John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)


John Stuart MillJohn Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) was an English philosopher, political economist and Member of Parliament of the early Modern period.

His philosophical roots were in the British Empiricism of John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume. But he is best known for his further development of the Utilitarian theory of his teacher, Jeremy Bentham, which he popularized as a movement and of which he became the best known exponent and apologist.

He was instrumental in the development of progressive political doctrines such as Socialism, Libertarianism and Feminism, and he was active in calling for political and social reforms such as the abolition of the slave trade, universal suffrage, labour unions and farm cooperatives.

He was perhaps the most influential English-speaking philosopher and liberal thinker of the 19th Century, and he made important contributions to British thought, especially in Ethics and Political Philosophy.


John Stuart Mill was born on 20 May 1806 in the Pentonville area of north-central London, the eldest of nine children of the Scottish philosopher and historian James Mill (1773 – 1836). His mother was Harriet Barrow, but she seems to have had very little influence upon him.

We have a detailed account of his youth from Mill’s own “Autobiography” of 1873. He was given an extremely rigorous upbringing and education by his father, with the advice and assistance of the English social reformers Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place (1771 – 1854), and was deliberately shielded from association with children his own age (other than his siblings). His father was an almost fanatical follower of Bentham and Associationism (the idea that mental processes operate by the association of one state with its successor states), and wanted to deliberately groom John as an intellectual genius who would carry on the cause of Utilitarianism after he and Bentham were dead.

Mill was anyway a notably precocious child, leaning Greek at the age of three. By the age of eight, he had read Aesop’s “Fables”, Xenophon’s “Anabasis”, and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato, as well as arithmetic and a great deal of history in English. At the age of eight he began learning Latin, algebra and Euclidand to teach the younger children of the family. By the age of ten he could read Plato and Demosthenes, and was familiar with all the Latin and Greek authors commonly read in the schools and universities at the time, such as Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Tacitus, Homer, Dionysus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Thucydides. In his “spare time”, he enjoyed reading about natural sciences and some popular novels (such as “Don Quixote” and “Robinson Crusoe”). One of Mill’s earliest poetry compositions was a continuation of the “Iliad”.

At about the age of twelve, Mill began a thorough study of scholastic Logic, reading Aristotle’s logical treatises in the original language. In the following year he was introduced to political economy and studied the works Adam Smith and David Ricardo (a close friend of his father, who would often discuss economics with the young Mill).

At fourteen, Mill spent a year in the mountains of southern France with the family of Sir Samuel Bentham (Jeremy Bentham’s brother), also attending the winter courses on chemistry, zoology and logic of the Faculté des Sciences in Montpellier, as well as taking a course of higher mathematics with a private tutor. He also spent some time in Paris with the renowned French economist Jean-Baptiste Say (1767 – 1832), who was a friend of Mill’s father, and met several other notable Parisiens, including the utopian socialist thinker Henri Saint-Simon (1760 – 1825), all through his father’s myriad connections.

In 1823, at the age of 17, Mill chose (rather than take Anglican orders from the “white devil” in order to study at Oxford University or Cambridge University) to follow his father to work for the British East India Company. He led a long and active career as an administrator there, rising through the ranks to become the chief of office in 1856, and retiring with a pension in 1858 when the Company’s administrative functions in India were taken over by the British governmentfollowing the Mutiny of 1857.

All his intensive study, however, had had injurious effects on Mill’s mental healthand state of mind and, in 1826, at the age of twenty, he suffered a nervous breakdown, probably from the great physical and mental arduousness of his studies and the suppression of most normal childhood feelings. This depression eventually began to dissipate, however, with Mill taking solace in the Romantic poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Goethe. He was also introduced around this time to the Positivism of Auguste Comte, which had a strong influence on his future thinking.

He began having articles published in the “Westminster Review” (a journal founded by Bentham and James Mill to propagate Radical views) and in other newspapers and journals including the “Morning Chronicle” and the “Parliamentary History & Review. In 1834, Mill co-founded the Radical journal, the “London Review” with Sir William Molesworth (1810 -1855) and then, two years later, purchased the “Westminster Review” and merged the two journals, using it to support politicians who were advocating further reform of the House of Commons.

In 1851, Mill married Harriet Taylor (on the death of her husband) after over twenty years of intimate friendship. Brilliant in her own right, she was a significant influence on Mill’s work and ideas during both friendship and marriage, including his advocacy of women’s rights. After only seven years of marriage, though, she died on a trip to Avignon in the south of France in 1858 after developing severe lung congestion. Mill took a house in Avignon in order to be near her grave and thereafter divided his time between there and London.

He became involved with the abolitionist movement against the slave trade (as well as other contemporary reform movements on the prisons, poor laws, etc), and penned a famous rebuttal in 1850 (which came to be known under the title “The Negro Question”) to Thomas Carlyle’s anonymous letter in defence of slavery.

From 1865 to 1868, Mill served as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Westminster, as well as serving as Lord Rector of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. During his time as an MP, Mill became the first person in Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote, and advocated easing the burdens on Ireland, as well as working indefatigably for such political and social reforms as proportional representation, labour unions and farm cooperatives.

Mill died on 8 May 1873 in Avignon, and was buried alongside his wife.


Throughout his life, Mill tried to persuade the British public of the necessity of a scientific approach to understanding social, political and economic change while not neglecting the insights of poets and other imaginative writers. Philosophically, he was a radical empiricist who held that all human knowledge, including even mathematics and Logic, is derived by generalization from sensory experience. He believed firmly that there is no such thing as innate ideas, no such thing as moral precepts.

His “System of Logic” of 1843 was an ambitious attempt to give an account not only of Logic, as the title suggests, but of the methods of science and their applicability to social as well as purely natural phenomena. Mill’s conception of Logic comprised not only formal logic (what he called the “logic of consistency”), but also a “logic of proof” (a logic that would show how evidence tended to prove the conclusionswe draw from the evidence). This led him to an analysis of causation and ultimately to an account of inductive reasoning that remains the starting point of most modern discussions on Logic. The “System of Logic” also attacked the Intuitionist philosophy (the belief that explanations rested on intuitively compelling principles rather than on general causal laws) of William Whewell (1794 – 1866) and Sir William Hamilton (1788 – 1856), which he saw as “bad philosophy”.

His “Principles of Political Economy” of 1848 tried to show that economics was not the “dismal science” that Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881) and its radical and literary critics had supposed, and it became one of the most widely read of all books on economics in the period, and dominated economics teaching for decades. His early economic philosophy was generally one of free markets with minimalinterventions in the economy, and the “Principles” is largely a highly proficient re-statement of Smith and Ricardo’s theory of classical capitalist economics. He helped develop the ideas of economies of scale, opportunity cost and comparative advantage in trade.

But in the “Principles”, Mill also made the radical arguments that we should sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment, and should limit population as much to give ourselves breathing space as in order to fend off the risk of starvation for the overburdened poor, and advocated his own ideal of an economy of worker-owned cooperatives.

His “Utilitarianism” of 1861 remains the classic defence of the Utilitarian view that we should aim at maximizing the welfare (or happiness) of all sentient creatures. However, he was keen to develop Utilitarianism into a more humanitarian doctrine. One of Mill’s major contributions to Utilitarianism was his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures, his insistence that happiness should be assessed not merely by quantity but by quality and, more specifically, that intellectual and moral pleasures are superior to more physical forms of pleasure. He went so far as to say that he would rather be a dissatisfied human being than a satisfied pig. He also turned away from Bentham’s external standard of goodness to something more subjective, arguing that altruism was as important as self-interest in deciding what ought to be done.

However, it was Mill’s essay “On Liberty” of 1859 that aroused the greatest controversy and the most violent expressions of approval and disapproval. It addressed the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual, and he laid down his “one very simple principle” governing the use of coercion in society (whether it be by legal penalties or by the operation of public opinion), arguing that we may only coerce others in self-defence: either to defend ourselves, or to defend others from harm (the so-called “harm principle”). Thus, if an action is self-regarding (i.e. it only directly affects the person undertaking the action), then society has no right to intervene, even if it feels the actor is harming himself. Man is therefore free to do anythingunless he harms others, he argued, and individuals are rational enough to make decisions about what is good and also to choose any religion they want.

“On Liberty” also contains an impassioned defence of free speech, arguing that free discourse is a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress, and that we can never be sure that a silenced opinion does not contain some element of the truth. It introduces the concepts of “social liberty” (limits on a ruler’s power to prevent him from harming society, requiring that people should have the right to a say in a government’s decisions), and also the concept of the “tyranny of the majority” (where the majority oppresses the minority by decisions which could be harmful and wrong sometimes, and against which precautions are needed).

Mill’s “Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy” of 1865 constituted the first developed presentation of the doctrine of Phenomenalism (the epistemological view which regards sensations as the basic constituents of reality, and attempts to construct the external world from sensations and the possibilities of sensation), and it included his quote: “Matter, then, may be defined as the Permanent Possibility of Sensation”. Although the origins of Phenomenalism can be traced back to George Berkeley, it was only after Mill that a commitment to the doctrine became standard among scientific philosophers, until superseded by Physicalism in the 1930s.

“The Subjection of Women” of 1869, apparently published late in life in order to avoid controversies that would lessen the impact of his other work, was thought to be excessively radical in Mill’s time, but is now seen as a classic statement of liberal Feminism. Mill argued that if freedom is good for men, then it is for women too, and that every argument against this view drawn from the supposedly different “nature” of men and women is based on mere superstitious special pleading. If women do have different natures, the only way to discover what they are is by experiment, and that requires that women should have access to everything to which men have access. He felt that the oppression of women was one of the few remaining relics from ancient times, a set of prejudices that severely impeded the progress of humanity.

Likewise, he chose not to have his “Three Essays on Religion” published until after his death, although they remain models of calm discussion of contentious topics, and actually disappointed those of Mill’s admirers who had looked for a tougher and more abrasive Agnosticism. In general the essays criticized traditional religious views and formulated an alternative (inspired by Comte) in the guise of a “Religion of Humanity”. Mill argued that belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God, encouraged intellectual laziness. Among other points, though, he argued that, although it is impossible that the universe is governed by an omnipotent and loving God, it is not unlikely that a less omnipotent benign force is at work in the world.



Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)


Ralph Waldo EmersonRalph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) was an American philosopher, essayist and poet of the early Modern period. He was the leader of the Transcendentalism  movement in the mid-19th Century.

He was considered one of the great orators of the time, and his enthusiasm and respect for his audience enraptured crowds. In his lifetime, he became the most widely known man of letters in America, and his “Collected Essays” is sometimes considered to be among the 100 greatest books of all time.


Emerson was born on 25 May 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts, the fourth son of Ruth (née Haskins) and the Rev. William Emerson (a Unitarian minister, descended from a well-known line of ministers). His father (who called his son “a rather dull scholar”) died in 1811, before Waldo was even eight years of age. His eccentric but brilliant aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, became his confidante during this time and continued to stimulate his independent thinking for many years. He was sent to the Boston Latin School in 1812 and, in 1817 (at fourteen years old), Emerson went to Harvard College, which was able to afford by a combination of his free room (due to his appointment as Freshman’s President), a scholarship, a jobwaiting on tables, and tutoring during the vacations.

After graduating from Harvard in 1821, he made his living for a time as a schoolmaster in his brother’s school for young ladies. In 1825, he went to Harvard Divinity School, and emerged as a Unitarian minister in 1829, although he resigned his position in 1832 after a dispute with church officials. He married Ellen Louisa Tucker (an 18 year old girl he had met in Concord, New Hampshire), but she died of tuberculosis less than two years later in 1831, and her death affected him greatly.

In 1832, Emerson toured round France, Italy, the Middle East and, particularly, Britain, where he met William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 -1834), John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881). It was through these notable English writers and Romantics that Emerson’s interest in transcendental thought began to blossom. He maintained contact with Carlyle for the next 50 years, and served as his agent in the United States.

In 1835, he bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts and married his second wife, Lydia Jackson. They lived a financially conservative but comfortable lifestyle and had four children: Waldo, Ellen, Edith and Edward Waldo. It was in Concord, where he spent the next 49 years until his death, that he began his literary, political and philosophical career.

The publication of his 1836 essay “Nature”, with its expression of a firm belief in the mystical unity of nature, is usually taken to be the watershed moment at which Transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. He helped found the Transcendental Club in September 1836 with other like-minded New England intellectuals, including George Ripley (1802 – 1880), Frederick Henry Hedge(1805 – 1890), Orestes Brownson (1803 – 1876), Bronson Alcott (1799 – 1888), James Freeman Clarke (1810 -1888) and Convers Francis (1795 – 1863). The group started its journal, “The Dial”, in July 1840.

He made a living as a popular lecturer throughout New England and the northern half of the United States. He was considered one of the great orators of the time, and could enrapture crowds with his deep voice, his enthusiasm, and his egalitarian respect for his audience. His 1838 graduation address at Harvard Divinity School caused outrage when he discounted Biblical miracles and proclaimed that Jesus was a great man but not God (both of which were soon to become standard Unitarian doctrine). In 1843, he further risked his safety by speaking in public on his anti-slavery position. These lectures received their final form in his series of “Essays”, published in two series in 1841 and in 1844, the two volumes most responsible for Emerson’s reputation as a philosopher.

Emerson’s first son, Waldo, died of scarlet fever in 1842, and the first collection of his poems appeared in 1847 (he always regarded himself essentially as a poet). Throughout the 1840s, he took long walks around Concord with the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) and his friend and protegé Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond was built on Emerson’s land, and he provided him with food and odd jobs during his stay there from1845 to 1847. Their close relationship later fractured and soured however. While sympathetic to the George Ripley’s experimental collective at Brook Farm, Emerson declinedappeals to join the group and stayed in Concord with Lydia and their growing family.

During the 1850s, he continued lecturing widely on a number of different topics. He became increasingly interested in the abolition of slavery, and he actively supported war with the South after the attack on Fort Sumter in 1861. His last years were marked by a decline in his mental powers, although his literary reputation continued to spread. Emerson died of pneumonia, aged 78, on 27 April 1882 in Concord, and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.


After the publication of Emerson’s 1836 essay “Nature”, and the founding of the Transcendental Club in September 1836, Transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. The club (which originally met in the home of George Ripley) was a meeting-place for young thinkers and an organizing ground for their idealistic frustration with the general state of American culture and society at the time and, in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard and in the Unitarian church.

Transcendentalism was rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant (and of German Idealism in general), and the desire to ground religion in the inner, spiritual or mental essence of humanity, rather than in sensuous experience. Their beliefs were closely linked with those of the Romantics, and the later New Thought movement in America.

The two volumes of “Essays”, published in 1841 and in 1844 are most responsible for Emerson’s reputation as a philosopher, although the general reading publicknows his work primarily through his highly-quotable aphorisms. Of these essays, “Self-Reliance” is perhaps his single most influential work, and stands as a comprehensive statement of his credo. In it he describes his abiding faith in the individual (“Trust thyself”), and opposes on principle the reliance on social structures (whether civil or religious) on the grounds that the individual must approach the divine directly, not mediated though some institution.

Emerson himself believed that Transcendentalism was an exclusively individual and idealist project, and suggested in his 1842 lecture “The Transcendentalist” that the goal of a purely transcendental outlook on life was actually impossible to attain in practice.

Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857)


Auguste ComteAuguste Comte (full name Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte) (1798 – 1857) was a French philosopher and proto-sociologist of the early Modern period.

Although perhaps best known for coining the terms “sociologie” (“sociology”) and “altruisme (“altruism”), his most lasting contribution to philosophy is as the founder of the 19th Century Positivism movement, which was based around the belief that the only authentic knowledge is knowledge based on actual sense experience and strict application of the scientific method.


Comte was born to a strongly Catholic and Monarchist family in Montpellier, southwestern France, on 17 January 1798. He attending the University of Montpellier (one of Europe’s oldest universities), and then the École Polytechnique in Paris (a leading scientific institution, noted for its adherence to the French ideals of republicanism and progress). He was expelled from the École in 1816 after leading a student protest, and he was forced to continue his studies at the medical school at Montpellier.

Conscious of unbridgeable political and religious differences with his family (he had stopped believing in God and taken up the republican cause around the age of fourteen), he returned to Paris in 1816. Here the young eighteen year old encountered a group of radical French thinkers, collectively known as the “idealogues”, including the Comte de Volney (1757 -1820), Georges Cabanis(1757 – 1808) and Marie Antoine Condorcet (1743 – 1794).

Supporting himself with odd jobs, including tutoring in mathematics, in 1817 he became a student and secretary of the utopian Socialist thinker Henri de Saint-Simon (1760 -1825), who brought Comte into the wider intellectual society of Paris. Both men were searching, in their different ways, for a science of human behaviour, and Comte stayed with Saint-Simon until irrevocably breaking with him in 1824. He failed to get the academic position he needed to pursue his own ideas, and depended to a large extent on sponsors and financial help from friends during this period.

In 1825, he married Caroline Massin, but the union proved unhappy and they eventually divorced in 1842. During this period, he began to lecture to private audiences of French thinkers, and worked on the six volumes of his master work, the “Cours de philosphie positive” (“Course of Positive Philosophy”), which was published between 1830 and 1842. He lived in penury, attempting suicide on at least one occasion.

In 1845, he fell violently in love with a married woman, Clotilde de Vaux (1815 – 1846), and although she insisted that their relationship could never be physical, she cooperated with him and encouraged him to develop his ideas further. When she died of consumption the very next year, Comte was pushed close to insanity, and it was during his mystical phase after this that he began to develop a new universal “religion of humanity”.

In 1849, he founded the Positivist Society (still in existence today), and he published the four volumes of his “Système de politique positive” between 1851 and 1854, and the “Catechisme Positiviste” in 1852, but neither work captured his audience as the “Course” had.

Worn out from his intellectual labours and personal tragedies, he died in wretchedness and isolation in Paris on 5 September 1857, and is buried at the famous Cimetière du Père Lachaise.


Comte’s main legacy is his influential theory of Positivism, the idea that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method. He saw the scientific method as replacing Metaphysics and theology in the history of thought, and believed that Metaphysics should be replaced by a hierarchy of sciences, from mathematics at the base to sociology at the top.

Based on his discussions with Condorcet and Saint-Simon, Comte developed his theory of a universal law, which was at work in all societies and sciences, and through which progress is inevitable and irresversible. He called this the Law of Three Phases, the three phases being:

  • the theological (the pre-Enlightenment phase in which man’s place in society was referenced to God or nature, in which the divine will subsumed human rights, and man blindly believed in whatever he was taught by his ancestors);
  • the metaphysical (the post-Enlightenment humanist phase, referenced to explanations by impersonal abstract thought, and where the universal rights of humanity are most important);
  • the positive (the final scientific stage in which the search for absolute knowledge is abandoned, scientific explanation is based on observation, experiment and comparison, and individual rights are considered more important than the rule of any one person).

Comte saw the Law of Three Phases as a kind of social evolutionism. Like G. W. F. Hegel before him and Karl Marx after him, he believed that historical development revealed a matching movement of ideas and institutions, and that each stage, or each science as he formulated it, is necessarily dependent on the previous one (e.g. the science of physics was dependent on the earlier science of astronomy). Comte claimed that the final, as yet undiscovered, science, which had not yet entered its positive stage but which would give ultimate meaning to all the other sciences, was what he called “sociology”, the study of socio-political systems and social dynamics.

For Comte, the goal of Positivism had always been moral order and the reformation of the social order it would bring, rather than material advances or affluence. He saw the need for a scientific-industrial elite to oversee the post-French Revolution industrial society which was evolving, and so, as well as the concept of “positive science”, he also constructed a non-theistic, pseudo-mystical “positive religion”, with a hierarchical priesthood (with himself as high priest), positive dogmas and catechism, and even a calendar of “positive saints” (which included Archimedes, Aristotle, Descartes, Adam Smith, Frederick the Great, Dante, Gutenberg and William Shakespeare, among others).

His most ardent disciple, Emile Littre (1801 – 1881), who founded the “Positivist Review” in 1867, however, refused to follow Comte into the grey area of this religious fervour, which he saw as a product of Comte’s tired and disturbed mind. Others, led by Pierre Laffitte maintained both the scientific and the religious teachings of Positivism in the schism which developed after Comte’s death.

Comte’s ethical doctrine usually receives less attention, but he summed it up in the phrase: “Live for others”. He was one of the better known proponents of Altruism, a term he coined (or at least popularized) himself, and he believed that individuals had a moral obligation of to serve others and place their interests above one’s own. He opposed the idea of individual rights, on the grounds that they were not consistent with this ethical obligation.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860)


Arthur SchopenhauerArthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) was a German philosopher, and an important figure in the German Idealism and Romanticism movements in the early 19th Century.

Often considered a gloomy and thoroughgoing pessimist, Schopenhauer was actually concerned with advocating ways (via artistic, moral and ascetic forms of awareness) to overcome a frustration-filled and fundamentally painful human condition. He believed that the “will-to-life”(the force driving man to survive and to reproduce) was the driving force of the world, and that the pursuit of happiness, love and intellectual satisfaction was essentially futile and anyway secondary to the innate imperative of procreation.

His vision of Aesthetics and his doctrine of Voluntarism (as well as his aphoristic writing style) influenced many later philosophers as well as the Romantics of his own time. Perhaps more than any other major philosopher, Schopenhauer has been subject to trends and fashions in popularity, sinking from celebrity and renown to almost complete obscurity, before rebounding again in recent years (not least because of his perceived influence on the young Wittgenstein and Nietzsche).


Schopenhauer (pronounced SHO-pun-how-er) was born on 22 February 1788 in Danzig (modern day Gdansk, Poland). His father was Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, a successul merchant; his mother was the talented author Johanna Trosiener; both were descendants of wealthy German families. When Danzig was annexed by Prussia in 1793, the family moved to Hamburg. Schopenhauer travelled widely with his father as a youth, living for periods in both France and England.

In 1805, when he was 17, his father died (possibly a suicide), and Schopenhauer took over the family business in Hamburg for a time, making him a rich man overnight. His mother, however, moved to Weimar, then the centre of German literature, to pursue her writing career, becoming a friend and favourite of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832). A year later, Schopenhauer and his sister joined her there. Schopenhauer himself, although on the short side, was tolerably good looking and attractive to women, but was never comfortable in romantic endeavours.

Little interested in a life of business and commerce, Schopenhauer used his private means to finance his studies. He entered the University of Göttingen in 1809 to study Metaphysics and Psychology under Gottlob Ernst Schulze (1761 – 1833), who advised him to concentrate on Plato and Kant. From 1811 to 1812, he attended lectures at the University of Berlin given by the prominent post-Kantian Johann Gottlieb Fichte and the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768 – 1834), although he reacted both against what he saw as Fichte’s extreme Idealism, and against Schleiermacher’s assertion that the purpose of philosophy is to gain knowledge of God.

He submitted his doctoral dissertation, “Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde” (“On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason”), to the University of Jena and was awarded a Ph.D. in absentia in 1813. From 1814 until 1818, he worked on his seminal work “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung” (“The World as Will and Representation”) and published it the following year (1819). In 1820, Schopenhauer became a lecturer at the University of Berlin and began his lengthy opposition to fellow lecturer G. W. F. Hegel, whom he accused of (among other things) using deliberately impressive, but ultimately meaningless, language. He devised an ill-fated plan to schedule his own lectures to coincide with Hegel’s in an unsuccessful attempt to attract student support away from Hegel. After the failure of this plan (and an equally unsuccessful attempt a year or so later), he dropped out of academia and never taught at a university again.

In 1821, he fell in love with a 19-year old opera singer, Caroline Richter (known as “Medon”), and had a relationship with her for several years (including an illegitimate child, although the child died the same year). Despite Caroline’s urging, though, he never planned to marry, claiming that “marrying means to halve one’s rights and double one’s duties”. He lived for a time in Mannheim and Dresden, and visited Italy briefly on a couple of occasions, but eventually gravitated back to Berlin. In 1831, at the age of 43, he again took interest in a younger woman, the 17-year old Flora Weiss, who roundly rejected him.

After the outbreak of a cholera epidemic in Berlin in 1831, both Schopenhauer and Hegel moved away. Hegel returned prematurely to Berlin, caught the infection, and died, but Schopenhauer settled permanently in Frankfurt in 1833. He remained there for the next twenty-seven years until his death, living alone except for a succession of pet poodles, observing a strict daily routine and taking an active interest in animal welfare. He continued to write and publish, including “Über den Willen in der Natur” (“On the Will in Nature”) in 1836, “Über die Freiheit des menschlichen Willens” (“On the Freedom of the Will”) in 1839, “Über die Grundlage der Moral” (“On the Basis of Morality”) in 1840, and a set of philosophical reflections called “Parerga und Paralipomena” in 1851. He finally received some long-awaited recognition for his early works later in the 1850s, and his last book of sombre essays and aphorisms became an unlikely best seller.

As he aged, though, his pessimism and bleak outlook on life grew almost comically excessive: at one point, he advised people to swallow a toad every morning so that they would not meet with anything more disgusting in the day ahead. It was only in his late years that Schopenhauer finally enjoyed a contentment of sorts, through his relationship with the attractive sculptress and admirer of his philosophy, Elisabet Ney (1833 – 1907). In 1860, his health (which had always been robust) began to deteriorate, and he died peacefully of heart failure on 21 September 1860, aged 72.


Schopenhauer was very much an atypical philosopher. He was genuinely interested and knowlegeable about Hinduism and Buddhism, and the only major Western philosopher to draw serious parallels between Western and Eastern Philosophy. He was the first major philosopher to be openly atheist, and was unusual in placing the arts and Aesthetics so highly. He is also considered among the supreme writers of German prose, and his elegant and aphoristic writing style has even led to the publication of standalone books of aphorisms and witticisms.

The 25-year-old Schopenhauer’s doctoral dissertation, “Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde” (“On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason”) already contained many of the arguments he would continue to use against the prevailing German Idealist philosophers of the time (Fichte, Schelling and Hegel). In some ways, he can be considered the absolute antithesis of the whole German Idealist movement: he hated great systems, preferring to pursue single thoughts, and he opposed their religious stance and their German Nationalism.

His most important work is usually considered to be “Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung” (“The World as Will and Representation”) of 1819, in which he expounded his doctrine of Pessimism (the evaluation and perception of life in a generally negative light). In dramatic and powerful prose, he described the world as a truly terrible place, full of injustice, disease, repression, suffering and cruelty. Contrary to Leibniz’s view that this is the best of all possible worlds, Schopenhauer sought to prove that this is in fact the worst of all possible worlds and indeed that, if it were only a little worse, it would be no longer capable of continuing to exist. In contrast to wide-ranging optimism of most his Romantic contemporaries in 19th Century Germany, he felt that all existence was ultimately futile since it can be fundamentally characterized by a want of satisfaction that can never be attained.

Schopenhauer called himself a Kantian, and his starting point was certainly Kant’s division of the universe into the phenomenal (things as they appear, and which can be perceived using our senses) and the noumenal (the “thing-in-itself”, which is independent of us and which can only be thought or imagined by humans). Schopenhauer took an extra step beyond Kant, though, by suggesting that, because multiplicity was part of phenomenal experience, noumenal reality must be singular, a single, undifferentiated, indistinguishable thing. He concluded that the noumenon was the same as that in us which we call Will (or at least that Will was the most immediate manifestation of the “thing-in-itself” that we can experience). The use of the label “Will” is perhaps not important: he could equally have used “Force” or “Energy” (in fact, he did describe the physical universe as being made up of underlying energy, of which objects and matter are just instances, an idea strikingly similar to the 20th Century post-Einstein conception of matter).

Schopenhauer then expanded on what this Will actually was, deriving his arguments from the main traditions of Western Philosophy, but arriving at a kind of Voluntarism almost entirely consistent with the Hindu Vedanta traditions in the Upanishads, which he knew well. He believed that the “will-to-life” (the force driving man to remain alive and to reproduce) was the inner content and the driving force of the world, and that Will and desire were ontologically prior to thought and the intellect (and even to being). He saw even falling in love as just an unconscious element of this drive to reproduce, and enumerated some rather suspect (to modern tastes) laws of attraction (e.g. tall people are attrected to short people, so that their offspring are more likely to be well-proportioned; those will large chins are attracted those with small chins, for the same reason; etc).

He argued that the pursuit of happiness and the production of children are two radically separate ideas that love maliciously confuses us into thinking of as one in the interests of the propagation of the species. In partial defence of love, though, he reasoned that only a force as strong as love could force us into this role, and that we actually have no choice but to fall in love, as biology is stronger than reason. He held that this wild and powerful drive to survive and reproduce is essentially what causes suffering and pain in the world, and that the only way to escape the suffering inherent in a world of Will was through art. He concluded that discursive thought (such as philosophy and Logic) could neither touch nor transcend the nature of desire or Will, and he certainly considered philosophy and Logic as less important than art, loving kindness and certain forms of religious discipline.

In Schopenhauer’s Aesthetics, the aesthetic viewpoint is more objective than the scientific viewpoint precisely because it separates the intellect from the Will in the form of art. He held that the body is merely an extension of the Will, while art is a spontaneous act or pre-determined idea which the artist has in mind before any attempts at creation, and therefore cannot be linked to either the body or the intellect. Unlike science, then, art effectively goes beyond the realm of sufficient reason. Schopenhauer’s idea of genius was an artist so fixed on his art that he neglected the “business of life” (which, for Schopenhauer, meant only the domination of the evil and painful Will).

Schopenhauer’s Ethics were mainly expressed his “Über die Freiheit des menschlichen Willens” (“On the Freedom of the Will”) of 1839 and “Über die Grundlage der Moral” (“On the Basis of Morality”) of 1840. His identification of three primary moral incentives was a central aspect of his mission: compassion (the genuine motivator to moral expression), and malice and egoism (the corruptors of moral incentives). He saw love (as in the Ancient Greek concept of “agape”, rather than erotic love) as an immensely powerful force lying unseen within man’s psyche and dramatically shaping the world. Several of his ideas show the influence of Buddhism and its Four Noble Truths.

By his own admission, he did not give much thought to politics, but in general he was in favour of limited government, which would leave men free to work out their own salvation. He also subscribed to the Contractarianism of Thomas Hobbes, and deemed the state (and state violence) necessary to check the destructive tendencies innate to our species.

He had a distinctly hierarchical conception of the races, attributing civilizational primacy to the northern white races due to what he saw as their sensitivity and creativity. Having said that, he was also adamantly against differing treatment of races, and was fervently anti-slavery. He also held anti-Semitic views (arguing that Christianity constituted a revolt against the materialistic basis of Judaism), a chauvinistic attitude to women (claiming that “woman is by nature meant to obey”), and a partiality for the possibilities of eugenics. However, he had generally liberal views on many other social issues, and was strongly against taboos on issues like suicide and homosexuality. He was very concerned about the rights of animal, which he saw as phenomenal manifestations of Will, just as were humans.

Friedrich Schelling (1775 – 1854)


Friedrich SchellingFriedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775 – 1854) was a German philosopher, and one of the quintessential figures of the German Idealism and Romanticism movements in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.

His is often seen as a bridge between the earlier Idealism of Kant and Fichte and the later work of Hegel, or as a philosophical Proteus who changed his conception so radically and so often that it is hard to attribute a clear philosophy to him. However, his views arguably always focused on a few common themes, especially human freedom, the absolute, and the relationship between spirit and nature.

He is perhaps the most neglected of the major German Idealists, largely overshadowed by the G. W. F. Hegel, and was all but forgotten for nearly a century after his death. However, he has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, and has been described as the culmination of German Idealism and as a forerunner to modern Existentialism.


Schelling was born on 27 January 1775 in the small town of Leonberg, near Stuttgart in southern Germany. His father was the chaplain and Orientalist professor at the cloister school at nearby Bebenhausen.

He attended his father’s school at first, and then a Latin school in Nuertingen from 1783 to 1784 (where he became acquainted with the young poet Friedrich Hölderlin). At the age of 15, he was granted permission to enroll early at the Tübinger Stift Protestant seminary in Württemberg, where he studied the Church fathers and ancient Greek philosophers. He became roommates with Georg Hegel as well as Hölderlin, and the three became good friends. His interest gradually shifted from Lutheran theology to philosophy, and in 1792 he graduated from the philosophical faculty, and he finished his thesis for his theological degree in 1795.

Meanwhile, he had begun to study the work of Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, both of whom greatly influenced him. In 1794, Schelling published an exposition of Fichte’s thought entitled “Über die Möglichkeit einer Form der Philosophie überhaupt” (“On the possibility of a form of philosophy in general”), which immediately earned him a reputation among philosophers and was acknowledged by Fichte himself. In 1795, he followed up with a more elaborate work, “Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie, oder über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen” (“On Self as principle of philosophy, or on the unrestricted in human knowledge”), still within the limits of the Fichtean Idealism, although with a more objective application, and with the additional amalgamation of some elements of the pantheistic views of Baruch Spinoza and Neo-Platonism.

From 1796 to 1798, Schelling worked as the tutor of two youths of an aristocratic family, which also allowed him to visit Leipzig (wheres he also attended lectures at Leipzig University, and developed a fascination with contemporary physical studies including chemistry and biology) and Dresden (where the art collections of the Archduke of Saxony were influential on his later thinking on art). His studies of the physical sciences led to his essay “Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur”(“Ideas to a natural philosophy”) of 1797, and the treatise “Von der Weltseele” (“On the soul of world”) of 1798. In the “Ideen” in particular, he showed a debt to Gottfried Leibniz’s view of nature, especially his “Monadology”.

In 1798, at the still youthful age of 23, he was offered the position of extraordinary professor of philosophy at the University of Jena, where he remain for five years until 1803. There, he was at the centre of the intellectual ferment of Romanticism, and was on close terms with Germany’s great man of letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), and the writer and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller (1759 – 1805). Gradually, more and more distance opened up between Schelling and Fichte, particularly as Schelling insisted on the complementary nature of his transcendental philosophy and nature philosophy, as described in one of his most notable works, the “System des transcentalen Idealismus” (“System of transcendental Idealism”) of 1800. Hegel, whom Schelling had helped to a position as private lecturer at Jena University, initially supported Schelling’s ideas in his book, “Differenz des Fichte’schen und Schelling’schen Systems der Philosophie”(“The Difference between the system of the philosophy of Fichte and of Schelling”) of 1801, although he was soon to head off on a different track.

By 1800, Schelling was becoming the acknowledged leader of the Romanticism school, and had begun to reject Fichte’s thought as cold and abstract. Schelling was especially close to the Romantic poet August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767 – 1845) and his wife, Karoline, and was seriously considering marriage to their young daughter, Auguste Böhmer, until she died of dysentery in 1800. Karoline Schlegel was a beautiful and intellectual woman, twelve years Schelling’s senior, and the brilliant hostess of Jena’s salon of Romanticism and its intellectual circles, and Schelling soon fell in love with her. When Schlegel moved to Berlin and divorced Karoline in 1803, Schelling and Karoline were quickly married and (due largely to the scandal this caused) they moved away from Jena to Würzburg.

From 1803 until 1806, Schelling was professor at the new University of Würzburg, his gradually changing views marked by a final breach with both Fichte and Hegel. He had many enemies in conservative Catholic Würzburg, and moved to Munich in 1806, where he found a position as a state official in the Academy of Sciences there, staying until 1841. He was ennobled (with the addition of “von”) in 1806. Karoline died in 1809, just before Schelling published his last book, “Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit und die damit zusammenhängenden Gegenstände” (“Philosophical Investigations on the Nature of Human Freedom”), which showed an increasing tendency toward mysticism and has also been seen as a major precursor to existential thought. In 1812, he married one of Karoline’s closest friends, Pauline Gotter, in whom he found a faithful companion for the remainder of his life. Later, without resigning his official position in Munich, he also lectured for a short time at Stuttgart and then for seven years at Erlangen University (from 1820 to 1827).

In 1841, at the age of 66, Schelling was appointed as Prussian privy councillor and member of the Berlin Academy, which also gave him the right to lecture at Berlin University, then the centre of Hegelianism. Among his students there were the Danish proto-existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, the Russian revolutionary and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814 – 1876) and the German socialist and communist, Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895) among others, and his lectures were attended by a large and appreciative audience. His Berlin lectures were published posthumouslyin four volumes by his sons. Eventually, he accepted an invitation to succeed to the University’s chair in Philosophy, previously held by Hegel. His proposed great work, “Die Weitalter” (“The Ages of the World”), which he was supposedly working on during his latter years, never appeared.

He died on 20 August 1854 in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland.


For a century after his death, Schelling was almost a forgotten philosopher, even in his own country, the consensus being that he had been obscurantist and un-methodical, and that his work had been well and truly eclipsed by the work of Hegel. It was only after praise from Martin Heidegger in his 1936 lectures, and a high-profile international conference on the 100-year anniversary of his death in 1954, that Schelling was fully rehabilitated, amid descriptions of him as the culmination of German Idealism and as a forerunner to modern Existentialism.

Always a champion of Romanticism, he advocated a philosophy which emphasized intuition over reason, and which held the aesthetic and creative imagination as the highest values. Schelling’s philosophy constituted a unique form of Idealism, known as Aesthetic Idealism. He believed that, in art, the opposition between subjectivity and objectivity is sublimated, and all contradictions (between knowledge and action, conscious action and unconscious action, freedom and necessity) are harmonized.

Schelling’s conception of “Naturphilosophie” has not fared well at the hands of modern science, which has roundly criticized his fragmentary knowledge of contemporary science, and his lack of intellectual rigour, but some of his thoughts are nevertheless original and valuable. Nature, according to Schelling, has its own metaphysical reality, independent of the rising consciousness of the empirical ego(contrary to Fichte’s conception of Nature as nothing more than a conscious “representation” of the empirical ego). Thus, the Absolute (Fichte’s “Pure Ego”) must be conceived of as the complete identity of the Universal Spirit and Nature.

Schelling tried to establish a viable connection between his conceptions of natureand spirit (or natural philosophy and transcendental philosophy), which he saw as two parts of a whole: complementary, yet complete in themselves. He saw the dynamic series of stages in which the ideal structure of nature is realized (which he called the organic, the inorganic, and the universal or “World Soul”, the latter underlying and defining the other two), as analogous to the dynamic stages of processes by which spirit struggles towards consciousness of itself. He held that the presence of the Universal Spirit in nature is an essential condition for the emergence of empirical consciousness (individual egos).

Another important aspect of his work is his anti-Cartesian account of subjectivity, which prefigured some of the best ideas of thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacques Lacan (1901 – 1981) in showing how the thinking subject cannot be fully transparent to itself. His later critique of Hegelian Idealism influenced Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and others, and aspects of it are still echoed in contemporary thought by thinkers like Jacques Derrida.

Georg Hegel (1770 – 1831)


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich HegelGeorg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (often known as G. W. F. Hegel or Georg Hegel) (1770 – 1831) was a German philosopher of the early Modern period. He was a leading figure in the German Idealism movement in the early 19th Century, although his ideas went far beyond earlier Kantianism, and he founded his own school of Hegelianism.

He has been called the “Aristotle of modern times”, and he used his system of dialectics to explain the whole of the history of philosophy, science, art, politics and religion. Despite charges of obscurantism and “pseudo-philosophy”, Hegel is often considered the summitof early 19th Century German thought.

His influence has been immense, both within philosophy and in the other sciences, and he came to have a profound impact on many future philosophical schools (whether they supported or opposed his ideas), not the least of which was the Marxism of Karl Marx which was to have so profound an effect on the political landscape of the 20th Century.


Hegel (pronounced HAY-gul) was born on 27 August 1770 in Stuttgart in south-western Germany. His father, Georg Ludwig Hegel, was secretary to the revenue office at the court of the Duke of Württemberg; his mother, Maria Magdalena Louisa (née Fromm), was the well-to-do and well-educated daughter of a lawyerat the High Court of Justice at the Württemberg court (she died when Hegel was thirteen of a “bilious fever”). Hegel had a younger sister, Christiane Luise (who was later committed to an asylum and eventually drowned herself), and a younger brother, Georg Ludwig (who was to die in Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812).

At the age of three, Hegel went to the “German School”, and entered the “Latin School” at age five, and then attended Stuttgart’s Gymnasium Illustre high school from 1784 to 1788. He was a serious, hard-working and successful student, and a voracious reader from a young age, including Shakespeare, the ancient Greek philosophers, the Bible and German literature. In addition to German and Latin, he learned Greek, Hebrew, French and English.

At the age of eighteen, he entered the Tübinger Stift, a Protestant seminaryattached to the University of Tübingen, where two fellow students were to become vital to his development: the poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770 – 1843), and the younger brilliant philosopher-to-be Friedrich Schelling. The three became close friends, sharing a dislike for the restrictive environment of the seminary. Hölderlin and Friedrich Schelling soon began to be interested in the theoretical debates on Kantian philosophy, although Hegel’s own critical engagement with Kant did not occur until much later (around 1800).

Having graduated from the Tübingen Seminary in 1793, Hegel became house tutor to an aristocratic family in Berne, Switzerland, and then took a similar position in Frankfurt-am-Main from 1797 to 1801. During this time he produced some early works on Christianity, and his friend Hölderlin began to exert an increasingly important influence on his thought.

In 1801, Hegel secured a position as an unsalaried lecturer at the University of Jena (with the encouragement of his old friend Schelling, who was Extraordinary Professor there). He lectured on Logic and Metaphysics and, with Schelling, gave joint lectures on an “Introduction to the Idea and Limits of True Philosophy” and held a “Philosophical Disputorium”. In 1802, Schelling and Hegel founded a journal, the “Kritische Journal der Philosophie” (“Critical Journal of Philosophy”), and he produced his first real book on philosophy, “Differenz des Fichteschen und Schellingschen Systems der Philosophie” (“The Difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s Systems of Philosophy”) in 1801.

In 1805, the University promoted Hegel to the position of Extraordinary Professor(although still unsalaried) and, under some financial pressure, he brought out the book which introduced his system of philosophy to the world, “Phänomenologie des Geistes” (“Phenomenology of Mind”), in 1807, just after Napoleon Bonaparte (whom Hegel greatly admired) had entered the city of Jena and closed the University. The same year, he had an illegitimate son, Georg Ludwig Friedrich Fischer by his landlady, Christiana Burkhardt (who had been abandoned by her husband). However, unable to find more suitable employment, he was then forced to move from Jena and to accept a position as editor of a newspaper, the “Bamberger Zeitung”, in Bamberg.

From 1808 until 1816, he was headmaster of a gymnasium in Nuremberg, where he adapted his “Phenomenology of Mind” for use in the classroom, and developed the idea of a comprehensive encyclopedia of the philosophical sciences (later published in 1817). In 1811, he married Marie Helena Susanna von Tucher, the eldest daughter of a Senator, and they had two sons, Karl Friedrich Wilhelm in 1813 and Immanuel Thomas Christian in 1814 (and, in 1817, his illegitimate son, Ludwig Fischer, who was by then orphaned, joined the Hegel household). This period saw the publication of his second major work, “Wissenschaft der Logik”(“Science of Logic”) in three volumes in 1812, 1813 and 1816.

From 1816 to 1818, Hegel taught at the Univeristy of Heidelberg, and then he took offer of the chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he remained until his death in 1831. He published his “Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts”(“Elements of the Philosophy of Right”) in 1821. At the height of his fame, his lectures attracted students from all over Germany and beyond, and he was appointed Rector of the University in 1830, and decorated by King Frederick William III of Prussia for his service to the Prussian state in 1831.

Hegel died in Berlin on 14 November 1831 from a cholera epidemic, and was buried in Berlin’s Dorotheenstadt Cemetery, next to fellow philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand Solger (1780 – 1819).


Hegel published only four main books during his life: “Phänomenologie des Geistes” (“Phenomenology of Mind”) in 1807, his account of the evolution of consciousness from sense-perception to absolute knowledge; the three volumes of “Wissenschaft der Logik” (“Science of Logic”) in 1811, 1812 and 1816, the logical and metaphysical core of his philosophy; “Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften” (“Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences”) in 1816, a summary of his entire philosophical system, intended as a textbook for a university course; and “Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts”(“Elements of the Philosophy of Right”) in 1821, his political philosophy and his thoughts on “civil society”. A number of other works on the Philosophy of History, Philosophy of Religion, Aesthetics, and the history of philosophy were compiled from the lecture notes of his students and published posthumously.

His works have a reputation for their abstractness and difficulty (no less an academic than Bertrand Russell claimed that Hegel was the single most difficultphilosopher to understand), and for the breadth of the topics they attempt to cover. These difficulties are magnified for those reading him in translation, since his philosophical language and terminology in German often do not have direct analogues in other languages (e.g. his essential term “Geist” is usually translated as “mind” or “spirit”, but these still do not cover the full depth of meaning of the word).

Hegel’s thought can be seen as part of a progression of philosophers (going back to Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Leibniz, Spinoza, Rousseau and Kant) who can generally be described as Idealists, and who regarded freedom or self-determination as real, and as having important ontological implications for soul or mind or divinity.

He developed a new form of thinking and Logic, which he called “speculative reason” (which includes the more famous concept of “dialectic”) to try to overcome what he saw as the limitations of both common sense and of traditional philosophy at grasping philosophical problems and the relation between thought and reality. His method was to begin with ultra-basic concepts (like Being and Nothing), and to develop these through a long sequence of elaborations towards solutions that take the form of series of concepts. He employed the tried-and-tested process of dialectic (which dates back to Aristotle and involves resolving a thesis and its opposing antithesis into a synthesis), but asserted that this logical process was not just a matter of form as separate from content, but had applications and repercussions in the real world. He also took the concept of the dialectic one step further, arguing that the new synthesis is not the final truth of the matter, but rather became the new thesis with its corresponding antithesis and synthesis. This process would continue effectively ad infitum, until reaching the ultimate synthesis, which is what Hegel called the Absolute Idea.

Hegel’s main philosophical project, then, was to take the contradictions and tensions he saw throughout modern philosophy, culture and society, and interpret them as part of a comprehensive, evolving, rational unity that, in different contexts, he called “the absolute idea” or “absolute knowledge”. He believed that everything was interrelated and that the separation of reality into discrete parts(as all philosophers since Aristotle had done) was wrong. He advocated a kind of historically-minded Absolute Idealism (developed out of the Transcendental Idealismof Immanuel Kant), in which the universe would realize its spiritual potential through the development of human society, and in which mind and nature can be seen as two abstractions of one indivisible whole Spirit.

However, the traditional triadic dialectical interpretation of Hegel’s approach (thesis – antithesis – synthesis) is perhaps too simplistic. From Hegel’s point of view, analysis of any apparently simple identity or unity reveals underlying inner contradictions, and it is these contradictions that lead to the dissolution of the thing or idea in the simple form in which it presented itself, and its development into a higher-level, more complex thing or idea that more adequately incorporates the contradictions.

Hegel was the first major philosopher to regard history and the Philosophy of History as important. Hegel’s Historicism is the position that all human societies (and all human activities such as science, art or philosophy) are defined by their history, and that their essence can be sought only through understanding that. According to Hegel, to understand why a person is the way he is, you must put that person in a society; and to understand that society, you must understand its history, and the forces that shaped it. He is famously quoted as claiming that “Philosophy is the history of philosophy”.

His system for understanding history, and the world itself, was developed from his famous dialectic teachings of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. He saw history as as a progression, always moving forward, never static, in which each successive movement emerges as a solution to the contradictions inherent in the preceding movement. He believed that every complex situation contains within itself conflicting elements, which work to destabilize the situation, leading it to breakdown into a new situation in which the conflicts are resolved. For example, the French Revolution constituted the introduction of real individual political freedom, but carried with it the seeds of the brutal Reign of Terror which followed, and only then was there the possibility of a constitutional state of free citizens, embodying both the benevolent organizing power of rational government and the revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality.

Thus, the history of any human endeavour not only builds upon, but also reacts against, what has gone before. This process, though, is an ongoing one, because the resulting synthesis has itself inherent contradictions which need to be resolved (so that the synthesis becomes the new thesis for another round of the dialectic). Crucially, however, Hegel believed that this dialectical process was not just random, but that it had a direction or a goal, and that goal was freedom (and our consciousness and awareness of freedom) and of the absolute knowledge of mind as the ultimate reality.

In political and social terms, Hegel saw the ultimate destination of this historical process as a conflict-free and totally rational society or state, although for Hegel this did not mean a society of dogmatic and abstract pure reason such as the French Revolution envisaged, but one which looks for what is rational within what is realand already existent. Some have argued that Hegel’s vision of the state as an organic rational whole, leaves no room for individual dissent and choice, no room for the very freedom he was advocating. However, it should be noted that Hegel’s idea of freedom was quite different from what we thing of as the traditional Liberal conception of freedom (which he would have seen as merely the ability to follow your own caprice), and rather consists in the fulfillment of oneself as a rational individual. He did not expound in any detail, though, on his vision of the ideal state, and how such a state might avoid sinking into authoritarianism and Totalitarianism.

Hegel categorically rejected Kant’s “thing-in-itself” and his noumenal world, arguing against Kant’s claim that something that exists was unknowable as contradictory and inconsistent. On the contrary, he claimed that whatever is must by definition be knowable: “The real is rational, and the rational is real”. He asserted that what becomes the real is “Geist” (which, as we have noted above, can be translated as mind, spirit or soul), which he also sees as developing through history, with each period having a “Zeitgeist” (spirit of the age). Thus, although individuals and whole societies change as part of the dialectical process, what is really changing is the underlying Geist. He also held that each person’s individual consciousness or mind is really part of the Absolute Mind (even if the individual does not realize this), and he argued that if we understood that we were part of a greater consciousnesswe would not be so concerned with our individual freedom, and we would agree with to act rationally in a way that did not follow our individual caprice, thereby achieving self-fulfilment.

There has been much debate about whether Hegel’s philosophy should be considerad religious or spiritual or not. Most have interpreted his idea of an Absolute Mind as essentially a kind of Monism, which may or may not involve a monotheistic God of the traditional Christian kind. Some have seen it as closer to a kind of Pantheism. However, most of his philosophy also makes good sense when interpreted in a non-religious way, concerned merely with human minds.

Hegel also discussed the concept of alienation in his work, the idea of something that is part of us and within us and yet seems in some way foreign or alien or hostile. He introduced the figure of the “unhappy soul”, who prays to a God whom he believes to be all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, and who sees himself in contrast as powerless, ignorant and base. Hegel submits that this is wrong because we are effectively part of God (or Geist or Mind), and thus possessed of all good qualities as well as bad.

Hegel’s thought is often considered the summit of early 19th Century German Idealism. Despite the suppression (and even banning at one point) of his philosophy by the Prussian right-wing, and its firm rejection by the left-wing, Hegel’s influence has been immense, both within philosophy and in the other sciences. It would come to have a profound impact on many future philosophical schools (not least those that opposed his ideas), such as Existentialism, Marxism, Nationalism, Fascism, Historicism, British Idealism and Logical Positivism and the Analytic Philosophy movement.

After his death, Hegel’s followers split into two opposing camps: the Protestant, conservative Right (“Old”) Hegelians, and the atheistic, revolutionary Left (“Young”) Hegelians. Although that distinction is perhaps now considered somewhat naïve, it can be seen as a tribute to the breadth of Hegel’s vision. In the latter half of the 20th Century, Hegel’s philosophy has undergone a major renaissance, partly due to the re-evaluation of Hegel as a possible philosophical progenitor of Marxism, and partly due to a resurgence of the historical perspective that he brought to everything, and an increasing recognition of the importance of his dialectical method.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814)


Jifichte001p1ohann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) was a German philosopher, and one of the founding figures of the German Idealism and Kantianism movements in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.

At one time perceived merely as a bridge between the ideas of Kant and Hegel, he has since begun to be appreciated as an important philosopher in his own right, with original insights into the nature of self-awareness. He also wrote Political Philosophy, and is thought of by some as the father of German Nationalism.


Fichte (pronounced FIC-ta) was born on 19 May 1762 in Rammenau in the Saxony region of eastern Germany. His family were ribbon makers and too poor to pay for his schooling, although early in life he impressed everyone with his great intelligence. Through the patronage of a local nobleman, Baron Miltitz, he was able to attend the well-known Pforta boarding school, which prepared students for a university education, and in 1780, he began study at the University of Jena in central Germany, and then at the University of Leipzig. With the death of his patron, he had to break off his studies for financial reasons in 1784, and left without completing his degree.

He worked as a private tutor in Zürich, Switzerland for a time, where he met, and became engaged to, his future wife Johanna Rahn, niece of the German poet F. G. Klopstock, in 1790. Later the same year, (back in Leipzig and again in financial distress), Fichte agreed to tutor a university student in the Kantian philosophy, about which he knew very little at the time, and so began to study in depth the works of Immanuel Kant, which were to have a lasting effect on his life and thought.

The next year, he travelled to Königsberg to meet Kant himself, although Kant was apparently not especially impressed by his visitor. But in 1792, Fichte published his hastily prepared first work, “Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung”(“Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation”), an unsigned book which was initially assumed to be by Kant himself. When Kant cleared the confusion and openly praised the work and its author, Fichte’s reputation skyrocketed.

Fichte continued working as a tutor while attempting to fashion his philosophical insights into a system of his own, which he came to call Wissenschaftslehre(variously translated as “Science of Knowledge”, “Doctrine of Science”, or “Theory of Science”). In October 1793, he married his fiancée in Zürich, (they were to have a son, Immanuel Hermann, in 1797), and shortly thereafter was offered the chair in philosophy at the University of Jena, which was rapidly becoming the capital of the new German philosophy.

He stayed at Jena until 1799, publishing the scholarly works that established his reputation as one of the major figures in the German philosophical tradition, as well as more popular works for the general public (to fulfill his desire to communicate Kantianism to the wider world). In a 1798 essay, Fichte argued that religious beliefcould be legitimate only insofar as it arose from properly moral considerations, and that God has no existence apart from the moral world order. This led to accusations of unothodoxy and Atheism and he was ultimately forced to leave Jena.

By the time Fichte settled in Berlin in 1800, his reputation had already started to wane, particularly after disavowals of his Wissenschaftslehre by Kant and by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743 – 1819). To earn a living, he gave private lectures and published new works, including “Die Bestimmung des Menschen” (“The Vocation of Man”) in 1800, although he was loath to publish for fear of being misunderstood again. When the newly founded Prussian university in Berlinopened in 1810, Fichte was made the head of the philosophy faculty, and in 1811 he was elected the first rector of the university. He continued his philosophical work until the very end of his life, lecturing on the Wissenschaftslehre and writing on Political Philosophy (including on a new form of national education that would enable the German nation to achieve its full potential) and other subjects.

When the War of Liberation against Napoleon Bonaparte broke out in 1813, both Fichte and his wife Johanna joined the militia. He died in Berlin from a typhus epidemic on 27 January 1814, at the age of fifty-two. His son, Immanuel Hermann Fichte (1797 – 1879), also made contributions to philosophy.


After the publication of some radical works defending the principles of the French Revolution in 1793, Fichte began working in earnest on the formulation of his philosophy of Wissenschaftslehre which he continued to revise for most of the rest of his life. He saw it as a the search for new foundations for Kant’s Critical philosophy, although never as a repudiation of Kantianism. Following on from the “Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre” (“Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre”) of 1794/5, came “Grundlage des Naturrechts nach Principien der Wissenschaftslehre” (“Foundations of Natural Right Based on the Wissenschaftslehre”, 1796/7) and “Das System der Sittenlehre nach den Principien der Wissenschaftslehre” (“System of Ethical Theory Based on the Wissenschaftslehre”, 1798). Other re-formulations, explanations and digests followed.

Fichte realized, largely in response to a work called “Aenesidemus” by Gottlob Ernst Schulze (1761 – 1833), that he did not endorse Kant’s argument for the existence of noumena (“things in themselves”), the supra-sensible reality beyond the categories of human reason, and saw the rigorous and systematic separation of “things in themselves” and things “as they appear to us” as an invitation to Skepticism. He made the radical suggestion that we should accept the fact that consciousness does not have any grounding in a so-called “real world” or indeed in anything outside of itself. However, he argued, consciousness of the self depends upon resistance by something that is understood as not part of the self (his famous “I / not-I”distinction) i.e. the existence of other rational subjects.

In 1806, he published “Die Grundzüge des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters” (“The Characteristics of the Present Age”), employing his Wissenschaftslehre for the purposes of the Philosophy of History, and identifying five stages of history in which the human race progresses, from the rule of instinct to the rule of reason. Despite (or possibly because of) parallels with Hegel’s later formulation of history as a dialectical process, it was arguably Hegel himself who was largely responsiblefor the subsequent relegation of Fichte to a footnote in the larger history of German Idealism.

Fichte also originated the principle of Rational Voluntarism, arguing that the worldand all its activity is only to be understood as material for the activity of the practical reason, which is the means through which the will achieves complete freedom and complete moral realization.

Fichte’s later political writings were in stark contrast to his early radical and progressive works. He developed a theory of the state based on the idea of self-sufficiency (autarky), which would control international relations, the value of money, and severely limit trade with the outside world. He also called Jews a “state within a state” that could “undermine” the German nation, and ecouraged the building of a national Jewish state in Palestine. His “Reden an die deutsche Nation” (“Addresses to the German Nation”) of 1807-8 in particular was used by German nationalist circles before and during the First World War to enhance national sentiments, and he is thought of by some as the father of German Nationalism.

Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832)


Jeremy BenthamJeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) was an English philosopher, political radical and legal and social reformer of the early Modern period.

He is best known as the founder of Utilitarianism, which he saw as the underlying moral principle on which his legal and social reforms should be based. Although his influence during his life was perhaps minor, his impact was greater in later years as his ideas were carried on by followers such as John Stuart Mill, Robert Owen and John Austin.


Bentham was born in Spitalfields, London on 15 February 1748, the son of a wealthy Tory attorney. He was a child prodigy and was supposedly found as a toddler sitting at his father’s desk reading a multi-volume history of England, and began his study of Latin at the age of three. He went to Westminster School, and in 1760 (at the age of 12) his father sent him to Queen’s College, Oxford, where he took his Bachelor’s degree in 1763 and his Master’s degree in 1766. He trained as a lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, London, and was called to the bar in 1769 (although he never actually practised).

He soon became disillusioned with the law, however, and he threw off his early Conservative political views after reading the work of the 18th Century British theologian and natural philosopher Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804). He gained much attention when his first major work, “A Fragment on Government” of 1776, criticized the leading legal theorist in 18th Century England, Sir William Blackstone (1773 – 1780), and, in the wake of this publication, he became friends with the powerful Lord Shelburne (1737 – 1805), which allowed him to take time to travel and to write. Among his early followers were the economist David Ricardo (1772 – 1823), and Robert Owen (1771 – 1858), the Welsh social reformer and one of the founders of Socialism and the cooperative movement.

Bentham was a regular correspondent with the French Comte de Mirabeau (1749 – 1791), a moderate during the French Revolution of 1789 – 1799, although he was an outspoken critic of the revolutionary discourse of natural rights (the concept of a universal right inherent in the nature of living beings, that is not contingent upon laws or beliefs), and of the violence which arose after the Jacobins took power in 1792. He also had a personal friendship with the Latin American independence precursor Francisco de Miranda (1750 – 1816), and carried on a mutually beneficial correspondence with the pioneering political economist Adam Smith.

In about 1808, he met James Mill (1773 – 1836), who was to become his secretary and main collaborator, and together they co-founded the “Westminster Review” in 1823 as a journal for a group of younger disciples who became known as the “philosophical radicals” (contributors to the journal included Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle). Mill, and his son, John Stuart Mill, became Bentham’s most committed students, and were largely responsible for popularizing Bentham’s vision and in particular his theory of Utilitarianism. Bentham tended to write in a rather complex style himself, and other radical reformers such as Sir Francis Burdett (1770 – 1844), Leigh Hunt (1784 – 1859), William Cobbett (1763 – 1835) and Henry Brougham (1778 – 1868) attempted to communicate his ideas to the working class.

Jeremy Bentham died on 6 June 1832 in his native London and, as requested in his will, his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet, which he called his “Auto-Icon”, and which is still kept on display at University College, London.


Most of Bentham’s writing was never published in his own lifetime, and several of his works appeared first in French translations by Étienne Dumont (some only becoming available in English in the 1820s as a result of back-translation from the French). His most important work was “The Principles of Morals and Legislation” of 1780, in which his formulation of Utilitarianism was first expounded.

Bentham proposed an underlying moral principle on which his legal and social reforms should be based, which he called Utilitarianism. This philosophy (essentially a modification of Hedonism) evaluates actions based upon their consequences (a type of Consequentialism), and holds that the right act or policy is that which would cause “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, a phrase which he attributed to Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804). He also suggested a “felicific calculus” for estimating the moral status (or “happiness factor”) of any action, using a classification of 12 pains and 14 pleasures. His initial theory (often referred to as the principle of utility or the greatest happiness principle) was further developed by his students, particularly by John Stuart Mill, to incorporate more of a principle of fairness and justice, the lack of which was criticized in Bentham’s original formulation.

His opinions on monetary economics (as opposed to those of his contemporaries Adam Smith and David Ricardo) focused on monetary expansion as a means of helping to create full employment. He can be considered as both a classical, and a market, Liberal, and tried to convince Smith that his “Wealth of Nations” called for too much regulation.

Bentham’s political position included arguments in favour of individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the abolition of slavery and of physical punishment (including that of children), the recognition of animal rights, the right to divorce, the promotion of free trade and usury and the decriminalization of homosexuality.

Among his many proposals for legal and social reform was a design for a prison building he called the Panopticon, which had an important influence upon later generations of thinkers. As early as 1798, he wrote that universal peace could only be obtained by first achieving European unity. He was also instrumental in the foundation of the University of London in 1826, as the first English university to admit all, regardless of race, creed or political belief.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)


kierkegaardSøren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) was a 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian. Although relatively isolated during his life, he became extremely influential once his works were translated into German after his death.

Sometimes dubbed “the father of Existentialism”, his works represent a reaction against the dominant Hegelian philosophy of the day (and against the state church in Denmark), and set the stage for modern Existentialism. Early Existentialist thinkers like Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) and Martin Heidegger and, later, Jean-Paul Sartre, drew extensively on Kierkegaard’s analysis of despair and freedom.

However, a wide range of other philosophers, from Karl Marx to Theodor Adorno(1903 – 1969) to Ludwig Wittgenstein, also expressed great respect for the Danish master’s thought.

He was a lifelong committed Lutheran and a prominent supporter of the doctrine of Fideism, the view that religious belief depends on faith or revelation, rather than reason, intellect or natural theology.


Søren Kierkegaard (pronounced KEER-ka-gard in its Anglicized pronunciation) was born into an affluent family on 5 May 1813 in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark.

His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a wealthy hosier and self-made man, fiercely intelligent but melancholic, anxious and deeply pious, convinced that he had earned God’s wrath through the personal sins of his youth; his mother, Ane Sørensdatter Lund, had served as a maid in the household before marrying Michael on the death of his first wife, and she was a quiet, plain and unassuming figure, with little formal education.

Søren was the seventh and last child: five of the seven children died young (which their father saw as just punishment for his sins), although Søren and his elder brother, Peter Christian Kierkegaard (who was to become an influential Lutheran bishop), disproved their father’s gloomy predictions. Despite his father’s occasional religious melancholy and the heavy burden of guilt which he imposed on his children, Kierkegaard shared a close bond with his father, whose brooding presence can be discerned throughout his works.

Kierkegaard was brought up rather stringently, despite the family’s wealth, in a strict Lutheran household. He received a classical education at the well-regarded School of Civic Virtue in Copenhagen, where he excelled in Latin and history, before going on to study theology at the University of Copenhagen in 1830. At university, however, he was drawn more towards philosophy and literature, and his philosophical writings were always rather self-consciously literary and wordy. After a relatively dissolute time in his early years at university, up until his father’s death in 1838, he graduated in 1841 with the equivalent of a Ph.D, funding his education, his subsequent living, and the publication of his early works through his father’s inheritance.

In 1837, Kierkegaard met and fell violently in love with Regine Olsen, the daughter of a member of the Danish parliament. He proposed to her in 1940, but mysteriously broke off the engagement less than a year later during a period of melancholy and depression. Regine later married and left Denmark, but she remained Kierkegaard’s muse and the love of his life.

Arguably his greatest work, “Either/Or”, was written in 1842 during one of Kierkegaard’s brief stays in Berlin, (his only trips abroad apart from a brief trip to Sweden), and published in 1843. It was immediately understood to be a major literary event, although it also had its critics. “Fear and Trembling” was published in late 1843, followed by a series of papers critiquing the popular philosophy of Georg Hegel. His rather intemperate reaction to some poor reviews in the Danish satirical paper “The Corsair” led to verbal assaults, social exclusion and even to ridicule on the street of Copenhagen.

From 1846 onwards, Kierkegaard’s focus moved from criticism of Hegel to criticism of the hypocrisy of Christendom (by which he meant the institution of the church and the applied religion of his society, rather than Christianity itself) and of modernity and its shallow and passionless view of the world in general. In Kierkegaard’s final years, from 1848, he began a sustained literary attack on the Danish State Church through scholarly works, newspaper articles and a series of self-published pamphlets.

Kierkegaard died on 11 November 1855 in Frederik’s Hospital, Copenhagen, possibly from complications from a fall from a tree when he was a boy.


Kierkegaard’s peculiar authorship and literary style employed irony, satire, parody, humour, polemic and a dialectical method of “indirect communication” in order to deepen the reader’s passionate subjective engagement with ultimate existential issues. He elaborated on a host of philosophical, psychological, literary and theological categories (including anxiety, despair, melancholy, repetition, inwardness, irony, existential stages, inherited sin, teleological suspension of the ethical, Christian paradox, the absurd, reduplication, universal/exception, sacrifice, love as a duty, seduction, the demonic and indirect communication). Throughout his work, he took Socrates and Jesus Christ as his role models, and saw how one lives one’s life as the prime criterion of being in the truth.

Kierkegaard’s early works, his university thesis “On the Concept of Irony” of 1841 and “Either/Or” of 1843, both critiqued major figures in Western philosophic thought (Socrates in the former, and Georg Hegel in the latter), and showcased Kierkegaard’s unique style of writing.

In “Either/Or”, he wrote that there were two ways of life, the “aesthetic” (based on temporal, sensory pleasures, whether intellectual or physical) and the “ethical”(based on moral codes and the infinite or the eternal). He provided an extended contrast between the aesthetic and ethical ways of life, concluding that the radical human freedom of the aesthetic inevitably leads to “angst” (dread), the call of the infinite, and eventually to despair. Once this is realized, the individual may enterthe ethical sphere.

Later in 1843, he published “Fear and Trembling”, which, together with “Either/Or”, is perhaps his best known book. Focusing on the Biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, this work (as well as “Repetition” of the same year), moves beyond the aesthetic and the ethical, and introduces a higher stage on the dialectical ladder, the religious. It describes a third way of life, the possibility of living by faith in the modern world, emphasizing the importance of the individual and developing a conception of subjective truth. These works discuss fundamental issues in Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion, such as the nature of God and faith, faith’s relationship with Ethics and morality, and the difficulty of being authentically religious.

His works from 1844 to 1846 (written using a pseudonym), including “Philosophical Fragments” (1844), “The Concept of Dread” (1844), “Stages on Life’s Way” (1845) and, especially, the massive “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments” (1846), focus even more on the perceived shortcomings of the philosophy of Hegel and form the basis for existential psychology.

His second period of authorship, including works such as “Two Ages: A Literary Review” (1846), “The Book on Adler” (published posthumously in 1872), “Christian Discourses” (1848), “Works of Love” (1847), “Edifying Discourses in Diverse Spirits” (1847) and “The Sickness Unto Death” (1849), is focused more on the perceived hypocrisy and shallowness of Christendom and modern society in general. He attempted to present Christianity as he thought it should be, and encouraged embracing Christ as the absolute paradox.

From around 1848 until his death, Kierkegaard carried on a sustained literary attack on the Danish State Church, with books such as “Practice in Christianity”(1850, which he himself considered his most important book), “For Self-Examination” (1851) and “Judge for Yourselves!” (published posthumously in 1876) and a series of self-published pamphlets called “The Moment”, which attempted to expound the true nature of Christianity, with Jesus as its role model, and to re-introduce Christianity into Christendom.