He was born in Munich the third son of F. P. Baader, court physician to the elector of Bavaria. His brothers were both distinguished--the elder, Clemens, as an author; the second, Joseph (1763-1835), as an engineer. Franz studied medicine at Ingolstadt and Vienna, and for a short time assisted his father in his practice. This life he soon found uncongenial, and decided on becoming a mining engineer. He studied under Abraham Gottlob Werner at Freiberg, travelled through several of the mining districts in north Germany, and for four years, 1792-1796, resided in England.
There he became acquainted with the works of Jakob Boehme, and with the ideas of Hume, Hartley and Godwin, which were extremely distasteful to him. The mystical speculations of Meister Eckhart, Saint Martin, and above all those of Boehme, were more in harmony with his mode of thought. In 1796 he returned from England, and in Hamburg became acquainted with F. H. Jacobi, with whom he was for years on terms of friendship. He now learned something of the work of Friedrich Schelling, and the works he published during this period were manifestly influenced by that philosopher. Yet Baader is no disciple of Schelling, and, probably gave out more than he received. Their friendship continued till about the year 1822, when Baader's denunciation of modern philosophy in his letter to the emperor Alexander I. of Russia entirely alienated Schelling.
All this time Baader continued to apply himself to his profession of engineer. He gained a prize of 12,000 gulden (about £1000) for his new method of employing Glauber's salts instead of potash in the making of glass. From 1817 to 1820 he held the post of superintendent of mines, and was raised to the rank of nobility for his services. He retired in 5820 [1820?], and soon after published one of the best of his works, Fermenta Cognitionis, 6 parts, 1822-1825, in which he combats modern philosophy and recommends the study of Boehme. In 1826, when the new university was opened in Munich, he was appointed professor of philosophy and speculative theology. Some of the lectures delivered there he published under the title Spekulative Dogmatik, 4 parts, 1827-1836. In 1838 he opposed the interference in civil matters of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he belonged, and in consequence was, during the last three years of his life, interdicted from lecturing on the philosophy of religion. He died on the 23rd of May 1841.
It is difficult to summarize Baader's philosophy, for he himself generally gave expression to his deepest thoughts in obscure aphorisms, or mystical symbols and analogies (see Eduard Zeller's Ges. d. deut. Phil. 732, 736). Further, he has no systematic works; his doctrines exist for the most part in short detached essays, in comments on the writings of Boehme and Saint Martin, or in his extensive correspondence and journals. At the same time there are salient points which mark the outline of his thought. Baader starts from the position that human reason by itself can never reach the end it aims at, and maintains that we cannot throw aside the presuppositions of faith, church and tradition. His point of view may be described as Scholasticism; for, like the scholastic doctors, he believes that theology and philosophy are not opposed sciences, but that reason has to make clear the truths given by authority and revelation. But in his attempt to draw still closer the realms of faith and knowledge he approaches more nearly to the mysticism of Eckhart, Paracelsus and Boehme. Our existence depends on the act that we are cognized by God (cogitor ergo cogito et sum). All self-consciousness is at the same time God--consciousness; our knowledge is never mere scientia, it is invariably con-scientia--a knowing with, consciousness of, or participation in God. Baader's philosophy is thus essentially a theosophy. God is not to be conceived as mere abstract Being (substantia), but as everlasting process, activity (actus). Of this process, this self-generation of God, we may distinguish two aspects-the immanent or esoteric, and the eminent or exoteric. God has reality only in so far as He is absolute spirit, and only in so far as the primitive will is conscious of itself can it become spirit at all. But in this very cognition of self is involved the distinction of knower and known, from which proceeds the power to become spirit. This immanent process of self-consciousness, therein indeed a trinity of persons is not given but only rendered possible, is mirrored in, and takes place through, the eternal and impersonal idea or wisdom of God, which exists beside, though not distinct from, the primitive will. Concrete reality or personality is given to this divine Ternar, as Baader calls it, through nature, the principle of self-hood, of individual being, which is eternally and necessarily produced by God. Only in nature is the trinity of persons attained. These processes, it must be noticed, are not to be conceived as successive, or as taking place in time; they are to be looked at sub specie aeternitatis, as the necessary elements or moments in the self-evolution of the divine Being. Nor is nature to be confounded with created substance, or with matter as it exists in space and time; it is pure non-being, the mere otherness (alteritas) of God--his shadow, desire, want, or desiderium sui, as it is called by mystical writers. Creation, itself a free and non-temporal act of God's love and will, cannot be speculatively deduced, but must be accepted as an historic fact.
Created beings were originally of three orders--the intelligent or angels; the non-intelligent natural existences; and man, who mediated between these two orders. Intelligent beings are endowed with freedom; it is possible, but not necessary, that they should fall. Hence the fact of the fall is not a speculative but an historic truth. The angels fell through pride-through desire to raise themselves to equality with God; man fell by lowering himself to the level of nature. Only after the fall of man begins the creation of space, time and matter, or of the world as we now know it; and the motive of this creation was the desire to afford man an opportunity for taking advantage of the scheme of redemption, for bringing forth in purity the image of God according to which he has been fashioned. The physical philosophy and anthropology which Baader, in connection with this, unfolds in various works, is but little instructive, and coincides in the main with the utterances of Boehme. In nature and in man he finds traces of the dire effects of sin, which has corrupted both and has destroyed their natural harmony. As regards ethics, Baader rejects the Kantian or any autonomic system of morals. Not obedience to a moral law, but realization in ourselves of the divine life is the true ethical end. But man has lost the power to effect this by himself; he has alienated himself from God, and therefore no ethical theory which neglects the facts of sin and redemption is satisfactory or even possible. The history of man and of humanity is the history of the redeeming love of God. The means whereby we put ourselves so in relation with Christ as to receive from Him his healing virtue are chiefly prayer and the sacraments of the church; mere works are never sufficient. Man in his social relations is under two great institutions. One is temporal, natural and limited-the state; the other is eternal, cosmopolitan and universal--the church. In the state two things are requisite: first, common submission to the ruler, which can be secured or given only when the state is Christian, for God alone is the true ruler of men; and, secondly, inequality of rank, without which there can be no organization. A despotism of mere power and liberalism, which naturally produces socialism, are equally objectionable. The ideal state is a civil community ruled by a universal or Catholic church, the principles of which are equally distinct from mere passive pietism, or faith which will know nothing, and from the Protestant doctrine, which is the very radicalism of reason.
Baader is, without doubt, among the greatest speculative theologians of modern Catholicism, and his influence has extended itself even beyond the precincts of his own church. Among those whom he influenced were R. Rothe, Julius Muller and Hans L. Markensen.
His works were collected and published by a number of his adherents-F. Hoffman, J. Hamberger, E. v. Schaden, Lutterbeck, von Osten-Sacken and Schluter-Baader's sämmtliche Werke (16 vols., 1851-1860). Valuable introductions by the editors are prefixed to the several volumes. Vol. xv. contains a full biography; vol. xvi. an index, and an able sketch of the whole system by Lutterbeck. See F. Hoffmann, Vorhalle zur spekulativen Lehre Baader?s (1836); Grundzüge der Societäts-Philosophie Franz Baader's (1837); Philosophische Schriften (3 vols., 1868-1872); Die Weltalter (1868); Biographie und Briefwechsel (Leipzig, 1887); J. Hamberger, Cardinalpunkte der Baaderschen Philosophie (1855); Fundamentalbegriffe von F. B.?s Ethik, Politik, u. Religions-Philosophie (1858); J. A. B. Lutterbeck, Philosophische Standpunkte Baaders (1854); Baaders Lehre vom Weltgebäude (i866). The most satisfactory surveys are those given by Erdmann, Versuch einer Gesch. d. neuern Phil. iii. 2, pp. 583-636; J. Claassen, Franz von Baaders Leben und theosophische Werke (Stuttgart, 1886-1887), and Franz von Baaders Gedanken über Staat und Gesellschaft (Gütersloh, 2890); Otto Pfleiderer, Philosophy of Religion (vol. ii., Eng. trans. 1887); R. Falckenberg, History of Philosophy, pp. 472-475 (trans. A. C. Armstrong, New York, 1893); Reichel, Die Sozietätsphilosophie Franz v. Baaders (Tübingen, 19O1); Kuno Fischer, Zur hundertjährigen Geburtstagfeier Baaders (Erlangen, 1865).