German Philosophers

By Philip Beech

German Culture: German Philosophers

German and German speaking philosophers have made vast contributions to philosophy, and through philosophy, to the course of world history. Perhaps the most influential were the ‘great triumvirate’ of Kant, Hegel and Marx. Other noteworthy philosophers include Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger and the Nobel prize-winner Hermann Hesse.

One of the greatest characters of German philosophy was Friedrich Nietzsche, who professed himself to be “a follower of Dionysus, the god of life’s exuberance”, and declared that he hoped Dionysus would replace Jesus as the primary cultural standard for future millennia.

Nietzsche showed his academic talents early on. As a child he didn’t like playing, and the neighbour’s children called him ‘the little minister’. He died in 1900 after 11 years of madness. He went insane one morning after seeing a horse being whipped by a coachman. Historians argue whether his insanity was caused by syphilis, drug abuse, or a disease inherited from his father.

Nietzsche was heavily influenced by the work of Schopenhauer, a man so unpleasant, negative and pessimistic that even his own mother eventually banned him from her house.

Schopenhauer’s philosophy was based on that of Kant, but he did not believe in individual free will, he believed that we are all part of a vast single will which is the entire universe, and any sense of individuality is pure illusion.

Schopenhauer never married, perhaps not surprisingly considering his view of women, he once declared that women “are directly fitted for acting as the nurses and teachers of our childhood by the fact that they are themselves childish, frivolous and short-sighted; in a word, they are big children all their life long.” Instead, he shared his lonely existence with a poodle.

The first of the ‘great triumvirate’, Kant, was born in 1724 in Königsberg, (now part of Russia, and called Kaliningrad). He was one of the fathers of ‘critical philosophy’, and divided modes of thinking into two kinds, analytic and synthetic.

Analytical propositions are those which can be proven to be true by analysis, for example ‘pink boots1 are boots2’. This statement must be true, because the predicate is contained in the subject. (If pink boots1 weren’t boots2, then they wouldn’t be boots1!)

Synthetic propositions are those that cannot be contrived purely from analysis, for example, ‘the boot is pink’, this relates to something in the real world and cannot be shown to be true or untrue purely by analysis of the statement, you need to see the boot. His most famous works include his ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ and ‘The Metaphysics of Ethics’, in which he discussed his views on ethics.

Kant died in 1804, when Hegel was 33. Hegel was born in Stuttgart and his philosophy was greatly influenced by that of Kant. After an inheritance he was able to devote his entire life to academic works.

He believed that dialectical reasoning (debate by question and answer to resolve two differing points of view) was the only way for progress in human thought. He believed that all men were fundamentally free, and that our task is to find a state or a set of laws under which we can all live freely.

Hegel did not advocate anarchy, rather he thought that we could make ourselves free by choosing to obey laws we knew to be rational. Hegel died in 1831 of cholera, after one day’s illness. He was buried next to another German philosopher, Fichte, and near another, Karl Solger, in a plot he had chosen himself.

The last of these three, with perhaps the biggest influence on recent history, born in 1818, was Karl Marx. He is in fact best known for his economic theories, especially one seminal work he produced together with Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’. In fact this only represents only a tiny fraction of his thought. Overall, his writing on Communism represents only an aside, he wrote much more simply in criticism of capitalism, or on analysis of concrete political events.

An even more contemporary philosopher was Martin Heidegger, who died only in 1976. He was strongly influenced by Nietzsche, and in turn his work influenced the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, although Heidegger himself disagreed with existentialist interpretations of his work. His work has had a great influence on Western philosophy, but he has received little public recognition because of his refusal to apologise for his involvement with the National Socialist Party. To what degree he was involved is still unclear.

Standing like a giant over modern German literary philosophy is the Nobel prize-winner, Hermann Hesse. At the age of 13 he was told he would be ‘a poet or nothing’, so he started off by writing unimpressive romantic novels. His first successful work was the more philosophical ‘Peter Camenzind’, which positively burned with anger at his repressed and traditional childhood.

His most widely read work is ‘Siddhartha’, which was published in 1922, it is based on the idea that man’s true nature has been lost and can only be found through self expression.

Hesse was at one point accused of supporting the Nazis, whom he did not openly criticize, but while based in Switzerland he did a lot to help political refugees from Germany, and refused to leave out sections of his works which dealt with pogroms and anti-Semitism. His publisher Peter Suhrkamp, was arrested by the Nazis in 1944.

Hesse received the Nobel Prize in 1946, and thereafter did not produce further major works. He died in 1962.

by Robert Easton (c)

Robert Easton is a UK based journalist specializing in Germany and German culture. He has written a series of Germany-related articles for

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