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Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst (1768–1834)


Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher was nineteenth-century Protestantism's great systematic theologian. It was he who marked the points of the compass for much of subsequent theology and philosophy of religion. Like St. Augustine, Schleiermacher desired to know God and the soul, and his place in the history of philosophy is due largely to the fact that he was able to state in modern language and concepts the great Augustinian conviction that religious faith is native to all human experience. Therefore, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of the soul are two orders of knowledge that must be distinguished but cannot be separated.


Schleiermacher was first and foremost a preacher and theologian, a church statesman, and an educator. He carried out his work as a philosopher in the context of the great idealist systems of Friedrich von Schelling, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and G. W. F. Hegel, but instead of attempting to imitate these men he applied himself to the critical analysis of religion, both in its personal and societal manifestations, without reducing such experience to some form of philosophic intuition. The upbringing that his father, a Reformed clergyman, gave him and his early education in Moravian institutions set Schleiermacher upon this course. After studying at the university in Halle and taking his examinations for ordination in 1790, he served briefly as a private tutor to the family of Count Dohna in East Prussia and as a minister in the Prussian town of Landsberg. In 1796 Schleiermacher settled in Berlin as a preacher, became a close friend of Friedrich von Schlegel, and emerged as an interpreter of religion to the romantic worldview that Schlegel himself epitomized. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799) gave Schleiermacher a national reputation at the age of thirty. The following year another publication, Soliloquies, attested to Schleiermacher's thorough absorption of the spirit of romanticism, but at the same time it indicated the direction that his ethical interests were to take in the future, as in his Grundlinien einer Kritik der bisherigen Sittenlehre (Outline of a critique of previous ethical theory; 1803).

The relation between the religious and ethical dimensions of life constituted a major preoccupation of Schleiermacher's maturity, and it is here that his indebtedness to and divergence from Immanuel Kant are clearly evident. Of decisive importance during his Berlin sojourn was his embarking upon the translation of Plato, in the course of which his mind became imbued with the philosophy of the author of the Republic. By 1804 Schleiermacher was teaching philosophical ethics (philosophy of culture), theology, New Testament, and hermeneutics at Halle. By 1810 he was lecturing as professor of theology at the University of Berlin, where for the remainder of his life he taught dogmatic theology, New Testament theology and criticism, hermeneutics, practical theology, history of philosophy, ethics, and dialectics, to name only the more important of the wide variety of subjects with which he dealt. Concomitantly he held an appointment as preacher at the Dreifaltigkeitskirche, to which he attracted persons from all sections of Berlin, and from this pulpit he wielded a powerful moral influence on the nation. In ecclesiastical politics he labored for the union of the Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia, and in national politics he worked not only for stiffer resistance to French expansionism under Napoleon Bonaparte but for internal social reform.

The Christian Faith (Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der evangelischen Kirche im Zusammen-hange dargestellt ) appeared in 18211822 and in revised form in 18301831. Together with the Brief Outline of the Study of Theology (1st edition, 1811) and the two open letters concerning the revised edition of The Christian Faith which Schleiermacher wrote to a close friend (Sendschreiben über seine Glaubenslehre an Dr. Lücke, 1829), The Christian Faith gives us not only Schleiermacher's thought on Christian doctrine and substantive theological issues but also his conception of the organization of the theological disciplines and of systematic theology itself. Schleiermacher made Protestant theology methodologically self-conscious.

Philosophy of Culture

Schleiermacher criticized Kant for tacitly making ethics into a "highest science" that ignored and devaluated the particular and idiosyncratic in human nature. Ethics, Schleiermacher argued, is the discipline that has for its object "reason in history." Reason never appears except in historical personalityin the personalities of both individual persons and corporate persons. This position leads to a significant relaxation of the Kantian separation between practical reason, on the one hand, and the inclinations, temperament, talent, etc., on the other. Schleiermacher viewed these "accidents" and, indeed, the entire spatial, temporal embodiment of reasonapart from which we have no self-consciousness and hence no access to reasonnot merely as the "place" of reason in its practical and theoretical functions but also as the organ of reason, by which reason itself is conditioned. The notion of a pure, universal reason could, therefore, be only a regulative concept for Schleiermacher.

Insofar as we consider reason in its practical capacity, as a willing or organizing activity, it is not the quest of virtue and autonomous assent to a self-imposed universal law that is foremost in view., but rather the sight of an ethical agent acting according to his own individuated rational nature. Moreover, the individuation of the ethical agent is accomplished not only by the "natural" accidents of time and place but also by the communities, societies, and institutions of which the individual person is the offspring. Schleiermacher presents the ethical agent as an end in himself, that is, as a good, who produces goods according to the peculiar law of his own unique nature. The doctrine of the highest good is formulated through the delineation of the relations of community and reciprocity in which such agents stand to each other, inheriting and endowing, receiving and bestowing. The primary forms in which these relations appear are the family, the nation, the church, the institutions of learning, and what Schleiermacher calls free sociality (Geselligkeit ).

Nature and society affect reasoning in its theoretical as well as practical operations. When we think, we are conscious of engaging in an activity that is common to all men; nevertheless, our thinking, even at the most abstract level, as in thinking about thought itself, is in actuality predicated upon the specific organization of the physical means of sensation as well as upon the prior existence of a particular system of communication. The speculative activity of reason is thus conditioned by the natural medium in which it is individuated and shaped by the historical, moral character of the primary media (for example, a particular language) through which it maintains itself. Discourse is the means for the sociality of thinking, as Schleiermacher liked to say, and thinking is the inner side of speaking. He defined dialectic as the principles of correctly conducting a dialogue in the realm of pure thinking and taught that all thinking proceeds in the form of dialogue or colloquy. On these grounds, Schleiermacher ruled out the possibility of an intuition of the absolute or of a highest science; the ideal and the real appear only as already informed by each other; pure spirit and matter lie outside of experience. Consequently, the ideal of a universal philosophy, for example, is nullified by the lack of a universal language and the impossibility of such.

The person, as the subject of the activities of thinking/knowing and of willing/doing, is more than a being composed of mind and body, individuated by time and space. A person not only is differentiated from others by nature and history but inwardly differentiates himself and acknowledges such an inward differentiation in all other human beings. That by virtue of which the person makes this inward differentiation is the proprium (Eigenthümlichkeit ). It is this property in each man that endows him with a life unity, an inalienable identity. Schleiermacher described this proprium as the peculiar organization that reason assumes for itself in each man. However, the life unity, or identity, of the individual person can never come to direct and full expression either in thinking/knowing or in willing/doing, although it accompanies and informs each of these rational activities. The self-consciousness that this sense of identity requires is a self-consciousness to be distinguishedthough not isolatedfrom the forms of self-consciousness in which the subject is responding to or acting upon external objects.

Schleiermacher appropriates the word feeling for this form of self-consciousness, whose content is the given identity and unity of the self, incapable of being derived from others or surrendered to them. Feeling, thinking, and doing thus make up the three forms of consciousness that constitute the self-consciousness which distinguishes persons. Correspondingly, every person must be seen as a participant in the life of society in both his practical and theoretical functions, but he is also one whose proprium is wholly original. In a person whose feeling form of self-consciousness remains latent or inchoate, the sense of personal identity is deficient and personal consciousness is confused or immature. Such a person fails to contribute to the common or highest good; he is an inert reflection of his world, not one who moves and enriches it; he is a person in the formal sense but is destitute of spiritual life. Since, for Schleiermacher, religion is the most highly and fully developed mode of the feeling form of self-consciousness, all of human culture ultimately depends upon the cultivation of the religious life.


In his earliest published work, the Speeches, Schleiermacher made ample use of the romantic preoccupation with the nature and value of individuality, but he qualified the world view of German romanticism in two important respects. First, an individual comes to self-knowledge only in the presence of other persons; hence the need to know and to express the self can be fulfilled only by observing and cultivating the morality of human community and communication. Second, the individual's cultivation of his own humanitywhich the romantic accepted as a self-evident imperativerequires that he acknowledge his religious nature, as well as his aesthetic, scientific, and moral nature, and that he cultivate this side of his nature, or self-consciousness, by seeking out religious community. Schleiermacher's thesis, from 1799 to his death, was that man is a religious being. But since the individual must always appropriate his humanity in a fashion that is at once concordant with his generic identity and accordant with his own peculiar identity, religion is as much a problem for the individual as it is a natural endowment. In his mature thinking, as he came to align himself theologically with Augustine and John Calvin, Schleiermacher stressed not only the fact that man is a religious being but also the fact that the most fundamental, pervasive confusion inhibiting human consciousness is religious confusion. Thus, in his Christian theology, he described sin as the failure to maintain a clear distinction between that upon which men are entirely dependent, God, and that upon which men are only relatively dependent, namely, objects within the world.

In The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher stated that religion is a determination of feeling. More narrowly defined, it is a feeling of being absolutely dependent, and this feeling, he believed, is one and the same thing with consciousness of being in relation with God. A number of elements in this characterization need to be distinguished if Schleiermacher is to be understood. (1) The feeling of being absolutely dependent is also the feeling of identity, through which the individual is conscious of his inner uniqueness; in describing this feeling as one of being absolutely dependent, Schleiermacher was calling attention to the fact that the identity, or life unity, of the individual is an endowment which cannot be derived from any of the intellectual or volitional relations in which the self stands to other persons and forces, taken either singly or together. In this sense, the individual is utterly dependent, for the particular constitution of his existence, on a "whence" that cannot be rendered conceptually. Hence, the feeling of absolute dependence is not expressive of a felt deficiency or of awe, as it is according to the interpretation of Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy ; nor is it wholly the same as Paul Tillich's conception of faith as being ultimately concerned about that which concerns us ultimately, since this concern is aroused in part by what Tillich called "nonbeing." (2) The feeling of being absolutely dependentor "immediate self-consciousness" or "God-consciousness"; Schleiermacher regarded all three terms as equivalentis discernible only because self-consciousness also involves thinking and willing, which are forms of rational relation between the person and his world, forms involving consciousness of "relative dependence" and "relative freedom." The feeling of being absolutely dependent is distinguishable from the feeling of relative dependence by virtue of the fact that in the latter a person stands in the relations of community and reciprocity with nature and society, while in the feeling of absolute dependence there is no reciprocity present. Consequently, there can be no consciousness of being in relation to God, apart from consciousness of being in relation to the world. (3) The original meaning of the word God is not a concept of perfect being, or the like, but the felt relation of absolute dependence. Hence, religion arises not in ideas, norfor that matterin willing, but in the immediate consciousness of what Schleiermacher described to Lücke as "an immediate existence-relationship." (4) In fact, then, religion is more than a determination of feeling; it is the name Schleiermacher gives to the personal self-consciousness in which the feeling of absolute dependence and consciousness of the world coexist and must achieve or receive a living, stable order.

The religion that Schleiermacher described in this way is a purely formal and abstract religion, which exists nowhere in actuality. In conformity with the principles we have outlined above, he insisted that religion always appears in a particular social and historical form. The great religions are religions bearing the stamp of their founders, and he defined Christianity as a monotheistic faith of the teleological variety in which everything is related to the redemption accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth. Everything in the outward, social, and institutional aspect of Christianity is related to its founder, and similarly, everything pertaining to the inner piety of the Christian is related to the historical figure of the redeemer. Thus, while Christianity is, without question, the religion on the basis of which Schleiermacher formed his understanding of all other religions, what is of more importance is that he was the first among modern theologians to perceive that Christianity is historical in two senses. Not only does it have a history, but each Christian becomes a Christian by appropriating to his total self-consciousness the relation to Jesus Christ. Christ must become a part of the self-consciousness, or inner history, of the Christian. There is no part of the relation to God, Schleiermacher stated, in which the relation to Christ is not also actively present. Hence, Schleiermacher revived in his conception of the feeling of being absolutely dependent the Augustinian notion of the inseparability of the knowledge of the soul and the knowledge of God; at the same time he originated the distinctive form of modern Protestant theologyChristocentrism, or Christ as the center of the individual's inner religious consciousness.

See also Augustine, St.; Augustinianism; Calvin, John; Faith; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Kant, Immanuel; Otto, Rudolf; Philosophy of Religion, History of; Plato; Romanticism; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Schlegel, Friedrich von; Tillich, Paul.


works by schleiermacher

Collected Works and Letters

Aus Schleiermachers Leben in Briefen. 4 vols. Berlin, 18601863.

Sämtliche Werke. Berlin, 18351864. Published in three divisions: I, theological; II, sermons; III, philosophical and related subjects.

Schleiermachers Briefwechsel mit J. Chr. Gass. Berlin, 1852.

English Translations

Brief Outline of the Study of Theology. Translated by W. Farrer. Edinburgh, 1850.

The Christian Faith. Translated by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart. Edinburgh, 1948; New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas. Translated by W. Hastie. Edinburgh, 1890.

The Life of Schleiermacher as Unfolded in His Autobiography and Letters. 2 vols. Translated by F. Rowan. London, 1860.

"On the Discrepancy between the Sabellian and Athanasian Method of Representing the Doctrine of a Trinity in the Godhead." Translated by Moses Stuart. Biblical Repository and Quarterly Observer 6 (1835): 1116.

On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. Translated by John Oman. London, 1893; New York, 1958.

Selected Sermons of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Translated by Mary F. Wilson. New York, n.d.

Soliloquies. Translated and edited by Horace Friess. Chicago, 1926.

Critical Editions

Der christliche Glaube, edited by Martin Redeker. 2 vols. Berlin, 1960. Contains appendices and Schleiermacher's own marginal notations.

Grundriss der philosophischen Ethik, edited by A. Twesten and F. M. Schiele. Leipzig, 1911.

Hermeneutik, nach den Handschriften, edited by Heinz Kimmerle. Heidelberg, 1959.

Kurze Darstellung des theologischen Studiums, edited by Heinrich Scholz. Hildesheim, 1961.

Monologen, edited by F. M. Schiele and Hermann Mulert. Leipzig, 1914.

Reden über die Religion, edited by G. C. B. Pünjer. Braunschweig, 1879.

Schleiermachers Sendschreiben über seine Glaubenslehre an Lücke, edited by Hermann Mulert. Giessen, 1908.

Weihnachtsfeier, edited by Hermann Mulert. Leipzig, 1908.

works on schleiermacher

Barth, Karl. From Rousseau to Ritschl. London: SCM Press, 1959. A sophisticated chapter on Schleiermacher by his foremost theological critic.

Brandt, Richard. The Philosophy of Friedrich Schleiermacher. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941. The most detailed examination of Schleiermacher's philosophy in English.

Dilthey, Wilhelm. Leben Schleiermachers. Berlin, 1870; 2nd ed., edited by H. Mulert. Berlin, 1922. The classic biographical work on Schleiermacher, but extends only to the period at Halle. Should be supplemented by Dilthey's articles in his Gesammelte Schriften, 2nd ed. Stuttgart, 19591960. Vols. IV and XII.

Niebuhr, Richard R. Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion. New York: Scribners, 1964. An account of the central ideas in Schleiermacher's theology against the background of his philosophy.

Süskind, Hermann. Der Einfluss Schellings auf die Entwicklung von Schleiermachers System. Tübingen: Mohr, 1909. Valuable account of the early development of Schleiermacher's thinking.

Wehrung, Georg. Die Dialektik Schleiermachers. Tübingen: Mohr, 1920. A scholarly examination of the development of Schleiermacher's lectures on this subject.

Richard R. Niebuhr (1967)

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