nineteenth century philosophyOverview

Much of contemporary literary theory, and indeed poetry, is built on nineteenth-century foundations. Read this section not only for a brief introduction to its main philosophers, but to understand Modernism and Postmodernism in context.


Nineteenth century thinkers both developed from and reacted to the Enlightenment's notion of progress. Herder, Madame de Stael, Burke and Chateaubriand spoke vaguely of a Volk, a people — something that was not rationally grounded or justified, but grew from feelings and traditions previously overlooked. From Jean Jacques Rousseau they understood that the opposite of refinement need not be not crudity but simplicity, and that sensibility was not a product of cultivation but an intense expression of man's passionate nature. The unique, individual and spontaneous were more valuable than that which conformed to any intellectualized canon of taste. In place of enlightenment versus darkness came intensity versus superficiality.

Society was no longer to be based on the single hypothetical citizen. The social contract was abandoned, and states were viewed as natural growths with roots in the common nature of man. The life of a people was a unitary thing, springing out of traditions and needs, expressed in its laws, institutions and artistic accomplishments. Social life was indeed analogous to organic growth, and aspects of social life were related to each other like functions of a living body. Herder developed this notion, relating earth to the cosmos, man to earth, man as a social and historical being. History was the growth of a single, marvellous tree whose branches were the cultures of mankind.

If all reality is fundamentally one, and the Divine is present in all its manifestations, then what occurs in history is Revelation. Individual conscience may be fallible, but it is the role of man's moral sense to penetrate deeper into the nature of all that exists. The sense of the dark and hidden, the feeling of dependence and awe, and a worshipful acceptance of the fullness of being, are the attitudes which put religious man in touch with the Divine. German romanticists and idealists felt that the laws of physics were inadequate to comprehend the great World Spirit. Ultimate forces were living things, and every thing had its own value. {1}


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) — a liberal in the best Enlightenment manner — wrote on a huge variety of subjects, including physics and geology. He recognized the force of Rousseau's irrationalism and of Hume's (1711-76) scepticism, and stressed the organizing power of human perception. He distinguished knowledge that derives from experience (a posteriori) from that which is independent (a priori). Causality for Kant was an a priori category, something inescapably imposed on experience by our mental natures. Other a priori categories were quantity, quality (+ve or - ve), relation, modality (possibility & impossibility; existence & non-existence; necessity & contingency). Space and time were other a priori notions, requiring Kant to hold that Euclid's geometry was unassailable correct. The sources of experience Kant called noumena, and these we cannot experience directly, or even be sure they really exist.

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason set the limits to cognition. In his Critique of Practical Reason and his Metaphysics of Morals Kant enquired into God, ethics and value judgements. How we ought to act cannot be derived from outside authority, but only by accepting that the principles guiding individual conduct must apply to everyone. This good will must be noumenal, and so be free-will, i.e. not bound by cause and effect. God cannot be proved to exist, but He imposes himself as a consequence of Practical Reason.


For Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), knowledge appears through our immersion in the world. We know when we see into and act in the world. Knowledge touches Being when it achieves full completion. What this Being achieved always involves others (the Other) so that for full existence ( Being-for-Itself) we need both Being and Other, which is also called Ideality or Absolute Being. Finally, Being-for-Itself is reflexive, bends back into and realizes Absolute Being, thus becoming both the object seen and the seer — i.e. total self-recognition. How is this effected without infinite acts of self-recognition and recall? Through Freedom, which is what the world is aiming at. But this idea is both concept and clothing, which for Hegel is History, the merging of individual identity in National and finally Absolute Mind. Mind through history is the Absolute Mind's own march towards itself, towards self-realization of freedom.


Arthur Schopenhauer's (1788-1860) {2} ideas were formed early, largely in his World as Will and Representation, published in 1818. Despite the originality of thought, acute reading and a magnificent prose style, recognition came late. When 45, Schopenhauer settled in Frankfurt, lived quietly, won a gold medal from the Norwegian Royal Scientific Society, and published Parerga and Palipomena (1851) whose favourable review in England led his becoming better known: for fifty years after his death Schopenhauer was one of the most influential of European writers.

Though he had great respect for Kant, Schopenhauer nonetheless believed we gained some conception of things-in-themselves by understanding our own Will to Live. We strive for physical satisfaction, blindly very often, being at war with ourselves and others. Happiness is illusory, but two escapes are possible: aesthetic contemplation and unselfish compassion for others. In art we put aside our struggle for individual preeminence and directly apprehend the types and principles with which the Will manifests itself. In seeing the misery around us, and in helping our fellow unfortunates without consideration of our concerns, present or future (Schopenhauer was an atheist) we learn to evade the wretched futility of life.

Schopenhauer's philosophy is part and parcel of the man: gloomy, immersed in Indian thought, highly cultured, fiercely individual, not given to making friends. After Plato he has perhaps the best literary style of philosophy, and his work has always commanded respect by its sympathetic knowledge of the arts. Not only disinterest (escape from the wheel of suffering) marks the aesthetic attitude, says Schopenhauer, but a clarity of vision. We see things as they really are, as embodiments of essential Ideas. Poets, for example, use the power of imagination to reveal what is directly given to us when we surrender our individual desires and struggles. And the gift has an inner truth, deeper that the "facts" of history, since it represents more fully than nature can what is significant and everlasting in us.

What does this mean? Schopenhauer hardly belongs to the analytical school of philosophy, and large gaps and difficulties appear when his views are closely pressed. Certainly our human bodies are part of the physical world, and their makeup must indeed incorporate something of that physicality, but it is a large step indeed to postulate a universal, cosmic Will that pervades and animates all things. And what essentially are these "Ideas"? Not the syntheses of Hegel, whom he detested. Perhaps the eternal Forms of Plato? No, thought Schopenhauer. Ideas are timeless and objective, but are not found by cogitation. They are directly given us. Such fundamental and deeply significant parts of nature are discovered by aesthetic contemplation — of the world around, and more so in the works of great artists who have realized what nature represents partially and fleetingly.


As practised by Edmund Husserl, phenomenalism argued for categories of understanding that were self-validating, timeless and necessary elements of experience waiting for realization in human activity. Not a priori categories, however: they arise out of man's interaction with the world, which is real, and which we understand to some extent. Husserl was only partially successful, but others continued his work. Max Scheler (1874-1928) extended Husserl's phenomenology to larger themes of value, man, world and God. Values were imperatives in their own right. Personhood is constituted by values: persons do not exist per se, but become as they concretely realize values. Personality is accessible only by intellectual - voluntary - affective participation. Personal acts are basically acts of love, which is the heart's intimate disposition, and this love is a share in the world of values, of the Primordial person, who is God. Scheler felt each religion had its own absolute, but this absolute or God comes to self-possession only after trials and afflictions: a sort of evolutionary pantheism.

Nicolai Hartman (1882-1950) accepted Kant's view that things in themselves (noumena) were unknowable, but divided the phenomenal world into levels, modes and categories of being. Higher levels were less powerful than lower, but derived from them, and could not be reduced to them. These higher levels were not goals of human striving, however, and there was no God. Each man must be his own god in miniature, a demiurge. Hartman was a realist in the sense that he thought knowledge was a receptive grasp of something that is independent of our knowledge and pre-existing, but the concepts we derive must remain hypothetical. There were no forms, no inner nature or essences lying behind the phenomena. We act as though purpose were a constitutive category of nature, but there is ultimately no reason to think it is.

Nineteenth Century Trends

Two great streams of thought run through the nineteenth century: idealism and materialism. The first argued that we can understand the ultimate nature of reality only though and within natural human experience, especially through those traits which distinguish man as a spiritual being. It's thought that provides the categories to experience sensations. Idealism was somewhat hostile to Kant's views, and did not accept the easy optimism of the Enlightenment. Hegel, Schopenhauer, Lotze and Fechner were all Idealists in this sense, and their influence increased as attempts were made to bring philosophy and science closer together.

Materialists held that there is an independently existing world, that human beings are material entities like everything else, that the human mind does not exist independently of the human body, that there is no God or other non-material being, and that all forms and behaviours are ultimately reducible to general physical laws. With Feuerbach, existence is prior to thought, which grows out of existence and its problems. Marx rejected Feuerbach's religious concepts and his ethics of love, and applied the approach of science to society — in a dialectic and not mechanistic way. Moleschott, Vogt and Buchner held to a more conventional materialism and, like Duhring, continued an 18th century position.

Science opposed theology but not religion. Schliermacher, Carlyle, Arnold, Huxley and Clifford felt they were freeing faith for a nobler and more adequate conception. But Hegel's unity of art, religion and philosophy developed into dualism. Schleiermacher gave precedence to religious experience, its intellectual expression in theology being an interpretation. Strauss and Feuerbach saw theology as projections of religious feeling, a mythological or psychological matter. Others regarded theology as reflections on knowledge and experience of religion in history, and so undergoing change of necessity. Feuerbach had intense religious feeling, and believed this necessary for society, but still denied that there was anything outside man that corresponded to God. Carlyle, Arnold and Tennyson (and later Spencer and Bosanquet) found God in nature, at its heart, even as an immanent power that evolved and brought man out of crudity, ignorance and selfishness into altruism. But religion had to renounce its claim to literal truth and content itself with shaping feeling. Gradually, therefore, religion became compartmentalized. Positivism merged with idealism to limit the domain of science. Science dealt with literal knowledge: religion dealt with feeling and moral aspirations.

But perhaps the most significant development of century was historicism, the belief that something could only be understood, and its significance assessed, by seeing it within the stream of history. Historicism drew strength from notions of an organic unfolding, and from nineteenth century hopes of a science assisting social change.

The Positivists

The positivists returned to the Kantian concept of knowledge based on senses, but considered knowledge to be ordered by experience rather than a priori categories. For Dubois-Raymond all phenomena should conform to fundamental principles of mechanics. We can only know matter and force through their manifestations, not in themselves, at least until we understood nerve processes in psycho-mathematical terms. Helmholtz wouldn't reject theory that couldn't be verified directly by sense-experience, but did believe that knowledge of material objects is a reliable system of signs which reflect the relationship between the entities signified. He distinguished between sensations of sight (which could be misleading) and perceptions of sight, which were judgements based on experience. What was certain, then? Helmholtz argued that 1. knowledge lies not in accumulations of observations, but in regularities or laws within experience, 2. repeated observation and experiment, if systematized objectively, results in a law of nature, 3. that Hume's objection can be evaded by simply saying that force is regularity rather than cause, 4. that the regularities we call forces are matters outside our wills, and 5. that to bring a phenomenon into a law of nature is to understand it. There is no other understanding. We only know nature through its effects.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) tried to correlate outward phenomena with inward experience through our nervous system, but argued that there is no necessity for the two to be similar in kind or degree. Ernst Mach (1838-1916) aimed for economy of explanation. We should concentrate on the physiological stimulation of the organs concerned and leave out of account brain action. How man organizes his perception was not the interest of science.

The Idealists

Whereas Kant had denied understanding access to reason's demand for God, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) thought that man had a sensibility — faith, feeling — which cannot be argued away. Contrasted to faith, understanding lacked immediacy, proceeded deductively through use of concepts, and could not be used to cast doubt on the intuitions of faith. He accepted Spinoza's view that nature is entirely deterministic, negating teleology therefore, and freewill. Philosophy was a game of the intellect, whereas reality comes alive in so far as we are able to experience it for ourselves. Understanding is a reversal of natural knowledge, which is not established by proof but by inner awareness.

Different again, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) made moral affirmation and assertion the source of spiritual truth. Faith is a form of action, and is self-justifying: an inner, moral necessity of an individual's own being. Only in commitments can we establish the freedom we wish to affirm. Spinoza's world denied man's dignity and freedom, and was therefore false.

Concluding Thoughts

Though some of these philosophers are mere footnotes to the history of nineteenth-century European thought, they illustrate an honest working out of themes which are still important in current aesthetics and literary theory. Central today are the questions of knowledge, of grounding and of authority. On what do our judgements ultimately rest? On sense data and logic, say the materialists. On the principles and presuppositions that we acquire through living in society, say the idealists. Already the cleavage is apparent, and the unbiased reader will appreciate the claims of each approach. To the first belong the Anglo-Saxon analytical schools and the early Wittgenstein. To the second belong the Existentialists, the hermeneutists, the later Wittgenstein and the schools of speech-acts and linguistic psychology. Structuralism and Poststructuralism crossed the divides. Structuralism sought a conceptual structure as comprehensive as Hegel's, but derived it from anthropology and linguistics, disregarding the assumptions inherent in these disciplines. Poststructuralism is a stance against tradition, authority and measurement. Stressing the individual and spontaneous response, it returns to the early thinkers of the nineteenth century who reacted against the shallow conformism of the Enlightenment. But its view of the world is darker. Wars, genocide and economic exploitation have destroyed any comforting faith in God, in man's inherent goodness, or in the healthy outcome of his passions.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. The page is modelled on M. Mandelbaum's History, Man and Reason: A Study in Nineteenth Century Thought (1971), which provides background and references. Also useful is J. Hirschberger's A Short History of Western Philosophy (1976) and John Passmore's A Hundred Years of Philosophy (1984). See entries in Ted Honderich's (Ed.) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) for philosophers given dates.
2. Christopher Janaway's Schopenhauer in Keith Thomas's (Ed.) German Philosophers: Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche (1997).

Internet Resources

1. Enlightenment. Extensive listings at the Internet Modern History Sourcebook.
2. Eighteenth-Century Resources: Philosophy. Jack Lynch. Part of the larger collection of Eighteenth-Century Resources at Rutgers.
3. Madame de Staël. Introduction and listings.
4. The Rise of Romanticism. Influence of de Stael and Chateaubriand on French theatre.
5. François-René de Chateaubriand. Catholic Encyclopedia entry.
6. Edmund Burke. Peter Landry. Sep. 2000. Biography, quotes and references.
7. Johann Gottfried von Herder. Michael Forster. Oct. 2001. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
8. German Theory and Criticism: Romanticism. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (Eds.) 1997.
. Herder's importance in the movement.
9. Kant's Philosophical Development. Martin Schönfeld. Nov. 2003. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, with good references.
10. Kant on the Web. Steve Palmquist. Nov. 3003. Organized and comprehensive listing of resources on Kant.
11. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Paul Redding. May 2002. Usual excellent article in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, though limited Internet references.
12. Hegel Net. Kai Froeb. 2002. Large and attractive site, with abundant material on all aspects of Hegel.
13. The Hegel Society of America. . Selected links.
14. Arthur Schopenhauer. Robert Wicks. May 2003. schopenhauer/. Extended article in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
15. Rudolf Hermann Lotze. 2001. Brief Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
16. Gustav Theodor Fechner. 1996. Mind, Brain, and the Experimental Psychology of Consciousness entry in Serendip.
17. The Husserl Page. Bob Sandmeyer. Jan 2004. Introduction and extensive listings for Husserl: also references to phenomenology generally.
18. Edmund Husserl. Alan Lui. VOS listings.
19. Max Scheler. Manfred S. Frings. Sep. 2002. Illustrated articles on Scheler and his work.
20. Hartmann, Nicolai. 2003. Short Infoplease entry.
21. Truth of the Myths of Nature. Erazim Kohak. Paideai paper mentioning Nicolai Hartman.
22. Ludwig Feuerbach. Van A. Harvey. Oct. 2003. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
23. Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher. Michael Forster. Apr. 2002. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
24. Bernard Bosanquet. William Sweet. Sep. 1998. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry with extensive bibliography.
25. Herbert Spencer. David Weinstein . Dec. 2002. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry correcting simplistic interpretations.
26. Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. George di Giovanni. Dec 2001. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
27. Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Dan Breazeale. Aug. 2001. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
28. German Idealism. 2001. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summary of the important names.
29. Baruch Spinoza. Garth Kemerling. Aug. 2002. Brief account, with useful listings.