Johann Friedrich Herbart

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Herbart, Johann Friedrich


Born May 4, 1776, in Oldenburg; died Aug. 14, 1841, in Göttingen. German philosopher, psychologist, and educational theorist.

Herbart received his education at the University of Jena. He was a professor at the universities of Göttingen (from 1805), Königsberg (1809-33), where he founded a pedagogical seminar and an experimental school at the university, and again at Göttingen (from 1833). Herbart was opposed to the German classical idealism of the post-Kantian period—the philosophy of J. G. Fichte, F. Schelling, and G. Hegel. He denied the creative and spontaneous character of consciousness. According to Herbart, the basis of philosophy is experience, and philosophy itself must be concerned with “reworking the concepts of experience” in order to elucidate and correct them. Thus, logic attempts to render the concepts clear and to reveal their unsuitability for experience in case of contradiction (Herbart denied the reality of contradictions). Metaphysics removes this quality of contradiction, and aesthetics, which for Herbart also includes ethics, supplements concepts with definitions of values. Taking as his point of departure the Kantian concept of thing-in-itself and Leibniz’ doctrine of monads, Herbart asserted the existence of so-called reals—a plurality of simple and immutable beings whose various mutual interactions give rise to the sphere of phenomena, or individual things.

Herbart was the founder of the so-called aesthetics of forms, which is usually set up in opposition to the “content” aesthetics of Hegel. According to Herbart, the beautiful consists in the formal interrelationships of such qualities as symmetry, proportion, rhythm, and harmony, which are also the source of aesthetic pleasure. Herbart’s aesthetic ideas were further developed by R. von Zimmermann and E. Hanslick.

Herbart’s psychological ideas have left a significant mark on the history of psychology. He argued against the doctrine of faculties as primary and indivisible powers of the soul, inasmuch as this theory cannot explain the “natural history of the soul,” that is, the development of man’s psychic life in accordance with laws. Herbart was the first to attempt to construct psychology as a systematic science, which, in his view, should be based on metaphysics, experience, and mathematics. The soul is a definite real, possessing states that are the essence of the presentation, or idea. The movement of the presentations constitutes the life of the soul. The presentations that are crowded out of the consciousness still retain their influence on it. They form the sphere of unconscious psychic activity. Each new phenomenon of consciousness is affected by the existing reserve of unconscious presentations, which make up the so-called apperceptive mass. From the correlation between the presentations Herbart attempted to derive all the aspects of psychic activity, including will and feeling. This imparted an extreme intellectualism to his doctrine.

Herbart’s followers, such as H. Steinthal and M. Lazarus, extended his theory to explain the historical development of ethnic psychology. Although Herbart denied the applicability of experiment in psychology, his ideas nonetheless exerted an influence on the founders of experimental psychology, including G. Fechner and W. Wundt. In particular, Herbart prepared the way for the concept of the threshold of consciousness as that amount of a presentation at which the presentation ceases to be comprehended. His view of the unconscious psyche played a role in preparing the way for Freudeanism.


Herbart’s philosophical and psychological views played an important role in the development of his theory of education. For Herbart philosophy indicates the goals of education, and psychology shows us the ways to achieve these goals. The principal aim of education, according to Herbart, is the harmony of the will with ethical ideals and the development of many-sided interests. Herbart considered the divisions of education to be the “disciplining” of children, educational instruction that would develop many-sided interests, and a moral education. He considered the development of voluntary attention as the most important didactic task.

Herbart advanced the concept of four stages of instruction, which were to serve as the principles for preparing each lesson: clarity, which corresponds to the initial encounter with new material and the extensive utilization of visual aids; association, which establishes links between old and new presentations in the process of free discussion; system, whereby the most important element is isolated and rules and laws are derived; and finally method, or the practical application of learning during various types of exercises. The absolutization and universalization of this scheme by the followers of Herbart led to the formalization of the process of instruction. The means of moral education were approval and disapproval, a turning away from anything that would arouse excitement, an observance of regulations, and the development of religious feelings of peaceful reconciliation and dependence upon higher forces. The comprehension of these ideas by every individual would ensure the absence of conflict in social life and the stability of the state system. Closely linked with moral education in Herbart’s system was “educating instruction” consisting in the external disciplining of children and in making them accustomed to an orderly system. The means of educating instruction included supervision, issuing orders, denial of privileges, threats, punishments, as well as the ability to keep the child occupied.

Herbart’s pedagogical system reflected his political conservatism. This explains the great popularity of Herbart’s teaching methods among government circles in many countries during the 19th century.


Sämtliche Werke, vols. 1-19. Leipzig-Langensalza, 1882-1912.
In Russian translation:
Psikhologiia. St. Petersburg, 1895.
Izbr. pedagogicheskie sochineniia, vol. 1. Moscow, 1940.


Iaroshevskii, M. G. Istoriia psikhologii. Moscow, 1966.
Flügel, O. Herbarts Lehre und Leben, 2nd ed. Leipzig, 1912.
Fritzsch, T. J. F. Herbarts Leben und Lehre. Leipzig-Berlin, 1921.
Weiss, G. Herbart und seine Schule. Munich, 1928.
Zimmer, H. Führer durch die deutsche Herbart-Literatur. Langensalza, 1910.