Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Fichte on the Vocation of the Scholar and the (Mis)use of History

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Fichte on the Vocation of the Scholar and the (Mis)use of History

Article excerpt

GIVEN ITS STATUS AS A FOUNDATIONAL TEXT in nationalist political thought, the main emphasis in discussions of Fichte's Addresses to the German Nation (Reden an die deutsche Nation) has not surprisingly tended to be on the issue of the kind of nationalism that is to be found in this work, particularly the question as to whether it contains an ethnic nationalism, based on descent, or a cultural nationalism, which defines nationality in terms of linguistic and cultural differences, or a mixture of both these forms of nationalism. (1) While the Addresses to the German Nation clearly do constitute an attempt on Fichte's part to shape a German national identity, in what follows I focus on the question of the relation of this attempt to shape a German national identity to Fichte's ideas concerning the vocation (Bestimmung) of the scholar (der Gelehrte) in society.

Among philosophers, Fichte developed what is arguably one of the most self-conscious accounts of the role of the scholar in society. Already in 1794, shortly after having taken up his first academic appointment as a professor at the University of Jena, he gave a series of lectures that were later published under the title Some Lectures concerning the Scholar's Vocation (Einige Vorlesungen uber die Bestimmung des Gelehrten). In these lectures, Fichte sets out his own understanding of the significance and social function of his own scholarly activity as well as that of the scholar in general. I intend to compare Fichte's conception of the scholar's vocation as developed in these lectures to the role that Fichte assumes for himself in the case of his Addresses to the German Nation. These addresses were delivered in the period 1807-8 under very different circumstances, namely, in the wake of Napoleon's defeat and subjugation of Prussia, where Fichte had settled in 1799 after losing his professorship at Jena in the wake of accusations of atheism that had been made against him. I suggest that the Addresses to the German Nation represent an attempt on Fichte's part to intervene in history in a way that accords with, and thus realizes, the conception of the scholar's vocation and duties that he developed in his Jena lectures on the vocation of the scholar. This attempted intervention in the course of human history will be seen to raise questions, however, concerning Fichte's understanding of the role that the scholar's knowledge of history plays in relation to the task of fulfilling his moral vocation; a role that is exemplified by the use to which Fichte himself puts history in the Addresses to the German Nation. Fichte will, in fact, be shown to use history in a way that might be considered to be immoral, despite his insistence on the moral nature of the scholar's vocation. This point will be illustrated by comparing Fichte's use of history in the Addresses to the German Nation to Nietzsche's claim that history should be made to serve the needs of life and action, together with his account of how a "monumental" form of history can be made to serve this end.

I

Fichte begins the first of his lectures on the vocation of the scholar that he gave in Jena by stressing the social nature of this vocation. He does this by pointing to the fact that when one speaks of the scholar, one does so in contradistinction to other human beings engaged in different activities within society. The scholar's vocation is consequently said to be one that is conceivable only within society. (2) The scholar is not simply a member (Mitglied) of society, however; he is also the member of a particular estate (ein Glied eines besondern Standes) within society, that is, the estate of scholars. (3) For the scholar dedicates himself to performing a particular function within society, rather than another function whose ultimate end is also to bring about the ennoblement of humankind by means of the advance of culture with respect to all human beings. Fichte accords the scholar pride of place in this process, describing the vocation of the estate of scholars as "the supreme supervision of the actual progress of the human race in general and the unceasing promotion of this progress. …

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