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Christian Friedrich Michaelis (1770-1834)

[This is a draft of an article in The Dictionary of Eighteenth Century German Philosophers, 3 vols., edited by Manfred Kuehn and Heiner Klemme (London/New York: Continuum, 2010).]

Christian Friedrich Michaelis, born on 3 September 1770 in Leipzig, was the son of Christian Friedrich Michaelis (1727-1804), a well-regarded and published physician of that city. Michaelis is best remembered in philosophy for his extension of Kant’s aesthetic theory to music. He was also a talented musician and a prolific essayist, translator, and popularizer of Kant and Fichte. He died in Leipzig on 1 August 1834.

After attending the Thomas- and the Nicolai-Schools in Leipzig, he enrolled at the university in 1787 to study theology and law, but soon turned to philosophy, studying under the Kantian philosopher Karl Heinrich Heydenreich [bio] and the physiologist Ernst Platner [bio], who lectured in philosophy as well as in medicine. He received his magister degree three years later in 1790. By 1792 he had moved to Jena to continue studies under Karl Leonhard Reinhold [bio], Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), and Carl Christian Erhard Schmid [bio], after which he returned to Leipzig and habilitated with a Latin dissertation on free will that described and defended Reinhold’s position (1793; he published a German translation of the dissertation in 1794). During the next eight years, Michaelis lectured on metaphysics and aesthetics at Leipzig. Although he began as a disciple of Kant (as filtered through his Jena expositors), Michaelis soon became acquainted with the work of J. G. Fichte (1762-1814), who in the summer semester of 1794 had succeeded Reinhold at Jena, and Michaelis often traveled there to hear him. He also visited the composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752-1814), whose Giebichenstein estate near Halle attracted many artists and intellectuals and was an important center of Romanticism.

Michaelis’s association with Fichte in the wake of the Atheismusstreit and Fichte’s departure from Jena in 1799, as well as the general lack of originality in Michaelis’s writings, made his chances for a professorship at Leipzig unlikely, and in 1801 he accepted a position as private tutor near Potsdam, and then a similar post at Dresden in 1803, before returning to Leipzig to pursue a variety of literary and musical projects.

Michaelis produced a constant stream of articles for newspapers and journals, as well as various translations from the French and the English, most notably Thomas Busby’s two-volume General History of Music, but also many pamphlets of little consequence. Having given up lecturing at the university, Michaelis’s only income appears to have come from his publications, the middling quality of which explains in part why so few were preserved. (A bibliographer will do little better than what is found in Hamberger 1810, etc.) His writings on Kant, Fichte, and Schiller are for the most part uninspired paraphrases, summaries, and collections of excerpts. His Outline of Aesthetics (1796) summarizes parts of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, while Critique of the Teleological Faculty of Judgment (1798) is a set of excerpts; the two-volume On the Moral Nature and Determination of Man (1796-7) stems from lectures he gave on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and Reinhold’s Letters on the Kantian Philosophy; the three-volume Philosophical Doctrine of Right (1797-9) rehashes Fichte’s ethics lectures; Attempt at a Textbook on Human Love (1805) paraphrases §§23-48 of Kant’s Doctrine of Virtue.

Michaelis’s contributions to aesthetics are of greater interest. When Michaelis arrived in Jena in 1792, Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) had just been published and Reinhold and Schiller were both studying it closely. During the winter semester of 1792-3 he attended Schiller’s aesthetics lectures, which were grounded heavily on Kant (Michaelis’s notes from this class were published in 1806, and then again in Schiller’s Werke). In this class Michaelis also became friends with the future art critic, Karl Ludwig Fernow (1763-1808). Michaelis’s principle contribution to this field was his Spirit of Tonal Art (1795, 1800). In this and in later essays he presented Kant’s aesthetics, but also developed Kant’s account of music, rejecting Kant’s low ranking of music among the fine arts.

Kant understood musical beauty as limited to the mathematical form of tonal relations embodied in an ephemeral medium, a mere ‘play of sensations’ resulting in ‘more enjoyment than culture’. Music is thus considered less objective than the literary and visual arts, and therefore is ranked below them (Critique of Judgment, §§14, 53). As Michaelis summarized Kant’s position: ‘With visible objects, the mind has intuitions before it, while with the audible it has sensations but no actual intuitions; the latter rest more on the sensible stimulus, while the former concern the form of beauty’ (1795, pp. 28-9). With music, pleasure in the form is too closely tied to the sensible impulse of the sound.

In opposition to Kant, Michaelis offered an account of musical beauty resting on the organic form of the whole, rather than on the tonal relations of the parts, and separate from any pleasures they might arouse (1795, pp. 68-9). The sensible auditory impulses are simply the means to music, not the music itself, which is instead called forth from within us by way of our faculty of imagination. As for music’s ephemeral nature, Michaelis saw this as an advantage in that it forces us to discover a formal unity that is neither present all at once before the mind (as it is with the visual arts), nor is bound to the actual world with concepts of the understanding (as it is with the literary arts). Thus is music better able to approach those aesthetic ideas that originate in reason (1806). Just as Herder [bio] had argued in his Kalligone (1800), so too Michaelis emphasized the importance of music for our moral cultivation, finding Kant’s account unable to explain this power music has over us. While Kant owned a copy of Michaelis’s Spirit of Tonal Art – most likely sent to him as a gift – there is otherwise no evidence of correspondence between Kant and Michaelis.


De voluntatis humanae libertate (Leipzig, 1793).

Über die Freyheit des menschlichen Willens (Leipzig, 1794).

Über den Geist der Tonkunst. Mit Rücksicht auf Kants Kritik der ästhetischen Urtheilskraft. Ein ästhetischer Versuch, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1795, 1800). Reprint in Aetas Kantiana (1970), vol. 187, and in Schmidt (Chemnitz, 1997), see below.

“Ein Versuch, das innere Wesen der Tonkunst zu entwickeln” in Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, vol. 8 (1806), pp. 673-83, 691-6. Reprinted in Schmidt (Chemnitz, 1997), pp. 249-59.

Other Relevant Works

“Einige Gedanken über den Geist der Erziehung und ihr Verhältnis zum Sittengesetz” in Carl Christian Erhard Schmid, Philosophisches Journal für Moralität, Religion, und Menschenwohl, vol. 4 (1794), pp. 225-37.

“Über das Bedürfnis einer gründlichen Philosophie für Prediger” in Geist des Zeitalters (1795).

Entwurf der Ästhetik, als Leitfaden bei akademischen Vorlesungen über Kant’s Kritik der aesthetischen Urtheilskraft (Augsburg, 1796). Reprint in Aetas Kantiana (Brussels, 1970), vol. 185.

Über die sittliche Natur und Bestimmung des Menschen. Ein Versuch zur Erläuterung über Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1796, 1797).

Philosophische Rechtslehre zur Erläuterung über J. G. Fichte’s Grundlage des Naturrechts, nebst einem Auszuge derselben. Mit Rücksicht auf I. Kant’s Entwurf zum ewigen Frieden, und metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Rechtslehre, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1797-9; 2nd edn, 2 vols., Leipzig, 1802). Reprint in Aetas Kantiana (Brussels, 1970), vol. 186.

“Vom Begehrungsvermögen” in Carl Christian Erhard Schmid, Psychologisches Magazin, vol. 2 (1797), pp. 107-60.

Systematischer Auszug aus Fichte’s Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre, zur Einleitung der Uebersicht und Vollständigkeit des Ganzen (Leipzig, 1798).

“Über den Rang der Tonkunst unter den schönen Künsten” in Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, vol. 2 (1799), pp. 183-6. Reprinted in Schmidt (Chemnitz, 1997), pp. 147-8.

Kritik des teleologischen Beurtheilungsvermögens. Ein Auszug aus dem Kantischen Werke, zur Erleichterung der Uebersicht und Verständlichkeit desselben (Weissenburg, 1800).

Freimüthige Aufforderungen und Vorschläge zur Veredlung des Schul- und Erziehungswesens, vorzüglich als öffentliche Angelegenheit betrachtet. Ein moralisch-politisch-pädagogischer Versuch (Leipzig, 1800).

Moralische Vorlesungen (Weissenburg, 1800; 2nd edn, Leipzig, 1805).

Aufruf an die Menschheit bey dem Antritt eines neuen Jahrhunderts (Leipzig, 1800).

Mittheilungen zur Beförderung der Humanität und des guten Geschmacks (Leipzig, 1800).

“Psychologische Selbstprüfung, nach Kant’s Temperamentenlehre in der Anthropologie” in J. D. Mauchart, Allgemeines Repertorium für empirische Psychologie (Tübingen, 1801), vol. 6., pp. 148-52.

Pestalozzi’s Elementarlehre (Leipzig, 1804).

Versuch eines Lehrbuchs der Menschenliebe. Vorlesungen über das Wesen der Tugend (Leipzig, 1805; 2nd, enlarged edn, re-titled as Lehrbuch zur Beförderung der Humanität, Leipzig, 1823).

Geist aus Friedrich Schiller’s Werken. Nebst einer Vorrede über Schiller’s Genie und Verdienst, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1805, 1806). Notes from Schiller’s course are in vol. 2, pp. 241-84 (“Noch ungedruckte Fragmente aus Schillers aesthetischen Vorlesungen vom Winterhalbjahr 1792-93”).

Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik von den frühesten bis auf die gegenwärtigen Zeiten, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1821, 1822). A translation, with notes and appendices, of Thomas Busby, A General History of Music, 2 vols. (London, 1819).

Further Reading

ADB, vol. 21, pp. 677-78 (Carl von Prantl).

Adickes, Erich, German Kantian Bibliography (New York, 1893-96).

Hamberger (Lemgo, 1797), vol. 5, pp. 230-31; (1803), vol. 10, pp. 302-3; (1810), vol. 14, pp. 571-3; (1821), vol. 18, pp. 698-703.

Köhler, Rafael, Natur und Geist: energetische Form in der Musiktheorie (Stuttgart, 1996), pp. 55-64.

Neuer Nekrolog der Deutschen, 1834 (Weimar, 1836), pp. 557-68.

Schmidt, Lothar, introduction and commentary to C. F. Michaelis, Ueber den Geist der Tonkunst, und andere Schriften (Chemnitz, 1997).

[Index of Biographies]