Enlightenment and German Idealism

German Idealism

Enlightenment was an intellectual movement which concerned such things as God, Nature, Human beings, Reason etc. Center of the Enlightenment thought were the use of reason, the power by which humans understand the universe and improve their own condition.

The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of knowledge and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state.

In this regard, with Enlightenment; Western civilization fortified its intellectual capacity in a broad sense. The way west understand art, literature, philosophy and politics changed due to the Enlightenment. It is certainly an intellectual shift and improvement. On the other hand, not only did these things change but also tradition and the way people view tradition.

In this sense, I have to explain it explicitly. Enlightenment thought put human into the center of the world. Before enlightenment, center of the world was religion, its institution and its revelation. Religion encapsulates tradition in it. Enlightenment razed it to the ground with its thoughts and ideas which include secularism, individuality, non-collectivism and intellectual hatred toward tradition.

Although the Enlightenment is seen as the sole era that changed everything, one cannot ignore the influences of previous philosophical stages such as the Late Medieval Era, Renaissance and Protestant Reformation. The intellectual and political structure of Christianity, seemingly impregnable in the Middle Ages, fell in turn to the assault made on it by humanism, the Renaissance, and the Protestant Reformation.

Humanism bred the experimental sciences of Francis Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz and Newton. The Renaissance rediscovered much of classical culture and revived the notion of humans as creative beings, and the reformation, more directly but in the long run no less effectively, challenged the monolithic authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

For Martin Luther, as for Bacon or Descartes, the way to truth lay in the application of human reason. Received authority, whether of Ptolemy in the sciences or of the church in matters of the spirit, was to be subject to the probings of unfettered minds.

Since this article is not about Renaissance and Reformation, it is necessary to continue with Enlightenment era. Now, it is rational to touch on the Enlightenment figures.

Rene Descartes’ rationalist philosophy laid the foundation for enlightenment thinking. He is a skeptic philosopher and promoted skepticism in certain things. His skepticism was refined by John Locke’s essay ‘’Concerning Human Understanding’’ (1690) and David Hume’s writings in the 1740s.

As for Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), his writings were mostly about rationalism, religious belief, individual freedom and political authority. He wanted to reconcile them. His main work is ‘’Critique of Pure Reason’’. This work is so influential that it is still read as a textbook for philosophy classes in many universities. He affected the Western thought in a groundbreaking way. His main impact may be through the notion of human dignity.

While speaking about Kant, we have to mention German idealism, in which unique philosophers such as Hegel, Fichte and Schelling took part. In spite of the fact that there are several differences between these names, they share a commitment to the idealism.

Kant’s transcendental idealism is important in this sense. Transcendental idealism is about the differences between appearances and things in themselves. On the other hand, there is the notion of “Absolute Idealism” which Hegel, Fichte and Schelling radicalized and transformed.

German idealism concerned about major parts of philosophy such as moral philosophy, political philosophy and metaphysics. Although German idealism is closely related to the developments in the intellectual history of Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as classicism and romanticism; which involved intellectual such as Goethe, Herder and Schiller, it is also closely related to larger developments in the history of modern philosophy.

German Idealism also shaped the way of philosophy for the rest of the 19th century. Later 19th century figures, such as Marx and Freud, were thoroughly influenced by the ideas of prominent German idealists. Even in the 20th century, idealist theories of Kant and post-Kantians were still largely debated and studied by modern philosophers.

Although our way of thinking has come a long way since the 19th century, one can still clearly see the impacts of Idealism in today’s philosophical and intellectual movements.


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