German philosophy

philosophy originating from German thinkers or in the German language

German philosophy, here taken to mean either (1) philosophy in the German language or (2) philosophy by Germans, has been extremely diverse, and central to both the analytic and continental traditions in philosophy for centuries, from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz through Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein to contemporary philosophers.


  • The German-speaking countries have, of course, a different history from the English-speaking world, and this background greatly influenced Hayek’s thought. There is a tendency in the English-speaking world (as there was, and perhaps to some extent still is, a tendency among the French) to see their civilization as the societal conduit through which all human communities will eventually pass. The German-speaking countries also possessed this conception.
    • Alan Ebenstein, Hayek's Journey: The Mind of Friedrich Hayek (2003), Ch. 2. German and Viennese Intellectual Thought
  • During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, German-speaking countries produced great musicians, poets, and philosophers. This was the German era of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms; of Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, and Lessing; of Kant, von Humboldt, Burkhardt, and Menger; among many others.
    During the twentieth century, Germany moved in its incomprehensible direction. In a saying from the years after Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party took over, Germany moved from a nation of “poets and thinkers” (Dichter und Denker) to a nation of “judges and hangmen” (Richter und Henker). Germany threw the world into turmoil and global conflict, murdered 6 million Jews in gas chambers and concentration camps, enslaved entire nations, and prepared to abolish Christianity. The Germany of Hitler, Himmler, Goering, and Goebbels was a deliberate attempt to destroy all of the main elements of Western civilization—Greek rationalism, Hebrew monotheism, and Christian love. Rationalism was to be replaced by feeling based on the irrational forces of “blood and soil”; monotheism by the cult of Wotan and other Germanic deities; love by ruthlessness and militarism.
    • Alan Ebenstein, Hayek's Journey: The Mind of Friedrich Hayek (2003), Ch. 2. German and Viennese Intellectual Thought
  • The British intellectual tradition is empirical and liberal, the French is rationalist and aristocratic, and the German is idealist and conservative. [...] In the great ontological debate between mind and matter, German philosophy comes down solidly on the side of mind. Its emphasis is intuition as opposed to reason, ideas as opposed to facts.
    • Alan Ebenstein, Hayek's Journey: The Mind of Friedrich Hayek (2003), Ch. 2. German and Viennese Intellectual Thought
  • Even more relevant to Leibniz’s philosophy was, perhaps, the structure of the German language compared to other languages. German emphasizes nouns more than English and French do, which may lead to more conceptual and holistic approaches in the thought of German speakers—just as the English and French focus on verbs may result in more action-oriented and empirical thought in their speakers. Whatever the source, however, German thought tends to be deep rather than clear, and directs its attention not to the world but to what individuals can know of the world. Along these lines, it is interesting to observe that, in his reformation of Christianity, the German Martin Luther was in the idealist and spiritual tradition of Plato and St. Augustine rather than in the more empirical and rational tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas.
    • Alan Ebenstein, Hayek's Journey: The Mind of Friedrich Hayek (2003), Ch. 2. German and Viennese Intellectual Thought
  • Of the great trio of German imaginative scholars who offered explanations of human behavior in the nineteenth century, and whose corpus of thought the post-1918 world inherited, only two have so far been mentioned. Marx described a world in which the central dynamic was economic interest. To Freud, the principal thrust was sexual. Both assumed that religion, the old impulse which moved men and masses, was a fantasy and always had been. Friedrich Nietzsche, the third of the trio, was also an atheist. But he saw God not as an invention but as a casualty, and his demise as in some important sense a historical event, which would have dramatic consequences. He wrote in 1886: 'The greatest event of recent times - that "God is Dead", that the belief in the Christian God is no longer tenable - is beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe.' Among the advanced races, the decline and ultimately collapse of the religious impulse would leave a huge vacuum. The history of modern times is in great part the history of how that vacuum had been filled. Nietzsche rightly perceived that the most likely candidate would be what he called the 'Will to Power,' which offered a far more comprehensible and in the end more plausible explanation of human behaviour than either Marx or Freud. In place of religious belief, there would be secular ideology. Those who had once filled the ranks of the totalitarian clergy would become totalitarian politicians. And, above all, the Will to Power would produce a new kind of messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind. The end of the old order, with an unguided world adrift in a relativistic universe, was a summons to such gangster-statesmen to emerge. They were not slow to make their appearance.
    • Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties (1991), ISBN 9780060168339

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