Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Fichte's Critique of Rousseau

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Fichte's Critique of Rousseau

Article excerpt

IN 1794-95 J. G. FICHTE delivered a series of public lectures on "Morality for Scholars" at the University of Jena. (1) In these lectures, Fichte provided an exoteric presentation of his transcendental philosophy and a compelling account of morality. The lectures helped to consolidate Fichte's reputation as the leading representative of the new "Critical Philosophy" (that is, Kantian philosophy). They also, due to some imprudent comments about the superfluity of the state in a morally perfect society, (2) confirmed his reputation as a "Jacobin" and revolutionary firebrand. These comments were seized upon by Fichte's enemies who spread the rumor that he had predicted that "in ten or twenty years there will be no more kings or princes." (3) To scotch this rumor, he resolved to publish the transcripts of the first four lectures, thereby making them available for public scrutiny. As it turned out, he decided (perhaps at the prompting of Goethe) to publish the first five lectures under the title Some Lectures concerning the Scholar's Vocation (Einige Vorlesungen uber die Bestimmung des Gelehrten) (hereafter, the Lectures).

The first four lectures develop an account of human nature and the nature of the scholar (or "academic"--Gelehrter) (4) which maintains that the scholar should supervise the moral progress of the human race. (5) The fifth lecture constitutes a critical "examination" (Prufung) of Rousseau's claim that the arts and sciences, and hence culture, have contributed to the corruption of morals. The fifth lecture is interesting because it is an attempt by one of the most philosophically sophisticated advocates of the Enlightenment to answer one of its most trenchant critics. However, the primary interest of the lecture lies in the light that it sheds on Fichte's relationship to Rousseau. (6)

Fichte knew Rousseau's work well and considered it to have deep affinities with the new Critical Philosophy (indeed, he suggests that Rousseau's philosophy is a precursor to that philosophy (7)). Moreover, many of the distinctive features of Fichte's transcendental philosophy--his emphasis on "conscience," (8) his conception of morality as a "struggle," his account of the "general will" (9)--bear the mark of Rousseau's influence. However, despite this influence, Fichte's transcendental philosophy advances a conception of humanity's potential for moral progress and of the role of culture that seems to be flatly at odds with Rousseau's. Since Fichte believed that the basic concepts and principles of Rousseau's philosophy were fundamentally congenial to Critical Philosophy, and since he believed that Critical Philosophy entailed a positive conception of culture and our capacity for moral progress, he had to show that Rousseau's position rested on a mistake. Explaining the nature of this mistake is the task of the fifth lecture.

Fichte's critique of Rousseau has received scant attention in the secondary literature. (10) This is perhaps due to the fact that it does not, at first glance, seem very plausible or compelling. It often simply begs the question against Rousseau and seems to rely on a "primitivist" interpretation of his philosophy that is demonstrably false. This paper aims to show that Fichte's critique is far more plausible, and penetrating, than appearances suggest. It also aims to show that this critique, once understood correctly, illuminates Fichte's conception of morality as articulated in the Lectures. The first part of the paper discusses Fichte's account of the "vocation" (Bestimmung) of the human being and of the scholar as expounded in the first four lectures--an account which is key to understanding Fichte's critique of Rousseau in the fifth lecture. The second part reconstructs and evaluates that critique.


The Lectures are concerned with the Bestimmung of the scholar. Bestimmung can be translated as "vocation," "destiny," "destination," or "purpose." (11) It also denotes the "'specific nature'" or "'characteristic' or 'determining feature'" of something. …

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