1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Herbart, Johann Friedrich

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HERBART, JOHANN FRIEDRICH (1776–1841), German philosopher and educationist, was born at Oldenburg on the 4th of May 1776. After studying under Fichte at Jena he gave his first philosophical lectures at Göttingen in 1805, whence he removed in 1809 to occupy the chair formerly held by Kant at Königsberg. Here he also established and conducted a seminary of pedagogy till 1833, when he returned once more to Göttingen, and remained there as professor of philosophy till his death on the 14th of August 1841.

Philosophy, according to Herbart, begins with reflection upon our empirical conceptions, and consists in the reformation and elaboration of these—its three primary divisions being determined by as many distinct forms of elaboration. Logic, which stands first, has to render our conceptions and the judgments and reasonings arising from them clear and distinct. But some conceptions are such that the more distinct they are made the more contradictory their elements become; so to change and supplement these as to make them at length thinkable is the problem of the second part of philosophy, or metaphysics. There is still a class of conceptions requiring more than a logical treatment, but differing from the last in not involving latent contradictions, and in being independent of the reality of their objects, the conceptions, viz. that embody our judgments of approval and disapproval; the philosophic treatment of these conceptions falls to Aesthetic.

In Herbart’s writings logic receives comparatively meagre notice; he insisted strongly on its purely formal character, and expressed himself in the main at one with Kantians such as Fries and Krug.

As a metaphysician he starts from what he terms “the higher scepticism” of the Hume-Kantian sphere of thought, the beginnings of which he discerns in Locke’s perplexity about the idea of substance. By this scepticism the real validity of even the forms of experience is called in question on account of the contradictions they are found to involve. And yet that these forms are “given” to us, as truly as sensations are, follows beyond doubt when we consider that we are as little able to control the one as the other. To attempt at this stage a psychological inquiry into the origin of these conceptions would be doubly a mistake; for we should have to use these unlegitimated conceptions in the course of it, and the task of clearing up their contradictions would still remain, whether we succeeded in our enquiry or not. But how are we to set about this task? We have given to us a conception A uniting among its constituent marks two that prove to be contradictory, say M and N; and we can neither deny the unity nor reject one of the contradictory members. For to do either is forbidden by experience; and yet to do nothing is forbidden by logic. We are thus driven to the assumption that the conception is contradictory because incomplete; but how are we to supplement it? What we have must point the way to what we want, or our procedure will be arbitrary. Experience asserts that M is the same (i.e. a mark of the same concept) as N, while logic denies it; and so—it being impossible for one and the same M to sustain these contradictory positions—there is but one way open to us; we must posit several Ms. But even now we cannot say one of these Ms is the same as N, another is not; for every M must be both thinkable and valid. We may, however, take the Ms not singly but together; and again, no other course being open to us, this is what we must do; we must assume that N results from a combination of Ms. This is Herbart’s method of relations, the counterpart in his system of the Hegelian dialectic.

In the Ontology this method is employed to determine what in reality corresponds to the empirical conceptions of substance and cause, or rather of inherence and change. But first we must analyse this notion of reality itself, to which our scepticism had already led us, for, though we could doubt whether “the given” is what it appears, we cannot doubt that it is something; the conception of the real thus consists of the two conceptions of being and quality. That which we are compelled to “posit,” which cannot be sublated, is that which is, and in the recognition of this lies the simple conception of being. But when is a thing thus posited? When it is posited as we are wont to posit the things we see and taste and handle. If we were without sensations, i.e. were never bound against our will to endure the persistence of a presentation, we should never know what being is. Keeping fast hold of this idea of absolute position, Herbart leads us next to the quality of the real. (1) This must exclude everything negative; for non-A sublates instead of positing, and is not absolute, but relative to A. (2) The real must be absolutely simple; for if it contain two determinations, A and B, then either these are reducible to one, which is the true quality, or they are not, when each is conditioned by the other and their position is no longer absolute. (3) All quantitative conceptions are excluded, for quantity implies parts, and these are incompatible with simplicity. (4) But there may be a plurality of “reals,” albeit the mere conception of being can tell us nothing as to this. The doctrine here developed is the first cardinal point of Herbart’s system, and has obtained for it the name of “pluralistic realism.”

The contradictions he finds in the common-sense conception of inherence, or of “a thing with several attributes,” will now become obvious. Let us take some thing, say A, having n attributes, a, b, c . . .: we are forced to posit each of these because each is presented in intuition. But in conceiving A we make, not n positions, still less n+1 positions, but one position simply; for common sense removes the absolute position from its original source, sensation. So when we ask, What is the one posited? we are told—the possessor of a, b, c. . ., or in other words, their seat or substance. But if so, then A, as a real, being simple, must = a; similarly it must = b; and so on. Now this would be possible if a, b, c . . . were but “contingent aspects” of A, as e.g. 23, √64, 4+3+1 are contingent aspects of 8. Such, of course, is not the case, and so we have as many contradictions as there are attributes; for we must say A is a, is not a, is b, is not b, &c. There must then, according to the method of relations, be several As. For a let us assume A1+A1+A1. . .; for b, A2+A2+A2. . .; and so on for the rest. But now what relation can there be among these several As, which will restore to us the unity of our original A or substance? There is but one; we must assume that the first A of every series is identical, just as the centre is the same point in every radius. By way of concrete illustration Herbart instances “the common observation that the properties of things exist only under external conditions. Bodies, we say, are coloured, but colour is nothing without light, and nothing without eyes. They sound, but only in a vibrating medium, and for healthy ears. Colour and tone present the appearance of inherence, but on looking closer we find they are not really immanent in things but rather presuppose a communion among several.” The result then is briefly thus: In place of the one absolute position, which in some unthinkable way the common understanding substitutes for the absolute positions of the n attributes, we have really a series of two or more positions for each attribute, every series, however, beginning with the same (as it were, central) real (hence the unity of substance in a group of attributes), but each being continued by different reals (hence the plurality and difference of attributes in unity of substance). Where there is the appearance of inherence, therefore, there is always a plurality of reals; no such correlative to substance as attribute or accident can be admitted at all. Substantiality is impossible without causality, and to this as its true correlative we now turn.

The common-sense conception of change involves at bottom the same contradiction of opposing qualities in one real. The same A that was a, b, c . . . becomes a, b, d . . .; and this, which experience thrusts upon us, proves on reflection unthinkable. The metaphysical supplementing is also fundamentally as before. Since c depended on a series of reals A3+A3+A3 . . . in connexion with A, and d may be said similarly to depend on a series A4+A4+A4 . . ., then the change from c to d means, not that the central real A or any real has changed, but that A is now in connexion with A4, &c., and no longer in connexion with A3, &c.

But to think a number of reals “in connexion” (Zusammensein) will not suffice as an explanation of phenomena; something or other must happen when they are in connexion; what is it? The answer to this question is the second hinge-point of Herbart’s theoretical philosophy. What “actually happens” as distinct from all that seems to happen, when two reals A and B are together is that, assuming them to differ in quality, they tend to disturb each other to the extent of that difference, at the same time that each preserves itself intact by resisting, as it were, the other’s disturbance. And so by coming into connexion with different reals the “self-preservations” of A will vary accordingly, A remaining the same through all; just as, by way of illustration, hydrogen remains the same in water and in ammonia, or as the same line may be now a normal and now a tangent. But to indicate this opposition in the qualities of the reals A+B, we must substitute for these symbols others, which, though only “contingent aspects” of A and B, i.e. representing their relations, not themselves, yet like similar devices in mathematics enable thought to advance. Thus we may put A = α+βγ, B=m+n+γ; γ then represents the character of the self-preservations in this case, and α+β+m+n represents all that could be observed by a spectator who did not know the simple qualities, but was himself involved in the relations of A to B; and such is exactly our position.

Having thus determined what really is and what actually happens, our philosopher proceeds next to explain synthetically the objective semblance (der objective Schein) that results from these. But if this construction is to be truly objective, i.e. valid for all intelligences, ontology must furnish us with a clue. This we have in the forms of Space, Time and Motion which are involved whenever we think the reals as being in, or coming into, connexion and the opposite. These forms then cannot be merely the products of our psychological mechanism, though they may turn out to coincide with these. Meanwhile let us call them “intelligible,” as being valid for all who comprehend the real and actual by thought, although no such forms are predicable of the real and actual themselves. The elementary spatial relation Herbart conceives to be “the contiguity (Aneinander) of two points,” so that every “pure and independent line” is discrete. But an investigation of dependent lines which are often incommensurable forces us to adopt the contradictory fiction of partially overlapping, i.e. divisible points, or in other words, the conception of Continuity.[1] But the contradiction here is one we cannot eliminate by the method of relations, because it does not involve anything real; and in fact as a necessary outcome of an “intelligible” form, the fiction of continuity is valid for the “objective semblance,” and no more to be discarded than say √−1. By its help we are enabled to comprehend what actually happens among reals to produce the appearance of matter. When three or more reals are together, each disturbance and self-preservation will (in general) be imperfect, i.e. of less intensity than when only two reals are together. But “objective semblance” corresponds with reality; the spatial or external relations of the reals in this case must, therefore, tally with their inner or actual states. Had the self-preservations been perfect, the coincidence in space would have been complete, and the group of reals would have been inextended; or had the several reals been simply contiguous, i.e. without connexion, then, as nothing would actually have happened, nothing would appear. As it is we shall find a continuous molecule manifesting attractive and repulsive forces; attraction corresponding to the tendency of the self-preservations to become perfect, repulsion to the frustration of this. Motion, even more evidently than space, implicates the contradictory conception of continuity, and cannot, therefore, be a real predicate, though valid as an intelligible form and necessary to the comprehension of the objective semblance. For we have to think of the reals as absolutely independent and yet as entering into connexions. This we can only do by conceiving them as originally moving through intelligible space in rectilinear paths and with uniform velocities. For such motion no cause need be supposed; motion, in fact, is no more a state of the moving real than rest is, both alike being but relations, with which, therefore, the real has no concern. The changes in this motion, however, for which we should require a cause, would be the objective semblance of the self-preservations that actually occur when reals meet. Further, by means of such motion these actual occurrences, which are in themselves timeless, fall for an observer in a definite time—a time which becomes continuous through the partial coincidence of events.

But in all this it has been assumed that we are spectators of the objective semblance; it remains to make good this assumption, or, in other words, to show the possibility of knowledge; this is the problem of what Herbart terms Eidolology, and forms the transition from metaphysic to psychology. Here, again, a contradictory conception blocks the way, that, viz. of the Ego as the identity of knowing and being, and as such the stronghold of idealism. The contradiction becomes more evident when the ego is defined to be a subject (and so a real) that is its own object. As real and not merely formal, this conception of the ego is amenable to the method of relations. The solution this method furnishes is summarily that there are several objects which mutually modify each other, and so constitute that ego we take for the presented real. But to explain this modification is the business of psychology; it is enough now to see that the subject like all reals is necessarily unknown, and that, therefore, the idealist’s theory of knowledge is unsound. But though the simple quality of the subject or soul is beyond knowledge, we know what actually happens when it is in connexion with other’s reals, for its self-preservations then are what we call sensations. And these sensations are the sole material of our knowledge; but they are not given to us as a chaos but in definite groups and series, whence we come to know the relations of those reals, which, though themselves unknown, our sensations compel us to posit absolutely.

In his Psychology Herbart rejects altogether the doctrine of mental faculties as one refuted by his metaphysics, and tries to show that all psychical phenomena whatever result from the action and interaction of elementary ideas or presentations (Vorstellungen). The soul being one and simple, its separate acts of self-preservation or primary presentations must be simple too, and its several presentations must become united together. And this they can do at once and completely when, as is the case, for example, with the several attributes of an object, they are not of opposite quality. But otherwise there ensues a conflict in which the opposed presentations comport themselves like forces and mutually suppress or obscure each other. The act of presentation (Vorstellen) then becomes partly transformed into an effort, and its product, the idea, becomes in the same proportion less and less intense till a position of equilibrium is reached; and then at length the remainders coalesce. We have thus a statics and a mechanics of mind which investigate respectively the conditions of equilibrium and of movement among presentations. In the statics two magnitudes have to be determined: (1) the amount of the suppression or inhibition (Hemmungssumme), and (2) the ratio in which this is shared among the opposing presentations. The first must obviously be as small as possible; thus for two totally-opposed presentations a and b, of which a is the greater, the inhibendum = b. For a given degree of opposition this burden will be shared between the conflicting presentations in the inverse ratio of their strength. When its remainder after inhibition = 0, a presentation is said to be on the threshold of consciousness, for on a small diminution of the inhibition the “effort” will become actual presentation in the same proportion. Such total exclusion from consciousness is, however, manifestly impossible with only two presentations,[2] though with three or a greater number the residual value of one may even be negative. The first and simplest law in psychological mechanics relates to the “sinking” of inhibited presentations. As the presentations yield to the pressure, the pressure itself diminishes, so that the velocity of sinking decreases, i.e. we have the equation (S−σ) dt = dσ, where S is the total inhibendum, and σ the intensity actually inhibited after the time t. Hence , and σ = S(1−et). From this law it follows, for example, that equilibrium is never quite obtained for those presentations which continue above the threshold of consciousness, while the rest which cannot so continue are very speedily driven beyond the threshold. More important is the law according to which a presentation freed from inhibition and rising anew into consciousness tends to raise the other presentations with which it is combined. Suppose two presentations p and π united by the residua r and ρ; then the amount of p’s “help” to π is r, the portion of which appropriated by π is given by the ratio ρ : π; and thus the initial help is .

But after a time t, when a portion of ρ represented by ω has been actually brought into consciousness, the help afforded in the next instant will be found by the equation

from which by integration we have the value of ω.


So that if there are several πs connected with p by smaller and smaller parts, there will be a definite “serial” order in which they will be revived by p; and on this fact Herbart rests all the phenomena of the so-called faculty of memory, the development of spatial and temporal forms and much besides. Emotions and volitions, he holds, are not directly self-preservations of the soul, as our presentations are, but variable states of such presentations resulting from their interaction when above the threshold of consciousness. Thus when some presentations tend to force a presentation into consciousness, and others at the same time tend to drive it out, that presentation is the seat of painful feeling; when, on the other hand, its entrance is favoured by all, pleasure results. Desires are presentations struggling into consciousness against hindrances, and when accompanied by the supposition of success become volitions. Transcendental freedom of will in Kant’s sense is an impossibility. Self-consciousness is the result of an interaction essentially the same in kind as that which takes place when a comparatively simple presentation finds the field of consciousness occupied by a long-formed and well-consolidated “mass” of presentations—as, e.g. one’s business or garden, the theatre, &c., which promptly inhibit the isolated presentation if incongruent, and unite it to themselves if not. What we call Self is, above all, such a central mass, and Herbart seeks to show with great ingenuity and detail how this position is occupied at first chiefly by the body, then by the seat of ideas and desires, and finally by that first-personal Self which recollects the past and resolves concerning the future. But at any stage the actual constituents of this “complexion” are variable; the concrete presentation of Self is never twice the same. And, therefore, finding on reflection any particular concrete factor contingent, we abstract the position from that which occupies it, and so reach the speculative notion of the pure Ego.

Aesthetics elaborates the “ideas” involved in the expression of taste called forth by those relations of object which acquire for them the attribution of beauty or the reverse. The beautiful (καλόν) is to be carefully distinguished from the allied conceptions of the useful and the pleasant, which vary with time, place and person; whereas beauty is predicated absolutely and involuntarily by all who have attained the right standpoint. Ethics, which is but one branch of aesthetics, although the chief, deals with such relations among volitions (Willensverhältnisse) as thus unconditionally please or displease. These relations Herbart finds to be reducible to five, which do not admit of further simplification; and corresponding to them are as many moral ideas (Musterbegriffe), viz.: (1) Internal Freedom, the underlying relation being that of the individual’s will to his judgment of it; (2) Perfection, the relation being that of his several volitions to each other in respect of intensity, variety and concentration; (3) Benevolence, the relation being that between his own will and the thought of another’s; (4) Right, in case of actual conflict with another; and (5) Retribution or Equity, for intended good or evil done. The ideas of a final society, a system of rewards and punishments, a system of administration, a system of culture and a “unanimated society,” corresponding to the ideas of law, equity, benevolence, perfection and internal freedom respectively, result when we take account of a number of individuals. Virtue is the perfect conformity of the will with the moral ideas; of this the single virtues are but special expressions. The conception of duty arises from the existence of hindrances to the attainment of virtue. A general scheme of principles of conduct is possible, but the subsumption of special cases under these must remain matter of tact. The application of ethics to things as they are with a view to the realization of the moral ideas is moral technology (Tugendlehre), of which the chief divisions are Paedagogy and Politics.

In Theology Herbart held the argument from design to be as valid for divine activity as for human, and to justify the belief in a super-sensible real, concerning which, however, exact knowledge is neither attainable nor on practical grounds desirable.

Among the post-Kantian philosophers Herbart doubtless ranks next to Hegel in importance, and this without taking into account his very great contributions to the science of education. His disciples speak of theirs as the “exact philosophy,” and the term well expresses their master’s chief excellence and the character of the chief influence he has exerted upon succeeding thinkers of his own and other schools. His criticisms are worth more than his constructions; indeed for exactness and penetration of thought he is quite on a level with Hume and Kant. His merits in this respect, however, can only be appraised by the study of his works at first hand. But we are most of all indebted to Herbart for the enormous advance psychology has been enabled to make, thanks to his fruitful treatment of it, albeit as yet but few among the many who have appropriated and improved his materials have ventured to adopt his metaphysical and mathematical foundations.  (J. W.*) 

Bibliography.—Herbart’s works were collected and published by his disciple G. Hartenstein (Leipzig, 1850–1852; reprinted at Hamburg, with supplementary volume, 1883–1893); another edition by K. Kehrbach (Leipzig, 1882, and Langensalza, 1887). The following are the most important: Allgemeine Pädagogik (1806; new ed., 1894); Hauptpunkte der Metaphysik (1808); Allgemeine praktische Philosophie (1808); Lehrbuch zur Einleitung in die Philosophie (1813; new ed. by Hartenstein, 1883); Lehrbuch der Psychologie (1816; new ed. by Hartenstein, 1887); Psychologie als Wissenschaft (1824–1825); Allgemeine Metaphysik (1828–1829); Encyklopädie der Philosophie (2nd ed., 1841); Umriss pädagogischer Vorlesungen (2nd ed., 1841); Psychologische Untersuchungen (1839–1840).

Some of his works have been translated into English under the following titles: Textbook in Psychology, by M. K. Smith (1891); The Science of Education and the Aesthetic Revelation of the World (1892), and Letters and Lectures on Education (1898), by H. M. and E. Felkin; A B C of Sense Perception and minor pedagogical works (New York, 1896), by W. J. Eckhoff and others; Application of Psychology to the Science of Education (1898), by B. C. Mulliner; Outlines of Educational Doctrine, by A. F. Lange (1901).

There is a life of Herbart in Hartenstein’s introduction to his Kleinere philosophische Schriften und Abhandlungen (1842–1843) and by F. H. T. Allihn in Zeitschrift für exacte Philosophie (Leipzig, 1861), the organ of Herbart and his school, which ceased to appear in 1873. In America the National Society for the Scientific Study of Education was originally founded as the National Herbart Society.

Of the large number of writings dealing with Herbart’s works and theories, the following may be mentioned: H. A. Fechner, Zur Kritik der Grundlagen von Herbart’s Metaphysik (Leipzig, 1853); J. Kaftan, Sollen und Sein in ihrem Verhältniss zu einander: eine Studie zur Kritik Herbarts (Leipzig, 1872); M. W. Drobisch, Über die Fortbildung der Philosophie durch Herbart (Leipzig, 1876); K. S. Just, Die Fortbildung der Kant’schen Ethik durch Herbart (Eisenach, 1876); C. Ufer, Vorschule der Pädagogik Herbarts (1883; Eng. tr. by J. C. Zinser, 1895); G. Közle, Die pädagogische Schule Herbarts und ihre Lehre (Gutersloh, 1889); L. Strümpell, Das System der Pädagogik Herbarts (Leipzig, 1894); J. Christinger, Herbarts Erziehungslehre und ihre Fortbildner (Zürich, 1895); O. H. Lang, Outline of Herbart’s Pedagogics (1894); H. M. and E. Felkin, Introduction to Herbart’s Science and Practice of Education (1895); C. de Garmo, Herbart and the Herbartians (New York, 1895); E. Wagner, Die Praxis der Herbartianer (Langensalza, 1897) and Vollständige Darstellung der Lehre Herbarts (ib., 1899); J. Adams, The Herbartian Psychology applied to Education (1897); F. H. Hayward, The Student’s Herbart (1902), The Critics of Herbartianism (1903), Three Historical Educators: Pestalozzi, Fröbel, Herbart (1905), The Secret of Herbart (1907), The Meaning of Education as interpreted by Herbart (1907); W. Kinkel, J. F. Herbart: sein Leben und seine Philosophie (1903); A. Darroch, Herbart and the Herbartian Theory of Education (1903); C. J. Dodd, Introduction to the Herbartian Principles of Teaching (1904); J. Davidson, A new Interpretation of Herbart’s Psychology and Educational Theory through the Philosophy of Leibnitz (1906); see also J. M. Baldwin, Dictionary of Psychology and Philosophy (1901–1905).

  1. Hence Herbart gave the name Synechology to this branch of metaphysics, instead of the usual one, Cosmology.
  2. Thus, taking the case above supposed, the share of the inhibendum falling to the smaller presentation b is the fourth term of the proportion ; and so b's remainder is , which only = 0 when a = ∞.