Fichte, Part 3? 4? Where Were We?

Note: I’m reading and posting about Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) because he is widely recognized as a key figure in modern education. He greatly influenced von Humboldt’s reforms of the German school system, which in turn greatly influenced Horace Mann and that crowd. It’s important, I think, in any discussion of modern education to recognize just what kind of a nut Fichte was. 

About 2/3 through Addresses to the German Nation, and the word that keeps popping into my head is ‘humbug’. But that’s probably not fair, as Fichte seems to be drinking his own cool-aide.

High points so far:

– we have these quotations, famous among opponents of compulsory factory schooling:

“It is essential that from the very beginning the pupil should be continuously and completely under the influence of this education, and should be separated altogether from the community, and kept from all contact with it.”


 ”Education should aim at destroying free will so that after pupils are thus schooled they will be incapable throughout the rest of their lives of thinking or acting otherwise than as their school masters would have wished.”

And, despite Fichte’s flights of rhetorical fancy, wherein he describes in florid detail the wonders to be achieved by truly German German education that is all, like, Germanalicious, he’s scant on details. He thinks poetry is good.  Kids have to be removed from their communities and get educated 24 x 7. When they’ve been thusly purged of all evil, limp-wristed un-German foreign influence, and infused with pure natural living Germanness, they will then rise above the current age, and a new truly German age, all German-y in its Germanaliciousness, will dawn. All nations will be drawn into this new age (like moths to a flame, one impoliticly imagines), and the serious, orderly, intellectually alive and – he goes there- holy German way of doing things will prevail.

Nothing creepy about that, uh-uh.

Much-needed comic relief is provided by context: these Addresses were delivered in French-occupied Berlin. So, imagine the good burghers and minor nobles of Prussia (who else has got time and money to attend paid lecture series?) having to walk past Napoleon’s French troops to get to the lecture hall to hear Fichte tell them how much better the Germans are than these lovers of dead languages and dead ideas, that the French are doomed to think dead thoughts and are indolent and locked into an historical dead end of dead death and OH MY GOD! THESE FRENCH LOSERS JUST KICKED OUR GERMAN HINIES ALL THE WAY FROM JENA TO BERLIN! AND IT WASN’T EVEN CLOSE!  They sit their prissy French hindquarters on our solid German furniture in all those solid German buildings they commandeered at gunpoint and tell us what to do, and we’re all, ‘Jawohl mein herrr!’ about it. Please, Herr Fichte, keep telling us how much better we are than them!

Or, as the Oracle Wikipedia has it:

In total, Napoleon and the Grande Armée had taken only 19 days from the commencement of the invasion of Prussia until essentially knocking it out of the war with the capture of Berlin and the destruction of its principal armies at Jena and Auerstadt. Most of the shattered remnants of the Prussian army (and the displaced royal family) escaped to refuge in Eastern Prussia near Königsberg, eventually to link up with the approaching Russians and continue the fight.

You can’t even pull a Fish Called Wanda and call it a tie.

Anyway, a brief high-level recap of Fichte’s points: 

– Languages shape people as much or more than people shape languages. There are living languages and dead languages. All languages arise naturally at first, as real men see and name the world. This connection between the original namings and the people collectively – the culture – that does the naming is unbroken in the case of truly-true Germans who speak German, the living language. If a people have this unbroken connection, they will see the world truly, and their thoughts will be vigorous and pure. They – Germans – will not only understand the world and each other more perfectly than any speaker of a dead language (*cough* the French), they will even understand the *language and thinking* of dead language speakers better than they, the speakers of the dead language, do themselves.

Dead languages happen when a people take on the language of their conquerors (literally, culturally, or both). Since the French took up (and promptly mangled) Latin, they speak a language that did not arise naturally from among themselves, and so have lost that connection between the meanings of words and the life-giving initial recognition and naming that bind a people to and inform a people with Reality. Therefore, the French are incapable of appreciating the solid TRVTH of German thinking, nor are they capable of raising humanity to the Next Level. All they can do is perfect the old Latin ideas, in endless attempts at recapitulation of the glory that was Rome.

– Everything the German (Fichte likes to describe ‘the German’) has touched he has improved. Especially religion. Luther (who, in a round-about way Fichte amusingly acknowledges was not the sharpest tool in the shed) saved Christianity from the dead thinking of Rome, allowing for the blossoming of Germany in the persons of people like, well, Fichte. Protestantism is way better, even if Fichte finds it hard to say exactly why – maybe I just don’t get it because I speak English, not Czech or Scottish Gaelic or Cherokee or some other presumably living language.

– There are 5 stages to human development. We’re stuck in Stage 2 at the moment, but the German is uniquely positioned and capable of bringing about Stage 3.  Stage 2 is abject selfishness, where obedience to laws, formation of governments, interpersonal relationships and even religion are all directed by what’s in it for me. Stage 3 is characterized by a love of the Good more what I would call abstractly, although Fichte doesn’t use that term. Education can be used by the enlightened, exemplified by the kind of people who pay to hear Fichte talk, to break the German out of Stage 2 and raise him up in Stage 3. This requires total separation from their parents and the complete breaking their wills until they are only capable of willing what their betters have decided they should will – which, by definition, is the Good.

(Aside: I found his 5 stages incoherent at first reading. I’ll take another stab at figuring out what he’s talking about, and put it in a subsequent post.)

– What we normally think of as free will is nothing other than indecision – we consider the will free when it is faced by a number of equally attractive choices. Rather, the will is most free when it has become fixed on the good and acts.

– The doctrine of original sin is one of those dead ideas. People in power use it to keep the German down. In Stage 3, man – the German – will be able to perfect himself. No need to worry about backsliding and sin, because that won’t happen, because, you know, we’re at a higher stage and all that, and only a Frenchman with his dead language and dead belief in fallen nature would imagine backsliding. So, we’re just going to say, on the basis of no evidence, that it won’t happen.

There’s lots more. I’m struck by how much effort German thinkers – by which I mean Luther, Kant, Fichte and Hegel, they being the German thinkers with which I am most familiar – put into shouting down basic logic or explaining how it doesn’t apply. Fichte goes on and on about how non-Germans will not be able to understand his argument, but will instead attempt to disprove it using arguments that, sadly, arise from their dead languages and ideas. In other words, the claim is made that the sort of logical ideas that anyone might understand and accept just don’t apply to Germans.

You either get it or you don’t.

What I’m finding fascinating about the Addresses is how many ideas from Luther, Kant and Hegel are either echoed or foreshadowed in them. The lifetimes of Hegel and Fichte overlap quite a bit – I’m going to need to look into how they interacted, assuming they did.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “Fichte, Part 3? 4? Where Were We?”

    1. Some people want to change the world without the muss and fuss of changing themselves. For centuries, they have probed for the weak spots. Education has been identified as a weak spot, and so has become the locus for endless experimentation and obfuscation.

      Sure, maybe your kid’s teacher loves your kids, and treats them like human beings with souls – but the structure does not support this, and in fact allows for teachers who despise your kids to succeed just as well. This truth I think is evident upon a moment’s reflection.

      The key step is to separate the kids by age so that they do not learn from the older/more advanced kids or teach the younger/less advanced kids, and to isolate them as much as possible for as long as possible from the ‘real world’, where human society is built from interactions across all age groups. Approval – and self worth – have but one source: success within school. Rarely does this work completely, but it works well enough.

      1. I think this was one of my main frustrations with my kids’ Baptist academy. The school’s claim to fame was that the children would be given a Christian education. The system was exactly the same as the one at any secular school in America. The difference? Christian frosting – on top of a tainted secular cake….

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