Nicolai Hartmann Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Hartmann successfully vindicated ontology as worthy of a scientific study of being to his contemporaries who treated it cavalierly.

Early Life

Nicolai Hartmann was born at Riga, Latvia, on February 20, 1882, to Karl August, a merchant, and Helene, daughter of a pastor. His father died early. His mother founded and directed a German private school in Riga. Her educational undertakings and the moral rigors of her father’s personality must have strengthened the pedagogical propensities and austerity of thought that Hartmann displayed later in his life.

His education started at a Gymnasium in St. Petersburg, a vibrant center of European intellectual activity in those days. After graduation from the Gymnasium, he studied medicine in Dorpat in Estonia and, later, classical philology and philosophy in Marburg, a university town in Hesse, Germany. It was in Marburg that Hartmann came under the influence of Herman Cohen, the founder of the Marburg school of Neo-Kantianism, and his outstanding pupil Paul Natorp—an influence that stayed with Hartmann in one form or another for the rest of his life. His juvenilia bustles with Neo-Kantian idealism. Even in his more mature works, Hartmann is often seen conducting a dialogue with Immanuel Kant while moving away from him.

Life’s Work

In 1907, Hartmann was graduated from the University of Marburg with a Ph.D. He was made a privatdocent in philosophy in 1909, joined the army, experienced battle on the Russian front, and in 1920 became professor of philosophy at Marburg, a profession that helped him think dispassionately and analyze philosophically his dehumanizing experiences of war. Consequently Hartmann wrote a three-volume work on the ethos of mankind called Ethik (1926; Ethics, 1932), criticizing the Kantian ethics of categorical imperatives, thereby giving a message to the world that it is possible to put humanity back onto the right track in spite of the wounds of war. Hartmann agreed with Kant that moral imperatives or values are a priori and objective, but he disagreed with Kant’s idea that their objectivity issues from human reason, probably, arguing the possible reasons of a war. Hartmann saw the objectivity of moral imperatives in their unique ontological existence, “an existence in themselves, independent of all imagination and longing. It means consciousness of them does not determine values, but the values determine the consciousness of them.”

If values exist so independent of human consciousness, one wonders how they get actualized in it unless they stick to it as barnacles do to the bottom of the ship. Hartmann believed that values are endowed with almost an innate and an irresistible urge to come into being, which they do through the human agency. Once values are embedded in human consciousness, they shape its ethical consciousness with the same power as the physiological structure of the eye, which determines for the owner of the eye the shape of things he sees with that eye. The owner of the eye cannot choose to see what the eye does not permit.

These values harbor in them innate antinomies much like the antinomic nature of Aristotle’s “virtue.” For example, happiness, a so-called good value, is not without its antinomic bad. As Hartmann comments, “even in happiness there lurks a hidden disvalue,” which makes “anyone who is spoiled by happiness . . . shallow.” Because of the antinomic nature of value, punctiliously analyzed by Hartmann in the second volume of his Ethics, it is clear that humans have the moral freedom to choose between two antinomic goods of a given value. This concept of moral freedom or freedom of will is explored in greater detail in the third volume of Ethics through an analysis of man’s sense of responsibility and the working of guilt in him. Hartmann’s ethics projects a picture of a moral world that is free from the determinisms of all kind: Kantian, teleological, and axiological. It is not a chaotic world of the nihilist, because of the presence in it of a healthy reaction between its own world and the world of human consciousness.

In spite of a lesson in moral values, Hartmann, like many of his contemporaries, must have been uncomfortable at the uneasy truce following the war and the impending danger of the global destruction of a possible second war. Eschewing politics completely, as most of the intellectuals of his days did, Hartmann sublimated his inherent fears in an ontological investigation of being in four books that can loosely be...

(The entire section is 1894 words.)