Monday, March 13, 2023

The Jena set

I've begun reading Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self by Andrea Wulf. It is about a group of German intellectuals (Fichte, Schiller, Schelling, Schlegel, Novalis) who gathered in the small university town of Jena in the very late 1700s and who subsequently had a major influence on the West. 

Andrea Wulf is herself a supporter of liberal modernity and so sees the influence of these men in very positive terms. Obviously I disagree, but nonetheless the book is useful in identifying the larger trends within philosophy at the time.

The book begins with the arrival in Jena of Fichte, who in his first lecture as a professor at the university declared that "A person should be self-determined, never letting himself be defined by anything external". This idea is very familiar to us today, being a core feature of the ruling state ideology of liberalism. How did Fichte get to this idea?

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

I think it's important to go back to an earlier wave of modernity - the one that took place from about the mid-1600s. Europe had been ravaged by wars for over a century by this time, so philosophy was focused to a considerable degree on peace and security. Philosophy had, by this time, also disenchanted the external world - the new cosmology was a mechanistic one. By 1686 the following exchange was recorded (by Fontenelle):

"I perceive", said the Countess, "Philosophy is now become very Mechanical." "So mechanical", said I, "that I fear we shall quickly be asham'd of it; they will have the World to be in great, what a watch is in little...But pray tell me, Madam, had you not formerly a more sublime idea of the Universe?"

Well, this was still the situation when the Jena set were starting out. The poet Novalis complained that,

Nature has been reduced to a monotonous machine, the eternally creative music of the universe into the monotonous clatter of a gigantic millwheel. (p.13)

And so the focus of the Jena set makes sense within the historical context. They reacted against the previous emphasis on shoring up political authority by agitating instead for political freedoms. And this focus on freedom extended into their cosmology. They did not like the mechanistic view which suggested that everything is causally determined.  

And so we come to Fichte's philosophy. This is how Andrea Wulf puts it:

As Fichte stood at the podium in Jena, he imbued the self with the new power of self-determination. The Ich posits itself and it is therefore free. It is the agent of everything. Anything that might constrain or limit its freedom - anything in the non-Ich - is in fact brought into existence by the Ich. 

This does open up a sphere of freedom from causal necessity but at a considerable cost. There is a rejection here of the idea that human reason can perceive the given nature of things, the "thing in itself" and that there exists, at some level, a divine order to the cosmos in which humans are embedded. Instead, it is now the task of the Absolute I to assert itself against the non-I. Ficthe wrote:

My system is the first system of freedom: just as the French nation is tearing man free from his external chains, so my system tears him free from the chains of things-in-themselves, the chains of external influences. 

One consequence of believing this is the idea of the individual will tearing down external reality as an act of freedom:

My will alone...shall float audaciously and coldly over the wreckage of the universe. (p.46)

It should be said, though, that Fichte did not envisage this as destroying moral foundations. Again, context matters here. There were British philosophers who thought that people were driven by sensations and by desires such as fear and greed, rather than by moral principles. For Kant and Fichte, the existence of a rational will meant that the individual was not merely reacting to external stimuli in his actions but could choose freely to act morally. In this way, Fichte was able to link freedom and morality. Again, in Andrea Wulf's words:

The ultimate purpose of each individual was 'the moral ennobling of mankind', and it was the task of the philosopher and scholar to be the teacher of the human race - and to be that he had to be 'morally the best person of his era'.

So Fichte did not discard the long held Western moral understanding which distinguished the noble from the base. This understanding, though, had its roots in a very different cosmology, one in which there was a hierarchically ordered chain of being. It is difficult to see how Fichte's cosmology, of the self-positing I, could adequately support the older understanding. If the point is to be free within my own subjective sense of self-awareness, and not conditioned by anything that is not-I, then how do distinctions between the quality of acts or thoughts come about? On what grounds are some ordered as more noble or more base?

The second reaction of the Jena set to the inherited mechanical view of the cosmos was to emphasise the need to rebalance reason with feeling. There was an emphasis on the imaginative faculty (drawn from Kant) and of a poetic sensibility. The poet Schiller complained of utility being "the great idol of our time" and wanted aesthetics (an appreciation of beauty) to be a bulwark against greed and immorality.

It's interesting to note how all of this came together in Beethoven, who is known to have been influenced by figures like Fichte. His music expresses not only the commitment to political freedom of the Jena set, but also the poetic sensibility and the expression of the noble and the beautiful. 

The assertion of feeling against the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment is one of the more positive outcomes of the romantic movement. However, set against this is the shift into a radical subjectivism and an extraordinary emphasis on the individual will. Later on, Fichte's philosophy encouraged both nihilism and the demonic. The Dutch philosopher Paul van Tongeren explains the nihilism this way:

...the affirmation of the “I” takes place through the negation of a separate reality. But this negation of all independent reality leads to the enthronement of the “I” in a world of complete emptiness. It has no other, no reality to face, no communion in which to engage. There is naught but the nothingness and loneliness in which and from which the “I” creates its own world. The “I” becomes an endless egotist in a world that is eerily empty. (p.21)

And the demonic as follows:

...this terrifying vision reflects back onto its creator: within the world it has created, the “I” discerns its own—apparently destructive—representations and desires! The emotions of the empirical “I” (such as boredom, or terror) are not in response to an outside—there is no outside, after all—but an experience of the self-positing or self-confirming activity of the (absolute) “I”. It becomes clear that the creator isn’t the bright light of reason, but a dark force. The absolute “I” becomes a demonic power that the empirical “I” is at the mercy of 

The romantic movement did not descend to this in its entirety. The emphasis on beauty and subjective experience did allow some artists, for instance, to experience a communion with nature or to be inspired by feminine beauty. But you can see the negative side there as well, from early on. 

So what can we conclude from the Jena set? Perhaps I will have more to add when I finish reading the book. For now, I would point out the importance of metaphysics in the shaping of society. We are still Fichteans in the sense of connecting freedom to the self-positing individual. It is a dubious project, as it sets the individual against the givens of existence.

A traditionalist metaphysics would, amongst other things, connect the individual more positively to the created reality of which he is a part.


  1. Coincidentally, Collin Cleary recently completed a three-part series on Fichte as one of the roots of the modern Left:

    I don't know how the counter-currents folks are viewed in these parts, but I found this series very enlightening.

    1. Just had a quick look at the Cleary piece you linked to, seems excellent - thanks!

  2. they are just sabbateans morphing into their frankist disguise before uniting with the freemasons to create “the lodge.” Nothing else.

  3. NO doubt you've likely seen this, but as you are well aware of the liberal mentality, it was really on display here.

    This man can't even form a cogent response to 'What is a woman'?, and says he was taken off guard by the question. 'Don't give me such tough ones'.

    I bet if you asked him what an elephant is, he'd handle it fine. Without any 'research'. This is both orwellian and so much like what the USSR was like. The only thing left is a bell to tell you when you can stop answering.

    Everyone knows he KNOWS what a woman IS. But he can't say THAT. It has to be something else.... but what?? He's just not sure. But he knows damn well in this coercive age, the 'answer' is definitely not he actual answer.

    Someone should ask him if the previous PM was a woman ---- there's been a lot of debate on that question too.

  4. One of the great debates among conservatives in the West is whether classical liberalism leads inexorably to progressive liberalism/leftism. Part of the argument is that the battle against the external constraints of aristocracy, government tyranny, etc., will lead to a battle against the external constraints you do not choose, such as your race, your sex, etc.

    Reading this piece, my answer is: It depends on the metaphysics underlying the battle against tyranny. If that metaphysics is Fichtean, it will lead to the transgender movement and other aberrations. But if the foundational assumption is merely that human beings are each image bearers of God, equally, and that no man is born to serve another man (and no man is born to be served by others), then it is not a battle against all constraints on the Self, but a more limited battle.

    The American founding, drawing upon Montesquieu et al., believed in equal unalienable rights and rejected the idea that one man was born to be king and another man was born to be his subject. The metaphysics was not "all constraints on the individual self are intolerable."

    I am a traditionalist conservative, not a classical liberal, and don't think all of the American founders were classical liberals (Jefferson certainly was). But I think this defense needs to be made for clarity of political philosophy.

    1. Interesting point. I don't feel fully qualified to respond. I suspect you are right that if it had been left to classical liberalism alone, a somewhat different take on autonomy & freedom would have emerged. I'm not sure, though, that it would have been a viable one. Already by the 1760s there were complaints about the peculiarly classical liberal culture of freedom & commerce. That natural social bonds were being eroded and replaced by the logic of the market and by legal forms of control & that the traditional freedoms of the lower orders were being overwhelmed by the growing power of a commercial class (the complaint being, in part, that the independent small trader was being reduced to the status of dependent factory worker). I guess what I'm trying to express is that the metaphysics of classical liberalism might not have been up to the job either of supporting, in the long run, a non-servile type of social order, in part because its anthropology was based so much on humans being motivated by lower aspects of nature, such as avarice, selfishness etc. Nonetheless, I take your point that classical liberals should not be tagged with the outcomes of Fichtean type philosophies with their very radical emphasis on individual autonomy.

    2. I agree that classical liberalism was deficient in many ways. One deficiency was viewing all men as rational actors with high intelligence, who calculate their self-interest and act accordingly. Conservative structures make no such assumption and try to guide less-than-rational men towards the long term good and away from their destructive impulse. Classical liberals / libertarians seem to deny that destructive impulses are common.

      You could say that classic liberalism is deficient in its anthropology, and often in the same way as Rousseauian leftism. But there are actually two anthropologies among subgroups of libertarians, and the deficient one is just the more common one. That is a discussion in itself.