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18th Century German Thought: The Education of Humanity


Key information

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Module description

The tradition of philosophy in the eighteenth century is one of the glories of German culture, and its leading figures are acknowledged as some of the founding fathers of modern European thought. This module examines the distinctive forms which philosophical, historical, theological, psychological and aesthetic speculation took in eighteenth-century Germany, by analysing works by five of the century’s pre-eminent thinkers: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–81), Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), and Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805). It traces the rise of German intellectual culture from the final throes of seventeenth-century European Rationalism to the beginnings of German Idealism, a period during which Germany emerged from relative obscurity to become the dominant force in European philosophy. Central to this story is Leibniz’s emphasis on mind as process, in which Rationalism confronts an early form of the psychology of the unconscious and a powerful model for the relationship between self and world is established. The second half of the century saw the appearance of further counter-currents to Rationalism, above all in Herder, the inventor of Historicism. Lessing’s re-evaluation of revealed religion introduced a powerful new form of secular humanism. In the final decade of the century European intellectual life was revolutionized by Kant’s ‘transcendental idealist’ theory of knowledge and his (arguably) liberal ethics, which paved the way for the triumph of aesthetics in the work of Schiller, himself the originator of cultural criticism.

Assessment details

One three-hour examination (100%); One seminar presentation (non-assessed).

Assessment for study abroad semester 1 only students: One 4000 word essay (100%).

Educational aims & objectives

The principal aims of the module are:

  • to achieve a detailed understanding of key works by Leibniz, Herder, Lessing, Kant, and Schiller
  • to understand the internal structure and coherence of these works
  • through these representative works, to grasp the main currents in the history of 18th-century German thought
  • to consider the wider symbolic meanings of 18th-century German thought (e.g. historical and social)

Please note that the aim of the module is not to conduct a thorough philosophical analysis of the works.

Learning outcomes

Having studied this module, students should be able to:

  • use the tools of Intellectual History to analyse 18th-century German philosophical texts
  • relate 18th-century German philosophical texts to their intellectual context
  • employ the technical philosophical terminology of 18th-century Germanydiscuss wider issues of education, society, science and religion as they relate to 18th-century Germany

Teaching pattern

Two hours per week

Suggested reading list

  • Leibniz, Monadology (1714)
  • Herder, This too a Philosophy of History for the Education of Humanity (1774) [Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit]
  • Lessing, ‘The Education of the Human Race’ (1780) [‘Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts’]‘The Education of the Human Race’ (1780) [‘Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts’]
  • Kant, ‘B’ preface to Critique of Pure Reason (1787) [Kritik der reinen Vernunft]
  • Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) [Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten]
  • Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) [Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen]

Subject areas