Eduard von Hartmann Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Eduard von Hartmann 1842-1906

(Full name Carl Robert Eduard von Hartmann) German philosopher and dramatist.

Hartmann's philosophical writings generally are categorized as belonging to the pessimist school of philosophy, which also includes the works of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Italian philosopher and poet Giacomo Leopardi, and English Romantic poet Lord Byron. The pessimists held that life is inherently less than ideal and that humankind is born to sorrow in a world that provides the worst possible existence. Hartmann, however, attempted to reconcile the work of Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel with the atheistic suppositions of Schopenhauer. With his concept of the Unconscious as the unifying force behind the actions of all living beings, Hartmann established himself as a precursor to such modern theorists as William James and Sigmund Freud.

Biographical Information

Hartmann was born in Berlin, the only child of a Prussian officer and his wife, and a precocious student at the Künigliche Seminarschule and the Friedrichs-Werdersche Gymnasium. He entered the Artillery and Engineering School in 1859 and obtained an army commission in 1860. A knee injury that would plague him for the rest of his life caused Hartmann to abandon his military career and pursue his interests in painting and music, ultimately dedicating himself full-time to his passion for philosophy. He finished both his doctoral degree in philosophy and his major work Philosophy of the Unconscious in 1867. Hartmann married his first wife, Agnes Taubert, in 1871. Agnes Hartmann prominently championed her husband's philosophy with her 1873 essay “Pessimism and Its Opponents,” which offered a scientific rather than emotional defense of Hartmann's pessimism. In 1876 both Hartmann's wife and his father died, and he published The Phenomenology of the Moral Consciousness. He married Alma Lorrenz in 1878, and the couple endured her prolonged illness and Hartmann's knee ailments, which confined him to either crutches or a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. The Hartmanns left Berlin in 1885, relocating to Gross-Lichterfelde, where he continued to write until his death from stomach ailments in 1906.

Major Works

While publishing on a wide variety of scientific, aesthetic, and philosophical subjects throughout his career, Hartmann is perhaps best remembered for his Philosophy of the Unconscious, a work that he continued to expand into three volumes. In this work Hartmann advocated the Unconsciousness as the combination of the inseparable nature of Schopenhauer's “Will” and Hegel's and Kant's “Intellect.” Hartmann argued that because life exists as an infinite and random combination of unintelligible forces, it is impossible to ascribe scientific or theological explanations to even the most mundane aspects of existence. Hartmann was categorized as a pessimist because of this work's assertion that nonexistence is preferable to existence. He supported his hypothesis by setting forth his “three fallacies of Happiness.” Hartmann's first fallacy was that happiness exists in the present, to which he responded that all pleasures or contentments are derived from painful processes that vastly outweigh the present happiness. Hartmann's second fallacy was that happiness was reserved for the hereafter, to which he responded that there is no guarantee of a life beyond this realm of existence. His third fallacy is that the human race is endeavoring to create a better world for the future, to which Hartmann responded that humankind historically acts upon its vices, actions that he perceived are more rather than less prevalent. He further supported his last argument by contrasting medical and technological advancements of the nineteenth-century with the progress of disease and overpopulation, and further asserted that humankind will forever succumb to old age, illness, poverty, and discontent. Hartmann's subsequent works—most notably Die Phänomenologie des sittlichen Bewusstseins (1879)—mostly expanded upon his first fallacy of happiness by arguing that pessimism is a valid groundwork for a contemporary system of ethics and religion. Because pessimism embraces the true natures of humankind and its world, argued Hartmann, it is the only valid system of belief to prepare for the inevitable demise of the universe. Although many of Hartmann's theories have been discounted by critics and philosophers since the publication of Philosophy of the Unconscious, he is nevertheless considered a major speculative idealist whose pessimist writings foreshadowed and influenced twentieth-century nihilism, as well as established the groundwork for later psychological and philosophical considerations of the human unconscious.