The Father of Modern Theology & a Prophet of German Nationalism, Part 2
Part 2 of 2. Part 1 here.
Schleiermacher’s Philosophy of Mind
According to Schleiermacher, the task of philosophy is the “immersion of the Spirit into the innermost depths of itself and of things in order to fathom the relations of their [spirit and nature] being-together.” Schleiermacher’s philosophy, like German idealism in general, was very influenced by, and a reaction to, the critical transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant. His philosophy was also influenced by Plato, of whom Schleiermacher was the chief scholar in Germany in his time. In his major work, The Christian Faith (Der christliche Glaube), published in 1821–22, Schleiermacher put forth his philosophy of consciousness.
The experience of consciousness discloses that it has both an unchanging identity and is also changing and various in its different moments. The two constitutive elements of self-consciousness are, according to Schleiermacher, the self-caused element and the non-self-caused element, the ego and other. The self is constituted only in relation to an other, it cannot be thought of without an object. He says:
Now these two elements, as they exist together in the temporal self-consciousness, correspond in the subject [to] its receptivity and its activity. […] The common element in all those determinations of self-consciousness which predominantly express a receptivity affected from some outside quarter is the feeling of dependence. On the other hand, the common element in all those determinations which predominantly express spontaneous movement and activity is the feeling of freedom.
Self-consciousness, “which accompanies our whole existence, […] is itself precisely a consciousness of absolute dependence; for it is the consciousness that the whole of our spontaneous activity comes from a source outside of us in just the same sense in which anything towards which we should have a feeling of absolute freedom must have proceeded entirely from ourselves.” But a feeling of absolute freedom is impossible since it would require consciousness without an object. Schleiermacher adds that, “the whence of our receptive and active existence, as implied in this self-consciousness, is to be designated by the word ‘God’, and that is for us the really original signification of that word. […] To feel oneself absolutely dependent and to be conscious of being in relation with God are one and the same thing.”
It is therefore not an object which is the determinative element in the feeling of absolute dependence, but a transcendental eternal and absolute now, which can only be God. God is the absolute infinite unity, the decisive power which unifies the inherent contradictions in the world, e.g., thought and being, reason and sensibility, ego and other. God thus vitally permeates the world and creates and preserves life. Schleiermacher describes the feeling of absolute dependence as an “immediate existential relation.” According to him, self-consciousness has two levels, the sensible, dealing with objects, perceptions and ideas, and the immediate self-consciousness which grounds and unifies thinking and willing. Feeling is related to immediate self-consciousness, the pre-conceptual and undivided essence of the self, before there is an ego and other.
Theology and Philosophy of Religion
Schleiermacher defined theology as self-reflection of the church, or believers, on their own beliefs and practice. Church teaching, worship and polity is to be analyzed phenomenologically and pneumatically. Church life is to be unified with the scientific spirit. Faith and a critical spirit of inquiry are not contradictory, although church-mindedness is a precondition of theology.
Schleiermacher does away with the reliance on scriptural proof or the creeds as the basic structure of his theology. Faith is not awakened by obedience to doctrinal norms, but through a community of believers and their relation to the Redeemer. Scripture and creeds take on a special meaning only after one has been brought to faith. Availing himself of the new concept of science from German transcendental philosophy, Schleiermacher’s theology is determined by the differentiation between idea and appearance, and by the idea of an organic whole. Attempting to overcome the opposition between a historical-empirical approach on the one hand, and metaphysical speculation about God on the other, the idea, or the nature and truth of Christianity, becomes manifest in the present and historical life of Christianity.
For Schleiermacher, the omnipotence of God does not mean that God can do whatever he wills, but rather that he is the cause of everything. A scientific worldview based on critical transcendental philosophy should not necessarily end in pantheism or atheism, but be open to the reality of God as the Lord of nature and history. Schleiermacher wanted to make clear that religion is a necessary element of human life in history, that it alone provides the foundation for the unity of the human spirit with the ground of being, thus protecting human life from degeneration. God as the world’s unity and totality is the power that brings together the antithesis of matter and spirit, and is the source of all finite life.
Man is, however, unaware of God as the vital power and is unable to have a relationship with him. This, Schleiermacher calls unredeemed God-consciousness, or sin. Only through redemption in Christ, can the God-consciousness be restored, and God’s omnipotence and final purpose be comprehended. It is the experience of a living communion with Christ and the unity with God as the ground of being that is the new assurance of faith. In Christ was first formed the perfect and archetypal God-consciousness, and through the Christian community, preaching, and the Gospel stories, this God-consciousness is awakened in the believer and a relationship established.
Schleiermacher does not consider Christianity to be a continuation of Judaism. The essential element in the both religions is eternally constituted, meaning that if they did not exist or have a historical beginning, they would have to be created by necessity. But rather than being a religion, Judaism represents for Schleiermacher the absence of religion:
Judaism has long been a dead religion, and those who still wear its livery only sit lamenting at the imperishable mummy, bewailing its departure and the mournful state of being left behind. But I do not talk about it as were it in some way a predecessor of Christianity: I hate such historical connections in religion; its necessity is one that is far higher and eternal, and every beginning in it is original […] the whole thing [is] such a strange example of the corruption and total disappearance of religion.
He also held that among the early Christians, heathens had less to overcome than the Jews, which is why more heathens became Christians. Jews found it very difficult forsake their law and Abrahamic promises. Schleiermacher identified the New Testament exclusively as the Christian canon. His hermeneutical rule for Old Testament exegesis was: “Whatever is most definitely Jewish has least value.” He even found it hard to believe that Jesus had much in common with the people among whom he was born:
And where indeed was that narrowing and isolating race-prejudice keener than just where our Lord was born? The nation that regarded all other nations as unclean, and avoided intercourse with them; […] such a people could not of themselves have produced, nurtured and instructed Him who is the Fountain of universal love.
Friedrich Schleiermacher has had a great influence on the field of hermeneutics. Richard E. Palmer, in his book Hermeneutics, states: “Schleiermacher […] is properly regarded as the father of modern hermeneutics as a general study.” According to Schleiermacher, hermeneutics is to be both creative and scientific, it is the imaginative reconstruction of the writer’s selfhood. It therefore ventures beyond the principles of philological science and becomes an art. Johann Gottfried Herder was a primary influence on the hermeneutical thinking of Schleiermacher.
Thinking has, according to Schleiermacher, a moral and historical character that involves an awareness of the relatedness of the individual consciousness to a community of other minds. Thinking also necessarily involves an awareness of conflict between the judgements of one’s own self and those of others. The self is then situated in a dialogical relation where it struggles to overcome conflict. Thought is a constant reproduction of the social matrix in which the self finds itself and from which the impulse to critical reflection stems. Thinking also involves the mediation of one’s thoughts and to deposit them in the public language and to respond to the thoughts of others. And since all men learn to speak within some given, historical language, their historical mold also impresses their thinking.
The interpreter, Schleiermacher claims, must master the grammar of the language of the author he is studying, as well as the history and physical conditions of the language. The author is to be considered as an expression of the language or an event in its life. The language is moreover an inheritance that qualifies the author’s spirit and demarcates the direction and progress of his thought. A thorough knowledge of the author’s language is therefore required to know the limits of his mind and to avoid anachronism in textual exegesis. Schleiermacher stated that the goal of hermeneutics is “to understand the text just as well and then better than the author himself understood it.” That is, the interpreter must be conscious of the history of the language and culture of the author, things that the author may have been unconscious of. In addition, the text of an author also arises from his own being and inner history, which is separate from the history of the language. Therefore, acquaintance with the author’s own personal history is required, helping the interpreter to fathom the author’s sense of identity and purpose.
What Schleiermacer called the psychological method deals with an author’s decision, or his freedom. Its goal is “the thorough understanding of the style.” He explains this further:
We are accustomed to understand by ‘style’ only the way in which the language is handled. But thoughts and language always inform each other, and the distinctive way in which the object is grasped informs the arrangement [of the elements of the composition] and thereby also the handling of the language.
The task of the psychological method is twofold. One part, which he calls the “technical” method, is to analyze the form in which the author organizes and presents his thoughts. The other part, the “pure psychological” part, is the attempt to fully grasp the significance of the author’s decision to make this particular writing and to communicate these ideas. They mean little if the interpreter can’t understand why and how a rational will chose them as his instruments.
Schleiermacher defined interpretation as an art, and therefore the interpreter must possess certain talents that only a few have in the requisite measure. He must not only have an extensive knowledge of the language, but also be able to grasp the language as a vital reality and to penetrate “into the core of the language in its relation to thought.” He must have the ability to gain a direct understanding of men and to grasp the “genuine meaning of a man and his distinctive characteristics in relation to the [essential] idea [Begriff] of the man.”
Schleiermacher extended the concept of the so called “hermeneutic circle,” the idea that the understanding of the whole text is gathered from the individual parts, and then each part is interpreted in light of the whole. It is not enough for Schleiermacher, to interpret the part in light of the whole text, but the whole text must also be interpreted in light of the author’s whole mind and being and his historical linguistic and cultural setting. The hermeneutic circle is in fact much more than a tool for interpretation. It is an essential part of the mind. “Every child comes to understand the meanings of words only through hermeneutics,” Schleiermacher wrote. Hermeneutics is how any understanding is possible at all through a dialogical process, it is the art of understanding. In conversation, we construct the meaning of a sentence by hearing a series of words that otherwise would have little meaning individually. Sometimes, we can know what our interlocutor wants to say and even construct the development of his thought before we have heard the whole speech. According to Hans-Georg Gadamer:
Schleiermacher’s grounding of understanding on dialogue and on interhuman understanding establishes a foundation for hermeneutics at a deeper level than before, and in a way that allows one to erect a system that is scientific and scholarly on a hermeneutical basis. Hermeneutics becomes the foundation not just for theology but for all historically based humanistic disciplines.
Philosophical Ethics, or Reason in History
Schleiermacher defined ethics thus: “Ethics, as the depiction of the way in which reason and nature coexist, is the science [of the principles of] history.” He does not conceive of ethics as a normative science that only deals with the “ought to be,” rather, it is to deal with the “is,” like the natural sciences. He has therefore little sympathy with Kant’s categorical imperative. Morality is not to obey any specific commands, it is a principle that permeates all of life. Ethics is the science of the organizing activity of the ideal principle in nature.
Schleiermacher divides science into two main branches, ethics and physics:
Ethics is, accordingly, the representation of being under the power of reason, that is from that side in which, in the co-inherence of the polarity, reason is the active term, and the real that which is acted upon; and physics is the representation of finite being under the power of nature, that is, as the real is the active term and the ideal that which is acted upon.
Schleiermacher constructs his theory of ethics on the fundamental antithesis of ideal and real. All finite being never represents the pure unity of the ideal and real. Its actual existence cannot be inferred from its form and its form cannot be inferred from its existence. Both ideal and real fall outside of human experience, which is limited to that which is involved in becoming. The intellect can never grasp it and reduce it to a single term. Therefore, we cannot ascribe primacy to either form without matter or matter without form, since both transcend our experience. This is so because of our own existence in body and soul. Experience cannot be reduced to either pure reason or pure matter. Therefore, all real knowledge is only possible within the world and is delimited by human history.
Schleiermacher says: “The work which is the activity of the spiritual [ideal] within nature is always shape; the work of the material [real] in reason is always consciousness.” He continues:
Body and soul in man is the highest tension of the antithesis, a twofold interpenetration of the objective [real] and the spiritual [ideal]. We see it diminish in the animal and the vegetable world, but we never see it quite disappear. Where there is form, there is also consciousness corresponding to it, and vice versa. This antithesis, which was first found in our own being […] extends through the whole of reality.
In this world of human experience, the world of becoming, it is the real which predominates in everything over the ideal, except in human beings. Man alone express the proper nature of the ideal principle, he is the turning point. Man manifests the ideal principle through the knowledge process, as thought organizes experience into science. Thought, the work of reason in man, is what prevents total chaos in human conduct, a conflict of purposes. Reason thus manifests itself in advanced social life, the organization of the state, commerce and the exploitation of natural resources for its ends. Schleiermacher divides ethics into branches such as industry, agriculture, commerce, science, art, religion, and friendship, according to the impact of the ideal principle on nature.
Schleiermacher was influenced by the idea, or form, of the good in Plato’s Republic, a book he considered “the most glorious composition of antiquity.” Man, as a reflection of the divine world, with the ability to regulate himself, inwardly and outwardly, according to the pattern of eternal ideas, was the most important, yet undeveloped implication of the idea of the good in the history of ethics, Schleiermacher thought. But for him, it meant not conformity to a universal maxim of reason, but the concrete realization of the rational principle through man. Man is thus an organism of reason, and through him reason finds concrete expression in institutions, such as family, nation, university and state. He defines the good simply as the progressive organization of nature by reason. Everything which is produced in this process is good, and everyone who works toward its end partakes in the good itself.
According to Schleiermacher, reason is given to us only through our embodiment and natural constitution, which cannot be dismissed as mere accidents, but are essential to the life of the soul. The soul is then, always rooted in a particular man, his family, nation and race, and shares in his destiny. Man is therefore never an absolute agent but is defined by his historical, social and biological setting. Our existence is also ethically, always an expression and extension of the organizing wills of others. Primarily, of our parents through procreation, but of other members of the community and nation from which we come and exist. The individual begins his life already as an organized being, he is determined both by the soul-body existence, and by the character and destiny his community. Schleiermacher rejects the basis of the social contract theory, that the freedom of the natural man is inimical to social order. Society is rather an expression of freedom, not a limitation of it.
Man and State
For Schleiermacher, mankind is not an abstract universal idea about the human race or the essence of man. Mankind has a concrete being whose essence is expressed in three forms of community: in friendship, marriage, and Fatherland. Against the spirit of the Enlightenment, he did not think that the sole purpose of man was the progressive domination of nature, increased well-being and the advance of civilization. Martin Redeker explains:
The national state, for instance, is not a necessary evil, not an external community of the material world for the increase of property and protection against misfortune and calamity. The state is the finest work of human art by which man raises his being to the highest level. The state is for Schleiermacher the concretion of mankind as moral community and higher life.
According to Schleiermacher, a state is necessary if a society is to progress beyond a certain point. His idea of society and the state is very influenced by his reading of The Republic. When a state is established, the customs of the social organism are sanctioned and expressed in its laws. The state thus furthers the ends of the organism and expresses its individuality, it represents the completion of the good life. He wrote: “When such an institution is founded, it is one of the greatest steps forward possible for our race. […] It follows that patriotism is good, and those who think it is not for them are like guests or aliens.” The idea of a multi-ethnic state did not impress Schleiermacher:
Variation in political dignity is always a sign that several hordes have been fused together. […] Particularity in common is the basis of the state, partly to the extent that it is also a family bond and partly because only to that extent will every individual posit the totality of the external sphere of the state as his own moral, particular sphere (that is, as absolutely holy and inviolable), for on this alone does the defence of the state rest.
The state must be active in the life of the nation, otherwise the nation will degenerate: “To transform the state into a mere legal institution, […] would be to reverse the direction of the ethical process.” Schleiermacher also claims that: “Essentially people and soil belong together. […] State is the identity of people and soil. […] The determining power of the soil is an essential element in the character of the people…” War for living space is justified:
Every state needs a sufficiency of soil because it ought not to be dependent [on others] for its essential needs. These essential needs increase, however, if the community of peoples gains in size. The state strives to push back its frontiers, in order to acquire what is lacking; these are wars of need. Thus we can distinguish three different sorts of natural warfare: wars of unification which form the state, frontier wars, or wars which maintain a state of equilibrium, and wars of need which defend the state; the usual distinction, on the other hand, between offensive wars and defensive ones, is an entirely empty one.
Folk traditions (Volkstümlichkeit) and race mark the boundaries for the possibility of a moral community according to Schleiermacher: “. . . people from different folk traditions, or who speak different languages, and to an even greater extent people of different races, find themselves separated in a way that is specifically different to any other. It is within these natural boundaries that moral relationships are determined . . .” It is history and geography that make a nation, they can never be brought about deliberately, “on the contrary, the fusing of different elements into a single people can only come about where it is physically predetermined, only ever, no doubt, within the confines of the race; for a people has never yet been formed from half-breeds.” The separation of the races is part of the divine order, “. . . for God has imparted to each its own nature, and has therefore marked out bounds and limits for the habitations of the different races of men on the face of the earth.” The idea of a state is inherent in the nature of a race and it is actualized by a powerful leader when the time is right:
Let us now suppose that some person for the first time combines a naturally cohesive group into a civil community (legend tells of such cases in plenty); what happens is that the idea of the state first comes to consciousness in him, and takes possession of his personality as its immediate dwelling place. Then he assumes the rest into the living fellowship of the idea. He does so by making them clearly conscious of the unsatisfactoriness of their present condition by effective speech. The power remains with the founder of forming in them the idea which is the innermost principle of his own life, and of assuming them into the fellowship of that life. The result is, not only that there arises among them a new corporate life, in complete contrast to the old, but also that each of them becomes in themselves new persons – that is to say, citizens. And everything resulting from this is the corporate life – developing variously with the process of time, yet remaining essentially the same – of this idea which emerged at that particular point of time, but was always predestined in the nature of that particular racial stock.
Schleiermacher’s ideal ruler is the philosopher king of The Republic, who is the source of all freedom and justice, who has no private interest above the state, and who personifies the spirit of the nation.
The End of Schleiermacher’s Life
A wave of revolutions went through Europe in 1830 and 1831. Schleiermacher was deeply hurt by the prospect of seeing the German people having to go through revolutions before a unified Germany could be realized. In September 1832, seventeen months before his death, he wrote in a letter to his wife Henriette: “It often makes me sad to think, that after all our bright hopes and good beginnings, I shall, when I depart this life, leave our German world in such a precarious state – for this will most probably be my lot.”
Although Schleiermacher never lived to see the unification of Germany himself, he used his sermons and classes to infuse his listeners with the ideals of German nationalism. Some of them would be influential in German politics in the following decades. It seems providential almost, that in Schleiermacher’s confirmation class of 1830 was one sixteen year old, Otto von Bismarck, who would later realize what Schleiermacher had long believed was God’s destiny for Germany. Many Prussians who knew little of Schleiermacher’s theology, recognized him as a national hero and patriot.
Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher died in February 1834 from pneumonia. On the day of his funeral around 30,000 Berliners joined the funeral procession, including the king, which was unparalleled at the time for an academic. His friend, Steffens reported of the funeral:
Never has a funeral similar to this taken place. It was not something arranged but a completely unconscious, natural outpouring of mourning love, an inner boundless feeling which gripped the entire city and gathered about his grave; these were hours of inward unity such as have never been seen in a metropolis of modern times.
 Redeker, p. 185.
 Redeker, p. 154.
 Dorrien, p. 100.
 Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology, ed. Keith W. Clements (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), p. 100.
 Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology, p. 103.
 Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology, p. 102.
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 Redeker, p. 114.
 Dorrien, pp. 100-101.
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 Anders Gerdmar, The Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel and Bultmann (Leiden: Brill, 2009), p. 65.
 Dorrien, p. 102.
 Christine Helmer, “Exegetical Theology and the New Testament,” The Cambridge Companion to Schleiermacehr, ed. Jacqueline Marina (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 236.
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 Friedrich Schleiermacher, Selected Sermons of Schleiermacher, trans. Mary F. Wilson (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004), p. 292.
 Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969), p. 97.
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 Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Classical and Philosophical Hermeneutics,” Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 1 (January 2006), p. 35.
 Friedrich Schleiermacher, Lectures on Philosophical Ethics, p. 8.
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 Niebuhr, p. 105.
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 Brandt, p. 254.
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 Dawson, p. 151.
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