Lectures on Philosophical Ethics. Translated by Louise Adey Huish. Edited by Robert B. Louden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

“Lectures on Philosophical Ethics” consists of three parts: (i) Introduction, (ii) Ethics 1812/13, and (iii) Final version 1814/17 or 1816/17. Firstly, in the introduction, editor, Robert B. Louden summarizes and analyzes Schleiermacher’s ethical writings which were all written before 1812. He declares that many German scholars consider Schleiermacher’s ethical theory as his most outstanding philosophical achievement. (xxix) Schleiermacher, in Louden’s view, tried to integrate his intellectual influences of Kant, ancient Greek thoughts, early Romanticism, and Spinoza in his moral philosophy. Louden declares Schleiermacher’s ethics as a more descriptive science than a normative one because Schleiermacher announces his task as to ethics is to encompass and document all human action. (xxv) Even though Schleiermacher’s arguments are different in different versions of his Lectures on ethics, all his arguments are related to human social structure which defines all human action.

Schleiermacher’s first claim stated in the Introduction of his lectures is that “the communication of a single distinct science cannot have any proper starting-point.” (3) In order to say that certain knowledge is complete and perfect we have to see the knowledge as a whole and not from a one-sided viewpoint. Therefore, ethics for Schleiermacher is considered as a process of becoming, and not as completed one. Schleiermacher moves to the next argument about the highest good. He tries to define the highest good by using the way of the opposition, that is, the opposition between formative (organizing) function and cognitive function of human reason. “If it is nevertheless true that reason also manifests itself in formative acts, this is so to the extent that all seizing subsequently involves being, and every formative act begins with cognition; taken altogether both functions are essentially bound up together in every complete act.” (40) According to Schleiermacher, the organizing function of human reason represents the entry of reason into nature, and human existence can be given only in the form of cognition; therefore, we may “posit cognitive activity as an original feature of it.” (17) Each function of human reason (cognitive or formative) is limited by the other. Through this opposition, Schleiermacher tries to explain particular and general elements of human moral formation. He asserts that true cognition is “the grasping of the individual entity in its relation to the totality, that is, in the identity of general and particular.” (18) There is no community itself or particularity itself, but a common particularity and a particular community can exist. He continues on defining the essential characteristic of an ethical community as free sociability. (95) Free sociability means the community which is created by communication in one’s relation to others. This sociability manifests itself in hospitality and friendship which consists of the basic form of community, and for the very reason, community among a number of states and churches proceeds from free sociability. “The possibility of extending sociability thus far lies on the one hand in the specific inclination of certain individuals to deepen their acquaintance with what is unfamiliar by means of direct intuition, and on the other in the fact that anyone who throws open his house ought not to exclude anyone who is brought to him as a result of external circumstances and who faces him with the proper receptiveness.” (98) Schleiermacher concludes that the inclination of the great moral person is “to enter into community with the past and the future; such an inclination can admittedly only be realized through works of science and art, but nevertheless proceeds just as often from free sociability and the state as from the scholarly association and the church.” (99)

In discussing the doctrine of virtue, Schleiermacher relates it with the highest good as follows: “each sphere of the highest good requires all the virtues, each virtue runs through all the spheres of the highest good.” (101) Virtue can be defined as the thing which determines whether one is worthy of happiness, even though it cannot generate by itself happiness. (101) Virtue as the pure ideal content of action is “disposition,” and virtue as reason set into temporal form is “skill.” These two cannot be separated because disposition without skill “can only be imagined in a hypothetical moment, for otherwise it would not be a force but only reason at rest, merely an idea,” and skill without disposition would be “purely sensory, or else its morality would reside in the person possessing the appropriate disposition, for whom this first person would be merely an organ.” (102) Disposition is merely the producing of skill, and skill is only the organic, temporal existence of disposition. (114) Schleiermacher continues to state that disposition in cognition is “wisdom”, disposition in depiction is “love” and “cognition set into temporal form is prudence, depiction set into temporal form is steadfastness.” (103) Firstly, wisdom is the “quality by virtue of which all human action acquires an ideal content,” and the wisdom of feeling “consist in the fact that for the human being nothing is pleasure or unpleasure except by virtue of its relation to the ideal.” (105) Secondly, love is reason “which wants to become soul, the entering of reason into the organic process, in the same way as the entering of matter into the organic process is a wanting to become body.” (109) Thirdly, prudence has to “be possible for all its moments to be traced in all the moments of wisdom” (119) as long as prudence is the manifestation of wisdom. Fourthly, steadfastness contains only “the mechanical aspect of implementing something as the dominance of reason in the organization.” (119) Schleiermacher asserts that the highest good “must be realized, and will indeed always be realized where steadfastness and prudence are to be found.” (122)

Schleiermacher moves to discuss the doctrine of duties. He explains the relation of duties to the highest good as follows: “The highest good is the totality of all actions in accordance with duty. If these were in conflict with one another, then individual components of the highest good would be in conflict with one another.” (124) Even though as a doctrine, the doctrine of duties remains independent of the other two depictions duty presupposes the highest good and sets conditions on virtue. (221) In discussing the doctrine of duties, 1812/13 version deals with only the duty of right and the duty of profession, but the final version (probably 1814/17) includes additional issues - mainly the duty of conscience and the duty of love.

In sum, for Schleiermacher ethics is the study of reason’s action on nature. He talks about the doctrines of goods, virtue, and duties: the term ‘good’ refers to the end or goal of moral activity; ‘virtue’ to the power or force in human being making moral actions possible; and ‘duty’ to those principles of action necessary for the realization of the highest good. (xxvii) Schleiermacher highlights four specific spheres of human ethical activity, and each sphere, according to Louden, corresponds to “a quadrant created by the crossing of reason’s two major antitheses,” (xxviii) that is, the organizing/symbolizing and the universality/particularity. In consequence, those four spheres correspond to four types of moral community: the state corresponds to the organizing/universal; the free sociability to the organizing/particular; the universities to the symbolizing/universal; and the church to the symbolizing/particular. (xxix)

Kant provided greatly to the construction of modern theology. Even if Schleiermacher did not incorporate Kant’s ideas as is, it is undisputed that he established a new sphere of religion and ethics based on Kant’s ideas. Schleiermacher thought that humans had a fundamental recognition ability that enables the existence of religion besides knowledge and will. Such ability is human’s ‘feeling of absolute dependence.’ In other words, human’s intuition and feeling toward God, which cannot be analyzed by reason or intended by will, is the beginning of his theology. Such approach of religion seems to be manifested in his approach to ethics. As Kant’s philosophy was all about analyzing human’s internal things such as reason or feeling instead of analyzing the things external of human being, Schleiermacher also analyzed internal ability of human beings instead of analyzing the revelation or the Scripture in order to explain ethical and moral issues.


Chanhong Kim
Boston University

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