The Conservative Face of a Radical Kantian in Prussia and Russia: The Case of Ludwig Heinrich Von Jakob (1759-1827)

By Walker, Franklin A. | Germano-Slavica, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

The Conservative Face of a Radical Kantian in Prussia and Russia: The Case of Ludwig Heinrich Von Jakob (1759-1827)


Walker, Franklin A., Germano-Slavica


In inviting the Halle Kantian Ludwig Heinrich Jakob to Kharkov University in 1805, the reform-minded government of Tsar Alexander I (1801-1825) affirmed its readiness to associate the autocracy with what would come to be understood as liberal ideals. Jakob's Russian career began as a political economist, who in 1809 gave up the classroom for the St. Petersburg bureaucracy. He resumed his role as a philosopher, however, through the publication of philosophical textbooks in Russian. Jakob's credentials as a progressive thinker were striking in an official of an absolute monarch. He defended the representative principle of government, opposed serfdom and looked to a "moral religion" to replace traditional practices. Jakob was more radical than Kant himself when in 1794 he published Antimachiavel, which challenged Immanuel Kant's rejection of the right of a people to resist a ruler. (1) Yet he was no firebrand. Just as we know that Kant, with all his submissiveness, never lost his sympathy for advanced political hopes, (2) so too does a reassessment of Jakob show a good deal of conservatism in this representative of Halle cameralism.

A number of qualifications softened Antimachiavel's defense of revolution, while Enlightenment religious-moral goals in Jakob's other works hardly made him a threat to the established order. The ambiguity in Jakob testifies to the complexity of intellectual currents among the educated classes in Prussia and Russia at the turn of the nineteenth century. Jakob's attitude to officialdom was respectful and his language circumspect--if not fulsome. An early ambition was to become tutor for the future King Friedrich Wilhelm III. (3) Devotion to "freedom" did not mitigate a stern paternalism over students and faculty. During the unrest in German universities in the post-Napoleonic period, he vilified the Burschenschaft. Any assessment of "liberal" and "conservative" at the turn of the century either in Prussia or Russia should include the conservative as well as the liberal directions in the Jakob corpus. (4)

Although Jakob was the victim of squibs in Germany for his repetition of familiar themes and his rejection of more recent thinkers such as Fichte and Schelling, (5) contemporary journals took his work seriously, commended his independence and clarity of thought, and disagreed only after careful analysis. (6) Among the authorities whom the Gottingen professor Johann Gottlieb Buhle included in his logic textbook--along with Aristotle, Locke, Leibniz, Kant and others--was Jakob. (7) The Jakob textbooks must have been of considerable help to examinees, and probably also to professors boning up for lectures. He was not the only Kantian in the Russia of Tsar Alexander I, but the books he produced for that country's ministry of education made this approach available to a wide student audience.

The publication of Antimachiavel did not end a friendly correspondence between Kant and Jakob, in which the issue of resistance was not raised. (8) Kant had taken much interest in Jakob, who as a young professor was promoting the critical philosophy at Halle, formerly a preserve of the followers of Christian Wolff. (9) After Kant's death, when Jakob had taken up with political economy and police procedure, he continued to identify philosophy with Kant.

Antimachiavel was in harmony with Kant's humane ideals and reverence for obligation. Despite anti-tyrannical rhetoric, the book warned against "tyrannicide" and "tumults." (10)

However, the subject should defend his rights "with all his strength" (11); anarchy was better than the cruelest despotism. (12) Rulers were not to coerce the courts of law, make unjust accusations or squander income, but unless the sovereign set out to destroy the state, he was to be obeyed. (13) While the author warned of a selfish aristocracy, the upper ranks of society were to lead the people. …

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