A curious intellectual phenomenon occurred in Germany after 1850. Suddenly, the mood was doom and gloom with no obvious or single explanation. The global market was booming. Germany was a capitalist power rivaling England. French imperialists were defeated. But German intellectuals were stuck in a funk.
The word is Weltschmerz – ‘world pain’. Instead of Hegel’s more optimistic Weltlauf – ‘the march of the world’ towards freedom – Weltschmerz implies “weariness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering” (1). German pessimism involved “a rediscovery [and reformulation] of the [ancient] problem of evil” (5). In short, German intellectuals secularized the concept of evil and attempted to comprehend the meaningfulness of life in the face of the radical ontological evil envisioned by Kant.
For Beiser, the origins of Weltschmerz are a mystery. The great capitalist depression from 1870 to 1900 that came after only helps to explain the spread of Weltschmerz, not its cause. If pessimism were all the rage among the genteel, one would expect them to be cynics to the suffering of others. Yet Weltschmerzers and their challengers had differing positions, not only on metaphysics, but over the “social question” of capitalist modernization and the exploitation of the worker. Many optimists, convinced that social progress (when left alone) is certain and sufficient, opposed welfare reforms. Pessimists wanted state intervention and technical progress to alleviate suffering even if, as a matter of principle, they believed ours was a world racing to the bottom. If pessimism did not have an identifiable social cause, Beiser locates the sullen Zeitgeist in the history of ideas and, specifically, in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer came from a wealthy family. He is famous in the annals of philosophy for coming up with the most offensive philosopher-on-philosopher insults. For years, Schopenhauer languished in obscurity, berating the German professoriat that was represented by Hegel and taking breaks to look for his soon-to-be disciple, Julius Fraunstaedt, his brightest follower and most fervent critic. Living off his father’s rents in Frankfurt, Schopenhauer spent his days musing on nothingness and absurdity in the comfort of his “Grand Hotel Abyss”. When the dust settled and the “dragon seed of Hegelianism” was finally eradicated by the good Christian king (with no small help from Schelling), Schopenhauer had his chance.
At that time, there were two branches of German philosophy. On the one hand, Neo-Kantians offered “transcendental grounds” for science, thereby attempting to justify philosophy in the face of great scientific advances. These were not the advances of Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, but the electromagnetism of Michael Faraday, Leon Foucault and the rotation of Earth and, of course, the equations of James Maxwell. On the other hand, positivists saw their craft as a sui generis science of facts. The problem was that both schools forgot the world of emotions, the problem of freedom and the the sense of evil. That is, the very bread and butter of the philosophia perennis. Furthermore, philosophers lacked an audience. Nobody was buying.
With the publication of Parerga and Parapolimena, a collection of witty essays about existence and the meaning of life, in 1851, Schopenhauer became the celebrity philosopher of the second half of the long nineteenth century. As Beiser tells us, his “influence lies more on his age than on individual thinkers.” Schopenhauer successfully set Germany’s philosophical agenda for the rest of the century. What was that agenda?
Schopenhauer devised an anti-theodicy, according to which non-existence is better than existence because existence implies that, even in the very best of lives, a minimum of suffering that is absent in not existing. The position is both perfectionist and realist. First, Schopenhauer argued like an upturned Leibniz: the worst of all worlds has a maximum of evil compatible with existence because if we add one gram more of that poison, the world ceases to be. Second, Schopenhauer endorsed Epicurus and some of the ancient utilitarians. Pain always outweighs pleasure and, if we were rational, we would choose nothingness over being. Yet we exist, so what to do in such a pickle?
Schopenhauer returned to the questions of classical philosophy: life, pain, death and meaning. According to Schopenhauer, evil and suffering belong to the very make-up of our world. However, it is not Kant’s concept of evil, which is a matter of just intelligence, of freely and rationally choosing the opposite of the Categorical Imperative. Radical evil for Kant allows us to disrespect other people’s dignity, violate their autonomy and walk all over their humanity in a purely disinterested and universal way. For Schopenhauer, however, evil is not only a “noumenal” idea that guides our actions. Evil is noumenal in a more radical way; it is part of the very nature of existence. The will only cares about itself. As Beiser puts it, “life is suffering because it is the product of an insatiable and incessant cosmic will” (37).
Schopenhauer’s assertions on cosmic wills were, in a sense, more radical than those of Kant. The latter told the world that it is impossible to know things as they really are. He critiqued a type of reason that thinks it speaks for things in themselves, or worse, for non-things like God and the soul. Kant built a wall between representation and whatever was behind or beyond it. He argued, instead, that we can only know our own mental representation of things. But Kant was not an atheist. He reserved the capacity to think beyond appearances for morality. Only as a commandment of the will can the idea of God or the soul be of any use. Such entities cannot be proven by science but ethical beings need them to make free-will feasible. Freedom is not proven but demanded. As Fichte claimed, freedom is “posited” by an infinite will.
Schopenhauer, however, was a Kantian. He was aware of the faux pas against established orthodoxy and he “solved” the ontological question by inlaying a new dimension to the already radical duality between things-in-themselves and representations. Schopenhauer agreed, following orthodoxy, that the faculty of understanding produces representations. But he reserved the will for the noumenal realm – the old country of metaphysics. Beneath all representations of things, there is this inexhaustible, irrepressible and unending will of which everyone is only a fleeting quote.
Yet, for Schopenhauer, a return to metaphysics had only practical significance. It is not Scholasticism 2.0. Schopenhauer addressed “the puzzle of existence” in practical terms. This simple and apparently antiquated, yet profound, change in tactics made him different and popular among readers of the time. So, what were the ethical implications of his new metaphysics?
Beiser thinks that Schopenhauer produced a sort of Protestant atheism, or “Protestantism without theism”. It is not enough that we suffer. We deserve to suffer. In their obstinate attachment and reiteration of original sins as excuses for our suffering, Schopenhauer joined other great modern reactionaries like Joseph DeMaistre and Juan Donoso Cortés. Furthermore, Schopenhauer’s negative anthropology was useful in drawing the necessary weapons against starry-eyed Enlightenments. Because man is evil, a strong hand is needed. Because man is evil, only grace can save us. However, due to the impenetrability of God’s designs, such voluntarism is usually resolved in a monastery and in the blind acceptance of rules. But Schopenhauer was not a man of mystery. His catholic rationalism and cosmological voluntarism is a fascinating mix. Schopenhauer did believe that natural law can be known. The problem is that his notion of natural law is not the happy and elated one of Aquinas. The selfish will is the only natural necessity. Yet, unlike Spinoza, Schopenhauer thought that we can separate ourselves from an absolute will (“lift the veil of Maya”) by using our understanding and denying the will. It is the aesthetic quietism well known to Schopenhauer readers. Yet, how does one reconcile Schopenhauer’s determinism of the will with intellectual autonomy? Beiser offers an explanation of this contradiction. However, his is not a decent solution. Ultimately, it is a problem that manifests when philosophy starts with absolute definitions and proceeds through dichotomies until the end. Antinomies always remain antinomies because of a static universe despite Schopenhauer’s hyperactive will.
Historians have long ignored the tradition Schopenhauer started. However, Beiser shows that, from 1860 to 1900, Schopenhauer towered above all others in Germany. Schopenhauer’s followers like Eduard von Hartmann or critics like Karl Eugen Duhring (sadly remembered today for being the punching bag of Engels and for his late anti-Semitism) were stars in the intellectual sky of the Second Reich. Hartmann’s “flat, dry, and boring” Philosophy of the Unconscious went through eight editions. Duhring’s Natural Dialectic went through no less than ten revisions and an equal number of editions. Beiser reminds us of the contemporary importance of these neglected thinkers and, moreover, places Nietzsche within his proper context. Many of Nietzsche’s ideas were borrowed from the “pessimist controversy” that defined German thinking, that is, between Schopenhauerian curmudgeons and the positivist and neo-Kantian Panglossians.
There were many voices involved in the Weltschmerz controversy: Agnes Taubert, Olga Plümacher. Büchner, Duboc, Windelband, Paulsen, Meyer, Vaihinger, Fischer, Rickert, Cohen, Riehl. Beiser, however, explores the philosophies of five of Schopenhauer’s disciples and critics, who responded by recalibrating or re-mixing in different ratios the pessimist and optimist elements in a sort of moral chemistry.
First, there is Julius Frauenstaedt, Schopenhauer’s first apostle and critic. Frauenstaedt was the only Schopenhauerian who came from the fading Hegelian tradition. All others were neo-Kantians or positivists. Frauenstaedt abandoned Hegelianism because the monism of Hegel’s dialectics was not enough to account for the identity of faith and reason. Where does human freedom stand if in the last instance reason is both divine and human? This “divine reason” or “speculative Good Friday” of Hegel cannot be resolved in theism or pantheism because both are “illegitimate metaphysics”. Frauenstaedt finds in Schopenhauer a more feasible solution to this problem. There is, in Schopenhauer’s body of work, both a system of transcendental idealism, according to which the thing-in-itself is separate from appearances and a system of transcendental realism whereby appearances are objectifications of this transcendent will. Thus, it is the will that unites reason and faith. However, Frauenstaedt finds a new dualism in Schopenhauer – the separation of will and understanding. The will needs to represent the object of its striving; it needs to have an idea of what it wants. On the other hand, why does the cosmic will that is all-powerful and self-sufficient divide itself into two – itself and non-will? Other dualist problems in Schopenhauer concern the distinction between philosophy and natural science and the Schopenhauerian contempt for history in favor of metaphysics. All these problems that originate from Schopenhauer’s radical dualism were signs for Frauenstaedt that Schopenhauer remained trapped in “the cage of idealism.” In the end, Beiser thinks Frauenstaedt could not abandon the basic Hegelian conviction that things always work out for the better even if they do so through the worst.
Karl Eugen Duhring was Schopenhauer’s fiercest detractor. He opposed Schopenhauer with an optimism based on natural science and socialism. Duhring’s positivism precluded any metaphysics of cosmic wills and known unknowns. Immanence is absolute. We determine the value of life, our own small measure of peace. However, according to Beiser, Duhring contradicts himself. We can grasp nature and reality through intellect and correctly conclude that there is no world beyond. Yet, for Duhring, the intellect cannot make a final determination on the worth of existence. That determination is ineffable. On the topic of death, Duhring joined the gang of pessimists repeating Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius; we shall not fear death since we cannot experience it.
Duhring was one of only a couple of Weltschmerzers that harbored leftist sympathies in the “pessimist controversy.” Most were well into the political right. However, unlike Mainlander, Duhring thought that we can make life happier for the greatest number through science and redistribution. For Mainlander, even socialism does not solve suffering.
The most influential theorist of pessimism was Eduard von Hartmann. Philosophy of the Unconscious was the “eye of the storm” in the 1870 pessimist controversy. Hartmann tried to reconcile Schopenhauer’s pessimistic voluntarism and Hegel’s optimistic rationalism in a systematic way through a) pantheistic monism, b) transcendental realism, c)an eudemonic pessimism and d) evolutionary optimism. Hartmann saw that spiritual monism solves the problems of theism and materialism altogether. It avoids the traps of theism in that ethics is autonomous in a pantheist system because moral law comes from the dictates of a cosmic self, while theistic ethics is heteronomous; one should obey an alien God. Spiritual monism also avoids the traps of materialism. This cosmic self has a purposeful nature in the sense that it is not a machine without track. Secondly, against Kant, Hartmann followed Schopenhauer in taking a transcendental-realist position; appearances can give us some information on the things-in-themselves. Consequently, Hartmann thought that the best position is the ancient ideal of eudaimonia because it has an idea of how the universe really works. The world is pain and suffering but life is worth living if one follows the ancient utilitarian principle of avoiding both. However, Hartmann shared with the positivists and Hegelians a belief in progress and claimed that, culturally or as species, mankind heads for the better. This evolutionary optimism allowed Hartmann some measure of social Darwinism in that pain, suffering, war and colonialism are tools for progress unbeknownst to us in another iteration of the Hegelian List der Vernunft.
Beiser devotes a later chapter on Hartmann in relation to the pessimist controversy between 1870 and 1900. It describes the main points of the polemic between Hartmann and his two “female allies”, Olga Plumacher and Agnes Taubert, against Lutheran priests and neo-Kantians (a more intellectual kind of Lutheran) on whether life is worth living on the basis of love, pain, and pleasure. It is worth mentioning that one of the debates is about the question on whether the hedonic calculus should be considered quantitatively or qualitatively. By that time, economic thought was undergoing a profound change on this question. Marginalism – to which this problem was central – caused a major revolution that transformed economics into the science that it is today.
Phillip Mainlaender (née Phillip Batz) was the most utopian politically and the most coherent. He followed his master’s proclivities for dark and gore with even more gusto. He signed off his only book and immediately hung himself. Mainlander’s philosophy is a gospel of suicide. The only way out of suffering is death. His view of life is not that of Stoic tranquility but of the Christian mystic. Life is suffering and death redeems us all. Yet, Mainlaender was a materialist and did not believe that there is life after death, not even the promise to enjoin the one true cosmic will of Schopenhauer. For him, such ideas are abstractions. Mainlander was a nominalist. For him, there is only the individual will. He was also profoundly democratic and nationalist. For all his ethical pessimism, what matters in social life is sympathy and pity for the suffering of others, not the misanthropy and scorn proper to reactionaries like Schopenhauer.
Finally, there was Julius Bahnsen. His philosophy further problematized Schopenhauer’s metaphysics along familiar scholastic lines of whether the will is universal (Schopenhauer), multiple (Bahnsen) or individual (Mainlander). Bahnsen’s ideas were powerful and original, yet those traits came from a profoundly mentally ill man. His marriage was a disaster. His career as a professor failed. Some of his anxieties betrayed his petty-bourgeois conditions. Much of Bahnsen’s views were rooted in that social resentment that comes, like Schopenhauer, from not being of the establishment. For Bahnsen, pessimism sprang from failed dreams, not from the primacy of suffering in life. If suffering were the criterion, “even animals would be pessimists”.
In the face of dissatisfaction, Bahnsen revised some key aspects of his master’s doctrine. Firstly, there is individual responsibility in life’s actions and projects. Accordingly, the cosmic will is useless. Will is just a property or potential but the actual outcome is the sole province of each. Secondly, since responsibility presupposes autonomy (Kant), then the will must be redefined as plural and individual – a monadology so to speak of individual substances in the noumenal realm. Thirdly, even with disinterested activities such as aesthetics, there is also will – a “higher interest” of “self-promotion, self-affirmation, and self-satisfaction” (again, Bahnsen’s job anxieties come to the fore.) That the will is resilient in all fields of activity questions the stark division between will and representation. On the one hand, to experience art without interest or intellectual curiosity is boring “even if it were forms of Plato”. On the other hand, Schopenhauer’s notion of aesthetic detachment is refuted by the real fact that “we are touched and moved by aesthetic objects.”
Beiser’s book is delightful, clear and thorough. It is written in the best style of historians of philosophy. My only issue as a reader who prefers social histories of thought is that his approach is too internalist and textualist. For Beiser, “there seems to be no straightforward social or historical case for [German Weltschmerz]” because the period studied seems like “a happy age” for Germany. However, I take issue with this hypothesis and subsequent dismissal of social explanations. Furthermore, I think Beiser mirrors sociological reductionism in reverse. For mechanical theories of material-cum-intellectual conditions, then, if social conditions are happy, intellectual traditions have an optimistic outlook. Indeed, if conditions are dire, then pessimism is the intellectual order of the day. Beiser’s argument is similar: since social conditions were good in Germany, then the only reason for intellectual pessimism is the ideas of an individual (Schopenhauer) who caused the entire ruckus. However, to accept this theory would reduce German pessimism to a dull workout of the disgruntled class of intellectuals. In my opinion, things are always socially conditioned despite the apparent contradiction, or precisely because of real contradictions, between thought and (social) being. It is more interesting to speculate on why capitalist expansion produces periodically the kind of languor we see today and of which German Weltschmerz were the outcome and not the cause. I recall Walter Benjamin’s studies on Baudelaire. Why is it that Baudelaire produced dark and gloomy poetry in Paris, “the capital of the 19th century”? Why did Baudelaire use another genre of allegories to express a problematic that was not visible in economic indicators? Though speculative, Benjamin offers a more satisfying social theory to Weltschmerz. It is precisely in times of commodity abundance and high consumer satisfaction offered by a buoyant capitalism that the meaninglessness of material life expresses itself as boredom and hopelessness. Even Benjamin’s explanation would make sense along Schopenhauer’s lines: since desire is endless and instant satisfaction guarantees boredom, why do we need more?
Fichte´s 1812 Lectures on the Theory of Ethics belong to the final stage of his so-called late philosophy. This is the first time they have been translated into English and they now form the single book length publication available to anglophone scholars from the productive last years of Fichte´s activity (the only other document is the translation of the very brief text ‘The Science of Knowledge in its General Outline’ from 1810 in Idealistic Studies). Given that the subject matter neither corresponds to ‘ethics’ in any conventional sense nor is it self-standing, but rather a component part of an unfinished ontological system which is itself not well understood, some contextualization is required.
Fichte´s early philosophy, with the publication in 1794 of the Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre, immediately sparked a period of extraordinary intellectual effervescence, making Jena the centre of European philosophy and forming the basis for both German Idealism as well as philosophical romanticism. Subsequently it became to be considered, even in more sympathetic cases, as a mere prelude to Hegel. Fichte´s thought largely had no independent purchase for most of the twentieth century. In a reversal of philosophical fortunes, the early work from the Jena era has, in the last few decades, become an important resource for work in strands of “post-analytic” philosophy in the anglosphere, and in areas of anglo-american style “Diskursethik” as well as in Critical Theory, both of German provenance. Although the use to which Fichte has been put is in each case different, one point of convergence is a general interest in Fichte´s practical philosophy and particularly in his pioneering account of intersubjectivity and recognition.
By contrast Fichte´s late philosophy, despite comprising a disproportionately large amount of his output (roughly speaking from 1801 to the year of his death 1814 – the major breakthrough usually being located in the second version of the 1804 Wissenschaftslehre), never received serious attention during his lifetime. Discounting the reception of the so-called “popular writings” in the formation of German nationalist ideology, Fichte´s later thought remains along with Schelling´s late Berlin lectures, the only body of work of major significance within German Idealism which remains more or less unexplored even in its country of origin. There are some contingent reasons for this neglect, chief among which is the fact that much of Fichte´s later work was delivered in the form of private lectures which were never redacted for publication. The lack of a reliable critical edition which draws on Fichte´s manuscripts as well as audience transcriptions has only been rectified relatively recently (this edition provides the relevant pagination meaning it can be used for scholarly work).
Nonetheless, as is obvious from reading these lectures, any attempt to introduce Fichte´s later philosophy faces some major difficulties which are inherent in the thought itself. First is the daunting form in which it is presented. Unlike Schelling´s later thought, expressed in a potentially off-putting theological idiom which is arguably detachable from its philosophical import, the difficulty of Fichte´s later writing goes deeper. As is evident from these lectures, Fichte repetitively employs an obscure set of half-phenomenological, half-metaphysical terms (for example: Seeing (Sehen), Image (Bild), and Gesicht, meaning both ‘face’ and ‘that which is seen’ – Fichte considered this to be the literal translation of Plato’s idea) in an attempt to capture a process which resists objectification. This approach perhaps partly explains why Fichte´s attempts never crystallized into a satisfactory final form.
Secondly, part of the attraction of Fichte´s early philosophy is its apparently anti-metaphysical register which allows it to dovetail with contemporary soft-naturalist concerns. But if we take Fichte´s vocabulary at face value, his later work looks like a return to the problems of classical metaphysics. The form which Fichte´s early philosophy takes is determined by his commitment to reorganize Kant´s revolutionary findings into a single deductive system, sloughing off the empirical and inductive contaminations which had prevented Kant himself from undertaking this task and by avoiding any appeal to positive ‘facts of consciousness’ in the manner of the Populärphilosophen. The absolute ground of reality which Fichte locates is the ideal activity of the thinking self. However, as this starting point is not absolute in the sense of creating all reality ex nihilo out of itself, it immediately runs up against the inexplicable fact of the self’s limitation. This basic contradiction, the dialectic of the claim to absolute status of the self and of its finitude, is the motor which drives the development of his early thought. In its most polished form, the 1797/8 Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo, Fichte constructs from this basis a phenomenological account of the entire development of consciousness.
However, in line with his resistance to acceptance of brute facts Fichte became more preoccupied with finding an explanation for why the absolute should appear in the finite at all. Thus further developments of the Wissenschaftslehre led Fichte to search for a more basic starting point, a move which necessarily runs counter to his metaphysically neutral starting point of self-consciousness. By 1804, his answer to this question is that the absolute posits itself, and this self-positing is disclosed in the thinking self. The thinking self as such is no longer primary. This further involves, in a seeming contradiction, retaining the primacy of consciousness as the locus for the disclosure of the absolute whilst proposing the deduction of what can count as a phenomena. Concomitantly, while in the Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo ‘being’ was still a purely negative concept, restricted to the objective/sensible realm – the obverse of the absolute non-objective ideal activity of the self – with the progressive ‘deepening’ of his starting point this begins to change. By 1806 he can affirm that the absolute is being, which one must conceive “as of and through itself absolutely unvarying and immutable.” The radicality with which Fichte approaches the problem of the manifestation of the absolute as well as its subsequent return to its original state in his later works makes his thinking look deeply neo-platonic. A further problem is that Fichte uses fundamental terms such as ‘being’ equivocally. Even in the final years of his lecturing there appears to have been considerable instability in his terminology.
An anglophone scholar has no opportunity to form a complete opinion on these developments as the substance of the last theoretical work, the Wissenschaftslehre from 1811, 1812, and 1813, are untranslated (although only the 1812 WL ever received complete formulation). Likewise untranslated are the important introductory lectures, Die Tatsachen des Bewußtseins, and those on transcendental logic (which were held in 1812 concurrently with the lectures on the theory of ethics, and are occasionally referred to in the latter). Given these considerable lacunae, what grounds are there for thinking that the 1812 lectures on the theory of ethics are a plausible candidate for introducing the final stage of Fichte´s thought? After all, from 1805 onwards Fichte not only maintains, as he did in the Jena era, that the theory of ethics does not constitute an autonomous science. But rather that, strictly speaking, conceived under the aspect of the Wissenschaftslehre qua pure science of the absolute, the subject matter of the theory of ethics disappears entirely and is revealed as deficient, constrictive presentation of the absolute.[i] Whereas the 1798 System of Ethics is probably Fichte’s most accomplished composition, the 1812 version cannot compare in this respect. The lectures were not edited for publication. They retain little of the stringency and lucidity of the earlier text; the style is elliptic, the arguments are highly compressed, laid out in short lectures of a few pages each, and the plan of the lectures is only thematic in a loose sense and does not follow a pronounced linear development. The alternative formulations from the two main transcriptions which the editor has helpfully included at key junctures often provide a less involuted formulation of Fichte´s idea than does the manuscript. The force of the lectures is cumulative rather than strictly deductive.
Nonetheless, one can make a positive case for these lectures as a plausible introduction to the thought world of the very late Fichte that goes beyond the fact that they form the late pendant to that aspect of Fichte´s early philosophy which currently enjoys the most interest. The editor´s main focus on this count is not the most obvious. He plays up the importance of the lectures´ role in Fichte´s pedagogical thought. It is certainly true that the importance of education is central to Fichte, and that as this part of his philosophy takes on a more historical cast Fichte begins to have more concrete proposals in this regard. There are two fascinating, if rather authoritarian, proposals “to create an academy, that truly is an academy, properly for the first time anywhere”[ii] which Fichte drew up for the University of Erlangen as well as the newly founded University of Berlin. It is likewise the case that the great importance of pedagogical theory in the wider intellectual climate as well as the specific role of Fröbel and especially of the Swiss educational reformer Pestalozzi in the development of Fichte´s thought is not always appreciated. It is also worth stressing, as is evident from the last part of these lectures, that Fichte´s concept of education differs considerably from the Weimar-classic ideal of Bildung – its final end is not betterment of Verstand but of the will, i.e. insight into moral vocation. However given the highly abstract nature of much of the text, as well the fact that several of the popular writings which touch on this more directly are already translated, there are perhaps some more promising places to start.
A more conventional approach would indicate that while the theory of ethics is a derivative science it has special status given the importance of practical reason in the development of Fichte’s idealism. Understanding the transformation of the role of practical reason is thus important for understanding the shift from the early to the late work. It is perhaps because of the preeminent importance of practical philosophy for Fichte that it is arguably easier to track continuities and differences in his thinking on this domain than between the earlier and later Wissenschaftslehre (the continuities are also more pronounced). Unsatisfied with Kant’s appeal to the Faktum der Vernunft, both the early and later accounts of ethics aim to provide a complete deduction of the ground of the categorical nature of the “ought.” In order to do this, the early System of Ethics draws on the basic contradiction mentioned above: on the one hand the encounter with another self-consciousness discloses the absolute nature of the self, on the other the finite self is confronted with a world in which must be rationalised in order to reflect this nature. Moral obligation stems from the necessity of overcoming this contradiction. It is the impossibility of finite agency ever achieving such a total overcoming which invited Hegel’s famous “bad infinity” objection to moral duty being conceived as an infinite task not admitting of stabilisation in a concrete form of Sittlichkeit.
The 1812 lectures approach the same task: “the ‘ought’ is not to be simply assumed,” in the following way: the first stage is a lengthy and complicated discussion of the fundamental claim that “the concept is the ground of the world” – for Fichte this claim is the content of the statement that reason is practical and likewise expresses the assertion of the Wissenschaftslehre that the concept is the ground of all being. Fichte’s task is to explain how these two statements relate to one another. Here one sees clearly both the continuity and development in Fichte’s thinking. Fichte asks: “What if it were not the I that possessed consciousness but rather consciousness that possessed the I and that produced it out of itself?…What if the first principle of the theory of ethics that we have set forth were one of the points at which one could grasp this in the most compelling way?” This is presented as the major insight of the theoretical philosophy which determines the remit of the theory of ethics. One might read this as a radicalization of his earlier criticisms of Kant’s method – he claims Kant understood that the concept is ground but on the basis of a deficient starting point, namely “[w]ithin an I. This is the tacit assumption. He already possesses consciousness as something that is familiar. [his theory is founded on] mere facticity. We do not proceed this way; we allow the I and consciousness to first come into being, hence the completely different result.” However, this is equally valid against Fichte’s position in the earlier System of Ethics – in accordance with the primacy of the absolute, ideality is basic and no longer constrained.
The next stage is the synthesis of the concept with ‘life.’ In Fichte’s later thought ‘life’ becomes one of his key concepts, initially functioning as an alternative designation for the absolute. In these lectures it is used to introduce the self-determination of the concept, now that the starting point of the theory of ethics is no longer the self-consciousness of the individual agent (which itself has to be derived). As mere ideal being, on its own, the concept possesses no real effect. In order to realise the ideality of the concept – parallel to the disclosure of the absolute in the self – the I must exist to bring it about: “…the I, regarded as free and self-sufficient (which it only is as the power of self-determination), exists for the sake of furnishing the concept with causality.”[iii] As the I qua I thus only exists as a phase in the realisation of the concept, as its “proxy,” realising it in fact is what constitutes the basis of categorical obligation: its “essence is the ought.” Far from being a Faktum “categorical nature [Categoricität] is merely a criterion = external image of the concept” which presents itself to the I in consciousness, announcing its vocation. The self-determination which synthesises the concept with life is freedom. The I has the formal choice of being able to determine itself in accordance with the concept or not.
It is here that we see most clearly how the theory of ethics depends on the Wissenschaftslehre. Ethics essentially has to do with the appearance of the concept and a theory of ethics is thus for Fichte a “phainomenologia.”[iv] Fichte’s discussion of the – deficient – status of moral phenomena helpfully clarifies the role of freedom in his later work. The issue of how formal freedom relates to the absolute is initially thematized in the 1801 Wissenschaftslehre, the first major work which contains at least some of the main problems of the late philosophy. It often looks as though Fichte is drawn to assert, incoherently, that the necessary manifestation of the absolute is dependent on a contingent act of freedom. Here, however, despite the difficulty of the discussion, there can be no doubt that formal freedom is ultimately valid only at the level of appearance [Erscheinung], but from the deeper perspective of the theory of being it is illusory. Freedom is not a basic datum, but something itself which must be derived: “The theory that we set forth here does not assume freedom but rather derives it as a mere form of appearance… not as something that belongs immediately within being but rather only within the visibility of being; it is a synthetic member of a relation, namely, the relation between what in fact does not exist (the expression of life in an image) and that which alone exists in an absolute way (the life of the concept itself).”[v]
Although the earlier practical thought is motivated by a contradiction between the striving of the self to overcome the barriers to its full rationalization of the world and the impossibility of ever achieving a definitive rationalisation, one of its main achievements from Fichte´s perspective was to have dissolved the dualistic account of moral psychology in Kant´s moral theory. On the latter account the moral subject is torn between the demands of reason and heteronomous determination grounded in natural desires for satisfaction. A complaint raised against Fichte´s move here is that whatever other benefits it might have, it appears to reduce radically the significance of the individual and its moral life. Thus in the Jena System of Ethics, we read: “The drive towards self-sufficiency aims at self-sufficiency as such [überhaupt]. All individuality has for the system of ethics, considered at its highest standpoint, only this meaning: that individuality is for us qua sensuous beings the exclusive condition of the causality of the pure will, the single organ [Werkzeug] and vehicle of the moral law.” From the perspective of the 1812 lectures, we can see how definitively uninterested Fichte’s ethical thought is interested in the travails of particular finite existence. Alluding to, and tacitly arguing against, the seventh of Reinhold’s Letters on the Kantian Philosophy, Fichte explicitly denies that the will can be divided against itself.[vi] As with the earlier System of Ethics, the criterion for ethical action comes down to whether reason is used or whether it is not. Although now his focus on the question of how the will corresponds to the ideal being of the concept leads him to assert that any failure to do so is so ontologically unimportant as to be unworthy of consideration. As a result of this there is no equivalent discussion of evil to rival section sixteen of the Jena System of Ethics. The one goal of ethics is the annihilation of its proper domain, appearance, and the dissolution of the latter into truth.
One question these lectures raise is then to what extent this position is merely a working out of ambiguities latently present in the earlier practical philosophy. For example, in the Foundations of Natural Right Fichte provides a deduction of the institutions of the Rechtsstaat which corresponds to an ideal-type of liberalism (social contract, primacy of freedom of contract, Urrechte – the latter correspond roughly to human rights, rights which are ascribed to one simply in virtue of being a rational agent). However, these institutions are derived from a theory of self-consciousness and agency which is strikingly at odds which the traditional intellectual basis of liberalism. The corollary of the Wissenschaftslehre’s account of self-consciousness, according to which the latter can only be known contrastively, at the level of practical philosophy is that an inter-subjective relationship is the condition of possibility for subjectivity. This result immediately rules out the idea of unmediated rational self-awareness (Locke) and throws Fichte´s position with regards to traditional social contract theory into sharp relief. The latter assumes a fully formed individual in the state of nature who is able to enter into the contract. Fichte on the contrary argues that the status of being an individual is only attained on the basis of being in a mutually recognitive Rechstverhältnis with another – explicitly arguing that state of ‘nature’ is brought about by the state insofar as it guarantees and formalizes these relationships.
In his later practical thought, the priority of being over the individual seems to correspond to a prioritisation of the communal over the individual – but in light of these ambiguities one might argue that Fichte’s earlier commitment to individualism was arguably merely formal. One can see in the 1812 theory of ethics how these contradictions are worked out in tandem with the theoretical development of the Wissenschaftslehre: the strict separation between the domain of ethics and the legal sphere is subsumed into “one commanding Ought.” The general will replaces the moral law and the stress is clearly on the collective. In the Rechtslehre of the same year, Fichte writes that Kant is mistaken “when he says that each man is his own end…the ends of each is everyone else, because the realisation of the collective end of all depends on the cooperation and commitment of each.”[vii]
While the denial of concrete individuality seems to be both in line with and more radical than the earlier practical philosophy, this assessment needs to be qualified. Fichte strenuously denies the existence of a collective consciousness that transcends that of the individual, a point overlooked in some of the unsympathetic commentary on the late work. As Hans Freyer points out in his suggestive essay “Das Material der Pflicht” (one of the few pieces which explicitly deals with the 1812 theory of ethics, unfortunately not included in the editor’s bibliography), it is precisely Fichte’s move towards a metaphysical deduction that leads him to pose the question of individuation for the first time: “The inclusion of the individual into concrete totalities is constitutive of its individuality. These concrete totalities are themselves (in formal logical terms) individuals. Both of these facts motivates individualising concept formation and drives Fichte in this phase of his philosophy to the problems of community and history.”[viii] The last discussion of the lectures concerns precisely these issues. Examination of Fichte’s later ethical thought from this perspective may provide an adequate Fichtean defence against the Hegelian criticism mentioned above.
One major theoretical advantage of the earlier SL was its ability to account for deviant moral phenomena in terms other than simple heteronomy/pathological determination as Kant had to do. Here we see Fichte is able to present a somewhat more developed account of such phenomena as well as, importantly, their historical import. In line with his account of community as the condition of the individual, Fichte also develops a positive historical account. Of particular interest is his conception of rational religion and its church for sustaining Sittlichkeit. The comparison with Schelling, who entertained similar thoughts in his later work, is instructive here. Fichte allows that a religion which is not based on explicit awareness of the concept may help cultivate moral action, but if this happens it is merely accidental. Schelling, on the other hand, is much more interested in the idea that such awareness must first be brought about historically.
The link to Schelling’s work more broadly is a final reason for interest in these lectures. They contain one Fichte’s clearest appreciations of his objections to Schelling´s philosophy of nature. This is something that the editor notes (although he inaccurately calls Schelling´s philosophy of nature “vitalist”) and will hopefully be particularly useful given that this is the area of Schelling´s thought which is currently generating the most scholarly interest. Although Fichte was familiar with the different stages of Schelling´s early work, his discussion is generally restricted to the philosophy of nature – unfortunately he appears never to have read Schelling´s major discussion of freedom in Freiheitsschrift (this is all the more unfortunate as he elsewhere expresses some – albeit very qualified – praise for the ideas in the 1804 Philosophy and Religion which is the precursor to the 1809 text). Nonetheless his discussion provides an instructive vantage point for the comparison of the Fichte´s and Schelling´s philosophies as a whole.
Initially a partisan of Fichte´s project, by the mid 1790´s Schelling had become convinced of a deficiency in Fichte´s approach. According to Schelling, the idealism of the first Wissenschaftslehre documents only the highest stage (or what Schelling calls ‘potentiality’) of spirit and hence requires a more comprehensive ontological account of its own conditions of possibility – one which would indicate how freedom and subjectivity fit in to nature. This led Schelling to balance Fichte´s ‘practical’ idealism with a corresponding ‘theoretical’ philosophy of nature which tracks the development of spirit out of the organization of matter as it prefigures its highest realization in human subjectivity; the ‘practical’ and the ‘theoretical’ are shown to be mutually implicating, forming a complete philosophical system. When it became clear to Fichte that Schelling´s proposed ‘filling out’ of transcendental philosophy could not ultimately be subsumed under the practical idealism of the Wissenschaftslehre, philosophical collaboration between the two promptly ended. From Fichte´s perspective at the turn of the century, Schelling´s smooth transition from nature to the sphere of consciousness annihilates the sui generis status of freedom and hence amounts to a reformulation of the Spinozistic determinism which Fichte had wrestled with in his youth and had devoted his philosophical career to overcoming (a striking account of what Fichte takes to be the psychological correlate of such a system is given in the first book of the 1800 text The Vocation of Man).
Whilst the correspondence between Fichte and Schelling provides first hand evidence of their disagreements, it is often hard to identify precisely what is at issue given that both of their positions are in a phase of rapid development. In these late lectures, Fichte doubles down on the charge that the philosophy of nature is incompatible with the theory of morality – the concept must be pure and not a copy of the world, precisely what philosophy of nature must assert of the concept. His insistence on this is strengthened by the denial of any (even irrational) independent existence of non-ideal being. However despite continuities in the terms of Fichte´s criticism, there is a certain irony in the way Fichte´s and Schelling´s thought matured after their acrimonious disagreement insofar as the two thinkers appear to swap basic intuitions. Schelling was driven to the philosophy of nature (and thence to his Identity System) by the thought that being is deeper than subjectivity and that the post-Kantian systematizing project necessitated a critical reformulation of this metaphysical idea. As we have seen Fichte continues, more radically even than in the Jena period, to deny any reality to nature. Yet his attempt is clearly supposed to be some sort of answer to Schelling´s objections and performs an analogous depotentiation of self-consciousness. The slogan of the Wissenschaftslehre 1812 is “only one is [nur Eins ist]” – suspiciously close to the adage of hen kai pan that he condemned in Schelling´s earlier work.
Similarly, whilst Schelling stood accused of resurrecting a mix of neo-platonic and Spinozistic ‘dogmatism’ in his youth, his later work is centred around a reformulation of the understanding of practical reason – the rupture initiated by the Freiheitsschrift precisely concerns the unsystematisable sui generis status of freedom which institutes a gulf between the human and natural world. As is evident from these lectures, by the end of Fichte´s career, the reality of freedom seems to be simply coterminous with the being of the absolute whilst human – formal – freedom is reduced to an illusory appearance covering up what is in fact a necessary stage in the manifestation of the absolute. In other words, Fichte substitutes Schelling´s interlocking system of nature and spirit with a system of the self-realization of ideal/spirit – both cases clearly prioritize the idea of a teleology of being leaving the reality of practical reason in doubt. Whether this is a necessary development from Fichte´s earlier System of Ethics, which itself insists on the unity of reason, and whether Fichte´s late account of the absolute is preferable to the Schellingian alternative are questions which are still little discussed in the secondary literature. These lectures pose them in a way that is hopefully accessible to those who have hitherto focused their attention on the more accessible early debates of German Idealism. Whether Fichte´s resolution of the theory of ethics into a subsidiary aspect of a theory of being will generate equivalent excitement to his early privileging of the practical is doubtful. However, Fichte’s revision of the earlier position in this direction does not amount a total break from the System of Ethics and is, like the later Wissenschaftslehre with respect to its earlier counterparts, never presented in these terms but rather as a progression in terms of formulating the basic starting point. As such, despite their occasional opacity, these lectures should also raise some difficult questions for the project behind the recent reception of the Jena period insofar as it assumes that Fichte’s early work can provide a completely systematic account of normativity independent from ontology.
[i] Cf. the first lecture of Die Prinzipien der Gottes- Sitten- und Rechtslehre (1805).
[ii] Cf. Ideen für die innere Organisation der Universität Erlangen (1805/6) in Fichtes Werke (I.H. Fichte ed.), vol. XI, 277.
[iii] Lectures on the Theory of Ethics 1812, 33.
[iv] Ibid., 53.
[v] Ibid., 51.
[vi] Unfortunately the editor has left out some of the information provided in the German critical edition on Fichte’s less obvious references.
[vii] Rechtlehre 1812 II, 501.
[viii] H. Freyer, ‘Das Material der Pflicht: Eine Studie über Fichtes spätere Sittenlehre’ in Kant-Studien, 1920, 151.
There is a growing concern in the world today, especially in contemporary philosophy, regarding nature. However, despite the strong concern, few texts adequately address the topic. In his work The Return of Nature, John Sallis attempts to show just how imperative it is that we reflect on nature and come to a new understanding of the relationship between humans, the current state of our world, and nature. This book serves as a solid call to arms, forcing us to reevaluate the meaning of nature and compelling us to take up the challenge of re-envisioning a future that is both sustainable and more fulfilling of our being.
The work emerges at the forefront of an ever growing concern with nature. With increased awareness of climate change and other environmental issues we face today, scholars from a wide array of disciplines have sought to address ways we can combat the evolving crises. In philosophy, nature has long been subject to investigation. Up until recently, the focus on nature was aimed at understanding its relationship to being or law, and related issues. Today, much of the focus has been on reconsidering various perspectives of nature in an attempt to account for the current movement to “return to nature,” with advocates for natural medicine, ecological living and energy.
This is indeed where Sallis fits; the goal of his text is to raise awareness to the necessity of accounting for nature in such a way that a paradigm shift occurs from man vs. nature, to man with nature. As with any text in this field it must not only provide a coherent and valid argument, but it must also draw from the tradition out of which it arises. Sallis utilizes German Idealism and American Transcendentalism to establish differing conceptions of nature as well as to interpret what a return to nature might mean for us today. Specifically, he focuses on the works of Emerson, Hegel, and Schelling in order to give an account of nature.
I believe that Sallis’ book can be broken down into three major sections based on the goal of each chapter. These are as follows: understanding nature, evaluating nature, and connecting nature to man. The first of these is the objective in the first three chapters, the second the middle three chapters, and the last the final two chapters. I will consider each of these sections as I see them in greater detail.
First, Sallis must provide a detailed background for viewing nature in the many ways that it has been understood. Accounting for the pre-Socratics through Nietzsche, he has done precisely this. In the first section, Sallis discusses the various ways in which nature can be said to “return.” He points out changing seasons, abandoned cities or buildings, and other instances in which nature may return – the meaning of return changing in different senses. In addition, “There are occasions when nature lets its beauty appear, when it shines forth in a scene so wondrous that it draws us into a contemplative repose in which we linger before the scene” Sallis writes (7).
Having set forth an explanation of the ways in which nature can be said to return, that is, the various meanings of “return” such that nature may do so, Sallis attempts to outline, in the second chapter, the origins of thought regarding nature, or what the Greeks termed φύσις, which reveals the etymological origins of the word to mean “birth” (28). Sallis then seeks to explore the foundations of nature in theoretical thought. He suggests that nature is “the place from within which natural things are born and determined as such” (29). Tracing nature in thought through German Idealism, and specifically through the philosophy of Schelling, Sallis concludes that nature tends to serve as grounding, a replacement for God. With this, “God can no longer be regarded as the causa sui but rather as progeny of the ground, as given birth by nature” (42).
Next, Sallis insists upon stablishing a distinction between the phrasing a “return of nature” and a “return to nature,” the former having been dealt with in the first chapter. The return to nature represents an often philosophical assertion, that we must derail the current trend of societal development and instead return to a state in which we give more regards to nature. As Sallis writes, it is an imperative which “presupposes that its addressees either have themselves retreated from nature or somehow been withdrawn from it, so that in either case they have been separated or at least distanced from nature” (44). Sallis considers the focus on a ‘return to nature’ through the theories of natural man in Rousseau, aesthetic judgment in Kant, and nature in Emerson. Following this, he briefly continues on into the German idealist tradition, as well as its successors in Nietzsche and Heidegger.
In accounting for Rousseau’s position on natural man as a starting point for a ‘return to nature’, Sallis notes that it “opens the way to a condition that, though not that of a savage, in a way accordant with modern life, approximate the state of nature” (46). It is thus theoretical and descriptive in content as it describes the state of nature, with the goal of leading to a method of critiquing or analyzing the modern political state. In the case of Rousseau then, the notion of a ‘return to nature’ is not asked on a sharp contradistinction between the separation of nature and this return. However, the opposite is true in Kant.
In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant “begins by acknowledging the dependence of knowledge on experience, the primary movement enacted in the critical project consist in a regress from experience – primarily the experience of nature – to the a priori conditions of such experience, conditions that lie not in nature but in the subject,” Sallis notes (49). The separation of man from nature is evident in Kant’s theoretical philosophy, but is perhaps more profound in his practical, moral theory. According to Kant, morality consists in acting in accordance with the categorical imperative and goes against nature. Sallis writes “morality itself lies in self-determination that, utterly detached from natural inclination, is carried out in accordance with the moral law” (49).
Stemming out of this separation, this fierce distinction between man and nature, Emerson’s essay Nature, argues in favor of a ‘return to nature’ considering that man has so far removed himself from nature due to his entrapment in urban atmospheres. Emerson, Sallis suggests, saw “the human spirit is expanded by coming into proximity to nature, by returning from the detachment from nature inculcated and enforced by city life” (50). Thus nature serves as the means through which spirit manifests itself and presents itself contrary to its becoming subservient to materialism and the goals associated with materialism.
While I will not comment further on the general outline of the views of a return to nature as it develops in the German idealist tradition, it is clear the direction which it is headed. As Sallis writes, “From nature one is displayed to oneself in some specific manner” and that “The return to nature also awakens a sense of the elemental in nature and of our capacity to master and control it,” we can already note the progression this takes (51). For example, Nietzsche’s conception of the ‘Will to Power’ is easily traced and tied into this development of a ‘return to nature.’
In the first section of the text, Sallis has set-up the background for the ability to analyze the concept of ‘nature’ as such, a task which I have described as understanding nature. He has provided a detailed history of the development of ‘nature’ as a concept, including its ancient Greek origins as well as its changing tone in German Idealism. Additionally, he examined the conceptions of “return of nature” and a “return to nature” differentiating the two and clarifying the concern over nature in contemporary continental philosophy. In doing so, Sallis has given the reader the ability to understand nature such that they may critique and analyze nature along with the next aim of the text: evaluating nature.
The goal of evaluating nature is one of analysis and critique, through examining in detail the theories in which a certain conception of nature is presupposed. This section is condensed into a single chapter, chapter four, “Return to Nature from a Beyond Nature,” though it penetrates into the remainder of the work. In this chapter, Sallis argues that nature is, in one sense, reduced to mere sensation, i.e., colors and shapes. In this case, nature is no longer ‘nature’, i.e., landscapes and environs. In order that the former can be determined to be “reconstituted” as the latter, “determinacy must supervene upon it from elsewhere, from somewhere beyond nature,” and so thus, “posits a nature beyond nature” (61). Sallis traces this ‘beyond nature’ through Nietzsche’s thought and notes that the metaphysical ground of the beyond nature is shifted to a subjective ground. “Nature is thus recalled to nature,” or, in other words, nature is not constituted by a “nature beyond nature” anymore, but instead contains its own self-determinacy, nature as such (63).
Sallis then shifts in chapter five, “The Elemental Turn,” to applying philosophy to practical political and ecological concerns. This final section of the book, which I have termed, connecting man to nature, seeks, by making philosophy contemporary in its goals, to illustrate ways the philosophical conception of “return to nature” may be applied to a revised concern for nature and the environment. Thus, this section serves ultimately as a “call to arms,” a militancy, with the objective of eliminating a particular mode of living in the world that is not only contrary to, but ultimately destructive of our nature. It is the task of philosophy to “dismantle the frame of this turn so as to return to a nature,” which we have neglected throughout the whole of philosophy (74).
Overall then, this book is one of many in a push to reconsider and reevaluate nature, and our place within it. More importantly however, it joins the contemporary effort to utilize humanities research, especially philosophical research, to impact the global effort to combat our own actions that have proven devastating to the environment as well as to our very own nature. With that said, while this book expertly provides insight into how we ought to conceive of ‘nature’ such that a “return of nature” is possible, and even necessary, little is done to suggest where this might lead. The one effort made to provide a suggestion is what Sallis calls the “disintegration of difference” which involves the elimination of being a particular of being, and instead focused on the “plurality of being.” It is, Sallis writes, “precisely in being the kind it is, it would be devoid of selfsameness and so would not be a kind. There would be a disintegration of difference at the very heart of being” (119).
Sallis ends with questioning what this would lead to, but does not himself posit this future. Without this, the book almost feels incomplete. Unless, however, one considers this book amongst another which may perhaps put into perspective this emphasis on the plurality of being. Read together with the other works that complement each other in this emerging push for philosophy to influence practical issues, this book might be able to offer an alternative to our current mode of being in the world.
The Return of Nature is nevertheless an inspiring read which engages its readers from the very beginning. It can be read by anyone looking to open up their mind to the reflection on other ways to live more closely in tune with their own nature and to the nature that is around them.