inviting people to participate in it rather than remain in an atomized of unconnected filial state of existence as in our primordial past.

Thus, the movement of Hegel’s understanding of the Spirit in History is this: purposive community and purposive participation in that community. Hegel’s philosophical movement is not a single plant blossoming to yield fruit but many plants blossoming to yield fruit like an organic living organism; a giant network of interconnected roots and foliage that nourish each other and through this collective organic entity grows into a flourishing organic entity. The incarnate determinacy is the temporalization of the Beatific Vision in the world rather than apart from the world! This world becomes a literal manifestation of “the world to come.” Or, as Hegel says, “the divine idea realized on earth.”

The most famous section of the Phenomenology, the sections on Lordship and Bondage, or Master-Slave, is the sketched outplaying of the essence of Hegel’s philosophy. The entirety of the lordship-bondsman section can be summed up as the drive for recognition (face-to-face). In this meeting of two not yet as one, there is a “struggle to death” in which the competing forces try to exercise dominion over the other. This end in several ways. Either A defeats B or vise-versa; both A and B defeat each other; A subdues B or vise-versa; or, teleologically but never in historical practice, A and B mutually recognize each other. This mutual recognition of each other is what the Spirit aims for but History, as we know, is a messy thing. So, it is often the case that one party dominates the other.

It is Hegel’s lordship-bondsman dialectic that famously influenced Marx. Because Hegel asserts the increase of consciousness comes from purposive activity, it is the bondsman who grows in consciousness through purposive work while the lord grows lazy and doesn’t increase in his consciousness because he is in a place of security. The bondsman might be an extension of the lord’s arm, so to speak, but he is the one who, in doing the purposive work, comes to have a greater awareness of the world and his relationship with the lord and the world in an unsettling place between. The bondsman exists for others; he exists for the lord, he exists for his fellow bondsmen, and he exists for the world of materials he works with. In sum, the bondsman exists for others while the lord exists for-himself. This ensures the bondsman growth in consciousness and power over time which the lord will eventually recognize. This is the irony of the lord-bondsman dialectic; it is the lord who recognizes the bondsman, and in this recognition, loses his grip on power over the bondsman until, over time, the lord recognizes the bondsman as an equal. This emergence to mutual recognition is what humans seek and what the Spirit aims for and is inevitable; this mutual recognition is not one of subject-object but of subject-subject. In this achievement the transcendental self which was previously unknowable to us in Kant’s philosophy is knowable to us in Hegel’s philosophy (as it is in Fichte and Schelling too). (Hopefully one can see how this influenced Marx’s understanding of the inevitable triumph of the proletariat.)

In this growth to recognition of each other emerges duties and obligations to each other; this is manifested through the determinacy of community and law. Community, in Latin, commune, means to communicate. It is, in other words, understanding. A community can only be a community if it has mutual understanding. A community in which people do not trust and understand each other is not a true community.

For Hegel, as with the rest of the Germans, this means that community is rooted in language, culture, and traditions. Those who share the same language, the same culture, and the same traditions will fuse together like Adam and Eve, multiplicity becoming one, whereby understanding and the duties and obligations that come with understanding and recognition now manifest. The German idealist tradition, in this regard, is deeply hermetic, spiritual, and, indeed, religious in its dimension and interior character.

In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel’s crystal-clear portrait of the purposive activity of Spirit in the political sphere, the movement of individuals into families, then communities, and then to a constitution-state, is the ultimate movement of the Spirit. This manifestation of the state is, in essence, just the enlargement of the family to its exhaustive end. For civil community, or civil society, as Hegel says, is just an extension of the original family by which all politeia is founded on. The essence of Hegel’s political philosophy is eminently conservative in this respect. It is filial, communitarian, particular, and nationalist. Moreover, it is cameralist.

In this unfolding of the Spirit into manifested community there are four archetypes that Hegel outlines: The hero; the victim; the person; and the citizen. The hero is the founder of states and is the unwitting embodiment of the Spirit’s purposive activity. The person is the “moral individual” who seeks to help others but has no home. The person, though moral, is unrooted and detached. In being unrooted and detached the moral person is inferior to the ultimate culmination of the purposive activity of the Spirit: citizenship. To be a citizen is to be the most determinate, concrete, and particular manifestation of Reason itself. To be a citizen is to have a community. It is to be the product of the purposive activity of the Spirit in times past. For instance, the Spirit was, over the course of hundreds, if not thousands, of years, working to bring people together to whom you can trace your genealogy from and in this bringing people together into a community with a culture and history there emerged law, order, and the nation-state as well as, of course, your family. The victim is the lowest person in History because the victim is someone that History has passed over. The victim is not the brutalized individual of the lust for domination but the individual who has no reflective and conscionable knowledge of the purposive activity of the Real. The victim is, basically, the atomized hedonist who lives only for himself and bodily comfort apart from the world of relations and relationships; the victim is the person who doesn’t recognize the faces of others and only understands himself as a body for self-pleasure.

It is here that there is the enduring paradox of Hegel’s “end of History.” In the culmination of citizenship and the nation-state we see the end of the purposive activity of Reason whereby philosophy can now unlock and understand what the “whole story” was about. But rather than something dreary Hegel leaves us with something still progressive and optimistic. It is up to us to carry on the purposive activity of the Spirit because it has manifested itself for us! This leaves us with the same end as Fichte and Schelling earlier; a community of love bound by rights, duties, and obligations to each other which can only stand if we discharge our duties and obligations to one another in the determinate fashion that the Spirit has given us. And this was the movement of History: From the unconscious individual separated and atomized from the world to the conscious I integrated and networked in a grand web of face-to-face relationships in an ethical community of love where we truly live lives as persons with hearts. In this ethical community we find our fulfillment in the rights and duties dedicated to others: spouse, family, civil society, and state.

To the spouse I have duties of love and sacrifice to the other. To the family I have duties of love and sacrifice to others. To the town or civil society where I live and make my home I have duties of love and sacrifice to the purposive activity of the town and everything that comprises the life-activity of the town. And, of course, to the state I have duties of love and sacrifice (patriotism or nationalism) to the whole community as a citizen. These orders of dutiful love and sacrifice constitute the heart of the highest life possible: sittlichkeit. All history is moving toward this consummate realization. (Here we see how we also transcend the lower orders of ethical life: we start with ourselves, proceed to the family, but then the family itself is transcended to the tribe or town, with the tribe or town being transcended to the nation; yet in this process of sublation (aufhebung) we still carry forward the goods of the past; we never, for instance, eradicate our duties of love and sacrifice to the family but we come to understand that there are also higher realities than just the family.)

Hegel’s end of History is a networked community that recognizes each other’s rights but a community that also knows that these rights depend on our duties and obligations to each other which can only be sustained through the indwelling of neighborly love which compels us to action. Hegel’s end of History is, then, not the end of purposive activity but the perpetual recapitulation of purposive activity in the determinate forms that Spirit has given us and depends on us to maintain. In our purposive participation in that community of love bound by rights, duties, and obligations, “history” very much continues in the expressions of our love in the communities and determinate institutions the Spirit bequeathed to us for our moral joy.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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