Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel


Famous scholars from Kiel:

Johann Nikolaus Tetens


The universal academic from Schleswig-Holstein was amongst the leading German philosophers. He taught in Kiel from 1776 to 1789.


His last lecture in Kiel during the year of the French Revolution in 1789 has now turned up in the form of an audience postscript in Oslo. A research project promoted by the German Research Foundation (DFG) under the leadership of Professor Dirk Westerkamp from the Philosophy Department is currently working on a narrated version of the hand-written document, which is in good condition.

The career of the philosopher, economist and mathematician Tetens, who was born in 1736 in the Duchy of Schleswig, started in Rostock in 1759 where he studied for a PhD in mathematics and physics. His wide range of interests also led him to be involved with issues such as dam building, marine law and the calculation of widows' pensions during the course of his working life.

After the Swedish occupation of Rostock he taught physics and philosophy at the newly established Academy in Bützow. He took up an appointment as Professor of Philosophy and Mathematics in Kiel in 1776. Here he completed his main work, the two volumes of "Philosophische Versuche über die menschliche Natur und ihre Entwickelung" (Philosophical Essays on Human Nature and its Development) - a work which Kant could not put down from his desk whilst he was writing the "Critique of Pure Reason", according to Westerkamp. Tetens also considered his theory of the sciences as research into language. Humans had access to the world primarily with and using language. Its accuracy is an expression of the precision of our perception and thoughts.

The lecture, which Westerkamp and his academic colleague Michael Sellhoff are working on as part of the DFG project, was not however only Tetens' last lecture in Kiel, but also his last philosophical lecture ever. Again in 1789 he explained the various intellectual powers and activities of the soul as well as their association with the body, the development of the sciences and their relationship to philosophy and religion to his Kiel students. Already that year he took up a call to be State Secretary of Finance in Copenhagen, to where he moved. From then onwards he concentrated fully on his new assignment. He died in 1807 as Royal Danish Conference Councillor. Why he also turned his back on philosophy in 1789 with his departure from Kiel "can only be speculated about", explains Westerkamp.

It is possible that Tetens felt his own work had simultaneously been transposed and overtaken by Kant's famous "Critique of Pure Reason". This question, according to Westerkamp, represents a special area of interest in the research project because for the first time it is hoped that more precise conclusions can be drawn about Tetens' Kant reception from the lecture and its commentary. Westerkamp and his colleague also want to obtain new insights into the period at the start of modern cognitive sciences, which deal with thinking and awareness (psychology, neurosciences, computer sciences, linguistics and philosophy) amongst whom Tetens can be included as a pioneer.

The fact that he considered his philosophical mission accomplished not only by his own work but also possibly by Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" does not seem to have been a great tragedy for Tetens: "The philosophers of the 18th century considered themselves not as competitors but rather as servants of a single and same truth. There was no hint of anger and they were able to accept if someone else discovered this truth or imparted it better. Each correct finding was considered a small but necessary step on the endless journey towards truth itself", says Westerkamp.


Jana E. Seidel



The topic of enlightenment


The philosophers of the 17th and 18th century wanted to replace outdated ideologies and inflexible ideas with their own thoughts and actions. With the help of his reason and ability to understand, the responsible citizen was to detach himself from the requirements of the authorities and use these as guidelines for his actions in order to achieve more freedom and truth.

In contrast to Tetens’ work, Kant’s "Critique of Pure Reason" (which first appeared in 1781 and then as a substantially revised version in 1787) made a huge impact. It marked a turning point not only in Kant’s philosophy, but also in the history of philosophy in general. Whilst Kant had initially chiefly dealt with issues concerning the natural sciences and metaphysics in his "pre-critique period", in other words also with the so-called "final questions" about God’s existence as well as the meaning and purpose of human existence, he now raised the question whether and how metaphysics was possible at all. He justified this new theory of knowledge as a philosophy, which questions the methods, opportunities and limits of knowledge.


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