Dietrich von Hildebrand
Dietrich von Hildebrand.jpg
Dietrich Richard Alfred von Hildebrand

(1889-10-12)12 October 1889
Died26 January 1977(1977-01-26) (aged 87)
Alma materUniversity of Munich
University of Göttingen
Margarete Denck
(m. 1912; died 1957)

(m. 1959)
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Main interests

Dietrich Richard Alfred von Hildebrand (12 October 1889 – 26 January 1977) was a German Roman Catholic philosopher and religious writer.

Hildebrand was called "the twentieth-century Doctor of the Church"[1] by Pope Pius XII. He was a leading philosopher in the realist phenomenological and personalist movements, producing works in every major field of philosophy, including ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical anthropology, social philosophy, and aesthetics. Pope John Paul II greatly admired the philosophical work of Hildebrand, remarking once to his widow, Alice von Hildebrand, "Your husband is one of the great ethicists of the twentieth century." Benedict XVI also had a particular admiration and regard for Hildebrand, who knew Ratzinger as a young priest in Munich: "When the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time."

Hildebrand is known for his consistent, public opposition to Nazism before and during World War II.


Born and raised in Florence, in the Kingdom of Italy, Hildebrand grew up in a German household, the son of sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand and Irene Schäuffelen, who lived in a former Minim friary. He received his early education from private tutors. Although raised in a home without religion, Hildebrand developed a deep sense for beauty, value, and the sacred from an early age.[2]

Sent to Munich at the age of fifteen for his Abitur, Hildebrand enrolled at the University of Munich two years later, where he joined a circle of students who first followed the philosopher Theodor Lipps but soon were swayed by the teachings of Edmund Husserl. Through this circle he came to know Max Scheler, through whose influence (and through his depiction of St. Francis of Assisi) Hildebrand converted to Catholicism in 1914. In 1909 he attended the University of Göttingen, where he completed his doctorate in philosophy under Husserl and Adolf Reinach, whom he later credited with helping to shape his own philosophical views.[2]

In 1912, he married Margarete Denck, and with her had one child, Franz.

In 1914, he and his wife were received into the Catholic Church. Upon the outbreak of the First World War Hildebrand was drafted into service as a physician's assistant in Munich, serving as a kind of surgical nurse.[2]

Hildebrand published his first book, The Nature of Moral Action (Die Idee der Sittlichen Handlung), in 1916, and two years later, after the war had ended, was given a teaching position at the University of Munich, eventually gaining an assistant professorship there in 1924. By then he had published another work, Morality and the Knowledge of Moral Values (Sittlichkeit und Ethische Werterkenntniss) (1921).[3]

Hildebrand was a vocal critic of National Socialism, which he saw as anti-Christian and contrary to true philosophical views, as early as 1921. During the Putsch of 1923, Hildebrand was forced to flee Munich briefly for his safety. When Hitler came to power in 1933 Hildebrand fled Germany, going first to Italy, and then to Vienna. There, with the support of the Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, he founded and edited an anti-Nazi weekly paper, Der Christliche Ständestaat ("The Christian Corporative State"). For this, he was sentenced to death in absentia by the Nazis.

Hildebrand was once again forced to flee when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938; after the members of the Austrian government, Hildebrand was the person most wanted by the Gestapo. He spent eleven months in Switzerland, near Fribourg. He then moved to Fiac in France, near Toulouse, where he taught at the Catholic University of Toulouse. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940 he went into hiding; after many hardships, and the heroic assistance of Frenchmen, including Edmond Michelet and the American journalist Varian Fry, he was able to escape to Portugal with his wife, their son Franz, and their daughter-in-law. From there they travelled by ship to Brazil and then on to New York City, arriving in 1940. There he taught philosophy at the Jesuit Fordham University on Rose Hill in the Bronx where he then mentored the Catholic author and philosophy professor Ronda Chervin.[4]

In 1957 his wife of forty-five years died, and in 1959 he married Alice M. Jourdain, also a philosopher and theologian who was a student of his at Fordham University.

Hildebrand retired from teaching in 1960, spending the remaining years of his life writing dozens of books in both German and English. He was a vocal critic of many of the ways in which the Second Vatican Council was implemented, especially the new liturgy. Because of this, he helped to promote appreciation of and attendance at the traditional Mass.[5] He was a founder of Una Voce America and vice director of Luigi Villa's Chiesa viva ("Living Church")[6] But his personalist work—for example, on the freedom of persons and on the unitive end of sexual intercourse—also helped prepare for many aspects of the Second Vatican Council's teachings, and Hildebrand always advocated reading the council's texts in continuity with the Catholic Church's tradition.

Hildebrand died in New Rochelle, New York in 1977, after a long struggle with a heart condition.


Von Hildebrand's academic career spanned several decades, during which he held positions at various institutions, including the University of Munich, Fordham University, and the Jesuit Gregorian University in Rome.[7][8] He was a prolific author, with over 30 books to his name, covering a range of topics including ethics, aesthetics, philosophy, and theology.[8][7] Von Hildebrand was particularly known for his opposition to Nazi ideology, and he left Germany in 1933 after he was banned from teaching by the Nazi government.[7][9]

Key philosophical ideas

Realist Phenomenology

Like Reinach, Scheler, Roman Ingarden, and many Munich phenomenologists, Hildebrand reacted against Edmund Husserl's transcendental idealist turn in phenomenology, on which the meaning of all objects is constituted by conscious subjects. Rather, Hildebrand endorsed a realist version of phenomenology. On this phenomenological method, we set out to focus attention on explanatory, causal, or abstract theories regarding the things we experience, so as to attain "existential contact with reality" and a "living plenitude and full flavor of being" and to do "justice to the qualitative nature of the object."[10] The goal of this method is a direct, intuitive perception of real beings. Hildebrand focuses especially on experiences of essences, that is, of necessary unities of content, like what it is to be a triangle or what it is to be justice. But he also uses this method to show how we can directly analyze all sorts of real phenomena, including human persons, organisms, artworks, and communities. Unlike in Husserl's idealist phenomenology, Hildebrand's philosophical psychology focuses on how real beings appear as intrinsically meaningful, and as giving their content to our perceptual acts, rather than our acts bestowing meaning upon them.

Rather than seeing knowledge primarily in terms of its utility, Hildebrand emphasizes how we as knowing subjects can be fulfilled by a contemplative, perceptual union with various beings. Contemplation, which is intrinsically enjoyable and done for its own sake, can occur in relation to beautiful artworks and natural beings, friends and loved ones, essential and necessary truths, and God.[11] Human persons not only experience themselves subjectively, and experience certain phenomena as subjective in the sense of being important for their lives, but human persons can also transcend themselves, going beyond their own subjectivity to make contact with what is other than them, and concerning themselves with others for their own sake.[12]

Categories of Motivation

Hildebrand focused on ethics more than on any other branch of philosophy. Throughout his ethical works, Hildebrand distinguishes three ways in which human choices and actions are motivated:[13]

  1. We can be motivated by the subjectively satisfying, that is, by what is pleasing to us as individuals, without consideration of what objectively fulfills our nature or is important in itself.
  2. We can be motivated by the objective good for persons, that is, by what objectively fulfills the needs, abilities, appetites, and desires that we have insofar as we have human nature.
  3. We can be motivated by values or what is important in itself, that is, by what calls for a certain response as due to it, without reference to our own fulfillment or satisfaction.

In many of his works, Hildebrand focuses on distinguishing kinds of values and describing the intellectual, volitional, or affective response that is due to it. Values must be grasped by direct perception, and so realist phenomenology is an excellent method for describing exactly how values appear. Hildebrand frequently engages in this description by distinguishing experiences in which a certain value appears from experiences in which other values or other phenomena appear. For example, in Graven Images, he carefully describes the difference between experiences of genuine moral values from experiences of similar, but non-moral values, like honor.

Kinds of values that he distinguishes include: moral values (like justice or generosity), intellectual values (like the importance of genius and creativity), ontological values (the value a thing has in virtue of the kind of thing it is), aesthetic values (like beauty and elegance), and many other sorts of value. Each value gives its bearer importance in itself, which categorically calls for a response of a kind appropriate to the value in question. Values present themselves as real properties, and as having their own ideal, necessary structure.

Throughout his works, Hildebrand describes many ways in which values impact our lives. For example, in In Defense of Purity, he describes how awareness of values in the sexual sphere can lead to the virtue of purity and to having chaste reverence for other persons' bodies. In The Nature of Love, he describes how different values and different sorts of motivation give rise to different kinds of love; there, he also describes how we can be motivated by different kinds of values at the same time—for example, in falling in love with another person, I simultaneously see both the value of that other and that other as an objective good for me. In Metaphysics of Community, he describes how different sorts of values unify different kinds of communities, like families, nations, and the Church.

The Heart

In addition to the traditionally-distinguished intellect and will, Hildebrand argues in The Heart that some feelings or affective acts are properly personal acts. A personal or spiritual act is one that is not just caused in us, but is motivated by intentional awareness of its object. While Hildebrand grants that many feelings are purely bodily acts, which are caused by physiological or other physical events, he also argues that many feelings are intentional (that is, object-directed) acts. These include feelings of love, reverence, gratitude, disgust, hatred, and pride. Many such affective acts are responses to values; some values call for feelings as their proper response. It is a sign that some feelings are properly speaking personal or spiritual that they are meaningful, motivated responses to values. A person is not fully virtuous until he or she gives valuable goods their proper affective response; to merely perform morally right acts or hold true beliefs is not sufficient for full virtue, or for giving objects and persons all that is due to them. Feelings must be received as a gift, and cannot be forced by our own volitions, but we can encourage the right feelings to arise by voluntarily sanctioning them and by voluntarily disavowing undue feelings. As in his discussion of values, Hildebrand writes a lot about distinguishing kinds of feelings, and about analyzing their place in the moral life, as well as in the Christian life—something he emphasizes by a careful analysis of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Transformation in Christ

Transformation in Christ is a book written by Dietrich von Hildebrand that explores the idea of spiritual transformation and the journey toward holiness in the Christian life. The book consists of 35 chapters, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the Christian life and the process of transformation.[14]

Von Hildebrand argues that the goal of the Christian life is not simply to follow a set of rules or to achieve a certain level of moral perfection, but rather to be transformed from within and to develop a deep personal relationship with God. He stresses the importance of cultivating virtues such as humility, faith, hope, and love, and of seeking to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of our spiritual growth. [14]

Throughout the book, von Hildebrand draws on the teachings of the Bible, the writings of the saints, and his own personal experiences to offer insights into the spiritual life. He emphasizes the need for prayer, meditation, and self-examination, and he encourages readers to seek out the guidance of spiritual directors and to participate in the sacraments of the Church. [14]


This list is incomplete; you can help by adding missing items. (March 2023)


Critical studies and reviews of Hildebrand's work

Ethics (2020)


  1. ^ The 2020 edition is titled "Ethics".


  1. ^ Trojan Horse in the City of God. Sophia Press Institute. 1993. p. 269.
  2. ^ a b c von Hildebrand, Alice (2000). The Soul of a Lion. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. ISBN 089870801X.
  3. ^ "Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977)". Retrieved 26 December 2012.
  4. ^ "Ronda Chervin". Archived from the original on 27 August 2017. Retrieved 12 April 2018.
  5. ^ Hildebrand, Dietrich von (1973). Der verwüstete Weinberg (in German). Regensburg: Habbel.
  6. ^ Heckenkamp, Kathleen (2014). "In Defense of Fr. Luigi Villa" (PDF). Star of the Stormy Sea (Quarterly newsletter). Oconomowoc: The Apostolate of Our Lady of Good Success. pp. 2–5. Retrieved 1 July 2018.
  7. ^ a b c "Dietrich von Hildebrand, 91, Philosopher, is Dead". The New York Times. 14 January 1977. Retrieved 20 February 2023.
  8. ^ a b "Biography of Dietrich von Hildebrand". Sophia Institute Press. Retrieved 20 February 2023.
  9. ^ "The man who fought the Nazis with philosophy". The Tablet. 27 January 2018. Retrieved 20 February 2023.
  10. ^ von Hildebrand, Dietrich (1991). What is Philosophy?. Routledge. pp. 274–275.
  11. ^ von Hildebrand, Dietrich (1991). What is Philosophy?. Routledge. pp. 231–234.
  12. ^ von Hildebrand, Dietrich (2009). The Nature of Love. St. Augustine's Press. pp. 200–220.
  13. ^ von Hildebrand, Dietrich (1953). Christian Ethics. McKay. pp. ch.3.
  14. ^ a b c von Hildebrand, Dietrich (2001). Transformation in Christ. Sophia Institute Press. ISBN 0898708699.