Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Herbart, Johann Friedrich (1776–1841)

  • Wilna A. J. Meijer
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_199


This systematic thinker developed an educational theory, and its foundational ethical and psycological theories. At the same time, full recognition is given to the relation between educational theory and practice.

Herbart was born in 1776, in Oldenburg in Germany in the household of a jurist. His private education at home and, from the age of 12, a gymnasium, had already brought a first introduction to the philosophy of Kant, Wolff, and Leibniz. His education also exemplified the idea and ideal of a broad, humanistic education as to the role of art and the aesthetical: he learned to play the piano, cello, flute, and harp. At 18 he started a study in law at the University of Jena, where he was soon to change this Brodstudium (“bread study,” “just for money”) for the study of philosophy which attracted him so much more. In Jena, he was confronted with Fichte, whose philosophy he soon started to criticize. As early as 1798, he wrote an epistemological sketch to defeat idealism and defend realism in philosophy – a strand in his thought that will remain and can be discerned in all his philosophical, educational, and psychological work. At the same time, he gained experience in educational practice as a private teacher of three boys in the Steiger household in Bern, 1797–1799. Then he resumed his academic studies. He received a doctorate at the University of Göttingen in 1802, where he stayed to work as lecturer, later professor, until 1809. In that period the first educational works and the practical philosophy appeared.

From 1809 to 1833, Herbart was professor of philosophy at the University of Königsberg, formerly Kant’s chair. Königsberg is in Prussia, where educational matters were at the center of political attention at that time. Wilhelm von Humboldt, Minister of Education, supported Herbart in realizing a plan already conceived of by Kant, viz., the establishment of an educational seminary at the university. Approximately ten boys were tutored by approximately ten teacher training students. A few experienced teachers were the guarantee that the pupils received a good, broad, and balanced education. Herbart himself taught mathematics. In his Königsberg days, Herbart’s academic work concentrated on the development of a psychology after the new scientific paradigm that combines the empirical and the mathematical (note that 1776, Herbart’s year of birth, was David Hume’s year of death). In 1833, Herbart returned as full professor to the University of Göttingen. Here he wrote his late, as much lucid as concise and systematical, educational work Umriss pädagogischer Vorlesungen (Umriss, 1835, the second edition appeared in the year of his death, 1841; “Outline of Educational Lectures”).

Herbart counts as one of the most systematical thinkers in the modern educational, academic discipline known as Pädagogik on the continent. He has left a rounded and close-knit oeuvre that is worthwhile reading and studying. From his first publications in the beginning of the nineteenth century, he developed an educational philosophy intertwined with practical philosophy (ethics) and psychology as its foundational disciplines. The fundamental educational ideas systematically presented once more in his late work, the Umriss, can already be traced in his early Die aesthetische Darstellung der Welt als Hauptgeschäft der Erziehung (AD, 1804; The Aesthetic Representation of the World as Education’s Main Concern) and, more extensively, in his Allgemeine Pädagogik aus dem Zweck der Erziehung abgeleitet (AP, 1806; General Educational Theory, Developed from the Aim of Education). In between, he presented his ideas on ethics in the Allgemeine Practische Philosophie (APP, 1808; General Practical Philosophy) and, in a chain of works, his empirical, scientific psychology the Lehrbuch zur Psychologie (Textbook on Psychology) that appeared in 1816, a rewritten edition in 1834, in which he repeatedly emphasizes that it is a popularization and a shorthand of the main scientific work, i.e., the two-volume Psychologie als Wissenschaft, neugegründet auf Erfahrung, Metaphysik und Mathematik (Psychology as Science, Refounded on Experience, Metaphysics and Mathematics), which he published at his own cost in 1824 and 1825.

The psychological works of his Königsberg years are, as much as the practical philosophy developed in his first Göttingen period, permeated by Herbart’s educational interest. The objective to understand the possibility and the process of education and to develop a theoretical and practical sound concept of education is the gist of his entire work.

In his practical philosophy, Herbart explicitly relates to Kant. He thinks that Kant’s conception of practical reason is not educationally fruitful. As an alternative, Herbart develops his idea of aesthetical judgment and its development and its relation to ethical judgment. It is evident from the early work that ethical and educational theory converge, and it is in the discussion of Kant’s theory of practical, ethical judgment that this unity is accounted for by Herbart. In the AD of 1804 – Kant’s year of death – there is a 15-page explanation of what is a few years later, in the AP and the APP, spelled out in greater detail. It is Herbart’s concern to form an idea of morality and freedom as real possibilities, in other words, as possibilities realizable in historical time, in contrast to the transcendental and universal character of the Kantian conception of morality and freedom. Herbart’s concern is inherently educational: the concept of the ethical is presented in unity with the concept of its development over time in childhood and youth.

Herbart’s difference with Kant should not blind us to a crucial similarity. Herbart agrees with Kant that morality should not be identified with prevailing, historically given moralities. Rather, the ethical judgment of the free, autonomous human subject is crucial (Der Sittliche gebietet sich selbst; AD, Herbart 1986, p. 62). However, when it comes to the matter of such judgment, Kant dismisses this question by turning immediately to its form, i.e., the formal generality of the categorical imperative that distinguishes practical judgment from random arbitrariness. Herbart explicitly chooses a different route here. Kant distinguishes, in his Critiques, practical, ethical reason (der praktischen Vernunft) from aesthetical reason (Urteilskraft, “power of judgment”), while first having distinguished pure, theoretical reason (der reine Vernunft). Herbart connects aesthetical and ethical judgment and emphasizes their shared comparative-deliberative character in which form and content are indissolubly connected.

The overall aim of education is Tugend, virtue, which is elucidated in practical philosophical terms: “Virtue is the development in a person of the idea of inner freedom into a persistent reality” (Tugend ist (…) die in einer Person zur beharrlichen Wirklichkeit gediehene Idee der inneren Freiheit, Umriss, section 8). Like the other practical philosophical ideas (such as benevolence and equity), this practical philosophical idea of “inner freedom” is about the relation between insight and will, Einsicht und Wille. The relation which pleases (gefällt, the outcome of a nondiscursive, rather contemplative deliberation; to behold is to see) in this case is that the will follows the insight. Insight and judgment are as such the outcome of deliberation and reflective distanciation. This is also the case when they are concerned with human will and action and, more in particular, with one’s own will and action in relation to those of other people – the matter of ethical judgment.

Deliberating and judging one’s own will and action implies a certain duplicity, an essential self-referentiality and reflexivity. This duplicity is an important theme in Herbart’s AP, where it is discussed as the distinction between “objective character” and “subjective character.” It can also already be discerned in the AD, for example, in this passage:

See to it that the pupil finds itself as choosing the good and rejecting the bad: this, and nothing else, is character education! This elevation to a self-conscious personality should without a doubt happen in the mind of the pupil itself and it should be executed by the pupil’s own activity; it would be nonsense for the educator to produce this essential power and pour it into the soul of the other being. (AD, Herbart 1986, p. 61)

This is an important educational thought: the activity of the child itself as crucial to its own development and education, in contrast with a formative activity on the part of the educator. Further, there is, in the opening phrase (“the pupil finds itself as choosing…”), the mentioned duplicity that Herbart shall later elaborate upon in his scientific psychology. This psychology, underestimated or even dismissed for a long time, is re-appreciated presently because of its remarkably topical concept of the unconscious. Herbart’s educational and psychological thought is as much intertwined as his educational and practical philosophical thought.

Already in the AP, there are instances of Herbart’s notably realistic sense of psychological phenomena. The intriguing distinction of objective and subjective character, in which an idea of the importance of the unconscious is assumed, is a good case in point:

It is an old complaint, that the human being often has as it were two souls. He observes himself, wants to grasp himself, like himself, guide himself. But already before this observation, when he is immersed in things and the outside world, he has a will and occasionally very specific character traits. These are the objective, which the observing subject either agrees or conflicts with, by a newly created will, produced in a completely different mood. (AP, Herbart 1986, p. 141)

The subjective character agrees with or disapproves of what it finds in the objective character. Objective character shows in what one consistently wants, chooses, and avoids. There are many inclinations and they are not equally strong – there is an element of choice here. Persons can understand themselves from the direction of their own motives and preferences and arrive at a judgment about it – in this way, explicit maxims or principles arise. Rules and principles are a late product in the individual’s development and education; they evolve from reflection on previously formed preferences and inclinations.

The educational side of the idea of a self-conscious and reflective person that “finds itself as a judging and choosing being” is relevant: aesthetical (and ethical) judgment originates from a broad and balanced “circle of thoughts” (Gedankenkreis). Education mainly contributes to the aim of virtue along this line: rather than forming the will, it is geared toward building up knowledge of the world and insight. It is not educationally wise to try to influence or build the pupil’s character and morality directly by moralizing or preaching. This is “a sort of false economy” (eine Art von falscher Ökonomie, AP, Herbart 1986, p. 179) that wants to attain immediately something which can only be the outcome of a gradual development over time. It is educationally unwise to demand of children an instantaneous acceptance of and obedience to specific moral rules and values, instead of waiting for the development and the coming into existence of aesthetical and ethical judgment in educated persons themselves. Certainly, as children participate in the everyday life of the community, they can be expected to adjust here and now to the custom and rule of that community; this is part of what Herbart calls Regierung (“reign”). And there is a place for the direct, dyadic interaction between educator and pupil which Herbart labels Zucht (“discipline”). But in the main part of education, erziehender Unterricht (“intellectual education” or, better, “general education”), it is crucial to give time – to wait and see – and to educate the mind and thoughts to wait. The gradual establishment of a rich and balanced circle of thoughts is education’s first and main issue. Aesthetical (and ethical) judgment will arise in due time from full, “completed” perception and representation of its object (vollendeten Vorstellen ihren Gegenstandes; AD, Herbart 1986, p. 63).

Herbart illustrates this by the example of hearing harmonic proportions in music. Suppose, he says, that the teacher is asked to furnish further evidence: he could only laugh and regret the obtuse ear that did not already perceive. In other words, one can sound the musical chord and let it be heard, but then the chord has to speak for itself. It is impossible to produce further arguments to back up the aesthetical judgment. This type of judgment springs from a completed perception; it is not the outcome of an argument or a line of reasoning. Aesthetical judgments are about perceptible proportions, be it in music (not about an isolated tone, but about various tones sounding simultaneously, chords, concords, discords) or in human affairs. Here, it is about relations between human beings, comparative relations between what the one person does, or desires to do, and what the other does or desires to do, and also between the thinking and doing, insight and will, of each person individually. Here too, as in music, judgment arises from the completed, balanced perception of comparative relations in their full concreteness and detail.

The prime task of education is the “aesthetical representation of the world” (aesthetische Darstellung der Welt), the indirect contribution to the origination of aesthetical and ethical judgment, nourishing it by increasing the pupil’s knowledge and understanding of the world, in which aesthetical proportions occur in ever-changing concrete configurations. Education’s first concern is, therefore, what the perceived world will be like:

This world should be a rich, wide-open sphere full of varieties of life! (…) Such a revelation of the world – the entire world and all known ages – can rightly be called the main concern of education. (AD, Herbart 1986, p. 67)

Erziehender Unterricht is characterized by breadth and many-sidedness; in other words, it is a general, liberal education. It aims at the broadly interested and versatile mind that is eventually of ethical relevance. The person who is broad in mind, in knowledge and in thought, is also broad in desires and in interests (wer viel kennt und denkt, der verlangt viel; AD, Herbart 1986, p. 65). Whereas a restricted outlook, by its very one-sidedness, comes close to egoism: “The one-sided person approximates the egoist, even when he does not notice it himself, because he relates everything to the small circle of his own life and thought” (Umriss, section 63). The richer and fuller the world opened by education, the less one-sided and narrow-minded, and the more well-balanced, the judgments originating from the Gedankenkreis will be. This is why erziehender Unterricht should intentionally and methodically correct and complement one-sidedness that pupils have already acquired, more or less arbitrarily, in “experience and human association” (Erfahrung und Umgang) in the outside world and at home. Broadening horizons, or with Herbart’s metaphor, opening all doors: “In order to intervene educationally in the existing thoughts and views of the pupil, all doors should be opened to him” (Damit der Unterricht in die vorhandenen Gedanken und Gesinnungen des Zöglings eingreife, müssen ihm allen Pforten geõffnet werden; Umriss, section 36).

Again, time and reflection are relevant, as is clear from an idea in Herbart’s psychologically based, remarkably realistic didactics, viz., the idea of the “respiration of learning” (geistige Respiration; AP, Herbart 1986, p. 172). Neo-Herbartians interpreted the stages of learning (“clarity, association, system, method”) as a didactical method in the hands of teachers, but they are rather a characterization of the learner’s activity. It is one of the ways that Herbart drew attention to the importance of time in education. In the Umriss, he speaks about the “alternation of deepening and reflection” (Wechsel der Vertiefung und Besinnung; section 66): breadth and many-sidedness imply that this “many” is acquired successively and, subsequently, that it is connected, united in a balanced “circle of thoughts,” and thus truly appropriated. In his 1834 Lehrbuch zur Psychologie, this educational thought is also expressed: “the general requirement that deepening and reflection, as an intellectual respiration, should always alternate” (die allgemeine Forderung, dass Vertiefung und Besinnung, gleich einer geistigen Respiration, stets mit einander abwechseln sollen; 1965, p. 169).

As critical as he was of Kant’s idea of transcendental freedom is Herbart of the metaphysical idea of totalization, as developed by Hegel in Herbart’s days. It amounts to a “foolish forgetfulness of earthly boundedness” (hörichtes Vergessen der irdischen Beschränktheit), as Herbart formulates it in the concluding pages of the 1834 Lehrbuch zur Psychologie (1965, p. 196). Philosophy of history should “beware of the projection of a systematic totality onto the variety of historically known events and societies, as if the one were the necessary complement of the other and everything would connect into a single unity of the human spirit. All previous history is a beginning, of which the continuation cannot be predicted” (ib.). This is a good example of Herbart’s realistic sense of the historical and of the contingency of human existence. Both educational and political practice work with moving and manageable forces (bewegliche und lenksame Kräfte (1965, p. 197)). They share the assumption that under certain circumstances and in due course, a permanent character can be gained – however, there are no necessities to build upon. “Iron necessity” is as much a detrimental illusion as absolute freedom is (1965, pp. 196–197). In education, one’s personal destination is eventually a matter of one’s own choice – but that choice itself is contextualized, therefore contingent. The occupation that the young person chooses for himself in his context can, therefore, be only an approximation of his true destination, one that the real society he lives in allows for (sein Beruf, oder die Stellung und Wirksamkeit welche in der wirklichen Gesellschaft der Bestimmung möglichst ähnlich ist, 1965, p. 198).

The relation between educational theory and practice that follows from this is given in Herbart’s idea of tact. Educational theory, however much scientifically informed, does not rob educators of their own judgment of their situation, but offers them insights with which they can improve their own practical deliberation and judgment. Tact consists in the power to judge situations of action. As every action situation is necessarily historical and therefore unique, it is not possible to deduce from theory how to act in actual practice. The situation itself always has to be judged on its own merit and in the light of its specific problems. Educational tact is the practitioner’s theoretically formed power of judgment. Theory does not produce ready-to-use recipes which educators might apply blindly, but sharpens, schools and directs the perception and interpretation of one’s own situation. The educator is never exempt from judging the practical situation, because no theory has ready-made answers for future historical situations on offer.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of GroningenGroningenThe Netherlands