German Philosophy


OUR approach to the idealistic philosophy of Kant and his successors is obstructed by the current preemption of the word ideal for moral excellence, and by our habit, in an age of science and industry, of thinking of things perceived, and seldom of the process of perception itself. The opposite attitudes competed in Greek philosophy, where Democritus took atoms as his starting point, and Plato took ideas. In modern philosophy Bacon stressed knowledge of the world, Descartes began with the thinking self. Hobbes reduced everything to matter, Berkeley to mind. Kant gave German philosophy its distinctive character by arguing that its prime task is the study of the process by which we form ideas. He admitted the reality of external objects, but insisted that we can never know what they objectively are, since we know them only as changed by the organs and processes of perception into our ideas. Philosophical “idealism” is therefore the theory that nothing is known to us except ideas, and that therefore matter is a form of mind.*

I. FICHTE: 1762–1814

1. The Radical

Here, as so often in literary history, the man has proved more interesting than his books. These suffer erosion by the flux of fashions in ideas and forms, but the study of a soul picking its way through the labyrinth of life is a living lesson in philosophy, an ever moving picture of experience molding character and transforming thought.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte crowded a brave variety of experience into his fifty-two years. His father was a Saxon ribbon weaver. His mother prayed that her boy should be a pastor; he agreed, and after some local schooling he was sent to Jena to study theology. The more he studied the more he wondered and doubted. A village preacher gave him a Refutation of the Errors of Spinoza; Fichte was charmed by the errors,2 and decided that he was not fit for a pastorate. Nevertheless he graduated in the faculty of theology. Almost penniless, he walked from Jena to Zurich to secure a post as tutor. There he fell in love with Johanna Maria Rahn, and was formally betrothed to her; but they agreed not to marry till he was financially adult.

He moved to Leipzig, tutored, read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and was fascinated. He made his way to Königsberg, and presented Kant a Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung (Essay toward a Critique of All Revelation, 1792). The old philosopher balked at Fichte’s request for a loan, but helped him to find a publisher for his treatise. The printer neglected to state the author’s name; when a critic ascribed the essay to Kant, Kant named the author and praised the book; Fichte was at once received into the not quite “serene brotherhood of philosophes.”3 He did not do so well with the theologians, for the argument of his treatise was that although revelation does not prove the existence of God, we must ascribe our moral code to God, if that code is to be accepted and obeyed by mankind.

On Kant’s recommendation Fichte found remunerative employment as a tutor in Danzig. His betrothed now agreed to add her savings to his income, and on that basis they were married in 1793. He further signalized the year by publishing, anonymously, two vigorous essays. In the Restoration of Freedom of Thought by the Princes of Europe he began by praising some enlightened rulers, and berated princes who obstructed the progress of the human mind; and he mourned the wave of repression that had followed the death of Frederick the Great. Reform is better than revolution, for a revolution can throw man back into barbarism; and yet a successful revolution can advance mankind as much in half a century as reform could have done in a thousand years. Then Fichte addressed his readers—at a time when feudalism was still in force through most of Germany:

Hate not your princes but yourselves. One of the sources of your misery is your exaggerated estimate of these personages, whose minds are warped by an enervating education, indulgence, and superstition…. These are the men who are exhorted to suppress freedom of thought…. Cry aloud to your princes that you will never permit your freedom of thought to be filched from you….

The Dark Ages are over,… when you were told in God’s name that you were herds of cattle set on earth to fetch and carry, to serve a dozen mortals in high place, and to be their possessions. You are not their property, not even God’s property, but your own…. You will now ask the prince who wishes to rule you, By what right? If he replies, By inheritance, you will ask, How did the first of your line obtain the right?… The prince derives his whole power from the people.4

The second tract, Essay toward the Correction of the Public’s Judgment on the French Revolution, was still more radical. Feudal privileges should not be hereditary; they exist by consent of the state, and should be terminable at the state’s convenience. Likewise with ecclesiastical property: it exists through permission and protection by the state, and may be nationalized when the nation’s need and will so decree. The French National Assembly did this, and was justified. Here the fragment ends.

Only by noting that these pronouncements were published anonymously can we understand how Fichte won an invitation (December, 1793) to the chair of philosophy at Jena. Duke Charles Augustus was still an easygoing lord of Weimar and Jena, and Goethe, who supervised the university faculty, had not yet decided that the French Revolution was a Romantic disease.5 So Fichte began his courses at Jena in the Easter term of 1794. He was a persuasive teacher, a lively orator, who could put feeling into philosophy and make metaphysics lord of all; but his impetuous temper was thoroughly unprofessorial, and promised intellectual turbulence.

Five of his early discourses were published in 1794 as Einige V orlesungen über die Bestimmung des Gelehrtes (Some Lectures on the Vocation of the Scholar). Their thesis, that the state will in some amiable future disappear and leave men really free, was almost as anarchistic as Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, published a year before:

Political society is no part of the absolute purpose of human life, but is only a possible means to the formation of a perfect society. The state constantly tends toward its own annihilation, since the final aim of all government is to render itself superfluous. We may have to wait for aeons, but one day all political combinations will become unnecessary.6

To this prospect—made palatable to princes by its distance—Fichte added another Pisgah view: “The ultimate aim of society is the perfect equality of all its members.” This was a resounding echo of Jean-Jacques, and Fichte did not disown the parentage: “Peace be with Rousseau’s ashes, and blessings on his memory; for he has kindled fires in many souls.”7 The Romantic rebels who were to congregate in Jena in 1796 welcomed this summons to utopia. “The greatest metaphysician now alive,” wrote Friedrich von Schlegel to his brother, “is a popular writer. You can see it in his famous book on the Revolution. Contrast the contagious eloquence of the ‘Lectures on the Scholar’ with Schiller’s declamations. Every trait in Fichte’s public life seems to say, ‘This is a man.’”8

2. The Philosopher

What was this metaphysics that so charmed the Romantics? Its central thesis was that the individual, self-conscious ego—whose essence is will and whose will is free—is the center and sum of all reality. Nothing could have pleased the Romantics more. But the matter was not as simple as Friedrich von Schlegel’s Lucinde. Fichte himself, after publishing his Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre (Foundation of the Whole Science of Knowledge, 1794), found it necessary to clarify it, post factum (1797), by aZweite Einleitung (Second Introduction), and by a Neue Darstellung (New Presentation), each of which added fresh absurdities. The key word itself needed a key: Wissenschaftslehre meant a study of the shaft or trunk of knowledge—i.e., the mind—or, to put it in one forbidding word, epistemology.

Fichte began by dividing philosophers into two groups: “dogmatists” or “realists,” who are confident that objects exist independently of the mind; and idealists, who believe that all experience and all “facts” are mental percepts, and that therefore all reality, so far as we can know, is part of the perceiving mind. He objected to realism that it is logically driven to a mechanistic determinism which makes consciousness superfluous and undermines responsibility and morality—whereas freedom of the will is among the most immediate and tenacious of our convictions. Fichte objected further that no philosophy which begins with matter can explain consciousness, which is manifestly immaterial. But the main problems of philosophy concern this mysterious reality called consciousness.

So Fichte began with the conscious self—the Ego, Ich, or I. He acknowledged an external world, but only as known to us through our perceptions. These, by their very process—the interpretation of sensations through memory and purpose—transform the object into a part of the mind. (So a word as a sound is quite different from that word as interpreted by experience, context, and aim; and a storm, which to mere sensation is a confused and meaningless medley of messages falling upon various senses, becomes in perception—through memory, circumstance, and desire—a stimulus to meaningful action.) Fichte concluded that we must assume an external object or “non-Ego” as cause of our external sensations, but that the “object” as interpreted by perception, memory, and will is a construct of the mind. From this point of view both the subject and the object are parts of the Ego, and nothing outside of the Ego can ever be known.

All this is but one aspect of Fichte’s philosophy. Behind the self as perceiving is the self as desiring, willing. “The ego is a system of impulses; its very nature is tendency or impulse.” “The whole system of our ideas depends upon our impulses and our will.”9(Here Fichte touches upon Spinoza’s “desire is the very essence of man,” and leads to Schopenhauer’s view of “the world as will and idea.”) This restless will is not part of that objective world which seems a slave to mechanistic determinism; hence the will is free. This freedom is the essence of man, for it makes him a responsible moral agent, capable of freely obeying a moral law.

As he proceeded, Fichte developed Kant’s admiration of astronomic and moral order into a new theology which assumed a moral law as governing and supporting the universe as well as the character and communities of men. Finally he identified this moral order of the universe—each part, so to speak, doing its duty and thereby maintaining the whole—with God.10 The goal and duty of the free man is to live in harmony with this divine moral order. That cosmic moral order is not a person but a process, principally visible in the moral development of mankind.11 The “Vocation of Man” is to live in harmony with that divine order. —All this again recalls Spinoza; but in another mood Fichte suggests Hegel: the individual self or soul is mortal,12 but it shares in the immortality of that totality of conscious selves which is the Absolute Ego, Idea, or Soul.

In Fichte’s philosophy we feel the anxious groping of a man who has lost his transmitted religious faith but is struggling to find for himself and his readers or pupils a middle way between belief and doubt. In 1798 he faced the problem again in Über den Grund unseres Glaubens an eine göttliche Weltsregierung (On the Ground of Our Belief in a Divine Governance of the World). He reaffirmed his conception of God as the impersonal moral order of the world, but he allowed that some might ascribe personality to this deity in order to vivify their concept and devotion. However, he added that to conceive God as a tyrant, on whose favor future pleasures depend, is to worship an idol; and those who worship it should be called atheists.

An anonymous critic denounced the treatise as irreligious; others joined in the attack; the government of Saxony confiscated all available copies of Fichte’s essay, and lodged a complaint with the Weimar government for allowing atheism to be taught within its jurisdiction. The educational committee at Weimar tried to quiet the matter with a polite reply to the Saxons, but Fichte, who was no pacifist, issued two pamphlets in public defense of his book (1799), one of them a direct Appellation an das Publikum. The Weimar committee took this Appeal to the Public as a challenge to its handling of the matter, and a rumor reached Fichte that it would ask the university senate to impose a public censure upon him. Arguing that this would violate academic freedom, Fichte wrote to Privy Councilor Voight of Weimar that if such a censure should be issued he would resign; and he added that several other professors had agreed, in such case, to resign with him. The Weimar committee (Schiller and Goethe assenting) issued a rescript to the university senate desiring it to censure Fichte; then, accepting Fichte’s threat and challenge, it dismissed him. Two petitions were submitted by the students for a recall of this edict; they were ignored.13

In July, 1799, Fichte and his wife moved to Berlin, where he was warmly received by Friedrich von Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and others of the Romantic circle, who sensed the Romantic flavor of Fichte’s imagination, and the heroic Ego-ism of his philosophy. To save the cost of a separate household, Fichte (with his unwilling wife) accepted Schlegel’s invitation to live with him and Brendel Mendelssohn Veit. The volatile philosopher liked the ensemble, and proposed to enlarge it. “If my plan succeeds,” he wrote, “the Schlegels, Schelling, and we ourselves will form one family, take a larger house, and have only one cook.”14 The plan was not carried out, for Caroline von Schlegel did not get along with Brendel; individualism is the snake in every socialist paradise.

Fichte, however, kept a socialist tinge to the end. In 1800 he published an essay, Der geschlossene Handelsstaat (The Closed Commercial State), in which he argued that foreign trade and manipulations of currency enable the richer nations to drain poorer nations of their metallic wealth; therefore the government should control all foreign commerce, and possess all negotiable bullion and currency. Armed with this power, the state should guarantee to every individual a living wage and an equitable share in the national product; in return the individual must yield to the state the power to fix prices, and to determine the place and character of his work.15

Strangely contemporary with this radical pronouncement was a religious tract, Die Bestimmung des Menschen (The Vocation of Man, 1800), which described God as the moral order of the universe, and rose to an ecstasy of adoration:

Our faith,… our faith in duty, is only faith in Him, in His reason and His truth…. That eternal Will is assuredly the Creator of the World…. We are eternal because He is eternal.

Sublime and living Will! named by no name, compassed by no thought!… Thou are best known to a childlike, devoted, simple mind….

I hide my face before Thee, and lay my hand upon my mouth…. How Thou art, and seemest to Thine own being, I can never know…. Thou workest in me the knowledge of my duty, of my vocation in the world of reasonable beings; how I know not, nor need I know. … In the contemplation of these Thy relations to me,… will I rest in calm blessedness.16

Apparently dependent upon public lectures, and their publication, for his livelihood, Fichte moved more and more toward Christian piety and German patriotism. In 1805 he was called to the chair of philosophy at the University of Erlangen. He was making a new reputation for himself there when the entry of Napoleon’s army into Germany (1806) compelled him to seek a safer post. He crossed into East Prussia, and for a time taught in Königsberg. Soon the vicinity of Napoleon’s troops at nearby Friedland forced him to move—this time to Copenhagen. In August, 1807, weary of homelessness, he made his way back to Berlin. There he put philosophy aside, and gave his energy to helping restore the pride and spirit of a shattered and humiliated people.

3. The Patriot

On Sundays from December 13, 1807, to March 20, 1808, in the amphitheater of the Berlin Academy, Fichte delivered the lectures later published as Reden an die deutsche Nation. They were his passionate appeal to his people to regain their self-respect and courage, and to take measures for raising themselves out of the desolation brought upon them by the saberrattling conceit of the Prussian military caste, the inhumane Peace of Tilsit, and the brutal dismemberment of the Prussian kingdom by the victorious Corsican. Meanwhile French soldiers were policing the captured capital, and French spies were checking every speech.

These Addresses to the German Nation are the most living part of Fichte’s legacy, and are still warm with the feeling of the philosopher turned patriot. They put aside the intellectual game of theoretical logic, and faced the bitter realities of Prussia’s darkest year. He spoke not to Prussia alone, but to all Germans; and though their scattered principalities hardly constituted a nation, they used the same language and needed the same goad. He sought to bring them some unity by reminding them of German history, of famous victories—and achievements in statesmanship, religion, literature, and art; and by rejecting the hopeless materialism which he claimed to find in English life and theory, and the religious denudation of the French Enlightenment and Revolution. He spoke with reasonable pride of the mercantile cities of the older Germany—the Nuremberg of Albrecht Dürer, the Augsburg of the Fuggers, the globe-running burghers of the Hanseatic League. Present defeats, Fichte told his class and his country, must be seen in the perspective of a brilliant past; this imprisonment of one nation by another could not last; the German people had, in their national character, the resources of body, mind, and will that would make this present nadir end.

How? Fichte answered, By a complete reform of education: its extension to every German child by governmental financing and compulsion; and the transformation of its purpose from commercial success to moral commitment. No more talk of revolution; there is only one revolution, and that is the enlightenment of the mind and the cleansing of the character. The child’s abilities must be developed by the method of Pestalozzi; and they must be directed to national goals determined by the state. The state must be led by educated and dedicated men; it must be not the power of an army but the direction and implementation of the national will. Every citizen must be the servant of the state, and the state must be the servant of all. “Till now, by far the largest part of the state’s income… has been spent in maintaining a standing army”; and the education of children has been left to clergymen who “used God as a means to introduce self-seeking into other worlds after the death of the mortal body…. Such a religion… shall indeed be borne to the grave along with the past age.”17 It must be replaced by a religion of moral consciousness based upon an educated sense of communal responsibility.

To produce this new type of man, Fichte believes, the pupils should be “separated from the adult society,” and “form a separate and self-contained community…. Physical exercises,… farming, and trades of various kinds, in addition to the development of the mind by learning, are included in this commonwealth.”18

So isolated from the corruptions of the dying past, the pupils, by work and study, should be stimulated to create an image of the social order of mankind as it ought to be, simply in accordance with the law of reason. The pupil is so filled with ardent love for such an order of things that it will be utterly impossible for him not to desire it, and to work with all his strength to promote it, when freed from the guidance of education.19

It is a splendid dream, recalling Plato’s republic, and forecasting the socialist prophets who would stir the hopes of succeeding centuries. It had little influence on its time, and little share (though this has been magnified) in raising national ardor against Napoleon.20 But Fichte was thinking of something larger than the expulsion of the French from Prussia; he was trying to find a way of improving that human character which, for good and evil, has made much of history. In any case it was a noble dream, too confident, perhaps, in the power of education over heredity, and sadly open to misconception and misuse by authoritarian regimes; but, Fichte said, “as I care to live only for that hope, I cannot give up hoping… that I shall convince some Germans… that it is education alone that can save us.”21

The hardships of his flight from Erlangen to Königsberg to Copenhagen to Berlin had permanently weakened him. Shortly after completing his Addresses to the German Nation his health broke down. He went to Teplitz and partly recovered. In 1810 he was made rector of the new University of Berlin. When Prussia opened its War of Liberation, Fichte aroused his students to such patriotic fervor that nearly all of them enlisted.22 Fichte’s wife volunteered for service as a nurse; she caught an apparently fatal fever; he attended her during the day, and lectured at the university in the evening; he caught the ailment from her; she survived, he died, January 27, 1814. Five years later she was laid beside him, in that good old custom of burial which allowed lovers and mates to be joined again—even though but hair and bones—in symbol of their having been, and of being now again, one.

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