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From Jacobi's Philosophical Novel to Fichte's Idealism: Some Comments on the 1798-99 "Atheism Dispute" GEORGE DI GIOVANNI l~ THE STORYOF THE EVENTSthat led in 1799 to the departure of Fichte from the University of Jena and from the city itself under suspicion of atheism is a very intricate one.' In the German textbooks it goes under the name of the Atheisrausstreit , the "atheism dispute." It all began with the publication in 1798, in the Philosophisches Journal, of an article by Forberg, 2 the rector of Saalfeld, together with a response by Fichte.a The Journal was edited by Fichte and Niethammer, and the censure that Fichte eventually incurred in 1799 at the hand of Frederick-August, the prince-elector of Saxony (with the approval of Goethe), was for his laxity as editor and official censor of the content of the Journal in allowing Forberg's article and his own to appear. Yet there was nothing in either of them that should have surprised anyone familiar with Kant's teaching on religion. The only difference was that in Kant the identification of the practice of religion with an upright moral life had been left mostly implicit, whereas the two articles now declared it openly, and hence precluded the possibility of reintroducing the conceptual apparatus of established theology on the basis of the need for happiness which Kant had de- ' Xavier L6on, Fichteet son temps, 19o2, (Paris: Armand Colin, 1954)still provides the most accessibleaccount. Cf. vol. l, chaps. 12-13. 2 M. F. C. Forberg, "Entwickelung des Begriffs der Religion,"PhilosophischesJournal einer GesellschaflTeutscherGelehrten8 (1798):21-46. J. G. Fichte, "Ueber den Grund unsers Glaubens an ein g6ttliche Weltregierung," PhilosophischesJournal8 (1798): 1-2o. [75] 76 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY ~7:~ JANUARY 1989 dared an irreducible part of moral life. This is what the old scholastics had done in their effort at appropriating the new critical philosophy. Fichte and Forberg were now challenging the validity of their move, and were thus threatening whatever influence scholasticism still had left in the universities. The apprehended danger explains, perhaps, the venom of the campaign that was waged against them. What is certain is that the old school grabbed at the total secularization of religious life that would have followed from Fichte's and Forberg's position as an excuse to strike back at critical philosophy and regain the ground lost to it. From a political point of view, the moment was a propitious one. For since the peace treaty of Campo Formio, the French revolutionary armies had occupied the west bank of the Rhine. Fichte's sympathies for the Jacobinian cause were well known to everyone. And the point could easily be made (as in fact it was, not altogether unfairly) that the road that led from Fichte's "moral democracy" to the tyranny of democracy west of the Rhine was an easy one to travel. The irony is that the more politically motivated the attacks on Fichte were, the more his opponents provided an object lesson for his claim that a person's philosophy depends on the kind of person one is-that truth, in order words, is ultimately a function of moral resolve. Philosophically speaking, this claim was at the heart of the dispute. It was, expressed in Kantian language, a version of the "heart vs. mind," "feeling vs. reason," theme that shaped German Romantic philosophy from the beginning , and which Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (with whom I am especially concerned in this paper) had been one of the first to formulate explicitly. In this paper I want to examine the theme in the context of the "atheism dispute," and especially with reference to the confrontation between Fichte and Jacobi to which the controversy finally led. From beginning to end Fichte claimed that he could "subscribe to Jacobi's statements to their full extent."4 Jacobi, for his part, was not convinced. Yet it is true, as Fichte pointed out, that the two men had both made reason ultimately rest on "faith" (Glauben), i.e., on some sort of "non-knowledge" (Nichtwissen).5 This common move had forced them both to redefine the role that the "concept" plays in cognition...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 75-100
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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