Supplementary Appendix 405.1

The review of Fichte’s
The Nature of the Scholar (1806)
in the Jenaische Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung, 17–18 April 1806 [*]

In issue 92 (the first part of the review had appeared in issue 91), the reviewer is quite critical of many of Fichte’s assertions in the ninth (“Of the Scholar as Teacher”) and especially tenth (“Of the Scholar as Author”) lectures.

The tenth lecture treats “of the author.” In his first lecture (144; original 1806 edition, pp. 18–19], Herr Fichte had promised: “I shall guard myself carefully from making any satirical allusion to the present state of the literary world, any censure of it, or generally any reference to it; and I entreat my hearers once for all not to take any such suggestion. The philosopher peacefully constructs his theorem upon given principles, without deigning to turn his attention to the actual state of things, or needing the recollection of it to enable him to pursue his inquiry.”

Although he had hitherto kept this promise, at least according to its letter, here it was no longer possible for him to do so, notwithstanding precisely here is where such would have been necessary. Herr Fichte begins with this confession, and yet then speaks in a way that, coming from someone else and under different circumstances, could merit only derision and satire, and yet given the serious atmosphere the other lectures have created, can only prompt pain and vexation.

For there is nothing more painful than to observe a great writer caught in self-contradiction, especially when in front of young men whose trust he has already gained through seriousness and dignity in both word and idea, he utters something that is clearly one-sided, distorted, and wrong-headed. The venerated teacher said it; they accept it as the sacred truth, and then demonstrate in the lives they lead according to that truth the caricatures that better minds find unbearable, and less good ones merely contemptuous.

Admittedly, the initial pages of this particular lecture do indeed contain elements of truth alongside a whole host of one-sided assertions, errors, and untruths, but it is an extremely familiar truth. For who is not already aware that our literature is suffering from a malady that seems to be getting worse? But what good does it do to talk interminably about it? Let those with both the energy and desire take up a position, as if a dam, against the rising flood.

That will help; and even if it did not help, anyone for whom it truly is a matter of the sacred elements of humankind will act thus in any case. What purpose does artificial wit serve that constantly searches out the source of the malady and then, without raising a hand to stop it up, merely cries out, “Behold! I have found it!” —

Since when, and for whom, is writing, as writing, “a merit and an honor for a man”? Is it true that someone has something published merely to have something published? Is it not reasonable to assume in general that every person who has something published has acted just as sincerely and believes to be working on behalf of humankind as much as do we? He who does not see more than he is able to see does not for that reason deserve reproach. Is it fair to accuse, without exception, those who publish scholarly journals of having embarked on their enterprise solely for the sake of honor and profit? (for that is, after all, what is being said on pp. 199–201 [of original 1806 edition])

Here the text from lecture 10; Fichte writes on pp. 224–25; original edition pp. 199–202:

The book merchant, like the dealer in any other commodity, orders his goods from the manufacturer, solely with the view of bringing them to the market; at times also he buys uncommissioned goods which have been manufactured only on speculation; and the Author who writes for the sake of writing is the manufacturer.

It is impossible to conceive why the book manufacturer should take precedence of any other manufacturer; he ought rather to feel that he is far inferior to any other manufacturer, inasmuch as the luxury to which he ministers is more pernicious than any other. That he finds a merchant for his wares may indeed be useful and profitable to him, but how it should be an honour is not readily discoverable. Of course, on the judgment of the publisher, which is only a judgment on the saleableness or unsaleableness of the goods, no value can be set.

Amid this bustle and pressure of the literary trade, a happy thought struck some one; this, namely, out of all the books which were printed, to make one periodical book, so that the reader of this book might be spared the trouble of reading any other. It was fortunate that this last purpose was not completely successful, and that everybody did not take to reading this book exclusively, since then no others would have been purchased, and consequently no others printed; so that this book too, being constantly dependent upon other books for the possibility of its own existence, must likewise have remained unprinted.

He who undertook such a work, which is commonly called a Literary Journal, Literary Gazette, etc. etc., had the advantage of seeing his work increase by the charitable contributions of many anonymous individuals, and of thus earning honour and profit by the labour of others. To veil his own poverty of ideas, he pretended to pass judgment on the authors whom he quoted, — a shallow pretence to the thinker who looks below the surface.

For either the book is — as most books are at present — a bad book printed only that there might be one more book in the world; and in this case it ought never to have been written, and is a nullity, and consequently the judgment upon it is a nullity also; — or, the book is a true Literary Work, such as we shall presently describe; and then it is the result of a whole powerful life devoted to Art or Science, and so would require another whole life as powerful as the first to be employed in its judgment.

On such a work it is not altogether possible to pass a final judgment in a couple of pages, within three or six months after its appearance. How can there be any honour in contributing to such collections? True genius, on the contrary, will rather employ itself on a connected work, originated and planned out by itself, than allow the current of its thoughts to be interrupted by every accident of the day until that interruption is again broken by some new occurrence. The disposition continually to watch the thoughts of others, and on these thoughts, please God, to hang our own attempts at thinking, — is a certain sign of immaturity, and of a weak and dependent mind.

Or does the honour consist in this, — that the conductors of such works should consider us capable of filling the office of judge and actually make it over to us? In reality their opinion goes no deeper than that of a common unlettered printer, — of the saleableness or unsaleableness of the goods, and of the outward reputation which may thereby accrue to their critical establishment.

The reviewer continues:

Of course, to adduce but one consideration, if people were endowed with an instinct by virtue of which they could already sniff out from the trade catalogue which books are worth reading and which are not, they would need neither scholarly journals nor reviews; this instinct, however, has at the very least not been granted to all. In poetry, Herr Fichte has his young student “seek out” “the lofty voices of the ancient world; and, among the moderns, in only that which is produced and interpenetrated by the spirit of the ancients” (lecture 5; 181; original edition 102).

Does such “seeking out” come about perhaps by virtue of such an instinct? Is the “absurd opinion” true that “they, too, lay claim to the highest rank in the republic of letters who announce the fact that somebody has printed something and what that something is; or, as the phrase goes, who ‘review’ the works of others”? [lecture 10; 223; original edition 197]. Does a reviewer present his opinion of a scholarly work as “a final judgment”? Why should he not be allowed to present that opinion just as much as Herr Fichte himself is allowed to present his opinion regarding the entire circumstances in which the literary world finds itself, about which in our own turn we, too, believe ourselves justified in offering an opinion?

If a “true Literary Work” “would require another whole life as powerful as the first to be employed in its judgment,” then how can Herr Fichte himself presume to judge the entire literature of an age (and of all ages)? Has perhaps not a single “true Literary Work” yet appeared? Indeed! “Much that is excellent has made its appearance in our age, — I shall instance only the Kantian Philosophy.” But how can Fichte judge Kant before his (Fichte’s) death? (The wanton reading that has distorted the world is, by the way, allegedly responsible for Kant’s philosophy having been so poorly understood; such wanton reading, however, allegedly became fashionable only since the middle of the previous century: might one then assume that previous to that the earlier philosophical systems would have enjoyed an absolutely splendid reception? e.g., that of Leibniz?)

Is it a laudable undertaking to turn literary reviewers into inferior minds and to attribute to them “the disposition continually to watch the thoughts of others, and on these thoughts, please God, to hang our own attempts at thinking”? Such may well be “a certain sign of immaturity, and of a weak and dependent mind,” but is it pardonable to apply that assertion universally to them all? Why should they, too, not possess just as solid a view of the world, of life, and of the sciences as Herr Fichte? and assess the work of someone else solely insofar as it concurs in part with itself specifically and in part with their view in general? That view may well be less good or less tenable that that of Herr Fichte; it is worthy of respect precisely because it lives and exists in a human being.

Even in the larger sense, thinking is not as unusual as many imagine; one must simply want to understand, and cast off that narrowness of mind that would acknowledge nothing as “thinking” that does not seem to coincide with their own views. Everyone knows that there are bad reviews; that there are also quite excellent ones no one will deny who has made an effort to become acquainted with our literature from within that literature itself. That is precisely the reason why many consider themselves unique, namely, because they do not know what others are and were. The foremost men of our nation are reviewers, and have been such.

Even Herr Fichte himself condescended to such in earlier times! — And finally: if only that particular person is “a Scholar who has, through the Learned Culture of his age, arrived at a knowledge of the Idea” (lecture 1; 139; original edition 7), then where is he to find this “Learned Culture of his age”? Perhaps simply among the teachers at universities?

But these same teachers, with few exceptions, are also involved in literature and in nothing better than literature, and reviling them means reviling precisely that literature! “What the Divine Man does, that is divine” (lecture 2; 154; original edition 41). Although Fichte does not declare himself to be such a Divine Man, the entire tone of these lectures could easily prompt his listeners to view him as one; and then all this would be divine for them, and we could have nothing to say about any of it.

When A. W. Schlegel once also spoke against having things published, a witticism excused his own weakness in this point: it was allegedly “smoaking to his own defence” [in English in original]. How different Herr Fichte! He posits cases in which it is permissible to have works published other than truly scientific ones, concerning the latter of which he speaks truthfully and excellently.

It is by virtue of precisely these cases that he reserves the right for himself to have these lectures published, but perhaps also thereby provides for most other books the permission to exist. For certainly many authors have books published more because the public for whom they wrote could not be assembled to listen to the work, or because they wanted to give at least a preliminary account of themselves, than because they consider their writings to be perfect works for eternity.

In his conclusion, which in her letter to Schelling on 30 April–1 May 1806 (letter 405) Caroline calls “really excellent,” the reviewer compares these lectures with those Fichte gave on a similar subject earlier, Einige Vorlesungen über die Bestimmung des Gelehrten (Leipzig 1794). In the first installment of the review (no. 91, 114–15), the reviewer had cited Fichte’s own allusion to that earlier essay:

“If one is so inclined, they [the present lectures] may also be viewed as a new and improved edition of the Lectures on the Vocation of the Scholar, which I published twelve years ago.” If one is so inclined, indeed; these present lectures and the earlier ones deal with the same topic and were written by the same author.

But how differently! The altered title alone, which no doubt was not so altered without both intent and import, leads one to expect that here something quite different will be discussed, or at least that the same thing will discussed from a wholly different perspective than previously. And such is indeed the case. But since those earlier lectures are generally familiar, and since one can probably risk the assertion that these new ones came about quite independently of those earlier ones, we believe it permissible also to examine them independently; afterward we will say a few words in comparing the two.

In his conclusion (no. 92, 124–25), the reviewer returns to this point:

As far as the relationship between this book (The Nature of the Scholar) and Herr Fichte’s earlier lectures on the subject (The Vocation of the Scholar), the title, as has already been pointed out, indicates the standpoints of the two pieces. The earlier ones [The Vocation of the Scholar] were to teach from the standpoint of morality what the scholar ought to be, that to which he is determined; these present lectures [The Nature of the Scholar] show from the standpoint of philosophy what and how the scholar is; the former contain prescriptions, the latter illustrations.

The latter, examined in and for themselves, are undeniably far more complete, rounded, exhaustive, and correct than the former (having presented themselves, after all, as only the beginning of a whole!); but if one examines them as being directed at a specific audience, at students, it seems the former would have been more suitable and have exerted a greater influence than the latter.

Although the latter [The Nature of the Scholar] are more complete, the former [The Vocation of the Scholar] are more comprehensible; the latter were written by a religious disposition, the former with an ethical heart; in the former, the orator remains self-consistent, in the latter he slips into self-contradiction; here the orator stands above his object, there he lived in it; there he demonstrated an element of individuality worthy of respect, here he teaches one to give up individuality, but does so with individuality; the latter are full of lofty principles, the former with lofty meaning; here there is more mystical inspiration, there more energetic courage; in the former the tone is that of a fiery youth full of hope, in the latter that of a disappointed man; in the latter there is more light and clarity, in the former fire and ardour; there one could not help becoming enthusiastic, along with the orator, on behalf of the good cause, whereas here one can respect and admire him in individual elements, and then coldly turn away from the lectures as a whole.


[*] Jenaische Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (1806) 91 (Thursday, 17 April 1806), 113–20; 92 (Friday, 18 April 1806), 121–25, signed by “Κλ” =Heinrich Luden (Fuhrmans 3:329n2). Translated portions of Fichte’s pieces here from “The Nature of the Scholar,” Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Popular Works, trans. William Smith (London 1873), here esp. lecture 10, pp. 223–31; and The Vocation of the Scholar, trans. William Smith (London 1847); translated altered. Back.

Translation © 2017 Doug Stott