Sunday, 27 July 2014

Herbart and Hegel (Part One)

This post covers the biography and principal writings of Hegel's realist contemporary, Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841). It begins a short series of posts aiming to shed light on the intellectual possibilities of Hegel's time and place through comparison with the contrasting ideas of Herbart.


Herbart's philosophical path sheds significant light on Hegel's intellectual environment. Like Hegel for example, Herbart was influenced by Fichte, but unlike Hegel he reacted in a realist direction that owes something to the metaphysical legacy of Leibniz in Germany. Both men drew on Greek philosophy.

In terms of direct relations, A. L. J. Ohlert, on whom Hegel wrote an essay in 1831, was a pupil of Herbart and Hegel's essay addressed some of Herbart’s central ideas. 

Herbart's educational theories enjoyed some fame in the USA in the 19th century, before their influence was replaced by that of John Dewey. We know from Karl Rosenkranz (Herbart's colleague and Hegel's biographer) that these educational ideas were also influential in Prussia. 

The Life of Herbart

I use as guide a French book by Marcel Mauxion on the Metaphysics of Herbart (1894), leaving out material related to Kant and highlighting comparisons with Hegel. The material on Kant is probably of interest to Kant scholars, but out of place on a blog on Hegel. Mauxion is an engaging writer on his own account and also wrote books on education and morality. Hegel also had an interest in education, as shown by his speeches on the subject and indeed his life as a professor. Writing in 1894, Mauxion states that Herbart’s ideas on psychology and education are currently influential, though he is little known in France. He dedicates his book to Emile Boutroux, who had a deep interest in the history of philosophy internationally. Mauxion’s book is the best of several by the same publisher (Hachette) on German philosophy, several published with the encouragement of Boutroux.

Early Life and Education

Johann Friedrich Herbart was born in Oldenburg in 1776, that is, he was six years younger than Hegel. Herbart's father was a lawyer. His mother was interested in his education and ensured that he learned something of Protestant doctrine. He was educated privately and later at the local Gymnasium. He acquired some knowledge of the philosophy of Christian Wolff. 

Herbart attended the University of Jena from 1794 to 1797. This was where Fichte taught, having just published the first version of his Wissenschaftslehre (1794). Fichte had just succeeded Reinhold as a Professor there. These were heady days at Jena and Hegel later wrote on these philosophers in the Critical Journal during his own time there. Herbart admired Fichte, but kept at a distance intellectually. This is shown in his critical remarks on Schelling’s On the Possibility of a Form of Philosophy in General (1795) and On the I, or the Unconditioned in Human Knowledge (1795), the latter of which Fichte had approved. Herbart already saw contradictions in the concept of Self (Ich) and commented that in Schelling:
"Contradictions are destroyed by dictat."
die Widersprüche sind durch Machtsprüche vernichtet.
There is no productive inquiry where contradictions are overcome by mere assertion, he thinks. 

It is not possible to follow the development of Herbart’s thought at this time in any detail. However, we can see that he did not simply accept and try to build on the work of Kant. Surviving material shows that he followed instead what he considered the natural development of ideas in the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers on the basis of Fulleborn's Fragments of Parmenides (1795). The comparison with Hegel’s interest in classical Greek culture and philosophy should be apparent. Both also studied Sextus Empiricus in depth.

Unlike Hegel though, Herbart became convinced of the falsity of idealism, focussing his criticism on the concept of Self which was its cornerstone. He developed metaphysical ideas of:
  •  the necessity of a substratum for the self
  •  the accidental character of experience and ideas and thus of the reality of the not-self.
He speaks also of the threshold of consciousness and already conceives the idea of applying mathematics to psychology. We gather this from notebooks accidentally preserved.

Early Life as a Teacher

In May 1797, Herbart left Jena for Switzerland to be tutor with the Steiger household in Interlaken. He reported to the father Karl Friedrich Steiger on the education of his three sons, then aged 8, 10 and 14. This seems to be the same family that Hegel had left in 1796 at least to judge by the name and the location near Berne. Herbart undertook this task with enthusiasm and developed an interest in pedagogy (i.e. educational theory) over the next three years. Thereafter though, the French invasion had changed the Steigers' situation (Steiger was an educated and public spirited aristocrat). It would be interesting to know what fruit this pedagogical effort bore.

In the summer of 1800, Herbart travelled via Jena and Göttingen back to Oldenburg. Soon he left again for Bremen where he stayed for two years with a friend. In the summer of 1802, he returned again to Göttingen and published a short work on the Swiss educationalist Pestalozzi, whom he knew personally. Herbart defended theses for his academic Habilitation which showed him as opponent of Kantian philosophy. Here he doubts the necessity of a first principle, as maintained by Fichte. He argues against transcendental freedom and declares it irrelevant to morality. He argues that the moral law and love of the good do not suffice to establish true religion. He rejects the a priori character of space and time and sees the roots of other Kantian errors in the Transcendental Aesthetic, where this is defended. He also denies the concept of "intellectual intuition" and proposes instead to analyse the concept of self.

For the next seven years, Herbart taught pedagogy and practical philosophy at Göttingen as a Privat-docent (private tutor). He published the following short works on these subjects: 
  • Short Presentation of a Plan of Philosophical Lectures (1804)
  • On the Critical Standpoint of Pestalozzi’s Method of Instruction (1805)
  • Universal Pedagogy derived from the Purpose of Education (1806)
  • On Philosophical Studies (1807)
  • Universal Practical Philosophy (1808)
  • Principal Points of Metaphysics (1809).
He analyses what the teacher should expect to accomplish in a lesson. The last work summarises the ideas of his later work. He left Göttingen in 1809 to take up an academic appointment.

Years of Maturity (1809-33) 

In 1809, Herbart left Göttingen to become Professor of Philosophy at Königsberg in East Prussia. This was the formerly Kant's Chair and he became a colleague of Hegel’s biographer Karl Rosenkranz. In 1811, he married an Englishwoman (Miss Drake). He organised an influential pedagogical seminary and continued to publish. The principal philosophical publications from this period are: 
  • On Cicero’s Philosophy (1811)
  • On the Unassailability of the Schellingian Theory (1813) 
Herbart avoided controversy and polemic, save after the 1813 essay on Schelling, when he wrote a reply: 
  • On my Conflict with the fashionable Philosophy of the Time (1814) 
He was criticized in the Jena Literary Gazette. Other essays and talks were published posthumously by his biographer Hartenstein in Kleinere philosophische Schriften (1842).

He also published a great deal on psychology:
  • Psychological Remarks on Acoustics
  • Psychological Studies on the Strength of given representations as a function of their duration 
  • Textbook of Psychology (1816) 
  • The Measurement of Attention (1822) 
  • On the Possibility and Necessity of applying Mathematics to Psychology (1822)
  • Psychology as a Science, newly founded on Experience, Metaphysics and Mathematics (1824-25) 

All this work received little notice until Drobisch (1802-96) drew attention to it in 1827. It may shed some light on Hegel’s philosophy of subjective spirit. The following book:
  • Textbook of Introduction to Psychology (1813, 4th edition, 1837)
went through several edition. Hartenstein places it above the works of Kant and Hegel in his estimation.

There were other more purely philosophical works. These include two short metaphysical works: 
  • Theory of Attraction as an elementary Principle of Metaphysics (1812) 
  • Philosophical Aphorisms (1813). 
These preceded his main metaphysical work: 
  • General Metaphysics, with commencement of the Philosophical Theory of Nature (1828-29) 

This had a historical and critical part and a dogmatic part. One work that may perhaps bear comparison with Hegel is: 
  • Brief Encyclopaedia of Philosophy from a Practical Viewpoint (1831) 
The teaching of philosophy in the form of encyclopaedic lectures on all sciences was a common practice in German higher education in this period. 

Last Years at Göttingen (1833-1841) 

At Königsberg, Herbart was compared without deprecation to Kant. However, he did not get Hegel’s chair in Berlin in 1831, the Chair going eventually to Hegel's follower Gabler. Instead, Herbart moved to Göttingen in 1833. His further psychological studies were ended only by his death in 1841. Mauxion comments that it was unfortunate that his weaker works appeared at this time, when the attention of the world was upon him. These were: 
  • Sketch of lectures on Pedagogy
  • Analytical Examination of Natural Law and Morality (1836)
  • Letters on the Theory of Freedom and of Human Will (1836) 
This latter period is thus of less interest. 

Unlike Hegel, Herbart seems to have expressed the social implications of his thought primarily through his theories of education and psychological method, rather than dealing directly with history or institutions. We will see that his metaphysics owes something to Leibniz and his method something to Locke. Personally, Herbart was of average height, spoke naturally, much as he wrote, but remained silent if a conversation did not interest him. Thus he could appear reserved, though he was of a benevolent disposition. He considered himself to have struggled "against wind and tide" (wider Wind und Strom) in the course of his intellectual life. This indicates his sense of the strength of idealism during his life under the influence of Kant and his followers.