Hemsterhuis, Frans (1721–1790)

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The Dutch philosopher Frans Hemsterhuis was born at Franeker, the son of the famous Greek scholar Tiberius Hemsterhuis. Frans Hemsterhuis was a clerk of the State Council and devoted his free hours to his favorite studiesnumismatics, fine arts, and philosophy. In his last years his philosophy was very much influenced by his friendship with the Princess von Gallitzin, the wife of the Russian ambassador at The Hague. Thus, his life and work may be divided into two periods.

In the first period Hemsterhuis's Lettre sur l'homme et ses rapports (1772) was his principal work, preceded by two small, closely connected treatises, Lettre sur la sculpture (1765) and Lettre sur les désirs (1769). In Lettre sur la sculpture Hemsterhuis argued that the essence of the aesthetic experience is a longing to unite oneself with the art object. This concept became part of his theory of ethics, which is set out in Lettre sur les désirs. The most perfect happiness for the soul is the union with the beloved object irrespective of whether it is an object of art, a person, or God. This Platonic Eros is for Hemsterhuis analogous to the power of attraction in the physical world. This theory is further developed in Lettre sur l'homme, on which the Platonic dialogues of his second period are based. On the subject of the nature of man Hemsterhuis thought in terms of a dualistic philosophy like René Descartes's, but Hemsterhuis's dualism was combined with an empiristic-sensationalistic theory that he probably derived from John Locke and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac. Through sensory perception man receives an image of what exists in reality. This image, however, is incomplete, and if man had other organs, he could perhaps see other aspects of reality. Through what Hemsterhuis calls the "moral organ" man is aware of an immediate feeling of his relationship with God. The moral organ is also responsible for the feeling of relation, rapport, that man has with thousands of other men, and the development of such relations is dependent on the perfection of the moral organ. This theory leads to an individualistic concept of man's moral duties, which is one of the reasons for Hemsterhuis's influence on the German philosophy of Sturm und Drang and romanticism.

In the second period of Hemsterhuis's life he wrote four Platonic dialogues the most important of which are Aristée ou de la divinité (1779) and Alexis ou de l'âge d'or (1783, but published in 1787). In Aristée Hemsterhuis, who originally believed in a personal God, is converted to a clear pantheism. God's omnipresence is the basis of man's relation to him, and it is mainly thanks to the moral principle, as the "moral organ" is called in later years, that man is able to come nearer to God. In Alexis Hemsterhuis, perhaps influenced by contemporary German philosophy, presented for the first time his concept of the golden age and the harmonious development of the individual. He also introduced the notion of the value of poetical truth (truth discovered by the poet in moments of enthusiasm). With these ideas Hemsterhuis had moved far from his earlier rationalism, and his thought was received with admiration and approval by representatives of the Sturm und Drang and romantic movements in philosophy.

In the first period F. H. Jacobi and J. G. Herder were among Hemsterhuis's admirers; in the second period he was very popular with and influenced the two Schlegels and Novalis.

See also Aesthetic Experience; Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de; Descartes, René; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich; Locke, John; Novalis; Rationalism; Romanticism; Schlegel, Friedrich von.


works by hemsterhuis

During his lifetime most of Hemsterhuis's works were printed for private circulation in small and anonymous editions. Some of his early treatises are still in manuscript form in public collections. The latest complete, but rather inaccurate, edition is François Hemsterhuis, Oeuvres philosophiques, edited by Louis Susan Pedro Meijboom (Leeuwarden, Netherlands: W. Eekhoff, 1846). A German translation edited by Julius Hilsz was published at Leipzig (1912). A more recent edition of one of his works is François Hemsterhuis, Lettre sur l'homme et ses rapports. Avec le commentaire inédit de Diderot, edited by George May (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1964).

works on hemsterhuis

Brachin, Pierre. Le cercle de Munster (17791806) et la pensée religieuse de F. L. Stolberg. Lyon and Paris, 1952.

Brachin, Pierre. "Hemsterhuis' Beziehungen zum Gallitzinkreis." In Pariser Universitätswoche an der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität zu München vom 14. bis 19. Februar 1955, 203216. Munich, 1955.

Brummel, Leendert. "Frans Hemsterhuis." Algemeen Nederlands Tijdschrift Voor Wijsbegeerte en Psychologie 34 (1940): 1726.

Brummel, Leendert. Frans Hemsterhuis. Een philosophenleven. Haarlem: H. D. Tjeenk Willink, 1925.

Loos, Waltrand. "Der Briefwechsel des Philosophen Hemsterhuis mit der Fürstin Gallitzin, mit einem Schlüssel zu seiner Geheimschrift." Westfalen 39 (1961): 119127.

Leendert Brummel (1967)