German thought was not simply a fad but a fundamental influence that continues to be felt today. In the early years of the American republic, German ideas circulated widely and inspired new approaches to politics, philosophy, literature, and education. The period from 1790 to 1840 has been called the “German moment” in American intellectual history. This article introduces some of the key figures, ideas, and institutions of German thinking that impacted America during this important period of cultural exchange between Germany and the United States.
Immanuel Kant and Transcendentalism
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a German philosopher who lived during the Enlightenment and the German Romantic period, is one of the most significant thinkers in history. His writings on metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, and philosophy of religion were foundational for developing 20th-century philosophy. In this era, thinkers were influenced by the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries and the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Not only was there a rise in new scientific methods and discoveries, but there was also a growing interest in examining knowledge through empirical observation and logic.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that spanned the 18th century. Prominent thinkers included Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Jefferson, and Franklin. While the Enlightenment was not a unified movement, it is helpful to think of it as a “ragbag” of ideas and ideals. Many ideas were associated with the Enlightenment, but they can be organized around three major themes: reason, empiricism, and progress.
A new confidence in the power of human reason characterized this period. There was a growing belief in the capacity of humankind to shape the world according to practical scientific principles. There was also a surge in interest in the scientific method to understand the natural world. The Enlightenment saw the growth of modern scientific fields, including chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, and anatomy.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte and German Idealism
Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) was a German philosopher associated with the philosophical school known as German Idealism. Fichte is best known for his ideas about the “Wissenschaftslehre” (“theory of knowledge”). In Fichte’s view, the mind cannot be studied as a passive receiver of impressions from external reality.
Instead, it must be studied as a single, active, creative principle. Fichte also argued that self-consciousness is not something we gradually acquire through experience, nor is it something we naturally have from the beginning. Instead, it is something we must actively create. Fichte called this creative activity of the self-conscious mind “the deed.”
Friedrich Schiller and the Culture of Romanticism
Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) was a German poet and philosopher associated with the culture of Romanticism. In his writings, Schiller emphasized the importance of emotion, passion, and artistic creativity. He firmly believed in the power of the imagination, or the ability to create mental images beyond our experience. Schiller wrote extensively about aesthetics (the study of art and beauty) and the importance of art as a source of moral and political insight. Perhaps Schiller’s most influential idea was his belief in “noble simplicity.” He argued that art should be simple enough to be appreciated by the common people and complex enough to inspire thoughtful reflection.
George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and German Realism
George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) was a German philosopher associated with German realism. He is best known for his philosophy of history (the study of past events and their influence on present times), dialectical philosophy, and the idea of the Absolute, which is the ultimate reality of the universe.
Hegel’s philosophy of history has had a lasting influence on how people think about history. He believed history should be understood as a single, unfolding story or “dialectic.” According to Hegel, history progresses in a series of steps involving a conflict or “confrontation” between opposing ideas.
Thomas Carlyle’s Criticism of Enlightenment and Idealism
After Hegel’s death, the German moment in American thought ended. After the optimism of the Age of Reason, the economic crises of the late 1830s and early 1840s, and the rise of the scientific method, there was a growing skepticism toward the ideas of the Enlightenment. The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) wrote about the “death of philosophy” in his book Sartor Resartus (1834). Carlyle blamed the decline of philosophical thinking on the overemphasis on rationalism and the neglect of human emotion and artistic creativity.
Hegel and the End of the “German Moment”
Hegel’s philosophy challenged the optimistic, progressive view of history espoused by the Age of Reason. Hegel believed that history was cyclical and that progress was not inevitable but rare, slow, and irregular. At the end of the “German moment,” a new generation of American thinkers began to reflect on Germany’s philosophical and cultural ideas. Hegel’s philosophy of history also critically impacted how people thought about their American past. Hegel believed that history was a process of growth and self-realization.
Wilhelm von Humboldt and the Importance of Language
Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) was a German philosopher, diplomat, and educational reformer. He significantly impacted the development of American education and language policy. Humboldt’s most famous work is The Limits of State Action, first published in German in 1819.
Humboldt argued that language and culture were essential to the free development of human consciousness. He believed that linguistic and cultural differences between people were neither necessary nor arbitrary. Rather, they were essential for the free development of human consciousness. Language and culture were vehicles for the free development of the human intellect.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Artistic Renaissance and the Pursuit of Truth
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) was a German dramatist and philosopher. He was a proponent of a “Renaissance” in the arts and a critic of Enlightenment optimism. In his most famous work, The Dramatic Art (1795), Lessing examined the relationship between art and truth. Lessing’s work has been described as “the last great confrontation between romantic and classic cultural tendencies.”
Wilhelm von Humboldt: Language, Culture, and Nationhood
Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) was a German diplomat and educational reformer who significantly impacted the development of American language policy. Humboldt’s most famous work is The Limits of State Action, first published in German in 1819. Humboldt argued that language and culture are essential for the free development of human consciousness.
He believed that linguistic and cultural differences between people were neither necessary nor arbitrary. Instead, they were essential for the free development of human consciousness. Language and culture were vehicles for the free development of the human intellect.
The “German moment” in American thought was a period of cultural exchange between Germany and the United States. German thought during this period was not simply a fad but a fundamental influence that continues to be felt today. This article introduces some of the key figures, ideas, and institutions of German thinking that impacted America during this crucial period of cultural exchange between Germany and the United States.