C 19th-Century Philosophy


19th-Century Philosophy

Philosophers of the 19th century generally developed their views with reference to the work of Kant. In Germany, Kant’s influence led subsequent philosophers to explore idealism and ethical voluntarism, a philosophical tradition that places a strong emphasis on human will. Whereas philosophers before Kant had explored the objects of knowledge, German philosophers who followed Kant on the path of idealism turned to the subject of knowledge—known variously as the ego, the I, the mind, and human consciousness.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte transformed Kant’s critical idealism into absolute idealism by eliminating Kant’s “things-in-themselves” (external reality) and making the self, or the ego, the ultimate reality. Fichte maintained that the world is created by an absolute ego, which is conscious first of itself and only later of non-self, or the otherness of the world. The human will, a partial manifestation of self, gives human beings freedom to act. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling moved still further toward absolute idealism by construing objects or things as the works of the imagination and Nature as an all-embracing being, spiritual in character. Schelling became the leading philosopher of the movement known as romanticism, which in contrast to the Enlightenment placed its faith in feeling and the creative imagination rather than in reason. The romantic view of the divinity of nature influenced the American transcendentalist movement, led by poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.



Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel proposed that truth is reached by a continuing dialectic, in which a concept (thesis) always gives rise to its opposite (antithesis), and the interaction between these two leads to the creation of a new concept (synthesis). Hegel employed this dialectical method in such works as Phenomenology of the Mind (1807) to explain history and the evolution of ideas.


The most powerful philosophical mind of the 19th century was the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose system of absolute idealism, although influenced greatly by Kant and Schelling, was based on a new conception of logic and philosophical method. Hegel believed that absolute truth, or reality, exists and that the human mind can know it. This is so because “whatever is real is rational,” according to Hegel. He conceived the subject matter of philosophy to be reality as a whole, a reality that he referred to as Absolute Spirit, or cosmic reason. The world of human experience, whether subjective or objective, he viewed as the manifestation of Absolute Spirit.

Philosophy’s task, according to Hegel, is to chart the development of Absolute Spirit from abstract, undifferentiated being into more and more concrete reality. Hegel believed this development occurs by a dialectical process—that is, a process through which conflicting ideas become resolved—which consists of a series of stages that occur in triads (sets of three). Each triad involves (1) an initial state (or thesis), which might be an idea or a movement; (2) its opposite state (or antithesis); and (3) a higher state, or synthesis, that combines elements from the two opposites into a new and superior arrangement. The synthesis then becomes the thesis of the next triad in an unending progress toward the ideal.

Hegel argued that this dialectical logic applies to all knowledge, including science and history. His discussion of history was particularly influential, especially because it supported the political and social philosophy later developed by Karl Marx. According to Hegel human history demonstrates the dialectical development of Absolute Spirit, which can be observed by studying conflicts and wars and the rise and fall of civilizations. He maintained that political states are real entities, the manifestation of Spirit in the world, and participants of history. In every epoch a particular state is the bearer or agent of spiritual advance, and it thereby gathers to itself power. Because the dialectic means opposition and conflict, war must be expected, and it has value as evidence of the health of a state.

Hegel’s philosophy stimulated interest in history by representing it as a deeper penetration into reality than the natural sciences provide. His conception of the national state as the highest social embodiment of the Absolute Spirit was for some time believed to be a main source of 20th-century totalitarianism, although Hegel himself advocated a large measure of individual freedom.



Arthur Schopenhauer

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer considered the will as the basic reality and the source of human unhappiness, beliefs he set forth in 1819 in his major work, The World as Will and Idea. Only through reason and resignation can human beings overcome the strivings and desires of the will and achieve happiness.

German philosophers of the 19th century who came after Hegel rejected Hegel’s faith in reason and progress. Arthur Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Idea (1819) argued that existence is fundamentally irrational and an expression of a blind, meaningless force—the human will, which encompasses the will to live, the will to reproduce, and so forth. Will, however, entails continuous striving and results in disappointment and suffering. Schopenhauer offered two avenues of escape from irrational will: through the contemplation of art, which enables one to endure the tragedy of life, and through the renunciation of will and of the striving for happiness.

Schopenhauer was one of the first Western philosophers to be influenced by Indian philosophy, which was then appearing in Europe in translation. The influence of Buddhist thought, for example, appears in his sense that the world is full of evil and suffering which can be overcome only through resignation and renunciation. Schopenhauer’s own view that an irrational force lies at the center of life subsequently influenced voluntaristic psychology, a school of psychology that emphasized the causes for our choices; sociological studies that examine nonrational factors affecting people; and cultural attitudes that play down the value of reason in life.



Friedrich Nietzsche

During the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche, in a return to the classical ideals of ancient Greece, attacked Christianity and moral philosophy. According to Nietzsche, the ideals of Christianity and moral philosophy were “slave moralities” that sought to restrict individuals of talent and vision from rising above the masses. He acclaimed the “will to power” and praised the creative accomplishments of great individuals.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche continued the revolt against reason initiated by the romantic movement, but he scornfully repudiated Schopenhauer’s negative, resigned attitude. Instead, Nietzsche affirmed the value of vitality, strength, and the supremacy of an existence that is purely egoistic. He also scorned the Christian and democratic ideas of the equal worth of human beings, maintaining that it is up to a few aristocrats to refuse to subordinate themselves to a state or cause, and thereby achieve self-realization and greatness. For Nietzsche the power to be strong was the greatest value in life. Although Nietzsche valued geniuses over dictators, his beliefs helped bolster the ideas of the National Socialists (Nazis) who gained control of Germany in the 1930s (see National Socialism).



Søren Kierkegaard

Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard helped found existentialism and explored the inherent paradoxes in Christianity. In his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard discussed Genesis 22, in which God commanded Abraham to kill his only son, Isaac. Abraham was prepared to heed God’s unreasonable request, and Kierkegaard regards Abraham’s “leap of faith” in this matter as the essence of religion.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard developed another distinctive philosophy of life. Kierkegaard’s ideas, which were not appreciated until a century after their appearance, were literary, religious, and self-revealing rather than systematic in character. They stressed the importance of experiences that the intellectual mind judges as absurd, including the experiences of angst (“anxiety”) and “fear and trembling.” (The latter phrase is the title of one of his books.) Such experiences, in his view, lead first to despair and eventually to religious faith. Kierkegaard discussed this process in terms of the religious person who is commanded by God to sacrifice his own most cherished treasures, as in the example of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac in the Old Testament. Although Abraham cannot understand this absurd request from God, he decides to obey his commitment to God. Through such terrible experiences, Kierkegaard claimed, we learn that humanity’s relationship to God is absolute and all else relative. What is most significant in a person’s life, Kierkegaard concluded, are the decisions made in such ethical crises.

Kierkegaard’s ideas came to have importance in the 20th century. The concepts of existence, dread, the absurd, and decision were influential in Germany, France, and English-speaking countries. The condition of humankind during an epoch with two world wars gave these ideas a new relevance; the philosophers who developed them founded the movement now known as existentialism.


Bentham and Mill

Jeremy Bentham

In the 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham founded the ethical, legal, and political doctrine of utilitarianism, which states that correct actions are those that result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. For Bentham, happiness is precisely quantifiable and reducible to units of pleasure, less units of pain. Bentham was strongly opposed to then-dominant theories of natural rights, in which human beings are believed to possess certain inherent and unalterable social requirements.

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, both economists as well as philosophers, dominated philosophy in England during the 19th century. Bentham originated the ethical principle of utilitarianism—that what is useful is good—and Mill developed and refined the doctrine. The utilitarians argued for an ethical principle that would be superior to the self-interest of the individual, just as Kant had established a rational principle of moral law superior to individual desire, by which people’s conduct ought to be governed. The utilitarians based their principle on the theory that everyone desires his or her own happiness, that people have to find that happiness in society, and that consequently we all have an interest in the general happiness. They took the position that whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is what is most useful for all. This is the meaning of the principle of utility, or benefit, from which utilitarianism takes its name.

In evaluating happiness, Bentham believed it possible to measure quantitatively the pleasures resulting from each action—the pleasures of oneself and the pleasure of others—and thus to decide in any instance what promoted the greatest amount of happiness. Mill partly abandoned that idea and maintained that one should consider the quality, or type, of pleasure as well as the quantity. Mill applied utilitarian principles to social justice, and the principle of utility influenced legislation that brought about social and economic reforms in Great Britain.


Karl Marx and Marxism

Karl Marx

Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, defined communism. Their most famous work was the Communist Manifesto (1848), in which they argued that the working class should rebel and build a Communist society.

The most influential achievement in political philosophy during the 19th century was the development of Marxism (see Political Theory). German political philosopher Karl Marx, who created the system known as Marxism, and his collaborator Friedrich Engels accepted the basic form of Hegel’s dialectic of history, but they made crucial modifications. For them history was a matter of the development not of Absolute Spirit but of the material conditions governing humanity’s economic existence. In their view, later known as historical materialism, the history of society is a history of class struggle in which the ruling class uses religion and other traditions and institutions, as well as its economic power, to reinforce its domination over the working classes. Human culture, according to Marx, is dependent on economic (material) conditions and serves economic ends. Religion, he concluded, is “the opiate of the masses” that serves the political end of suppressing mass revolution. Marxism is a theory of revolution, of history, of economics, and of politics, and it served as the ideology for Communism. Although he was a philosopher Marx had disdain for merely theoretical intellectual work, stating, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it.”

Marx’s view of human history is both profoundly pessimistic and profoundly optimistic. Its pessimism lies in his belief that history reflects the oppression of the many by a small minority, who thereby secure economic and political power. It is optimistic on two counts. First, Marx believed that technical innovations bring about new ways of meeting human needs and make it increasingly possible for people to satisfy their deepest wants and to develop and perfect their individual capacities. Second, Marx claimed to have proved that the long history of oppression would soon end when the masses rise up and usher in a revolution that will create a classless utopian society. The first idea enabled Marx to bring attention in the modern era to Aristotle’s idealistic conception of human flourishing, which called upon people to develop and manifest many different abilities, including intellectual, artistic, and physical skills. The second idea motivated much radical activity during the 20th century, including the Russian Revolutions of 1917, the Communist victory in China in 1949, and the Cuban Revolution of 1959.



William James

American psychologist and philosopher William James helped to popularize the philosophy of pragmatism with his book Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking (1907). Influenced by a theory of meaning and verification developed for scientific hypotheses by American philosopher C. S. Peirce, James held that truth is what works, or has good experimental results. In a related theory, James argued the existence of God is partly verifiable because many people derive benefits from believing.

Toward the end of the 19th century, pragmatism became the most vital school of thought within American philosophy. It continued the empiricist tradition of grounding knowledge on experience and stressing the inductive procedures of experimental science. The pragmatists believed in the progress of human knowledge and that ideas are tools whose validity and significance are established as people adapt and test them in physical and social settings. For pragmatists, ideas demonstrate their value insofar as they enrich human experience.

The three most important American philosophers of the pragmatic movement were Charles Sanders Peirce, who founded pragmatism and gave the movement its name; psychologist and religious thinker William James; and psychologist and educator John Dewey. Their work continued into the 20th century. Peirce formulated a pragmatic theory of knowledge and advocated “laboratory philosophy” whereby researchers investigate and clarify the kinds of knowledge that can be gained either through everyday experience or through scientific inquiry. By limiting the realm of meaningful questions to those that concern possible experience, Peirce hoped to introduce scientific logic into metaphysics. He advanced a theory of truth that defined truth as that which an ideal community of researchers could agree upon. Peirce concluded that many traditional philosophical concepts have no practical use and thus are meaningless.

Whereas Peirce sought to determine the meaning of terms and ideas and thereby make metaphysics a precise and pragmatic discipline, James and Dewey applied the principles of pragmatism in developing a comprehensive philosophy. Like Peirce, James maintained that the meaning of ideas lies in their practical consequences. If an idea has no practical uses, then it is meaningless. James focused on the power of true ideas to offer individuals, rather than scientific researchers, practical guidance in handling problems that arise in everyday experience. Truth, according to James, resides in those experiences that enable people to successfully navigate the challenges and demands of the world.

Playing with Educational Toys

American philosopher, educator, and psychologist John Dewey reformed educational theory and practice in the United States by making learning more diverse and participatory. He tested his educational principles at the famous Laboratory School, also called the Dewey School, in Chicago. Dewey’s theories were developed while he was at the University of Chicago, from 1894 to 1904.

Dewey emphasized the cooperative process in which human beings, as intelligent and social beings, create and revise ideas about the world. One such process was scientific inquiry; another was participation in just and democratic social and political communities. Dewey concluded that science and democracy are the only sure guides for intelligent behavior. His progressive social philosophy communicates a vision of a world in which science, education, and social reform demonstrate the benefits of pragmatic ideas for human life.

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