Nineteenth Century Philosophy


Many nineteenth-century philosophers – including G. W. F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Nietzsche – held views about nature and animals which are relevant to, and sometimes anticipate, environmental ethics. Their views also reflect broader developments in nineteenth-century philosophy.

Until the 1840s, idealism – in the forms developed by the Germans J. G. Fichte, F. W. J. Schelling, and Hegel – was the dominant outlook. Central to German idealism was the belief that human beings are free, taking freedom (or autonomy) to be the ability to act and think independently of causal determination. From the 1840s onwards a range of more naturalist philosophical approaches became dominant. According to these approaches human beings are natural, part of the natural universe understood as a causal order. The later nineteenth century saw a resurgence of idealism, with many philosophers combining elements from idealism and materialism. Both German idealism and naturalism have mixed implications for environmental ethics.


German idealism and nature (1): Fichte and Schelling

German idealism developed out of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. The German idealists endorsed Kant’s view that human beings are autonomous, capable of breaking from causal determination to determine set their own values and thoughts. But Kant held that human beings are not only autonomous but also appear empirically – i.e. in everyday experience – to be part of nature, understood as the fully determined causal order of Newtonian science.

Based on these Kantian views, Fichte held that the self’s freedom conflicts with its empirical status as a natural, body embodied person whose sensations are causally determined. This conflict prompts the self to strive to overcome its determination by nature so as to become completely free. The self therefore endlessly strives to dominate and impose its will on nature (see The Vocation of Man, 1800). The more the self succeeds in ‘determining’ or shaping the character of nature through its activities, the more the self, in being determined by nature, actually remains self-determined after all.

Fichte’s FORMER follower Schelling reacted against Fichte’s insistence on the conflict between self and nature. Schelling argues that human freedom is only possible if it emerges out of and depends on a pre-existing form of freedom within nature. In his First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799) he maintains that nature is free in the sense that it originally consists in a pure ‘productivity’ or creativity which fixes itself in a succession of particular natural objects.

Schelling devised his accounts of nature partly through a priori reasoning about what nature must be like for human freedom to be possible, and partly by drawing together the results of the empirical sciences of his time (e.g., contemporary chemistry which seemed to reveal creative, self-transforming energies in nature). Naturphilosophie – ‘Philosophy of nature’ – was what Schelling called his part-speculative, part-empirical form of inquiry into nature, which became popular amongst early nineteenth-century scientists (leading to some real discoveries, e.g. of electromagnetism). Although mid-century scientific materialists repudiated Naturphilosophie, insisting that scientific inquiry must be purely empirical, Naturphilosophie influenced forerunners of ecology such as Ernst Haeckel.

Outside Germany contemporary environmental philosophers have seldom discussed Schelling. Yet he anticipates environmental ethics with his rejection of Fichte’s advocacy of human domination over nature, his contrasting emphasis that human freedom depends on the freedom of nature, and his replacement of mechanistic views of nature with an idea of nature as a creative whole.


German idealism and nature (2): Hegel

Hegel’s position on nature lies midway between those of Fichte and Schelling. In his Philosophy of Nature (1830), Hegel sees nature as rational rather than creative. For Hegel the natural world is rational not only in being intelligible to us, but also in that natural things in themselves form a rational order in which some things resolve internal conflicts within others. Like Schelling, Hegel reached his conclusions about nature on a partly a priori and partly empirical basis. Also like Schelling, Hegel insists that human rationality depends on the rationality of nature, and he sees nature as not a mechanism but a rational whole.

However, Hegel thinks that the rationality of nature is inferior to that of humanity – because nature is mind that is ‘outside itself,’ i.e. not self-conscious. As a result, Hegel argues in his political philosophy that human beings should appropriate and impose their will on natural things, so that these things will come to reflect the higher, more fully developed, kind of rationality that human beings possess. To this extent Hegel, like Fichte, provides a philosophical justification for human mastery over nature.

We see, then, that German idealism can be developed so as either (1) to support the domination of unfree nature by free humanity (Fichte), or (2) to treat human freedom as depending on and requiring that of nature (Schelling), or (3) to combine (1) and (2) by reinterpreting nature’s freedom as rationality and seeing it as an inferior version of human rationality (Hegel).

Schopenhauer on compassion and the will in nature

Schopenhauer’s ethics of compassion, developed in the 1810s, has influenced twentieth-century environmental ethics. His ethics rests on his metaphysics, which shares features with the German idealist systems but also presages the rise of naturalism in the later nineteenth century.

Following Kant, Schopenhauer claims in The World as Will and Representation (1844; first edition 1819) that the world only appears to consist of distinct items causally related in space and time because of our mode of perception. To explain what the world is like really rather than apparently, Schopenhauer first claims that I perceive my own body as one spatio-temporally located, causally related, item amongst others. But when I perform actions with my body, I am directly aware that these actions express my ‘acts of will’. I therefore know these acts of will to be the reality underlying and manifesting itself in my body as it appears to me. Moreover, my conscious and deliberate acts of will emerge from my deeper, unchosen and unconscious, will to live: to stay alive and to reproduce (sexually). Yet since there only appear to be individual items because of my mode of perception, my will cannot really be my will as distinct from the wills of others. Really there can only be one will which all things manifest. The will-to-life, then, occurs in all living creatures, not only all human beings.

Indeed, ultimately, since the will is undivided it must pervade non-organic nature too. Schopenhauer drew on strands of contemporary empirical science which supported this view that all natural processes (including, e.g., gravitation, magnetism, and crystal formation) are pervaded by will. The result is a partly a priori, partly empirical theory of nature not unlike those of Schelling and Hegel – ironically, since Schopenhauer reviled German idealism as pretentious nonsense. Unlike the German idealists, Schopenhauer denies that human individuals are free. His more naturalistic view is that human actions, like those of all living beings, are ultimately determined by the will-to-life. (The will itself, though, is free, since causality applies only to appearances.)

In ethics, Schopenhauer holds that all human beings are more or less egoistic because we cannot but pursue whatever we think will further our survival. The superior ethical attitude, though, is one of compassion for other human individuals and for animals. This attitude rests on the insight that all beings are driven by the same will-to-life as oneself and that these beings – if they are sentient, as humans and animals are – undergo sufferings as a result, because their endless willing leaves them ever-unsatisfied. The ideally compassionate person will be equally, or more, concerned about reducing the sufferings of other human beings, and to a lesser extent of non-human animals, as about relieving his or her own sufferings. The sufferings of non-human animals are of less concern because animals suffer less intensely than humans with their ‘enhanced clearness of consciousness’ (World as Will and Representation, p. 372). Consequently, Schopenhauer thinks, humans may rightfully kill or extract work from animals, but may not treat them cruelly or vivisect them. Schopenhauer’s metaphysically-based ethics of compassion influenced Albert Schweitzer’s reverence-for-life environmental ethic, which recommends ‘practising the same reverence toward all will-to-live [especially that of humans, animals and plants], as toward [one’s] own’ (Schweitzer 1923, p. 33).


John Stuart Mill on animals and nature

In Tthe mid-nineteenth-century German idealism was supplanted by saw the rise of a variety of naturalist philosophical approaches, including scientific materialism, which treated the natural universe as a vast godless mechanism, and Comteian positivism [I WAS UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT POSITIVISM WAS A 20TH-CENTURY MOVEMENT—JBC[rf1] ], which took science rather than metaphysics to be the paradigm of knowledge. The most important of these naturalist philosophers is John Stuart Mill. For Mill humans are part of nature, sentient creatures who desire pleasure and shun pain, and ethics must be based on these facts.

Mill, then, develops Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. According to Bentham’s well-known axiom an action is right if it increases the overall amount of happiness or pleasure. Because non-human animals can suffer even if they cannot talk or reason, Bentham held that the pleasures and pains of animals should be factored in when calculating the utility of actions and laws. Mill defended Bentham’s position on animals against William Whewell’s objection that it meant – absurdly to Whewell’s mind – that human happiness would sometimes have to be sacrificed for the greater pleasure of animals. Regarding Whewell’s objection as little more than a selfish prejudice, Mill replies that an action or institution just is wrong if it ‘causes more pain to animals than it gives pleasure to man’ (Mill 1852, p. 187).

As Mill’s opposition to cruelty to animals illustrates, he advocated reconstructing society and laws on a rational, utilitarian, basis. He therefore argued in his essay ‘Nature’ (1874) against conservative appeals for people to act ‘according to nature.’ For Mill these appeals merely sanctify the status quo, which appears ‘natural’ because of its longevity. To refute these conservative views Mill distinguishesDISTINGUISHES two main senses of the term nature. 1. Contrasted to the ‘supernatural,’ nature means ‘all the powers existing in either the outer or the inner world and everything which takes place by means of those powers’ (‘Nature’, p. 6) or in short ‘all facts actual and possible’ (p. 5). 2. Contrasted to the ‘artificial,’ nature means whatever exists or happens ‘without the voluntary and intentional agency of man’ (p. 6). In neither sense is nature a moral standard: under sense 1 we cannot not act according to nature, while under sense 2 we cannot avoid acting un-naturally.

More dubiously, Mill also argues in ‘Nature’ that we positively ought to act against nature (in sense 2) – to transform and improve it – because nature is wantonly destructive. He speaks as if nature deliberately acted wrongfully in inflicting hurricanes, diseases, and other ills upon humanity. This contradicts both Mill’s denial that nature exercises intentional agency and his advice that we should not personify nature. Nonetheless, Mill does have valid utilitarian grounds for recommending that we should transform and improve nature. For Mill, we should do so in order to increase the happiness of humans and other sentient creatures, where natural things (non-human animals excepted) do not themselves merit moral consideration because they are not sentient.


Nietzsche and naturalism

The nineteenth-century philosopher most often discussed by contemporary environmental thinkers is Nietzsche. His philosophical outlook is largely naturalistic. He rejects traditional Christianity’s devaluation of the natural world in favour of the ‘beyond’ and its devaluation of human bodies and instincts in favour of the soul. Summing up this rejection, Nietzsche advocates ‘loyalty to the earth’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1885). His this-worldly orientation has commended him to some environmental ethicists.

Nietzsche’s this-worldly orientation includes an insistence that human beings are an animal species. , evolved from apesSometimes he suggests that humans are simply a highly evolved species of ape; but elsewhere he suggests that humans’ highly developed mental and moral powers mean they have evolved beyond being apes. Generally, though, [AU: FROM AN EVOLUTIONARY POINT OF VIEW, HOMO SAPIENS *IS* ONE OF FIVE EXTANT SPECIES OF GREAT APE, ALL OF WHICH ARE EVOLVED FROM A COMMON ANCESTOR. OF COURSE NIETZSCHE MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN THAT. PLEASE MAKE ENTIRELY CLEAR.] For Nietzsche stresses that, humans do not stand at the apex of the evolutionary chain nor areare they neither different in kind from nor inherently superior to other animals. These claims – and Nietzsche’s copious use of animal imagery – have made his work of interest to animal ethicists.

Despite claiming that humans are evolved from apes, Nietzsche was critical of Darwin’s account of evolution by natural selection (as Nietzsche understood that account not wholly accurately). Nietzsche understood Darwinism to be the ‘reactive’ view that organisms are formed by their interactions with their environments and by their struggle for survival. In contrast, Nietzsche favoured the ‘active’ view that the development of organisms is driven by vital, creative forces within them (their ‘will-to-power’, on which more later), forces that seek to expand in power, not merely to survive. These claims – and Nietzsche’s copious use of animal imagery – have made his work of interest to animal ethicists. [AU: PLEASE ADD A BIT ON DARWIN AND NIETZSCHE]


Nietzsche and animality

It falls to Nietzsche to give a naturalist explanation for the features that might appear to distinguish make human beings different in kind from (other) animals, especially humanity’s level of moral conscience, culture and self-awareness. Nietzsche explains these features by constructing (in his On the Genealogy of Morality, 1887) a history of how conflicts between human groups, urbanisation and religion have inhibited human beings from discharging their aggressive, destructive instincts – which they share with beasts of prey – outward in violence to others. Instead we humans have learnt to turn our aggression in onto ourselves, including by judging, reflecting upon and cultivating ourselves. Thus, for Nietzsche, civilization results from human beings having turned some of their aggressive energies against the rest of those energies. This process has left our conformist instincts – which we share with herd animals – free to become dominant within us.

Nietzsche does not want us to regain the uninhibited cruelty of beasts of prey. Instead he thinks that we should turn our acquired capacity for cruelty to ourselves against our ingrained moralism and conscientiousness. This would transform (a select, sufficiently ‘strong’ few of) us from ‘camels,’ burdened with acquired self-cruelty and domesticity, into ‘lions,’ at war on our own moral habits, and finally into ‘children,’ liberated from morality to create new values playfully (see Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pp. 54–56).

As Nietzsche’s parable of the camel-lion-child metamorphosis shows, he values beasts of prey – eagles, serpents, lions – over domesticated and herd animals – lambs, cows, camels. Here Nietzsche seems to rely on traditional stereotypes which associate each animal species with a particular human quality – e.g., eagles and pride, serpents and wisdom, lions and courage. Perhaps, then, Nietzsche’s real interest is not in non-human animals as such but in promoting pride, wisdom, and courage in humans and in rooting out humanity’s ingrained meekness, conformity and resignation.

Arguably, though, Nietzsche thinks that animal species have evolved and adapted so as to acquire particular characteristics, so that when we display (e.g.) wisdom we really are adopting a serpentine way of being. Even so, this still means that Nietzsche’s concern focus is tostill promote certain animal traits, such as serpentine wisdom, within human beings, rather than to promote the flourishing of non-human animals.on liberating our own animal nature, not non-human animals. [AU: THE EDITOR DOES NOT FOLLOW THE PRECEEDING SENTENCE.] Indeed, he tends to condemn compassion for animals on the grounds that this attitude bespeaks a person too domesticated and enervated to endure any cruelty. He associates compassion for animals with Arthur Schopenhauer, who greatly influenced Nietzsche but against whom he reacted. Whereas Unlikefor Schopenhauer, Nietzsche thinks that all life is suffering and we ought to relieve suffering, including that of animals, where possible, for Nietzsche we must affirm and embrace – rather than try to alleviate – the suffering that life entails, including by not flinching from our own cruelty. [AU: AT THE RISK OF RUNNING THIS ARTICLE TOO MUCH FURTHER OVER WORD-ALLOCATION QUOTA, I WOULD LIKE TO SEE A SECTION ON SCHOPENHAUER, WHO WAS THE PRIMARY INFLUENCE ON ALBERT SCHWEITZER'S 20TH-CENTURY REVERENCE-FOR-LIFE ENVIRONMENTAL ETHIC, AN ANTICIPATION OF PAUL W. TAYLOR'S BIOCENTRISM].


Nietzsche and nature

Nietzsche was largely but not entirely a naturalist. The account of the natural world as a system of interacting forces which he sketches in his posthumously published notebooks The Will to Power has idealist aspects, reflecting the late nineteenth-century trend to combine naturalism and idealism. According to this account – which is influenced by Schopenhauer’s idea of the will-to-life all things are essentially ‘will-to-power,’ i.e. they consist of plural forces, each striving to dominate and harness the others. For instance, human beings are composed of various drives or instincts, including aggressive and conformist ones. Nietzsche maintains that each force interprets the world in relation to its goal, and that each force continually adapts and reinterprets its goal in order to harness other forces to it. He thus regards forces as self-determining and as having some kind of intentionality.

It has been claimed that Nietzsche’s idea of the world as will-to-power anticipates ecological ideas of nature as a living process or self-regulating system. Yet Nietzsche does not suggest that we should respect natural things qua self-determining. Since for him everything is will-to-power, we humans can do nothing other than pursue enhanced power for (some of) our instincts, which will often require harnessing and dominating other natural things.




Let us review the mixed implications that idealism and naturalism have for environmental ethics. Some idealists such as Schelling argue that nature is autonomous and therefore should not be dominated. But because for idealists it is autonomy that confers value on natural things, idealists readily slide back to reasserting the superior worth of human beings, whose autonomy is more apparent or highly developed. On the other hand, more naturalistic philosophers such as Mill and Nietzsche place humanity back within nature, as an animal species, and so they tend to reject or at least qualify assertions of human superiority over other animals. Yet these latter philosophers tend also to think that human beings should not scruple to transform nature in their own interests – whether because nature lacks the sentience that is the criterion of moral standing (Mill) or because we should embrace the tyrannical pursuit of power that is essential to all things (Nietzsche).


2915 2232 words


Alison Stone

Senior Lecturer, Department of Philosophy

Lancaster University, United Kingdom



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Hegel, G. W. F. 1830. Philosophy of Nature, 3rd ed. Trans. by A. V. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.


Mill, John Stuart. 1852. Whewell on Moral Philosophy. In Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Vol. X. Ed. by J. M. Robson. London: Routledge, 1969.


Mill, John Stuart. 1874. Nature. In Nature and Utility of Religion. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1883–1885. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One. Trans. by R. J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1887. On the Genealogy of Morality. Trans. by Carol Diethe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1901. The Will to Power. Trans. by R. J. Hollingdale and Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1967.


Schelling, F. W. J. 1799. First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature. Trans. by Keith R. Peterson. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.


Schopenhauer, Arthur. 1844. The World as Will and Representation, 2nd ed. 2 vols. Trans. by E. F. J. Payne. New York: Dover Books, 1969.


Schweitzer, Albert. 1923. The Ethic of Reverence for Life. In Animal Rights and Human Obligations, 2nd ed. Ed. Tom Regan and Peter Singer. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1989.

 [rf1]No; cf. Comte.