20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Teaching Philosophy

Bernard Bolzano-Pedagogue

Helena Lorenzová
Czech Republic

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848), the famous logician and mathematician, worked from 1805-1819 as a religious professor at the Prague University. His studies focused on three main themes: (1) ethical education, including a rather liberal sexual education as well as the problems of the coexistence of Czechs and Germans in one country (with foresight into some of these matters before the rise of extreme nationalism); (2) social problems, where he formulated for the first time his social-utopian vision of human society based on the fundamental equality of people, ideas later gathered in his book, Von dem besten Staate; and (3) philosophy and religion, of which his lectures concentrate on the social function(s) of the Church and the social mission of the priesthood. Because of his opinions, he was disqualified from his professorship, resulting in a Church investigation against him. He was unable to return to the university, denied the right to publish in Austria, and relegated to live out his life as a private research worker. Bolzano's fate is similar to that of another pedagogue from Bohemia-Jan Patocka.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

Bernard Bolzano (1781-1848), presently a logician and mathematician of international repute, worked from 1805-1819 as a theological professor at the Prague University. This post he received immediately after he ended his mathematics and theology studies. In this period he had already published his first scientific study Betrachtungen über einige Gegenstände der Elementargeometrie (A reflection on some elementary geometry questions), which was his final dissertation study. In the study Lebensbeschreibung des Dr. B. Bolzano (Biography of Dr. B. Bolzano), he remembers, that it was not easy to decide, if he should become a priest or a mathematician. Finally he decided on theology, rather than mathematics, mainly because he wanted to influence the young people and serve his nation in this way. He realized that he would influence future priests, teachers, doctors, lawyers, writers and scientists and so the future of society itself. The fact that this faculty was reopened in 1805, because of the Austrian Catholic restoration after the years of the Josefine Enlightenment persuaded Bolzano to see in this employment "the sign of God".

Not only did he teach Catholic religion, but his duties also included general themes lectures on Sundays and Holidays during the school year. These talks were in place of church sermons and were intended to help the young men to better orientate themselves in life and society. These talks became very popular and thanks to Bolzanos students were some years later published under the comprehensive name Erbauungsreden (Educational lectures).

The subject covered can be roughly divided into three areas: (1) ethical education, included sexual education, then (2) social problems and (3) philosophical-religious problems.

Bolzano's ethics were principally rationalistic in the spirit of the late Enlightenment. His faith in intellect was the clear opposite to Biedermeier sentimentalism emphasizing "noble sentiment", which had also begun to win over the intellect in the Czech Crown countries.

That is why he builds his ethics principially as a hierarchical system of objective truths, which is finalized by the "highest moral law". This exists as a name of truth, exists independantly whether someone recognized or not. The highest moral law taken from this point of view is "the sentence, which cannot be proved" (indemonstrable Satz ), the existence of which is formal. What is and what is not moral should be decided by the clear intellect, not from confused feelings, which in the most difficult and most demanding situations generally usually fail.

In this way it stands directly against Kant eudaimonism and Bentham moral utilitarism. Bolzano believed that the highest moral law of the individual is to contribute one's bit to the public welfare, family, nation, state and all human beings as much as he is able to. This should be the purpose of life for people, not the pleasures, offered by life. Therefore he talks a lot about the relations of students to their parents, teachers, nation and state.

Also interesting is Bolzano's solution of Czech and German relations in the same state. He refutes the language orientation of the Czech Enlightenment. Language is the means of communication, not the "expression of national spirit". The Czechs and Germans should learn both languages to understand each other better and can share "their concepts and knowledge".

He defines the native country as the country, where a man received most benefit and to which he paid most services. It does not have to be the country where we were born. The love to our country we present by the work to her benefit and by respecting the traditions which arise from her history.

Bolzano's opinions on sexual life are suprisingly open. He was convinced, that young man who comes of age should be reasonably informed about sexual instinct, so that these questions do not awake his curiosity and do not stir his phantasies. He did not hesitate to talk about sexual images, which he believed to be only natural and did not recommend that they should be held in check by effort, but prevented through physical excersise and manual work. He also talks openly about masturbation, even though he denounces it, because he holds it as being damaging to health and a waste of time, which can be devoted to more useful activity. He warns students against the intercourse with prostitutes, even though he accepts that they exist because of the unfavourable social situation, since men (and mostly University graduates) could get married only very late, when they reached some social level and employment, which would enable them to keep a family.

On the other hand he recommends honorable relations with older married and educated woman, which will teach them to become orientated in the womans world, which is very different from the mans world. Almost scandalous were priest Bolzano's opinions about celibacy, which he did not directly denounce, but he warned the future theology students against this life-long obligation, which he from his personal experience indicated as being unbearable. He highly values life in matrimony and in the family. Only family life makes people happy and makes their life absolutely perfect, men are in this way in harmony with nature.

The next area of his lecture themes were social questions. Here he firstly formulated his social-utopian opinions on the human society based on the absolute equality of all the people, later refined in the book Von dem besten Staate (About the ideal state), which was first published only in 1932. Bolzano refutes the inequality arising from the differences and privilegies received by inherited estate and fortunes. The only aristocracy, which he accepts is spiritual aristocracy, which we achieve by learning during life and real morality. The ownership of extensive property should not merit the respect of society, but should awake rejection and suspicion , that it was not gained in a moral and legal manner. Wealth - even properly obtained - Bolzano believes to be only the "quest of riches blessed by law". He very strongly despises the bourgeoisie, who grew fat on their riches and let other people work for them under poor conditions. He indicates that many people have to work very hardly for a living, and this damages their health and leads to early death.

He points out that some people have to do a very physically demanding job, under unhealthy conditions and the working hours are too long. He blames the existing social order for all this.

In the well-organized state each individual should earn its living by work, which would be useful for the whole society and the common ownership should belong to everybody.

Bolzano is convinced that in the same way that the individual improves through all his life, the human society also improves during the history. He is convinced that this social development also includes regressive periods, and this he believed to be the present social situation. That is why he spurred on his pupils to expand the culture in the future, establish libraries and reading clubs, and try to avoid the poverty by the establishment of public granary and storages in case of future bad crops, initiated the establishment of insurance offices in the case of natural disasters, extended health culture, etc.

The lectures on the philosophical-religious themes are based mostly on the Christian calendar, because Bolzano was required to respond on holidays and important events from the Catholic church history. Here it is quite obvious that in these cases he just performed his duty, without his own interest and therefore they are not so interesting.

Here he also concentrates on the social function of church and the lay work of the priest, whose duty is to extend culture also to the remote villages and offer spiritual relief from suffering. From todays point of view Bolzanos opinions seem quite mild and a bit naive. In 1819 however, when in Austria the catholic Restauration was fully asserted, Bolzano's opinions were found so radical and agitating, that he was immediately disqualified as a professor and there was begun a church investigation against him, which was very difficult and took several years. Bolzano had to pass all his notes and lecture drafts to the archbishop for scrutiny.

Based on this and the already published Erbauungsreden (Educational lectures) from 1813, it was accused that his opinions were opposite to church teaching and lead students politically astray. He was told to revoke his opinions publicly and in written form, because he hed expressed them to the public. He refused and instead he wrote the defence of his teaching. Bolzano's stubborness angered the church, so it was decided to imprison him in an Austrian Monastery.

From this situation he was saved mainly by Josef Dobrovsk_ (1753-1829), in this period a famous scientist over the whole of Europe (one of the founders of slavism, orientalism and theology), who put all his authority behind Bolzano's case.

So finally Bolzano was not put into prison and even received a small pension and from 1825 he was able to contineu his science work as a private concern.

But he was never again allowed to teach and influence students, and to publish his scientific studies was very difficult. Some of his works were published outside Austria (for example his basic work Wissenschaftslehre was published in 1837 in Sulzbach - Germany).

During his fourteen years work at the Prague University Bolzano influenced many young men who later became important Czech and German scientist and artists. We can mention here at least some who were of European importance, such as physiologist Jan Evangelista Purkynû, Karel Rokitansk_ - the pathology professor in Vienna, writer Karel Postl, who wrote under the pseudonym Charles Seasfield or the painter during the Biedermaier period - Frantiek Tkadlík. He also cultivated many less well-known teachers, priests, doctors and lawyers, who concentrated on spreading culture and improving the general public education.

Mostly through Bolzano, the future development of Czech education has been influenced by the Enlightenment. We can say it through the words of the Czech philosopher Jan Patoãka, whose life and status as a professor was very similar to Bolzano's: "Enlightenment, which does not only mean the intellectualism of man to things and the world, but the attempt to save man from enslavement, confusion and lies everywhere, where the intellect can save them entirely, not to ridicule with the depths of human existence - it is a part of the Czech destiny". (1)

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Jan Patoãka: Our national program. Prague 1990. p.9

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage