The Critique is a response to the questions that Descartes, Hume, Leibniz, and other contemporaries had posed about perception and reality. Attacking the age-old question of knowledge versus experience, Critique proposes that all people are born with an inborn sense of raw experience—a phenomenon that Kant dubbed transcendental idealism. Whereas the Enlightenment had been built around the idea that man can discover the laws of nature with his mind, Kant countered that it is the mind that gives those laws to nature. In so doing, he elevated skepticism to unfathomable heights, cemented his place high atop the pantheon of philosophy, and knocked the Enlightenment down a few rungs.

Kant’s work with skepticism perfectly sums up the German Enlightenment’s mistrust of empiricism. The Critique suggests that we all are born with our own ideas and perceptions of the world and, as such, can never know what is “real” and what is “our perception.” In other words, reality is in the eyes of the beholder. However, because nothing really exists separate from its existence in the eyes of the observer, then perceptions and observations in the world cannot be trusted. As a result, empirical evidence cannot be trusted either. By thus stating that only a select few universal truths in the world were valid, Kant effectively disagreed with the premise of the entire French Enlightenment.

Kant also tried to define morality, another timeless philosophical question, in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). In this work, he argues that reason must be the basis for moral action and that any action undertaken out of convenience or obedience cannot be considered moral, even if it is the right thing to do. Rather, the morality of an action depends on the motivation for the action. Hence, if an individual arrives at the conclusion that a certain action is right and pursues that course of action as a result, then that behavior is moral. These and other ideas of Kant’s continued to influence philosophers—especially German philosophers—long after his death. Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche all borrow significantly from Kant’s line of thinking.


Though known less for his philosophy, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832) would nevertheless emerge from the Enlightenment regarded as Germany’s finest writer. The moody Goethe was prone to alternating between periods of production and remission, but during his times of productivity he churned out two landmarks in German literature. His novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), about a young boy who falls for an unattainable girl and eventually kills himself out of despair, had an unimaginable impact on German youth at the time. It is primarily for that work that Goethe is considered the most prominent figure in Germany's Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) movement, a roughly twenty-year period from the 1760s to 1780s in which young German intellectuals, inspired by Rousseau’s emphasis on emotion, revolted against optimism and reason and plunged into darker, more anarchic themes.

Goethe released numerous essays, poems, and critiques over the following thirty years, then unveiled the literary masterpiece that would solidify his place in history. The first part of the epic verse drama Faust was published in 1808, the second in 1832. The work—a retelling of the German legend of a man who promises his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power (previously told in Christopher Marlowe’s 1604Dr. Faustus)—was massively successful. Goethe, however, died the same year that the second part was published.

Goethe was never terribly concerned with the politics of his era, even amid the massive governmental shifts that were taking place in Germany at the time. He was a writer and scholar, plain and simple, and spent the bulk of his career creating an enormous body of literature, translations, and scientific inquiries. The Sorrows of Young Werther had such an impact that German youngsters started dressing like Werther and even killing themselves; in subsequent editions, Goethe felt obligated to include a warning discouraging readers from taking their lives. In Faust, his monumental foray into satire and social commentary, Goethe continued in his intimate, emotional vein. Between the two parts of Faust, Goethe released collections of personal, introverted poetry. Just like Rousseau’s works in France, Goethe’s works focused on emotions and innate human feelings, signaling the end of the German Enlightenment, which flowed right into the Romantic movement that was burgeoning throughout Europe.

Popular pages: The Enlightenment (1650–1800)