Bildung to dannelse

A historical analysis of an educational concept in motion from Fichte’s “Addresses to the German Nation” to Grundtvig’s “Nordic Mythology,” 1808 – 1832


  • Louis Waterman-Evans


Bildung, dannelse, Fichte, Grundtvig, Addresses to the German Nation, Nordic Mythology


This conceptual research analyses the historical development of the German concept of Bildung to the Danish dannelse. The starting point is J.G. Fichte’s 1808 “Addresses to the German Nation,” in which Bildung is analyzed as a key concept. The paper illustrates the influence Fichte had on N.F.S. Grundtvig, the “father of modern Denmark,” with important adaptations based on English liberties and Nordic mythology. Grundtvig’s dannelse is then analyzed based on his 1832 “milestone” work, “Nordic Mythology.” The paper finds that Bildung and dannelse can be considered parallel concepts of similarity in their shared emphasis on the mother-tongue as a “living language,” and focus on social cohesion. However, Bildung and dannelse can also be characterized as concepts of difference, in that: 1) dannelse popularized Bildung, meaning that it was not just for the academic bourgeoisie, but the entire “folk”; 2) freedom of expression is fundamental to dannelse, in contrast to the stability of will and moral order in Bildung; 3) in dannelse, national unity is expanded to a wider circle of belonging, the whole of humankind; 4) Nordic mythology is a social cohesive in dannelse, to contrast Fichte’s more rational conception of Bildung. Written by a British author for an English-speaking readership, this research does not feign to be more than a prefatory glance at two rich and complex concepts. However, in shedding light on the historical development of Bildung to dannelse, it aspires to edge readers closer toward a shared conceptual understanding or, more aptly, to better understand misunderstandings.