Bildung (German: [ˈbɪldʊŋ], "education, formation, etc.") refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation (as related to the German for: creation, image, shape), wherein philosophy and education are linked in a manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation. This maturation is described as a harmonization of the individual's mind and heart and in a unification of selfhood and identity within the broader society, as evidenced with the literary tradition of Bildungsroman.

In this sense, the process of harmonization of mind, heart, selfhood and identity is achieved through personal transformation, which presents a challenge to the individual's accepted beliefs. In Hegel's writings, the challenge of personal growth often involves an agonizing alienation from one's "natural consciousness" that leads to a reunification and development of the self. Similarly, although social unity requires well-formed institutions, it also requires a diversity of individuals with the freedom (in the positive sense of the term) to develop a wide-variety of talents and abilities and this requires personal agency. However, rather than an end state, both individual and social unification is a process that is driven by unrelenting negations.

In this sense, education involves the shaping of the human being with regard to their own humanity as well as their innate intellectual skills. So, the term refers to a process of becoming that can be related to a process of becoming within existentialism.

The term Bildung also corresponds to the Humboldtian model of higher education from the work of Prussian philosopher and educational administrator Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835). Thus, in this context, the concept of education becomes a lifelong process of human development, rather than mere training in gaining certain external knowledge or skills. Such training in skills is known by the German words Erziehung, and Ausbildung. Bildung in contrast is seen as a process wherein an individual's spiritual and cultural sensibilities as well as life, personal and social skills are in process of continual expansion and growth. Bildung is seen as a way to become more free due to higher self-reflection. Von Humboldt wrote with respect to Bildung in 1793/1794:

"Education [Bildung], truth and virtue" must be disseminated to such an extent that the "concept of mankind" takes on a great and dignified form in each individual (GS, I, p. 284). However, this shall be achieved personally by each individual, who must "absorb the great mass of material offered to him by the world around him and by his inner existence, using all the possibilities of his receptiveness; he must then reshape that material with all the energies of his own activity and appropriate it to himself so as to create an interaction between his own personality and nature in a most general, active and harmonious form".[1]

Most explicitly in Hegel's writings, the Bildung tradition rejects the pre-Kantian metaphysics of being for a post-Kantian metaphysics of experience that rejects universal narratives. Much of Hegel's writings were about the nature of education (both Bildung and Erziehung), reflecting his own role as a teacher and administrator in German secondary schools, and in his more general writings.[2] A more contemporary view was developed by Tony Waters:

Bildung, I discovered in my 2 years in Germany, is an organizing cultural principle for German higher education that trumps both careerism and disciplinary silos. It is generally translated as "education", but in fact it means more—dictionary definitions often refer to "self-cultivation", "philosophy", "personal and cultural maturation" and even "existentialism". Bildung is the cry of the land of poets and thinkers against the demands of credentialism, professionalism, careerism and the financial temptations dangled to graduating students.[3]

In this way, fulfillment is achieved through practical activity that promotes the development of one's own individual talents and abilities which in turn lead to the development of one's society. In this way, Bildung does not simply accept the socio-political status quo, but rather it includes the ability to engage in a critique of one's society, and to ultimately challenge the society to actualize its own highest ideals. In their book The Nordic Secret -- A European Story of Beauty and Freedom, Lene Rachel Andersen and Tomas Björkman define Bildung like this:

Bildung is the way that the individual matures and takes upon him- or herself ever bigger personal responsibility towards family, friends, fellow citizens, society, humanity, our globe, and the global heritage of our species, while enjoying ever bigger personal, moral and existential freedoms. It is the enculturation and life-long learning that forces us to grow and change, it is existential and emotional depth, it is life-long interaction and struggles with new knowledge, culture, art, science, new perspectives, new people, and new truths, and it is being an active citizen in adulthood. Bildung is a constant process that never ends.[4]

In her latest book, Bildung: Keep Growing, Lene Rachel Andersen defines bildung as follows:

Bildung is moral and emotional maturity. Bildung is also to have the education and knowledge necessary to thrive in your society; bildung is to be deeply embedded in culture and community while having the autonomy to carve your own path in life. Bildung is always personal and unique.

The European Bildung Network define it like this:

Bildung is the combination of the education and knowledge necessary to thrive in your society, and the moral and emotional maturity to both be a team player and have personal autonomy. Bildung is also knowing your roots and being able to imagine the future.[5]

The philosopher Jonathan Rowson has argued for the relevance of Bildung in attaining sustainable prosperity in the 21st century:

Our understanding of the world is not a spectator sport, but more like an active ingredient in societal renewal. Bildung is about our responsibility for and participation in an evolving process of social maturation that reimagines culture, technology, institutions and policies for the greater good. [6]

Bildung in Germany todayEdit

In today’s German language, Bildung very often refers to no more than ’normal’ education.

One of the strongest voices in Germany to challenge this perception is professor of philosophy, Julian Nida-Rümelin who has written extensively on a broader definition of bildung. Since the beginning of the Bologna Process, Nida-Rümelin has been particularly active in the public debate in Germany regarding the deterioration of the German bildung and educational system, which has been the consequence of the European standardization of education due to the Bologna Process.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Theory of Bildung" by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Chapter 3 in Teaching As A Reflective Practice: The German Didaktik Tradition edited by Ian Westbury, Stefan Hopmann, Kurt Riquarts
  2. ^ see Allen W. Wood "Hegel on Education, in Amélie O. Rorty (ed.) Philosophy as Education. London: Routledge, 1998.
  3. ^ "Teach Like You Do in America: Personal Reflections on Teaching Across Borders in Tanzania and Germany." Palgrave Communications 1, Article number: 15026 (2015) doi:10.1057/palcomms.2015.26.
  4. ^ "Bildung – European Bildung Network". Retrieved 2020-02-15.
  5. ^ "Bildung – European Bildung Network". Retrieved 2020-02-15.
  6. ^ "Bildung in the 21st Century—Why sustainable prosperity depends upon reimagining education" CUSP essay series on the Morality of Sustainable Prosperity | No 9
  • Bruford, W.H. (1975). The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: Bildung from Humboldt to Thomas Mann, London: Cambridge University Press.
  • Waters, Tony (2015). "Teach Like You Do in America--Personal Reflections about Teaching in Tanzania and Germany," Palgrave Communications (2015)
  • Wood, Allen W. (1998). "Hegel on Education," Amélie O. Rorty (ed.) Philosophy as Education. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Rowson, Jonathan (2019). "Bildung in the 21st Century—Why sustainable prosperity depends upon reimagining education" CUSP essay series on the Morality of Sustainable Prosperity | No 9