Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Selfhood, Virtue, and the Wissenschaftslehre: Fichte's Engagement with Rousseau's First Discourse

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Selfhood, Virtue, and the Wissenschaftslehre: Fichte's Engagement with Rousseau's First Discourse

Article excerpt

THE FIFTH AND FINAL LECTURE of the series of lectures known collectively as Some Lectures concerning the Scholar's Vocation (Einige Vorlesungen uber die Bestimmung des Gelehrten), which Fichte gave at the University of Jena and subsequently had published in 1794, is entitled "An Examination of Rousseau's Claims concerning the Influence on Human Welfare of the Arts and Sciences." (1) In this lecture Fichte offers a critique of Rousseau's alleged claim that a return to the state of nature represents the only true means of salvation for humankind. This critique relates to Fichte's own claim in the same lecture that the vocation of humankind (die Bestimmung der Menschheit) consists in "the constant advancement of culture and in the equal and continuous development of all man's talents and needs." (2) According to Fichte, no one has opposed this idea more eloquently and more plausibly than Rousseau, for whom "that class of men which does the most to promote the advance of culture, that is, the class of scholars [der Gelehrtenstand], is the source as well as the center of all human misery and corruption." (3) Fichte's main concern in his lectures concerning the vocation of the scholar is, then, to justify the essential role played by science, especially philosophy, in the advance of culture, and thereby to undermine Rousseau's portrayal of the class of scholars as a source of human misery and moral corruption together with his claim that a return to the state of nature represents the only true means of human salvation.

The need to justify science's capacity to fulfill the role of advancing culture arises from Rousseau's attack on the arts and sciences in his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, or First Discourse as it is otherwise known. In this work it is proclaimed that "our souls have become corrupted in proportion as our Sciences and our Arts have advanced toward perfection.... Virtue has been seen fleeing in proportion as their light rose on our horizon." (4) Rousseau does not deny that culture has advanced, and he therefore implicitly accepts that the human needs and talents connected with the advance of culture have developed. Yet the advance of culture and the development of human needs and talents have been accompanied by increasing moral corruption, producing such particular evils as luxury, dissemblance, inequality, and disdain for virtue. Thus the absence of virtue in modern society is held to be intimately connected with the advance of the arts and sciences. It is in the face of this moral corruption that Rousseau looks back longingly to happier, more virtuous times, in the following passage:

   One cannot reflect on morals, without taking delight in recalling
   the image of the simplicity of the first times. It is a fair shore,
   adorned by the hands of nature alone, toward which one forever
   turns one's eyes, and from which one feels oneself moving away with
   regret. (5)

Rousseau claims that the arts and sciences are products of human pride (Torgueil humain), (6) while the evils to which the arts and sciences have subjected human beings are said to be "the punishment visited upon our prideful efforts to leave the happy ignorance in which eternal wisdom had placed us." (7) The source of the arts and the sciences in pride represents one of the main ways in which their origins are flawed. In demonstrating the flawed nature of these origins, Rousseau seeks to humble the same pride which has given rise to the arts and sciences, for, as he himself puts it, "How humiliating to humanity such reflections are! How greatly mortified our pride must be by them! What! probity the daughter of ignorance? Science and virtue incompatible?" (8) As we shall see, Fichte is especially concerned to undermine the idea that science and virtue are incompatible. (9) Indeed, he wants to establish a positive connection between them in the case of his own philosophical science, the Wissenschaftslehre. Fichte also indirectly challenges the idea that the sciences have their source in pride. …

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