You’ve likely heard of Nietzsche and Kant, but there are a host of other German philosophers you should get to know. Germany is famous for its contribution to philosophy in modern times – that’s the 18th century onwards, not just the past 20 years! – and there are plenty of philosophers worth reading. So, to add to your knowledge of famous Germans, here are eight German philosophers you need to know to understand the culture better.
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Immanuel Kant
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
- Hannah Arendt
- Arthur Schopenhauer
- Karl Marx
- Rosa Luxemburg
- Theodor Adorno
1. Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche is one of the most famous 19th-century German philosophers. He was critical of traditional European morality and religion and developed the theory of the Übermensch, a superman, who would rise above Christian morality and create new values. Nietzsche explained more about his idea of the Übermensch in his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. One of his most provocative statements was, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
2. Immanuel Kant
The 18th-century German philosopher Kant was a leading figure in Enlightenment thinking. One of his central ideas is of human autonomy and he worked on trying to explain the relationship between reason and human experience. Many of his ideas are still very current today, including the idea that our mind shapes the reality around us and the question of how we can perceive reality. One of this well-known German philosopher’s quotes is, “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”
3. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Hegel, born in Stuttgart in 1770, was one of the most prominent philosophers of the 18th century. Like Kant, he was an idealist and he believed that we perceive the world through our preconceptions and ideas. However, unlike Kant, Hegel believed that our perceptions were shaped by the society around us. He also believed in the collective consciousness – Spirit – of society and thought that this Spirit evolves according to a dialectic pattern. One of his most famous ideas was about the Master-slave dialectic.
4. Hannah Arendt
Arendt was one of the 20th century’s most influential philosophers. She was born into a Jewish family and left Germany in the 1930s and finally emigrated to the United States in 1941. Two of her most famous works are The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition, which explored how human activities can be understood through history. One of her most famous quotations, from her final, unfinished work, The Life of the Mind, was, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
5. Arthur Schopenhauer
Schopenhauer was fairly gloomy about human nature, leading him to be nicknamed the “Philosopher of Pessimism.” He was convinced that the world was not a rational place and believed that humans should minimize their will and desires in order to live more harmoniously. Born in 1788, he was one of the first Western philosophers to combine Buddhist thought into his writings. One of his famous quotations, which reflects his pessimism, is, “Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.”
6. Karl Marx
Certainly one of the most famous names on this list, Karl Marx is well-known as the author of The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. He was born in Trier in 1818. He maintained that human societies develop through class conflict and that capitalism would be destroyed and replaced by the socialist mode of production. It’s worth reading his ideas as they had a huge impact on many 20th-century societies, notably the USSR, Cuba and China. A well-known edict, taken from The Communist Manifesto, is “Working Men of All Countries, Unite!” (not “Workers of the World, Unite!” as it’s been popularized in English).
7. Rosa Luxemburg
Luxemburg was described by a colleague as the “most brilliant intellect of all the scientific heirs of Marx and Engels.” She made great contributions to the development of socialist thought and put an emphasis on democracy and mass action as the way to achieve international socialism. Though she was born in Poland, she was a naturalized German citizen who died in Berlin in 1919.
8. Theodor Adorno
Adorno, a native of Frankfurt, was driven out of Germany by the Nazi regime, though he did eventually return to his home country. Adorno believed that advanced capitalism degrades human beings. He criticized the “culture industry” and popular music in particular, arguing that mass culture is designed to make the people who consume it docile and unable to deeply understand themselves. His work also focused on fascism and ideas of how to prevent people from becoming authoritarian through early detection and psychology.
Discover the ideas of these famous German philosophers
Though we’ve barely scratched the surface of Germany’s contribution to philosophy, the names on this list are a broad stroke of German philosophers and their very different ideas. Start back in the 18th century with Kant and Hegel, work through the socialist ideas of Marx and Luxemburg and then explore totalitarianism with Arendt.
Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.