Fichte (Adamson)/Chapter III

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by Robert Adamson
Chapter III
The Jena Professorship



The winter of 1793 was passed quietly at Zürich in constant meditation over the main problems of the Kantian philosophy. Partly by his own reflection, partly by the acute criticisms of Schulz, whose ‘Ænesidemus’ had appeared in the preceding year, Fichte had begun to see with clearness where the main difficulty of the Kantian system lay. The theory of knowledge expounded in the ‘Critique of Pure Reason,’ was not, so far at least as Kant’s own statement extended, a perfectly coherent whole; nor did there appear to be a consistent, logical transition from that theory to the more metaphysical notions which came forward in the Critiques of Practical Reason and of Judgment. Some assistance in working into system the parts of the Kantian doctrine was doubtless furnished by Reinhold, but with his method Fichte soon became dissatisfied. It was for him a necessity that the whole of philosophy should manifest a single principle, that the theories of knowledge and of practice should be deduced from one common source, and that the fundamental notions of speculative thought should be developed with systematic completeness. In one or two occasional reviews dating from this period, and in letters to his friends, he gave brief utterance to his convictions on this point; and, as his views grew more matured and definite, he yielded to the request of some Zürich acquaintances, and delivered during the winter a short course of private lectures on philosophy as conceived by him. The formation of his speculative doctrines was, however, accelerated by the invitation, which reached him in December 1793, to fill the post of extraordinary Professor of Philosophy at Jena, about to become vacant by the transference of Reinhold to Kiel. Reluctant as Fichte was at first to yield immediate assent to this call, he could not refuse the opportunity of entering once for all upon the career for which he appeared specially marked out, and after sending in his acceptance to Privy Councillor Voigt, he made arrangements for beginning his course at Jena in the Easter term of 1794.

The University at Jena was then at the very height of its renown. No other period, in all its brilliant history, rivals the first decades of the nineteenth century. Above all other universities in Germany it was distinguished as the very centre of the most progressive movements in philosophy and literature. The near neighbourhood of Weimar—where the most illustrious names in the new German literature congregated, where, under the genial care of a noble and enlightened prince, arts and letters flourished as in a modern Athens—gave to it additional renown, and secured the most watchful supervision over the studies of the university. More especially, however, was Jena pre-eminent as the university in which the new German philosophy had been most eagerly accepted and most fruitfully applied. Schütz, known in classical literature for his editions of ‘Æschylus’ and ‘Cicero,’ made it his boast that he had been the first to introduce the youth of Jena to the Critical Philosophy. Hufeland, an eminent jurist, expounded the principles of the Kantian ethics, and his ‘Naturrecht’ is still one of the best expositions of philosophic jurisprudence. Reinhold, who by his ‘Letters on the Kantian Philosophy’ had won the approval of the father of criticism himself, had begun in 1787, in the chair instituted specially for him, the lectures in which he endeavoured to improve and further the critical system. Schiller, called to the Chair of History in 1789, had shown how philosophical principles might be fruitfully united with historical research and artistic production. Paulus, Loder, Ersch, and Schmid, are names not to be forgotten for the services they rendered to the advancement of German thought. Altogether, the University of Jena, at the close of the eighteenth century, exhibited a degree of life and activity which raised it to the first place among the academies of Germany. The history of German philosophy, in its brightest period, is in a great measure the history of the Jena University. For there as teachers we find Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Fries, Krause, and Schlegel; as scholars, Herbart, Schubert, Steffens, Solger, Hülsen, Hölderlin, Von Berger, and Oersted. Among the students the fame of their teachers was reflected in a peculiarly open and vigorous university life. Nowhere was there a freer or more enthusiastic academic tone than in Jena.

The call of Fichte to Jena—not, as we learn from Goethe, undertaken without some hesitation on the score of his pronounced political views—was hailed by the university with the keenest joy. Of all the adherents of Kantianism, he alone had given proofs of ability to carry forward and develop the great thoughts that had already begun to exert their wonderful influence. “In Jena,” his friend Böttiger writes to him, “there has been for some weeks past an indescribable joy over the triumvirate of professors due at Easter,—for in addition to you, there have also been called here the excellent Ilgen, probably the most learned and cultured scholar in Saxony, as Professor Orientalium, and Woltmann, as extraordinary lecturer on History. But your name resounds above all, and expectation is strained to its utmost doubtless in part because you are regarded as the most valiant defender of the rights of men, whereon many a son of the Muses has quite peculiar ideas. This, however, may easily be put to rights.”

On the 18th May 1794 Fichte arrived in Jena. The preceding months had been spent by him in the most arduous and careful preparation for his new task. It had been impossible, in the short interval allowed him, to complete what he had desired to have ready, an exposition of his philosophic views which might serve as a handbook for his prelections; but as introductory thereto he had drawn out and published the short tract, ‘On the Notion of the Theory of Knowledge or so-called Philosophy,’[1] giving a preliminary sketch of the fundamental ideas to be embodied in his philosophical lectures. The tract is written with wonderful clearness, but its contents amount to little more than the strenuous expression of the need for unity of philosophical conception, together with certain formal determinations regarding the first principle from which philosophical thinking must take its start. The somewhat abstract method here employed was never afterwards followed by Fichte, and it is matter for regret that the general ideas of his system have been mainly drawn from this early pamphlet, and contain little beyond its formal statements.

The reception accorded to the philosopher at Jena was of the most gratifying kind. As might have been anticipated from Fichte’s character, it was his constant aim not only to reach the truth in purely metaphysical speculation, but to make philosophic principles living rules of action. The tone of his mind was prevailingly practical, and it was impossible for him to remain contented with mere exposition of speculative doctrines. Accordingly he arranged his courses at Jena into two series: the one, more elaborate and extended, on philosophy as a whole; the other, shorter and more popular, on the effects of philosophic culture in general upon character and life. The first course was given to the students of philosophy in particular; the second, to which he then gave the title of “Ethics of the Scholar,” was public, and intended for all the members of the academic body. In both courses his success was immediate and pronounced. The great hall was crowded to overflowing when his public lectures were delivered, while the enthusiasm of his philosophic students soon made the technical terms of his system familiar words in academic circles and in general literature. “Since Reinhold left us,” writes Forberg, then a privat-docent at Jena, “his philosophy, at least among us, is absolutely dead. Every trace of the “Philosophy without Nickname”[2] has been driven from the heads of our students. They believe in Fichte as they never believed in Reinhold. Doubtless they understand him even less than they understood Reinhold, but they believe all the more stubbornly for that very reason. Ego and non-Ego are now the symbols of the philosophers, as Matter and Form were then. About the right which either party has to dissolve a contract, there is just as little doubt now, as there was then regarding the manifold character of matter.”

To the success of his prelections Fichte’s admirable philosophic style contributed much. He had a marvellous faculty of riveting attention, of compelling thought to dwell upon the problems presented to it, and of evolving in rigid sequence the stages of a complete argument or disputation. All his writings bear more or less the character of lectures, and probably his own mode of speculative reflection was that of the expounder conscious of an audience to whom explanations are due, rather than that of the pure thinker, intent on nothing but the notions before him. He was a born orator, and, as we have already seen in his early life, sedulously cultivated the oratorical faculty as that wherewith he could best attain his great end, the elevation of life. His personality, further, combining strength and obstinacy with the loftiest moral principle, found its most adequate expression, and was capable of its most powerful influence, in oratorical efforts rather than in systematic exposition. In Fichte, as in Schelling, and generally in the writers of the Romantic period, what the historian of philosophy notes as their prevailing characteristic is a certain hot-headed impetuosity and impatience, which contrasts unfavourably with the calm matureness of their great predecessor Kant, and which almost inevitably leads to a slight distrust of, or dissatisfaction with, their work. Something of this distrust, as we shall see later, was felt by Kant himself, who always disliked and depreciated Genie-schwünge, flights of genius, and trusted rather to solid, patient, methodical work, than to the efforts of enthusiastic imagination.

The Jena period of Fichte’s life may be conveniently regarded under two quite distinct aspects. It presents to us, in the first place, a series of developments of one speculative principle, covering the whole ground of philosophy, affecting by their spirit and method all contemporary criticism and literature, and bringing the author into close connection, whether friendly or polemical, with the greatest living writers. In this sense, it is simply the representation of the active results of Fichte’s speculative faculty. But speculative faculty was only one side of Fichte’s character, and when we consider the several incidents of public life which mark the Jena career, we find rather the development of the more impetuous temper which so frequently in the course of his life led to unfortunate collisions with his surroundings. The philosophical and the practical activity may thus be regarded apart from one another.

As respects the first, a brief notice of the successive works in which the new speculative system was laid before the world, will here suffice. The lectures on ‘Wissenschaftslehre,’ delivered to his private class during the first semester at the university, were printed in sheets as soon as delivered, and from these sheets was formed the first systematic exposition of the new doctrine, ‘Foundations of the whole Wissenschaftslehre’ (‘Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre,’ 1st ed., 1794). The whole field of philosophical cognition, theoretical and practical, was surveyed in this work; but Fichte remained unsatisfied with the method pursued, and in his later, more mature writings, never employs the abstract forms which are here brought forward, and which have been falsely thought to be essential elements in his system. In quick succession he put forward detailed expositions of the several portions briefly discussed in the ‘Grundlage.’ The theoretical faculty of cognition was specially handled in the ‘Outline of what is peculiar to Wissenschaftslehre’ (1795); the practical side of consciousness in the two important treatises, ‘Theory of Natural Law’ (‘Grundlage des Naturrechts,’ 1796-97) and ‘Theory of Morals’ (‘System der Sittenlehre,’ 1798); while the whole philosophy was expounded in a fresh form in the ‘Introductions to Wissenschaftslehre,’ published in the ‘Philosophical Journal,’ vols. v. and vi. (1797), and in the ‘Essay towards a New Exposition of the Wissenschaftslehre,’ vol. vii. of the same periodical. These writings, taken in conjunction with the important ‘Review of Ænesidemus’ (1794), make up the philosophy of Fichte in its so-called earlier form.

A wonderful impression seems to have been made upon his contemporaries by the boldness and systematic completeness of Fichte’s speculation. Goethe, little disposed to abstract thinking, and probably in his heart of hearts not over well disposed towards an eager political theorist, yet found “nothing in the first sheets of the ‘Wissenschaftslehre’ which he did not understand, or at least thought he understood,—nothing which did not harmonise with his own mode of thinking about things,” laboured hard to keep pace with the ‘New Expositions’ of the prolific author, and in general extended to the metaphysician a cordial and respectful admiration. With Schiller, whose Kantian sympathies might have led to a warmer interest in pure speculation, Fichte never seems to have been on terms of unqualified friendship. Despite the mutual esteem which they entertained for one another, their characters were too pronounced to admit of perfectly unclouded harmony; and, philosophically, there was a divergence between their views which, on one occasion at least, led to an unfortunate collision between them. Fichte, who had been invited to contribute to the ‘Horen,’ then edited by Schiller, forwarded for this periodical an Essay ‘On Spirit and Letter,’ in which the editor fancied that he could detect a parody of his own ‘Letters on the Æsthetic Education of the Human Race.’ The parody existed only in Schiller’s over-sensitive imagination, but a somewhat bitter correspondence followed his suppression of the paper. Reconciliation was effected; but, if we may judge from the tone of the communications which passed between Goethe and Schiller at a later date regarding Fichte’s academic troubles, a secret distrust and dislike continued to exist. With his philosophic contemporaries Fichte’s relations were of even greater interest. His increasing fame naturally attracted both adherents and enemies. The older Kantian scholars bitterly criticised the new effort after a completeness of system which had been foreign to Kant’s original method. The younger and more impetuous philosophic students, among others Niethammer, Forberg, and Schelling, with equal bitterness accused their more cautious predecessors of want of faith in their own principles, and declared that Criticism proper had been but a propaedeutic or introduction, to which the ‘Wissenschaftslehre’ was the natural and necessary supplement. The antagonists of all the newer philosophy, pre-eminently Nicolai, the editor of the ‘Deutsche Bibliothek,’ eagerly hailed the controversy as furnishing evidence of the empty and contradictory character, and of the evil tendencies, of the so-called metaphysics. With Kant himself, Fichte’s relations gradually became hostile, though no open declaration was made by the aged philosopher until he had been alarmed by the accusations of atheism brought against a system which professed to be a development of his own principles. It does not appear that he had ever fairly entered into the spirit of Fichte’s works,—probably he had not even studied them; but in the Intelligence sheet of the ‘Allgemeine Literaturzeitung’ for 1799, No. 109, he published a formal disclaimer of any connection between his own system and that of Fichte, declaring that the ‘Wissenschaftslehre’ was nothing but abstract logic, valuable therefore as methodising thought, but containing no reference to reality, and bitterly resenting the description of his own critical work as mere propaedeutic to a system of reasoned philosophy. Fichte’s rejoinder, published in the same paper in the form of a letter to Schelling, was pointed and severe. He rightly drew attention to Kant’s frank admission that his disclaimer was personal in character, and not founded on thorough appreciation of the new philosophic work, and indicated that from Kant’s position it was not unnatural that he should regard the ‘Critique’ as final, just as his opponents thought the ‘Critique’ a worthless and unnecessary attempt to transcend the well-defined and sure limits of the earlier systems.[3]

Kant’s disclaimer came too late to be of any service in checking the rapid current of speculation which had its source in his own writings. Reinhold, a weak and vacillating thinker, had given his complete adhesion to the ‘Wissenschaftslehre;’ the Jena ‘Allgemeine Literaturzeitung,’ once the organ of the Kantians, declared for Fichte; and in the ‘Philosophisches Journal,’ of which Fichte was co-editor with Niethammer from 1795 onwards, the new school possessed an official organ of their own. Schelling’s early works gave in fresh and attractive form expositions of the ‘Wissenschaftslehre,’ applied its principles to the more profound problems of metaphysics, and called attention to the advance effected on the critical position. Even Jacobi, strongly opposed as he was to any demonstrative or theoretical metaphysic, was not proof against the attraction of the new system, or its apparent coincidence with his own views. His correspondence with Fichte is of the highest interest, as throwing light on the philosophical and personal relations of two eminent thinkers; and although he could not bring himself to see the similarity between the ‘Wissenschaftslehre’ and his own doctrines, on which Fichte laid so much stress, it was not till the accusation of atheism had been brought against the Fichtean system that he declared himself against it. On the whole, during the important period from 1794 to 1799, the philosophy of Fichte was in the ascendant. It gave a new impetus and direction to speculative thought, and powerfully influenced contemporary literature of a non-philosophical kind. If we can discover philosophical principles at all in the literary productions of the earlier Romantic school, in the writings of Tieck, Novalis, and Fr. Schlegel, these bear unmistakably the impress of the Fichtean system. Doubtless, this secondary effect of Fichte’s philosophy gave additional strength to the feeling gradually roused against it.

When we turn to the consideration of Fichte’s public life, his professorial career, during the same period, we find a series of troubles and conflicts, terminating in the severance of his connection with the University of Jena. Minor annoyances were not wanting to him, even on his entrance upon his public duties as professor. With his colleague, C. C. E. Schmid, an excellent empirical psychologist but a poor philosopher, his relations had been hostile even before the call to Jena, and though friendship appeared to be established between them, the truce was not of long duration. In the third volume of the ‘Philosophisches Journal,’ Schmid gave utterance to a critical judgment respecting all philosophy which presumed to go beyond the facts of experience, and in such fashion as to indicate that he had in view the ‘Wissenschaftslehre.’ In the last number of the same volume Fichte compared Herr Schmid’s system with his own; distinguished with the utmost clearness the problem of psychology from that of transcendental logic; showed that of the nature of this second problem Schmid had no conception whatsoever; and ended with the declaration that henceforth not only everything uttered by Herr Schmid against the ‘Wissenschaftslehre’ should be held by him as non-existent, but also that Herr Schmid himself, in his capacity of philosopher, should be viewed as a nonentity. This satisfactory result certainly could not contribute to render Fichte’s position easier; it is, indeed, only one specimen of the unyielding temper which he throughout displayed in all the actions of his life, and which created enemies for him in all quarters.

Even in his first semester, Fichte found that his evil political reputation was productive of discomfort. Some doubts appear to have been raised regarding the public lectures already alluded to, and in self-defence he published a selection from them.[4] Of the nature of these complaints we have no accurate information, but the course of public lectures presently led to a more serious trouble. In the winter semester, 1794-95, Fichte found that no hour during the ordinary week-days could be selected for lectures open to all the students of the university, without interfering with the class arrangements of his colleagues. After consultation with Schütz, he announced the lectures for Sunday mornings, between 10 and 11 A.M., thereby avoiding collision either with the special service held for university students or with, the general public church service. Hardly had this been done when the Consistory of Jena raised an outcry against him for endeavouring to suppress the public service of God; the Over-Consistory, of which Herder was a member, repeated the cry, and appealed to the Government at Weimar; while a malicious journal, ‘Eudämonia,’ which scattered its mud with rare impartiality, called attention to the connection between atheism and revolutionary politics, and boldly asserted that the democrats, under the leadership of Professor Fichte, were making a deliberate attempt to institute the worship of reason. The lectures were temporarily suspended, and the senate of the university, after a bitter discussion, in which strong opposition was raised to Fichte on grounds manifestly personal, forwarded to the Government a statement of their reasons for holding that the Sunday lectures in no way infringed customary rules, recommending at the same time that the hour selected should be in the afternoon. The Weimar council gave its decision in favour of Fichte, absolved him from all blame in the matter, but significantly cautioned him to be more prudent in the future. The lectures were continued from February onwards at three in the afternoon.

This first trouble was scarcely at an end when a new storm broke out. Fichte’s constant aim as a public teacher was the moral elevation of the character of the students. The life of a scholar appeared to him a life with a noble end, and weighted with responsibilities. But to all his efforts towards elevating and purifying the tone of academic life, a blank wall of resistance was presented by the existence of the so-called Orders or Societies among the students. These orders had their own code of morals, and their own regulations for public and private action. One can well understand how entirely all individuality of life and action was destroyed for the student who had enrolled himself in one of these societies. He could not escape the force of the general judgment, and was driven, by virtue of his relations to the other members, to assent to much that would have been abhorrent to him in his private capacity. Fichte felt very keenly the evil consequences of the secret unions, and, both by his public lectures and by private communications, strove to effect their abolition. It was a wonderful evidence of his personal influence that in the winter of 1794-95, the three orders of the Jena students made overtures to him regarding the suppression of their societies, and by their deputies requested him to give and receive their oaths of dissolution. Fichte did not feel that he was entitled to conclude the matter on his own responsibility, referred them to the pro-rector, and, unfortunately, undertook the task of mediating between the students and the university authorities, a task for which he was eminently unfitted. Partly from Fichte’s unpractical and over-pedantic fashion of carrying on the affair, partly from the natural dilatoriness of a government, especially of a university government, the happy moment was allowed to pass. One of the orders withdrew its offer; the others, who had placed their books of regulations and names in Fichte’s hands, were alarmed at the idea of a Government inquisition into their doings, and began to think that Fichte was playing them false. An indescribable tumult was occasioned in the university. The students attacked Fichte’s house on the New Year’s night of 1795, broke his windows, and insulted him with cries and hootings. His public lectures were interrupted, his wife was saluted with insults in the streets; and so serious did the danger appear, that in the spring of 1795 he had to demand protection from the Government, and finally, permission to reside out of Jena for the summer of that year. The great Ego, as Goethe and Schiller call him in their letters, took up his residence at Ossmanstädt, a pleasant little town a few miles from Jena, and there remained until the storm had blown over.

Two waves of trouble had thus disturbed Fichte’s public career at Jena; the third and greatest finally dissolved his connection with that university. In 1798, Forberg, then rector at Saalfeld, and already noted as one of the earliest adherents of the ‘Wissenschaftslehre,’ sent in to the editors of the ‘Philosophisches Journal’ a paper entitled “Development of the Notion of Religion.” With the argument, and in particular with the tone of this essay, Fichte was but little satisfied, although it was impossible for him to avoid agreeing with some ideas in it. He was extremely unwilling to exercise the editorial right of suppressing the paper, but desired to attach to it certain footnotes, correcting or amending it in accordance with what he thought the truth. Of this, however, Forberg would not hear, and Fichte printed the essay as it had been sent, prefixing to it a short exposition of his own views on the same subject, under the title, “On the Ground for our Belief in a Divine Government of the Universe.” The two papers appeared together in the first part of the eighth volume of the ‘Journal.’ It was certainly a misfortune for Fichte that the published exposition of his views on so fundamental a question should have been limited to the points discussed in Forberg’s essay, for, to one who now studies these documents, that essay has every appearance of insincerity or irony. Accepting without reservation the Kantian criticism of the theoretical proofs for the existence of God, Forberg likewise accepts the doctrine that the belief in a divine order is practical, but he reduces this practical belief to mere strength of moral feeling, identifies it with virtue, and therefore draws the conclusion that it is perfectly compatible with speculative atheism. In short, the essay is an exaggeration of the dismal rationalism into which the weaker Kantians drifted, and by which they cast such discredit on philosophy. It is almost a parody of the moderatism which had begun to appear as the result of the Kantian system in works such as those of Tieftrunk and Heydenreich. The element of speculative interest in the critical philosophy, however, which was entirely overlooked or reduced to a nullity by Forberg, was precisely that upon which Fichte laid stress. His essay, therefore, exaggerated the agreement between his views and those of Forberg, and gave too succinctly the characteristic difference.

Attention was drawn to the papers by an anonymous pamphlet, circulated gratuitously throughout Saxony towards the close of the year 1798, and purporting to be a ‘Letter on the Atheism of Fichte and Forberg, from a Father to his Son, a Student.’ Neither name of publisher nor place of publication was given, and it was more than hinted to those who accepted the tract, that it was the work of Gabler, a theologian of some repute in Altdorf. Gabler, however, was not the author, and protested publicly against the insult done him by such a statement. The real author has never been known, and the tract itself was a malicious and unfair selection of certain sentences from the essays of the accused writers, without reference to the context, and with such comments as unenlightened pietism has always indulged in. Moved by this pamphlet, the Over-Consistory of Dresden brought the subject before the Saxon Government, who, on the 19th November 1798 published a Rescript directed to the Universities of Leipzig and Wittenberg, confiscating the ‘Philosophisches Journal’ on the ground of the atheistic utterances contained in it. The Rescript was followed by a circular note, addressed to the neighbouring German Governments, praying them to take similar steps, and, in the case of the Saxe-Weimar Dukes, threatening to prohibit Saxon students from attendance at the Jena University if investigation were not instantly made into the conduct of the accused professors, and condign punishment inflicted were they found guilty of the charge laid against them. Fichte had thus a twofold charge to deal with,—the public accusation of atheism, and the private appeal to the supreme authorities of the university. To the first he replied in his ‘Appeal to the Public against the Accusation of Atheism,’ a copy of which was forwarded in January 1799 to the Grand Duke of Weimar; to the second, in the ‘Formal Defence of the Editor of the Philosophical Journal against the Accusation of Atheism,’[5] directed to the Pro-rector of the University, and forwarded to the Grand Duke in March 1799. In the ‘Appeal,’ a more detailed exposition was given of the views contained in the accused essay, and a powerful contrast was drawn between philosophical religion and the ordinary theology; in the ‘Defence,’ a skilful analysis of the full bearing of his theological doctrines precedes a bold statement of the real motives which had led to the accusation, and a demand that in the interests of university freedom, decision should be given based solely on the merits of the question. In the most unqualified fashion Fichte declares that the true secret of the enmity against him was the dread of his political opinions, and insists that the decision of the matter was of the last importance, not only for his own activity as a professor, but for the academic life of the university.

In order to understand the course of events, it is needful to review carefully the position of the two parties,—Fichte on the one hand, the Saxe-Weimar Government on the other. Fichte’s motives are clear and unambiguous. He claimed the full right of expounding his philosophic opinions, a right essential to the very existence of a university teacher. He felt, as every teacher of philosophy must feel, that the results of speculative analysis will at times appear to conflict with popular ideas, founded for the most part on unreflecting custom or on radical error, and that if popular opinion is to be the criterion of judgment, the function of an investigator is destroyed. Accordingly he demanded, with all the earnestness that the importance of the matter required, and with all the vehemence that his impatient disposition rendered natural, that there should be no compromise; that the matter should not be hushed up, or conducted to its conclusion by private negotiations within the university circle; and that as the accusation had been public, the decision should be public also. On the other hand, what the university authorities above all things desired was a mode of settlement whereby peace might be secured without the necessity of any public declaration. They in no way desired to limit the freedom of teaching in the university; and as the necessity for taking cognisance of the matter at all had been forced upon them from without, they wished to deal with it in such a way as neither to offend external powers nor endanger their own position. It will be readily understood, therefore, that Fichte’s movements caused them the greatest trouble and annoyance. In a letter of Schiller to Fichte, written after the Grand-Duke had received the ‘Appeal to the Public,’ the feelings of the court-party are expressed without reserve. That their intentions were friendly is stated without qualification. “I have had an opportunity,” says Schiller, “of conversing recently with those who have a voice in the affair, and on various occasions with the Grand-Duke himself. He openly declared that nothing would or could be done to limit your freedom of writing, though doubtless there were some things that one would rather not have stated from the professorial chair. Even as regards the latter point, however, this is but his private opinion; his public judgment would impose no limitations even in respect of it.” But as Schiller goes on to say, the Weimar authorities regretted that he had engaged in discussion of the matter on his own account, and had appealed to the public, when his business lay solely with them. Evidently in such a state of opinion the ‘Formal Defence’ was a most embarrassing document, and from the expressions of all Fichte’s friends regarding it, we can see that they unanimously thought him grossly imprudent. Rumours of all kinds were prevalent, and gradually took form in the report that the Weimar Government intended to impose a censure upon Fichte, which, as coming through the academic senate, must needs be of a public character.

It was apparently under the influence of this rumour that Fichte was induced to take a step which he afterwards consistently defended, but which must be pronounced nothing less than unfortunate. On the 22d March 1799 he wrote an important letter to the Privy Councillor Voigt, explicitly leaving to the discretion of his correspondent either to employ it further, or to accept it as an aid in forming his own opinions. In this letter he declared unreservedly that he neither would nor could submit to censure given through the senate. Were such to be imposed, no course would be left to him but to reply by sending in his resignation and publishing the present letter in explanation of his motives. The letter concluded with the statement, that many important members of the university agreed in the view that censure on the writer would be infringement of their academic rights; that the same members had engaged, were he to resign, to resign with him, and had permitted him to notify their intention. With him, Fichte added, they looked forward to find in a new university, of which there was rumour, a free and honourable sphere of action, such as they had hitherto enjoyed in Jena.

The new university referred to was doubtless that projected at Mainz, regarding which Jung, the chief of the council of Mainz, had been in communication with Fichte during the preceding year, and rumours of which had been alluded to by Forberg. The plan was never realised, and the colleagues who had given their promise to Fichte did not redeem it. Paulus, indeed, to whom the letter had been submitted, by whose mediation it was forwarded to Voigt, and who is explicitly included by Fichte among the said colleagues, afterwards declared that the engagement existed only in Fichte’s imagination; but on a point like this the statements of Paulus are worthless.

It was this letter that finally decided the Weimar Government, and the member of the council whose warmth overcame all hesitation regarding the action to be taken was Goethe. His conservative feelings were roused by the apparent endeavour to threaten the Government. “For my own part,” he wrote to Schlosser some months later, “I declare that I would have voted against my own son, if he had permitted himself such language against a Government.” The Rescript of the Weimar authorities, dated 29th March 1799, desired the senate to censure Professors Fichte and Niethammer for their indiscretion, and to recommend to them greater caution in bringing essays before the public. But to this gentle censure there was appended a post-scriptum referring to the letter to Voigt, accepting Fichte’s declaration that he would resign, and thereby dismissing him from his office.

Again the unfortunate advice of Paulus prevailed on Fichte, and induced him to make a false step. Fichte himself was of opinion that the letter to Voigt should not have been regarded as an official document; that, even had it this official character, it should have been left to him to take the final step of resignation; and, more particularly, that it ought to have been considered whether the condition under which he had declared resignation inevitable was fulfilled by the Rescript of the Government. Under these circumstances, when, through the intercession of his friends, it had been arranged that the publication of the Rescript should be delayed for a few days, he was persuaded to forward through Paulus a second letter to Voigt, in which he pointed out that as the censure imposed in no way limited his freedom of teaching, it did not render the resignation of his office imperative, and that he would not allow the public to think that he had voluntarily laid down his office on account of this censure. The letter was communicated by Voigt to the Grand-Duke, who found “nothing in it to cause him to alter his expressed opinion.” Nor did two numerously signed petitions from the students, first to prevent the dismissal and then to obtain the recall of their honoured teacher, alter the position of affairs.

Thus Fichte’s connection with Jena came to a violent termination. As regards the rights of so complicated a matter, there is little ground for difference of opinion. Had not Fichte’s impatient temper betrayed him into the strong expressions contained in the first letter to Voigt, all might have been well, for the Weimar Government, despite their indignation at his impetuous mode of dealing with the matter, evidently desired to retain him in the university. But they erred in making such use as they did of the letter, and they erred doubly in the infliction of so serious a wound on the academic life of Jena. For many years the effect was felt; and as Goethe himself notes, within a comparatively short interval all the most eminent teachers had, for one cause or another, migrated to other universities: Paulus, Loder, both the Hufelands, Ilgen, Schelling, and Niethammer vanished from Jena. No injury is so great to a university as a limitation in the freedom of academic teaching. No mistake is so serious as to deal in diplomatic and politic fashion with matters of thought and reasoning.


  1. ‘Ueber den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre oder der sogenannten Philosophie,’ 1st ed., 1794. The term “Wissenschaftslehre,” which we here translate by “Theory of Knowledge,” will receive more detailed explanation when the nature of Fichte’s philosophy is discussed. As no equivalent in English conveys its meaning with perfect accuracy, it will be employed hereafter, without translation, as a technical term.
  2. “Philosophie ohne Beinamen,” as Reinhold was pleased to call his rather washed-out reproduction of Kantianism, in order to indicate that it was neither critical nor dogmatic nor sceptical, but philosophy simply.
  3. The letters between Fichte and Schelling on the subject of Kant’s declaration (‘Leben und Brief wechsel,’ vol. ii. pp. 301-308) are of great interest, as indicating their views on the relation between the ‘Critique’ and Fichte’s ‘Wissenschaftslehre.’
  4. These appear in the sixth volume of the ‘Werke,’ under the title ‘Einige Vorlesungen uber die Bestimmung des Gelehrten’ (‘Some Lectures on the Vocation of the Scholar’). They are more formal than the lectures under a similar title delivered at Erlangen in 1805.
  5. The title of this pamphlet, ‘Gerichtliche Verantwortungsschrift,’ would be more exactly translated as ‘Judicial Defence’ or ‘Plea in Justification.’ “Gerichtlich” implies that the defence was explicitly directed to a court, by whom decision on the merits of the case should be given.