Herbart, Johann Friedrich (1776–1841)

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Johann Friedrich Herbart, the German philosopher, psychologist, and educational theorist, was born in Oldenburg; he entered the University of Jena in 1794. Although he studied under Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Herbart was unable to accept Fichte's view of the ego and its psychology, and in reaction he laid the basis for his own metaphysical and psychological views. In 1797 Herbart took a post in Switzerland as tutor. He held the position for three years and, during this period, worked out to a large extent the views that he was to refine and elaborate for the rest of his life.

After he took his doctorate at Göttingen in 1802, Herbart remained there for the next seven years. Allgemeine Pädagogik (General Theory of Education) and Hauptpunkte der Metaphysik (Main Points of Metaphysics), both of which appeared in Göttingen in 1806, and his Allgemeine praktische Philosophie (General Practical Philosophy; Göttingen, 1808) were major fruits of this period. In 1809 Herbart moved to Königsberg to occupy Immanuel Kant's former chair, and there he published his Lehrbuch zur Psychologie (Compendium of psychology; 1816), Psychologie als Wissenschaft (Psychology as a science; 18241825), and Allgemeine Metaphysik (General metaphysics; 18281829). When the political situation rendered Königsberg continually less attractive and Herbart failed to secure G. W. F. Hegel's chair at the University of Berlin, he returned to Göttingen in 1833 and remained there until his death.

The Parts of Philosophy

Philosophy, according to Herbart, cannot be characterized by its subject matter but only by its method, which is the reworking (Bearbeitung ) of concepts; and the possible kinds of such elaboration determine the major divisions of philosophy.

The first kind of reworking renders concepts clear and distinct. Distinct concepts can be formed into judgments and these judgments can be organized into inferences. This process of distinguishing and ordering concepts is logic.

But experience gives rise to many concepts which, the more distinct they become, the more contradictory they appear, a sure sign that we are missing both being and truth. Our ideas must, therefore, undergo an "enlargement" (Ergänzung ), which will remove the contradiction. This second kind of reworking of concepts gives us the second great division of philosophy, metaphysics.

Concepts in the third class are like the metaphysical concepts in that they cannot remain merely at the level of clarity and distinctness, as do the logical concepts. But while the metaphysical concepts involve only enlargement, this third class involves in addition an intuitive judgment of approval or disapproval. Thus we get the last great division, aesthetics. Aesthetics includes a series of doctrines of art or practical sciences. One of these, ethics, issues necessary (and not merely conditional) prescriptions because we continuously and necessarily concern ourselves with its object, ourselves.


Metaphysics consists of four parts: (1) method, the general principles of the proper method and order of procedure; (2) ontology, the study of the real; (3) synechiology, the study of those forms of experience that have continuity (such as space, time, and motion), and (4) eidolology, the examination of the possibility of knowledge.


The first task of metaphysics is to define "the given" in experience. Common sense says that it is "things with multiple and changing characteristics." But this concept violates the law of identity. For any single thing dissolves into a multiplicity of qualities when we describe it; it is at once both a unity and not a unity. Substance, cause, ego, time, and space are also contradictory. Yet they must be "given" in some sense, since we cannot change them at will. In moving to metaphysical concepts freed from contradiction, we use as our chief tool the " method of relations." A contradictory concept of experience, A, unites the contradictory terms, M and N. M is thus both identical and nonidentical with N. If one further divides M into M and M, one element will still be identical with N, the other not; this contradiction disappears only when we admit that, although each of the parts of M is not identical with N, they mutually modify each other so that together they become so. Thus, in the syllogism, the conclusion must be contained in the premises; and thus the premises must change into or cause the conclusion. But M and M, the premises or cause, are not individually the same as N, the conclusion or effect. Hence M and M, the premises, must mutually modify each other so as to become identical with the conclusion.


Ontology deals with being. Since being is not directly given in experience, it is easy to say that there is no being. But it is hard to live with this judgment, for things continue to appear. What, then, is it that appears? Appearances or phenomena cannot be taken as the only reality, for the concept of absolute position (being in absolutely no relation whatever to anything) cannot be applied to them; they are always related to something else. Nor can phenomena be reduced to our sensations of them and then located in an ego, for our sensations are not just sensations of sensations, and the concept of the ego is itself contradictory.

We are thus led to posit "being" as a plurality of beings or reals (Realen ), with the essence of each real a single quality, absolutely simple, without parts, degree, or negation, always immutably identical with itself. But how can this concept of being be reconciled with our experience, which is both the basis of metaphysics and its test? The absolute position of reals seems to contradict the multiple relations in which things appear to us. But being can be conceived by mind; and in mind a being is only an image (Bild ). Mind also can simultaneously represent several beings, which, as images, can stand in many different relations to the first one. These relations are "contingent viewpoints" (zufällige Ansichten ), which exist in thought, not in things-in-themselves. Just as in analytic geometry the same point can be part of an infinite number of curves, so a single real may enter many contingent viewpoints.

Experience presents us with complex aggregates that we call things. Yet we cannot say that the aggregate exists, for colors, sounds, and such exist only in the perceiving subject. Nor can we say that something having those qualitiesthat is, substanceexists, for substance cannot be being if being is simple, since substance appears as endowed with manifold and varying qualities. How, then, can attributes and modes inhere in substance? By the method of relations. If A is a substance and a an attribute, analysis of A into multiple elements (A, A, and so on) will not resolve the contradiction unless we say that a is not identical with any one of the A s but with the totality of them, the number of which remains undetermined but which must be at least two if mutual modification between them is to occur. Substance, then, is explainable as multiple beings in conjunction (zusammen ) with each other, many reals grouped about one real. This conjunction explains that unity that we attribute to substance, although the essential unchanging quality of that central real is unknown to us; and the other reals in conjunction with it account for the varied and varying attributes we experience, although those attributes are not the essential qualities of those various reals.

The conjunction and the separation of the reals explain those sensible appearances which led to their postulation. Such mutual interaction would seem to lead to mutual destruction, but, just as in an equilibrium of forces both forces remain constantly what each is, though balanced, so in the concatenation of reals, the mutual perturbations (Störungen ) that would lead to mutual destruction are counterbalanced by individual acts of self-preservation through which each real strives to remain what it is.

These acts of perturbation and self-preservation constitute real phenomena (das wirkliche Geschehen ), as distinct from sensible phenomena or appearances (Erscheinung ), of which the real ones are the basis and explanation. To what or to whom do they appear? This is the problem of the ego, self, or soul-substance.

The ego, or self, poses the same problems as do the other substances, and the solution is the same. The unity and diversity of the ego are explained by the coming and going of reals. The soul, which is not the ego of consciousness, is a real, but one endowed with mind, which is the seismograph that records, in the form of presentations or ideas (Vorstellungen ), the acts of self-preservation of the soul vis-à-vis the other reals. These presentations are the sensible phenomena given in experience. With metaphysics thus having shown the origin of our ideas, psychology will show their development and combination.


Synechiology concerns that which is continuous (das Stetige )notably space, time, and motion. Continuity, as union in separation and separation in unity, is a contradictory concept (though undoubtedly given in experience), which must be explained by metaphysics. As far as being is concerned, space and time are "obviously nothing." They, like the continuity we attribute to them, are merely natural and necessary products of the psychic mechanism. What essentially characterizes space and time is the mutual exteriority (Auseinander ) of the parts. But between points of space or time it is always possible to conceive additional parts, and this further functioning of the psychic mechanism makes space and time seem to flow uninterruptedly.

But the comings and goings of the reals imply some sort of space, time, and motion, even though these are distinct from their sensible counterparts, such as "intelligible space." Although two reals, A and B, are actually apart, we can conceive the possibility of B 's being with A and A 's being with B. Thus space is the simple possibility in mind for one real to be together with another from which it is separated in reality, an "image" without reality. Space thus being completely accidental for reals, we can, by putting A in the place of B and B in the place of A and further continuing to add more reals and more dimensions, generate lines infinite in all directions, even though each line is "fixed" (starre ) with a determinate number of points rather than continuous (stetige ) with mutual interpenetration (and hence indefiniteness in number) of the parts. The psychic mechanism then conceives of these "fixed" lines as continuous by interpolation. Intelligible space, as thus generated, corresponds to the sensible space of phenomena and shares its contradictions, but these need not trouble us, since they have nothing to do with being. Intelligible space is a purely conceptual artifact (Gedankending ), not imposed by mind on things but generated by mind as a necessary aid to thought. Once intelligible space has been generated, the explanation of matter becomes possible. It is a question of asking what situation the images of reals should occupy with respect to intelligible space in order to account for matter. The answer is "incomplete interpenetration."


Eidolology examines the possibility of knowledge and its limits. In all knowledge, matter and form can be distinguished. The matter is simple presentations or sensations. They do not enable us to know what is, but they do oblige us to believe that something is. But the given has form as well as matter. Sensations are not given us in isolation but formed into groups, which cannot be separated at will and which constitute things. Doubtless, in the form in which they appear to us, things exist only in and for mind. But the constancy and the modifications of these groups of sensations have their basis in the conjunction and separation of the reals. Thus mind, though it cannot know the qualities of the reals through sensation, does know their relations; and even were our sensations wholly different from what they are, their forms would be the same, arising as they do from the objective separations and connections of the reals. Knowledge through concepts is likewise valid knowledge, although it too is knowledge only of relations. "We live amid relations and need nothing more."


Everything in mind arises in some fashion out of presentations. There are no faculties, no innate ideas, no concepts a priori. The soul is a real in which countless acts of self-preservation are provoked through its contacts with other reals, and these efforts in turn produce in mind the presentations, some of which oppose, some of which reinforce, each other. Although reals and presentations are not forces, they can best be understood by analogy with forces, and hence the synthetic part of psychology consists of the statics and mechanics of mind. Complex mathematical formulas, corresponding to those of the statics and mechanics of physics, describe the interplay of presentations.

Presentations of different sorts do not oppose each other (for instance, colors do not oppose sounds); but presentations of the same sort do (for instance, red opposes blue). In the latter case, what remains after arrest is an equilibrium, a weakening or obscuring of the original presentations that is reached progressively by a process of sinking (Senkung ). A presentation, if it has not undergone arrest, is present in consciousness. Sinking under arrest, it may be forced below the threshold of consciousness. Yet a presentation below the threshold of consciousness is subject to recall or rising (Hebung ) by the appearance of a new presentation similar to it, and the speed of this rising depends on the degree of similarity between the two presentations. This new presentation also produces a vaulting (Wölbung ) or "arching" of all other arrested presentations similar to it. The coming of a new presentation, B, produces the rising (Hebung ) of the similar older presentation A. But as A is pulled up, other older presentations similar to A but less similar to B are also pulled up in a Wölbung, or arching. The analogy to a beater being pulled out of stiff whipped cream is exact. The surface of the cream closest to the beater is pulled up most (Hebung ), but the whole center surface arches somewhat (Wölbung ).

The feelings, the desires, and the will have their origin in presentations. Some feelings arise out of the fusion of opposed presentations, and the pleasantness or unpleasantness depends on the amount of opposition. Other feelings originate in the strain that the rising, produced by a new presentation, puts on ties that an old presentation already has with one or more others. Thus the sight of an object belonging to a dead friend evokes the memory of him, but the thought of his death tends to repress the memory and thus to produce a painful feeling. Pleasant feelings arise in the contrary situation, when the other associated presentations all facilitate the recall of the original one. The desires are closely connected with the feelings. In a situation giving a painful feeling, where A is lifted toward consciousness by the appearance of C and is simultaneously depressed by its earlier relation to B, the feeling of effort by which the resistance is overcome will be a desire and A will appear as the object of desire. The will, in turn, is only a particular form of desire, the realization of which is seen as possible.

Concepts, also, have their origin in the fact that each new presentation produces the vaulting of the images of similar previous presentations already in mind, in which process the similarities are reinforced and the differences between them are repressed, as in a composite portrait.


Ethical judgments are aesthetic judgments involving pleasure and displeasure. Since the completely simple cannot be pleasing or displeasing, these judgments must be directed to something complex, to relations. Since Herbart, like Kant, sought the basis of ethics in the good will, the five possible relations of the will suggest five corresponding fundamental ethical ideas.

The idea of "inner freedom" is the correspondence between a single act of a single will and the judgment passed on it. Harmony between the "objective" will (the inclinations) and the "subjective" will (the intuitive ethical judgment) is absolutely pleasing; its contrary, displeasing.

"Perfection" relates the varied acts of a single will. To this multiplicity, three quantitative concepts may be applied: the strength of any single effort (intensity), the multiplicity of the objects encompassed by the will (extension), and the concentration of this manifold into a total power (a new intensity developing out of extension). There is no absolute standard, but the stronger and more concentrated will is more pleasing than the weaker.

The idea of "benevolence" arises when one will comes to terms with the will of another. Yet this relation is internal to the first will in that it takes the will of the other person as an object.

The idea of "law" concerns the relations between the wills of two persons who desire some one thing. The ensuing strife is not, however, merely the contrary of the idea of benevolence, since both wills are turned directly toward the object and only indirectly toward each other.

The idea of "equity" arises from the intentional doing of an act of ill or good, a displeasing imbalance between two wills that can be rectified only by some appropriate requital through reward and punishment.

These five basic ethical ideas cannot be isolated in estimating character or in organizing social or political life; each must be tempered by all the others. Together, they exhaust the possible relations of the will, since the addition of more wills repeats in more complicated fashion those already covered by law and equity. But extension is possible if the many wills of a group can be analogized to that of a single rational being. Then five analogous social ideas appear in the reverse order. Members of this society will seek to avoid strife through a "system of law." But transgressions lead to a "system of requital." The benevolent spectator would wish for the greatest possible sum of well-being attained through the rational distribution of the available goods according to a "system of administration." Then increased well-being would produce an intensity and range of strivings reconciled under a "system of culture." With the obedience of each to the moral insight of all, the many would become one in an "ideal society."


Education takes its aim from ethics; psychology then shows it the means and hindrances to this end. The aim is moral strength of character, a will with inner freedom whose volitions are always in accord with the moral law. The three major divisions of education are instruction (Unterricht ), discipline (Regierung ), and training (Zucht ). Since psychology shows that the entire mental life (including the desires and the will) is built out of presentations, instruction (with its four steps of clarity, association, system, and method) is directed toward enlarging the child's circle of thought and developing in him a many-sided interest by efficiently introducing the proper presentations into his apperceptive mass. Discipline keeps the child obedient and attentive so that instruction and training can do their work before the child has developed a proper will of his own. Training works constantly with instruction and discipline to form the will directly through such means as environment, examples, and ideals. Under discipline, the child acts rightly because he must; under proper instruction and training, he acts rightly because he wills to do so.

See also Apperception.


The writings of Herbart were published in Collected Works, edited by G. Hartenstein, 2nd ed., 13 vols. (Hamburg: L. Voss, 18831893), and Collected Works, edited by K. Kehrbach and O. Fluegel, 19 vols. (Leipzig, 18871912; reprinted 1963).

An introduction to Herbart's philosophical psychology is G. F. Stout's essay (1888), reprinted in his Studies in Philosophy and Psychology (New York: Macmillan, 1930). Works on Herbart include G. Weiss, Herbart und seine Schule (Munich: Reinhardt, 1928); T. Fritzsch, J. F. Herbarts Leben und Lehre (Leipzig, 1921); and M. Mauxion, La métaphysique de Herbart (Paris, 1894).

other recommended works

Crittenden, Brian S. "J. F. Herbart on the Moral Purpose of Education." Educational Theory 15 (1965): 112120.

Dunkel, Harold B. "System Trouble in Herbart and the Herbartians." Philosophy of Education 23 (1967): 1931.

Harold B. Dunkel (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)