The political, social, and cultural layout of Germany in the eighteenth century inhibited much of the Enlightenment advancements that took place in France. Germany was divided into a number of smaller states, most of which were ruled by despots who stifled intellectual development. The total number of German newspapers had barely increased at all in the 150 years leading up to the Enlightenment, and the literary language in the country was predominantly Latin, which made the dispersion of other Enlightened works difficult.
Moreover, whereas France had a combination of antsy intellectuals and flighty nobility, as well as a boom in middle-class literacy, Germany did not. Germany lacked the distinct rift between the middle class and the aristocracy, and there was not nearly the popular discontent with religion or the Church that there was in France. As a result, many German intellectuals refuted the French idea of empiricism, refusing to believe that a simplistic set of laws, akin to the laws of physics or astronomy, could dictate the operation of human society. Germany’s literary landscape was also quite jumbled: it had no distinct literary style, and different regions pulled from different languages and influences.
Nonetheless, after King Frederick the Great of Prussia introduced some Enlightenment ideas from other parts of Europe, a small German Enlightenment (often known by its German name, the Aufklärung) began, although it went off in an entirely different direction from the English or French movements. The German Enlightenment never subjected religion to the same scrutiny as in other countries; in fact, the Aufklärung retained a somewhat mystical view of the world, with some of Germany’s leading writers adhering to the idea of combining reason with religion.
The first major figure in the German Enlightenment was the brilliant Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), who began his career in law but quickly moved out into other fields. Mathematically, he was Newton’s equal, as the gentlemen both “discovered” calculus at the same time. Although the two would bicker for some time over proper credit, a few elements of calculus have been attributed exclusively to Leibniz, such as the idea of a function and the integral symbol. Foraying into metaphysics, Leibniz proposed the idea that everything in the universe consisted of monads, which he conceived of essentially as “spiritual atoms” that constitute our perception of the world but lack physical dimension. Unlike many figures in the French and English Enlightenment, Leibniz was very religious and in fact saw monads as reflections of a structured, harmonious universe—the work of a perfect God.
Leibniz’s deep religious faith and affinity for tradition kept him conservative in his approach to his work, permeated his writings, and paved the way for the mysticism of the rest of the German Enlightenment. Even so, Leibniz laid a foundation that all future Enlightenment scholars would build upon. His monadologial approach to metaphysics may come across as bizarre, but it brought metaphysics into the spotlight and left it ripe for both elaboration and criticism, the latter of which came at the hands of Hume and Kant. Although these two prominent later philosophers disagreed with Leibniz, he gave them something to think about and in that sense enabled their own advances.
Considered the last major philosopher of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was enormously influential and essentially founded an entire school of thought out of the blue. Living and working in relative isolation in Königsberg, East Prussia, for his entire life, Kant began his career as a tutor and then took a position as professor in a local university. He spent that time, however, studying the works of other philosophers and formulating his own postulates about the world, which he finally released as the Critique of Pure Reason (1781).