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What Was the German Enlightenment?

By Venus D.
Updated May 23, 2024
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The German Enlightenment, or Aufklarung in German, began around 1650 and ended around 1800. It differed from the enlightenment movements in other parts of Europe. Germany did not have friction between the nobility and middle class of nor was characterized by religious conflict. Still the movement developed, leading to cultural and then national unity, as well as greater freedom of the press and an enhanced judicial system. Overall, the German Enlightenment helped to develop German philosophy, which primarily differed from French philosophy in that Germans rejected empiricism and embraced mysticism. There are three notable figures associated with the German Enlightenment: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, and Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a mathematician credited with inventing calculus along with Newton. He is also said to have created the idea that the universe was a manifestation of a perfect God. Leibniz also argued that the whole universe consisted of spiritual atoms, or monads, which influenced the way people saw the world. His ideas, which focused on metaphysics, helped develop the mysticism associated with the German Enlightenment. Leibniz's work formed the basis for the philosophies later developed by Kant.

Immanuel Kant was an 18th century philosopher who explained in his book Critique of Pure Reason , that every person is born with raw experiences, or transcendental experiences, that help him or her perceive the world. Countering the popular theory that laws of nature governed the mind, Kant believed it was the mind that gave laws to nature. During the German Enlightenment, he helped emphasize skepticism and reject empirical evidence as touted in the French Enlightenment.

Kant went on to address morality in Metaphysics of Morals. He believed reason governed every action, and that if a person’s reason justified a certain course of action, then that course of action could be considered moral. Kant's philosophies developed during German Enlightenment served as the foundation for some of Hegel's, Nietzsche's, and Marx's theories.

Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe was an 18th century German writer whose most famous work, The Sorrows of Young Werther made him one of the most important figures in the social movement known as Sturm and Drang. This social movement lasted from the 1760s and 1780s and incited German youths to shun optimism and reason for the emotional anarchism inspired by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The novel was so influential that it is said to have led to many young people mimicking the protagonist by committing suicide. Another Goethe's famous work, Faust, continued the literary tradition of basing novels on emotion. This tradition helped ease the German Enlightenment into the European Enlightenment.

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Discussion Comments
By arod2b42 — On Jan 06, 2011


Germany seems to have split from the stricter dogmas of the church at an earlier point than France, which allowed for a strong emphasis on intuitive reasoning and metaphysics. I think that this should be seen as largely a good thing, but with tremendous potential for good or for evil. Unfortunately, many modern scholars throw the baby out with the bathwater when the blame the entirety of German crimes on great thinkers such as Nietzsche. They had a strong focus on the great power of the mind which we are still striving to regain. Luckily, we also now know how important it is to be careful with such a skill as intuition and unconscious reasoning.

By BostonIrish — On Jan 03, 2011

The metaphysical nature of writers such as Nietzsche and Jung is often dismissed by modern scholars as being too speculative in nature. Much of their works are taken more seriously by students of the liberal arts than by serious Psychologists and Scientists. Perhaps a reason for this is because many blame the intellectual environment of Germany at that time as having spawned the eventual crimes committed by that nation in the 20th century.

By anon114386 — On Sep 28, 2010

I have to disagree with the assertion that there was no friction between the nobility and middle class in Germany. essing's "Emilia Galotti," an Enlightenment classic, proves the exact opposite.

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