The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism

“The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism” is a remarkable document. It was found among Hegel’s papers, in Hegel’s handwriting, and dates from his time at the University of Tübingen, which he attended along with Schelling and Hölderlin.

The trouble is, it doesn’t sound like Hegel, not even the young Hegel, so despite being in his hand, it has long been suspected that it is a hand-copy of something written by Schelling or Hölderlin.

No one knows for sure, except that it is overwhelmingly likely that one of these three wrote it. Personally, my Spidey-sense tells me it was Schelling, if I had to bet.

Why is it important? Not only does it serve as a kind of epitome of German Idealism, it is very possibly the deepest, richest philosophical text of its size in existence.

It is unfortunate that it isn’t better known.  I used to keep a copy posted on the door of my office at one of the universities I taught at.  Please give it a read, especially if you have never heard of German Idealism—it was the philosophical movement that arose following Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” and dominated Western thought for the first half of the 19th century, and in many ways all subsequent philosophy can be consider a direct reaction to German Idealism.

The traditional account states that the line goes

Kant ⇒ Fichte ⇒ Schelling ⇒ Hegel

But this could be tendentious, since this account is Hegel’s own.  Heidegger has maintained, not without reason, that in the end, Schelling goes further and deeper than Hegel.  At the very least, it is generally no longer taken as given that Hegel simply supersedes Schelling.

In any event, philosophy after Hegel can easily be seen as a series of reactions against Hegel, and ones which seem to rely on denying or diminishing reason as the heart of philosophy:

  • Positivism, which reduces reason to scientific rationality.
  • Pragmatism, which reduces truth and reason to “what works.”
  • Anglo-American analytic philosophy was a direct reaction against British Hegelianism.  Richard Rorty has said “The whole of analytic philosophy is based on a tacit conspiracy to pretend Hegel never existed.
  • Marx, who rejects theoretical reason in favor of revolutionary praxis, reducing all philosophical theory to class ideology.
  • Kierkegaard, who posits against the totalizing reason of Hegel the a leap of faith and the absolute paradox of Christian belief.
  • Schopenhauer, leading to Nietzsche, who at last brings to the surface the primacy of will above intellect which had been latent in modern thought since at least Descartes, and probably since William of Ockham.

Heidegger has characterized Hegel as the culmination of Western philosophy, since everything in Western thought is gathered up and unified by Hegel into one systematic totality. Hegel himself claimed he had, in effect, completed the task of philosophy. Heidegger characterizes Nietzsche as the completion of Western philosophy, since after its culmination, there remains the stage where philosophy turns against itself and destroys itself.

Whatever else we might say, we can say with certainty that no philosopher has ever claimed more on behalf of reason that Hegel did.

Hegel accused his old friend Schelling of “carrying out his philosophical education in public,” that is, Schelling never produced the kind of philosophical system that Hegel did, and both strove for.  But what Hegel sees as an inability to bring his thought to completion in Schelling, Heidegger sees as a Socratic faithfulness to questioning, even when continuing to question forces one to begin over and over, leaving behind what one has done before.

I leave it to the reader to judge, as he must, which course is best, or whether both are necessary moments in philosophizing, as it is likely both Schelling and Hegel would agree.









The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism

trans. Diana I. Behler

An Ethics. Since all metaphysics will henceforth fall into morals—for which Kant, with both of his practical postulates has given only an example and exhausted nothing, so this ethics will contain nothing other than a complete system of all ideas, or what is the same, of all practical postulates. The first idea is naturally the conception of my self as an absolutely free being. Along with the free, self-conscious being an entire world emerges simultaneously—out of nothingness— the only true and conceivable creation out of nothingness— Here I will descend to the fields of physics; the question is this: How should a world be constituted for a moral being? I should like to give our physics, progressing laboriously with experiments, wings again.

So whenever philosophy provides the ideas, experience the data, we can finally obtain physics on the whole, which I expect of later epochs. It does not seem as if present day physics could satisfy a creative spirit such as ours is or should be.

From nature I come to man’s works. The idea of the human race first— I want to show that there is no idea of the state because the state is something mechanical, just as little as there is an idea of a machine.

Only that which is the object of freedom is called idea. We must therefore go beyond the state!— Because every state must treat free human beings like mechanical works; and it should not do that; therefore it should cease. You see for yourself that here all the ideas, that of eternal peace, etc., are merely subordinate ideas of a higher idea. At the same time I want to set forth the principles for a history a human race here and expose the whole miserable human work of state, constitution, government, legislature— down to the skin. Finally the ideas of a moral world, deity, immortality— overthrow of everything ((superstition)) pseudo doctrines, persecution of the priesthood, which recently poses as reason, come through itself. —(The) absolute freedom of all spirits who carry the intellectual world within themselves, and may not seek either God or immortality outside of themselves.

Finally the idea which unites all, the idea of beauty, the word taken in the higher taken in the higher platonic sense. I am convinced that the highest act of reason, which, in that it comprises all ideas, is an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness are united like sisters only in beauty— The philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet. The people without aesthetic sense are our philosophers of the letter. The philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy. One cannot be clever in anything, one cannot even reason cleverly in history— without aesthetic sense. It should now be revealed here what those people who do not understand ideas are actually lacking—and candidly enough admit that everything is obscure to them as soon as one goes beyond charts and indices.

Poetry thereby obtains a higher dignity; it becomes again in the end what it was in the beginning— teacher of (history) the human race because there is no longer any philosophy, any history; poetic art alone will outlive all the rest of the sciences and arts.

At the same time we so often hear that the great multitude should have a sensual religion. Not only the great multitude, but even philosophy needs it. Monotheism of reason and the heart, polytheism of the imagination and art, that is what we need!

First I will speak about an idea here, which as far as I know, has never occurred to anyone’s mind— we must have a new mythology; this mythology must, however, stand in the service of ideas, it must become a mythology of reason.

Until we make ideas aesthetic, i.e., mythological, they hold no interest for the people, and conversely, before mythology is reasonable, the philosopher must be ashamed of it. Thus finally the enlightened and unenlightened must shake hands; mythology must become philosophical, and the people reasonable, and philosophy must become mythological in order to make philosophy sensual. Then external unity will reign among us. Never again the contemptuous glance, never the blind trembling of the people before its wise men and priests. Only then does equal development of all powers await us, of the individual as well as if all individuals. No power will be suppressed any longer, then general freedom and equality of spirits will reign— A higher spirit sent from heaven must establish this religion among us, it will be the last work of the human race.


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