Transformation of the Self in the Thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher: A Review

A Review: Transformation of the Self in the Thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher, by Jacqueline Mariña. Pp. x + 270. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 920637 7. £61.

In this study, Jacqueline Mariña, a Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University, seeks to provide an exposition and analysis of the key metaphysical concepts undergirding Friedrich Schleiermacher’s thought regarding moral and spiritual transformation. She does so via an exegesis of the post-Enlightenment and post-Kantian metaphysics upon which the mature Schleiermacher develops his ethics – particularly the notions of self-consciousness and personal identity – and that in sustained conversation with some of the German theologian’s key dialogue partners, principally Kant, but also Spinoza and Leibniz, and, less so, Fichte and Jacobi, and with Platonic and Augustinian metaphysics of the self. Mariña also offers some helpful analyses of the development of Schleiermacher’s thought regarding ethics.

Mariña’s essay has notable merits, principal among them being its defence of Schleiermacher’s overall moral theory as both the cornerstone of his thought and a legitimate entrée for understanding his theology. She understands that Schleiermacher’s ethics are irreversibly engaged with his metaphysics of the absolute and the philosophy of religion. Building on the work of Frederick Beiser, she argues that ethical theory is ‘central to Schleiermacher’s outlook’ and that ‘it is in the sphere of ethics that religion has its ultimate meaning, for the fruit of all true religion lies in its transformative power over the self’ (p. 3). The significance of Schleiermacher’s achievement, Mariña argues, is that by focusing on religious experience and the transcendental conditions of subjectivity, Schleiermacher offers an account of religion unencumbered by reductionism and dogmaticism. Insofar as he does this, Mariña contends, Schleiermacher makes an important contribution to contemporary interreligious dialogue.

Drawing on Schleiermacher’s early essays On Freedom (1790–2), his notes on Kant’s second Critique (1789), the third of his Dialogues on Freedom (1789), and his review of Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1799), the opening chapter, titled ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’, examines Schleiermacher’s struggle with Kant’s practical philosophy. Mariña notes that while he had some sympathies with Kant’s project, the early Schleiermacher became ‘increasingly dissatisfied with some of the deep philosophical problems posed by the notion of transcendental freedom’ (p. 16).

Chapters Two and Three provide an analysis of two early works (1793–94) by Schleiermacher on Spinoza, namely Spinozism and the Short Presentation of the Spinozistic System. Chapter Two examines Schleiermacher’s claim that there are no genuine individuals, and does so by way of considering Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena. Mariña argues that Kant’s analysis of transcendental subjectivity remains an important part of the early Schleiermacher’s thought and informs his decision to abandon Spinozism. She concludes: ‘Despite his familiarity with Kant’s arguments against the possibility of knowledge of the transcendent, in Spinozism Schleiermacher had already come to the conclusion that it is through the transcendental activity of the self that the soul comes into contact with what is genuinely real’ (p. 75). Chapter Three builds on the work undertaken in the previous chapter and considers more deeply issues of personal identity and (in agreement with Kant) our lack of access to a substantial noumenal self.

Mariña then turns to the influence of Leibniz – ‘a poor philosopher [who] from time to time … developed better insights’ (p. 109) – on Schleiermacher’s thought by way of discussion on Schleiermacher’s Monologen (1800) wherein Schleiermacher, playing on Leibniz’s notion of the self as a mirror of the world, envisions transcendentally-free beings expressing themselves into the world. The author recalls Schleiermacher’s appropriation of Kant’s critique of rational psychology and his avouchment that we have no access to knowledge of self as it is in itself. ‘Self-knowledge is only of the empirical self, and this means that the self knows itself only in its relation to that which is different from it and stands outside it. It is, therefore, through the world that the self comes to know itself’ (pp. 110–11). ‘Without the other, there is no knowledge of the self. The person expresses him or herself to the other, and the self as thus expressed is reflected back to the self in the self-consciousness of the other. Loss of the other is therefore a loss of oneself’ (p. 143). This contextualises and anticipates the later discussion on christology, and addresses a foundation of Schleiermacher’s employment of Leibniz’s (and Hegel’s) claim that it is ‘only in relation to a historical individual with a perfect God-consciousness’ that human beings can ‘achieve moral perfection. For only such a one who expresses the divine love perfectly knows the essence of all rational beings as their capacity to express the divine love. Such a one reflects this essence back to them so that they can thereby know themselves as beings that express the divine love’ (p. 144). Clearly, Schleiermacher has moved beyond Kant. The author here identifies key Leibnizian themes that Schleiermacher will develop further in his Dialektik (1814–15) and in Der christliche Glaube (1821–22); particularly the relationship between God and the self, and the self and the world, and the integration that occurs between one’s representation of the world and one’s own desires, and so one’s actions.

In Chapter Five, Schleiermacher’s 1805–06 works, Notes on Ethics, and his Outline of a Critique of Previous Ethical Theories (1803), serve as the basis for exploring the implications of ensouled human nature, and so a reality in which sensuously-conditioned desires can be infused with ethical content. Mariña considers how the teleology of moral action seeks the perfection of this world and not some other. She recognises (in a later chapter) that at the centre of Schleiermacher’s ethics lies the ‘non-transposable character of individuals and historical communities, each of which has a special character determined by a particular historical development’ (p. 168), and that ‘Schleiermacher recognized that not to acknowledge our situatedness can only lead to delusions of absolute knowledge having the most pernicious of consequences’ (p. 176), but unfortunately she does not take up Karl Barth’s suggestion, in The Theology of Schleiermacher, that we know Schleiermacher best when we understand him as a virtuoso of family life, in the society of relatives either of blood or of one’s own choosing (pp. 108–9).

The notion of ensoulment is further developed in Chapter Six, wherein Mariña probes the ensoulment of human nature through reason and through the establishment of community, and in Chapter Seven, ‘Transforming the Self through Christ’, in which the author recalls Schleiermacher’s christology (a subject which ‘encapsulates the whole of his theology’ (p. 187)) in terms of Christ’s own God-consciousness and in terms of Christ’s creating God-consciousness in others, consequently transforming their ethical outlook. Mariña contends that Schleiermacher’s Christ – the one who ‘defines what it means to be human’ (p. 196) – engages in person-forming activity, a work established in the original divine decree and which involves a transformation of ethic. Insofar as he does this, Christ is, in Schleiermacher’s words, ‘the completion of the creation of man’ (cited on p. 196). This means, Mariña contends, that for Schleiermacher, ‘Jesus is no mere teacher of morality, but that what he mediates is a relation to the ground of being and love, and thereby to the transcendental ground of all true religion and ethics’ (p. 197). Moreover, our assimilation into Jesus’ divine life is ‘achieved through the communication of his words and deeds’, both of which are required to effect the divine love in history and shape human self-consciousness and being in the world. ‘The divine love manifest in the life of the historical Jesus brings a new way of envisioning what it means to be a human being, and what it means to be in community’ (p. 219).

The final chapter returns to the challenges of religious pluralism which were broached in the introduction and does so via an analysis of arguments proffered in the 1821 edition of On Religion and in the second edition of Der christliche Glaube. Mariña argues that Schleiermacher’s thought provides a ‘generally coherent account of how it is possible that differing religious traditions are all based on the same experience of the absolute’ (p. 224). She further claims that religious differences are differences only in degree, not in kind. ‘It is because there is a single, fundamental experience to which all the world’s religions are related that there can be meaningful and significant dialogue among them’ (p. 243).

Mariña’s study has a number of strengths. Building upon her already published work on Schleiermacher and Kant, she offers a valuable analysis of several chief sources of Schleiermacher’s thought, and of Schleiermacher’s employment, discarding and development of some of their ideas through various stages of his own theological and philosophical maturation, properly observing the way in which Schleiermacher’s ethics are grounded upon his theological claims, that philosophical ethics is purposely descriptive of how divine causality finds shape in human community through individual persons. Insofar as she does this, Mariña’s essay fills a noticeable gap in the English-speaking literature, and is a welcome complement to works by Richard R. Niebuhr (Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion, 1964), Albert Blackwell (Schleiermacher’s Early Philosophy of Life: Determinism, Freedom, Phantasy, 1982), Brian Gerrish (A Prince of the Church: Schleiermacher and the Beginnings of Modern Theology, 1984), Julia A. Lamm (The Living God: Schleiermacher’s Theological Appropriation of Spinoza, 1996), Catherine L. Kelsey, (Thinking about Christ with Schleiermacher, 2003), and Richard Crouter (Friedrich Schleiermacher: Between Enlightenment and Romanticism, 2005).

Mariña’s argument could have been more persuasive had she attended further to a number of her claims: for example, the claim that Schleiermacher’s proposals concerning transcendental freedom are made at the cost of abandoning determinism. Readers may also be left unsatisfied that Mariña stops short of recounting how the transformation of self with which Schleiermacher is so concerned is effected, and what lay behind the author’s decision to give relatively little attention to Schleiermacher’s more mature ethics (for example, his lectures on philosophical ethics delivered at the University of Berlin between 1812–1830, a period which overlaps Hegel’s time at that same institution, or Schleiermacher’s six Akademieabhandlungen read before the Academy of Sciences between 1819 and 1830) which invite us to consider how language, tradition and institutions inform the moral shape of human being both universally and particularly, and which may have assisted Mariña to provide a more rigorous comparison between Schleiermacher’s early and later ethics and their relation to Schleiermacher’s christology developed in Der christliche Glaube (1821/22, 1830/31) – to which she appropriately turns in her penultimate chapter though fails to develop as fully as her project requires – and particularly the relationship between Jesus’ own God-consciousness, the ethical significance of the hypostatic union, and his mediating to us divine causality. Moreover, Schleiermacher’s privileging of God’s ecclesiological community as that creation of the Spirit with which Jesus’ religiosity is a contemporary reality is disregarded by Mariña. Here, some readers may also take issue that Mariña’s reading of Schleiermacher as positing unmediated moments of the feeling of absolute dependence (a notion which betrays Leibniz’ influence) are offered too independently of Schleiermacher’s careful underscoring of historical, social, theological and cultural contingencies and practices with which much of his philosophical ethics are concerned. Finally, while appropriately situating this project and its value against the backdrop of contemporary challenges posed by various forms of religious (and other) fundamentalism and inter-religious dialogue, the author minimises the obstacles to interreligious dialogue and overplays the profitability that Schleiermacher’s project offers therein.

Few will follow Mariña on every point, and those seeking a particularly transpicuous exposition of Schleiermacher’s thought might well be disappointed, but this remains a valuable essay all the same, and those wishing to engage with Schleiermacher’s abiding significance for ethics will not want to be without it.


  1. Oh Jason! Still writing book reviews longer than the book itself! Seriously though, thanks for this – very useful.


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