German idealism was a philosophical movement in the early 1800s. It was a direct reaction to Immanuel Kant’s philosophical system. We call the movement “ German” because it was discussed by a circle of German philosophers and artists, and we call it “idealism” because the movement argued that everything must be understood as being dependent on mental or spiritual reality. The German idealists developed a unique philosophical movement that synthesized multiple earlier ideas into an approach to the universe that greatly influenced the arts and, by extension, much of human society.
Kant opened a new door with his revolutionary insight that our perceptions conform to our mental structure, which he described through the Categories of Understanding. This means that reality conforms to our minds and our minds aren’t purely passive perceivers. Instead, our minds are active in our experiences, and the structure of our minds structures our experiences. This worldview places the human mind at the center of philosophy. Even more important to the German idealists, this worldview positioned human individuals as the engines of creativity.
Kant opened a door, and the German idealists barged through it with glee. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the German-speaking lands were awakening to a fresh view of human expression inspired by the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was opening up new possibilities for literature. The thinkers in the German idealist movement were also open to new possibilities, and they were willing to take Kant’s insights about human understanding and reassess everything in human experience. They asked a number of penetrating questions. If the mind is active in experience, as Kant showed, then the question is how active? If our perceptions conform to our mental structure, then can we change that structure? Do people in different cultures have different mental structures? Kant said we can’t go beyond the Categories of Understanding, but is perception outside their limits really impossible? Are the categories really the same for every human being, as Kant says? What if we can change the way we experience the universe by changing our approach to it? The German idealists, each in his own way, explored these fundamental questions about the way we approach the universe.
The German idealists crafted a new philosophical approach to the questions of what the universe is and what we can know about it. The fundamental theme within German idealism is the claim that reality is dependent on the mind of the perceiver; therefore, when the perceiver changes his or her approach to the universe, that changes his or her understanding and perhaps even his or her reality. This opens us up to the big question of what approach to reality will best reveal reality to us.
Common to all of the German idealists was their rejection of what they saw as the limits that Kant placed on human knowledge. The first limit I already mentioned—Kant’s belief that all human beings are limited to the unchanging Categories of Understanding. The second limit rejected by the German idealists is Kant’s idea of the noumena, that the ultimate reality is beyond our knowledge. Kant’s reasoning about the noumena is sound because if there are limits to our capabilities of perception and understanding, then there must be a realm of reality beyond our knowledge. The only way around this limitation is to believe instead that human perception and understanding are, at least in theory, unlimited. That argument is probably impossible to maintain, but the German idealists flirted with it.
There is a large territory between the limits of scientific knowledge and perfect knowledge and the German idealists each staked their own claim in that territory. The German idealists believed that our minds have a power of intuition that can transcend the limitations of science and reason and reveal the deeper reality that we can experience. They argued that Kant and those who followed his system were limiting their understanding, believing they were cut off from reality beyond sense perception.
To varying degrees, the German idealists also rejected the scientific and rationalist approaches to the universe and instead adopted an intuitive, passionate, and artistic approach. The artistic movement, known as “Romanticism,” was burgeoning in the 1790s, and armed with Kant, the German idealists gave it intellectual power. Romanticism and German idealism both celebrated personal experience and supplemented, if not supplanted, rationality with emotions. They combined the emphasis on personal experiences with a spiritual view of nature as a living force to be experienced with a sense of wonder rather than dispassionately as does science. It is easy to see how this approach encouraged creativity and personal expression.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) led the charge of the German idealists through the door that Kant had opened. Fichte and several other German philosophers were impressed with Kant’s approach to knowledge as being structured by the mind but thought it incomplete. Fichte’s conviction was that Kant has only indicated the truth but had neither fully explained it nor proved it. Fichte certainly had great respect for Kant as a person who had a power for divining truth, but he also felt that Kant was not conscious of the grounds on which he stood. Yet again, we see in Fichte a philosopher who sought to discover the foundations of human knowledge. In his quest for understanding, Fichte applied Kant’s critical philosophy to the contents of the human mind and its ideas.
Kant’s philosophy is critical in that he says that all of our beliefs are open to analysis. You should be responding to that sentence with the thought, “but wasn’t every philosopher before Kant also analyzing our beliefs?” Yes, but what Kant changed in philosophy (and our culture) was realizing that our minds actively contribute to our perceptions and beliefs. Look back at Locke for a second. He saw the mind as completely passive—sensations happened to the mind. Hume, too, saw the mind as no more than a “stage” on which ideas moved around, caused by the outside world. Kant said that not only does the human mind actively structure its sense impressions by means of the Categories of Understanding, the human mind is active and thus capable of being critical about its perceptions and ideas by focusing its critical capability on particular ideas. Fichte and the other German idealists took that idea and ran with it.
Kant held that there is only one set of categories that structured human understanding that is universal to all people in all times and places. Fichte questioned this assumption. What if we could change the categories through which we understand the world? Fichte argued that there is more than one way to perceive and make sense of the world. Kant had made the human mind the new center of epistemology by declaring that objects conform to the mind’s rational structure. Fichte went further than Kant’s Copernican revolution by saying that the categories employed by the individual are what make the world meaningful. The world is my world. My values structure my experience. Philosophy, Fichte said, was not a dead piece of furniture but something animated by the soul of the person who wields it.
Fichte unfolded the insights of Kant by centering his philosophy on the idea of freedom. Both philosophers were concerned with the question of how to reconcile freely willing human agents with the seemingly deterministic world of material objects. Kant had placed freedom as a fact of reason at the base of moral decision-making, but Fichte moved freedom to the center of everything. Our experiences of the world are accompanied by the feeling of necessity, Fichte said, but there is also always the practical certainty of human freedom. In Fichte’s view, freedom is a presupposition not only of moral action but also of human cognition.
Fichte asks, “What is the ground and meaning of experience?” He postulates that there are two alternatives. The first he calls “dogmatism,” an approach to the universe that sets the foundation of experience in an independent external reality. This approach interprets inner experience as being determined by the outer world. This approach is assumed by the scientist and by both the rationalist and empiricist philosophers. In sharp contrast, Fichte advocates “idealism,” which finds the ground of experience in our own nature, our own self. This approach interprets the outer world in terms of our inner experience. If we limit ourselves to scientific knowledge, as the dogmatist does, we will see ourselves only as passive objects subject to the deterministic necessity of the material world. Kant showed that we become conscious of the moral law through our intellectual intuition, which requires us to think of ourselves and each other as freely self-determining agents pursuing moral ends. Fichte shows that this same intellectual intuition operates in all areas of life; therefore, we are required to think of ourselves as free, self-determining agents in all aspects of life.
How we should view ourselves and our world is, for Fichte, an intensely important and practical question. Fichte thought that our beliefs cannot be proven by rational arguments. He said that what makes a belief viable is whether it positively affects our lives and our interests. The scientific method is not a given, and “facts” are not beyond interpretation. Yes, people can choose to approach the universe scientifically, but those who choose this approach are doing so because they believe it serves their interests and makes the world meaningful to them. Even science is based on subjective commitments and acts of practical faith. The world I live in is always a world structured by the way I approach it.
Fichte argues that the self is the foundation of experience. We have to begin with the self because we know the inner world better than the outer one. Exactly the opposite of Hume’s argument, Fichte’s argument is that the objects of perception come and go, but behind all of your impressions is the constant activity of the self that stands behind all impressions of the world. Fichte is recorded to have once said to his students, “Gentlemen, think the wall,” then, “Gentlemen, think him who thought the wall.” Meaning, behind every object that appears to you is your individual self that grounds those appearances. The world that you experience is not a collection of meaningless bits of sense data that you take in passively like a camera obscura. Quite the contrary—the world you experience is structured by your interests and values. Your world is a dynamic place in which you make choices. Our philosophy, thus, must move from understanding our self to an understanding of the outer world. Only if we begin with our inner experience of being a unified, creative self will we then have the basis for giving meaning to everything else. If instead we start, as the dogmatist does, in approaching the universe as being nothing more than a plurality of matter in motion, we will never be able to discern our unified mind and consciousness.
According to Fichte,
The Nature on which I have to act is not a foreign element, called into existence without reference to me, into which I cannot penetrate. It is molded by my own laws of thought, and must be in harmony with them; it must be thoroughly transparent, knowable and penetrable to me, even to its inmost recesses. In all its phenomena it expresses nothing but the connections and relations of my own being to myself, and as surely as I may hope to know myself, so surely may I expect to comprehend it. (The Vocation of Man, 125)
Thus, the “external world” is not so external after all. Through sense perception, you encounter many sensations that make up your experiences. However, you will encounter meaningful objects only when you creatively make those objects a part of your world. Any way that you experience the world, it is always a world you have made in your own image. The world is not a world of dead objects but is a dynamic, spiritual process in which we participate.
Late in Fichte’s philosophical career, his philosophy morphed into a transcendental speculation that came to be known as “subjective idealism.” Fichte taught that all of our individual thoughts are avatars of a universal intellect he called the “Absolute Idea.” There are shades of Plotinus in Fichte’s later view, though it is also strongly reminiscent of Berkeley’s philosophy. Fichte said that we are experience and that we cannot raise ourselves above experience. He therefore rejects Kant’s idea of the noumena because the idea of the thing-in-itself beyond experience is, Fichte claimed, a pure invention with no reality whatsoever. For an object to be objectively real, Fichte said, means it possesses possible experiences. In other words, a tree is real because it can be perceived by a potential observer who can interact with the tree in many ways: look at it, sit under it, paint a picture of it, cut it down, and so on. Those experiences are what the tree is, and its reality is summed up by all possible experiences of it. In Fichte’s philosophy of idealism, all of these interactions are thoughts because thought is an interactive act, not a passive reflection on something apart. In this way, everything is thought, and everything is mind dependent, like in Berkeley’s philosophy. This idealism perhaps sounds weird, but it shares the same foundation with quantum mechanics in that reality is dependent on the observer.